Why I love Paris in the autumn
THE INCIDENTAL TOURIST
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.