The mere phrase conjures up springtime romance, arm-in-arm strolls and Seine-side snogs, as Ella Fitzgerald sublimely bends the notes of the Vernon Duke/E.Y. Harburg song (“Ayy-pril in Pahh-ris”) and an eager-to-please artiste channeling Gene Kelly whips up a freakishly accurate canvas of your likeness, which is great, because your hair never looked better.
Because April. In Paris!
During my first April in Paris nearly 20 years ago, the closest I came to this romantic fantasy was a four-course, four-hour, white Burgundy-fueled dinner at Le Procope with the ghost of my imaginary historical boyfriend, Voltaire, who used to frequent the place. (It’s been feeding the Parisian public since 1686.) On subsequent trips in a later April and more recent autumn, I continued my solo love affair with Paris, and with myself in Paris. But that all-aflutter amorousness that led so many others to buckle the Pont des Arts under the weight of heart locks eluded me. I returned to Paris in April of 2014. This time, the trip was all about love — my younger sister’s. After a long-distance courtship, she was marrying a lovely, California-born denizen of the 11th arrondissement.
And if gaining a brother-in-law meant traveling all the way to France during its most famous month, well… that was a sacrifice I was willing to make. Plus, I wouldn’t be making the trek alone. And though the big, beautiful Franch love we were celebrating wasn’t mine, family love—thanks to the happy couple and my vegan sister, omnivorous cousin and tween niece who came with me—was all around. Pretty sweet!
Speaking of sweet, despite what you may have heard all your life, the best part of April in Paris is not love. Nor is it spring. It’s the treats!
Much like how in the Jewish tradition, saving a life trumps all other commandments, in France pretty much anything—from the bending of the Sunday-driving ban for trucks on the autoroutes, to the crafting of laws to punish bistros for serving outsourced frozen meals to unsuspecting diners—may be done in the service of food. And fresh daily bread is a human right subsidized by the government and prized throughout the gluten-tolerant world.
To wit, pretty much every block in Paris has at least three bakeries, or boulangeries:
- A bakery that serves delicious, flaky croissants and mouth-watering breads of all shapes and sizes.
- A slightly better, probably artisanal bakery that serves delicious, flaky croissants and mouth-watering breads of all shapes and sizes.
- The #basic bakery that no one goes to but is always somehow crowded.
Every morning of our stay, someone would bring fresh croissants, olive-cheese rolls and pains chocolats into the house we shared with other members of the wedding party. And every morning, hungry, hung-over adults would quickly consume those baked goods, leaving my slow-rousing niece bereft of breakfast. Thus, every morning presented an opportunity to be a hero.
For a handful of change and the fortitude needed to put on my shoes, walk out the door and cross the street after a vin-soaked evening, I could buy a morning’s worth of tween smiles and goodwill from the best bakery on the block. Totally worth it.
(This isn’t even the best pastry shop on the block, and it’s better than you can imagine.)
A word about bakeries: In France, you’ll find bread in boulangeries. But if you’re looking for pastries, you’ll have to go to a patisserie. Or a café. In fact, you can find a decent version of something from every French food group in a café. But if you want the best version, go to a specialty shop. During our visit—probably because it was around Easter—filled pastel macarons were all the rage. My niece sampled so many that she became an expert by the end of our journey.
So much of what the City of Lights is known for—smoking, mistresses, meandering intellectual discourse, al fresco day drinking—is not appropriate for, or even all that interesting to, children. American tweens raised with images of the world’s artistic treasures at their fingertips are not that impressed by coming face-to-face with Mona Lisa or gothic cathedral interiors (unless obviously traceable to a Disney flick). But walk any child into a Parisian bakery and you will see the magic of April in Paris come to life.
The ROAM Report : Paris
Travelers : The Sulkis Family – Karen, sister Paula, cousin Ian and Paula’s 12-year-old daughter, Ariel
Date : April 2014
Itinerary : Paris (7 nights). Arriving from London via Chunnel train and heading down to Bordeaux for a week on the TGV after. We had wedding events to attend during the first half of the visit, with free time interspersed and after.
