Paris Travel Tips

Notre-Dame-des-Blancs-Manteaux: pulpit

Perfect Rococo. Unlikely inlays of religious intention wind round the staircase7 and bowl, surrounded by frothy frames, exquisitely symmetrical in their asymmetry. Above, what I assume to be Saint George vanquishes a dragon with an inimitable gesture. This is Watteau’s world.

Palais Soubise (Archives Nationales)

Interior decoration: Boffrand, Paris France Attractions

This is what our Public Record Office museum could provide if it were more than a single room open on weekday afternoons. The Palais Soubise has a suite of rich eighteenth-century rooms, decorated by Boffrand, given over to the documentary history of France up to 1815. The papers speak for themselves and there is no need for elaboration; a court official working out how many European princesses would be suitable for the future Louis XV, and Robespierre making a kind of parliamentary shopping list of things-to-be-done. There is a handbill about the provision of public umbrellas in Paris and the printed record of a Hymn to the Supreme Being sung at Tulle to the tune of the Marseillaise. Apart from a few relics of Dreyfus and Boulanger, the sequence stops short at Waterloo; it would be exciting and maybe libellous to follow events through to 1945 and after. But that does not affect the excellence and relevance of what there is, or the intelligence used in displaying it.

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As a bonus, the sequence includes one of the best accessible eighteenth-century rooms in Paris; an oval salon at a corner of the building in which the polite conventions are handled with verve as well as with the customary elegance. Gold and white walls, a sky-blue ceiling, and an extra tension.

Object, corner of rue des Archives and rue des Haudriettes Paris Guide

An enigmatic oval thing, opposite the impressive rustication of the nineteenth-century part of the Archives Nationales. It is on a splay corner, marking a gap in a recent building – the perfect mot juste, humanizing the city, making bearable the worrying fact that seven million people are living in such a very small space. Parisians themselves do this every day in a hundred gestures: it is comforting to see the architectural equivalent – someone up there is on your side after all. But what on earth does it do? Twenty feet high, no windows, no proper door, a nice way with an entablature and a relief of an epicene youth showing his backside. Suggestions welcome.

Saint-Jean-Saint-Franois

More like a private art gallery than a church, with big paintings all round the walls and cosy squat proportions. The framework is seventeenth-century, the chapel of a Capuchin convent; the furnishings convey a lot of pre-Revolutionary comfort where most churches in Paris and France generally are injected with the Poor Law fervour of the nineteenth century, crockets on the cheap. Pass along the truite meuniere, abbe, it’s Friday; and is this really champagne nature?

Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs

The outside rambles and bulges like a string bag overfilled at the supermarket, the inside has double aisles and chapels flowing round the whole building, either gently Gothic or classicized with a resounding fluted thump. In them there is room for anything, a space and freedom rarely found in the biggest cathedrals. It feels as though behind the next pillar there could be a zinc bar counter, a tray full of lingerie or a Moslem prayer-niche. Alert, tolerant, as full of life as the ferocious timbre of its organ: a real church for Parisians, inhabited by a million shrugs.

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