Of French finesse: From intense onion soup to breezy air kisses!

Culture, cuisine, wine, natural beauty, art, architecture, design, music, and sheer style, our penchant for everything French seems justified when you realise just how much this country offers. Pages from the personal travel diary of a Francophile…

I stood at the bottom of a long flight of stairs. I was not alone. I had with me my strolly suitcase, filled to bursting with all 23 kgs of permissible weight on my Air France flight. This was not my first time in Paris, and I had, rather over confidently, decided to get to my hotel in the first arrondissement using public transport. I hadn’t considered the fact that the Paris Metro, opened way back in 1900, doesn’t have too many escalators! 360-degree wheels aren’t much use when confronted by steps.

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So, there I was, wondering how to lug my luggage up those stairs. When a man suddenly materialised at my elbow, said something in such rapid French that my Alliance Française de Bombay classes hadn’t prepared me for, grabbed my bag and lightly ran up, up and away. Wonder turned to alarm as I thought of all those stories of thefts on the Metro I had heard about.

But when I got to the top of the stairs, there he was with my bag, just waiting long enough for me to get to it and whizzing away before I could sigh in relief or even thank him properly! And to my surprise, the same thing happened on two more occasions before I surfaced to blink in the sunshine at Rue Saint-Honoré, where my luxury suite at the Mandarin Oriental Paris awaited me. The city couldn’t have given me a warmer welcome than this!

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Suite with a sweet view. Image: Courtesy Mandarin Oriental Paris.

The fashionable street I was on, where the fabulous Coco Chanel once lived (Maison Chanel was the birthplace of the luxury brand) and where every designer label worth its salt has a presence today, is certainly ooh-worthy. It’s seen a lot of history too — from Jeanne d’Arc being wounded here in her attack on Paris in 1429, to the birth of the playwright Molière in 1611, to Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their family being imprisoned there in 1792 after the storming of the Tuileries Palace nearby during the French revolution! Even the Art Deco Mandarin Oriental is built on the site of what was once a famous circus!

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The Rue Saint-Honoré is a historic street. Image: Courtesy Mandarin Oriental Paris.
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Satisfying shopping expeditions are a given. Image: Courtesy Mandarin Oriental Paris.

Staying at this illustrious address with designer rooms and splendid views of the Eiffel Tower, I not only had access to some of the best macarons in Paris, but could spend entire days bingeing on art, history, and culture at the Louvre and on high-end jewellery and chronometers at the Place Vendôme, just around the corner. The charm of the cafes and boutiques along the city’s most famous boulevard, the Champs-Élysées, was not far either.

Paris in June is an eminently walkable place, and I found myself exploring the more bohemian Rive Gauche on foot. The left bank of the river Seine, they say, is where Paris learned to think, boasting centuries of a thriving culture of counterculture. Artists, writers, and philosophers have peopled these streets. From arty accents and poetic patois of Montparnasse to Latin-spouting scholars that gave the Latin quarter in the fifth and sixth arrondissements its name, it has everything from jazz clubs to the Sorbonne University.  

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Paris, je t’aime! Image: Shutterstock/V_E.

Of a total of 37 bridges spanning the Seine, eight connect the Left and Right Banks of Paris via the Île de la Cité and four via the Île Saint-Louis. I strolled across the Pont Neuf, the oldest surviving one that’s ironically still called the ‘new bridge’, stopping only to savour a delicate crêpe from a stall run by a woman who looked like a fashion model. Île de la Cité is where the basilica of Notre-Dame de Paris, the most visited monument in Paris, is located. While it has been closed since the fire in 2019, you can hope to see and appreciate its gorgeous French Gothic architecture replete with rib vault, flying buttresses, and rose windows by 2024.

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The entrance to the Louvre pyramid, made especially famous by Dan Brown’s novel, ‘The Da Vinci Code’. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Much has been written about the romance of Paris and I could write much more about my adventures in various parts of this vibrant metropolis, especially in Pigalle, Le Marais, and Montmartre.

Be it finding style for a steal, a Michelin-star meal or scrumptious onion soup in the world’s first bistro, getting dazzled by dancers at Moulin Rouge and Le Lido, delighted by French opera and cinema, the thrills and spills at Disneyland Paris or the umph-umph-umph of the nightclubs, every visit to this city has always left me wanting more.

