My emotional attachment to Paris and London started early in life.
Starting when I was about 6 years old, my Uncle Hashem, who never married and lived alone, would have me over for lunch and a French lesson. I could count from one to 100 in French almost before I could do it in English. He was a chef and restaurant owner, so my lessons would always include an elegantly prepared lunch and, because he was French, when I was older, a watered-down glass of Chablis.
A few blocks away from his apartment in Boston lived my godmother, Bessie, who was English, also never married and living alone. For years, I’d visit her every Saturday. “Bless your heart!” I can still hear her saying as she opened the door to her one-bedroom apartment. On each visit, she’d buy me one Matchbox toy — a bright red double-decker bus one week, a silver Rolls Royce another week. I have a collection of over 100 of these die-cast metal vehicles, one of my proudest possessions, and they’re the real deal, not the plastic ones issued by Lesney, the British manufacturer, in later years. Back in the ‘60s, they sold for 49 cents; today some of them sell on eBay for $149, as long as there are no dents and dings and the box is intact. Mine have been in several accidents, and I wasn’t the sort of kid who saves boxes.
One Christmas I received Lesney’s Roadway R-2, “The Heart of Piccadilly,” a little world made of cardboard, and I spent hours driving my fleet of shiny toys around and around. When I was a child, the thought of riding on the upper deck of a bright red London Routemaster bus seemed like the height of adventure, even a ride to nowhere. It still does.
Thus began my love affairs with France and England, and I renewed them this past winter with visits to both London and Paris.
It’s not just me. Paris and London are Europe’s two most-visited cities and for good reasons. No others anywhere combine so much history with so many things to do and see, so many gorgeous buildings, so many important museums, large and small. And they’re connected by a two-hour train ride under the sea, an amazing feat of engineering (Eurostar.com, one-way fares from $59). Why fly all the way to one and not see the other when it’s so easy to see both? That’s the message of a joint promotion between the two cities’ official tourism promotion firms: Parisinfo.com and Visitlondon.com. We’re only 120 minutes apart! Vive la difference!
And there are differences, lots. Connecting France and England by rail was once considered a travesty, at least by the English. For centuries, they did everything possible to keep the French on their side of the Channel, with limited success (the Norman Conquest in 1066 was one notable failure). In 1986, when French President Francois Mitterrand visited Canterbury, England, to sign the accord that launched the tunnel project, mobs chanting “Froggy! Froggy! Out! Out! Out!” greeted him. Perhaps those same people later voted to leave the European Union.
Despite past differences, London and Paris have more in common than one might think.
London has Hampstead Heath, a delightful place to ramble; in Paris, the Bois de Bologne is equally wild and lovely.
London has Harrod’s Food Hall, where you can spend hours salivating; Paris has the Galeries Lafayette Gourmet.
London has the Imperial War Museum with all manner of tools of war; Paris has Les Invalides, with over 500,000 objects used in various battles, not all of them on display at one time, naturally.
Instagrammers in London love viewing the city from the pedestrian-only Millennium Bridge across the Thames, beautiful but so wobbly (“unexpected lateral vibration”) it was closed for renovations soon after opening. In Paris, they flock to the Pont des Arts, the footbridge that people have festooned — or vandalized, take your pick — with padlocks, across the Seine.
In London, at Westminster Abbey (westminster-abbey.org, 20 pounds), they’ve entombed the remains of England’s leading citizens (Chaucer, Dickens, Sir Isaac Newton, and others), and in Paris, at the Parthenon, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Madame Curie, and other notables are laid to rest. Be sure to take the 45-minute guided tour of the Parthenon’s dome (7.5 euros), well worth it for the views alone.
London has a postal museum; so does Paris (closed for renovation), although only London’s comes with an underground railway that welcomes visitors.
London’s Museum of Science (sciencemuseum.org.uk, free) has three Michelin stars; so has Paris’ (cite-sciences.fr, 12 euros) and both are endlessly fascinating. At the London one, I watched a video showing the precise moment that a British Telecom manager flipped a switch to automate telephone switchboards across London. Row after row of operators stand up, grab their coats and purses, and march into history. Talk about disruption!
You can take a cruise along the Canal St. Martin in Paris (Canaurama.com, 18 euros); or on the Regent’s Canal (londonwaterbuscompany.com, 12 pounds), from London’s Camden Market, full of young people shopping and eating, many of them hipsters, the beards bushier than in other parts of London, the fashion more “street,” as you admire the fine houses along the banks and the graffiti on the walls and bridges, if graffiti is something you admire.
I don’t admire graffiti especially but I took a tour in Paris with Fresh Street Art Tour (freshstreetarttourparis.com, 12.50 euros). I don’t know where graffiti begins and street art ends but it was eye-opening.
