Review by Fiona Duncan, published 17th August 2008.
If the strong euro put paid to your holiday in France this year and even a long weekend on French soil is looking out of the question, how about a 24-hour trip to Paris either this month, while the city is empty, or next month as an end-of-summer treat?
Now that Eurostar has beaten back its journey time from London to two-and-a-quarter hours, the idea of nipping to the City of Light for the night has suddenly become not only feasible, but positively enticing. And since you will be there for such a short time, you can devote yourself to fun. Paris may have lost its edge as a city of global significance but it is still all about l’art de vivre, great views, classic food and wine, and shopping.
Forget the set-piece sights like the Louvre. Instead, concentrate on getting to know one area of the city well. In 24 hours you will have time for no more than two meals, an afternoon of leisure and a night’s sleep. For such a short trip to be memorable, all those elements need to be even more carefully chosen than for a longer one. You may have a favourite quartier, where you would prefer to base yourself; if not, here is my recipe for a stay on the Rive Gauche (and note that it’s best to avoid Sunday/Monday as you’ll find many shops and museums closed then).
Leave London at breakfast, and you will arrive in Paris with plenty of time to check into your hotel and relax there before setting out for that all-important first French meal of the trip. It had better be good. Simple, but good. Which means knowing where to go in advance rather than just plunging into the nearest restaurant you see.
You have to look much more carefully these days. Brasseries, in particular, are no longer to be relied on. Most are now run by chains and their food is at best predictable, or, at worst, dire. Instead, seek out well-established, privately owned bistros that still have integrity, and for the crop of tiny restaurants run almost single-handed by young, committed chefs.
Two such places can be found in Montparnasse. Le Timbre (3 rue Sainte-Beuve; 0033 1 4549 1040; closed Sunday and Monday) is just that, a postage stamp of a restaurant, its kitchen open to view at one end. Here, a modest self-taught Mancunian, Chris Wright, cooks for up to 24 people entirely without help, in domestic French manner, with admirable results. Choose from his changing weekly menu of three to four starters, main courses and puddings; nothing will disappoint you, but you shouldn’t miss the lambs’ kidneys if they are on the menu or the millefeuille de la maison.
We met the owners of La Cerisaie (70 boulevard Edgar Quinet; 4320 9898) at Le Timbre. “Cyril [Lalanne] cooks like a dream,” Chris told us. “You must go there.” This is another one-chef/one-waitress operation, with Cyril Lalanne producing delicious regional dishes, including cochon de Bigorre – pork like you’ve never tasted before — from his native south-west France out of a kitchen no bigger than a large cupboard. His wife Maryse works front of house, and everyone chats.
Paris is made for walking, with a constant stream of diversions as you stroll. Close at hand is the Jardin du Luxembourg, a sheer delight, as appealing to lovers as to mothers with children to entertain — who will enjoy the model boats, Shetland pony rides, playgrounds and puppet shows. It makes the perfect start to a stroll along the elegant rue Servandoni to place St.-Sulpice and on into the fashionable St.-Germain district, perfect for shopping.
In rue de Grenelle, you could visit the refreshingly cool Musée Maillol (closed Monday), and afterwards the diminutive cheese shop Barthélémy (closed Sunday and Monday), where white-coated ladies dispense cheeses which
M. Barthélémy has criss-crossed France to find. Odour-proof bags are provided for the return journey on Eurostar.
If you want culture, the Musée d’Orsay (1 de la Légion d’Honneur; closed Monday) and Musée Rodin (79 rue de Varenne; closed Monday) are both nearby. Little-known curiosities in the neighbourhood, off the tourist track but well worth seeking out, include the silent, richly ornamented Chapel of St. Vincent de Paul and his eerie shrine in rue de Sèvres, the bucolic Jardin Catherine Labouré, entered via rue de Babylone, and Notre Dame de la Médaille-Miraculeuse, in rue du Bac, which reveals Catherine Labouré’s story.
If you lunch simply at either Le Timbre or La Cerisaie, it would be fun to dine in style, maybe in the new clothes you’ve bought that afternoon. Of the famous grands cafés of Montparnasse, La Closerie des Lilas (171 boulevard de Montparnasse; 4051 3450; www.closeriedeslilas.fr) is the one that feels most like a special occasion. Choose from the brasserie or the more formal restaurant, and be sure to have a drink in the piano bar before you eat.
Alternatively, La Coupole (102 boulevard de Montparnasse; 4320 1420) still packs them in, especially for birthdays, while Le Dôme (108 boulevard du Montparnasse; 4335 2581) is the place to go for those fruits de mer platters one dreams of back home.
A perfect reason for basing yourself in Montparnasse and exploring the Left Bank is the new Hôtel des Académies et des Arts (15 rue de la Grande Chaumière; 4326 6644; www.hotel-des-academies.com; doubles from £165 to £214 per night, including breakfast). The best hotel, in my opinion, to have opened in the city for some time, it is happy proof that the small, charming Parisian bolthole is alive and well.
Husband and wife Laurent and Charlotte Inchauspé have created a spotless, highly individual haven – cosy yet contemporary and full of artistic flair – right opposite the art school where Gauguin and Modigliani took courses, and a few steps from the famous artists’ cafés of Montparnasse.
Two artists have deftly created the hotel’s unique look: Jerôme Mesnager, whose joyous white silhouettes are painted directly on to bedroom walls and all the way up the lift shaft (making this the most intriguing glass lift-ride in town) and sculptor Sophie Watrigant, whose equally endearing figures climb a dainty steel ladder from the bottom to the top of the five-storey stairwell.
As for the 20 bedrooms, they are compact but have the classy feel of a top hotel and come in four distinct designs, all cleverly lit with stone-lined bathrooms, sculptured taps and exceptional beds. Room service is provided by the well-regarded restaurant, Wadja, opposite.
In the morning, take breakfast (all fresh) in the tiny “petit bistrot” or on a velvet sofa beside shelves stocked with art books. Or take a seat facing the wall screen and watch an art video as you eat. Service is from smiling, smartly uniformed waiters, while receptionists are relaxed and warm. A perfect fusion of quality and character. There is even a little Moroccan-style spa downstairs, where treatments can be arranged at short notice.
OTHER PLACES TO STAY
Two other alluring hotels in the same area are the intimate Le Sainte-Beuve (9 rue Sainte-Beuve; 4548 2007; www.hotelsainte beuveparis.com), with double rooms from £132 to £282 per night, including breakfast, and the romantic Duc de St. Simon, set round a pretty, secluded courtyard (14 rue de St-Simon; 4439 2020; www.hotelducdesaintsimon.com), with doubles from £188 to £305 per night).
Eurostar (08705 186186; www.eurostar.com) operates up to 17 daily services from St. Pancras International, Ebbsfleet International and Ashford International to Paris, from £59 return.
'Paris Walks’ by Fiona Duncan and Leo Glass is published by Duncan Petersen Publishing, £8.99.