Fall into place

‘I Love Paris in the Springtime’ is the old refrain, and Cole Porter certainly wasn’t wrong in his affection for the season of abundance. But meandering through the rich hues of spring’s opposite number is one of life’s most colourful pleasures, and whilst Paris may not be able to compete with the kaleidoscope of autumnal colours lighting up say, Vermont, the city promises rain-free skies 90% of the time (so says my leaflet on bike riding produced by the mairie, they obviously didn’t mean this week) so a stroll in the cool autumn wind is just crying out for a spot on this month’s schedule.

Yes, my love of forests is well known, but sometimes a good old urban balade is what is called for (official rules on flâneur-ing can be found here) to reconnect with my Parisian persona. And at the western end of the Île de la Cité in the 1st arrondissement, you’ll find Place Dauphine, one of the oldest and prettiest spots the capital can muster, just aching for its leaves to be kicked and its quaint terraces and benches to be occupied.

When your mind conjures images of Paris, this is where the fictional you will be strolling, with a belly full of croissant and a mind singularly occupied with choosing where to have your early evening apéro (and for film fans, it’s where Emilia Clarke’s character reads the letter at the end of Me Before You, said restaurant pictured). And Paris’ revolutionary-rich, bloodthirsty past won’t even be able to get a look in, as in this little slice of Paris, its history is unusually tame; except for being renamed Place Thoinville during the revolution in 1792-1814, and having its eastern edge destroyed by fire during fighting in the Paris Commune in 1871, that’s all the drama you get. Yes, for Paris that is remarkably subdued.

Henry IV’s second public square project after Place Royale (now Place des Vosges) it’s not actually a square at all, but a triangle (the oxymoron inside me twitches very uncomfortably at this fact) and was completed in 1616, carrying the name of his son, the then dauphin and future Louis XIII. In stark contrast to its decadent elder sister originally intended to appeal to the upper echelons of society, the houses lining this square (shudder) were built not as luxury homes for the rich, but cosy dwellings for mere merchants and common folk. But, given its slap-bang central location, these days this patch is naturally prime real estate where the price for a slice of bricks and mortar will set you back in excess of an eye-watering €20,000 per square metre, making it ones of the city’s costliest addresses.

For those of us without piggy banks the size of Texas, a stroll is a more budget-friendly option, though given the well-to-do location, you might want to do a few turns and then head elsewhere for a coffee and sticky bun. Or why not come prepared and spend an hour or so people watching with a flask of warming hot chocolate, or push the boat out and fill it with vin chaud? Once sated, head towards the western entrance back on to Pont Neuf, making sure you clock the two houses nearest the road which are the only two remaining originals. Then you can continue your stroll across Paris’ oldest bridge, being careful of course, not to fall in. Actually, maybe the vin chaud isn’t the best idea after all…

Place Dauphine, Île de la Cité, 75001, metro Cité (4) or Pont Neuf (7)

Spine-al tap

Over the years (if you’ve tuned in) you’ll have no doubt read a few posts on my blog about books (exhibits A, B and C). Well, to bring you the latest, the obsession continues and on a recent trip to the UK I managed to buy no less than 17 books, and that was 11 in the first two days alone – jeepers. In my defence, three were presents and I’ve already inhaled another four, but that still leaves me in double figures. Good job those long, cold winter nights aren’t too far away, and I’m someone who can read (and more importantly needs to read or-else-I’ll-go-mad) 50-odd a year (not that I’m smug or anything).

If it’s books you too are after, English language in particular (the French are pretty obsessed with books too – seems we’re a great fit – but if you don’t read the lingo you’re a bit stuck) then the American Library is the literary Mecca you’ve been looking for. The largest English-language lending library on the European continent, you’re spoilt for choice with over 100,000 books looking for temporary companions, and that’s not even taking into account periodicals, audio-visual and myriad other reference resources.

Just a year shy of its 100th anniversary, this vital non-profit cultural association came into being in 1920 thanks to the American Library Association, tasked with bringing books for US troops fighting in WWI to Paris, through donations from libraries across the pond. Their official motto reflects the cause – Atrum post bellum, ex libris lux: After the darkness of war, the light of books, though the idea of books as light counteracts any kind of darkness there is as far as I’m concerned. A concrete base at 10 rue de l’Élysée soon followed, with Edith Wharton amongst the first trustees, and Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein as patrons.

