Pt. III: The Stones of Paris

Sometimes you don’t realise the value of a place until it comes under threat. Paris is handy for Londoners and I’ve nipped over on the train a few times, but never thought of it as one of the places closest to my heart. I may have considered it a little too like London; important as the former capital of a huge empire but expensive, crowded, and rushed in a way that leaves its inhabitants irritable, and such a magnet for mass tourism that Venice seems unspoilt by comparison. The other main Eurostar option is Brussels, a rather strange city and gateway to the lovely old towns of Flanders, and I got to thinking of myself as more of a Belgian type. Then came November 13th, when men from the ghettoes of Brussels rained down terror upon Paris, presumably chosen because the republic is secular, so many of its great men were at odds with monotheism, and the Parisians were only ones to put their money where their mouths were and print Mohammed cartoons. Suddenly Paris was a symbol of free speech and European civilisation. I turned up at work the next morning and in hurt, fury, and an impotent wish to show love to our French regulars, I printed out a huge French flag and made a display of Voltaire, Flaubert, Zola, Queneau, Houellebecq et leurs amis. Aux armes, citoyens!

After a few weeks’ jury service at Southwark, I came back to work and the display was still there, but the attacks had since been used as a justification for British forces to pile into the free-for-all that used to be Syria and my contribution no longer seemed helpful. It’s easy, and reassuring (and, when you witness a massacre, it feels absolutely necessary) to decide that our fight with these bastards is a black & white issue of good v evil, but if you consider the nuances you are presented with a complex and contradictory Rubik’s cube of insoluble problems that has apparently left the West paralysed. This week I have been quite startled by reading This is London, a new book by a war correspondent who spent a year living in London and documenting the lives of inner city teachers, carers, policemen, drug lords, prostitutes, Filipino maids, gypsy beggars, and Polish builders who sleep eight to a room. Paris is famous for pushing its poverty to the banlieues, and Zones 3/4 are now London’s banlieue; borough after borough is said to have a white British population of 10-15%. When natives make incidental appearances, they come across as unhinged racist drunkards and drug users. Immigrants in the book all comment on the vanishing English, but we never hear from the horse’s mouth. Where did they go? If they’ve left London, what do they do for jobs? I imagine the silent majority are the ones rallying behind Donald Trump, Brexit and friends.

I have no answers and I’m not even sure of the questions; this blog is only a simple document of places I have gone for a walk. Since November I had felt like I ought to go back to Paris and when there was a Eurostar sale, it seemed a cool thing to do on my day off. Another day trip seemed to make sense, as the price of accommodation in Paris is so monstrous, although it might be more manageable in the era of Airbnb. In practice, one doesn’t get that much time; you can rise in the small hours to catch the 7am from St Pancras, but with the time difference and the time it takes to fight your way through Gare du Nord, buy Metro tickets and get into town, you start your visit with an hour to go before lunch, giving your day the slight air of a Liam Neeson action movie. It also rules out all the famous museums I’ve never got around to seeing; on my last overnight stay I thought I was being very clever by arriving at the Louvre at 9am on a Sunday morning, only to find a thousand-strong queue; ditto the Orsay.

At daybreak the sky was a carpet of dark, forbidding cloud, but by the time we reach the city there are one or two patches of blue and the sun is making audacious attempts to show itself. With this unexpected boon, we jump on an RER to Ile de la Cité and look for the one thing I really fancied visiting, the Sainte-Chapelle. At the entrance, it’s off with the coats, bags and belts and through more airport-style body scanners. I wonder if Louvre, Eiffel and Versailles have the same arrangement these days and tell myself it’s preferable to having some madman blow himself up in front of the Mona Lisa. It transpires, however, that the reason behind the security is that the Sainte-Chapelle is found in the middle of the law courts; a pointy, screechy, spindly Goth surrounded by serene C18th neo-Classicism, more old Flanders than Enlightenment or Empire. For Mr Nairn too, “the proportions give the game away- improbably tall”. I find the gargoyles quite endearing, though every book seems to disagree whether they are there to ward off evil or they represent the evil that God has booted out.

The Sainte-Chapelle was built in the 1240s to house the relics Louis IX had bought from Constantinople, which included Jesus’ crown of thorns (by extraordinary coincidence, I’ve visited a church in Vicenza which also claims to have the crown). The relics are in Notre Dame now but people come to Sainte-Chapelle for its extraordinary period stained glass. Ticket purchased, you can be forgiven for pushing open the doors and thinking “Well, where is it?” as you enter the lower chapel, which despite very rich heraldry and what claims to be the oldest fresco in Paris, is essentially playing the role of foundations for the upper chapel and amouse bouche for the visitor.

