I was looking forward to showing my daughter Saint Paul’s Cathedral, which I’d studied repeatedly in various art history courses. D was familiar with it from her preschool years when Mary Poppins was a revered staple in our video library. In those days, I tended to remind her, too often, that the “Feed the Birds Church” was a real, famous, enormous church in London. Sometimes I’d show her pictures of it in my architecture books. And if my husband were in on the viewing, he’d explain how young Michael’s tuppence, used for bread crumbs for the birds, instead of deposited into Mr. Banks’ bank could, in theory, have caused a run on the bank. No doubt D would have preferred fewer teachable moments while she watched her movie, but that’s a burden some only children must bear.
St. Paul’s stands atop Ludgate Hill, the highest point in London. A church dedicated to St. Paul the Apostle and prolific New Testament author had existed on the spot since the sixth century. The current church replaced a large medieval basilica built in the Romanesque and Gothic styles. Like much of the City of London, it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. At the time of the fire, a young Christopher Wren had been involved in updating Old St. Paul’s. A network of wooden scaffolding was in place as the stone walls were being repaired. Had the scaffolding not caught fire and ignited the wooden roof beams, portions of the medieval church might have been salvageable. After the destruction, Wren was hired to design a grand new cathedral. Wren rebuilt over fifty London churches, but St. Paul’s is his crowning glory, a masterpiece of the English Baroque style.
The highly sculptural west front of St. Paul’s, with its double temple front and twin towers.
Feed the birds, tuppence a bag.
Wren’s monumental dome drew on Italian Renaissance forerunners by Michelangelo, Brunelleschi and Bramante.
From its earliest days, St. Paul’s has been a distinctly urban church. Considering its location in the densely crowded City, the heart of London’s commercial district since ancient times, it could hardly be otherwise. Seventeenth-century images of Old St Paul’s show the hilltop basilica closely surrounded by haphazardly constructed smaller buildings. The warren of wooden homes and shops that encroached upon one another made suppressing the four-day Great Fire particularly difficult.
That St. Paul’s continues to be hemmed in on all sides by ordinary office buildings is therefore not surprising. But, I wonder, do they have to be so emphatically ugly and insinuatingly pushy? A wave of fresh disappointment hits me every time I approach the great church from a street like the one pictured above.
The British flair for the sweeping, spectacular vista is nowhere in evidence around St. Paul’s. Above, a view from the Millennium bridge.
The Millennium Bridge and St. Paul’s from across the Thames.
St. Paul’s looks down on the life of the city, as it has since its completion in 1708. Above, in Bankside near the Tate Modern, a Shrek in a silver track suit amuses pedestrians by hovering in mid-air. Despite the labyrinth of buildings that crowd the base of the Cathedral, the dome still towers well above newer, less distinguished neighbors. Let futuristic skyscrapers such as “The Shard” and “The Gherkin” continue to pop up, as long as they don’t blot out the vision of that iconic dome.
As we proceeded with our walk through the heart of London, I maintained my role as a somewhat muddled and conflicted tour guide. It was with relief that I found the lacy, Gothic-style towers of Parliament and all the buildings of Westminster Palace in their expected spots, keeping watch over the Thames. Their honey-colored stone gleamed warmly in the sunlight; I had never seen them looking so pristine. The last traces of Industrial Revolution coal-dust grime were blasted away in 1994.
Although reduced in number and usage, classic examples of the red telephone box still punctuate the streets of London. That they tend to be surrounded by international tourists snapping photos with their phones strikes me as an interesting irony, further proof that our twenty-first century world is nothing if not meta.
The ever-present London Eye grew larger as we made our way down the Victoria Embankment alongside the river. Perhaps because I was distracted by the giant Ferris wheel, I completely missed one of my favorite London statues, that of the formidable Boadicea driving her chariot into battle against the Romans. Back home, when I looked for her on Google maps, I found her exactly where she should have been, on the Embankment near Westminster Pier. It was dismaying to realize I had walked blindly past the Warrior Queen.
When we paused to rest on one of the Embankment’s sphinx-armed benches, our daughter noticed that our sunglasses reflected double rings of the London Eye.
