I’ve been struggling with this post about Paris for quite a long time. Isn’t it weird, how the places we love the most are also the hardest to describe? Paris holds a special place in my heart. I’ve been there several times and I’ve always felt strangely at home. I also love watching movies set in Paris, or read novels in which Paris is described in a way that makes me feel like I’m there with the characters. And then it hit me. I could write about Paris using books and movies I like. So… welcome to my Paris.
THE INGREDIENTS OF LOVE
I love Nicolas Barreau. I really do. His novels are both funny and elegant, romantic and brilliant. His novel The Ingredients of Love has been my guide to Paris, and whenever I miss the city, I read this story.
Aurelie Bredin is a young woman working in a Parisian restaurant. On a gloomy Friday in November, she discovers a curious novel in a quaint bookshop on the Île-St.-Louis. Have you ever been there? It’s one of my favourite places in the city. The Île-St.-Louis is a peaceful oasis in the crowded Paris centre, with only narrow one-way streets and a number of lovely shops and cafés. It’s not hard to find a shop that could resemble the bookstore described in the novel.
So, Aurelie reads the story and is astonished when she realizes that her restaurant and herself are featured in its pages. She decided she has to meet the author, and she embarks on an adventure that leads her to the publishing house, where she meets the book editor who agrees to help her.
Paris, the most romantic city of all, serves as the perfect background for Aurelie’s journey. I can easily picture her little restaurant in my mind – a typical Parisian brasserie, with candle-lit tables, flowers, liberty style decorations, French music and a French menu. Lobster salad, quiche, tarte tatin or red fruit clafoutis.
The Île-St.-Louis is connected to the Île de la Cité by the Pont Saint-Louis, so you can walk from there to Notre Dame. To me, this is the most beautiful cathedral in the world. As I step inside, I can feel it – the scent of time. A perfect example of Gothic architecture, Notre Dame has a particular light, a light that I have never seen anywhere else.
There are roughly 200 bouquinistes installed along the banks of the Seine in the vicinity of Notre-Dame, and these peculiar booksellers have become one of the most iconic symbols of Paris. Indeed they’re part of the “bohémienne” atmosphere of this part of the city, home to painters and writers, students and philosophers.
On the Rive Gauche, the Latin Quarter is the area around the Sorbonne, Paris’ most famous university. It’s worth visiting to breath the quiet atmosphere, explore the food market in Rue Mouffetard and rest in the Jardin des Plantes (formerly the royal botanic gardens), a truly magical place. Don’t take the bus, just walk in the streets and pretend to be a student living in the area. From here, you can visit the adjacent St-Germain, with cafés that once were popular among poets and artists, and now are crowded with tourists.
I suggest using a map to find L’Heure Gourmand in the Passage Dauphine, a hidden place where locals go for a special brunch. Choose between a selection of Mariage Frères teas or a cup of chocolate “à l’ancienne”, order smoked salmon with fresh cream and dill, served with “pain brioche”, or a quiche as main course and end with a slice of lemon meringue cake.
When I first saw the film Amélie (Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain), starring Audrey Tautou, I was completely bewitched by the characters, the soundtrack, the story and, needless to say, the magic atmosphere.
I hope you’re familiar with this movie. It tells the story of a young, pretty girl who works in a Parisian café and has the charming habit of meddling in other people’s life, in order to make it better. And in the meanwhile she finds love.
Amélie’s life revolves around Montmartre, perched high on the ‘Butte’ (Paris’ most northerly hill). Once a quiet village packed with vines and windmills, today a busy area packed with houses, spiralling round the mound below the dome of the Sacré-Coeur. She lives amongst grocery stores, cafés, train stations and old-style apartments, in a city that reflects her own worldview.
In fact, walking in Montmartre is a pleasant experience. Once you’ve managed to climb up the hill, the view from the Sacré-Coeur is breathtaking and the narrow lanes are full of nice little shops and art galleries. Being a fan of Amélie, I couldn’t help popping in the café where she worked as a waitress. It is called The Café des 2 Moulins and it’s a comfy neighbourhood café with red chairs and a vintage atmosphere.
THE SWEETNESS OF FORGETTING
When we went to Paris by car – ah, those glorious days when my family use to organize summer trips to the North – we liked to book a room in a small hotel behind the monumental Opera or Palais Garnier, in the area of the Grand Boulevards. The first thing we would do after parking and checking in, was going to the Champs-Elysées in search for coffee and pain au chocolat. Then we would have a walk, look around, get acquainted with the city, and realize we were actually in Paris. Paris, which never fails to surprise me.
I won’t talk about Le Louvre and Musée d’Orsay – even though I strongly recommend spending a day in these wonderful museums, or about the Tour Eiffel. You can find everything you need in a classic travel guide. Instead, I will talk about Le Marais, the Jewish quarter. It is perfectly described in a novel written by an American author I had the pleasure to meet in person, Kristin Harmel.
The Sweetness of Forgetting tells the story of an American woman who lives in beautiful Cape Cod and owns a bakery. When her grandmother gives her a list of names and a mystery to solve, she starts digging in her family’s past. And she discovers that they have a strong connection with the Jews living in Paris. So she flies to France and we see the city through her eyes, as she moves through the streets of the former ghetto, among the typical Jewish stores and buildings.
I walked from the Centre Pompidou to the Marais, enjoying the food markets, the hidden squares and old churches, until I got (following my dear old map) to Rue des Rosiers, the heart of the Jewish quarter. I was attracted to La boutique jaune, a Jewish bakery store, and my instinct was right. I suggest going there and treating yourself to a delicious piece of cake. Then sit on a bench outside and just watch people passing by. A man with a flowing beard, wearing a black fedora, leaves the synagogue. Tourists check the names of the streets on the map. Mothers go shopping with their children. You can never get tired of this area, so rich in detail with museums, parks, and people.
Tea in Paris
I couldn’t resist the temptation to pay a visit to the tea shop Mariage Frères in rue du Bourg-Tibourg, near Rue des Rosiers, where I spent hours among tea blends. (Almost) around the corner is Place des Voges, a 17th century courtyard that served as the residence for Victor Hugo. And then to end on a more frivolous note, located just off the Metro Saint-Paul and rue de Rivoli, rue Saint-Paul is a great shopping street with many lovely shops.
Books and Movies
Amélie directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet
Kristin Harmel, The Sweetness of Forgetting
Nicolas Barreau, The Ingredients of Love
Le Pain D’Autrefois, 2 Rue du Pont aux Choux – a nice French bakery in the Marais
La Boutique Jaune, Rue des Rosiers – a traditional Jewish bakery
L’Heure Gourmande, 22 Passage Dauphin – the best place for lunch on the Rive Gauche
Sur Un Arbre Perche, 1 Rue du 4 Septembre – a cozy and original restaurant near the Bourse
Pascade, 14 rue Daunou – a small restaurant near the Opera, serving creative dishes
Whenever I am in a foreign city, I always go to a supermarket and buy ordinary things like cookies, soap, even baking paper. I love shopping abroad. It gives me an idea of what people like, and it makes me feel part of their everyday life. So my journeys always include a visit to a local supermarket. Do yours, too?