Most years, the thought of November in Toronto is enough to send me packing. My fallback destination is Paris, the most beautiful city on earth. Paris is always a good idea, and Paris in November, not an obvious choice, is one of my favourite times to go. Flights are wide open, airfares are low, and booking with points is as easy as it gets.
It's the cold shoulder season, an under-the-radar kind of month with a bad rap for low temperatures, grey skies and lots of rain. The silver lining behind those clouds is the luxury of having the run of this town and its attractions with an ease of access unimaginable during the peak April-to-October tourist crush. Paris is altogether more approachable -- and welcoming -- in the fall, when it offers a great selection of things to see and do without the long waits and big crowds of summer. Besides, the grey skies create lovely atmospherics; at night, Paris shimmers in the rain.
As a frequent renter, I was able to swing a decent shoulder-season discount for a month's stay at my favourite digs on the rue Jacob http://www.homeaway.co.uk/p913648. Many Paris hotels will negotiate discounts of 10 per cent or so in November, even at the top range of the star system, where a standard room can easily cost upwards of $1200 Euros a night. This year is exceptional: with the Ritz, the Crillon and the Plaza-Athenee all closed for renovations, five-stars like the Four Seasons George V and the Meurice are already heavily booked, making discounts less available than usual.
November is Photo Month
Paris is a city of art, and every November the focus is on photography. In celebration of Photo Month, there are least 100 photo shows at galleries and museums around town, many of which extend into January and beyond. The large and prestigious four-day Paris Photo is the main event. This year's fair was a visual feast of contemporary and historical photography from galleries, institutions (including the Art Gallery of Ontario) and private collections, as well as a serious selection of photo books from international publishers.
I bought a ticket online (28 Euros) and went the first day. I arrived a little early, waited in line for 10 minutes, and was inside a few minutes after the doors opened. That's when crowds were at their lightest and exhibitors at their freshest, and I was able to enjoy spontaneous chats with gallerists like Rebecca Hicks of London's Purdy Hicks Gallery (www.purdyhicks.com) and Maja Orsic of the Robert Klein Gallery (www.robertkleingallery.com) in Boston. My conversation with Maja was unexpectedly interrupted when a sudden deluge caused raindrops to seep through the gorgeous 19th century vaulted glass ceiling of the Grand Palais, falling on our heads -- and the artwork, of course, sending everyone scrambling to protect it -- until just as quickly the skies cleared and the sun came out again. It was a Paris moment -- striking, fleeting and memorable.
The famous Paris moments at the Brassai: For the Love of Paris retrospective can be seen for free at the Hôtel de Ville until March 2014. At the Mona Bismarck American Center (http://monabismarck.org/ retrospective), I saw Icons of the 20th Century, a Yousuf Karsh portrait retrospective. It's on until Jan. 26 and is worth the admission fee (7 E) just to be inside the gorgeous 19th century hotel particulier, or townhouse, that the glamour girl-turned-philanthropist maintained in Paris until her death in 1983.
Haute couture and a studio tour
Right around the corner, on Avenue Woodrow Wilson, is the recently reopened Paris Galliera, where I saw an amazing Azzedine Alaia couture collection, then crossed the street to see more pieces on display in the Matisse at the Musée d'Art moderne, one of those terrific City of Paris museums with a free entrance policy for most exhibits. It's housed in the cavernous Palais de Tokyo, where I dropped by before dinner one Friday to take in an elegantly curated show of Roger Vivier footwear.
On a folksier note, I trudged the hilly streets of Montmartre for a few visits on the Portes Ouvertes Ateliers d'Artistes open house weekend, a little-known and quirky November event. For one weekend a year, local ceramicists, sculptors, painters and photographers open their doors to visitors and offer a small selection of their work for sale.
The arrival of new Beaujolais. Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysées
Another November tradition is the release of the current-year vintage Beaujolais, which happens on the third Thursday of the month. It can be an all-night bar hop for some Parisian party animals, who drop their customary reserve to get as lit up as the Christmas lights on the Champs-Elysées.
The latter, lavishly decorated with 4000 garlands and rings that change from white to purple to red, is a glittering celebration of the season. From the Arc du Triomphe, past the plane trees and little white chalets of the Christmas market, it's a great walk all the way to the Place de La Concorde.
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