LITERARY PARIS 2018
DAILY TOUR DIARY
At last, the moment we’ve been looking forward to for months and months – our first day in Paris! We arrived on a beautiful cool spring morning, both overwhelmed and excited by the beauty and bustle of the city. We couldn’t help but imagine ourselves as the young Christina Stead when she first landed here in 1930. Stead’s novel about Paris, The Beauties and the Furies, is a must-read (it also has a new French translation – she is très à la mode).
Our tour coordinator, Maisie, an Australian writer who lives permanently in Paris, was at our accommodation to welcome us and help us solve those pesky settling-in problems, like how to get our phones to actually work and where the good coffee could be found. Once we were set up, some of the more energetic among us took the opportunity to independently stroll around our historical neighbourhood, which was brimming with specialty stores selling copper pots, designer clothing and vintage finds.
By 7pm it was still light outside (it didn’t get dark until 9pm or 10pm the whole time we were here!). We met up with Maisie at a nearby traditional French brasserie and she schooled us in the way of the apéro – taking an evening drink on a terrasse and people-watching to the extreme. We ate dinner at the brasserie, with many opting for the classic steak frites, before walking back to the accommodation to get a good sleep in before our big day tomorrow.
We met as a group at 10am and were introduced to our local French tour guide for the day, the vivacious Martine. What a woman! She is extremely passionate, entertaining and well-read – a true raconteur. Martine gave us an introduction to the rich history of the city of Paris, using maps and photos to bring the story to life.
We then went with Martine to visit one of the most breathtaking book collections in the world – the Richelieu-Louvois Library. What a dream it would be to study here, in the Sistine Chapel of libraries, with its impossibly high ceilings and dark oak interiors.
After the library, Martine guided us through the hidden passages of antique shops to the Palais-Royal gardens, where the early 20th century French novelist Colette lived and a young Napoleon wooed his Josephine. Then it was a short walk to the Comédie Française, the national theatre where the great Molière died during an onstage performance.
Lunch was at the famous Procope brasserie, with several of us opting for a few glasses of Burgundy to accompany the fine French fare (the memory of the endive and Roquefort salad and hearty roast chicken lingers). The restaurant is a living museum – we took time after the meal to examine Voltaire’s writing desk that sits upstairs, and to marvel at original letters written by Marie Antoinette and Robespierre, among dozens of other artefacts.
In the afternoon, we visited the other famous library of Paris, the BNF. The library comprises four immense towers that overlook the Seine, and houses over 15 million texts. This was all modernity, a fascinating contrast to the morning’s trip.
If reading this has made you feel a little jealous (and who could blame you).
We reunited with the irrepressible Martine at Notre Dame Cathedral – yes, the home of Victor Hugo’s hunchback. Martine vividly brought to life the bustling medieval history of Paris. She then led us away from the madding crowd and through secret back alleys to discover the ancient medieval architecture not even locals would know about.
We had lunch a short walk away at a fully intact art nouveau café that used to service the local merchants of the Les Halles marketplace. The walls of the café are adorned with huge painted tiles that depict the hustle of the long-gone market and the goods train arriving with the local produce. Even the café’s soap dispenser harkens back to a forgotten time – it took some of us a few seconds to realise what it was!
In the afternoon, Martine introduced us to the Marais district. It is incredible how many layers of history the area still contains – from medieval turrets to 17th townhouses of the nobility. Honoré de Balzac had several addresses here (since he was always moving to avoid his creditors). We also learned about Madame de Sévigné, whose letters detailing life in the 17th century are studied by all French schoolchildren to this day.
We stopped in for afternoon tea at an eclectic children’s-literature-inspired tea shop, where we picked from an array of delicious freshly baked cakes (some just out of the oven). A sure-fire winner was the lemon tart topped with the tallest, fluffiest meringue known to man.
Then Martine took us to the nearby park and apartments of Place des Vosges, where both Victor Hugo and Georges Simenon (the creator of Inspector Maigret) lived. Martine animatedly recounted the many dramas that had taken place in the park, from the time of Henri IV to today.
