Pt. I: The Stones of Paris

“When our children were old enough to take an interest, but still relatively biddable and portable, we went on several trips to Paris in the hope that this would inoculate them in favour of France and give them a graceful ease with both the city and the language in later life. This worked in a limited way… the children acted as a permanent absurdist pint-size John Bull chorus, applying our island common sense to everything from the Sainte-Chapelle to Picasso, with one of the latter’s works actually provoking a low whistle of respect at what he had ‘got away with’. All this thoroughly destroyed the frail pretence my wife and I shared that we were somehow a sort of Belmondo-Seberg team crazily adrift in a city of alcohol & danger.”

In Japan there is a well-documented disorder called Paris Syndrome. It is a reverse Stendahl Syndrome where visitors flock to the city of light expecting top-hatted, frock-coated gentlemen and genial, absinthe-toting painters on every street corner, and experience some kind of crisis when they find nothing of the sort. The above extract from Simon Winder’s excellent Danubia may ring true to Londoners who feel obliged to take advantage of the Eurostar, but never quite feel that they have entirely got the hang of Paris. I’m one of them, and I laughed when a friend dismissed Paris as “one big Edgware Rd, except that the people can speak English”. Paris is so vast, and its pleasures so reliant on entering into the swing of Parisian life, that time and patience are required to let you in on the magic- but it is the most visited city on Earth, and in my experience it’s very difficult to find hotels for under £150 a night. If I’m having a week away I’ll opt for somewhere further-flung, and overlook those places which are on our doorstep, no doubt unjustly. Eurostar have taken to releasing cheap return tickets each October/November. This time last year we had a wonderful, Meadesian day trip to Brussels, drinking in the surrealistic suburbs of Schaerbeek and Ixelles (in both senses), and this year we deemed it to be the turn of Paris once more.

Two years after Nairn’s London came Nairn’s Paris; whilst the former has finally been reissued, the latter remains rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s slightly heartbreaking to read the optimistic declaration on the sleeve that Nairn’s Florence, Nairn’s Rome and Nairn’s Industrial North are coming soon.  With his usual indomitable appetite, Nairn casts the net far wider than his titular remit. After a quickfire survey of central Paris, he is keen to explore the suburbs and the second half of the book quits Paris altogether, taking in myriad villages and towns on the fringe of the capital’s orbit, like Reims and Chartres.

Nairn’s Paris is not the world’s. Its East End excites him most, and a lot of the icons are for our friend spoilt or overrated. Sartre & De Beauvoir’s Rive Gauche hangouts are no more than “a friendlier version of Kings Road, Chelsea”. Montmartre is the Parisian Hampstead, Hampstead as we all know being “a bit of a joke”. It came down to sticking a pin in a map and simply trying to see as much as we could within the parameters of a rainy autumnal day. Paris is not suited to the loaded itinerary of the daytripper, and every time I found a beautiful church facade or enchanting alleyway, invariably a white van would park in front the moment I decided to take a photo. Nairn counsels that “the moment you give up and relax, the city will accept you. All you have to do is park your arse on a café seat, park bench, or low wall, and look”. We settled on Arrondisements 3 & 4; I don’t know why, but I had to start it somewhere.

After a criminally early rise, the check-in at St Pancras, and the realisation that there’s nothing to do post-check-in except buy a coffee that will stop you kipping on the train, the hordes are released into the wilds of Gare du Nord. I managed to remember from last time around that if you pass the first two Metro machines with 100 Brits queuing at each, there are four more with 5 Japanese queueing at each. It transpires that if we had thought to pass these, there were a further six with no queues at all. By 11am we are finally ready for the day to begin and, at Place du Théatre Francais, a portly man in a raincoat is waiting to show us around.

This square may not be a household name, but it is “a kind of Parisian Piccadilly Circus where five or six different parts of the city meet. They are much more alike… that is the basic difference between London and Paris. It may make parts of Paris monotonous but elsewhere it gives a majestic and genuine community of interest.”

There’s movement and activity in every direction and the spot at which you stand feels a pocket of calm at the epicentre of a tempest. Cutting through the place diagonally is Avenue de l’Opera, “which instead of destroying the space merely enlarges its possibilities”. Along its southern flank runs a portion of the long and winding Rue St-Honoré, whilst the exits “come up with a squeal of brakes against the Louvre”.

Off to the side and facing the theatre doors is a tiny square -Place Colette to us, an “epigrammatic climax” to Nairn. He longwindedly lists and counts the plane trees, dustbins, lampposts, newspaper stalls &c. before declaring that “this whole unlikely collection is full of chic”. You may be entitled to wonder whether the Metro entrance had its fairground garish, retro-futurist framing at the time, although I rather like it.

Next door is the Palais Royal, originally Richelieu’s digs, its courtyard screened by porticoes. The gardens are now fully open to the public, suggesting that these revolutions aren’t all bad.

Covered walkways around the gardens house antique stores that have seen better days. Already in Nairn’s time the arcades, “intended for an intense life, have slowed to the pace of philately”.

It’s the gardens themselves which are the thing; flowerbeds and rows of paired plane trees, forming tunnels of shade within in a light, open space. A young couple are kissing under one of them and we speculate about whether someone is paying them to do so. Nairn gets lyrical; “Luminous melancholy has never found a more elegant home… among the greyest joys in the world, that far end of Mozart which already seems beyond the grave”.

