“Sanary says that you have to travel south by water to find answers to your dreams. He says too that you find yourself again there, but only if you get lost on the way – completely lost. Through love. Through longing. Through fear. Down south they listen to the sea in order to understand that laughing and crying sound the same, and that the soul sometimes needs to cry to be happy. ” (p79 – The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George)
Books about Paris are a dime a dozen. With absolutely no facts or figures at my fingertips – other than referring to the plethora of Paris-based flights-of-fancy listed on Packabook – I’d have to say that Paris might just be the number one location for anyone looking to write novels about ‘exotic’ locations. And hey – I’m not knocking it. I’m as big a sucker for a book about Paris as the next Packabooker. You can find more than 100 of them here if you are so inclined.
But I’m delighted to say, that despite its title, The Little Paris Bookshop is not about Paris. No Siree – I’d like to suggest it’s about something even better. It’s about a journey in a barge along the waterways of France FROM Paris all the way down to a coastal utopia in Provence. And that my dear friends, is just about my idea of literary paradise. Oh – and there’s the added bonus that the barge is full of books. Sigh…..
Nina George’s novel takes us to so many places I’m itching to visit, that I’d need a book of my own to write about them all, so I will concentrate on a few of my favorites. This is just a taster, though. You’ll need to read the novel yourself to find out all the other fantabulous potential holiday destinations.
To set the scene – a little about the story…
Jean Perdu is a sad man. For 21 years he’s been wrapping his broken heart up in tissue paper after the love of his life walked out the door of his Paris apartment. And while he makes lots of other people happy with his sensitive and insightful book recommendations (he owns Lulu, a barge bookstore on the River Seine), he can hardly be said to be living anything near a full life. But then a potential love interest appears on the horizon and he receives some news which forces him to question everything he has known about the past. So he decides to unmoor himself from the present, and take himself, Lulu, and two semi-resident cats on a long journey.
The rest you will discover as Jean makes his meandering journey south, picking up some highly entertaining strays along the way, all the while pondering the important questions of life and love. There’s also a few giggles to stop it all getting TOO heavy. When people talk about novels which ‘warm the cockles of your heart’, trust me, this is one. Suitably quirky, well-developed characters, gentle humor, a warm embrace – this book has all of it. And then of course, there are the divine destinations…
Cuisery (a book town on the river Seille in Burgundy)
“Oh, Cuisery! An avid reader will lose his heart here. The whole village is crazy about books – or crazy period – but that’s not unusual. Virtually every shop is a bookstore, a printer’s, a bookbinder’s, a publisher’s, and many of the houses are artists’ workshops. The place is buzzing with creativity and imagination.” (p193)
The book town of Cuisery – Image courtesy of Village du Livre de Cuisery
I thought this must have been a made up place, but it’s not. There really is a ‘town of books’ called Cuisery.
On the first Sunday of each month there is a book market, and the rest of the time, the town is filled with shops renowned for their rare book collections, comics, illuminated manuscripts and other such collectables. The people of Cuisery all get into short story competitions, poetry readings and literary meetings, and in the summer you can even visit a workshop where they print on a 15th century Gutenberg Press.
It seems that in the 1990s Cuisery had a chronic shop closure problem and so the locals decided to offer the empty stores to book sellers and book craftspeople. The result is this tempting little book village. They also do some heavy trade in vinyl records and have lots of summer concerts – just in case you are dragging along a partner who is more a music person than a book person (I speak from experience!) Here’s the town Facebook Page so you can keep up with all their bookish news.
Bonnieux (paradise in Provence)
“‘Bonnieux rises in a stack between the Grand Luberon and the Petit Luberon. Like a five-layered cake,’ Manon had told Perdu. ‘At the very top, the old church and the hundred-year old cedars and the most scenic cemetery in the Luberon. Down at the bottom, the wine-growers, the fruit farmers and the holiday homes. And between them three layers of houses and restaurants. All connected by steep paths and stairs, which explains why all the village girls have such gorgeous strong calves.’ She had shown Jean hers, and he had kissed them.” (p225)
Bonnieux is perhaps one of those places you would never come across if it wasn’t for a novel like The Little Paris Bookshop. And George makes it sounds like an ideal base for your next Provence adventure. You can even eat at the actual restaurant visited by Jean Perdu which “had a wonderful view of the valley and of a red-and-gold sunset that gave way to a clear night sky strewn with stars glistening like ice.” (p270). At time of writing Un p’tit Coin de Cuisine is Trip Advisor’s fifth favorite restaurant in Bonnieux and attracts some rave reviews, though some found the service a little slow. (But hey, who wants to rush things when you are in The Luberon!)
