The First Time I Saw Paris

The first time I saw Paris I felt I already knew it. All those movies and magazine photos and novels, paintings by Toulouse Lautrec and Degas, memoirs by Anais Nin and Henry Miller. Colette. My literary interest actually started with A Tale of Two Cities and shows no sign of ending since I’ve just ordered A Moveable Feast by Hemingway.

Shakespeare and I, on the Left Bank

Shakespeare and I, on the Left Bank

So a compulsory visit to Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank was early on the itinerary. A fabulous bookshop full of wankers, hipsters and tourists, a bit of a browse before I bought a copy of the Paris Review to read later and we wandered off to a nearby bar for a quick meal and cheap drink. It’s near the Sorbonne so there are plenty of great little places to choose from. This is not the original shop, owner or premises, but full of history and interest anyway. Read their own description here.

There were other great bookshops like the Red Wheelbarrow but we didn’t spend that much time with books or reading. Too busy with the camera: one of my galleries is here on Google+.

France has a rich history of photography, dating back to Nicéphore Niépce who invented the medium in the 1820s. They’ve produced great photographers such as Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, André Kertész, Francoise Demulder, Willy Ronis and Catherine Leroy. An iconic image in my formative years was a Popular Front demonstration, 1936, by Willy Ronis. Not his greatest shot by a long way, but it spoke to me about the city of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Willy Ronis

Willy Ronis, Popular Front, 1938

Then there are all those movies, like The Red Balloon, Last Tango in Paris, Gigi, La Jetee, Jules et Jim, Bande a Part, Truffaut and Godard, Belle de Jour and Playtime, Funny Face with Audrey Hepburn and Bing Crosby, even the Pink Panther. It’s the city of light in more ways than one – in 1895 Paris gave the first ever private screening of projected motion pictures, in the basement of the Grand Café. The Lumiere brothers of course.

So as we sped through the low lands heading south on a Thalys fast train, I was thinking about these sorts of things. So pleased with myself that I knew so much already. The first recognisable sighting was the dome of Sacre Coeur above the rooftops as we approached the Gard du Nord. And as we stepped off the train I realised I knew nothing and was filled with wonder: Paris, city of freedom, gaiety, love and life, remade by history with hope, eternally young and pulsing with joie de vivre.

Five, six, seven storey apartments, busy wide streets with a rabbit warren behind the facades. Everything just like the movies but new and strange at the same time. Walking in the warm afternoon sun. Eating and drinking at corner bars, finding unique dress shops like Boutique 1962 in Clichy just down the hill from Montmartre and around the corner from the cemetery.


Paris, Tex at Boutique 1962

Tex had actually bought a dress here on her first trip, but this time we accidentally stumbled into 1962 so she bought another one!

From there we wound our way to the Galleries Lafayette which was disappointing as a shopping destination, and full of rich Arabs and Chinese, but fascinating as a building.

And so the days passed, walking here and there, risking ourselves on the metro with trains every few minutes and dangerous automatic doors, roaming this marvellous city.

So much to see and too much to report on in detail. We didn’t visit any art galleries but walked through the courtyard at the Louvre – the queue to get in wound maybe 500 metres around the corner. We did visit Notre Dame and saw the great icons like the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

Galleries Lafayette

Galleries Lafayette: above the dome

But it’s the quirky and unusual things that interested us most. This website here provides a good guide to that sort of thing, despite it’s tacky format. We also used a book called Secret Paris, by Maud Ratton and Jacques Garance. This led us off the beaten track to places like the former palace of Queen Margot – that was another movie with Isabelle Adjani. Margot lived here in 1605, the building dates from 1475 but has been remodelled extensively. There’s a cannonball from the 1830 Revolution is still stuck in the stonework above the left hand window near the turret!

Queen Margot

Hotel de Sens, former Palace of Queen Margot (1605)

Called the Hotel de Sens it’s actually a private residence which also houses the Forney Art Library. This is in the Marais district which includes the marvellous Place des Vosges and Victor Hugo’s house. A young girl was playing the violin under the colonnade there that sunny day and you couldn’t imagine a more romantic Parisian scene. (Play snippet below)

That first trip we stayed in Asnieres sur Seine and at the station underpass, every morning, an old guy played a saxophone which echoed up through the tunnels. This was not a particularly touristy area so he was just an ordinary Parisian busker, playing for his supper.

The cemeteries too are romantic, especially the way an old wooden seat is placed inside the mausoleum with a straw broom – I tried to research this custom but got various answers, including the idea that visitors could sweep out any ghosts. There are sixteen historic cemeteries in the city and we visited Pere Lachaise and Montmartre, looking for celebrities like Jim Morrison, Eloise and Abelard, Moliere or Chopin. Pere Lachaise is the more famous but Montmartre the more atmospheric. But talking about death, the Catacombes say it all with kilometers of underground ossiaries, and you’ll find more info here.

Innocents Deposee

In the underworld – the Catacombes

The price of wine and cheese surprised us though we should have figured it beforehand. We went into a small market on day one to buy wine and couldn’t find the good stuff – everything was like 5 – 10 Euros. Until we realised that was the good stuff, that’s just how cheap wine is in France. But when we got back to our apartment – what! You need a corkscrew? Yes the French still use corks, not metal screwtops!

There’s no end to what I could write about so I’ll settle with just one little snippet – Les Marches aux Puces or the flea markets. There are several, we went north to the one at Clignancourt, just past the ring road. This is a black neighbourhood and the “flea markets” (established by rag and bone men way back in 1920) visited by tourists like us, and the middle class or bohemian French, are surrounded by teeming tacky black and Arab stalls selling sneakers and cheap perfume and pirated video games. A bit like “death alley” outside Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar except the gangsta-style sellers left us alone because they were too busy high-fiving each other.

You could just feel the energy and vitality. Inside the flea market itself we found retro furniture, jewellery, old cameras and first edition books. Fascinating for people like us, but the truly interesting life is out there in the real social world!

In the fleamarkets - antique cameras and famous photographers

In the fleamarkets – antique cameras and famous photographers

I took over 500 photos in Paris, not all worth looking back at for sure, but some are OK. A gallery that I like is posted on Wandelaars here, and you’ll find more on Flickr, or 500px or here on iPernity. These links all open in a new window.

But in the final analysis it’s almost impossible to convey the feeling of Paris to anyone who hasn’t been there. And for anyone who has, the odds are that what I saw and felt is something totally different – it’s a moveable feast after all.


Montage – us in Paris

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