I could write another book on Paris alone, but here are some highlights of my favorite places (all of them reasonably priced and loaded with French charm):
My favorite place to stay in Paris:
? When I’m not renting an apartment in the bustling Latin Quarter, I stay at Hotel Du Continent, 30 Rue du Mont-Thabor, because this small hotel is all about location, location, location – and clean, comfortable beds and bathrooms. The hotel is located in the first arrondissement, right across from the Louvre and the Tuleries gardens, and a short walk to the right is Place de la Concorde, where Marie Antoinette was guillotined! Cross this plaza of voluptuous fountains and antique lamp posts and you’ll be at the famous Champs-Elysées. Best of all is the price of a room, from $114 to $154 euros per night, and you’ll be in the same area as the most famous and expensive hotels in Paris, steps away from places like the Vendome and the Ritz. Stroll the neighborhood and you’ll run into the original Coco Channel and Christian Dior boutiques, as well as the home of the city’s hottest new designers. Another plus of this home base: There are two Metro stations right across from hotel, and several others throughout the neighborhood, so you can easily travel to anywhere in Paris from here.
? French cuisine is famous, but knowing where to eat in a big city makes all the difference. Guide books are sometimes dated or some restaurants have become so famous they’re way overpriced. For dinner, my favorite spot is Ferdi's, 32 Rue du Mont-Thabor, just two doors down from the Hotel Du Continent. It's reasonably priced and has a very friendly vibe. It looks like a cozy tavern, packed with locals who know the owner, a burly Bono-look-alike character who runs the bar when it gets busy. A collection of tiny toy figures literally climb the walls, run along the wood accents, and they play soft romantic Mexican boleros as backdrop music. The food is spectacular. I've had everything from delicate risottos to Spanish piquillos rellenos, stuffed peppers, to fried shrimp on a stick with a Japanese sauce, and Arabic-styled meatballs and pasta rice. All expertly cooked. I love the sign on the door, in three languages, that goes something like this, "Good food takes time. We have the food and we hope you have the time." When I Googled Ferdi’s to get you the address, I learned that it's Penelope Cruz's favorite restaurant in Paris! She likes to come eat cheeseburgers for lunch. How about that? I had no idea. Thought I had discovered it!
? For breakfast, I walk to Angélina's at 226 rue de Rivoli, my favorite salon de thé. I love the croissants, pastries, breads, and the setting is traditional old French, classically beautiful in white woods. If you're a hot chocolate lover, this also is the place for you. They make it thick and luscious.
As for things to do in Paris, my list would be endless, starting with every museum in sight, but I’ll give you my top list of what may not be so obvious, yet you should not miss:
? A run through my two favorite department stores, Galeries Lafayette (gorgeous glass-domed ceilings at the 40 boulevard Haussmann location!) and Printemps! I especially love the linens department, but stick with buying tablecloths and pillowcases because the sheets they call double won't fit our queen-sized mattresses. I have two French tablecloths I adore. Even if you don't buy, it's a lot of fun to see the French merchandise because it's all special, from the decorative toasters to the incomparably designed baby clothes.
? A stroll through Pere Lachaise cemetery is a true cultural experience. Not only is Oscar Wilde buried here in a uniquely sculpted tomb scribbled with love notes by devotees, but it's a showcase of the reverence the French have for their dead. The family pantheons they erect are stunning. Some tombs are like mini-castles, others are adorned with the most whimsical sculptures. The gardens are luscious, but make sure you wear comfortable shoes. The walkways are all paved with cobblestones, and wearing the wrong shoes will hurt. Not the place to show off your fashion sense! (The cemetery is far from the city center, but the subway leaves you right at the entrance).
? The Sunday street market on rue Mouffetard in the Latin Quarter is my favorite. Vendors spill into the sidewalks, musicians play accordions, saxophones, and the French, carrying their straw shopping totes, stop to sing along with the musicians, especially when they break into the old standard, La vie en rose. The Latin Quarter also is a lively place to stroll at night, when it becomes flooded with people out to dine and play; a lot of them are tourists from all over the world.
This is but a nibble of the Paris I love. Everyone comes away from a trip to Paris with a list of favorites. The most important thing in a visit to Paris is to remain open to the possibilities of discovery. Stroll the city’s streets like the quintessential fl?neur, with no plans and only for the thrill of the journey. Paris is the kind of city where you can get happily lost in just about any neighborhood and discover the most charming spots: a gorgeous white cat resting on a windowsill dressed in lacy white curtains, Parisians kissing on a park bench, a sexy French man parking his motorcycle. Take a seat at the famous Café de Flore, where so many famous writers like Jean Paul Sartre and Simon de Beauvoir once hung out and practice the art of conversation, French-style. Walk, walk, walk. There’s a view of the Eiffel Tower waiting for you when you least expect it. I never tire of Paris!
How I came to write Reclaiming Paris
November 17, 2008
One weekend morning more than a decade ago, when I lived in a Miami Beach apartment with sea and sun at my window, I woke up with the sunrise and went straight to my computer. I had just returned from an emotionally-charged assignment at the U.S. naval base in Guantánamo, Cuba, reporting for The Miami Herald on the thousands of Cuban rafters who had fled the island and were being held there in refugee camps. But when I sat before the blank computer screen, it was not a newspaper story I wrote. I felt as if someone else was guiding my thoughts. When I came out of the trance, it was well past noon and I had written the story of my maternal grandmother’s quixotic life.
To my surprise, the story was embellished with what I imagined her life to have been like, as I never had the opportunity to ask her. I was separated from my beloved Abuela Ramona by exile when I was ten years old, never to see her again, and that loss deeply marked my life. Interviewing refugee children like me, women like my mother and grandmother, men like my father, resurrected my losses, the ghosts of my past, and fueled a need to make sense of it all by writing with the freedom that a writer can only find in fiction. The essence of what I wrote that day is the sixth chapter in Reclaiming Paris, and the heart of the novel, which is about the loves and losses that define a family, personal and historical, and are handed down from generation to generation.
Another important aspect of my novel is sense of place and the question of what constitutes home. I come from an island defined by riveting stories from the day Christopher Columbus is said to have laid eyes upon it and declared it the most beautiful place he had ever seen. It is also an island cursed with destructive history, a land of mysteries and conspiracies. Those of us who had to leave it, transplanted our version of Cuba with us, and so, Miami has become an equally intriguing place. The places I love also inspired Reclaiming Paris and are like characters: my two homes, Matanzas and Miami, which in my heart are one; my two dream cities, Havana and Paris, both incomparable grand dames.
And of course, there are the perfumes.
When I left Cuba on a Freedom Flight in 1969, I only carried with me three mementos: a doll lost in the labyrinth of early exile, a set of silver bracelets that I still wear when I fly, and a tiny bottle of perfume, a gift from my best friend, Mireyita. I don’t remember its scent but the bottle, made of wood and inscribed “Cuba,” has always held a place of honor in my bedroom. And yes, like Marisol, the protagonist of Reclaiming Paris, I have a penchant for collecting poetic scents, and when all else in life fails, I change my perfume for a little inspiration.