“Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

In a way, I didn’t want to return to Paris.

Our time here in the fall of 2021 had been so extraordinary that I was afraid to disturb even the tiniest memory. It was the waning season of the Covid pandemic, when travel was inching its way back into the light. Paris was as quiet as a whisper. Its streets echoed only with the footsteps of locals and the few travelers willing to take a chance that everything would be all right.

It felt as if the city was ours alone in those precious days. We walked by the Seine. We walked in Montmartre. We walked in Père Lachaise. The autumn sun danced through the trees, warming our faces as well as our hearts. We held onto every moment, all the while knowing that this was a time we would never experience again.

But Paris is a place that doesn’t let you down. Even as you watch the chaotic scenes of a city preparing to welcome the world to the Olympic Games. Even as you wait in an impossibly long line for an impossibly delicious croissant. Even as you walk along the Pont Neuf, knowing that you once had the entire bridge all to yourself.

Like a promise of unconditional love, Paris is always there for you. No matter the time or the season or how long it has been since you’ve seen each other.

Paris is, well…Paris.

A Room with a View

It was nearing sunset when we checked into the Intercontinental Paris Le Grand, our hotel booked by Tauck Tours for the Paris portion of our travels. From my research, I knew that the hotel was close to the Palais Garnier opera house, but it wasn’t until I stepped into our hotel room that I realized just how close we were.

Golden goddesses and cherubs, a stunning green dome and the words “Musique” and “Danse” called out from the long window opposite our door. Herb and I unlocked the latch, climbed over the deep step and found ourselves on a narrow balcony with intricately scrolled iron railings that wrapped around the building. What made the scene even more exquisite was the light, the golden end-of-day sky casting a rich glow over the limestone buildings and the streets below.

In that brief moment, any doubts I’d had about returning to The City of Light evaporated like magic dust into the early evening sky.

View of the Palais Garnier and the street below from our room at the Intercontinental Paris Le Grand.
The Palais Garnier at sunset.
The welcome from our window.

Scenes from The Right Bank

Arriving late in the day proved to be a wise decision. Although we had a later start the next morning than our usual early-out-the-door selves, we were rested and seemed to have warded off any extreme jet lag. Our plan was to do our favorite activity on the first day of traveling just about anywhere – exploring on foot. Except for a couple of places I wanted to track down and a destination for lunch, we wandered without a detailed itinerary.

We headed toward the Seine, passing the Place Vendôme, the lovely Tuileries Garden and the Louvre before reaching the river’s walking path. Paris was in full swing with preparations for the upcoming Olympics. Fencing surrounded some of the monuments, construction vehicles dotted the landscape and road closures required detours. Still, Paris gleamed in the summer sunlight, looking as beautiful as the city I remembered.

Place Vendôme

Place Vendôme, an elegant square in the 1st arrondissement that dates to 1698…
…and features a bronze column topped with a statue of Napoleon.

Tuileries Garden

I found the spot in the Tuileries Garden where I’d taken a photo three years earlier. Here is Paris in the summer. 2024…
…and Paris in the fall. 2021.
A Tuileries Garden sketching class on a summer morning.
The Eiffel Tower peeks through the trees.
Construction at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, with the Louvre pyramid in the distance.

La Seine

Looking across the Seine at the Conciergerie, the medieval royal palace that became Marie-Antoinette’s prison during the French Revolution.
View of Notre-Dame Cathedral on the Île de la Cité as we crossed the Seine to the Left Bank. Notre-Dame is still closed, with restoration from the 2019 fire damage due to be completed by the end of this year.

Scenes from The Left Bank

The energy of the city seemed to dramatically shift as we began our walk in the 5th arrondissement, also known as the Latin Quarter. Gone were the intense crowds and the Olympic construction sites we had experienced on the other side of the river.

The Latin Quarter is the oldest district in Paris. Built by the Romans, its name is a nod to the Latin language that was spoken at the district’s Sorbonne University during the Middle Ages. It’s is a wonderful area to explore, with places like the Pantheon and Shakespeare and Company bookstore.

Salvador Dali Sundial

On this visit, I had a few new spots to discover. First on my list was surrealist artist Salvador Dali’s sundial at 27 rue Saint-Jacques. As the story is told, Dali made the sundial at the request of a friend who owned the building and was on hand for the installation in 1966.

Finding the sundial was a bit of a treasure hunt. A café sits at #27, with no sign of a sundial to be found. We were stumped at first until we realized that the address extended to the side of the café. And there it was, with little fanfare, high on a graffiti-marked wall. It seemed incredulous to me that a piece of art by the man whose famous painting of melting clocks, The Persistence of Memory, hangs in New York’s Museum of Modern Art was displayed here…on a random wall that you wouldn’t even notice unless you were looking for it.

