We'll Always Have Paris.
I'd heard the rumors whispered at cocktail parties and wine bars, and bandied about in e-mails ever since I'd moved back to Boston from the 12th arrondissement: Paris was changing. The staunchly nationalist grande dame of a city, it was said, had finally embraced modern, global style in its menus, hotels, and clubs, and even in its boutiques. Suddenly, everyone was saying, the City of Light had become as hip as it is historic.
Perhaps. But in its modern incarnation, could Paris still be as bewitching Â— as sexy Â— as it always was? Then again, in Paris, could even the trendiest destinations du moment ever help but be eternally romantic? It seems the perfect time to reinvestigate, what with Valentine's Day beckoning and flights from Logan comparatively cheap and brief and Â— concerns about travel notwithstanding Â— generally uneventful.
The baggage claim area of Charles de Gaulle seems familiar, thick with cigarette smoke and the buttery, sweet scent of a nearby croissant stand. A stream of women rushes by, leaving behind a potent floral perfume cloud. It's easy to forget how vital perfume is to everyday life here; the ladies' scents linger, a distinctly French mix of parfum notes mingling with the smells of smoke and food. Suddenly, I know I'm in Paris again.
Soon we're speeding from the airport in the early morning light along the Seine, which reflects the imposing structures above it: the Musée d'Orsay, the city's impressionist art museum; Pont Neuf, the fabled and beautiful bridge the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude once wrapped end to end in fabric; and Hôtel de Ville, the old city hall built in the Middle Ages, where Robespierre hid from the National Guard in 1794. Our taxi purrs up to Hôtel Meurice, a hotel as over-the-top grand and formal as they come, complete with gold-leaf walls, ornate cornices, and seamless marble floors that echo the slightest footfall. “Madame, we're so sorry. Your room will not be ready for another 15 minutes,” says the cashmere-clad desk clerk. “Can we offer you a breakfast while you wait?” Never mind that the apology is completely unnecessary; check-in time isn't for another two hours. Instead of collapsing in the lobby's overstuffed chairs, we take one look at the breakfast spread and accept.
The hotel's marble- and mirror-lined jewel box of a dining room (anchored by sparkling Louis XVI chandeliers) is a perfect introduction to Paris. “What kind of jam will you have?” a stout tuxedoed gentleman inquires in English moments after we're seated. He's poised, spoon in hand, behind a rolling cart stocked with more than 20 crystal jars of confiture. “Please help yourself,” our waiter urges, motioning to the sprawling buffet of perfectly ripe cheeses like the unctuous chèvres and triple crème Fourme d'Ambert, meticulously filled petits fours, and superlative croissants. And that's just breakfast. At dinner, the Michelin-starred kitchen concocts such heady creations as scallops with foie gras and green apples, and roasted lamb with truffled polenta.
The Meurice's Rue de Rivoli address abuts the Tuileries, whose 17th-century formal fountains once overlooked pre-Revolution executions. Today, the scene is notably more peaceful. French children in toggle coats and parkas frolic and throw tantrums, bums eat baguettes on benches, tourists snap pictures, and businessmen on their lunch hours read Le Monde through thick spectacles. One couple holds hands, sharing a Coke. This may be a historic setting, but the crowd is firmly in the here and now.
A short walk away, the exact inverse is happening. Whereas Parisians have consciously changed the appearance of the Tuileries, they have restored Notre Dame to its 12th-century self. Its Gothic façade, now unfettered by the scaffolding of previous years, is every bit as awe-inspiring as it must have been to the devotees who first prayed there. Gypsies perform outside (Victor Hugo would delight) while vendors peddle postcards, beer, and crêpes in the midday shadows of the soaring cathedral. We're still full from our epic breakfast, but I've been craving a crêpe for years. A pudgy, bearded vendor hands over my order, stuffed to its crispy edges with the same flavor combination I became addicted to while living here: banana and Nutella doused with Grand Marnier.
Jet lag gets the better of us, and we turn back toward the hotel. A graceful piece of the Parisian landscape for centuries, the Meurice is the incarnation of old-school, rose-between-the-teeth romance. Fresh from an ambitious two-year renovation, the place is a resplendent mixture of art nouveau and belle époque design. Yet in addition to restoring formal 18th-century Louis XVI antiques, a recent renovation added cutting-edge amenities, from the standard (Internet access and fax machines) to the excessive (heating coils hidden in the marble bathtubs).
