The Hilltop Neighbourhood of Paris

In Paris, I was part of Bresson’s world. Only here, I was the one behind the camera, a silent witness to the flow of people on the streets, making way for the natural synthesis of scenes to happen to the camera. Each corner I turned around, there was a frame lying in wait. On the streets of Paris, as you know, the frames are numerous. You are hard-pressed to let go of any. Such as on the noon before we walked to Montmartre – when we sat in a tiny, packed café to a meal of succulent roast chicken, fries and red wine.

At the café’s counter, a man sat perched upon a barstool, a French Bulldog in attendance. Now, as all examples of his species go, this bulldog was undeniably ugly. Clownish bat ears, bow legs, flat face, bulging eyes. But what he had in spades was determination. He must have a bite off the table behind him, just laid with food. Naturally, he went and stood, a pugnacious little fellow, at the foot of the table. The man eating at that table turned around to let his displeasure be obvious to the bulldog’s human who cast a sheepish smile and muttered,  ‘Jack non, non’  in reproval. He tightened Jack’s leash around the leg of his barstool. But this Jack, he was a trooper. He wormed his way back to the table a few times, till his man friend used his foot to wedge Jack’s face against the counter. Picture Jack then. A sorrowful expression on his face, the least he could demand was discretion.

I clicked a photo of him accordingly, discreetly, while imparting sagacious words to this oddball, ‘Life never came with a promise to be fair, Jack’.

In the lengthening shadows of that cold and blustery noon, we carried on to Montmartre, making pit stops at small boutiques along cobbled streets. The rigours of daily life in the metro unfolded along us. Men loaded and unloaded vans.

Montmartre turned out to be divested of the summer crowds. It was easier to lend your mind to the reason it is called ‘the Mount of the Martyr’. The martyr in question is Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris. This patron saint was decapitated by the Romans because, much to the alarm of the Roman priests, he was gaining followers rapidly. When I saw his statue, it seemed like he had his hands over his ears, but actually the man was holding his own head. The legend is that he was beheaded by a bored Roman soldier. But the saint did not give up. He picked up his head and continued walking to the top of the hill. Eventually, he dropped dead and his head rolled till it reached a spot where the Basilica of Saint Denis was built.

The neighbourhood of Montmartre looks decidedly posh with its old churches and chapels, a line-up of chic bistros and pavement drinkers, boulangeries like Alexine where the cheese & nut breads, not to forget the tarts, are guaranteed to drive you into a frenzy.

You would almost forget that this was the Paris of broke artists; of walled gardens; of poorly-lit garretts cluttered with easels, redolent of turpentine and paint; of artists’ communes frequented Picasso, Matisse, Modigliani; of drunken brawls, idealistic talk and angst-ridden thoughts spewed at guinguettes (outdoor taverns-cumdance halls); slow waltzes to the tune of the accordion. And gradually the paths drifting down to the louche neighbourhood of Pigalle which the surrealist André Breton described as “diamantiferous mud”. A notorious collection of seedy nightclubs, erotic museum, porn theatres offering peep shows and what not, to the iconic cabaret of the Moulin Rouge.

If you would come with me, we could walk the leafy, loopy alleys of the 18th arrondissement together, skim through street art, take breaks at intimate little cafés, and break the silence once in a while to wonder about the Montmartre that has been left behind.

