Five great days in Paris and London
Paris or London: Who says you have to choose one place over the other? They’re both terrific.
An extended long weekend in London seems extravagant, but five days in London and Paris? That’s efficiency, and something I jumped at the chance to do in early April. Fall’s a good idea, too.
The modus operandi: seeing the usual suspects in an unusual way. The first stop was London. A spin through the Victoria and Albert Museum — you can’t go to London and not visit a museum or gallery, because they’re free! (mostly) — ended with lunch in the café. The first museum restaurant in the world, the café is housed in the Morris, Gamble and Poynter Rooms, a grand space, intricately adorned with stained glass and ornamental pillars. Despite living in this city on two occasions, I’d never set foot in this café. It was a packed house the day I was there; clearly others had cottoned on to the sanctuary.
Next was a tour of the rapidly gentrifying East End — something I usually view from afar while crossing a bridge, or from above via, say, The Shard. This time, I was on a bike, under the guidance of Artouride, a tour company that specializes in art and architecture. We wound our way along the Thames from Greenland Dock, through Greenwich, taking in storied buildings such as St. Nicholas Church in Deptford, the gates of which are home to skulls that are said to be the inspiration for the pirates’ skull and crossbones image. We also cycled by the beautiful Old Royal Naval College, designed by Christopher Wren in the 17th century. Today it’s home to the University of Greenwich. We crossed over the river by the O2 dome, via the cable cars built for the 2012 Olympic Games, and history gave way to modern reinvention, such as the district made up of shipping containers, aptly dubbed Container City, at Trinity Buoy Wharf. The containers have been turned into cafés, offices and even residences — all with a river view. An easy, windy ride along the Isle of Dogs to the foot tunnel at Greenwich Pier led us back to our start point.
The rest of my time in the city was spent strolling. I wish all cities were as well signed as London. The afternoons of Day 1 and 2, I set out in the general direction I needed to be in a few hours, and I meandered, knowing that eventually all lanes, cul-de-sacs and paths would lead to a map to set me back on course.
On Day 3, it was time to cross the Channel via rail, a journey that takes the same amount of time as flying when you include the airport to and fro but is far more civilized.
London’s grand St. Pancras Station evokes the romance of rail travel the moment you step into the station — that it’s also home to Europe’s longest Champagne bar adds to the atmosphere.
Eurostar, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year, continues to add destinations to its service, but the London-Paris route is what made it famous, and the journey from city centre to city centre was seamless and speedy. A couple of magazines and a light snack before looking out the window to see French graffiti instead of English, and it was time to pack up my bag to disembark.
Stashing my luggage at the hotel, I headed to Galeries Lafayette — not for the shopping, but for the vista. Every visit to Paris demands a view of its rooftops, and the surprisingly uncrowded patio atop this department store welcomes all.
The French air having filled my lungs, I headed back toward the shops and past them (yes, even the food hall) to La Galerie des Galeries, the store’s own art exhibition space. It’s not particularly easy to find but worth it when you do, as it’s home to four shows a year that explore the relationship of the arts and the connection to fashion.
After a slightly out-of-the-way pit stop at La Durée for a macaron (OK, a stereotypical Parisian treat, but I got an extra-large one), I headed to the Musée d’Orsay — not for its collections, but for its regal restaurant. Dinners can be had in the d’Orsay’s airy, gold-flecked former ballroom, and on the evening I was there it filled up fast with an after-work crowd — lots of tables full of men finally free of their suit jackets. (The restaurant is open to the public only one night a week, so be sure to call ahead.)
And on the last day of the extended weekend, two tours to two landmarks — one guided, one not.
A guided tour of the gardens, both Tuileries and at the Palais Royal, by an extremely knowledgeable guide from Context Travel revealed the politics behind the city’s famous greenery. These gardens were designed not only to demonstrate man’s power over nature, but to broadcast the power of the household to which the garden belonged.
While at the Palais Royal, we also stopped in front of Le Grand Véfour. One of the first French cuisine restaurants in the world, it opened its doors in the 1780s when the Duke of Orléans told his personal chef to start a restaurant so that the public could enjoy what the aristocracy was eating. I admired it only from the outside, though; its prices, like its history — très cher.
As a last hurrah, I hopped on a vélo, one of the city’s shared bikes, and post-dinner, made tracks west toward the Eiffel Tower. Cycling along the Seine, with the lights on and very few people out, was reward enough, but then I arrived under the tower and almost had the place to myself. There are rewards to be had when you go out of your way to see things a bit differently, and this was most definitely one of them.
Stashing my luggage at the hotel, I headed to Galeries Lafayette — not for the shopping, but for the vista. Every visit to Paris demands a view of its rooftops.