TRAVELING IN STYLE : A PERFECT DAY IN PARIS : The Essence of Parisian Life Is Revealed in a Day Planned Around Nothing More Than the Serendipity of the City Herself

S. Irene Virbila is The Times' restaurant critic

A single day in Paris seems somehow more expansive than anywhere else. There's time to cross paths with friends for a coffee or an aperitif. Time to slip into Ste.-Chapelle or Notre Dame and stand among pillars spangled with shards of light from the glorious stained-glass windows. Time to explore the Bois de Boulogne or go to the races at Longchamp. And in autumn, when sunlight in Paris runs out by late afternoon, the day spills over far into the night. At 9:45, the Beaubourg, the city's radical modern art museum (officially called Centre Pompidou), is filled with students poring over homework and crowds browsing its bookstore or roaming its foyer talking art, philosophy, politics. At midnight, La Closerie des Lilas, the legendary bistro, is still going strong, while the late set at the jazz club New Morning is just getting started. Even at 4 a.m., the venerable Au Pied de Cochon in Les Halles, the old market quarter, is jammed with patrons lapping up soup and platters of raw oysters.

I may start a day in Paris with a vague itch to spend the morning combing the vast flea market at Porte de Clignancourt, on the city's northern outskirts, for old ochre and green Provencal pottery, antique brocade textiles or Art Deco jewelry but then find myself distracted on the way, suddenly remembering a fabulous bakery just two Metro stops away. Or I'll lose myself in the streets instead and follow the address on a handbill to sniff out a little circus performing that afternoon. Most likely, I'll end up at my old haunt, the wine bar La Tartine on the Rue de Rivoli in the Marais district, sipping Fleurie and smearing crottin de Chavignol , a pungent goat cheese, on thick slices of country bread.

I hadn't been to Paris in several years when I decided, on the spur of the moment, to go for 10 days late last fall. On the flight, I drifted from daydream to sleep and back again, playing out scenes of Paris and pondering lazily just what I would do with my first entire day there--if I wanted to distill all I love about Paris into a span of 24 hours.

I arrive on one of those glorious clear November days when the sun washes the muted gray city in pale gold. Fat white clouds ride the blue sky. In this light, everything takes on the clarity of an Atget photograph. Details--a carved door, a hand-lettered sign, a face in a window--accumulate like falling leaves. After crossing the whole of America and the Atlantic, the shift of perspective is thrilling, dizzying. I don't want ever to get used to it.

From the airport, my taxi marks a stately route, rolling across the Seine, past the vast Place de la Concorde, to stick like a cork in the narrow streets of the 9th arrondissement . The taxi driver, exasperated, beats his impatience on the wheel. I'm in no hurry. I peer into hat shops, old-fashioned wine shops, cafes where denizens of the neighborhood down a rough glass of vin rouge , getting a fix on the city again.

The taxi lets me out in front of a little grocery where an envelope waits for me--it contains the key to my friend Luis' apartment. The building's door still creaks. And I recognize the same beat-up bikes leaning against the wall, the dank smell of the courtyard, as I hump my suitcase up six floors. Oof!

I first came to this address 18 years ago. It was late autumn, like now. Fiercely cold. A chance encounter with a Frenchwoman at the airport had led, miraculously enough, to the loan of her apartment for a couple of months until I found something else. And Luis was the keeper of the keys. When I rang the buzzer, he had already laid out a feast of cheese and wine. I remember him carefully explaining how to properly cut the raw milk Camembert, the Morbier, the tall round of chevre. And how he introduced me to an everyday Paris I scarcely knew existed.

But now there is just time to unpack, give the grand piano a pat and say hello to the now-doddering cat of the house, Pain Brulee ("burnt toast"). I'm about to leave when Luis bursts through the door. From the bulging pockets of his jacket he pulls a succession of small packets. "I stopped by the charcuterie on the way to pick up a little lunch," he says. "How about a little cochonerie , eh? Some Beaujolais?"

This is perfect; when I arrive anywhere in France, the first thing I do is run out and rustle up a little charcuterie . Luis has done it for me. He's bought rillettes (pork cooked in drippings to make a spread) and rillons (pork cracklings), a sumptuous pa^te de foie , ruddy dried saucissons (sausages), slices of smoky mountain ham. And of course, cheese: some chevre, a musty picadon and a splendid ripe and runny St.-Marcellin from Monsieur Androuet's renowned fromagerie on Rue d'Amsterdam. Plus a majestic loaf of pain au levain from Poila^ne, the renowned Left Bank bakery.

By the end of this impromptu feast, I'm happy and slightly tipsy. But I'm also charged up, longing to get out and walk this half-remembered city that is Paris. When the heavy blue door clacks shuts behind me, I have no particular direction in mind. I just head past the vintage jazz record store, the brocante with all its alluring junk, toward the Seine. From the vantage of this everyday neighborhood in the 9th, I'm taking in the smell of Paris, the sound and feel of it. For an Angeleno, visiting a city where you can walk, endlessly, and see life close up and intimate, seems exotic.

