Well, that was a whirlwind! Four days on the ground in Paris and suddenly I’m back in Toronto feeling like a drunk after an open-bar party. I hardly know what hit me. Although time was tight we were careful not to over-schedule, yet somehow we managed to set foot in fully half of the city’s 20 arrondissements (neighbourhoods).
One of the reasons my friend Nicola and I were in Paris was because our mutual friend Doreen was already there and was also celebrating her birthday. Doreen knows Paris reasonably well and her guidance allowed us to hit the ground running and not waste any time figuring out the Metro or getting lost among the narrow, triangulated streets.
Doreen is a foodie, the best amateur cook I know, and she warned me that eating vegetarian in Paris would not be easy. She was right, as usual. Fortunately, on our first day she introduced us to Rose Bakery, below, a charming chain of veggie cafes with three locations in Paris (and others in cities around the world). In four days we ate at all three outlets, which may seem criminal in a city overflowing with choice but those choices do not belong to vegetarians.
What else stood out along the way? The Paris Metro is phenomenal with its cleanliness, efficiency and safety. We purchased a three-day pass, which whisked us to all four corners of the city including the airport and outlying Versailles for practically nothing. In one of the priciest city’s on earth, public transportation is hands down the best value proposition going.
Another thing that blew me away was the level of customer service everywhere we went, especially in the large department stores. I’ve walked around the Bay in Toronto for five minutes looking for some help but in Paris I’d be tripping over a sales clerk before I could turn around. To pay all that help I’d have expected the prices to be higher but they were comparable to Canadian prices, especially considering the quality of the goods.
I was also struck by how fashionable Parisian men are and not just the gay ones, either. Dressing well is a co-ed sport in Paris and we saw men donning lots of confident colour choices.
There were many magical moments. On day two, while picking our way across the Marais, Doreen took us on a detour through Paris’s oldest covered market, Marche des Enfants Rouge, which has been running since 1600. Featuring several open-air kitchens with delicious-smelling foods our only mistake was eating elsewhere first. The Moroccan stand, above, will definitely be on my list of musts next time around.
I gasped at the postcard perfection of Place des Voges, above, as we wandered to the Bastille antiques market. With four identical fountains and crisscrossing footpaths, the square oozes French charm and sophistication. A waiter in our hotel bar observed that addresses on this square are among the most expensive in the city and it’s no mystery why.
The last time I was in Paris, 25 years ago, the Musee d’Orsay, above, was not yet open so it was at the top of my list of places to visit. I loved our morning there and was stunned at the depth of the collection, which is focused on French impressionism featuring some of the finest canvases ever painted by Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Degas, Gauguin and Van Gogh, among others. The museum itself, housed in a converted railway station, is a revelation of light and space.
On the fifth floor of the museum are two see-through clocks à la Scorsese’s Hugo that afford a spectacular view of Paris looking across the Seine toward Sacré-Cœur. That view alone is worth the price of admission.
I could have lived without visiting Versailles but the home of Louis XIV, XV and XVI proved to be a worthwhile stop. The world-famous hall of mirrors dazzles but it was the quieter moments of sculpture and furnishings that I especially enjoyed. That’s Marie Antoinette’s bed chamber reflected in the glass, above.
Like Cole Porter, I love Paris in the fall; there are fewer tourists and Parisians are more tolerant of the ones who are around. We did not have a single incident of infamous French rudeness or hostility, what a relief!
Another item high on my to-do list was the Edward Hopper retrospective currently on at the Grand Palais. We strategically left it for the end imagining that an art exhibition on a Sunday evening at 6 pm would be lightly attended but we were wrong. There was a small queue outside the gallery and while we waited a busker played Gershwin on a clarinet, perfectly setting the stage for the art, most of which was painted during the 1920s, 30s and 40s. Nicola observed that she expected Woody Allen to appear at any moment. The exhibition was packed but the work merited the jostling and I was grateful we’d made the effort.
In closing, a special word of thanks to Doreen, below right, for being a wonderful tour guide. And to Nicola, left, for making the trip possible. It may have been your birthday, girls, but I’m the one who feels magnificently spoiled. Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of my heart!