Norm Goldman, Editor of Sketchandtravel and Bookpleasures is excited to have as a guest, world- wide Paris expert, Thirza Vallois. Thirza is the author of the three volumes of “Around and About Paris”, and another excellent book,” Romantic Paris”.
Thirza has lived in Paris for the past 40 years and holds several post-graduate degrees from La Sorbonne. She contributes to television and radio and has appeared on PBS, BBC, The Travel Channel, Discovery, CNN, The French Cultural Channel, among others. She also writes for The Financial Times, United Airlines’ Hemispheres, Condé Nast Traveller, among others.
She is the author of Three Perfect Days in Paris, aired as a film on all United Airlines international flights and on television throughout the world. The article has won her the first award of NATJA (the North American Travel Journalists’ Association).
Thirza has also contributed the Paris entry of the latest edition of The Encarta Encyclopaedia.
Thirza is also an expert on the Aveyron area in southern France. During the past several years she has devoted much of her time to exploring and studying this region of France. She is now completing a new book on this last hidden region of France, to be published in 2006.
Thirza has also informed me that she has been travelling extensively in the USA, especially to California, about which she has written a couple of articles, with more to follow
Today, Thirza will be discussing with us why Paris is so romantic?
Good day Thirza and thank you for accepting to be interviewed by sketchandtravel.com and bookpleasures.com.
Thirza, could you tell us something about yourself, how you started as a travel author and writer, how many travel books have your written, and why have you chosen to write about Paris?
A long time ago, when I was still a child, and travelling was still the privilege of the “happy enlightened few”, I happened to be blessed with an exceptional mother who believed that the best school was life itself and that the best way to embrace life was by travelling.
My exposure therefore started at a very young age, as did my love for writing, through which I expressed myself the way one does through painting, singing, playing an instrument, dancing…. I never intended to become a writer, it was just part of me. And I never chose to write about Paris. It just happened, and for two specific reasons looking back with hindsight.
Being a savvy traveller, it upset me to see how most visitors to Paris (and any other place), do it the wrong way, using directory-like guidebooks that make them go through all the endless lists of touristy “musts”, rather than point them to the “real” place, which is the city itself. It is only through an in-depth exploration and the understanding of a place that one can make the most of one’s visit, and that’s what my books “Around and About Paris” are all about.
Like all forms of self-expression, there is always an element of therapy behind the motivation, and I certainly needed to do my own therapy regarding Paris when the idea of writing about Paris began to gestate in my mind, back in the 1980s. Paris has changed dramatically since, but in those days it was an exasperating place, inhabited by very difficult people, to say the least, and my feelings for it were far from the phony “I love Paris in the spring time” picture postcard cultivated by Hollywood. It was really a love and hate passion, and I needed to understand my own heart, which could only happen through understanding the city.
It is the combination of the above that gave birth to my 3-volume series, “Around and About Paris”. As for “Romantic Paris”, it was their natural extension in a way. Once I provided my reader with all the meaty stuff, it was time to relax, enjoy and feast, and who does it better than lovers? It was a book written for lovers, past, present, and future, for whom Paris, more than any other city I can think of, has been designed by the gods. This also answers your other question. I have so far written four books on Paris. I have actually written a fifth book on Paris, targeting children, but have never pursued its publication (to my regret), having embarked on my new project, my book on the Aveyron which is now more than two thirds done.
Can you explain to our audience why Paris is among the top romantic
venues in the world?
Everyone asks me this same question, on every interview. The answer I give is always the same, and best resumed in the introduction to “Romantic Paris”. Rather than paraphrase, let me quote directly from my book:
“For decades I tried to figure out why Paris is shrouded in such mystique. Granted, walks at night along the Seine are enchanting, but that alone cannot explain why the very mention of Paris had always conjured up tales of romance, well before it was blessed with gas or electricity, well before its exquisitely lit street-corners were replicated the world over in black-and-white print. After all, medieval Paris was a dark den of filth, reeking with nauseous stench, and the two sinister prison fortresses that jutted out of its skyline could hardly have been conducive to romance. Not to mention the 32 rotting corpses dangling in the offing when the royal gallows was used to full capacity. Yet the myth has been perpetuated for a good thousand years.
I racked my brains, I dug into the past, I travelled into my own psyche looking for an answer, but I came back empty-handed. There simply is no answer. There lies the beauty of the enigma. Paris is poetry, Paris is mystery, Paris is beauty-an exasperating decoy that never quite delivers, all the more compelling for its imperfection, the archetypal reservoir of all our passions….”
If you had to choose six unique romantic venues in Paris, where would they be and why?
Very tough question, and it sometimes depends on the season or time of day or night, because “romantic” implies seclusion.
*Definitely the two western tips of the two central islands, Ile de la Cité and Ile Saint-Louis, but down the steps, at water level, and in the case of Ile Saint-Louis, preferably after dark.
*The tiny place de Fürstemberg, near the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés: it is a rare jewel after dark, but is also quite heavenly in the morning, when one can meanwhile take in the delightful little Delacroix Museum.
