Paris On A Whim

France: With a three-night package deal for under $500, how could you say no to the City of Light?

April 30, 2000|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Newly washed sidewalks still glistened, and the boulangeries weren't quite open. It was 7 a.m. on a Saturday in early March. I was sleep- deprived in central Paris and couldn't check in to my room at the Hotel Victoria until noon.

The only folks out and about were other tourists, trudging under the weight of an overnight flight and luggage enough for a lengthy stay.

Not I. In Paris on a whim for just 3 1/2 days, courtesy of a weekend package deal too good to pass up, I was traveling light: one knapsack, one tote bag.

Those weary tourists had several hours to kill before their rooms opened and the City of Light fully awakened. I didn't want to waste a minute, let alone an hour.

I dropped my knapsack in the hotel baggagerie, munched a strawberry jam crepe from a corner stand and walked east toward the Boulevard St. Denis. At the Strasbourg/St-Denis metro station, I bought a three-day pass for about $19 from a personable clerk who tossed in an invaluable subway map. Then I rode north to the Porte de Clignancourt metro station.

A five-minute walk away were the stalls, arcades and alleys of the Marche aux Puces St-Ouen, a sprawling, century-old flea market chock-a-block with paintings, antique beaded purses, porcelain tubs, architectural fragments, vintage sewing notions, Daum- ier prints from old newspapers, retro bell bottoms and plain cheesy junk.

I immersed myself in things discarded, things desired, things that needed a home. I absorbed all I could of this bustling marketplace -- the heated transactions, the tart-tongued store clerks, the mingling scents of crepes and cafe au lait and cigarettes and dogs and incense and dank, ancient stone.

The alluring flea market set the tone for my weekend, a package from tour operator New Frontiers that included airfare, taxes, three nights in a two-star hotel, daily breakfast and airport-to-hotel transfer, as well as a free cruise on the Seine and a Printemps department store discount. Cost: $458.

How could I resist? I booked the trip on impulse, but was hardly impulsive while planning it. As soon as I had travel dates, I plotted my journey like a general laying gentle siege to a nation. Consulting tour books, the Internet and friends, I was determined that not one moment would be spent mired in indecision.

I wanted to fill my days from start to finish. I wanted to walk, to see different neighborhoods, to take a "When in Rome" approach to Paris.

I didn't want to scratch the surface of the overwhelming Louvre, which I had scratched before, but thoroughly savor smaller museums and attractions Parisians themselves might frequent. It wouldn't be a tour of what I "should" see, but a manageable one of what appealed to me.

Knowing French is not a prerequisite for enjoying Paris, but I hoped to enrich my stay with a little eavesdropping and occasional conversations not possible without a rudimentary grasp of the language.

In such accumulative ways, I wanted to create the fleeting fantasy of having lived in Paris all my life.

Markets and museums

I began with a theme. Because my idea of bliss is to peruse the food customs, prize possessions and relics of other places en plein air, I planned my weekend around Parisian open-air markets.

From the guidebook "Pariswalks" I learned about rue Mouffetard, where on Sundays a bustling outdoor food market occupies the ancient Roman road on the Left Bank.

From Internet meanderings and Fodors and Paris Access guides, I pinpointed the flea market at St-Ouen on the city's northern boundary, of which I was already vaguely aware. I also discovered that on Sundays, the daily flower market -- Marche aux Fleurs -- on Ile de la Cite was replaced by a cacophonous bird market, a perfect grace note for my tour.

I prepared a cassoulet of activities around the market visits, plucking destinations from disparate sources and arrondissements. My mother-in-law urged a visit to the Musee Marmottan near the Bois de Boulogne, where Monet's painted water lilies bloomed in profusion and his splattered palette was displayed.

From a French friend, I learned of the Musee de la Curiosite et de la Magie, a home-grown magic museum in the Marais, on the other side of town.

Online explorations uncovered a wealth of other small-scale museums, including those devoted to stamps, wine, perfume, money, music, pens, eroticism and romanticism.

And at the museum Cite des Sciences et de l'Industrie, an exhibition called "Desir d'Apprendre" -- "The Desire to Learn" -- beckoned as a local version of what might be seen at the Maryland Science Center.

I wouldn't get to all of these far-flung spots, of course, but just knowing they were there fleshed out the idea of Paris I sought to capture.

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