I lay in bed, staring at the flood-lit towers of Notre Dame. The sky-light in my room looked straight onto the cathedral. Founded by Saint Landry in 651 AD, the Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu was the first hospital in Paris, and still cares for ill Parisians. The ghosts of some 1300 years of medical history glide along its marble corridors, whispering in consultation outside the wards, then pass into the old-fashioned lifts to visit the fourteen quiet hotel rooms hidden on the sixth floor.
Hotels can be seen as merely a place to sleep, or they can be another layer in all the experiences of travel. They don’t have to be expensive (fortunately!) but as I love pre-dawn and evening strolls, and watching a neighbourhood change by the hour, I try to pick a place to stay somewhere interesting for my walks. If the hotel comes with its own history, is in a old part of town and has a great cafe or restaurant nearby (hello, Paris!) it’s hard to resist. The Hôtel-Hopitel Dieu offered it all.
Flying anywhere from Australia takes forever, arriving in another world before the break of dawn. It was still dark when the plane landed, and the train from the airport sped through unseen suburbs and endless tunnels. Even the Left Bank was still asleep when I emerged from the metro at St-Michel. Naturally, my hotel room was not ready. A light autumn rain fell, and cars splashed through puddles as street lights glowed in the mist. Tattered posters for jazz bands flapped in the breeze, and well-dressed Parisians hurried past on their way to work or else sat in cafes watching the rain.
For a little while I did the same, in the well placed Café St-Michel. Un cafe au lait, un croissant, and fresh butter to die for. I couldn’t believe the taste – such a rich, creamy fullness I needed only a little. So completely different to what passes for butter back home (although I do think my coffee is better). Continue Reading →
How could I resist such a title? I’m not sure where I bought this book; wherever I go I frequent second hand bookshops, stalls at markets, op-shops; anywhere that offers something interesting to browse. The unadorned cover called to me, and I paid all of $1.00.
From A Paris Balcony – what a delightful phrase. How could I not be intrigued?
True to his word, Ernest Dimnet did indeed observe Paris from a balcony. The balcony in question was at the Hôtel Belgiojoso. This can still be seen in the Montparnasse area of Paris, and Dimnet describes the place as “graceful and yet robust, classical but imaginative, mellow in its comparative youth”.
Who could not be enchanted by such a place or writing style: “When September comes, and the early Parisian autumn begins to strew the shrubbery with the ivory balls of the symphorine…”
Where else to begin exploring Paris, but where the city began? Walking through the Île de la Cité covers some 4000 years of civilisation, from when the first Gauls settled here to those living statues who daily
pose outside Notre-Dame for tourists.
Paris began her life on a boat-shaped island in the middle of the Seine. The city’s coat of arms proudly displays a boat tossed by the waves, above the motto fluctuat nec mergitu: she is tossed by the waves but does not sink. By the 3rd century BCE, the Parisii tribe had established a fortified settlement on what was to become the Île de la Cité, although other Celtic tribes had lived here from at least 2000 BCE. (Canoes dating back to almost 4000 BCE have been found on the banks the Seine.)
The Parisii chose well: a temperate valley of fertile lands, with a river not only full of fish but perfect for trading from the Adriatic to the Mediterranean. Beneath the surrounding hills lay stores of lime and gypsum – now known as plaster of Paris – later used to build La Ville Lumière. So strategic a site, in fact, Julius Caesar invaded in 52 BCE, establishing a major Roman town – Lutetia (Lutèce) – which flourished until the Barbarian invasions. Continue Reading →
Every day I ventured down to a little supermarket on the Île St Louis. I never left empty-handed: a smoked chicken, some quail, or perhaps some cheese; yoghurt in its own ceramic pot, a bottle of red. Consisting of two aisles barely wide enough for two people to pass the place could hardly be classified as a supermarket, yet it was not a corner store, for in that small shop lay a wealth of offerings to put any supermarket to shame. The shop was simply the essence of the Île St Louis.
Paris is a city for walking. After visiting Notre Dame – and the delightful playground in the square Jean XXIII just behind the cathedral – stroll over the Pont St-Louis to the Île St Louis. (First take a brief detour to see the love-locks decorating the Pont de l’Archevêché. They keep returning, no matter how often the council removes them.) Once a swamp, the Île St Louis is now Paris’ most desired address. Known by the rest of Paris as ‘Louisiens’, many of the inhabitants rarely leave the island, not even to shop or do their banking. More ancient than the rest of Paris, many believe the island to be haunted – plus it boasts Paris’ best sorbet.
Some places carry so much collective history their names evoke memories even before you visit: Casablanca, Paris, Rome. Others have been re-baptised, yet it is the old name which beckons: Saigon, St Petersburg, Constantinople. Others entice on the melody of their name alone, such as Timbuktu, or Koya-san, Japan’s Holy mountain.
Then there’s The Letter A. That’s what the sign says. The Letter A. It’s one of the reasons we bought our retreat. Continue Reading →