When in Paris, do as the French do. RITZ gets invited for an exclusive coverage of offbeat Paris to soak in the sights, sounds and experiences of the exotic kind.
Text: Vanaja Banagiri
Oscar Wilde had said, “When good Americans die, they go to Paris!” Thankfully, I am an Indian and I had the good luck to go there while I am still walking on my two feet in this planet! But guess what? I did leave my mind behind in Paris. Days after I returned, visions of Paris continued to haunt me every time I shut my eyes. They still do, in fact. Here’s how my Parisian tale began:-
So on one sunny day, my editor-publisher, Aruna Krishnan and I are having one of those run-of-the-mill work conversations and just before she hangs up, she slips in a casual, “Would you like to go to Paris? We have an invitation from Atout France India.” Before I jump out of my skin, the words jump out of my mouth in a rush, “Yes, of course.” And I’m thinking to myself, “Can there be any other answer to that question?” That’s when she follows it up with, “If everything falls in place, you’ll have to leave on the 13th December.” And we’re having this conversation on the 4th December! Wow! How’s that even going to be possible? I get this sinking feeling in my heart. To begin with, I had no Schengen visa and there’s no French embassy in Hyderabad. When I voice my apprehensions, Aruna being Aruna says, “Don’t worry, we’ll make it happen.” And when she says that, she definitely does make things happen. I’ve seen her in action countless times defying all odds with that one statement. Yet, like always, I go with her conviction more than mine. But then I had to my bit, right? So I quickly log on to the VFS website to fix my slot for submitting the Visa application. To make matters more nail biting, I manage to get one on the 8th, which happens to be a Friday. I was left with exactly two working days for my application to reach Bangalore, get stamped and reach me! What were my chances? Turns out 100%! Between Atout France India’s Maliha, France Tourism’s Pusha and Ritz Media Group’s Vasanth and Aruna, they actually did `make it happen!’ That’s how my French experience began! With excitement from the word go. But then, isn’t that how all French experiences are? From French kiss to French manicure, French braid to French cuisine, all things French are super exotic and meant to be savoured forever. That kind of sums up my Paris experience. The tour in itself lasted for 4 days but the experience will stay with me for a lifetime. Not that this was my first time. I had been there a couple of decades before. And in an inexplicable way, everything seemed more or less the way it was when I had last visited Paris. One reason could be that the architecture remains untouched. The emphasis is on aesthetics and symmetry. Newer constructions are allowed only on the outskirts also known as the Ring Road. Well, that’s my observation. Now, let’s get to the history.
Paris is synonymous with all that is French. Known throughout the world as the “City of Light,” Paris is celebrated for its beautiful city plan, its architecture, museums, bridges, cathedrals, parks, shopping, flea markets, sidewalk cafés, wide and luxurious boulevards, elegant cuisine, and numerous monuments. Once confined to an island in the middle of the Seine River, the Ile de la Cité, Paris, founded more than 2,000 years ago, quickly spread to both banks of the river—the rive droit (right bank) and the rive gauche(left bank). The right bank is known for being the commercial heart of the city while the left bank is home to the University of Paris and all that is intellectual and artsy. Paris has always been known to have the aura of romance and mystery and has been the setting for many novels and movies. Lucky us, we get to experience the unusual all thanks to our gracious hosts.
