PARIS — I still remember my first sight of rue Cler — the Paris market street canonized by European travel guru Rick Steves, idolized by tourists and beloved by lucky denizens of the 7th arrondissement who call its well-trod cobblestones their own. One look and I cried real tears.
Why? Because it was my first trip to France, spring was in the air and my husband-to-be and I had rented a studio apartment — with a kitchen! —here in Paris' answer to Seattle's Pike Place Market.
Far less misty-eyed on a visit to rue Cler this winter, I found myself still as enamored of this marvelous market and its surrounding Left Bank neighborhood where schoolboys (and girls) zipped around on their Razor scooters, working men lifted glasses at corner cafes, and chic matrons clicked their heels past me, disappearing into the hidden courtyards, their housekeys — and the inevitable baguette — in hand.
The 7th is home to the Eiffel Tower, which cast its long shadow over the Hotel Duquesne Eiffel. There I hung my hat — and hung out on a balcony for a golden view of the chapel dome at Les Invalides, part of the historic military complex that helps define the neighborhood. My room also provided a view of d'Chez Eux — the auberge where dinner begins with complimentary charcuterie, and a whole Bresse chicken is expertly carved tableside by a friendly English-speaking maitre d'hotel.
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A short walk from the hotel, the bustling rue Cler remains a pedestrian's paradise of cheese shops, bakeries and butcher shops. Here you'll find cafes and bistros with tables indoors and out, and every step seems to offer something irresistible — chocolate, pate, le sandwich — to sample right now, or savor later. These few short blocks, closed to traffic, are as popular with the locals who flock here Sundays after church as they are with the tourists.
On foray after foray I feasted with my eyes, making the rounds of rue Cler's many shops and stalls, passing bushels of oysters — among them huitres de Bretagne — and sidewalk slurpers settling in to enjoy them (I'd had my fill of icy oysters during a memorable meal at La Mascotte in Montmartre).
Instead, I ogled an ocean's worth of sea treats at La Sablaise, where the fishmonger's displays included seaweed-draped baskets full of wiggling shrimp. The sight immediately made me long for that rue Cler apartment, my 7-quart Le Creuset and time to make a proper bouillabaisse. Had I needed garlic, olive oil and saffron for an accompanying sauce, I wouldn't have had far to go.
Produce purveyors hawk their wares on both sides of the street, and just around the corner on the Champ de Mars I found a cook's idea of a treasure chest: L'Epicerie Fine Rive Gauche. The globally gathered goods at L'Epicerie include spices, condiments, coffees and tea. You might buy a bottle of fine French wine here, too, though I sipped something every bit as appealing: aged balsamico, from a shelf full of tester-bottles of vinegar. This is a great spot to stock up on souvenirs for your favorite cook (may I suggest a Dijon mustard sampler), or better yet for yourself. (I'm still hoarding tiny Vietnamese peppercorns as fragrant — though not quite as numbing — as the Szechuan version.)
Steps away is Marie-Anne Cantin — Paris' premiere fromagerie, or cheese shop. A cross between a jewel-box and a shoebox, this shop is enough to make any cheese-lover shed tears of joy. The window display is ravishing, but step inside and be swept away by the possibilities — and the improbability — that so many cheeses may be found in such small quarters. Taste and discuss with the knowledgeable cheesemongers. Traveling with cheeses in hand? Consider the magic words: "Shrink-wrap s'il vous plait."
People-watching is at a premium day and night at classic French-food haunts like rue Cler's Cafe du Marche, where the plat du jour is described on a blackboard menu. But if you're looking to eye before you buy, why not do as the locals do: Hit the street for ready-to-go meals from neighboring shop Jeusselin. Here, foie gras wars play out indoors ("No, no, not that slice, this slice!"), while street-side vendors dish up steaming pot-au-feu and other homey fare under signage wishing patrons "BON APPETIT!"
Had your fill of French food? Rue Cler has you covered with Chinese and Japanese cuisine and — as I found out when I stopped in for a crepe at the small cafe Ulysee — Greek food.
But if there's a single shop on rue Cler that has my heart in its hands (as my cardiologist might suggest), it's Davoli, aka La Maison du Jambon — the House of Ham. This Italian temptress was founded in Paris a century ago, and its picnic quotient cannot be overstated.
It was here that we became "regulars" 15 years ago during my first rue Cler stay, stocking up on salami and saucisson, terrines, seafood salads and smoked fish. Prosciutto haunches hang overhead, driving the customers' little dogs that sniff the tile floors crazy. It was here at Davoli that rue Cler became a household name in my household.
"Be sure to stop at La Maison du Jambon!" my husband said when he dropped me off at the airport, where I (sadly) flew to Paris without him. "Bien sur!" I assured him, promising to eat well — and I did — in his absence.
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Rue Cler is on the Left Bank; the nearest Metro station is Ecole Militaire. SHOPS: L'Epicerie Fine Rive Gauche: www.epiceriefinerivegauche.com Marie-Anne Cantin: www.cantin.fr Davoli: www.davoli.fr