From the July 2010 issue of National Geographic Traveler
Paris in August forgoes its bustle for a monthlong weekend of lazy doings and simple diversions.
The Eiffel Tower pulses like a nagging cell phone, weekday traffic on Place de la Concorde snarls and honks, sidewalks along Rue de Rivoli resemble ant colonies, cafés jam and jangle, waiters frazzle, market vendors push and pull, hawkeyes snag park chairs. . . . Every week of the year I pray for Sunday. And when Sunday comes here in Paris, where I live, I pray for August.
Everyone has a feeling about Sunday, that day of rest sandwiched between work and freedom. I grew up dreading Sundays, which in my case were dampened by compulsory church-going with sermons of disapproval, which tended to get my week off on the wrong foot. But as an adult, I've come to love Sundays. The red doors to our apartment building are shut, and a muffled quiet descends over the day. Coffee, Bach, the newspaper, brunch, a walk in the park, the knowledge that no one else is working—what could be better than that?
It was toward the end of my first summer here, in 2004, that I discovered the secret of Paris in August. At the first of the month, as the French departed the capital en masse for their annual vacations, the city shut down. Chez Georges, the wonderful restaurant on the corner of Rue du Mail, closed for the month. The café across the street pulled its shutters tight, as did the boulangerie next door. Automobiles disappeared, taking their horns and roar and leaving yards of space. In the cafés that stayed open, and there were plenty, it was easy to find a peaceful table with a relaxed waiter. In the jardin of the Palais-Royal, metal armchairs waited empty by the center fountain. But the gain in physical space wasn't as important as the change in psychological space. In August, a sense of serenity settled over the city. Ever since then, when anyone asks where my wife, Beth, and I are spending the August holiday, we always say, "At home." And why wouldn't we? August in Paris is the longest Sunday.
"In August, you can actually enjoy your work," says Filipe Nuno, barman at La Bocca restaurant, on Rue Montmartre in the 2nd arrondissement. That sentiment is echoed by Matthieu Forges, a waiter at Bistrot Vivienne on the nearby Rue des Petits-Champs, which attracts a business-lunch crowd most of the year. "French people are usually in a hurry," says Forges. "They want to eat in 30 minutes. But in August the tourists arrive, and are more relaxed. I like it better." Even with the tourists, crowding is a relative matter. "In August, 50 percent of Parisians leave the city," says Romdhane Ben Amar of the Opera Market grocery in the 1st arrondissement, "but 30 percent more tourists come in!" That leaves, if my math is right, a net Peacefulness Quotient of 20 percent, which is noticeable.
And of course you don't have to go where the other tourists go. I have two Sunday rules that extrapolate nicely to August: Avoid crowds and enhance calm. This isn't as limiting or hermetic as it might seem. There are cool stone benches all along the riverfront, and it's always possible to secure picnic fixings at a boulangerie for a peaceful hour or two dining by the Seine, sipping wine and watching the time (and barges) flow by. "We sell many cold lunches in August," says Isabelle Esnault of the Grand Richelieu boulangerie-pâtisserie on Rue de Richelieu. "People want to eat outside." I'm one of those she's talking about; I stop in Grand Richelieu for something to munch while I read in the garden of the nearby Palais Royal, which I consider my backyard.
Paris is dotted with parks. Pick one. Travelers often think they have to be doing things to make their vacations count, but the travel moments I've remembered most dearly were those spent in some beautiful place daydreaming. It's like the classic deathbed scene—at the end, nobody is going to say, "I really wish I had spent more time standing in line at the Musée d'Orsay."
One of my top park activities is to watch yet another generation of children sail small wooden sailboats around the ponds in the Tuileries gardens. This is among my earliest memories of Paris: On my first trip here, in 1974, I watched the boats and thought of my son, who was then five years old. Now he has two children of his own, and so does his younger brother. Everything has changed—and nothing has changed.
I even have "Sunday museums." They contain courtyards or gardens where I can escape the crowds and enjoy a little greenery. One of my favorites for this: the Musée Rodin in the 7th arrondissement, situated in an elegant old mansion. The museum's highlight, for me, is the sculpture garden, with its larger-than-life Rodin statues, including "The Thinker," "Gates of Hell," and the doleful "Monument to the Burghers of Calais," those brave but anguished men who had surrendered to the besieging English King Edward III so that he would spare their fellow citizens. Each time I stand before that sad clump of Calais townsmen I think of the Number 1 Métro line at rush hour.
This August I discovered another museum to add to my Sunday list. Officially named the Musée National du Moyen Age but known as the Cluny, it exhibits art and artifacts from the Middle Ages in a well-preserved 15th-century abbey across a small park from the Sorbonne in the 5th arrondissement. Sculptures, jewelry, stained glass, and tapestries are showcased, but for me the Sunday Stamp of Approval is awarded to the secluded terrace gardens, which were inspired by the museum's medieval collections. They include a Garden of Love, the Celestial Garden, even a Unicorn Forest. Together these form an oasis of medieval fantasy in the midst of the modern city.