And when I happened across this video about Bonnieux – I’m afraid I was totally hooked. Bonnieux – here I come! Have you ever seen such a happy town?
Sanary-Sur-Mer (a literary refuge by the sea)
“This charming old seafarers’ village: daylight made the colors blossom: by night it was lit by the wide starry sky, and in the evening by the soft rosy light of old-fashioned lanterns. Over there the market with its yellow-and-red awnings under lush plane trees. Around them, soothed by the sun and the sea, people reclined dreamily in their chairs at countless tables in old bars and new cafés.” (p237)
But if I had to pick just one place to visit from this novel, I think it might just be Sanary-Sur-Mer. What a gorgeous place George has introduced us to with this Provencal port town; my only concern being that every man and his poodle is going to want to go there after reading this book!
Not only does Sanary have 280 days of sunshine each year and enticing beaches and vineyards just a hop, skip and jump away, it also has important literary associations.
During the 1930s, German and Austrian writers, artists and intellectuals fleeing the Nazis took refuge in Sanary. Writers such as Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht and Stefan Zweig were among them, while English authors including Aldous Huxley and D.H.Lawrence also based themselves along Sanary’s welcoming shores. But once World War Two was declared in 1939, the exiles were considered enemy aliens, many sent to internment camps. Later some ended up in Nazi concentration camps.
On your own visit to Sanary you can spend your days doing as the exiles did, drinking coffee in the cafes on the harbor. Or you could join a walking tour which takes you to some of the places the writers liked to hang out. You can even rest your head in the hotel that many of them stayed in before discovering their own places to rent. (It’s worth taking advice from TripAdvisor though, on which rooms to ask for).
You will of course need another couple of books to take with you. German-born English writer Sybille Bedford’s semi-autobiographical novel Jigsaw is part set in Sanary, while her memoir Quicksands includes further details of her time living there in the 1930s.
But I want to go on a barge!
“The river wound its way in stately loops through woods and parks. The banks were lined with grand, rambling grounds surrounding houses that hinted at old money and family secrets.” (p87)
I know, it just doesn’t seem right to visit these places in a car when the French waterways have been so temptingly revealed to us by Jean Perdu and his quirky companions. Traveling by barge allows you to meander your way through riverside back yards with a glass of wine in your hand and a straw hat perched prettily on your head rather than pelt down toll-ridden (though exceptionally well-maintained) French highways.
Fortunately there are many barges just ripe for the renting. I suspect finding a company which will follows Perdu’s exact journey might be a bit of a challenge, but you can certainly do some of your favorite parts of it. This one for example, is in Burgundy and goes to Cuisery, or you could speak to The Barge Lady who can apparently help you negotiate the multitude of barging options available so you find your ideal journey. If you come across one that follows the trail of the novel – please do let me know – how fantastic would that be?
Unfortunately I haven’t come across a floating hotel BOOK barge yet – but I think it is a business opportunity just waiting to happen! Anyone up for it?
What can I tell you? I loved this book. I loved the characters, the pace, the scenery – all of it. My only disappointment is that it was written by a woman. The male characters are so loveable that I want to believe there are male writers out there who could create them. Not this time, unfortunately. But don’t let this put you off. If you believe in love and whimsy, in friendship and new beginnings, in taking the time to breath and ingest the world around you – or even if you just enjoy the south of France – then I think you will relish it as well. Yes, it will tug on your heartstrings, yes, you will feel things all wrap up too nicely, yes, you have to have half a belief in romance and sweetness and light – but sometimes, that is exactly what I want from a novel, and The Little Paris Bookshop provides it.
