Sulpice and quiet

What with a new ‘lockdown’ to contend with, a major house move recently completed and a special milestone birthday fast approaching, it’s accurate to say I find myself in a period of deep reflection. Extremely happy reflection I might add, my contented philosophising gratefully pushing modern day worries and stresses into second place. But not that second place is such a bad thing (though try telling that to the girl I beat to the crown of Fordingbridge Carnival Princess in 1991) and the perfect place to illustrate this is the magnificent church of Saint Sulpice, the second largest in Paris and the perfect place for indulging that mood of profound pondering.

A Roman Catholic church nestled in the Latin Quarter in the 6th, it’s slightly smaller than our beloved Notre-Dame though considerably younger, the construction of the current building beginning in 1646. Dedicated to Sulpitius the Pious, a 7th-century bishop and do-gooder of the highest order, progression was plagued with money issues and subsequent delays, not to mention serious structural issues with the original bell tower threatening to crush the entire construction below it before it was removed, and it wasn’t eventually finished until 1870.

Stand outside and gaze at the front façade, and you’ll have a chance to mull over the imperfection of life thanks to its mismatched towers, inspired by London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This was not a deliberate design feature, but the French revolution got in the way of finishing the work on the south tower, and well, they just never got round to fixing it match the other one. Whilst enjoying the air take a stroll around the nearby fountain, built in the 19th century by the same chap who designed Napoleon’s tomb, and intended to celebrate religious eloquence through its four famous sculpted bishops.

Churches aren’t just places of religious reverence though, and harbour all manner of delights if you’re looking to fill that gaping hole left by Paris’ shuttered museums. Just by the entrance you’ll see two halves of an enormous shell serving as holy fonts, a gift from the Venetian republic, with bases sculpted by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle (yes he of red-light district fame). Peer into the Chapel of Holy Angels on the right and you’ll find a trio of Eugene Delacroix murals colouring the walls and ceiling, painted decades after his most famous work, Liberty Leading the People, currently housed in the Louvre.

Cast your gaze up high in the main body of the church to marvel at the great organ (re)built by Aristide Cavaillé-Coll in 1862, the most famous organ builder of his time, responsible too for those at Sacré-Coeur, Notre-Dame, Saint-Denis Basilica and l’église de la Madeleine. Talk about cornering the market. Big names can be counted amongst the church’s historical guests too, with Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade being baptised here, Victor Hugo tying the knot, and the funeral of Jacques Chirac taking place in 2019.

Perhaps the most famous artefact is the gnomon (left), which Dan Brown would have you to believe marks the Paris Meridian and is known as the Rose Line (nope, and non). In reality the structure was designed in the 18th century to use the sun to calculate the exact date of Easter and tell the precise time to ring the bells. There’s no point looking for Tom Hanks’ fingerprints in the vicinity either; requests to use the church as a filming location for The Da Vinci Code were denied and what you see in the film is merely CGI trickery.

Worthy of a blockbuster film plot was the fire that broke out on 17th March 2019, amazingly just one month earlier than the blaze that nearly razed its sibling church. Arson was identified as the cause, and luckily only a door, bas relief, stained glass window and staircase were lost. Happily though these days all the drama seems to be happening outside the church doors, so if like me the much lengthened and loosened tether of the most recent lockdown finds you wandering the streets in this neighbourhood, duck inside for some restorative culture and reflective rest. Mask obligatory, pious pondering optional.

 

 

Bringing down the Hauss

It’s no understatement to say that life has changed pretty profoundly of late. The cannonball of Covid has been mighty efficient in blowing holes in all our lives, and who knows if the dust will ever settle again. Paris might bear a big chunk of the French pandemic experience, but this scale of disruption is nothing compared to what the old Dame herself went through in the mid-19th century (when you really wouldn’t have wanted to catch anything), when her daily rhythms and very foundations were well and truly shaken. If drastic change is the order of the day, then she’s got more tales to tell than all of us put together. And in that story was a man with the biggest wrecking ball of all, Baron Haussmann, he of Boulevard Haussmann fame, and maybe that Miley Cyrus song. Who knows. Like a true Parisian pothole, allow me to fill you in.

Back in the early 19th century, most of Paris was a squalid, congested mess. Crime, poverty and severe overcrowding were rife, and living conditions for the city’s poor were as bad as they could get, making it a hotbed of disease, riot and revolution. Even a century before the problem of its fetid and filthy narrow streets had been a major concern, and with a rapidly rising population, plenty of renovation plans had been suggested to improve the situation, though none were put into action until Napoleon I came into power in the early 1800s.

