Monday, 7 July 2014

There is nothing like a Notre Dame

Notre Dame. Pen on A4 paper.
There is only one possible way to leave Paris: with Edith Piaf filling your ears. ‘Such a cliché’, you say?

Yet only 24 hours earlier, we were sitting outside a café on the Ile St Louis, sipping strong French coffee, and with the sound of an accordion squeezing out La Vie en Rose nearby.

Staying on the islands this time has opened up a different Paris to the one we’ve experienced previously, when we’ve been based in the 7th, around Le Tour Eiffel and Ecole Militaire.

Although last Monday, on our first full day, that was the place we made an instant beeline for – initially, to book Friday’s anniversary meal and then, to shop for some supplies from the lovely little shops on Rue Cler.

But instead of a hotel, our garret – which truly was just that – was on the sixth floor of a tall, narrow building, whose foundations were begun in the 13th century, and which curved skyward in a tighter-then-tight spiral of 102 steps; octagonal terracotta tiles, edged with jet wood, worn away into smooth curves by centuries of feet wending their weary way upward.

With windows all around – and in the roof that sloped just above our bed – there was no shortage of light, and no avoiding the views.

To the front, the Seine, and across it, the Hotel de Ville. A quarter turn to the right, and you could cast a glance over the mansard roofs of this most ancient part of Paris – only the cats prowling over the tiles were missing – while a further turn brought you to a side-on vista of Notre Dame itself.

The cathedral – just one of Paris’s global icons – lours Gothically above crypts and, as archeologists in the 1960s discovered, the very foundations of the city itself, for the islands in the Seine (which is more than a stream) are where it all began.

Many of the buildings may appear to be Second Empire, but facades are often just one sort of development that the heart of Paris has seen over the centuries, as buildings around the cathedral rose, and then rose some more, craning to emulate the gargoyles in their elevated situation.

Were any reminder of this age required, our last meal of the trip took place around the corner from the garret, seated on the pavement outside an eatery that went back to 1723 – and to 1512 as a building.

Given the key role of the French Revolution in the creation of the restaurant as we know it – considerable numbers of trained cooks, ‘freed’ from working for the aristocracy, had to work out what to do and came up with restaurants – that’s an incredible age for an establishment to be serving food.

But Paris, for all the signs of its long past, is not stuck there.

Ancient and modern: this time, the city cast an extra special spell. Clichés become clichés for a reason. And in Paris, the cliché has been elevated to an art.

Whether the accordion or the sax, Renoir or Lautrec, whether the wakefulness of coffee or the forgetfulness of absinthe; whether love or sex, meetings open or assignations stolen; the tea salon or the street corner café; style or philosophy, poodles or posies, the cliché has been elevated to an art.

That itself, perhaps, is a cliché. But a week of living it was a remarkable restorative.

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