At Café Gourmand
Townhouses of Paris
Graffiti by an artist called Jae Ray Mie
One of the métro entrances designed by French architect Hector Guimard at Pigalle.
Art Nouveau beauty of the Pigalle métro with its sinuous design and ornate lamp posts. Could this be a taste of Paris from the turn of the last century?
Boutiques on Rue Houdon
Obsession with cinema on Rue Houdon
Hip little boutiques with charming objects such as…
…this coffee cup that I ended up with
And sheep that I did resist
Church of Saint-Jean-de-Montmartre
On Rue des Abbesses
Saint-Jean-de-Montmartre, built on the lines of the Art Nouveau style.
Rue Germain Pilon named after a 16th century French sculptor. Don’t you love these steps that typically climb past old townhouses with jalousie windows, some slathered in ivy?
Corner bistros
The passion for cheese
More corner bistros 
Ambient restaurants in the quarter
The queue for a baguette is not to be messed with. Alexine.
Street leading uphill to Café Le Moulin de la Galette 
A 17th century windmill, the subject of paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh and Pissarro.
Steps to Sacré-Coeur
Adolf Hitler stood on the terrace sometime in June 1940, and he declared to his entourage that it was the dream of his life to be permitted to see Paris. His friend and architect Albert Speer had recorded about the visit in his memoirs. “Wasn’t Paris beautiful?” Hitler had asked Speer. “But Berlin must be far more beautiful. When we are finished in Berlin, Paris will only be a shadow”.
He is said to have looked behind him at the Sacré-Coeur and utter a single word. “Appalling”.
Inside the Sacré-Cœur
Rue du Mont Cenis in the village that leads to the Basilica of Saint Denis 
Rue du Mont Cenis 
The medieval grandeur of the Basilica of Saint Denis
Place du Tertre, of the caricaturists and painters 
Place du Tertre
The 12th century Church of St. Peter of Montmartre
Saint Denis inside the church 
Lookers-on in alleys
Le Passe-Muraille/The Passer Through Walls. The French writer Marcel Aymé wrote a short novel titled “Le Passe-Muraille”. In it, an office worker who lives in Montmartre discovers one night that he has the power to pass through walls. At the end of the story, he also happens to be permanently stuck in a wall. This wall is French sculptor Jean Marais’s dedication to the story in front of Aymé’s house.
Cobbled streets that end in windmills
Montmartre has a vineyard which might not make the finest of vino, but wines it does produce.
The dishevelled studio of an artist
The hangout of artists, writers and painters in the 19th century. Think Picasso, Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, Monet.
Once dusk gathers, Montmartre’s allure intensifies.
La Maison Rose
Picasso was a regular at this cabaret. He is known to have paid for every meal with a drawing. The proprietor was curious — why would the artist not put his signature on the pieces? Whereupon Picasso noted: “That’s because I only want to buy lunch, not your whole restaurant”. 
Miniscule cafés as remnants of vintage Paris. La Petit Moulin.
The red windmill, a symbol of fin de siècle Paris, and the birthplace of the can-can.

Love, Loaf and Hugo

If you asked a Parisian, what love is, he would thwack you with the golden loaf in his hand, and say, ‘Why, it is this, you numskull?!’ Here you would roll your eyes, and say, ‘Oh com’on, the baguette is such an overworked stereotype!’ Yet every time we stepped out on the streets of the city, there it was. A slender baton of crusty goodness staring back at us, tucked within the elbow of the old man in the long overcoat and beret, or sticking out of the tote of the young woman as she walked ahead of us. We even saw an old lady nibbling at the end of hers — probably best to have it fresh even before the day has waned. Lest the Parisian forgot this essential chunk of his daily diet, they have a Bread Observatory in Paris. It trots out the daily reminder, “Cou cou, tu as pris le pain?” (“Hello, did you pick up the bread?”). Now if that is not love, my darling, you tell me what love is. If you need further proof, just head to the nearest boulangerie. Finding yourself in a queue is an inevitability.

If we are talking about love, I would have to pipe in about the walrus with his fantastic pair of long, white tusks and grey, fluffy beard. My eyes fell upon this thing of rare, portly beauty in the window of a boutique, whereupon the batting of my eyelids made my husband acquiesce grudgingly. So that now this walrus sits pretty at home with my family of stuffed animals. This love however was eclipsed by far when we came across an elderly woman in the shadows of the Church of Saint-Sulpice. She was old but chic, in just the way an average Parisian is (must be the baguette). Even to walk their dogs, Parisians dress well. This lady was out with her 6-month old Cocker Spaniel pup, Lulu, who was the belle of the ball I thought, till I realised that Lulu was a tiny male with velvet soft curls. The love that shone in the woman’s eyes for her Lulu was palpable and touching enough that it remains in my mind as a radiant moment wrapped up in the soft sunshine of a December noon.

