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Paris

by Jane Shortall

I would urge visitors to forget an organised tour of Paris. If you possibly can, plan the thing yourself and just arrive and take it from there. Paris, despite people still writing about it being a somewhat snooty place, has always been to me a most welcoming city, a magnificent place that everyone should try and see at least once.

Base yourself somewhere on the Left Bank; there are lots of hotels to suit all budgets, and just start walking. Here you will see actual Parisians going about their daily business. You will be in the centre of the antique shop trade, fine art dealers, antiquarian books, and surrounded by endless cafes and restaurants. You will be just a walk away from both the Cafe Flore and the Cafe des Deux Magots, surely two of the most famous cafes in Paris, if not the world? It’s on the Left Bank, actually attached to the very quay walls of the river Seine, that the famous old book and old picture stalls still thrive. Above the shops, art galleries and restaurants, people live in millions of apartments, ranging from a one room rented studio inhabited by an impoverished student, to an entire floor complete with antique furniture owned by a lady of mature years who wears a cape, a black beret and sports a pearl ring the size of the moon.

I love walking around cities rather than travelling underground and happily Paris is very much a city for walking in. Absolutely no point in hiring a car unless you are staying for weeks, intending to drive into the surrounding countryside. For one thing the city is spotlessly clean. And it is relatively safe for a large city, especially in the centre. Taxis are cheap, should you become footsore, and a bit of a secret is that you can take a bus from Bercy to the Bon Marche for one euro, taking in a tour of the city as you go!

Think Paris in the spring. It has been said a million times that it is impossible to describe the peculiar light the city has then and I am not going to try. Songs have been written about it. Thousands of paintings try to depict it. But you really have to be there. Everywhere you look there are those distinct buildings with their black tiled roofs, cream walls reflecting the sunlight, wrought iron balconies everywhere. Then there are the famous Boulevards lined with massive plane trees, the cafe filled squares, the very scent of Paris — yes, even the Métro — is different.

Witness the fresh produce markets, the flower sellers over at the Madeline, high fashion and high maintenance women elegantly walking with their tiny poodles, sometimes both with matching coats. The whole place is full of atmosphere; parts of the city haven’t changed for hundreds of years. And one of these parts is where I am suggesting you stay. On the Left Bank.

People have told me that they arrived in Paris, stayed in one of the major hotels, (not the top three, but some of the well known soul-less chains). They were whisked off to shop in the area around the Champs Elysees, shown a few of the main sights, a meal at a very ordinary restaurant purely there for the tourists, and then back to the airport. What kind of a visit is that? No wonder one woman told me she hadn’t liked Paris at all! Of course if your budget stretches to the George V, the Crillon or the Ritz, the ultimate in Paris luxury, with perhaps a chauffeur for the duration of the trip, well done! I have been in them of course, but alas, never stayed over, so can’t write about the luxury first hand.

So, look at a map of the city. Look at the Seine. Now find the Louvre. It’s hard to miss; on any map it will be almost in the middle. Just opposite the Louvre, on the other side of the river is the Quai Voltaire, where there are two wonderful places. One is the Hôtel du Quai Voltaire and the other is the Fregate restaurant. The hotel could hardly be better placed. Get a room on the front and you are looking over the river to the Louvre. Some people complain the rooms are a tiny bit small, but I am imagining you will be out rather a lot?

The Fregate restaurant, which I will return to, is on the corner of Quai Voltaire and Rue du Bac. If you go on down this street, away from the river, you will come to the Hôtel Montalembert, quite famous really, and excellent. Continue even further down Rue du Bac, where it narrows and bends, and you will come to the tiny Hôtel Nevers. A place with a twisting staircase and not a lot of extras. It’s cheap and therefore basic. Not for everyone, and certainly not for those souls who go looking for the fire escape first thing!

Deyrolle, a ‘shop’, is an astonishing place, there for 170-years on the rue du Bac. Go in. Look around. Be amazed. I already mentioned a bus trip across the city from Bercy to the Bon Marche. Bercy is a massive complex which hosts concerts and international show-jumping events, and the village of Bercy is a great little corner of the city, but a bit away from everything, hence my knowledge of the splendid bus service! The Bon Marche is an incredible store, high fashion and one of the most stylish in Paris. It was also one of the first ‘self service’ stores. It must be remembered that ladies of certain standing did not always go out and shop in public! The fabulous Bon Marche is just around the corner from the end of Rue du Bac. Sometimes I imagine everybody must know everything about Paris now. The Da Vinci Code has given a whole new dimension to it. There are thousands of guidebooks and websites about the city. I am quite sure there are many other wonderful parts of Paris that I have yet to discover, but this area, for me, has always had everything. Growing up in Ireland, Pairs was only a short flight away. It was easy to visit it often, and I did.