During his reign some major works were started including the city’s canal and the famous Rue de Rivoli, though his downfall soon stopped progress in its tracks. For the next 35 years during the restoration of the monarchy and reign of Louis Phillipe, little more of substance was achieved (compared to what would come after at least) until Napoleon’s moustachioed nephew came into power in 1848 as Napoleon III, and then things really got moving.

Keen to further the project and make his uncle’s ambitious plans a reality, the new Emperor had none of the financial or bureaucratic contraints of his predecessors, thanks to his coup d’etat in 1851. His first project boss, prefect Jean-Jaques Berger, was moving too slowly, and so we meet his replacement Georges-Eugène Haussmann (pictured left) in 1853, an imposing 6’3″ figure of a man, employed for his energy, tenacity and problem-solving brilliance. And so the scene was perfectly set for 17 years of enormous upheaval and radical renovation that saw the old city practically demolished and a new one double the size spring up in its place.

There’s far too much to detail here, but the works were as extensive as they could get. Much of medieval Paris was brutally swept aside, 12,000 buildings were razed, and kilometres of straight, wide boulevards cut through old neighbourhoods, lined with strictly regulated and uniform Haussmannian buildings (those on the Rue de Rivoli serving as the model, pictured right). Some of the city’s most famous sights were constructed or improved during this time, including the Palais Garnier, Baltard’s markets at Les Halles, gares du Nord and l’Est, and many of the city’s theatres, mairies, bridges and places. New street furniture including lampposts, trees, kiosks and public toilets were added, as well as much-welcomed areas of green space in the form of improved city parks, quaint squares and the two bookend woods of Boulogne and Vincennes.

The city also doubled in size when in 1860 the annexation of Paris turned 12 arrondissements into today’s 20, adding overnight 400,000 residents to its tally. Updated infrastructure was needed, and a new water distribution system, sewers and gas supply were swiftly installed. Not all opinions of the drastic change were positive however, and criticism had been mounting from the start, despite the new-look metropolis being lighter, more open, cleaner, healthier, more efficient and less congested. By 1870 it had reached crisis point, and with a change in the political wind and the Emperor increasingly bowing to pressure from his opposition, Haussmann was shown the door that January.

Work on his projects continued long after he was gone, and today you can’t travel far through the capital without seeing his legacy at every turn. It’s only in the Marais that you can get an idea of the narrow wiggling streets that existed before the wrecking ball had its way. And whether it’s the Parisian streets of old or new that you prefer, until the leash of another lockdown tightens, I plan on taking full advantage of his light-filled avenues whilst I still can.

Living in the Meaux-ment

Except for some notable examples (here’s looking at you Home Alone 2 – the Trump cameo erased from our collective minds of course) movie sequels tend to be inferior to the originals. But as far as I’m concerned, Lockdown 2: Winter is Coming has been a great improvement on the first instalment. A far more relaxed affair this time around, I’ve been lucky enough to escape Paris entirely for the second confinement, heading out east to Meaux chez the new beau to enjoy a much less frenetic, and less rabbit hutch-y way of living. Once the rules have been loosened and I can return to the big smoke to explore more of her simple delights, I’ll share them with you, but for now I’ll take you on a brief tour of Meaux, a fine choice for a day trip when an attestation-free life beckons.

40km east-north-east of Paris and only 25 minutes on the train from Gare de l’Est (a mere €16 return), this historical city of 55,000 inhabitants is located in the Seine-et-Marne department, part of the wider Île-de-France region. It can trance its history back to pre-Roman Gaulish occupation by the Meldi tribe, when its occupants were known as the Meldois, as they are still are today. It was the former capital of the ancient region of Brie (roughly corresponding to the bounds of today’s Seine-et-Marne) and food production is still at its heart, with 60% of the region’s land used as farmland. 

Technically a city (the second largest in the department after Chelles), Meaux has a more rural, small town feel, but like its big sister Paris has history in spades. The central old city is where most of the sights are located, itself divided into the southern Market Quarter and northern Cathedral Quarter by a dramatic meander in the river Marne. A large portion of the old city walls remains, and within you’ll find the famous Gothic Saint-Étienne cathedral, in which you’ll find a shrine to Saint Fiacre, the patron saint of gardeners (that one’s for you, Mum). You’ll also find all of the statues on the outer walls without heads (pictured), a gruesome reminder of the French Revolution during which the city’s other ecclesiastical heavyweight, the Abbey of Saint Faro, was destroyed.

