It’s 1am and I’m swinging around a lamp post on the Place de la Concorde, like an extra from Singin’ in the Rain. Water from the nearby fountain splashes off the stones, misting me as I twirl, while the spotlight from the Eiffel Tower sears through the trees across the sky. I’m all alone and it’s magnificent.
For a long time, I was scared of travelling alone. What if I got lonely? What if I got lost? What would I do with myself? Everything on holiday, from eating in restaurants to tourist attractions, are for at least two people, right? Then I went on holiday with other people and I realised something: travelling with others is the hard thing. After one too many holidays with friends where, by the end, I needed a holiday from the holiday, I decided to take the plunge and do it in the most ‘a deux’ city I could think of: Paris.
Paris, the city of lights, has long been the home of romance. In sappy movies, romantic novels, commercials for everything from diamonds to insurance, Paris is painted as the place for people in love. And that’s true – but it’s surprisingly welcoming for solo travelers as well.
First up in my itinerary of not-allowing-the-lack-of-a-companion-stop-me is finding accommodation. With hotels dating back hundreds of years, serving royalty, celebrities and, nowadays, anyone with a credit limit, it’s the spot for honeymoons. But just because I’m lacking in a prince charming doesn’t mean I can’t feel like a fairy princess and check myself in somewhere lovely. I find a room at Hôtel De Crillon, constructed right on the Place de la Concorde in 1758, and a hotel since 1907. Marie Antoinette reportedly took piano lessons there.
The room itself is uniquely Paris, all pale blue decor and chandeliers, with tall windows and ornate furnishings and, since I’m on my own, all this luxury is mine. What’s more, Hôtel De Crillon, like many hotels in Paris, will provide ‘special treatment’ for solo female guests. Whether it’s a pink rose in my bathroom, or a plate of bonbons on arrival, the staff go out of their way to make me feel like a queen. Once I’ve jumped up and down on the bed a few times (it had to be done), it’s time to get out and explore.
Paris is an imminently walkable city, yet has numerous options for those not wanting to travel by foot. As well as the metro (which is an experience in itself, full of hustle and bustle and confusing maps) and the jump-on jump-off water taxis that travel along the Seine, I’m particularly enamored with the bicycle system. Located around the city, for a few coins you can borrow a bike, to be returned at any other stop along the chain, and tool your way around the city in quaint European style.
Whichever conveyance you pick, walking in Paris is a must, particularly along the river. It’s spanned by a multitude of ornate bridges; no two are alike, and each is more interesting than the last. There’s the Pont de l’Alma, which boasts a statue of Zouave, an old bearded man traditionally used by Parisians to gauge the height of the Seine (in 1910 it came up to his beard). There’s the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge, built in 1607, with hundreds of sneering, comical faces carved into it – each was supposedly one of the medieval courtiers the artist was mocking. But even strolling the sidewalk is a trip in itself. Dotted along the Seine are booksellers’ stalls, centuries old, selling all manner of used books, antique broadsheets, art, and knick-knacks. Local artists have been known to set up shop here, and you can pick up a small watercolour for less than €5 (Dhs25). Just make sure it’s authentic and not a print – many bookstalls carry the same prints, made to look like authentic paintings.
Once you’ve had your fill of bridges and books, hike across the Pont Notre Dame to the Left Bank for a peek at the famous church and, more importantly, the Latin Quarter. Named for the students who filled the tiny cobblestoned streets (who spoke Latin until the French Revolution), it’s the home of the Sorbonne, the historic house of the University of Paris. Walk up towards St-Germain des Pres and you’ll find the haunts of writers and artists such as Sartre, de Beauvoir, Hemingway and Joyce.
Today, the area is filled with art galleries, artisan jewellery shops and more cafés and bistros than you can shake a baguette at. Which reminds me: the second fantastic thing about travelling solo is you can eat when and where you like. Don’t fancy lunch at lunchtime? Skip it and sample a sugary crêpe from a street stand. Hungry? Pop into one of the little cafés and sample the ‘prix fixe’ set menus. Usually less than €20 (Dhs100) for three courses, it’s a way to sample traditional dishes such as pâté, escargots and onion soup.
While strolling back towards Notre Dame, I spy the boats bobbing their way along the river. A cruise along the Seine seems one of those quintessentially romantic Paris moments, and I will not be denied. The boats moor all along the river, and I grab one for €12 (Dhs60) just opposite Notre Dame. While the couples canoodle on the lower deck, I brave the wind and ascend to the upper, open deck, sitting in the front and feeling like Cleopatra as we cruise downstream. Paris is a whole other city from the water, and the view of the Eiffel Tower from the Seine has to be seen to be believed.