A brave tale of plucky resistance played out during WW2 and the library was responsible for providing books to 12,000 British and French troops. It refused to close its doors and stayed open during the conflict, albeit in a limited capacity, defying rules to exclude Jews from using the service, hand-delivering books to Jewish members who were forbidden to cross the threshold. Americans who fled Paris with library books in their possession wrote back, promising to return the books safely upon their return.

Post-war prosperity saw the library move to the Champs-Élysées in 1952 and in 1965 it moved again to its current premises in the 7th. And just like there are too many books in the world to read, there are simply too many notable names that have been indelibly printed on the pages of the library’s history to mention. Visiting writers, members and speakers over the years have included Samuel Beckett, Colette, Salman Rushdie and David Sedaris, amongst a thousand others. It’s probably easier to write a list of notable literary figures that haven’t in some way been involved over the years.

Continuing today in its chief mission to celebrate the written word and life of the mind, after several modern renovations, the library currently counts over 4,000 members (membership for an adult is €12 a month, much cheaper than bankrupting yourself at WHSmith, no?) able to enjoy its books (obviously) as well as reading rooms, work and conference spaces, and an impressive schedule of events and talks. Their twice weekly Evenings with an Author program attracts writers as famous and renowned as you can get, and is open and free to the public (with a suggested donation of €10), though no chatting at the back or I’ll throw the biggest and heaviest dictionary at you. Then you’ll learn a bit about the power of words…

10 rue de Général Camou 75007 (metro École Militaire or Alma-Marceau) For more information and details of membership and events, check the site here.

Passages of past

We’re living in onerous times ladies and gents. And whoever you are and wherever you live, it’s beginning to become extremely difficult to separate yourself from the many toxic forces at work in today’s world. As you may have read before, when times are tough and positive reflection is needed (when it’s nice out and Downton Abbey re-runs fall short), I often choose to hang out in one of Paris’ many cemeteries. Odd I know, but you’ll soon learn the attraction, and for our lesson to begin we must convene at one of the city’s most famous (and the most visited necropolis in the world) – Père Lachaise.

I haven’t covered it before since it’s never been my aim to focus purely on Paris’ greatest hits, but rather draw attention to the less obvious, but no less delightful locations to be found on the capital’s map. Also on my agenda is a wish to highlight those must-see sites that are free, or at least don’t cost the earth, since we’re in a city with a reputation for being a financial drain of mythical proportions for would-be tourists.

And so we find ourselves in the 20th arrondissement in the city’s first and largest municipal cemetery (44 hectares), established in 1804 and named after King Louis XIV’s confessor, Father François d’Aix de La Chaise (1624-1709). Created on the site of the latter’s Jesuit dwelling by newly proclaimed Emperor Napoleon, it was forged under the leader’s declaration that “every citizen has the right to be buried regardless of race or religion”, and picked up the slack along with the city’s other large burial sites at Montmartre, Montparnasse and Passy after the closure of the central Cimetière des Innocents in 1780.

Designed by Neoclassical architect Alexandre-Theodore Brongniart, although it houses 70,000 burial plots today and has accepted an estimated million individuals over the years, initially it struggled with a bit of an image problem; being so far out of the city it didn’t attract many takers. Thanks to a clever marketing strategy, notables were transferred there to encourage would-be ‘guests’, first revered writers Jean de la Fontaine and Molière in 1804, then philosopher and theologian Pierre Abélard and his writer-nun lover Héloïse d’Argenteuil in 1817 (their tomb, left). Rumour has it if you leave a letter here, your chances of finding true love will be greatly increased.

The plan worked, and the plots were soon hotly coveted, with ordinary working Parisians being laid to rest alongside political heroes, celebrated artists and colourful famous names. ‘Grave spotting’ might sound macabre, but checking out the list before you go and plotting a route based on your own ‘greatest hits’ (printable map here) is a sensible way to negotiate the vast avenues and winding paths (I chose to pay my respects in particular to Paris planner Baron Haussmann and fountain philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace). Say hi to the likes of Balzac, Chopin, Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde (his be-lipsticked tomb pictured right before it got cleaned up and sealed off) Edith Piaf and Colette, amongst many other well-knowns, if you happen to pass by.

