Monday, April 24, 2006

Montmartre: height and light

When the year turns to April or October, no matter where I am, my mind turns to walking the hills of Montmartre because of the way the sun slides down over the city in a low arc at this elevation (just 430 feet, but it feels high compared to the rest of the city).

The Butte, as Parisians call Montmartre, is the highest point in Paris and is on the Right Bank (north of the Seine). This means a lot of fairly steep uphill climbing to get to the top, often on cobblestones. You can see the hill, and its beacon, the Sacré-Cœur basilica, from many parts of the city. My favorite view of it is through the clock window at the Orsay museum on the Left Bank.

It is in the 18th arrondissement (Paris is divided into 20 arrondissements, each with its own mayoral center) and is where the movie Amelie was set.

Rue Foyatier is a tiny pedestrian street that is mostly stairs as you rise closer to the peak of the Butte (Pl du Tertre). With the Sacré-Cœur basilica (built from 1876 to 1912) in front of you (more like “above” you) you climb the step-street while the shortest and steepest métro line in Paris – the “funicular” -- runs up and down the same hill at your right.

Views from the Sacré-Cœur’s turrets, or from its democratic steps where you sit next to high schoolers playing guitar and resting their young legs, are some of the best in the city.

Traces of the artists who lived and worked in Montmartre (Picasso, Pissaro, Van Gogh, Renoir, Utrillo, among them) can be found in their graves at the small St. Vincent cemetery and the larger Montmartre cemetery (some, not all, were buried here), in houses they painted or lived in, such as La Maison Rose painted by Utrillo and still pink, and the Montmartre Museum where the actor Rosimond lived.

La Maison Rose by Maurice Utrillo

There is a constant reminder that Paris is a city for tourists: the tour bus. I’m not one who enjoys boarding a tour bus or watching buses line up at Paris hot spots. So I go to Montmartre on a weekday and wander the streets without as many tour buses blocking my view.

All photos courtesy of Donica Detamore and Ginnie Hart

Monday, April 17, 2006

Pont Neuf

Reproduced with permission from The Hector Berlioz Website (

In the role of Sabrina in the 1995 film of the same name, Julia Ormond said something like, “There are 26 bridges in Paris. You choose one and go to it in the morning with a croissant and coffee to write in your journal.” I believe her bridge was Pont des Arts.

My bridge is Pont Neuf. Although I have never journaled there, I could easily enough, since you can sit down in one of the alcoves that have benches. My brother Jim calls me “Reuf” to commemorate my affinity for this bridge. (I used “pont reuf” as an email address for a while.)

Although its name means “new bridge” it is the oldest existing bridge in Paris, begun by an order from Henry IV in 1578, completed around 1604. At the time, it was unusual for a bridge to be built without houses on it. A statue of Henry IV astride a horse sits in the park at the tip of the island in front of the bridge.

Copyright © 2003 David Monniaux

Even though there are “384 grotesques” – or carved heads, on the bridge, and although Pont Alexandre III is more elaborate, I think Pont Neuf is the most beautiful of the bridges. This can be good and bad. Good because there is a lot of art and photography of this bridge out there. Bad because it is a lot of other people’s favorite bridge, so it feels like a cliché to love it. Being one who always chose shoes the other girls weren’t wearing, this is a bit difficult. But I’m strong, and I’m almost over it.

It crosses the Seine and the tip of the Île de la Cité (on which the Notre Dame cathedral sits) at one of the most picturesque areas of the city. Five arches of the bridge cross the Seine south of the Île de la Cité, and seven arches of the bridge cross the Seine north of it.

Copyright © 2003 David Monniaux

From one of my favorite vantage points of the city, the

Toupary restaurant on the 5th floor of the Samaritaine department store, there is a great view of the bridge. (I'll try to get that digital view next trip.)

Pont Neuf stars in a 1991 movie along with Juliette Binoche:“Les Amants du Pont-Neuf” or “Lovers on the Bridge” – a sad story about homeless people who lived on the bridge while it was closed for repairs.

In 1985, Christo, the artist who constructed “The Gates” in 2005 in NYC’s Central Park created “
Pont Neuf Wrapped” wrapping the entire bridge in 454,178 square feet of silky fabric.

What I tell myself when I start to ponder the fact that it might be considered a cliché to love Paris: There are a million reasons to back it up! It’s no accident! Mais bien sûr! But of course!

Here is a white chunk of construction detritus found on Pont Neuf in 2003 when it was being repaired and Don and I were in Paris for our 25th wedding anniversary; it now rests on a cabinet in my office.

David Monniaux photographs courtesy of the free usage agreement at (

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Writing in Paris: Shakespeare & Co Bookshop

Photo of me courtesy Donica Detamore 2004

Because I am a writer and have a BA in English, I want the first post on this blog to be about Shakespeare & Co, the bohemian bookshop on the left bank of the Seine.

George Whitman (rumor has it he is related to Walt), now in his nineties, bought the bookstore in 1951, continuing the legacy of Sylvia Beach’s (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) Shakespeare & Company bookstore, which was around the corner. Whitman named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman. 

me with George Whitman in 1997
after I bought my book of Phillip Larkin poems

The motto of his shop is “Be not inhospitable to strangers lest they be angels in disguise,” which is painted above a doorway with a stack of books that reaches from the floor to the lintel.

Mr. Whitman, an American living in Paris for over half a century, has taken his bibliophilism to a philanthropic extreme by inviting writers through the decades to stay in his upstairs rooms above the bookshop. The Web site says he has hosted 50,000 writers! Aspiring writers help out around the beautifully cluttered bookstore to earn their rest on his pillow.

On a visit in 2004, I sat on a bench in front of the store while Donica shopped, and when Mr. Whitman appeared at his upstairs window, then opened it -- and his arms -- to me and asked “Do you have a place to stay?” it was clear he “knew” I was a writer and was honoring me with his traditional courtesy. (Thankfully my sister Ginnie was there to snap a photo.) I did already have another pillow in Paris, but I couldn’t help imagining what it would be like to lodge with Mr. Whitman for a night or a week, sharing morning conversation over tea and a pancake before descending the stair to sweep up after last night’s reading. I think George Whitman is an angel in disguise.

George Whitman opening his arms and hospitality to me in October 2004 
Photo courtesy Ginnie Hart

Famous writers (Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin among them) have met with Mr. Whitman over the years, and some have read in the shop’s weekly readings.

The bookstore is packed with piles of books, without a clear organizational system except for sections of poetry, history, etc.

Each book you purchase is stamped with this logo that reads: Shakespeare & Co. Kilometer Zero Paris.

You can take a virtual tour of the bookshop. You'll notice that the Notre Dame cathedral looms just across the Seine when you exit the bookshop.

Shakespeare & Co Bookshop, 37 Rue de la Bûcherie