Just next door is the episcopal palace and gardens, the old seat of the chapter, art and history museum Musée Bossuet and for fromage fanciers, the Maison du Brie de Meaux cheese museum. A walk south through the quaint old town will take you to the river, the eastern meander of which will lead you to the open green arms of the Parc Pâtis, more of a wood than a park and full of small lakes and wildlife with a chance to borrow free bikes or rent small motorboats to fully explore its beauty. There are two canals to stroll along too, the 13th-century Canal Cornillon and the Napoleonic-era Canal de l’Ourcq, which’ll lead you all the back to Paris if only you could rustle up a peniche.

The covered market in the south quarter is responsible for my 2nd lockdown weight gain, with local producers peddling all manner of delicious things from the traditional fruit, veg, meat and fish fare to the famous Brie de Meaux and the regional wines and ciders. The city is also famous for its mustard (never before have I seen an individual consume mustard like the native Meldois that is the new beau) which comes in gorgeous pots and delicious flavours including green pepper and Cognac. (Dear family and friends this was what you were all getting for Christmas had I been planning on coming home in December.)

The biggest draw further out of the centre is the Musée de la Grande Guerre du pays de Meaux, the largest WWI museum in the world, built here to commemorate the First Battle of the Marne when the Germans were stopped at the gates of the city, changing the course of the war. Just nearby is what the French call The American Monument, a statue in honour of the French victory, also known as ‘Tearful Liberty’. 

I hope you’ll pay a visit to this wonderful city if you get the chance once the shackles of lockdown are off. And if anyone can explain to me why on earth such a charming place was chosen to be twinned with Basildon of all places, a lifetime’s supply of Brie awaits…

Full steam ahead

And we’re off! Lockdown has been lifted, and the desperate scramble for holiday places begins. Maybe you’ve spent months dreaming of exotic climes, or a germ-free country break away from the confines of a disease-ridden city. Me? I’ll always choose the train as my vacation vehicle to transport me somewhere green, though with the frantic peak holiday months of July and August soon upon us, I think I’ll sit tight for now and scoot off somewhere later in the year.

But you needn’t be tied to a travel itinerary to fully appreciate the beauty of Paris’ railway stations, worth a visit on their own merits. We’ve already dipped our toe in here, but this time we’ll don our curiosity specs and take a look at Gare de l’Est up close. We’re not heading there for a hardcore trainspotting sesh you understand (though if that punches your ticket, go right ahead) but to have a wander around the building itself, appreciating its architectural charm and rich history.

One of the six major stations in the city along with gares du Nord, Lyon, Austerlitz, Montparnasse and Saint-Lazare, it was built by architect François Duquesnay, who wasn’t known for much else. He sadly departed for the platform in the sky at the end of 1849, the year the station opened, so never lived to see it used to its full potential. Originally conceived to serve the Paris-Strasbourg line and called ‘Embarcadère de Strasbourg’, it soon expanded its service to serve the city of Mulhouse near the German/Swiss border, and was renamed ‘Gare de l’Est’ in 1954. Significant further expansion and renovation happened in 1885, 1900 and 1931, and today the station welcomes nearly 38 million passengers a year, carrying them mostly eastwards to major French and European cities.

The intricate mouldings on the façade depict many of the cities it serves, and its crowning glory are two magnificent statues representing Strasbourg on the western side, and Verdun on the east. If you’re hanging outside the main entrance to have a look, you’ll either be standing on the place du 11-Novembre-1918 or further back on the rue du 8-Mai 1945, both so named in memory of the two world wars. And it’s WW1 in particular that’s at the heart of the station’s history, as it facilitated the mobilisation of huge numbers of French troops towards the Western Front (the statue of Verdun remembers the longest and bloodiest battle of the conflict that ended in French victory). Head inside to the main hall to have a look at Albert Herter’s gigantic mural Le Départ des poilus, août 1914 (above), depicting the infantrymen’s departure with the artist’s son centre, holding his cap, rifle and flowers aloft.

In happier times, the station lays claim to having been the starting point for possibly the world’s most famous train journey, the first voyage of the Orient Express in 1883 from Paris to Istanbul (then Constantinople). The luxury service ran from the capital until 2007 (and stopped entirely in 2009) and inspired enough legends, stories, films and documentaries to fill one of its own carriages. There is still a privately-run version in operation using original carriages from the 20s and 30s, though you’ll need serious coin to afford an overnight cabin. Maybe a gold-plated corona mask is included in the price…

However you decide to travel this summer, don’t forget that the journey is just as important as the destination, and keep yourselves and your loved ones safe along the way. Bonnes vacances!

Last Tree Standing #6: For pine is the kingdom…

Let’s get down with the brown!