Paris isn't really just romantic Â— it's sexy. Not bombshell sexy, but intelligent sexy, like someone with both beauty and brains.
That's what I'm thinking when a Parisian friend calls to tell me about the original Buddha Bar, known for its sultry vibe. “It's where all the hip, beautiful people drink,” he says. “You've got to go.” Barely three steps inside the club's crowded doorway, I can see he's right.
A bar mezzanine rings and hovers above the circular dining area, amphitheater-style. Pan-Asian influences reign supreme in the dark woods, silk fabrics, and simple lines Â— even in the music. The air is scented with cigarette smoke, gin, and musky incense. In the center of the lowest level, a 20-foot gilded Buddha meditates peacefully, indifferent to the antics around it.
And antics there are. Everyone everywhere is dancing. On the sofas, at the bar, on the steps, and Â— between courses Â— at the dining room tables below. Later that night, we witness a remarkably similar scene at the lounge Man Ray, where the crowd is equally well heeled (as it should be, considering that Johnny Depp, Sean Penn, and John Malkovich are co-owners). There, another gold Buddha holds court, this one slightly more diminutive than Buddha Bar's. But not one of the friendly revelers seems to notice.
“Do you like this more than Buddha Bar?” a man at the balcony of Man Ray asks in French, before answering his own question. “It's a better crowd. Not pretentious. And newer Â— more international. It's good to have new places with new attitudes.”
His nonchalance toward all things traditionally French is a little disarming to a Bostonian. Americans may marvel at Paris's centuries of culture and tradition, but Parisians take that history in stride, and Â— increasingly these days Â— look around for the Next Big Thing. In fact, if there's anything distinctly and traditionally French about these two trendy new boîtes, it's the patrons' utter abandon. Strangers find themselves dancing together within minutes; couples kiss in the corners. With their mix of sensory stimulation, fusion of international sensibilities, and uninhibited crowds, these hangouts are sexy. And one thing becomes clear: If its classic, romantic spots like the Meurice ooze modernity, Paris's modern places ooze romance.
The place that drew me back repeatedly while living in Paris was Cimetière du Montparnasse, the final resting place of French artists, scientists, scholars, and thinkers. Among them are philosophers Simone de Beauvoir, known best as the author of the feminist manifesto The Second Sex, and her lifelong lover, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.
We make our way to their shared grave on the second day of our trip. It is, of course, the same as I left it: a long gray slab of stone covered in flowers. The couple's life together is the stuff of cultural and intellectual legend. They pioneered and popularized two of the postmodern Western world's most defining schools of thought. Yet their ideas and their personal romance, so recently seen as revolutionary, are now literally history. The cemetery is one of Paris's unchanging places, romantic in its stubborn refusal to forget the past buried here, and a testimony to how avant-garde many of them once were.
We stop at another of the city's enduring sites: Musée Rodin, one of Europe's most beautiful small museums. Its formal garden is scattered with the famed French sculptor's works, nestled among rosebushes, dusty footpaths, ivy-covered ornamental pools, manicured hedges, and sprawling lawns. It's hard to imagine a more romantic setting. But we're due for dinner at the newly opened Nobu.
Nobuyuki Matsuhisa's restaurants are popping up all over the world as quickly as you can say “McDonald's,” but this outpost off the Champs-Elysées has its own flavor and represents a departure from the city's culinary custom. Paris has typically shunned non-French restaurants at the fine-dining level. No longer. Nobu's streamlined décor echoes the contemporary nature of the food Â— part Japanese, part Peruvian, part Californian. A simple tartare of translucent yellowtail, for example, comes zapped with tiny, bright green jalapeño pepper rings. The restaurant's most buzzed-about dish, black cod, is a pliant and fresh wedge of cooked fish steeped in a fragrant miso sauce.
