Paris for a day. It seemed an impossibly romantic notion. But actually you can do it for as little as £69 return on Eurostar.
I decided to go. I would sit at pavement cafes. I’d eat frites. I’d wear red lipstick. I might even smoke a Gauloise. Though taking up smoking was probably a step too far – even for Paris.
And so I found myself applying red lipstick at 5.15 one morning, layering on the mascara, tying a Liberty scarf with a ‘sourire’, taking the early train to St Pancras and boarding the 7.22am Eurostar to Paris.
10.47am. Paris. Ha!
I am here – an accordian plays in my head, overlayered with Edif Piaf belting out ‘Non, je n’regrete rien’, there are croissants and men shouting in French. The strains of the accordion die away as I face the realisation I have no euros and cannot buy a map, jump on the metro, take a taxi or withdraw any cash as the only cash machine in the station is out of order. And so I find myself being fleeced by the station bureau de change who charge 7 euros for the privilege of giving me a colossally bad exchange rate for the 20 English pounds I luckily have in my handbag.
I then spend an age in the metro peering at a huge map and trying to work out how to get to Notre Dame while realising I should perhaps have done a bit more preparation than just putting on red lipstick.
Still, I cheer up when I come out at Cite station to find Notre Dame towering above me and a cluster of lovely flower shops selling Christmas decorations. I buy a Santa climbing up the Eiffel Tower for my nephew and a Felicitations card for his brother who is not yet 24 hours old. I go to Notre Dame, arriving during mass and take Holy Communion in French – turns out ‘Amen’ is the same in both languages. I stare at the stained glass windows for a while and try to imagine what the jewel-like colours must have looked like to a 12th century congregation before books and colour printing and mass produced images. I can’t.
But with books on my mind I spend a very happy hour in Shakespeare and Company, the English language bookshop founded by George Whitman in 1951, named in tribute to the orginal Shakespeare and Company, founded by Sylvia Beach in 1919, which became a meeting point for writers like Ernest Hemmingway, F Scott Fitzgearld and James Joyce in the 1920s and published the first copies of Joyce’s Ulyssess. If I ever opened a bookshop, it would be a bookshop like this; tables stacked with secondhand bargains outside and in the uneven-floored winding warren of rooms inside, rickety shelves piled high right to the roof. There are glass cabinets full of faded Penguin originals, library books, antique books and books that people have loved, alongside brand spanking new books in the front of the shop. I buy a slender volume of Ernest Hemmingway’s prose sketches on Paris and my purchase, A Moveable Feast, screams ‘pretentious tourist’ as I leave the shop and wander around the Left Bank. Past the Sorbonne and through the winding streets that are home to many more bookshops. I leave touristy Paris along the banks of the Seine behind as I walk through the ‘rues’ where people live and shop, past boulangeries, boucheries and hairdressers, past French ladies doing their shopping and people walking their dogs.
I stop when I come to Place de la Contrescarpe to have lunch at La Contre which has been recommended by A Hedonist’s Guide to Paris, my bible for the trip. (It’s the perfect companion for a short stay, handbag-sized, covering the essentials – where to eat, drink, shop and stay, with a smattering of culture.) La Contre turns out to be exactly as good as promised, a large terrace overlooking the small square gives way to a lovely old wooden ‘library’ with bar and dining room behind. Apart from a few tables of French men taking coffee and a lone writer tapping on his laptop, I have the place to myself and take a table by the window in the library, order onion soup, poulet supreme and frites. Hemingway lived on Place de la Contrescarpe in the 1920s, he describes it for me in the first chapter of A Moveable Feast, which I’ve given up trying to hide in my newspaper. Because there’s no way to hide I’m a tourist, regardless of how much lipstick I slap on.
After lunch I walk down to the Jardin du Luxembourg and have a great time taking photos of it on my new camera (an Olympus SP 810UZ in case you’re wondering) and try out both the watercolour and sketch effects – those poor old artists on their rickety wooden chairs really are wasting their time …
From here I walk all the way down Montparnasse, the centre of cultural coffee-house life in the 1920s, and through the grand military museums and monuments of Les Invalides to the Rodin Museum, arriving just as it shuts under its new winter closing regime. But I don’t care because theis means I’ll have more time to wander down the Champs Elysee and oogle the designer shops on the Rue Du Fauborg Saint Honore. But not before I’ve spent another half hour photographing myself under golden-coloured trees on the Esplanade des Invalides.
So now it’s getting quite late as I reach the Champs Elysee and I take some photos of the Eiffel Tower outlined in the distance against a violet sky, and then it’s dark and the streaming traffic from the Arc de Triomphe makes beautiful ribbons of coloured light all along the wide boulevard. There’s just time for a quick walk along Fauborg de St Honore before I have to work out how to get to Gare du Nord for my 18.43 train home.
The spectacularly bad planning which has characterised the entire trip almost results in me missing it. Here’s a tip, remember that Paris has the same rush hour traffic as anywhere else at 6pm and the last place you want to be half an hour before your train leaves and you’re supposed to be checking in, is sitting in it.
I’ve treated myself to a Standard Premier ticket on the way back which means I get a big comfy seat, dinner and a glass of wine. Standard Premier on the way out gets you a continental breakfast.
My day in Paris has been wonderful but oh so quick, a quick flash of magic, a bonheur bref. But I have lovely memories and my photos, though none it turns out of me on the Esplanade des Invalides. I had to delete them. Paris may still be beautiful after almost two thousand years, but it looks like I can’t do close-ups past 40!
Travelling by Eurostar to Paris
Eurostar operates up to 18 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris with return fares from £69. The fastest journey time is 2 hours 15 minutes, tickets are available from www.eurostar.com or 08432 186 186. Upgrade to Standard Premier for flexible fares from C189 return, spacious on-board accommodation, a light meal and a selection of magazines.
How to save money
Avail of Eurostar Plus partnerships for great savings on Paris museums and galleries (Eurostar Plus Culture: 2-for-1 entry into paying exhibitions on presentation of Eurostar ticket), discounts at top city restaurants (Eurostar Plus Gourmet: up to 50% savings for pre-booked tables on presentation of Eurostar ticket, visit www.eurostarplus.co.uk/gourmet to make a booking), and shopping discounts (Eurostar Plus Shopping: 10% discount at the Galerie Lafayette plus invitation to a private fashion show).
What to take with you
A copy of Hg2: A Hedonist’s Guide to Paris, red lipstick, euros