We land in the Charles De Gaulle airport after a ten and a half hour journey on a direct Jet Airways flight from Chennai to Paris. We’re received by the most enthusiastic and knowledgeable Ali, our chauffeur for the entire tour. Ali infuses energy in us sleepy heads as we get into the coach. He talks nonstop and holds us captive with his interesting narrative of France and India too. He’s familiar with Bollywood, political leaders, policies et al. We’re impressed. After a scenic journey from the airport that lasts a couple of hours, we reach the most perfectly located Hotel Sofitel Arc De Triomphe, where we’re welcomed by the very affable Aurelie Ponsart from Paris Convention & Visitors Bureau. A shot of double espresso wakes us up as we wait for our rooms to get ready. We check in, have a quick shower and meet up at Les Cocottes, the speciality restaurant in the hotel. The resident Chef Christian Constant, reputed for his authentic and seasonal cuisine, has planned an interesting vegetarian menu especially for us. After a delicious 3 course meal that comprised a starter, Salade d’ artichauts (artichokes and rocket leaves) champignons de Paris, main course Risotto de courge butternut et chataignes roties (chestnut risotto) and a minestrone de fruits frais a la menthe (fruit salad) for dessert, we get set for a side car retro tour. As we zip through the city in the side car, suitably dressed in mink coats and helmets, ably chauffeured by the 30 something motorbike driver, Julien Gast, cold winds caressing our cheeks, we get immersed in the sights and sounds of the most romantic city in the world, mild drizzle of rain drops making everything seem like a dream. We breeze through Concorde, Champs Elysees, Arc De Triomphe, Eiffle tower and Champs de Mars, with the expert navigation of our gentleman sidecarist.
Our next stop is the Fragonard museum, guided by Nathalie Manceron, who runs a company called Paris a lenvers, that conducts tours in unknown and unusual Paris. True to their claim, Fragonard does turn out to be something we hadn’t expected or experienced. We’re taken through the history of perfumery, Fragonard’s ancestral know-how, the raw materials used, variety of flowers, the handmade & extraction techniques, the evolving technology, the difference between eau de colognes and perfumes and the art of spraying them. Suffice to say that it was an indulgence of the olfactory senses in a never-before experience. The blossoms, the citruses, the essences and the fragrances lingered on for the rest of the day regardless of what we did or where we went.
The House of Fragonard, a story of perfume making
It was shortly before the First World War that Eugène Fuchs, an entrepreneur at heart who had already been seduced by the magic of perfume, decided to set up his own perfumery based on the novel concept of selling perfumery products directly to the tourists who were beginning to discover the French Rivera’s charms. Parfumerie Fragonard was opened in 1926. Eugène Fuchs chose to name it after the famous Grasse-born painter, Jean-Honoré Fragonard (1732-1806), as a tribute to both the town of Grasse and to the refinement of 18th-century arts. Similarly, the choice of name expressed his desire to run his business in accordance with traditions.
This spirit has been loyally perpetuated by the three succeeding generations who have run and are still running the company. At their instigation new production plants and sales outlets have opened in Grasse, Eze and also Paris.
It was under the tenure of Jean-Francois Costa that the Parfumerie Fragonard went through a rapid expansion and modernization. As an avid art collector, during the 1970’s he amassed a large and unique collection of antique perfume related items that has both enriched the Fragonard and given the town of Grasse a new cultural dimension.
Today, Jean-François Costa’s daughters, Agnès and Françoise preside over the perfumery’s destiny, and are as concerned as the preceding generations with continuing to build the company while adapting it to current market needs and desires.
Our senses don’t get dulled by the relentless drizzle as we continue our tour with Nathalie’s effervescent company. She takes us to the Opera House known as Palais Garnier and Opéra Garnier. In addition to being an important Parisian landmark, it is also famous for being the setting of the popular novel, The Phantom of the Opera, which was later adapted into a successful musical and films. Today the opulent opera house, known for its luxurious interiors, is home to the Paris Opera, and is used for opera, ballet, and concert performances. The first thing you’ll see when you reach Palais Garnier is its remarkable façade, which is known for its impressive sculpture groups created by various renowned artists. One of the most famous is Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s La Danse, or “The Dance” in English, which depicts nude, drunken figures. When it was first unveiled, it was widely criticized as being indecent. Other sculpture groups depict harmony, instrumental music, and lyrical drama. The façade also features bronze busts of great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Rossini, and Auber.
The entire stretch that leads to the Opera house has no trees anywhere in the vicinity. Apparently, it was planned in such a way that the grand vision remains unobstructed! Such is the attention to detail and meticulous planning of the city. Aesthetics and symmetry are of utmost priority for the Parisians.
We walk around the city as Nathalie shows us unusual buildings, architectural delights and illusions created by paints and lighting. Our jaws drop as we gap in uninhibited awe of the Parisian vision and refined tastes.
