The Comfort of Familiarity – The Challenge of Discovering Paris Again and Again
Thus, when I return to Paris this week, I look forward to finding something new to explore and remember. Perhaps I will again feel my heart race when I happen upon a new place or an unknown corner of an otherwise familiar district, as happened last spring, when I took my first boat tour of the Canal St.-Martin. But even more, I anticipate curling up and purring into the warm embrace of my favorite little parks and cafés, and the comfy familiarity of those places where I most like to sit, stand, stroll, read, eat or drink.
Some of those places are in the neighborhood around Nôtre-Dame.
Musée de Sculpture en Plein Air: Walk east from Nôtre-Dame along Quai de la Tournelle, past the bouquinistes, and across Pont de Sully (the bridge that takes you to the far side of Ile St-Louis) to Quai St. Bernard. You’ll find yourself right across from Rue Cuvier (a couple of blocks east of Pont de Sully), and can then walk down to the river’s edge and the Musée de Sculpture en Plein Air, in the Jardin Tino Rossi. As you wander through the sculpture garden and surrounding lawns, you have a sense of being somehow in a secret place. The garden is not immediately apparent from the street and seldom has more than one or two other visitors on its paths. I didn’t find it until my fifth Paris trip, and then only because I purchased the Time Out Book of Paris Walks, and discovered this sculpture garden and the Jardin de la rue de Bièvre (below) in the chapter entitled Untouched Spaces by Christopher Kenworthy.
I often walk the narrow paths, study the sculptures (modern and interesting), gaze at the water and the bâteaux-mouches floating by, as well as the houseboats. Several times, I’ve seen a barge carrying trees and plants tied up to that piece of shore. Some day I’ll find out why it’s there.
My favorite View of Nôtre-Dame: I sometimes walk west along the Seine from the Musée de Sculpture en Plein Air, past the Pont de Sully to Pont de La Tournelle. I love to stop at the archway made by its supports, because through that arch, in a curved, concrete frame, you see Nôtre-Dame de Paris from the rear. Not the church of the photos, but another, spectacularly beautiful side, the flying buttresses framed for private and quiet viewing, its parapets holding up a canopy of blue. With no tour groups or souvenir sellers, there’s nothing to get between the cathedral’s beauty and your eyes. The last time I was there, I was alone except for a painter who had set up his easel just at the entrance to the arch.
Le Jardin de la Rue de Bièvre: Continue along the Seine to Pont de l ‘Archèveché, then up the steps to the street and cross over to the other side of Quai de la Tournelle. Turn right (west) again to discover the tiny rue de Bièvre. Turn left (south) and just a little ways down, on your right, is the Jardin de la rue de Bièvre, sheltered by buildings on three sides, inhabited by birds, lush trees and plants. Since the first time I was led there by the “Untouched Spaces” walk, I’ve often returned to sit quietly with a book or write in my journal. One day, I heard the sounds of classical piano wafting from an open window. There was no one else in this little alcove of peace but me and a group of small gray-bellied birds singing to each other from the branches, and foraging for food in the gravel.
Another time, there were two other people in the Jardin — a little boy and his father. The child, in denim overalls, ran around chortling and smiling, with a toddler’s quick, birdlike steps, his happy sounds mingling in a concert with the birds. The Jardin was quiet enough so that his squeals, the birds’ chirps, and his Italian father’s occasional loving, laughing comment were the only sounds.
Square Ile de France and Déportation Monument: Immediately behind Nôtre-Dame there’s a lovely park with benches, flowers and statuary. It is much quieter than the front of the building and a lovely place to contemplate the beauty and grandeur of the church up close, without the crowds. A couple of years ago I went there to read, accompanied by Volume One of Thirza Valois’ Around and About Paris, which covers Paris’ first seven arrondissements. As I read, I discovered that the park and garden just across the street on the east (the Square Ile de France) was once a part of the park in which I was sitting and that the intervening street was cut through the park to siphon off traffic.
I also read that at the far end of the Square Ile de France there is a memorial and crypt built to commemorate the 200,000 French citizens who were deported to German concentration camps from France during World War II. Though I had walked by that spot many times, I had never noticed the memorial because it is mostly below street level.
