“Paris is always a good idea” — Audrey Hepburn
In the midst of our heated debate between Switzerland and Italy, my sister offered “Paris” like a peace treaty, and that ended the controversy. We made of a list of things to do besides buy scarves and visit the Mona Lisa and booked a boutique hotel in the Latin Quarter. We learned to decipher a Metro map (with a magnifying glass) along with the rewards and the limits of lists.
Parapluies Simon (Umbrellas Simon), 56 Boulevard St. Michel, was not on our list. We happened upon the shop on arrival day during our jet-lagged stumble to Luxembourg Gardens, which was on the list. This boutique with its ceiling vaulted like an open umbrella has been keeping Parisians chic and dry since 1897. Devoted to keeping the umbrella a fashion statement instead of a boring necessity, Parapluies Simon offers approximately 3,000 umbrellas for every mood and fashion. From frilly parasols to stately gray umbrellas with ivory handles that could take on a monsoon, the shop gave us even more respect for the capitol city of style. The shop also offers umbrella repair services. “Only in Paris,” we sighed, “would one own an umbrella worth repairing.”
We eventually wilted into chairs in Luxembourg Gardens and watched children sail rented toy boats in the central fountain. The Gardens were created by Marie de Medicis in the 1600s to surround the Palais du Luxembourg she had constructed to replicate her childhood home: Florence’s Palazzo Pitti. The Palais now houses the French Senate, but the gardens are open to the public and free. On Sundays an orchestra plays in the bandstand, children ride ponies, and even adults sail toy boats. The park has many strolling paths and hundreds of moveable chairs. We read for awhile beside the fountain before exploring. Two delightful finds were a miniature bronze Statue of Liberty and the Medici fountain tucked into a shady glade. Although it was early fall, flowers bloomed in formal gardens validating writer Henry van Dyke’s observation: “Paris is a woman’s town with flowers in her hair.”
Moulin Rouge and more
The Moulin Rouge was not on our list, but a friend from Geneva who met us in Paris wanted to go. He wanted to go so badly he bought new glasses for the occasion and asked wistfully if we could go twice. No. Like the gondola ride in Venice, the Moulin Rouge is something to do. Once. It is a melting pot of tour groups, and the dress code is “whatever.” The meal was three ho-hum courses, the champagne was high quality, and the show was a tasteful, topless, two-hour extravaganza. The only disturbing act was an underwater swim by a topless woman and several bored-looking boa constrictors. In addition to dancers in sparkling costumes gyrating in flashing, blinking lights, acrobats defied gravity and a ventriloquist defied physics. The Moulin Rouge has been drawing crowds since 1889 when the cancan was decidedly naughty.
The best thing about the Moulin Rouge was that it inspired a keen interest in the bohemian Montmartre district. Here is where the cancan was born and the first cabaret, Le Chat Noir (The Black Cat), opened in 1881. The cabaret is now a boutique hotel, but the district retains much of its bohemian ambience.
Posters and paintings of the Black Cat abound at the Museum of Montmartre, 12 rue Cortot. This charming 300-year-old house contains paintings, photographs, and posters that illustrate the bohemian history of the neighborhood. “Le Moulin Rouge” by Toulouse-Lautrec and the “Theatre d’Ombres” by Henri Riviere are two of its most important works. Renoir’s studio was here, and the gardens were recreated using his paintings as a guide. You can sit on a swing swaying in the exact location of his painting “Girl on a Swing” now hanging in Paris’ Orsay Museum. The painting was ill-received when he completed it in 1876 and probably never will be put up for auction. Two of Renoir’s paintings have sold for more than US$70 million, and the Orsay knows how to hang on to its treasures.
From the garden, you can see a vineyard that has existed since the Middle Ages and was replanted in 1933. According to the New York Times, the vineyard is reputed to make the most expensive bad wine in Paris. We decided not to sample the wine, but the view is stunning.
Le Petit Prince
We saved the most poignant attraction on our list for our last day. The official Le Petit Prince store, 57, Boulevard Arago, is in a quiet Parisian neighborhood. No grand marquee announces its location, and we walked by it once expecting bright lights and helium balloons. But the shop is as modest as the Little Prince and, like his asteroid, has just what we needed: silk scarves made in France, baby clothes, note cards and post cards, little cups and plates, mugs, fuzzy foxes and sheep, and the Prince’s proud rose with four thorns.
We wondered, perhaps for the first time since we were children, if the sheep ate the Prince’s cherished rose. After all these decades it remains an important question — as important as sunsets are to the Little Prince. What do we tell the grandchildren after we read them the book and give them each a fuzzy sheep? We will tell them that the sheep did not eat the rose, because children who read the book draw what the pilot forgot to draw: a strap for the sheep’s muzzle. If you missed the book by Saint-Exupery, it was published in 1943 and is the most read and most translated book in the French language. Our mother was reading it to us before we could toddle.
Lunch in the Marais District was a leap from fantasy fiction to fantastic food. Sacha Finkelstein’s, 27 rue des Rosiers, is a family-owned kosher deli and bakery serving the community since 1946. At some point it caught on with the international community. And no wonder. Its signature sandwich with pastrami, eggplant, pickles, and tomatoes is served on a poppy seed and onion bun. We were too full for dessert, but we could not leave the cheesecake for another day. We carried two servings back to our hotel. Don’t tell Mom, but we spoiled our dinner with satin-smooth, lemon cheesecake and were whimpering for more.
French fries in France
That night, instead of fine dining, we strolled around the Latin Quarter. Shakespeare and Company Book Store, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie, was a special treat with its maze of rooms and selection of books both current and rare. That first edition of Babar the fictional elephant was hard to pass up. Hunger struck with a surprising twist. “I want to eat French fries in France,” my sister said. We bought French fries at a gyros shop and carried our snacks to a park bench facing the Seine. Notre Dame gleamed under flood lights and the moon rose as we finished our fries and agreed with Hepburn that Paris is always a good idea.
Originally published in LuxuryWeb Magazine December 2013