The thrill of hopping aboard the Eurostar on a Friday after work, to be whisked straight into Paris for an indulgent weekend, has never felt stronger after 16 weeks in lockdown.
Since Friday, we have been allowed to travel to 59 countries, including France, with no quarantine requirements on our return to the UK, meaning that weekends in the city of light are on the cards once more. I spent this first possible weekend in the French capital, visiting five-star hotels, the boutiques of Place Vendôme, and a surprising Pompeii exhibition at the Grand Palais.
While planning it was exciting, there were underlying nerves. My Parisian friend Agathe, who I planned to spend the weekend with, dining, shopping and walking, had told me that life in the city had pretty much returned to normal weeks ago, and that most people aren’t wearing masks or social distancing despite government advice. As it turns out, she was completely right - although Jean Castex, the new Prime Minister, later announced on July 16 that masks will be obligatory in all closed public spaces from the week beginning July 20.
After being shuttered in for over three months, doubt did creep in. Would others be doing things right, from social distancing on the Eurostar to the masked service of one’s morning café noisette, to ensure safety? And if so, would that wonderful sense of Parisian opulence remain?
Taking the Eurostar has long been my preferred mode of transport to Paris. It is currently running on a reduced service and face masks are essential for both passengers and staff.
Arriving at St Pancras on Saturday morning, I was taken aback by the size of the queue, which wound its way from the Eurostar terminal, around the corner into the main station. My seat in Business Premier would usually have come with access to its own fast-track line, but not now. So I should have left a lot more time.
While the gates close just 10 minutes before the train leaves, there is no longer a food and drink service on board and no open shops through the gate, so you’ll need to schedule time to pick up supplies from one of the station cafés before queuing for security and passport control.
Contactless tickets, which are accessible through the Eurostar app, are a definite bonus, although the strict Covid-related signage I had expected was nowhere to be found. After a while I noticed scuffed floor stickers reminding travellers to keep their distance, and a couple of hand sanitiser stations. It didn’t feel like social distancing rules were being observed or enforced and I dodged and danced my way through the line, trying to follow the one-metre rule.
Nevertheless, this still feels like a good time to invest in a top-tier ticket in lieu of economy. The standard carriages appeared nervously busy. In Business, though, there was lots of space between passengers, and a heightened feeling of cleanliness and ultimately, safety. I had a single table seat and could only see three other people from where I sat.
As soon as the journey began, a trolley stocked with bottles of water, juice, Pringles and nuts trundled through. While I certainly felt safely distanced from others, I keenly squeezed at my hand sanitiser, as I would the whole weekend long.
So many of Paris’ palatial hotels, like Le Bristol, The Ritz and Plaza Athenée, which have large numbers of rooms and an older core clientele, are still closed, so now is the perfect time to explore the capital’s younger luxury side.
I checked into Fauchon l’Hôtel, which faces the huge élgise de la Madeleine. This five-star establishment is only two years old, and has managed to bounce back from Covid-19 (and the gilets jaunes and the strikes) remarkably quickly.
With private Tesla transfers from the Gare du Nord, sanitiser provided on check-in, optional housekeeping and a reduced-but-delicious restaurant menu served on a large open terrace, it’s a reassuring base with an outstanding view of one of Paris’s finest churches.
Now really is the time to choose a hotel slap bang in the centre of Paris. Although the taxis are equipped with plastic screens separating the driver from the passenger, there’s never been a better excuse to go on foot. And what greater luxury than to be walking distance from the central landmarks, such as Place Vendome, the Tuileries Gardens, Avenue Montaigne and the Champs Elysées. I was within twenty minutes of them all.
The luxury boutiques
When it comes to shopping in Paris, there are no hard and fast rules - but it quickly became clear that the high-end houses are going out of their way to ensure safety measures are evident. This felt in stark contrast to the parks, where hardly anybody seemed to be wearing a face mask or socially distancing. I watched on in disbelief as fairground rides flung people round almost as normal in the Tuileries Gardens, passengers screaming from their grubby perspex pods.
Making my way down Rue Saint Honoré to Place Vendome on Saturday afternoon, its luxury fashion houses felt much calmer. A young, masked couple in jeans sprung out of Cartier with bags and headed into Chanel. Jewellery admirers ogled the windows of Van Cleef and Chaumet, where clients discreetly moved around inside. There was a distanced queue outside of Alexander McQueen, where the suited security guard was handing out facemasks and sanitiser to those in line.
I made a beeline for the original Chanel boutique on Rue Cambon - a spacious store over three floors, where they subtly offered me a mask from an envelope and a blob of disinfectant on arrival. The sales assistant was in good spirits: she said there had been a lot of visitors and sales seemed to be going well - plus, the new collection had come in on Wednesday.
The shoe section at the centre of the store was particularly in-demand, with every one of the black and gold woven chairs taken up. Each was separated from the next with a lacquered black table, topped with a gold lamp and more sanitiser. Notices on the jewellery counters explained that the pieces would be cleaned after every try, as well as the counters.
