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Diary of a week in Paris

Note: You can see some photographs of our week in Paris here*

Tuesday, 2 May 2006: The present Eurostar terminal at Waterloo is only three stops up the line from our local station, so getting to Paris from home is a doddle. What a shame that Eurostar is soon to be banished from Waterloo to almost completely inaccessible King’s Cross!

Dragging our absurdly heavy suitcases behind us, we find the queue for taxis at the Gare du Nord, where it takes almost as long for us to get to the head of the queue and into a taxi as it did to get from London to Paris — not because of any shortage of taxis but because the traffic bottleneck out of the station prevents more than a couple of taxis from getting under way every ten minutes or so. The sun is hot but luckily the queue is protected by a canopy. I begin to wish that we had obeyed my first instinct and travelled by RER and Metro from the station, but J is probably right to fear that the weight of our luggage and steep steps up and down at the RER and Metro stations would probably have defeated us. We need to be 20 years younger. (Better make that 30.)

The flat we are renting, just off the Boulevard St Germain in the 7th arrondissement, is splendidly situated with a Metro station (Rue du Bac) and buses, shops and restaurants all a few minutes’ walk away. The sole drawback is the 56-step spiral staircase up to the 3rd-floor flat. Just as well that we don’t have to tackle them immediately after RER and Metro station steps.

Wednesday: A lovely sunny day, just as in the weather forecasts. But the (Portuguese) lady who takes care of the flat in its owners’ absence, when she comes round to give us a spare key, reminds us with a certain relish that it will be our last dry, warm day: incessant rain is forecast for the next five days, which will see us out. We’ll just have to get wet and press on regardless.

I set up the laptop and prepare to connect its internal modem to the flat’s telephone line so that I can use the CompuServe French access number to go online at horribly slow dial-up connection speeds, just like the bad old days before broadband, when suddenly a little green icon pops up at the bottom of the screen with the amazing news that the laptop has found a wireless signal and is connected to the internet: “Signal strength: Very Good”. Almost too very good to be true! But true it is, and I have an excellent fast broadband connection without needing to plug anything in at all. I silently thank the kind but unknowing owner of the router somewhere nearby who is providing us with this unexpected facility.

We walk over to the Musée d’Orsay, only about ten minutes’ walk away, ignoring the enormous queue for immediate entry, snaking to and fro like a road on the Grande Corniche or the way Elizabeth I underlined her signature, and find the advance booking office from which within a couple of minutes we have timed and dated tickets for the Cézanne-Pissarro exhibition, main target of the Grande Corniche queue. We are assured that if we present ourselves at the relevant entrance at exactly 2.30 pm on Friday, we shall be able to walk right in without having to queue.

Again circumnavigating the queueing masses, we embark on an enormous walking marathon — across the river, round the Tuileries, across the Rue de Rivoli to the Rue Argenteuil in search of a house once lived in by the ancestor of a favourite cousin (we find the right number but it could be in the wrong street), across to the Madeleine in search of some electronic equipment for the laptop, along a narrow side street in successful quest of a place for lunch not bursting at the seams with tourists like ourselves, back round the far side of the Madeleine in search of an elusive bus stop, a long wait for a bus, and some lengthy strap-hanging on the way back to the Left Bank. Worse is to come: because of an ‘obstacle’ in the Boulevard St Germain, the bus executes a huge detour, eventually depositing us at the wrong end of the boulevard. As we trudge back towards the Rue du Bac, we come across the ‘obstacle': the road cordoned off by hundreds of gendarmes, with lines of long buses parked along the side of the road, all containing hundreds more gendarmes. We hope this is some kind of exercise and not the Real Thing, so close to our temporary home. After toiling back up those 56 steps to the flat, we examine our swollen and bloody feet with quiet dismay. Both of us must be about five centimetres shorter than when we set off.

Thursday: In defiance of the dire online weather forecast, the day is again warm and sunny. Baguette and croissants from down the road are sublime: why can’t English bakers produce anything remotely like them? They claim to use French flour and presumably the baking technique is not a state secret.

