I’m not quite sure when the dream began but a 1990s guidebook is evidence of it beginning many years ago. The city itself never really seemed close though – we went to France and Spain for our holidays, I related to New York only through images – the horror of 9/11 and then all the films and photos in both colour and black and white. Part of me almost didn’t want to really go there because the reality could only be a disappointment. And then last year we decided to cross the pond and I spent months and weeks in giddy anticipation counting down, reading all the travel guides, watching all my favourite films, not quite believing that my dream was coming true. I will never forget the view from above, just before landing, looking out at a landscape totally unlike anything I had seen before and the reflections of the setting sun perched on the horizon. And those first moments when we saw the shimmering skyline of Manhattan for the first time from the cab crossing the Queensboro Bridge – is that really the Chrysler Building? The humidity hit us like a sledgehammer when emerging rather tired and travel stained but full of excitement that night. Exploring would have to wait until the following day though.
We checked in at the Best Western Premier Herald Square which I definitely recommend. A small room (but then this is Manhattan) but amazingly quiet and a great location. Staying just 5 minutes away from the Empire State Building made it a natural choice for our first destination. Definitely take your time looking out at the skyline through the glass on the lower level in air conditioned comfort first – I rushed things in my eagerness to get outside.The humidity was intense, even at 9am, and crowds clustered at every corner of the observation deck but nothing could dim the thrill of being that high with the city at our feet.
If there is any place guaranteed to make you wish you were Parisian, it’s probably the Luxembourg gardens. How envious I feel when reading accounts by those who were taken regularly to play there as children, had pony rides and sailed boats on the wonderful pond. You imagine alternative lives in which you went to a lycée or the Sorbonne and regularly hung out there to study or skipped classes and passed through on your way to the cinema. But in truth, I also have plenty of memories myself of happy times there – that glorious winter’s day when I first walked there with my father on our way to Montparnasse, the visits with my mother to the charming little cafe and the nearby Musée in the park. Those incredible tartes à l’orange we devoured on a bench after buying them from a fabulous patisserie we could never find again (those pre-internet days!). I love this place so much I even returned there three times on my trip to Paris, all on blisteringly hot days when I sought the shade of the horse chestnut trees and took a seat under the watchful gaze of one of the beautiful white statues.
Of course I didn’t go to Giverny, but I got the next best thing by going to the Musée de l’Orangerie, a place I’ve wanted to visit since I saw it featured in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris.
In reality, it’s nothing like the private tour Owen Wilson and Rachel McAdams get – there are plenty of people taking selfies or posing in front of the canvas and the sound of a phone ringing occasionally. It’s still a fabulous place though – the canvases are so huge and magnificent that it’s impossible not to feel moved and astonished by the changing colours and light Monet observed so late in life. You realise that it isn’t about travelling to see as many places as possible but rather we need to open our eyes and observe what’s around us time and again.
As there was a partial strike of museum staff, I sadly wasn’t able to see that fabulous Picasso which also features in Midnight in Paris (the one with Adriana dripping with sexuality!) and I could only gaze through gaps longingly at the marvellous collection off limits. Unfortunately, the Renoir gallery remained open – I say unfortunate as he’s not a great favourite of mine but I did see a couple of paintings I rather liked. That’s what an afternoon with Monet will do for you!
Afterwards, there was only one thing to do – brave the heat and crowds and head for Guerlain on the Champs-Élysées.
There’s a famous scene in Proust where the narrator goes for a walk with Gilberte and noticing the hawthorn, she allows him a few moments alone to talk to the leaves and ask where the blossom has gone. I was reminded of this when I visited the Jardin des Plantes in April to see the cherry trees in bloom. Never have I seen such a huge or magnificent display. Even a whole school group disappeared under the pink boughs of one of the trees.
I sat quietly for a while, eavesdropping on the two Americans alongside who were complaining about how their grandchildren never want to do anything and savouring the smell of freshly cut grass and the warmth of the sun. I spent as long as possible with the trees, knowing that I wouldn’t see them again for a while, turning for one final lingering glance at the gate. If you go there, please give them my regards.
