Why it’s so easy to fall in love with Paris all over again

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - DESTINATIONS - By AN­THONY HOROWITZ

It’s easy to be rude about Paris. It has none of the dy­namism of Lon­don, which seems to rein­vent it­self ev­ery year. On a bad day, par­tic­u­larly in wet weather, it can seem shabby, fos­silised. Road clo­sures de­manded by the eco-minded mayor, Anne Hi­dalgo, have turned much of the city into a seething traf­fic jam. With the pound level-peg­ging the euro, the prices of restau­rants and ho­tels can be eye-wa­ter­ing and you can eas­ily end up pay­ing through the nose for cui­sine that is of­ten un­healthy and some­times ined­i­ble.

Why then, did I find my­self board­ing a Eurostar train at St Pan­cras In­ter­na­tional and speeding in­ex­orably to­wards the French cap­i­tal? I had been in­vited there by the So­hobased Pho­tog­ra­phers’ Gallery which rep­re­sents Se­bastião Sal­gado — for my money, the great­est pho­tog­ra­pher alive. His last ex­hi­bi­tion, Ge­n­e­sis, show­cased a vast, mys­ti­cal world seem­ingly un­touched by mod­ern progress — and they had ar­ranged a once-in-a-life­time visit to his stu­dio. By co­in­ci­dence, this was just a few days af­ter the US had elected its new pres­i­dent — “Brexit plus plus plus,” as he put it. I needed to get away.

The rain was lash­ing down on my first day. I of­ten won­der how many di­vorces must have started with a wet week­end in Paris. For­tu­nately, my visit to Sal­gado’s stu­dio was ev­ery­thing I had hoped for. Sal­gado, who has sin­gle-hand­edly re­stored huge swathes of the rain­for­est in Brazil, is a gen­tle, al­most mes­sianic man. His stu­dio, look­ing out over the Canal Saint-Matin, with its sky­lights and spi­ral stair­cases, could have come out of a Puc­cini opera. He showed us im­ages from his new book — Kuwait: A Desert on Fire — a stun­ning vi­sion of the hell un­leashed when Sad­dam Hus­sein de­stroyed Kuwait’s oil wells. My visit here alone would have made the trip worth­while.

But the next day the sun was shin­ing and Paris was look­ing as pris­tine and as bril­liant as one of Sal­gado’s pho­to­graphs. We were stay­ing at the Grand Hô­tel du Palais Royal which, de­spite its name is ac­tu­ally a very chic, in­ti­mate place — for­merly a theatre where Molière once per­formed. It’s not cheap, but if you want el­e­gance, im­pec­ca­ble ser­vice and a lovely, quiet po­si­tion in a pri­vate court­yard just two min­utes from the Lou­vre, I’d rec­om­mend it. It’s part of the Small Lux­ury Ho­tels of the World group — and they’ve never yet let me down.

Af­ter an ex­cel­lent break­fast (in­cluded) we set off on a walk start­ing in the Tui­leries gar­den, just across the road. I wanted to re­visit the Monet wa­terlilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie. I’ve seen them half a dozen times in my life and each time they’ve re­minded me how good it is to be alive. They are just won­drous. There was also a bril­liant ex­hi­bi­tion in the base­ment — Amer­i­can Paint­ing in the 1930s — look­ing at re­sponses to the Great De­pres­sion. “A large num­ber of Amer­i­cans who had lost their bear­ings looked back to the past in or­der to re­store their pride and their iden­tity,” the cat­a­logue ex­plained — to which I could only add: “Plus ça change …”

In fact the whole city seemed to be suf­fused by art with enor­mous queues out­side the Pom­pi­dou Cen­tre and the Grand Palais where Paris Photo — a ma­jor pho­tog­ra­phy fair — was tak­ing place. As we con­tin­ued our stroll, we passed groups of sol­diers, in uni­form, car­ry­ing ma­chine guns. It was our only re­minder that this was ex­actly one year since the mass shoot­ing at the Bat­a­clan con­cert hall and you have to ad­mire the Parisians for their re­silience, their de­ter­mi­na­tion to con­tinue with their lives, un­afraid.

Our route took us over the river, into the Latin Quar­ter and then back to the Marais. Art in the morn­ing, shop­ping in the af­ter­noon. We also had some fine meals. It is still pos­si­ble to get ex­cel­lent food in Paris and I can rec­om­mend Camille on the Rue des Francs Bour­geois, a cosy, in­for­mal bistro that’s al­ways jammed — it’s best to book ahead. Nearer our ho­tel, we dis­cov­ered Chez Georges on the Rue du Mail which is ac­tu­ally a Paris standby; a lovely room with gold-framed mir­rors, great food, de­light­ful ser­vice.

I’m em­bar­rassed to ad­mit that I also ate at Le Grand Ve­four on the edge of Palais-Royal. Can one re­ally jus­tify pay­ing eye-wa­ter­ing sums to have din­ner in an 18th-cen­tury restau­rant once fre­quented by Napoleon? Well, yes. The room was lovely with its can­dles, vel­vet ban­quettes and hand-painted silk dec­o­ra­tions. And the food (two Miche­lin stars) was mem­o­rable.

The truth is that over the week­end I fell in love with Paris once again — which is what hap­pens ev­ery time I come here. It re­ally is, quite sim­ply, one of the most beau­ti­ful cities in Europe and ev­ery­where you look you see build­ings that are per­fectly pro­por­tioned, wide av­enues laid out in straight lines, su­perb neo­clas­si­cal ar­chi­tec­ture.

All the street ar­chi­tec­ture is hand­some: the Metro signs, the lamps, the rail­ings. Bet­ter still, there isn’t too much of it. The Parisians have es­chewed the plas­tic shop fronts that have dis­fig­ured so much of Lon­don and if only the Thames was as un­spoilt as the Seine. Could any­one se­ri­ously con­sider a “gar­den bridge” in Paris? I don’t think so.

Above all, in an un­cer­tain world, Paris has a sense of per­ma­nence. As I trav­elled back to the Gare du Nord for the jour­ney — just 2hr 15mins — back to Lon­don it oc­curred to me that the city has sur­vived a revo­lu­tion, two world wars and the hor­rors of mod­ern ter­ror­ism. Brexit, Trump, Marine Le Pen … it will surely sur­vive them too.

The fee for this ar­ti­cle was do­nated to Kid­scape (kid­scape.org.uk).

WU ZHIYI / CHINA DAILY

“The sun was shin­ing and Paris was look­ing as pris­tine and as bril­liant as one of Se­bastião Sal­gado’s pho­to­graphs.”

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