Pt. II: The Stones of Paris

An Ulsterman in Paris, continued.

Rejuvenated by wine and coffee, we returned to the rain-streaked streets and Place de la République. It’s a vast, sparse square which the huddled trees, lampposts, traffic and the lofty monument only partially fill. I wonder if a colosseum or circus maximus stood here in antiquity (apparently not). The monumental scale makes one feel small and exposed, and this was partly the intention of Hausmann’s boulevards; open spaces in which people could be herded and kettled, just in case Sacré-Coeur failed to chasten the oiks and they ever tried to revolt again. Nairn’s relish at the unintended consequence is evident: Paris was “cracked open by Hausmann to provide clear fields of fire in case of insurrection; the result was to so unite it that a boulevard would be the natural centre of insurrection- the lion has eaten the trainer”. République is more of the same. Daguerre’s theatre was demolished to provide a barracks for Hausmann’s soldiers; where troops were billeted, tourists now ponder multilingual menus. “Daguerre’s great-grandchildren with their Rolleis and Kodaks have melted the authoritarian purpose. And long may they continue”.

At the foot of the monument, a mixed-race couple are breaking up. She runs away, tearfully. Head in hands, he makes no attempt to follow. A few minutes later she returns and they walk off exchanging barbed words, separation deferred. I’m trying to follow the series of plates which storyboard 1789 and its aftermath, without infringing upon a private moment in a public place.

The Priory of St-Martin-des-Champs has been deconsecrated and morphed into the Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers, a science museum (pointedly). The C13th church is only accessible to museum visitors, so we are restricted to admiring its romanesque exterior. Of the interior, Nairn paints quite a picture; “the most outrageous and successful surrealism… there are few more effective preaching halls than this colossal space, and inside it an inspired accident has placed early aeroplanes, cars, and a line-up of bicycles from the velocipede to the scooter… the tie-beams and king-posts continue to observe all, as they have for six centuries, sardonic and unastonished”.

I don’t associate visits to France with touring the churches as I do in Italy, they don’t take that centre stage in life. It’s funny because Italy in many ways has followed the lead of France; they are a republic, the state honours secular revolutionaries like Garibaldi, their flag is a nod to the French tricolore. The difference may be that the French had a King, long since packed off, and the Italians have a Pope in their capital. In any case, one place that neither Voltaire nor Blériot got their mitts on was the neighbouring St-Nicolas-des-Champs. Perhaps they didn’t need to as Nairn sees a particularly worldly church whose amiably sooty facade, its oddly flat components of disparate heights joined together by buttresses, “bulges like a string bag overfilled at the supermarket”.

It feels like an indoor counterpart to the Palais Royal gardens; a wide and unadorned space is divided by rows of round arches and pillars into a sequence of tall, narrow churches-within-churches. To the side are patterned windows whose colours have either faded or not been filled in, and the non-figurative patterns look strangely Islamic. The medievalism has not been tampered with much but Nairn persists in remarking at its down-to-earth qualities. “Behind the next pillar there could be a zinc bar counter, a tray full of lingerie, or a moslem prayer-niche. Alert, tolerant, full of life, a real church for Parisians”.

Nairn correctly diagnoses that “‘The oldest house in X’ is usually an invitation to some over-pickled nonentity. 3 Rue Volta, venerable and half-timbered, is not at all like that.” This is a survivor from another Paris altogether which a million fires and battles must have conspired to spare. I doubt the supporting beams of wood are the originals, fossilised as they appear- but you get the idea, and would not be surprised to see a wench empty her chamberpot from the top floor window. Nairn hopes “Rue Volta never goes up in the world- demolition would be better than politeness”. It’s one of the few pockets to have resisted gentrification, currently operating as a kind of Chinatown. No. 3 is a Vietnamese café and we see backpackers consult the menu, peer inside, then walk off without noticing what’s right above their heads.

