A la Recherche du Temps Paris

It’s always hard to make an old place new when writing about it, but how much harder when it’s one of the most visited cities on earth. Every second writer seems to have their own version of Paris, not to mention the painters, photographers, and countless tourists who’ve walked along the Seine. Travel writers nowadays gloss over it, passing through on their way to somewhere else in France; two books by one of my new favourite authors do just that. Because it’s only a short hop from London and New York, everyone assumes that we know all about it.

I suppose I did the same, partly because I’d actually been there before; Paris came towards the end of my own Grand Tour with the family at the age of eighteen. When Jane popped over there for a few days last year, I wasn’t too fussed that I’d run low on leave and couldn’t go with her. I wasn’t about to pass it up a second time, though, so when she went again for a conference last month I went too.

I soon realised that everything I remembered about Paris was, if not wrong, then slightly skewed. My family, like many antipodeans in Europe, visited in February, driving back to Britain through one of the coldest winters I’d ever seen. The immaculate gardens of Fontainbleau were coated in frost and their ponds in thick ice. By the time we reached Paris the temperature was minus ten Celcius, with the wind taking it down to the Kelvins.

Consequently, my memories of the city were mostly indoors: visiting the Louvre and the Pompidou Centre; a quick glimpse of the windmill on the Moulin Rouge; looking out from the top of the Eiffel Tower. The summery Paris of cliché, with its outdoor cafés and strolls along the Left Bank, was still outside my experience.

So with three days to myself and the Latin Quarter five minutes from our hotel, I set out to find what I’d missed. The sun was out and, this early in the morning, everything was quiet; the streets around the Pantheon felt more like a sleepy Spanish hill town than the heart of a city of ten million.

Tobacco stores, cafés, horse butchers, cheesemongers: it was all there. Just off Boulevard St-Germain was a fruit market selling white-fleshed nectarines as sweet and juicy as the dripping memories of my childhood. On the Left Bank a bookseller had opened up his stall to the first passers-by, where Orwell must have walked between restaurant shifts.

As I stared at Notre Dame across the Seine, the bells started ringing; deep, resonant bongs that went on and on. Did they do this every Thursday at a quarter to eleven?, I wondered, until I remembered what day it was. The police cordon blocking off the cathedral when I tried to visit confirmed it. We’d arrived sixty years to the day after the German surrender of the city—in time to see an anniversary parade down Boulevard St-Michel that afternoon. The bells the next morning celebrated the formal liberation of Paris.

There were no bells, I suppose, to mark the anniversary of its fall to Hitler, but in a perverse way there’s something to celebrate about that, too. Paris fell so quickly in his sweeping campaign of 1940 (which came close to capturing Britain’s entire ground forces; would American neo-cons call the Brits “surrender monkeys” if that had happened?) that it was spared the heavy bombs of the Luftwaffe. Unlike London and Berlin, it’s remarkably intact, to an extent normally only seen in Europe’s smaller towns. All of that Napoleonic grandeur, all of that nineteenth century glory, is still there, apart from a few bullet scars. (Of course, the success of the Resistance in preventing a drawn-out battle for the city at the end of the war is also to thank for that.)

So, the same Americans who mock France’s surrender have Paris for their playground because of it. Summer is an American playtime in Paris—Gene Kelly meets Jacques Tati—and this week was no different. The crowd at Notre Dame when I went back the next day was full of college T-shirts. They thronged around the outer edge of the interior with jaws open, as if they’d never seen the inside of a cathedral before; many of them probably hadn’t. This grizzled old veteran had, though—including, years ago, this one—and preferred its exterior.

I preferred all the exteriors, all around the Île de la Cité and Île St-Louis, the Marais and the Latin Quarter. At lunchtime I’d buy something typically French and walk down the steps to the edge of the Seine to eat it, watching huge restaurant barges slip under the arch of a bridge. Or something atypical, like a 50cm “hot dog”: unlike chiens chaud of my acquaintance, this was a baguette made to 1993 standards (as the blurb on the bag said, flour, yeast, water, nothing else), slit down the middle with a frankfurter in either end, and covered in baked cheese. Gene Kelly meets Jacques Tati at the ball-game.

