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A Paris Farewell

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I’VE always been one of those girls. A die-hard Francophile. An American helpless in the face of Parisian charms and pleasures. A New Yorker who could never seem to shake the City of Light. I went for a college semester, I went with boyfriends, I went to eat chocolate. And finally, for a two-year period beginning in 2009, I went to live my dream.

Now that I’m back home in New York, my vision of Paris has been altered. What was once mysterious is now intimately understood. What was once mythical is now more real (though, admittedly, still magical). To some extent, Paris will always belong to the Truffauts, Fitzgeralds and Bernhardts of the world. But now some of my own history runs through its streets too.

Weaned as I was on “A Moveable Feast” and “Memoirs of Montparnasse,” when I moved to Paris, I saw it clearly divided between the artsy Left Bank and the buttoned-up Right Bank. The Left Bank was for thinkers and dreamers; artists and musicians; students and stargazers who famously sought inspiration — and, peut-être, absinthe. It’s where Josephine Baker shimmied, where Hemingway feasted and where Sartre and de Beauvoir had endless philosophical debates.

The Right Bank was for bankers at the Bourse and flâneurs on the grand boulevards. It was where manicured gardens, symmetrical squares and majestic monuments reigned supreme; a mélange of foreign embassies, tony boutiques and chichi cafes, all steps from where King Louis XVI and thousands of others were guillotined at the Place de la Concorde during the French Revolution.

I made my home in the center of the Right Bank, off the Rue Montorgueil. On an amazing market street filled with patisseries, fromageries and boucheries, nothing made me happier, or feel more Parisienne, than meandering up and down the pedestrian blocks, inhaling the irresistible smells of roasting chickens, stinky cheeses and warm, yeasty baguettes. On more occasions than warranted, I’d treat myself to a crème-filled pain aux raisins from Stohrer, one of the oldest bakeries in Paris. Not too far away in the Marais, at a bread stand inside the Marché des Enfants Rouges, the Cornet Vegetarien — a sandwich of fresh greens, grated carrots and fennel, marinated onions and thinly sliced avocado, dressed with olive oil and honey and dusted with chives and lime zest — was like nothing I’d ever eaten. And the man who prepared it, Alain, a barrel-chested maestro who was given to bursts of song and dance, always made my day.

For macarons, I learned there was only one place to go: Pierre Hermé on the Left Bank. If I was alone, I took the delicate ganache-filled meringue cookies to the Square des Missions Étrangères, a small spot of green in the center of the well-to-do Rue du Bac neighborhood, and ate them in gleeful silence. But if I were bringing friends from out of town for the petites douceurs, we’d savor them together near the central basin in the Jardin du Luxembourg, where tourists and Parisians alike crowded around to watch the motorized sailboats skate across the water.

Back over on the Right Bank, inside the Palais Royal, I found a welcome solitude among the rows of trees pruned into perfect squares. I loved the Technicolor flowerbeds during late summer and how the rosebushes miraculously bloomed in winter, the buds like drops of blood against the white snow. And in the spring, the green fields and gold dome of Les Invalides opening before me when I zipped across the Pont Alexandre III to the Left Bank never failed to make me sigh.

As my circle of exploration expanded from the city center, I started seeing Paris itself growing in new ways. Cashmere emporiums and Costes brothers cafes were infiltrating the Left Bank, nudging it away from “bohemian” into the realm of “haute bourgeois,” while neighborhoods like Belleville and the Haut Marais, with their emerging artists and galleries, infused the Right Bank with creative juice. Apparently, my staunch division of Paris based on riverbanks wasn’t so black and white. And by the time my two-year stint was up, two other sides to Paris were luring me: the east and the west.

The Edgy East

I was first introduced to Canal St.-Martin on Paris’s east side by a friend who lived there and took me on my maiden Vélib’ bike ride, guiding me past the waterway’s peaked iron bridges and enchanting locks — where Amélie had skipped stones — to the flat and sprawling Parc de la Villette just north of the neighborhood. The boomerang-shaped canal was once Napoleon’s conduit for supplying fresh water to Paris. Later, the surrounding area became home to the working classes. But since the millennium, as my friend pointed out — and I couldn’t help but notice as we wended our way through picnicking Parisians flaunting Ray-Bans, iPhones and flashy baskets (sneakers) — the quartier has attracted more and more artists and writers, young couples and hipsters (or bobos — “bourgeois bohemians” — in Parisian parlance).

“When I moved to the neighborhood in 2002,” Elizabeth Bard, author of “Lunch in Paris: A Love Story With Recipes,” wrote in an e-mail, “they called our street the ‘rue des squatters’ because of all the illegal squats and an infamous ‘tent city’ that had been set up by tenants of a crumbling building down the street.” Today, as Ms. Bard points out, you’re just as likely to see potted geraniums and bamboo gardens as you are pilfered shopping carts and homeless camps.