When in London, one is gifted (or afflicted), with London eyes.
From the Embankment, we approached Trafalgar Square. Since its completion in 1724, the neoclassical Church of Saint Martin-in-the Fields has anchored a corner of the square. James Gibbs’ design, with a tall, graceful steeple resembling a multi-layer wedding cake, continues to influence the building of Protestant churches throughout the U.S. I regret that we didn’t squeeze in a visit to the café in the church’s roomy, atmospheric crypt. It’s a great place to refuel and revive after wandering the halls of the National Gallery across the square.
This photo from 1982 shows the church from the steps of the National Gallery.
On the day of our visit, Trafalgar Square and the steps leading to the Gallery were awash in a teeming tide of humanity. I had hoped to show my daughter some of my favorite paintings, but the crowds made me lose heart. Spring break in London, as in Paris, has its drawbacks. It seemed futile even to try to elbow our way over to one of the grand lions that guard Lord Nelson’s column. Somewhat appropriately, in the waning afternoon light, the National Gallery takes on a grim, fortress-like aspect in the photo above.
On a less hectic day in the summer of 1982, Lord Nelson’s lions, and the Gallery itself, were more accessible.
We decided to flee the area. But a quick departure was impossible due to the press of the crowd. Had I never been in London during the week before Easter? Maybe not. During my year in the U.K., I returned home once, and that was for Easter. Maybe the city’s always as congested at this time of the season. Better to assume that’s the case than to think it’s been spoiled recently.
I know I’m not alone in occasionally wishing myself nearly alone (with a hand-picked group of family and friends) to experience the marvels of the world’s great cities. As we made our way back, slowly, toward Grosvenor Square and our hotel, I considered the advantages of conducting future British travel from the serenity of the sofa via PBS and Netflix. Under the expert guidance of, say, earnest young Endeavor Morse, or Benedict Cumberbatch’s otherworldly Sherlock, or the bright-eyed, sensibly shoed Miss Marple, one may witness matters of life and death set amidst notable U. K. monuments, without ever battling a crowd. The older I get, the more tempting that sounds.
No doubt about it: I was a tourist in the city that had once been home. The experience was as unsettling as I had anticipated. Familiar buildings turned up in unexpected places. My identifications were often completely wrong. That building there–I think it’s the Horse Guards. . . What does that even mean? I used to know. Oh, it doesn’t matter–it’s not the Horse Guards at all. Too many landmarks looked different, not because of any real changes, but because of the frayed edges of memory. This is what I had feared.
Reassuringly, some sights, such as Buckingham Palace, were much as I remembered them. Its gardens of red and yellow tulips were spectacular on this bright spring day.
A major change, though, is the fact that the London Eye is visible from nearly every point in the city. I hadn’t expected it to be such a background constant.
The Victoria Memorial and the Palace Gates were as grand as ever.
St. James’s Park was dressed up in the Easter-basket colors of early spring.
Westminster Abbey hadn’t picked up and walked away. It was whiter and cleaner than I’d ever seen it before. During my first visit, in 1975, it was still blackened with nineteenth-century soot.
The lawn of the Cloister was perfectly manicured in that oh-so-British style.
During a visit in July 1982, my friends and I posed with a group of jolly actors in period costume outside the Abbey. I tried to recreate the photo with H on this trip, but the results only highlighted time’s passage, and not in a good way.
Some prominent landmarks kindled no spark of recognition. One example is this monumental building facing Westminster Abbey. It’s Methodist Central Hall, dating from 1911. As a lifelong Methodist, I’m disappointed in myself that I have no recollection of it. The headquarters of the United Methodist Church in the U.K., it serves as a conference center, concert venue and home to a large congregation with a vital and active mission. The expansive auditorium topped by its enormous dome was meant to evoke open-air camp meeting pavilions, such as that in Ocean Grove, New Jersey. Next visit, I’ll remember. Also, I’m going inside.
As we wandered the Latin Quarter behind the Pantheon along the narrow streets of the rue Mouffetard area this past April, we were stopped by several delicately painted street art murals. The three paintings include the same figure of a young boy wearing a pale blue and white striped hoodie, jeans and Converse sneakers. This is street art at its playful, charming, arresting best. Not only does it improve the blank walls it adorns, it prompts passers-by to pause, think, and look more closely.
