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"Snapshots of Paris"
San Francisco Focus

by Mary Heebner
Photos by Macduff Everton


 

Parisians enjoy living. The beauty of Paris is that there is an open invitation to do the same. My notes on Paris read like a photo album – snapshots of the city culled from several visits in which I have discovered new sights and sought the comfort of old favorites, letting
serendipity chart my course. Each time I felt like a bumpkin, gazing at my map instead of the light on the plane trees, I knew I'd gradually get my bearings if I just followed the river, the rhythm of Paris.

The French quite sensibly seem to spend as much time as possible out of doors and, in true ecumenical fashion, it is often over bread and wine, whether in a café or on the grass. Open market stalls, aromas of pungent cheeses and meats, and garden quality produce simply beg for a picnic, and only after I make one do I really feel I'm in Paris. There are markets in nearly every neighborhood, such as rue Daguerre, rue Bucci, rue Lepic, and the oldest, on rue Mouffetard, (all are open daily 8am-1 and 4-7 pm, except Mondays), that are a feast not to be denied the senses, whether you are browsing or buying.

We stayed in a little hotel near the Eiffel Tower a block from the Duplaix metro stop. I had tucked a cloth, a corkscrew and some sturdy but disposable cups among my baggage – just in case – for shopping for a picnic always offers a traveler a delightful twist on domesticity. Our quest for the perfect picnic took us through the afternoon, exploring the wealth of specialty food shops in the neighborhood. We bought wedges of brie and Papillón Roquefort cheeses at Rolland, and selected produce from the greengrocers' pyramids of luscious tomatoes, baskets of berries and crispy maché. Across the street from Rolland, near rue Lourmel x rue St. Royale was a wonderful rotisserie where we chose grilled rabbit fresh from the spit. We stopped at Polaine's second location in this part of town for a trademark boule and some apple tarts, then peered into a shop selling the pungent Raoul-Gey mustards, cornichon, and olives, and decided we must have some, as well as a sampling of bitter chocolates. Finally we went to the franchise wine shop Nicolas, for a house label, numbered Bordeaux, a surprisingly good value. When our sacks got heavy we stopped for a cold beer and a citrón presse at au Dernier Métro along nearby boulevard de Grenelle.

We met our friends in the late afternoon at the flower edged lawn between Ecole Militaire and the Eiffel Tower, then chose a spot to the side, forewarned that one can't picnic on the main grounds. The cloth disappeared beneath the colorful bouquet of our petit dejeuner and we anticipated a Babette's feast at the mere crackle of waxed paper unwrapping. At the smack of a cork, "To Paris!" we toasted and broke bread, joining other picnickers beneath Eiffel's delicate filigree spun 276 meters in the air.

Paris is masterful at merging the new with the old, generating a prismatic vibrancy that is ever-changing. Buildings may fall into disuse only to be morphed into something even more splendid. The Orsay Museum, built for the Universal Exhibition in 1900 was used as a railway station until post WW. II, when its platform could not be extended to accommodate modern trains. Among its incarnations, it became a movie set for Orson Wells' "Kafka", a theater, auction house, then, for years, an eyesore. Restoration spanned three Presidents' tenure, until 1986 when Francois Mitterand inaugurated the steel girded, beautifully fenestrated structure as a museum for Impressionist and other 19th century art. This year marks the tenth anniversary of its success. A footbridge across the Seine links the Orsay to the Tuileries gardens and the Louvre, creating a walkable fifty hectare cultural zone in the heart of the city.

I.M. Pei's ingenious glass pyramid opened up the labyrinthine corridors of the Louvre to sunlight and his redesign of the interior made for comprehensible access to the various galleries, including the recently renovated (1993) Richelieu wing, which, unlike the other wings which were once palace rooms, was designed specifically to showcase objects of art. I headed straight for the antiquities in the Sully and Denon wings, from Egyptian to Greek to Etruscan, unbothered by the movement of other people filling and emptying the rooms like a ground swell.

On the Right Bank, bracketing the 3rd and 4th Arrondissements is the Marais, originally a marshy flood plain of the Seine.

Henry IV commissioned his residence here in the 17th century, doling out surrounding acreage to noblemen whose identical hotels or mansions defined the edges of the oldest public square in Paris, the Place de Vosges. We walked beneath the stone buildings through scalloped arches of the shop-lined arcades and lingered over a café au lait until Hotel de Sale, the salt merchant's mansion that is now Museé Picasso, opened. Just behind the museum, tiny round tables and large leafy salades made L'Imprimerie, formerly a print shop, the perfect choice for a light lunch before looking at the more contemporary art galleries and boutiques in Paris' version of Soho.

 

When traveling I'm out and about day and night. I treat my hotel room as I did my bedroom as a teenager – a place to drop off stuff, pick up stuff, change, make a phone call and leave. This has its practical advantages when on a budget, but once in a while a view, a soft robe, an elegant room decorated in original art and antiques, has its appeal. The ultimate spoiler for us was spending our last night at one of the world's most luxurious hotels, the recently renovated Hotel Bristol. The original wing of the Bristol (it became a hotel in 1924) was once the home of Madame de Pompadour, a companion to Louis XV. The second wing, built in the 70's, faces onto a beautifully landscaped garden. After a swim in the indoor pool overlooking the rooftops of Paris, I sipped champagne while a steamy tub laced with lavender bath salts filled. I was in the beginning stages of a time honored ritual – shopping. I soaked and preened, laid out my clothes and slowly, carefully dressed, savoring this afternoon like a delicate dessert. Once I could bear to leave my private palace, I smiled at the doorman and stepped onto Paris' premier shopping street feeling like Sabrina. The rue Faubourg St. Honoré boasts everything from ready-to-wear to top couture – Hérmes, Lacroix, Féraud, Versace – each house as imaginatively appointed as their designer's creations. Here, window dressing borrows from Art and Industry, ancient and futuristic imagination, and reminds me that the French don't just have attitude, they invented it. I wanted to buy something memorable, distinctly Parisian. A saffron scarf caught my eye. It felt like spun wind, like the filtered light that dapples your skin through perfectly pruned shade trees at the Tuileries.

Each time I visit Paris I am reminded of what is written between the lines of any travel piece. Once I set aside my three day museum pass instead of continuing to marathon past a gazillion masterpieces, duck into a café for a rustic glass of vin rouge and pull out a book that is not a guide book, it is as if a little window inside me opens out upon the city of light beckoning me to take notice.

Copyright © Mary Heebner 1999
photographs © Macduff Eveerton