Start racking up the frequent-flier miles and you’ll soon have a mental list of the cities you love and would visit again in a heartbeat. Sometimes, those memories are tinged with nostalgia from having lived in a city in the past, either as a native or an expat.
For Vancouver-based travel writer Jane Mundy, that city is London, where she was born and raised until her family moved to Canada when she was a teenager. For fellow writer Joanne Blain, it’s Paris, where she lived for a year while working as a copy editor at the International Herald Tribune.
But Joanne has visited London only a couple of times and never really warmed up to it. And Jane’s few previous trips to Paris have left her intrigued but frustrated by the language barrier, a shortage of euros (or francs) to spend and not knowing the cool places to hang out.
So on the way back from a joint trip to the south of France this fall, Jane and Joanne decided to spend a few days in Paris and London. Each acted as tour guide in the city they knew best, showing off what they considered to be its hidden gems and not-to-be-missed sights.
They both came home with a new appreciation for each other’s favourite city, seen through the eyes of a discerning friend.
Jane’s take on Paris
I never really “got” Paris. Sure, I’d been there before and had visited the requisite sites (the Louvre, Notre Dame cathedral, Tuileries gardens) but it was like stumbling around in the dark, like I’d barely scratched the surface. And I was intimidated by the Metro, so getting around was problematic and costly. But I’d never come to Paris with Joanne before.
She insisted we take public transport (horrors) from the train station to the Park Hyatt Paris Vendome, the very chic hotel where we were staying for our first night in Paris. I wasn’t too keen about rolling my suitcase along the cobblestone sidewalks for several blocks, but we eventually made it to the hotel and parked our bags before heading out for some retail therapy.
I trusted Joanne when she said she knew just where to take me, and I wasn’t disappointed. At Fauchon, the iconic gourmet food shop, we snapped up designer chutneys, mustards and confections, then had them wrapped so we wouldn’t be tempted to sample them before we got home. On the way back to the hotel, we couldn’t resist a shop that sold nothing but butter-soft leather gloves in more colour choices than a Benjamin Moore store.
After a brief rest in our luxurious rooms, we headed downstairs to Michelin-starred Le Pur’ restaurant and settled in for the tasting menu. It started with a foie gras lollipop as an amuse-bouche and ended with four (or maybe five) tiny desserts; in between was a delicate fillet of John Dory, pickled herring with radish gelée and, surprisingly, roast pigeon, all perfectly paired with wines chosen by an exceptional sommelier. I was beginning to love Paris.
But we couldn’t afford to live high on the hog for more than one night. The next day, we decamped to the charming but more modestly priced Hotel Saint-Paul Rive Gauche in the Saint Germain neighbourhood. For dinner, the hotel’s friendly receptionist recommended La Ferrandaise around the corner, where we found ourselves seated beside a couple from Toronto. We shared our excellent starter of foie gras with them, because apparently it is possible to get too much of a good thing.
Walking among the chic people of Paris made me feel frumpy, so we had to go clothes shopping. I would have headed straight for the grands magasins (department stores) on the right bank, but Joanne steered me toward her favourite shopping street, the rue des Francs-Bourgeois in the Marais district. We did some serious damage to our credit cards, then kept strolling through a tangle of streets full of art galleries around the Place des Vosges.
Lunch was at Café Hugo on the square, where we sunk into red leather chairs for a salade Nicoise and a satisfying onion soup (might as well drop the “French” part in Paris), which were enough to keep us going. How do the French eat three-course meals and down a few glasses of wine for lunch on a daily basis?
Joanne knows the Metro like the back of her hand and I was starting to get the hang of it too. We jumped back on for a quick stop at Trocadero and a Kodak moment with the EiffelTower, then kept going to the Musée Marmottan, where Joanne promised we’d find more Claude Monet water lilies than I’d ever seen in one place.
It proved to be a bit of a letdown — renovations to the gallery meant some of the biggest and best canvases were not on display. But the Musée d’Orsay did not disappoint. Along with the permanent display was a stellar exhibit of Victorian and art deco furniture. The building alone, once an elegant railway station, is worth the visit. And Joanne pointed out her former apartment right behind the museum. No wonder she loves Paris.
The last museum on our itinerary was the Musée Jacquemart-André on Boulevard Haussmann. It was once the private home of an aristocratic art-collecting couple who lived in the 1800s, and it proved to be an incredible glimpse of French history without the stuffiness of a typical museum.
Around the corner, we stumbled upon a great little café called Le Percier just before noon, which was a lucky thing — 10 minutes later it was packed full, with not a tourist in sight. We had a lot more elbow room for dinner at the spacious and contemporary Alcazar in Saint Germain, designed by Terence Conran. Try the Jerusalem artichoke soup.
On our fourth day I finally got what Paris is all about: the neighbourhoods with their little bars and cafés and bistros. Maybe next trip I’ll check out the Bastille and a few other ‘hoods because, thanks to Joanne, I’m no longer intimidated by the Metro. Or anything else in Paris, come to think of it. I can finally say that I love Paris!