London imprisoned and executed royalty in the Tower of London; in Paris, they used the Conciergerie. I visited the Tower (my first time in 40 years), where those two princes, mere boys, were slain by their evil uncle. I had the place almost to myself because I signed up for the opening ceremony (24.70 pounds, hrp.org.uk). Show up at 8:45 a.m. and you’ll see the Coldstream Guards in their red tunics and furry black hats march to and fro, performing their official duties (something to do with keys, I gather), as they’ve done day after day over the centuries. There are no queues at this hour and you’ll have your very own Beefeater to quiz with questions such as, “How do you become a Beefeater?” and “Why do they call them Beefeaters?” My personal Beefeater, Bob, explained that you need 21 or more years of good conduct in the British army or navy, and a bit of the thespian because you are “part of the show.” As for the second question, like so many things in life, nobody knows the answer.
In Paris, I toured the Conciergerie (a first for me), where “let them eat cake” Marie Antoinette was imprisoned — her cell is on display with original artifacts — and from which she was later led to the guillotine. Historians claim that she was misquoted. Maybe she said brioche, not cake? She lost her head anyway. Her former prison is next door to St. Chapelle, a kaleidoscope of stained-glass windows; I make time to visit whenever I’m in Paris, if only for a few minutes of jaw-dropping wonder. Tip: if you plan to see a lot of the attractions mentioned here, then look into the Paris museum and monument pass (en.parismuseumpass.com). You’ll save money and time because it allows you to skip entrance lines.
Both cities have grand thoroughfares. In Paris the grandest boulevard is the Champs-Elysees, crowned by the Arc de Triomphe, which I climbed for the first time on this visit; in London it’s Regent Street, celebrating its 200th anniversary as London’s only street devoted solely to retail (no residences or offices), and with not a single empty shop, unlike, say, Madison Avenue in New York. It’s owned by the Crown, a benign landlord that would rather see full shops, by charging reasonable rents, than boarded-up windows, a phenomenon I also noticed in Connaught Village, a tucked-away shopping district near Paddington. The landlord there is a local church, another benign owner. The shops and restaurants are all independent, such as Lucy Choi Shoes. Her uncle is Jimmy Choo, but her prices are a third of his.
Both cities have panhandlers. I noticed that on the Tube, as Londoners call their metro/subway, the supplicants are much better dressed than in Paris, where they are mostly down-and-out Roma. And they’re so polite! One elderly woman looked much like any other passenger. In truth, she was better dressed than most of the other riders, and she told her tale of woe in a posh English accent, and, even odder, I’d say half the people in our car dropped money into her receptacle.
In Paris, you can dine well in a railroad station: the historic Train Bleu in the Gare de Lyon (le-train-bleu.com). “It’s just like dining in a museum,” gushed the headwaiter as I sipped my Champagne; he flits across the room chatting with each table for a minute or two as if he were on a stage, which in some ways he is. In London, the old Midland Railway Hotel, next to the cathedral-like St. Pancras International terminus, is now operated by Renaissance Hotels and offers The Booking Hall restaurant, just steps from the Eurostar gates.
In London you can climb to the whispering gallery at St. Paul’s Cathedral (stpauls.co.uk, 17 pounds if bought in advance) and whisper “can you hear me now?” to someone across the dome, and in Paris you can climb the towers of Notre Dame Cathedral (8.50 euros) and take a selfie with a gargoyle or two.
And yet there are some things that I love to do in London where there’s no Parisian equivalent, and vice versa. Nothing compares to London’s double-decker buses or with London’s black cabs, the best taxis in the world, expensive yes, but it’s an experience. London’s cabbies don’t use GPS because they’ve memorized every street, lane, byway and highway in the metropolis.
Paris’ sidewalk cafes have no equal. I recommend that every visitor to Paris spend at least an hour dawdling in one whether on the sidewalk or inside. Notice the waiters. These men are pros, and no army has ever been better organized and strategic. I like observing them, clad in their regulation uniforms: white shirt; black bow tie, trousers, shoes and waistcoat; a spotless starched white apron that almost reaches to the floor. I asked one how often they change their aprons to keep them so clean: twice per shift, in case you were wondering. Your 5-euro coffee or Evian buys you a seat for as long as you wish, within reason.
Although English cuisine has improved vastly from the days of bubble-and-squeak when I was a student at Oxford in the 1970s, no city can match the culinary delights of Paris. I already knew this, but an afternoon with Isabelle Pochat, who offers culinary tours (paris-a-dream.com, prices on request), confirmed my prejudices. I sampled the most vibrant jams and preserves at La Chambre aux Confitures. I ate choux from Popelini, brioche aux pralines from La Boutique Pralus, chocolates from Arnaud Lahrer, Corsican charcuterie from Pasta Luna, bread and croissants from Boulangerie La Parisienne, the winner of the annual “best baguette in Paris” competition in 2016. Paris takes this stuff so seriously that each year there are bake-offs, and the winners are rewarded with lines out the door.
Not that London lacks tasty bread. But at Mon Plaisir (monplaisir.co.uk), the family-run temple of traditional French cuisine in London, where the bubbly proprietress greets every guest, they take no chances. In business for 50 years, the restaurant insists on flying bread from Paris each morning — or perhaps it arrives on the Eurostar. I was too busy stuffing my mouth with it to ask.
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