From Paris With Love / Hg2 FEATURE

Ah, gay Paris, city of light, the Eiffel Tower and stylish striped jumpers. It is here where couples come to cement their love. It is here where fashion is passion, where Mademoiselle Chanel first dreamed of her chic interlocking Cs, and where Hemingway drank himself into a stupor at the Ritz. As the capital of sophistication, elegance and glamour, it’s not hard to see why so many fall head-over-designer-heels in love here. Which is why Hg2 decided to hop the Eurostar to the fabulous French capital last weekend (after one or two of Champers at St. Pancras) and indulge in all its gorgeousness; as we delighted in proving, 48 hours is all you need to see its hedonistic highlights.
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Following an after-work jaunt on the Eurostar (it only takes two-and-a-half hours, so no need to take a Friday off work), the first thing to do is check-in somewhere suitably stylish. This former multi-storey carpark site (gritty, sustainable, zeitgeisty) opened in September 2008, and offers 172 rooms and suites, luxury essentials (great bedlinen, iMacs and microwaves as standard, Kiehl’s goodies), and interiors by funster Philippe Starck. The rough-edged, jokey design — graffiti and concrete abound — might be chafing for sensitive souls, but if Mama Shelter‘s mission is to to democratise hip hotellery, it’s a great success. The eastside location is a boon if your Paris is more about dirty dive bars than bourgeois bistrots. There’s no room service, but there is a bar with communal table and continuous rolling news, and a restaurant serving trendily unweird food; wrapping things up is a rooftop barbecue, which takes place every single sunny day.

Now for dinner. Let’s say you’re young, in love, and in Paris for the first time. You can’t afford Allard and you’re not impressed by the new bistronomic cheffery. You want a super-French vibe, and a fleamarket-chic setting so perfect it could almost be a film set? Welcome to Chez Paul on rue de Charonne (not to be confused with its also-good namesake on the rue de Butte aux Cailles). The several small dining rooms are done out with well-worn wooden chairs, junk-shop art and vintage posters and chunky radiators; you get a nice degree of formality for your money, mostly supplied by veteran waiters in white aprons. The menu doesn’t stray from French tradition, featuring snails, crudités, leek vinaigrette and marrowbone among the two dozen starters, and robust meat and offal dishes for mains. It gets busy, so do book; if you get a walk-in anywhere near 9pm, you’re very lucky.

After a good night’s rest back at the hotel, rise and shine early to see the sights — there’s a few fair of them. First up? The Eiffel Tower, of course. Built as a temporary emblem for the 1889 International Exhibition, it has become the iconic landmark of the French capital, though its radical design was loudly criticised at the time of construction. Standing 324-metres high, the puddle-iron structure was the world’s tallest building until 1930, and still gives super-duper views of the city. It’s divided into three accessible platforms, the first and second levels reached by either pounding up the stairs or via one of three lifts, the third connected by lift from the second floor. There are several queues to conquer: one to buy your ticket, one to reach the first or second floor, and — the longest and most painful — one for the top. In addition to the view, you get lots of historical, interactive, multilingual video whatnots, and kiosks selling snacks and souvenirs. Of the two restaurants, Le Jules Verne, on the second level, has been under the direction of Alain Ducasse since 2007 and is, correspondingly, well-nigh impossible to get a table at.

Next Up? The Louvre. Set in Louis XIV’s palace, with the magnificent Tuileries as its back garden, and housing around 35,000 works of art, this overwhelmingly pre-eminent museum demands a planned visit, so decide in advance what you would like to see, buy your tickets online and avoid the queues. The main entrance is through I.M. Pei’s thrilling glass and steel pyramid in the Cour Napoleon, but advance-ticket holders can enter via the passage Richelieu from rue de Rivoli. Inside, the huge collection includes European art from the Middle Ages to the mid-19th century, artefacts from the Islamic world, Egypt and Rome, decorative arts and sculpture. Among the superstar moments are the world’s most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, known as La Joconde in French; Gericault’s apocalyptic La Radeau de la Meduse; and Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix. Don’t miss the Michelangelo and Donatello sculptures, the amazing Titians on the rear of the mobbed Mona Lisa, nor Cranach’s Anne of Cleves. When it all gets too much, escape to Cafe Marly or Le Fumoir. Wrap up your cultural tour of the city by padding the streets; this is one place you don’t need to go into museums to soak up the stunning sights.

For archetypal Parisian elegance, head to La Bauhinia at the Shangri-La Paris for dinner. It is here, amid ultra-glamorous surroundings — think soothing mint greens, vibrant Chinese reds and plenty of colonial-style potted plants — that you’ll be treated to a sumptuous supper of French/Asian fare. Decadent dishes include Thai Beef Salad and Crispy Fish Fillets for starter, and Shrimp Pad Thai and Malaysian Lamb Curry for mains; as you’d expect, plates are served with fabulous French flare. And with everything consumed beneath a gorgeous cupola designed by starchitect Maurice Gras, diners feel like they’re dining under the stars. With A-listers and celebrities flocking here in their designer-clad droves, they’re certainly dining among them.

After-dinner drinks should be taken at La Perle, a Marais hangout so hip it actually hurts. Fashionistas, art students and other boho types head here for casual tipples, French flirtation and noisy banter; the coolest kids hang out and smoke on the street outside, while others cram around the bar or nestle into diner-style booths. 70s-style interiors and a music policy to match adds another layer of cool. Gay or straight? Who knows; everyone’s welcome here and absolutely anything goes.

You’ve done the culture, so your second day in Paris should be spent doing what the Parisians do best; shopping. There are thousands of slick stores across the capital to choose from, but for every designer label under one glorious roof head to Galeries Lafayette; it is here that the city’s coolest cats comb for expensive wares in which to strut around the city’s chicest restaurants, bars and clubs. The four stores — Lafayette Homme (menswear), Lafayette Gourmet (food), Lafayette Maison (homeware) and Lafayette Mode (fashion) — come with little extras, such as personal shopping and free fashion shows (check website for details), a sushi bar, snackery and Champagne bar.

It’s your last supper in Paris, and you’ve got to make it count. Previously dabbling in fusion cuisine, Le Réfectoire has dropped the experimental airs and settled into a more convincing incarnation as a trendy but friendly neighbourhood gem, run with a lot of care by a bunch of terribly nice boys. The food is French but not rustic: most of its clientele come for a good steak tartare or pavé de boeuf and a bottle of Vacqueyras. The menu, formatted variously for brunch, lunch or dinner, also offers big, delicious salads, a charcuterie platter and an unbelievably good petit pot au lait. The (graphic) design is fun and gives the place its own energetic identity; there’s a perspex floor and an old reel-to-reel in the loo, and oversized molecular models hanging from the ceiling (bit of a schoolroom theme going on). The value for money is remarkable, and there’s a happy vibe among the clientele of locals, young families and a few anglais. The perfect end to a perfect weekend. Now head back home, safe in the knowledge that you’ll always have Paris.

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Hg2 | A Hedonist's Guide is a luxury city guide series coveted by travellers who value both style and substance when it comes to soaking up a city. Irreverent, inspired, and, above all, intelligent.

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