Budget : About $1,400 for a week’s lodging in a house share in the heart of the 11th for two adults and one child. (Cousin Ian stayed in a rented apartment two blocks away.) We shared household grocery costs with the wedding party; expenses were low, but not rock-bottom, as we tended to splurge on the better version of whatever we saw at the market, because Paris! Between the supermarket, bistros and incidental/urgent café breaks, I’d say we put an average of 25 euro per day in our mouths.
The Good Stuff
Place des Vosges – The gateway to the Marais, this small, beautiful square has picnic benches, lounging lawns, spouting fountains and ample, but short, dirt pathways for running off excess energy.
The Paris Metro – It’s not that cheap, and it’s not always clean. But the Metro is fast, efficient and a great way to get around the city when walking just won’t do. Plus, it affords a priceless opportunity to mix and mingle with all walks of life, from chic Montmartre matrons to hijab-clad students. Better than any ride at Disneyland, and ideal for teaching young ones the importance of zipping up packs and purses and putting away screens.
Jardin du Luxembourg – Not as touristy or as massive as the Tuileries, the Luxembourg garden has a big, old castle (a museum, actually, but you won’t want to waste a sunny day indoors), lots of creepy gargoyles, strange and beautiful fountains and, at the right time of year, row after row of gorgeous, fragrant flowers. The public restrooms are clean, efficient and well worth the small entry fee, especially after too many cups of chocolat chaud (hot chocolate). Score a café table close to the band shell and enjoy a free Sunday concert. (Tell the kids it’s like YouTube, only happening right now, in THIS park, just for them!)
Musee des Lettres et Manuscrits – A surprise success. After few relaxing hours in the Jardin du Luxembourg, we walked out of the park and onto the fashionable Boulevard Saint-Germain. It was at this moment that my niece took off full-speed down the street, bouncing like a pinball off some old stone storefronts and shouting at my cousin, “YOU GAVE ME TOO MUCH SUGARRRR!” (See above re: too many cups of hot chocolate.) I had to think quickly. (Did I mention that her mother had left her in our care, so she could powerwalk back to our home base?) Miraculously, we were right outside this unique museum. Ian and Ariel went in to see the collection, which ranged from Madame Curie’s research notes to Proust in the original Proust, while I perused the gift shop and bought an inexpensive Le Petit Prince watercolor set, in the hope that my niece might use them to paint once we got to Bordeaux. (She didn’t). They emerged about 30 minutes later, noticeably calmer, with tales of old paper and fancy handwriting.
Centre Pompidou – We never actually made it inside this modern/ist art palace, despite its generous hours and reasonable prices. (You can have your run of the whole place for free the first Sunday of every month.) However, we’d heard that the real attraction is the plaza outside the museum, where singers set up, dancers delight and street artists ply their trade in sidewalk chalk. Crafters and sellers of mass-produced flea market items hawk their wares, while a constant stream of tourists and opportunists flows all around. This is another good place to teach street-unsavvy youngsters how not to wave their phones around or leave purses or fanny packs unzipped. (Better yet, leave the fanny packs at home; only tourists wear them, making them the international pickpocket bull’s-eye.)
Jardins des Tuileries – Larger, more crowded and way more famous than the Luxembourg garden, this is one of the world’s greatest spots for epic people watching. Unfortunately, most kids find watching people who aren’t on screens boring. That’s where the Amorino ice cream truck comes in. Park your young person at the end of the line, and in 15-30 minutes—an hour, tops—you’ll have a delicious, artfully constructed cone of frozen goodness. (Instead of just scoops, they spackle ice cream around the sides with a spatula, a time-consuming process that forms a flower, like this.) Here, mother and daughter take a load off their pieds au Jardins de Tuileries.
Café Poucshkine – In a city full of spectacular pastry shops, this one stands out. Just by looking, we could tell that the taste and quality of the goods would surpass all other best-of-block experiences. I also knew it would be worth every moment of bloated agony that would follow my ingestion of the twin devils of wheat and glucose. My cousin bought three items to take back to the house and an éclair we devoured ugly American-style, standing right outside the shop. With our hands. While I was lifting off on my sugar high, my niece was jonesing for her next. Luckily, she spotted an Amorino right around the corner. The line at the shop moved much more quickly than in the Tuileries, but her ice cream cone was just as architecturally sound.