On advice from Parisian friends, we make our way to the Lizard Lounge, a labyrinthine nightclub fashioned out of an old cellar. Down two flights of stone stairs and through three tiny doorways, the bartender greets us. “It's very old, yes, but it's a cool place,” he says in perfect English. “We have a young crowd Â— and the transformation of the cave is very good.” He gestures to the rocky medieval walls, which glow with red lights. In the next room, we nudge our way next to two European men Â— one French, one German Â— and watch the crowd around us smoke, sip cognac, and schmooze, seemingly indifferent to the surroundings.
“The French don't care too much about their history because they have so much of it,” the bartender tells us. “We say, 'So what?'”
There is, of course, one thing no Parisian ever takes for granted: shopping.
To fully appreciate this, we move our base camp to the Hôtel Plaza Athénée Â— located at fashion central, Avenue Montaigne. The Plaza Athénée is itself arguably fashion central, packed tight with models and designers during the spring and fall shows. It's also unusual not to see at least a handful of both at other times of the year.
Like the Meurice, the Plaza Athénée is a thoughtful combination of past and present. Integrated into the plush period décor Â— Louis XVI, Regency, and art deco Â— are faxes, audio systems, and electronic privacy buttons that alert the staff when you want to be left alone. Many suites have flat-screen TVs; some have private fitness rooms, saunas, and balconies that overlook the garden courtyard, ablaze with red geraniums.
Avenue Montaigne and Rue Saint-Honoré are the unchallenged rues for haute couture shopping, and our new address is flanked by such international (though mostly French) heavyweights as Christian Dior, Prada, Valentino, Christian Lacroix, and Hermès. Dior, with its calm blue exterior and unlikely frenetic windows, lures me inside, where a sharp-faced but cordial saleswoman tempts me with a sheer silk pantsuit in subtly patterned black. It's classic Paris Â— undeniably elegant, confident, ageless, and expensive. But no buying decisions can be made before a visit to Colette, widely considered the most stylish boutique of the moment. The minimalist, three-floor shop on the Rue Saint-Honoré is Barneys New York meets Bang & Olufsen. We're bombarded with high-tech gear, cult beauty products, cases lined with random objets d'art, unusual home accessories, and lots of attitude. The room is filled with garden-variety international hipsters dressed all in black, sifting through the racks of low-cut Celine dresses and Fendi bags. There's even a bar that sells, in addition to tasty food, a ridiculously overpriced selection of mineral waters from around the world. “Let's go,” my companion firmly urges.
For dinner, everything rolls back about a century to Le Relais Plaza, where culinary legend Alain Ducasse has taken over, sending out dishes of traditional bistro fare to a chic crowd. Housed in the Plaza Athénée, the art deco bistro has comforted everyone from Kim Basinger and Yves Saint Laurent to Lauren Bacall and Woody Allen. Designer Pierre Balmain ate here so often that when he died his table was “retired.”
By the time the second course arrives, we're ready to claim a permanent table ourselves. The filet mignon, topped with earthy, shaved truffles and slabs of rich foie gras, melts on our tongues. A small dish of pommes dauphine, bubbling with custardy, creamy potatoes, arrives next. It's all an exercise in decadence, made official by the silken, crackle-crusted classic, crème brûlée, and delicate petits fours. Stuffed, we surrender and lean back in the amber glow of the room's candles reflecting off the murals on the walls.
The best example of graceful modernization is the hotel's posh bar, which, despite its 18th-century wooden paneling, is a tribute to contemporary design. At the hand of Patrick Jouin, a Philippe Starck disciple, it has gone from World War I-era fame (Mata Hari came by regularly) to its current ultra-contemporary incarnation: glowing blue bar, austere tables, red leather chairs, and flirtatious crowd. We order one of the house's specialty martinis, snag a seat in the corner, sit back, and witness the collision of eras.
By the time we've arrived at Charles de Gaulle for our flight home, we're already nostalgic for our still-unended trip. That's what Paris does: It makes you both nostalgic for the past and eager for the future. The changing city may not always be as we remember it, but the past alone is not what makes it so romantic. It's the moment in which Paris always seems to exist Â— at the confluence of the cutting edge and the history it flaunts at every turn. Ultimately, that integration of past and future forces visitors to do something exceptionally rare and romantic, indeed: embrace the present.