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When in Paris, Le Marais is where to stay

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Beth Healy
Globe Staff / September 28, 2003

Henry Miller once told a friend he hoped to remain in Paris forever. From a small room at the Hotel St.-Germain-des-Pres, where he stayed in 1930, Miller wrote, ''The streets sing, the stones talk. The houses drip history, glory, romance."

Truly, no city on earth rivals Paris in charm and beauty. The seduction is rich, unfolding over the course of hours, days, and deepening with every visit. Hear it in the early morning sounds of greengrocers opening shops and sweeping wet sidewalks. Taste it in the warm croissants, the ripened cheese, the table wine. Feel the vibrant pulse of the place as you walk the streets and people-watch from countless perches at bustling cafes.

Yes, Paris is for lovers, and couples really do embrace on street corners, subway cars, and park benches. Most of them are straight, to be sure, but head to Le Marais -- the historic and lovely neighborhood that started as marshland and has been home to kings and the city's Jewish quarter -- and you will feel quite at home. Not only is the Marais full of gay cafes and restaurants, it's chic and brimming with energy.

I usually stay on the Rue de Birague, near historic Place des Vosges, where Henry IV settled into plush digs in the 1600s. At the other end of the street is Rue St.-Antoine, a major avenue that runs into the Rue de Rivoli and leads to city hall, or l'Hotel de Ville. This is a perfect starting point for a stroll along the Seine, or a short walk to many famous sites, including Notre Dame cathedral and the gothic Saint-Chapelle, with its amazing stained glass and intimate evening concerts, and the Conciergerie prison, where Marie Antoinette spent her last days. Across the river is the Centre Pompidou, the modern art museum packed with works by Matisse, Picasso, and other masters. The surrounding Beaubourg area is eclectic and features some gay joints. (Yahoo has a good list of nightspots.)

When choosing a hotel in Paris, think about the neighborhood you'd like to stay in, and perhaps how strongly you feel about a shower, rather than a tub. Remember that you're not likely to spend much time in the room; it's simply too much fun to be out in the street. Save your splurging for dinners out and frequent caf stops. And don't worry about proprietors quizzing you on sleeping arrangements.

Staying in or near the Marais is fun, because you're close to many popular tourist destinations, from the Bastille to the Latin Quarter. And in the evening, you can stroll the gay-friendly streets and adopt them as your own for a few days. Another appealing part of town, particularly for the literary-minded, is St. Germain des Pres. That's where Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas lived, as well as Hemingway, the Fitzgeralds and many other writers and artists who hung out in Paris in the early 1900s. For a fascinating walking tour, get ''A Guide to Hemingway's Paris" (Algonquin Books, 1989) before you go.

Investigating Paris on foot -- and simply soaking up the ambience -- is a huge part of the experience. But there are many reasons to venture indoors. Romantics should see the Musee Rodin, a gorgeous museum of sculpture housed in a mansion. The well-known ''Thinker" statue graces the garden in front of the house, along with Auguste Rodin's ''Gates of Hell." Inside is a sensuous feast of human figures, seemingly molded from raw emotion, rather than clay or bronze.

Aficionados of impressionism, your mecca is the Musee D'Orsay, the former train station that now holds many of the art world's treasures. A tip: Before you wear yourself out on the first two floors, the famous Monets and Renoirs, Van Goghs and Gaugins are tucked away on the top floor. The less busy Musee Marmottan also has an impressive Monet collection. Check the D'Orsay's website (www.musee-orsay.fr) for details on several exhibits being held this fall and winter.

The Louvre, the world's largest museum, is nearly as fascinating from the outside as inside. Once a medieval fortress, the palace grew through the centuries to match the egos and tastes of a long line of kings and queens. It's best to pick a wing that interests you and soak it in. Trying to do the entire Louvre in a day can really take the joy out of it. Save time to walk through the Tuileries gardens, where Parisians take in the midday sun and children sail boats in the fountains. If it's warm, the cafes there aren't a bad place to have a salad or a simple sandwich fromage or jambon (baguette with cheese or ham).

Continue this walk and you'll soon be overlooking the grand Place de la Concorde (also quite stunning at night), beyond which lies the storied Champs-Elysees, Paris's Fifth Avenue, and the Arc de Triomphe. It will take about an hour to march to the Arc, a war memorial, but you can grab the metro there to reach your next stop.

If you're the kind of person who likes views from skyscrapers, by all means visit the Eiffel Tower. Alternatively, take a river ride on the Bateaux Mouches and get a close-up view of the iron tower, plus get your bearings and see Paris's historic buildings from a different perspective. The boats leave regularly from the Place de l'Alma, where admirers of Princess Diana still leave flowers to mark the site of her tragic end.

Setting aside the subjects of war and heat waves, you'll find the French pleasant enough -- as long as you make an effort. If you speak no French, buy a small phrase book and learn to say six things. Come on, you can do it. ''Hello," ''goodbye," ''please," ''thank you," ''excuse me," and the old ''Parlez-vous Anglais?" will get you a long way in Paris. Walk into a bakery for an afternoon snack, say ''Bonjour Madame," and point or tell her you want a ''pain au chocolat, s'il vous plait." The chocolate croissant will melt in your mouth, and you'll get a taste of authentic French living.

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