YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

TRAVELING IN STYLE : A PERFECT DAY IN PARIS : The Essence of Parisian Life Is Revealed in a Day Planned Around Nothing More Than the Serendipity of the City Herself

October 15, 1995|S. Irene Virbila | S. Irene Virbila is The Times' restaurant critic

A single day in Paris seems somehow more expansive than anywhere else. There's time to cross paths with friends for a coffee or an aperitif. Time to slip into Ste.-Chapelle or Notre Dame and stand among pillars spangled with shards of light from the glorious stained-glass windows. Time to explore the Bois de Boulogne or go to the races at Longchamp. And in autumn, when sunlight in Paris runs out by late afternoon, the day spills over far into the night. At 9:45, the Beaubourg, the city's radical modern art museum (officially called Centre Pompidou), is filled with students poring over homework and crowds browsing its bookstore or roaming its foyer talking art, philosophy, politics. At midnight, La Closerie des Lilas, the legendary bistro, is still going strong, while the late set at the jazz club New Morning is just getting started. Even at 4 a.m., the venerable Au Pied de Cochon in Les Halles, the old market quarter, is jammed with patrons lapping up soup and platters of raw oysters.

I may start a day in Paris with a vague itch to spend the morning combing the vast flea market at Porte de Clignancourt, on the city's northern outskirts, for old ochre and green Provencal pottery, antique brocade textiles or Art Deco jewelry but then find myself distracted on the way, suddenly remembering a fabulous bakery just two Metro stops away. Or I'll lose myself in the streets instead and follow the address on a handbill to sniff out a little circus performing that afternoon. Most likely, I'll end up at my old haunt, the wine bar La Tartine on the Rue de Rivoli in the Marais district, sipping Fleurie and smearing crottin de Chavignol , a pungent goat cheese, on thick slices of country bread.

I hadn't been to Paris in several years when I decided, on the spur of the moment, to go for 10 days late last fall. On the flight, I drifted from daydream to sleep and back again, playing out scenes of Paris and pondering lazily just what I would do with my first entire day there--if I wanted to distill all I love about Paris into a span of 24 hours.

I arrive on one of those glorious clear November days when the sun washes the muted gray city in pale gold. Fat white clouds ride the blue sky. In this light, everything takes on the clarity of an Atget photograph. Details--a carved door, a hand-lettered sign, a face in a window--accumulate like falling leaves. After crossing the whole of America and the Atlantic, the shift of perspective is thrilling, dizzying. I don't want ever to get used to it.

From the airport, my taxi marks a stately route, rolling across the Seine, past the vast Place de la Concorde, to stick like a cork in the narrow streets of the 9th arrondissement . The taxi driver, exasperated, beats his impatience on the wheel. I'm in no hurry. I peer into hat shops, old-fashioned wine shops, cafes where denizens of the neighborhood down a rough glass of vin rouge , getting a fix on the city again.

The taxi lets me out in front of a little grocery where an envelope waits for me--it contains the key to my friend Luis' apartment. The building's door still creaks. And I recognize the same beat-up bikes leaning against the wall, the dank smell of the courtyard, as I hump my suitcase up six floors. Oof!

I first came to this address 18 years ago. It was late autumn, like now. Fiercely cold. A chance encounter with a Frenchwoman at the airport had led, miraculously enough, to the loan of her apartment for a couple of months until I found something else. And Luis was the keeper of the keys. When I rang the buzzer, he had already laid out a feast of cheese and wine. I remember him carefully explaining how to properly cut the raw milk Camembert, the Morbier, the tall round of chevre. And how he introduced me to an everyday Paris I scarcely knew existed.

But now there is just time to unpack, give the grand piano a pat and say hello to the now-doddering cat of the house, Pain Brulee ("burnt toast"). I'm about to leave when Luis bursts through the door. From the bulging pockets of his jacket he pulls a succession of small packets. "I stopped by the charcuterie on the way to pick up a little lunch," he says. "How about a little cochonerie , eh? Some Beaujolais?"

This is perfect; when I arrive anywhere in France, the first thing I do is run out and rustle up a little charcuterie . Luis has done it for me. He's bought rillettes (pork cooked in drippings to make a spread) and rillons (pork cracklings), a sumptuous pa^te de foie , ruddy dried saucissons (sausages), slices of smoky mountain ham. And of course, cheese: some chevre, a musty picadon and a splendid ripe and runny St.-Marcellin from Monsieur Androuet's renowned fromagerie on Rue d'Amsterdam. Plus a majestic loaf of pain au levain from Poila^ne, the renowned Left Bank bakery.

Los Angeles Times Articles