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Mascarons on the Pont Neuf along the Seine


I’ve been to Paris half-a-dozen times in the last two decades and can’t wait to lose myself again in its ancient, cobbled streets. I used to travel by schedule, but with scores of museums and countless monuments, cafés, shops, and adventures unexpected, I’ve learned that all I really need is a subway map. Here are a few tips on how to toss your stuffy agenda and find your personal memoir of Paris.  

  • Expect to lose your bearings. But don’t panic—just remember that the Seine River snakes through the city like a backbone and acts as the nerve center for all the sightseeing on the Right Bank and artsy interaction on the Left Bank. You’ll always find your way back to the river. On my first trip to Paris, I floated the length of the Seine on a batteau mouche, dining on crustaceans served by a jaunty waiter in navy stripes, while catching my first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower alight at night.
  • Make peace with the Métro system. This transportation net, first opened a century ago, is a complex of sixteen lines criss-crossing Paris with nearly 250 stations within the city limits, delivering its passengers from one arrondissement to the next in just minutes. Funky art nouveau signs point the way to underground stations uniquely decorated; take the Bastille stop, featuring a mural of the uprising that heralded the French Revolution. My main character in my novel The Third Grace found her “nook” in the Métro as she “pressed her back into the sloping tile wall in front of the tracks and waited till the hollow hum proclaimed the train’s arrival, its doors opening with a sigh to exhale and inhale its passengers.”
  • Wear comfortable shoes. This tip is embarrassingly obvious. However, I must mention it to prevent your making my foolish mistake in thinking a pair of little heels would allow me to blend in the first time I shopped in this capital of fashion. Wrong! I stood out like a tourist anyway, and today I take flats to wander shamelessly down streets dedicated to haute couture. Random window shopping (or “window licking,” as the French put it) along broad Avenue Montaigne gave me a snapshot moment: A French gentleman carrying a polished walking stick stopped dead in his tracks on the steps of Louis Vuitton to compliment me, exclaiming, “Belle!” I found another “crannie” in the trendy Marais district, where in a Ted Baker store I succumbed to a fabulous fall jacket in camel—while wearing flip-flops!
  • Buy a souvenir. It doesn’t need to an expensive designer label, however; watch for handmade jewelry from curb-side vendors or pick up an antique postcard from the bookstalls along the Seine. In a cardboard box at a neighbourhood sale set up in the middle of a street seemingly on a whim, I found a ragtag collection of antique perfume bottles with aromatic brown stains still in place. I purchased my son’s birthday present at the famous market known as Les Puces (“the fleas”): a WW2 aviation map made of fabric rather than paper in case of ejection into the sea. I resist the charms of the caricature artists energetically sketching bulbous tourist noses, but I make a point of buying a watercolor each time I visit Paris; a whimsical rendition of the Sacré-Coeur Basilica hangs on my bedroom wall from my most recent trip to Montmarte.
  • Keep your guidebook closed and your eyes peeled. Intimate glimpses into Paris’s corners sometimes bring sweet memories that can be missed while searching for “Must-See #7” on page 51. There’s nothing wrong with lining up for entrance to the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre Museum, but the best moments are often accidental. Do necessary research before you leave your hotel room or save it until after a day of spontaneously following your nose. I once glimpsed The Thinker as I walked past the entrance to the Rodin Museum on my way to some other site that I no longer even recall. In The Third Grace my character recognizes scenes from movies shot in the world’s most romantic city: the hotel lobby where Meg Ryan was robbed in French Kiss, the alcove where Harrison Ford declared his love in Sabrina. Take notes and photos along the way and make your own personal guidebook!
  • That said, consider traveling with a motif in mind. On one trip, Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code was just hitting Paris, and it spawned a plethora of themed tours featuring the novel’s settings. I found it a little too kitschy for my tastes. However, planning an independent tour with my artist mom focusing on the Impressionists was helpful in organizing a short stay that would have otherwise been overwhelming. Mom introduced me to Sisley, Morisot, and Renoir, memorializing cubbyholes holding Monet’s water lilies and Degas’s ballerinas within museums that were too large for me to appreciate in the whole. Other themes pop: One night while ambling along the quay beside the Seine, I bumped into a line of mascarons—sculptures of ghoulish faces decorating Pont Neuf, a landmark in Paris (pictured above). The experience made it into my debut novel, when my main character “gasped at the fiendish ferocity of the 384 masks carved on the oldest bridge in the city, glaring down at her from their height like some ill-tempered gods.”

Finally, along the way be sure to smell the roses . . . er, champagne bubbles. Seize the day with lengthy breaks at sidewalk cafés to enjoy the bustle of passers-by, and sip an espresso or a glass of wine whenever you feel the urge. You won’t see everything on one trip anyway, so live like a Parisienne and savor the moment. I stumbled into Galeries LaFayette, a wonderful department store with its Belle Epoque architecture and wedding-cake tiers of balconies encircling the fabulous domed ceiling. I browsed purses, I sniffed perfume, I bought a small hand lotion that’s become my favourite brand (by L’Occitane de Provence). And guess what else . . . The wine bar beneath the cupola actually serves flutes of champagne before noon!

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