The whole world has now heard of Calais, an otherwise monotonous, pigeon-skied patch of northern France afflicted with the geographical misfortune of being the closest point along the coastline to the white cliffs of Dover across the English Channel. Calais has become France’s shame. We have watched with mounting consternation television news reports showing crowded and fetid campments — the “Calais jungle” — where migrants are so desperate to reach the UK that many have committed reckless and violent acts, from storming the Eurotunnel and occupying ferry boats to violently clashing with French police. To some observers, the migrants are dangerous hordes whose motives are uncertain; to others, they are refugees fleeing distant wars and crying out for help. Critics of France’s treatment of the refugees lament that the great French republic, once the cradle of the Enlightenment, has turned its back on

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It is frequently observed, including by many Parisians, that the Pont Alexandre III is the most beautiful bridge in Paris. Adorned with exquisite Art Nouveau-style lamp posts and embellished with nymphs and cherubs, the bridge elegantly arches over the Seine as a vast avenue connecting the Grand Palais and Les Invalides. It has become legendary in the popular imagination, made famous in films from James Bond’s A View to Kill to Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris; recognised as the glamorous backdrop in chic fashion shoots; and recently used as the setting in Adèle’s video for her song, “Someone Like You”. I live about two hundred yards from the Alexandre III bridge. From my windows I can see its gold-tipped columns. I cross the bridge on walks with Hugo and Hector almost every evening, stopping mid-way to take in the magnificent

La Fontaine de Mars

Tuesday, 25 February 2014 by

Three images of the Fontaine de Mars, which features in my memoir Home Again in Paris. Above a photo taken circa 1900. Below a photo that I took with my iPhone this afternoon standing across the road in rue Saint-Dominique. The Fontaine de Mars restaurant is on the left. And finally a photo taken last year of Oscar at the base of the fountain.   

Fontainebleau

Wednesday, 19 February 2014 by

The day began like most mornings in Fontainebleau. Leo was licking my knuckles. I was at the wheel of my battered silver Peugeot driving down the boulevard lined with plane trees at the edge of town, the municipal hospital on one side and local cemetery on the other. In small French towns the two are often morbidly convenient neighbours. I reached back and dangled my free right hand on the back seat, gently squeezing Leo’s little white paw. He returned my affection by licking my dry knuckles with his soft pink tongue. Oscar was directly behind me on his hind legs, peering out the window as we turned up the narrow road leading into the woods. I was glad to be back in Fontainebleau for the weekend. After the move into Paris, I’d decided to keep my apartment here for

Chapter 7 – A Week in Provence

Sunday, 02 February 2014 by

  You know you have arrived in Provence when you reach Montélimar, a town famous for its nougat but better known as the gateway to the south. Passing through Montélimar in summer is like crossing into a territory whose climate and colours are strangely different. Suddenly the world is bathed in warm honeyed sunlight. When you reach the town of Orange, the fragrant scent of lavender sweetens the air and the heat throbs with the familiar sound of cigales pulsing in the trees. You are in Provence. “We’re in the south now David,” I said. “The land of the Romans.” David looked sideways at me and made a vague grunting sound to acknowledge my comment. He was gazing, as if hypnotised, at his iPod. Oscar and Leo were sleeping in the back seat. We’d been on the motorway for more

The assertion that Paris is an “English” city sounds almost like a provocation – especially to Parisians. Yet in truth, the modern Paris that attracts millions of tourists who come to admire the City of Light’s grand boulevards and burnished facades owes its urban design inspiration to London. Even quintessentially Parisian aesthetic touches around the city – such as the famous Renaissance-style Wallace drinking fountains that ornament public squares – are the work of an English benefactor.  The Paris that Louis XIV and his Bourbon predecessors knew no longer exists. The Sun King would scarcely recognise the French capital which in his lifetime he shunned, preferring his resplendent Versailles surroundings far from the Parisian rabble. Modern Paris is largely a Second Empire city rebuilt by Napoleon III in the latter half of the 19th century. After seizing power in a

The photo above shows Pont Neuf in 1889, the same year the Eiffel Tower was constructed. The photo at the bottom I took from the same spot yesterday with my iPhone. The Pont Neuf is the oldest bridge in Paris. King Henri III laid the first stone in 1578 in presence of his mother, Catherine de Medici. The bridge wasn’t completed until 1607 when King Henri IV was on the throne (his famous equestrian statue can be seen on the left). The original statue was erected in 1618, eight years after Henri IV’s assassination, but was torn down during the French Revolution. The equestrian statue that stands on the spot today was erected in 1818. As you can see from my photo (bottom) nothing much has changed (I took the photo standing next to the lamp, just left of where

The photo of the Place de la Concorde above, looking towards the Madeleine, was taken circa 1880s at the outset of the Third Republic — the Paris of Guy de Maupassant’s novels. The famous Egyptian obelisk is only faintly visible in the photo. A gift from the king of Egypt, the obelisk was transported to France in the 1830s and erected at the centre of the Place de la Concorde in 1836. The fountains date from the same period, during the July Monarchy reign of Louis-Philippe. In the photo below, which I took yesterday with my iPhone, you can see that very little has changed since the 19th century. The Crillon hotel is on the left, the classical facade of the Madeleine behind, and gates of the Tuileries are on the right just out of the photo.

  I used to go by the Paris zoo regularly when taking the 63 bus into the Latin Quarter. I would invariably glimpse a lhama forlornly lumbering across a patch of dirt in a large enclosure. I never saw many visitors.   I visited a zoo for the first time when I was about four or five. I can still recall my feeling of shock and sadness as I watched a large lion pacing frantically in a small cage as hundreds of humans inspected its movements. I felt the same emotions when passing the Jardin des Plantes decades later, except at the Jardin des Plantes there were no crowds of curious onlookers. I wondered with a twinge of indignation why animals are kept in such conditions in the centre of major cities. The Jardin des Plantes zoo is the oldest in

I feel extraordinarily lucky to live close to the Invalides and Pont Alexandre III, which is often described as the most beautiful bridge crossing the Seine. The bridge, named after the Russian czar visiting Paris for its inauguration, was built for the Exposition Universelle of 1900 when Paris still stood majestically at the centre of the world. The Paris world fair that year stretched from the Invalides to the Eiffel Tower — in other words, the exhibition grounds covered my neighbourhood. Every nation had a pavillion at the event showcasing the epoch’s great technological marvels. One was a moving staircase (today we would call it an escalator). Another was a sound recording machine. Oscar Wilde visited the Exposition Universelle and apparently recorded a stanza from his poem, “The Ballad of Reading Gaol”. Wilde died in Paris only a few months

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