I love this between-season time of year. Most of the tourists are gone, and Paris is left to herself. I wander through Les Halles, shocked to see how many chic boutiques have moved into the old market district's workaday streets. I have to see if Dehillerin, the venerable cookware shop on Rue Coquilliere, is still there. It is. Its windows are as elaborate as ever, a veritable wish list of copper pots and pans, knives for every use.

By midafternoon, when the sky clouds over and it begins to rain, I've just crossed the Ile de la Cite in front of Notre Dame. Since I don't feel like an investigating a cafe , certainly not in the touristy area around the Place St.-Michel, I decide to duck into the nearby Cluny museum, which houses the fabled unicorn tapestries, despite the crowd of high-spirited schoolchildren taking shelter under the Gothic porch. This small museum of medieval life is a tranquil retreat in the midst of the gaudy Latin Quarter. In one room, I find a class of 5-year-olds seated on the floor in front of a millefleurs tapestry. ("What do you see?" asks their teacher. Hands wave frantically. "The ladies are weaving!") Finally, I come to the cool gray room where the six exquisite Aubusson tapestries are displayed and spend half an hour sitting alone with the lady and her unicorn.

By then the sky has cleared. I stroll out along the Quai des Grands-Augustins, across from Ste.-Chapelle, picking through the worn books for sale in French--and English--at the stalls along the Seine. I find a paperback copy of "Colette a l'Ecole," one of the French author's early books, about $3. Book in pocket, I head for Mariage Freres, a few blocks away, for tea. The original shop in the Marais is one of France's oldest tea purveyors, but I love this Left Bank branch for its demure upstairs tea room with its butter yellow walls, potted palms and chinoiserie. Conferring with the white-jacketed waiter, I choose a Bloomfield estate Darjeeling from more than 300 teas sold downstairs and a plate of financiers , tiny brick-shaped almond cakes. Tinged green with tea, they are delicious, with a rich, buttery crumb and slightly bitter aftertaste. As the sky darkens, I sit up here in this oasis, sipping the coppery, fragrant tea, before setting out again.

At dusk, as I wander down around Rue Jacob in St.-Germaine, all the riches of Paris seem to be concentrated in these few streets. The minuscule shops with a single ravishing chandelier, a pair of heartbreakingly beautiful chairs covered in tatters of silk, a fabulous carved screen in the front window are dioramas so exquisite, fantastical that they stop you in your tracks.

Feet giving out, I take the Metro back across town to the Marais. I spend the aperitif hour sitting on the outdoor terrace of Ma Bourgogne, a cafe tucked under the arches of Place des Vosges, nursing a glass of rouge while mist gathers in the quiet and dark of this exquisite 17th-Century square.

In the fog, the stripped linden trees look like smudged charcoal sketches; I glimpse chandeliers and ancient beams in the tall, aristocratic windows of the palaces that surround the beautifully proportioned square. Tucked in a corner, I indulge in that most French of pastimes, reverie. I crack the lovely blank book I'd bought earlier at the handmade paper store Papier Plus and watch as an old man, head protected with a beret, stops, astonished, and reaches out to test the warmth of the heat lamps installed in front of the cafe just that day. Then I walk on, leaving behind the ghostly knotted limbs of the trees.

Time to dress for dinner. Luis and I are to dine at the most celebrated restaurant in Paris, Robuchon, in a fashionable residential district near the Champs-Elysees. When I broached the idea, Luis had said, "I've lived in Paris for 30 years. I think I'm about ready for a three-star restaurant." The taxi ride there is magical, the trees along the refurbished Champs-Elysees strung with lights like pearls. And the restaurant, well, the restaurant was everything you hope a three-star restaurant will be. Yes, it did cost nearly a king's ransom (oh, for the days when it was 10 francs to the dollar and you could eat in a three-star restaurant for $50). Chef-owner Joel Robuchon has said he would like to retire this spring, so it was, for me at least, the last chance to eat at this grand restaurant.

The dining room is upstairs, a luxurious belle epoque retreat with tables set discreetly apart. Robuchon and his team of 22 cook for just 45 guests each night, and it shows. To begin, we have his ethereal gelee de caviar , aspic and sevruga caviar camouflaged with a smooth puree of cabbage. Then, an astonishing puff pastry filled with tomato and crab. And an even more astonishing jellied chicken soup. "Stick your spoon down to the bottom," the waiter tells us, where we find nuggets of melting foie gras . Boned pig trotters, with tiny chanterelles and a potato puree more butter than potato, are wonderful. But the roast pigeon, wild and gamy, with fresh waxy walnuts and the diced pink liver, is fabulous.

The next morning, my perfect 24 hours winding down, I'm up early, headed for the marche at Rue de Montorgueil, one of the liveliest market streets in this city of markets. I like to watch it all go together: the shouts as trucks back in and unload, the mysterious men in hooded robes carting carcasses of beef on their shoulders, the butcher setting out his feathered game, arranging the blue feet of his Bresse chickens and precision-tied roasts just so. There's a fromagerie with what must be every one of France's purported 400-odd cheeses, and a chocolate shop where you can buy a cup of thick, steaming cocoa.

