I had never been until last year. I wanted to save it until I had the time to savor the city. I wasn’t sure if I would love it (sigh….all those charming Paris movie and novel scenes) or be hugely disappointed it wouldn’t live up to my decades of pent-up expectations. The first time I went in May (ahhh, Paris in the springtime) and ended up staying an extra week. I returned five months later (mmmm, Paris in the fall). Clearly I am enamored. Since all of my time in the City of Light was an independent exploration (no tour buses and guided walking tours for me) and most of it was solo, I was intent on experiencing it my way. On the other hand, I did need a bit of guidance to travel the lesser experienced sights of the city but wanted to avoid the Fodor/Frommer/Rick Steves/Rough Guide/Lonely Planet tourist paths. Ultimately I found two small guidebooks and used one for each trip.
100 Places Every Woman Should Go In France by Marcia DeSantis, a former Parisian expat, was chock full of suggestions for Paris. It was my springtime guide to the city. I began with her suggestion that I overcome my acrophobia: don’t just snap the iconic exterior photo, but climb the Eiffel Tower steps to the second floor cafe (670 stairs of beating heart and sweaty palms) to toast my accomplishment with an overly priced glass of champagne and gaze at Paris’ rooftops and towers.
It was also her recommendation that took me to the department store Galeries Lafayette, not to shop but to gaze in awe at it’s magnificent stained glass dome and to Sainte-Chappelle, a medieval Catholic chapel where I listened to a concert while the setting sun played off its stained glass windows.
I would have never spent Paris temps precieux at a movie theatre, but her description of La Pagode art house cinema (a reconstructed Japanese pagoda used originally as a ballroom complete with tearoom garden and more stained glass) inspired me. I saw Still Life, a thoughtful English movie but could have seen their weekly screening of Breakfast at Tiffanys.
It was her enthusiastic description of Merci, a concept store opened in an old wallpaper factory that found me there sketching over a cappuccino on a rainy day resulting in one of my favorite Parisian photos.
In Luxembourg Garden, I searched for the bocce ball courts (as per her suggestion) and spent the better part of an afternoon cheering for very serious Frenchmen, while trying to figure out the games’ rules.
And I braved the terrifying prospect of getting a haircut in a hip Parisian salon with my minimal French – made all the more fun when the stylist eased my concerns with champagne.
When I returned in the fall, I took with me City Secrets: Paris, the Essential Insiders’ Guide by Robert Kahn. This compact guidebook is filled with insider personal recommendations of 150 artists, writers, architects, historians and gourmet chefs who live in or regularly visit Paris.
It was the keen eye of an artist contributor that made me take notice of the public art Metro stops and actually sit to listen to the street musicians.
I would never have found La Belle Hortense, a tiny wine bar/bookshop/tapas restaurant/literary and art gallery had it not been mentioned by both a food features writer and landscape architect in the guidebook.
As a travel sketcher, I appreciated the recommendation of a painter contributor to browse and augment my watercolor pencils at Magasin Sennelier, the historic artist supply store that invented oil pastels for Picasso.
In a Paris guidebook seen through the keen eyes of artists there were a multitude of recommendations about looking in through shop windows and doorways and looking up at murals, lighting, ceiling motifs.