We met another local guide today, Eglantine, for our tour of the Père-Lachaise Cemetery. Eglantine is gentle, extremely educated young woman from a traditional French family (she is one of eight children!). She deftly guided us through the panoply of graves, blooming cherry trees and chirping birds, to find the resting places and hear the wild tales of Oscar Wilde, Molière, Apollinaire and Jim Morrison among many others.
Lunch was at a nearby popular spot for locals, a restaurant well known for its excellent locally sourced meat and poultry. On this hot day, almost all of us opted for the foie gras salad.
Then it was time for Eglantine to bring to life the history of the Bastille, which today is a lively hipster district. Eglantine helped us spot the hints of the turbulent revolutionary past that Hugo famously evokes in Les Misérables. We traced our way through back passages and finished the tour on top of an old railway line that has now been turned into a 4.5km long planted garden (reminiscent of New York’s High Line). We stopped there for a picnic in the warm evening sun and to polish up our people-watching skills again.
That night, we made a nocturnal visit to the Louvre. The grandiose museum was very calm at night and often we were the only ones in a room, making us feel as though all those works of beauty were there just for us. We imagined ourselves one of Dumas’ Three Musketeers on a secret mission, the Louvre being the setting of King Louis XIII’s palace in the novel. As we exited into the famous courtyard with its illuminated glass pyramid, our world was truly magical.
In the morning, Fabienne led our book club on Gertrude Stein, the early 20th century American femme formidable who hosted many literary and artistic salons in Paris. This was the perfect introduction to our day, since Stein was an ardent supporter of several artists we would later admire at the Musée d'Orsay.
Then it was time for a prime photo opportunity at the Trocadero, an immense art moderne construction that hosts the best view of the Eiffel Tower and its surrounding gardens. We felt a real part of history here – imagining the triumphant return of Charles de Gaulle as he re-took Occupied Paris. The Trocadero is decorated with the poetry of Paul Valéry (a 12-time nominee for the Nobel Prize for Literature).
We then crossed the Seine to visit the Musée d’Orsay and its world-leading collection of Impressionists, the milieu of Gertrude Stein. The museum is actually a converted 19th-century train station, which becomes more obvious as we enter and plunge into a vast, light and airy space. Here the great mastery of industry – evidenced by the fine metalwork, stonemasonry and windows of the train station – meets the soft beauty of Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet, Gauguin …
Continuing with the train theme, dinner was at another famous train station, the Gare du Lyon, built by the Rothschild family. Elevated above the buzz of the station is Le Train Bleu, a very chic neo-baroque restaurant (make sure to dress up if you don’t want to feel out of place!) that was almost demolished before being saved by great man of literature and Minister of Culture André Malraux. It has white tablecloths, silver service, suited waiters and traditional French food of the highest quality. The walls are painted with frescos depicting different regions in France serviced by trains from Gare du Lyon.
Today was our first journey out of Paris – an hour-long train to the magnificent Versailles Palace, the home of Louis XIV, Sun King and great patron of the arts. We were extremely lucky to have Eglantine again as our guide, because not only does she live in Versailles (and filled us in on the insider knowledge) but she has a rich Classical education. Thanks to her, we were able to understand the many Ancient Greek and Roman references that abound in the architecture and decoration and would surely have gone unnoticed otherwise. We were astounded by the extreme attention to detail that Louis XIV had in constructing his palace – every inch is perfected and styled, even those elements that are hidden from view, such as the capitals of impossibly high columns.
Of course, Louis XIV was not the only famous resident of Versailles. The notorious Marie Antoinette and her husband Louis XVI also lived here, and we could well imagine them enjoying themselves (too much, for the revolutionaries!) in these opulent grounds, which are the setting of the rip-roaring adventure of Dumas’ The Queen’s Necklace.
Our morning started with an enthusiastic book club on Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera led by the ever-insightful Fabienne. Then it was off to put a “façade” to the name and see the actual Opera Garnier for ourselves. Leroux had us prepared for the lavishness, but we were still blown away by how striking and detailed the building is (rather like Leroux’s novel!). The Opera Garnier is a Fabergé egg in building form, terrifically beautiful and seeping in history.
We had lunch at Bouillon Chartier, which has kept its glass and red-leather décor from its time as a traditional restaurant for workers during the belle époque. Lucky workers! This was a good opportunity to try escargot and indulge in a little aperitif.
