Nachiket Barve on What Makes Paris Magical
Paris! The word instantly summons up images of the Eiffel Tower, macaroons, museums and street-side cafes filled with chic people. It is so hard to write about a city that has been widely celebrated over centuries and has almost become a cliche! But, it is also a place that triumphs over the pastiche of cliches that it has been bestowed with…overlook the garish tourist memorabilia and dig deeper into its fabled history to see and experience a city free of its trappings.
This is a city to be experienced, not just seen. Its allure lies in not the sights, but the subtle tastes, aromas, textures, colours and the languid romance in the air. It hasn’t the frenzied pace of New York, or the cutting edge of London. Paris is a vibe that balances grand history, with the poetry of now. The ateliers of haute couture artisans sit cheek by jowl with high-street stores; designer labels are neighbours with old bookshops and tobacconists.
Years ago, I lived in Paris for close to a year, having been awarded a scholarship by the French government to study at ENSAD. I spent less time in school and more time exploring the winding streets and the museums. The city enriched me, transformed my thinking and also sharpened my eye. I also did an internship with Céline, the storied house that showed a completely new side of Paris to me. A recent trip to Paris was a great way to revisit those memories and walk down lanes familiar yet new.
The landmarks are buzzing with tourists, yet the intrepid traveller can find peace and solitude. The spectacular vistas seen from the majestic and tranquil basilica of Sacre-Coeur are something to treasure. The light dazzling from the Eiffel Tower adds sparkle (pun intended) to the eye of the most jaded Parisian too.
The incredibly long queues and the throngs of visitors make the Mona Lisa the most disappointing experience. Rather, I suggest you spend that time, like we did, touring the other rooms of the Louvre (a museum as large and varied as an ancient civilisation itself!). The Egyptian rooms, the artefacts used by Napoleon and many of the displays are much more wonderful to study.
I enjoy visiting the Musée Rodin, on the other side of the Seine, which houses some fantastic sculptures. I am also partial to the Museum Quay Branly…that stands at the foot of the Eiffel, a tourist attraction that is overshadowed (figuratively as well as metaphorically) by its taller counterpart. It houses some mind-boggling and utterly amazing pieces created by indigenous communities across the world. As a designer who is inspired by the myriad cultures of the world, I was amazed to see incredible whale tooth carving from Polynesia, aborigine paintings from Australia, totem poles from Papua New Guinea as well as some rare pieces from India.
The gothic Notre-Dame Cathedral is perhaps one of the most famous churches in the world. Stay away from it during peak hours and instead walk by it in the late evening when the gargoyles and mythical creatures that sit perched on its exteriors seem to come to life bathed in the nocturnal light. Spend a lazy afternoon marvelling at the Sainte Chapelle that sits opposite its more famous cousin. The beautiful stained glass will blow your mind away.
Spend a quiet morning exploring the famed flea markets of Clignancourt…it is a visual delight and tells you so much about how people lived in the decades gone by. Admire the stunning veneers of furniture, the hand-carved shell lamps or the hand-stitched leather bags that line its many lanes. Be prepared to bargain and do a bit of homework before you go; it wouldn’t be very amusing to buy an ‘antique’ that has ‘Made in China’ stamped on it!
The food in Paris is incredible! Years ago I discovered the amazing patisserie Gérard Mulot in the Marais. I was pleasantly surprised to see the consistency of the artisanal pastries and their silken texture. A tiny hole-in-the-wall falafel place near Saint Michel called Maoz serves incredibly fresh and flavoured vegetarian falafel. Always check out the farmers’ markets that pop up in each neighbourhood for the most incredible foods; honey, artisanal cheeses, aged sausages, roast chickens, jams and preserves as well as fresh breads. These are wonderful to savour by the banks of the Seine or in the many gardens in the city as a picnic lunch and make for wonderful gifts to carry back home.
Paris also has some truly magical cafes…you can sip a glass of wine or have a coffee any time of the day and observe the city go by. People watching is rarely such a joy as it is in this style capital. Apart from the celebrated grand cafes like Café de Flore, each neighbourhood has some wonderful ones. Just avoid the hyper touristic cafes lining the Champs Elysees; instead hop over to the Avenue Montaigne for a more authentic experience. Munching on a piping hot gaufre (‘waffle’ in a less poetic language) doused in gooey chocolate and with a generous sprinkling of dusted sugar while watching the Eiffel sparkling is an experience that is to be cherished. The gorgeous Mariage Frères teashop in the Marais has the most exquisite teas and even more beautiful tea pots that will make you a devotee even if you aren’t a tea drinker.
The wonderful thing about Paris is that you can curate your experience of the city your way, if you make an effort to blend into it. A multi-course Michelin-starred meal or a humble prix fixe menu; you can have an enriching experience either way. The celebrated bookstores in the city especially the wonderful Galignani on Rue de Rivoli as well as the museum bookshops are a must-visit to indulge in your passion for coffee-table books from around the world. I cart back suitcases filled with tomes that nudge me to dream, reminisce and let my imagination wander.
This truly is a city that is unveiled layer by layer as one spends time here. Whether it is your first visit or you are a seasoned visitor, it dazzles with charm, beauty and romance. The stunning architectural details, the intricate mosaic tiling, the bursts of colour from sidewalk florists, the patinated metal of old sculptures staring at life on squares, the cobblestones worn smooth by generations of people passing over them, the amusing animalier door handles that lead into courtyards, the damask of old chairs, the boxy leather bags from the ’40s that have survived the ravages of time and wars…there is so much to dig deep into in this city!
It inspires me with the beauty of its design and fashion scene. It makes me yearn for perfection; to chase the detail in the smallest, most insignificant nuances; and to do things right because that in some infinitesimal way makes life better.