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Every day's a parade in Paris

For every disappointment, there's a dozen pleasures

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PARIS -- Grumpy, glorious Paris -- where does a first-timer start?

Well, I'm here to tell you that they mould a nice cornice, these people, and perform near-miracles with duck fat. Every block has an open-air café, chairs facing the street where young women in cotton dresses ride by on bikes, like beautiful little parachutes.

If you enjoy such things, you'll probably love Paris.

The museums? Worth a look. But honestly, I couldn't get out of the Louvre fast enough. It was so packed that the only way to get to the Venus de Milo was to crowd-surf across the heads and Nikons of a thousand tourists.

Often, I enjoy such things, but not without air conditioning. The Louvre on a crowded summer day had, for me, all the appeal of Disneyland during a power outage.

But the Musee d'Orsay, where the Impressionists live? I could've spent a month amid the Renoirs, in the refurbished train station that is a masterpiece in itself.

That was Paris for me on my first visit. For every disappointment, there were a dozen pleasures.

Best of all, everything you love about a major city is within walking distance. Then there's the language itself, which rolls off their linen tongues like a torch song.

No, I don't know what you're saying. Just talk. Mind if I dance?

Paris won me over in a heartbeat. True, it's lousy with scooters and hence relentlessly loud. And It's hopelessly congested and nonsensical in its layout.

Its inhabitants are mostly melancholics (the condition of chronic melancholy). To me, the French are like the weird kids in college. They hold their cigarettes like jewelry, cupping them in their hands so as not to set themselves -- or you -- on fire. Mostly, they succeed.

They are also, despite some reports, gracious and helpful hosts, quick to answer questions or pour you aboard the proper bus.

So, on my maiden voyage to Paris, I found an enchanting place that was never, for half a second, dull. Here are my tips for those who have never been:

Like most North Americans, I flew here in steerage with two meals. De Gaulle was a breeze, and when I couldn't find the pre-arranged shuttle to the hotel, a driver from a rival service used his cellphone to summon my driver.

Merci.

In no time, I was sitting at a corner café somewhere on the Left Bank, the centre of thought -- though one of the locals assured me that was very long ago.

It seems impossible to exaggerate the importance of the little sidewalk café to Paris. They are to this French city what beaches are to L.A. And every day, Paris has a parade -- the tourists, supermodels, pickpockets and artists who make up this low-slung city. The cafés are like the parade stand. Sit down, ask the waiter to bring you un cafe, and swallow it all up to your heart's content.

If you ever leave your little sidewalk spot, getting around Paris will prove pretty easy. When you're heading downhill, you're headed toward the river, the surprisingly skinny Seine that splits the town in two. The rest is confusing, but so scenic, you don't care. Note that there is no true north in Paris. As with moral relativism, there are only variations.

In any case, a good bet is the carnet, a packet of 10 tickets ($15) good for subway or bus, and available at any Metro station. The ubiquitous subway system is manageable after about a day, though I found the buses the most direct way to the major sights.

I started my Paris tour with the Louvre, but if I had it to do all over again, I'd begin at Notre Dame, early (before 10 a.m.), when the lines are shortest.

The jaw-dropping cathedral is on the Ile de la Cite, the first of two little islands on the river. When you're done touring the cathedral (free) or climbing to the bell tower like Quasimodo ($10), wander around back to the small bridge that leads to Ile Saint-Louis, the second island.

Here, you'll find an elegant old street, Rue St.-Louis-en-l'Ile, as narrow as your living room. This is the Paris you've always imagined -- quaint restaurants, pastry shops and perhaps the best ice cream ever, at the famed Berthillon.

I had a fine lunch at Les Fous de l'Ile, a cheery little bistro. For 20 bucks, I had a mussels remoulade appetizer and grilled lamb chops on a bed of potatoes. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the place was still throbbing. In France, happy hour apparently lasts from noon till about midnight.

