The romance of the River Seine, Port des Célestins.Photo: Jacques Loic/Getty Images/Photononstop RF
Joy is the city that surprises you – that was my assessment when I recently ended a long weekend in Paris. More than a decade had passed since I first visited the French capital, and I remember very little of that two-day stay, only scattered memories of intimidatingly dressed women shopping in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and a trip to the Notre Dame Cathedral, which remained covered in scaffolding due to the terrible fire of 2019.
At the time, Europe’s legendary city of romance was lost to me. I had no friends there to help unlock it and for fear of tourist traps I was lazy in preparing to get to know the streets. I suspect my inertia also had to do with the fact that Paris is so easy to reach from Britain that I could afford to “bank it”.
Between then and now I had been busy elsewhere, concentrating on book research in places harder to reach: Central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia. It is a shame, and entirely my fault, that Paris was wasted on me the first time.
One art exhibition drew me back: the blockbuster Mark Rothko show (until April 2) at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, located in the Bois de Boulogne, a sprawling park west of the city. I had visited Rothko’s birthplace, now the Mark Rothko Art Center, in Daugavpils, Latvia, and stood in the Rothko Room at London’s Tate Modern numerous times. I’m a fan. The show was elaborate and immersive (and very busy), and the Frank Gehry-designed building – white iceberg-like blocks surrounded by towering glass sails – would be the only reason to visit. But by the end of my mini-vacation, it turned out to be just one of many highlights.
As with any successful travel experience, the real gems are usually the ‘unknown unknowns’ – the ones you stumbled upon beforehand and didn’t expect. None were particularly hidden or secret, but they were new to me.
The mosque glowed and the tiles with geometric motifs glittered in green, peach and white
For this stay, I set up base in the 5th arrondissement, close to the Sorbonne, and on the first morning, with the weather on my side (the hotel receptionist told me how lucky I was, as it had “rained for days”), I went jogging. It was a crisp, clear winter day and as I turned the corner I saw the first unexpected sight of the day: the sun shining on the sand-colored minaret of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, inspired by the Al-Zaytuna Mosque in Tunisia. Square, Moorish in style and 33 meters high, it glowed in the light, the tiles with geometric motifs glittering in green, peach and white.
As I crossed the road and entered the Jardin des Plantes, I stopped to take another completely unexpected, and very different, unknown photo: a zoological enclosure with a group of incredibly cute red-necked wallabies, feeding together in a patch of sunshine. to chat. I walked on, past the large wrought iron greenhouses, with giant palms pressing against the glass, as more and more joggers entered the park. The Seine, just beyond, beckoned me back to it, and I ran along the river – past the Shakespeare and Company bookstore, self-styled “Left Bank Literary Institute,” where a queue was already forming and being watched held by a bouncer. the power of Instagram (although photos are banned in the famous store). I ran past dozens of terraces, one looked more attractive than the other.
Librairie Galignani is certainly a contender for the fanciest bookstore in the world
Walking back to the park, I stopped for an espresso at La Fontaine Cuvier, settling into one of those classic woven French bistro chairs that require a battered novel and a cigarette rather than a Garmin running watch, but no matter.
Showered and breakfasted, I then walked to the rue de Rivoli, looking for bookstores to browse in (the eternal habit of an ex-bookseller abroad). After a mooch in the elegant Librairie Galignani – certainly a contender for the chicest bookstore in the world with its high ceilings and potted plants – I found the more egalitarian-looking Smith & Son nearby, which has a brilliant range of English-language titles. Lured by the smell of baking upstairs, past a display of Penguin Modern Classics, I arrived at the cafe and a truly surprising sight: photos of the British Royal Family. The English waiter told me that the shop was originally opened by the British in 1870 as a retail space, lending library and tea room, and had previously been a WHSmith. Despite the slight rebranding, it remains famous for its afternoon tea, and the scones were indeed melt-in-the-mouth delicious. I felt guilty that I hadn’t indulged in a croissant in a real Parisian bakery, but there was time for that another day.
Wandering back through the 6th arrondissement, I peered at the works of Jules Verne in the window of the exquisitely beautiful rare bookstore Librarie Monte Cristo, but everything looked alarmingly expensive and, a little intimidated, I moved on.
Paris snuck up on me and I would run out of time
That afternoon I was almost back where I started, admiring the exhibitions of the Institut du Monde Arabe. I first marveled at the architecture – one facade has more than 100 light-sensitive panels that open and close like a camera shutter to control the light entering the interior – and then explored the perfume exhibition, Parfums d’Orient (until March 17 ), which looks at the meaning of incense and fragrance from the High Atlas Mountains to the Indian Ocean. Reem Al-Nasser’s installation of a wedding outfit made entirely of jasmine buds, based on traditional work by Yemeni artisans (and questioning the sustainability of art and the sanctification of virginity) was a highlight. The ground floor cafe smelled tempting so I queued up and ordered a bowl of couscous. Since it was Paris, it wasn’t just a canteen experience. The pleasantly fluffy couscous, combined with delicately cooked vegetables, scented with cumin and cinnamon, was served at the table, along with a ceramic sauce boat with stock. It was as good as – perhaps better than – anything I had eaten in Morocco.
Related: Beyond the Tower: the other star attractions of Gustave Eiffel’s Paris
Later I stopped for a beer on Boulevard Saint-Marcel, at the quiet Au Petit Bar: popular with students playing board games, it welcomes solo drinkers. I started making plans the next day: for tea and cake in the adjacent café and a metro ride to see the Asian art at the Musée Guimet. Paris snuck up on me and I would run out of time.
Returning to the magnetic Seine for a walk towards the Jardin Tino Rossi, I saw a couple sitting on the riverbank, wrapped around each other against the cold, the leaves falling around them as the sky turned a soft lavender. Schmaltzy perhaps, but this Parisian scene, like a still from a romantic film, was too atmospheric to ignore, and when I stopped to take a photo I felt a wave of admiration and awe. I whispered out loud to no one, “Ah Paris, heartthrob city!” I may have been woefully slow to figure it out, but I’m so glad I finally did.