A Truly Joyeux Noel; France: Paris glistens like a jewel on one woman's utterly perfect Christmas vacation with her son.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

By the time my taxi from the airport reached the Arc de Triomphe it was almost 8 in the morning. Although the Paris skies were still dark I could see the glittering Avenue des Champs-Elysees straight ahead, its famous chestnut trees lit by thousands of tiny Christmas lights.

"Would you like to drive down the Champs-Elysees?" asked the driver, one of the nicest cab drivers I'd ever encountered in Paris. "It's a little out of your way, but there's no traffic now and the lights don't go off until 8 a.m."

"I'd love that. This is my first Christmas in Paris and I don't want to miss anything," I said, rolling down the window to get a better view. Although Christmas was just five days away, the morning air that pushed its way into the cab was surprisingly temperate.

The taxi made a half-circle around the Arc de Triomphe and suddenly the wide boulevard stretched out before me, like a welcoming red carpet. I looked straight down the long avenue and saw off in the distance, near the Tuileries Gardens, the huge, illuminated Ferris wheel that is a Christmas fixture in Paris. Although there were no passengers, the wheel was still turning, its lights radiating out into the indigo sky like small strikes of lightning.

With few cars on the usually gridlocked avenue, we drove slowly under what seemed like two sets of stars: the fading stars of the morning skies and the tiny lights flickering above in the trees. Then, just as we approached the Place de la Concorde, the lights along the boulevard suddenly went dark. I looked at my watch. Eight a.m. on the dot; we had made it just in time. Feeling like Cinderella at the ball, I nestled back into the taxi seat, thinking I would never forget this drive along the Champs Elysees on the morning of December 21, 1998.

By the time we crossed the Pont Alexander III from the Right Bank to the Left Bank, the skies were turning dove gray. Within minutes we were heading down the boulevard St-Germain toward my part of Paris: the 6th Arrondissement. The 6th, by the way, was also Hemingway's Paris -- as well as Sartre's and Delacroix's and the Fitzgeralds, Scott and Zelda. In 1921, when Hemingway was still a struggling writer he, in fact, lived in a small, second-floor room at the hotel I usually book in Paris, the Angleterre on rue Jacob. Once he got rich, he crossed over to the legendary Hotel Ritz on the Right Bank, only to return in 1927 to the 6th again to live at 6 rue Ferou near Place Saint-Sulpice.

I was not staying at the Hotel d'Angleterre on this trip. Because my travel plans were made at the last minute, I was unable to book a room in the Angleterre or any of the other small hotels in the 6th. Finally, I rang up the Hotel Lutetia, a 250-room Art Deco building which is larger (most hotels in the 6th Arrondissement have 25 to 35 rooms), more expensive and in a slightly different neighborhood than my usual lodgings. A voice on the other end said they were solidly booked but could offer me a Grand Suite (very, very expensive) or one of their smaller rooms (expensive). I took the room.

The Lutetia was just beginnning to stir when my taxi arrived at its entrance. Instantly a smiling doorman appeared. "Bonjour, Madame," he said, in as friendly a tone as I'd ever heard a doorman say those words.

He whisked me into a small, elegant lobby, past two more immaculately tapered and festively-decorated fir trees and then into a larger reception area. It was quiet in this room of burled wood desks and Art Deco lamps; none of the guests seemed to be stirring. A man appeared behind one of the desks. Within minutes I was checked in, my fastest time ever.

But the real miracle was yet to come. "Your room is ready and waiting for you, Madame," said the man behind the desk. "Your luggage is already there. Enjoy your stay."

Enjoy my stay! I was already deliriously happy. Whoever heard of arriving at a hotel at 8:30 in the morning, jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, to find your room "ready and waiting." Usually, check-in time is between noon and three; how you managed to survive the hours between arrival and check-in was entirely your problem.

The room was stylish and comfortable, on the courtyard with a huge bathroom. Quiet, too. Sure, it wasn't in the same league as some of the rooms I saw through doors left open by the housekeeping staff, but it was perfect for me. I sat on the bed, flushed with happiness at the good luck I'd encountered so far on this trip. In my head I ticked off a list: Plane only half-filled and arrived early. Suitcase first to arrive on the luggage carousel. Great taxi driver. Good weather. Fantastic trip down the Champs-Elysees. Liked hotel. Room ready on arrival. No jet lag that I could discern.

And, of course, the greatest delight of all: I would be spending the holiday with a son living in Paris. It would his first Christmas in Paris -- and mine, as well. "When," I had asked myself as I booked a room and purchased an airline ticket at the last moment, "would such an opportunity come round again? To share the experience of Christmas in a city I love with a son." The answer came back instantly: "Possibly never. Seize the moment and go."