If you stay on the Left Bank, as you cross one of the many bridges to get to the other side, you will see to your right, Notre Dame, to your left, the fabulous Musée d’Orsay, packed with stunning works of art. A long way to the left is the Eiffel Tower. Straight ahead, behind the Louvre, a stunning stroll will take you up through the Place Vendome. Stop and gaze around. This has been described as one of the most beautiful squares in the world. Begun in 1687, the Ritz hotel is here, Chopin died in number 12 and today the Sultan of Brunei owns a property or two. Full of banks and luxury shops, just a few being Guerlain, Bulgari, Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels and, of course, the marvelous Boucheron, which must get a special mention because I wear their perfume — one of my little extravagances!

From here, a walk will take us to two more beautiful squares in Paris; one is Place de la Madeleine, with the famous church overlooking the mayhem below. It’s busy, traffic wise, but exciting and of course the church, after which the square is named, is magnificent. This square is also home to Fauchon, one of the most famous food shops in the world. The other square is the Opera, simply stunning.

Now, as an antidote to all that walking and architecture appreciation, go and eat in places where you can sit and watch the locals living; eating, drinking, shopping for food for their own lunches, dinners and picnics. Paris is, like any part of France, largely about food.

Make sure to include a weekend in your trip. Then you can experience Sunday morning in the little streets around Rue de Seine and Rue de Bac where the market is held. The place is thronged. You can stroll around, have an early coffee and croissant, watch the Mesdames discussing the produce, feeling the cheeses, the stall holders yelling out that days specials, whatever is in season. Put you head in to Mr Pappin’s famous ancient food shop, where the ready made food is artwork in itself. Then stay on for lunch in any one of the excellent, some quite basic, restaurants in the area. Listen and notice how many French people are eating there. A simple omelette and a glass of light red? A vast plate of oysters and a bottle of Muscadet? Or a gourmet table with the full works? Whatever you like, Paris has it, and the waiters really are total gems. It’s a serious profession in France, not really something people only do while studying for something else.

Reserve one day to go up to Montmartre, and definitely stay to have lunch. Weplers is the quintessential Brasserie with fabulous old light fittings; brass rails everywhere, flying waiters dressed in the traditional black with long white aprons, all yelling orders. It is a truly authentic Paris lunch spot. The menu is vast and the place is always buzzing.

Lastly, a dinner in the aforementioned Fregate is not to be missed. Look at the ceiling first. The painting is superb. The magnificent zinc bar is one of the oldest in Paris. Then have your aperitif and watch Parisians going about their seven thirty ritual. Men rushing out of florist shops armed with bouquets of flowers, also carrying dinky little carrier bags tied up with ribbons. These, no doubt, will contain hand made chocolates for the hostess. Our well-dressed friend, not looking at all out of place, is without doubt en route to a dinner.

The first time I ate here I noticed that late in the evening, locals, elderly people seemed to come in for a light snack or just a hot chocolate. Because people live in the centre of Pairs, often in very small apartments, dining out, even for supper, is the norm. They may have lived upstairs for all I knew. The prices bear no resemblance to some of the big names, the well-known restaurants of Paris, but oh the food! At the Fregate it is obvious that the staff absolutely love what they do. They want you to enjoy your visit, the ambiance, the food. Thrown in for free, you get the view of the magnificence of the Louvre, always lit up at night, right across the river.

Someone should have the chicken, just to prove I’m right. I first ate this in the seventies, and towards the end of the nineties, I remarked to a waiter that it hadn’t changed in any respect, the dish still tasted magic; a simple roast chicken in it’s own juices. That’s it, nothing fancy added. It’s the simplest dish on the menu, although some of their dishes are amazingly complicated. His reply was just to laugh and say, ‘why change it?‘ I watch in awe as they set out the implements when my husband has ordered his oysters, followed by snails, followed by the main course. The table looks as if a surgeon was about to begin work. The waiters here, and they are by no means alone in Paris, bring the setting of a table, the making sure we are absolutely settled and everything is in perfect order, to a high art.

When I was much younger I overheard the following in one of the most expensive designer shops in the city, where I had bravely opened the door and gone in, not having then the price of a button, never mind a full outfit.

‘I know it’s great, honey, but I’ve already got a tux!’ A glamorous American woman said in a loud whisper to her husband. The very large, kind faced man, seeming almost like an excited child, replied; ‘I know you have, but I want to buy you this one. We are in Paris...’

I, pretending to be interested in an Yves St Laurent suit, which would have cost me a years salary then, listened in and watched in awe, as the outfit was carefully wrapped, placed in it’s designer box, tied up with ribbons and handed to the lady, now the proud new owner of a true piece of Parisian style. Her husband hugged her as they left the shop and headed off down one of the most famous fashion streets in the world, the Rue du Faubourg St-Honoré. They looked like young lovers.

Paris does that to people. It’s a magic city.

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