Johannesburg - There’s something distinctive about visiting an iconic city like Paris, London or New York for the first time. Your mind is flooded with preconceived ideas, formed watching movies or by listening to anecdotes from friends and family.
Most people can relate to the feeling one experiences during the taxi ride from the airport of such a city to your hotel. On the way there, your eyes are flitting around restlessly, taking in as much as you can. Maybe you scan the foreign billboards, or attempt to decipher the headlines of the newspaper considerately left in the backseat of your taxi. Perhaps you gaze outside; trying to meet the eyes of a stranger, hoping to get a feel of what “local” life is like. You ask the taxi driver “how much longer” and when he replies “not long”, you try to establish whether you chose a hotel in a good neighbourhood.
Though the route may be the same, it is a completely different experience when you return to the airport en route home. Instead of anticipation, you feel nostalgic about leaving. As the taxi speeds along, you retrace your steps through the streets, as if piecing together a puzzle, frantically solidifying the memories in your mind.
These iconic cities are places where dreams come true; where you can be anyone you want to be. And although everyone’s “bucket list” city is different, I have no doubt that Paris is a destination most want to visit at least once in their lives.
Having visited it once before (as a student on a very tight budget), I was as excited as a first timer would be. The 11-hour overnight flight from OR Tambo to Charles de Gaulle passed quickly, and we arrived in an overcast Paris before 7am the next day. Paris is a great point from which to start your exploration of Europe, both in terms of location and ease of connections. We spent three days there and then made our way to Spain. I make no exaggeration when I say we ate, walked and did as much sightseeing as humanly possible in those 72 hours.
And so I bring you the “best of Paris” – what you absolutely must do – the things that will make you fall in love with the city and plan your return before you’ve even left. Because I’d be completely depressed otherwise, I’ve also made it my mission to find Joburg equivalents of these, bringing a taste of Paris to Jozi.
What to see:
The thing about a quintessential iconic city that takes away from its appeal somewhat, is the mass of tourists polluting the ambiance. The conundrum one faces is how to sightsee without falling into tourist traps. The best tourist attraction, in my opinion, is the city itself. Yes, you should get a photo of yourself with the Eiffel Tower in the background and, of course, you need to squeeze yourself through the frenzy of people and cameras to get in front of the Mona Lisa so you can tick that off the list– but these things will be just that, a tick off the list.
Stroll the streets of Paris and, while sidestepping miniature poodles, you’ll be enchanted by the intricate wrought-iron balconies, the aroma of freshly baked baguettes, and the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower looming in the distance. Walking the streets will allow you to soak in the vibe and make you appreciate the city’s architecture, history and natural beauty far more than any one attraction will.
There are specific areas that you should make an effort to visit, my favourite being Montmarte, a hilly artists’ district highlighted by the white-domed Basilica of Sacré Couer on its summit. At sunset, the view from the top is breathtaking.
While you’re exploring, you may be struck by the amount of bridges along the Seine River, the most popular of which is the Pont de l’Archevêché, also known as the Lover’s Bridge. An attraction in itself, lovers from all over the world affix padlocks to the bridge and throw the keys into the water, a declaration of love.
In Jozi: visit the city’s most iconic bridge: the Nelson Mandela Bridge in Braamfontein, linking Braamfontein and Newtown. At night, LED lighting technology creates a spectacular light show – a must-see for budding photographers.
Where to stay:
Avid travellers will know that hotel website designers are much like estate agents – the pictures on the website never look anything like the hotel itself, so it’s always best to use an objective tool like Trip Advisor (www.tripadvisor.com) to research a few hotels before you choose one to call home during your stay. This website rates hotels based on hundreds and sometimes thousands of traveller reviews. At the time of writing, according to Trip Advisor, the number 1 hotel in Paris, out of 1 797, is Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière. Located on the best known and arguably most beautiful street in Paris, Champs-Élysées, the hotel oozes luxury and exceeds expectations on every level. After our taxi dropped us off, we were relieved of our bags by the porters and stepped onto a black carpet, which inched all the way from the street to the entrance of the hotel. The lobby is rich and opulent, decorated in shades of gold and purple with wooden finishes. Velvet daybeds are strategically placed at the windows, perfect for people-watching. We were greeted by name at reception; how, I still don’t know. Perhaps the receptionist recognised our Saffa accents?
