Why I love Paris in the au­tumn

THE IN­CI­DEN­TAL TOURIST

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Travel & Indulgence - JOHN LAUGH­LAND THE SPEC­TA­TOR

AUTUMNin Paris has been im­mor­talised in one of Rainer Maria Rilke’s most poignant po­ems. Hav­ing left his wife in Ber­lin, Rilke moved in 1902 to Paris, where he wrote Herb­st­tag ( Au­tumn Day): ‘‘Who­ever is alone now, will re­main so for long. He will stay up late, write long let­ters and wan­der rest­lessly in the av­enues as the leaves drift.’’

If you have ever taken a soli­tary walk in the gar­dens of Ver­sailles as the sun glints coldly on the bright au­tumn colours, you will know that feel­ing.

For four months of the year, from De­cem­ber to March, liv­ing in Paris is like be­ing trapped in­side Tup­per­ware. The grey skies are more im­mov­able even than in Lon­don. So if you are plan­ning a trip, go in Oc­to­ber or Novem­ber, when an In­dian sum­mer can pro­duce won­der­ful ef­fects.

Take the time to spend an af­ter­noon in the Ba­gatelle gar­den within the Bois de Boulogne. Laid out in 1775 in only 64 days, the re­sult of a bet be­tween Marie-An­toinette and her brother-in-law, the Comte d’Ar­tois (the fu­ture Charles X), the gar­den re­calls Lon­don’s Hyde Park with its vast lawns and rose gar­den (more than 1000 va­ri­eties). At the same time, it is also very French, with its or­na­men­tal chateau, orangerie and strut­ting pea­cocks.

If the weather turns against you, how­ever, you will want to visit a mu­seum. My favourite in the world has al­ways been the Cluny, housed in the for­mer palace of the ab­bot of that fa­mous and now de­funct monastery, ad­ja­cent to the Ro­man baths on the Boule­vard Saint-Michel.

Here is the na­tional col­lec­tion of me­dieval art, the high­light of which is the se­ries of 15th-cen­tury ta­pes­tries, The Lady and the Uni­corn, dis­cov­ered in a chateau in the Creuse in the late 1830s, which de­pict the five senses cul­mi­nat­ing in an al­le­gory of love.

But the rest of the col­lec­tion is breath­tak­ing, too. In­deed, the items are of­ten moved around and re­placed with stock from the re­serves. Among my favourites are a huge 12th-cen­tury cru­ci­fix on the ground floor, de­light­ful poly­chrome 13th-cen­tury life-size stat­ues of Mary and John, cur­rently on the first floor, and a mag­nif­i­cent 12th-cen­tury bronze al­tar­piece de­pict­ing the de­scent of the Holy Spirit. The stained glass and il­lu­mi­nated manuscripts are su­perb; there is also a spec­tac­u­lar 14th-cen­tury tres­tle ta­ble from Ger­many, painted with won­der­ful heraldic de­signs.

Another gem is the Mu­seum of Let­ters and Manuscripts at 222 Boule­vard Saint-Ger­main. Ever since the Na­tional Archives closed its per­ma­nent col­lec­tion, it is the only place to see some of the most im­por­tant doc­u­ments in the his­tory of France.

Founded in 2004 by busi­ness­man Ger­ard Lher­i­tier, but housed in its present premises only since 2010, the mu­seum has more than 100,000 doc­u­ments, start­ing with Sume­rian tablets and fin­ish­ing in the 20th cen­tury.

You can see here, for in­stance, Louis XVI’s hand­writ­ten speech to the Es­tates Gen­eral on June 23, 1789, as well as his po­lit­i­cal tes­ta­ment from 1793. There’s a let­ter by Char­lotte Cor­day, the woman who killed Marat, dis­cov­ered in her pocket at her ar­rest and ex­plain­ing her mo­tives; Einstein’s notes elab­o­rat­ing the the­ory of rel­a­tiv­ity; and hun­dreds of mes­sages writ­ten by Charles de Gaulle dur­ing his first months in Lon­don.

There are acts signed by the great­est French kings from Charle­magne in 825 on­wards; let­ters by Europe’s great­est artists, from Cranach the Elder to Pi­casso; and huge num­bers of let­ters and notes from the world’s great­est literary fig­ures.

Nat­u­rally your thoughts will soon be turn­ing to food. If you are near Dey­rolle, you might like to eat at Aux Vieux Gar­cons (213 Boule­vard Sain­tGer­main), where nei­ther the decor nor the menu has changed for a hun­dred years (al­though the name has) or, a lit­tle fur­ther away, at the ex­cel­lent Basilic (basil) op­po­site the basil­ica of Sainte-Clotilde.

The brasserie is about as typ­i­cal a Paris restau­rant as you can get, serv­ing Basque food to the well-to-do in­hab­i­tants of the 7th, and of­ten to politi­cians, too, with the Na­tional As­sem­bly and many min­istries nearby.

The basil­ica it­self, mag­nif­i­cent and rather Pug­i­nesque, is well worth a visit (the Sta­tions of the Cross are par­tic­u­larly fine). Cap­tain Drey­fus was ar­rested across the road from here in 1894, while in 1905 the parish­ioners bar­ri­caded them­selves in­side the church with pews, in a des­per­ate at­tempt to pre­vent the state ex­pro­pri­a­tion of church prop­erty. They were re­moved only af­ter a long and vi­o­lent pitched bat­tle with the po­lice.

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