Empire state of mind

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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.

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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.

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A stroll in the Luxembourg gardens

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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.

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An afternoon in the garden

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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.

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Le temps des cerises

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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.

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Chasing light

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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.

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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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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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