You expect the food in France to be a highlight, and it usually was. A cheese and mushroom crêpe is a better takeaway than a greasy hunk of cod any day, and I could eat poire-flavoured PiM’s by the packet. We chose our evening eateries at random and struck out only once, in a place in the Latin Quarter serving bang-’em-out boeuf and over-boiled beans to people they knew they’d never see again. The best was across the road from our hotel on Boulevard Montparnasse, a French restaurant full of French customers. It served the finest duck I’ve ever had—all tender flesh and crispy skin—and for the first time I tried my website’s namesakes (the less speedy ones, presumably). L’escargots turn out to be mussels without the saltiness; small buttery blobs of garlicky gristle.

Even when you weren’t eating, just watching other people eat was a pleasure. Walking from the Île de la Cité to the Musée d’Orsay, I took the streets inbetween the river and Boulevard St-Germain, figuring they’d hold some surprises; and so saw the Restaurant La Grenouille, with windows full of them, and the café- and bar-filled Rue de Buci, which wasn’t even on my tourist map.

The Orsay was another reminder of how wrong I was to think I’d already seen Paris. It wasn’t even a gallery when I was first there, just an 86-year-old railway station in the process of being converted into one. Now it’s the perfect home for the city’s late-19th-century art collection, like the Tate Modern but in an appropriate period style. It’s also the new home to one of my favourite Bonnards from the Louvre all those years ago, and home to one of my new favourites.

Even with the Impressionists and Posts removed, the Louvre is still four or five museums’ worth. In any other city, it would be—but then it wouldn’t be The Louvre.

It’s more than one day can contain. I tried, but didn’t get to the Roman artifacts before it closed, having to make do with their bare-bottomed sculptures. I preferred the vast Egyptian and Assyrian collections, and even the mediaeval objets d’art, to fighting through the crowds around Venus de Armless and the Mona Lisa. Walking along the corridor to the latter, I’d never seen so many people rush past so many priceless old masters—including, at one point, four trifling canvases by some bloke called Leonardo.

Admittedly, not every painting in the Louvre is great, and a great many aren’t worth slowing down for. I carried the Ixus around with me, crammed into a pocket, but didn’t even try to emulate the people who were attempting to squeeze 2m x 3m biblical scenes into 2 or 3 megapixels. Instead I focussed on the details around the edges, often more entertaining than the main subject.

My first impression of the great galleries of Europe was of dozens of lovingly portrayed poses of Saint Sebastian being shot full of arrows. I now know that was because my first European galleries were the ones full of Italian painters, who had a fetish for the pious pin-cushion. Seeing him again was a reminder of what isn’t in the Louvre: much in the way of northern European art (although there’s a room full of Rembrandts, and a few good ones by Hals); much by the great Spaniards (though again, some good Goyas); paintings by Michelangelo (not even many sculptures); or even, surprisingly, Canalettos (I only noticed one or two).

In their place are rooms and rooms full of French painters from the years before they discovered light. Napoleonic oils aren’t my favourite artistic genre, but this was certainly the place to see them. Along with the sculptures of the period (basically Roman copies with arms), they were a reminder of how the French saw themselves at the time: as inheritors of the Roman tradition—first Republican, then Imperial. (How did they decapitate a king and then turn around a generation later and let one of their own crown himself Emperor? I really must read more about the period, because it makes about as much sense as parliamentary democracies letting their prime ministers behave like presidents.)

No wonder today’s inheritors of Rome love Paris. There’s a Pantheon that looks like a Capitol, almost as many Impressionists as the galleries back home, and the chance to bask in la mort du Roi while reminding ’em who’s le Roi now.


There’s more to say, but not today; and after all, what can you say about the single most iconic hunk of late-nineteenth-century ironwork in Europe, for example? And how do you photograph it? Why even bother?

I did, all the same—too many times, on two different cameras—but you won’t find the obvious ones here. Instead I’ve gathered together a representative sample aiming mostly for the unfamiliar, grouped in loose themes rather than chronologically. Kick back your heels and knock back some eels as L’Escargot Rapide brings you 32 photos in 1.8 megabytes of...


5-7 September 2004

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