How to: Paris
Here’s a very personal report on how to enjoy a few days in the city of light
“ . . . I love Paris in the spring time … ” the words of the Ella Fitzgerald song were running through my head as I thought about what to tell you about one of my all-time favorite cities. Like the songwriter, I also love Paris at just about every other time of year. The cold beginning of December when the shops are beautifully decorated and the dark streets alight in anticipation of Christmas. Mid-summer, when Parisians take off on their annual vacation, leaving theaters closed and Paris to visitors, and it can be so hot that sitting in a park cooling one’s feet in a fountain seems like the best option. The Jardin des Tuileries beside the Louvre seems way too formal for such behavior during the rest of the year, but when temperatures soar toward 90 degrees, many people do it.
With the new high-speed train connection, Paris has become close enough to Germany to make a weekend visit so easy that it is tempting to go there several times a year.
Before you go
A word of warning: if you go at the weekend any time but mid-summer and are interested in art, it is a good idea to check at least a week before you go which big exhibitions are running, since tickets have to be booked several days in advance in order to make sure you’ll get in. For dance, theater or opera, check several weeks in advance. Parisinfo.com, the website of the city’s tourist office is one place to start or www.timeout.com/paris.
I usually find online booking works very well for theater and exhibitions, but if you prefer, the concierge at your hotel will be happy to help. I almost always ask the concierge to book restaurants for me, particularly if I want to go to a Michelin-starred restaurant. If I am looking for a new restaurant or bistro, as well as the obvious Michelin or Gaullt Millau, I also like to check out foody concierge Adrian Moore’s blog adrianmoore.blogspot.com. I don’t always agree with him but I always like to read his blog.
When I arrive in Paris, the first thing I do is go to a kiosk and buy the Officiel de spectacles, a weekly guide to exhibitions, dance, opera, theater and cinema. Then I sit in the nearest café, order a coffee or cold drink, and take a look at what’s on. It is usually too late to get into the big, blockbuster exhibitions, opera or dance without reserving well in advance but the Officiel de spectacles is good for smaller exhibitions, including commercial art galleries which actually sell paintings, fun to visit even if you have no plans to buy.
I love going to the cinema too, since unlike in Germany where people seem to prefer watching dubbed movies to reading subtitles, Paris cinemas show virtually all films apart from children’s movies in the original language with subtitles and there are always interesting films on, many of them American. I love going to the cinema around 5 or 6 p.m., when I’ve walked enough but it’s too early for dinner and I have no plans for the opera or theater in the evening.
Strolling and shopping
One of my favorite Paris occupations is just wandering the streets looking at the beautiful buildings and at the people, window shopping, going into the occasional shop. The little shops on the Ile de la Cité and Ile St. Louis are fascinating and include shops selling small treasures like Japanese kimonos, beautiful paper, ink and pens, multi-colored sugar. Berthillon, one of the best French ice cream makers, has its main store on the Le Saint-Louis. The Marais, a former swamp and also the old Jewish quarter, has recently become trendy, and with its interesting shops, boutiques and art galleries is well worth a wander.
I also like the extremely fancy shops around the Place de la Madeleine including the delicatessen and patisserie Fauchon, which is a lovely place to go for a simple lunch or afternoon tea. Afterward, stroll around the elegant shops on the Place de la Madeleine, like Kenzo which is frequently tempting and not always too expensive, or venture into the side streets around the Place de la Madeleine, the Place Vendôme or the Champs Élysées where there are many wonderful, and expensive, boutiques.
If you want the most perfect ballerina flats, make a detour to Repetto at 22, rue de la Paix which has the softest most comfortable leather ballerina shoes in many wonderful colors. A tip from my Parisian friend Amelie: if you buy ballerinas with thin leather soles, get a good cobbler (for instance Herr Maus in the Heidelberg Altstadt) to put on rubber soles before you wear them on the street.