Bonné année scary cyber land! I hope everyone is suitably stuffed and rested like a prize capon thanks to the Christmas break, though in France things have been pretty fraught what with ongoing strikes and a generally unrestful ‘down-with-that-sort-of-thing’ vibe. Christmas in France was swell and I learned a very important new skill – opening a Champagne bottle with a knife. You bring a (full) bottle over, and I’ll give you a free demonstration. Christmas in Blighty was pretty swell too, though I almost shed a tear coming back through passport control as a British European for the last time. There, that’s your lot. Not a sausage about Brexit for the rest of the year. Promise.

Now back in Granny Flat with renovations beginning in earnest (like a tiny patch of wall being sanded at a time to avoid toxic plumes of dust, this is no Grand Designs) I certainly feel like I have an amazing sixth year of blog in me, and my list of simple Parisian delights to discover stubbornly refuses to get any shorter. I hope you’ll join me of course, and if you want to hear a little bit more about me and what this whole blog thing is, check out my episode on the C’est La Vie podcast from the lovely Katie.

We’ve covered a lot of the greatest hits in the last five years, so we’ll be heading in a more off-the-beaten-track direction in the year to come, with a lean towards forests and food, my two saviours when this increasingly bonkers world gets a little too hard to handle. Feel free to post any suggestions on the (probably criminally under-updated) PSC Facebook, Twitter or Instagram!

Now the crèche de noël has been dismantled and galettes de roi have taken centre stage, we can begin to gaze again in puzzlement at one of Paris’ strangest customs (but is it just Paris dear readers??) and focus on another year of Last Tree Standing; that addictive and unique activity of sorry, brown Christmas tree spotting, taking time to ponder exactly what would possess someone to abandon their festive fir on the street in the middle of October (the legend began here).

Last year’s clash saw a fruitful first few months of the year, with solid spots up until April. The summer saw slim pickings, presumably because the heat caused all discarded specimens to spontaneously combust in the heat, and evidence suggests that that’s exactly what happened as we didn’t get much further, with Nicole McElvain taking the prize with her mid-June spot. Max Legeais is awarded a distinction (again) for his spot of 16th December, though signs point to a pre-ski holiday indulgence and subsequent rejection, rather than a 12-month old kidnap-ee. But in this crazy game, who blinkin’ knows.

Seeing as we’ve passed the 6th and thus the deadline for acceptable tree custody, the games can once again begin for another year, with all entries invited on the Last Tree Standing Facebook page. The Christmas tree crumbs wherever you look, not to mention mountains of spent firs at dedicated recycling posts, point to a January full of green. But anyone worth their dead tree-spotting salt knows the game really begins in the spring.

For newcomers, a quick recap of the rules….

1. Photographic evidence required.
2. No artificial trees. Or conifers.
3. No planted specimens.
4. No repeat claims.
5. Trees must be obviously abandoned, put out for, and accessible by the binmen, though all submissions will be considered and are subjected to jury approval.
6. Honesty prevails. If you want to keep a dead Christmas tree in your apartment until September just so you can win, you need to get out more.

Bon Chance!

Spiritual commodity

If you witnessed the scenes at Les Halles on Black Friday (I certainly did not, and glad to see that French lawmakers are pushing to ban it) then you’ll know that consumerism is (sadly) the new religion of the day. But in that very central quartier of the 1st, the old religion serenely surveys the new in the form of Saint-Eustache, the 16th-century church occupying the spot just next to the monstrous undulation that is the modern shopping centre.

Now let’s get it out of the way. I’m not a religious person per se though I do possess a healthy sense of spiritual curiosity and respect for tradition, and especially at this time of year I love ducking into one of the city’s churches to have a wander around, light a candle or reminisce about carolling in the school Christmas concert as a young pup. There’s nothing more welcoming than a religious building, and when it comes to Paris, its churches are buildings like any other – old as the hills and chock-full of history. So religious or quite the opposite, you’d do well to head inside to appreciate the tranquil beauty, and give all the plastic tat in the shopping centre a wide berth whilst you’re at it.

As we discovered in the last post, Les Halles was the site of a medieval food market famously captured in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris and finally dismantled in 1971 (see freize above and picture, left). But commerce and worship have been close siblings as way back as 1213 when the first chapel was built next to the original Les Halles built in 1187. Back then it was known as the Chapel of Saint Agnes, but was changed to Saint-Eustache in 1303 after the church received relics (which are still there) relating to 2nd-century Roman general Placidus who was burned along with his family for converting to Christianity.