Be as it is may that we were in the 6th arrondissement when we met Lulu, I would actually like to whisk you into the 3rd and 4th arrondissements where lie the Marais quarter of Paris.

Charm and amour co-exist in Le Marais like an old married couple. What were marshes (hence Marais) in the early times, from land left over when a branch of the Seine dried up, is de rigueur today. But let me also describe to you how the day built up to lend itself to the laidback beauty of Le Marais.

We reached Le Marais after time spent dawdling at Shakespeare and Company, rifling through ancient books written by unknown authors, sniffing the scent of those old books (that’s how love smells), buying wedges of cheese from a Christmas market outside the Notre Dame, looking up dusty music covers and magazines that the line-up of Bouquinistes in their big fur hats and heavy coats sell along the Seine.

Twilight was gathering around us. Bang in the middle of a bridge — I believe it was the Pont Saint-Louis — a man sat playing his piano. The cadence of his music conjured up an ethereal quality to the evening when in the half light of it we stood by the bridge, a soft and cold breeze caressing us, lights glimmering across the Seine in the grand old buildings of Paris. It seemed fitting that we should walk into Le Marais right after, the afternotes of the performance playing in our heads as an amuse bouche of sorts.

Le Marais is timeless. Here there was no trace of Haussman’s wide boulevards and neoclassical facades. Here you still found a chunk of the old Paris, the narrow winding streets and medieval house fronts, interspersed by Jewish delis, tea salons, herb shops and hat shops, hole-in-the-wall curiosity shops, art galleries, hip bars and boutiques. There remains the impossible grandness of the city hall (Hôtel de Ville), and the opulence of the private townhouses, or hôtel particulier, which were built for aristocrats during the 17th century. Now, it would be entirely amiss of me not to take you to the oldest planned square of the city, Place des Vosges, that sits within the Marais quarter. Not only do I have memories of buying a beautiful blue cloche from an old man there in the autumn of 2016, but because it is also the location of one of my favourite museums. Maison de Victor Hugo — where I dragged Adi because a) it is free, and, b) it feeds the imagination to see how a writer of means lived in the 19th century.

Before I go, I wanted to draw your attention to that pair of aged nuns. They are hobbling across a cobbled courtyard and will gradually disappear into the shadows of the temple. Faith awaits them. And, did you notice the bride-to-be? She is trying on her wedding dress, looking a bit unsure. Then she catches your eye and casts a brilliant smile. All’s well there. As for the baker behind the till and his goodies displayed in the window, the less said the better. There lies defeat in the faces of endless slices of gateaux. It has been a fair amount of gawking and walking, so if your feet perchance feel worn, dear reader, take a cue from Hugo who had famously observed that to loaf is Parisian — and pause for that carafe of wine in one of those cafés where they serve enough popcorn to make it worth your while.

These winding streets lead to baroque churches
The 17th century Church of Saint Sulpice
Rear portion of the church
Place Saint-Sulpice and its church of the mismatched towers. You will probably know it better if I mentioned Da Vinci Code. It was shot here.


A golden ball of fur charging towards her human 
Meet Lulu
Shakespeare and Company
Cohen. Amour.
Photobombed at the Notre Dame. It’s inescapable.
Bouquinistes along the Seine
My love and the Notre Dame
Busy crossings
The Seine
 Île Saint-Louis



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 Le Marais


















Hôtel de Ville






Mr. Basu’s at Le Grand Hotel, Paris

The city was shrouded in mist that afternoon we landed in Paris. The cold was not blistering, but you know what happens after a 10-hour flight. Bleary-eyed and shivery, you are properly keyed up for a deep sleep. That’s all. All those plans of showering and taking the city by storm? A big, fat zero.