Onto the Metro at the impressive copper-plated Arts et Métiers, and off at St-Paul where M. Nairn directs our attention to Rue St-Antoine. This has rarity value as “a wide street in Paris which isn’t a regimented boulevard… the vigorous, undulating High Street of a country town; it rubs up against itself and strikes sparks”. At the Metro exit, the street bisects into the beginnings of Rue de Rivoli, long, straight and proper, conveying us to the Louvre, and the narrow, curved Rue Francois Miron, which invites us to into the ancient, cobwebbed nooks of the Marais.

Gazing back down St-Antoine, Nairn rhapsodises about the side-on view of the Jesuit church, comparing favourably to a boulevard that could only offer a face-on look at the facade: “Empty as architecture, but wonderful value as a street-person…  because the street curves, pilasters in perspective, and a sideways view of the tall central pediment backed up by sod-all”. Jesuitical cleverness.

Faced with the choice of Rivoli and Miron, we choose to disappear into the tangled alleys of the latter. On Rue Miron is the former Hotel Beauvais and one may peep into its courtyard, separated from the entrance by a rotunda held aloft by doric columns, a flourish reminiscent of the Bank of England’s Tivoli corner. Nairn finds this terribly French, “inscribing order out of chaos (and depending on chaos for its effect)… de Gaulle driving down the Champs-Élysées in 1944 and saying ‘What a lot of noise!'”

A little further along are more of those lost-looking medieval houses, which have against all odds lingered on through the centuries and now look like elderly, slightly bewildered relatives on a visit from somewhere like Strasbourg. We can admire the weather-beaten old doorway to Hotel Chalons-Luxembourg, but its doors are locked and there is no looking at the “brick and stone hotel, fighting fit, as pugnacious as if it were in Bradford or Newcastle”.

Although not on Nairn’s itinerary, opposite the hotel doorway is the Holocaust memorial, its outer wall dedicated to “Les Justes” who helped Jews in France to shelter or escape. It is a very sad sign of the times that gendarmes should have to be tasked with watching guard over the memorial. As a disinterested bystander I find it incomprehensible that anyone could take issue with it. Had I lost loved ones in Gaza, I might feel that all these things are interconnected with the leeway currently being afforded to Israel; were I Jewish, I might well feel that the Middle Eastern conflict is a convenient excuse to scratch the ancient itch of anti-semitism. What I do know from Ulster is that nothing has a more corrosive effect on people’s goodwill than being on the receiving end of violence.

Since we’ve bothered to travel to Paris and we didn’t do so to dissect warring ethnicities, let’s set it aside and try to think nice things for once. As the Marais leads to the Seine those narrow streets open out a bit, there are cute medieval spoofs and you wonder if you’re recognising locations from Before Sunset.

Nairn comes up trumps by sending us along the quai to Hotel Fieubet -now an école- and the “splendid nonsense” of its crowded baroque facade, which might have floated up from the Mezzogiorno.

The building went up in 1680 and two centuries later found itself the scene of “a sculptural riot… the comic-opera style includes a lion who’s seen it all ten times over… it looks overwhelmingly natural, as if the building had been waiting for its party dress all the time”. The cast of thousands includes a pair of sphinxes over the gateway, cherubs and nymphs, agricultural tools, platters of fruit, gargoyles, flaming torches, empty suits of Roman armour, anything goes. The lion could be fast asleep, or watching you closely, through his hooded eyes.

Turning back into the Marais and passing a fish market, we find we have reached an impasse: the Impasse de la Poissonerie. Nairn has an eye for these little curios that most will pass without seeing. It’s a short yard with a classical fountain sat under “five storeys of piecemeal addition ending in a room that might be a double of Jacque Tati’s in Mon Oncle… it is the contrast that is so appealing, and the danger in the impending clean-up of the Marais is that the architecture will be saved at the expense of true character”. As he fears, the fountain has stayed and the five storeys are no more. Sometimes it feels that Nairn is standing right beside you, sometimes it is painfully evident that we are separated from him by five decades of gentrification. The Marais used to be a byword for “squalor”, but so did Islington.