The first stone of the current structure was laid in 1532 and a lengthy construction followed until it was finally consecrated in 1637. Next, proof that dodgy builders are not a modern phenomenon, two chapels were built in 1655 that nearly brought the whole thing tumbling down, and coupled with significant damage sustained in the French Revolution and then a fire in 1844, the church arrived at the mid point of the 19th century in a sorry state and in need of serious repairs.

Whereas sister church Notre Dame had two saviours to champion her restoration in the same era (Napoleon and Victor Hugo), Saint Eustache had one in the form of architect Victor Baltard, the same chap responsible for the design of the iconic Zola-era Les Halles market pavilions just next door. He oversaw the church’s complete restoration between 1846 and 1854, and despite another fire in 1871 and revisions of the façade in 1928/29, its Gothic exterior, and Renaissance and classical interior remain happily intact today.

Head inside for some quiet contemplation by all means, but take in some of its most famous charms too, including the beautiful Chapel of the Virgin (pictured above), France’s biggest pipe organ, its huge vaulted ceilings and a plaque commemorating Mozart’s mother, who was buried here in 1778. In a nod to the food heritage associated with the area, don’t miss either the Chapel des Charcutiers (Chapel of the Butchers) dedicated to the tradesmen of the quartier. I’ve never seen pork butchery depicted in a stained glass window before, and I bet you haven’t either. Food takes on a more philanthropic guise at this time of year as it’s the site of a soup kitchen serving 32,000 meals each year between December 1st and March 31st.

If you really can’t resist the bright lights of the shopping centre, bear in mind that Saint Eustache is a patron saint of hunters, so maybe he has something to do with your predatory consumerist urges. But he’s also one of the figures depicted on the Jägermeister logo too, and I know which one I’d choose…

2 Impasse Saint-Eustache, 75001. For more info, click here

Post originally published 11/12/2019

To market, to market

We have to admit, those of us who live in Paris are incredibly spoiled (I’m turning my mind away from the crowds, dog mess, transport strikes and hellish commutes, naturally). Croissants and wine aside, such beauty and history surrounds us, and the most amazing thing is that it’s pretty much all still here since jammy Dame Paris has managed to preserve most of her treasured bounty over the years where countless other cities have sadly failed. And all of this in the face of centuries of foreign invaders, world wars and natural disasters, still threatening her very bones today, as was sharply called into focus in April with the devastating fire that nearly razed Notre Dame completely.

One historical gem we have lost though (and the list is amazingly small) is the behemoth that was Les Halles, a huge iron, brick and glass market complex in central Paris finished in 1874 and razed in 1971, and immortalised in Zola’s Le Ventre de Paris (The Belly of Paris). Having outgrown the capital as the city grew around it and the way in which people shopped for food changed, the structure couldn’t withstand the tidal wave of progress, and was destroyed just before the preservationists found their strength and put a stop to the demolition of historic buildings in the name of boring functionality (the Musée d’Orsay, then Gare d’Orsay was amongst the first to be saved by this change in thinking).

Now as much as it would be appropriate to focus on what we do have rather than what we don’t, forgive me for not writing a post on the massive, soulless shopping complex and rat-filled gardens that now occupy the space, because well, that. So in a roundabout way we arrive at the subject of this post, the marché Saint Quentin in the 10th on Boulevard Magenta, the best surviving example of the Les Halles-style covered market, giving us a handy portal into the lively market spirit of Paris’ past.

Whilst the famous Les Halles was designed by the at-the-time chief architect of Paris and mate of Baron Haussmann, Victor Baltard, Saint Quentin was designed by an architect named Rabourdin, though despite being oft-quoted in this context, I can find absolutely nothing more about him, so that’s where that story ends I’m afraid. Though whoever he was, he faithfully followed the Baltard style and completed the building in 1866, and today it remains one of only three examples of the style along with slightly smaller markets Saint Martin and La Chapelle (10th and 18th respectively).

And isn’t a market with a roof on it just what we need in these wet and wintry times? Head inside and you’ll find perhaps less vegetable urgency than in Zola’s day, but there are plenty of stalls and fresh produce galore to fill your belly just as full. The usual selection of fruit, veg, meat, fish and plants are lovingly displayed, though no need to dash off too quickly out in to the rain with that lonely cauliflower, take a load off and have a bite to eat or glass of wine while you’re at it at one of the cosy bistros dotted about. Heck, you can even get your shoes repaired whilst you’re tucking in, and don’t forget to search out the Wallace fountain nestled in the centre.

As for that lonely cauliflower, if you’re cooking I’ll have a hot dish of cauliflower cheese nicely browned and bubbly on top, and don’t forget to pick up an orange for the vin chaud, too. Call it a finder’s fee…

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.

Post originally published 06/09/2019