Alongside avenues of telephone box-sized upright tombs and flat burial stones, you’ll also find many commemorative monuments including beautiful statues in remembrance of (amongst others) victims of war, concentration and extermination camps, aerial accidents, the French Revolution of 1848, and municipal workers. There are dedicated religious enclosures in respect of the different faiths laid to rest here, and the Monument aux Morts is dedicated to the remains of unidentified Parisians. There’s something about being immersed in a place of quiet contemplation with layers of history in the air that introduces a sense of calm; perhaps a reminder of the trials and tribulations, and ultimate fragility and finality of the human experience.

From plaques and simple headstones to elaborate mausoleums, each plot has a story to tell, and it’s in equal measures fascinating and sobering trying to hear them all. Believe it or not yours could still be one of them once you shuffle off the mortal coil, if you’ve lived or die in Paris (still hope for me!) and you have enough cash to purchase a lease. Though if you’re lucky enough to call this your final resting place, there’s not much ‘final’ about it, except if you’re rich enough to afford a perpetual lease, if not, you’re only set for 10, 30 or 50 years, with remains then transferred to the Aux Morts ossuary (a sort of mini catacombs). Not that it’s a good thing to think about death in these negative times, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared….

8 boulevard de Ménilmontant, Paris, 75020, metro Phillipe Auguste or Père Lachaise. For more information on access, opening times and the like, click here.

Water, water, everywhere

In the great yin and yang of things, the firm terre on which we tread our adventures shoes would be nothing without a bit of water for balance. And so it is with Dame Paris, with a vital liquid life force running through her very heart (no not wine, behave), the majestic river Seine. Why it’s taken me so long to dedicate a post to what is probably the simplest, most delightful and goddamn free-est part of this fair city, je ne sais pas. But investigate it in the name of the written word I surely have, so sit down, grab a glass (no not river water, behave) and I shall begin.

Let’s get the all-important stats out of the way, you can’t take selfies with those. 777km long running from its origin at Source-Seine (north-west of Dijon), France’s 2nd longest river (after the Loire) flows into the English Channel between Le Harvre and Honfleur in Normandy. Divided into five distinct parts, its middle section the Traversée de Paris weaves through the capital at 24km above sea level with an average depth of 9.5 metres. Here you’ll find river-going vessels a-plenty passing under 37 bridges, five of those strictly pedestrianised (posts on the honourable mentions coming in the future).

Named after Sequana, the river’s Gallo-Roman goddess, the Seine’s very existence ensured the origins of Paris itself, being an important trade route for the city’s first settlers, the Parisii tribe, way back in 250 (ish) BC. Historically speaking, the old gal (yes, she’s a la) has seen all the trials and tribulations of the birth and growth of a major city, from Viking invasion, too many conflicts to count, and many a poor soul destined to rest on her bed for all eternity (including Joan of Arc; her ashes were allegedly scattered in the river at Rouen in 1431). Many a flood has shown her darker side, most notably the big one in 1910, and as well in ’24, ’55, ’82, ’99–’00, ’16 and January 2018. Despite this constant threat of deluge, her banks were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.

Why I haven’t quite appreciated up until now just how much the Seine reflects my simply delightful (and free, most importantly) ethos, I can’t tell you. Perhaps born under a fire sign I’m unconsciously wary of her powers. But as I’ve recently walked along the banks taking photos in preparation of this post, I find it hard to believe why you’d want to come to Paris go anywhere else. She quite simply has it all (ok, apart from Sacré-Coeur) as the lion’s share of the city’s heavyweights line her bank proudly, reflecting their beauty in her sparkling waters. We’ve seen how metro line 4 can give you all of the capital’s flavours north to south, but the Seine can do the same from east to west, so even if you’re (un)lucky enough to be in Paris for only a couple of hours, follow her contours and you won’t miss much.