Salvadori Dali’s Sundial at 27 rue Saint-Jacques.
One theory about the design is that the face’s shape refers to the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage’s scallop shell symbol. The rue Saint-Jacques was the original route for pilgrims to begin their journeys from Paris to Santiago de Compostela. Another is that the sundial is a self-portrait, with the curly lines at the bottom representing Dali’s signature mustache. 

The rue du Chat qui Pêche

The Latin Quarter is also home to one of Paris’ narrowest streets. Located off the rue de la Huchette, the Street of the Fishing Cat seems more like a passageway from one street to another than an actual street. The legend of its name comes from a local fishmonger who owned a black cat that could catch fish from the Seine with one swipe of its paw. Despite its relatively obscure location, the narrow street seems to be a popular destination, with people making their way back and forth along the route. Just as we arrived, a tour guide had stopped at the entrance to tell her group the story of the fishing cat.

The rue du Chat qui Pêche is about halfway down the rue de la Huchette on the side of the street nearest the Seine.
Rue du Chat qui Pêche.

Parcheminerie Street

A wood-framed typewritten paper, its edges worn with time, hangs from a small piece of rope under a street lamp at the Abbey Bookshop. Known as Parcheminerie Street, the paper tells the story of the creation of the book trade in France nearly 1,000 years ago. Until that time, the scribes of local monasteries met the needs of courts and cathedrals. But as the University of Paris began growing, wealthy patrons required professional scribes, who first took root on this street, known as la rue des Escrivains:

“By the thirteenth century, this street was central to the trade as the scribes’ source of “raw” material: parchment makers and sellers clustered here until in the late fifteenth century paper replaced skin…To your left was the street of the Illuminators, whose artistry beautified pages with coloured paintings, decorations and golden initials.”

In 1989, Toronto native Brian Spence opened his Abbey Bookshop on Parcheminerie Street. The store, which offers 35,000 English language titles, was Spence’s way of bringing the book trade back to the street where it all began.

The Abbey Bookshop is housed in the eighteenth-century Hôtel Dubisson.

Saint-Germain-des -Prés

Our final stop of the day was Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the sixth arrondissement and the heart of the Left Bank. Known for the writers and artists who lived and worked here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the district and its cafés were central meeting points for Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the notable creatives of the day. The sixth arrondissement is also home to the Luxembourg Gardens, one of the most beautiful and peaceful spots in Paris.

Passing the Saint-Michel Fountain, built in 1860 on the Place Saint-Michel.
An ever-so charming Paris Métro sign in the 6th arrondissement.

Hôtel de l’Abbaye

Saint-Germain-des-Prés was the neighborhood we’d chosen for our home base twenty years ago, on our family’s first trip abroad and first time in Paris. Herb and I and our then-teenaged son and daughter stayed at the Hôtel de l’Abbaye, a charmer of a place on rue Cassette, with a glass-filled sunroom where we had breakfast every morning and a sitting room with a fireplace where we ended our days.

The memories from that time in Paris are deeply etched in our family’s lore. Whenever the topic of jet lag comes up, one of us is sure to mention our first night at l’Abbaye when, after we’d succumbed to sleep around 7 p.m., Emily knocked on our hotel room door and announced that she was ready for her first day in Paris. She was dressed in a favorite outfit she had painstakingly planned for Paris and thought it was 10 a.m.

It was 10 p.m.

Herb got up, got dressed and took our oh-so excited daughter to dinner at a brasserie down the street from the hotel.

And then there was l’Abbaye itself, with its small but perfectly appointed rooms and an elevator that held no more than two people. The delightful woman who ran the front desk and the kitchen greeted us every morning. “Bonjour, Familie!” she would  sing in the most lilting, lovely voice. She’d ask if we wanted scrambled eggs – “eggs brouillé,” always emphasizing the brouillé. One morning when Herb inquired about her incredibly tasty coffee, she invited him into the kitchen and showed him how she prepared it.

I was especially enchanted with the dishes at l’Abbaye, and on our last day there I asked if any were available to purchase. It turned out that not only were they available, but they were pre-wrapped in plastic and ready for traveling. I selected two cappuccino cups, two espresso cups and a little pot that the hotel used for serving individual coffees.

Returning to Where our Paris Story Began

Herb and I hadn’t been back to Hôtel de l’Abbaye since those long-ago days. It’s always a little risky to return someplace where the memories are as fresh and vivid as they were years earlier. But I had a deep desire to be there again, to step into the time machine and spin the dial to 2004.

As we made our way through the leafy Saint-Germain streets, both Herb and I were suddenly stopped in our tracks. On the corner of rue de Rennes was the brasserie where Herb had taken Emily to dinner that jet-lagged night! Neither of us remembered its name or what it looked like. But we both instantly recognized it.

Café Cassette, 73 rue de Rennes.

Hôtel de l’Abbaye had a familiar feel as well. The front desk, the tiny elevator, the sitting rooms. Everything looked the same, but updated and fresh, almost as if no time had passed. We told our story to the young woman who ran the desk as she walked us to the sunroom for lunch. The cast of characters had changed, of course, but their friendliness and hospitality were as engaging as the staff members we remembered.

