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Saturday, January 21, 2006 - Page updated at 04:43 PM


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At home in Paris

Seattle Times travel staff

They call Paris the City of Love.

My daughter and I ended up on its street of lust.

Searching for the apartment I'd rented for a week's stay in the French capital, we stumbled across a seamy stretch of Rue St. Denis in the city's red-light district.

We scurried nervously along, two overwhelmed tourists towing our little wheeled suitcases. Prostitutes lurked in the doorways of porn-video stores. Shop windows showcased leather and metal-studded underwear. A cross-dressing guy sashayed past in a red miniskirt so short and tight it looked more like a belt.

My heart sank. Had I unwittingly booked, sight unseen over the Internet, a vacation apartment in porno land for my teenage daughter and myself ? Would this be the street life outside our window?

I squinted at my map, trying to decipher the maze of pedestrian-only streets, one of which contained the apartment. We veered off Rue St. Denis and thankfully, within a block, were in a much more comforting neighborhood. Instead of seedy guys, trendy young Parisians lounged in sidewalk cafes. Instead of porn shops, there were patisseries laden with chocolates and croissants. Instead of sex shops, there were fashionable boutiques.

I sighed in relief. I had, by complete luck, booked a place in one of Paris' hip neighborhoods around Rue Montorgueil in the Les Halles/Sentier district.

In recent years, this Right Bank neighborhood has become a stylish and popular place for young Parisians to live, party and shop. But it's still a neighborhood with an edge, and not many tourists, since it's a center of gay life and the fleshy preoccupations of Rue St. Denis are close by.

Yet for us, the apartment, which I rented through the New Jersey-based Vacation in Paris agency, turned out to be an excellent place to stay. We got much more space than a hotel room — a bedroom, living room, little kitchen and bathroom in a renovated 17th-century building — for $165 a night, about half the price of a room in a boutique hotel around the corner.

The benefits of a rental

I'd vowed to try a vacation rental in Paris ever since staying in a cramped, noisy and overpriced hotel room in a tourist-swamped Parisian neighborhood some years ago.

A rental apartment or house can be the way to go for anyone who wants more space than a standard hotel room, from couples to big families or groups of friends, in everything from European capitals to North American beach resorts and beyond. It's cheaper than renting several hotel rooms. Having a kitchen lets you save lots of money by making meals. And you get to live more like locals, at least for a while.

From our little rental apartment, our daily life seemed to revolve around food, fitting since the Rue Montorgueil area has been a market center for Paris since medieval times.

Les Halles, Paris' centuries-old main commercial food market, used to be near one end of the street. But in a still debated, and hated, city-planning decision, the market was deemed outdated and closed in 1971. It was replaced with the massive, underground Forum des Halles shopping mall and a train/Metro station, plus a park above (nice by day, seedy at night).

Morning pastries

Most mornings we'd make a beeline from our apartment to the Stohrer pastry shop on Rue Montorgueil, a two-minute walk. I'd try not to drool over the gleaming glass cases filled with strawberry tarts, chocolate pastries and other delectable sweets and breads.

One morning I went alone for my pastry fix, leaving my daughter sleeping. The normally stern shopkeeper insisted on sending home a croissant, gratis, for her.

Down the street at a hole-in-the wall grocery store, the clerks embarked on a wine-education course for me each time I shopped, recommending different French reds — all delicious and all under $10 a bottle. Each time I returned, they'd heatedly debate what I should try next.

At Au Rocher de Cancale, an always crowded bistro/restaurant on Rue Montorgueil, the harried waiters always managed to find a little table for us. We'd sit and sip our drinks amid history, and animated groups of Parisians, in the centuries-old restaurant celebrated by 19th-century French writer Balzac and other luminaries.

A walker's haven

Our neighborhood was much more than a gastronomic pleasure. The Rue Montorgueil area felt like a cozy, old-fashioned village since it and more than a dozen surrounding streets are closed to most vehicles, creating a pedestrian haven.

Lovers strolled and schoolchildren skipped down the middle of the streets. Elderly women, their stout legs encased in black skirts, lugged home plastic bags of baguettes and cheese, fruit and fish, from the shops and market stalls on Rue Montorgueil. More upscale shoppers strolled out of the Passage du Grand Cerf, a glass-roofed 19th-century shopping arcade lined with antique and jewelry shops.

The neighborhood felt like a village, but we were in the heart of Paris. It was a 15-minute stroll to the Louvre museum or Notre Dame cathedral, although I came to like a church a few blocks from our apartment, Saint Eustache, even better. It's a Gothic marvel of soaring stone pillars and arches, and almost as imposing as Notre Dame but without the crowds of tourists.

The Pompidou Center, the infamously modernist building with its ventilation pipes and escalators hanging on the outside, was a 10-minute walk away. We spent hours there at its world-class modern art museum and splurged at the elegant, rooftop Georges restaurant. The view over central Paris was lovely, but we left almost $100 poorer, and still hungry, after a fashionably minimalist meal.

Most days we saved money by cooking dinner at the apartment instead of eating out. After a long day's sightseeing, it was relaxing to sprawl on the couch and watch soccer or tacky French quiz shows on TV as we ate. Normally a no-TV-during-meals mother, I relented, reasoning that it improved our French.

Glimpses of city life

After dinner, we'd take a walk, go to a concert (Paris churches host many), or lounge at a sidewalk cafe. Or we'd just stay home, leaning on the stone sills of our living-room windows to watch the world go by.

Our street, the narrow, cobblestone Rue Marie Stuart, was lined with graceful old buildings, with small shops and restaurants on the bottom floors and apartments above. All our neighbors' windows, like ours, were flung wide open on the hot summer nights, showing us a tableau of daily life ...

Each evening, the young woman across from us came home to her high-ceilinged apartment, kicked off her high heels and, in her fancy business suit, sank into her couch for night after night of watching television alone. Was she lonely, we wondered, was she wedded to her work?

In the apartment above hers, a man would dash in late, then climb, half naked, up to his loft bed and snuggle down. Once he waved cheerily at us before turning off his bedside light. We sheepishly waved back.

From somewhere across the street, a baby's cry and an opera aria drifted into the night. Laughter floated up from the sidewalk tables of the restaurant below our windows. Down the street, a half-dozen merry guys, dressed up and waving a gay-pride flag, sang and danced out of a doorway.

The quirky side

Much as we enjoyed our apartment, with its wood-beamed ceilings and tile floors, it had some drawbacks.

My small bedroom (my daughter got the fold-out couch in the living room) overlooked a tiny courtyard. There was no air conditioning and late into the night, with everyone's windows open, I'd hear everything from family arguments to bad French pop music and the dishwashing clatter of the restaurant kitchen.

I gave up on the washing machine, a tiny contraption that was supposed to both wash and dry the laundry. It took so long, I washed clothes in the sink.

For anyone used to shiny, suburban America, the apartment was cramped, with a closet-size kitchen. Cupboards contained a mishmash of dishes and linens (plus a previous renter's forgotten dirty socks).

Yet the drawbacks were nothing compared with the pleasure of having more space than a hotel and the chance to live, briefly, like Parisians. Although we never did retrace our steps along the Rue St. Denis, our seedy introduction to an enchanting neighborhood.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company




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