Paris, Jerusalem, and Tel Aviv
As the occasional Francophile, I’ll never turn down the chance to visit a French-speaking country, with France almost always at the top of the list. My wife, on the other hand, finally prevailed in tacking on a week in Israel to our four days in Paris. It would be our first visit to the Jewish State and our fourth together to Paris. We had actually booked our air travel and hotels in early 2020, before COVID crashed the party.
Two years and two cancellations later, we finally set off on our 11-day excursion to the City of Lights and the Holy Land.
Anyone who has traveled in 2022, especially to one of the more popular travel destinations, like Paris, will be stunned by the throngs of tourists crowding out museums, restaurants, sidewalks, and public plazas. I’m told this pent-up demand, following 2–3 years of isolation, created record tourism everywhere. It may be good for the country’s coffers, but certainly less so for those of us who don’t care so much for crowds (and another bout of COVID).
Equally disheartening are the current prices for air travel, hotels, and dining out. We were lucky. When we booked the airfare in early-COVID days, the round trip from JFK-CDG-Tel Aviv-JFK was $2000 via Delta/Air France all-in for both of us in Comfort+ seating! Granted, I had to wait on the phone with Delta for six hours before speaking to an agent who’d agree to honor the first of our three bookings. You don’t want to know what that airfare runs nowadays!
As for hotels, I like using a European booking platform called Agoda. It allows you to reserve rooms without paying until just before departure and seems to offer some of the most aggressive pricing. We prefer four-star boutique hotels. Our go-to favorite — Hotel Duc de St. Simon in the 7th arrondissement was where we spent our honeymoon and is now a shadow of its former self based on our visit in 2018. Still charming but cramped and more rickety than I remembered.
Our new favorite, Le Saint, also in the 7th and the 4-star sister to the 5-star Pavilion de la Reine at Place des Vosges, was shuttered during COVID and appears to have been sold. We thus put a hold on rooms at two buzzworthy boutiques, each in the equally fashionable 6th arrondissement of St. Germain des Pres: Hotel Bel Ami and Hotel De l’Abbaye St. Germain. We ended up choosing the latter.
We took the métro from Charles De Gaulle, changing lines once and getting lost twice, before emerging at the Saint-Sulpice stop, a two-minute walk from the hotel. A mid-afternoon arrival assured us that our room would be ready. That was the good news. Up an impossibly tiny lift brought us the not-so-good news: the “comfort” room we had booked two years earlier was anything but. It was a postage stamp-sized cubicle with no views and little room for our belongings along for the 11-day excursion. I tried to change rooms using my best French (to assuage any anti-American sentiment) but to no avail. “L’hôtel est complet,” le directeur de l’hôtel m’a informé. Those damn tourists!
Apparently, Hotel de l’Abbaye offers six room levels. I inadvertently booked the lowest level (e.g., “comfort”). My bad, but no biggie. We didn’t intend to spend much time hanging out in the room. On the brighter side, it was a steal compared to the rate it commands today. Furthermore, the hotel staff was super accommodating in every way possible, including tolerating my French.
We settled in and headed off to our 4PM reservation at the Foundation Louis Vuitton to see the just-opened exhibition contrasting the works of Impressionist French painter Claude Monet with those of the Abstract Expressionist American painter Joan Mitchell. On the way, we grabbed a very satisfying mozzarella, tomato, and jambon panini pour emporter at a very popular food stand on the Rue du Bac.
This museum was designed by Frank Gehry and owned by LVMH, which has the lock on all things luxury in France and, for that matter, globally. (Consider the acronym.) We bought a one-day metro pass, but still fumbled getting ourselves there. Apparently, the Mayor of Paris (is not a fan of cars or so quelqu’un nous a expliqué. Who knew the #83 bus no longer stopped at the Foundation as the route maps indicated? We finally escaped the bus, stranded in the middle of nowhere with Uber as our only lifeline, but even Uber didn’t show up. Voila, a taxi s’apparait.
We arrived 45 minutes late, but it didn’t seem to matter. First stop: a much-needed cup of coffee after that overnight flight and multiple public transportation mishaps.
