Boris, who has worked hotel and airline points for decades before the rest of us caught on, announced that he had two free nights at a hotel plus additional Hilton points and that we were going to Paris for New Year’s. I didn’t pass up on that. Surprisingly, there is not a direct flight from Houston on United, so we connected through Dulles. We left on the 30th, arriving very early on New Years’ Eve.
The Europeans don’t start putting out holiday decorations before Halloween like we see in the states. As a consequence, most of the decorations are still up and will remain so through 12th night or Epiphany or perhaps longer. This is in contrast to my neighbors who are so sick of their Christmas decorations that they are outside taking things down the day after Christmas or New Years.
We were extremely fortunate that the hotel had a room for us that we could check right into. So after a really nice buffet breakfast, we headed up to our room to sleep. I don’t recommend this strategy for your visits across the pond. If you can stay up it will help you acclimate to the time change. However, on this visit we want to be able to stay up tonight for New Year’s Eve. Additionally, our arrival is so early that nothing is really open yet anyway.
We are staying at the beautiful Maison Astor, the Paris home of American tycoon John Astor who perished on the Titanic. The hotel has only recently been renovated. In fact, when we came for Boris’ birthday we had reservations to stay here but they had to move us to the Hilton Paris Opera House because renovations were not complete. Our points won’t get us the biggest room, but our windows open directly onto the lovely interior courtyard. It was a good size considering the general size of European hotel rooms. I am so tired that I am not particularly picky at this point anyway.
The Maison Astor has a following. As we came to experience, the hotel’s popularity is most likely due to the wonderful concierge service which is the best I have ever experienced. Boris had been communicating with them ever before our arrival. This boutique hotel is particularly charming and is centrally located, although that worked against us on New Year’s Eve when we needed a cab to cross the Seine for our dinner reservations. Originally we had reservations nearby, but when they set their menu and called to say it would be $750/person paid in advance, we chose an alternative location.
We started with cocktails in the bar downstairs before heading out. There were no cabs to be had and neither Boris nor I had any luck getting an Uber on our phone. Our amazing concierge got out his own phone and called a local Uber-type service (that we don’t have in the States) and that is how we got our ride. Yes, above and beyond. There was even a barricade on our street for traffic control, so the concierge walked us out to the car beyond the barrier.
I should mention that there is a transportation strike going on. It has been going on for almost a month when we arrived in Paris. The metro is not operating, nor much of the train service, so transportation options are quite limited anyway. The biggest drinking holiday of the year means cabs and Ubers were already going to be crowded. In the next few days, I suspect we can walk this route much faster than the car was able to go.
A special restaurant and fireworks over the Seine with the Eiffel Tower in the background made it all worth it. We had a wonderful multi-course meal that started with champagne. Founded in 1686, Le Procope is the oldest cafe in continuous operation in the city of Paris. In the 18th and 19th centuries, it was “a hub of the artistic and literary community.” Just to the side of me is a plaque commemorating Thomas Jefferson’s visit there. On this night only, all the servers are dressed in period costumes.
After dinner there was dancing in the lobby, although there weren’t many takers. The American couple at the table next to us decided to walk back to their hotel which is in the same area of Paris as ours, but Boris found us a cab. (Actually they never named their hotel, but Boris saw them the next morning at breakfast at Maison Astor.) We wanted to see the fireworks over the river. Unfortunately, we didn’t beat the traffic as we had to travel through one of the most congested areas of the city. We found out why there was a barricade on our street; it was on the pedestrian route away from the fireworks. The officer on duty let us in when he realized where we were headed. If you decide to visit the city on New Year’s Eve, I definitely recommend a restaurant within walking distance of your hotel.
With the strike going on and it being a holiday, we decided just to walk as far as we could on New Year’s Day. We walked back toward the Seine and passed La Madeleine Church. The first church on the site dates from 1764. Two attempts at completion were demolished before “Napoleon I assigned a new architect to build an edifice based on the design of an ancient temple in honour of the French Navy. With the fall of Napoleón, the building was made into a church in 1842, in honour of St Mary Magdalene.”
I have never been inside of La Madeleine, so that goes on the bucket list. You are drawn to the dramatic exterior. The neoclassical church “has 52 Corinthian columns standing 65 ft (20 m) tall.” Looking back up the street from the Place de la Concorde, you have an excellent view of La Madeleine. To the left you will find Maxim’s, the famous Art Nouveau restaurant on Rue Royale.
Boris and I have eaten at Maxim’s twice together, most recently on Boris’ 60th birthday trip. Emma, unknowing of our visits to the restaurant, gave me a vintage Maxim’s champagne bucket for Christmas. (She just knew that champagne is my beverage of choice.) On our bar back home, I have displayed the bucket and our resealed champagne bottle from the restaurant. Our concierge told us the owner is now in his 90s and doesn’t really put an effort into the restaurant. The concierge no longer recommends Maxim’s.
We started out at the Place de la Concorde. The large ferris wheel was here on our last visit together to celebrate Boris’ birthday. It has now moved down by the Christmas Market on the edge of the Tuileries Gardens. I was surprised when the concierge told us that there was a Christmas market that was still open. We walked through. I am kind of Christmas marketed out after the river cruise, but Boris was interested. This one was almost all food and rides. Perhaps there were more craft and gift booths open before Christmas.
After the market, we enjoyed walking through the Tuileries Gardens before stopping for coffee across from the Hotel Regina, the first place I ever stayed at in Paris. This famous hotel dates from 1900 and is celebrating it 120th anniversary this year. It is currently being run by the 4th generation of the same family. Hotel Regina is considered to be “the last remaining example of an Art Nouveau hotel in Paris.” It has been the residence of many famous guests and has appeared in several movies. Hotel Regina sits in front of the Louvre and overlooks the Tuileries Gardens.
After our short break, we walked to the Place Vendome which sits north of the Tuileries Gardens and east of La Madeleine. “Place Vendôme was laid out in 1702 as a monument…with an over life-size equestrian statue of the king…set up in its centre…[The statute] is supposed to have been the first large modern equestrian statue to be cast in a single piece. It was destroyed in the French Revolution; however, there is a small version in the Louvre.”
The Vendome column was originated by Napoleon, but with the change in authority and offense taken at this display of imperial power, the column and his statute was pulled down. However, “[i]n 1874, the column was re-erected at the center of Place Vendôme with a copy of the original statue on top. An inner staircase leading to the top is no longer open to the public.” Place Vendome is home to chic hotels like the Ritz and famous boutiques. The rue de la Paix runs through it.
We were both tired from minimal sleep and the walking, so we went back to the hotel from Place Vendome, passing once again by La Madeleine and getting another look at Place de la Concorde. We shared a delicious sandwich in the bar of the hotel before nap time. We had to rest up for our full-day tour of the Champagne region tomorrow.
We were fortunate that one of Boris’ favorite places was open for dinner so we went out to Brasserie Bofinger for dinner with their Alsatian specialities. Boris loves the pork and I like their fresh seafood. I was stuck by the presentation of my chilled after dinner drink and who can pass up crepe suzette prepared table-side. Just a great way to end our first full day in Paris. Welcome 2020.