Rive Gauche is everyone’s dream of Paris. And it is still true, one of Europe’s least likely miracles. For how much longer I don’t know; but at the moment the boulevard Saint-Germain is still a place in which it is honourable and decent to be either intellectual or unintellectual. And all the places around seem to have been given an extra charge of self-knowledge over the north bank: the turbulence of rue Mouffetard, the provincial streets around Saint-Sulpice, the well-heeled quietness of the rue de Grenelle. Only the Invalides bumbles in with clay on its soul; but far beyond that the boulevard de Grenelle – unknown, with a Metro turned elevated running down the middle -is very near the perfect Parisian street.
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SOUTH TO THE PANTHEON
Square Rene Viviani
This is a marvellous place. No keep-off-the-grass – apart from anything else, there is hardly any grass – and all that the absence of keep-off-the-grass implies: children using the place as if it were an adventure rather than an ‘adventure playground’, their guardians knitting to each other and often getting much more agitated than the solemn small persons they have in charge. Not much howling, not many apron-strings: toddlers are already treated as people. And so are the extras – old ladies reading, young gents sobering up, ordinary tourists like us. Sit here, and you will be accepted into Paris, if you want to be. The glum segregation of a London playground and the terrifying violence of a New York playground are equally remote.
Oh yes, I almost forgot. There is a classic threequarter view of Notre-Dame lumbering up with its implacable Gothic artillery, in one direction, and a vignette of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre – a village church left over when the city expanded – in the other, screened by the oldest tree in Paris.
(Quai de Montebello, diagonally across the river from Notre-Dame.)
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Installed in a fussy late Gothic hotel with a distinct look of Rouen, which has been tacked on to the remains of the baths of Roman Paris. The chapel, with one very tall central column, is a tour de force of prickly resilience, sprouting foliage like a market garden got out of hand. The museum contains a splendid variety of medieval objects, far too many to detail, and one thing which is unequalled in Europe: the six mysterious tapestries of La dame a la licorne, only discovered in the nineteenth century, tucked away in a remote chateau near Aubusson. Their date is – vaguely – early sixteenth century, even the theme is uncertain, though five of them seem to be concerned with the five senses. The actual subject is clearly the interaction of a very mild lion and an exceedingly cuddly unicorn; they play out games of utter affability against a background of gibier – everything from birds to monkeys, intertwined in a red and green hallucination as sweet as Chagall’s. The whole series is star-struck, for once a true fairy tale instead of the thinly veiled Northern sadism that usually goes by the name.
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A little anthology of sculptural quality on a strip of grass in front of the College de France. At the eastern end is an extremely funny bust of Ronsard, droop-snooted and surrounded by seats. The joke is by, or on, M. Rousaud, and he thought it up in 1928. In the middle is Claude Bernard, good straightforward War Memorial stuff, carved as late as 1946. And at the eastern end, by itself on the grass, is a statue by Jean-Paul Aube, 1879, which is an unexpected masterpiece. With a difficult subject (Dante), the sculptor has succeeded perfectly: the figure, firm yet pensive, is inhabited -and in a way that Epstein, for example, never managed to achieve. It is like a character in one of Shakespeare’s history plays suddenly brought to life by superb technique.
Embroidered passage, rue des Ecoles
This coin pittoresque – so much more truly Parisian than the traditional cosy bits of a city which was never truly cosy in that way – is between nos. 31 and 33 on the south side of the rue des Ecoles, an archway in the indistinguishable front of boulevard hotels. Up some steps, and neatly framed across an alley, is a small laundry. (In that, you feel, there must be an archway, and beyond that an extremely small building, and so on.) The archway is embroidered with posters, inches thick, concert upon manifesto like a cream sauce of the intellect. Low down, the name of Maurice Thorez still peers through; high up and unswept there are still Art Nouveau fragments. Perhaps, under all this, there is still something by Toulouse-Lautrec.