April in Paris

Tuesday 13th May 2014, Champagne-sur-Loue
We have been back in France for a few weeks now. After several days with friends in Normandy we left Modestine happily resting in Geneviève’s garden and took the train to Paris where we stayed for 6 nights, courtesy of Yves, Geneviève’s brother, who generously offered us the use of his studio flat at the heart of the student quarter of la rue Mouffetard. After returning to Caen to collect Modestine, we made our way gently across France to our friends in the Jura.

Ian has managed to write some notes and we have a number of photos so these will go up in place of our regular reports. My eye has been in a rather sorry state, affected by the bright sunshine we are experiencing. I have concerns about using it more than necessary and now we are back driving again the glare leaves it feeling very inflamed once we camp up of an evening and blogging is the last thing I feel like doing. I have therefore decided to discontinue our regular reports but will add something from time to time so friends will know we are still here and that all is well.

Sunday 20th April 2014, Caen
We crossed to France on Easter Sunday on a ferry that was not unduly crowded across a Channel that was calm although the rain never ceased to fall. Our four days in Caen were as pleasant as ever, much time being spent in catching up on news and the odd excursion despite the bad weather – one day to the Romanesque church of Thaon in the wooded valley of the little river Thue in the midst of the flat and featureless Caen plain. In the rocky sides of the valley just beyond the church caves had been quarried that were used for growing mushrooms.

The Romanesque church at Thaon.

Mushroom caves in the woods near Thaon.

The same day we visited a wonderful wine cellar in the countryside north of Caen with more than 3,000 sorts of wine, a veritable museum, with some bottles a century old and costing hundreds if not thousands of Euros. But the best find for us was a red wine from the Ardèche with the name of Modestine. We just had to buy half a dozen bottles. It was cheap enough, and when we tried it back in Caen we found out why. Nothing outstanding, although it did improve a little while after opening.

A wine named after Modestine.

We also visited the building site for the new public library, a multi-million Euro project near the port, rather remote from the town centre.

Caen. The new library takes shape.

The happiest events during our stay were seeing friends. Geneviève's daughter Cécile visited from Paris and there was a reunion in Bayeux of library staff, all of whom are now retired, the last retiree being Bénédicte who hosted the lunch of poule au pot in her lovely 19th century house in the middle of Bayeux. We made a short excursion to see the new bell standing in the nave of Bayeux cathedral. It commemorated the seventieth anniversary of the events of June 1944 and had been cast by the nearby foundry at Villedieu-les-Poêles. It looked rather incongruous swathed in a specially produced cardigan of Bayeux lace.

Cécile visits us from Paris.

Friends reunited, Bayeux.

The belle of Bayeux in her lingerie.

Friday 25th April
We left for Paris on 25 April, still under the rain and made our way to Yves little flat near the rue Mouffetard, arriving mid afternoon. There was time for us to walk to the Jardins de Luxembourg, along roads made colourful by the pink candles of avenues of chestnut trees, passing by the Paris observatory, which at one time hoped to make Paris the prime meridian rather than Greenwich. The gardens were bright with spring plantings, with people profiting from a break in the rain to sit in the seats around the ornamental fountains. The French are also commemorating the centenary of the Great War with the Fields of Battle displays. This included a massive Michelin map of Europe laid out in front of the Palais de Luxembourg. It was an excellent opportunity for publicity as it highlighted Michelin's work in the war, supplying tyres and other materials for military equipment and also running field hospitals. Attached to the railings of the Luxembourg palace was a series of beautiful and moving photographs of battle sites from all the fronts of the War from Verdun to Gallipoli and even Africa. The river where Wilfred Owen died is included and Tolkien also features. The image of the marshes of the River Ancre where Lieutenant Tolkein fought in July 1916 reflected the strong impression the forlorn site had on the author and it appears in the Lord of the Rings, The two towers: "Dead grasses and rotting reeds loomed up in the mists … Sam tripped … for a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass through which he was peering … "There are dead things, dead faces in the water," he said with horror. "Dead faces!"

The Luxembourg palace, Paris.

The Fields of battle exhibition.

L'Ecole des Chartes, France's leading library school in the Sorbonne complex.

Saturday 26 April
We thought we ought to look out the École Pratique des Hautes Études where Ian was to hold his seminar on Monday. Our first stop was the Islamic Centre where we hoped to have an exotic coffee but it was closed. However the beautiful tiled gardens of the mosque could be visited – a cool refuge on a hot summer's day and peacefully attractive even on a rainy one. We crossed the nearby Jardin des Plantes which has a small menagerie. We felt sorry for the wallabies, huddled in a row under the bushes, sheltering from the rain.

