I boarded the Eurostar to Paris at London's St. Pancras station. When I was in the city in 2007, St. Pancras was just opening, and I actually saw PM Gordon Brown on his way to dedicate the newly renovated station and Eurostar terminal. The station, opened in 1868, is a mix of the historic and the ultra-modern. The soaring glass ceiling is a marvel and a statue of former UK poet laureate Sir John Betjeman looking up into the light is prominent on the mezzanine with these lines inscribed in the floor:
And in the shadowless unclouded glare
Deep blue above us fades to whiteness where
A misty sea-line meets the wash of air.
This trip from London to Paris was in honor of my first visit 15 years ago, the one that inspired Conquering Venus
. I wanted to retrace the steps, find some sense memory in the journey as I write the sequel. There was definitely some nostalgia as the train sped across southern England, under the Channel and northern France. Pulling into Gare du Nord, which hadn't changed at all, brought back a flood of recollections. The station is an amazing melting pot of languages, smells and sounds. It's like no other place in the world. If you ever travel to Paris, I suggest alighting at Gare du Nord.
My hotel, New Hotel Gare du Nord, was, literally, across the street from the station. Most of the travel sites listed it as a two star, so I wasn't expecting much. The room was tiny, but clean, which is really all I care about at a hotel. The only shitty thing was the promised free wi-fi wasn't working, so I had to walk down the street to McDonald's. This was the one and only time I ate fast food in Europe. I had a le double cheese, petite frite et grande Coke, and I'm not ashamed to say it was pretty damn tasty.
I had totally forgotten how to get anywhere on the Metro and RER, so I pulled out my little map and reacquainted myself. If you know the number and color of the line you want to take and the terminus station at each end, it's actually quite easy. The Metro and RER run alongside each other, but the RER is a commuter train that runs further into the burbs and makes less frequent stops. Another great thing about staying at Gare du Nord: most of the major Metro and RER lines intersect there.
I bought a carnet – a stack of 10 tickets – and set off for Ile de la Cite, the island in the center of the Seine where Notre-Dame is located. This is one my favorite spots in the city and I knew the late afternoon light would be beautiful for some photographs. I walked around the island, sat for a moment in the plaza at Notre-Dame and then went down to walk along the Seine on the Left Bank.
On Friday, I headed to Republique Square and Rue Rampon, which is where much of the action takes place in Conquering Venus
. Rue Rampon was just as a I remembered and it was surreal to be back there. The building with the long balcony full of flowers was still there, unchanged from 15 years ago. I could almost image Irène there waving down to me. The former Bel Air is now a posh boutique hotel called Le General, but the facade is the same. I'm sure I looked like some kind of crazy making notes and taking pictures of everything on Rue Rampon.
From the Republique Metro station, I took the RER down to Place Monge station and walked to the Jardin des Plantes, Paris' botanical garden. A big scene in the Venus
sequel takes place here and I had only seen photographs, so actually being there was amazing. The garden is full of historic buildings, shady avenues, a massive greenhouse and rows and rows of flowers and vegetables. There's also beautiful artwork dotted throughout, including the statue of Venus Genetrix. I found a bench on a long, shady avenue of trees and sat and wrote for awhile in my notebook. I didn't want to leave, but I had to get back and freshen up to meet my friend and fellow poet Cecilia Woloch for dinner.
Cecilia suggested we meet in Place des Vosges, a beautiful square full of fountains and playgrounds ringed by townhouses and shops. It was another beautiful evening, and the temperature had cooled down a bit. We sat and talked for a bit and then walked to the Left Bank to stop in Shakespeare & Co. bookshop. It was packed with people and we chatted with the clerk about upcoming events and recently released books. Cecilia bought a new copy of A Moveable Feast
and then we walked along Quai de Montebello to Cafe Panis for dinner. We took a table right on the street with a commanding view of Notre-Dame and the Seine. It was great to catch up with Cecilia over wine and omelets.
We walked back across Ile de la Cite through the side garden of Notre-Dame and crossed over Pont Saint-Louis to Ile de Saint-Louis for ice cream at Le Flore en L'Isle. This little place along the Seine was rumored to have some of the best ice cream and sorbet in Paris, and it did not disappoint. I had a scoop of the chocolate noir and it made me want to snap into a diabetic coma. Cecilia and I perched on a wall watching the bateaux sail along the river as the sun began to set. It was a magical, amazing evening.
We walked back to Cecilia's flat (on the top floor of a beautiful building in the Marais district) and the streets and cafes were buzzing on a Friday night. It was a long walk, but I saw so many little corners of Paris I'd never seen before and we wound up back at Republique Square where Cecilia and I said our goodbyes.
This visit to Paris was far too short.