At the far end, a statue of Louis looks a little too satisfied with himself. It’s only once you’ve investigated the undercroft and gained your bearings that you realise the way to the upper chapel was beside the entrance door, up a narrow spiral staircase with strong echoes of London’s Temple Church.

San Vitale, Scrovegni Chapel, Lincoln… friends scold me for putting too many churches in these blogs, but the art they contain has given me some of the most wondrous moments in my life. Emerging from the cold, cramped stone stairway to catch my first glimpse of the Sainte-Chapelle is one such moment that I think will always stay with me; I wasn’t prepared for the breathtaking physical effect of how it looks in the flesh. I felt like I might have done had I been walking down the street and whisked into an alien spaceship. I am afraid that my photos do not capture the blinding intensity of the colours and fail to convey even 5% of what it was like in that room.

Each bay tells the story of a book from the Bible, the first one dealing with Genesis, the one behind the altar the Gospels, and the enormous rose window deals with Revelations and the Last Judgement. Most of the others are quite violent and/or depict the coronation of kings, for obvious reasons. Perhaps people could have followed the stories in the days when people still knew the Bible by heart, but I found there were to many competing voices for my eye to focus long enough on individual panels or try to deduce a narrative. The glass works its magic by sheer accumulation and proliferation.

Although you can, when you do manage to focus on one panel, see it in the faces, the loud and intense palette makes it seem so strange that the glass is almost contemporary to the simple faces carved in the doorways of Romanesque churches. The jolt you experience, and the questioning of your assumptions that it leads to, reminded me of the Ravenna mosaics, some of whose patterns could have been the artwork for a new CD of Ibiza mixes. I came away from here thinking “Wow, who knew that the French had invented rave & psychedelia in 1248?”. For all that the style is radical, however, the message is medieval, and usually either hierarchical or violent.

In any provincial museum the sculpture of the upper chapel, with its angels sprouting peacock feathers, would have been a star attraction- but here it is icing. The statues must feel like The Smiths supporting The Beatles.

After several minutes’ gawping, one eventually turns around and notices the vast rose window, facing west so that the setting sun will illuminate its last judgement. Each petal becomes a tongue of flame populated with pious Kings, or seven-headed beasts, and at the centre Christ is holding a sword in his mouth like some fearful Barbary pirate.

Nairn shares my wonder at the stained glass, of course; I feel sure that only the worst killjoy could fail to do so. “A narrow spiral staircase so that the whole room bursts in at once, and coup d’ceil is for once more than a poetic metaphor… scintillating rich reds and blues, all wine-coloured, were there such a thing as blue wine”. This seems a bit like declaring that St Paul’s is built of broccoli-coloured stone, were there such a thing as grey broccoli, but never mind. As a purist who believes above all that places should be used, he frowns on the removal of the relics and the subsequent divorce from the builders’ intentions. “Inevitably, the balance has altered and what must have been a complementary tension between object and shell now becomes a single gasp upwards and outwards… what the Sainte-Chapelle needs most is to be put to some use- any use, if it were extraordinary enough. At the moment it has the musty air of a national monument”.

The exit, through gates at the foot of the courthouse steps, leads onto Place Louis Lépine, whose covered plant and flower stalls are still here (these days, perhaps with more tourist tat encroaching from the fringes, but the greenery still offsets the stone, water and wind of the islands) and one of the best curlicued Métro entrances, augmented by those small painted-green fountains supported by miniature caryatid ladies you so often see in French cities. It’s easy to see how Paris acquired its reputation from stuff like this; none of it needed to be that beautiful, but they did it for the sake of pleasure. Nairn: “The kind of atmosphere that Paris so often creates by mixing together half a dozen objects, maybe ordinary in themselves, and waving a conjuror’s wand… this bit of magic is especially welcome here, to take away the International Tourist flavour of the rest of the Ile”.

Pass Louis Lépine and you are a few metres from Notre-Dame. I last came here on my 23rd birthday, when I was a baby and could no more read churches than I can Urdu, but I remember the sheer scale of it making a huge impression, albeit more oppressive than inspiring. The square in front is as windy as a Triestine bora, and the Latin Quarter seems to call you in from the cold. Seeing the cathedral face-on, you don’t even notice the famous gargoyles but contemplate the squareness of it all. Those towers seem to be begging for nice copper spires. To the right is a statue of Charlemagne and some of his henchmen who, with their Asterix beards and scruffy tunics, could be advancing on Rome and wondering why no-one is putting up a fight.