It’s years since we last spent any time in Paris, most recently staying with old Anglo-American friends in their flat on the Boulevard de la Tour Maubourg. Our impression is that not much has changed since then, although almost everything has changed since we first used to come to Paris in the 1950s, half a century ago. Paris is far cleaner, smarter, more spic-and-span; public lavatories are now far more wholesome than their London equivalents, although still few and far between; the Metro trains are more crowded and much noisier but the stations are beautiful objets d’art (perhaps they always were, but back then we didn’t notice); the all-pervading smell of Gaulloises and Gitanes has vanished, although you now see much more casual smoking by young and old everywhere, indoors and out, than in London; local people in restaurants, cafés, stations and news-stalls are almost all much friendlier and more helpful than they used to be, time and again shaming us by replying in fluent English to our stumbling school French, whereas in the old days there was a cruel pretence not to understand what we tried to say in French, reply delivered in a torrent of unintelligible argot. Today we walk along the Rue de Grenelle, past Les Invalides, to the Rue Cler, where we used to stay in a cheap but comfortable hotel, the Hotel Cler: the familiar street, once attractively shabby and unpretentious, somehow ‘genuine’, has gone decisively up-market, both metaphorically and literally, now home to a picturesque street market and thronged with tourists. The old Hotel Cler has long vanished and we try, without obvious success, to identify which of the new establishments might be occupying its former site. We are filled with the soppy nostalgia permitted, perhaps, to septuagenarians.

Later to the Ile de la Cité for a quick return visit to Notre Dame, crowded but still gorgeous, and on to the Ile St-Louis, tourist-ridden at the western end but peaceful and attractive as you go further east. An excellent lunch at the Auberge de la Reine Blanche (from Alice Through the Looking-Glass or Buckingham Palace?) at 30 Rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile, well worth a detour, and then a little further to gawp at the immense mansion of Baron Guy de Rothschild, according to the Rough Guide the most exclusive and expensive house in Paris. By Metro to the Louvre for the Italian Renaissance galleries, full of wonderful things; and, footsore again, back to the flat.

Friday: We arrive far too early at the Musée d’Orsay but the friendly official guarding the entrance for those already ‘armed’ with tickets waves us inside at once: more than his London counterpart at Tate Modern or the National Gallery would do, I suspect. The Cézanne-Pissarro exhibition is brilliant and unexpectedly illuminating: neither of us had realised how much each had been influenced by the other, or how close they were. This is an unrepeatable opportunity to see, side by side, paintings by each of the two artists of exactly the same scenery, the pairs of pictures brought together from galleries all over the world. It seems odd, though, not to see any of Cézanne’s Provençal paintings — no Mont Ste-Victoire! — because the sage of Aix never managed to persuade his older friend to join him in the sun-baked south. Although many of the Pissarro paintings are extremely attractive, I don’t myself think that he survives the comparison too well, Cézanne to my mind much the greater artist. But J. disagrees, preferring Pissarro, a judgment that seems to me eccentric, although she is generally right about such things (if there is a ‘right’ in these matters).  The exhibition is moving at the end of May to New York and later to Los Angeles, but, sadly, not to anywhere in Britain.

Saturday: Notices on our Metro trains say: “You may bring a domestic animal on the train if it is small and in a bag.” And: “If you are carrying a back-pack or rucksack, you may be more comfortable if you take it off and carry it in your hand.” You couldn’t make it up, but evidently someone does.

Yesterday morning we took a nostalgic walk along the Boulevard St Michel, the ‘Boul Mich’ of legend, winding up in the beautiful Jardin de Luxembourg where we sit in the sun for a while and read the Guardian. Strange how different French parks and public gardens are from British: the French mostly formal, stylised, orderly, the British more natural open spaces such as St James’s and Green Parks and most of all Hyde Park. Both equally delightful, balm to the urban spirit and to the ragged feet. Vive la différence!