Dinner was at Radio Eat, situated inside Radio France, the auditorium that stages the best concerts and theatre plays in Paris. Lunch before attending a show or dinner after a concert in the Auditorium, is the idea. In the exceptional setting of the Maison de la Radio, with breathtaking views of the Seine and the Eiffel Tower, Eric Wapler and chef Thierry Bassard offer a contemporary and elegant restaurant designed by architect Stéphane Maupin.
In a convivial setting with a panoramic view during the day and a luminous show at night, the restaurant unfolds in a long space and invites you to taste authentic French cuisine, while offering a physical and emotional escape. In a sophisticated and warm atmosphere, with brilliantly sublimated lights, chef Thierry Bassard offers the menu of a contemporary brasserie, with home-made cooking, working fresh and quality products, simple and healthy, European and Asian inspired.
For this ambitious project, Radio France commissioned Eric Wapler, who far from applying a standardized recipe, delivers a personal interpretation of the restoration at the Maison de la radio, in keeping with the singularity and spirit of place.
Indeed, it is not only a restaurant, but also a place of life that highlights the exceptional quality of the musical and cultural offer!
The architect Stéphane Maupin has harmoniously inserted the restaurant into the building. The whole experience encompassed the spirit of Parisian lifestyle.
With a breathtaking experience on day 1, we were all geared up for something more spellbinding on the next day. But then, no two days are the same in the life of revellers in Paris. As we get done with our breakfast in the hotel, we’re greeted the beautiful French belle Veronique Potelet, Press Center Manager – Paris Convention and Visitors Bureau. She has planned a unique day for us. We will be spending first half of the day learning baking. It was an entirely different experience as we were ushered into Le Cordon Bleu, founded in Paris in 1895. Currently, the largest network of culinary and hospitality schools in the world with more than 35 institutes in 20 countries and 20,000 students of over 100 nationalities, Le Cordon Bleu combines innovation and creativity with tradition through its certificate courses.ae
We donned our aprons and chef caps as Pastry Chef, Vincent Valton, took us through a Chocolate workshop called L’ Atelier du Chocolat. We learnt to bake Bel Horizon Mangue Chocolat, which when translated in English means Beautiful Mango Chocolate Horizon, much to our own amazement and astonishment. We couldn’t believe we could ever conjure up such a culinary wonder in our lives! I seriously doubt if we can ever do an encore though! The icing on the cake was the Certificate we were rewarded with at the end! It was the proverbial case of wonders never ceasing to happen!
A quick lunch at the next door cafe and we were out to savour the rest of the day. The next stop was the iconic Studio Harcourt private mansion, the most renowned photographic studio raised under the leadership of Cosette Harcourt, set up in 1934. Legendary and iconic House of the refined Parisian high society, Studio Harcourt is particularly renowned for immortalizing movie stars but also all those who seek elegance.
Its light and signature make a Studio Harcourt portrait exceptional. They guarantee a unique know-how inherited from the greatest directors of black and white cinema, respectfully perpetuated. It’s also the testimony of an amazing experience lived by the model on the prestigious Studio Harcourt set.
From Edith Piaf to Halle Berry, Ewan McGregor, Cate Blanchett, Salvador Dali or Franz Ferdinand, all have in common they entered the Studio Harcourt legend. The way models are enlightened according a unique knowledge respectfully transmitted from generation to generation. We experience the magic of lighting personally, as we’re transformed into beautiful beings.
All good days end with a highlight. And ours did too as we were made privy to what makes Charles De Gaulle airport one of the best in the world. We are introduced to the facilities, the easy arrivals and departures, pleasures of duty free shopping, the exclusive must buys, by the super efficient Fatiha Saouli and Peggy Duvinage.
After an extensive tour of the state-of-the-art CDG airport’s terminals, we headed to Laduree, the most prestigious confectionary in Paris and probably the world, reputed for their delectable macaroons. Interestingly, the chef and our waiter turned out to be Indians. Their hospitality, the delicious spread and the accompanying wine warmed the cockles of our hearts finding their way to our minds! Quite a heady experience, I must say!
