Walking with Nicola and Thomas on 8 September 2011



Paris via Nicola & Haussmann

I am walking with my old university friend, Nicola. Since receiving my birthday invitation Nicola has moved to Paris and has had a baby. Though Nicola and I lost touch for years, our paths crossed once more in the world of research – me with walking, Nicola with children’s geography. It seems highly appropriate then that we are accompanied on our walk today by Nicola’s son, Thomas (silent ‘s’).

Nicola knows that tomorrow I will be visiting the Arcades – or Passages – so has decided to contrast this by exposing me to some of Haussmann’s boulevards – radical nineteenth-century impositions on mediaeval street (un)plans, serving to modernise (organise, rationalise, sanitise) the city. Collecting me from my hotel on Rue Bergère, I meet Thomas for the first time – a beautifully tanned, dark-eyed little boy of 14 months. Nicola suggests we start our walk with lunch, an excellent idea. En route, we pass the apartment where she lived when she first moved to Paris, and where Thomas also spent the first few months of his life. This is actually located right on one of Haussmann’s boulevards – the Boulevard St. Martin, between the Porte St. Denis and Porte St Martin. Nicola lived on the second floor – and though she only recently moved out to Alfortville, the building has already changed, a new shop now on the ground floor. Pointing to the building next to hers, Nicola tells me that this one is an example of a classic ‘Haussmann’ façade. Haussmann’s vision for Paris extended beyond the straight, wide, geometric, efficient and manageable streets to the buildings that lined them. ‘Haussmannian’ apartments have balconies on the second and fifth floors. Once Nicola had pointed out this example to me, I see it repeated endlessly throughout the city – and marketed in estate agents.

Crossing the wide Boulevard St. Martin, we make our way up Rue de Lancry, past Nicola’s favourite boulangerie, and turn left down Rue de Vinaigriers. Nicola has decided to take me to a decidedly un-Parisian eatery – a wonderful Vegan café (‘Voy Alimento’) that clearly used to be a regular haunt. Having asked her how her French was coming on – and having received a modest reply – I feel proud to hear her chatting confidently with the café’s owner. (Nicola and I suffer from a shared Scottish education, where grammar was jettisoned from the curriculum, meaning that our second language skills are also pretty diabolical.) We order the grande assiete complete, and whilst I have little idea of what I am eating, I eat confidently knowing that it is sans viande! Washed down with ‘Purple Juice’ this is healthy super-food, setting us up for the walk ahead. (Thomas has less exciting pureed fruit.)

When Nicola first moved to Paris she walked her way into the city by walking around it, seeking out ‘her’ places in a strange landscape, locating anchors that served to anchor her (the favourite boulangerie, the vegan café, the park). One of the places that has always drawn her is the Canal St Martin. The canal’s lock is just next to Rue de Vinaigriers, so we make our way there, watching the water swirl violently as the water levels shift for a journeying boat. This is where some of Amelie was filmed. Nicola likes the relative calm of the canal; the fact that it’s not a prettified walk – you have to go up, over, around, to follow it – adds to its interest. Haussmann covered over some sections of the canal. Passing by a fire station, Nicola instructs me on the rituals of Bastille Day, when each station takes responsibility for the Bastille celebrations, throwing a party. We stroll up the Quai de Jemmapes and cross over to the Quai de Valmy – Nicola is right in that this is the first walk where my walker (confidently, expertly) changes a nappy mid-way through! At the Rotunde de Villette – a rotunda toll house from Louis XVI’s reign, for taxing the goods coming into the city – we negotiate more wide boulevards and a tree lined avenue in order to rejoin the canal.

Here, the canal opens out into the Basin de Villette – a wider, more managed expanse of water. On each side of the basin – curiously – a cinema. In the summer, people bring their blankets here and picnic. (Though it’s dry today – despite the forecast – it’s too chilly for lounging about). Following her sense of direction – this is how Nicola navigates the city – we begin to drift eastwards, away from the water. Nicola is leading us towards another of her favourite places – the Parc Des Buttes Chaumont – and another connection to Haussmann. (Haussmann and Nicola cross frequently on this walk.)

Passing the grand mairie (town hall) at Place Armand Carrell, we enter the Parc. Opened in 1867, the park was developed as part of Haussmann’s plans for Paris, transforming a quarry into an exemplar of the spectacularly unreal, Romantic picturesque. There is a Temple of Sybil (a column style monument perched atop a hill in the middle of a lake, offering spectacular views right across Paris, to the Sacre Coeur in the West), a grotto, a suspension bridge, and a 100 foot waterfall cascading down a wholly manmade cliff face. Even the railings made of concrete are designed to resemble tree branches.

The third largest park in Paris, we are able to take many different turns and detours, and in fact to walk routes new to Nicola too. Slogging up one of the many steep hills (Nicola must have excellent muscles from pushing the buggy), we stop for a well earned refreshment at the Rosa Bonheur (wine for me, fruit beer for Nicola, water for Thomas who awakens now that the buggy has stopped). I pick a conker from the ground, to take back to Glasgow with me, a reminder of a walk with an old friend settling comfortably into a new place as summer fades. Au revoir Nicola et Thomas. Á bientôt!

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