There are of course many ways to do this (though I’ll put my foot down, those maddening electric scooters will NOT be tolerated). The river boat bateaux mouches will glide you briskly (though not cheaply) past the sights, with the added bonus of unique under-the-bridge vistas (mind your head). Given that much of the lower banks have been developed and fully pedestrianised, cycling and strolling are much finer choices, with ample entertainment provided for pensive pauses gazing at the water flowing past, and sun-tan-tastic Paris Plages for self-bronzing devotees. Many have been so charmed by the banks that they’ve decided to make them their home, and many a be-floraled houseboat can be spotted too, especially the further out of the city proper you go.

Those interested in more artistic pursuits (beyond gazing at the outside of museums) will revel in ambling by the hundreds of bouquinistes selling their literary wares on the banks at street level. Dancers can get their teeth into a tango at the Jardin Tino Rossi down by the river in the 5th (pm), and fish botherers can fill their boots (well, waders perhaps) if they rock up with permit and rod in hand (salmon allegedly returned to the water in 2009, but I wasn’t that lucky, and this is all I could tempt onto mine). These days sport takes on a whole other dimension as preparations for the 2024 olympics are well underway, with the river earmarked for swimming and triathlon events.

There’s a whole tourist boat full of stuff about the Seine that I’ve missed here (I didn’t even get to the part about the dead bodies), enough probably to warrant another post (I’ll add it to the list..) In the meantime here’s my glass (of wine, naturally) raised to the watery maiden that only expertly stokes, rather than subdues, the flames in my fiery heart. Cheers!

Inside the Bakery #2: Simply the Brest

If you’re currently within the confines of the hexagone (France for the uninitiated, in reference to its shape) you can’t help but notice two things. The brutal heatwaves sweeping the nation and the poor (weird? utterly bat-merde crazy?) souls voluntarily climbing up mountains on bicycles in such high 30s-low 40s weather. Yes, the Tour de France is here again, and this time, maybe, just maybe, the French might take it (Update: er, no they didn’t…)

Not only one of nation’s favourite sports and a quite astounding physically demanding challenge to wrap your head around, cycling has managed to reach French cultural spots that other sports just haven’t managed, namely creating a magical partnership between cycling… and patisserie. But to be honest, in a country where food is King, Queen and the whole bloody Royal Family (well they don’t have a real one, remember) it’s amazing it hasn’t happened a lot more often.

Yes, in addition to having its own clothing line (those natty coloured jerseys), cycling has its own official pastry. And it has done since 1910 when pâtissier Louis Durand was asked by his friend Pierre Giffard to create a dessert to commemorate the Paris-Brest-Paris (or PBP) bike race that he had created in 1891. A prolific sports event organiser and journalist, Giffard founded the PBP as a method of boosting sales of his Parisian newspaper Le Petit Journal (after seeing the success of a 600km Paris to Bordeaux race that was created for that very reason) and by 1895 it seemed that his plan had worked and with a daily circulation of two million it was the world’s most popular newspaper.

Officially the world’s oldest long-distance cycle race (the Tour came along a few years later as a publicity stunt for a rival newspaper) the 1,200km event was designed to show off the capabilities of the humble bicycle, then the sharpest of cutting-edge technology, with a ride from Paris to Brest in Brittany and back again.

The fact it takes place on two wheels is essentially all it has in common with the hallowed Tour, and rather than taking place every year with a changeable route, the PBP has settled into a four-yearly cycle keeping pretty much the same itinerary, with the 2019 edition due to roll off on the 18th August. Originally a professional race but now exclusively populated by amateurs, this year more than 6,000 riders will take part, with the sole aim of trying to stay in the saddle and complete the challenge in under 90 hours. Much sleeping under hedges and dogged determination will see the participants through, and you can tell your buddies that you would have taken part, but registration is now closed. Excuses for the next four years until the 2023 edition entirely up to you.

If this all sounds a bit too physically and mentally taxing for you, then direct your penny farthing to the bakery and order the Paris-Brest – two circular wheels of choux pastry filled with praline cream and dusted with slivered almonds and icing sugar (I had to eat two just to check the recipe). Most commonly available in small individual pastries, you can also find a much larger version, comparable in size to the tyres on those weird foldable bike things. Given its high calorific value, it was and still is popular with the race riders (yes, during) though they have the luxury of being able to burn off the calories almost instantaneously. I’ll wait for the stifling heat to pass, and then I’ll jump back on my Velib, promise.