Yay, it’s Saturday! Just imagine spending a weekend in Paris! The best part is, we didn’t need imagination, we were living it. Let’s go Yay, again! The day looks exciting with an iconic Paris tour guided by Balwinder Prabhakar de Bois Juzan whose joie de vivre is quite contagious. She turns our experience into a walk down the history and geography of Paris. Between Ali’s expert navigation and Balwinder’s reportage, we have a fulfilling tour through one of the most spellbinding cities of Europe.
Ali drops us in front of the Arc de triomphe where we are scheduled to meet Veronique again to have lunch of a different kind. In fact, in a different place altogether. No, not in an offbeat restaurant. But in a bus! Yes, you read it right! In a bus. The concept is called Bustronome – Gastronomy in a bus. Wow, what a novel experience it turned out to be. The next couple of hours, we’re treated to the best delicacies of French cuisine and the choicest of wines as we travel around the beautiful roads of Paris. With Christmas around the corner, every single corner is resplendent with stunningly decorated Christmas trees, stars and lights. By the time we’re done with lunch, all our senses are satiated in more ways than one.
After lunch, we stop by at the Cathedral of Notre Dame known as Notre-Dame de Paris, which happens to be one of the most majestic masterpieces of Gothic architecture. More than 13 million visitors from across the world cross its portals every year! More than a historical monument, this cathedral stands as a testimony of faith and Christian experience.
As we walk into the doors and stand in front of the altar looking at the sculptures of Mother Mary with Jesus Christ in her lap, with the light shining through the breathtaking stained glass ceiling, arches and windows, we experience a deep sense of divine energy coursing through our being. We walk around lighting candles at designated places in front of idols of saints and holy men; we feel the palpable Christmas spirit coursing through our veins. To make our experience even more memorable, the bells start ringing as if to bless us. As we walk out, the whole place and the neighbourhood come alive with special lighting. Christmas is in the air all around. it’s truly the best time of the year to be in Paris.
We go around shopping for a while. We walk through the Fashion Street’s high end brand stores, admire the electrifying decor in the windows of Printemps and generally, take in the sights, smells and sounds of Paris.
We end our last day in Paris with dinner at Annapurna, one of the oldest Indian restaurants, a chic spot for lovers of Indian food. The owner tells us that it is famous for its cuisne, elegant decor with sitar performances in the evening. Since 1967, the Annapurna restaurant has been teaching Parisians all about Indian cuisine! In a chic and authentic decor, they serve traditional dishes of essential Indian food: lamb curry, chicken tikka, and onion bhajis. Centrally located at Champs-Élysées, the restaurant attracts the locals as much as it does the tourists.
We have a sumptuous meal of onion pakoras, rotis, rice, dal makhni, malai koftas and baingan ka bharta. The portions were so huge and filling that we had no space left in our bellies for desserts. But going by the delicious meal we had, we are sure the desserts will definitely be just as lip smacking.
As I head back to the airport the next morning, my heart is reluctant to leave and my mind experiences a mild shut down like it does when you’ve a hangover. You know what I mean?
How else can I sum up my French holiday other than by saying – Ooh la la, Paris! Je t’adore! (I adore you!) I’m ready for an encore. I need to revisit you soon to find my mind back. Until then, keep it sane, Paris. Au revoir!
Must see, Must do in Paris
Architecture, arts and amour. There is no shortage of sights and things to do in Paris. Most of the popular tourist destinations are in the city center – such as the Louvre, Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame. Don’t forget to enjoy a walk through some of Paris’ fabulous parks such as the Tuileries and Jardin du Luxembourg. And if you really want to treat yourself to an unforgettable experience, take that river cruise along the Seine.
Eiffel Tower – Stephanie Rivoal, Paris Tourist Office
Notre-Dame – Stephane Querbes, Paris Tourist Office
Ferris Wheel, Christmas lighting – Jacques Lebar, Paris Tourist Office
Paris Rooftops – Jacques Lebar, Paris Tourist Office
La Seine – David Le Franc, Paris Tourist Office
Notre Dame, La Seine – Amelie Dupont, Paris Tourist Office
Christmas tree – Amelie Dupont, Paris Tourist Office
Square Rene Viviani – Marc Bertrand, Paris Tourist Office
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