Why it’s so easy to fall in love with Paris all over again
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).
“The sun was shining and Paris was looking as pristine and as brilliant as one of Sebastião Salgado’s photographs.”