You’ve come a long way, baby

After 10 years in Paris, I’m still utterly fascinated by its paradoxical nature. What’s regarded as one of the most beautiful cities in the world reveals a much darker and grittier underside the more you get to know the place, with the tourist version being entirely different to the daily reality that us residents experience. And it’s not just comparing the pristine streets of the Champs-Élysées with the turd-splattered lanes in the bits the visitors don’t often see (i.e. chez moi), but realising that much of the beauty and splendour of Paris comes complete with some quite blood-curdling stories that proves that grit and grime are as part of her DNA as any other city in the world.

Take the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th arrondissement, whose undulating elegance hides quite the gruesome past. If turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse warranted prizes, this gorgeous green space would take the bacon. It’s nice to imagine that this natural oasis has always been there, a part of the rural outskirts purposely ring-fenced as the urban sprawl swallowed up the space around it, but no. In fact, in its past life, this patch of Paris was nothing but a bare, bleak hill (or chauve-mont, from which it gets its name) thanks to its inhospitable plant-repelling soil, not to mention for 500 years the site where the bodies of hanged criminals were displayed to dissuade the masses against any wrongdoing. If ever there was a part of the city ripe for development, then this was undoubtedly it.

Back in the mid-19th century this sorry excuse for a postcode wasn’t even part of Paris proper. Then known as the independent commune of Belleville, it wasn’t until the rejigging of the boundaries by Napoleon III and our good friend Baron Haussmann in the late 1850s that it was integrated into the city when the number of arrondissements grew from 12 to 20. Along with its macabre past, the site had worn many a grim guise from refuse dump to horse carcass processing centre and exhausted quarry, a lot less attractive than the city its bounty built. The Baron sure displayed ambitious, rose-tinted vision when he decided this spot would be perfect to create a new city park.

Work began in earnest by chief Paris park-maker Jean-Charles Alphand (responsible also for bois Vincennes and Boulogne, and parks Monceau and Montsouris) in 1864, though transforming this ugly duckling into a beautiful swan required two years of terracing (partly achieved via dynamite – no mucking about here), 200,000 m3 of topsoil and a thousand workers. A couple of rakes and a hoe just wasn’t gonna cut it. Once the heavy lifting was complete, gardener and architect duo Jean-Pierre Barillet-Champs and Gabriel Davioud took the baton and went to work creating a beautiful landscape filling it with as many floral and architectural delights as they could muster between them.

Finally opened on 1st April 1867, enter via the main entrance in front of the mairie of the 19th, and you can marvel at a stunning selection of exotics plants and shrubs, and many a majestic tree that can provide some respite from the current canicule (heatwave). Explore further its 61 acres via nearly 8 kilometres of paths and roads, and you’ll stumble across the (often hidden) architectural gems, including the famous Temple de la Sybille haughtily overlooking the park and its artificial lake from its perch on top of the central Île de la Belvédère.

Its signature grassy slopes offer plenty of picnicking potential with their built-in reclinability, though there are a trio of bricks-and-mortar eating and drinking spots for the more discerning diner. Waterfalls and a grotto complete the charm with their tinkling water music, and the idyllic urban oasis is complete. Or so you’d think, but remember the dark side of Paris we talked about earlier? Well just to sprinkle a little bit of gloomy drama into the serene scene, one of the park’s two bridges (not the Gustave Eiffel-designed suspension one, the 12-metre masonry one, pictured) is dubbed the ‘suicide bridge’ after being favoured by a few too many jumpers. Let’s keep that one for going under, shall we?

Place Armand-Carrel 75019, metro Botzaris, Buttes-Chaumont or Laumière

Head-ing for the hills

In this fraught modern world, it’s easy to lose our heads from time to time. And if you’re looking for a place where that feels strangely appropriate, then Paris would have to be it. Not in the literal sense you understand, those chop-happy guillotine days are gone (though amazingly it took them until 1977 to quit the slicing; try and wrap your still-attached head around that). But in that brain-exhausting metaphorical sense, be it from politics-induced malaise, commuter rage, or a just-stepped-in-a-thoughtfully-left-dog-turd-right-outside-my-front-door meltdown.

