‘Right then,’ says the barman in an accent that’s more Brummie than Belville. ‘That’ll be €15, mate.’ As I walk back through the crowd of British and American drinkers here in the Latin Quarter, gripping three pint glasses that spill warm beer onto my hands, I can’t help but feel a little short-changed. This is the Paris’ Left Bank, after all, and the least that Mrs Smith and I had expected was some, well, Frenchness on our romantic boutique break.
We'd asked a Parisian friend, who recently relocated back to her family home in the Marais, to pick a good meeting place within walking distance of our hip hideaway, Hôtel des Academies et des Arts in Montparnasse. Draught bitter, Premier League football on the TV and a clientele of almost exclusively Anglophone students from the nearby Sorbonne wasn’t what we had in mind. She’s brought us to the Bombardier, a no-detail-overlooked recreation of an English village pub opposite the Panthéon. ‘You’re British,’ she shrugs apologetically. ‘I thought you’d like it.’
Thank goodness that we’re soon returning to the Parisian-as-they-come Hôtel des Academies et des Arts, which so epitomises French chic that it even has a salon de thé, Chez Charlotte, adjacent to the reception desk. When we checked in earlier, the beau-monde staff at this arts and design hotel – in their Louboutin suits and Jarvis Cocker glasses – looked as though they were milling around backstage at Paris Fashion Week. They even managed to summon up a complimentary selection of delicious Pierre Hermé macaroons for us to nibble on while they perused our passports and punched our details into the computer system.
Tucked away on the tiny Montparnasse street where both Gauguin and Modigliani painted masterpieces in between conducting doomed affairs, Hôtel des Academies et des Arts is a temple to its locale’s painter pedigree. It’s the artist’s model – of the wooden figurine variety as opposed to the student taking off her bra to earn a few extra centimes – that’s the recurring motif here, and bendy figures with swivelling limbs appear everywhere throughout the hotel. In the dark, inside-of-a-crimson-jewel-box downstairs lobby and tearoom, images of these mannequins are posturing on mantelpieces and shelves, clambering up tiny ladders towards the ceiling and appearing two-dimensionally on the walls. You’ll see them forming chains in the lift shaft and up the exterior walls. They’re even in the bedrooms, swinging from the picture rails or tumbling towards the headboards.
Our Man Ray ‘club room’ may be a little on the small side, but that’s to be expected. This is Paris, after all, where square footage is as rare as a St Germain steak. The grey, cream and brown decor – enlivened by a painted figurine that seems to be attempting a star jump behind the flatscreen TV – is crisp and elegant, and I am particularly taken with the voyeuristic potential of a large bedside window that provides views of several private apartments. Mrs Smith emerges from the ensuite with news that the bath might just be deep enough to take us both. I tell her to start running the taps.
The bed is both comfortable and disproportionately gigantic, and we wake in the morning feeling refreshed and rejuvenated. Breakfast, taken in the Chez Charlotte tea room, is an elegant procession of pastries, jams, fruit and brain-joltingly strong coffee, and Mrs Smith is particularly smitten with the witty red, heart-shaped sugarcubes, which remind her of corner-shop penny sweets. It’s not the only optical illusion on offer. A mirror placed strategically between the reception area and our table creates such a bewildering perspective that I find myself addressing a waitress’s reflection while the real woman stands patiently beside me wearing an expression of mild amusement.
In honour of the hotel’s artistic leanings, we decide to head for the Louvre. We walk through the café au lait-coloured terrain of the Jardins de Luxembourg, over boulevard St Germain and cross the Seine at the Port des Arts, debating whether to head to Egyptian antiquities or Italian Renaissance painting first. We finally arrive at the foot of IM Pei’s iconic glass pyramid, surprised to see no sign of the legendary queues. The Louvre is closed today. Undeterred, we recross the river and make for the Musée d’Orsay, home to many of France’s greatest Impressionist canvases. Other Louvre-deprivees have had the same idea – the queue curls around the square in front of the museum like the swirls on a pain aux raisins.
So, for the next couple of hours, we become flaneurs; padding along Parisian rues and boulevards, enjoying the sights and sounds of a city in full weekend flow. We gaze into gallery windows on the rue des Beaux-Arts, watch pompom-like dogs shuffle after their owners in Place Saint-Sulpice and finally end up deep in the Latin Quarter, just around the corner from last night’s pub, ordering cold glasses of wine from an infinitely more sophisticated café on Place de la Contrescarpe.
Sipping our chablis, we watch burly, white-aproned waiters, looking like extras from a Scorsese movie, chalk up the day’s specials outside their restaurants. Book-carrying students with wire-framed glasses and furrowed expressions bustle past us, while mopeds and slowly waddling pigeons circle the softly burbling fountain at the centre of the square. This is more like it. Feeling suitably Frenchified, we head back along the Boulevard du Montparnasse to the Hôtel des Academies et des Arts and settle down on window-flanking chairs to work our way through several bucket-sized glasses of velvety red wine. Now, to order another plate of those macaroons…