Today we revisit Montmartre, for old times’ sake. The area around Sacré Coeur and the Place du Tertre is hopelessly compromised now by commercialism run riot: it’s barely possible to recognise the peaceful haven for artists that they used to be; even this early in the tourist season the crowds are so dense that movement is difficult, and the itinerant pedlars and would-be portrait-draughtsmen are aggressively insistent and hard to throw off. Further along, though, it’s more peaceful and pleasant. We walk the full length of the Rue Lepic, humming Yves Montand’s unforgettable ode to that famous street (the words are here), ending up where Lepic joins the Rue des Abbesses at a marvellously unspoiled and authentic restaurant, A La Pomponnette, where we have a truly memorable lunch on the terrace, the weather forecast once again having thankfully proved hopelessly wrong with its reaffirmed warning of perpetual rain. Pomponnette most enthusiastically recommended, my rabbit stew especially delicious. Once more we enjoy the flexibility of being able to buy our wine by the 25cl or 50cl pichet or by the half-bottle or full bottle, enabling us to fine-tune our thirsts in accordance with our preferences (white for J., in recent years seriously allergic to red; red for me).

Sunday: A chance remark in the Rough Guide to Paris takes us, out of curiosity, to the Marais, the former Paris marshes, now a fashionable residential area as well as a good place for lots of attractive small shops that open on Sundays. The Place des Vosges is a lovely square, formal garden in the centre and an attractive arcade along two sides. We head for the old Jewish quarter around the Rue Pavé and the Rue des Rosiers, where kosher delicatessens still flourish, Hasidic Jews in broad-brimmed black hats and ringlets gather in gossiping groups around the old synagogue, destroyed during the occupation by the Germans but rebuilt after the war, and the small skull-caps on the back of the heads of Algerians and Moroccans signal a new wave of Jewish immigrants. We buy some schmaltzherring at the most famous of the delis, Florence Finkelsztajn (delicious starter for our evening meal back at the flat), and some appetising-looking cheese-cake at a kosher patisserie (rather cloying, a disappointment), winding up lunching at a good Italian restaurant, the Jardin du Marais, near the point where the down-market end of the Rue de Rivoli becomes the Rue St Antoine on its way to the Place de la Bastille.

After lunch, as we walk back along St Antoine, a huge swarm of roller-bladers, male and female, young and moderately old, comes charging towards us, occupying the whole of both lanes of the wide road. A trio of flying bladers in maillots jaunes precedes the main army, clearing traffic and bicycles out of the way. Protesting cyclists, forced onto the pavement, are firmly told to wait until the swarm has passed. One of the accompanying wardens tells us that this happens every Sunday and that he thinks around 2,000 roller-bladers take part. Swooping and flailing, they whiz silently past, self-absorbed. (But how do they brake? Probable answer: they don’t.)

Monday: This being the 8th of May, anniversary of VE-Day, the French celebrate with a public holiday (more than we do!) and a celebration at l’Etoile presided over by the President of the Republic. Although Britain is notoriously hung up on World War Two, Churchill oratory and the time when we Stood Alone (we did, too), to a greater extent than almost any other European country, Paris is fuller of physical reminders of the war than London is, no doubt because of Paris having experienced the occupation. Every other street seems to display a plaque commemorating the heroic deaths at the place marked by the plaque ‘pour la France et pour la Liberté’ of resistance leaders executed by the Germans, very often in August 1944, tragically soon before the liberation. The huge memorial sculpture at the end of the Boul Mich by the Sorbonne recalls that as the liberation armies approached, brave Parisians rose in revolt and freed themselves from their oppressors. (A different kind of plaque in the Marais, in the Rue des Rosiers, commemorates a group of people with Muslim names, ‘victims of terrorism’ in 1982.) How would Britons have behaved in a London occupied by the Germans? Any differently from the French, some bravely resisting even when resistance put wives and children and elderly parents at risk, others collaborating in the hope of minimising the violence and the deaths and maimings? Unlikely.

Our last full day in Paris, at any rate on this trip. And to confound the weather forecasters, the sun is still shining and the sky is still blue. Tomorrow back to the Gare du Nord and the Eurostar home. One last early morning outing for croissants; then the packing. At least it should be easier carting the heavy suitcases down the 56 steps than it was carting them up.

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*To see the photographs of our week in Paris, click here:  when you have loaded the Flickr page of thumbnails, click on the first picture to see a larger version, then click the left-hand thumbnail of the two over on the right of the screen to see the next one, and so on.  To see any picture full size, click “All Sizes” at the top of the picture; then use your browser’s ‘Back’ button to get back to the previous screen for the next picture.

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