Joanne’s take on London
Lousy weather, indifferent food, high prices and inefficient transportation — name a grumpy cliché about London and I’ve no doubt used it. And my first day in the U.K. capital with Jane as a tour guide didn’t do much to dispel those stereotypes.
After arriving on the Eurostar from Paris and dropping our bags at a hotel, we set off to find a shoe store that Jane had been raving about for weeks. That proved to be a mistake: The Circle Line was shut down for maintenance, so we ended up on a double-decker bus that promptly got mired in gridlock because of the London Triathlon. We got bad directions from someone on the street and after a whole lot of walking, finally found the store 15 minutes before it closed. I bought some lovely shoes that cost way more than the monthly rent on my first apartment. And did I mention it was raining?
Luckily, that wasn’t a harbinger of things to come. On day two, we found the Victoria and Albert museum without any drama and toured an intriguing exhibition of 1980s London fashion before stopping for lunch in the museum’s excellent café.
Jane knows my fondness for oddities, so she took me next to a quirky museum that was once home to the architect Sir John Soane, who lived in what can only be described as half art gallery, half mausoleum of architectural bric-a-brac. Soane’s wife died more than 20 years before he did — I wondered if excessive dusting had anything to do with it. I’m not sure whether she appreciated the home’s idiosyncrasies, but I did.
We arrived at Covent Garden the following day in bright sunshine, where we stopped to watch a street performer captivate a group of schoolchildren and a few dozen adults with a routine that involved a bit of juggling and a lot of energetic banter. Inside the market, we both bought some antique flatware but passed on china emblazoned with the royal princes’ faces, then headed for Penhaligon’s, a nearby perfume shop that’s been around since 1870 and is one of Jane’s favourites. Small wonder: It smelled like a Polynesian garden.
This being London, the sunshine wasn’t around for long. Leaving the shop, we ran across the street in pelting rain to take shelter in a pub called the Coach and Horses, which was packed at 2 p.m. on a Monday afternoon with what looked like a crowd of regulars. The pub was dry, the beer was tepid but tasty and the locals were friendly — it was just about perfect.
And what about the food I have been maligning all these years? That’s where Jane, a former chef and consummate foodie, really came through. She took me to London’s oldest restaurant, Rules, where I devoured a succulent leg of lamb and a half-dozen Duchy of Cornwall oysters (thanks, Chuck and Camilla), to the Oxo Tower restaurant where I discovered that British wine is actually drinkable while enjoying a spectacular bird’s-eye view of the city, and to high tea in the lobby of the elegant Corinthia hotel where I decided you can never have too many scones with clotted cream.
When Jane discovered I had never been to a play in London’s West End, she insisted that we add that to our itinerary, and I was glad she did. While leaving the tiny Apollo Theatre after seeing the critically lauded production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, I had to agree with Jane’s assessment: “My faith in live theatre has been restored.”
And after seeing London for three days through Jane’s eyes, I finally see what she and many others love about it. I still like my beer a few degrees colder, but I was flat-out wrong about the food. The weather and the high prices aren’t likely to change soon, but the city has enough charms to make you forget about both. I’m just glad I had a friend along to point them out to me.
Getting There, Staying There and Eating There
Virgin Atlantic has direct flights from Vancouver to London four times a week between May and October. Its lounges at Heathrow airport are among the most luxurious you’ll find anywhere. Check for scheduling at www.virgin-atlantic.com
The Eurostar is the easiest way to travel between London and Paris; fares vary based on advance booking and ticket class. www.eurostar.com
Paris hotels and restaurants
The Park Hyatt Paris Vendôme: If you’re going to splurge, do it in style. The service is impeccable and its Michelin restaurant Le Pur’memorable. www.paris.vendome.hyatt.com
Hotel Saint-Paul Rive Gauche: Reasonably priced in a quiet neighbourhood just a few blocks from the metro and friendly, helpful staff: www.hotelsaintpaulparis.com
La Ferrandaise restaurant: www.laferrandaise.com
London hotels and restaurants
The St. Pancras Renaissance London Hotel: This truly grand and luxurious hotel, built in 1873 and closed in 1935, reopened in 2011 after a complete renovation. www.marriott.com/hotels/travel/lonpr-st-pancras-renaissance-london-hotel
The Malmaison London: A swinging ‘60s style reno has turned this former nursing home into a chic boutique hotel. www.malmaison.com/locations/london/
The Park Grand London Paddington: Close to Paddington Station (and the airport-bound Heathrow Express) is this reasonably priced, comfortable hotel. www.parkgrandlondon.co.uk
Rules restaurant, www.rules.co.uk
Oxo Tower restaurant, www.harveynichols.com/oxo-tower-london-restaurant
Lobby lounge at the Corinthia Hotel, www.thelobbylounge.co.uk
Victoria and Albert Museum café, www.vam.ac.uk