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Paris: The Sassy Mama City Guide by Christine Amour-Levar

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The stylish mama’s guide to Paris with Kids

Describe Paris in 3 words.
CHIC, HISTORIC and BREATHTAKING – but three words don’t seem enough to describe what to me is by far the most beautiful city in the world. Every time I think of Paris, I feel like writing a poem or an ode to this magnificent city – queen amongst all the metropolises of the world.

The American author Henry Van Dyke once romantically declared that “Oh, London is a man’s town, there’s power in the air; and Paris is a woman’s town, with flowers in her hair…” and to me she is just that – an incredibly beautiful and exquisite lady, who will always captivate our hearts.

Your favourite place to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner? Why?
Breakfast: Le Boulanger des Invalides – This Belle Époque beauty of a café and bakery, crunched on a corner of the sprawling Avenue de Villars in the 7th arrondissement, near the Invalides Dôme is my favourite place to have breakfast. Typically, Parisians don’t eat big brunches, but if you prefer that kind of breakfast, then any of the big hotel chains will serve up a generous buffet breakfast or brunch selection. Brunches may not be the norm in Paris, nonetheless, for Parisians, weekend breakfasts can also be a wonderful and deliciously pampering experience. Le Boulanger des Invalides’ croissants and pains au chocolat are second to none. Their savoury tarts, pastries and breads are renowned not just in the neighbourhood, but throughout Paris’ left bank area. So if you want to experience a lovely and more typical Parisian breakfast, in all its simplicity and délicatesse, don’t miss this gem of a boulangerie!

Lunch: There are of course many fabulous places to pick for lunch in Paris, from the famous Fouquet’s on the Champs Elysée, or Alain Ducasse’s garden courtyard restaurant in the Plaza Athénée, to simple little side-street bistros, which will serve up delicious classic French lunches to rival any restaurant in the city. However, if you are looking for something a little different and unique, I recommend L’ Opéra Restaurant in the Palais Garnier. It’s taken almost 150-years for the famed Paris Opera House to get its own restaurant – but alas in 2011, L’ Opéra Restaurant opened its doors under the supervision of two-starred chef Christophe Aribert, who designed the menu in line with the theme of this magical place, seeking the right balance between classicism and modernism.

The restaurant is situated at the very heart of the opera house, under the grand rotunda and concealed behind the pillars of the eastern façade. The restaurant features an upper mezzanine with a dramatic grand staircase lined in red carpet as if ready for its solo act. It’s well worth stopping for a delicious meal as well as a quick visit of the beautiful opera house.

Dinner: These days, Le Chateaubriand restaurant in the 11th arrondissement of Paris, is making quite the name for itself. Self-taught Basque chef Iñaki Aizpitarte has been accumulating fantastic reviews. The restaurant is a wonderful, old-fashioned bistro serving “new” and exciting food, and the wine list is clever with lots of organic and natural wines available. The atmosphere is electric, the service is excellent, and the fixed-price dinner menu at 45 Euros is incredible value.

Additionally, here are a few others of my favourite restaurants for dinner in Paris:
*Brasserie Thoumieux
*Le Grand Colbert
*La Fontaine de Mars
*Ze Kitchen Galerie
*Le Violon d’Ingres

What is your favourite thing to do with your kids in Paris?
I love to take my children to the Jardin d’Acclimatation. This 20-hectare (49-acre) children’s amusement park with a ménagerie, a museum and other attractions located in the north-western part of Paris is paradise for children of all ages. It was opened in 1860 by Napoleon the III and the Empress Eugénie, and was originally intended as a zoo. The park also includes an archery range, a house of mirrors, a miniature-golf course, a little train, pony rides, a puppet theatre, shooting galleries, a science and art museum as well as many animals in its charming menagerie, such as lamas, bears, rabbits, ducks and you will often even find peacocks roaming freely around the Jardin itself.