We were seated at a round table by the wall of windows that looked out over the patio. The first thing I noticed was that the dishes had changed. L’Abbaye’s green leaf logo on white porcelain had been replaced with a whimsical array of garden-themed dishware. The pumpkin-shaped water pitcher caught my eye, and Herb gave me one one of those looks that said, “Please don’t get any ideas. That will not fit in our suitcase!”

We ordered salads that tasted like they came directly from the garden, topped with olive oil and a delicious balsamic vinegar. The avocado toast, made with the most delectable bread, was better than any I’d ever had. It was a feast of a lunch, simple and perfect in every way.

A relaxed Herb at our table in the sunroom.
Our lovely lunch.

Much too soon, it was time to leave. The check arrived in a small folder with a charming sketch of l’Abbaye’s patio decorating the inside pages. “Would you like to keep it?” the young woman asked. I smiled and replied, “Oui, merci beaucoup,” trying my best to acknowledge my gratitude for her kind and meaningful gesture.

It had been a wonderful trip in the time machine. A full-circle moment of the best kind. As we walked back toward the Seine, I told Herb that as much as I love the grand hotels with grand locations on the Right Bank, my heart is really here. On the Left Bank, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, in this lovely, cozy place where our family’s Paris story began all those years ago.

14 Comments

  • A totally enchanting report of your trip to Paris. It certainly made me want to return. We’ve only been once and had young teenage boys with us. It’s time to go back!

    • Thanks so much, Susan! I think you would love a return visit, especially having been there with your family years ago. It always amazes me how these great European cities don’t dramatically change over the years the way U.S. cities do. I was thrilled to find my memories of special places still intact on this visit! 😊

  • Wonderful! We share affection for beautiful china and table settings!
    Thanks for sharing:)

    • Deb, thank you! I’m delighted to be in such great company when it comes to my weakness for tableware!😉 I’ve carted home a few special pieces over the years from our travels, and I still use them all. The sweet porcelain breakfast dishes from l’Abbaye are a favorite treasure.

  • Lovely first day in Paris. It’s been ages since we’ve been back … ended up canceling our 2022 river cruise and post-Paris week. Will have to squeeze it back onto the travel calendar.

    • Thank you, Erin! “Lovely” is the perfect word to describe that day. I hope you’ll be able to reschedule your Paris trip sometime soon!

  • I was curious how your “return visit” would progress, for we have a similar return to Venice soon, a city to which we felt we could never go back. Mary, your wonderful experience and utterly magical post assures me that it is possible to revisit without overwriting a marvellous memory and I am now filled with positive anticipation!

    The Parisian light on that first evening was amazing, wasn’t it? What a fabulous view to welcome you back – thank you for sharing that (and I will add the Intercontinental hotel to my address book btw) I’m so glad your birthday celebrations got off to such a flying start and eagerly await the next chapters of the story.

    • Oh Gill, I’m so happy to have calmed any concerns about returning to a place filled with such precious memories! It’s as if we want to close the door to a special time and have everything remain just as it was. I’m quite confident that your return visit to Venice will fill you with the same enchantment that first captured your heart. And yes…that Parisian light! What an unexpected welcome and a new memory to add to our Paris stories.

  • Mary, I almost felt like I was walking through those magical streets as you paint such a picture and evoke so much charm with your words. So glad Paris did not disappoint and it didn’t appear crowded which I would have expected pre Olympics. Totally agree that the small, quaint hotels offer a special experience you really can’t get from the big luxury hotels. Didn’t remember that you were traveling with Tauck; looking forward to hearing about the rest of your trip.

    • Many thanks for such a lovely comment, Lauren. I’m glad to have you walking along those streets with me!😊 The pre-Olympic crowds were definitely there, but mostly on the Right Bank; the Left Bank was quite peaceful and seemed to be “business as usual.” The biggest issue seemed to be road closures and construction around some of the monuments. This was our second river cruise with Tauck, and I’m happy to report that it was as wonderful as the first. More to come soon!

  • Your piece brought back some fond memories for me of a similarly teeny elevator in my left bank hotel years ago. My wife and I could barely fit in it together (I am not nearly as svelte as Herb) and when we checked in and out we needed to ride solo to accommodate our luggage. The croissants and coffee in the morning were remarkable.

    • David, I love your comment about the elevator! I remember our luggage having solo elevator rides as well.😊 I’m delighted to have rekindled some great memories of those left bank days.

  • We stayed at Hôtel de l’Abbaye on one of our first visits to Paris too. It was a memorable stay in a wonderful walkable neighborhood: Luxembourg Gardens, bistros, and glimpses of Sainte-Chapelle and Notre Dame across the Seine.

    • Wow, Jeff, big city, small world!😊 I’m so glad to hear that your experience at l’Abbaye was also a memorable one. It’s still quite a charmer and a dream of a neighborhood.

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