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La Mere Catherine in Montmartre, the world’s first ‘bistrot’ and a hotspot for French revolutionaries, serves this delightfully hearty French onion soup. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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Artists at Montmartre. Images: Priya Pathiyan.
France, travel, extraordinary journey, destinations
Performers of all kinds are a Paris staple. Images: Priya Pathiyan.

La Marseillaise and more

But the rest of France crooks a beckoning finger and I follow, enticed. On my very first solo journey abroad, I had left Mumbai in anxiety-laden tears, the worried expressions of my extended family (all of whom had come to see me off at the airport, but of course!) imprinted on my mind’s eye. I flew into CDG (Paris Charles de Gaulle airport, for the uninformed) and made my connecting flight to Marseille seamlessly. After a pint bottle of an excellent dry white wine, I landed in the ancient city on quite a happy high. A cab to my hotel? Easy peasy. Amiable French conversation with the chauffeur and the concierge? Bien sûr. I thought that this high would evaporate once the spirit wore off. But when I changed two trains to get to Le Vieux Port the next morning, the effervescence only seemed to have got even more enhanced!

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Magnificent buildings in Marseille. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The enchanting blue of the Mediterranean, the pristine whites of the sails on the luxury yachts lined up along the seafront of this old port, the friendly seagulls and the even friendlier people were certainly reasons why any visitor would be happy here. I had heard such tales of the seamy side of Marseille, but this seemed like a whole other world, closer to its more glamorous neighbours down the Côte d’Azur of the French Riviera — Nice and Cannes.

The gleaming statue of Madonna and Child atop the neo-Byzantine Notre-Dame de la Garde basilica on the crest of the hill, the sumptuous mansions I saw from the top deck of the Hop On Hop Off bus, and the general air of grandeur that permeated this city made me fall in love with it.

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Never saw blue like that! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

Buying lavender-scented savon de Marseille (the city’s most famous souvenir since ancient times is this silky, salty soap) made sense as I was in Provence after all, not far from the lavender fields that are an Insta-must. The oldest city of France and one that inspired the country’s national anthem, La Marseillaise, it seemed to be the perfect mix of the luxe life, serene spaces, gritty history, and a wild side that gave it an edge that others down the azure coast lack.

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The Hop On Hop Off Bus is one of the many ways for tourists to get around the historic sites. Images: Priya Pathiyan.
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Glimpses while walking around the city give an inkling of what life is like here. Images: Priya Pathiyan.

I was in the city for the launch of a new cruise ship. The way the city pulled out all the stops for this one was dazzling, to say the least! The Marseille Philharmonic Orchestra performed on the pier, while French actress Marion Cotillard dashed a prized bottle of French Champagne against the ship’s hull, and later, we watched open-mouthed in wonder as a display of fireworks from all sides of the city was set in time to lights and music. The Michelin-starred dinner that followed on board the ship was equally awe inspiring.

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The grand event begins on the pier and actress Marion Cotillard, godmother of the new ship by Costa Cruises, makes an appearance. Images: Priya Pathiyan.

But even if you aren’t on a VIP itinerary like that one, the city does make you feel special. The Marseillais were so generous. With directions, with conversations, with their hearts. A coastguard wanted to give me a tour when he realised I had missed the earliest bus that I had planned to take. A father-daughter duo shared the chilled wine they were drinking as they refurbished their sailboat together.

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Friendly folk of Marseille have big smiles for travellers. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

The lady at the counter of a corner store gifted me a sweet little handcrafted ship in a bottle. The driver of the tourist bus offered to buy me ice-cream. At an open-air café by the harbour where I stopped to savour some true-blue Provençal cuisine, famous for its powerful flavours and simple, farm-to-table ingredients, a kindly old man with an accordion spotted the solo Indian and played me a soulful rendition of Mera Joota Hai Japani, which definitely made my desi dil feel happy to be Hindustani!

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The local cuisine is all about fresh seafood and citrus flavoured with Provencal herbs like rosemary and thyme. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

My days in Marseille were so magical, they became a highlight of my travel memories, often prompting me to say it was my favourite place on earth. Years later, while listening to Belinda Carlisle’s La Luna, I realised the lyrics were about Le Vieux Port, capturing the mood beautifully: ‘In the hotels, in the cafes | All the world was mad with romance | In the harbour, moonlit water | All the ships were swaying in a dance.’