In the afternoon we had some leisure time. Some went to the nearby Grands Magasins of Galléries Lafayette and Printemps – some of the oldest department stores in the world, with glorious glass-domed ceilings. Those not into shopping were quite happy to indulge in a little white wine in the sun on the 360-degree-view rooftop of the Galléries Lafayette.
Dinner that night was a musical affair at the Bel Canto, overlooking the Seine. While we tucked into our meals (including some excellent seared scallops), we were serenaded by professional opera singers. An incredibly moving and tasty experience not to be missed – and certainly on the agenda for the 2019 Paris Literary Tour.
Today was our second daytrip out of Paris, this time north to Giverny, the home of Monet and where he painted his Water Lilies. Giverny is also the setting for our book club read of the day, Michel Bussi’s unforgettable murder mystery, Black Water Lilies. Once we arrived, Fabienne helped us trace Bussi’s murderous path through this verdant, romantic village with its rustic houses and wild gardens.
Then it was time to visit Monet’s pink-and-green house and world-renowned lush lake-dotted grounds. The experience was pure poetry and almost impossible to put into words – you’ll just have to go along on the tour in 2019 and see for yourself.
After lunch, we stopped in at the Museum of Impressionism and took in even more unspeakable beauty. Feeling inspired, quite a few of us lingered in the gardens to jot down a few bons mots and journal.
Once back in Paris, we regrouped for a late-night jazz session in the Latin Quarter at the world-famous Caveau de la Huchette. As we descended the stairs of the 16th-century wine cellar that is now the basement club, we were greeted by glorious jazz that harkened back to the days when Count Basie and other great American expats would play at the Caveau, with Sartre and de Beauvoir among the audience.
We met back again with Martine this morning at the famous Welper brasserie to begin our tour of Montmartre, the bohemian village that at the beginning of the 20th century was the heartland of Paris’ painters and poets. Picasso, Dali, Van Gogh lived here, as did the tragic young poet Apollinaire. Jacques Prévert and Dadaist Tristan Tzara even lived on the same street!
The walk was hilly, but since Martine used to live here, she knows the best routes to avoid stairs and we take several clever short cuts to avoid the hordes of tourists. As always, Martine found us treasures off the beaten track – the notorious alley here, the rustic cottages there – that hinted to the picturesque village of old. We stopped in at the gardens of Renoir’s actual studios and looked out over the old vineyard of Montmartre.
After lunch at an excellent restaurant, we met Eglantine at the Pantheon, which was once a neoclassic church and is now the burial place of the grand hommes of France. It is also the home of Foucault’s pendulum, which continues to swing in the centre of the building and is quite mesmerising. In the crypt, Voltaire and Rousseau face off against each other across the hallways, and Eglantine filled us in on the juicy details of their lifelong feud. Further along the hallowed halls we entered a room that holds the remains of Dumas, Hugo and Zola – so much genius in one place!
After leaving the Pantheon, Eglantine guided us through the old medieval streets, reading aloud to us from 18th century literature that describes the hubbub of the area. She explained how the universities were born in this part of Paris, and how students would travel from all ends of the earth to study, including the great Dante Alighieri in the 13th century. Today it is still a centre of learning and home of the Sorbonne, as well as the home of the charming Jardin du Luxembourg, where Cosette first meets Sorbonne student Marius in Les Miserables.
To top off an amazing day, and an incredible tour, we boarded the Bateau Mouche for a scenic dinner cruise down the Seine. Paris at night, the Eiffel Tower glittering, a glass of Bordeaux in hand, and the company of literature-lovers – can anything compete?
This was the hardest day – the day we had to leave. Maisie came to farewell us and make sure we were all safely on our way. Many of us were extending our journeys in France, taking the opportunity to visit other literary and cultural spots, such the town of Nantes, which hosts a mechanical elephant in honour of its son Jules Verne, or the city of Lyon, gastronomic capital and birthplace of The Little Prince author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.
This has been an incredible experience, bringing to life the things we have only read and dreamed about, and we are so grateful to the friendly and cultured team of Better Read Tours for making this possible.
If you too would like to experience this world of literature come to life, you should join them on their