I didn’t know you were this packed, Paris. I mean, I know everyone loves you and everyone’s supposed to love you even if they don’t really. But seriously, the traffic? I wanted to throw myself into the Seine at one point. Instead I just collapsed on the grass in the Jardin du Luxembourg and propped myself up long enough for a photo before unlocking that elbow and having a tantrum on my back like Harry Enfield’s Kevin.
I wanted everyone to just stop walking INTO MY FACE for five minutes so that I could see Paris for a second. But then again I’m a bit of a country bumpkin when it comes to cities and I tend to just have a strop in the middle of pavements until people move past me. Look at these folks with their back to Notre Dame. Do they know they’re facing the wrong way?
Jardin du Luxembourg
The Jardin du Luxembourg in August is an absolute godsend. Little toddling boys and girls in clothes that toddling children should wear (i.e. not jeans or clothes with words on) lean over the stone wall and place little wooden yachts into the water and gaze at them as the wind takes them on their near horizontal adventures across the lake. It is a place where you will manage to to regain some peace and be able to face the rest of Paris again.
Shakespeare & Co.
I think I was sulking at being so hemmed in at Shakespeare & Co. (If you don’t know what Shakespeare & Co. is then you’re at the wrong site and you need to go here instead).
As I was saying, I was sulking.
I wanted the place to myself and I was also hacked off at not having the money to buy the collection of Sylvia Plath’s poetry book because it was three times the price there than in any other bookshop in the world. But my god it was a gorgeous meaty hefty book that I so wanted to own forever. Especially a stamped version. This was a place I had been dying to visit since I had been made aware of it, and it made me fed up that others wanted to go there too. Yes, I’m a complete spoilt child when it comes to having bits of the world to myself. When you grow up in the countryside with miles and miles of uninterrupted fields around you to explore then you do tend to get a little complacent.
Having said that I’ve never seen another place like it. A few wines later and I soon realised that instead of lamenting the crowds I should be marvelling at how it is still able exist. The beds are still there for gods sake. And the little cove with the typewriter. It’s all still there and we are just in a world which allows so many people to travel to it and see it. I should be happy that so many people allow it to keep going.
And despite all the tourism and sheer volume of people there was still a group of students on seats outside, with bare feet up on each other’s thighs, holding battered paperbacks on their laps, as they listen to one of the group reading from theirs.
I’m getting impatient to talk about the rest of Paris now so here’s what someone else thinks about it: Did Shakespeare and Co. change or did I?
My favourite part of the shop is the outside wall, which talks about Don Quixote and Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy and other friends of mine.
It would have been good to see the shop later in the evening. But we were staying over in Bastille so it was a little far away.
My favourite part of Paris. It is so bloody wonderful there. I chose to stay there because I read something about it being where Victor Hugo dabbled in debauchery in some of the most rough around the edges bars in Paris.
It’s bloody real as hell. And I love it. Not least because of the Baron Rouge and how the owner introduced me to Red Sancerre. Below is the top lad in question filling up a bottle with wine for someone. Sadly that someone wasn’t me. It costs hardly anything. And tastes divine. And if I were at all capable of knowing my own limits I would have ordered a few of those bad boys. But I would’ve drunk them all on the way back to base and died. And that is the most factual thing you will read in this article.
The Aligre Market
The Bastille area also houses the Aligre Market. I don’t have the brain capacity to retain where Zola was describing when he said this in The Fat and The Thin but it could have been about the Aligre:
Besides, I breakfast here, through my eyes, at any rate .
You get full just watching the market here. Full and a little bit scared. I love being a bit scared in other countries. It makes me realise I’m somewhere brand new. And the opera that is the market there was just scary enough. I gave up trying to buy a lemon and made someone else do it for me. I did, however, get some Bugs Bunny carrots.
This is the side of the Seine where instead of fake beaches laid down for the Summer, and tango lessons on the banks, there are sad images like this one, showing a hairbrush on a makeshift bed, one of many along the side of the river which divides Paris. There are so many different worlds in one city here.
It turned out that my niece was in town. She’s a fan of the darker side of life shall we say, so it seems only right that we got a dose of skulls in the catacombs of Paris.
The queues for the Cimitiere des Innocents (the catacombs) in August were on the 2 and a half hours side. Luckily, my niece’s boyfriend had the foresight to fill up an old plastic coke bottle with cheap white wine which we handed round the group taking swigs and all ignoring the second hand salami flavour on the lip of the bottle. It’s funny what you end up talking about in long queues. For instance, my niece’s boyfriend told me he likes the way I say ‘bumhole’, going on to say that my Dad also says words how they are, and that he’s like a Welsh robot. Why was I saying ‘bumhole’ so much I hear you ask? I can only assume it has something to do with the taste of rim of the bottle. I digress…Other sustenance options in the queue included a tuna and banana sandwich at the bottom of a thin plastic bag. I really didn’t feel as though I was in the home of haute cuisine just yet, but the queue was worth it. The catacombs are like nothing else I’ve ever seen. Walking underground past walls and walls and some more walls of skulls and bones does something strange and great to you. You come up for air at the end and definitely feel slightly less like wasting your time sweating the small stuff.