Approach the door and your eyes are drawn to the sculptures; a madonna col bambino flanked by two angels in front of the rose window and all sorts of queer goings-on beneath. For Nairn “the sculpture just does not convince… the vignettes are vibrant, inhabited, French first and attached to a monument second- the big scenes are cold bread-and-butter pudding”.

This time, on stepping inside Notre-Dame my instinct is to feel underwhelmed. The sparseness of the stone, that might feel humble and honest if it were a Protestant church, is rendered cold and aloof by the huge scale of it all and the dimness of what light filters through. Its Gothic doesn’t seem elevating, rather a reluctant step or two ahead of the Romanesque of Bari. I do like the clerestory above.

The space opens up immediately when you reach the transept, and everything feels a little less heavy. It may just be the effect of the vast rose windows, the size of some cosmic dartboard. Nairn writes that to come this far “is like walking out into the sunshine. The rose windows and the nervous arcades beneath are alive, human, and fallible”. The size of the place does at least mean that it can, improbably, absorb both the continual streams of gawping tourist fools like me and the significant minority of people that have come here for prayer, and to hear the rasping voice of the African lady reading the sermon.

There is more to see in the ambulatory; the exterior of the choir contains vivid painted carvings from the life of Jesus, including a Massacre of the Innocents, and it raises an eyebrow to find some art nouveau frescoes in the chapels which could be advertising absinthe or pastis.

Nairn finds Notre-Dame “one of the most pessimistic buildings in the world… no hope of change, and no glimmer of ultimate purpose: just an endless office worship like the Gregorian chant that always seems to be going on somewhere inside [as 1182 and 1967, so 2016]. The possibility of artistic progression is alien to Notre-Dame… it is simply there to uphold the Law, indifferent even to the kind of worship that goes on inside it”. He admits the architectural skill and the clever use of Gothic, but that the innovations were “absorbed, understood, and then re-used to serve the old style just as a reactionary politician might wolf a few progressive ideas. It is a Romanesque building given an atomic warhead”.

I had been hoping to look at both islands, but we skip Ile St-Louis to cross onto the Rive Gauche and walk down Boulevard St-Germain. Still in Sartre’s heyday, Nairn reports that St-Germain is “full of intellectuals and their audience, Boulevard Saint-Michel is full of students- the point where they intersect is just about the spiritual heart of Paris, as if the High at Oxford and King’s Road, Chelsea, met at the Tower of London”. When I passed there wasn’t much action, unless you are a big fan of Imperial capital style caryatids, which constantly reappear around doorways, looking serene or pensive. There’s also an all-action, romanticised bronze statue of poor old Danton pointing down the Boulevard, ragged Parisian waifs at his feet.

To spend a day in Paris and not have a slap-up meal would not only be silly, it would be rude, and so at this point we break off to have lunch at Bistrot d’Henri. The formula for a good meal in Paris appears to be: find an alleyway off a side street off a boulevard. The tables, bathroom and kitchen are squeezed into this little shoebox which, pardon the cliché, feels like eating in someone’s home. The service was friendly, helpful, and relaxed about English-speakers. Ma femme had scallops and sea bass, I had a dozen very garlicky snails and something called a parmentier, which was like shepherd’s pie with shredded roast duck replacing the mince. I looked it up later; Parmentier was an C18th nutritionist who was drafted into the army, taken prisoner by the Prussians, and fed on potatoes at a time when only the Irish and Spanish ate them and everyone else used them to feed the pigs. For the rest of his life he was a vocal advocate for the humble spud.

Just south of here is the Place Saint Sulpice, a spacious but quiet square with an eccentric fountain housing four ecclesiastical types within niches.

Saint-Sulpice itself, although the second largest church in Paris, has a fairly un-churchy look to it with the asymmetrical round towers and upper-floor colonnade supported by Ionic columns. They say its facade was modelled on that of St Paul’s, but its crowning pediment fell off. Nairn reckons that all this, “completed 20 years before the French Revolution, is simply Republican… it could have been pirated for a Town Hall facade at any time during the Third Republic”. In mind of this, interesting to note that Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade were baptised here.

On the inside, its barrel-vaulted baroque feels much more light and optimistic than the dark Gothic that prevails in France. The stained-glass windows are generously wide and look down on Pieta sculptures, as if a simple Christopher Wren window had been allowed into the dressing-up box. Stone statues everywhere stand on gilded corbels and it is rather Roman. Widor was the organist here, and I would dearly love to hear his Toccata played on this behemoth.