Statue of the author Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, Jardin des Plantes, Paris. The figures below illustrate Paul et Virginie, the heroes of his influential novel.

In the Jardin des Plantes, Paris.

A walk through the formal flower beds, awash with tulips, brought us to the banks of the Seine and the permanent building site near the impressive Gare d'Austerlitz. The rubble of one demolished building site formed gigantic abstract sculptures.

Abstract art installation, Paris.

And so to the École Pratique des Hautes Études – a large modern building on a street corner in a rather desolate area dominated by high-rise blocks, not far from the modern Bibliothèque Nationale – itself a collection of four glass high-rise buildings in which the books had been baked in the sun until an expensive set of blinds had been installed. It being Saturday, the place was deserted and the person on reception had no idea where the seminar room might be. We prowled around the massive atrium until stopped by security and gave our quest up as a bad job.

We crossed the river and returned to the city centre along the banks of the Seine – but not the romantic tourist route "sous les ponts de Paris". At one point a riverside expressway curved down to the banks laving a path scarcely a metre wide between a wall and a drop to the turgid waters below. We edged our way along this for what seemed an eternity, our hopes buoyed up by the site of Notre-Dame in the distance. There was nobody else around, which was just as well as it would have been difficult to pass them. Eventually we came out at the point where the Canal Saint Martin enters the Seine at the Port de l'Arsénal. Here there was no obvious way back to street level, so we had to clamber across the main lock before finding a flight of stairs.

We crossed back over the Seine once again to the Left Bank to be confronted with the surreal site of the Orient Express, steam engine with hissing and whistling sound effects and a whole string of coaches parked outside the Institut du Monde Arabe. It was yet another of the series of unlikely exhibitions that the French love to put on and, judging by the queues, very popular.

Orient Express stranded in Paris.

However we were on our way to the Collège des Bernardins, a centre of faith studies and art gallery which had been recommended by our German friend Hubert – not least because we could lunch there for five Euros. The massive gothic hall of the former monastic buildings, which had been recently restored, formed an impressive setting for lunch, but first we looked at the modern art exhibition – rather strange – and the bookshop, well stocked with works on religious art and music. There was also a beautiful 14th century statue of a serene faced Christ which had been found buried during the restoration work. However the Table des Bernardins was a disappointment. Five Euros would buy only a croque-monsieur and the menu at 9.50 Euros had boeuf bourgignon as the dish of the day. However the meat was gristly and not properly heated and the accompanying pasta dry and also tepid. However the coffee was good and we felt over-full when we left to walk cross the Latin Quarter. This was as full of life and variety as ever and we browsed a host of exotic shop windows. The chain of photographic galleries named YellowKorner had a selection of stills from Jacques Tati's films, which brought back amused memories of his wry view of the modern world. We wondered what he would have made of the street scene today with everyone intent on their smart phones or plugged in to headphones. We have been amused at the way French people on mobile phones still find it necessary to gesticulate as they stand on street corners. A recently established museum we passed on the Boulevard Saint-Germain, the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits – has a copy of one of Charlotte Brontë's childhood miniature manuscripts. On a later metro trip we noticed that images of the manuscripts were projected onto the walls of the nearby station – a novel form of publicity. We joined the mass of tourists beneath the Eiffel Tower but, flagging fast, after a walk of about ten miles, we crossed the Pont de Iena and headed for the Maison de Balzac. This is a modest property where Balzac rented five rooms and lived incognito seeking refuge from creditors – he even had a secret exit to escape his pursuers. At the small table in his modest library he worked up to twenty hours a day, retiring to bed after supper at about six o'clock and rising about midnight to start work correcting his comédie humaine, a massive cycle of novels with some 2,500 characters, may of whom appear in more than one book. He must have been the despair of the publishers, making correction after correction, the pages of proofs criss-crossed with a spider's web of lines. Also on display was a series of several hundred casts of wood engraved blocks from one of his collected editions, each illustrating a different character from the novels.

Maison de Balzac, Paris.

The desk where Balzac worked, Paris.

Some of the woodblocks of Balzac characters, Paris.

Thoroughly exhausted, we returned to Yves' flat by metro.

Sunday 27 April 2014, Paris
After yesterday's exhausting route march we started off by taking the metro, this time to the Arc de Triomphe. The massive roundabout with its avenues leading off in twelve directions was relatively devoid of traffic. The Champs Elysées however was bustling as ever. Men were striking macho poses as they were photographed in front of the souped-up gas-guzzlers in the car showrooms of Mercedes and Citroën. The street was lined with women in head-scarves kneeling or crouching with Macdonalds paper cups before them hoping for the odd coin. It contrasted with the ridiculously ostentatious fashions on display – shoes with dangerously high heels and diamante serpents twined around the ankles selling for several thourand Euros, for example. The fatuity of it all made us angry and we did not stay there for long but continued to the gardens for a sandwich at one of the kiosks.