I really didn’t know Joan Mitchell’s work. In fact, I must confess that both Barbara and I thought we were going to see the artworks of Monet and Joni Mitchell, until the very moment we entered the museum. While Joan and Joni were each active in the 1970’s, and Joni did have some talents as a painter, that’s where the similarities ended. The exhibition was extraordinary. Who’d have imagined any corollaries between Monet and Mitchell, artists from two seemingly contradictory periods of art? Yet here they were together, in abstract harmony.
The trip back to the hotel was a relative breeze as we easily made our way to a metro stop, which took us back to the 6th with only one transfer. A quick change of clothes in the hotel, and off to Deux Magots for an outdoor table among the tireless tourists speaking myriad languages. We had an ebullient waiter (and self-anointed sommelier) who recommended an excellent French chardonnay to accompany the Gillardeau huîtres (oysters) with the letter “G” stamped on each. Leave it to the French and their marques!
The next day our 10:00AM reservation at Musée D’Orsay didn’t stand a chance as we overslept to 10:30AM — our first full day in Paris! We hoofed it over to the museum, slid by the thousands of non-pre-ticketed museum-goers, and waltzed in at 11:15AM no questions asked. We hadn’t been to the Orsay in 35+ years (depuis notre lune de miel). It’s a world-class museum with a dizzying array of Impressionist art in its permanent collection.
The featured exhibition was that of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, recognized internationally for his harrowing painting “The Scream,” but whose talents far transcended that work and its 40 iterations. One couldn’t emerge from seeing this collection without acknowledging Munch’s prodigious talents as a painter, but also his personal demons. Here’s a selection to give you a sense:
We grabbed a couple of cafés in Orsay’s soaring cafeteria, then on to the Impressionists. I recognize that these celebrated artists are not as in vogue as they once were, nor are they commanding the auction prices that Twombly, Warhol, Pollack, or Basquiat is getting today. Still, it’s hard not to be captivated by the brushstrokes of the most iconic artists in that or any period. A few selects here.
The weather in Paris was sublime during our early October séjour. Low seventies during the day, mid-sixties (18–20 C) in the evenings. We left Musée Orsay, crossed La Seine, and strolled through the Jardin des Tuileries in search of a sandwich, tempted only once by the kiosk selling pistachio smoothies. We resisted and instead found a local sandwich shop with two pre-made baguettes with mozzarella, tomato, and avocado that we took back to the Tuileries, commandeered two chairs around a fountain, and had our lunch under the ample sunshine.
Next stop: Galeries Lafayette. Again, we decided to lean on Google Maps to get us there by foot. Before I left New York, I had signed up for Verizon’s $100 5GB data plan for 30 days to avoid the surcharge on its half-a-gig $10/daily plan. So far so good, though data-sucking Google Maps requires that you pay careful attention to the direction the cursor is taking you when walking. We learned the hard way and probably walked 2 kilometers in the wrong direction before realizing where we were. Thankfully, Paris, like New York, is a first-class walking city.
Galeries Lafayette was nothing special, though we did find a cute French ensemble for notre petite-fille de deux ans, Mlle. Grace. We were told that the store had a terrasse on the top floor with panoramic views. It was jammed with folks lounging in the sun on chaise lounges, reminiscent of what you’d see on the French ski slopes pendant le dejeuner ou après ski. I still managed to grab this video clip.
We headed back in the metro to the hotel, utterly exhausted from all that walking. We thus decided to dine locally at an artisanal, popular local pizza restaurant right on our corner called Pizza Chic. Les deux verres du vin, alongside a small thin-crust pie with excellent sauce, were quite satisfying.
Sunday morning, we actually managed to rise early, took a lovely (overpriced) continental breakfast at the hotel, and stumbled upon a fabulous outdoor food marché by the Rennes metro stop from where we planned to embark for the Paris Flea Market at Les Puces de Saint-Ouen.
Two more outfits for Grace later, we arrived at Sant-Ouen around 9:30AM when only half the shops were opened. As we strolled through the narrow alleyways of shops, filled with bric-a-brac, more and more metal doors slid open. The flea market was a cornucopia for the eyes, but offered little that met our personal collecting interests, i.e., lots of gilded French repros and brown furniture. We’re glad we went, but I don’t think we’d return anytime soon.
