An afternoon in Saint-Germain-des-Prés

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“Il n’y a plus d’après à Saint-Germain-des-Prés” (There is nothing after Saint-Germain-des-Prés) sang Juliette Gréco in Guy Béart’s wonderful song. It’s hard to visualise her today in front of this church below in Robert Doisneau’s famous photo, or Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir strolling around, despite renaming the square after them, and it’s even more difficult to imagine Maurice Ronet’s anguish accompanied by Satie’s music on the terrace of the Café de Flore. All that went long ago – what remains is a very chic district with a vulgar Louis Vuitton boutique where it shouldn’t be instead of existentialist inspiration, full of hipsters and tourists.

But before I’m too harsh, let me say that I’m still extremely fond of this area and spent the most wonderful afternoon there. First, a coffee at the Flore in an almost deserted room (I never sit outside) where I almost convinced myself the waiter was in Sartrean bad faith. The coffee is certainly overpriced and not very good but I go there for the history and atmosphere which are hard to beat. Then a browse at my favourite bookshop, L’Écume des Pages, where I set foot all those years ago on my first trip to Paris. It hasn’t changed at all and my eye was instantly drawn to a huge volume of correspondence between Albert Camus and Maria Casarès which I had no idea about. Part of me questioned the wisdom of buying a 1300 page book weighing over a kilo but hell, this is Paris and if I want independent bookshops like this to still be around in the future, Amazon really isn’t an option. My heart skipped a beat and I had to buy it.

I called in the beautiful old church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés which was even lovelier than I remembered, then made my way over to a restaurant called Aux Vieux Garçons where I was meeting a friend for a delicious lunch, strolling first down to see the fresh graffiti on Serge Gainsbourg’s house and wondering if it will ever become a museum. Afterwards, I walked over to the Musée Rodin where the heat of the day finally hit me and I took out my new book. There are fewer places lovelier to read though in the shade of the trees and close to those wonderful sculptures. The words written by Albert Camus and Maria Casarès were so fresh and poignant and I imagined their time together in this very area.

I had only the energy left for Le Bon Marché department store where I finally bought the shoes of my dreams like those worn by Catherine Deneuve in Belle de Jour and afterwards stopped at La Grande Épicerie for one of the best millefeuilles I have ever eaten, thinking always of the director Jean-Pierre Melville who declared that his films were like a millefeuille. Some would enjoy the cream while the more discerning would appreciate the pastry. What an afternoon!

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I also called in the fabulous Pâtisserie des Rêves to see their cakes and think about what to choose. I finally bought a Saint Honoré a couple of days later which was incredible.

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At the existentialist cemetery

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You know you are a true taphophile when it’s your first morning in Paris and you’re already at the cemetery before 9am. But then Parisian cemeteries are the best. I visited the one in Montparnasse many years ago during my first trip to the city on a freezing cold but bright Sunday with my father who couldn’t have imagined anything less appealing. I remember seeing the graves of Serge Gainsbourg with its cabbages and metro tickets, Jean Seberg’s and that of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir to whom I made my first point of call this time too which seemed quite logical as I had just walked past La Rotonde on my way from the metro, above which which she was born.

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If you decide to go to Montparnasse cemetery, pick up a laminated plan close to the entrance which will help you find the graves you’re looking for and I also recommend the book Stories in Stone, full of great photos and fascinating anecdotes. But let yourself just wander too. I love coming across wonderful surprises such as a giant cat sculpture by Niki de Saint Phalle, the little dog on Philippe Noiret’s grave which makes me love him even more and many more interesting graves of ordinary people which allowed me a glimpse of their lives.

You encounter such interesting people in cemeteries too – a Japanese couple called out to me to help them find the grave of painter Chaim Soutine, later on the woman called me over again and shouted something unintelligible. “Coco Chanel, fashion designer!”, I finally understood. No, I told her. She’s buried in Switzerland, this is the grave of Paul Deschanel, a former French President. I have never found cemeteries depressing places – for me, they are wonderful spaces to walk and reflect, havens for nature and art and an opportunity to pay homage to those I admire.  I left after three hours, feeling hungry and a little tired but so happy to have spent a morning in such illustrious company, only regretting later that I had failed to visit Delphine Seyrig. If you go there, please pay your respects on my behalf.

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The grave of Henri Langlois, founder of the Cinémathèque Française

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The Baudelaire Cenotaph. He is buried nearby with his mother and hated stepfather.
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The grave of Kate Barry, Jane Birkin and John Barry’s daughter and photographer.

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The grave of artist Sophie Calle’s mother who used to tell people she was Ava Gardner and had 4000 lovers.

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The blue hour in Paris

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L’heure bleue by Guerlain is one of my very favourite perfumes, conjuring up the elegance and beauty of long summer evenings in the garden. And yet the blue hour in Paris is even more intoxicating. The softness of the light on those magnificent buildings and the flickering of car headlights and streetlamps as evening starts to fall. Pausing by one of the many charming squares and parks to catch a glimpse of the explosion of colour which has suddenly emerged after a brutally long winter, you suddenly smell the most heavenly perfume ever created (Guerlain and even Chanel can’t come close) – that of night scented flowers with their white petals standing out against the approaching darkness. I love the wide avenues and boulevards meant for walking and found it impossible to stop that first evening, strolling as far as the Pont Alexandre III and looking across to see a shimmering Eiffel Tower. April in Paris is certainly a cliché but like most clichés, it’s difficult to beat.

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