Once on land, I wander towards Notre Dame cathedral. With fantastic stained glass, intricate gargoyles and the scent of centuries of beeswax in the air, it’s a serene, calm church that just begs for quiet contemplation. But so does my surprise discovery just across the street: Shakespeare & Co (37 Rue Bûcherie, +33 14 32 54 093), a tiny bookshop with a sign out front telling how it started life as a grape shop, selling communion drinks to the monks at Notre Dame. It was closed during the second world war by the Nazis, but reopened in time to be the meeting place for Gertrude Stein’s ‘Lost Generation’, and is full of hand-painted quotations and a wall of notes people have left behind.
Packed to the rafters with English-language books, it’s a hectic hubbub of literature, crowned with a tiny room overlooking Notre Dame and the Seine, where you’re encouraged to grab a mismatched cushion and curl up with a book for however long you please. Seeing as there’s no one demanding my time, I do just that, until the sun sinks over the river.
Wandering back towards the hotel, the sun guilds the city, sparking off the streetlamps over each bridge. Sunset in Paris is magical, the colour of the air like nowhere else on earth. It’s easy to see how artists have been so inspired by Paris, and in that vein, I make a point of tracking the results down the next day.
The Louvre itself is a work of art, an old palace converted into a museum. Enter the Tuileries Garden off the Place de la Concorde and stroll along the leafy boulevards to get the full effect. Once in, feel free to skip the tourist-packed courtyard containing the pyramid; my favourite part is the second, smaller courtyard. There, people sit along the walls or on long benches, eating their lunch and reading books, taking in cobblestones that you just knew had seen Great People going about the business of Great Things in days gone by.
The Louvre is a once-in-a-lifetime museum, but the La Musée de L’Orangerie is a stop that also can’t be missed. Tucked just off the park leading to the Louvre, it’s a small museum, finished in the 1920s, but it houses a magnificent collection of impressionist art. The highlight is a specially designed set of oval rooms with massive murals, part of Monet’s Nympheas series. Unlike the Louvre, always packed with tourists, L’Orangerie isn’t as crowded – perfect for solitary art appreciation.
A visit to Paris wouldn’t be complete without a meal, and here is where many people founder. For a real French experience, a bistro is a must, and I make a stop at Tante Louise on rue Boissy d’Anglas, a small restaurant offering traditional French fare. Small and intimate, it’s a very French place – no helpful English on the menu – but surprisingly reasonably priced. The set menu allows me to enjoy three traditional French courses (I only vaguely know what I’m ordering) for less than €40 (Dhs210). The waiters are friendly and accommodating and, when they see I’m alone, they set me up in a cute little table with a view out of the window.
As I wander back to the hotel, stuffed with food, I prowl the streets of Paris, soaking it in. With no one else demanding my time, or even speaking English in my ear, I can hear the city and, on my own, do anything I want – even if that involves swinging around lampposts in the dead of night.
Need to know
Fly from Dubai to Paris with Turkish Airlines, connecting in Istanbul, from Dhs3,555 return. www.turkishairlines.com
Where to stay
Hôtel de Crillon
A truly luxurious Parisian abode – the building where Marie Antoinette took piano lessons. Need we say more?
Rooms from Dhs3,300 a night. 10 Place de la Concorde, www.crillon.com (+33 14 47 11 500)
Caron De Beaumarchais
This tiny, good-value hotel is tastefully decked out in antiques and is in the suburb of Marais, where you’ll find bistros, falafel joints and trendy types.
Rooms from Dhs750 a night. 12 Rue Vieille du Temple, Marais, www.carondebeaumarchais.com
Where to eat
A small, intimate French bistro that serves traditional classics at a good price.
41 Rue Boissy d’Anglas, www.bernard-loiseau.com (+33 14 26 50 685)
This unpretentious spot is all about the food and the often-organic grape. Meals a regularly served straight from cast-iron pots to the table. Delicious.
30 Rue Gay-Lussac, 5th arr, www.lespapillesparis.fr
• Paris is divided into 20 individual districts, called ‘arrondissements’, numbered 1 to 20.
• The Paris metro, which will be useful on your trip, is the sixth most used metro system in the world (Tokyo’s metro tops the list).
• It’s against the law to publish recent photos of the Eiffel Tower at night. The landmark’s operating company sought legal action to copyright the lighting at night.