An internet search after I returned home revealed these three murals to be the work of Julien Malland, who paints under the name “Seth.” Also known as the “Globe Painter,” he has created many other works throughout Paris and all over the world. The figure of the boy appears repeatedly, as does the pony-tail-wearing girl in the example below. The artist often uses the wall surface as a unique element in the design. In the painting above, the boy appears to be in the process of disappearing into the wall. In another Paris mural, entitled “Painting the Rainbow,” the boy seems to lift up the wall like a canvas curtain in order to paint a circular rainbow on the floor below. In other works, the wall surface plays the role of water, from which the boy and girl emerge as they prepare to launch a paper boat.
Above, secrets are shared under cover of the roomy striped hoodie.
In this work, the boy appears to float in the water of the wall, holding his paper boat aloft. Some of Seth’s Paris works occupy entire sides of multiple-story buildings.
This artist’s appealing, whimsical creations remind us that Paris is, indeed, one rambling, open-air gallery in which art of every genre is free for those willing to take the time to look.
Like so many tourists, our daughter finds she can walk on water
near I.M. Pei’s Louvre pyramid.
The Grand Palais, an enormous exhibition hall on the Champs-Élysées,
was built for the World’s Fair, held in Paris in 1900.
The interior of the glass-domed Grand Palais abounds with sinuous Art Nouveau ironwork.
More Grand Palais elegance in iron and glass.
The Grand Mosque of Paris, which dates from 1926.
The Odeon Theatre, near the Luxembourg Gardens.
The present building dates from 1819.
A typically grand Paris doorway.
Interior view of the Pantheon.
Produce vendors along the rue Mouffetard. On weekday mornings, the long, narrow street is the ideal setting for a moveable feast.
A pedestrian-only street, the rue du Pot-de-Fer, or Street of the Iron Pot.
Like rue Mouffetard, which it intersects, and several in the area, it
escaped demolition during Haussmann’s revisioning of Paris.
Like most historic cities, Paris is full of beautiful, architecturally and culturally significant churches. Here are a few of my favorites.
The oldest church in the city is Saint-Germain-des-Prés, begun in the sixth century as part of a powerful abbey. Little of the original building survives, and the current church, in the sturdy Romanesque style, dates primarily from the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
While the nave frescoes date from a nineteenth-century renovation, the paint colors of the walls, columns and ceiling give a good idea of the original Romanesque appearance. The church is a popular venue for concerts. A gospel choir from Alabama was performing when we visited in 2002.
The Cathedral of Notre-Dame, in the heart of Paris on the Île de la Cité, is one of the world’s great monuments of Gothic art and architecture. Construction began in 1163. The western façade, towers and rose window were completed by 1250.
The Cathedral was heavily damaged during the French Revolution. The row of biblical kings between the portal and rose window, for example, were beheaded because they were mistakenly identified as kings of France. The current heads are nineteenth century reproductions. Many of the originals, discovered in the late 1970s during an excavation, are now on display at the nearby Cluny Museum of Medieval Art.
Interior of the nave, showing the classic Gothic elevation of arcade, triforium and clerestory.
My favorite view of Notre-Dame, from the southeast, showing the eastern apse and its famous flying buttresses, the first of their kind.
The mid-thirteenth-century Sainte-Chapelle, an example of Rayonnant Gothic architecture, was the royal chapel of Louis IX , also known as Saint Louis. Built to house the king’s newly acquired collection of Passion relics, the church resembles an enlarged reliquary. Today it’s surrounded by the gated and heavily secured Palace of Justice.
The upper chapel is known for its extraordinary expanses of original stained glass. Due to advances in Gothic building techniques, the stone framework of the wall is minimal. Unlike many of the large Gothic cathedrals, which were constructed over centuries in fits and starts, the Sainte-Chapelle was completed in a quick five years. The style of its stained glass, sculpture and architecture is therefore remarkably coherent.
A smiling angel in the upper chapel.