If you are interested in fashion but a little in awe of the very expensive boutiques, then it’s time to visit the Galeries Lafayette at 40, boulevard Haussmann. The Galeries are an enormous bazaar, a department store where many of the grand designers have small boutiques staffed by not-in-the least scary sales assistants. There are also several in-house restaurants where you can have a quick lunch or cup of coffee while deciding whether spending a month’s salary on that beautiful jacket is a good investment.
The sweet-toothed will also enjoy one of Amelie’s favorite patisseries, Ladurée (see www.laduree.fr for locations) famous for its multi-colored macaroons.
Don’t miss at least some of the Paris museums
Tired of shopping? Time for culture? As well as the major art collections in the Louvre (classical art), Centre Pompidou (20th century art), Musée dâ’Orsay (impressionists and one of my favorite 19th century paintings, Whistler’s portrait of his mother known as Arrangement en gris et noir no 1) there are many charming smaller museums. The Musée Picasso on the edge of the Marais at 5, rue de Thorigny in the 3rd arrondissement, is delightful, although often crowded.
The first of my three favorite quieter museums is the Musée Maillol on the Rue de Grenelle, which was founded by Aristide Maillol’s muse Dina Vierny. The permanent collection includes works by Gaugin, Bonnard, Kandinsky as well as Maillol. The Maillol frequently has interesting temporary exhibitions; last time I was there an exhibition of modern Chinese art was on show. In the area around the Musée Maillol are many commercial galleries with works for sale.
My second favorite small museum is one I stumbled on entirely by chance while walking along the boulevard Haussmann with my mother. We were heading for the Galeries Lafayette but happily took an hour off to discover the entirely delightful Musée Jacquemart-André at 158, bd Haussmann. The Jacquemart-André is an authentic family mansion, still furnished with its original furniture and the paintings collected by Edouard André, the scion of a Protestant banking family, and his wife, the society painter Nélie Jacquemart. There is Italian art and Dutch art, but the main charm is to see the paintings hung in a family (albeit a very rich family) setting.
My third favorite is the Musée Marmottan Monet which is located in a quiet suburb at 2, rue Louis-Boilly, 75016 Paris. Allow at least 30 minutes to get there from central Paris on the metro, line Pont de Sèvres à Mairie de Montreuil, metro station La Muette. If you like Claude Monet, it is well worth the journey, the Marmottan possesses the world’s largest collection of his works.
Day trips outside of the city
Should you go for longer than a weekend and decide you want to spend a day out of the city, here are two of my favorite day trips.
The first is for Monet fans, a visit to his house at Giverny. To get there by train, go to the Saint-Lazare railway station and buy a ticket for Vernon which is about 7 kilometers from Giverny on the Paris / Rouen / Le Havre route. The fastest trains take about 45 minutes. You can look up the train times on the French railway website at www.voyages-sncf.com. When you arrive in Vernon you can walk, take a taxi or a bus, or hire a bicycle. It is also possible to go on an organized trip to Giverny; ask at your hotel or see giverny.org/tour. If you go on your own, it’s nice to stop at Fauchon on your way to the railway station and buy yourself the makings of a picnic.
My other favorite day trip is to the formal rose gardens commonly known as Roseraie de l’Haye, whose official name is Roseraie du Val de Marne (www.roseraieduvaldemarne.com). The roserie is located south of Paris in a village called l’Hay les Roses, on the rue Albert Watel. It is open from May 7 through August 30, 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. but the best time to go is June. Getting there is a little bit complicated but not difficult. You take either the RER (Paris regional train line, which you can join from several metro stations) line B, to the station Bourg-la-Reine and then bus number 172 or 192 or the metro to the terminus at Porte dâ’Italie and then bus number 186 or 184 (on French holidays bus # 286). The bus driver will know exactly where you want to get off since the only reason foreigners are ever on the bus is to go to the Roseraie de l’Haye.
Dr Samuel Johnson claimed that, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life.” Johnson was right but I would add that that I cannot imagine anyone, man or perhaps especially woman, ever tiring of Paris which in my book is worth a visit several times a year, as frequently as possible.
Text © Ailsa Mattaj & inkwire.de