x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Paris, all it's cracked up to be

My kind of place Believe the hype. Even sceptics find the allure of France's capital to be irresistible.

Janine di Giovanni bears the cold to be in the romantic Luxembourg Gardens.
Janine di Giovanni bears the cold to be in the romantic Luxembourg Gardens.

Because it's a city for romantics, those who love to walk, eat and shop.  You don't need a car. You don't need a taxi (which are impossible to find anyway).  You barely need the Metro, which is spotless and safe. You occasionally jump on a bus, but the best thing about Paris is that it's a pocket-sized city that can be reached practically everywhere on foot or by the Velib, bicycles that you rent by the hour.

I live in the Golden Triangle - the area between the Luxembourg Gardens, Sèvres Babylone and Montparnasse. It's the heart of literary Paris circa 1920; the homes of Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Alice B Toklas and  Sylvia Beach, who opened Shakespeare and Company, are down the street. The Luxembourg Gardens - in my biased view - is the most romantic and magical park in the world. But whatever quartier you choose to make your temporary home, the wonderful and unique thing about Paris is you can walk anywhere and find something charming - a shop where pianos are fixed; a brocante (antique shop) devoted solely to silver spoons; a tiny bistro run by the same family for three generations.

If you are grand and have the money, head to Le Bristol on Rue Fabourg St Honoré (www.hotel-bristol.com; 0033 1 53 43 43 00) or Hotel Raphael on Avenue Kléber (www.raphael-hotel.com; 0033 1 53 64 32 15) both of which are fabulous, luxurious and very French. This means you can expect linen sheets, fantastic coffee and croissants in bed and excellent service. At Le Bristol, you can also have a great Anne Semonin facial. A double room at Le Bristol costs from US$890 (Dh3,267). A double room at Hotel Raphael costs from $712 (Dh2,614), both including taxes.

For the super trendy, there is still the Hotel Costes on Rue St Honoré near the Tuilerie Gardens, which is dark and discreet and has a wonderful swimming pool and spa downstairs. You will bump into lots of French stars here, and the restaurant is fun place to people-watch and grab a club sandwich. A double room costs from $753 (Dh2,765) including taxes (www.hotelcostes.com; 0033 1 42 44 50 00).

Start by walking through the Tuilerie Gardens, cut up through the Louvre and head towards the Place des Victoires. From there, you can see the lively Rue Montorgueil with its wonderful cafes, bakeries and flower stalls. Then, head down to Palais Royal and wander through the arcades full of tiny, unusual shops selling military replicas, music boxes and vintage little black dresses (Marc Jacobs is also there).

Cross the bridge, head to St Germain des Prés, and have tea at Café de Flore (never Deux Magots, that's for tourists). Browse through the wonderful bookstores nearby, then head up Rue du Bac, and head towards the Musée Rodin. In the summer, the garden there is lovely.  It's a long day of walking, but a good one, and you can always jump on a bike if you have the energy. On day two, tackle the Marais and Montmartre and you will pass through some great Paris neighbourhoods - Canal St Martin or Oberkampf for example. Get a good map.

Go to the markets - it's how Parisians shop for their food, especially on Sunday mornings. There are wonderful ones on Boulevard Richard-Lenoir in the 11th Arondissement, or in the Marché des Batignolles in the 17th, or Marché rue de Buci in the 6th, but my entire world seems to revolve around Rue du Cherche-Midi, which, in fact, is an ancient reference for the sun shining down this street at precisely midday. It is an elongated jumble of shops and open air vegetable stands that runs south-west from the Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge and continues all the way to the Place Camille Claudel in the 15th. My favourite stretch is between Boulevard Raspail and Montparnasse; it's the part that tourists don't bother seeking out.

Walk and you will find French-only bistros; antique jewellery shops with no names but wonderful pieces of coral, ruby and diamond rings and bracelets; dépôt ventes (France's equivalent of chic, vintage boutiques); and my favourite tea house, Mamie Gateaux on 66 Rue du Cherche-Midi. Try the home-made tarts or quiches; I love the 4pm ritual of a slice of cake and tea (0033 1 42 22 32 15).

