Readers of my Paris book likely know of Kim Horton Levesque, who wrote an indispensable book called Pampered in Paris: A Guide to the Best Spas, Salons and Beauty Boutiques (The Little Bookroom, 2010) -- I featured this terrific book under the 'Spas' entry in my A to Z Miscellany. Kim's been busy since that book was published, and her newest project is Paris With Children (also published by The Little Bookroom, one of my very favorite book publishers in the world). I'm pleased and honored to participate in Kim's official blog tour this season.
I know very well that Kim's Pampered book took a lot of work, but Paris With Children took infinitely more, and Kim deserves a whole heap of praise for compiling such a book. In the same way that I only recently began to appreciate how beneficial spas are for travelers, it was only when I read Kim's new book that I discovered it isn't just for travelers with children in tow. There are so many great suggestions in this book for anyone who's spending time in Paris.
The first 46 pages of the book are devoted to practical information -- preparing for your Paris journey and useful tips for when you arrive -- and then Kim shares a wealth of Play, Eat, Shop, Stay recommendations for 9 geographic neighborhoods (rather than Paris's 20 arrondissements -- she explains that designating an area 'Louvre-Tuileries-Opera' is more useful, especially to a parent who is unfamiliar with Paris).
The features I like best are that Kim suggests not only lesser-known activities and sites but also points out features of famous places that are interesting and useful (and that in some cases I'd completely forgotten about); the recommendations for places to stay are winners with or without kids and I learned of a handful of accommodations that I'm going to investigate, like the
Hospitel Hôtel Dieu -- did you know there is actual hotel on the 6th floor of Paris's oldest hospital? It's right on place du Parvis Notre Dame and there are 14 rooms, a bit spartan as you might expect but a double is about 72 euros; the boutiques and stores included are all unique, French, and places many visitors would enjoy frequenting; and finally Kim's attitude, which is admittedly just like mine. Fifteen years ago, a few months before my daughter was born, I was feeling anxious that my life as a mother was going to drastically alter my ability to travel. My friend, Bruce H., helped me snap out of my funk by pointing out that my husband and I would have to travel differently than we did before but we would indeed still travel, because we love it. As Bruce is both a parent and a world traveler, he advised us not to overthink the situation, because then we would find a million reasons not to travel. The way Kim and I see it, parents can make the decision never to go anywhere and deprive both children and adults of a priceless experience, or they can plan an itinerary with kids in mind and take off on a new journey. Children have as much to teach us as we do them when traveling -- their curiosity and imagination make even familiar destinations seem new. Worth noting is a letter to the editor I read some years ago in the travel section of The New York Times. The writer stated she felt that the author of a previously published essay underestimated the impact of a five-year-old child's first trip to Europe. She emphasized that twenty years after her first trip to Italy, she became an art student, earned her master's degree in art history, and worked as a museum curator. My personal experiences in traveling with children have taught me that one should never underestimate how much children will absorb and retain, and what will inspire and enthuse them.
What made you decide to write this book?
A: For one, I’m an idealist. As I mentioned in the book’s introduction, I believe that immersing my children in an unfamiliar language, exposing them to unforgettable art and new flavors will nurture their curiosity and hopefully inspire a lifetime of learning. It’s important for them to see firsthand that people eat, speak, live and believe differently in this world.
Secondly, I thought that if I wrote about this subject we’d get to spend more time together in Paris as a family for the research phase than we did with my last book––and we did. My girls helped me so much–they were always the voice of reason and pragmatism as we ran around the city. They were quick to tell me when they’d had enough sightseeing which was my cue to find the nearest playground and let them run off steam.
I’d traveled to Paris many times with the girls, but had never purchased a travel-with-kids type of book because they didn’t speak to me. I wanted to put together an extraordinarily practical guide for parents who take their kids to Paris. I’d heard my friends express their fear of traveling abroad with their little ones many times––I kept them in mind as I wrote this. I wanted families to be able to plan a good balance of adult and child-centered activities. Equally important, I wanted them to be able to find restrooms (it can be tough in Paris!) and quick, healthy meals when they were out and about.
Is there an activity/site that ended up surprising you as being interesting for kids?
A: Montmartre’s Place du Tertre comes to mind. I’d taken my kids to Sacré-Coeur before, but hadn’t walked them up the backside of the hill––this is the Montmartre walk I’ve included in my book. I had, however, done this tour with a group of high school students about a decade ago. I taught French for six years and accompanied several groups of teenagers to France and Francophone countries–and I remembered them loving Place du Tertre and the Montmartre neighborhood, but I wasn’t sure what my 6-year-old would think.
My daughter and I had had a delightful time meandering the steep backstreets behind the Sacré-Coeur Basilica. We’d passed a group of silver-haired French women who were painting the scenery on Place Emile Goudeau – an open-air art class. Madeleine asked to stop and watch. She looked at me after a few minutes, eyes earnest, and said, “Mom, I am coming to Paris when I’m older to study art. I want to paint like this.” I loved hearing that!
We continued on our way towards Place du Tertre, stopping so she could play and have a snack at Square Suzanne Buisson, a compact but well-appointed park.
