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FRANCE

The First Time I Saw Paris

Never been? Come along on a tour of a city full of surprises, side shows and grand masterpieces.

August 22, 2010|Chris Erskine

PARIS — Grumpy, glorious Paris -- where does a first-timer start? Well, I'm here to tell you that they mold a nice cornice, these people, and perform near-miracles with duck fat. Every block has an open-air cafe, chairs facing the street where young women in cotton dresses ride by on bikes, like beautiful little parachutes. If you enjoy such things, you'll probably love Paris.

The museums? Worth a look. But honestly, I couldn't get out of the Louvre fast enough. It was so packed that the only way to get to the Venus de Milo was to crowd surf across the heads and Nikons of a thousand tourists. Often, I enjoy such things, but not without air conditioning. The Louvre on a crowded summer day had, for me, all the appeal of Disneyland during a power outage.

But the Musee d'Orsay, where the Impressionists live? Could've spent a month amid the Renoirs, in the refurbished train station that is a masterpiece in itself.

That was Paris for me on my first visit. For every disappointment, there were a dozen pleasures.

Best of all, everything you love about a major city is within walking distance. Then there's the language itself, which rolls off their linen tongues like a torch song.

No, I don't know what you're saying. Just talk. Mind if I dance?

Paris won me over in a heartbeat. True, it is lousy with scooters and hence relentlessly loud. It is hopelessly congested and nonsensical in its layout. Its inhabitants are mostly melancholics (the condition of chronic melancholy). To me, the French are like the weird kids in college. They hold their cigarettes like jewelry, cupping them in their hands so as not to set themselves -- or you -- on fire. Mostly, they succeed.

They are also, despite some reports, gracious and helpful hosts, quick to answer questions or pour you aboard the proper bus. All in all, I'd save these folks from the Germans anytime.

So, on my maiden voyage to Paris, I found an enchanting place that was never, for half a second, dull. Here are my tips for those who have never been:

Getting started

Like most Americans, I flew here, 12 hours in steerage, two meals on Air France. De Gaulle was a breeze, and when I couldn't find the prearranged shuttle to the hotel, a driver from a rival service used his cellphone to summon my driver. Merci.

In no time, I was sitting at a corner cafe somewhere on the Left Bank, "the center of thought" -- though one of the locals assured me that that was very long ago.

It seems impossible to exaggerate the importance of the little sidewalk cafe to Paris. They are to this French city what beaches are to L.A. And every day, Paris has a parade -- the tourists, supermodels, pickpockets and artists who make up this low-slung city. The cafes are like the parade stand. Sit down, ask the waiter to bring you un cafe, and swallow it all up to your heart's content.

If you ever leave your little sidewalk spot, getting around Paris will prove pretty easy. When you're heading downhill, you're headed toward the river, the surprisingly skinny Seine that splits the town in two. The rest is confusing but so scenic you don't care. Note that there is no true north in Paris. As with moral relativism, there are only variations.

In any case, a good bet is the carnet, a packet of 10 tickets ($15) good for subway or bus, and available at any Metro station. The ubiquitous subway system is manageable after about a day, though I found the buses the most direct way to the major sights.

I started my Paris tour with the Louvre, but if I had it to do all over again, I'd begin at Notre Dame, early (before 10 a.m.), when the lines are shortest.

The jaw-dropping cathedral is on the Ile de la Cite, the first of two little islands on the river. When you're done touring the cathedral (free) or climbing to the bell tower like Quasimodo ($10), wander around back to the small bridge that leads to Ile Saint-Louis, the second island.

Here, you'll find an elegant old street, Rue St.-Louis-en-l'ile, as narrow as your living room. This is the Paris you've always imagined -- quaint restaurants, pastry shops and perhaps the best ice cream ever, at the famed Berthillon (pronounced bear-tee-yone).

I had a fine lunch at Les Fous de l'Ile, a cheery little bistro. For 20 bucks, I had a mussels remoulade appetizer and grilled lamb chops on a bed of potatoes. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the place was still throbbing. In France, happy hour apparently lasts from noon till about midnight.

From here, you might catch the bus to my beloved Musee d'Orsay. As you're aware, the French have lost a lot of wars over the years yet somehow managed to end up with most of the world's great artwork. Here, I learned that the Symbolists expressed a fragile world, an inner reality.

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