In early August the twice-yearly Paris sales are still taking place. About the only way I can stand shopping is to pull up a stool in the food emporium of the Galeries Lafayette department store and down a robust glass of Rioja with a platter of Spanish ham and cheese.
Even then, I'd rather stay out of stores. When I do shop I opt for a flea market, which somehow seems more like aimless amusement than onerous hunting and gathering. While there are numerous Paris flea markets—Beth and I often go to the one in the suburb of Vanves on weekends—celebrity hairdresser David Mallett swears by the old standby, Porte de Clignancourt, on the north side of the city. "It's the only one I go to," says this Australian expat, who has scoured the booths with an eye to outfitting his expanded salon and a new apartment. "I visit it nearly every week—it changes all the time." Finding myself last August with a special wedding gift to buy, I decided to take Mallett's advice. I chose a day when Beth, who adores shopping, couldn't go, and set out alone for what I hoped would turn out to be as much a travel adventure as a shopping trip.
The good news, aside from the fact that I didn't purchase either the 70,000-euro armoire or the 3,800-euro cast-iron statues of dogs ("The market is pricey, mate," Mallett had said with a wry smile, "but you always find what you're looking for"), is that Clignancourt is a colorful Sunday spectacle—and, in August, not nearly as crowded as I'd feared. It's best to take a taxi there and avoid the flanks of clothing vendors, including the ubiquitous hawkers of knock-off Dolce & Gabbana fashion sunglasses and belts.
Once inside the antiques section of the market, I start to feel like a time traveler. That's how the best antiques shops always affect me—every item in them evokes a story. Who left home carrying this elegant leather satchel? Who sat by the fire puffing on that old burl pipe? Who played with that teddy bear, wore those jodhpurs, ate with that silver fork, peered into that round gilded mirror? The booths at Clignancourt are permanent structures, unspooling along meandering lanes. It's a dense little village of the imagination.
Strangely enough, Clignancourt reminded me of another of my favorite Sunday sites, the Père Lachaise cemetery, a looping stroll into the past along winding footpaths. Père Lachaise is quieter, as long as you avoid the final "resting" place of Jim Morrison, which most tourists don't. In fact, the grave of the Doors' lead singer is what brings many of them to the cemetery. I confess to having guided a requesting visitor or two to that spot, but my personal preference is to pick up a two-euro map at the gate and wander Père Lachaise's sun-dappled walkways in search of yet another evocative antique—Honoré de Balzac, Frédéric Chopin, Eugène Delacroix, Georges Bizet, Sarah Bernhardt, Colette, Maria Callas (ashes only)…. They all rest here.
I didn't find what I was looking for at Clignancourt that day, not that I knew what that would be. But I did find a new part of old Paris that I'll return to often.
Clignancourt and Père Lachaise—my kind of shopping.
Just past mid-month Beth and I joined our friend Dolly West, who came to France on a Fulbright 47 years ago and has been an off-and-on resident ever since, for a cruise up the Seine and Marne Rivers. The goal was lunch at one of the few remaining authentic French guinguettes, the eating-drinking-dancing joints that on Sunday afternoons from the 18th century into the 1950s attracted all manner of footloose Parisians, including many an errant husband and his mistress. Sitting just east of Paris on the Marne to avoid city liquor taxes, the inexpensive guinguettes were also the main recreational outlet for the working class—and became favorite subjects for generations of painters, including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, whose "Bal du Moulin de la Galette" literally gives you the picture.
We met Dolly at 8 a.m. at the Port de l'Arsenal. Reflecting the inertia that happens to anyone living anywhere for a long period of time, Dolly confessed that she'd always wanted to visit the guinguettes, "but I never got around to it. It was just something I was never going to do on my own." I worried that the jaunt would be too touristy, which is to say American, but the young man who provided the on-deck narration told us, "Ninety-nine percent of people who take this trip are French." For those on our cruise, it was clearly a sentimental journey. They sang along to (and knew every word of) the tinny tunes of yesteryear that the boat's sound system cranked out during the cruise.
As we floated past fairy-tale timbered houses and weeping willows, we listened to the play-by-play: "Less than ten kilometers from Paris, and it feels like the countryside…. A decade ago this was a poor area, then Parisians bought it up and renovated it. . . ." At the town of Joinville-le-Pont, our destination and once the stomping ground of international movie stars and the leisured elite, we passed Pathé Studios, one of the world's first great film companies (it produced the hugely popular 1914 series The Perils of Pauline), and various rowing clubs, including the elite Canoë-Kayak Club de France. I had a sense that for the French passengers on our cruise, Joinville-le-Pont was all about the mystique of glamour past.