Nairn instructs us not to miss the Chapelle de la Vierge, hidden behind the apse. It is very Italian too, and as a stage set for Pigalle’s sculpture it is a winningly elaborate box of tricks. Above the fancy altar is a cupola dome, a fresco of the Annunciation on its interior, and sitting in front of this is another dome with a Pantheon-style oculus that bathes the chapel in a shaft of bright light. A side chapel of Delacroix frescoes is closed for renovation; of the explanatory text placed in front of it, some affronted believer has scored out the words ‘son athéisme’.

Walking back up to Saint-Germain we find, all in a row, the tourist’s holy trinity of Les Deux Magots, Café Flore and what Nairn dismisses in a separate entry as “the over-praised and grossly over-painted church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés”. The church seems a mishmash of several centuries’ work, but we are immediately drawn to the Sèvres piece on the side of the next building, that overlooks the church gardens. Sèvres are the French version of a Royal Doulton with large, lavish bells on, and this huge ceramic piece in the form of a triumphal arch is effectively a billboard to show off their wares, but what a billboard. If the paramilitaries of Belfast had 0.01% of the talent or sensibility on display here I’d be quite happy for them to be given the run of every terrace end in the city.

As times is short we don’t enter the church, but its Rue Napoleon side has another tranquil garden with memorials to Apollinaire and the children deported during the Occupation. Opposite, the Societé d’Encouragement is topped by a fey statue of a boy harpist with an animal curled up at his feet.

We now enter the heart of the Rive Gauche, which is an impossibly swanky district of pretty streets and boutiques for the very well-off; the dream Paris as sold by Eurostar. To take just one example, a building with a plaque for Richard Wagner now houses a bar named after a Jean Vigo movie. Nairn sends us down Rue de Furstemberg, a narrow street that widens into a square halfway down, with four trees and a five-headed street lamp. “And the Parisian miracle strikes again… just as if a magician had described the area with a wand: possessed ground, rescued from chaos yet protected from discipline. In summer it is jolly, in winter much more malevolent, the candelabrum presiding in a sinister way like an evil dwarf: this is how Henry Miller saw it”. I’m not sure I altogether get it, perhaps because I never did read Tropic of Cancer. Parisians seem to use it as a thoroughfare rather than a place to sit around and it has a slightly dead feel, though a pavement café or two might easily rejuvenate it.

One could have a lovely time wandering the area between here and the Seine with no real itinerary, as you can find things of interest on most street corners just by strolling around aimlessly.

After a small garden with a statue of Voltaire comes a prominent gilded dome; this is the rear of the Institut de France, which faces the river and houses five of the big Académies. Built in the 1660s, its honey-coloured stone reminds me very much of the Bourse at Bordeaux. Nairn calls the building “surprisingly rough. It represents the exact point at which classical detail began to be mobilised to serve an autocratic purpose, and compared with the disastrous smoothness of the next century it is refreshingly forthright… would fit equally well into London or Amsterdam”.

From here the bridges of Paris spread out before us and invite us to step forward into the gentle afternoon sun. The pedestrian Pont des Arts puts London’s footbridges to shame with its criss-crossing iron supports. Nairn reckons that it “is elevated by sheer atmosphere into being one of the most precious bridges in the world- the whole of this stretch of the Seine has the fairies on it” before improbably comparing its precision to “Simenon, patiently stalking human frailty in a hundred novels”. Next to it is the Pont-Neuf and its gardens beneath; the railings sadly burdened with a million padlocks, like the face of a beautiful girl barely visible under a million piercings. Nairn is in buoyant mood now and calls this bridge “an extraordinary personality, like a vast collective mother that sends everyone off to school with bright shoes” (!).

My favourite feature of Pont-Neuf is its procession of gurning faces.

The world and his dog are on Pont-Neuf, adding their padlocks and contemplating the pompous equestrian bronze of Henri IV. Facing him is a narrow alleyway that opens onto the triangular Place Dauphine, on which there is scarcely a soul. As Nairn puts it, “the shape is happily unexpected and free from traffic. What now makes it special is the majestic backside of the Palais de Justice… it has thrown fussy details overboard” before observing that begowned Parisian lawyers “look a lot less like boiled sweets than their English counterparts”.

I’m feeling just in the mood for a sit down and a pastis when I realise that we have just half an hour before the 17.01 to St Pancras turns back into a pumpkin, and we have to rush off to catch another RER; short and sweet. It’s a perfect sunny afternoon as we leave, for once the villages and spires of Flanders are seen under a warm glow as we zoom towards the tunnel, and I wish I’d booked a later train. But Paris still has time to give you a goodbye kiss with another of those otherworldly, Venus flytrap Métro entrances.

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