From Paris with love
In the 1957 musical “Silk Stockings,” a humorless communist Russian operative is sent to Paris to retrieve four of her Soviet compatriots who’ve been seduced by the city’s pleasures. But she, too, ends up getting distracted and falls in love with an American movie producer, played by Fred Astaire, who wins the heart of the formerly cold-hearted Communist agent by singing to her on a balcony overlooking the Arc de Triomphe.
The City of Love is famous the world over for its cobblestone streets, smoky cafés and pokey book shops; its world class art and food. In Japan, the French capital is so fetishized that psychiatrists have identified a Paris syndrome—Pari shokoguna—the disappointment veering on depression experienced by some Japanese tourists when the real Paris fails to live up to their romanticized expectations. The Japanese embassy in France actually runs a 24-hour helpline offering counseling to their countrymen suffering from this condition.
Still, Tokyo remains a major source of visitors to the French capital, one of the most visited cities in the world, even after last year’s terrorist attacks badly dented tourism. What better occasion to visit the romance capital of the world than Feb.14, when the city rolls out the red carpet for couples from all over the world with a menagerie of performances, exhibitions and culinary delights. Some years, lucky Valentine’s Day visitors get to see Paris at its most beautiful— veiled with a blanket of snow. Between them, Air France and EgyptAir offer daily direct flights between Cairo and Paris Charles de Gaulle. For as little as LE 5,000 roundtrip, passengers can make the fourand-a-half-hour crossing on a new Air France Boeing 787 Dreamliner.
First-time visitors on a Valentine’s Day Paris mini-break may have to prioritize. Seeing all the city’s major sites alone could take weeks, never mind the crucial allotment for things like strolling hand-in-hand along The Seine and stealing a kiss from your sweetheart in the shadow of Notre Dame. The historic Louvre on the Right Bank, the world’s largest museum, housed in a 12th-century fortress, opens at 9 a.m. every day except Tuesday. Budget at least a few hours to explore the museum’s eight sections and see iconic works like the Venus de Milo and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. Tickets are €15.
If you don’t like crowds, Paris has about 130 other museums to choose from. Non art lovers might head for Le Grand Musée du Parfum, newly opened in a 19th-century mansion (73 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré), the world’s first dedicated perfume museum. Guests paying the €14.50 admissions price can smell their way through an interactive tour on the history and
science of fragrance, from Kyphi, a compound used by ancient Egyptians to invoke the gods, to the less pleasant smells of the Industrial Revolution.
For a change of pace, get lost in the romantic Montmartre district, the famous stomping grounds of many famous 20th-century writers and artists—Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali all spent time here. Like Greenwich Village in New York and Soho in London, contemporary Montmartre is now mostly populated by tourist traps selling keychains and overpriced crepes and bo-bo (so-called bourgeois bohemians) sipping café au lait and pushing €1,000 strollers. It’s still worth it to climb your way to the top of the eponymous hill at the center of the neighborhood, because you’ll eventually reach the Sacré-Coeur Basilica, the turn-of-the-century landmark Catholic church. Open 6 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day, it’s free and offers impressive views.
Another must for couples is a trip up the Eiffel Tower, the architectural wonder that is the most visited paid tourist attraction in the world. Originally built as a temporary entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the tower was nearly torn down in 1909 after many Parisians complained that it was an eyesore. It survived, and at 324 meters, it’s France’s tallest structure. The observation decks boast panoramic views of the City of Light from 9:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.—adults pay €17.00. For those looking for a special way to savor the view, there is also the option of dinner. Michelin-starred Le Jules Verne, accessible by private lift, offers a special Valentine’s Day prix fixe menu at €390 per person—or €560 with wine pairing—featuring such dishes as duck foie
gras and black truffle macaroni gratin. This being Paris, there’s more than one way to see the city over a plate of food. Dinner cruises on the Seine offer diners a relaxing tour of the sights on the banks, from the Statue of Liberty replica to the west to the Ile de la Cité in the east. Bateaux Parisiens (Port de la Bourdonnais) is a two-hour river tour that embarks from the Eiffel Tower at 8:30 p.m. The Valentine’s Day menu is a six-course feast, including cheese, champagne and a selection of wines, all for €150 to €215 per person, depending on where you sit.
Paris offers plenty of gastronomical options for more economic-minded holidaymakers, too. Those looking for the traditional French bistro experience might consider A la Biche au Bois (45 Avenue Ledru Rollin) a stone’s throw from Gare de Lyon, the city’s turn-of-the20th-century train station. It’s one of a dwindling number of neighborhood
eateries that still serve classics like coq
au vin and ouefs durs mayonnaise at less than €30 per person for a four-course meal. Open for lunch and dinner, reservations are a must.
There’s a similar range of accommodation options, but for a blowout weekend, there are few hotels that rival Le Bristol (112 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré), a short walk from the Elysée Palace. A favorite of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, this is a traditional five-star hotel: The doors open with actual keys and the decor is pastel florals and Regency furniture. Double rooms start at €850 a night. Le Bristol’s three-Michelin star restaurant, Epicure, has several times been named the world’s best hotel restaurant.
The Saint James Paris ( 43 Avenue Bugeaud), is less central, but more than compensates by offering a countryside château experience in the upmarket 16th arrondissement. In contrast to its Second Republic-era neoclassical facade is the hotel’s almost-manic interior design, which features zebra heads on the walls and a large black-and-white striped imperial staircase. Doubles start at €350 a night, and the caviar starter at the restaurant will set you back a mere €65.
An even cheaper option that still makes for a special weekend is Hôtel Atmosphères (31 Rue des Écoles), where doubles start at €150. Just a 10-minute walk from the river, Notre Dame cathedral and the Panthéon, the hotel is perfect for sightseers. Demonstrating that Paris has something for everyone, Atmosphères is all about modernity, with 56 uniquely decorated rooms with themes like By Night, in stark red and black, and Macaron, which is pink and fluffy like a French cookie.
Wherever you plan to stay, get in the mood for your French getaway— whether it’s this year or in a decade— with a movie marathon of some of Hollywood’s many celebrations of The City of Love, from “Everyone Says I Love You” to “Last Tango in Paris.” As Fred Astaire sings to Cyd Charisse in “Silk Stockings”: “Paris loves lovers.”