The romance of Paris was lost on me – until Mark Rothko lured me back | Paris holidays

Joy is the city that surprises you – that was my verdict as I wrapped up a recent long weekend in Paris. More than a decade had passed since I’d first visited the French capital, and I can recall very little from that two-day sojourn, just scattered memories of intimidatingly dressed women shopping in Saint-Germain-des-Prés and a trip to Notre Dame Cathedral, which remained clad in scaffolding because of the terrible 2019 fire.

Back then, Europe’s fabled city of romance was lost on me. I had no friends there to help unlock it and, fearing tourist traps, I was lazy about putting in the legwork to get to know its streets. I suspect my inertia was also down to the fact that Paris is so easy to reach from the UK that I could afford to “put it in the bank”.

Institut du Monde Arabe. Photograph: Idealink Photography/Alamy

Between then and now, I’d been busy elsewhere, concentrating on book research in places that are harder to get to: central Asia, the Caucasus, Turkey, Ukraine, Russia. It is a shame, and entirely my fault, that Paris first time round was wasted on me.

An art exhibition pulled me back: the blockbuster Mark Rothko show (until 2 April), at the Fondation Louis Vuitton, which sits in the Bois de Boulogne, a sprawling park to the west of the city. I’d visited Rothko’s birthplace, now the Mark Rothko Art Centre, in Daugavpils, Latvia, and had stood countless times in the Rothko room at London’s Tate Modern. I’m a fan. The show was expansive and immersive (and very busy), and the Frank Gehry-designed building – white iceberg-like blocks surrounded by towering glass sails – would be reason alone to visit. But by the end of my mini-break it turned out to be just one of many highlights.

The Mark Rothko show at Foundation Louis Vuitton runs until 2 April 2024. Photograph: Marc Domage/Fondation Louis Vuitton

As with any successful travel experience, the real gems tend to be the “unknown unknowns” – those stumbled on, not anticipated, beforehand. None was especially hidden or secret, but they were novel to me.

For this stay, I made my base the 5th arrondissement, close to the Sorbonne, and on the first morning, with the weather on my side (the hotel receptionist told me how lucky I was, as it had been “raining for days”), I set out for a jog. It was a crisp, clear winter day and, rounding a corner, I saw the first unexpected sight of the day: sunshine hitting the sand-coloured minaret of the Grande Mosquée de Paris, inspired by the Al-Zaytuna mosque in Tunisia. Square, Moorish in style and 33 metres tall, it glowed in the light, its tiles of geometric motifs dazzling in green, peach and white.

Jardin des Plantes. Photograph: Alamy

Jogging across the road and into the Jardin des Plantes, I stopped to photograph another entirely unanticipated, and very different, unknown: a zoological enclosure holding a group of incredibly cute red-necked wallabies, mobbing together in a slice of sun. I went on, past the grand wrought-iron greenhouses, giant palms pushing against the glass, as more joggers entered the park. The Seine, just beyond, beckoned me back to it, and I ran along the river – past the Shakespeare and Company bookshop, self-proclaimed “Left Bank literary institution”, where a queue watched over by a bouncer was already forming, such is the power of Instagram (though photos inside the famous shop are prohibited). I ran on past dozens of pavement cafes, each looking more appealing than the last.

Looping back to the park, I stopped for an espresso at La Fontaine Cuvier, sliding on to one of those classic woven French bistro chairs which demand a battered novel and a cigarette rather than a Garmin running watch, but never mind.

Showered and breakfasted, I walked to the rue de Rivoli next, in search of bookshops to browse in (the undying habit of an ex-bookseller abroad). After a mooch in the elegant Librairie Galignani – surely a contender for the chicest bookstore in the world with its high ceilings and potted plants – I found the more egalitarian-looking Smith & Son nearby, which has a brilliant range of English-language titles. Tempted upstairs by the smell of baking, passing a display of Penguin Modern Classics, I came to the cafe, and a truly surprising sight: pictures of the British royal family. The English waiter told me that the shop was originally opened by Brits in 1870 as a retail space, lending library and tearoom, and had previously been a WHSmith. Despite the slight rebrand, it remains famous for its afternoon tea, and the scones were indeed melt-in-mouth delicious. I felt guilty I wasn’t indulging in a croissant in a proper Parisian bakery, but there was time for that another day.

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The Great Mosque of Paris. Photograph: Olrat/Getty Images

Drifting back through the 6th arrondissement, I peered at the works of Jules Verne in the window of the exquisitely beautiful rare bookshop Librarie Monte Cristo, but everything looked alarmingly expensive and, feeling a little intimidated, I walked on.

That afternoon, I was back almost where I’d started, admiring the exhibitions of the Institut du Monde Arabe. Marvelling at the architecture first – one facade has more than 100 photosensitive panels that open and close like a camera shutter to control the light filtering into the interior – I then explored the exhibition on perfume, Parfums d’Orient (until 17 March), which looks at the significance of incense and fragrance from the High Atlas mountains to the Indian Ocean. The installation by Reem Al-Nasser of a wedding outfit made entirely from jasmine buds based on traditional work by Yemeni artisans (and questioning the sustainability of art and sanctification of virginity) was a standout. The cafe on the ground floor smelled tantalising, and so I joined the queue and ordered a bowl of couscous. This being Paris, it was no mere canteen experience. The pleasingly fluffy couscous, paired with delicately cooked vegetables scented with cumin and cinnamon, was served at the table along with a ceramic sauce boat of broth. It was as good as – perhaps better than – any I’d eaten in Morocco.

Later, I stopped for a beer on Boulevard Saint-Marcel, at the low-key Au Petit Bar: it’s popular with students playing board games and welcoming to solo drinkers. I started to plan the following day: for tea and pastries at the adjoining cafe and a metro trip to see the Asian art at the Musée Guimet. Paris was creeping up on me, and I was going to run out of time.

Returning to the magnetic Seine for a walk towards the Jardin Tino Rossi, I spotted a couple sitting by the riverbank, wrapped around each other against the chill, leaves falling about them as the sky turned a gentle lavender. Schmaltzy maybe, but this Parisian scene, like a still from a romantic film, was too atmospheric to dismiss, and as I stopped to take a photograph I felt a surge of admiration and awe. I whispered out loud to nobody: “Ah Paris, heartbreaker city!” I may have been woefully slow to catch on, but I’m so glad I finally have.

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