An 8am arrival meant we were too early to check in, so we had the option of using the spa facilities to shower, or take advantage of the hotel’s offer of a complimentary breakfast, while the hotel doubled up their cleaning team to get our room ready as quickly as possible. Too excited, we declined both and left our bags in storage, immediately heading for the streets. Even though nothing was open, the mere fact that we were walking along the Champs-Élysées towards the Arc de Triomphe thrilled us.
Parisian hotel rooms are notoriously tiny, but Fouquet’s doesn’t allow itself to succumb to the generalisation. However, it wasn’t the size that impressed us as much as the thoughtful details. The mini-bar comes fully stocked and is complimentary with your room rate, with replenishments covered too. Open the cupboard and there is a light embedded in the clothing rod, which switches on automatically. The TV is not noticeable, until you realise it’s part of the mirror opposite the bed. Fancy breakfast in bed? There’s a button under the bedside lamp allowing you to open your bedroom door for room service, without getting out from under the covers.
Similarly, there are buttons at your bedside allowing you to control the lights in all areas of your room.
In Jozi, you can get a similarly luxurious experience at the Saxon. Voted the world’s leading boutique hotel since 2001, this exclusive private retreat has had the honour of hosting everyone from Oprah to Justin Bieber. Sadly, we don’t have a “shopping street” like the Champs-Élysées in Jozi – we have Sandton City. If you want to be in walking distance of the city’s best shops, stay at the Sandton Sun. This five-star property offers world-class facilities, like premium restaurants and a luxurious spa.
What to eat:
You can’t go all the way to Paris and not splurge on a meal (or two) at a Michelin-starred restaurant. Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière’s main restaurant, Le Diane, has one Michelin star and carries through the elegance of the hotel. It offers a contemporary interpretation of French gastronomy. We soon discovered that in Paris every meal starts with champagne. After the obligatory clinking of glasses, we savoured French delicacies like braised veal sweetbreads with Jerusalem artichoke mash and a potato and chanterelle mushroom mini-waffle, as well as lobster claw meat with morel mushrooms, peas cannelloni and a yellow wine sauce. For dessert, the pastry chef wowed us with his “exotic cup” – delicate fresh mango and meringue brunoise with a mango and passion fruit sorbet.
Another fantastic French option is La Cuisine, situated at the Hotel Le Royal Monceau, which also has one Michelin star. Tables look out onto the terrace, and face the open kitchen. The menu is a tasting menu: smaller portions which encourage sharing. For starters, we tried Parisian-style puff pastry gnocchi with burgundy snails and parsley butter, and frogs’ legs with butter beans and watercress puree. Both dishes were plated relatively simply, but were huge on flavour. For mains, we opted for grilled Wagyu sirloin steak with spring vegetables (we were presented with a choice of knives with which to eat this), and John Dory with a coconut and curry sauce. La Cuisine’s pastry chef has been dubbed the “Picasso of Pastry”, and upon tasting his saffron crème brûlée it’s easy to see why. Served with seasoned soft apricots and peaches, the dish was sublime.
Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière’s other restaurant, La Petit Maison de Nicole, is a traditional French brasserie, where the likes of Kim Kardashian and Beyoncé have been spotted. More casual than Le Diane, this restaurant offers secret hideaway booths and live music and is the ultimate celebrity hangout. On the menu, expect to find roast chicken, fried calamari and roast Mediterranean lobster. There’s nothing quite like sitting on the Champs-Élysées at 9pm, when it’s still light outside, wining and dining while overlooking the mega-sized, triple-storey Louis Vuitton store and the endless pathway of trees lining the street – if that isn’t the good life, I don’t know what is.
In Jozi: for a similar vibe, head to Qunu at the Saxon. The simple but classy menu, red interior and live music, plus plentiful celeb-spotting opportunities, liken the restaurant to its Parisian alternative, La Petit Maison de Nicole. For a fine dining experience, DW11-13 in Illovo and Five Hundred at the Saxon in Sandhurst offer upmarket dining which will make you feel like royalty.
