Thursday, September 20, 2012

First Full Day in Paris is a Very Full Day

On our first full day in Paris, Monday, July 2, Aggie and I set out on foot for Notre Dame. Once there, we found ourselves with thousands of other tourists. And they all looked very touristy, wearing fip flop sandels or running shoes, lots of shorts and baseball caps. All were recording the moment with cameras or cell phones.
At once, Aggie and I agreed that we would not attempt entry into this mighty 700 year old cathedral. The lines into Notre Dame were a block long and there was a steady stream of people exiting. It's OK not to stand in that long line, we told ourselves.
Instead we stood in the center of the plaza on the brass octagonal medallion that reads Point 0 Des Routes De France. This medallion is said to be at the very center of France. I think we forgot to turn three times on the medallion to make a wish. Aggie, did we makes wishes?
At Notre Dame, we people watched. I spotted a little girl in a red dress in downward dog right in front of the cathedral. Heaven knows what she was thinking beyond getting her mother's attention. She persisted as Aggie engaged the two travelling moms in conversation. Seems they were on their way to Italy with several daughters in tow. The girl in downward dog was the youngest traveler in their group.
One can feed tiny birds at Notre Dame. And one can watch people feeding tiny birds. So much for carefully studying Notre Dame's 200-foot tall bell towers, its gargoyles and ornate statuary.
Aggie and I crossed the Seine on the Petit Pont bridge and decided to work our way through the first walk of Sonia, Alison and Rebecca Landes' Paris Walks . The walk is titled Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. The tour begins at Petit Pont where you can see Aggie enjoying the melodies of a street musician. This bridge was the first to connect Ile de la Cite, where Notre Dame stands, to the Left Bank, which is where we were headed.
The Paris Walks tours are very detailed and I carried the book with me to read as we entered this old and historic neighborhood. Walk #1, on which we embarked, filled 33 pages. The history and architecture of each street is presented as a series of stories spanning hundreds of years. The ladies Landes also include information about dining and shopping. Take one of their walks and you miss nothing. 
On the very beginnings of Paris they write, "By Gallic time the Seine had already dug its present channel, but the bank to either side, especially the Right Bank, remained swampy and uninhabitable. The first part of the mainland to be settled was the south, or Left Bank...Even as late as the Middle Ages, the street level was thirty feet (three stories) lower than it is today. This is why three levels of cellar still exist in the seventeenth century buildings you see in the area...." There are several more pages of history about the bridge and the river banks beginning with the Romans and moving on into the nineteenth century. 
With Paris Walks, we were well fortified with information. After crossing the bridge, we turned left on to Rue de la Bucherie and found a tiny building where, the Landes' write, "Regrettably, today there is a tourist-oriented cafe...." rather than the older La Bucherie, a restaurant in which a wood fire burned on the hearth." Such is the information in Paris Walks. 
There is more about this tiny building which was constructed in the early 16th century and makes this building about 500 years old. It is a rare wooden structure that has survived when most such buildings succumbed to fires. You can see the ends of framing beams used in its construction and I also see that new owners put skylight windows in the roof. The most amazing thing is that this petite structure is still in use. Chefs are preparing food and guests sit at overflowing curbside tables. I suspect someone lives on its second floor.
Directly to the left of this 500 year old building is Shakespeare and Company, a bookstore run by George Whitman and his daughter Sylvia. I think that Mr. Whitman is no longer living, but I am sure his spirit stills oversees this eccentric enterprise. 
The bookstore has both old and new books in English and the adjoining building houses an antiquarian bookshop. As I looked about these rambling spaces, crowded floor to ceiling with books, I knew from my cursory gaze that this was yet another occasion when I would promise myself a return trip to Paris.
I liked the feel of this place and could have spent hours browsing or sitting in an ancient chair with books across my lap. One small crowded space led into another and another. There is a very narrow bright red staircase at the back of the shop that climbs to a second floor where there are ever more books and reading nooks. At the top of the stairs I found a children's book section. I stopped right there and found books for Charlie, Kelan, Lulu and Lauren. I did not buy this vintage Madeline book.
The nice thing about buying books at Shakespeare and Company is that each fly sheet is embellished  with the store's very own rubber stamp that reads, "Shakespeare and Co. Kilometer Zero Paris." For the stamp and for mailing these books straight back to Houston, I was referred to the antiquarian side of Shakespeare and Company. I loved this reflection of Notre Dame in the shop window - and the books displayed.
Just outside the book store is a tall green water fountain consisting of a base on which four women hold a crown from which water flows. Seems that Mr. Wallace, an Englishman visited Paris in the nineteenth century and was unable to obtain fresh water at a restaurant. Mr. Wallace became a philanthropist of sorts and gifted Paris with more than 100 of these fountains. They work and we drank from them.
The fountain reminded me of the Benson Bubblers, public water fountains in Portland, OR. Again, there is the story of a visitor looking for a drink of fresh water. In 1912, Mr. Benson gifted the city with a plethora of public drinking fountains.
Aggie and I began to feel that the day was already getting ahead of us. And there were still 20 pages to guide our walk through this old neighborhood. We headed to Rue Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre and dashed into the petite lobby of the Esmeralda Hotel, no. 4. Of course, we thought this seventeenth century building turned hostelry a picturesque place to stay on that 'next visit' to Paris. 
The hotel is named for Victor Hugo's heroine in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The Esmeralda Hotel also plays a part in "Linnea in Monet's Garden," a children's book written by Christinia Bjork and illustrated by Lena Anderson. I undertand that one must reserve a room well in advance. So noted.
Our walk continued on down the street to The Tea Caddy where we stopped for tea. The Tea Caddy is housed in what were the stables of an adjacent building. The cellars date back to the fourteenth century. It was hard for us to fathom the age of this structure as we munched on a shared lemon tart.
Across the street from The Tea Caddy is the church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. Though we passed it several times during our stay, we were never able to see the interior of this oldest church in Paris. However, we read Julien's story, as written in Paris Walks, and it is heartbreaking. The essence of Julien's story is depicted in a fourteenth century, (fourteenth century, mind you) stone relief which is now located above a modern day movie theater at no. 42 rue Galande. Totally incongruous. This small relief is over 500 years old and it rests on the facade of some one's apartment above a cinema.
There were pages more to contemplate as we walked, but I tucked the book in my bag and we began to simply walk and 'look'. We attempted to circle back toward Petit Pont, but the streets crisscross so often  that we found ourselves 180 degrees from our intended direction.
However, we did find a patisserie and so carried small paper sacks of pastries as we walked back past Notre Dame and on to our apartment near Pompidou Center. Paris Walks deserves more time than we gave Walk #1. But for that first full day in Paris, it was enough.

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