Saturday 3 December 2016

Love Letters to Paris: What our travel writers love about the City of Lights

France travel special

Online Editors

Published 15/05/2016 | 02:30

Always popular: Paris
Always popular: Paris
Katie Byrne. Photo: Barbara McCarthy
Bairbre Power
Conor Power
Jillian Bolger
Nicola Brady first went on a school trip when she was 15.
Pol Ó Conghaile

Six months since the Paris terror attacks, our writers reflect on the enduring appeal of one of the world's great cities.

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Katie Byrne: 'I once stayed up until 7am writing a short story…'

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There's something about Paris that inspires creativity. Perhaps its front-facing, people-watching café culture adds ink to the well. Or perhaps the ghosts of Proust and Balzac make this city the eternal muse.

Either way, I once stayed up until 7am writing a short story during a stay in the City of Light. I generally can't get past the first paragraph...

If there is something in the ether in Paris that invigorates the artist, then Saint-Germain-des-Prés is the source. It's golden hour all day long in the erstwhile stomping ground of Oscar Wilde. Spots like Café de Flore (cafedeflore.fr) make it all the more enticing.

When I get a little too intoxicated by Paris - and drunk on the idea that I'm going to move there right now, this very minute - I take a breather in The Chapel of Our Lady of the Miraculous Medal on the Rue du Bac (chapellenotredamedelamedaillemiraculeuse.com). My shoulders come down from around my ears the moment I walk through the doors.

Of course, it would be blasphemous not to mention the fashion. Some of my favourite labels - Iro, Vanessa Bruno and Isabel Marant - were born in Paris, and I always pop into the Chantal Thomass lingerie boutique on Rue Saint Honor (chantalthomass.com; trust me on this one).

Thierry Lasry sunglasses are a more recent distraction. He's opening a flagship store on Rue du Four this month (thierrylasry.com). It's just a short walk from Café de Flore, so I may as well stop in for another coffee...

Bairbre Power: 'It's like walking into a Toulouse-Lautrec painting…'

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Culture, cuisine and gourmand Parisian experiences make the French capital one of my favourite destinations to visit and if I only have a few hours, I'll swing by Galeries Lafayette (galerieslafayette.com) on Boulevard Haussmann for a look at its international fashion edit under the light-filled, stained glass cupola.

Across the road on Rue Scribe (where the bus for Charles de Gaulle Airport departs), you'll find the Japanese store Uniqlo (uniqlo.com) - its ultra-light down jackets and coats are definitely worth a look.

If you find yourself dining alone and don't want to spend the night swiping Twitter in some restaurant, go savour the spectacle and theatre of the historic dining room at Le Bouillon Chartier (bouillon-chartier.com), also in the 9ème arrondissement.

Be warned, this is not a place for hardcore foodies. This is basic, brasserie food where starters are priced from less than €2. It gets very mixed reviews and waiters can be notoriously rude, but when they scribble your bill on the paper tablecloth, you'll be surprised at how cheap it is. Maybe it's the vin rosé, but I giggle at the sideshows around me. It's like nothing else I know in Paris - going there is like walking into a Toulouse-Lautrec painting.

Pól Ó Conghaile: 'The magic is never more than a street corner away…'

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I didn't fall head over heels for Paris. At first, I didn't even fall for it. I arrived by bus from Germany, taking a spur-of-the-moment notion as a student summering overseas. I learned a lot. Never to order a drink on the Champs-Élysées. Never to arrive without a hotel sorted. To laugh off snotty service. That it is impossible to 'do' the Louvre (louvre.fr).

Still, something stuck. I loved the syrupy sound of those accents; the whiff of fresh baking outside the boulangeries; the men and women who brushed by with an enchanting insouciance; the gigantic clocks on the fifth floor of the Musée d'Orsay (musee-orsay.fr), framing views of the Sacré Cœur just a short walk from Degas's dancers and Cezannes' apples.

Paris doesn't give itself easily. It doesn't come to you. Like New York, the distances between neighbourhoods can be surprising. The cuisine which once made it the envy of the world has lost ground to London, Tokyo, Copenhagen and Spain. It can be a maddening place. Yet despite all of this, the magic is never more than a street corner away.

