“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!
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.
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.
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.
I love the Musée d’Orsay for many reasons. First of all because it’s in a former train station, the Gare d’Orsay, an architectural masterpiece which reminds us of the golden age of steam. An age when travel could be elegant and railway stations weren’t just shopping centres. There’s a fabulous story of how Jeanne Moreau went to visit Orson Welles in his suite at the Hôtel Meurice overlooking the Tuileries gardens (how I envy him!) and he spotted two twin moons across the river which she explained were the railway clocks. Captivated, they rushed out in the night for a closer look and the station was later brilliantly used in his adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial. But back to me. I have been going there so long that this place almost feels like home. It helps that I feel like I belong in 19th and early 20th Century France – many of the works of art even feel like old friends. Daumier’s Célèbrités du Juste Milieu, paintings of Scapin and Don Quixote with the dead mule, Millet’s The Gleaners, Manet’s portrait of Zola, Olympia and that astonishing asparagus, Robert de Montesquieu by Boldini, Proust by Jacques-Émile Blanche (although this wasn’t on display last time which is outrageous), the Gates of Hell and that sculpture of Balzac by Rodin, Courbet’s Burial at Ornans and The Artist’s Studio (last time I visited the museum I bought a book about Proust, only to discover an inadvertently stolen postcard of Courbet’s Origin of the World which is my least favourite painting there, surely hidden away by a schoolboy), Pompon’s Polar Bear and Owl, all that Art Nouveau furniture and glass. It’s torture trying to see everything until overcome by exhaustion, I must accept defeat and head for the exit. Until next time.
I must admit that leaving the house just after 7am in the dark and the freezing rain made me almost call the whole thing off. By the time I boarded the train for London, my hands and feet were so cold that I spent the entire train journey bundled up in my coat, scarf and gloves, trying to warm my fingers with lots of tea. But then the sight of the magnificent St. Pancras station never fails to lift my spirits and I hurried down the platform to meet Amanda and Sharly by the statue of the great Sir John Betjamin. The first time I met Amanda it was in the same spot but during one of the hottest weeks ever. This time, the contrast in the weather couldn’t have been greater but we still had a wonderful day in spite of the rain. The Winnie the Pooh exhibition at the V&A was sold out but we went to the new Ocean Liners: Speed and Style instead which was just fabulous. I’ve always had a soft spot for vintage photos and posters from the golden age of travel and there were plenty here, along with gems such as The Duke of Windsor’s Goyard trunks which straight away made me think of my friend Jan, Marlene Dietrich’s suit, socialite Emilie Grigsby’s Paul Poiret satin trousers and dresses, a Louis Vuitton vanity set, plus beautiful furniture, panelling and music by Fred Astaire and clips from classic films like Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to enjoy.
After lunch, we headed for Harrod’s, then Fortnum’s, then Hatchard’s where my energy flagged and I collapsed on a sofa in the art section with my bags full of exhibition merchandise, makeup and tea around me. We said our goodbyes in Burberry where Amanda was trying on a beautiful coat. It’s a shame we don’t live closer but I’m already looking forward to our next meeting in Berlin, Paris, London, New York or somewhere different.
I have always had a love/hate relationship with the Louvre. On the one hand, it’s an undeniably magnificent collection in a beautiful building with such a remarkable history. On the other hand, the collection is so vast that I never manage to see more than 0.0001% of what they have on display. There are parts of the museum I have never yet ventured into and at the end of every visit, I retire defeated, certain that I could stay there for months, years even, and still not see everything. Perhaps I should find two friends and just run through the whole thing in record time like in Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à Part.
To be fair, it was 16 years (!) since my last visit and returning there last December brought back nothing but happy memories. On a rainy winter’s afternoon, I decided to make my way to the famous pyramid entrance after killing time dodging puddles in the Tuileries before my timed ticket was valid. I needn’t have worried – to my astonishment, there was no queue at all to get in and I descended the familiar spiral staircase, happy to discover that everything was pretty much the same. Part of my trouble at the Louvre comes from the French Romantics – I can never resist going to those galleries first to see those vast canvases by Géricault, David, Delacroix and the rest, and end up spending far too long there but this at least time I avoided the crowds in front of the Mona Lisa after the disappointment of my first ever visit when I couldn’t believe that such a famous painting was so small and protected behind glass.
After that I only had the energy to visit the sumptuous Napoleon III apartments which made me want to have the rooms of my home decorated in red and gold and invest in a chandelier and fabulous plants. But I’m already planning my next visit to the Louvre when I won’t head straight for the French Romantics. Since my last visit, they have opened an Angélina’s close the Second Empire apartments where you can sit on chairs upholstered in gris montaigne and savour one of their ridiculously thick hot chocolates before trying to see another 1% of the Louvre’s collection instead of an indifferent coffee and a macaron at the regular café. I can’t wait.
It was Dior that made me book the Eurostar tickets. After persuading myself since summer that I didn’t need to see every exhibition and that I could be satisfied with the catalogue, I could no longer resist. For Dior is the stuff dreams are made of, whether you prefer designs by CD himself, YSL, Marc Bohan or any of the later designers. Even if you hate most of the stuff that comes down the runway today, there is nothing like the magic of a Dior dress to restore your faith in fashion and elegance.
The exhibition at Les Arts Décoratifs is not without its drawbacks. Although I had booked tickets, it was absolute chaos just getting in and then there are the enormous crowds in the first few rooms which make it almost impossible to see anything. But you forgive them that for the lighting which makes the clothes look even more exquisite. Each room is more beautiful than the previous one until you come to the grand finale – a temple of fashion with the most magnificent dresses – jewel encrusted or plain, dreams in satin, silk, tulle or taffeta – with the shimmering light show in gold overhead and on the walls. There is nothing to do but pause and gaze open-mouthed. I shall never forget the experience and can only say merci, Monsieur Dior.