Eventually, we reached the Place du Tertre. I saw the mass of tourists and instantly recoiled. I guess I’d always fancied myself too sophisticated a traveler to spend much time in what is such a touristy area. Madeleine in all of her glorious innocence, however, saw something completely different. She saw a bustling square full of artists–brimming with bright colors and cheerful activity. She asked for a portrait––I cringed (discreetly). In less than a minute she was seated before an artist. And then, almost immediately, I found myself overcome with an acute sense of joy, understanding that we were indelibly recording the collection of extraordinary moments that we had shared that day...in chalk. Madeleine had taken me off-checklist and on an unanticipated detour to what she wanted to see and do.
Photos end up piled in drawers, at least mine do. Paintings, especially ones of your child, are framed and hung. This day I’d planned to show “my” off-the-beaten-path Paris to Madeleine–instead she shared hers with me. It was a compelling moment that informed the rest of our trip and all of our travels since.
My best advice for parents: Be open to the Paris your child wants to see.
Madeleine in place du Tertre
Hotels that are suitable for families, who have just one child or more, are hard to identify in guidebooks and even on some websites. Talk about a handful of Paris hotels that you particularly recommend and why.
A: All travelers will find the hotels I’ve included in Paris with Children appealing. Primarily because I tried to find those that offer more space than the typical minuscule Parisian room. One of my favorites is the Hôtel Résidence Henri IV in the Latin Quarter (50, rue des Bernardins, 5th arr., www.residencehenri4.com/index.php). It’s tucked into a quiet cul-de-sac and sits adjacent to a tranquil park with a playground for 2- to 10-year-olds. The hotel’s interior is traditionally decorated; each room recalls King Henri IV and significant personalities in his life. In addition to the eight guest rooms, there are five apartments. Each is equipped with a kitchenette that has a small refrigerator, mini-bar, electric cooktop, microwave, dishes and utensils (Doubles from 145E; apartments from 250E). It’s the next best thing to an actual apartment.
My Left-Bank bias will be apparent here as I suggest another outstanding hotel, this time in the Saint-Germain neighborhood. I think the Relais St. Germain (9, carrefour de l’Odéon, 6th arr., www.hotel-paris-relais-saint-germain.com) is an excellent choice for families, but it books up months in advance so call early. Its decor is warm and inviting and rooms are large for Paris. Doubles can accommodate families of four on a king-sized bed and a day bed with trundle (400E). This boutique hotel also happens to be owned and managed by acclaimed chef Yves Camdeborde and his wife, Claudine. A gourmet breakfast is included in the nightly price and can be taken in-room at any time during the day or until 10:30am in the restaurant. Extra beds and baby cots are available.
Apartments, however, have many advantages over hotel rooms. Flats are usually less expensive than a hotel and children have more space to roam. Kitchen facilities are invaluable for those with picky eaters or food allergies. Apartments offer a more authentic glimpse into everyday life in the capital by allowing families to interact with Parisians as neighbors. I’ve had good experiences with several companies including www.parisattitude.com and www.haveninparis.com. I’ve provided a more extensive list of agencies in my book as well the questions parents must ask before renting.
Charlotte and Juliette at the Jardin
du Luxembourg gates.
Regarding places to eat, what are some quintessentially Parisian restaurants, cafes, bistros, and brasseries that are great for kids?
A: A few places come to mind. The first isn’t in the book, but we ate there this past December a couple of times. It’s historic, founded in 1791, and convenient to Jardin du Luxembourg. The staff was overwhelmingly gracious–it’s what we’ve always found when we go out as a family. I’ve taught the girls to use S’il vous plaît, Monsieur, Madame and Merci with reckless abandon, and it’s opened many doors. The waiter told me he had a “VIP” area especially for us, which meant a large booth upstairs that seated 5-6 people comfortably. Food is traditional brasserie fare–not outstanding but solid: sandwiches, salads, a warm daily special and homemade desserts. Au Petit Suisse, 16, rue Vaugirard, 6th arrondissement.
I also love the casual, organic eatery, La Ferme (55-57, rue St. Roch, 1st arr.), not far from the Opéra Garnier. Customers order at a counter or select items such as yogurt, salads and sandwiches from a self-service cooler. The tomato, spinach and goat cheese tourte is addictive, desserts and baked goods scrumptious. Brunch features items that are familiar to an American palate and is served on Sundays. There are two more locations in the 8th arrondissement.
Boulangeries (bakeries), are another convenient option for families. The biggest problem with eating in a traditional café or restaurant, with young kids especially, is the time commitment it requires––typically 90 minutes for a café and a minimum of 2-3 hours for dinner in a restaurant. Parents will see plenty of kids in cafés and bistros, but it’s still uncommon to see little ones in the city’s finer restaurants. French culture is still a relatively formal one in which children are expected to be well-behaved at the table.
I usually opt for packing a picnic or finding food in a bakery at lunchtime. In addition to baked goods, most bakeries sell pre-made sandwiches, salads, quiches and pizzas that they will reheat. One of my favorites is Eric Kayser (33, rue Danielle Casanova, 1st arr., a handful of other locations throughout the city; www.maison-kayser.com). Kayser proposes fruit salad, delicious sandwiches, salads, drinks, desserts, yogurt and a variety of breads. Not to be missed: the white chocolate brioche, so incredible it’s usually sold out after lunch (3E).
