I take a few people on literary walks around my Paris.
Walks normally commence at 10am and last about 2 1/2 hours . They conclude with a light lunch or late afternoon tea , coffee or aperitif in our apartment in the building where Sylvia Beach lived with her companion Adrienne Monnier, and where she was visited by most of the important expatriate literary figures of the 1920s and 1930s, including Ernest Hemingway, JamesJoyce, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Gertrude Stein etc.
The cost of a walk, including lunch, is 100 Euros per person , payable in cash on the day.
There are two itineraries:
1. Montparnasse We visit the great literary cafes, the Coupole, Rotonde, Dome and Select, the site of the original Dingo Bar where Hemingway and Fitzgerald first met, the studio Man Ray shared with Kiki of Montparnasse, then the Luxembourg Gardens.
2. Odeon. Beginning in the heart of the French Revolution with the building where the Guillotine was invented, we continue into the 1940s jazz centre of rue Buci, the former homes of Hemingway and Henry Miller, the produce and cheese markets where they shopped, and the world of opium and absinthe.
These are some of the sights of my part of Paris.
Buskers performing outside the church of St Germain des Pres (below)
In 1969, the park next to the church was dedicated to the memory of the poet and writer Guillaume Apollinaire. Pablo Picasso contributed the bust that stands there, although, puzzlingly, the subject is his former mistress Dora Maar, whom Apollinaire never met.
Wallace water fountain, one of 50 funded by British philanthropist Sir Richard Wallace following the siege of Paris by the Prussians in 1870/1. There are now 67, mostly of this design, which shows four slightly different figures representing Kindness, Sobriety, Charity and Simplicity . The water is entirely drinkable. Each fountain used to have a cup chained to it, but these were removed in 1952 as unsanitary.
“We wandered through the Sixth, taking what I think is the most beautiful walk in the world….”
Adam Gopnik, Paris To the Moon.
Every day, heading down Rue de l’Odeon towards the Café Danton on the corner, or the market on Rue Buci, I pass them by the dozens.
Not all are precisely walking, however. They would like to be – but their planned stroll around Paris isn’t working out as they hoped.
Uncertain, they loiter at the corner of Boulevard Saint Germain. Couples, usually, dressed in a seasonal variation of light overcoat or jacket, beige cotton or corduroy pants, and sensible shoes. Huddling over a folded map or guide book, they look up and around every few seconds, hopeful that the incomprehensible street signs and unexpected architecture will have transformed themselves into something more like Brooklyn or Brentwood or Birmingham.
Sometimes they appear in groups. At the head of the straggling column, a guide holds over his or her head a flag or, if it’s raining, an umbrella. Few followers take their eyes off this object. They’ve learned, often through experience, that Paris for the pedestrian is both fascinating and deceptive. What if they did pause – to browse that basket of books outside a librairie, for instance, or take a closer look at a dress in the window of a boutique? The rest of the tour might turn a corner or cross the road, disappearing from sight, casting them adrift in this baffling town. They would be forced to buttonhole a passing Parisian and stammer, “Excusez-moi, monsieur, mais….parlez-vous Anglais?” Or worse, submit to the subterranean mysteries of Paris’s underground railway, le Metro. A few lost souls are always hovering at the entrance to the station at the foot of our street. Staring up at the swirling art nouveau curlicues of Hector Guimard’s cast-iron archway, they may read “Metropolitain” but they see what Dante saw over the gate to Hell - “Abandon hope all ye who enter here.”
What makes walking in Paris so frustrating to the visitor is the presence all around them of others who share none of their hesitation. Confident, casual, the French breeze past, as comfortable as birds in a tree. They know exactly when to pause as a bus roars by on what appears to be the wrong side of the road. They make abrupt turns into alleys, at the foot of which one glimpses the most interesting-looking little market…..
How do they know?
Well, this is their habitat, their quartier, as familiar to them as their own living room. Parisians don’t step out of their front door into their car, then drive across town to the office, or park in some cavernous concrete warehouse before entering a vast air-conditioned mall to shop. No Parisian drives around Paris. A few cycle. Others take the Metro or a bus, but most walk. Paris belongs to its pietons – pedestrians. One goes naturally aux pied – on foot. And it’s only on foot that you truly discover its richness and variety.
The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik calls a stroll up Rue de Seine, just around the corner from our apartment, “the most beautiful walk in the world.” And so it is - for him. But every Parisian, and everyone who comes to know Paris, has his or her own “most beautiful walk”. None are in the guide books, because guide books only tell you where you are and what you are looking at. What about those things that take place in between? The glances, the scents, the glimpses, the way the light just falls….. the beautiful part ? No guide tells you that.
I can’t say precisely which walk will be, for you, the most beautiful in Paris. However I will tell you how some people responded when I asked them to nominate their own most beautiful walks. I will even tell you what is, for me, the most beautiful walk in the world. Most usefully, I can show you how to find that particular succession of arrivals and departures that leave one with those memories that can never be erased. The moments one recounts, for decades, prefaced by the words, ‘I remember….once….in Paris…..”
Walk with me.
From THE MOST BEAUTIFUL WALK IN THE WORLD: A PEDESTRIAN IN PARIS.