As a capital city, Paris provides us with much that we need in life, and when it comes to a ‘lose your head’ mascot, then damn, she’s even gone and given us one. And lo and behold, you already know the chap having no doubt seen his name dotted around the place – enter Saint Denis. Seeing as though there’s a statue of him not far from Granny Flat HQ, I have a grandfather called Dennis, and that I’m these days only ever an inch away from losing my head in these tumultuous times, I thought he’d make an excellent candidate for a blog post. Hold on to your hats (more importantly the heads underneath them), and away we go.

One of the patron saints of France (there are a handful, including Joan of Arc, depending on who you ask) this 3rd-century Christian martyr was allegedly crowned the first bishop of Paris in around 250 AD, though details about this (and his life in general) are sketchy, given how far we have to travel back to meet him. It’s accepted that he travelled to Paris, then a city in Gaul known as Parisius after its inhabitants the Parisii tribe, with his disciples Rusticus and Eleutherius to convert the masses to Christianity. This naturally didn’t go down too well with the Roman occupiers, and the three men were arrested, questioned and imprisoned for their efforts.

Never an era for punishing crimes lightly, the trio were sentenced to death by beheading, and marched up to the highest hill in the city, which then after became known as Mons Martyrum, ‘the hill of the martyrs’, or as it’s better known today, Montmartre. Normally a beheading is a fairly definitive full stop in a human life, but Saint Denis had other ideas, and the most widely-circulated legend says that next, he picked up his head and marched north, preaching as he went, until his body gave up and he fell and died at a spot in what is now known as the suburb as Saint Denis (coincidence, no?).

Here he was buried and a shrine erected in his honour (no mention of the other guys) and in 475 Saint Genevieve (another patron saint, but more of her another time) built the first chapel in his name. His relics were transferred there in 636, and by the 12th century the beginnings of a new, much grander church were under construction, elements of which are still standing today. From quite gruesome origins now stands a much-celebrated gothic cathedral (not far from the modern temple that is the Stade de France), the burial place of most the the French kings, and their significant others, from the 10th to 18th centuries.

Those au courant with the French tradition of saints days can raise a toast to Saint Denis on October 9th, though to pay your respects in person, you’ll find statues on the façades of the cathedral at Saint Denis (and his relics inside) and on Notre Dame. Though it appears Saint Denis decided to make the walk back to the site of his gruesome end one day, and a stone effigy now stands in the tiny park/square of Suzanne Buisson in Montmartre. A great place for a spot of pétanque while you’re at it, and pretty handy too – not only was Saint Denis a patron saint of France, but also of frenzy, strife and headaches. So no matter if your boules skills need a bit of polishing, you’ll be in good company…

For more info on the cathedral at Saint Denis, click here.

Say what?

In today’s fast-paced, politically unstable, shallow, social media-obsessed times, breaking news in the linguistic world rarely garners much mass interest. Often a whimsical nugget might slip through, able to hold the attention of those outside the word-nerd circle like myself, and this month, you lucky, lucky people, is one of those occasions.

The French take their language extremely seriously, so the release of the new 2020 Larousse dictionary on 21st May is pretty high-adrenaline stuff, in a country where an ultra-strict council rules the linguistic culture with an iron fist. The Academie Française is that quite terrifying authority, though what they think of Larousse’s 150 chosen new recruits  – including slasheur (someone exercising more than one profession), bigorexie (addiction to sport), divulgâcher (to divulge TV show spoilers) and the growing cult of adulesence (adults stuck in the teenager phase) – we don’t yet know. Their official dictionary (the ninth) isn’t released until 2021, expected to be an extremely mighty tome, given they began edits of the old one in 1986. They won’t be releasing a pocket version, surely…

Now you may have an idea of a bunch of university professors chugging back the coffee into the night trying to decide on which words on the whiteboard get to grace the hallowed pages. No friends, the reality is far, far fancier than that. Springing from an informal 17th century literary group, the council of words officially came into life in 1635 when bossy-boots chief French minister Cardinal Richelieu decided to create an organisation to protect, preserve and promote the French language. And so the academy began, enjoying unimpeached regulation of grammar, spelling and literature until 1792, when the French Revolution stopped it in its tracks. Napoleon Bonaparte and then Louis XVIII soon restored the good work when the ruckus was over, and since 1816, it has been smooth sailing ever since.

