Paris – On Foot and on the Page

The opening scene of my 50th book, A Wife Worth Investing In, is set in Paris where Phoebe, a wannabe chef, meets Owen, the man who (unbeknownst to either of them) she will marry two years later. Their paths cross in the Procope Café, which is a real place in St Germain on the Left Bank. It is the oldest café in Paris and everyone who was anyone (male, that is) from the Enlightenment period onwards took coffee or wine there, including Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire and Benjamin Franklyn. It has been refurbished inside to look as authentic to those days as possible, and is a fabulously atmospheric place to have coffee, which I have done several times, or to eat, which I have not, my purse being ‘allergic’ to the kind of prices they charge for average food!

As you will have gathered if you are a regular reader of my books, I have a long-standing love affair with Paris. Jean-Luc Bauduin, who supplies wine to Owen in my latest book makes his debut as the hero of From Courtesan to Convenient Wife, a book in which Paris takes centre stage. The city of 1818 where Sophia and Jean-Luc fall in love, and location of Phoebe’s subsequent spectacular fall from grace, bears little resemblance to Baron Haussmann’s radically transformed version of today, with its wide boulevards, parks and, perhaps most critically, modern sewage and water supplies. In 1818, Paris was, frankly, a very pongy place, but this was one historical aspect of the city that I have resolutely glossed over in my romances.

What is it that makes Paris, for me, one of the most romantic cities in the world? I know from previous blogs and social media posts that some of you don’t share my enthusiasm, that you find the waiters snooty and arrogant, the locals rude and unfriendly. It can even feel unsafe for the unwary – pickpockets, sadly, are an ever-present issue in the more touristy areas and on the metro, where I’ve nearly fallen victim myself. So why do I still love it so?

For a start, it’s a city that is just made for aimless wandering (provided you don’t wander too far off piste!). In Phoebe’s own words:

It is the most beautiful city one could ever imagine. I spend every Sunday exploring, following my nose, drinking coffee in cafes, sitting in the parks just watching people stroll.

  Everywhere you look there’s history, beautiful buildings, small green spaces and grand parks, hidden squares that just beg for a story to be told about them, if one doesn’t already exist, that is. Then there’s the River Seine, the artery feeding the heart of the city, a working river crossed by so many fabulous bridges, from the simple Pont Neuf, to the flamboyant Pont Alexandre, and the persistently padlock-endowed Pont des Arts.

In the middle of the Seine there’s the Île de la Cité dominated by Notre Dame (still standing, thank goodness) on one side and the Conciergerie on the other, where so many aristocrats met their fate during the Revolution – and if you’re a fan of the series Spiral, which I am, it’s also the location of the police headquarters.

The Île Saint-Louis is much smaller, a well-heeled and exclusive enclave with narrow streets, some fabulous eateries, and a fantastic view down-river from the café right at the tip of it. In Paris, there is always a café just exactly where you need it, a place to rest your feet, take a coffee, a glass of wine or a kir, and watch the world go by, which is another reason why it’s perfect for wandering.

Sylvie and Robbie meet in Café le Buci on the Left Bank in the second story of my First World War trilogy, Never Forget Me. It’s also a real place where I’ve sat at an outside table there on countless occasions, though I could have written numerous other favourite cafes into that one scene. Sylvie and Robbie go on to eat in Chartier, a Paris institution which is still going and serving the same kind of food today – classic bistro cuisine, served with a touch of arrogance and absolutely no smiles, the kind of place where the waiter always looks the other way when you want to pay the bill, though he (it’s always he) is never slow to bring food or wine. I first sampled steak frites in a place like this, but again, I could have chosen any number of venues – and indeed I did choose another in this book, Le Chat Noir.

I have never eaten in restaurant Le Grande Véfour, though I’ve peered in the window longingly several times, enough to be able to describe it in Never Forget Me:

The restaurant where Napoleon took Josephine to dine was sumptuous, a riot of gilded wood, gold leaf, delicately-painted cornicing, plush crimson banquettes, gleaming mirrors and tiled columns depicting various semi-naked gods and goddesses.

In actual fact it not really my sort of place, all pomp and ceremony, where the smaller the dish the higher the price, the type of restaurant that Phoebe, my chef heroine in A Wife Worth Investing In (did I mention this is my 50th book?) despises. I’ve enjoyed a glass of rose in the miniscule Café L’Entracte just beside it though, tucked in behind the Palais Royale, and I’ve had numerous leisurely refreshments in the café below Colette’s Parisian residence, which is just a few metres away. There is a new film of her life coming out staring Keira Knightly that I’m really looking forward to.

And there’s another thing about Paris – it’s a living filmset, not surprising given that Paris has a higher concentration of cinemas than any other city. I bet everyone, even those who don’t love Paris, has a favourite film set there. Think of An American in Paris, Paris Je t’aime, Danton, Accidental Tourist (the most memorable scenes for me are in Paris), Midnight in Paris, Amelie, Moulin Rouge – and of course there’s always Last Tango in Paris!

Even better than strolling the streets is wandering through a food market, assembling a picnic and taking it to one of the many parks. Paris parks are made for picnics, and they are made for kissing too, as Sophia discovers in From Courtesan to Convenient Wife, and Sylvie too, in Never Forget Me (and I’m not going to say if either of those were based on my own research). The Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Champ de Mars, Bois de Boulogne, Buttes Chaumont, Parc Monceau, Promenade Plantée I’ve picnicked in all of those and more, and some of my heroines and heroes have quite literally followed in my footsteps. (You can read more about my Paris picnics in a previous blog here.)

Have I convinced you yet? I hope so. If you’ve never been – go. If you’ve been and didn’t like it – give it another go, we all deserve a second chance, as Phoebe finds out. If you love Paris as much as I do – what are you waiting for? And if it’s simply not possible for you to visit in the flesh, then hopefully you’ll find the essence of it scattered throughout my books. Bon Voyage

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