The more time I spent in this gentrified quartier, the more I realized how fitting it was that a fashionable New York writer had made her home there with her Parisian boyfriend (now husband). Like the Mission in San Francisco or the Lower East Side in Manhattan, Canal St.-Martin is gritty with dirt and makeshift tarp shelters. But it’s also alive with creative energy. At Chez Prune, perhaps the neighborhood’s most popular cafe, with a lively terrace, I started making a game of counting the scruffy bearded men with fabulously disheveled coifs — the way only French men can wear their hair. They always seemed to be engaged in nicotine- and wine-fueled debates over their latest film or art projects before they hopped onto their Vespas, mobile phones cleverly tucked inside their helmets. It seemed like the epicenter of artsy intellectualism — the way I imagined Café Select on the Left Bank might have been in the ’60s.

This buoyant energy was everywhere I went in the east. Following a hairpin turn behind the stellar wine bar Le Verre Volé — where I’d devoured sautéed squid with oranges and green olives and a delicious bottle of Côtes du Rhône, with help from a friend — I discovered La Galerie Végétale, an airy, industrial space selling black-and-white photography and an impressive variety of potted succulents. Peering into the steamed-up windows of Voy Alimento, a beatnik-y cafe next door, I made a mental note to go there if I needed exotic herbs and organic teas by the gram.

Around the corner on the Rue Lucien-Sampaix, I watched a steady stream of waifish girls shuffle by in their distressed booties and hand-knit caps at Bob’s Juice Bar, which was opened by Marc Grossman, a New Yorker, in 2006. As I sat at the communal table, sipping carrot and apple juice with a fresh ginger kick, I realized that eating in the east was an international adventure. You could swing a baguette and find pizza topped with baba ganouj at Pink Flamingo Pizza, Cambodian noodles at Le Cambodge or humble bio (organic) carrot soup at Zuzu’s Petals.

As I became familiar with these neighborhood anchors, there was one address I knew I needed to conquer: Le Chateaubriand. Since Fred Peneau opened the bistro with the chef Inaki Aizpitarte in 2007, it’s earned a reputation as Paris’s pinnacle of “bistronomy.” As tough as reservations are to come by, it also accepts walk-ins. So by 9 every night, there’s a train of fashionable foodies pressed against the zinc bar, eyeing the diners already gorging on the five-course, 50-euro (about $68) menu.

Sure enough, the night of my reservation, the fashionable crowd gathering at the bar added to the evening’s excitement. As my dishes got more complex — moving from a dollop of mozzarella dusted with black pepper and vanilla to a deliciously juicy duck breast to pear crumble served with buckwheat ice cream and grapefruit compote — the din from the crowd flooding the entrance grew louder, until the whole interior seemed to vibrate. When I ventured a few weeks later to Le Dauphin, the modern all-marble wine bar opened by the Chateaubriand team, I saw the same cool kids snacking on tapas like oyster tapioca with blood sausage and dried duck meat.

As I was happily sinking my teeth into the quartier’s dining scene, other new ventures were infiltrating. Art was creeping up from the not-too-distant Haut Marais, including Galerie Chantal Crousel’s second Parisian exhibition space on the Rue Léon Jouhaux. And as a sign that the bobos might soon be ceding their territory to tourists — already appearing on boat tours of the canal — Le Citizen, the quartier’s first boutique hotel, made its debut.

“So many people are fed up with the conventional Sixth Arrondissement,” Sophie Berdah, a real estate developer who opened Le Citizen, explained as I sat with her in the hotel’s sun-flooded lobby, looking out at the prime stretch of Quai de Jemmapes. “This neighborhood is very off the track, so clients are people who know Paris a little.”

I appreciated how in tune Ms. Berdah was with the quartier’s spirit that is still more shabby than chic. I spent a night in one of the 12 rooms, enjoying personal touches like hand-delivered carafes of sparkling water; artwork from the California-based Creative Growth Art Center, which supports artists with mental and physical disabilities; and books from Ms. Berdah’s private collection as well as Artazart, the exhaustive design bookstore across the street. Mostly though, I contented myself bytaking in the views overlooking the canal — knobby chestnut trees, vagrant homeless camps and all.

The Refined West

It was a hotel opening on the other side of town that drew me deeper into Paris’s western elegance. Temporarily working in an office on Avenue Hoche, one of the grand arteries that shoots away from the towering Arc de Triomphe at the head of the Champs-Élysées, I would often stroll on my lunch breaks down to Parc Monceau, a relaxed expanse of green where schoolchildren and joggers run free. As I walked by the quartier’s harmonious rows of limestone town houses, past storefronts for Nicolas Feuillatte Champagne and Franck Sabet carpets, I noticed the scaffolding that would soon be dismantled to reveal the newly refurbished Royal Monceau.

