Paris for beginners

Los Angeles Times

Grumpy, glorious Paris — where does a first-timer start? Well, I'm here to tell you that they mold a nice cornice, these people, and perform near-miracles with duck fat. Every block has an open-air cafe, chairs facing the street where young women in cotton dresses ride by on bikes, like beautiful little parachutes. If you enjoy such things, you'll probably love Paris.

The museums? Worth a look. But honestly, I couldn't get out of the Louvre fast enough. It was so packed that the only way to get to the Venus de Milo was to crowd surf across the heads and Nikons of a thousand tourists. Often, I enjoy such things, but not without air conditioning. The Louvre on a crowded summer day had, for me, all the appeal of Disneyland during a power outage.

But the Musée d'Orsay, where the Impressionists live? Could've spent a month amid the Renoirs, in the refurbished train station that is a masterpiece in itself.

That was Paris for me on my first visit. For every disappointment, there were a dozen pleasures. Best of all, everything you love about a major city is within walking distance. Then there's the language itself, which rolls off their linen tongues like a torch song.

No, I don't know what you're saying. Just talk. Mind if I dance?

Paris won me over in a heartbeat. True, it is lousy with scooters and hence relentlessly loud. It is hopelessly congested and nonsensical in its layout. Its inhabitants are mostly melancholics (the condition of chronic melancholy). To me, the French are like the weird kids in college. They hold their cigarettes like jewelry, cupping them in their hands, so as not to set themselves — or you — on fire. Mostly, they succeed.

Planning your trip

From LAX, nonstop service to Paris is offered on Air France and Air Tahiti Nui. Direct service (stop, no change of plane) is offered on United, and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on American, Delta, Lufthansa, Continental and United. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $959 until Aug. 28, then drop to $617.

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They are also, despite some reports, gracious and helpful hosts, quick to answer questions or pour you aboard the proper bus. All in all, I'd save these folks (except for the occasional waiter) from the Germans anytime.

So, on my maiden voyage to Paris, I found an enchanting place that was never, for half a second, dull. Here are my tips for those who have never been:

Getting started

Like most Americans, I flew here, 12 hours in steerage, two meals on Air France. De Gaulle was a breeze, and when I couldn't find the prearranged shuttle to the hotel, a driver from a rival service used his cellphone to summon my driver. Merci.

In no time, I was sitting at a corner cafe somewhere on the Left Bank, "the center of thought" — though one of the locals assured me that that was very long ago.

It seems impossible to exaggerate the importance of the little sidewalk cafe to Paris. They are to this French city what beaches are to L.A. And every day, Paris has a parade — the tourists, supermodels, pickpockets and artists who make up this low-slung city. The cafes are like the parade stand. Sit down, ask the waiter to bring you un café, and swallow it all up to your heart's content.

If you ever leave your little sidewalk spot, getting around Paris will prove pretty easy. When you're heading downhill, you're headed toward the river, the surprisingly skinny Seine, which splits the town in two. The rest is confusing but so scenic you don't care. Note that there is no true north in Paris. As with moral relativism, there are only variations.

In any case, a good bet is the carnet, a packet of 10 tickets ($15) good for subway or bus, and available at any Métro station. The ubiquitous subway system is manageable after about a day, though I found the buses the most direct way to the major sights.

I started my Paris tour with the Louvre, but if I had it to do all over again, I'd begin at Notre-Dame, early (before 10 a.m.), when the lines are shortest.

The jaw-dropping cathedral is on the Île de la Cité, the first of two little islands on the river. When you're done touring the cathedral (free) or climbing to the bell tower like Quasimodo ($10), wander around back to the small bridge that leads to Île Saint-Louis, the second island.

Here, you'll find an elegant old street, Rue St.-Louis-en-l'île, as narrow as your living room. This is the Paris you've always imagined — quaint restaurants, pastry shops and perhaps the best ice cream ever, at the famed Berthillon (pronounced bear-tee-yone).

I had a fine lunch at Les Fous de l'Île, a cheery little bistro. For 20 bucks, I had a mussels remoulade appetizer and grilled lamb chops over a bed of potatoes. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the place was still throbbing. In France, happy hour apparently lasts from noon till about midnight.