The Grand Palais is not collapsing – it is the entrance to an exhibition entitled Moi Auguste, Empereur de Rome. Paris.

Then we continued our tourist trail by the Place de la Concorde with its massive ancient Egyptian obelisk, to the church of La Madelaine – more of a Greek Temple, the Place Vendome with its column – Napoleon's response to Trajan, the Palais Royal – like so much of Paris under restoration, to the Galérie Vivienne, a 19th century shopping arcade with elegantly glazed shopfronts and elaborate mosaic flooring. After browsing the antiquarian bookshops, it was just the place for a coffee.

Place Vendome, Paris. Napoleon seeking to outdo Trajan.

Les Halles was a big contrast, a massive building site at the transport interchange in the heart of the old city at the entrance to the Marais, the oldest quarter of Paris where all the world seemed determined to wander very slowly straggling across the streets which were closed to traffic on a Sunday afternoon. The quirky fountains by the Pompidou Centre needed some maintenance; most of them refused to go through their amusing routines, squirting water in all directions. The Polish Church was packed with members of the Polish community listening to the service of canonisation of Pope John Paul II.

The Polish church in the Marais, Paris.

We made our way to the Musée Cognaq-Jay, the home of the collection bequeathed to the City of Paris by Baron Cognaq and his wife in the 1920s. It mainly covered the 18th century with paintings by Canaletto, Watteau and also English painters: portraits by Reynolds, Lawrence etc. There are also extensive collections of porcelain, sculptures and perhaps best of all furniture, not the heavy over-ornate baroque items, but lighter, more elegant tables. The couple certainly had a fondness for marquetry and many of them were finely decorated.

Monday 28th April 2014, Paris.
The afternoon of this Monday had to be put aside for Ian's presentation but in the morning we managed a walk to the Ile de la Cité.

People were queuing in the rain to visit Notre-Dame, now gleaming white rather than the grimy black of our earlier visits, and also to see the beautifully light Sainte-Chapelle with its wonderful stained glass windows. We had a coffee in the Latin quarter, admired the Pantheon with the fetching bonnet covering its dome, and lunched in a Greek restaurant in the rue Moffetard, excellent value for only nine Euros a head for three courses.

Queuing in the rain to visit Notre-Dame, Paris.

The Pantheon in its Easter bonnet seen from the Jardins du Luxembourg, Paris.

After lunch we made our way to the seminar, passing shortly after we left Yves' flat the handsome factory of the Gobelins tapestry and carpet works, established in the 17th century and for which many famous artists had made designs.

The Gobelins factory.

A funny thing happened on the way to the seminar. The car transporter took the turn too sharply and got tangled in a bollard. The hooting of the tailed back traffic accompanied us as we reached the characterful location where it was to take place.

Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes. The seminar couldn't have been as boring as its setting.

The presentation went well. There were about eighteen listeners, a mixture of teachers and researchers, doctoral students and interested outsiders. Jean-Dominque Mellot who is head of retrospective cataloguing at the Bibliothèque Nationale made the introduction and, as an expert in the field was able to offer useful comments and field difficult questions. The two-hour session offered a survey of archival and printed sources for a biographical dictionary of the French book trades, based on Ian's work continuing Alain Girard's researches for Basse-Normandie. Those who are interested can see an interim version on his website. There was considerable discussion including questions on when the research would be published. This led to a somewhat awkward moment. Ian had passed the final draft of the dictionary to Frédéric Barbier of the Institut d'Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine a couple of years back and had heard nothing. As he was in the audience, excuses were offered, including pressure of work and the fact that the provinces in France were about to be reorganised anyway. There was a general feeling that should be a reason to hurry things along rather than to delay them, so we shall see whether he pulls his finger out. Jean-Dominique Mellot feels that the information should be put on the internet anyway, so it looks as if Ian will have a lot to occupy him in his spare moments of an evening in Modestine. He invited us for a drink afterwards and we exchanged thoughts on the library situation in our two countries. The Bibliothèque Nationale is also facing cuts, but they are taking place gradually, retired posts not being filled. He was horrified at what he considered to be the short-sighted and philistine attitude in Devon where the local studies library service has been effectively mothballed with all professional input removed.