With most of the tourists gone, quartiers like this one, in the center of Paris, begin to feel like the neighborhoods they really are. And the sometimes frigid French politesse seems somehow warmer, more genuine. You might come across a little Christmas fair with rides for the children. Or a crowd pressed against the windows of the luxury food emporium Fauchon on Place de la Madeleine in the elegant 8th arrondissement , with its luscious terrines of foie gras , knobby black truffles, caviar from the Caspian Sea, old vintages of Veuve Clicquot--all the luxuries of the holiday season to come.

I set off across town for one of my ritual stops at the Poila^ne bakery on the Rue du Cherche-Midi. There are, of course, all the handcrafted breads, including the massive pain au levain , baked in the wood-fired oven, skinny ficelles and dense walnut bread to serve with cheese. But I ask Madame for two (!) of the little open-face apple tarts. Still warm from the oven, the hand-hewn crust is impossibly rich, the apples fat and sweet.

Breakfast in hand, I meander toward the Luxembourg Gardens, Cafe au lait ? I duck into Le Nemrod down the street, festive with Christmas trees and paisley tablecloths, the friendliest cafe in Paris. Everyone gets a booming bon jour, Madame! and bonne journee! sending them off into the day.

Then, still making my way to the gardens, I'm sidetracked by Le Pont Traverse, a charmingly cluttered bookstore specializing in original editions by French literary figures. In the window, manuscripts are held up with clothespins. Books--by Max Jacob, Colette, Jean Cocteau, Breton, Celine--are stacked everywhere.

At the Luxembourg Gardens, the chairs are set out--summer and winter--in the open spaces beneath the trees. Children play. Flawlessly dressed Parisians walk their dogs. Distinguished gentlemen pore over Le Monde . It's all very civilized, all of us here on this sunny autumn day, bundled in our coats, reading the morning away. But just now, I realize, my first day in Paris has come to a close. It has been as perfect in its way as any day I can remember, filled with haphazard pleasures. I feel satiated, content--and very blessed.

When the taxi arrives to take me to the airport in the early morning nine days later, it is still hard to go. We roll on swiftly in the dark, past the young cafe boy setting out chairs on the sidewalk, past the patronne writing the day's special in a beautiful hand on the window of her bistro, past the flower market setting up in Place de la Madeleine.

Paris, I know, will get along very nicely without me. But I'm not so sure I can say the same about myself.

Guidebook: Paris Particulars

Telephone numbers and prices: The country code for France is 33. The city code for Paris is 1. All prices are approximate and computed at a rate of 5 francs to the dollar.

Getting there: Air France offers daily nonstop flights from Los Angeles to Paris. United and AOM French airlines each have three weekly nonstop flights. USAir and Continental have daily direct flights.

What to see: Musee de Cluny, 6 place Paul-Painleve (5th arrondissement ), telephone 43-25-62-00. Porte de Clignancourt flea market: Take the Metro to Porte de Clignancourt. Follow the crowds toward the vast market.

Where to eat and drink: La Tartine, 24 Rue de Rivoli (4th), tel. 42-72-76-85. Old wine bar that is an institution in the Marais; snack and a glass of wine, about $20 for two. Le Nemrod, 51 Rue du Cherche-Midi (6th), tel. 45-48-17-05. Great neighborhood cafe . Coffee for two, $3. Ma Bourgogne, 19 Place des Vosges (4th), tel. 42-78-44-64. Glass of wine for two, $13. Mariage Freres, 13 Rue des Grands-Augustins (6th), tel. 40-51-82-50. Tea salon with more than 300 selections. Tea and pastries for two, $30. Poila^ne, 8 Rue du Cherche-Midi (6th), tel. 45-48-42-59. One of Paris' best bakeries. Individual apple tart, $2 each. Robuchon, 59 Avenue Raymond Poincare (16th), tel. 47-27-12-27. For me, the best three-star restaurants in Paris. Dinner for two, food only, $356-$480. Closed weekends. Book months in advance or check daily for cancellations.

Where to shop: Androuet, 41 Rue d'Amsterdam (8th), tel. 48-74-26-93. Fabulous selection of cheeses. Dehillerin, 18-20 Rue Co

quilliere (1st), tel. 42-36-53-13. Grand old cookware store. Fauchon, 26 Place de la Madeleine (8th), tel. 47-42-60-11. Luxury food emporium with superb foie gras , caviar, wines--Paris' equivalent of Harrods. Papier Plus, 9 Rue de Pont-Louis-Philippe (4th), tel. 42-77-70-49. Paper store with beautiful handmade portfolios, blank books, address books.

For more information: French Government Tourist Office, 9454 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Beverly Hills 90212; (900) 990-0040 (calls cost 50 cents per minute).

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