Part of the wider Institut de France, from the original nine members, there are now forty ‘immortals’, as they are officially known (or at least forty available seats; numbers fluctuate due to deaths and new elections). Potential candidates have to apply or be invited, and are then subject to a vote, may be from any profession, and not necessarily a French citizen. Don’t be thinking just knowing a few big words and moving in the right literary circles is enough to get you accepted; some of France’s best minds never made it in (for various reasons) like Sartre, Balzac, Decartes, Molière, Proust, Baudelaire, and Zola, who tried and failed to join a record 25 times. Tough gig. Lucky winners on the other hand counted Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas (fils) and Pasteur, amongst other intellectual heavyweights.

If battling over grammar rules hardly sounds like a good reason to join, then perhaps it’s the uniform that’s tempted so many adroit brains (average age 81, apparently). L’habit vert, worn for formal ceremonies, officially comprises of black trousers or skirt, complete with black tailcoat richly embossed with elaborate green leaf motifs. Those not members of the clergy also get an individually-commissioned ceremonial sword, though with the uniform alone rumoured to be around €50,000 (paid by for the candidate themselves), you’ll have to be rich and brainy to make the cut (ha).

But it’s the metaphorical sword of control that ultimately makes these linguistic guardians so powerful in their secret deliberations (hence no photos of the natty get-up – us mere ‘mortals’ aren’t allowed in). Now meeting every Thursday, they reverentially do battle with French language traditions being threatened by various invaders, most notably those pesky Anglicisms, regional languages and dialects (decisively batted away in 2008) and more modern gender-inclusivity pressures. With Macron pushing for French to overtake English on the worldwide stage, it looks like there won’t be time for the crossword for any of these fine minds anytime in the future…

Institut de France, 23 Quai de Conti, 75006. For more information, click here.

You can’t keep a good woman down… #2

How the world can change in a couple of hours, hey? There we were, on an inconsequential Monday afternoon, just winding down and thinking about dinner, when the news hit us that our beloved lady of Paris was burning. The images and unfolding footage touched every corner of the world, but those of us in Paris felt the tragedy scar our hearts keenly, with many of us having visited the old gal more times than we’d be able to count. Like a member of the family, albeit close and precious, maybe proximity and familiarity had led us to take for granted that she’d always be there.

For me, she was, every time I turned up to work as a tour guide a few summers ago, her expansive forecourt designated as the meeting point for our eager sightseeing cyclists. Anxious to part on time and distracted by introductory tour guide patter, I would look up and peek at her only sporadically. Quite the opposite to 8th January 2015 (pictured) when my unbroken gaze tried to search for answers in her ancient contours when her bells sounded for 15 minutes to honour those lost in the previous day’s Charlie Hebdo attacks. I’d never scaled her heights, and vaguely remember venturing inside to wonder at the magnificent interior only once or twice, and that a while ago. You truly don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.

But gone she most certainly isn’t, and as Paris has proved time after time, you just can’t keep a good woman down. I’m not going to wade into the people vs building debate surrounding the colossal amounts of funding that have already been pledged by some of France’s richest businessfolk, that’s prime Twitter fodder. Instead I’m going focus on Notre Dame’s patchwork history, proving that this fateful day is just another breakneck turn in her fabulously checkered story. Notre Dame it seems, just would be the same thing without a healthy dose of drame.

Her story began around 850 years ago when in 1163, a grand medieval cathedral on the Île de la Cité began to take shape, an ambitious plan to create a much larger place of worship than the four churches and Roman temple that had stood before it (she was built out of their ruins). Construction was largely completed by 1260, and by the 14th century, her famous towers, rose windows and buttresses were firmly in place. Additions and modifications continued in earnest for the next couple of centuries as different religious leaders and architects came and went, all responsible for meanderings in her design history.

From the 14th to the very end of the 17th century, she enjoyed a safe period of worship with the occasional grandeur of royal coronations and weddings. However thanks to changing styles in the Renaissance and the rioting of the Huguenots who damaged some of her statues, the first cracks had begun to appear, and in 1699 King Louis XIV decided on an extensive renovation project. All was well until the French Revolution in 1789, when having being confiscated by the state, she fell into a state of serious disrepair.

