No city really multitasks like Paris, shorthand for romance, culture, fashion, gastronomy and the kind of street life you find on Robert Doisneau calendars. The £69 Eurostar return opens up a vista of civilised pleasures: the best cheese shops (Androuet), the loveliest perfumeries (Serge Lutens, Palais Royal), the best markets (Marché des Enfants Rouge), the prettiest dolls’ house shop (Pain d’Epices), the most engaging museum (Jacquemart-André). Armed only with Patricia Wells’s unsurpassed Food Lover’s Guide to Paris, Inès de la Fresange’s style guide, Parisian Chic, and the Penguin Map Guide or the little brown Paris version of the A-to-Z, you’re on a roll.
Yes, I know London’s meant to be where it’s at when it comes to cultural dynamism and ethnic restaurants (though Paris has an interesting Japanese vibe just now), that many of Paris’s finest are tax exiles in Britain, that the irresistible Left Bank cafés where smoking Gauloises was practically obligatory have been displaced by all-day Anglo-American eateries. I don’t care. Paris may be less eccentric, more casual than it once was, but it’s still where apparently unstrived-for elegance is the default mode, where you always greet the shop assistants, where the search for the finest éclair or the most fabulous nail varnish or the perfect colour hyacinths for a bouquet is taken quite seriously. Given the global character of our pleasures nowadays, it’s interesting how Paris stands aloof. You can get Parisian brands in London: Maison du Chocolat truffles, Ladurée or Pierre Hermé macarons, Poilâne sourdough, even Maille boutique mustard and Frederic Malle scent. But just not in the same way. In Paris everyone’s game is raised because people take trouble to seek out what’s really good. Consumption is less gross there, not only in quantity. The regulations that meant, at least until recently, that a bakery would always be replaced by another bakery, that you couldn’t shop everywhere on Sunday, and that Christmas sales began after Christmas, curbed and civilised consumer appetites in a way you don’t get here.
Quite what you take from Paris, other than envy at the effortless chic (even the bloody dogs in handbags are stylish), depends on circumstances. It’s not until you have children, for instance, that you realise it’s a child-friendly city, assuming they aren’t monsters. We stay at the Hyatt Madeleine (just up from Fauchon!) where they go out of their way to be nice to them, but in fact people are surprisingly kind to children all round. And may I just say that the Paris Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes is way more charming than London Zoo.
Paris — well, central Paris (the periphery is another story) — is the perfect city, really. It does every scale well: the grand public spaces, like the Place de la Concorde, the small street markets, the intimate tea salons, the river scene, the little museums (Museum of Magic) and the big ones (Musée d’Orsay). And it’s walkable. All I can say is, steer clear of the Eiffel Tower. It’s so not worth it.