P.S. This book was gifted to me by the wonderful Poppy at Little,Brown so that I could read and review it for you. I think you know me well enough to understand this would not influence my views on the book – if anything it generally makes me a little tougher! Even if Poppy is obviously a very nice person…
Take yourself to the catacombs beneath the French capital with Andrew Miller’s Pure
If your idea of Paris is of beauty and fashion, delightful meals and romantic walks along the Seine, then I’m afraid you are in for something different with Andrew Miller’s novel Pure.
It is the 18th century, and the oldest cemetery in Paris is overflowing.
The Holy Innocents’ cemetery may have started out as your average church burial ground, but now it is a nightmare, with hundreds of thousands of bodies having been piled on top of each other for generations. And despite the bones being removed to be put in ‘charniers’, there is still insufficient room for the endless supply of new corpses. The nearby residents have had enough and are complaining that their water is being poisoned by the rotting flesh and the stench has become unbearable, so the authorities decide something has to be done. The bodies must be removed. And this is where our novel begins.
Charniers at the Holy Innocents’ Cemetery in Paris – Image via Wikimedia Commons
A young engineer named Jean-Baptiste is hired by the authorities to remove the corpses, an immensely difficult feat requiring all his skills. But there’s an added challenge beyond the engineering concerns; our young hero has been told he must do the job in secret.
What follows as poor old Jean-Baptiste tries to deal with this grizzly nightmare is fabulous. I relished this book – and if you are someone who enjoyed the novel Perfume, or The Shadow of the Wind, then I think you’ll love this one as well. There are some terrific characters, especially from within the nearby family that Jean-Baptiste lodges with, as well as amongst those who befriend him and try to help him with the project. And fortunately there’s also a little romance for our earnest young engineer.
Of course you have to be up for being a bit grossed out from time to time – there’s no protecting of your sensibilities here. This is a cemetery after all….
From cemetery to city square
But what if you were visiting Paris today and you wanted to see the cemetery for yourself? Well, I have to tell you, there’s not much sign of it these days. It seems Jean-Baptiste did his job very well.
The cemetery is now a small square surrounded by restaurants and fast food outlets, BUT in the middle of the square you can see this fountain.
It is called the Fountain of the Innocents, and it is the oldest monumental fountain in Paris, built around 1550. It was once placed against our cemetery wall – which you can see in this engraving.
Engraving of the Fountain of the Innocents – Image courtesy of Siefkin DR via Wikimedia Commons
When the cemetery closed down, the site was turned into a market square and the fountain was earmarked for destruction. Fortunately, after some community pressure, it was decided to move the fountain into the square, raise it up on a stone pedestal and have a fourth facade constructed so it could be free-standing.
Painting of Fountain of the Innocents 1822. Image courtesy of Musée Carnavalet via Wikimedia Commons
In 1858 it was moved once again to its present location in the middle of the square, where you can visit it today. You will find it, right in the heart of Paris, near to the shopping precinct of Les Hall and the Pompidou cultural complex.
But what happened to all of those bones?
After sitting by the fountain for a while, perhaps with a coffee, reading your copy of Pure you can take a 45 minute walk or a 20 minute ride on public transport to the place where all those bones got moved to; the spectacular, and slightly scary, Paris Catacombs.
Paris Catacombs. Image courtesy of albany_tim via Wikimedia Commons
A labyrinth of tunnels underneath the heart of Paris, the catacombs house the bones of six million Parisians. And the first bones to go in there were the very bones Jean-Baptiste spent hundreds of pages trying to dig up in this novel.
Engraving of the Paris Catacombs from 1855 – Image courtesy of Brown University via Wikimedia Commons
The Catacombes are not for the faint-hearted – and nor is this novel really – but they are truly one of the most memorable tourist attractions you will visit in Paris.
And to really appreciate them, I’d certainly give Pure a read before you go!
I am delighted to introduce you to a new, regular series here on the Packabook blog which, for lack of a wittier title, I am calling ‘What to Read – What to Do’. Sometimes I just like to tell it how it is!