From the flea market, we set out by foot to Montmartre. We had this fantasy that we’d be able to score a table at the newly famous Maison Rose restaurant. Sorry, Emily in Paris. No dice. There must have been 80 people milling about outside deluding themselves like we had.
We should have scored a sandwich at the Boulangerie we passed while trekking up the hill to the quartier of Paris best known as a haven for artists, writers, and Bohemians (or any combination thereof). Today, it’s a tourist attraction with scores of restaurants, souvenir shops, and food stalls leading up to the Sacre Coeur church that crowns the hill.
These images below pretty much sum up our séjour àParis:
Barbara was blessed by the priest, then back through the crowds, into the metro, and onto Rue de Bac where we took some time to browse the many indigenous shops that form the primary reason we adore Paris. Sure, there are some big-branded stores like Uniqlo and Zaro, and even some that have disappeared from the U.S. retail landscape such as Benetton and Conran’s. But it is the smaller, home-grown shops where one can discover truly authentic food, fashion and home goods. Oddly, we always tend to gravitate back to Le Bon Marché to sate our desire for French goods and its extraordinary épicerie située on the department store’s lower level.
A short walk back to the hotel and then on to dinner at Brasserie Lipp on the Bd. St. Germain. We were told that it’s a landmark restaurant where French ministers and other notables regularly go for their comfort food. The prices were reasonable and the food was hearty, but not exactly haute cuisine. Also, our waiter scoffed at my request for ketchup for the frîtes that accompanied my filet de boeuf (à point).
In addition to its superlative location in the heart of the 6ème, Hotel De L’Abbaye offered one more estimable perk: free e-bikes for guests. We’re big fans of the CitiBike program in New York City, and our weekly ride from our home on the east side through Central Park to the Whole Foods at Columbus Circle and back again, groceries in the basket. Yet, biking in NYC streets can be a confusing, if not hazardous affair. On some avenues, bike lanes simply disappear without warning or are blocked by double-parked delivery trucks or Uber cars.
The city planning overlords of Paris have given pedestrians and peddlers extra special status with designated public walking spaces and extra-wide, well-marked bike lanes throughout the city limits. Barbara and I grabbed a couple of the hotel’s bikes with baskets and built-in locking mechanisms and set off to Les Jardins du Luxembourg, a ten-minute ride. We walked our bikes through the impressive park, but only after a gendarme warned us that we couldn’t ride.
From Les Jardins, we crossed over Ile de la Cité en route to La Samarataine department store in the 1st arrondissement, which too is owned by LVMH, i.e., experiential shopping par excellence. The store concierge told us about the rooftop terrasse with unparalleled city views, but we soon learned it was only accessible to guests of the adjacent hotel Le Cheval Blanc, yes, another LVMH property. We entered the hotel lobby with our best Studio 54/NYC attitude and breezed past a half dozen guards and attractive models who it seems were hired to intercept interlopers (like us). Onto the elevator and up to the top floor where lunch was being served. That’s as far as we got since no tables were available for at least an hour. Covid’s been good to the well-heeled in Paris too.
Off by bike to Le Marais, another of our favorite shopping areas where we checked out a few stores and stumbled across an unusual Japanese bakery/sandwich shop called Pain de Mie Carré. It makes extra thick slices of white bread with Japanese organic flour that were transformed into perfect sandwich squares packed into Bento boxes. Twenty minutes later, we were back on our way with our shrimp and BLT sandwiches in basket before coming across a small public plaza with the massive Notre Dame Cathedral staring down on us.
En route back to the hotel, we passed by the Church of St. Sulpice where we had seen several rows of white tents being erected the night before. Inside, we were astonished to find a mix of very high-quality shops selling antiquities, artwork, jewelry, ceramics, clothing, and more. What we encountered at the flea market in Saint-Ouen paled in comparison. Bikes returned and we packed up for an early morning flight to Tel Aviv the next day.