I like to stop at cafés in the afternoon for a drink with my daughters when it’s not as busy (between 2pm-6pm). They love Perrier menthe (sparkling water with sweet, mint syrup) or a citron pressé (fresh, mix-it-yourself lemonade).
I am so happy that you not only include the Musée du Louvre in your book but that you also share concrete suggestions for visiting the vast museum. Can you outline here some of your advice for visiting le Louvre and other art museums in Paris as well?
A: The Louvre can be intimidating. Before we leave home, I take a virtual tour of some of the collections online with my kids. It gets them excited about seeing the art in person. Once we’ve made it to the museum, I make sure the girls have eaten something and used the bathroom before heading to the galleries. The WCs are difficult to find and it’s easy to get lost in the maze of rooms.
Parents should buy advance-purchase tickets to avoid the queues at ticket windows. In high season, the line to enter through the pyramid can be prohibitively long and visitors who have waited there must do it again once inside to buy tickets. We almost always enter through the Galérie du Carrousel at 99, rue de Rivoli. It leads through the underground shopping mall to the museum’s main hall, and there’s no queue. It’s also a good idea to visit the Louvre on days when it stays open later into the evening (all of Paris’s principal museums including Musée d’Orsay keep late hours like this one or two days a week). Jet-lagged children are awake and tourist traffic is significantly lighter, which can make all the difference.
If you asked your daughters to name five of their Parisian favorites, what would they say?
A: This makes me laugh because it illustrates perfectly the disparity between what kids actually remember and what parents think will be most memorable for their children. I ask my girls this question after each trip and note their comments. After the research trip for Paris with Children, the highlights for my 6-year-old included the trampolines at the Tuileries garden, the carousel at Luxembourg garden, macarons, and hot chocolate at Bistrot des Amis (she remembered the name). For my 4-year-old it was a merry-go-round, pain au chocolat (chocolate croissant) and gelato. Last but not least, my 2-year-old had the most concise list: barbe à papa (cotton candy). Of course it would have been nice if they’d mentioned architecture or art, but I was pleased that they'd picked up a few French words during our stay!
Madeleine and bubble performer in front of the Louvre
Why there is just one walk, in Montmartre, in your book?
A: Montmartre is the only walk I wrote for the book. The area certainly has its charm, especially the streets I’ve highlighted in the walk, but it’s not a district that I care to linger in with my children. The hucksters and scamsters who loiter on the steps that lead to the basilica make me want to get in and get out. And Paris’s most famous red-light district is located around the base of the hill near métro Pigalle––adult cabarets and ‘specialty’ stores are everywhere. Most of the area is touristy enough, but it’s still not child-friendly sightseeing. In peak season, the route that most visitors take from métro Anvers up rue de Steinkerque is overwhelmingly busy. I wanted to offer families a safe and comfortable way to see the neighborhood with this walk.
I prefer to eat and shop with my kids on the streets a bit farther south, near the Saint-Georges and Notre-Dame-de Lorette métro stops–still within 10-minutes walking distance of the Basilica. Rue des Martyrs is a traditional neighborhood market street with permanent food shops. Rose Bakery, the celebrated, organic, counter-service style café is located at 46, rue des Martyrs. It's one of the few places to offer gluten-free baked goods in the city. There’s also a fun candy store on the street, Käramell (15, rue des Martyrs, 9th arr.).
Do you have any advice about packing?
A: I do! I used to be able to travel for months with a fairly small backpack, but having children has changed all of that of course! It’s tough to pack light with infants: diapers, gear, gadgets, care items and food fill luggage quickly. The amount I pack is sort of inversely proportional to their age. I love to use packing cubes–I’ve had the ebags brand for years and they’ve held up brilliantly. I separate each child’s clothes into cubes and it’s virtually instant unpacking once we arrive. I just unzip and pop them into a dresser drawer. I’ll separate pajamas, underwear and bathing suits into a separate cube. Renting an apartment with a washer and dryer makes packing light more realistic–another major advantage over hotels.
As far as actual luggage, I’m keen on suitcases with spinners because they maneuver easily. You’ve got to be agile when you’re trying to keep a handle on a wandering toddler in an airport. For the five of us, we aim to bring a maximum of two medium-large suitcases and two medium backpacks. This way my husband and I have one hand free at all times. I was attracted by the price point on these convertible backpacks initially, but the quality has been stellar so we’ve stuck with them. I’ve only needed to augment my cube supply, but haven’t replaced any of them in the past five years. I’d be remiss if I failed to mention my favorite packing list available at OneBag.com. I adapt it slightly depending on the trip, but I rarely forget anything when I use this as a guide. We also bring along an umbrella-style stroller–it seems to work best for Paris's narrow doorways and cobblestones.
Up next for Kim: a trip to Scandinavia this summer, en famille, bien sur. Stay tuned...!
All photos in this post were taken by Kim Horton Levesque.
The author and Madeleine in front of Notre-Dame.