*Place Dauphine, on the western side of Ile de la Cité, also preferably after dark.
*Buttes Chaumont, which has all the ingredients of a Brahms symphony that would have appealed to the likes of Lord Byron: a grotto, a dramatic waterfall, a lake with weeping willows, sheer cliffs topped by a Temple de l’Amour-what better place for a lovers’ kiss with eastern Paris spread like a carpet at your feet!
* Palais Royal (the home of writer Colette and Jean Cocteau), in early morning, before the arrival of the crowds, or at night time, after they have departed.
* Montmartre, especially on the little frequented side streets, again in the early hours of the morning, or after dark.
Could you describe to our audience six unique wedding venues in Paris to celebrate a marriage, and explain why you would consider these venues to be most unique?
Once more the choice is tough, so I am trying to be as eclectic as I can, to match people’s different tastes.
*Without any shadow of doubt, my first choice would go to a cruise boat on the river Seine. These come in different categories and different price ranges, my favourite fleet being “Les Yachts de Paris”. Nothing equals in terms of urban beauty and glamour the city’s river views, even more so when seen from the water. Try to prolong your festivities into the night so as to enjoy the splendour of the floodlighting.
Les Yachts de Paris
10, quai Henri IV, 75004
Tel: 01 44 54 14 70
*At a price, every monument of Paris is for hire, even the Château of Versailles. If I were to hire one of them (or just part of one) for my wedding, I would probably go for the Jacquemart-André Museum, because as the one-time home of the famous art collectors Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart, it has a private feel,to a certain extent, despite its palatial glamour, which makes it an ideal venue for a wedding occasion. The couple’s fabulous art collection is on permanent display on the magnificent premises of the museum.
158, Boulevard Haussmann, 75008
*Countrified weddings are always appealing, and the Bois de Boulogne is as countrified as you can get within the boundaries of Paris. Le Pré Catelan offers luxury and refinement amidst beautiful green surroundings, combined with the the renowned Le Nôtre’s top-quality catering.
Le Pré Catelan
Bois de Boulogne
Route de Suresnes, 75016
Tel 01 44 14 41 14
*If you wish to have it countrified while staying in central Paris, you can opt for the discreet magnificence of the peach-coloured Laurent, in the lower gardens of the Champs-Elysées, and still enjoy the leafy surroundings of one of the city’s most prestigious neighbourhoods (the presidential residence is across the street). Make sure to hire a dining room that comes with a terrace.
41, avenue Gabriel, 75008
Tel: 01 42 25 00 39
*There was once an excellent film by Chabrol, Le charme discret de la bourgeoisie. That kind of charm, which was first and foremost that of the old aristocracy, was beautifully captured by Marcel Proust. It still lingers on Faubourg Saint Germain in the 7th arrondissement, notably in the 18th century townhouse, now the home of the celebrated Ecole Polytechnique alumni, where many of the nation’s creme de la creme elite were trained.
La Maison des Polytechniciens
12, rue de Poitiers
Tél: 01 49 54 74 74
*The avenue d’Iéna, in the plush neighbourhood of the 16th arrondissement, is home to a magnificent town mansion from the late 19th century, decorated in traditional, period French style and overlooking a beautiful garden. Ideal for a wedding in grand style.
La Maison des Arts et Métiers
9bis avenue d’Iéna
Tel: 01 40 69 27 00
If you are planning to have a destination wedding in Paris, how far in advance should you prepare for the wedding, and where would you go to find out about the legal requirements?
There is a strict separation between state and church in France (see the recent headlines about the Islamic veil…..). This is important to understand because only civil marriage is recognised by French law. It is celebrated by the Mayor of the arrondissement where one of the spouses resides, and the ceremony takes place in the Salle de Marriage of the Mairie of that same arrondissement. There is a legal procedure to go by and you will need to seek legal advice for that. If you are considering a civil marriage in France, a lawyer is the person to consult, obviously (although I do know how it works, this is not the right forum to expand on administrative issues). You may also require the service of a notaire, should you be dealing with property issues. Your lawyer can refer you to a notaire. On the other hand, you don’t need to be a French resident for the celebration of your religious or non-religious ceremony, nor do you need any legal advice for that. However, you should definitely prepare for it as early as possible because, as they say, “the early bird catches the prey”. Certainly months ahead, if not a year, should you plan your wedding to take place in spring or early summer.
If you had to choose three of the most romantic restaurants in Paris, which ones would you choose and why?
* If by romantic we imply secluded cosiness which is what lovers usually seek, and since I haven’t yet focused on winter, the Coupe Chou comes first to my mind, located in an ancient medieval house in the Latin Quarter, a few steps away from the Sorbonne. It’s all dark nooks and crannies, which are graced with glowing log fires. If only it could snow more often in Paris than it does these days! It would then be altogether fit for a fairy tale. As an extra bonus, this is a medium-range restaurant pricewise.
