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Rediscovering Paris

Text Deborah Louw When you visit a place that’s hugely famous – its buildings well-documented, its sights extensively photographed and its avenues strolled – there probably isn’t much left to discover. Or so you’d think. But Paris, it turns out, is a city of infinites. Thrillingly, with the ongoing restoration of the oldest quarters, from the soaring Gothic splendour of Notre Dame to the quaint corners of the Marais district, the French capital is constantly reinventing itself, contemporary shapes and colours merging seamlessly with remnants of its long and vibrant past. Much more than luxury brands, fleurs-de-lis and the Louvre, Paris is a veritable nexus of old and new; traditional meets trendy here. The picture-postcard Paris of the tourist brochures is in evidence, of course: the Eiffel Tower, the galleries of the Grand Palais, Musée d’Orsay and Jeu de Paume, and the graceful Seine-spanning bridges. Neoclassical 19th-century buildings ‘the colour of cream’ line the grand avenues Foch and Champs-Élysées. Renaults still zip, weave and plunge around the Arc de Triomphe through eyes-wide-shut traffic. And while the mansions and museums on wide Baron Haussmanndesigned boulevards epitomise the city, its soul lies in the old-become-new Paris – the Left Bank’s 6th arrondissement and, just over the Seine, the pulsating 3rd and 4th of the Marais towards the east. Once a marsh, the Marais lies at the heart of historic Paris. Centuries ago it was a labyrinth of narrow streets and half-timber houses, but today, after a 30-year restoration, it is one of the most fashionable districts in the city, with a youthful, creative population that’s as close to exuberant as trendy young Parisians get. It’s an area where the Picasso Museum rubs 17th-century sandstone shoulders with tiny galleries in narrow streets, such as the sharply contemporary Galerie Menouar or Yvon Lambert; and there are edgy clubs, pharmacies, budget chain stores and more cafés, brasseries and falafel stands than you could visit in a month of dimanches. Speaking of which, on Sundays the entire Marais district is closed to traffic and becomes a giant, pedestrian-filled market. Even in the grip of an icy and protracted winter, Paris is a paintbox of colour, from the glazed red-fruit tarts and dark-chocolate truffles in the Bon Marché deli to the dramatic orange-and-russet stairwell of L’Hôtel and the funky palette of the modern-art Musée du Quai Branly. Wander down the rue des Gravilliers or rue Poitue for a sampling of the graffiti above cobble-stoned streets, or drop in at the American Apparel Store for a glimpse of what Parisians will be wearing next season. The shops here make bold design statements. L’Éclaireur, a store whose interior is as darkly alluring as the clothing and accessories it (almost) hides, is dressed in cement and stone, punctuated with wooden giraffes, bare rails and recessed lighting. Alongside high-fashion garments, cabinets of fun jewellery vie for attention with yearningly gorgeous handbags (from around R5 000). Obligatory is a visit to flavour-of-the-month Merci, a cheerful assortment of stores-within-a-store where in March 2010, as part of a retail ‘shop swap’, Liberty prints appeared on everything from cushions and towels to doll’s clothes, stationery and coffee mugs. Nearby is the Musée Carnavalet in the rue de Sévigné, a repository of things historical: paintings, furniture and objets showcasing the evolution of Paris from the Middle Ages until the 19th century. Come nightfall, if you’re in the mood for a fun, flirty (gay or straight) time, head for Le Scarron, a nightclub patronised by the creative set. It’s elegant and, despite the vaulted ceilings, cosy. Or Andy Wahloo, an eaterie that turns into a super-trendy spot at night, where Warholinspired pop art shares space with Moroccan artefacts. And when it’s time to crawl under a duvet for what remains of the night, a good bet (from about R1 350 a night for a room that’s spacious by Parisian standards) is the Hôtel de Caron Beaumarchais, a slice of 19thcentury glamour squeezed into the rue Vieille du Temple. Although the Métro is fast, efficient and reasonably inexpensive, walking gives you the best views of the city, so take a stroll over the Pont des Arts to the Left Bank and the 6th arrondissement. Worth a visit for its decor as well as its literary associations is L’Hôtel, once small and seedy (it’s where Oscar Wilde spent his last days) but now splendidly chic. There’s a Michelin-starred restaurant on the premises that serves excellent cuisine off a small menu and is staffed by a complement of hotel-school-student waiters. Around the corner at Galerie Lumas, a photographic gallery occupying two floors, the large-format, museum-quality prints are on exhibition as well as for sale. Unusually shot subjects, collage views (the El Malecon boulevard in Havana, tumbledown but still gracious) and even a savannah-sunset shot with elephants fill the space with glossy colour. As noon approaches, every French person becomes distracted by thoughts of lunch. A day into your visit and you’ll understand why – it’s a meal that’s taken very seriously here and the standards are consequently high, so, when you need a break from gallery culture, head back to the traditional 1st arrondissement. A paintbrush’s length from the Louvre, in the rue de l’Amiral Coligny, is Le Fumoir, a deservedly popular and relatively affordable eaterie, complete with an acclaimed cocktail bar at the front and a book-lined library at the back. Choose an entrée and main course (about R170) from the imaginative menu – green-lentil and truffle-oil soup, or herrings with spicy bread and creamed cucumber, followed by the fish of the day (the dorado is a lingering memory) or leg of lamb. Ask for a glass of the wine of the month (about R40) to wash it down and you’ll have a great-value, authentically French lunch. Also in high-end Paris, in the 16th, a restaurant called, simply, Bon is completely fabulous: it consists of a series of Philippe Starckdecorated rooms in a palette of black, white and silver brightened with flashes of orange, where the über-chicness of the waiters doesn’t get in the way of their charm. Efficient valets wait at the kerb to slide your car unobtrusively away from the entrance (the existence of which is advertised with the ultimate in low-key signage). Inside, illustrated sliding panels hide the coat-check room and a Baccarat-crystal chandelier hangs above the tables. Snack on wasabi nuggets while you wait for crabmeat and artichoke served with spinach; shiitake mushrooms spiced with soya and sesame; five-flavours duck… If time is on your side, take a trip north to Les Puces, the antiques and bric-a-brac market, where you can browse through stalls of jewellery, silver cutlery, artworks, authentic military paraphernalia (including uniforms) and even a roomful of chandeliers. This happy, dynamic mélange is a city without limits, whether you are a first-time tourist or a veteran visitor. Paris: been there, done that? Not a chance. This article was originally featured in the June 2010 issue of House and Leisure.