If you’re a foodie, like me, a food tour of Paris is a must. Try Paris by Mouth (www.parisbymouth.com), who organise food-themed walking tours of the best “foodie” neighbourhoods in the city. We visited Saint Germaine, which has the highest concentration of exceptional chocolate and pastry shops in Paris and possibly the world. It was during this tour that we learnt about the “Meilleur Ouvrier de France” title, which is representative of an artisan’s excellence, and represents the finest French establishments in 162 disciplines – from hair dressing to cheese making. Saint Germaine is home to a few of these – my favourite was La Maison du Choux, a patisserie devoted to making exquisite shoe pastry cream puffs and nothing else. A walking tour is great, because it allows you to see the city while eating delicious food that you may not have come across had you been touring alone.
In Jozi, Ancient Secrets (www.ancientsecrets.co.za) offer various foodie cultural walks, like a spice walk through Fordsburg, Asianculture in Cyrildene and Ethiopian culture in the city centre.
The best street food in Paris is undoubtedly the crêpe. You’ll find crêperies dotted all over the city, and I’ve yet to have a bad experience – as long as my crêpe is topped with Nutella, I’m happy! Other popular toppings include Val de Rance, which is a dry, fermented apple cider, or ham, gruyere cheese and softly fried eggs.
In Jozi, you can get your hands on a Parisian-style crêpe at two of our most popular weekend markets: Neighbourgoods and Fourways Farmers market.
Quaint tea shops are a dime a dozen in Paris, but the most well-known spot is undoubtedly Ladurée (www.laduree.com), which has been around since 1862. While you may flinch at the R30 price tag per macaron, as soon as you bite into the delicate meringue-cum-biscuit, it will be worth it.
In Jozi, C’est Mon Macaron (www.macarons.co.za) provides an almost equivalent version of these miniature meringue masterpieces, at a reasonable R10 each.
Where to relax:
For those who like the finer things in life, the city has more to offer than just food. For a bespoke spa experience – and a great way to beat jet lag – visit the Clarins spa at the Hotel Le Royal Monceau. At the base of a large, warm toned-wood and mirror-clad staircase, a door opens to reveal a dazzling world of pure white, infused with luxurious simplicity. Your shoes are removed and you’re left to wait in the serene pool area, the white broken only by blue illumination from the Olympic-sized swimming pool, its image exaggerated by a wall-length mirror. The spa is one of only three places in the world that offers the My Blend facial – where the blend, texture and application techniques are specific to each client. With more than 200 possible combinations, My Blend provides a tailored response to practically any skin type.
In Jozi, Clarins skin spa, situated in Fourways, offers a selection of massages and facial treatments addressing specific needs like dryness or aging. Visit www.clarins.co.za
If you’re travelling with kids, it’s a pity if you don’t go to Euro Disney. Situated 45 minutes out of Paris, this is Europe’s answer to Florida’s mega-Disney World, and is the most visited attraction in all of Europe. Visit www.disneylandparis.co.uk
For a more cultural experience, head to Versailles. Boasting sprawling picnic gardens and historic rooms, including the Hall of Mirrors, the Palace of Versailles is worth the hour-long train journey from Paris. Spend the day there; in summer, you can picnic in the gardens while listening to live music. Visit www.en.chateauversailles.fr
Beyond Jozi, there are plenty of options for day trips – including Hartbeespoort Dam, which has just opened a cableway, offering visitors panoramic views of the surrounding areas and an educational mountain walkway, featuring information about the history of the area and various points of interest. Alternatively, visit Cullinan, which dates back to the early 1900s and is famous for the discovery of the Cullinan Diamond – the largest rough gem-quality diamond ever found. Here you can go down an authentic diamond mine and view some of the diamonds discovered here. - Sunday Independent
lHasmita Nair was hosted by Hôtel Fouquet’s Barrière, Le Diane, La Petit Maison de Nicole, La Cuisine, Paris by Mouth and the Clarins spa at the Hotel Le Royal Monceau in Paris, and the Saxon, Sandton Sun, Five Hundred and Qunu in Joburg.