Paris is a city filled with five-star hotels, each with its own history and style. The Royal Monceau is one of the artiest, having attracted guests from Maurice Chevalier to Ray Charles to Madonna since opening in 1928. In 2008, it was shuttered for a much-ballyhooed redesign by Philippe Starck. Then one autumn day in 2010, voilà, the scaffolding came down, and a coterie of suited doormen appeared, flanking a plush ruby carpet that extended from the hotel’s interior onto the sidewalk. Inside, the vast salon was filled with guests lounging in intimate groups of saddle-stitched leather chairs, nibbling club sandwiches and leafing through international newspapers. I spent 40 minutes browsing the bookstore’s hundreds of contemporary art, architecture and design titles and limited-edition accessories, like the signed and numbered .38 Special bullet ring by the French artist Jacques Monory. Then I found my way to the hotel’s gallery, and caught the debut exhibition of 50 original Jean-Michel Basquiat works.

Since I couldn’t afford one of the 139 rooms or suites that start at 730 euros a night, I figured I’d do the next best thing: splurge on lunch. I had two gorgeous options: Il Carpaccio, the upscale Italian restaurant tucked in the back corner under a vaulted ceiling, and La Cuisine, where Laurent André and Gabriel Grapin serve elevated classics according to the season. When in Rome, I told myself, and went directly to the French side.



My smoked herring starter, marinated in olive oil and served with pickled onions, was rich enough to call it quits. But I didn’t. From there, I moved on to the daily special of steamed cod and baby spinach and, being a sweet freak, couldn’t resist finishing the meal with a bespoke millefeuille (I chose pistachio cream and fresh raspberries), dreamed up for the hotel by the cult pâtissier Pierre Hermé.

Inspired by my Royal Monceau experience, I embraced this new code of western luxury. I knew my time in Paris would soon draw to a close and was all too happy to see the city in a different light. Just as the edgy east had drawn me in throughout my first year, as autumn turned to winter during my second year, I eagerly soaked up its more sophisticated side.

I went to see the giant green and orange neon Cy Twombly canvases that were fetching millions of dollars at Larry Gagosian’s new gallery, in a former hotel particulier. At the nearby contemporary auction house, Artcurial, I was entertained by the modelesque black-suited servers at the new Gilles & Boissier-designed cafe as they briskly trotted down the restaurant’s central artery to deliver burrata salads and salmon tartares to the well-coiffed, middle-aged patrons in their camel-colored cashmere. Since I was so close, I couldn’t resist the pull of the historic salon de thé Ladurée. I left with a rectangular pastel green box filled with rose and chocolate and pistachio macarons: a perfect Parisian memento.

My edible explorations in the west came to an exquisite finale at L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. To the dismay of epicures worldwide, Mr. Robuchon had shuttered his gastronomic mecca, La Table, in November 2010 but then quietly popped up the next month in the brand-new shiny red and black basement of Publicis Drugstore at the head of the Champs-Élysées. With my Parisian tour drawing to a close — pourquoi pas? — I made a reservation.

As soon as I arrived, I spied Mr. Robuchon, who has more Michelin stars than any other chef in the world, supervising in the open kitchen. I knew it was going to be a special lunch. “Une coupe de Champagne?” I was asked as soon as I was situated at my corner perch at the bar, seated between two pairs of men. I accepted.

Having never been to any of Mr. Robuchon’s restaurants, I commanded a feast. I started with a basic salad, which was anything but: the endive, walnut, Stilton and apple combination was light and effervescent, beautifully refined. As were the procession of other small plates: John Dory with coriander, lime and a tomato compote; delicate black cod with daikon; and brochettes of creamy Parmesan-covered salsifis — a root vegetable (salsify to the Englsh-speaking) that I had never heard of but was given to me by Mr. Robuchon himself as un cadeau, and something I’ll now forever seek on menus.

As the lunch rolled on, I discovered the two pairs of men I was seated between included Michelin reviewers and members of the Club des Cent, a distinguished, if not clandestine, organization of 100 French gastronomes. The gentlemen pointed out many others in the restaurant I should have recognized but didn’t, including the actor Jean Reno and the singer Charles Aznavour and the former French prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. The atmosphere was electrifying, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the food.

By the time I finished my golden caramel soufflé, most everyone in the restaurant was gone, and there I sat, “Mademoiselle Amy,” befriended by the staff, if only for the day. Antoine poured me a glass of Vouvray and Patrick insisted I have a second dessert that the pastry chef, François Benot, wanted to share: a mélange of banana, passion fruit, rum, granité and cream that he dreamed up in the Seychelles.

When I finally left the opulent den, parting with repeated handshakes, smiles and “enchantées,” I was beyond sated, beyond charmed. But I couldn’t help but also feel a tinge of melancholy: If only I could pack up this moment and a hundred others — biking across the Pont Alexandre III, admiring the rosebuds in the wintery Palais Royal gardens — and place them alongside the boxes of macarons and photos of Alain in the Marché des Enfants Rouges. Then I stepped out onto the Champs-Élysées, into the buoyant heart of Paris, and the wistfulness vanished, just like that.

from travel.nytimes.com

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