I have become infatuated with Paris this spring. Not because my own adopted city is lacking in floriferous bounty; London is currently flush with an impressive array of brightly coloured bulbs, all unfurling in spectacular abandon. Right now, the city is a veritable smorgasbord of flowery delights and wistful scents. Yet the promise of Paris au printemps is, frankly, too alluring to refuse. And with the Eurostar (that glorious international high-speed rail service connecting the United Kingdom with France, via the English Channel) practically on my doorstep, it feels almost rude not to oblige.
Thoughts of international train travel evoke fantastical imagery of shiny, coal-fed locomotives whose glossy hunter-green enamelled exteriors shine like a highly polished lacquer box. I am aware that our journey to the Continent will contain neither dapper porters crowned with stiff peaked caps, nor an elegant dining carriage adorned in plush velvet seating. Yet, as someone whose previous journey to Gay Paris was inevitably marred by sticky tray tables and questionable airline food, I am excited by the prospect of a timely and orderly arrival, and hopefully alighting the train in the very same state as I departed – a mere two and a half hours previously.
Inside our carriage, my gaze is constantly fixed to the electronic information sign above our heads, which thoughtfully bestows upon us fascinating titbits of onboard information. According to my riveting in-train entertainment we are currently travelling at 289 km/h – a feat of human ingenuity that delights me much more than plane turbulence ever did!
The rural landscape has a timeless quality. Peering out of my window, the glass smudged slightly with a season’s worth of calcium loaded rain, I can see a homogenous pastoral scene whizzing by in a green and brown blur. I ask Dan if we are still in England, but he simply looks up from his book and shrugs his shoulders, in that way that husbands do when the information is of no consequence to them. A quick check on my phone and Google Maps says we have just entered French soil. I feel a pang of disappointment that I completely missed the adventure through the tunnel, then realise the last twenty minutes enveloped in blackness should have been the rather obvious clue. What exactly did I imagine zooming through an underground tunnel to feel like? Was I imagining the sensation of being sucked into a pneumatic tube, catapulted through the air in a vacuum sealed canister to be expelled out the other end directly into France? How fancifully the imagination wanders.
I am struck by how similar rural France resembles its agrarian neighbour. The ancient trees, the flat, big-sky landscape. If the glass was removed, I know I would hear the same sweet birdsong that I enjoy back home. Everything seems vaguely familiar. At a distance even the houses are indistinguishable from one another; interspersed across the terrain their layout is familiar, poised as they are on the edge of their fertile pocket of land. However, the train propels forward, depositing us fresh faced and energised, into France’s elegant capital city, and leaving all thoughts of rural England far, far behind.
With careless abandon, we fling our hand luggage inside our hotel room door. The very bags that we protected as though they were our children during the journey, holding them so protectively, are now dropped unceremoniously on the living room floor. We take a mere few minutes to freshen up and are ready to pound the pavement in search of something delectably French to eat.
Liberated from the need to tick off major monuments thanks to my previous trip to the city many years ago, we are free to wander wherever the day takes us. This is Dan’s first trip to Paris, yet his easy-going nature and penchant for spontaneity makes him the perfect travel partner for someone like me, who loves to carry a list of desirable places I just have to see. Even when lured into a pretty boutique, he’s happy to wait outside and watch the elegant Parisian world go by, whilst I while away the minutes chatting to well-dressed shopkeepers, resplendent in their stylish wares. Not that I’m here to shop, of course, but a little peek beyond the sophisticated window displays can only enhance my wonder at the city’s visual charm.
Cafés line the streets of Paris like prolific blooms in a flower bed. Sprouting up vigorously throughout the city’s arrondissements each one is awash in its own unique colour palette, creating a delightfully harmonious display. I adore French pastries, yet no matter how many I am eager to devour, I just can’t seem to enjoy their sugary hit any time before noon. And believe me, I’ve tried.
Savoury and salty is my salvation, and we find it in abundance at Café Berry. A contemporary eatery in delectable shades of pink, with dainty tables, and delicious brunch fare make this sweet café a chic addition to Le Marais, in the city’s 4th arrondissement. Squeezed into the narrow rue Chapon, Café Berry is owned by a former fashion industry professional whose elegance and chic sense of style is apparent in even the smallest details. France is notorious for its less-than-desirable coffee – which I always find at odds with a country so besotted with quality and taste. Fortunately for fellow caffeine fiends, there are a smattering of young Parisians opening international style coffee shops in the city, all serving excellent coffee and equally delectable food.
