After five museum visits in five days, my brain was bursting, and I needed distraction. One thing I never do is shop. My wallet and life-style don’t really allow it. But the French have elevated shopping to an art form. Gorgeous window displays are everywhere, whether it’s haute couture or a bunch of grapes tied to a branch with ribbon. The French term for window-shopping – ‘lèche-vitrine’ – (which literally means ‘licking the windows’) says it all. Shopping in Paris is about so much more than buying; it’s the thrill of the chase, seduction, temptation and succumbing to it – or not!
So, we walked to St. Germain des Prés – a classically Parisian neighbourhood with it’s upscale galleries, designer boutiques and fabled cafes – to window-shop some historic shops. Opposite the Odeon metro station and the ugly statue of Danton, we found the Cour du Commerce St. André with it’s uneven, steeply banking cobbles; and the eighteenth century city came to life before our eyes. Cafe Le Procope, founded in 1686, claims to be the oldest cafe in France. Voltaire, Danton, (he lived at no. 20) Hugo, Balzac, Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson all raised a glass here. The interior is stunning, calf’s head casserole á la 1686 (hours of simmering) is still on the menu, and it’s possible to admire Napoleon Bonaparte’s cocked hat – apparently he was forced to leave it behind as collateral when he couldn’t pay a bar bill.
At Cire Trudon, Napoleon made another appearance. The firm supplied the great man himself – and the royal court at Versailles – with light, survived the invention of electricity and is thought to be the world’s oldest candlemaker, established in1643. The shop was a blur of colour as was Au Plat d’ Etain, near Saint Sulpice – a manufacturer of tin and lead soldiers since 1775. Two ladies sat, heads bent, painstakingly painting the tiny hand-made figures. A smell of lacquer hung in the air. The whole history of France was here – soldiers, snipers, cavaliers, drummers and musicians. Ancien Regime, Revolution, Empire and the Great War. Exquisite detail, skill and craftsmanship.
All of this exclusivity was somewhat intimidating, but saying bonjour on entering, and calling out merci, au revoir on leaving worked a treat. Assistants were always gracious. ‘Let me know if you need anything’, said one of the painting ladies in Au Plat ‘and just open the cabinets if you’d like to take a photo’. I was enjoying myself so much. Maybe I should have gone shopping before?
Our next stop, near the Luxembourg Gardens was La Maison du Poupée – purveyor of dolls houses and antique dolls. Maybe not the sort you’d let your children play with. We’d walked these streets so many times, but had never noticed these shops; blinkered by our dislike of shopping, and distracted by goals of museums, gardens or galleries. You see what you want to see; and suddenly there was a familiar shop-front, that of Jean Charles Rochoux, chocolatier, and his beautiful display of chocolate animals. Apparently truffles are the thing to go for and he sells a perfect tool for curling chocolate!
Our afternoon, and the shops, got better and better. On rue Vaugirard, the longest street in Paris, we found the old butcher’s bookshop, or Le Pont Traversé as it’s properly known. Once a grande boucherie – golden bull’s heads on the outside and old meat hooks on the inside bear witness to the bookshop’s past life – it’s now crammed from floor to ceiling with rare and antique books, a cornucopia of sloping shelves, step-ladders, African masks, a chandelier and an alluring, winding iron spiral staircase – oh, to live above, surrounded by old books and the charm of the Belle Epoque.
And then decadence with a capital D; the city’s oldest department store, the Gustave Eiffel designed Le Bon Marché. If you’ve got € 200 to spend on a bonsai tree, or € 1,000 to blow on a makintosh, or feel like treating yourself to a € 30+ jar of honey, this is the place to do it. The grand Epicerie de Paris was amazing, and made us hungry, but luckily Poilâne was just around the corner.
Pierre Poilâne opened his first boulangerie when he arrived from Normandy in 1932. Today, his granddaughter runs the company which still turns out wood-fired roundels of sourdough loaves made with stone-milled flour and Guerande sea salt. The cafe next door serves tartines on Poilâne bread, but we settled for a piece of flan and an apple tartlet and ate them on a pavement bench, watching the traffic go by.
Suitably fortified, we hit our last shop, the extraordinary taxidermist store Deyrolle, which sells and rents zebras, lions, rhinos, – and if you don’t have quite that much space – birds, butterflies and bees.
The kind of place that messes with reality, magical, beautiful, mystifying.
And to think, I always thought I hated shopping!
Cafe Le Procope. 13, Rue de l’Ancienne Comedie
Cire Trudon. 78, rue de Seine.
Au Plat d’Etain. 16, Rue Guisarde.
La Maison du Poupée. 40, Rue de Vaugirard. http://www.la-maison-de-poupee.com
Jean Charles Rochoux. 16, Rue d’Assas. http://www.jcrochoux.com
Le Pont Traversé. 62, Rue de Vaugirard.
Le Bon Marché. 24, Rue de Sevres. http://www.lebonmarche.com
Poilâne. 8, Rue du Cherche-Midi. http://www.poilane.com
Deyrolle. 46, Rue du Bac. http://www.deyrolle.com