For me, this is something I've come to appreciate over several visits.

I've done deep dives in the quartiers, into neighbourhoods like Le Marais. I've discovered random gems (did you know Foucault's pendulum swings at the Musée des Arts et Métiers?), toured the catacombs, ticked off countless cafés and restaurants (try the velvety cassoulet at Comptoir de la Gastronomie, comptoirdelagastronomie.com), marvelled at the chic boutiques and concept stores. And bit by bit, the flame has been kindled.

Since November, it's burned brighter than ever.

Jillian Bolger: 'It is the unfamiliar that I love most about you…'

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Dear Paris,

The familiar sight of your sky-scraping Tour D'Eiffel makes my heart skip a beat each time I return to your streets, but in truth it is the unfamiliar that I love most about you. Each trip reveals a new facet of your complex personality that reminds me why you are so universally revered and celebrated.

Your streets are a mesmerising tangle of architectural gems and while your style credentials impress, it's your old-school sensibilities that appeal to me above all else.

Sure, I love the cool vibes of Marais and the hillside hipness of Montmartre, but my heart belongs to the blink-and-you'll-miss-it neighbourhood of Ile Saint-Louis. The genteel islet, dwarfed in size and status by Île de la Cité, is my idea of Gallic heaven. All narrow, cobbled one-way streets and shuttered, honey-hued buildings, it looks and feels deliciously lost in time.

Your markets, boulangeries and restaurants thrill me each visit, but it's your streetscapes and buildings that draw me back. You can keep your Louvre though. For me it's all about Musée d'Orsay, that magnificent Beaux-Art railway station (musee-orsay.fr; who makes train stations this ornate?) that's filled with bona fide treasures.

Perhaps I love it because it was the first art gallery I ever visited with the man I would marry. Or maybe it's because of Monet's gardens, Degas's ballerinas and Toulouse-Lautrec's showgirls. Pour me a pastis, and let's try and figure this out…

À tout à l'heure, Jillian

Nicola Brady: 'I feel like that wide-eyed 15-year-old all over again...'

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To me, Paris isn't the city of love, but rather the city of freedom.

I first went on a school trip with friends when I was 15, with the aim of practising our French. As any attempts we did make were met with confusion and derision, the trip quickly became an opportunity to run loose in a city that, to us, was the height of glamour.

We shared plates of snails and frogs' legs on a café terrace by the Louvre, raced up the steps of the Eiffel Tower and meandered around the streets of Montmartre, where we were staying.

The area was more than a little rough around the edges, but I fell in love with its steep steps, tiny iron balconies and bohemian history. One evening, a friend and I set off with our beloved English teacher to see Montmartre by night. We weaved between the al fresco drinkers and rose sellers, marvelling at the Sacré-Cœur illuminated under the night sky.

It was one of the first times I felt like I was turning into an adult, and whenever I return, I feel like that wide-eyed 15-year-old all over again.

Conor Power: 'A moveable feast? More like an immutable beauty…'

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Dear Paris,

Did I ever take the time before now to tell you how much I love you?

You turn my head with curves and cuts that never go out of fashion; hypnotic and alluring at any time of the year, day or night.

I love you because you're always surprising me: It took years of visiting you before I discovered that the Jacquemart-André Museum (musee-jacquemart-andre.com) and the Marmottan Museum (2 Rue Louis Boilly) existed. In any other city, they would be the main highlights.

I remember too, the first day I discovered Rue Cler in the 7th arrondissement, where all that's wonderful about Paris is encapsulated in one long cobbled street: the daily market; the multiple speciality food shops and restaurants; the enchanting antique toy shop around the corner; the wonderful old-time "Aux PTT" brasserie (auxptt.fr) beside the post office and the overall sense that you're in a vibrant local community in the heart of an extraordinary city.

Those sorry fools wounded you last November, but you've endured so much worse in the past. In the 1800s, you were practically razed to the ground and rebuilt, emerging as the prettiest and most magnificent city in the world. A moveable feast? More like an immutable beauty.

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