Dan suggests a stroll towards the Seine, the serpentine river that wends its way through some of the country’s wealthiest regions before snaking through the heart of Paris, entwining the city in elegant twists and turns. Most cities throughout the world have a vital river running through them, ferrying cargo alongside a bulging population from A to Z. In London, the river Thames is teaming with river craft, there’s even a monumental battleship, the HMS Belfast, now home to a museum which is permanently moored beneath the watchful gaze of the Tower Bridge. Yet the Seine’s waters appear quite tranquil for one of the biggest capital cities in Europe. Aside from the occasional elongated boat chauffeuring hordes of tourists towards the Eiffel Tower, and a moderately sized passenger ferry, much of the river life seems to happen up on shore.
As the song so accurately attests, April in Paris is lovely; the breeze carries with it the wistful perfume of spring blossom, and for those unfortunate souls who suffer from hay fever like Dan, a smattering of near-invisible, rather bothersome tree pollen. Fortunately, Paris is also littered with a welcome plethora of pharmacies whose striking Art Nouveau interiors are well stocked with today’s modern medicines.
A meander along the edge of the Seine, amid horn-blaring scooters and resolute Parisians, reveals the precious vestiges of a less harried, pre-digital way of life. Le bouquinistes de Paris are the traditional booksellers that have set up shop along prominent stretches of the Seine for centuries. The 900 or so wagon-green book boxes are laden with rare and used editions, posters, historic illustrations, postcards, stamps, engravings, and other printed matter. With their iconic metallic awnings painted in an unobtrusive deep green, they have become an essential and beloved part of the Parisian landscape. Nestled in prime position along the upper banks of the Seine, le bouquinistes have been pedalling their literary goods since the 1600’s. However, it wasn’t until more than 200 years later that they won the right from the Paris city government to have permanent book stands built with enclosed doors, allowing the sellers to leave their precious merchandise on-site overnight.
I want to scoop up all the beautiful old books into my arms and run home immediately to display them on my already bulging bookshelves – so perfectly patinated and aesthetically appealing they all are. I resist the desire to purchase half a dozen, reminding myself that my less-than-limited understanding of the French language may be a justified excuse to abstain. As the gentle spring breeze whips into a strong wind I wonder, amid the flying leaf litter and car exhaust fumes, how difficult a job this must be – especially in the depths of winter when the frigid air blows in from the icy river below. We purchase a rather lovely looking old tome, with dogeared corners and faded gold print in French that I can’t read, and head for shelter and serenity in one of my favourite Parisian squares.
Hidden in plain sight just off the famous Pont Neuf, Paris’ oldest standing and arguably most beautiful stone bridge, Place Dauphine is one of Paris’s quietest and most charming squares set beautifully in the Île de la Cité, a small, elongated island in the centre of the city. Having previously visited a handful of times during my first trip to Paris, I’m pleasantly surprised, even today, to discover the pretty square is still relatively quiet with only a sprinkling of locals who sit facing the sun outside one of the few cafes that envelop the space. This picturesque gem is peppered with neatly spaced chestnut trees whose fresh green leaves will soon be accompanied by a riot of fuchsia pink flowers and some very lucky honeybees. The entire space oozes charm and elegance and I can almost feel myself standing straighter in comradery with the trees.
Lulled into the hypnotic rhythm of being a tourist, we languish underneath the dappled shade of a particularly lovely tree, taking vigour from our sumptuous surroundings while we wait for a nearby table to become free. Content to sit for an eternity under the warm embrace of the early afternoon sunshine, we spot a couple departing from a rather prime location and suddenly find ourselves with an abundance of energy to pounce into their perfectly located place. Our shaded position was undeniably delightful, but a generous glass of something bubbly can only enhance our collective state of holiday bliss. Through the chestnut trees I spy a tiny patisserie nestled on the edge of the square and make a mental note to pop over before we leave – it is, after all, well and truly past noon.