A Couple of Nanas Go to Paris

A Girlfriend Trip to the City of Light

In late January, the New York Times published an article about fashion designer Iris Van Herpen’s one-woman retrospective show at the Musée des Arts Decoratifs in Paris. I’d never heard of her, but the photos of her designs were mind-blowing, and I sent them to my friend Margi. “Gorgeous!” she replied. “We should pop up to see the exhibit!” And thus was born a grand plan for a “voyage entre nanas”–a girlfriends’ trip.

Iris Van Herpen atelier, reproduced for the show

We found a date in February and started planning. First up was a place to stay. Since we’d be taking the train into the Gare de Lyon, Margi found us a wonderful hotel nearby, the Hotel Reisner. A dance afficionado, Margi also found a performance at the beautiful Opera Garnier, so we bought tickets. And of course dining in Paris was high on our list, so we booked a dinner at one of David Lebovitz’s favorites.

Plans confirmed, we set out. I have to tell you, this was one of those unusual trips where EVERYTHING went perfectly! The train was on time, comfortable, and not too crowded. We arrived and headed to the hotel, where we were too early to check in but were greeted so warmly we felt at home. Bags stowed, we walked a couple of blocks to a charming little restaurant, the kind where regulars are greeted like family.

The food was excellent–a stir fry for Margi, couscous for me–and we splurged on café gourmand, an espresso served with several tiny desserts. I love ordering café gourmand, which lets me avoid tough decisions and sample several desserts. And get a small hit of caffeine after lunch. Yum.

Ile flotante, one of several sample-sized desserts served in a café gourmand

Full and happy, we strolled back to the hotel, where our hosts had arranged side-by-side rooms. This little hotel is a gem, featuring beautiful décor, kind staff, and a great location

My hotel room: tiny but beautiful

Can you guess what we did next? Of course! Nanas need to shop! We strolled for hours, peeking into windows (not one but TWO bespoke shoe ateliers!), trying on shoes, where we took a pass on 450-euro beauties that squeaked or hurt, and enjoying the cool, cloudy day. In Paris. Margi lived in Paris as a university student and has visited many times over the years, so she was a fabulous guide. And yes, of course we had to stop for an afternoon glass of wine.

We headed back for a quick rest before our first big treat: dinner at à la biche au bois (roughly translated as “the doe in the woods”), a restaurant that is on David Lebovitz’s list of favorites.

à la biche au bois

We were welcomed like regulars and ushered to our table. I use that term rather loosely, because all the tables are crowded together so that one can chat up one’s neighbors or simply eavesdrop on their conversations. We ordered from our very charming and funny waiter and settled in to enjoy the repast. My entrée was les oefs durs mayonnaise; sounds fancy, right? It’s simply hard-boiled eggs topped with mayonnaise, but it was sublime.

Les Oefs durs Mayonnaise

I’ve forgotten Margi’s entrée, but for our plat we both enjoyed coq au vin, which was served family-style with a vat of perfect mashed potatoes (As we ate, we stared at two men at a nearby table who devoured steaks with a MOUNTAIN of fries. That platter of fries would have been enough for eight people, but these two guys ate every morsel!). Next up was the cheese course, featuring the best Cantal I’ve ever tasted. This was followed by a delicious op. After dessert we were served a complimentary glass of eau-de-vie. That meal was unforgettable. You’re probably wondering how expensive it was, right? All in, with a delicious bottle of wine, we each paid $71.

The next morning we met up at a bakery down the street for coffee and pastries before heading out. We walked la Promenade Plantée (the elevated walk that inspired New York’s High Line), shopped (this time I bought shoes and Margi bought earrings), and strolled through a huge, wonderful indoor and outdoor market featuring gorgeous produce, meats, clothes, antiques, and much more. After lunch at Le Verre à Vin, where we ate the best mille feuille I’ve ever had, we headed to the main event, the Iris Van Herpen retrospective.

Iris Van Herpen design

Did I mention that it poured rain all day? It’s Paris in February, after all. Undaunted, we stomped through the puddles and checked our coats and umbrellas before climbing the stairs to the exhibit. 

These dresses were spectacular!

The exhibit was much, much more crowded than we’d anticipated. With wall-to-wall people, it was hard to see everything, and we skipped a couple of videos due to the crowds. But the gowns….


We were surprised to read that many of the gowns had been worn by famous people–Lady Gaga, Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, and Natalie Portman, among others.


