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.
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.
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!
Last week I made my annual pilgrimage to the bluebell woods. I have no idea exactly how my parents found them but I’ve been returning every year since I was a child. The route is still the same. Taking the narrow path just above the little car park which reaches a steep incline by some trees behind which there is already a patch of blue. Then continuing through a field where as a child, my best friend Rachel and I gathered huge bunches of dandelion clocks and blew on them, watching their seeds scatter to the wind. But nothing prepares you for the mass of blue in the woods, that particularly sublime shade and the most heavenly scent which is more beautiful than any perfume could ever be. I linger in favourite spots with nothing but birdsong to accompany my steps, except the buzzing of insects or the occasional whoosh from the trainline down below.
But no matter how slowly I go, I’m soon at the edge of the wood and push open a little gate to continue along the path by the trainline. There was a heady smell of May blossom in the sunshine and wild flowers growing by the wall. Dappled light and the fresh green foliage made me think of a painting by Sisley which features on the cover of Alain Fournier’s ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’ and I imagine it would have been the perfect spot for him to walk with Yvonne de Galais.
Retracing my steps to the top of the woods again, I take one last glance, always a little sad to leave but also inspired by the magic of this place which still has so many secrets to discover.
One of the things I miss the most about living in the city, especially one as green as Berlin, is that element of surprise. My favourite thing has always been to get up very early at the weekend and go out to walk and take pictures. Riding in the S-Bahn, I would often look out of the window and spot a group of trees in blossom, or some lilacs, or particularly beautiful light on a favourite building that would make me rush off at the next station, even if it was nowhere near my planned destination. The light changes by the minute, the sunny morning can turn to rain and dash the blossom so you’re forever chasing shadows and fleeting beauty. Catch joy while it flies. And then there are the markets. I was lucky enough to live close to an amazing one in Charlottenburg on Karl-August-Platz that took over the whole square twice a week. Saturdays were always something special and I would return laden with bags packed with magnificent seasonal fruit and vegetables, bunches of flowers, French cheeses, apple croissant and huge eggs which often had double yolks.
The setting has changed of course, but my habits remain the same, never sleeping for more than 6 hours so I can get up and catch a glimpse of the sunrise which is more and more elusive. Each day, I walk in the garden to make a note of the smallest changes which I’m sure I’ll remember but never do. But I still dream of returning to my favourite cherry trees in the Buergerpark in Pankow and lingering to talk with them for a little while, just like Proust’s narrotor does with the hawthorn blossom.
Schloss Schoenhausen in Pankow
At the market on Karl-August-Platz in Charlottenburg
My place (almost)
Spring unfolding in the park outside my old building in Pankow
No matter how much I try to notice each little sign as the days grow warmer and longer, spring always takes me by surprise. I remember walking down my street in Charlottenburg on a particularly lovely evening with a softness in the air and suddenly noticing that all those buds on the trees which had remained stubbornly closed for so long were suddenly open and that the city was in bloom.
Back then, the parks and squares were my back garden but these days I’m lucky to have one of my own where I can watch the seasons change much more easily. There is always something new. As the snowdrops dry and fade, there is a blaze of daffodils, the forsythia threading its way through the branches of the apple tree under which snake’s head fritillary have spread. And as all of those become a little less vivid, tulips start to emerge in carnival or soft colours, single or double. There is so much beauty to savour and so much still to come – the bluebell woods, the rhododendrons, the apple blossom, the elegance of the magnolia. I realise how important it is just to try to take each day at a time and look for the good things, rather than getting caught up in worries of what has been and what may be or never be. I wish you a wonderful spring.