Oscar Wilde, the Irish writer and aesthete, died destitute in November 1900 aged only 46 years old in which was then the dingy Hôtel L’Alsace in the Paris district of Saint Germain des Prés. His reputedly famous last words were: “ My wallpaper and I are fighting a duel to the death. One or the other of us has to go.” Then, apparently, he expired. Frankly, he has my full sympathy. I managed to survive the wallpaper experience but only because this hotel has long since been transformed into a rather upmarket five star boutique hotel by the unoriginal but easy to remember name of L’Hôtel (the Michelin starred restaurant within is called – yup, you’ve guessed it- Le Restaurant). The lovely husband had kindly arranged a romantic break for us in Gay Paree and it seemed bad form to just swoon and drop dead at the sight of the interior design, so I pulled myself together. Just.
L’Hôtel is a Disney world of opulent and oppressive Belle Epoque brothel design; leopard print wall to wall carpets, dark red velvet upholstery, flock type wallpaper with matching puffy drapes and furniture covers, several all at once, layered green silk garlands, heavy dark furniture crammed into tiny spaces, the bar walls littered with celebrity endorsement of previous guests: Johnny Depp, Mick Jagger and the rest. Really….??? At 16 sqm the bedrooms are minute and stuffed to the gills but the bedding is wonderful as are the Green & Spring products in the bathroom; it’s quiet, the staff are helpful and polite and the breakfast is plentiful and delicious which it should be at €18 a head. I ate my money’s worth in freshly baked flakey buttery croissants alone! By the end of our four night stay, we stood, bouncing tum to bouncing tum, in the upright coffin of a lift with barely a space for my handbag. But the best part of staying at L’Hôtel was its fantastic location, there on the left bank, surrounded by interesting galleries and wonderful little boutiques and cafes, just a couple of minutes from the banks of the Seine.
We’d both been to Paris on many occasions before, so we had no need of a conventional sightseeing tour but nonetheless, we wanted to do some exploring and this we did in the most brilliantly fun way possible, by whizzing through Paris on a Vespa from Left Bank Scooters. The lovely husband, a scooter aficionado since his uni days, had his very own mean machine. I went on the back of our guide Pablo’s. Pablo, a multi linguist and history buff, gave us immensely interesting information during our three and a half hour ‘Off the beaten track’ tour but Left Bank Scooters tailor make their tours to your requirements and wishes. A simply superb and memorable experience and worth every last Euro (€100 a head). I cannot recommend it highly enough for feeling Parisian, getting around traffic jams and up close and personal with the sights; we’ve done similar tours in Rome and Barcelona too. It’s a great way to explore a city.
You can’t go to Paris and not at least have a quick ‘petit café noir’ at the Café Les Deux Magots. Now a tourist destination, this is where Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre, Camus, Brecht, Hemingway, Picasso and others of their ilk hung out back in the day and it’s featured in many novels, including ‘Lolita’. Right beside the oldest church in Paris, the Eglise de Saint Germain des Prés after which the area is named, it’s still a Number One spot for people watching. Another less touristy, wonderfully French breakfast spot is the Café des Beaux Arts, overlooking the Seine and one of the many bridges festooned with love padlocks. Following the publication in 2006 of Frederico Moccia’s book ‘I Want You’, this trend, of attaching symbolic padlocks to bridge railings and throwing the key into the water to signify everlasting love, originates in Rome, and is now a worldwide phenomenon. In Paris the weight of thousands of locks is causing railings to collapse, often needing to be replaced by unattractive wooden boards, yet the trend still persists.
Meandering around Saint Germain after some hefty credit card bending, we found the tiny Khao Thai restaurant on the Rue Dauphine which was a Far Eastern delight. Barely more than a hole in the wall, it was prettily presented with efficient service, reasonable prices and a divine Thai chicken curry.