La Belle Hortense – It had been more than a decade since I’d first stumbled upon this bookstore/bar, when I was desperate for a respite after an afternoon on my feet. And now, I’d found it again, by mistake, en route from the pastry adventure to our home. My niece thought the cool books on the walls were for decoration, but this place is the real deal. There are even tables nestled at the back of the store, past the bar, where people actually sit, read, and even talk to each other. It reminds me of the kind of literature-and-alcohol mixture we used to have so much of in San Francisco, only with a much cleaner bathroom. Here, cousin Ian stares at the bar, while Ariel checks out the books. I call this their album-cover photo.
Eiffel Tower – Without advance tickets, it can be a long wait to get to the top of this phallic, Gallic icon, especially during Easter week. And it’s expensive. Instead of milling about with the fanny-packed hordes, we posed for group pics, then strolled along the Seine in the sunshine, where my niece encountered an actual “gypsy” pulling a classic street ruse. Talk about adventure!
The Not So Good
Book Trains in Advance – Arriving at a French train station without a reservation is a very expensive proposition. The entire SNCF schedule is online, and there are several apps that make booking pretty painless. Reserving ahead is especially important during school holidays; we waited too long to decide on a departure time out of Paris and found ourselves with tickets but no seats. I considered us lucky to bounce around on uncomfortable stools between the packed luggage racks. Needless to say, my niece was miserable.
Vegetarians and Vegans, Beware – Despite some renewed emphasis on vegetables in Parisian haute cuisine, boeuf still rules the continent. My vegan niece had begun her conversion to dairy before our trip, but her future as a cheese-eater was cemented on our vacances. Her vegan mother didn’t faire so well. Toward the end of our week in Paris, a very clear declaration to the waitstaff that ma soeur mangent seulement vegetables was met with a, “Oh, yes. We have a—How do you say?—seafood salad.” She almost cried. So did we, but from laughter.
Good to Know
Rent a Home – Accommodations in Paris can be pretty expensive. Family-sized lodging at even a modest, 2-star place like the Grand Hotel des Balcons in the 6th arrondissement will run you upwards of 98 euros per night, plus 12 more per person per day for breakfast. Whatever your feelings about AirBnB, renting someone’s house or flat is a more wallet-friendly approach, especially with children who will appreciate the comforts of home in a household setting. That’s what we did. As family of the happy couple, we stayed in a modernist dream home hidden by a heavy street door and meandering courtyard. The house was across the street from the almost-weds’ flat and around the corner from the mairie (town hall) where the wedding would take place, and it worked out extremely well.
Eat in Often – We brought in a lot of our own food and drinks, which held costs down and added to the adventure, especially when we sent out non-francophone family members to get breakfast treats and coffee fixings. The happy couple organized several meals and activities, but we were left to fend for ourselves often enough to develop intimate knowledge of the neighborhood’s offerings.
Good for Next Time
Jim Haynes Sunday Dinners – A charming bloke we met randomly in London advised us to go to this long-running weekly dinner salon. And we almost did the day after the wedding. We were prepared to pay the 30 euro per person donation, and to mix and mingle with complete strangers. However, we weren’t prepared for the mysterious post-nuptial exhaustion that hit us all like a wave at Mavericks. Next time!
Duolingo – Months of clicking around on this app and site did not produce perfect French in my niece. Or it did, but she was too shy to use it. Which is OK, because my imperfect French got us the benefit of the doubt nearly everywhere we went, town and country.
- Ariel gets a lesson in photoframing from her filmmaker cousin.
- Congratulating the deux hommes who had the wedding slot at the mairie before our couple. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land in France—all of France. Has been since May of 2013.
- Our newlyweds meeting the “longtimeweds” — the Rosenthals — who received a commendation from the mayor for 60 years of marriage. They had the appointment at the mairie after our wedding.
Good Family Trip?
Even without romance and cigarettes, there are plenty of family-friendly experiences to be had in Paris. You just have to abandon most of the tourist tropes and highbrow expectations to enjoy. In between wedding events and activities, we did just that.
Karen Sulkis, April 2015
© ROAM Family Travel 2015 – All rights reserved
Keywords: family vacation, family travel, travel with kids