John Baxter’s The Most Beautiful Walk in the World is the kind of book that just makes you want to jump on a plane immediately so you can join him in wandering the streets of Paris. This is a book written by a man who truly loves to understand what he is seeing around him and ponder on how it all fits into the city’s history…and with this book, you will feel the same way.
Baxter is an Australian who has lived in Paris for more than 20 years. One day, in an effort to help out a friend, he found himself conducting a couple of guided ‘literary walks’ for writers visiting the city. It made him realise how limited traditional tours and guide books were, with their inability to allow room for the unexpected. Receiving a great reaction from his first “customers” and some encouragement from a highly entrepreneurial friend, Baxter decided to expand his tour operations…this book tells you that story, and of course, offers some great advice for those wanting to set off on their own literary meander around Paris.
What kind of a reaction have you had?
The book has been an astonishing success. It has already gone into five printings in less than a month, and reviews have been uniformly enthusiastic. Many people have also emailed me their appreciation. It’s been a welcome surprise.
How do you feel when you see tourists wandering around with cameras and guide book, practically ticking the sights of Paris off a checklist?
It’s better than not “doing” Paris at all, but I’m sorry to see them missing out on so much. At times, I want to grab them and say, “No, stop reading and look! “ An hour sitting in a café can tell you more than the most detailed guide book.
You really make the sixth arrondissement sound like the stuff of dreams, especially for those in love with all things literary, is it really as romantic as it appears?
Even more so! There is hardly a street or square that doesn’t have some literary association. There is a magic to the very stones. They breathe poetry.
If someone was coming to Paris and they only had one day to experience the city, what would you suggest they do?
Breakfast at the Cafe Flore or Deux Magots on Boulevard St Germain, a Metro ride to Montmartre to view the city from the terrace of Sacre Coeur, a sandwich eaten in the Luxembourg Gardens, a visit to the church of St Severin in the Latin Quarter and to the Shakespeare and Company bookshop nearby, a nap back at your hotel, then dinner in a great restaurant, and a walk across Pont Neuf, pausing in the middle to watch the Seine by moonlight. (Of all these experiences, the Seine by moonlight will probably be the one you remember best.)
Image courtesy of Savani1987 via Wikimedia Commons
I normally ask our contributors to recommend somewhere off the beaten track, a hidden gem they can go and visit, but your book is full of them. Can you give us a favourite?
At least once a month, you’ll find me at the flea market at Porte de Vanves that takes place year-round each Saturday and Sunday morning. It’s a cornucopia of treasures that also reveals an enormous amount about the history and culture of France. (Don’t be surprised if you run into Catherine Deneuve. She’s a keen flea-marketeer and a frequent visitor.)
And if a visitor just went to one place to eat, where would you suggest?
The Au Bon St Pourcain on rue Servandoni, next to Saint Sulpice church. A classic one-room restaurant that hasn’t changed in a century.
Your timing for the book is perfect. There seems to be a real Paris fascination at the moment, perhaps helped by Woody Allen’s new movie, ‘Midnight in Paris’…
There are times when Most Beautiful Walk reads like the Book of the Film. But it was pure coincidence. Oddly, Woody is an unwilling visitor to Paris. He doesn’t trust the water, doesn’t like the food, and speaks no French. But he’s as susceptible to its magic as the rest of us.
What do you hope The Most Beautiful Walk in the World leaves people with?
I hope it makes those who have never visited Paris decide to do so, and those who already know the city to return. The city is inexhaustible. There is always more to discover.
This book is not just about Paris though is it? It’s about walking, observing and taking it all in, wherever you are…
It’s about jumping in at the deep end; experiencing life without preconceptions. Life is more enjoyable if one can stop and look. Paris makes that easier, since there’s so much more to see.
Do you still offer guided walks yourself? How can people find you if they are keen to hear your stories in person?
I still do a few tours, but pressure of work has forced me to limit them. Anyone who is interested could email Terrance Gelenter at Paris Through Expatriate Eyes.
Do you have a favourite novel set in Paris?
Le Divorce by Diane Johnson, who’s another long-time expatriate (and neighbour). Despite the title, it’s in English; the witty and observant story of a collision between an American and a French family over marriage, infidelity, sex and a 17th century painting both claim to own. The movie version of a few years back didn’t do it justice.
The Most Beautiful Walk in the World reminds us just how much has happened on the streets of the cities we visit. How often do you fly through a place in a few days, just making sure you see the main sights before moving on? Of course it’s rare to have the luxury of truly exploring the streets as John does, but it is good to be reminded that even if we can’t always see them, the pavements we walk on and the buildings we pass are rich with stories of the past. Next time you are walking the streets of an unfamiliar city, just stop from time to time, take a deep breath and look around, and wonder what ghosts are walking along beside you.
And of course, if you are off to Paris anytime soon….then I highly recommend The Most Beautiful Walk in the World as a companion. If you are looking for a traditional guide book, then this is not for you. But if you are keen to explore the poetry of the streets alongside someone who can whisper stories in your ear – then John Baxter’s book is a fine way to do it.
Packabook was kindly provided with a review copy of the book “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” by the publishers.