Anyone who saw Woody Allen's recent homage to the City of Lights, "Midnight in Paris," knows what I'm talking about. Allen's protagonist, a Hollywood screenwriter who yearns to be a serious scribe, takes to wandering the rainy streets of Paris at night in search of a muse.
I've always thought that if I could go back in time to any era, it would be this one. So, in the spirit of Allen, on my most recent trip to Paris in December, I spent a lot of time walking (in the rain, as it turned out) seeking places that have inspired me. I visited some old favorites and discovered a few new ones.
After a particularly turbulent trans-Atlantic flight, I found myself happy to be in Shangri-La. It wasn't the mythical kingdom of James Hilton's novel, but the 1896 townhouse of Prince Roland Bonaparte, Napoleon's grand-nephew, in the fashionable 16th arrondissement, with the river Seine at the back door.
Prince Roland is long gone, but his elegance and love of luxury lives on in his home's reincarnation as the first Shangri-La hotel in Europe (another will open next year in Istanbul, and one in London is planned for 2013).
From the moment I arrived at the entrance, with its columned portico strung with twinkling lights for the holidays, I felt something special was about to happen. When I opened the drapes in my suite and saw the Eiffel Tower looming just beyond the windowsill, I knew it.
If you're looking for inspiration in Paris, where better to start than with its incomparable museums? If the vast corridors of the Louvre seem a bit daunting, but you want the best art the city has to offer, opt instead for the Musee d'Orsay.
Housed in the former Orsay railway station, just across from the Tuileries Garden, the building itself has been called the museum's first work of art. Arranged over three floors, it has the look of a Beaux Arts palace, with a central dome and large windows offering exquisite views across the city. My favorite is the view through the giant clock face, which offers a vista of Montmartre and the Basilique du Sacre-Coeur.
What's inside is equally spectacular, especially the galleries devoted to what is said to be the world's largest collections of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings. Room after room is filled with the most famous works of Manet, Monet, Degas, Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh, Gauguin, Sisley and Seurat.
It's enough to make an art lover's head spin, and the 2009 renovation made the spaces even more appealing. At the Musee d'Orsay, unlike the Louvre, you may walk right up to the art. The museum has more than 1,850 paintings, sculptures, photographs and other works, but don't leave without visiting the marvelous decorative-arts galleries.
After the museums, it has to be the meals that provide the most inspiration to visitors in Paris, long known as the capital of haute cuisine. It would take many lifetimes to visit even a fraction of the city's eateries. For contrast, here are two of my favorites.
Le Train Bleu could be your big splurge. Located in the Gare de Lyon train station, it is named after the Blue Train, which in the 1920s and '30s left the station en route to the French Riviera.
The restaurant is a monument to Belle Epoque splendor, with wood paneling, polished parquet floors, plush velvet draperies, massive chandeliers and 41 paintings on the walls and ceilings. When I first came here 20 years ago, I could barely concentrate on my omelette aux herbes and green salad for rubbernecking at the glamorous setting. Having a meal at Le Train Bleu was a bit like dining in the Sistine Chapel.
For a complete contrast, spend an evening in one of Paris' bistros, which are becoming increasingly harder to find. You'll have to venture off the usual tourist route to get to Astier in the 11th arrondissement, but it's well worth the detour.
With its red-and-white checkered table linen and menus printed on the chalkboard, Astier is the personification of an intimate Parisian bistro. Owners Frederic and Claudia Hubig-Schall are gracious hosts and offer a prix-fixe menu that at 35 euros (about $55) is a good value, particularly considering it includes the expansive cheese platter, with more than 15 varieties.
What is Paris without nightlife? Before heading off to shows at the Moulin Rouge (Toulouse-Lautrec's favorite) or the rollicking Crazy Horse Cabaret, stop for a drink at the Hemingway Bar at the Ritz Hotel on the fashionable Place Vendome.
The bar's name perhaps results less from Hemingway's fame as a scribe than from the ruckus he created here Aug. 25, 1944. That was the night Ernest and a group of Allied soldiers, armed with machine guns, decided to "liberate" the Ritz from the Nazis.
After climbing to the roof, where, instead of Germans, their gunfire succeeded in bringing down only a clothesline hung with the hotel's linen, the victorious troops retired to the bar for a round of dry martinis.