BEIRUT: It has been said that if you have lived or visited for a time in Paris, particularly in your younger years, it always stays with you, wherever you go, for the city is a moveable feast of food, wines, sensations, and experiences.
To Lebanese travelers, of many generations, the City of Light has long been a place to play, study, sample cuisine, shop, and take in a myriad of cultural icons. The multiple daily flights to Air France/MEA from Beirut to Paris are almost always fully booked, particularly during holiday periods. And, they run with the regularity of a bus service.
This brief travel review will give readers a run through on how much one can do in just three days, which includes such things as visiting Versailles, dining in the Eiffel Tower, shopping at Shakespeare and Company bookstore, the upscale Bon Marche department store, and the Haut Marais shopping and art district, along with listening to a sublime vocal performance of Bach in the Notre Dame Cathedral, and more.
My wife Jeanane (a fluent Francophone) and I recently returned to Beirut from several weeks in Paris during the Easter break, which included an intensive three-day period with fellow travelers, Dubliners Frances Stafford and her teenage daughter Emily. We made camp at our 30-meter apartment in Puteaux, just across the Seine from the city.
As a challenge, we resolved to mostly take the Metro as it is the best way to travel without the bother of driving, parking and not really seeing the city as you go along because you are looking at a GPS. Once one arrives at their Metro stop they can enjoy the freedom of taking in the city by foot, for Paris it is one of the great walking metropolises in the world. Around every corner is some history or an interesting tableau.
Occasionally we hail an Uber taxi if we are making a sideways jump that would take too many transfers.
Everyone sleeps in till 10 – it’s a vacation after all – with our Irish friends on a blow-up mattress in our little center salon which doubles as a dining room, kitchen, library and my office. The Metro is a five minutes stroll from our flat and we are soon getting out near the Notre Dame, which today we will just appreciate from the outside.
NOTRE DAME CATHEDRAL: Taking the Metro into town we get out at the Notre Dame stop. Viewed from just the outside, this cathedral is a breathtaking Gothic-era edifice with soaring towers, flying buttress supports and legions of vast stained glass windows, whose round mandala shapes have entranced many generations of visitors from both the outside and in.
Going inside during the day is something of a chore as there are always long lines of tourists, but our secret tip for readers is to attend the classical music performances held in the evening. At 25 Euros, I consider it a bargain for both the performance and the privilege of sitting inside to observe the glories of the medieval builders at full length during the singing of Bach scores.
ISLE ST LOUIS: Right next door to Notre Dame and Ile de la Cite is the Ile St. Louis, just mere steps away. There, sitting in one of the best people-watching corners in Paris, I straddle the edge wall of the small park where we are lounging and look down below me at the banks of the Seine.
There I find two painters capturing a nearby bridge on canvas. Lovers stroll the riverside promenade, while a small party of students sits, amiably passing around a bottle of wine, smiling at the city around them. In the park next to me, a young man sits in quite abandon, reading a book, while Jeanane, Frances, and Emily chat across from him.
I signal them to come over to the wall so they can share my view. On the nearby sidewalk, a man sporting long hair and beard, tight black jeans and black shirt walks by, wearing a Victorian-era top hat, strutting his mixed era of clothing with great aplomb.
LE HAUT MARAIS: The entire Marais district holds much of interest in the way of eating, shopping, and art, but the Haut Marais (Upper Marais) is quickly becoming the most fashionable neighborhoods of the district for its trendy restaurants, swanky houses, and cool galleries. Also, it plays home to a number of French cinema stars that sometimes can be spotted hobnobbing about.
Amid all this fashion, the Haut Marais still retains something of a village ambiance and goes by the nickname of "Boboland (Bourgeois Bohemian land). Shopping includes the eponymous Christophe Lemaire boutique, while Hoses is described as the “crème de la crème of shoe stores.” Concept-store Merci has four floors of curated designer and vintage fashion along with housewares.
Altogether there is a great deal to Haut Marais and one should plan several hours of strolling along with a credit card ready for a workout. My personal favorite is the recently re-opened Picasso Museum that features an impeccable array of works by the artist.
LA FOUNTAINE DE MARS: located several blocks from the Eiffel Tower's famous Champs de Mars greensward this large bistro offers hearty, traditional French cooking ranging from this writer's favorite, cassoulet, to foi gras, steak and frites, savory fish, duck confit, and more, all at not out of this galaxy prices.
Festooned with checkered table clothes, brass railings and the aroma of a busy kitchen, the Fountaine has been operating since 1908. It attracts elements of the bon chic, bon genre Paris crowd, and its fair share of Yanks and Brits, who will find friendly, fast service, and not the usual haughty waiters often found in the capital.
The already well-entrenched reputation of this eatery was made iconic when it was recommended to the visiting Obamas who dined there in 2009. In the 7th Arres, it is at 129 Rue Saint-Dominique. Metro: Ecole Militaire. Running late and ready for bedtime, we hail Uber and a driver appears within less than five minutes. It has been a splendid first day.