Not quite ready to stay overground just yet we ended up in a lovely underground bar called Charlie’s which is most famed for being arguably the only place in Paris where you can afford more than one beer. They’re also known for having a guitar laying around, so a certain guitar-obsessed companion of ours rocked out some requests for Foo Fighters songs and had all the staff coming down to see the impromptu gig.
If you do make it out from underground in Paris I advise you to look up a lot. The walls in Paris are really fun. There a bikes and boobs everywhere, and then out of the blue you can find about 40 statues just lined up along the roof somewhere.
If you’re still reading this and not watching Eastenders yet then it means you may very well be interested in the literary bars of Paris.
I did the usual googling of literary bars in the area. You know, those places where you can sit where all these other actually successful writers did, look around in awe, automatically feel like you have to love the place even if it’s a shithole, and write a page in your diary and think it’s your best work by far and that you’ll carry on working on it later. The reality is that I wrote my highest scoring poem for a creative writing module in an Aldi carpark in Wales on an iphone 4 but that’s another matter.
Time was very limited so I narrowed down my selection to the following:
- La Closerie des Lilas to imagine Beaudelaire, Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Henry Miller.
- Polidor to have a bite to eat just like Hugo, Hemingway, Joyce, Miller, and Kerouac.
- Cafe de Flore to imagine Sartre giving advice in his daily appointment slot from 9am-5pm
- Les Deux Magots to imagine Sartre, Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Andre Breton, and Picasso.
I figured those four joints would cover enough of the greats to get me well stocked up on literary ghosts, while hopefully not taking the piss out of my traveling companion too much. After all, there’s only so many times someone can nod and smile at you while you press your face up to windows, using your hands as blinkers, and say “oooooo he would’ve sat there I reckon”.
Turns out, staring through the windows was all I managed to do.
I failed to go in any of them. It took no less that 5 hours to achieve this complete lack of success. Every time we arrived at a place it was either closed for renovation or closed for the holidays. After a day of chasing dead literary giants round their old pubs in the August heat, I thought it would be safer to go and see a few in their graves where they had less chance of escaping from me.
La Pere Lachaise Cemetery
To miss this graveyard in Paris is to miss out on something that you will be very hard pushed to find elsewhere. I’ve always loved graveyards as a place to jog, walk, sit, read, draw, photograph, write, kiss, but you don’t have to have a penchant for death to be moved by this place.
When you walk through the gates you will immediately see a board with a list of famous people, numbered, and a map with numbered graves to help you find them.
There is the famous Jim Morrison grave where crowds of people flock with their Glastonbury festival wristbands still on, but there are several other famous folk laid to rest here, not to mention the hundreds of people that you may well never have heard of. It is easy to walk up the hill looking down at the map and trying to navigate the maze of numbers to find a pathway to people you have heard of. But hopefully once you start to look up and are confronted with the sheer beauty of all the gravestones you will put down the map and start enjoying getting lost among the incredible craftmanship.
What I love most is how you can learn so much about the fans of these people from their graves. Rossini’s is covered with beautiful roses. I picture buxom women pinning these blooms to the door and weeping into their handkerchiefs and collapsing into their full skirts.
As for Wilde’s fans. Here is a shot of his grave, where I imagine the adoring readers putting lipstick on their lips, and leaning forward to add another to the collection. It’s simply stunning.
‘A kiss may ruin a human life’ wrote Wilde.
Sadly, but apparently necessary due to the erosion that the lipstick causes, there’s some kind of giant contraceptive plastic barrier there to stop the spread of further lippy love onto the wall. However, it doesn’t stop people kissing a paper tissue and floating it down to rest behind the barrier.
It wasn’t easy to find Modigliani’s grave, the main one I wanted to see. I only found it by overhearing some Italians asking each other if they had seen it and I sort of nonchalantly followed them around, as nonchalantly as one can quickly follow someone through small gaps in graves and not look like the Grim Reaper himself.
We stumbled across it by spotting scraps of paper with long-faced portraits place on it and I imagine all sorts of people sitting on the edge of the grave doing a sketch of themselves and others.
Then there is Edith Piaf’s place of rest, with simple single red roses.
The graves dedicated to the victims of the Holocaust were chilling yet incredibly beautiful in the sheer detail of the sculptures, and in the messages of hope and never forgetting. There are so many of these to see there, and it is nigh on impossible to get the essence of them from a photograph or from trying to use words to describe them.
Just go and stand by them and let them do the talking.
In 5 days there was also time to climb the Eiffel Tower (see the photo below to see how well I coped with my fear of heights), just about avoid a mugging in Montmartre, take in the Dali Museum, wander along the Viaducts des Arts, and to eat snails. But they can be saved for another travel post to cheer me up from this nostalgia that I’m getting writing about Paris.
Which brings me to the journey home. While I sipped Prosecco and ate Parisian pastries on the plane, I heard a little boy behind me, around 7 years old, asking his dad if he can have croissants and pain au chocolate for breakfast tomorrow. The Dad, in a thick Welsh valleys accent simply says, “Back to toast now, boy”.
And so it was.
Au revoir, Paris.
P.S. Where the photos are good, they were taken by me. Where they are really good, they were taken by Mansel Davies Photography.