PARIS — Paris is a city where possibilities are endless, expectations are high, and no one doubts that magic can happen.
Anyone who saw Woody Allen's recent homage to the City of Lights, Midnight in Paris, knows what I'm talking about. Allen's protagonist, a Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to be a serious scribe, takes to wandering the rainy streets of Paris at night in search of a muse.
On one such night, he accompanies a couple in 1920s dress to what he assumes is a costume party. Instead, he's transported back in time to Paris during the Jazz Age. It was a time when Gertrude Stein reigned over her famous salon and Cole Porter threw lavish soirees at his palatial mansion near Les Invalides; when Picasso and Dali sat for hours in Left Bank cafés discussing art; Josephine Baker lit up the stage of the Folies Bergère, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald knocked back martinis with Hemingway at the Ritz Hotel's bar.
I've always thought that if I could go back in time to any era, it would be this one. So, in the spirit of Allen, on my most recent trip to Paris earlier this month, I spent a lot of time walking (in the rain, as it turned out) seeking places that have inspired me. I visited some old favorites and discovered a few new ones.
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First stop: Shangri-La
After a particularly turbulent trans-Atlantic flight, I found myself happy to be in Shangri-La. It wasn't the mythical kingdom of James Hilton's novel, but the 1896 townhouse of Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon's grand-nephew, in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, with the river Seine at the back door.
Prince Roland is long gone, but his elegance and love of luxury lives on in his home's reincarnation as the first Shangri-La hotel in Europe (another will open next year in Istanbul, and one in London is planned for 2013).
From the moment I arrived at the entrance, with its columned portico strung with twinkling lights for the holidays, I felt something special was about to happen. When I opened the drapes in my suite and saw the Eiffel Tower looming just beyond the windowsill, I knew it.
If you're looking for inspiration in Paris, where better to start than with its incomparable museums? If the vast corridors of the Louvre seem a bit daunting, but you want the best art the city has to offer, opt instead for the Musée d'Orsay.
Housed in the former Orsay railway station, just across from the Tuileries Garden, the building itself has been called the museum's first work of art. Arranged over three floors, it has the look of a Beaux Arts palace, with a central dome and large windows offering exquisite views across the city. My favorite is the view through the giant clock face, which offers a vista of Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur.
What's inside is equally spectacular, especially the galleries devoted to what is said to be the world's largest collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. Room after room is filled with the most famous works of Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Sisley and Seurat.
It's enough to make an art lover's head spin, and the 2009 renovation made the spaces even more appealing. At the Musée d'Orsay, unlike the Louvre, you may walk right up to the art. The museum has more than 1,850 paintings, sculptures, photographs and other works, but don't leave without visiting the marvelous decorative-arts galleries.
Meals and memories
After the museums, it has to be the meals that provide the most inspiration to visitors in Paris, long known as the capital of haute cuisine. It would take many lifetimes to visit even a fraction of the city's eateries. For contrast, here are two of my favorites.
Le Train Bleu could be your big splurge. Located in the Gare de Lyon train station, it is named after the Blue Train, which in the 1920s and '30s left the station en route to the French Riviera.
The restaurant is a monument to Belle Époque splendor, with wood paneling, polished parquet floors, plush velvet draperies, massive chandeliers and 41 paintings on the walls and ceilings. When I first came here 20 years ago, I could barely concentrate on my omelette aux herbes and green salad for rubbernecking at the glamorous setting. Having a meal at Le Train Bleu was a bit like dining in the Sistine Chapel.
For a complete contrast, spend an evening in one of Paris' bistros, which are becoming increasingly harder to find. You'll have to venture off the usual tourist route to get to Astier in the 11th arrondissement, but it's well worth the detour.
With its red-and-white checkered table linen and menus printed on the chalkboard, Astier is the personification of an intimate Parisian bistro. Owners Frederic and Claudia Hubig-Schall are gracious hosts and offer a prix-fixe menu that at 35 euros (about $55) is a good value, particularly considering it includes the expansive cheese platter, with more than 15 varieties.
What is Paris without nightlife? Before heading off to shows at the Moulin Rouge (Toulouse-Lautrec's favorite) or the rollicking Crazy Horse Cabaret, stop for a drink at the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel on the fashionable Place Vendôme.
The bar's name perhaps results less from Hemingway's fame as a scribe than from the ruckus he created here Aug. 25, 1944. That was the night Ernest and a group of Allied soldiers, armed with machine guns, decided to "liberate" the Ritz from the Nazis.
After climbing to the roof, where, instead of Germans, their gunfire succeeded in bringing down only a clothesline hung with the hotel's linen, the victorious troops retired to the bar for a round of dry martinis.
That account has no doubt been embellished with each retelling, but there's no doubt of Hemingway's love for the iconic Paris landmark, as he noted, "When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Ritz Paris."
The bar named in his honor has changed little since that evening in 1944. Black-and-white photos of famous literary drinkers Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Graham Greene and Noel Coward line the walls.
If Hemingway was the past resident celebrity, today that honor goes to Colin Field, a Brit who conquered France with a shaker instead of a saber. The Ritz's head bartender since 1994, Field has twice been named the best bartender in the world by Forbes Magazine.
"Some people like to talk with a bartender. Some don't," Field says. "My job here is to be the host, the showman, the life of the party."
He is that, although he does have to share the spotlight with his cocktails. Model Kate Moss, who wrote the forward for Fields' book, The Ritz Paris: Mixing Drinks, A Simple Story, is partial to what is reputed to be the world's most expensive drink: the Ritz sidecar (champagne, cognac and Cointreau). Field prefers his signature drink, the Serendipiti, a mix of calvados, sugar, fresh mint, apple juice and champagne.
During my stay, Midnight in Paris became more than the title of Woody Allen's movie. It was the (be)witching hour, the last chance to see the nightly light show that takes place every hour at the Eiffel Tower.
Standing at my window at the Shangri-La, I watched the glittering lights sparkle like diamonds up and down the length of the tower, and thought to myself that Paris is indeed the stuff of which dreams are made.