Tuesday 29th April 2014, Paris.
We started today with a nostalgic trip to the area around the Place de la République, where we had first stayed in Paris in the 1970s and 1980s. It was then a lively but rather down-at-heel area, but the monumental square had been much smartened up with bus lanes making the whole area much easier for the pedestrian to navigate. The friendly little Hotel de Vienne, used by us at that time, was still thriving and we were pleased to note that it was full. We had a coffee and croissant at the nearly Café Voltaire, also much changed over the past forty years, and then made our way across to the line of the Canal Saint Martin which flows underground at that point with bustling food markets and gardens marking the course. We followed it to the place de la Bastille where, as dominant as the old prison is the metallic structure of the modern opera house. Behind that, we had been told by Geneviève was the Promenade Plantée, an old railway track, laid out with gardens – an unusually peaceful walk in the midst of the noisy city. It led along a high embankment south eastward from the Place de la Bastille, attractively laid out with bushes, flower beds and arches, on which climbing roses were starting to bud. Every so often it was possible to peer down into the streets which were lined by attractive old buildings.

Promenade Plantée.

View down from the Promenade Plantée.

Further on the line descended to street level, through modern flats and into a tunnel. A cutting led under the noisy péripherique and we found ourselves in a pleasant residential suburb outside Paris. The whole thing was a pleasant experience rather than a tourist sight. A short walk brought us to the Bois de Vincennes, with the Bois de Boulogne one of the two green lungs of Paris. We walked through the woodlands to the village – or rather the suburb – of Vincennes with its impressive castle, for centuries a place of refuge for the royal family during times of trouble in Paris.

Château de Vincennes.

If the morning was not on the tourist route, the afternoon certainly was. We caught the metro from Vincennes to Pigalle where we walked past the seedier strip joints to the Moulin Rouge, which was very much more up market, its shows attracting internationally famous names for more than a century. Then the steep climb up to the Butte de Montmartre and the Place du Tertre crowded with tourists having their portraits painted. This time we did not visit the sugary Sacré Coeur but the nearly Romanesque parish church of Saint Pierre before returning to the flat.

Wednesday 30th April 2014, Paris.
Today started off in rather a deadly manner. We set out to visit the Catacombes, the place where between 1786 and 1859 the bones of more than six million Parisians were removed from churchyards and tastefully arranged in disused underground quarries to the south of the city centre. We arrived on the dot of opening time thinking we would be the first people there, but found a queue stretching several hundred metres round the block.

Catacombes, Paris.

We did not relish the thought of queuing for hours for a heap of old bones, so caught the metro to the next best thing, the Père Lachaise cemetery. On previous visits we had found the graves of Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf and other notables, but this time we had no map so wandered the cobbled ways between the elaborate tombs and funerary chapels. It was almost like walking the streets of Pompeii. The only notable tomb we chanced across was that of the painter Géricault, with a depiction of his horrific painting The Raft of the Medusa.

Tomb of Géricault, Père Lachaise cemetery, Paris.

We walked back along the Grands Boulevards with their triumphal arches and ended up at the auction house of Drouot, where there were half a dozen auctions in progress. In need of a rest we chose one which had a few seats vacant and it proved to be an auction of a library of architectural books and periodicals. It was quite a complicated process as, apart from the bidders in the room, there were bids left with the auctioneer, indicated by a young assistant who held up each lot, telephone bids, delivered by a man with a handset clamped to his ear standing to the left of the auctioneer – an individual with a magnificent handlebar moustache – and bidders via the internet, the screen for which was just in front of where we were sitting. Even so bidding was sometimes sluggish. "You don't like big books" he admonished them when there were no takers for large format volumes of plates. "You're not interested in furniture" when a book on this subject failed to reach its reserve. However some lots fetched prices well above the estimates, which were indicted on a display board together with the bids converted into a range of currencies. It was an interesting and amusing experience as well as a chance to rest our feet. Ian felt no need to scratch his nose, so we emerged without having purchased anything by accident.

Thursday 1st May 2014, Caen.
Paris seemed deadly quiet when Ian went out to buy croissants just before nine this morning. The usual bakers was closed and there was not a car or pedestrian in sight as he crossed the road in search of another source of supply. Was his watch wrong and the time six rather than nine? Turning the corner into the rue Moffetard he saw every ten metres a stall being set up with people selling bunches of lily of the valley. Of course, it was May Day, a national holiday and the tradition in France to give bunches of muguet or lily of the valley. We bought a bunch for Geneviève as we had booked our return train tickets for this afternoon. Before we left we found time to stroll around the rue Mouffetard in the morning, taking an exorbitantly expensive and very grouty coffee in the Contrescarpe, one of the bars in the square at the top end of the road. The crowds were out on this national holiday and we visited the nearby Arènes de Lutece, the amphitheatre of the roman city, to find it filled not with gladiators but with boulistes. The place had become a giant boulodrome and some of the contests were as hard fought as the gladiatorial combats with tape measures taking the place of tridents.

Arènes de Lutece.