The Luxembourg Gardens in Paris // © 2012 Thinkstock
The best way to experience Paris is to pick an unexplored (by you) area, find a hotel that fits your budget, plan a very loose itinerary and then let Paris happen. Top on my list for a serendipitous sojourn is the Luxembourg Gardens and its surrounding area. Here, visitors are close to the excitement of St.-Germain-des-Pres, Boulevard Saint-Michel and Boulevard de Montparnasse, with their busy streets full of trendy shops, cafes and bistros.
A Walk in the Park
Head to the quiet 60-acre Jardin du Luxembourg, created in 1613 for Marie de’ Medici (1573-1674). This is one of the most popular parks in Paris with an over-the-top Baroque fountain built for de’ Medici in 1624 anchoring a long pond filled with goldfish. Painters Renoir, Matisse, Sargent and Whistler used to visit here, and the park was also the inspiration for Vincent van Gogh’s “Terrace of the Luxembourg Gardens” (1886) as well as a Degas painting. Visitors will find an open-air cafe, a bandstand and places for children to launch toy boats or play. Or you can be a boulevardier and stroll the grounds on a beautiful day and check out the fashions. The Parisian outfit du jour seems to be tight jeans, to-the-knee leather boots, a navy blue pea jacket, long straight hair, a slouchy shoulder bag and a brightly colored multi-wrapped scarf.
A Heart for Art
If a touch of culture is deserved, the nearby Musee du Luxembourg, built in 1615, was France’s first public gallery. Today it hosts temporary exhibits, with the “Modern Art Club” showing until Jan. 6. In a city of inexplicable museum closings and openings, Musee de Luxembourg is open every day until 7:30 p.m. except for Fridays and Mondays when it stays open until 10 p.m.
An iconic restaurant for literary and art lovers is La Closerie des Lilas, the cafe frequented by Impressionist painters and by literati starting with Charles Baudelaire in the 19th century, then by Americans Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, and finally Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. A drink in the bar here, especially on a rainy day, easily brings the past to mind. A pepper steak is still named after Hemingway, who lived around the corner at No. 113 Rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs for two years in the 1920s.
There are many good restaurants in the Luxembourg area, although I enjoy La Mediterranee with its Cocteau paintings and excellent seafood menu, a favorite spot of the late Yves Saint Laurent too. It’s a bit of a walk, but Le Voltaire on the Seine River is close to the Musee d’Orsay and Paris’ antique quarter. The main restaurant is pricy but, duck into the bar, and you can get an inexpensive meal and the same clubby ambience. Credit cards aren’t accepted. One way to keep up on the best restaurants throughout Paris is to follow Alec Lobrano’s blog, Hungry for Paris. The New York Times writer and former European editor at Gourmet magazine offers insights into the best eateries.
Where to stay in such a lovely area? My favorite hotel is Villa Madame, a recently refurbished hotel that is only a five-minute drive from the gardens and Saint Germain. This chic boutique hotel has a friendly staff, a flower-filled lounge and garden and comfortable, though not large, rooms. Breakfast is available for a fee, but we chose to explore the area instead since there are many cafes around. Recently renovated Hotel Odeon Saint-Germain at 13 Rue Saint Sulpice is a sophisticated choice. This highly decorated, art-filled hotel is near Saint Sulpice, a large imposing church begun in 1646. A side chapel here has murals by Eugene Delacroix.
No matter which route you follow in the Luxembourg area, be it a pre-ordained artist or literary walk or just an easy amble, you will end up wanting to return, perhaps with an easel or writing tablet by your side.