The lower chapel, with its brilliantly painted and gilded tracery, is a lovely spot for small concerts. During my Paris summer, we attended an unforgettable chamber concert of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Steps leading to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur atop the hill of Montmartre, the highest point in Paris.
Sacré-Coeur, begun in 1875, was built in the Byzantine-Romanesque style reminiscent of domed churches in the Dordogne area. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the church was funded by public subscription as an offering of penance after France’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War.
In the crypt, a statue of Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris. Bishop of Paris in the third century, he died a martyr’s death by beheading atop Montmartre hill. According to legend, he picked up his head and walked six miles, preaching all the way. The early Gothic church of Saint-Denis marks the spot where he was said to have died.
A view from the dome, well worth the walk, unless one suffers from claustrophobia. The path up, not surprisingly, is along a very narrow, winding stone staircase.
Standing in the garden of the Cité Universitaire this past April, below the room that served as home during my college summer in Paris, I felt like I was in a time warp with tunnel vision. I could reflect on successive Paris life layers at once, one atop another. Today’s post concerns a time thirteen years after my travels in France as a grad student. It’s 2002. For the first time, I’m in France and I’m not a student. It feels strange. The responsibilities of adulthood have caught up with me. I’m a wife and mother, here in the city with my husband and my parents. We’ve left our nearly three year old daughter at home with H’s parents.
It had long been a goal of mine to accompany my parents to France. During my year in England, we had traveled together for three weeks, but we hadn’t yet done France. In the spirit of parental sacrifice, Mama and Daddy had repeatedly stayed home and paid, or helped pay my way. We had always said Sometime, we’ll all go. That sometime seemed to have arrived in 2002. We were all healthy and ambulatory. H, like me, was eager to return to France. Fourteen years had passed since his semester in Rennes. The overlap in the timing of our European student adventures had provided us with a point of commonality that may have been crucial in drawing us together initially. (See That French Connection, April 2014.) Ever the dutiful son-in-law, H didn’t complain about traveling with his wife’s parents, or sharing the tour-guide obligations.
Our daughter was old enough to understand that we weren’t leaving her for good. H’s parents were willing and able to care for her. Very briefly, we considered taking D with us. But I could see how the trip would unfold. She’d be continually preoccupied with something that seemed totally inconsequential to adult eyes. Under the fascinating spell of fallen leaves in the dirt, she’d be oblivious to the historic splendor all around her. My entreaties would go unheard: Look up, sweetie! Look at the beautiful towers. See those funny creatures way up high? Those are gargoyles. My mother would miss most of the sights she’d anticipated for so long. In an effort to make the trip proceed more smoothly for the rest of us, she’d devote her attention to placating her granddaughter. I’d feel guilty. We’d all be testy. Best to leave our toddler with Grandma and Grandpa at home, where she could enjoy, unimpeded, the pleasures of domestic leaves and dirt.
My objectives for travel abroad have varied according to the stages of my life. As a student wearing the rose-colored glasses of youth and freedom, the realm of possibility was vast. Who knew what adventures, what fulfillments of fantasy lay ahead? Caprice, romance, astounding coincidence–while I didn’t take such winged creatures as my due, I also didn’t rule them out entirely. Who’s to say absolutely that I would not meet a sensitive, handsome young man as we admired the same obscure, underappreciated painting in the Louvre? Was it utterly impossible that he’d be involved in the thoughtful restoration of his family’s ancient and immense château? That my fresh American sensibility would invigorate him like a breath of fresh air? That we’d fall in love and live happily ever after among the rose-blanketed walls of honey-colored stone? That the surrounding village would be peopled by delightfully eccentric and charming characters, who would hold us particularly dear as Lord and Lady of the Manor? Such a scenario was clichéd, antiquated and extremely unlikely. But it wasn’t entirely impossible. After all, I was young. Anything was possible. And I’d experienced the unlikely before.
On this trip, it’s a different story. As a no longer young adult traveling with my husband and parents, my goals are considerably more modest and down-to-earth. I’m looking forward to seeing my parents appreciating my favorite French sights, and to comparing student experiences with my husband. I’m hoping for beautiful scenery, comfort, the avoidance of injury, illness and mishap. While my parents are hardly frail or weak, they are, obviously, even less young than I. A successful visit will be free of emergency room visits, crippling accidents, assaults and major transportation breakdowns. It will mean not losing Mama or Daddy temporarily or permanently on the Metro. Perhaps most importantly, it means an uneventful return that brings us back home safely to our little daughter.
