Our World Wintry Paris a feast for the senses

Photo of William Yeoman

Lose yourself in the sights and sounds of the bustling city in the cooler months

I arrive in Paris just before 6pm, after a last morning in Oxford and some time in London around St Pancras ahead of boarding the Eurostar.

A quick taxi ride with a garrulous driver speaking a lively Franglais brings me to my hotel on the Boulevard St Michel, directly across the road from the Cluny museum, which I’d visited twice before, and which I love, not least for its mysterious tapestries collectively entitled The Lady and the Unicorn.

From the window of my sixth-floor room I can see the Eiffel Tower, magnificently lit and with its searchlight scanning the skies above the city like some forlorn, all-seeing eye. I have barely enough time to check in and freshen up before walking down the boulevard and over the Seine to meet my friend Melissa for dinner at the vegetarian restaurant Veget’Halles.

She arrives on a bamboo bicycle, clad in black stockings, pink heels and a full-length leather jacket and horseriding helmet. After our meal, we go to a bar, Loupe, for coffee. There is a medieval spit over a large open fireplace giving an infernal heat and glow to the place. A raucous party singing Bonne Anniversaire right near our table takes on the aspect of a band of malevolent demons. The espresso is excellent.

After Melissa takes her leave, I walk back to my hotel along the left bank of the Seine and up the Boulevard St Michel, my way partially lit by a gibbous moon crosshatched by vapour trails suspended above an illuminated Notre Dame.

My fellow night walkers include a mixture of locals and tourists of varying ages and cultural backgrounds, this latter apparent from the snatches of different languages which float in and out of earshot on the nocturnal air like some ghostly fugue. It is alarming to see so many more beggars in the streets than I’d remembered.

I awake early the next day and, after breakfasting on jam-smeared baguettes, buttery croissants and steaming black coffee, decide to walk first to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, then to the Louvre.

The air is icy, the sky pure white, the trees leafless, the gravel crunchy underfoot, the central fountain tinkling like a distant bell, the statues of historical and mythological figures looking as though they might break into pieces at any minute, the whole scene drained of colour.

At one point, a man with some kind of disability staggers across my path like a broken marionette. Just as suddenly, a distant crowd forms a fortissimo chord of colour, their bright jumpers threatening to ignite the bleak landscape.

Leaving the gardens, I pass Notre Dame. Was there ever a cathedral that so gracefully combined airy lightness and delicacy with a stolid, comforting majesty?

I continue through narrow streets lined with restaurants, cafes, art dealers’ small galleries and bookshops before reaching the Louvre.

Finding myself again among the Greek and Roman statuary, I meditate on the dynamism of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Captives and Canova’s classical yet erotically charged nudes.

Finally, it strikes me: unless one is running one’s hands over the contours of a three-dimensional form in marble or bronze —  sculpture is all about the modulation of light, the subtle gradation of tones over undulating surfaces. 

In that respect at least, sculpture is painting’s sister: but it exists in the round; it has mass, it has volume, and one is able to move about it, changing one’s perspective continuously and taking delight in the shifting tonalities.

Speaking of painting, there is the usual throng in front of the Mona Lisa. Standing at the back, I notice the faces of a young man on the left and a young woman on the right, looking at each other as if to say “Here we are, at last”.

I continue through narrow streets lined with restaurants, cafes, art dealers’ small galleries and bookshops before reaching the Louvre.

Finding myself again among the Greek and Roman statuary, I meditate on the dynamism of the Nike of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Captives and Canova’s classical yet erotically charged nudes.

Finally, it strikes me: unless one is running one’s hands over the contours of a three-dimensional form in marble or bronze —  sculpture is all about the modulation of light, the subtle gradation of tones over undulating surfaces. 

In that respect at least, sculpture is painting’s sister: but it exists in the round; it has mass, it has volume, and one is able to move about it, changing one’s perspective continuously and taking delight in the shifting tonalities.

Speaking of painting, there is the usual throng in front of the Mona Lisa. Standing at the back, I notice the faces of a young man on the left and a young woman on the right, looking at each other as if to say “Here we are, at last”.

Are they not just as beautiful, just as much complete works of art, perhaps even more so because they will not survive a fraction as long as Leonardo’s masterpiece?

Then I am standing before one of those superb Claude Lorrain paintings, a port scene from antiquity with the foreground activities of the people and the sailing vessels in the middle ground depicted contre jour, the eye led to a refulgent sunrise near the centre of the composition.

I fancy I can hear the voices of the people and the billowing of the canvas of the sails. I can smell the sea air. I can taste the merchants’ wares, the wines and the olives and the cheeses.


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