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.
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.
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.
Dr. Johnson famously declared that, “The man who is tired of London is tired of life,” but I have never really understood the appeal of the city. Much as I love all the things you can do there, it’s too huge, the beautiful buildings are often overwhelmed by modern monstrosities and the crowds make me feel I can’t stop to breathe for a moment. And then there’s the Tube. As a Berlin U-Bahn girl through and through (accessible stations, quick to exit), I dread taking those escalators to the centre of the earth and joining the ranks of sardines. Paris at least has the most beautiful architecture and poetic Métro names to make up for the hoards of tourists.
But yesterday, I really loved it, even the strangely deserted Tube and can see why my very stylish friend Jan, who writes an equally stylish blog, is always telling me how fabulous it is. I met another very stylish friend, Patricia, at Embankment station which reminded me of trips to the nearby theatres many years ago to see Juliette Binoche in Pirandello’s ‘Naked’ and later Kristin Scott Thomas in Chekhov’s ‘The Three Sisters’.
We crossed over the Thames to the South Bank and walked past other old haunts of mine – the National Theatre, the Hayward Gallery, the BFI, Festival Hall, Tate Modern and the Globe Theatre. Sunshine and a light spring breeze swept over our faces as we looked down at the footprints in the sand on Ernie’s Beach and listened to the waves breaking. We stopped for the most delicious lunch at one of the restaurants at the wharf, resisting with difficulty one of the beautiful large glasses of gin with grapefruit which the woman at the next table was enjoying.
Continuing our walk by the Thames while chatting about everything and anything, the time just evaporated with the fading light. Some tea, coffee and cake, then goodbye after crossing once more over the river.
Travelling back home on the train speeding into darkness and glimpsing the lights of the windows passing by, I felt torn between people, places and languages and wondered where I belong. But later that evening, curled up with a new book and a pot of Fortnum’s Royal Blend tea, I realised none of that mattered for the moment, that the simple pleasures are the best and that I’m lucky to have such wonderful friends.
I had always wanted to visit Hidcote, the famous Arts and Crafts garden in the Cotswolds created by Lawrence Johnston, the son of a wealthy American. Back in early June when it was summer and the wisteria was in bloom, I finally got my chance. Nothing can really prepare you for the astonishing beauty of the place with its linked ‘rooms’ of hedges, herbaceous plants and shrubs and it truly is one of the loveliest gardens I’ve ever visited.
Some photos to share with you from the bluebell woods and also the rhododendrons at Lea Gardens in Derbyshire where I go every year. These visits are always something special and seem like an essential part of spring for me.