The best holidays are often the ones that transport you, emotionally more than just physically. Such was the case with my vacation which I ended up extending because…. well, it was Paris, and that pretty much explains everything, no?
As some of you may remember, my trip began with a mystery destination which ended up being the Camargue region in France. It’s somewhat near the Provence area and the South of France, though it is north of St. Tropez, south of Arles, and near Nimes. The Camargue has Western Europe’s largest river delta, filled with marshes, and is famous for its wild-life (which includes flamingos), nature reserves, black bulls, and, especially, its all-white Camargue horses.
We stayed in a town called Aigues-Mortes, a fortified, walled, medieval city dating back to the 1200s but even referred to in Roman times. It is a town whose military significance made it the starting point for King Louis IX of France to launch the Seventh Crusades in 1248. Our group descended upon the town like a horde of ravaging crusaders, though we were hell-bent on having fun and reconnecting with each other, rather than engaging in religious conquest. It was wonderful to see some of my childhood and university friends again, as most are sprawled out all over the world, and a few I hadn’t seen in over 25 years! We got to explore the region a little, from the beaches about 45 minutes away to other parts closer to Aigues-Mortes, ate fantastic food, got very little sleep, and, in my case, essentially survived on double expressos. (No, seriously, I started each day with 5 double expressos, and continued to drink them throughout the day, which should tell you a little about how sleep-deprived I was throughout my trip.)
There was a costume party one night, where the theme was “Pairs.” You and a partner had to dress as a “pair” of something. I had one of the most boring costumes around, as I went with a concept costume of being the opposite of my partner. In contrast, some people really went all out, and the results were absolutely fantastic despite being almost entirely created from scratch: Salvador Dali and his muse/wife, Gala (sometimes called Gaia) in very surreal, Dali-esque attire with frogs, lobsters, and insects; Agatha Christie (such an unbelievably accurate, detailed Agatha Christie!!) and Hercule Poirot; the team of Clockwork Orange; “a pair of tits” (don’t ask how that was done!); and even “a deer in the headlights,” with actual headlights on the costume that turned on and off when pressed.
When our somewhat bedraggled, exhausted, hung-over group finally arrived back in Paris, I made my way to my high school friend’s house where I was greeted with a huge hug and platters of cheese. I had told you before I left of my plan to eat my body weight in cheese — and I think I came close. Judging by some of the photos on my camera, I may have more of an obsession with French cheese than even I had suspected. I certainly seemed quite insane to my friend’s young children who couldn’t understand why I was photographing the dairy products, and making guttural sounds of joy. Another friend definitely thought I was off my rocker with my obsession, but, really, there is absolutely nothing comparable in the United States, even at places like Whole Foods and Central Market. Oddly enough, my camera seems to share my appreciation for cheese and food because the many (many!!!) photos I took of food on the trip all came out crystal clear, while a significant portion of my shots of perfume stores, boutiques and bottles came out quite blurred. (Happily, shots of the Louvre pyramid in early evening came out perfectly, though the lighting accidentally verged on the “artistic” more than on the useful or accurate….)
All of this talk about my camera dying and its occasionally wonky, blurred photos is really a warning for when I start posting said photos in an upcoming series I plan to do on both Paris perfume shopping and the food I had on my trip in general. The cheese photos amount to what a friend of mine called “cheese porn,” (they are!), but I also managed to get some lovely shots of: an outdoor Paris market; Ladurée and Pierre Hermé macaron/chocolate shops; pictures of the menus from the French god and “Chef of the Century,” Joel Robuchon, at his Michelin-starred Atelier (which I did not have the fortune (metaphorically or financially) to go to, but which I admired from afar); some tasty Lebanese food at a restaurant with the perfumer, Neela Vermeire; and the incredible feast one Sunday at the beach in Camargue on the first part of my trip. There is also a photo of the giant cheese and ham quiche that my friend made from scratch with the fluffiest, highest, golden, buttery crust, and which turns out to be the best quiche I’ve ever had. (I still dream a little of that quiche!) But, again, my tiny, pocket camera seems to be dying, and it was always obstinate to begin with in terms of lighting issues, so I hope you will forgive some poor photos on occasion.
I didn’t just eat while in Paris, though I know it sounds that way. I had the good fortune to meet with three perfumers, and I was even invited to one’s perfume studio where I saw the large “organ” of essential oils and concentrates. All of that will be the focus of an upcoming post. I also visited a large number of perfume shops and individual houses. Serge Lutens, naturally, was my first stop and warranted a second pilgrimage as well because, Good God, it’s impossible to decide what to do when faced with an array of bell jars! (No, seriously, it’s not possible in one session!)
