Romancing the Bones (Day 1: Chocolat Chaud, Shopping at Lafayette, Christmas Lights).

What is to be gained from visiting a city again and again? What good can come from digging up old bones? What possessed me to travel back to the city of love and light, this time alone, at the most romantic time of the year? It transpires that it was a good decision. Paris isn’t just a city for the lovers, but a place to find a little inner peace. Here are the places in Paris to go this winter for some alone time (interspersed by good food and wine -filled soirées with friends of course).

Recent circumstances had left me feeling down, and rather lonely. Looking back now, I realise there were plenty of opportunities and people around, but it seems that I had to escape to realise it. I needed to go back to Paris and surround myself with old haunts and familiar faces. Booking the flights was the result of a mix between madness and instinct- that’s all I can say. Printing my boarding passes, I felt foolish for booking such an extravagant trip;it seemed silly to hope that going back, might magically help me move forward. Furthermore, to come at Christmas, the time of year for romantics and idealists, I was frightened that my sullen mood would lower the lights and tinsel of the city to reveal nothing more than a place full of clichés and broken hopes.

However…

Day 1: Croissant et Chocolat Chaud à Montmartre; Galeries Lafayette; Flaneur Professionel

I arrived late the Wednesday evening, and went to meet my old friend in Malakoff, a little town to the south of Paris. We drank red wine, sitting on bean bags and and knitting scarves. It is the best way to unwind after travel. I’ll see if I can give you her number.

Anyway the next day we rose late and headed to Montmartre, taking the line 12 to Abbesses. Tip: If you get off at this station, do not take the stairs. Montmartre is full of steps and hills, but is one of my favourite areas in Paris, with little traffic and secret passageways. Winter is the best time to go, as in summer the area becomes too crowded, and the peace of this unusual hilltop part of the city is ruined .

If you’ve not been to Paris before, of course, you must go to the Sacré Coeur, stand on the steps and look at the unique Paris skyline – it is one of the best free views in the city. Once you’ve taken care of that however, avoid the tourist trap cafés of Place du Tertre, and install yourself at the Boulangerie Coquelicot (Poppy Bakery). Not some place to go if you’re in a hurry. However, to sit outside the shop-front, wrapped in scarves and watching the Parisians on their morning errands is the most relaxing start to the day. Order a chocolat chaud from here and it will be served to you in a giant bowl (not unusual in French breakfasts and brunches), which makes it all the more convenient to dip your croissant into. Mmm. The smell of smoke, the icy gusts of wind, and the pervading sense of calm. The memories of all the times I’ve spent here with so many different people only serve to make me feel more at home here. I defy anyone to feel otherwise.

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Afterwards I wandered the slopes, dipping in and out of private épiceries and boutiques. The calmer streets mean that the shop owners are less flustered and more likely to enjoy a little small talk. They’ll tell you about their products or introducing you to the cat lounging in the window display. They say that each quartier in Paris is its own neighbourhood, but I only feel in Montmartre that there is a real sense of community. On the same street as Les Deux Moulins (the Amélie café), you’ll find a beautiful little spice shop, and the proud owner is only too happy to talk you through the vast range of magic salts, herbs and powders. On the way back to the metro I bought a couple of clemetines from a grocer’s to stash in my bag (they’re better than any you’ll find in Britain for some reason). I had a full day ahead and where I was heading there would be no cheap snacks.

The friend I was staying with had an exam to attend, so I took the metro to Madeleine and walked along to the Opera, Palais Garnier. This area is all things grand and golden. The streets were swarming with Christmas shoppers but I braved the crowds and pushed past towards Galeries Lafayette. I never actually go in to buy anything – far too expensive. Instead, I took the gold and glass elevator up to the 6th floor, then the stairs up onto the roof. This is my favourite view of Paris. It’s free, few people know of it, and you’re so distanced from the hustle and bustle below, that you can look down and just stop caring about all the small things.

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It always takes my breath away a little, and it’s only when my cheeks start to nip from the cold that I head back inside to inspect the tree. The department store has an annually changing Christmas theme, and their 70 ft indoor Christmas tree changes accordingly. In 2012 I saw a tree adorned with 120 Swarovski crystals, and this year an upside down creation (the theme was monsters, and the idea was that they’d tipped the tree over). The window displays put on a similar show. Crowds of children and their parents gathered outside as the curtains opened and puppets danced behind the glass. Despite the crowds and the traffic fumes, everyone was smiling as they hurried past these strange displays.

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I ate my clementines and made my way to the Place Vendôme. I remember the amazement I felt as a child when my mother first took me to Edinburgh to see the Christmas lights. That same feeling came back as I walked towards the square. Trees between each jeweller’s window, meaning you were either faced with diamonds or fairy lights as you approached the square itself. There stood the most perfectly conical trees you ever did see, cut as fine as diamonds. They were also positioned so perfectly in relation to the others that I felt the need to find the chap who had seen to it, and personally thank him (I get overly happy when things are symmetrical or in nice lines).

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From there I walked down to the Jardin des Tuileries and up towards the Louvre. Again, talking of straight lines, stand at the top of the steps between the gardens and the little arch beside the Louvre (Arc du Carrousel) and face down. You will be standing on what is often referred to as the Historic Axis of Paris, which aligns three different arches. The line starts behind you at the Arc du Carrousel, streaks through you and down the centre of the gardens, the Champs Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe, and to the outskirts where it meets the Grand Arc at La Défense. The headlights and rear-lights of the cars up and down the Champs Elysées look like jewels, and right enough, this inspired Louis Vuitton to make a ruby and diamond necklace.

Property of Louis VuittonLooking at this beautiful sight you should sigh as the weight of the world lifts from your shoulders, and then you should go for wine. Walk up to the Louvre Pyramid, which always looks better at night, and exit through the left wing (Passage Richlieu). Cross the Rue de Rivoli and take a well earned break. The waiters at  Café Palais Royal are sweet, and the wine is good. In winter they have an enclosed outdoor area – take a seat under a heater, read a book and people watch. The smell of coffee, wine and cigarette smoke mingled in night air make me relaxed, and I take my time before wishing my friendly waiters well and heading on my way. The overload of the senses that Paris brings to those who take time to experience them is rewarding, and Baudelaire himself spoke of the wonders of wandering as a flaneur, alone in the city. I walk leisurely towards the Marais, and meet an old friend and go for tapas (not typically French food, but excellent) . Welcome back, he smiles. It’s good to be home.

One thought on “Romancing the Bones (Day 1: Chocolat Chaud, Shopping at Lafayette, Christmas Lights).

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