And now here I was, a sort of accidental tourist, staying at the fabled Hotel Lutetia, about to meet my son for breakfast in a nearby cafe. Who could ask for anything more?

So buoyant, in fact, was my mood that walking toward the cafe, I found myself humming the first few bars of "An American in Paris" -- George Gershwin's equally buoyant evocation of the sights, sounds and soul of a city without peer.

A friendlier city

Over the next several days it became clear to me that the Lutetia, the last full-service luxury hotel on the Left Bank, was the perfect choice for a Christmas stay in Paris. Not only is the hotel particularly festive during the holiday season -- its public spaces are decorated in a unique combination of elegance and gaiety -- the neighborhood surrounding it is lively, filled with unique shops, picturesque cafes and a feeling of le vieux Paris, old Paris, the Paris of the great philospher Voltaire and the tormented 19th century poets Verlaine and Mallarme. And, as a bonus, there is no better neighborhood for shopping than Sevres-Babylone.

Indeed, the Lutetia was built in 1910 at the Sevres-Babylone crossroads to accommodate provincial visitors to the nearby Bon Marche department store. Still glorious, the venerable Bon Marche is the centerpiece of a neighborhood where Parisiennes go to shop. At Christmastime its windows are decorated with breathtaking holiday tableaux, charming fairytale-like scenes that attract lines of locals and tourists alike.

Paris, of course, loves to illuminate its beautiful streets and buildings all year round -- it is, after all, called the City of Light -- but it turns up the wattage at this time of year. Along the rue Bonaparte and the rue de Cherche di Midi and all the narrow, crooked streets that run like veins through the 6th Arrondissement, the shops are decorated inside with an elegant touch. Outside, the store fronts are framed like pictures with tiny white lights and greenery.

A charming carousel in front of the glorious St. Sulpice Church, festooned with lights, looks like a diamond as it turns round and round. Nearby, the Cartier shop, its windows sparking with real diamonds, has frosted a row of trees outside its door, adding a faux wintry scene to the Boulevard St.-Germain.

Even the two venerable cafes that dominate St.-Germain-des-Pres -- the Flore and the Deux Magots, both famous for disdaining changes to their decor -- pay homage to la fete de Noel. Outside the Flore, the branches of the two trees that traditionally flank the entrance are hung with lights and small gold-and-green boxes. At Deux Magots, a rival cafe, swags of greenery studded with lights have been added to celebrate the season.

But it's not only the look of Paris that's different at Christmastime; the Parisiennes are different too. They seem more mellow, more outgoing. It's almost as though they forgive visitors, at least temporarily, for not being Parisiennes. "Ah, well," you imagine them thinking, "it eese not her fault she eeze not one of us."

But the best thing of all about Paris at Christmastime is this: Parisiennes approach this holiday in a much less commercial way than Americans do. On the streets there is an air of gaiety and camaraderie as they go about preparing for le fete de Noel. They buy smaller gifts and fewer of them, but select each one with care. Most shops offer their own signature version, usually elegant, of the perfectly wrapped gift. Only the Japanese, with their habit of wrapping gifts in beautiful silk fabric, surpass the French when it comes to this particular art form.

And leave it to the Parisiennes to make shopping fun. Unlike the stressed-out, glum faces that predominate most American malls at Christmastime, here along the rue du Bac shoppers smile and chat, stopping often at this cafe or that chocolate shop to relax and enjoy themselves.

One day, a particularly fine day when the sun was out and the temperatures in the upper 50s (Paris, I was told, is usually temperate in December) I walked back to the hotel from the Bon Marche where I'd bought a few small gifts for friends who'd invited us to dinner. At cafes all along the way, people were gathered at tables, eating outside on the cafe-terrasses, laughing and sunning themselves, the shopping bags at their sides forgotten for the moment.

When my son arrived later that day, he handed me a small box wrapped in blue-and-gold paper; a little gift, he explained, something he'd seen in a shop window while walking to my hotel. Inside was a round soap container, its top enamelled a midnight blue and stamped in gold with the face of the Sun King. The gold- colored soap inside was like a small piece of sculpture: deep yellow and cut into the shape of a sun with a face in its center.

Walking home that night under a cloudless indigo sky strewn with stars, we passed, my son and I, through the beautiful Place St.- Sulpice with its glorious historic church. In its center, the sound of water splashing over the marvelous stone "Fountain of the Cardinal Points" by Visconti was like music rising in the silence. All the narrow streets that radiate from the square were lit up by garlands of lights, some in the shape of stars, strung from one side to the other.