Without incident, we check off the sights my mother the history buff had been waiting years to experience: Notre-Dame, the Sainte-Chapelle, the Louvre, Versailles, the Arc de Triomphe. (Daddy is sunnily content to go wherever she, H or I suggest.) We avoid misadventure but find ourselves on its heels several times, as when we stumble upon the aftermath of a purse-snatching and the apprehension of the thief. My parents are hardy, adaptable, unfussy travelers. They don’t even grumble when, after wandering the Versailles gardens and Marie Antoinette’s Petit Hameau, we miss the last passenger trolley and have no option but to walk for what seems like many miles. We enjoy several pleasant days in Paris before we head to the Loire Valley. Mama wants to see some châteaux.
We take the TGV train to Tours, where we rent a car. Although in 1988, Daddy drove Mama and me swiftly and confidently along Britain’s winding roads, this time he’s happy to yield the wheel to H. Our home base in the Loire Valley will be the picturesque little town of Amboise. The royal Château d’Amboise, a multi-turreted castle worthy of Sleeping Beauty, is the centerpiece of the town. It’s a short, lovely walk to the Château du Clos Lucé, where Leonardo da Vinci, as artist and inventor in residence and buddy to Francois I, spent his final years. The Châteaux of Chenonceau and Azay-le-Rideau are nearby.
Also within an easy walk from the center of Amboise are several so-called troglodyte homes built into the cliffs of soft tufa, a kind of limestone. The stone, evidence of a prehistoric sea that once covered the area, was quarried for local building. The resulting caves offered unique housing opportunities. Much sought-after, they’re typically equipped with most modern conveniences and need no heat or air conditioning.
From Amboise, we drive west to Rennes. Although it’s familiar territory for my husband, I’ve never been here. As we walk through the old town and the University section, he recalls his student days. I’d heard the stories, now I can experience the setting first-hand. He points out the buildings where his classes met, the cafés, parks and shops he frequented. As he shows me the route he took to school, I can see him riding through town on his moped, blonde curls visible under the helmet. Thankfully, he was wearing that helmet when a truck hit him one morning. Were it not for that helmet, it’s doubtful we’d be standing here together.
Although H had been in sporadic contact with his French host family since he stayed with them in 1988, he hadn’t told them our travel plans. Our time would be short, and a visit could be awkward since my parents speak no French. But on the road to Mont Saint-Michel, H realizes that we’re tracing his old route to town. Their home is so close. Seems like we almost have to drive by. H has no trouble spotting the house. As though on cue, his French parents are walking out the front door. They recognize H immediately, after fourteen years and no prior notice of his arrival. Monsieur and Madame Treguier welcome us warmly. They are merrily insistent that we return for dinner that evening. We find ourselves saying yes. Who knows when we’ll be back? My parents urge us to go. They’re invited, as well, but they’ll stick with dinner at the hotel. That’s probably a good decision, since Daddy tends to find any long conversation tedious, even if it’s in his own language.
That night, after a beautiful day with my parents at Mont Saint-Michel, H and I are treated to what feels like a homecoming meal. The Treguiers’ younger daughter lives in town and is able to join us. Of course she’s a grown woman now, but H remembers her as a little girl. Madame Treguier brings forth dish after delectable dish, seemingly effortlessly from her tiny kitchen, beginning with a dramatically heaping platter of bright red langoustines. I really don’t know how she does it. For H and me, it takes all our collective brain power to speak sustained, passable French for several hours. The constantly flowing wine helps, until it hinders, and we have to resort to covering our glasses with our hands. The Treguiers are as generous with their wine as H had remembered. In fact, as soon as we arrived, Monsieur Treguier had proudly showed us his brand new wine storage area, his “cave,” built under the garage.