We arrived at David Ben Gurion airport in the early afternoon on our flight from Charles De Gaulle. A late pivot in planning the Israeli leg of the trip had us heading up north instead of directly to Jerusalem. We found the car rental (EuropeCar at $52/day) and took off to the Sea of Galilee, but not without missing a turn costing us 30 minutes. Seems to be a thing for us. We were booked at what seemed online like a nice hotel. It was on the water across from the Golan Heights and Jordan beyond that.
Who would have guessed that what awaited us was the newly refurbished and very posh Galei Kinneret Hotel in Tiberius. Everything was immaculate and the vistas across the sea were breathtaking. Scores of families and well-heeled couples filled the public spaces as this was a holiday in Israel — Succoth. The hotel owners took advantage of its Covid closure by completely renovating the historic property, a one-time favorite of David Ben Gurion himself.
After scoping out the pool, outdoor lounges, restaurant, and other amenities, we soon came to regret that we’d be departing in under 24 hours. Our guide was to meet us at 8:30 the next morning but not before we feasted on the buffet breakfast that put to shame anything you’d find at a glitzy Jewish country club in Westchester or on Long Island.Our guide, Gilad, a history buff, picked us up in a borrowed Toyota SUV and off we went to check out some of the ancient ruins. The four-hour excursion in and around Galilee included stops at Mount Bereneki, (home to King Herod’s granddaughter Queen Berenice), Capharnaum where Jesus did something with fishes, a baptismal site on the Jordan River and another Roman architectural dig dating back to the 4th century called Hippos.
From Hippos, we could see the ancient city of Tiberius, which today is a run-down sprawl of dilapidated homes mostly populated by the ultra-Orthodox. The city however was once a cosmopolitan center and the single most important Jewish city in the land of Israel for centuries after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 CE.
We left Galilee at around 2PM for the two-hour drive to Jerusalem and the rental car return. All was going smoothly until we hit the city where our forward progress ground to a halt. It was the middle of the weeklong religious holiday of Succoth during which parades, street fairs, and street closures made city driving untenable. While we got to the outskirts of Jerusalem pretty readily, it took us another hour navigating the gridlocked narrow streets to find EuropeCar’s underground garage near the King David Hotel. From there we hailed a taxi to the American Colony Hotel, a gated oasis in Arab East Jerusalem.
Many of our friends had pushed us to stay at the Mamila or the King David Hotel, and away from East Jerusalem, which they told us was sketchy if not downright dangerous. But the American Colony seemed to fit our preferred tastes in hotels, e.g., elegant, understated, a boutique. And we were so glad we did after seeing those other hotels! Ours was a veritable oasis with unrelenting service by the Arabs who worked there. We didn’t eat in the tree-canopied atrium restaurant, but instead at the lush outdoor bar area across the way.
Nothing could have prepared us for Jerusalem during a religious holiday. Sure, New York has the Hasidim in Williamsburg, and we did enjoy the Netflix series “Shtisel” that centered around an ultra-Orthodox family’s life in Jerusalem. But imagine New York’s Times Square just before the Broadway curtain calls filled with hundreds of thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews (aka the “Haredi”) in full dress regalia crowding the streets, sidewalks, stores, and public spaces. And we’re not just talking the Menachem Schneerson types with their white beards, black coats, and big black hats, but myriad young couples dressed to the hilt pushing baby carriages trailed by six or more children.
On our first night, we took our dinner at a lovely restaurant named Eucalyptus, a ten-minute cab ride from the hotel, where we had Chicken Schwarma, a beet carpaccio salad, and assorted other middle eastern fare. My wife was in heaven. Me, not so much.
The next morning, after some coffee and tea in our room, we met the small group tour at a nearby hotel for a guided excursion by van to key sites throughout the city. We didn’t expect that the guide, an older gentleman named David, would be conducting the tour in both English and German. Not ideal, and we will post a complaint online for the misleading information. Nonetheless, the guide was quite knowledgeable and patient with the group given the crowds.
First stop was Mount Scopus for a panoramic view of the Rock of the Dome and the old city. The tour had planned to take us to Mount Olive, but overnight Palestinian unrest caused a re-set. The van then nudged closer to the Old City where we disembarked, climbed a long set of stone steps, and entered through the Zion Gate. The group was comprised of many nationalities and age groups.