I crossed the street to explore. Blood-red letters are cut into the low but stark stone wall, reading “Martyrs Français de la Déportation – 1945.” In a courtyard below the wall is a sculpture made primarily of black, sharp triangular iron protrusions (according to Vallois, these are to commemorate the flesh lacerated by the Nazis). The first time I saw the memorial, the Seine was high and the entrance gate was closed. I had to view the courtyard and sculpture through the iron gate at the top of the narrow stairs. Down below, through a small barred window behind the sculpture, I could see and hear the lapping water of the Seine and imagined what it would feel like to be locked into such a place, perhaps like being in the hold of a slave ship. Although that day was warm and sunny, I still remember how I shivered as I looked through the bars.
My next visit to the Square Ile de France was on a day when the waters had receded and the monument was open. I walked down the stairs into the courtyard, and entered the interior space through a narrow doorway cut into tall stone walls. “Pardonne. N’oublie pas” (“Forgive. Don’t forget.”) is carved above the entrance inside, while the walls feature carved quotes from authors, including Sartre, dealing with death and martyrdom. The primary installation inside is a long, narrow corridor lit with 200,000 quartz crystals. The effect is to encourage reflection.
Crêpes and Choucroute on Ile St-Louis: I think the best-known food establishment in the Ile St-Louis is the Berthillon ice-cream shop. However, as much as I love to leave the Ile holding a cone while lapping at a multicolored mound of dripping flavor, my favorite discoveries on Ile St-Louis are the Alsatian restaurant just at the end of the bridge, and the little crêperie a little way down from Berthillon.
One afternoon last year, I strolled across the little bridge behind Nôtre-Dame from Ile de la Cité to Ile St-Louis. A mime was entertaining a group of children in the middle of the bridge, and against the rail was an American jazz guitarist. I stopped to watch the mime for a few minutes, but it was chilly so I walked on, intending to turn right into rue St-Louis en L’Ile (the middle of the three streets that run east to west across the island). I wasn’t sure what I was going to do that afternoon, other than get out of the chill and read my Inspecteur Maigret detective novel, accompanied by food, drink, and a congenial atmosphere.
I first thought of the little crêperie on the north side of the Rue about a block past Berthillon. I had discovered it a year earlier during just such an afternoon wander. That was my first visit to any crêperie anywhere, and it was an education. I found that (i) the ham, egg and cheese crêpe is wonderful, kind of like a ham and cheese omelette hidden in the folds of a thin pancake, only there is a little too much pancake for the food in the center; (ii) the dessert crêpes are luxurious and naughty (chocolate and fruit and whipped cream and such); and (iii) drinking warm alcoholic apple juice from what looks like a small wooden cereal bowl is, strangely, quite good and causes just enough of a buzz to leave me glowing all the way back to the hotel. The drink, cidre, is native to Brittany. I noticed two women at the next table sipping from their soup bowls and ordered some out of curiosity.
I recalled how comfortable I was that afternoon: sitting at a long communal table by the window, bantering with the waitress who was practicing English phrases, and watching the chefs make crêpes across the counter on the other side of the room. So I was tempted to walk down the block, but then I saw a sign in the window of the brasserie at the end of the bridge — I translated the French into “hot, spiced wine”. Hmm.
Behind the woodgrained bar inside were friendly but slightly aloof bartenders. Around the bar was a somewhat raucous crowd waiting for their names to be called by a hostess who told me that it would be at least an hour for seating in the adjoining restaurant area. I ordered the spiced wine, but the alcoholic heating blanket had only a few minutes to suffuse my body before a small table by a window became available. Soon I had a plate of choucroute, a glass of red wine and a basket of bread to comfort me. Choucroute is an Alsatian dish of sausage, pork and other meats, potatoes and sauerkraut, served with spicy mustard. Perfect! The waiter was a gray-haired, red-cheeked man who seemed to know most of the other patrons. He was a little stiff towards me, but loosened up with a grin (after his initial surprise) when I asked him to help me translate some idioms Georges Simenon had put into Inspecteur Maigret’s mouth. I could imagine him thinking “crazy American lady” as he walked away.
The restaurant is Brasserie de L’Isle St-Louis at 55 Quai de Bourbon.
Michele Kurlander is a 59-year-old Chicago corporate lawyer, writer, small business and womens’ issues advocate, and mother of three grown children. She fell in love with France and all things French many years ago and travels back to France at least once each year (sometime two and three times), whenever her addiction overwhelms her and she can find a discount airfare.