It’s a wonderful, celebratory evening. I get to peel back the layers of my husband’s life, just as I have my own. I see him as his host family remembers, as a very green, very American college boy. They recall fondly that when he first arrived, they secretly despaired. Would they ever be able to communicate with him? He had had only one year of college French, and his language skills were rudimentary. Fortunately, he showed remarkably swift improvement, and his charm was immune to the language barrier. Wow, I thought. With many more years of French study behind me, I’d lacked the courage to stay in a French household during my Paris summer.
Seeing H through the eyes of the Treguier family brings to light one of the traits I most admire about him: his quiet confidence. Whatever the challenge, if he considers it worthwhile, he’s up for it. Immerse himself in a totally French-speaking environment with minimal skills? He’ll manage it. Drive an enormous delivery truck through all the boroughs of New York City? Sure. Fix the car, any car? Easy. Repair the hole in the ceiling? Yes. Master windsurfing on his own? He’s done it. Teach his daughter to ski? Of course. Show her a better approach to that algebra problem? Certainly. Yet he’s never showy or arrogant. He has no ancestral château, but what a guy. Indeed, what a great guy. I can tell that the Treguiers agree.
That night in Rennes, the Treguiers’ deep affection for my husband is apparent. What’s more, they extend their high regard and good will graciously to me, and even to our daughter, back at home. They urge us to return in the near future, to bring her and spend more time with them. As we say our goodbyes, it’s like leaving a family reunion in some best of all possible worlds. It’s one of those times when the bonds of true friendship are revealed at their strong, resilient best, stretching across miles, years, languages and cultures.
That day at the Fondation des Etats-Unis, looking up at the balcony of my former room, the life layers continued to flip by. I can see myself back in Paris as a grad student. I’m spending this year primarily in London, researching my dissertation in medieval art. It’s April of 1989, and my friend Laura had joined me in London. Together, we had made our way to the south coast and crossed the Channel.
It’s seven years since my summer in Paris. It surprises me, but I feel considerably more mature. Maybe it’s Laura’s companionship; perhaps her air of confident capability is wearing off on me. The stamp on my forehead that once read CLUELESS AMERICAN COLLEGE GIRL!! has evidently worn away. The throngs of loitering young men check us out but generally don’t pursue us. Shopkeepers treat us with respect. Some even call us Madame. Although this last point strikes me as overkill, otherwise I thank my lucky stars for the perks of aging. Paris is a familiar, gracious presence, and it’s good to be back.
We find a cheap hotel just off the Fontaine Saint-Michel, in the midst of what I think of as the old neighborhood, the Latin Quarter. The hotel is pretty awful, but it’s certainly affordable, the location is great, and its oddities are the source of many laughs. It’s not worth our time and trouble to trudge the streets in search of a new place, so we stay put for five days or so.
When Laura flies back to the states, I’m joined by a friend from England. I have an Apocalypse manuscript to examine in the city library of Toulouse, so we head south. It bothers me that I have no recollection of how we got there. We must have flown. There seem to have been no high-speed trains back then. I have a vague, unpleasant recollection of trying to speak French on a pay phone with the airline. One way or another, we got to Toulouse, an ancient university town of rose-brick medieval buildings and tropical charm.
It’s a bank holiday weekend, so the Bibliothèque Municipale in Toulouse is closed. Throughout this year abroad, bank holidays keep popping up. Many I anticipate and plan for, but others come at me, unexpected. I take them in stride; they offer a good excuse to postpone work and relax. On this occasion, we opt for additional sightseeing in the South of France. We take in the nearby historic cities of Albi and Carcasonne, then head to Provence, where we spend several gloriously unhurried days in Nimes, Avignon and Arles. The gray chill of April is yielding to the sunny splendor of May, and the countryside has an air of lush enchantment.
Atop the hill is the fortified medieval Cité of Carcasonne. Its striking resemblance to a fairy tale village is likely due in part to its comprehensive nineteenth-century restoration by Viollet-le-Duc. The newer part of town surrounds the walled center section.
On our last night in Carcasonne, we seem to be floating in a slightly surreal multicultural soup. At a rustic traditional restaurant in the old town, we eat cassoulet, the area’s famous casserole of duck, goose, pork and white beans. During dessert, an Irish band plays Leonard Cohen songs, the lyrics translated into French.