Kid friendly museums?
1. Le Musée National d’Histoire Naturelle or the National Museum of Natural History of Paris.
2. La Cite des Sciences or the Museum of Science and Industry.
3. Le Musée Grevin or the Paris Wax Museum

Best outdoor activity?
For Children: Little Parisians have all ridden a pony or a donkey at least once in their lives. You can find them in all the capital’s main gardens – Luxembourg Gardens, Parc Monceau and, of course, the Bois de Boulogne and Bois de Vincennes. I have a particular fondness for the Jardin des Tuileries, where you will often see a procession of donkeys and ponys with toddlers on their backs going slowly along the leafy lanes of the Tuileries gardens.

For Adults: River Seine Cruise on a bateau mouche – Some say it is clichéd and unimaginative, but frankly, a cruise along the Seine is as much a part of your Parisian experience as a tour around the Louvre or a walk down the Champs Elysées. If you are lucky to have a beautiful sunny day, it’s a wonderful way to get a glimpse of some of the city’s most beautiful monuments. You can also go at night after dinner to enjoy the shimmering play of lights on the water.

Favourite time of year in Paris and why?
To me, there is nothing more beautiful than springtime in Paris. But the weather in spring may give you a taste of both sun and showers. The temperatures should average in the high 50’s F (14 C). The weather will be sunny more often the later you go in spring, and by the end of April and into May the gardens will be blooming. In spring, the worst of the summer crowds haven’t yet arrived, making a stroll down the Champs Elysées more memorable. When the spring showers hit, head indoors to one of the museums. Fall is also a good time to consider. The weather is changing, and you may run into some cool days. The upside is that the crowds will be thinner, and you’re more likely to find lower seasonal prices. The locals are rejuvenated from their summer month away, and they will be relaxed, more tolerant, have more time for you.

Temperatures are in the low 60s F (16 C) — a little warmer than spring. But whatever time of the year you choose to go, the City of Lights is wonderful anytime of the year!

Favourite spa?
The best most luxurious spas in Paris would still be in the Ritz, the George V or in the Plaza Athénée hotels, but for a more unique experience, I would recommend the hammans of Paris.

They are a very popular way of unwinding. Hammans are a type of relaxing steam baths that were imported to France from the Maghreb (North Africa) along with now French staple favourites such as couscous and sticky Orientale sweets. You need to bring your own bathing supplies but towels or cotton wraps are provided. It’s one of the popular places to hang out with friends, relax and gossip. Not surprisingly, hammams have separate sessions for men and women. Most charge a fee to bathe and a separate fee for a massage and body scrub. Some hammams sell individual packets of Savon Noir a kind of black soap traditionally for use in the scrub or “gommage”. You can also pay to have a personal “scrubber”; the process lasts for about 10 minutes and you’ll emerge smooth as butter. I recommend Les Bains du Marais or Le Hammam de la Mosquée de Paris.

I get my hair done at….
Although not a typical French hair salon chain, Toni & Guy rarely disappoint. They have three very good salons in Paris and you can expect consistently professional and excellent service. Toni & Guy are of course known to have the newest and hottest hair style trends in fashion.

I get my manicure pedicure at….
The Nail Factory – They offer a “New York”-style manicure and pedicure (the French manicure is known in Paris as “la French”) and wonderful foot spa baths with comfortable and trendy salons throughout Paris.

The three shops I can’t live without are:
Bon Marché Department Store and Epicerie – The city’s oldest department store, opened in 1848, it is also its most swish and user-friendly. It features many luxury boutiques, but it also has a fantastic selection of young French fashion designers such as Sandro, Maje and Iro, plus a wonderful gourmet épicerie & supermarket called L’Epicerie du Bon Marché.

Serendipity – Vintage Items with a Contemporary Twist. Serendipity is more than just an old furniture store – it is a word that describes the action of making unexpected but pleasant discoveries. The two women who founded it are mothers who were inspired to create funky, modern items for children out of old, used material. The result: a terrific blend of colour, shape, size, and material that work together to create a fresh, new style.