For us it was about the town's famous guinguette, Chez Gégène, which, with its festive red-checked tablecloths and huge dance floor, evokes that perfect accordion chord where nostalgia meets sensuality. The food offerings here—foie gras with figs, duck with three peppers—were hearty and the wine crisp, but the main event was the arrival of the dancing couples, who started drifting in about 2 p.m. The women sparkled in sequined tops, ruffled skirts, and shoes with ankle straps; the men sported suits and ties, their hair as slick as Valentino's smile. They all knew one another, these regulars. We hoped to watch them twirl and preen. We thought we'd even join them: Dolly (the only person I know who actually heard the broadcast of Elvis's first single, "That's All Right, Mama," when it was played on the air by the legendary radio DJ Dewey Phillips) does a mean "Memphis bop," which would have notched a new benchmark in the history of Chez Gégène. But the boat had to depart before the dancing began, probably saving us from ourselves.
We arrived back in Paris ahead of schedule, so the captain took us on a surprise spin along the Seine River. It was a lovely summer Sunday and the quays were lined with people. On the left bank a saxophonist in a porkpie hat blew cool jazz against the thrum-thrum of a back-up bass, while across the river the blue banners of the annual Paris Plages rippled. "Plage" is the French word for beach, and each summer between late July and late August the city reimagines several kilometers of the riverfront as a landlocked Côte d'Azur for city kids whose parents don't own places in St. Tropez. While our sophisticated friends make fun of it, I consider these temporary beaches—complete with palm trees, swimming pool, pétanque courts, cafés, and, of course, sand beaches—a must-see for visitors to Paris in August. Aside from the civic gesture they represent, they impress me as yet another expression of this city's penchant for appearance—not just beauty, but the kind of storybook enchantment that makes Paris the City of Light.
We ducked under the Pont Neuf and rounded the prow of the Île de la Cité, then headed east again past the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Something about this big brooding church was bringing back the feeling I had as a kid on Sunday nights of something being almost over. It was the fourth week of August, and the city had begun filling up again—not crowded yet, but noticeably more populous. The energy was changing.
It was on this boat ride back into town that I thought of the perfect late-August excursion, and a week later I boarded the bus for the suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. It was a clear day, blue sky, few clouds. French friends had been touting the bus as the best way to travel in Paris, especially if you're not in a rush, and it was indeed a pleasure—a tour in itself—and easy once I'd bought a book that showed all the bus routes.
I got off at Parc de Bagatelle, had coffee and pastry at a simple café by the bus stop, then walked a couple of blocks to the local botanical garden. I had never even heard of the Jardin de Bagatelle until earlier in the summer, when a friend from Louisiana, Anne Strachan, had regaled us with stories of a fierce rose competition held every June at Bagatelle that is a momentous event for rose aficionados the world over.
For three euros I spent the next two hours wandering graveled footpaths around blooming flower beds, past a peaceful pagoda, and by water-garden grottoes. Sometimes I shared my walk with cobalt-blue peacocks, which strutted the grounds like the dandies at Chez Gégène.
- Nat Geo Expeditions
Finally, at the top of a hill, I found what I had come for. Reflecting Bagatelle's rich and prestigious past, the rosery is no less than an open-air museum of the rose-grower's art. "In the history of roses, the French are so ahead of the game," Anne had said. "It all began with Joséphine."
The beauty here was enough for me. Like Rodin's bronzes, plantings of famous rose breeds stand displayed and labeled: Mme. Royet, 1914. Albertine, 1921. Valenciennes, 1957. Marlena, 1962.
I chose a breed called Danse des Sylphes, from 1959—and carefully bent over to smell the last roses of summer.
One morning late in August I noticed that the café across the street was open again; people were sitting outside having morning coffee. So was the shuttered boulangerie next door; workers carrying briefcases were popping in to buy croissants to go.
I moped for a few days in my apartment. Then I read about a concert that was being given at the Église Sainte-Marie-Madeleine, a neoclassical temple commissioned by Napoleon to celebrate his army and transformed during the Restoration into a Catholic place of worship—which is how my Longest Sunday ended in church. Vivaldi's "Four Seasons," a perennial favorite of the city's summer concert series, curled sweetly around snow-white angels, caressed the limbs of gilded lanterns, and settled softly in the blue-hazed domes of this neoclassical landmark. The Madeleine was another first for me. After passing it for years, I finally made the time to enter it.
Time was the theme of the evening—not just in the composer's heartening litany of mutability and renewal but in the setting itself, with its telescoping of antiquity from ancient Rome to Napoleon to Frédéric Chopin (whose funeral was held here) to the man in the back of the church whispering into his cell phone. As Vivaldi's violins welcomed each season in this elegant circle, I closed my eyes and took it all in.
The old Sunday-night feeling lifted. In such a space, in such a city, how could I lament the conclusion of anything? How could I regret opening our red doors to an end-of-August Monday, a new September, a fresh-faced fall?