9, rue de Lanneau, 75005
Tel: 01 46 33 68 69
* Le Beauvilliers in Montmartre, on the other hand, is a pricy place, but as good as it comes and cheaper than others that fall into that category. Here you step into the romantic splendour of the Second Empire in the heart of real Montmartre, just a few minutes’walk from the differently (yet equally) romantic and cottagy Lapin Agile cabaret, where I would head after dinner, for a night filled with old French songs, sketches and hearty laughter.
52, rue Lamarck, 75018
Tel: 01 42 54 54 42
* Lapérouse, a pricy place too, cannot be overlooked either, its scintillating setting having been the rendezvous of Venus’s protegés. There is even a private boudoir-lounge where the two of you can dine alone undisturbed. It comes with elaborate, dainty decorations and is named La Belle Otero after the famous, fiery courtesan. If you are worried for your good reputation, note that France’s most honoured members of literati also dined here regularly, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, George Sand among them. Remember that the French have a sophisticated, unpuritanical approach to love.
51, quai des Grands-Augustins, 75006
Tel: 01 43 26 68 04
If a couple were planning to honeymoon in Paris, and were not sure which area to stay in, which three areas of the city would you choose and why?
Saint-Germain-des-Prés/Luxembourg area, Paris at its most sophisticated, colourful and arty, lined with extraordinary boutiques that will be hard to resist. It boasts a greater number of “hôtels de charme” than any other part of the city, which speaks for itself, and that’s exactly the kind of hotel a honeymooning couple would choose to stay at, short of choosing one of the city’s luxury hotels.
The Marais is similar in spirit but is less spacious, and doesn’t have a park. It also has several “hôtels de charme”, though not quite so many as Saint-Germain.
Ile Saint-Louis because it is a self-contained miniature of romance, lined with boutiques and eating places of all sorts, and conveniently located for every part of Paris. It has four “hôtels de charme” to choose among and is within a few minutes’ walk from both the Marais, on the Right Bank, and the Latin Quarter on the Left Bank.
Is Paris a safe city to visit?
No city and no place on earth is fullproof. As I am writing this interview South East Asia is subjected to a deluvian tragedy, all the way to the eastern shores of Africa. Paris is as safe as a big city can be, but one should always use one’s common sense and avoid carrying cash and other valuables when going out. Pickpocketing is rife, and I have been victim to it many a time myself- A brief moment of distraction and your wallet is gone. Leave all your valuables in your safe, and carry a photocopy of your passport rather than the original document. Watch out even at the airport and hold on to your handbag in all public places (including your taxi: some delinquents may open the door and snatch your bag at a traffic light or in a traffic jam. They often operate on motorcycles and that has happened to me too). Be sensible but not paranoid.
When is the best time to visit Paris from the point of view of climate, crowds, travel deals, etc?
Obviously spring time is unique. Good weather is never guaranteed though, no matter what time of year, but should the gods be with you, then spring, by definition, is the season of romance, and an early feel of spring can even be detected as early as on Valentine’s.
I personally have a distaste for July and August, especially from the middle of July on. Most Parisians are replaced by tourists, often in organised crowds, and it just isn’t it. This can also happen at weekends during spring because Europeans nowadays are very fond of weekend city breaks. Fall is a beautiful time of year, often accompanied by a lingering Indian summer, which the golden beauty of the trees contribute to enhance.
Strange as it may seem, I find Paris particularly romantic in winter, when the leafless trees allow you to enjoy the architecture of its buildings. After dark the city is altogether magical,as its street lamps don it with an amber light. It can be cold, but all you have to do is dress accordingly and make the most of the fact that you are likely to be alone out there and the entire city will belong to you and your sweetheart, as you stroll through the streets or by the river into the late hours of the night. At Christmas time you will also enjoy the festive decorations, which, it being Paris, tend to be exquisitely elegant and tasteful.
As for travel deals, they are the same all over the world. Prices shoot up in the summer and plummet in the low season.
How easy or difficult is it to get around Paris?
It is extremely easy to get around Paris. Public transportation (buses, métro and RER express trains) is very efficient and many lines run beyond midnight. Taxis are easily available except on weekend nights. They also get grabbed into thin air as soon as it starts raining. However, Paris is regularly disrupted by protest and other demonstrations (the French thrive on them), which can paralyse the city, usually from 2:00 pm on, often with no forewarning. It is therefore good to stay in central Paris so that you can make your way back to your hotel on foot, should you experience one of those typically French “happenings”.
Is there anything else that you wish to add about Romantic Paris that we have not discussed?
Most of the recommendations in this interview are on the pricy side, because we are speaking here of a special event and moment in your life. My book “Romantic Paris” has pages and pages of tips and recommendations of things to be done and enjoyed on all budgets, including low budgets. Paris can truly be enjoyed romantically on a shoestring. The best of Paris is strolling through its streets, and that costs little or nothing. I have designed several romantic walks for you in “Romantic Paris”. That’s over and above the scores of walks woven into “Around and About Paris”. Put on your most comfortable footgear and venture into the city, including in the heart of winter. Soak it all up. And try, just once, to stay up all night, so that you can enjoy a sunrise either from the river, or from the foot of the Sacré Coeur.
Thanks once again and best of luck on all of your future endeavours including your future book on Aveyron.