It was, I decided, a moment to remember. I took out my camera and snapped away, trying to capture the stars, the fountain, the narrow, crooked streets of beautiful Paris, all seen on a night before Christmas with someone I love.

Exploring the streets

Of course, every visitor to Paris will come away with her own special moments to remember; each will find a favorite neighborhood, a preferred cafe, a hotel that seems perfect. But Paris can overwhelm the visitor with its abundance of treasures, and the wise tourist might find the most pleasure in concentrating each day on a special neighborhood. So here are two suggestons to get you off to a festive start.

But be forewarned: No matter how meticulous your plannning, it is impossible in Paris not to get sidetracked. The truth is, if you don't succumb to the spontaneous lure of a picturesque sidestreet or the nave of a church seen through its open door or the sight of an elderly concierge surrounded by her dozen cats, you are missing the essence of the Paris experience.

THE MARAIS DISTRICT, 4th ARRONDISSEMENT

A good place to start your Paris holiday might be in the Marais, an historically rich quartier on the Right Bank. (Yes, Dear Reader, I do occasionally leave the Left Bank to cross over the Seine.) In its twisting medieval streets, you will find at least one Roman road (along the Francois-Miron and St.-Antoine streets); the site of the infamous Bastille prison (long since destroyed); the city's oldest square, the glorious Place des Vosges; and what may be the city's oldest house, a 14th-century, half-timbered house at 3 rue Volta.

It also has several fabulous museums, including the Musee Picasso and the Hotel Carnavalet, a museum housed in a splendid 16th-century mansion and devoted to the history of Paris. Christmas shopping, it should be noted, is is made easy by visiting the excellent gift shops in both museums.

But the real fun of the Marais is shopping and eating and wandering up and down the picturesque streets of this sophisticated (think Soho but older and French) district. We set out one morning to meet friends for brunch at a charming restaurant specializing in wonderful Cajun fare and American southern cooking, including fried chicken. Named "Thanksgiving," it also features a brunch menu that is pure Americana: pancakes with maple syrup, eggs and bacon, French toast, fried potatoes, all served with great cafe au lait. A great place for the homesick American.

Afterwards, we strolled along the fascinating rue des Francs-Bourgeois, popping in and out of the unique shops and art galleries lining the street. One particularly fascinating shop for anyone interested in photographs and vintage postcards is A l'Image du Grenier sur l'Eau. After tearing myself away from an evocative photograph of Colette with her two gray cats, we continued on in the direction of Hotel de Ville, a gorgeous 19th-century building that serves as Paris's city hall.

As we neared the Seine we heard music, the kind you hear in skating rinks. Turning the corner we saw why: A huge ice skating rink surrounded by Christmas trees and fake snow had been set up in the courtyard of city hall. It was crowded with happy skaters of all ages. Nearby was an unusual double-decker carousel. We stood watching as children climbed the narrow stairway to the upper deck.

For a long while, we watched, debating whether to rent skates. We didn't. Instead we crossed the bridge to the Ile Saint-Louis, a quiet little jewel of an island where we bought ice cream at the famous Berthillon. You can skate anywhere, we decided, but only in Paris can you get Berthillon ice cream.

SAINT-GERMAIN AND SEVRES-BABYLON, THE 6th ARRONDISSEMENT

Whatever you desire to see and experience in Paris -- its incomparable architecture, hauntingly beautiful parks, sublime shopping, lively street life, historic churches -- you will find in the 6th Arrondissement. This area of the Left Bank -- particularly the Saint-Germain-des-Pres and Sevres-Babylone neighborhoods -- is my part of Paris.

It is the arrondissement that prompted Hemingway to write years after he'd become a great success, "If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you."

The shopping focus of the Left Bank lies in Sevres-Babylone -- named for the junction of two streets. (If you want big couture houses, head for the rue St. Honore on the Right Bank.) It encompasses three of my favorite shopping destinations, all within the same area: the incredible Bon Marche, the long, winding, boutique-heavy rue du Cherche-Midi and the fabulous rue du Bac (technically in the 7th Arrondissement) where neighboring Parisiennes shop for everything from earthenware china (try Lefebvres Fils whose past customers included Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust) to elegantly designed home furnishings at the Conran Shop (it opened in 1993 and quickly became the toast of the town.) Happily all three were only minutes away from my hotel, the Lutetia.

