It’s late morning and the sun has been streaming in through the crack in the curtains for a while now, trying to coax me out of bed. Horns beep and the floor buzzes as the Metro rushes underneath. The city has already been up for hours. Normally, I would already be speed-walking up the Champs-Elysees by now, following my nose, in search of a warm baguette and a freshly squeezed jus d’orange pressé to start my day. But jet lag has glued me to the pillow, leaving me time to plot my wanderings before hitting the streets.
Ahhh…Paris. My dear friend is getting married in Avignon, and before serving as temoin (the curious French translation for my job description, matron of honor), I have come to spend a few days in my favorite city.
Paris is the capital of all things beautiful. Against a stunningly ornate backdrop of regal architecture and heavy-duty history, Parisians have been raised for generations to live in the moment. Meals last for hours, dessert is a fait accompli, footwear is ever impractical, and shopping is a shared experience rather than a personal mission.
Still foggy from my sleep overdose, I gravitate on autopilot to a Starbucks for my daily brew (a “Dirty Chai,” which, by the way, gives me a little rush just ordering it). I reason it will be much quicker and cheaper than sitting down for an hour-long breakfast at a café. As luck will have it, a youth tour group arrives just before me and places their order for 16 drinks. Forty-five minutes later, I am trying not to scowl while I continue waiting for my morning fix.
You would think I would know better than to do as an American tourist. Being a proud “locavore,” I am always one to buy conscientiously and locally. So, eager to shake my morning stupor, I decide to spend the next few days shopping like a Parisienne. Each day, I will explore a different market in a neighborhood I have never been to. After all, even though I have lived and worked in Paris over the years, there are still countless corners to discover and local vendors to support.
With my borrowed copy of Markets of Paris by Dixon and Ruthanne Long tucked under my arm, I am at Marché Raspail in the 6th arrondissement at 7:30 the next morning. The vendors are surprisingly friendly and perky, even though they have been there since 5 a.m. Under their striped awnings, they are eager to talk about their colorful offerings. One lovely, well-tanned gentleman is selling at least 50 different kinds of dried fruits and nuts. I have never seen fresh almonds before and, even before I ask, he is peeling one open for me to try. In the middle of soft green flesh is a smooth, white nut, which looks nothing like the roasted ones I am used to. It tastes sweet and soapy, like the lavender fields in Provence. I meander down the block, stopping at each lively stall to return a “Bonjour!” or a smile.
Since it is still early, I decide to hunt down another market, actually a collection of food shops with outdoor displays, on Rue de l’Annonciation in the 16th arrondissement. On the way, I ask several locals for directions, each one patiently stopping to help with kind and misleading instructions but, by the time I arrive around 10 a.m., most of the vendors have started to bring their bounties inside. The street spills into a lovely square, at the center of which is a cement building with a glass roof. I peek inside and discover Marché Passy. If only there were a kitchen in my hotel room, so I could cook up a big bowl of handmade gorgonzola-filled ravioli with fresh pea shoots. There are rows of glassy-eyed fish on ice at the poissonier and a wood-fired oven at the Le Boulanger du Marché, where I buy a warm loaf of five-grain bread and devour it on my way back.
The next day, I clear an entire morning to spend at my favorite of Paris’ all-under-one-roof department stores, Bon Marché. Like any experienced shopper, I cannot resist a sale, especially when the American dollar still buys barely half a euro. The best thing about Bon Marché, though, isn’t its bargain prices, as the name would suggest, (usually the prices are far from rock-bottom) but its vast selections of food, cosmetics, clothing and home furnishings from all over of the world.
After combing the racks upstairs for French designer clothing that I really don’t need, I head for the ground floor food hall, officially called Le Grand Èpicerie de Paris. It is like a museum of all things edible and mouth-watering. I lose myself for about an hour, astounded by all the different jams, salts, spices, snacks and condiments from around the globe. I collect a fantasy Parisian picnic á deux to enjoy at the Luxembourg gardens — a sesame seed ficelle, two cheeses, my favorite Bonne Maman rhubarb compote, wild strawberries, and some gorgeous tomatoes. I polish off most of it on the Metro back to the hotel (sorry, dear!).
Place d’Aligre is a picturesque market straight out of a Cailebotte painting. Not far from the Bastille in the 12th arrondissement, the open stands stretch several blocks, flanked on both sides by boulangeries, fromageries, and darling little food stores. It is a lively, noisy, irresistible bazaar, where commerce happens every day but Monday. I buy two enormous fresh figs to slurp on the Metro home.
At the end of the street is the second oldest covered market in Paris, Marché Beaveau. I imagine I am back in the 19th century, dressed in an elegant bustled number and carrying a cloth-covered basket, shopping for tonight’s feast. The scene hasn’t changed much since. Inside, the central cast-iron fountain adds a touch of serenity, as well as a place for merchants to rinse their goods. Outside, the rainbow menagerie continues to pulsate until mid-afternoon, when everything is folded up and put away until the next morning.
My exploration of Paris’ juiciest streets comes to an end on the day of the wedding. On the train to Avignon, I pause to admire the photos of the markets I discovered. The friendly faces, vibrant colors and mouth-watering edibles remind me of my wonderful mornings at the marchés. Thanks to my momentary chain-store digression, I uncovered the heart and soul of one of the world’s most deliciously dazzling cities.
Explore another farmers market.