CHATEAU DE VERSAILLES: This palace is truly amazing and monumental, and like with Notre Dame on our first day we will appreciate the magnificent Versailles from the outside in favor of wandering through the vast sculpted gardens, the one-time playground of kings. Built by Louis the IV "The Sun King" in the mid-17th century, this sprawling palace was the effective political seat of France from 1682 until 1789, when the revolution overthrew the monarchy.
The lines are notoriously long, whereas the gardens can be entered almost directly for a much less expensive ticket. The Jarden de Infinitude is truly that, with long manicured lawns boasting jewel-like fountains, and classical statuary punctuating the garden estates. Taking the train from Paris it is a short 25-minute ride that offers good town and countryside viewing.
The town of Versailles itself has many decent bistros and there is a large open market on the central square during the weekend.
BON MARCHE: While the first and now oldest of the chic department stores in Paris, the Bon Marche has kept up its appearance, with its Victorian-era building and various shops now the property of luxury-brand company LVMH.
The store is considered one of the most exclusive in Paris and features top brands of women's, men's, and children clothing, along with alluring lingerie, home wares, a bookstore, toy store, and food emporium. Jeanane and I always love to take a break from shopping to eat in the central cafe of the Bon Marche, situated in a large atrium.
While Emily mused over the endless makeup offerings, Jeanane and Frances briefly considered the 1,000 Euro Givenchy shoes I said would look good on either of my fashionable shopping companions. Ultimately they decided that the elegant shoes were perhaps a little pricey this time around.
They went back to discussing potential boot fashions for next fall.
58 EIFFEL TOWER – DINING WITH A VIEW: The less expensive of the Tower’s two restaurants at 65 euros a person, but still offering stunning views is 58 Tour Eiffel which boasts ultra contemporary décor designed by Patrick Jouin, and an open kitchen to admire the chefs at work.
Upon arrival, everyone is handed a complimentary glass of champagne and escorted to their table. We dined in the early evening, which I highly suggest for watching the daytime tones of Paris turn into a sparkling night landscape.
The restaurant offers a breathtaking view over the Trocadéro and the Palais de Chaillot; the name comes from the fact that the restaurant is 58 stories from the ground. At 324 meters (1,063 ft) tall, the Eiffel Tower is about the same height as an 81-story building.
SHAKESPEARE AND CO.: This iconic bookstore on the Left Bank just across from the Ile de la Cite has been opened in various forms since the roaring 20s when American bibliophile Sylvia Beach began a store that was to attract such writers of the era as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce and others.
When Hemingway first visited without enough funds for the book rental service, Beach lent him books and told him to pay up whenever. She endeared herself to many such writers and also acted as a publisher, taking on the initial printing of Joyce's "Ulysses." Today it is a lovely, book-crammed Bibliotheque, with mostly English language tomes of every description, both contemporary and older.
There are frequent poetry and author readings, and the store serves as the workplace and hangout for new generations of earnest young men and women who clerk the shop during the day and write at night. I left with a knapsack filled with second-hand books, which are sold by the store for about 2 to 5 Euros each.
LEFT BANK BOOK AND JUMBLE STALLS: Known as the Bouquinistes, these riverside merchants are sellers of used and antiquarian books, along with old prints, movie posters, magazines, and assorted other objects, that if one wanted they could decorate their apartment in one shopping binge. I peruse a Tintin poster of the boy- journalist hero having milkshakes with his right-hand dog Snowy, along with browsing other Tintin memorabilia.
Emily, however, is captivated by vintage Channel ads cut out of magazines and mounted on boards for framing
CLASSICAL AT THE CATHEDRALE DE NOTRE DAME: Throughout the years, there are a variety of evening performances inside the vaulting cathedral, and on this night, in particular, we go to a vocal performance of Monteverdi, Bach, and Purcell.
The four young singers performing the old masters are a perfectly matched group of soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, who are accompanied by an also young organist.
During the concerts one can witness the sheer grandeur of this gothic structure without a long line, and amid an elegant audience of music lovers. We are out in time for a latish supper of 10:30 pm at a chalet on a lake island in one of the city's famous parks.
LE CHALET DES ILES: Year round this is a magical location to dine, drink, and hangout, either out on the terrace or inside during the winter, which has been described as "between an English club and a hunting lodge."
The chalet restaurant is located inside the extensive Bois de Boulogne park and had been a fancy of Empress Eugenie and moved by Napoleon from Switzerland onto the island to please this legendary beauty.
After its conversion to a restaurant it has played host to such literary luminaries as Proust and Emile Zola, and now this correspondent. The menu is a mix of French classics and some newer creative dishes, and the wine cellar is well stocked.
We are there in the evening, and it feels as if we have embarked for magical island, almost all of our own. The terrace is a visage of softly flickering candles and romantic muted conversation. All too soon we are boating back and calling Uber, which this time gets a bit lost; fitting for a locale which is reached by many convoluted turns inside the largest park in Paris.
The early spring forest is in bloom, street cast in shadow and light by soft lamps, it is a charmed moment, and like a last kiss, there is no hurry to leave.
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