You’d think it would be hard to top a Nice-Cannes-St Tropez experience. Sun, sand, beach, exquisite wines, fresh seafood, leave you basking in a golden after-glow, purring with contentment. Then again, there’s Paris!
Flying in from the South of France, we landed in Paris but immediately drove out to spend the night at the 1547-built ChÃ¢teau de Chambord, a sprawling French Classical edifice which, with its profusion of towers, cupolas, gables, lanterns and chimneys, reminded Henry James more of “the spires of a city than the salient point of a single building”. The 177km drive from Paris to Chambord through the picturesque Loire valley, favoured destination of castle-building French nobility, took just two hours. We drove in through the extensive grounds–the chÃ¢teau is surrounded by a 52.5km/13,400 acre park and game reserve encircled by a 31km wall. I gasped as the sprawling Hansel and Gretel-esque castle loomed into view. In the foreground: four black feathered Fell ponies yoked to toy carriages giving joy rides to shiny-faced kids; in the background the massive 440-room castle which my guide told me had 282 fireplaces and 84 staircases including a unique double-spiralled staircase designed, legend has it, by Leonardo da Vinci, which allowed two people to climb up three floors without seeing each other! We walked up a simpler but quaint medieval stone staircase to our rooms in the tower for a quick wash before dinner.
The next morning we began our exploration of this veritable Ali Baba’s cave of a castle–ultimate tribute to the vanity and imperious impracticality of King Francis 1 who commissioned the Italian architect Domenico Da Cortona to build him this asymmetrical hunting lodge/chÃ¢teau/castle featuring enormous high-ceilinged rooms prone to draughts, huge windows, flanked by enormous courtyards that were designed to look out to Mediterranean vales rather than the cold, damp Northern French countryside. Small wonder that he lived there for barely a fortnight! The views from the top rooms are impressive: the Cosson river threading through the grounds below reflects a lovely image of the chÃ¢teau. An innovative tourist gadget is handed out here: the ‘histopad’, which is a touchscreen tab that gives visitors an ‘augmented visit’ to the chÃ¢teau. In one room at the chÃ¢teau, you scan an interactive time portal with this device, plunging into immersion mode, a 3D Renaissance-era rendition of the same room albeit furnished in period style, pops up on your screen. You get a 360° view of the plush upholstery, sumptuous tapestries and decorative items that the edifice once featured. Not one but eight significant rooms are available to scan similarly on immersion mode apart from digital overviews of another 19 rooms.
ChÃ¢teau tour over, we scrambled into roomy jeeps for the best part of the visit–a tour of the vast game park teeming with red deer. The personable young estate gamekeeper who led our team was exemplary in his sensitivity–conversations were conducted in whispers to not disturb the animals; the packed lunch at the charming observation point in the middle of the forest, artfully concealed from animal view, was eaten in hushed silence watching whole deer families grazing in the distance. But a stop at the Trophy Room across the yard from the viewing station was a tad unnerving: every available wall space of the high-ceilinged room was covered with antlered heads of deer killed over the years. Periodic culling remains a practice even now to keep the deer population manageable.
After over two hours, lungs bursting with the goodness of pure oxygen, it was back to the castle for a quick coffee after which we packed up and returned to Paris.
I have lost count of how many times I have visited Paris, but the city never fails to surprise me anew each time. The delights began at the hotel itself–Hotel du Collectionneur, at Rue de Courcelles. This Art Deco edifice, a tribute to the 1930s, reminded one of the great transatlantic liners of the past: 498 rooms and suites, a chic restaurant Le Safran, the plush Purple Bar, impeccable service... A solicitously murmuring bellboy ushers me to my room, which proves to be commodious, furnished in sumptuous good taste and overlooking the great Andalusian-style inner courtyard garden replete with fountains, palms and citrus trees. A quick shower and we drive to the Port de la Bourdonnais.
Priscilla, our local guardian angel, has booked us an early dinner cruise on the Bateaux Parisiens. As we feast on champagne, a choice selection of wines, some exquisite poisson, poulet and lamb ever so delicately cooked, plated and served with inimitable French elegance, we watch Paris’s architectural marvels through the huge glass panels framing the boat’s Bistro restaurant. The cruise kicks off at the Eiffel Tower, once the most reviled monument in Paris (in 1887, artists, architects and writers protested to the authorities about its being “useless and monstrous...a giddy, ridiculous tower” that would mar the cityscape) and takes us past the Grand Palais, the MusÃ©e d’Orsay (once a train station), the Notre Dame cathedral, among other landmarks on either side of the Seine river. In the gathering dusk the lord above mounts his own laser show and the sky turns gold, crimson, pink, lilac and then velvety-blue as we eat dessert and savour liqueurs. The hour-long cruise is over much too soon.
We disembark and in the waning light decide to stop at the TrocadÃ©ro, which houses the magnificent hilltop Palais de Chaillot, its two neoclassical wings divided by a terrace leading to Jardins du Trocadero. Delightful symmetry and in the gathering light the place has a fairytale quality. The hilltop view of the Eiffel Tower is a keeper going by the number of selfie-stick-wielding tourists clicking away.
