Today was our first full day in Paris, and it was amazing. Lots of walking, but absolutely worth the level of exhaustion generated by said activity! I look forward to soaking my feet, but the only true sorrow today was the fact that I forgot my phone, so many of the off-the-cuff photos I might have liked to take were not taken after all. C’est la vie. I’m going to endeavor to split our day up into two posts, given everything I hope to talk about here.
Starting out this morning, we walked across the Île Saint-Louis to the Île de la Cité, to visit the Cathédrale Notre-Dame. Rather than pull the über-touristy move of sightseeing inside, we instead explored the Crypte Archéologique, the site under the front courtyard area of the cathedral grounds where archeological exploration has unearthed two millennia of Parisian provenance. In this underground space filled with the remnants of Lutèce, the Gallo-Roman precursor to Paris, you can travel through time and see models and animated renderings of what the Île looked like throughout history.
One of the random interesting bits about today – which also, to a certain extent, confirms my linguistic geekiness – was learning the word parvis. Despite my predilection for historical fiction and history in general, and the overwhelming nature of the Catholic Church’s influence in said history, I had never (so far as I can recall) come upon this word. I kept thinking that it must be a French word, and trying to figure out the Latin root. But then one of the information displays used parvis in English, too! Some digging this evening has produced the following.
1. An enclosed courtyard or space at the entrance to a building, especially a cathedral, that is sometimes surrounded by porticoes or colonnades.
2. One of the porticoes or colonnades surrounding such a space.
[Middle English, from Old French, alteration of pareis, paradise, from Late Latin paradīsus, garden, paradise; see paradise.]
This is what I really love about travel . . . you never know what you’re going to learn! Notre Dame has inspired so many writers over the centuries, including the author of its most famous inspiration, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. In 1829, author Victor Hugo was frustrated at the lack of appreciation given to Medieval architecture, and the propensity at the time to demolish anything remotely Gothic in style. By way of response to this trend, Hugo decided to write Hunchback – and devote lengthy passages to descriptions of the cathedral and its rightful place as a major landmark, despite its being off-trend.
Admirable, however, as the Paris of the present day appears to you, build up and put together again in imagination the Paris of the fifteenth century; look at the light through that surprising host of steeples, towers, and belfries; pour forth amid the immense city, break against the points of its islands, compress within the arches of the bridges, the current of the Seine, with its large patches of green and yellow, more changeable than a serpent’s skin; define clearly the Gothic profile of this old Paris upon an horizon of azure, make its contour float in a wintry fog which clings to its innumerable chimneys; drown it in deep night, and observe the extraordinary play of darkness and light in this sombre labyrinth of buildings; throw into it a ray of moonlight, which shall show its faint outline and cause the huge heads of the towers to stand forth from amid the mist; or revert to that dark picture, touch up with shade the thousand acute angles of the spires and gables, and make them stand out, more jagged than a shark’s jaw, upon the copper-coloured sky of evening. Now compare the two.
– Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
Wandering over the Petit-Pont-Cardinal-Lustiger, a bridge built in 1853 but in a location where bridges had been constructed since the Roman period, we ventured onto the Left Bank, or Rive Gauche, where Paris’ literary community has found sanctuary for centuries. Our next stop? Shakespeare and Co., the reincarnation of the ex-pat English-language bookshop famous for its Lost Generation luminaries and legendary proprietress Sylvia Beach. Against all odds, a fair amount of criticism, and many laws, Beach published James Joyce’s Ulysses in 1922, during her stint as owner of the bookshop (while it was at 12 rue de l’Odéon in the sixth arrondissement, from 1919 to 1941). She was a literary juggernaut, the critical brawn behind some of the best works of the early 1900s.
The really wonderful thing about the new Shakespeare and Co., at 37 rue de la Bûcherie (since being re-established in 1951 by a fan of Beach’s), is that it continues to offer sleeping accommodations (admittedly threadbare, and amidst the overstocked shelving, above) to aspiring writers who apply for these spaces on a rolling basis. The idea that you can still throw everything you need into a backpack and run off to Paris to write a great novel is inspiring; a little touch of that “moveable feast” that Ernest Hemingway wrote about still living and breathing today.