From here, you might catch the bus to my beloved Musee d'Orsay. As you're aware, the French have lost a lot of wars over the years, yet somehow managed to end up with most of the world's great artwork. Here, I learned that the Symbolists expressed a fragile world, an inner reality. I also learned that I am particularly drawn to snowy pastorals and paintings of naked ladies combing their hair.

And now, I have an appointment with Napoleon.

These days, Napoleon rests inside a series of coffins, one within the other. Honestly, I'm not sure whether it's to protect the remains from thieves or to give him additional stature.

In any case, it's a stirring burial site and comes as part of the $11 admission to the Musee de l'Armee, a sprawling, occasionally repetitive military museum in the heart of the city. You can walk here from almost anywhere, and the golden-domed church in which Napoleon is housed is one of the most visible and alluring landmarks.

Parts of the Left Bank where I stayed were pretty buzzy -- loud and gridlocked -- but on the other side of the river, near the Opera Garnier, I found the centre of the Parisian universe. The area pulses with boutiques and cafés. There are many high-end shops, but bargains abound, too.

Watch your step, though. Only by the grace of God is there not a traffic death here every minute.

I don't know where I heard about Harry's New York Bar (5 Rue Daunou), a few blocks off the Avenue de l'Opera, a comforting old Hemingway hangout with just the right blend of stale beer and over-varnished mahogany. But I needed a place to dampen my lips on a hot July day.

After a refreshment here, the French bartender and one of the locals had a grand time directing me to the Metro line that would take me to the Moulin Rouge, the famed red-light district, where I hoped to sample some absinthe.

The No. 3 train to Villiers, then the No. 2 train toward Nation, exiting at Blanche ...

Despite their help, I eventually found it, after being hustled by a hooker in front of Starbucks, of all places, across from the Moulin Rouge itself. How French.

The absinthe ($12 at Hotel Royal Fromentin, 11 Rue Fromentin) tasted like bitter lemonade. It's served, quite grandly, by dripping ice water through a sugar cube and into the absinthe itself.

How else did I waste my time? Hey, remember what Bertrand Russell once said: The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.

So I sampled a rhubarb tart at a little deli named Paul on Rue des Pyramides. I tried the cookies at one of the irresistible La Cure Gourmande candy shops. I rented a bike to tour the Tuileries, the sprawling gardens that provide an airy place to recover after your visit to the adjacent Louvre.

I took a jog along the Boulevard des Invalides to admire the bridges along the Seine. I had a Bloody Mary at the Carmine Café, a friendly little joint a mile from the Eiffel Tower, on Avenue de Suffren.

And I capped my stay with a fine meal at La Petite Tour, a neighbourhood restaurant in the 16th arrondissement, a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Highly recommended by friends, it proved to be a cosy little place, where they saute the scallops twice, then bounce them off the moon for effect.

That's the way the French cook -- always going the extra 239,000 miles.

-- Postmedia News

IF YOU GO

Where to stay:

Victoria Palace Hotel, 6 Rue Blaise Desgoffe, Paris; 1-4549-7000, www.victoriapalace.com. Spacious and elegant rooms on the Left Bank and friendly, English-speaking staff. James Joyce a former resident. Doubles from about $400.

Hotel Langlois, 63 Rue Saint-Lazare, Paris; 1-4874-7824, www.hotel-langlois.com. Beautifully furnished former bank in culturally rich Right Bank location. Doubles from $185.

Where to eat:

La Petite Tour, 11 Rue de al Tour; 1-4520-0931, www.lapetitetour.fr. Highly recommended neighbourhood eatery. Try the crabmeat appetizer. Locals love the scallops entree. Dinner from about $30.

Les Fous de l'Ile, 33 Rue des Deux-Ponts; 1-4325-7667. Bustling little bistro with friendly, hardworking wait staff and delicious food at a fair price. Two-course lunch, about $20.

To learn more: en.parisinfo.com.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 2, 2011 D4

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