Once we return to Toulouse, my friend goes home to England, and I’m on my own. The library opens, and I spend a couple of days with my manuscript. One afternoon, I go to the nearby town of Moissac to see the medieval Abbey of Saint-Pierre. The church is adorned with a wealth of Romanesque sculpture, which I’ve studied since my very first art history course. The carving is dramatic, highly stylized and exuberant. What a thrill it is to be in its visionary presence.
I return to Paris by train, stopping for one night in the picturesque town of Souillac on the Dordogne River. The scenery between Toulouse and Souillac is amazing. I’m more and more smitten with each village we pass. Look: there’s the medieval bridge of Cahors, as neat and tiny as a child’s toy. In the distance I spot the perfect hilltop village of Saint-Cirq-Lapopie. My dog Popi, six years gone now, has his own French town, I think. It’s appropriate; he had such class and style. I’m envisioning future trips to the lovely Dordogne Valley.
I can’t remember why I stopped in Souillac, but I’m glad I did. I find the nicely situated and aptly named Hotel Belle Vue. The day is warm and bright, and I wander the old, narrow streets with no particular goal or destination in mind, one of the great luxuries of leisurely travel. Before long, the buildings give way to flower-filled meadows. I stop to watch some ducks paddling in the river near an old mill. After a while, I follow a grassy pathway winding uphill. At the top of the hill, the path emerges from trees and foliage to reveal the village below, clustered around the domes of the Abbey Church of Sainte-Marie. The scene is quaint, timeless and peaceful. It could be an image from one of the illuminated manuscripts I’ve been studying. I couldn’t have dreamed up a more poetically satisfying finale for my solitary exploration. All these years later, I carry it with me, like a treasure.
From the Pantheon and our hotel, it’s an easy walk down rue Soufflot to the grand gated entrance to the Luxembourg Gardens, a green oasis in the heart of Paris’s streets of stone and brick. The name is proof that the French don’t forget their history. In the early seventeenth century, the land was owned by the Duke of Luxembourg. The palace and gardens owe their existence to Marie de’ Medici. After the assassination of her husband, Henry IV in 1610, the Italian-born Queen needed a change of scenery and a move from the Louvre. She bought the land in 1612 and commissioned a palace and gardens inspired by her memories of Florence’s Pitti Palace and Boboli Gardens.
The fifty-five-acre park features expanses of perfectly manicured lawn, bordered by allés of carefully tended horse-chestnut trees and bright flowers that change with the seasons. Many statues accent the greenery.
Lawns are scarce in Paris and highly prized. Early on during my Parisian student summer, our group was picnicking in a park. We noticed an approaching gendarme, gesticulating enthusiastically. We thought he was happy to see us. Soon it became evident that we had mistaken his exasperation for overt friendliness. We learned then that the pelouse is typically interdit. In the Luxembourg Gardens, some of the lawns are preserved by alternating pedestrian access. While the above panel was off limits, a nearby one was populated by picnickers and sun-seekers.
One of my favorite spots in the city is the Gardens’ Medici Fountain. The strangely beautiful, grotto-like structure reminds me of something I’d hope to see in a dream. It stands at the end of a short allée of chestnut trees. Even on the hottest summer days, by the fountain it’s cool and quiet in the welcome shade.
Many significant Paris attractions were within easy reach of our small hotel by the Pantheon. Typically, we’d begin our excursions by heading down rue Soufflot. One afternoon during our visit twelve years ago, my husband and I took an opposite route. For us, and perhaps for the typical tourist, it was the road less traveled. We followed the narrow streets behind the Pantheon, down the hill for several blocks, to emerge onto a lively little square. The upper stories of the old buildings leaned in all around, as though in intimate discussion. We had stumbled upon La Place de la Contrescarpe.
It was a warm day in May, and we quickly settled into an inviting outdoor table at La Contrescarpe, one of several cafés bordering the square. We sipped our beers and watched locals running errands and socializing. The school day had recently ended, and the square was abuzz with activity and the musical sounds of French conversation. Teenagers from nearby lycées headed to the cafés or chatted by the fountain in the leafy center of the square. Parents and younger children paused for gelato, pastries and baguettes at the many small shops.