Clients, ranging from those in their early twenties to a much older looking couple, boasted further bags from Dior, Chloé and the Kooples. Shopping, it seems, is very much on, but the thing causing the biggest buzz in the Vendome area was The Ritz’s Le Petit Comptoir. While the hotel is still closed, this little pop-up with a gigantic queue is keeping shoppers happy in the meantime, selling everything from The Ritz’s own champagne to giant cookies, all to take away.
Brasseries and cafés across the capital were packed out, the one-metre guideline totally lost among spritzes and wasabi nuts and greetings kisses. Despite the obvious advantage of most restaurants having open terraces, this new age is at odds with café culture and, as my friend Agathe said, it’s too much at the heart of the French mindset to change. The luxury addresses, however, seemed to be adopting ways to allow the two to co-exist - from digital menus to enhanced cleaning programmes.
On Saturday night the Secret Garden terrace at the opulent Le Royal Monceau, Raffles Paris on Avenue Hoche, had a real buzz. While the hotel, which is a few steps from the Arc de Triomphe, remains closed for now, its courtyard bar and restaurant have reopened and are once again a-flutter with Riviera-style linen shirts and breezy summer dresses.
The booths, sofas and bar tables, which surround a striking decorative pool, were full and lively. Waiters wore face masks, but bar snacks were still presented. As the sky turned midnight blue and we sipped our glasses of champagne, it felt like an incredible treat post lockdown.
The terrace of L’Avenue, the celebrity address on Avenue Montaigne, where Kim Kardashian, Kanye West, Kate Moss and Rihanna have all been known to dine, was heaven the following morning. There was a discreet hand sanitiser pump at the entrance and while the impossibly beautiful waitresses did not wear masks, the sun-drenched terrace was airy and clean, and only a few tables were taken.
It felt calm, peaceful and private, with ambient music mixes from artists such as Alekesam setting a relaxed tone. Behind me, a sixty-something-year-old businessman in salmon pink trousers flicked through Le Figaro over a coffee and patisserie. Directly in my line of view, a wealthy young couple finished breakfast, their young child in a buggy branded 'couture' beside them.
Over at the legendary Café de Flore on Boulevard Saint Germain, where great literary figures such as Simone de Beauvoir used to meet, affairs are in hand. Seats felt more spaced out than at so many of the other brasseries that I passed by, servers wore masks and each table was fitted with a fresh paper mat for each service. Particularly impressive was the delightful woman on hand in the bathrooms, disinfecting each individual toilet cubicle between every single use.
Here, on the terrace of Flore, among the film stars and the fashion set (on this visit I spotted French actor Gilles Lellouche), the older generation is out in force, seemingly very comfortable with the situation.
The museums and galleries
One of my favourite things to do when in Paris is go to the exhibition of the moment at the Grand Palais. This summer, it’s Pompéi - an immersive experience centred around the ancient city of Pompeii and the day that Mount Vesuvius erupted. Originally slated to open on May 25, Covid-19 meant that it had been pushed back to July 1. Given the events of 2020, this exploration of disaster felt particularly relevant.
The exhibition itself was captivating, with large digital recreations of the eruption, renderings of notable houses and scenes from recent digs projected in cinematic format. It was far less about ancient artefacts than a modern retelling of this ancient story, using digital to enhance the experience.
What was totally disconcerting after months of confinement, however, was the volume of people crowded in this windowless gallery. Visitors were making absolutely no effort to keep their distance and, while everybody over 11 was required to wear a face mask and hand sanitiser pumps were dotted around, it didn’t stop people crowding and pushing past. While I would normally linger in the gorgeous Grand Palais for as long as possible, I left quickly.
A weekend trip to Paris is always my idea of paradise - for the food, my friends, the history and the gorgeous architecture - but this particular trip outdid the rest. It felt like walking into the light after months in confinement. Champagne in a gilded courtyard under the stars? Coffee at Simone de Beauvoir’s old haunt? Bliss.
For now, I would recommend sticking to the luxury addresses. Do research, plan in advance and aim to eat and drink where there are outdoor terraces. While I was disappointed by the almost complete lack of social distancing, there was generally space for me to move out of the way, thanks to the large boulevards. At no point did I feel alarmingly at risk.
If you are healthy and not in a vulnerable category, then a trip to Paris now would be a fabulous idea, as long as you are prepared to be cautious while you are there. But I would say if you feel vulnerable or are particularly worried about distancing, this is not the time to go. Wait a few months until the palace hotels reopen, at which point your experience will be much more controlled, should you wish it to be.
Tips for travelling safely:
Wear a face mask or covering in public and be sure to bring enough to have a fresh one each day you’re there
Resist the temptation to touch the mask while it’s on your face
While most restaurants and boutiques had hand sanitiser on offer, it’s best to bring your own
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