Take your pick of delightful stores scattered around the city. The most beautiful children's shop is one I pass every morning walking my son to school, Jours de Fete on 66 Rue Notre Dame des Champs. The girls' dresses are shades reminiscent of a delicate palette of macaroons from Ladurée - palest pink, apple green, lilac and biscuit yellow. Next door is a wonderful brocante called Portobello, selling chandeliers, old luggage, beautiful lace Provençal linens, and china (open Tuesday to Saturday, from 3pm to 7pm).

Amor Lux opposite the neighbourhood hangout, Café Vavin, has classic French pieces - the kind of clothes you see chic families wearing on Ile de Ré. Next door is Le Lucernaire cinema that has shows, concerts, films and a very cool bar (www.lucernaire.fr). A tiny shop called Minute Papillon on 58 Rue Notre Dame des Champs is a favorite place of mine to buy birthday gifts. You can find tiny little French jewels - notebooks, bags, cool jewellery, at good prices. If you keep going towards Montparnasse, you can end your day at the best literary cafe in the world that was also a favourite haunt of Hemingway - Le Select. If you get there at the end of the day in time for an aperitif, you can watch Paris' most famous journalists, writers and literary figures meet and gossip. Then, go have dinner around the corner at La Closerie des Lilas ( www.closeriedeslilas.fr). It's a classic - but still, in my view, one of the best for steak tartare or oysters and a glass of champagne. Main courses cost from $41 (Dh151). If you head to the other side of town, go to Merci, the new concept store opened by the owners of Bonpoint on 111 Boulevard Beaumarchais (www.merci-merci.com). The mix of books, housewares, funky shoes and beautiful clothes is irrisistable. It's very good at sale time, too.

Chez Fernand (www.restaurant-chezfernand.fr): this is a locals-only, Montparnasse bistro, serving wonderful traditional French dishes such as bone marrow with sea salt, or creamed eggs. You have to book, and you often see local writers arguing with their editors over drinks. The desserts are huge so order one and share. A main course costs from $22 (Dh80).

Another more starry contender is Le Grand Véfour on rue Beaujolais (www.grand-vefour.com; 00 33 1 43 89 10 66). This is where to go if you are prepared to spend a small fortune and you are a true foodie. A three Michelin-starred restaurant, Napoleon and Josephine dined here, as did Colette; Guy Martin is the current chef who is wonderful. In season, the truffles are incredible. But a main course costs from $103 (Dh377) - the prix fixe dinner menu is $367 (Dh1,347) - and it is booked months in advance. Still, a real treat and a stunningly beautiful place at the end of the Palais Royal.

My favourite restaurant of all time is Josephine Chez Dumonet on Rue du Cherche Midi, but it costs more than I can usually afford to spend, so it's a treat. It serves food the way it was cooked in the 1950s - real French rustic cooking with tons of butter and cream. Try the foie gras - the portion is enough for three - and for dessert, the souffles are marvellous. The bistro is famous for its confit de canard.

The Champs d'Elysées at all costs - it's the only part of Paris I find offensive because it has become so touristy. It's simply not worth fighting the crowds to see a Disney Store or the vulgar Louis Vuitton. One suggestion on how best to "do" the Louvre is to know exactly what it is you want to see and look at a map before you get there. Otherwise, it is too overwhelming and so crowded that you'll want to faint. Les Halles is no longer the charming food market it once was and is now the home of tough kids from the suburbs on the prowl for innocent tourists who are looking to get mugged. Stay away - there is nothing to see there anyway.

Le Bon Marché. This is the only department store to go to.  It has a wonderful food market, a fantastic kids department, beautiful grown-up clothes and accessories, and great sales. The lingerie section is heavenly and there is a delicious and airy Italian restaurant to meet friends for lunch. *The National