Following a passion in life and work sometimes means going against the grain as I learned from the people behind some of the places I visited in Paris.
Paris is a beautiful destination in the spring or summer but we can enjoy the city in the winter too. It may be chilly and it isn’t the cheapest of cities to be visiting so close after Christmas but I like a city break in the winter, fewer crowds, less queuing, and you can often get better room rates, and the flights are cheaper within Europe too! Plus the shops have sales. The main reason I chose Paris was to meet and spend time with my 21-year-old nephew, Albert. He is a student and has long holidays (I have no excuse) so we thought a couple of days in Paris might be fun to soak up the culture and for him to brush up on the language.
We tested each other on what comes to mind when we think of Paris. Style, fashion, art, gastronomy, romance, baguettes (I once saw a guy riding a bicycle through a busy street in Paris biting into a baguette, I swear he was wearing a beret and a striped shirt!) and smoking. It seems like everyone smokes and even though I’m not an advocator of smoking (though I loved it when I was a smoker some 20 years ago) it is one of the few places left on the planet that makes the act of ‘fumeur’ look cool. I have visited Paris a lot in recent years and it never fails to deliver. Like New York, it feels like walking in a film set and with the beautiful buildings and streets to explore, it makes me think of those who have trodden the cobbles before me and with such a rich history of artists, designers, writers, and actors to shout about there is many a famous footstep to retrace.
3 Steps to take when visiting Paris
1. Shakespeare and Company
Situated on the Left Bank at 37 rue de la Bûcherie, this bookshop is charming and steeped in literary history. If reading books is a diminishing pastime the memo hasn’t reached here and it’s nice to step into a book shop again to explore the shelves and leaf through the pages of modern and classic stories, fiction and non-fiction. It also feels like stepping back in time to the days when writers like Joyce, Hemingway, Stein, and Fitzgerald sought inspiration in Paris.
The book shop was opened in 1951 by American George Whitman under the name Le Mistral, in a building that was originally a monastery dating back the 17th century. Whitman renamed the shop “Shakespeare and Company” in 1964 as a tribute to the admired Sylvia Beach and her bookshop, the original Shakespeare and Company (1919 – 1941) and to mark Shakespeares 400th anniversary of his birth.
George Whitman left the states to pursue his passion for travel ending up In Paris in 1946. He enrolled at the Sorbonne and with a love for reading and books he traded his G.I. rations for other veterans’ book allowances and went onto accumulate a large number of books. The story goes that he left his apartment door unlocked, so anyone could go and read the books whether he was home or not and this lead to him eventually opening the book store.
I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations. —George Whitman
Shakespeare and Company has been a meeting place for English speaking writers and readers ever since, a place to buy books but also find refuge and people like Alan Sillitoe, Ethan Hawke, and Geoffrey Rush have been among the thousands to have discovered the shop and its supportive community, some even sleeping there among the books. Whitman named the guests, Tumbleweeds and likening them to ‘rolling thistles that drift in and out with the winds of chance’.
It was Albert who led me there and it was refreshing to be surrounded by people young and old and different nationalities, people who love a good book or a mooch around. No computer can make up for the touch and feel and smell of a bookshop, but more importantly the way it makes us feel. Calm. Looking, reading, thinking, moving around others, lost in thought and time. Wonderful, and all the more so after learning about Whitman’s legacy. He died in 2011 at the age of 98 and the shop is run now by his daughter Silvia Whitman and partner, David Delannet. and it continues to grow and flourish.
My purchase: The Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.
2. Theatre DeJazet
I love a bit of comedy theatre and I thought to watch a play in French might be a nice way to immerse ourselves in the lingo so I was delighted to find a show close to where we were staying at Theatre DeJazet. On enquiring to the gentleman at the theatre reception what was currently playing we came to learn the play was Le Faiseur De Theatre with Thomas Bernhard, the theatre itself one of the oldest in Paris dating back to the 1700s with Marie Antoinette herself passing through the theatre doors. On further inquiry I came to know the gentleman on reception to be Jean Bouquin, owner of the theatre and who back in the 1960s was fashion designer and stylist to Brigitte Bardot. Interestingly both Bouquin and Bardot retired from their professions before they turned 40 at the height of their success to pursue other passions, Bouquin in purchasing and renovating Theatre Dejazet to its former glory and Bardot as an animal rights campaigner.
Albert and I sat through the play that evening, understanding very little of what was being said but I enjoyed it anyway. I felt like we experienced a little slice of French culture away from the commercial hot spots. To imagine the building was founded in 1770 by Comte d’Artois who was later crowned Charles X and the building survived the French revolution. Situated in the Boulevard du Temple (it was once known as the ‘Boulevard du crime’, but not anymore), I would highly recommend the area around Le Place De La Republique to stay or visit.
3. Onion Soup
The provenance of food is a nice way to gain insight into a country and in tasting and focussing on ingredients we are often retracing the culture of a place or country. On our first night, I felt for something warming so it had to be the classic, soupe a l’oignon. We found Bistrot Pop a charming corner side cafe bar on 3 Avenue de la République. Onion soup is an ancient dish popularised in Paris (though the Lyonnaise claim it as theirs) during the 1800s and it makes for a super starter or dish on its own. Renowned chef and businessman, Michel Roux, when writing about onion soup, said it is all about the subtleties, from the bouquet garni to the cooking of the onions that give the soup its richness and flavor. I really enjoyed Bistrot’s serving with lumps of grilled bread (croutons are also acceptable) and lashings of melted cheese (a Comte or Gruyere is recommended) all beautifully baked together. And as Roux points out in an article in Saveur, this is a soup to savor and savor it I did. Perfect on a cold January night in Paris, vivre la belle vie!
Tips for transport:
Taxis are in abundance outside the airport or pre-book a car via, Get Transfer or Viator, prices around 40 Euros.
I pre-booked an airport shuttle from Orly to my hotel in the centre of Paris, that can take up to 90mins depending on the other passengers and scheduled drop-offs. In this case, there weren’t any other passengers so it took less than an hour during rush hour from Orly to Republique. Total ticket price 18 Eur.
On my return, from Republique to Orly Airport I took the Paris Metro to Gare du Nord and changed onto the Paris RER to Denfert-Rochereau where I took the bus (directly outside the station) to Orly. All tickets can be purchased at the Metro station at the beginning of the journey, the connections were smooth in morning rush hour with a duration time of 70mins. Total ticket price 10.20 Eur.
For more on Paris (and patisseries) listen to my podcasts French Butter