From here, you might catch the bus to my beloved Musée d'Orsay. As you're aware, the French have lost a lot of wars over the years yet somehow managed to end up with most of the world's great artwork. Here, I learned that the Symbolists expressed a fragile world, an inner reality.

I also learned that I am particularly drawn to snowscapes or paintings of naked ladies combing their hair. The ultimate masterpiece for me would be a naked lady combing her hair in the snow, but it's difficult to get a naked person outside in even the most ideal conditions. Hence, I am not holding my breath.

Besides, I have an appointment with Napoleon.

The emperor

These days, Napoleon rests inside a series of coffins, one within the other. Honestly, I'm not sure whether it's to protect the remains from thieves or to give him additional stature.

In any case, it is a stirring burial site and comes as part of the $11 admission to the Musée de l'Armée, a sprawling, occasionally repetitive military museum in the heart of the city. You can walk here from almost anywhere, and the golden domed church in which Napoleon is housed is one of the most visible and alluring landmarks.

Parts of the Left Bank where I stayed were pretty buzzy — loud and gridlocked — but on the other side of the river, near the Opéra Garnier, I found the center of the Parisian universe. The area pulses with boutiques and cafes. There are many high-end shops, but bargains abound too. Watch your step, though. Only by the grace of God is there not a traffic death here every minute.

I don't know where I heard about Harry's New York Bar (5 Rue Daunou), a few blocks off the Avenue de l'Opéra, a comforting old Hemingway hangout with just the right blend of stale beer and overvarnished mahogany. But I needed a place to dampen my lips on a hot July day.

After a refreshment here, the French bartender and one of the locals had a grand time directing me to the Métro line that would take me to the Moulin Rouge, the famed red-light district, where I hoped to sample some absinthe.

The No. 3 train to Villiers, then the No. 2 train toward Nation, exiting at Blanche

Despite their help, I eventually found it, after being hustled by a hooker in front of Starbucks, of all places, across from the Moulin Rouge itself. How French.

The absinthe ($12 at Hôtel Royal Fromentin, 11 Rue Fromentin) tasted like bitter lemonade. It's served, quite grandly, by dripping ice water through a sugar cube and into the absinthe itself.

Interesting, sure. But you can pretty much get the same distinctive taste from sucking on an old sweater (usually around $2). And hitting yourself simultaneously in the head with a small hammer ($5).

On Paris time

How else did I waste my time? Hey, remember what Bertrand Russell once said: "The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time."

So I sampled a rhubarb tart at a little deli named Paul on Rue des Pyramides. I tried the cookies at one of the irresistible La Cure Gourmande candy shops. I rented a bike to tour the Tuileries, the sprawling gardens that provide an airy place to recover after your visit to the adjacent Louvre.

I took a jog along the Boulevard des Invalides to admire the bridges along the Seine. I had a bloody Mary at the Carmine Cafe, a friendly little joint a mile from the Eiffel Tower, on Avenue de Suffren. Like the people themselves, French streets seem to have a trace of irony.

And I capped my stay with a fine meal at La Petite Tour, a neighborhood restaurant in the 16th arrondissement, a 10-minute walk from the Eiffel Tower. Highly recommended by friends, it proved to be a cozy little place, where they sauté the scallops twice, then bounce them off the moon for effect. That's the way the French cook, always going the extra 239,000 miles.

I finished my final day by touring that little landmark, the Eiffel, which is best seen at night when the lines are more manageable and the strobe lights flicker every hour on the hour after the sun finally set — 10 o'clock in the middle of summer.

So that was Paris for me. Five days. Five million memories.

Don't worry so much about the language. I speak sort of a fractured high school French, and my English is even worse. I easily communicated with a windmill of pantomimes and unnecessary roughness signals, a la the NFL. Usually, I ended in a prayer-like pose, proposing marriage a dozen times — accidentally, of course.

Such is Paris, full of surprises and learning opportunities, succulent sideshows and grand masterpieces.

If you've never gone, you really should give it a whirl. Selflessly, I'd be glad to tag along.

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