Wandering Paris from Saint-Germain-Des-Prés
Ah Paris. The most romantic of cities, the city which novels, films and hundreds of guide books have been written about. But no matter how many books or films you consume there is just no substitute for walking the city yourself and absorbing its rhythms with every sense.
Saint-Germain-Des-Prés is a perfect area to explore from. Most of it is quiet streets with only a few cars and beautiful, consistent buildings from the 19th century. It’s got something for everyone. High fashion boutiques, churches, countless cafes where you can sit on the terrace and watch the world go by, parks and it’s a short walk to almost anywhere in the city.
Sunday afternoon, on my most recent trip, I wandered in the rain into one of the oldest churches in Paris - the Église de Saint Germain Des Prés on boulevard Saint-Germain. Built in the 11th century it is hauntingly beautiful and is now in the middle of an impressive restoration to its Medieval roots. As a result, half the church is painted in brilliant reds, blues, golds and greens and half is dull and lifeless, sleepily waiting for the restorers to get to it. I walked through the entrance, saw the shabby former beauty in the first half, went all the way through to the nave, held my breath and looked up.
My birthday was just a few days later… and so, with a dear friend, I ambled over to the incredibly beautiful Sainte Chapelle, only a 12 minute walk away from Saint-Germain. Smaller than its close neighbor Notre Dame, it was built by Louis IX to house his relic collection, including the Crown of Thorns (purchased from Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem, to fund his wars). I like to get to the chapel when it opens to avoid the crowds (make sure you download the app with the stories of all the 1113 window panes on wifi before you go). This time we decided to go to a concert of Mozart’s Requiem in the chapel to celebrate. You can check the concert schedule at the entrance and they rarely sell out until a day in advance. Whether you are religious or not, it is hard not to be humbled by the vision of stained glass reaching up to the sky in a celebration of the Christian God, as told through bible stories depicted in saturated color as the outside light pours through and the sun slowly sets.
You may guess I love churches, but it is usually because of the art in the building, in the windows and sometimes on the walls. The Church of Saint Sulpice is itself an unassuming, 17th century church but it’s worth the walk because as you enter, and step right, you are immediately in a chapel housing three large Delacroix paintings. Huge and thought provoking, the dramatic painting on the front wall is of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It’s a beautifully executed painting that also begs the question who is Jacob really wrestling with – the angel, God, or himself?
Paris is a city where you can wander with no agenda. Walk as your fancy takes you, stop in a café for a coffee or a glass of wine, and sometimes you will come across something unexpected and delightful. This time I found the vegetable beds and fruit orchards of the Luxembourg Gardens. They are on the South side of the gardens and perfectly arranged and manicured. Every apple or pear had its own little paper sleeve to protect it from the sun and parasites. Such a labor of love, and the way a noble man’s garden would have been maintained in the old days.
No trip to Paris is complete without a pilgrimage to the Louvre. Like many of the world’s greatest museums, it is full of objects looted from the Empire. Treasures from Egypt to Italy, Persia to China, too much to see in one day so pace yourself. I find more than 4 hours (although I did 5 on this trip) and my brain is saturated for the day. In contrast, the Musée d’Orsay holds one of the greatest collections of 19th and 20th century art. Take your camera because while it’s hard to capture the magic of the paintings with most cameras, many of the sculptures are so dramatic even an amateur like me can get fun results.
But for a small and breathtaking museum my favorite is the Musée Cluny – the Museum of Medieval Art. In an air conditioned, quiet room you can feast on an example of the high form of Medieval art before the Renaissance took over – you can feast your eyes on the tapestries of the Lady and the Unicorn. Created in 1500, these 6 large tapestries in pastel colors romantically depict a beautiful lady with her dog, animals, flowers and trees. The lady is a mystery, her love for her dog is not. I can only imagine who she was, who loved her enough to commission these gorgeous works, and what the room was like where they originally hung.
Sometimes I stay in hotels, but on this trip I started out in an Airbnb in Saint-Germain - fourth floor, old building, quaint with large wooden beams across the ceiling. Just a start though. On the second night the heavens opened in a spectacular rainstorm and water came happily dripping through the roof in 5 different places until the floor was underwater and I had all the kitchen bowls around the rooms to try to catch the worst of it. A lesson in how hard it is to really assess the quality (and age!) of an Airbnb before you walk in the door. Luckily I am a member with Indagare (the best travel concierge) and so within a few hours I was happily moved to Le Saint Hotel. And got my money back from the Airbnb host!
You can happily while away a week wandering in and around St Germain des Pres. But if you like to add a challenge for yourself, take French classes in the mornings at Lutèce Langue – a very small, casual immersion school and like everything else only 15 minutes walk away. Yes, I’m taking classes… trying the slow but steady recovery of my rusty French!