It makes Doni Belau sad to think of someone only visiting Paris once in his or her lifetime. “I remember being upset having to leave and then trying to get back ever since,” she said.
Belau is the founder of girlsguidetoParis.com.
Her love affair with France began at the age of 17 when she took a whirlwind trip to Paris after her high school graduation. She went with her older sister and was instantly smitten. But it wasn’t until 1988, the year after she got married, that she was able to make her way back for another visit.
By then, her sister had bought a house in France with some friends, where she raised cattle.
“My husband and I visited her there and then went to Paris. We stayed at this hotel, which is still there, and I remember when we had to leave, I was gripping the bed saying, ‘I don’t want to go.’ Why would you leave Paris once you’d found such a glorious place? I couldn’t understand that,” said Belau.
When the idea behind the website began, she and her husband had an apartment in Paris, which they kept from 2000-2006. Belau explained they used the apartment as a second home and spent whole summers there.
They had bought the apartment before France converted to the Euro. Once that happened, the apartment went up in price so much that Belau said she and her husband decided to sell it in 2006.
“We sent our kids to college on part of that money,” she said laughing.
Not long after, she and her husband bought a house near Bordeaux and rented an apartment in Paris. These days, Bealu spends more and more time in France. And now that her kids have moved out, she said she and her husband will try live in France for at least half the year, if not more.
Belau will be presenting “Paris Secrets: Art, Food, Culture & What’s Hot” at the Joslyn Art Museum on August 29th. She said she will talk about what’s hip, happening and exciting in Paris. Belau plans to tie her talk into the Joslyn’s current exhibition, Renoir to Chagall: Paris and the Allure of Color.
“I will talk a little bit about the different arrondissements, or districts, of Paris as well as the various artists in the exhibit. I will discuss who lived where and who did what and when to give a little historical perspective on the different areas, starting from that point of view and taking it up to our present day,” she said.
Belau will also talk about the museums and art of Paris as well as the food, which she says is usually everyone’s favorite topic. She will also talk about some of the more unusual, fun things to do that you won’t find in the guidebooks.
If you’ve never been to Paris before, Belau recommends visiting popular sites such as the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. When visiting the Louvre, she suggests picking one little section you want to see ahead of time and visiting that part of the museum at length. The building is so large that Belau said it can be overwhelming to try and see it all.
“The Louvre is an extraordinary building. We have a walking tour (on the website), which we think is the best way to see the Louvre day or night. The building is almost more amazing than what’s inside,” explained Belau.
As far as the Eiffel Tower, she recommends buying an easy pass tour so you don’t have to wait in line. With some eight million visitors each year, the wait can be long and not much fun.
Another favorite is Notre Dame. Belau said there’s never much of a line and it’s always an incredible experience. And what’s the bonus of a trip to Notre Dame? The world’s best bookstore is right across the street. She said if you walk through the garden that is facing the Seine, then walk over the bridge with all the locks on it and head down the street, you will find Shakespeare and Company.
“The bookstore is 60 years old and was started by an American in Paris. It’s just the most delightful, eclectic bookstore you will ever see. There are beds sprinkled throughout the bookstore because they let writers stay there. It’s really a throwback to the ‘50s or ‘60s, the romantic age of Paris and writers,” enthused Belau.
She said they still have poetry readings on Monday nights and it’s open really late, all of which make it a nice antithesis to the big bookstores we have today.
As taken as she is with the bookstores, Belau is equally passionate about French cuisine. She said that her main tip for visitors is to figure out where you’re going to eat ahead of time and make reservations so you ensure that you always have a good meal.
“To have an average or subpar meal is a tragedy,” she said.
Belau explained one of the newest trends in France is Michelin-star rated chefs opening up smaller, more relaxed restaurants that offer only one prix-fixe dinner in the evening or just three selections. She said it’s a win-win for all involved. The chefs save money because they don’t have to throw food out and the customers are able to enjoy high-quality food at lower prices.
“They will ask if you are a vegetarian or not and if you are allergic to anything so they can make adjustments. But in general, it will just be that one course for the evening and I love that trend. It is fun to go to a place where you don’t know what you will be served,” said Belau.
She said another new craze that has been going on for a little while is wine bars that serve mostly natural wine or wine that has less additives added to it in the winemaking process. It may or may not be made with organic grapes but these individuals try to make their wineries as sustainable as possible.
“It’s different than regular wines, grapier and fresher. I wouldn’t say it’s better than regular wine but it is an interesting thing to try when you’re over there,” said Belau.
Currently, Belau is working on an e-book that she hopes to have out in the fall. She is doing the book digitally because that’s how the world is moving. The e-book is going to have the best of the best of her website. There will be Top 10 lists in a variety of areas.
“Plus we are gathering a whole bunch of new information and itineraries that you can download and put on your Smartphone, Nook or Kindle. Then when you get to Paris, you can easily pull up the information and there are no roaming charges,” she explained.
Belau is also launching a digital magazine in September called A Girl’s Guide to Paris and More. The first issue will cover France and then segments to follow will focus on London and New York.
She said though Paris is usually thought of as a city for romance, she wants to encourage as many women as possible to visit. Belau said you don’t have to go with your new love or your old love or anything else.
“Paris is all about beauty, the joie de vivre or joy of living. It’s such a delightful place to remind you how lively and wonderful each day can be. There should be something lovely in every day and the French are good at teaching us that,” she said.
Doni Belau’s lecture “Paris Secrets” takes place Thursday, August 29th at Joslyn Art Museum, 2200 Dodge Street, Call 402.342-3300 or visit joslyn.org.