By Maggie Ritchie

I WAS on honeymoon in Paris when I came across the love story that inspired my debut novel, Paris Kiss. Exhausted by the huge collections at The Louvre, The Musee d'Orsay and the Centre Pompidou, I was relieved to find myself at the small, charming Rodin Museum in the sculptor's former home. It was here that I learned of the passionate affair between Rodin and his young protégée Camille Claudel, which scandalised 19th century Paris and left Claudel so broken she spent the last 30 years of her life locked in an insane asylum.

During the five years it took to research and write the novel, I immersed myself in the art world of the Belle Epoque and in the works of Rodin, Claudel and their bohemian contemporaries. On the eve of publication, I returned to Paris on an art trail of the city's museums - but this time I was determined to restrict my visits to the more manageable art collections.

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I stayed in Le Marais, the bustling former Jewish quarter that has become one of the most fashionable and upmarket arrondissements where chic Parisians browse in designer boutiques and linger over espressos in the pavement cafes - wonderful for people watching. Art lovers are drawn to the cluster of museums housed in Marais mansions or 'grand hotels', that were once the homes of the haute bourgeoisie who lived a life of unbelievable luxury.

The first museum on my whistlestop art tour was only a few streets away from my lovely apartment on Rue de Turenne, so I was able to pop into chocolatiers on the way to pick up exquisitely wrapped boxes of macaroons, handmade chocolates and marzipan that were almost too beautiful to eat. My friend and I stopped for 'le brunch' at an old-fashioned maison de the, Mariage Freres, where the tea menu is more extensive and bewildering than some restaurants' wine lists, and the cake trolley is a tribute to the art of the patissier. Fortified, we began our art trail.

The Picasso Museum is in a magnificent house built in the 1650s, the Hotel Sale, which was once the home of salt tax collector Pierre Aubet de Fontenay. The museum recently reopened after a five-year refurbishment and the queue stretched around the block. But it was worth the wait to see Picasso's work displayed in an exhibition space that has doubled in size.

The superb collection is laid out chronologically to trace Picasso's early career to paintings created just before his death in 1973. There's a whole room dedicated to his powerful blue period and studies for the Demoiselles d'Avignon. His disturbing work depicting the Spanish Civil War is also on show as is his own take on Manet's Dejeuner sur L'Herbe. It's always fascinating to see who great artists admire and take their inspiration from, and here you can see Picasso's own collection, which includes works by Cezanne, Renoir, Modigliani, Miro and Matisse.

Also in Le Marais is the small but amusing Musee Cognac-Jay, formerly a private house built in 1575, with 20 panelled rooms over four floors. Ernest Cognacq and his wife Marie-Louise Jay, who founded the Samaritaine department store, spent their fortune on collecting works of art, with a penchant for 18th century French artists. Cognacq donated his collection to the City of Paris on his death.

The museum's collections include paintings by Fragonard, Boucher and Chardin, and drawings by Watteau. But for me, the attraction was the Louis XV and Louise XVI furniture, sumptuous jewellery and delicate porcelain, which offer a glimpse into the elegant way of life of French high society of a bygone age. The collection has recently been re-hung by fashion designer Christian Lacroix, who was given carte blanche with startling and sometimes hilarious results. Eighteenth century paintings sit next to dubious contemporary art in lurid colours, and Lacroix's own extravagant ball gowns share glass cases with 18th century originals that look positively plain by comparison.

A few streets away you can find Musee Carnavalet, which tells the history of Paris with 600,000 exhibits displayed in two town houses with 100 rooms. The eclectic collections include archaeological remains, prehistoric monuments, decorative elements from buildings and portraits of prominent Parisians. But there was only item I wanted to see - the street sign of Le Chat Noir that used to hang outside the infamous Montmartre cabaret, which was founded by Rodolphe Salis in 1881. Frequented by artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec, it became a symbol of fin-de-siecle bohemian life and was the setting for a pivotal scene in my novel. It was thrilling to see the sign for the cafe that had been such a vivid part of my imagination for so long.

The next day, a Sunday, when thankfully Paris museums are open all day, I wrenched myself out of Le Marais and ventured to the grands boulevards near the Champs-Elysees, to Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Boulevard Haussman. The super-efficient Paris metro meant that this was only a short trip, and one that was worth making. By now, I'd seen a few interiors of imposing Parisian homes but nothing could prepare me for the grandiosity of the private home of Edouard Andre, the scion of a banking family, and his wife, society portrait painter Nelie Jacquemart. Built to showcase the art they collected during their lives, the house also played host to extravagant parties for the crème de la crème of Paris.

Their mansion was built in 1869 by architect Henri Parent, and it amazed visitors with its innovative features. The walls of the ballroom, for example, sink into the basement using a hydraulic system and the far walls fold back on hinges like a giant stage set to open out into the music room. The Winter Garden drew gasps of admiration from the couple's guests with its glass roof and the two white marble staircases that curve up into the music gallery above. Upstairs, the Italian Museum was reserved for particularly important guests who marvelled at the 15th and 16th century Italian sculpture with masterpieces by Donatella and Della Robbia, and picture galleries of the Florentine school with works by Botticelli, Botticini and Perugino, and of the Venetian school with Mantegna and Bellini.

It's difficult to imagine the kind of wealth that created this palace of art, which was also a family home, albeit one hung with works by Rembrandt, Canaletto, Boucher, Fragonard and van Dyke. An intimate smoking room off the Winter Gardens is decorated with paintings by Gainsborough and Reynolds. It was a breathtaking experience to wander from room to room, each one more sumptuous than the last, and easy to see why this magnificent house was used during the filming of Gigi (1958) and The Count of Monte Cristo (2002).

We had lunch in the museum's cafe, surrounded by 18th century French paintings. Sitting on the heated terrace, we looked out over the sweeping gravelled drive where carriages would have drawn up to deposit le tout Paris, dressed in their finest as they arrived for a ball or a musical soiree.

It was the final stop on our art tour. I would have revisited the Rodin Museum to once more admire Rodin's The Kiss, The Thinker and The Gates of Hell, and Camille Claudel's delicate and extraordinary sculptures, but it is being renovated and reopens partially in September. It will be the perfect excuse to return to Paris, the most beautiful and romantic city in the world.

FACT BOX

Musee Picasso Paris, 5 rue de Thorigny, 75003 Paris; museepicassoparis.fr

Musee Cognac-Jay, 8 Rue Elzevir, 75003 Paris; www.museecognacqjay.paris.fr

Musee Carnavalet, 16 Rue des Francs Bourgeois, 75003 Paris; www.carnavalet.paris.fr

Musee Jacquemart-Andree, 158 Boulevard Haussman, 75008 Paris; musee-jacquemart-andre.com

easyjet  fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle from Edinburgh and Glasgow International airports with fares from £35.99 one way. easyJet also fly to Paris Charles de Gaulle from Belfast International, Bristol, Liverpool and London (Gatwick & Luton). To book flights visitwww.easyJet.com

Maggie stayed at an apartment in Le Marais from Parisaddress. Prices for a studio apartment start at €600 for five nights. To book visit www.parisaddress.comor call 00 33 1 43 209 157 or email booking@parisaddress.com.