Usually I would begin by trolling the charming rue du Cherche- Midi, a unique street about which poet Muriel Spark wrote:

"If you should ask me, is there a street of Europe,

and where, and what, is that ultimate street?

I would answer: the onetime Roman road

in Paris, on the left bank of the river

the long, long rue du Cherche-Midi."

A long, long street indeed, one that always occupied me for hours. The shops, the cafes and, of course, the fascinating people one encounters on the Cherche-Midi. For some reason I always seemed to end up -- as many Parisiennes do -- at the celebrated bakery of Lionel Poliane. Always a crowded shop, it is especially lively at Christmastime. Poliane, said by many to be the best baker in France, is famous for his special Christmas bread; many Parisiennes give it as a gift. After buying a loaf -- elegantly hand-packed in a shiny light gray box and tied with dark gray silk ribbons -- I walked back to my hotel, feeling very much the Parisienne.

But man (and woman) does not live by bread alone. Art and music historically have played a large role in the life of the 6th and still do. Although the great Musee d'Orsay and its Impressionist collection is technically in the 7th -- just a block or two beyond the boundaries of the 6th where it is housed in a former Belle Epoque train station -- I have always thought of it as a part of the neighborhood. The same hold true for the fascinating Rodin Museum, just off the rue du Bac at the juncture of the 6th and 7th. And, of course, the rue de Seine -- and all the narrow streets leading off it -- is home to many of Paris' liveliest art galleries. A December bonus: Most museums, including the Lourve, are a little less crowded at this time of year. Not empty, but less crowded.

Another great bonus for the holiday visitor is the special Christmas concerts held in many churches. We were able to get tickets to hear a children's choir sing "Noel" in Paris' oldest church, Eglise St.-Germain-des-Pres. Nearby, the Church of St.-Sulpice offers not-to-be-missed organ concerts on an instrument designed in 1776 by Chalgrin. With 6,588 pipes, the St.-Sulpice organ numbers among the largest in the world. Bonus: A gorgeous fresco by the divine Delacroix resides in the first chapel on the right.

We spent Christmas Eve in the 6th eating a festive and expensive holiday dinner -- the meal many French consider the most important of the season -- at the beautiful new Paris restaurant, Alcazar on the rue Mazarine. In what once was the legendary Alcazar nightclub, British designer and restauranteur Sir Terence Conran has recreated a stunning glass-roofed atrium seating 200 at tables and Burgundy wool banquettes. The food is prepared in the white-tiled, glass- enclosed kitchen by Taillevent-trained chef Guillaume Lutard; a separate seafood bar nearby sparkles like a Cartier window with a glistening array of oysters from Brittany, lobster, langoustines, crayfish.

Dinner began at 8:30 and ended at 12:15, too late for us to attend midnight Mass at Notre-Dame Cathedral. Instead my son and I walked along the Seine, breathing in the crisp clear air. When we reached the Pont Royal, we crossed the bridge halfway, then stood silently between the illuminated Louvre and the Quai Voltaire. For a long time we looked at the city, more brilliant than we'd ever seen it, with its spires of light hitting the sky, then falling like stars into the currents of the water below.

"Merry Christmas," called out a couple as they walked by.

"Merry Christmas," we called back.

Slowly we walked back through the narrow rue Bonaparte, past the Deux Magots and along the boulevard St.-Germain, until we reached the hotel. When I entered my room, the sheets had been turned back and the lights turned low. A message slipped under my door, from someone I loved, wished me a Merry Christmas.

Climbing into bed I thought: If you are lucky enough to have spent Christmas in Paris, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you.

Alice Steinbach's next book, "Without Reservations," will be published in May by Random House.

A PARIS CHRISTMAS SAMPLER

Where to stay: (All calls to Paris from the United States begin with 011.33.1; breakfast not included in room rate.)

IN THE 6TH ARRONDISSEMENT, LEFT BANK

* Lutetia Hotel, 45 boulevard Raspail, has 250 rooms all decorated in the Art Deco manner. Home to two restaurants: the famous Le Paris and Brasserie Lutetia. Prices range from $280 to $350 a night, double occupancy. Call: 49.54.46.46; fax 49.54.46.00.

* Hotel d'Aubusson, 33 rue Dauphine, is set in a handsome 17th-century mansion in the heart of Saint-Germain. A bit formal, its 49 rooms range in price from $152 to $275 off season, and $215 to $327 in high season. Call: 43.29.43.43; fax: 43.29.12.62.

* Hotel Relais Saint-Sulpice, 3 rue Garanciere, offers 26 small, sunny-colored rooms in one of the best locations in the 6th. Fast becoming a Left Bank favorite. Doubles prices start at about $165. Call: 46.33.99.00; fax 46.33.00.10.

