Paris is a city where possibilities are endless, expectations are high, and no one doubts magic can happen.
Anyone who saw Woody Allen's recent homage to the City of Lights, Midnight in Paris, knows what I'm talking about. Allen's protagonist, a Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to be a serious scribe, takes to wandering the rainy streets of Paris at night in search of a muse.
On one such night, he accompanies a couple in 1920s dress to what he assumes is a costume party. Instead, he's transported back in time to Paris during the Jazz Age. It was a time when Gertrude Stein reigned over her famous salon and Cole Porter threw lavish soirees at his palatial mansion near Les Invalides; when Picasso and Dali sat for hours in Left Bank cafés discussing art; Josephine Baker lit up the stage of the Folies Bergère, and F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald knocked back martinis with Hemingway at the Ritz Hotel's bar.
I've always thought if I could go back in time to any era, that would be the one. So, in the spirit of Allen, on my most recent trip to Paris in December, I spent a lot of time walking (in the rain, as it turned out) seeking places that have inspired me.
After a particularly turbulent trans-Atlantic flight, I found myself happy to be in Shangri-La. It wasn't the mythical kingdom of James Hilton's novel, but the 1896 townhouse of Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon's grandnephew, in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, with the Seine River at the back door.
Prince Roland is long gone, but his elegance and love of luxury lives on in his home's reincarnation as the first Shangri-La hotel in Europe.
From the moment I arrived at the entrance, with its columned portico strung with twinkling lights for the holidays, I felt something special was about to happen. When I opened the drapes in my suite and saw the Eiffel Tower looming just beyond the windowsill, I knew it.
If you're looking for inspiration in Paris, where better to start than with its incomparable museums? If the vast corridors of the Louvre seem a bit daunting, but you want the best art the city has to offer, opt instead for the Musée d'Orsay.
Housed in the former Orsay railway station, just across from the Tuileries Garden, the building itself has been called the museum's first work of art. Arranged over three floors, it has the look of a Beaux Arts palace, with a central dome and large windows offering exquisite views across the city. My favourite is the view through the giant clock face, which offers a vista of Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur.
What's inside is equally spectacular, especially the galleries devoted to what is said to be the world's largest collections of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings. Room after room is filled with the most famous works of Manet, Monet, Degas, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Sisley and Seurat.
At the Musée d'Orsay, unlike the Louvre, you may walk right up to the art. The museum has more than 1,850 paintings, sculptures, photographs and other works, but don't leave without visiting the marvellous decorative-arts galleries.
After the museums, it has to be the meals that provide the most inspiration to visitors in Paris, long known as the capital of haute cuisine. It would take many lifetimes to visit even a fraction of the city's eateries. For contrast, here are two of my favourites.
Le Train Bleu could be your big splurge. Located in the Gare de Lyon train station, it is named after the Blue Train, which in the 1920s left the station en route to the French Riviera.
The restaurant is a monument to Belle Époque splendour, with wood panelling, polished parquet floors, plush velvet draperies, massive chandeliers and 41 paintings on the walls and ceilings. Having a meal at Le Train Bleu is a bit like dining in the Sistine Chapel.
For a complete contrast, spend an evening in one of Paris's bistros, which are becoming increasingly harder to find. You'll have to venture off the usual tourist route to get to Astier in the 11th arrondissement, but it's well worth the detour.
With its red-and-white-checkered table linen and menus printed on the chalkboard, Astier is the personification of an intimate Parisian bistro. Owners Frédéric and Claudia Hubig-Schall are gracious hosts and offer a prix-fixe menu that at 35 euros (about $50) is a good value, particularly considering it includes the expansive cheese platter, with more than 15 varieties.
What is Paris without nightlife? Before heading off to shows at the Moulin Rouge (Toulouse-Lautrec's favourite) or the rollicking Crazy Horse Cabaret, stop for a drink at the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel on the fashionable Place Vend¥me.
The bar's name perhaps results less from Hemingway's fame as a scribe than from the ruckus he created here Aug. 25, 1944. That was the night Ernest and a group of Allied soldiers, armed with machine guns, decided to "liberate" the Ritz from the Nazis.
After climbing to the roof, where, instead of Germans, their gunfire succeeded in bringing down only a clothesline hung with the hotel's linen, the victorious troops retired to the bar for a round of dry martinis.
That account has no doubt been embellished with each retelling, but there's no doubt of Hemingway's love for the iconic Paris landmark, as he noted, "When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Ritz Paris."
The bar named in his honour has changed little since that evening in 1944. Black-and-white photos of famous literary drinkers Marcel Proust, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Graham Greene and Noel Coward line the walls.
If Hemingway was the past resident celebrity, today that honour goes to Colin Field, a Brit who conquered France with a shaker instead of a sabre. The Ritz's head bartender since 1994, Field has twice been named the best bartender in the world by Forbes Magazine.
During my stay, Midnight in Paris became more than the title of Woody Allen's movie. It was the (be)witching hour, the last chance to see the nightly light show that takes place every hour at the Eiffel Tower.
Standing at my window at the Shangri-La, I watched the glittering lights sparkle like diamonds up and down the length of the tower, and thought that Paris is indeed the stuff of which dreams are made.
-- Postmedia News
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY: The Shangri-La Hotel. One of the city's newest luxury hotels, it is ideally located near the Seine River and Eiffel Tower, and it's close to many of Paris's museums. Its 81 rooms and suites have been beautifully decorated by designer Pierre-Yves Rochon. The hotel's Shang Palace Restaurant, serving Cantonese cuisine, often requires a two-week wait for a reservation, but I preferred its other restaurant, L'Abeille, which is unabashedly French in style, service and cuisine. shangrila.com