We befriended an Indian family from Dallas who had their 80-year-old grandmother along for the trip. No easy trek for her, but she managed to hold her own. We then proceeded to King David’s tomb, the stations of the Holy Cross (Villa Dolorosa) and two of Christianity’s holiest sites (dating back to the 4th century) — Calvary and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where Jesus was said to have been cleansed, crucified, and buried. As a Catholic, Barbara was mesmerized. Me, not so much.
We braved the Covid-indifferent crowds, which started queuing up at 4AM to pray at “Christ’s tomb,” before making our way to the Western Wall. My enterprising wife brought notepads from our hotels in France and Jerusalem and a pen to jot down a prayer to squeeze into one of the crevices on the Wall. She gave the Indian family the remaining paper to do the same. Hopes and prayers are universal, no?
It was a mad house at the wall — ten deep due to the Jewish holiday. Women were shuttled to the right, men to the left. I’d say the Haredi took a week off from work, but my colleague Dan in Tel Aviv informed me that the ultra-Orthodox men do not hold jobs, unless you consider praying and studying Torah all day a job — at taxpayers’ expense, no less.
Finally, on to an up-close view of the Dome of the Rock, a holy shrine and Islam’s oldest surviving piece of architecture, located on the Temple Mount. It is where the Prophet Mohamed is said to have descended into heaven. It’s also the site of the second Jewish Temple, erected in 516 BC, which replaced the Roman-destroyed Solomon’s Temple in 70 CE, which is where Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac. (I think.)
We exited the Jaffa Gate, found the van, and set off to Yad Vashem, the expansive and most memorable memorial to victims of the Holocaust. We started out in the area dedicated to the child victims of the Nazis, and then wound our way through the multi-media exhibition organized chronologically. Listening to the many filmed interviews with elderly survivors who recounted their personal, life and death-altering experiences made the biggest impression on me, especially today when anti-Semitism and authoritarianism are both on the rise. Yes, this catastrophic human tragedy can happen again.
The following day, we had a larger tour via bus past a checkpoint through the Judean Desert to the ancient fortress of Masada and the Dead Sea. The temperature was tipping at 90 degrees, so any notion of hiking to the top of Masada was quickly abandoned. The cable car whisked us up to the top where we learned about its construction by Herod from 37–4 BCE that featured fresh water collected (from nearby mountain runoff) and stored for three years, a sauna and other amenities, and sumptuous adornment with frescos and mosaics fit for a King… literally.
We didn’t know that Masada was designated a UNESCO site, but not for the ingenuity of the structure itself, but rather for the sloping ramp and encampments the Romans built to attack the mountain retreat, precipitating a mass suicide by the anti-Roman Jewish zealots who refused to live as slaves under Roman rule. Five children and two women survived to tell the tale.
Back on the bus and off to the lowest land-based spot on Earth — The Dead Sea. We stopped at a beach club at the northern tip of the sea, slipped into our bathing suits, deposited our belongings in a locker, and walked past juice stands, bars, and touristy shops selling rejuvenating minerals, and into the muddy and slippery shallows of the impossibly salty (38%) roped off body of water, doing our best not to get sucked down into a sink hole.
We then slathered our face and bodies with the reportedly restorative, mineral-rich dark mud before wading in deeper. Not one to be content with mud on my face and back, I decided to thrust myself into the sea to rinse off. BIG MISTAKE. I emerged blinded by the salt stinging my eyes shut. A Frenchman nearby told me to lie on my back and launched me back to shore where I blindly was led by Barbara up to the freshwater showers to rinse off. It probably would have been good for our tour guide to warn us that submerging your head in the Dead Sea could be hazardous to your health, let alone your pride.
Be that as it may, we did slather up again and made another go at it — hand in hand. After all, if this guk and salination had some medicinal benefits, we were going to try to make the most of it. Barbara soon slipped on a rock and cut her knee. We had had enough. After a visit to the first aid hut, we got changed and treated ourselves to a strawberry smoothie before heading back on the bus to the mayhem of Jerusalem on holiday. Once there, our bus was thwarted by the throngs of Ultra-Orthodox Jews on the streets. We made a quick exit and hailed a taxi to the hotel. We struck a deal with the driver to take us to Tel Aviv the next morning for 400 shekels ($112 US).