In addition, I went to JAR which was a fabulously cool experience, IUNX at the Hotel Costes, Oriza L. Legrand, Frederick Malle, Arabian Oud, Reminiscence, Esteban, Parfums de Nicolai, Etat Libre d’Orange, Guerlain, Sephora, Annick Goutal, and more. I visited niche perfume boutiques like Colette, Nose, Marie-Antoinette (which I loved!), Sens Unique, and Jovoy — and between the lot, managed to sniff perfumes from the well-known and accessible, to less famous or accessible brands like Nu_Be, Lys Epona, Parfums de Marly (except for the ISO E Super-filled Herod which I intentionally avoided), Alexandre J., Phaedon, Jovoy, and Memo Paris. I didn’t find the time to test all that I wanted to, particularly with skin being so limited, but I sniffed well over 50 perfumes in one day alone. (Thank God for coffee beans!) I took photos whenever possible or permitted of the store interiors and their bottles (and, on one occasion, surreptitiously), but I think my rush to avoid imposing on people or being a nuisance is an additional reason why some of the photos are a bit blurry. (Yes, I’m frustrated over that!)
Perfume shopping in Paris is an utterly unreal experience. Paris itself can be a sensory overload, especially if you are a hedonist or lover of aesthetic beauty. When you throw nostalgic memories of all the years that I lived in Paris — then add in the sheer excess of amazing perfumes from every nook and cranny you can behold — into that mix, you can imagine the result. My senses were inflamed to the point that I think they almost imploded from a surfeit of beauty and joy. It’s a lovely problem to have, but it also means that I’m not sure I can do the whole Paris experience justice. I don’t have a single photo, nor even a series of words, that can convey what it was really like. I will try, though, with a series of posts about the various perfume boutiques I visited, and what the shopping experience is like in such places as, for example, Jovoy, JAR, Marie-Antoinette, or Guerlain (which was consistently my worst time in Paris). I will also have a post on the three perfumers I met. And, finally, I will have a very photo-heavy food post, unless you’d be more interested in reading that first. The post may not involve a lot of textual explanation, and perhaps it may not make total sense beyond just a plethora of “food porn” photos, but I hope it will let you visually live vicariously through some of the things I saw and/or tasted while on my trip. (I’m warning you, though, there are well over 25 photos of cheese alone!)
I didn’t get the opportunity to visit any museums, though one of the reasons why I had extended my trip was to do precisely that. In the end, events with friends really dominated the schedule, and I was glad for that because I had the chance to spend a lot amount of time with some people who matter very dearly to me. I did, however, end up at the Louvre at closing time one day, and it was a sight to see. Even at the late hour, the palace’s enormous square was filled with people. The four pyramids (three being quite small) were beautiful in the late afternoon light. (Some thumbnail photos are below which you can click upon to expand to full size on a separate page.)
One of my very favorite memories of Paris will remain an almost private concert I stumbled upon at the Louvre. While walking around one of the furthest pavilions of the palace, I heard the strains of some exquisite music, and I followed the sound to a wild-haired musician playing the cello in one of the passage ways. He was incredibly talented, and I just closed my eyes to listen to the sounds of Bach (and other composers) that floated over me. Whenever I opened them, I could see the baroque majesty and grandeur of the Louvre in front of me. The musician was a funny chap who was eccentric as hell, didn’t take kindly to requests (no Saint-Saens or Pachelbel), and extremely opinionated on various parts of the United States. Having brief conversations about Tucson, Arizona and Wichita, Kansas (??!) in the middle of a passageway of the Louvre built by Catherine de Medici while someone is tuning their cello is…. unexpected, to put it mildly. But it was incredibly enjoyable and memorable, from start to finish. In fact, I ended up staying for almost an hour, joined occasionally by a few, passing people who eventually moved on, but also one Scottish chap who stayed throughout and, like me, finally moved forward to sit at the base of one of the big columns in the passage. It was really just a concert for the two of us — and the Louvre herself. (I have a small 30-second video that I took with my cellphone, but I decided not to include it here as it’s only the end part of one piece and really doesn’t do the whole experience justice.) I had a few other “concerts” in Paris — like a performance by a classical, 7-string ensemble in the metro station — but nothing quite compared to that eccentric, grey-haired, opinionated cellist in the Louvre.
While friends, Paris, and perfumes took up my days, my nights were varied. It was always spent with friends, but sometimes it was quiet, and sometimes it was not. One evening was spent watching Les Saveurs du Palais (or “Haute Cuisine“), a film about the female, personal chef of French President, François Mitterrand. One night it was dinner at the hipster Hotel du Nord (which is not an actual hotel) on the canals of St. Martin, one night it was me cooking for my hosts. Another night was dinner at the Fish Club which entailed different sorts of fish tapas, followed by a visit to the private, uber-exclusive, members-only club, Silencio, designed by David Lynch. The first part of my visit to Paris coincided with the end of Paris Fashion Week, so for a day or so, some portions of the city were filled with tall, sylph-like, haughty fashionistas and Silencio was no exception. It was quite a sight, though less so than at the painfully stylish “it” spot, the Hotel Costes, where I met one perfumer for tea. (More on that in an upcoming blog post.)
My favorite evening excursion, however, was a motorcycle ride through Paris near midnight, ending up at the base of the Eiffel Tower. It’s a beautiful structure by day, but, somehow, the full enormity of the technical details and artistry shows even more at night. I’ll leave you with one, very large photo I took, and hope that it can convey just a microscopic millimeter of the magic of Paris at night.