It was a lot to take in! I ordered the catalogue, which will be a treasured souvenir. This exhibit was spectacular, and if you have an opportunity to see it (it’s going to other countries and possibly to the U.S.), I hope you’ll go!

I think this might be my favorite!

While at the Musée des Art Decoratifs, we visited the other major exhibition, Mode et Sport, d’un Podium a l’Autre, which features sports fashions from the 1800s to the present. I was astonished at how women played tennis, climbed mountains, and participated in other sports wearing corsets, high heels, and bulky layers of fabric.

Fascinating exhibit featuring sports outfits

At this point we’d been on our feet for hours and had walked over five miles, so of course we needed to stop for an apéro before the ballet. We chose the historic Belle Epoc Cafe de la Paix, next to the Opera Garnier, where we were refreshed with a couple of glasses of wine, accompanied (bien sur!) by frites and croquettes de jambon.

Inside the Cafe de la Paix

And then it was time for the ballet. I had not been to the Opera Garnier since my first trip to Paris, with Phil in 1993, and I’d forgotten how gorgeous it is. We took our seats (middle balcony, the best view for the ballet) and soaked it all in. I could imagine ladies in their finery, gentlement in evening wear, and all the glamour of 19th century Paris. I had also forgotten the Marc Chagall ceiling paintings, which depict some of the most beloved operas and composers.

Marc Chagall masterpiece ceiling

The ballet itself, Sadeh21 by Israeli choreographer Ohad Naharin, was fascinating, confusing, and sometimes disturbing. Naharin (a former Martha Graham dancer) founded the Gaga movement language, which he developed while experiencing a back injury. I read about Gaga but cannot explain or truly understand it; the movements are beautiful, and you’d just have to see it. Margi was familiar with Naharin’s work, and I can see why she loves it; we both were deeply moved by this performance.

The stage, as seen from our perfect seats

The next morning, after coffee and pastries at our new-favorite bakery (la Pariesienne), we packed up and headed to the train. I forgot to get a selfie with the two of us, but you can imagine two nanas, very happy, full of great food and culture, looking forward to their next adventure.

Who’s afraid of marseille?

The Roamers discover an enchanting city

I’ve dreamed of seeing Marseille for many years, largely because of how Julia Child wrote about the time she and husband Paul lived there. However, we had heard lots of negative things about the city: it’s dangerous, there’s a lot of crime, they have a drug problem, it’s dirty, etc. But when we had an expiring credit card benefit, we decided to use it to explore this city. And what a great experience it turned out to be!

Getting there was easy, just 1 1/2 hours on a fast train

We checked into our hotel, the beautiful Intercontinental Hotel Dieu, which overlooks the old port. As part of the credit card benefit, we received a room upgrade, breakfast both days, and a credit to spend (which we used at the bar, of course).

The view from our room

We enjoyed  lunch on a sunshiney terrace nearby before boarding le petit train for a little tour. Our main objective was seeing the basilica at the top of the hill (you can see it in the photo above). Topped with a golden statue of Mary and Jesus (which in the English translation of the French tour narration became “Mary and the Kid”) the Notre Dame de la Guard is magnificent. 

Basilica interior

We climbed about ten thousand steps to arrive at the chapel, where a prayer service (call and response) was in process. 

The chapel during a service

In the basilica I was fascinated by the paintings on the walls and ceiling. Looking more closely, I saw that wealthy people had donated these decorations, I assume in order to be remembered for posterity.

“Donated by the Count and Countess Pastré, 1889”

As gorgeous as the basilica was, the view was even more inspiring. Atop the hill, one can see the entire city. . .

. . .and the sea.

After a bumpy descent, the train dropped us at the old port, where we enjoyed a late afternoon stroll. Then it was on to dinner at Ekume, whose bouillabaise tasting menu we’d chosen as a treat for Phil. We arrived to find that one must pre-order that menu, so we chose a different tasting menu with wine pairings (of course). It was good, but a bit fishy for me. I prefer fish that doesn’t really taste like fish–but Phil enjoyed the meal. I mostly loved the dessert.

This photo doesn’t do justice to the magnificent Escalier de la Gare Saint Charles

The next morning we met our guide for a real treat: a 5 1/2 hour walking tour, Beyond Bouillabaise. To call this merely a culinary tour would be a disservice! We met our guide, Corinne (Coco), at the top of the magnificent train station staircase, where she greeted us (no one else on the tour; lucky Roamers!) with pastries to munch as we strolled.

