Paris is Always a Good Idea
Words & photographs by Deborah Loeb Bohren
If not a frequent visitor to Paris, I am most definitely a repeat visitor. I made my first trip there in the mid-‘80s for $99 on People Express (remember them?). Since then, I have gone for as little as four days and as long as three months (twice). I’ve walked all 20 arrondissements, taken intensive French at the Sorbonne, enjoyed the Paris Plages, and desperately tried to master the art of macaron baking. So with a use-or-lose ticket leftover from the height of Covid rapidly reaching its expiration date, I decided there was only one place to go: Paris.
There is enough to keep anyone happily busy in Paris indefinitely, so the challenge as I started planning was how to winnow down infinite possibilities into a manageable itinerary for a quick (for me, anyway) seven-day winter escape. Overcoming my natural tendency to do everything, I decided this time doing less was more. I wanted to savor each of the delights in store for me, immerse myself in all things Parisienne, and focus on some of my all-time favorite haunts.
My first stop was Galeries Lafayette, the grand dame of department stores, on the Boulevard Haussmann. I love it not only because it has something for everyone and every budget, but you get to shop under a one-of-a-kind 141-foot high stained glass dome and on gilded ironwork balconies. Insider’s tip: If you are as serious about your shopping as I am, plan your visit to coincide with the Paris Winter or Summer sales. Unlike U.S. shops, stores in Paris are only able to discount items twice a year. Significant savings abound (up to 70% off) on just about every brand, including those much sought-after luxury brands for which Paris is famous. If you are a resident of a non-EU country, don’t forget to take advantage of the 12% VAT refund on top of the sale price— it’s worth the paperwork!
For a completely different shopping experience, I can’t resist a pilgrimage to the Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen. On the very edge of Paris, I never tire of wandering the stalls of one of the world’s largest “flea” markets. It’s been around for nearly 150 years, covers approximately 17 acres, and boasts 12 covered markets and five shopping streets, each with its own unique identity.
From used champagne corks for €1 each to antiques gilded in gold costing upwards of €20,000 and everything in between — classic Ricard pastis glasses, French dinner plates mixed and matched, vintage clothing, seltzer bottles, baskets of abandoned sheet music, doorknobs and keys (which don’t necessarily go together), lithographs from the great artists and home furnishings — this is a place where one person’s junk is destined to become another person’s treasure. Should I ever have the opportunity to furnish an apartment in Paris, this will definitely be my first stop. And in case you were wondering, yes, they ship!
Once I was shopped out, I turned my attention to my favorite Paris museums. I’m partial to the smaller, more intimate museums where I find I can connect with great works of art up close and personal and without overwhelming crowds. My go-to’s are the Musée Rodin, Musée Picasso and Fondation Louis Vuitton.
Musée Rodin is located on the Left Bank in the Hôtel Biron, a rococo mansion dating back to 1732 where Rodin lived and worked for many years and where you can still feel his presence. His sculptures, paintings, drawings, and letters are spread across 18 rooms — which alone are worth seeing — and manicured gardens. Ponder before his Thinker, repent before his Gates of Hell, or stand before The Kiss with the love of your life.
If, according to Picasso, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” so does a visit to Musée Picasso. Hidden away in the Marais in an extraordinary 17th-century house, you climb a grand marble staircase to begin your exploration of the richest public collection of all things Picasso — paintings, sculptures, drawings, illustrated books, photographs, and engravings. A perfect way to spend the afternoon and dust off your soul.
A little further afield and with a totally different vibe, I can never resist a trip to the Fondation Louis Vuitton on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne. The Fondation’s commitment to contemporary art is immediately evident not only in its choice of exhibitions but also in the building created to house them. Designed by architect Frank Gehry, the building itself is a piece of modern art and as worthy of being explored as the art inside. Walk up the interior staircase to see the steel structure that forms the bones of the building, explore the exterior terraces on the multilevel roof, and discover the reflecting pools and mirrors hidden below. This time I saw a fabulous exhibit designed to create a visual dialogue between the works of Claude Monet and Joan Mitchell. I left invigorated and inspired.
In between shopping and art, there is, of course, the food! I was thrilled that some of my favorite restaurants remain in top form post-pandemic. For the best beef bourguignon ever, head straight to Chez Fernand Christine in St. Germain de Pres. Complete with red-checked tablecloths and a fun and friendly wait staff, it’s the quintessential bistro if not of your dreams, then of all the movies you’ve seen. Start your meal with the terrine de foie gras, move on to their signature beef bourguignon but be sure and save room for the tarte tartin — it’s worth every calorie.
