The train leaves Barcelona on Saturday morning. Romantic scenery flies past unnoticed by Spanish women applying their make-up in anticipation of a romantic weekend in Paris.

We arrive at Gare de Lyon at 4pm and a taxi whisks me and my wife off to the charming, immaculate Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche, an 18th century former home between the Latin Quarter and St Germain des Pres.

We dump our bags and walk down Boulevard St Michel. People — locals, tourists, students from the Sorbonne — fill restaurants and cafes, streets and shops. As the air shakes with a mixture of thunder and the sound of Notre Dame’s bells, we browse in Shakespeare & Company.

By the time we reach the famous cathedral, which has been cleaned since we last saw it and stands bleached and magnificent against the storm clouds, it’s raining heavily and men are selling umbrellas to those already queuing.

Suddenly everyone is ushered quickly in. When we emerge a short while later, it has stopped raining and a small child is chasing pigeons through the puddles.

The next day we breakfast in the hotel’s cosy breakfast room in an ancient cellar before visiting the Louvre. The powerful rhythms and patterns of Ingres, David, Gericault and Poussin are so overwhelming I begin to photograph just the animals in the paintings. Of course it’s impossible to get near the Mona Lisa. Nobody looks at the other even more beautiful da Vinci paintings nearby. Such is celebrity.


One of the many historical sculptures found inside the Louvre museum.

After a light lunch of soup and bread, we catch the Metro to the Marche aux Puces at St Ouen, Paris’ largest market. Amid the bustle, we locate the Marche Vernaison, where our Australian friend Melissa mans a somewhat bizarre stall, Tombees du Camion (“Stuff that’s fallen off the back of a truck”), selling “1920s toilet paper from Lyon and dolls’ heads and amassing a very unusual French vocabulary list”. She tells us the stallholders have kind of adopted her. “It seems I will always be known here as Betty Boop, ” she laughs.

Melissa has been living in Paris for a couple of years now and is virtually a native. She has a mixture of advice for tourists or those planning to stay a little longer. “Being a girl in her 20s in Paris seems to me especially wonderful but I’d recommend Paris for anybody, ” she says. “I hate to say it but culture counts a lot more here, everyone has Sartre on their bookshelf but in most cases it’s not just for decoration. They actually have read him.”

She says most French people are delighted to talk to an Australian. “It’s the exotic French dream to hire a van and coast down the Great Ocean Road, and everyone knows someone who lives in or married someone from Brisbane, Perth or wherever. You’re bound to be welcomed.”

What of the famous Parisian charm? “Don’t come for the luxury shopping or to tick off the Mona Lisa and the Eiffel Tower, ” she says.

“Come and get lost wandering around St-Germain, the Marais or Oberkampf. Stay in a quiet backstreet and try everything artisanal in your neighbourhood. Come curious but don’t go looking for the charm: the charm will find you.”

As we have only 24 hours left in Paris, we can’t afford waiting for the charm to find us, and much of the next day is spent exploring our immediate surrounds: the Gallo-Roman baths and medieval tapestry sequence The Lady and the Unicorn, both part of the National Museum of the Middle Ages, the Luxembourg Gardens, St Suplice — and that vast network of lanes and streets with their small shops selling books, art, jewellery, clothes and dreams.


Marche aux Puces (Metro Porte-de-Cignancourt) is open weekends 9am-6pm and Mondays 10am-6pm.

Hotel Saint Paul Rive Gauche has rooms from €119($174).

The National Museum of the Middle Ages is open every day except Tuesdays, from 9.15am-5.45pm. Entry is €8.


© The West Australian

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