The following morning is reserved for the de rigueur visit to Paris’s famed museums. We decide on the MusÃ©e Jacquemart-AndrÃ© at Boulevard Haussmann created in 1913 in the private home of banker Edouard AndrÃ© and his painter wife NÃ©lie Jacquemart. What. A. Treat. The handsome 1869 building with sweeping gravelled forecourt features a collection of Italian, French and English art displayed with impeccable good taste. The formal salons, private residential quarters and the state rooms where operas and formal receptions were hosted offer a unique insight into another time, another more spacious lifestyle. Film-buff alert: portions of Gigi and The Count of Monte Cristo were shot here.
No trip to Paris can be deemed complete without some shopping and where else but at the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann would one find great value for money, an aesthetic ambience, attentive staff and a sumptuous food court for the quick bite? Having fed and shopped to our heart’s content we decided to turn adventurous and go for a crazy Paris 2CV ride in 1930s vintage CitroÃ«ns. Drivers with French accents thicker than mayonnaise, funny and armed with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the city drove us round the city pointing out the sights en route to our special teatime date with the legendary Cordon Bleu cooking school. Establishedin 1895, this is a celebration of–and an incubating lab for–that quintessential French refinement! A French chef with an English interpreter led us through a demonstration of how to make crÃ¨me brÃ»lÃ©e as we sipped exquisite white and red wines from Bordeaux and were gently educated on a wine’s mood, colour, bouquet and body.
After Cordon Bleu nothing less than a superlative meal would do! Also it was my night for a last tango in Paris. Off we went to Rue du ColisÃ©e to Boeuf sur le Toit, an Art Decojazz club that's been rocking Paris since the 1920s with its music–and its food, which turned out to be a savvy balance between French tradition and modernity. We feasted off a lovely salad, Coq au Vin, a tournedo grille with BÃ©arnaise sauce and a dÃ©gustation platter of assorted desserts, all washed down with generous doses of full-bodied red merlot,white sauvignon blanc and a bubbly, effervescent wine superbly paired with the desserts.
Back to the hotel, a post-dinner walk to the Eiffel Tower, some mooning by the Seine watching lovers mooching and brightly lit boats passing by, and it was time for bed.
Paris, as usual, had lived up to its promise and revealed new wonders. Which is what will draw me, like millions of others, back to this City of Delight, over and over again.
Direct flights to Paris from Indian cities costs from â‚¹50,000 return. One-stop flights can be as low as â‚¹30,000.
Where to Stay[caption id="attachment_55450" align="alignnone" width="1024"] The Purple Bar at L’Hotel
I stayed at L'Hotel du Collectionneur, Arc de Triomphe, a chic 478-room Art Deco hotel. Proximate attractions include the MusÃ©e Bourdelle, Grand Palais and the Parc de la Villette. Avenuedes Champs-Ã‰lysÃ©es, Rue du Fauborg and Rue Saint-HonorÃ© is where you could shop (or window shop). Tariffs fluctuate seasonally, ranging from â‚¬226 to â‚¬480 (hotelducollectionneur.com).
What to See & Do
MusÃ©e Jacquemart-AndrÃ©, 158 Boulevard Haussmann: Museum created at the home of painter NÃ©lie Jacquemart and her banker spouse, Edouard AndrÃ©, and Italian late 16th-19th century art and offers a fascinating glimpse into the lifestyle of the French upper crust of which they were prominent members.
Galeries Lafayette, Boulevard Haussmann: This multi-storied building with innumerable food courts, clothing and accessories counters is where you buy everything from a pin to a piano at drop-dead-cheap prices: quality assured! Stock up on stuff for your kitchen/bar/home/wardrobe. The glass-domed atrium is a landmark.
CÃ©sar Palace, Avenue du Maine: The 250-seater restaurant hosts a spectacular cabaret show. Drinks and dining begin at 7.30pm, the cabaret show at 10.30pm (from â‚¬79 per person; book at cesarpalace-paris.com).
E Boeuf sur le Toit, Rue du ColisÃ©e: Unforgettable jazz, fabulous French cuisine, ambience, history, romance. Book your table at boeufsurletoit.com/en.
Bateaux Parisiens: Take a cruise along the Seine, while sipping fine wine and devouring delicate morsels. Prices for the 6.15pm cruise (1hr15min) start at â‚¬69, the more extensive 8.30pm cruise (2hr30min) at â‚¬99 and the 12.45pm lunch cruise (2hr) at â‚¬59. See and book at bateauxparisiens.com.
Paris 2 CV ride: See the city in a convertible 2CV CitroÃ«n; rides cost â‚¬60-190, depending on duration/itinerary/meals/stops you choose. I highly recommend the 45min-ride followed by lunch at the Eiffel Tour (â‚¬80). Book at 2cvparistour.com.
ChÃ¢teau de Chambord: Builtin 1547, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is a two-hour drive from Paris. It makes for a lovely day excursion. The extensive garden flanking the building has Fell ponies harnessed to box carriages for joy rides for kids. For the nature lover there are jeep rides into the sanctuary housing thousands of red deer. A cafÃ© in the grounds serves food and alcohol. Do use the histopad, for a fabulous time-capsule vision of the interiors decked in their vintage finery! Tourist accommodation is also available. All details atchambord.org.