I once read somewhere that “life is too short not to go to Paris as often as one can” but must admit to not having adhered to that having only been there twice before in fifty years.
My previous visit was in the dull days between Christmas and New Year when everything seems flat. Leaving London Waterloo on Boxing Day seemed like a good idea at the time. Paris put on her usual glittering party frock and despite the bitter cold and wet weather we enjoyed a few days walking along the banks of the River Seine and exploring the usual tourist sites that we had both seen (though not together) in our late teens; eating expensive steaks and drinking expensive wine and taking rather bad photos (I blame the weather – too damn cold to take off the gloves)
So a couple of years ago when the opportunity to spend five days in Paris in the springtime arose it was not to be sneered at. Once again we took the Eurostar (this time from its new terminal in St Pancras station) to ‘gay Paree‘, hoping for a somewhat warmer welcome.
As my OH was to be “au conference” pretty much the whole time it gave me an excuse to wander aimlessly and have a look at the hidden parts of Paris. To venture into districts I had not been to and to look more closely at those I had. So armed with a good map, several metro tickets, camera and notebook, off I went to explore.
There are many ways to look at Paris – through its architecture, its history, museums – oh, so many museums – cafés, churches, or street life. On this visit I wanted to capture the minute details you may miss on a brief visit and learn more about what it was I was seeing; the statues, the gargoyles, the drinking fountains (108 of them), examples of art nouveau, sundials – did you know there are over a 100 sundials in Paris? And, no, I didn’t go looking for them, but maybe on my next visit…
And so it was that I spent hours wandering around Île St-Louis and the Île de la Cité in golden, late afternoon light for the simple pleasure of seeing and photographing objects that caught my eye; such as the headless statue of St Denis whose statue can be found all over Paris including on the Notre-Dame and the Eglise St-Germain-l’Auxerrois. Saint Denis was the first bishop of Paris who met his death around 273 A.D. According to legend, Roman soldiers tortured Denis near the present site of Notre-Dame and then decapitated him on the slopes of Montmartre. There the martyred saint picked up his head and walked northwards almost 4 miles to the place marked by the cathedral that bares his name. An interesting story, though quite imaginative as the legend was created several hundred years after the – no doubt real -event. Wherever you see him depicted, he is the saint who patiently holds his head in his hands.
Passing through the Place Louis Lépine take a closer look at Guimard’s wonderful art nouveau entrance and lamps of the Cité metro station. The organic shapes are typical of the Art Nouveau curved style.
Next to this is the colourful Marché aux Fleurs (flower market) the oldest and one of the largest flower markets in Paris, dating from 1808. Its blooms brighten up the area between the stark walls of the Conciergerie and Hôtel Dieu from Monday to Saturday – everything from orchids to orange trees, but no cut flowers. On Sundays it is joined by the Marché aux Oiseaux (bird market) with equally colourful, caged species.
As you walk around the flower market you should see two lovely Wallace drinking fountains. The four caryatids represent kindness, simplicity, charity and sobriety. Each one is different from her sisters by the way she bends her knees and by where her tunic is tucked into her blouse. “Les fontaines Wallace” were named after the British philanthropist and art collector Sir Richard Wallace who generously financed the installation of 50 fountains throughout Paris after the Franco-Prussian War left the city with almost no clean drinking water. Designed by Charles Auguste Lebourg these cast iron fountains in four versions remain iconic darlings of the Paris streetscape. They are uniformly painted a deep emerald green to blend in with the tree-lined streets and parks and still provide free clean drinking water (eau potable) to all from March to November.
Continue along the Rue de Lutèce with the imposing Prefecture de Police to one side and facing you are the impressive gates of the Palais de Justice, HQ of the French judicial system and often seen on the TV drama ‘Spiral’. Rounding the corner and onto the Quai des Orfèvres, look up and you will find a superb sundial on the wall above you. Hora Fujit Stat Jus – meaning “The hour flies; justice remains” with a bas-relief of Time with his scythe and Justice with her sword and scales. As they say in French “lever le nez” – look up!
Further along this horse-chestnut lined quay (full of blossom in spring) you can see a mosaic street sign (Rue Harlay) instead of the usual dark blue enamel signs and if you turn into this street face the back of the Palais de Justice and again look up; you can see a medallion in honour of the Pandects of Justinian (a compendium of Roman laws) on the wall and above the main entrance a pair of Napoleanic eagle statues.
Return to the Quai des Orfèvres as you will pass number 68, famous as a bookshop owned by Martin Flinker and his son Karl who lived here from 1948 – 1988. The bookshop was a focal point for French writers and German literature. The Flinkers moved to Paris in 1947 after having to leave their native Vienna around 1937 and spending much of the war years in exile in Europe. Unfortunately most of their family including the wife and mother were lost to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. The Flinkers were booksellers and publishers of a variety of contemporary writers including Hermann Hesse. Notice the wall mounted plaque “From 1948 to 1988 here lived Martin and Karl Flinker, famous for their bookshop and publishing house and their friendship with Thomas Mann, Paul Eluard, Louis Aragon, Stefan Zweig …” and more. The Flinker private library is now owned by The Musée d’art et d’histoire du Judaïsme.
You will now be nearing the Pont Neuf – “New Bridge” – where work began in 1578 and it was completed in 1604. It was initially planned to house rows of shops but Henri IV granted permission for transient commerce only. It is the longest bridge in Paris and unique to this bridge are the 384 grotesques on the cornices. A good view of these can be had by walking down to the tiny green Square du Vert Galant a pointy-shaped spit of land on the westernmost tip of the Île de la Cité accessed by walking down two flights of stairs beyond the bronze equestrian statue of Henri IV by Francois-Frederic Lemont. This is actually a replacement commissioned by Louis XVIII after the original dating back to 1614 was torn down by the 1789 Revolutionaries. Whilst in the little garden notice the classic Parisian “Morris column” (rotating cylindrical billboards) to be found all over Paris.
Ah, and did I mention the glorious jacaranda trees?