Because we discovered the square near the end of our trip, we didn’t get a chance to return. When we discussed plans for this visit, my husband and I agreed that we should go early and often to our favorite little Place. On our first day back in Paris last month, after leaving our bags at the hotel, we set off down the familiar streets for lunch at the café.
The square was just as we had remembered it, just as authentically French, still relatively untrodden by throngs of international tourists. Because the weather was sunny but chilly, we took an outside table within reach of an overhead heater. Thanks to these, April in Paris is more comfortable than ever. H and I ordered our celebratory “cinquantes,” 50-cl draft beers that we associate with an unhurried afternoon in France. Our daughter sampled her first Croque Monsieur. Or did she have the Croque Madame, topped with a fried egg? One of those, which she heartily enjoyed, along with her Orangina. The food was tasty, and the service was efficient and polite. The waiter understood our French without any apparent trouble. What’s more, he continued to address us in French, something we’ve learned to take as a compliment. It was quite the pleasure to be back.
La Contrescarpe became our local café, our destination for rest and refreshment after hours of sightseeing. It was a prime spot for viewing Parisian street theatre, which continued unabated. Several featured players, quirky character actors, as it were, returned again and again. Occasionally, when they became overly boisterous, they were courteously but firmly shooed away by the café staff. We enjoyed the feeling of being part of the scene.
I didn’t realize until after we had returned home that the Contrescarpe area, traditionally a working class district, has a rich historical association with writers. Rabelais frequented the area’s taverns. Balzac set much of Le Pere Goriot in the neighborhood. Victor Hugo’s Jean Valjean haunted its streets in Les Miserables. James Joyce wrote Ulysees there. George Orwell lived and worked in the neighborhood.
Its most evocative literary ties, however, may be with Hemingway. Just steps from the Place, and within sight of our table at La Contrescarpe, is the apartment at 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine, where he and his first wife lived in cheerful poetic poverty. On the opening page of A Moveable Feast, Hemingway writes how “the cold wind would strip the leaves from the trees in the Place Contrescarpe.” He rented a small garret room for writing around the corner on rue Descartes, in the same building where the poet Verlaine died in 1896.
I had generally avoided reading Hemingway because I wasn’t drawn to tales of bullfighting, fishing, boxing, or war. But A Moveable Feast, a memoir of his early years as a writer in Paris during the 1920s, had been on my to-read list seemingly forever. About two years ago, I read it. Hemingway’s Paris, so vividly and often comically evoked, was the Latin Quarter. “My” Paris. I remember appreciating the many references to my favorite spots, to the names of streets I traversed as a student. Like Hemingway, my friends and I were always on the lookout for cheap places to eat and drink. We were familiar with his Paris, of great beauty, bare-bones accommodations and inconvenient plumbing.
But the repeated mentions of La Place Contrescarpe, I’m disappointed to say, rang no bell of recognition. I recall thinking the unusual name sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t realize Hemingway’s first Paris home was immediately off that very same square H and I had enjoyed so much. I had no idea that as we sat at our favorite café table, we were facing the writer’s former “flat at the top of the hill.”
Hemingway avoided the café that adjoins the house he lived in. Then known as the Café des Amateurs, he described it as “the cesspool of the rue Mouffetard,” “a sad, evilly run café where the drunkards of the quarter crowded together.” While we didn’t sample the current café in that location, preferring our post across the street, it looked perfectly pleasant, neither sad nor evil. Obviously times change. I can’t help but be relieved, however, that it wasn’t La Contrescarpe or a previous incarnation that received such a bad review. I like to think there were spring evenings when Hemingway, happy after a successful day of writing, joined his wife Hadley at an outdoor table there on the Place de la Contrescarpe. Should he have appeared during our visit, “Midnight in Paris” style, my family and I would have been glad to clink glasses with him in a contented “Salut.” I know he would appreciate the cinquante as much as H and I did.
A blog about motherhood, marriage and life: the joys and frustrations, beauty and absurdity, blessings and pain. It's about looking back, looking ahead, and walking the dog.