Paris is the city of lovers, of walkers, night owls and early birds. As I belong to the last category, you won’t be surprised to learn that I was already strolling through the Latin Quarter at 8am while the streets were still being washed, past the Musée de Cluny where I have spent so many happy hours, past the fountain which was still dry and heading towards the magnificent cathedral of Notre Dame. There are already a few groups of tourists outside, listening to some nonsense about Esmeralda but hurry past and admire the carved figures and gargoyles high above before you push open the door. It’s been at least 16 years since my last visit and I couldn’t possibly begin to describe what I saw or the effect it had on me – just look at the photos below instead.
I emerged some time later, dazzled by the light and the warmth of the day, even though it wasn’t yet 10am. I paused to admire the horse chestnut trees in bloom with their candles and strolled a short distance across to Sainte Chapelle whose entire purpose seems to be to showcase Gothic architecture and teach you how to look at light. There is really nothing else to do but sit and admire the stained glass and the perfect blue of that ceiling.
I defy you to walk down the Champs-Elysées and say you can still imagine Jean Seberg and Jean-Paul Belmondo in that famous scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s A Bout de Souffle. Too many cars, too many tourists, not many interesting shops unless you love Apple and Nike (how I miss those late night excursions to buy jazz, Jacques Brel and Serge Gainsbourg CDs at Virgin Megastore). But get away from the tourists in Montmartre and it’s still possible to imagine this area for a few moments as the artists saw it, like in the photo above. Late night dancing at the Lapin Agile and the Moulin de la Galette, Picasso working at the Bateau Lavoir and all of Paris at your feet as you compose a poem or a piece of music in your head on a walk to the top of the Butte.
I hadn’t been there for 17 years (!) and it’s true that the Place du Tertre is worse than ever, as are the crowds around Sacré Coeur. Yet turn down a side street into a quiet square and you understand perfectly why Dalida felt it was like a country village far from the bustle of the city. I spent a charming afternoon there, strolling around, eating ice cream, climbing 200 steps to the top of Sacré Coeur to find myself almost alone and with a splendid view before coming down and taking the funicular. The day ended with a walk around the Palais Royal gardens, a visit to Galignani’s bookshop and finally there was a superb and inexpensive dinner at Mio Posto in the Bastille area.
Paris is full of surprises. Not least when you arrive at the florist shortly after 8am and pick up four bunches of flowers. After explaining that I didn’t want them mixed into a single bouquet, the woman removed the lower leaves and thorns from the roses with extraordinary skill, cut the stems at an angle and an even length and wrapped them in beautiful paper for me, even adapting the plastic bag I had brought along into the ideal flower transporter. Now that’s service for you. I didn’t have the heart to tell her I was just taking them to the cemetery!
Visiting Montmartre cemetery has been an ambition of mine for many years. You may remember that on my only previous attempt eight years ago, I arrived to find it closed because half a centimetre of snow had fallen. Luckily this time it was like summer and I walked through the gate of the Avenue Rachel (the only entrance), almost finding it hard to believe I was really there.
Pick up a laminated plan and then walk up the steps to your right. There you will come to one of the most beautiful graves I have ever seen, that of the beautiful singer and actress Dalida, who lived in a fairytale style house close to here until her suicide. She was buried in the dress from the video below and the elegant sculpture of her receives the first rays of sun which seems just right. Hers is undoubtedly the most popular grave but I took out a single red rose as a tribute. What a shame someone who brought so much happiness to others had so little in her own life.
After that, the rest is for you to explore in your own way. Montmartre is definitely my favourite of the Parisian cemeteries – I love the intimate feel of it compared to Père Lachaise (which I still love!), the fact that many of the people buried here were artists and composers with a special connection to this wonderful area. I also love the cats who appear from time to time. You’ll find the graves of Nijinsky, Heinrich Heine, Henri-Georges Clouzot and many more. left white tulips for Hector Berlioz and Stendhal whose works I deeply cherish. But really, I went there for François Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau. They’re buried close to one another, the director and star of Jules et Jim and The Bride Wore Black. Taking roses to them and paying a silent tribute was definitely one of the most moving experiences of my life and not one I can really express in words. I stopped by once more on my way out to say farewell.
After leaving Montmartre cemetery, I walked up the hill a short distance in the direction of Sacré Coeur to call in the tiny St. Vincent cemetery. Marcel Aymé, Eugè Boudin, Marcel Carné, Steinlen and Maurice Utrillo are buried there and it’s a charming place to escape the bustle of tourists and you can even see the walls of the Lapin Agile alongside. Such history. I will share the rest of my day in Montmartre next time.