For a more modern take on classic French cuisine, I love Le St. Regis on the Ile St Louis. Open from 7am until 2am daily, it’s a cross between a New York diner (check out the white subway tile walls) and a French cafe. There’s an energetic air, and the menu ranges from classic Croque-monsieur to iconic duck breast. The food is not frilly, just delicious and lovingly presented ( I have never seen haricot vert so perfectly and beautifully aligned on a single plate).
My go-to for lunch as I wander the flea market is always Le Paul Bert. The café is always bustling, with diners packed shoulder-to-should and the waiters always a bit brusque — all of which creates an ambiance I adore. Not the place for a leisurely meal; it’s the perfect stop for a glass of wine and some frites, a salad with foie gras and duck, or a burger. And don’t forget to check out the bathrooms —some interesting décor, to say the least.
Chez Josselin in the 14th arrondissement near Montparnasse is the ultimate crêperie outside of Brittany and a fun, very affordable change of pace. Choose from a large menu of classic savory buckwheat crêpes stuffed with meats, cheeses, and just about anything else you can think of for your entrée, and pair it with a traditional bottle of hard cider. As for me, I always make it a two-crêpe night and end my meal with a sweet crepe for dessert. After all, who can resist the simplicity (and romance) of a crêpe with vanilla ice cream and flaming Grand Marnier to finish the meal?
In Galeries Lafayette Maison, I discovered a vibrant world of cafes, counters, restaurants, wine and more at Le Gourmet. Ideal for a quick bite in between shopping or as a destination in itself (I headed there on my last day for a quick lunch) sate your appetite with a dizzying array of options. Choose from everything truffle at the copper counter at Maison de la Truffe. Or tempt your palate at 5 Jotas for with some Iberico or pure Bellota ham. There are also take-out counters offering all manners of savory and sweet treats. My favorite? Le Chocolat Alain Ducasse, to devour immediately, bring home for gifts, or both.
For my splurge (I always do one) I decided to try someplace new. I love Benoit in New York City when I find myself missing Paris and craving all things French, so how could I not go to the original Benoit in the Marais? With 1 Michelin star and more than 100 years of experience feeding Paris, here was the real deal. More formal than Chez Fernand Christine but still welcoming, service was impeccable, my champagne glass was never empty and the food classic. Their gourmet casserole of veal sweetbreads, cockscomb, kidneys of cockerel, foie gras, and truffled jus was simultaneously rich and light, would delight even the most discriminating gourmand and so good that I didn’t care I had no idea what a cockscomb was.
For my home away from home I chose Relais Christine, a 48-room gem tucked away behind a wrought iron gate on a tiny street just up from the Seine on the Left Bank. If I had to describe the hotel in a single word, it would be sumptuous. Originally a 17th-century townhouse built atop the remains of a 13th-century abbey, the guest rooms are the epitome of French romanticism — flocked wallpaper, period furnishings, and, in my case, a canopied bed. The public areas are equally inviting, with plush couches and chairs arranged in a series of lounges that beckon you to stop, sit, breathe in deeply, and enjoy the well-stocked honor bar, have a coffee or play a game of chess. While there is no restaurant, the breakfast buffet is extensive and lavish and the perfect way to start your day (and Chez Fernand immediately next door delivers!). The true stars of Relais Christine, however, are the staff. They are warm, and welcoming and make you feel like you are their most important guest. No request is too big or too small, and as this my third stay at the hotel, I continue to be amazed at how they anticipate and fulfill your every need.
To paraphrase Victor Hugo, Paris “…nourishes the soul.” Maybe that’s why I have always loved Paris since I stepped off the plane nearly 40 years ago. And no matter how many times I visit, I am never disappointed. Paris, as Audrey Hepburn once said, is always a good idea.
Deborah Loeb Bohren is a fine art and travel photographer. Photography has been Deb’s passion since her father put a camera in her hand when she was only five years old. Today she combines that passion with her love of travel, using her camera to capture the intersection and interplay of light, line and color to create visual stories from the flea markets of Paris to the dunes of Morocco and from Machu Picchu to Havana and beyond. She lives in New York. Go to http://www.travelinglensphoto.com/ for info about her online photo workshops.