Before we embarked to the modern resort of Tel Aviv, I should mention that Barbara and I invariably try to find authentic experiences when traveling. We rarely shop in chain stores nor do we dine in known tourist traps. Our most authentic experience in Jerusalem, outside of the daily early-morning and early-evening baritone chanting from the Torah over a city-wide sound system, arrived one evening as we were just dozing off. Rat-tat-tat. Boom. Rat-tat-tat. Boom. Apparently, the Palestinians in East Jerusalem took to the streets with guns-a-blazing and rocks-a-throwing following a police crackdown after an Israeli officer was shot at a checkpoint. While the hotel assured us of our safety, it was still unnerving, yet probably as authentic as things get.
Israel: Tel Aviv
Is this city even in Israel? After the religiosity of Jerusalem and Tiberius, you’d think you’re in a southeast Florida resort town, but with a different currency and language and arguably better beaches. It soon became clear why Israel is as divided politically and culturally as we are in America. But I digress.
Again, we rolled the dice to stay at a hotel separate and away from the usual go-to properties. The Jaffa Hotel in the old port city of Yafo is a former hospital that The W started to renovate and pulled out a month before opening. Marriott took it over and transformed it into an ultra-sleek, uber-comfortable five-star hotel that I think even exceeds the nearby Setai where close friends were staying. Sure, it has some vestiges of a typical W like dimly lit public hallways and elevators and music everywhere, but we can live with that.
Our room had small balcony, a floor-to-ceiling mirror opposite the bed that doubled as a TV screen, and mechanical shades and lighting. I was fortunate to have a friend and business colleague who lived in Tel Aviv and served for many years as The AP bureau chief for the Middle East. He put everything we needed to know in context, hence my earlier reference to the comparable political challenges shared in the U.S. and Israel. Both countries have national and consequential elections in early November.
He drove us around on our first day here, showing us the headquarters for the Israel Defense Forces, the original Knesset, and even Mossad headquarters. He then put all the construction in perspective and explained that Israel was flush with cash given Tel Aviv’s global prowess as a technology hub. In fact, he said, Israel draws 40% of venture investment dollars in Europe, but with like 1/40th of the population. It also has produced more Nobel Laureates than any other country. There’s a reason why there are no shopping bargains to be had there. The Shekel remains strong against the dollar (especially compared to the Euro).
The city straddles the Mediterranean coast with white sandy beaches and a very long boardwalk running its length on which electric scooters and e- bikes zip along at all hours. I was frankly surprised that even on a Sunday night, the restaurants were packed. We like to eat early. Not so the Israelis, who seem to get going after 9PM. My pal took us to a beachside bar that first day where we sat across from film director Quentin Tarantino and his wife who have a home there.
The next day we ate lunch at a small Greek restaurant with a large picture window overlooking Andromeda Rock (of Greek mythology).
The next evening Barbara and I walked for 30 minutes from the old city to a fabulously delicious restaurant with a great vibe on Rothschild Blvd. called The Social Club. Empty when we arrived at 8PM, packed to the gills when we left at 10PM. After dinner with my colleague and his wife, we needed a fix of pistachio gelato, which brought us to Anita’s seated next to a family from Atlantic Beach, LI. They told us that the gelateria’s first NYC outpost on 81st Street & Second Ave is doing gangbuster business. I’m not surprised.
On our last day — a travel day — we finally donned our swimsuits and walked ten minutes to a glorious white sandy beach for a dip in the cool but not cold glistening sea. We took our lunch in The Jaffa’s courtyard under a canopy of mulberry trees, and simply chilled until it was time for our overnight flight back to JFK. The preferred mode of transport to Ben Gurion was one of the original ride-hailing apps — Gett — reinvented for hailing metered taxis.
Our 11 days in Paris and Israel were a study in contrasts. We journeyed from the sophisticated and fashion-forward ambiance of Paris’s 6th arrondissement to the enduring limestone architecture and religious fervor of Jerusalem to the resort beaches, modern living, and sleek skyscrapers of an ascendant Tel Aviv. The trip was two years in the planning, and I think we nailed it, especially in our choice of hotels.