15. day 1 writing course


I was a little nervous about starting the writing course on Monday, wondering about the teachers, the course content, my fellow students, how useful it would be to me. After all, I'd booked for it on a whim when I saw it advertised in the Secrets of Paris newsletter. I hadn't researched other courses. This one just sounded right. Our leader is experienced American journalist (now naturalised French) Heather Stimmler-Hall, with 21k followers on her website and a couple of books to her credit. Her co-teacher Bryan's credentials, a degree from the Sorbonne, and his photography, looked just as impressive.

I used the app City Mapper on the rental phone to plan the walk to Rue Greneta through the new Les Halles development, twenty minutes or so. I'd leave at 8.30am for shared pastry and coffees in the classroom at 9am for a start of class at 9.30. But Monday dawned wet and miserable. We hadn't yet used the Uber account I had set up before we left home.

The app showed a car would arrive in 5 minutes. I went outside because phone reception isn't marvellous in the lobby. Mistake.That driver cancelled (I didn't know they could do that - he must have thought I was wandering around) and then after a wait, I had an email to say I'd cancelled the second car and 5 euro had been charged to my account. ???? Did they think I was a crazy troublemaker? Dripping wet, I sent a bleating email straight back saying I hadn't cancelled and was still waiting in the rain. The third car finally turned up. They credited me the 5 euro.

The address turned out to be a modern co-working office, full of people working on computers. I felt a bit like a drowned rat when I finally opened the door to the rented room. I apologised, and was relieved to see that Nina from Insidr Paris was still handing out and explaining the rental phones.

Here are Heather and Bryan, our teachers. She is beautiful, highly intelligent, hugely knowledgeable and discerning, a little fey, cute and instantly likeable. Bryan is rock solid, a natural born teacher with a vast knowledge of the subject, very kind, warm and generous and an absolute delight. Brian was Heather's intern at one stage, and now they are firm friends, running marathons together. But Bryan and his partner are moving to London soon as he's taking up a teaching position at a university there.

photo courtesy of the waiter at lunch

We all introduced ourselves. From left to right: Angela from the Philippines who has always wanted to be a writer but works in an office. Sincere, warm, sensitive, focussed. Anne from Cape Cod wants to do travel writing and also write a book using her grandmother's Paris diary from the 1920-30's. With a quiet elegant reserve, gentle yet strong. Canadian Dawn who is living in Paris for eight months because of her husband's job. She's an empty-nester who travels with her husband, is going to walk the Camino with her daughter, and would like to blog. Gregarious, warm, generous and fun. Californian Mike conducts European tours from his home state, wants to do a blog on his website and extend his writing skills. Solid, confident, well-informed, nicely mannered and conservative nice guy. Every person so different. The energy in the room felt quite powerful, almost physical. All type-A personalities yet respectful. The week's prospects looked great!

Bryan did a presentation on the similarities and differences between travel writing, narrative non-fiction, journalism and blogging. He talked about outlets for travel writing, about finding your voice and building credibility. Heather recounted her experiences to illustrate Bryan's points along the way. We discussed how to set up a meeting to review a hotel, and how to write one, because we'd be visiting the 5-star Shangri La Hotel that afternoon.

Soon it was time for lunch (all included in the course price, except for wine if you wanted one). We walked through the pretty Passage du Cerf to our lunch restaurant called Le Pas Sage (the wise footstep). Nice pun - get it?

This was my plate of vegetables. Shaved beetroot, sweet potato and parsnip, with asparagus, onion, snow peas and carrot. Colourful and crisp. Every dish was beautifully presented, at a very reasonable price. Angela had a wine with lunch. I would have liked one, but I thought I'd end up asleep on a sofa in the Shangri La lobby.

On our way to the métro, we passed this cute flower shop called 'the story of a flower'.

We'd been given a métro pass (we had to bring a passport photo) for the week, so off we set to the Hôtel Shangri La, getting off at Iéna. In a couple of days I've gone from standing with my métro ticket in my hand looking totally confused as to where it should go, to a nonchalant insert-grab-push as I go through the barrier. I'm waiting for a barrier to malfunction and I'll go nose first over the top of it.

Iéna is near the Trocadero, so the hotel is out of the way if you're wanting to be near the action. Our assignment, to write a 300-500 word review.

photo courtesy of Mike

Outside the building we were met by Claudia, the Shangri La Public Relations Manager, previously at Le Meurice. Looking very chic in all black, she was wearing a slightly ballooned coat cinched with a patent leather belt, sheer stockings and quite high heeled shoes with thick heels. Plus a large tan Roger Vivier handbag with discreet logo. Her eyes crinkled up when she smiled or laughed, and there was no pretentiousness.

She explained that the Shangri La was a hôtel particulier (private mansion usually of a nobleman) finished in 1894 as the residence of Prince Roland Bonaparte, great-nephew of Napoléon. He married the heiress to the fortune of the Monaco Casino. She died soon after giving birth to their daughter, so at 24 he was a very rich widower. He consoled himself by building this house, travelling the world and collecting botanical specimens (a mere 2.5m of them) and books (450,000). References to his passion have been retained throughout the hotel in prints and motifs. One of his neighbours on the street whom he entertained regularly was Gustave Eiffel.