Exit the gardens halfway down and cross a short passage to find yourself on Rue de Richelieu. There’s a tiny triangle of space where it meets Rue Molière, about the shape of a piece of Trivial Pursuit cheese and not much bigger, and in this unlikely space stands the extraordinary Fontaine Molière. “Disquietingly off-centre, as though the designer had a squint, Molière is enthroned above a pair of languid nymphs who couldn’t care less… If he hadn’t [died here], something would have had to be invented as an excuse for this preposterous and enchanting public gesture”. The crude rungs of a fire escape behind, and the rubbish bins and motorbikes below, heighten the strangeness. An unsung Tyro-Trevi. Opposite is a plaque for Diderot, and around these streets a hero seems to step out of every other building; here Rabelais, there Zola.

A little further up Rue de Richelieu is the site of the old Bibliothèque Nationale. Nairn urges that we try and peek at the Henri Labrouste reading room (“Don’t miss this on any account… majesty without effort, the flavour of Robert Adam crossed with Brighton Pavilion but on French terms, smooth and rhetorical”). Unfortunately the entire interior is at present a building site. Fixtures and fittings have -one hopes- been put into storage and a glance through the entrance shows workmen getting changed in vertically stacked portakabins. The square opposite, apparently the original site of the Opéra, compensates with a bacchanalian bronze fountain and a quartet of bare-breasted ladies who personify the rivers of France.

Retracing our steps to just past the Palais Royal brings us to Place des Victoires, “an elegant oval space… roughed up by the C19th, and what came out of it is in many ways more attractive”. The narrow streets leading out of the place have been joined by a boulevard, creating “a marriage of new and old Paris rather than one trampling on the other”.

This opening up works wonders on an unintentionally silly Louis XIV and his prancing horse, granting it the more dramatic backdrop of open skies. “Seen from the west he is thrown against the avenue, black silhouette against grey tube of space. So the axis becomes inhabited and charged up, not a straight view to a building at the other end”.

Continuing north to Rue Reaumur, an elegant facade in oxidised green iron demands one’s attention in this city where the uniform is baroque, creamy stone. The curves are quite art nouveau but on the whole the look is starkly dignified, no curlicues or draping ivy. I consult Nairn and realise it is the next stop on our itinerary. “As much of a unit as the most successful late Gothic front. The economy and conciseness are truly Parisian… we can never know whether London would have produced its own variety of Art Nouveau ironwork: by 1900, exposed construction was forbidden by the by-laws”.

Nearby is the Passage du Caire. The first time I came to Paris I went Céline hunting and was mesmerised by the Passage Choiseul in which his childhood was spent, and all these atmospheric old arcades that gave birth to the flaneur. To enter this one we must push through an American tour group, being told that this was Paris’ first passage; inspired by the sun-shade covered markets in Cairo, says the guide, although the Internet claims the name comes from Napoleon’s then-current Egyptian campaign.

For Nairn “passage is an understatement: this is a whole slice of the city under glass, with cross avenues, side turnings and half a dozen separate exits… I saw it on a Sunday morning and, with nobody about and the smallest sounds reverberating in the pin-drop silence, it is a very eerie place indeed”. What we find today is amazingly downmarket; one expects one of the arcades running off Piccadilly, and one finds an East German take on the African bazaar.  The shops are wholesalers and mannequin manufacturers; it’s a no-frills place of blunt business over pleasure, where the shops do their shopping. One of the few centres of activity is an Orthodox Jewish hot-dog bar. This in a city where we’re told all that is coarse and earthy has been pushed out to the banlieues, leaving at its heart a pretty chocolate box for the wealthy. I always thought it had been.

Two triumphal arches for The Sun King, a quick stroll apart, are next; in his time I imagine they marked the entrance to Paris. Nairn briefs us that “both are successful yet in entirely different ways”. Porte St-Martin’s wrinkly crenellations are “a slice of highly vermiculated slab-cake”. Elsewhere, angels and supplicating figures surround classical-looking hunks. I find it ugly; compared to most renaissance sculpture, the figures are clumsy, sterile and convey no drama. Nairn gives greater credit than I to the authorial intentions and calls St-Martin “a joker… it has looked the whole situation in the face, found it ridiculous and has then succeeded in exploring the absurdity”. What I do like is the view of a black gothic spire, and the rising sun of Gare de l’Est, that appear in the archway.

More Roman, and much more to my liking is Porte St-Denis (the road without presumably leads to St Denis Cathedral, resting place of the French Kings. It is famous for being the Parisian Westminster Abbey, situated in the Parisian Tottenham or Wood Green). Troops clash, horses leap, daggers are thrust much as they are on a column for Trajan. As have so many over the centuries, this fanboy steals for its king the clothes of the greatest empire ever seen, but few have done it with such straight-faced panache. Whatever the look, the French are very good at Carrying It Off. Quite Italian too is the slightly curved view of those tottering multi-storey buildings beyond, which reminds me instantly of approaching the old walls of Verona. Nairn calls it “a colossal embodiment of ‘arch’, far better than the Arc de Triomphe and one of the most compelling objects in Paris. ‘Ludovico Magno’ spelled out in huge letters is more effective than all the genuflections at Versailles.”

It would be foolish to visit France for the architecture alone. Should you find yourself in the République area at 1:30pm with no plans for lunch, I recommend La Bonne Cécile. Paris is not a cheap place to eat but their two courses for €16 was around half of what the tourist trap bistros were charging on the grand places and boulevards. The secret to French cuisine remains that everything will taste divine if you add half a block of butter and half a jar of double cream. Gaspard the dog likes to drag his chew-toys across the restaurant floor but does so with a quiet dignity, and is enough of a gentleman to not beg for food. He appears to be some sort of deity in the neighbourhood, as the place was dotted with his replica in porcelain and silver; and rightly so.

In a bustling city, the random detritus left by life can make as much of an impression as the approved masterpieces on your checklist. I ought to make room for more of them.

And as my last few posts were pushing 4,000 words, I should break this adventure up for now. Deuxième partie to follow shortly.

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