Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A holiday in Paris. And about a walk through the Bois du Boulogne, looking for the former home of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

On one of my many visits to Paris some years back, living a #Travelife, my friend Sonya and I took a historic walk through the City of Lights, revisiting old haunts and musing about love and death, with a little bit of comedy thrown in.


Paris, France

One of my many visits to Paris was a long and spontaneous one. Initially, I planned to spend this one week alone in Paris, just to get away from it all, walking through old neighborhoods haunts and frequenting the usual 6th and 7th arrondissement bakeries and brasseries that are an integral part of my bi-quarterly visits. 

However, at the very last minute, while in a seaside hotel on the outskirts of Athens, Greece, on the eve of my flight to Paris, I decided to ask my friend Sonya, who lived in the States, to join me in Paris on a whim. 


THE LANCASTER HOTEL IN PARIS:
ONE OF MY FAVORITE BOUTIQUE HOTELS




Through circumstances too tedious to explain here, I had a two-bedroom suite at the Lancaster Hotel, a small but lovely boutique hotel off the Champs Elysees that still remains among my favorite Paris hotels to this day. This two-bedroom suite at the Lancaster Hotel provided the perfect set-up for a girls’ week in Paris - and I suddenly realized it would be a shame to keep this room to myself. 




Not too many people I know are willing to fly halfway around the world on – literally -- a moment’s notice, but Sonya was one of these. Travel was her life and fellow nomads became her friends. 

AN INVITATION TO VISIT PARIS.
TYPED OUT FROM A BEACH IN GREECE.




So from a beach on the outskirts of Athens, I typed out an email on my Mac inviting her to come stay with me in the City of Lights. Fortunately, Sonya was enthusiastic. With the incredible efficiency of the multi-million-mile traveler she was, within hours she had arranged her flight from Florida to New Jersey and then her overnight transcontinental flight from Newark to Charles de Gaulle Airport. 

Before I knew it, there she was in Paris at 7 AM the morning after my own arrival, impeccably dressed in cashmere and pearls like a genteel countess, and ready for adventure. Upon arrival in Paris, Sonya took half an hour to get organized while I scrambled for some croissants and coffee. And then we were off on our Paris adventure.

MY FAVORITE EVENT IN PARIS:
BIENNALE DES ANTIQUAIRES



Our first stop was the Biennale des Antiquaires at the nearby Grand Palais, a major sale and exhibition of antiques, artworks, jewelry and almost everything that has to do with the finer things in life for a home. 

The top antique dealers from around the world, but especially from France, all participate in this prestigious antique and arts fair, and many of them create temporary, amazing showrooms that are almost as impressive as the goods they exhibit. 




Apart from the annual summer sales, this is among my favorite events in Paris and I always try to visit France in the autumn. That year, I remember falling in love with a small Picasso and a breathtakingly beautiful vintage gold necklace by Verdura -- the kind you never see anymore. Remembering this, I wish I had bought that Verdura necklace because I really like vintage jewellery.


GOOD FOOD AT THE BIENNALE DES ANTIQUAIRES IN PARIS



The other great thing about the Biennale is that it has an option for pretty good food at decent prices for Paris. This being the chi-chi Biennale, there is of course a fancy lunch option that's usually catered by a nearby luxury hotel like the Ritz or the Meurice. I never take this option, though, as -- for this price -- I don't like eating in a noisy exposition hall. I'd rather go to the Ritz itself.

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The other option is for a great 40 euro lunch, served very casually in a cafeteria-style atmosphere, and you often have to share tables with other diners. But since you're among like-minded lovers of beautiful things, you don't really mind; and in fact, it can be fun. 

That day, we had a terrine to start and roast duck as a main, and we shared a table with an elderly Moroccan couple and the husband's sister, all of whom had moved to Paris decades ago in search of a better life. They told me about life in Morocco under King Hassan II, which was extremely fascinating since I had just read a book on the subject.

THE APARTMENT OF MARIA CALLAS IN PARIS.
AND THE FORMER VILLA OF THE DUKE & DUCHESS OF WINDSOR.




At a corner of the tree-lined Avenue Mandel in the 16th arrondissement, we gazed up at the second-floor bay windows of Maria Callas’ former apartment and imagined her singing a lonely aria there after learning that Aristotle Onassis, the love of her life, had married Jackie Kennedy.

 We then walked through the Bois du Boulogne, Paris’ version of Central Park, looking for someone who could point the way to the villa of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, that also gained fame as one of last places Princess Diana visited before she died. We asked several joggers and picnickers but no one knew or cared. 




Finally, we found an elderly gentleman with two Labradors sitting by a pond who, upon learning of our quest, invited us to hop into his tiny Peugeot with the dogs and then he kindly drove us right to the front gates. The sparse neighborhood of very private estates just at the edge of the Bois du Boulogne was surrounded by heavy woods.


IN SEARCH OF A DUCHESS

“At least we got to see it from outside,” I said to Sonya, congratulating myself on having even found the elusive villa of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor at all. We had asked the concierge of several five-star deluxe hotels in Paris, and no one had been able to give us concrete directions. The property was surrounded by forbidding hedges and electronic surveillance cameras, but we could still make out the mansion’s turrets from across the road.




“Outside? We’re going to try to get in, of course,” Sonya said, matter-of-factly. She then proceeded to ring the bell like an invited guest. Almost immediately, the heavy black gates slowly opened to reveal a long gravel driveway leading to the main house.




THE EASY WAY OUT

“It can’t be this easy,” I said, shocked and uneasy, as Sonya gleefully led the way into Dodi and Diana’s last sanctuary.

“What did the Bible say? Ask and you shall receive?” Sonya said reprovingly. We had only ventured a few meters inside when a gardening truck drove out, and on its heels came a heavyset security man who looked like he could shove two ladies away with his pinky finger. For a moment, we thought the gates had opened for us.


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“You can’t come in here,” he said, unsmiling and firm.

“Oh can’t we take a look, even just for a minute?” Sonya pleaded. “We’ve come all this way and we just want to take a minute to see the house.” She gave him her best Republican  smile.


DINNER AT A PARIS BRASSERIE




The man shook his head. “Impossible,” he sighed. “No one is allowed to see the house and, believe me, so many people have tried. The last pair even tried to jump onto the grounds from the top of a garbage truck.

“Would a garbage truck really be high enough for that?” Sonya asked earnestly. 

I knew her next plan of action but I was already thinking of dinner at a nice brasserie in Paris -- specifically, a roast rack of lamb with a carafe of decent red wine, followed by profiteroles doused in chocolate sauce for dessert. It took all my persuasiveness -- and only with great reluctance -- did Sonya agree to leave the woods and we returned to reality.


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