Paris, je t'aime
Victor Hugo once said that Paris is where the ‘beating heart of Europe is felt’. Now I’m not French, but I am biased. I was born in the 15eme arrondissement, so it’s where my beating heart began.
When I was a 20 year-old would-be journalist I did a summer placement at Prisma Presse, one of the country’s biggest magazine publishing houses. All the women had razor-sharp intellect, exquisitely cut clothes and religiously practiced soin de soi - a fervent routine of self-care. I was mesmerised by their combo of brains, beauty and attitude. We Brits might call it vanity, but in France there has never been any doubt that one’s greatest love affair should be with oneself.
Parisians are blessed with a rich heritage at those manicured fingertips. In his novel Les Miserables, Hugo said ‘To err is human, to stroll is Parisian’. Sage advice. See those must-sees, but be prepared to go off-piste. If you’re popping over to Paris for a weekend, then here are a few gems to pinball between.
I’ve stayed at a number of Parisian hotels over the years, from seedy to swanky. If I were splashing out, I’d pick Le Bristol Hotel (112 Rue du Faubourg Saint Honore; oetkercollection.com) for its traditional opulence: it’s heaving with fresh flowers and you can breakfast like a Russian oligarch (champagne + caviar-topped boiled eggs). Le Burgundy (6-8 Rue Duphot, leburgundy.com) is more understated, with a mix of contemporary and playful interiors, and if you’re like me, you’ll want to peel the fabrics off and take them home. If you’re budget conscious but don’t want to compromise on chic, then Mama Shelter (109 Rue De Bagnolet; mamashelter.com, from €90) is for you. It’s in an offbeat area (near the stunning Père Lachaise cemetery where Jim Morrison is buried) and is designed by Philippe Starck. The restaurant/cocktail bar/concept store/disco has raw, exposed concrete walls and graffitied ceilings. It’s a magnet for Parisian hipsters.
It’s all about café culture in Paris, and locals like to sit in rows of wicker chairs on the pavement, facing outwards into the street. I like to imagine they’re all Gitane-smoking, noisette-drinking Parisians who say “oof” with a shrug, blithely gazing on us tourists as we roam the streets goggle-eyed by the incandescent beauty of it all. Café La Coupe d’Or (330 Rue Saint- Honoré; la-coupe-d-or.zenchef.com) on the sophisticated Rue Saint Honoré is one of those cafés. If you’d rather cocoa, then you can’t beat the hot chocolate at the classic Café de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint Germain; cafedeflore.fr) - it bustles until 1.30am. For dinner, there’s the precocious Derriere (9 Rue des Gravilliers; derriere-resto.com) in the cool Marais district. This is the kind of restaurant I yearn to take over for a night and fill to the rafters with my favourite people. Comfort food is served over two floors of a house: in the ping-pong room, lounge and the bedroom (people perch on the bed’s edge) and you step through a wardrobe to get to the chill-out room (so Narnia). The compact Experimental Cocktail Club (37 Rue Saint Sauveur; experimentalevents.com) is hailed as one of the best bars in the world. It’s cheek-by-jowl in there and I whiled away the waiting time at the bar watching a smoking hot barman in a porkpie hat quenching the masses.
Colette – once branded “the trendiest store in the world”– may have closed (weep!) but they’ve opened a new concept store called Nous (48 Rue Cambon) for simple streetwear and tech products. I can’t visit Paris without being lured into Chantal Thomass (211 Rue Saint Honoré; chantalthomass.com) for her sexy yet classy lingerie, showcased in a candyfloss coloured, boudoir-style boutique. Merci (111 Boulevard Beaumarchais; merci-merci.com) is a quirky concept store - a hybrid of clothing store, coffee shop, bookstore and restaurant. It’s all housed in an airy former wallpaper factory and profits above overheads are donated to good causes.
If you’ve never been to the Paris Flea Market (Marché aux Puces) you’ve never really shopped. We’re talking seven hectares sprawled across St Ouen de Clignancourt and heaving with vintage treasures, from handbags and jewellery to clothes and furniture. This is the real thing: it’s where the top fashion designers trawl for inspiration for their next collections.
Beyond all the obvious behemoths (The Louvre is the world’s largest museum) one of my favourite museums is the tranquil Musee Rodin (79 Rue de Varenne; musee-rodin.fr) - an 18th-century mansion and manicured garden showcasing Rodin’s sculptures. It’s impossibly romantic and eternally haunting. One of the city’s ancient surprises is the Arènes de Lutèce, in the 5th district, which is purported to be the largest Roman amphitheatre ever built. Stone bleachers and grassy banks surround a sunken gladiatorial arena, now a peaceful retreat for locals in the know.
Deyrolle Taxidermy (46 Rue du Bac; deyrolle.com) is a beloved Parisian institution that opened in 1831, a crammed and creaking curiosity shop housing a collection of inanimate animals. It’s like a miniature natural history museum, with people of all ages milling about in respectful quietude. But everything you see is for sale, from scarab beetles to Arctic Polar bears (from €5 to €45,000 respectively).