Having decreed today a day for treading the streets, we opt to skip the Musée Carnavalet (“good for a hangover on a Sunday morning, which is how I saw it”) and head for the C16th Hotel Lamoignon. “A great rarity: really dependent only on its own qualities, not the worldly shrug of the guide and the taste of your last meal… it is the first giant order in Paris, equally remote from picturesqueness and Italian prototype”. Somehow it feels a more stark and stern than the rest of Paris, but I’m not sure whether I genuinely get it or I’m merely seeing what I’m told to.

Into Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux -Our Lady of the White Habits- where Nairn directs us straight to the pulpit, snubbing everything else about it. The church seems a decent stab at the neo-classical but the pulpit steals the show from a modest altar.

“Perfect rococo. Unlikely inlays of religious intention wind round the staircase and bowl, exquisitely symmetrical in their asymmetry… this is Watteau’s world”. There’s a lot to unpack here. An effete St George dispatches the dragon with a camp flourish, medieval saints sit on a lavish purple-and-gold canopy ceiling, and what I initially mistake for scratches on the wooden panel turn out to be miniature tableaux of the kind one expects to find on an Ottoman jewellery box.

Next stop is the Archives Nationales. There’s a fee to enter and, pushed for time, we again pass on the intriguing treasures within (“a court official working out how many European princesses would be suitable for Louis XV, Robespierre’s parliamentary shopping lists of things to be done, a handbill about the provision of umbrellas in Paris”). Speaking pre-Kew, Nairn laments that “this is what our Public Record Office could provide if it were more than a single room open on weekday afternoons”. The courtyard and its sculpted Marienbad trees were certainly worth seeing.

Just outside the archives, a real riddle left by our ancestors and one of the oddest sights in Nairn’s Paris; a construction which he simply calls “Object, corner of Rue des Archives and Rue des Haudriettes”. It looks like a Brobdignagian letterbox. There’s a door at the side, a narrow visor to see out of at the summit and another on its rear, halfway up what is presumably an inner staircase. Could this be a very hifalutin Parisian version of the stocks? On the facade, a disused fountain and “a relief of an epicene youth showing his buttocks”.

Nairn opens the floor to us (“What on earth does it do? Suggestions welcome”), ruminating that its function might just be sitting there and looking pretty. “The perfect mot juste, humanizing the city, making bearable the worrying fact that seven million people are living in such a very small space… someone up there is on your side after all”. The Francophone parts of the web know it as the Fontaine des Haudriettes and not much more, noting that it is in the “Style Louis XVI” and has an “attic” (the origin of ‘Haudriettes’ was a surprise, but quite another story). On the same corner is an interesting mural telling the tale of Don Quixote; as the makers of the fountain probably thought, why not?

Before we run out of steam, a failed attempt to enter St-Jean-St-Francois church- originally a Capuchin chapel, now Armenian, which holds classical recitals on Sundays. The painted pattern on the facade is a pretty and striking variant on Italian humbug stripes. Notable, according to Nairn, as “the furnishings convey a lot of pre-Revolutionary comfort where most churches in Paris are injected with the Poor Law fervour of the C19th. Pass along the truite meunière, abbé, it’s Friday; and is this really champagne nature?”

Before trekking back to Gare du Nord, we need to get our breath back. Rue Vieille du Temple looks particularly well stocked with cafés and bars. Following our noses, we have one in Au Petit Fer à Cheval and another outside L’Étoile Manquante. The former has a diminutive room hidden behind the bar, where you can watch the cook at work through an ancient serving-hatch, or try to decipher an illegible menu on the chalkboard above. Next door, the pavement tables are perfect for watching the world go by.

Rushing tipsy to the nearest Metro, there’s just time to note that the once-groundbreaking Pompidou centre now looks as exhausted as we feel; some paint, love and understanding would not go amiss here.

Acknowledgments to Ken Worpole and Gillian Darley, two pros who know their stuff, for getting a copy of Nairn’s Paris to an amateur who doesn’t

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