Here at the Arb, we love Paris. So much so we’ve a Paris correspondent. But that doesn’t stop our team visiting at every opportunity. In this Parisian promenade, Alex Larman goes back to the classics. Paris, nous t’aimons…
I’ve always loved Paris. Does that make me a cliché? (Probably, I hear you sigh). The first time I ever visited was when I was 19, attempting to live the backpacker idyll. I had romantic visions of sleeping on a mattress on the top floor of Shakespeare & Co, breakfasting on half-stale baguettes and wandering down the Seine, smoking a Gauloise, wearing a long dark coat and muttering about existentialism and Camus. I lasted all of five days, because I didn’t get a mattress at Shakespeare & Co, and instead had to stay in a filthy little room in Montmartre. This was, you’ll bear in mind, pre-Amelie, and the area was still riddled with the sort of people that you’d cross the street to avoid. I did an awful lot of zig-zagging.
I’ve been back lots of times since, of course, but now, nearly a decade and a half after I first visited, things seemed a bit different. For one thing, I was travelling with La Belle, who, oddly enough, has never quite shared my enthusiasm for all things Parisian. (She claims to prefer Rome.) However, I saw this trip as an exercise in changing her mind, and so decided to give her a whistle-stop tour of the very best that the city had to offer. No woman of taste and refinement could resist, I reckoned, and La Belle was certainly both of those things. Certainly, the journey to Paris, via Eurostar, was pleasant and exceedingly comfortable in Standard Premier class – ‘it’s the only way to travel’, she said afterwards, and I was inclined to agree, although perhaps a couple of miniature bottles of Picpoul de Pinet had helped with that.
We headed to our first base there, the timeless Georges V. It’s one of those hotels that all but defies description, so I’ll try and offer a few impressionistic snippets. Beautiful and grand in equal measure, it knows what its clientele want (timeless luxury, flawlessly accommodating service that fits somewhere between the Parisian mould and that of its current owners, the Four Seasons) and provides it in spades. Nothing is too much trouble, and the bedrooms are palatial and hugely comfortable. It leads to a giddiness and excitability that can only be remedied by a good walk down the Champs-Élysées (still like a more stylish version of Oxford Street) and through to the Tuileries, where even the regrettable leisure-oriented rides can’t obscure the glory of the Louvre, nor the still-impressive IM Pei pyramid that sits, one figurative eyebrow raised, in the centre.
We returned to the Georges V for dinner at Le Cinq. This is a culinary treat, and no mistake, and La Belle and I were both thoroughly spoilt by the smorgasbord of loveliness that we were surrounded by. Under head chef Eric Briffard, the now triple Michelin-star cuisine is noticeably lighter and less gasp-inducing than a previous visit, where I still remember with a mixture of happiness and vague guilt a pie consisting of foie gras, truffle and girolles. Now, the immaculately chosen and paced menu focuses on seasonal dishes such as maki rolls of red shrimps, milk-fed lamb shoulder with tagine sauce and trap-caught blue lobster. With each course accompanied by sumptuous (and French, naturellement) wine, it was a meal fit for kings and queens, and one that La Belle and I both relished every mouthful of.
Of course, Paris is a city synonymous with the finest of fine dining. While there are attempts to replicate the street food scene that’s gained so much traction in London and New York, it’s the grand and formal restaurants that are still the stand-out attraction for many visitors, and they don’t get much grander or more formal – or better, for that matter, than Epicure, Eric Frechon’s three Michelin-starred outpost at Le Bristol. If it’s a fine day, which it most decidedly was when we visited in late July, guests are invited to sit outdoors, which immediately removes a layer of the formality that such establishments are associated with. La Belle professed herself delighted with the fact that she could sun herself and eat lunch at the same time; I, meanwhile, was once again astonished by the brilliance of Frechon’s cooking.
Not for nothing did he become famous as Nicholas Sarkozy’s favourite chef when the twinkle-toed one was President; when one samples dishes of such magnificence as the stuffed macaroni with black truffle and foie gras or the milk-fed saddle of lamb, it’s perfectly possible to feel regal yourself. The prices are, of course, on the expensive side, but there’s a good-value set menu, from which La Belle ordered, and she pronounced her appetiser of heirloom tomatoes and burrata the best she’d ever tried; yes, even better than that in her beloved Italy. The wine flowed, and, as with virtually everything that we drank, it remained of an exceptionally high calibre, meaning that even several glasses down, we remained bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
We left replete and more than satisfied, and prepared for further adventures, of which there were to be more than a few to come, most of which involved allowing La Belle to see that la vie Parisienne really was all that there was to aspire to. But could I succeed, or would she always prefer the Italian life?
Alex travelled to Paris with Eurostar. Eurostar operates up to 18 daily services from London St Pancras International to Paris Gare Du Nord with return fares from £69. Eurostar also offers connecting fares from more than 300 stations in the UK. Find out more details at www.eurostar.com.