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Whistlestop weekend in Paris makes perfect ‘memorial tour’ finale

On her final French trip in memory of late husband Patrick, writer Sally Ann Voak enjoys a boogie at a traditional guinguette, views repairs to Notre-Dame, and sleeps in Toulouse-Lautrec’s brothel

Sally took in the sights of Notre-Dame, Sacré-Coeur and visited a guinguette in Parc des Buttes-Chaumont Pic: Sally Ann Voak

Paris is renowned as the city of love but is also a city of secrets. Even after many visits, the dazzling capital continues to surprise me.

My last trip was eight years ago on my 50th wedding anniversary. 

My husband Pat and I vowed to explore a list of new destinations in France, with the final treat being another long weekend in Paris: to walk, learn, eat, drink and dance.

Sadly, Pat died on Christmas Day 2019. It has taken me nearly three years to complete our wish list, but I finally did it.

Read more: French adventure in memory of beloved Pat

In glorious early November weather, Paris opened her heart to me.

For two full days I soaked up history, fun and glamour, took the metro to the suburbs, explored new neighbourhoods – and danced.

Hotel with history 

I chose my small hotel for its reasonable price and location in Rue d’Amboise, a narrow side street off the central Boulevard des Italiens.

The neon sign for ‘Lautrec Opera’ was, I assumed, a tribute to the famous artist. 

I quickly discovered that Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec actually lived here and the hotel had an official plaque to prove it. 

Together with the buildings on either side, it was part-residence, part-brothel. 

Henri loved the girls in the house, especially one pint-sized girl, Mireille, and declared:  “These ladies make no demands and are not in the least bit conceited. I have at last found girls of my own size.”

Breakfast at Montmartre

After leaving my charming, slightly eccentric hotel, I walked up to Montmartre in Henri’s honour and ate breakfast at a café (good views and a sensible €10 bill for steaming coffee, croissants and orange juice).

Read more: Paris’s Sacré-Cœur finally to be classed as a historic monument

Then I wandered down the cobbled streets to the Pigalle area, where Paris still enthusiastically embraces diversity.

Among the many sex toy shops and saucy clubs is the very serious, official French rugby team store, where I bought a national squad shirt for my grandson.

From Boulevard de Clichy, it is easy to wander down Rue de Clichy, a long, narrow street full of antique shops, quirky bars, tiny clubs and fascinating little boutiques, to Rue de la Chaussée-d’Antin, then along the boulevards back home to my ‘Lautrec’.

The city from the Seine

After a sandwich lunch, I took the metro to Invalides and crossed over the river.

Spotting an advertisement for a €16 bateau-mouche on a 2CV car (Pat had one of those!), I hopped aboard.

The brilliant sunshine was perfect for the trip.

It was sad to see wounded Notre-Dame surroun­ded by cranes, but the work in progress is uplifting, with ground being prepared to support the 100m scaffolding to reconstruct its spire.

Read more: €50million Notre-Dame Cathedral landscaping project approved in Paris

Behind the Eiffel Tower, at the end of the park, a network of streets leads towards the attractive Tour-Maubourg area, with students to chat to along the way.

After checking out the crowds and high prices in the Boulevards Saint Germain and Saint- Michel (popular for cheap meals during my own 1960 student days), I headed back to a reasonably priced restaurant near ‘Lautrec’ for confit de canard, a glass of Chablis and people-watching.

Guinguette dance

Our ambition to dance at a guinguette was formed after a few glasses of champagne on our special anniversary, and was top of my Paris to-do list. 

The original name for the halls comes from guinguet, a local sour light green wine.

In a 1750 dictionary, these places are described as “a small cabaret in the suburbs and surrounds of Paris where craftsmen drink in the summer, on festival days and Sundays”.

They have regained popularity and the very best time to go is summer. However, check out the websites carefully as these outdoor dance halls pop up… and down!

I chose the amazing Rosa Bonheur, in the 61-acre Parc des Buttes-Chaumont (19th arrondissement), easily accessible by metro.

The park, the fifth largest in Paris, opened in 1867, has a cliff 50 metres high, a beautiful lake and temple, and, on the day I visited, was being enjoyed by joggers, families, tree-huggers and excited kids, mostly local. 

I actually prefer it to Bois de Boulogne.

Rosa, named after a 19th century artist famous for her pictures of animals, was established as a cafe, bar and dancehall 14 years ago in a former suburban railway station.

It has more limited opening hours over winter, so do check ahead first.

I danced, drank beer (as sour guinguet is no longer served), ate a delicious pizza, then took a rattling overland metro back to Pigalle for a second visit to Sacré-Coeur.

Final goodbyes

My next metro stop was Etoile, then a posh saunter down the Champs-Elysées past the huge Dior shop.

I decided not to join the queue and restock my autumn wardrobe as I had already bought warm bed socks and a cheap, silly apron in Montmartre.

At Jardin des Tuileries, remembering ‘baguettes and beer’ picnics with Pat, I paused for a rest in the now-fading 16:00 sunshine.

Then it was goodbye and my last walk, up the Rue Royale and back to the short but sweet Boulevard des Italiens and my little room which, like Paris, has seen a lot of action but wears it very well.

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