IN THE MARAIS, RIGHT BANK

* Caron de Beaumarchais, 12 rue Vielle-du-Temple, is small -- only 19 rooms -- but a real find if you want to stay in the Marais. Doubles start at about $120. Call: 42.72.34.12; fax 42.72.34.63.

Where to eat:

* Goumard, 9 rue Duphot, 1st Arrondissement. If you like perfection in food, service and setting, this is the restaurant to book. Famous for fresh fish (the bouillabaisse is sublime), its lunch prix fixe is a bargain (about $65, including wine, water and coffee; the same menu at dinner costs almost twice as much). Men must wear a tie but the food and atmosphere are worth it. Don't miss the restrooms where the original (now landmarked) Majorelle motifs still reside. Simply the best of old Paris. In Paris, dial 01.42.60.36.07 for reservations.

* Laduree, 16 rue Royale, 8th Arrondissement, is the quintessential Parisian tearoom, famous for its pastries and light lunches. It is a great place to see how the ladies of Paris lunch after shopping on the rue St.-Honore and to observe their well-mannered dogs under the tables. There's a new Laduree on the Champs-Elysees, but the one you want is on the rue Royale. No reservation necessary, but be prepared for a wait between noon and 2 p.m.

* Restaurant des Beaux-Arts, 11 rue Bonaparte, 6th Arrondissement, is a classic bistro situated in a neighborhood of art galleries and antiquarian book dealers. Celebrating its 100th year in the same spot -- Oscar Wilde and Picasso were regulars at one time -- it still serves a nurturing pot-au-feu and boeuf bourguignon to art students, tourists and neighborhood regulars. Not a place for a long, leisurely meal, but with a satisfying three-course dinner with wine running at about $22, it's a bargain.

* Camille, 24 rue des Francs-Bourgeois, 4th Arrondissement, is a delightful neighborhood restaurant in the Marais. The food is simple but very good, the service friendly, the prices a good value. It is usually busy and not free from cigarette smoke. This is Paris, after all!

Things to do:

* The Best Tour Bus -- With No Tourists: Catch the No. 69 public bus and for $1.40 see Paris as Parisiennes do. The bus route passes the Eiffel Tower, Hotel des Invalides, Musee d'Orsay, Tuileries Gardens, Louvre, Palais Royal, Hotel de Ville, Place des Vosges and Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

* Ballet at the Palais Garnier: If you're interested in seeing a ballet at this gorgeous, restored opera house with its Chagall ceiling, have the concierge at your hotel book tickets for you as soon as possible. You'll never forget it. And, incidentally, dress is very informal, even on the Saturday after Christmas.

* Concerts at Sainte-Chapelle: It's the closest you'll get to heaven, attending a concert in this Gothic jewel of a chapel built in 1248 on the Ile de la Cite, not far from Notre Dame Cathedral. A favorite: Vivaldi's "Four Seasons." For tickets, call 01.42.50.96.18.

* A walk through the Luxembourg Garden, 6th Arrondissement: In its own way, the garden is its own perfect world. Its 60 acres of terraced woods and walks, fountains and pools, allees of clipped lime trees plus elm, sycamore, ginkgo and sequoia seem more beautiful in winter than any other season. With their leaves gone, only the sculpture of dark branches against a nickel- colored sky remain.

* A visit to the grand department stores: Yes, Virginia, in Paris the great department stores still exist and still go all out when it comes to Christmas spirit and decoration. Galeries Lafayette, with its magnificent glass-and-steel dome and Art Nouveau staircase, is a historic monument; don't miss it. Or La Samaritaine, where you can enjoy a spectacular rooftop view of Paris.

* A stroll around the Place Vendome: A beautiful square that is home to the likes of the Ritz Hotel, Cartier, Van Cleef & Arpels and Repossi's, the jewelers where Dodi Fayed purchased that famous diamond ring for Princess Diana. The square is exquisitely decorated for Christmas and very festive. If you have the nerve -- and the francs -- stop in and have a drink at the Ritz Bar.

* A visit to the new Musee d'art et d'histoire du Judaisme in the Marais: Opened last December after two decades of planning, this museum is devoted to the culture, art and history of Judaism. Located in the historically Jewish Marais neighborhood, the museum is housed in the beautiful, 17th-century mansion Hotel de Saint-Aignan. Call 01.53.01.86.53.

Online information: Some helpful Web sites to find out what's going on in Paris: www.bparis.com, www.paris.org and www.pariscope.fr.

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