Baku newbies Kate and Sacha, who have previously lived in Paris for some years, had recommended the restaurant Racines 2 on the Rue L’Arbre Sec on the right bank of the Seine, so off we trotted in drizzly rain to try it out one evening. To our amazement, we found a small utilitarian, almost industrial looking restaurant with breeze block and brick walls, slightly chipped formica tables, a mixture of funky chandeliers and an open stainless steel kitchen. Very young, very trendy, very simple. But my word, the food was beyond exquisite, from the cheesy choux amuses bouches to the mini sponge cake with the coffee ! It may well be some of the best food I have ever eaten, that good!
Another of their recommendations was Le Petit Vatel in the Rue Lobineau. This is the smallest restaurant imaginable. Patrons are packed tightly into 18 seats inside with a few more tables outside and the staff move around each other in a well practised dance, plates held high. The unisex loo is so small that you practically need to be a yoga master to use it. Our aubergine lasagna with rocket and parmesan and the frittata with carrot salad, feta and courgette, followed by a ginger biscuit based cheese cake to share, were all most enjoyable, came in very generous portions and, including wine, cost a mere €55 for the two of us. Great value, a very buzzy fun atmosphere and an unusual, quite unmissable experience!
The Rue Faubourg St. Honoré and the streets around it are the epicenter of Parisian haute couture and this is where you find all the well-known designer shops and the chic ladies with little lapdogs they carry in their handbags, but if you’re looking for street cred and more edgy design credentials, then the Marais is the district to go. During the 17th century it was the preferred area of residence of the French nobility, still evident by the beautiful architecture in that quarter, then during the late 19th and early 20th century it became the main hub for Paris’ Jewish population and the rag trade. Following WW2 and the Jewish persecution by the Nazis, it deteriorated but was revived and restored under Charles de Gaulle in the 60s, with the Centre Georges Pompidou, France’s National Museum of Modern Art, located here. These days, it is home to funky art galleries, boutiques and cafes and the main stomping ground of the ever fashion forward gay community of Paris. A wander through this area is well worthwhile and full of interesting discoveries, from hidden quiet little garden squares to shops with that certain ‘je ne sais quoi’. In fact, shopping in France, especially with a Non EU export tax rebate (12%!), seemed very reasonably priced, certainly compared to Baku or London, so naturally, I had to take the opportunity while it presented itself. It would have been foolish not to, at least that’s how I sold my economy concept to the lovely husband. Laden with bags and new impressions, both sartorial and cultural, we headed back to Saint Germain des Prés.
Another evening, another stupendous gourmet experience: Ze Kitchen Gallerie Restaurant (are they taking the Mickey out of their own French pronounciation of an English name?) is a super cool contemporary Asian fusion restaurant, eclectic, experimental and creative, run by renowned Michelin starred chef William Ledeuil and based in a building in which, coincidentally, Picasso once had his studio. This is a real foodie haven offering a tasting menu with a choice of either six or eight courses or an a la carte menu. Neither is cheap, both are mind boggling. Tuna with strawberry coulis, anyone? Crab jelly with white beetroot? Crustacean stuffed courgette flower with ginger and aioli in a Thai broth? Wasabi icecream? My pretentiousness radar was on full alert but my condescending little smirk was soon wiped clean off my face, as was the food off my plate. Had I not been in elegant, polite company, I would have licked my plate from both sides and sucked the tines right off my fork. All I can say is ‘incroyable’. And by the way, that strawberry coulis with the tuna tasted exotically fruity and tart and not at all sweet, in case you are wondering.
So here I am, back in Baku, a good 1.5kg heavier than when I left but I tell you what, I’ll say it with Edith Piaf, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien!’
Left Bank Scooters www.leftbankscooters.com
Les Deux Magots www.lesdeuxmagots.fr
Café des Beaux Arts www.cafedesbeauxarts.com
Khao Thai www.rest-khaothai.com
Racines 2 www.racinesparis.com
Le Petit Vatel www.petitvatel.com
Ze Kitchen Gallerie Restaurant www.zekitchengallerie.fr