Most people have seen Paris. Its iconic buildings and monuments appear in movies, in the news, and even in video games. When we visit, we rush around taking photos of whatever we recognise, whatever we think is iconic or famous: the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, the Arc de Triomphe, Moulin Rouge. The list is endless. But do we really come away knowing anything more about these attractions, other than they attract tourists? Travel broadens the mind they say and it does, especially when it comes to exploring familiar places in different ways and new places in unexpected ways. Hence the birth of this blog. The next time you see Paris, pause for a while, behind your cultural glances lie vibrant histories and surprising facts that make you want to visit this romantic city again, just to have another look.
The Fountain of St Michel: the left bank
This iconic fountain at St Michel has been photographed thousands of times by tourists, but you may not have even noticed it. So pause awhile before you hurry off across the bridge to photograph the now crippled Notre Dame. Have you never noticed that the fountain is built against the end of a row of buildings? We normally expect to see fountains in the middle of a square, especially one as majestic as this one. What makes it so interesting is that you kind of come upon it quite unexpectedly. No matter how often I visit this part of town, I always get a thrill of surprise when I turn the corner and see it. Built between 1858 and 1860 by the architect Gabriel Davioud, the center piece sculpture is that of the Archangel Michael wrestling with the devil. Now it might just be me, but our Micheal looks none too happy even though he seems to be winning his battle. Perhaps, like me, he is upset by the recent graffiti daubed on this magnificent piece of art, or maybe he’s just unhappy at being placed against a wall instead of being center stage. If so, he needed to take this up with the city prefet who commissioned the construction of the fountain to hide the ugly bare wall on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint – Andre des Arts. The fountain depicts the prone figure of the devil lying defeated on a rock beneath the archangel’s feet. The city hated it. They didn’t like the different coloured stone for sure, nor did they like the variety of statues adorning this unusual edifice: too many statues by too many sculptors. I can imagine the outcry. “A blot on the landscape!” they would have cried. How many times have we heard that when a new sculpture or building is unveiled?
Today though the young intellectuals and artists of Paris love the fountain and so do the mime artists who ply their trade in front of the inscrutable blue green dragons that sit at the base of the fountain. It is a regular meeting place for students studying at Sorbonne University, and the artists who sell their drawings across the road on the riverside. So if you want to look really French linger a while.
The Left Bank
The Left Bank is choc full of cultural experiences. Here you will find the Latin Quarter, which got its name because in earlier times the students and teachers at the famous Sorbonne University spoke only Latin. Today all languages can be heard on the streets and boulevards which were once the stamping grounds of writers and artists such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Scot Fitzgerald and Picasso who rocked up to drink at the Cafe Deux Magots on Boulevard Saint-Germain-des Prés, and dance the night away at the many jazz clubs tucked away in cobbled alleyways.
The next time you visit the Latin Quarter, pause for a moment at the many river-side book stalls. Don’t hurry past just because you already have a miniature Eiffel tower or a set of tea towels that say I heart Paris. Look at the glorious array of old books and magazines. These book stalls, known as Les bouquinistes de Paris have a long historical and literary heritage. On the left and the right bank, there are over 226 riverside book stalls. This means that there are somewhere in the region of 300,000 books for customers to browse through. You might even find something quite unique: a first edition maybe. If not, there is always Shakespeare and Company.
Shakespeare and Company
This little book shop is probably the most famous book shop in the world. Hiding out at 37 Rue de la Bucherie, across the river from the Notre Dame, this little gem of a shop has a history so great it defies its cluttered book-lined nooks and crannies. The book shop bearing this name started out in 1919 in Rue Deuytren but moved to Rue de l’Odean in the 6th Arrondissement in 1922. Owned by Silvia Beach, an American expat, it was not long before it became the hub of Anglo-American culture. Silvia took impoverished writers under her wing, turning her bookshop into a lending library and publishing house. In the 1920’s the tiny establishment throbbed with the pathos and passion of young writers searching for inspiration. The shop was closed in 1941 during the German occupation. It never opened its doors again. It is said that it was closed by the Nazi’s because Silvia refused to sell the last copy of Finnigan’s Wake by James Joyce, to a German officer.
George Whitman and Shakespeare and Company
In 1962, shortly before her death Silvia bequeathed the name of her store to George Whitman who in 1951 had opened an English Language book shop at Rue de la Bucherie. In 1962 it became Shakespeare and Company. Like Silvia’s original store, it attracted the likes of writers such as Henry Millar and William Burroughs and soon became the center of literary Paris. But Whitman created something rather unique. When you next browse through the books at Shakespeare and Company, you might well rub shoulders with a few Tumbleweeders. Whitman has allowed passing travellers and would be writers to live in the shop on the proviso that they make their beds first thing in the morning, read one book a day and help out in the shop. Whitman named his guests Tumbleweeders, because they blew in from nowhere, and there have been over 30,000 of them over the years: beds squashed in between the book shelves, eager minds only too willing to learn from their benefactor. Hanging on the wall among the jumble of shelves hangs a sign. It says “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise”. Whitman died at 98 years old in 2011. His daughter Silvia (named after Beach) now runs the store, keeping her father’s traditions and values. If you are a fan of Woody Allen films, watch Midnight in Paris for a glimpse of Gil as he wanders out of the shop towards the river.
Rue La Huchette
This is one of the oldest streets in Paris. Hemmed in between Place St Michel and Shakespeare and Company, the street oozes charm. It’s many tourist shops and Greek restaurants make Rue La Huchette a must when you next see Paris. Not long ago I sat in one of the small chaotic restaurants taking in the ambiance and eating a huge kebab. I later learned that some food aficionados call this street bacteria alley. Oh well, I survived and would eat there again. In 1942 the inhabitants of the street were made famous when Elliott Paul wrote his book The Last Time I saw Paris. Adding to this cultural heritage, No 5 Rue Le Huchette is one of Paris’s most famous Jazz clubs. Le Caveau de la Huchette is a 16th century building. The jazz club is situated below ground in a surprising spacious cave. In fact the Cavern Club in Liverpool drew its inspiration from this Paris jazz club. Count Basie played there in the great era of swing. And if you enjoy all things swing then for a 13 euros cover fee you can join the party.
This beautiful park borders on the edge of the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des Prés. It was created at the request of Queen Marie de Medici in 1612 and draws thousands of visitors each year. The gardens cover 25 hectars. Hemmingway said of it in his book A Moveable Feast, “In winter the trees were beautiful without their leaves when you were reconciled to them”. In summer the gardens attract tourists and locals alike. Beneath every shady tree someone is sitting, lost in the pages of a book. Children race around the lake chasing tiny sailboats with long poles. Couples walk arm in arm pausing to look at the many statues along the gravel paths. Young girls smile coquettishly at young men who saunter past enjoying the attention. In fact, so romantic is the park that Victor Hugo featured it in his book Les Miserables. It’s where Marius and Cosette meet for the first time.
So remember when you next see Paris, every cultural glance back in time brings you closer to its heart.