Paris: Books that have enhanced my love of The City of Lights

‘I’m off to Paris’ and the retorts range from ‘Not again‘, ‘Gosh Paris is so passe’, ‘Aren’t you over Paris yet?‘ to which I always reply, ‘No and never shall be!’

My love affair with Paris has never waned, if anything, it has strengthened over four decades. I remember my first trip in 1979 as if it was yesterday. Full of expectation and excitement – a large group of us were off to Paris for international rugby – ticketless naturally but that was the norm of its day and of little consequence because the party atmosphere, the rammed bars, the endless singing and meeting up with so many people were conducive to our age group and the principal reason we were there! Given it was a four-day event there was plenty of time to explore the City’s major sights by day, visit a couple of art galleries and take in the street markets. It was just a brilliant time and delivered on every front save for the scoreline!

So what has kept me returning to the City I love?

Paris is so photogenic. For the first several visits (more rugby internationals and Beginners French conversation evening class jaunts ) the thrill continued and I was very happy seeing the same sights over and over again. Then, I was lucky to stumble upon Paupers Paris by Miles Turner whilst browsing through book shops in Charing Cross Road in 1984 with my father. I was a student at the time and the book which I was instantly drawn to, cost £1.50. I couldn’t even afford that and I can see my father laughing now – describing me as the definition of optimism given my monetary state, the title of the book and the expense of foreign travel! The book was duly bought by my father and fortunately my parents paid for the trip and in early 1985, I went to Paris on my own for the very first and, I believe, only time. The book was great company. The author was American and his enthusiasm for the city oozed from the pages and his recommendations of little known restaurants which the Parisians frequented took me to friendly neighbourhoods and my first introduction to the arrondissements of Paris. This is where the real fun starts. With this book and a subsequent revision in the 90s I began to explore more and more of Paris. I have to confess – at that time the choice of the neighbourhood was primarily restaurant led!

Roll forward another decade and in the intervening period I had visited Paris for more sporting reasons – 1998 Football World Cup Final, the Roland Garros Open French tennis tournament and still the rugby! In 2008 whilst browsing a bookshop, I spotted AA History and Mystery series: Paris – 24 walking tours divided into the arrondissements. It is a brilliant book and so became the way we would visit Paris.  The focus for my family, whether we went for a weekend, linked it to further French travel, or homework assignments for our son, was to stay in different arrondissements each time, using the walk and the attractions as an inspiration.  In addition we would undertake a little independent research.  A little pre-planning makes for a very full and interesting itinerary, lending itself to the choice of arrondissement. There is so much available on the internet and the library of books I have collected over the years, spanning antique markets, architecture, art, film, food markets, history, novels, and philosophy.  Add to the mix the annual varied attractions on offer: jazz festivals, outdoor cinema screenings, extensive Art Exhibition programmes, Paris beaches along the Seine and the basin de la Villett, to name just a few.  Of course, there is no ban on going anywhere once nestled into your neighbourhood but it does mean, given your base, you experience new areas on every Paris trip. This is another reason why you want to keep coming back, as each adventure unfurls new found sights, sounds and smells.

AA History and Mystery: Paris - a well worn book used by many!
"There are only two places in the world where we can live happy: at home and in Paris."
Ernest Hemingway

Wherever we stay you can guarantee it includes taking in an art exhibition, be it at the Grand Palais or at a local museum like Atelier Grognard, exploring a new street market be it antique or food, and eating at both brand new and well-loved restaurants. These are essential Paris staples and are embraced whole heartedly.

Some of the interesting stays were in arrondissement 16th, which had many, varied and fabulous examples of art nouveau architecture highlighted on the suggested walks. It includes the extensive park Bois de Boulogne which we timed to coincide with the annual Chopin Festival. The Musee Marmottan Monet on the edge of the park is an enchanting museum and, as the name would suggest, features works of Monet – indeed the largest collection of such works as well as other impressionists, in particular, Berthe Morisot. Our pretty boutique hotel had fabulous views of the Eiffel Tower and our local metro stop proudly proclaimed it was one of the film locations of ‘Last Tango in Paris’. We were also ideally situated for a good walk to one of my favourite street markets – Saturday morning at Avenue du President Wilson.

Another interesting stay was in the 8th. We enjoyed Parc Monceau with its beautiful gardens, statues and colonnades, framed by imposing avenues of Haussmann architecture. The park is full of architectural surprises spanning several centuries and lives up to its stated intention of a garden to surprise and amaze visitors. In and around the park are many grand houses which are opened as museums to the public. One great example was Musee Nissim de Camondo, built in the style of Petit Trianon at Versailles. It is filled with 18th Century French art and furniture and is a showcase for both the classical era and Belle Epoque. The 8th touches the 18th at one point so we were in easy reach to explore Montmartre on that occasion.

Over the years we have witnessed up-and-coming fashionable neighbourhoods such as the 11th, embracing the Canal Saint-Martin, a magnet for ambitious young chefs showcasing their food at exciting new restaurants. It is good to experience such neighbourhoods as they transition.

And of course, everybody’s favourite arrondissement – the 6th  – synonymous with 1920s Paris and of course Hemingway. It is a lovely part of Paris showcasing many restaurants and amazing indoor and outdoor markets. It is the home to Poilane – the famous sourdough bread sold by the slice and shipped worldwide! The Grande Epicerie de Paris is a sight to behold with so much gourmet food on offer and the wonderful organic Sunday market on Rue Raspail, which is a particular favourite of mine. Film locations include ‘Da Vinci Code’ at the magnificent Saint Sulpice. It has a wonderful park; namely Luxembourg Gardens acting as a bridge to the 14th Arrondissement of Montparnasse and the Marche aux Puces de La Porte de Vanves. The 6th is also flanked by the military 7th and the beautiful Musee Rodin, and just a short stroll up from the main Boulevard St Germain is the wonderful River Seine.

I got so engrossed in this part of Paris that I read A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway, which I bought in the Shakespeare Book Company in the 5th – where else given that the original owner, one Sylvia Beach, championed Hemingway. The book details his life as a young, newly-wed, aspiring author. Needless to say, given that his friends included other literary giants and artists all depicted here, there was much more to read and it opened up a whole new tree of learning, as one book led to another. As a result there is much to explore and eat (you cannot help but admire how impoverished artists and authors ate and drank so well!) and this neighbourhood is one I enjoy returning to and, indeed, where we celebrated my parents 60th wedding anniversary a few years ago.

Paris was my last oversees trip before lockdown. In February I met up with a group of five Californian girl friends. What a wonderful trip. All have great connections to the art world either through their area of study, practice, teaching, sheer knowledge and love of the genre. We stayed in the 2nd, just off Rue Montorgueil, famed for being a foodie heaven and within easy reach of the Marais. It is an area also noted for its beautiful covered passages, one such being Galerie Vivienne. We had fun – it was a mixture of some focused visits to art exhibitions and revisiting the old favourite landscapes beloved by us all, as for some, this was their first return trip to Paris since their youth. In truth, memories of this Paris trip have sustained me through the summer lockdown.

What makes Paris so attractive is the fact it is so easily walkable and has a great inexpensive underground network. So, after a long day of walking or if suddenly you need to circle back, there is always the metro to fall back on. The main sights of which Paris is famous for are quite compactly situated and the best way to see them is definitely by walking. As we age, exercise becomes more important and walking is one of the best forms of exercise ever. I love all types of walking. I am a big fan of City walking where we can clock up the miles and the exercise without the focus solely being on ‘going for a walk’ which can sometimes then be seen as a task. It is good to mix up walking activities and I for one can’t wait to be pounding the streets of neighbourhood Paris again…………..