Just one of the many sculptures on the staircase

We wandered a while, with Coco pointing out historical sites and telling stories about each neighborhood. After stopping for coffee and more treats at a popular square, we continued on to the stunning Palais Longchamp, which is not a palace. You can read about it here.

Palais Longchamp; we’ll definitely return for the museum!

A random hilarious thing happened en route, when we “stumbled” upon a dog’s comment about a right-wing politician (the heir apparent to Marie le Pen, according to Coco).

Doo-doo to the right wing

As we strolled, Coco knocked on a shuttered door, which opened to reveal a crossant maker at work! I was fascinated watching him place a giant sheet of butter atop the dough, folding it and then running it through the machine. And his croissants were among the best I’ve ever tasted!

This delightful gentleman allowed me to take his picture!

We had visited several family-owned shops, tasted multiple treats, and walked quite a bit when Coco announced that it was time for a pre-lunch apératif. We stopped at a 1930s bar for a glass of wine and a bowl of panisses, which are chickpea frites served with a mustardy aoli.

The bar, with original 1930s décor

Delicious panisses

Then, of course, it was time for lunch. Coco took us to a tiny restaurant serving delicious Algerian food. Nadia, the owner and chef, was charming and passionate about her cuisine. We shared a salad followed by crunchy fried sardines. I’d never tasted sardines before and was surprised at how tasty they were! Nadia insisted we return to try her couscous, and we definitely plan to do that!

La Saveur, chez Nadia

After lunch we walked through a wonderful outdoor market where people can buy fresh fish and produce at very low prices. This was a welcome contrast to U.S. food deserts, where it’s hard to find fresh food. We stopped in several more places to sample treats before heading to my favorite stop of the entire tour: a hardware store!

Maison Empereur is not just any hardware store. Covering most of a city block, this 200-year-old institution offers hardware, yes, but so much more: an entire roomful of kitchen knives, a huge kitchenware section, toys, clothing, housewares–even a perfume shop offering the oldes perfumes of France.

Maison Empereur

By this time we were loaded with purchases–spices, tapenades, fragrance, gifts, etc. We headed with Coco to our final stop, La Caravelle, a sailors’ bar from the ’20s. There we had a glass of pastis and enjoyed the fabulous view of the port before bidding farewell to our wonderful guide and walking off the tour treats before dinner.

Dinner. That was weird. I’d promised Phil bouillabaise, and Coco had pointed out the best place to get the authentic dish, a pricey white tablecloth place overlooking the port. Once seated, we were informed that the minimum bouillabaise order was for two people–at 80 euros each! We made our usual excuse (“this is the last XX we’ll ever buy!”) and ordered the dish, along with wine and dessert. 

First we were served several delicious amuses bouches. Then the waiter brought large bowls of broth, along with toasted baguette slices, raw garlic, and rouille (a garlicky sauce). We were instructed to rub the bread with garlic, top it with rouille, and drop it into the broth (think of French onion soup). It was delicious!

First course bouillabaisse

While we were enjoying this, the waiter brought an enormous bowl of raw fish–six different types of fish!–to show us what was coming. We then were served ANOTHER large bowl of broth, this time stuffed with tons of whole or almost-whole fish! It was easily enough for eight people. We hardly made a dent in it, especially since I don’t enjoy oily, fishy fish.  We gave up, but then DESSERT came! My lemon souffle was good, and Phil enjoyed his chocolate concoction. But honestly? Once was definitely enough.

So. Much. Fish.

We waddled back to the hotel, and the next morning we enjoyed another special treat. The Cosquer Mediterranée is an amazing duplication of 30,000-year-old cave paintings discovered by  speleologist Henri Cosquer in the ’90s. The cave paintings, 35 meters below sea level, are being destroyed by water, so they have been meticulously recreated; seated in 6-person modules, we glided through the water in this underground experience that felt as if we were actually in the caves. Highly recommended!

After our tour we headed to Saisons, a Michelin-starred restaurant offering a reduced-price lunch, where we enjoyed a delicious three-course meal with wine for less than half of the bouillabaise experience. Finally, it was time to check out of the hotel and head for home.

We could not have enjoyed Marseille more, and we will definitely return. We loved the diversity, the fascinating neighborhoods, and the friendly people, and we always felt safe. If you have the opportunity, go! You won’t regret it.

Nighttime view from our hotel