Interestingly, when his daughter Princess Marie grew up, she became a friend and disciple of Freud and introduced psychoanalysis to France.

The Shangri La hotel group is totally owned by one Hong Kong family. They were instrumental in having the building declared a national monument, which meant that the cost of restoration was vastly increased, because only approved artisans may work on these national treasures. The restoration was finished in 2010.

We did gasp when we saw the view from the seventh floor suite. Two thirds of the rooms in the hotel overlook the Eiffel Tower which seems almost within touching distance.

The hotel has been decorated by Parisian designer Pierre Yves Rochon mainly in blue, gold, and écru (don't you love that word?) in an Asian-meets-Empire style. But this apartment is neutral in tone. It's a contemporary space with modern deck, glass balustrade, and slick outdoor furniture. With low ceilings and round steel columns supporting the glass balcony eaves, it almost seems to belong to another hotel. At 220 square metres, it could be another house.

Perhaps more your style is Roland's original private apartment, now the Imperial Suite. It overlooks the street, and is listed as a national monument on its own because of the original floors, ceilings, walls, castings, gilt work and carving. It's simply opulent.

photo courtesy of the Shangri La hotel

You could have a party in this bedroom, but you probably wouldn't because the separate sitting room is vast. If you'd like to entertain, there's a dining room seating eight, and to make sure you're not disturbed at work, a separate office.

Wide white marble corridors with gold marble inlay lead to the bathroom and dressing rooms. You nearly need sunglasses for all the gilt. One bath room is a salon by itself. As Claudia laughingly said, you can nearly imagine the person in the bathtub holding court there.

The toiletries are White Tea by Bulgari.

The hotel has impressive dining options: L'Abeille is a 2 star Michelin restaurant overlooking the very pretty garden. The chef Christophe Moret and pastry chef Michael Bartocetti offer at least one full vegan three-course option at meals and totally vegan afternoon teas.

The Shang Palace is in the basement under the stewardship of chef Samuel Lee. It's the only Chinese restaurant in France to have a Michelin star. Panels of jade were imported for the central pillar.

There's also a casual dining room under what was once an internal courtyard. The glass roof was only discovered during the renovations. The room is oriental in flavour with a palette of celadon and deep rose.

To diffuse the light, designer Rochon has used circular metal supports covered with fabric. The centre piece is a chandelier from Murano which was shipped from Venice in 3 containers.

Part of the front foyer...

The Art Nouveau glass work is gloriously detailed.

The hotel was hosting a convention, so we didn't see the palatial reception salon on the first floor. You can tell its size by the number of glasses! It's popular for wedding receptions. I did consider slipping inside as a delegate, James Bond style...

photo courtesy of the Shangri La hotel

There's a spa with an organically produced skin care range, a gym, and one of the largest hotel pools in Paris on the bottom floor.

photo courtesy of Shangri La hotel

If you're going to be in Paris during the summer months until mid-September, the Shangri La hotel is offering champagne soirées with canapés on the seventh floor terrace, each time for 35 invited guests from the subscriber email list. All you have to do is put your name down (slpr@shangri-la.com) and and if you're lucky enough to be chosen, you'll need 150 euro spare cash. Voilà.

Claudia spent three hours with us, showing us different types of room, the facilities, restaurants, lounges and bar, giving insights into the acquisition of the art collection for the hotel and something of the family who owns it. She was charming and fun. At the end of the afternoon, she asked us to have coffee in one of the main lounges. We were most sincere in our thanks, and I've written to her since. Heather pointed out to us the next day that our treatment by Claudia would be the exception rather than the rule with most PR managers!

There was hardly time for a shower before dinner that evening. Our little band of would-be travel writers dined together at Le Petit Riche, a restaurant near the Opéra. I was dead on my feet by that time, but I didn't want to miss it and I was glad I didn't, as I was really enjoying getting to know everyone better. I was liking Heather and Bryan and my fellow students more and more. I took an Uber both ways like a pro, feeling quite smug.

I didn't do my homework.

John had been wandering the neighbourhood taking photographs for most of the day, texting me now and then to find out how I was going. When I arrived home we chatted about our day like a couple of kids. Then out like a light.

John's shot of a garden in his wanderings.

Have you ever heard of the Marathon du Médoc in Bordeaux? It's a real marathon run through vineyards in a loop passing 50 châteaux, the participants in compulsory fancy dress. En route, the 8500 runners (over 15k applications) are supposed to consume 23 glasses of wine, plus oysters, foie gras, and anything else on offer. There are over 20 wine bars, the same number of food stalls, and dancing along the way. Brian and Heather made it within the six hour and thirty minute time limit. Put it on your bucket list!

What we did on the second day, you'll hear tomorrow. Hope you've enjoyed this peek at the Shangri La hotel. Until then, travelling buddies...