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Beautiful boats at Le Vieux Port. Image: Priya Pathiyan.

French kisses in Montpellier and Toulouse

Two hours away to the west is Montpellier and two hours more will take you to Toulouse. Both of these are lively cities with wonderful architecture and a fun vibe. Both boast of some of the oldest universities in Europe and are buzzing student towns.

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A view of the countryside in the Tarn from my room in Le Domaine de Carla in Castres, a stop en route to Montpellier. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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You never know what you’ll find on the shelves in little village shops on a road trip! Image: Priya Pathiyan.
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A scene from the charming village of Avene, from where the global skincare brand of the same name originates, utilising the healing properties of the natural thermal water.
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The drives through the interiors of France are just as gorgeous as the main cities. Image: Priya Pathiyan.
France, travel, extraordinary journey, destinations
Place de la Comédie with the evocative fountain of Three Graces in Montpellier. Image: Shutterstock/RossHelen.

The Place de la Comédie is the must-visit square in Montpellier’s historic city centre, one of the largest pedestrian areas in all of Europe. There are museums aplenty but also a modern twist to the culture that’s evident in the zany graffiti, unexpected figures in balconies, and bicycles in odd places. Be prepared for the very French Trompe l’oeil or ‘trick of the eye’ which pops up in public places where you least expect it!

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Montpellier balconies often have strange limbs sticking out of them! Image: Priya Pathiyan.

I was wondering whether the new market building, Les Halles Laissac, was really a melon as it appears or something more. Fortunately, I entered to discover the wealth of wares sold inside, with all kinds of fresh produce and lovely sharing tables where you can grab a meal on the go. Thanks to Montpellier’s proximity to the Languedoc-Roussillon region, you’re also likely to get some great local wine to go with their classic dish called Clapassade, a tasty mix of tender lamb and tart olives, flavoured with honey and star anise.  

Toulouse, capital of the Occitanie region, has unique architecture with a pinkish hue thanks to the terracotta bricks, which has given it the label of La Ville Rose or the Pink City. Walking along the 17th century Canal du Midi (a UNESCO world heritage site), appreciating the city’s layout, I almost forgot that Toulouse is also at the cutting edge of space technology in Europe, and the centre of the continent’s aerospace industry, with the headquarters of Airbus located here!

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Aerial view of the Canal du Midi, the twin bridges, and the port in Toulouse. Image: Shutterstock/ColibriVision.

Speaking of aerospace, this is where I got a tutorial in La Bise, the French art of greeting each other with air kisses from a seemingly serious business associate who let her hair down over the crackle and slurp of fine French bread and wine. Air kissing involves warm eye contact, a slight leaning forward without invading each other’s personal space and a touching of the cheeks, usually starting with the left and then repeating two to four times accompanied by appropriate muah sounds.

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Getting the air kiss right will help you fit right in. Image: Shutterstock/BearFotos.

While Parisians prefer two, and southern France three, in parts of central France, four bises are customary. The lady told me to do two to be on the safe side anywhere! Wokeness and the pandemic may have put a dampener on this ritual of late, but the tradition of La Bise is something every French person over the age of eight is familiar with, even expects.

A couple of Parisian journalists I dined with in Marseille were scornful of the southern French for that extra bise. According to them, it showed them for the slow, country bumpkins they were. But then the rivalry between Paris and Marseille is long and vicious, not least because of their rival soccer clubs! Apparently, if your car has the wrong license plates in the wrong region, you can be sure it will get a mysterious scratch if left out in public.

To put it mildly, passions run high with the French. In love, sports, and politics, of course. But they’re also extremely particular about things that seem minor to others but are very important to them. Like whether the bread has enough crackle when you break it. Or whether you’re trying too hard to be fashionable. Or not trying enough. If you thought Emily in Paris was an exaggeration, then you’ll have to think again. But then it is this passion for the details is what gives the French their flair. And why we love them.

France, travel, extraordinary journey, destinations
Left: How tourists think they ought to dress in France, while (right) casual elegance works even if you aren’t wearing berets and stripes! Images: Shutterstock/CookieStudio and Hrytsiv Oleksandr.

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