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.
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.
“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.