Mid-February. Ads for Presidents' Day sales pad the newspapers, offering relief from the flat-line lull that sets in after the holidays and lasts until spring. As always, I scanned and speculated, and last year, impulsively, I bought. Three hundred and ten dollars and twelve cents, tax included—that was the price tag of my pick-me-up. It bought not a 50-percent-off cashmere coat but a round-trip ticket from New York to a city that sparkles at any time of year, Paris.
The trip would be a quick, carefully budgeted soak in all things French, better and possibly even cheaper than dumping an outsize bottle of Chanel No. 5 (perfume, not toilet water) over my head and encouraging my pores to drink deeply. With only three full days, I decided to concentrate rather than cover. The Marais would be my adopted neighborhood, Paris par Arrondissement my only guide, and Shawn, a painter, mon amie de voyage.
In spite of its name, the Grand Hotel Malher was, like other Marais hotels, modest. But according to the brochure, the rooms were newly renovated and, for the price, well supplied (hair dryer, minibar, cable TV, full-size tubs with showers). Not surprisingly, ours wasn't ready when we arrived at eight on a Saturday morning.
The cab from the airport would be the last we'd take until departing on Tuesday. With the "Marseillaise" anthem in our heads and thick-soled shoes on our feet, we had come prepared to marchons, marchons, to satisfy our curiosity as much as our budget. Not yet ready for the rush of broad boulevards, we took a left outside the front door of the hotel, away from the bustle of Rue St.-Antoine and into the network of narrow streets of this pre-Revolutionary district, heading vaguely for Les Halles.
Around one corner we peered between gold-tipped iron bars into the Corinthian-colonnaded courtyard of the National Archives. The will of Napoleon beckoned, but the siren call of a warm croissant from the circa 1730 Stohrer boulangerie won out. Between bites of flaky pastry and sweet strawberries from the morning market along Rue Montorgueil, we window-fantasized about swell shoes at Patrick Cox, extravagant hats from Marie Mercie, and white jackets and toques (complete with chef, if you please) at Duthilleul et Minart.
Le Brin de Zinc . . . et Madame, a bistro as Frenchy yet authentic as Maurice Chevalier's accent, brought us gently back to earth. From the blackboard, we ordered warm chevre and endive salads, huge and satisfying; from the zinc bar came a carafe of the house red. By 1 p.m. the velvet banquettes and marble-topped tables were jammed with pairs of friends meeting up after a morning of shopping. Having already lived a week in a morning, we at last checked into a pleasant fifth-floor room with a roofline balcony overlooking the street. Restored by showers, we took to the streets again, this time heading toward the Bastille. We zigged into Honore to admire elegantly simple children's clothing, and zagged into Shamballa, a jewelry shop on Rue de Savigne where a live snake writhed in a terrarium set into the floor.
Place des Vosges was the perfect spot to wind up our day. We strolled down the allees of heavily pruned plane trees, their thick knobs and twig clusters forming an oddly beautiful winter canopy. Then, from a bench, we took in the Place piece by piece—children calling from the playground for maman to watch, watch; the former apartments of Richelieu, Molivre, and Hugo.
Only the dark and cold uprooted us. We headed south out of the square, beelining to l'Impasse, a family bistro where the greeting was warm, and the sole on pureed lentils ideal winter fare. The muffled clang of bells from the Iglise St. Paul-St. Louis the next morning announced the Sabbath, but we chose to exercise a pagan rite of worship—treasure hunting at the Porte de Vanves flea market. After a two-hour sensory workout, we emerged with Art Deco plates, fifties glasses, and linens that handily padded the two.
A good strong cafe creme and a sandwich was just what we needed, and found at Le Petit Fer a Cheval, after stowing our prizes back at the hotel. From a tiny window table we watched le tout Marais parade down Rue Vieille du Temple.
We caught the current and swirled around neighboring Rue Ste. Croix de la Bretonnerie and Rue du Bourg Tibourg, where the overflow at Mariages Freres tea salon suggested a customer for each of its 450 teas.
Shops Cuisinophilie and Robin des Bois tempted with wares for the kitchen and study, respectively, but still proud of our morning souvenirs, we walked on.
In the Palais Royale we pressed our noses to the glass at Le Grand Vefour. The restaurant was closed for the weekend, and we regretted not having made reservations for the following day: at 335 francs ($66), the prix fixe lunch seemed a giveaway, considering that we would have been dining with the spirits of Josephine and Colette. Farther south in the Palais, the sound of girls lurching along on plastic roller skates filled the stone arcades. Smaller children scampered around rows of black-and-white-striped truncated columns, turning Daniel Buren's installation into a giant game board.
Next we hopped a bus to the Musee Carnavalet. Free admission on Sundays encouraged us to stop in, just before closing time, to take a peek at the re-creation of Proust's bedroom and muse on things past.
For dinner, we again stuck to our neighborhood but roamed menu-wise to South America. Anahi occupies an old butcher shop, where candlelight and tango music bounce off glazed surfaces. Taking a cue from the location, we carved and devoured churrasco, flavorful Argentine steak. From margaritas to flan, the tastes were distinctly foreign to France, but the crowd—chic, nocturnal, smoking—was distinctively Parisian.
Monday's church bells seemed as familiar as a clock alarm you no longer hear. Across the way, flashes of a couple's morning ritual appeared in the dormer windows of a mirror-image mansard roof. After just three days, we were falling into our own Parisian routine. We warmed to breakfast this drizzly morning at the corner cafe, then set off on the day's walkathon along the Seine.
First stop was La Samaritaine and one of the city's best free attractions. Atop building number two of the legendary department store is a lookout rivaling that from the bell tower of Notre Dame, with the added benefit of a panorama painted on ceramic that labels all the Paris sights.
Finally, we let ourselves be pulled downstream to the epicenter of tourist activity, the Louvre. Long lines were excuse enough to postpone our visit until after lunch at Cafe Marly. Two years after its opening, the high-style restaurant is still almost as much an attraction as the legendary museum itself. In the scarlet main salon, we discovered decorative multilingual diners and a fine apple tart.
And we found that admission to the Louvre is half-price after 3 p.m. Having already genuflected at the Mona Lisa on previous trips, we were content to focus on Northern School painting. Just as the sun was setting, we resurfaced into the Tuileries for one last leisurely promenade.
Complain as one might about Parisian formality, when applied to architecture and landscape it is magnificent. From the Arc du Carrousel, we strode west toward the distant Arc de Triomphe, wandering off-axis for a piping-hot crepe au chocolat and a chance to watch skaters glide around a small rink near the Orangerie.
At dusk, the expertly lit monuments of Paris—arches and obelisks, spires and towers—glowed like extravagant night-lights. We had dinner reservations at Les Bouchons de Francois Clerc, whose main attraction is a wine list with at-cost pricing. We planned to indulge in delicious drink, the better to mourn the morrow's departure and toast our bon if brief voyage to the City of Light.
HERE'S THE DEAL
In the off-season, it's just as easy to create your own trip to Paris as to book a package. You can count on winter airfare wars to deliver a bargain ticket. The hotel rate is per person, based on double occupancy.
Hotel (three nights) $180
Taxi, bus, subway $30
Flea market finds $85
Museum admission $6