Napoleon decreed her return to the church in 1801, though as Victor Hugo was writing his 1831 masterpiece Notre-Dame de Paris, she lay severely battered and bruised. Due to the success of his novel and her return to popularity, serious restoration began in 1844, with Eugène Viollet-le-Duc as one of the chief architects. It was then the original spire was replaced, and she remained again glorious and unscathed until sustaining minor damage in WWII.

Increased air pollution in the modern era (and the passage of time, of course) meant that restoration in the 20th and 21st centuries has remained relatively constant, and we arrive at the present day project which sadly led to the fire, but also ironically served to save many of her treasures, removed to protect them from the work. Sadly the oak frame, lead roof and 19th century spire were lost, but miraculously, her famous towers and rose windows were not, along with a huge number of religious art and artefacts, including the magnificent 8,000-pipe organ (albeit slightly water-damaged) and Christ’s (alleged) crown of thorns. All is most definitely not lost, and there’s still a great deal of life in the fair lady yet.

Thanks to Anthony Atkielski for the last two photos.

Making Sens of it all

Being from the UK, it’s fair to say I’m a big fan of a sturdy ol’ stately home, practically dripping in history and tales of yore. France, of course, is a veritable castle-sized library of chateaux, with thousands of stone masterpieces dotted throughout the landscape in various states of repair. Paris, as we sometimes discover though, does have some glaring holes in her CV, and a lack of castles is one of them. At least when it comes to remaining in the forcefield that is the péripherique; visiting chateaux Vincennes and Versailles mean bravely stepping outside the city limits to get your history fix, and us capital dwellers know just how much of a scary prospect that is.

Head to the 4ème though (1 Rue de Figuier, metro Pont Marie or Saint-Paul), and you’ll find medieval pile Hôtel de Sens will more than indulge any castle-y desires one could harbour. Translation trickery might lead you to believe you could spend a night sleeping in the lord’s private chamber, but hôtel in this case refers to its original status as a hôtel particulier or private mansion. But long gone are the days of the Gallic dukes, and the building now houses something way, way more valuable – books a-plenty as it’s now home to the Forney art library.

Not quite an authentic brick-by-brick medieval original, though a hôtel of sorts has existed on the site since 1345, when the first building was conceived as a private residence for the Archbishop of Sens (a city 100km south-east of Paris). Later to be inhabited by kings, it was destroyed after Team Royalty preferred to hot-foot it to the Louvre, but a replacement appeared in the late 15th/early 16th century.

Playing host to aristocrats galore for a hundred years (most famously Margaret of Valois who sensationally abandoned husband Henry IV of France), its golden hour came to end when Paris became an archdiocese in 1622, and the religious folks from Sens weren’t so inclined to make the trip. The revolution plunged it into much darker times when it was confiscated by the state, and years of neglect pushed it into a state of disrepair. It was only in 1862 when it became officially protected, and its progressive decay was addressed, being properly restored in 1930.

Unlike many of the classic stone behemoths of the motherland, having a poke around inside to see four-poster beds of old delightfully demonstrated by scary starey mannequins, isn’t the go here. Unless the library is hosting one of its small occasional exhibitions, you’ll have to make do with the outside, and amuse yourself with turrets and knot gardens instead. But luckily it’s on the outer walls where there are a couple of gems to be seen, if you look hard enough.

Head to the front door (non-garden side) and cast your eyes above the heavy iron gates, and locate the hole-come-chute. Pigeon cubby? Unfortunate design oversight? Nope. As legend has it, this handy channel was used in the event of unwanted guests, when hot oil was poured down it onto their heads to shoo them away. Drastic, but efficient I can imagine.

And they were right to assume the building would be under siege, cast your eyes up and to the left (just to the right of the turret where the wall meets the roof) and you’ll hopefully spot a cannonball wedged in the wall, a remnant of the July revolution or (2nd French Revolution) of 1830, with the date dutifully engraved underneath. Hard to know if it was a decent shot or not… For those less inclined to ponder on violent histories, the gardens round the other side make a lovely spot for a moment of calm contemplation, or at least a nice spot for a jambon beurre. Chance of attack in 2019 happily greatly reduced.

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