Le Faubourg – Curator of Parisian Chic. Le Faubourg is a popular on-line Parisian boutique specialized in French vintage chic, all shopped, handmade or crafted in Paris. The best way to find Parisian antique gems at affordable prices – and they ship worldwide!

Who I have on my Paris speed dial…
My husband, my sister and my best girlfriends.

Best place for sweet treats?
Popelini – Forget the macaroons, switch to the Popelini’s cream puffs. Popelini, tucked away along a quiet road in the 3rd arrondissement, is a showcase for one of French pâtisserie’s staples – choux pastry. Popelini has made choux pastry its speciality by selling a range of different flavoured choux buns. The simplicity of it is genius – choux pastry baked with a crumble topping to add texture, filled with flavoured pastry creams and iced. Flavours range from the classics lemon, caramel, praline, chocolate to combinations such as cherry and pistachio, vanilla and strawberry. They even have a ‘choux du jour’ which changes every day – when I visited it was Cointreau and candied orange.

An unforgettable moment?
Giving birth to my son Malcolm, he is the only one of my 4 children to have been born in Paris…

Can’t live without…
The open air food markets of Paris, my favourite being the one on the Avenue de Saxe in the 7th arrondissement.

Don’t miss…
The Musée de l’Orangerie which houses eight of Monet’s giant water lilies paintings in semi-circular rooms. This is a must see for any Monet fan. Be sure to walk through the Jardin de Tuileries during your visit.

The Musée du Louvre: As befits the most visited museum in the world, even the main entrance to the Louvre is a work of art (by IM Pei). Try to get a guided tour of the highlights, which should include the Mona Lisa, the statue of Venus de Milo, David’s painting of the coronation of Napoleon to name a few…

Cathedral of Notre Dame: My children still believe the hunchback, Quasimodo, lives on its roofs, but this thousand-year old Gothic masterpiece has been restored to magnificent effect, and is very much worth a visit…

What advice would you give families visiting Paris?
Wear comfortable shoes and see as much as possible on foot! Paris is best explored à pied!

Of all the shopping spots Paris has on offer which would you try not to miss?
Rummage at the Flea Market: Paris flea markets are full of curiosities, from stained glass windows to Philippe Starck pieces and Eames chairs. I recommend the sprawling Marché aux Puces de Clignancourt; it’s where all the serious dealers go when on the hunt for original antiquities from across the country.

Adults should check out…
Nuit Blanche: (All-Nighter, literally White Night, in French) is an annual all-night or night-time arts festival held the first Saturday of October. A Nuit Blanche will typically have museums, private and public art galleries, and other cultural institutions open and free of charge, with the centre of the city itself being turned into a de facto art gallery, providing space for art installations, performances (music, film, dance, performance art), themed social gatherings, and other activities.

The Catacombs: the Parisians of the 18th century responded to a lack of accommodation in their cemeteries by digging deeper into the miles of subterranean passages that had existed under the city since the Roman times and transferring the remains of 6 million people to the catacombs. It’s an extraordinary sight, but can be quite disturbing…

Tell us one thing about Paris we don’t know…
The Eiffel Tower was only meant to stand for 20 years. Gustave Eiffel and crew constructed the tower in two years, completing it in 1889 for the Exposition Universelle (the World’s Fair). It served as the entrance arch for this World’s Fair marking the centennial celebration of the French Revolution. Originally, people complained it was an eyesore and looked forward to the structure’s 20-year permit ending. The military, however, realized it made an excellent long-range radio tower and the installation of a permanent base in the tower in 1906 ensured its survival.

Christine Amour-Levar is a self-described “work-in-progress” Mum, Wife, Freelance Writer, Editor, and Marketing Consultant. Mother of Yasmine, Malcolm, Louis and Angeline, Wife of Steven and Author of The Smart Girl’s Handbook to Being MUMMYLICIOUS – a motivational and practical guide to getting your body (and your GROOVE) back post pregnancy – which is launching in Singapore mid-April 2012.  Learn more here:

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