Le Marais

The temperature drops again, down below 14 degrees, and the rain falls intermittently throughout the day. I’m sitting looking out at a dense grey sky over Montmartre, behind the rear tower of Sacre Coeur. The courtyard behind our apartment has string netting stretched above and between it and the neighbouring courtyard, to keep the pigeons out, so anything beyond is seen through a fine grid. When asked if it’s really necessary, M. says, Have you ever slept with a pigeon? The noise can be so loud it keeps you awake all night.

It’s evening. We came a little more to grips with Paris today, deciding last night that we’d structure some of our stay here around discovering districts, arrondissements, to find out why in the first place they exist, why every guide you encounter has something to say about them, their distinctive characters. Today we were in Le Marais.

The only bus we know does not run on Sundays. We overcame our trepidation at the terror alert – politically motivated, the socialists say -, for the sake of convenience. With two trains were at Saint Paul, Le Marais. Yesterday’s experience of the Metro bore no relation to today’s. We must have been travelling on some of the oldest trains through rougher areas yesterday, given the state of the stations, the state of the lines. Jules Joffrin to Concorde and Concorde to Saint Paul – new trains, even up to Berlin standards, and the stations clean and in the case of Concorde boasting a decor – to each tile a letter, the panels like giant word-find puzzles.

The expected Sunday crowds were not immediately apparent. And we were lured in – on the way to Place des Vosges – to a Traiteur Asiatique by its display window: prawn salad, dumplings, Thai mango salad, Spring rolls, all looking fresh and piled with green herbs. Early lunch. The flavours almost overly complex. If we’d not ordered so much it would have been cheap.

We found Place des Vosges by chance, through the back of the beautiful classical courtyard of Hotel Sully. A greasy-haired beggar sat shaking in an odd manner on a short flight of steps leading from the courtyard through an unremarkable doorway to the colonnades of des Vosges, the brick and stone arches receding away from us, with cafes and galleries, like a doorway into wonderland, the park through the arches, and the far side of the square, its uniform brickwork and dormered roofline reflecting symmetrically the buildings under the arches of which we were passing.

Arriving in Place des Vosges constituted one of those moments, like standing out on the steps of Sacre Coeur as the sun scanned its rays over the city, when you feel that Paris is magical. Seducing with a sudden revelation. You do not perceive the mechanism by which it conspires to lose a garment, drop a veil; you are aware only that it has occurred.

On our way to somewhere else entirely, we happened upon the Musee Carnavalet. A total treat. The ground floor repleat with the signs of businesses of the area, and the decorations that would’ve adorned their interiors, clocks, a cocoa fountain, oil paintings, carved wooden cartoon cats on crazy moons, a blackamoor with a clock in his stomache, black faces, a devil, his tail being pulled by Parisians, like a tug-o-war rope, a naked woman prone on her back below the tuggers, overcome, and a Parisian falling backwards, a mere tuft in his fingers, having come away from the tail’s end. Upstairs, the revolution. A strange folk art style, naive and flat, it its early stages, becoming more and more academic over the years following the revolution. Touchingly personal works reflecting the lives of Louis XVI and his family, the separation of the Dauphin from his mother, some locks of his hair, his incarceration, his early death aged nine. And his mother’s beheading, blood, in the naive style, gushing out from the guillotine, her head held high on a pike. And the later confusion. Napoleon. The war giving the revolution a second life, was how it was put.

And in an annex, the prehistory of Paris, pre-Roman, Gaulish coins, gold, combs and really beautiful figurines, sarcophagi; the Roman era paraphenalia, an ink drawing showing the extent of Lutetia, the then Paris, with aqueduct bringing water in – or taking it out? – and amphitheatre, taking up the Ile de la Cite and Left Bank; more lares-type figurines, miniature, again gorgeous, Mercury, his winged feet among them; and a sarcophagus dating from the Merovingian period.

The Picasso Museum was closed for renovation. Children were celebrating while parents read the notice. We took off through the backstreets bound for the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature.

This was superb. The sort of museum of the whimsical and informative and the wholly aesthetic you would want to run. Surreal moments. Sublime episodes. Modern artists’ works displayed alongside exhibits of taxidermy, the latter beautifully maintained. Children were allowed to touch! Photos were allowed to be taken! Every detail considered, to the bannisters and light-fittings. All set in an eighteenth century stately home.

The rain hasn’t let up. It’s louder than you would think, us being two floors down from the roof of the building. Like the bells this morning, ringing for mass. Clanging and clashing tones. Off-colour bass notes and treble gongs.