The idea is that I will take one book, give you a brief description, and then suggest one thing you can do related to the novel. The posts will be fairly short and sweet, but hopefully they will provide you with some great travel ideas. Fiction gives us so many amazing opportunities to explore the world, and each of these posts will reveal one more tiny aspect of that wondrous world that we can investigate for ourselves. Now I appreciate that it is unlikely you will be able to just take off and do these things straight away, but how about keeping a record of the ones which appeal to you? That way when you do manage to make that trip to France for example, you’ll know exactly what to read and what to do when you get there. These posts will be ideal to add to your ‘Bucket List’ or ‘Places to Visit’ boards on Pinterest, so feel free to make good use of the ‘Pin It’ button at the top of the post. (If anyone is not yet on Pinterest and needs an invite, let me know in the comments and I’ll invite you). Now, let’s get started with our premiere edition of…
What to Read – What to Do – France.
“…where lavender rose upon lavender in a hundred shades of mauve, twilight brought a deep, unreal violet to the plateau. One evening in late July, I watched transfixed, as the undulations merged into a mysterious landscape where no boundaries were definable between flower and sky, between falling shadow and the darkening blue.” – The Lantern (p145)
THE BOOK: Deborah Lawrenson’s The Lantern is described as “a mix between a gothic ghost story and a modern romance” and that’s a pretty accurate description of this novel which takes us to the heart of rural France. When Eve falls for the mysterious Dom, she travels with him to live in a run-down old house in the Luberon, in the middle of Provence. But as the darkness of the winter sets in, Eve becomes suspicious of all around her, especially Dom and the secrets he refuses to share. And on top of that – she’s convinced the house is haunted. There are not a lot of surprises in this novel, which Lawrenson says is inspired by Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, but if you are looking for an easy read which makes the most of the sights and sounds of the south of France, then this should do it for you. The writer has based the house on her own run-down property in the area, so her descriptions of the buildings and surrounding area are about as accurate as you could get. She even has pictures and descriptions on her website, to really help you visualise it. In fact her website has a load of information related to the region in which it’s set, so certainly worth a visit before setting off.
WHAT TO DO: One of the key elements of the novel is lavender. This part of Provence is famous for its lavender fields and production – both small and large scale, and if you are looking for some stunning scenery then you will be sure to find it here. You can follow one of the ‘routes de la Lavande’, either by car, foot or bicycle, and visit many of the villages mentioned in the novel, immersing yourself in all the sights and smells. Or for something really special you could witness the lavender fields from the air – in a hot air balloon. While Lawrenson doesn’t tell you exactly where her big old house is located, at one stage she mentions it is in walking distance of Apt, so if you make it to this walled city, you’ll know you are in the heart of the novel. Villages such as Roussillon, Gordes and Bonnieux all get detailed mentions, and you will pass through them yourself as you seek out the area’s lavender trails. A quick look on the internet shows a number of organised tour operators to help you make the most of the region and others suggest itineraries you can follow yourself. To help you put it all into perspective it may also be worth dropping into the Lavender Museum in Coustellet. And while the large scale commercial farms near Sault are impressive, Lawrenson also encourages you to visit one of the smaller distilleries, which will give you a better idea of some of the more traditional production methods mentioned in the novel.
THINGS TO KEEP IN MIND: The lavender fields are in bloom between June and August, and the distilleries are open in July and August, so bear this in mind when arranging your trip. For an absolute highlight, you might want to make sure you are there in mid-July when Apt holds its Lavender Festival.
VIDEO TO WATCH: Hear Deborah Lawrenson speak about the book and some reviewer thoughts in this video.
Blog post and pictures from Deborah Lawrenson as she visits Sault – “Shops entirely devoted to lavender and sunshine”
Traveler Phoebe Lowe explores the lavender region around Sault and Apt in her blog – “It was crazily beautiful!! Sooooooo nice!!”
Visit2province.com – for lots of information on the lavender fields
The Luberon – a good general site with some stunning photographs
BOOK SOURCE: A review copy of The Lantern was kindly provided by the publisher.
If you have enjoyed this post, then you are sure to enjoy my free online bookclub, in which we are taking a fiction adventure around the world. Read more about it here.
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.