The flight from JFK had taken us into Frankfurt for a three-hour layover. We discovered a private sleeping pod, but at the tail end of our wait. The irony of it: shattering. There you were desperate for some shut-eye and (huzzah!) you located a comfortable bed in the privacy of a cabin. Ding! went the announcement for boarding. Hardly any time to nod off on the flight from Frankfurt to Paris. So, all you could do was slip into this delicious dream, consumed by the desire for a bed. Soft sheets. Fluffy pillows. Plump duvet to burrow into. Then, oblivion.

A 20-minute cab ride brought me closer to my the object of my dreams.

The InterContinental Paris Le Grand was part of our other anniversary indulgence, in the heart of the 9th arrondissement. Just for two nights, but enough to make the most of a stay conjured by the hoarding of hotel points. When we reached the hotel, I had to crane my neck to take in the view of its old facade. It was the colour of cream, a part of it masked by scaffolding. Neat rows of French windows, slatted louvres, those charming wrought-iron balconies atypical of Paris, and carved stone for a touch of opulence. I was sold. Even the most hardened commie would be — except that he would conceal it beneath a careful veneer of contempt. As if to complete the picture, at the porch stood a vintage motorcycle with a sidecar. Manning it was a guy in khaki with sunnies even on that bleak day. He reminded me of an Indian actor who used to arrive punctually late at press conferences,  concealing a pair of bloodshot eyes and a predilection for cocaine behind large sunglasses.

Inside the hotel, we were checked in with supreme efficiency, and at that point of time all that mattered was the bed. The room turned out to be a cosy affair, in the manner of those little pieds-à-terre that they show in the old movies, yet sumptuous in reds and burgundies, a hint of bordello chic. Beneath heavy old drapes, were gossamer white drapes fluttering in the cold breeze as we peeked out of our teeny-weeny balcony to exult at the somewhat ethereal sight of the Eiffel Tower wreathed in mist. A bottle of Champagne had been deposited in our room at some point of time, but I had long passed out. Delicious was that slumber, and by the time I woke up  I realised we had slept a hefty four hours.

That evening when we dressed up and headed out of the hotel — before which we peeked at the Eiffel Tower again, this time to catch its hourly shimmering aura — it felt like we were in a dream. Not a bubbly-infused dream, but one sparked off by the very air of the city we were in. The kind of city that makes you gush. Such as I did when I uttered repeatedly to Adi, ‘We’re in Paris! We’re in Paris!’

It must have been the air. It was enchanted.


The Grand was a couple of minutes walk from the Palais Garnier, the iconic opera house of Paris, and so we were ambling past the opera, down the cobbled boulevards of Haussman, bedecked in fairy lights and flamboyant shop windows, mannequins in beautiful dresses and shoes, staring at splendid old squares topped off by gigantic columns, senses reeling at the beauty all around us.

No matter how many times you find yourself in Paris, you are dazed by the elegance of it.

Dinner was at a Moroccan restaurant where an old man in his neatly pressed suit served us Moroccan wine along with snacks of olives and carrots braised in turmeric and cumin. The wine was red and mellow, the carrots spicy. There was lamb tagine, a whole lot of kebabs and couscous, along with more red wine on the house, pressed upon us by the old man with the benevolent smile and wicked sense of humour.

Ah, it was a fine evening that, when we sauntered back to the hotel on the wings of red wine and romance. It was as if we could have only more and the hotel was a big part of this experience. The French empress of the day — that would be the year 1862 — while inaugurating it, had exclaimed that it made her think of home. ‘I feel like I am in Compiègne or Fontainebleau,’ she had remarked. That’s the thing about heritage hotels, they are a window into a world that you will never see, just imagine. To me, it was a window into the world of Josephine Baker, Sarah Bernhardt, Marlene Dietrich…, all of whom liked to be seen at the hotel. I could see why. Its old operatic ballroom was a vision in itself.

The Café de la Paix was yet another visual feast, with its large potted plants, as if to recreate a garden within a café, frescoed and gilded to the hilt. There had sat the likes of Victor Hugo, Emile Zola and Guy de Maupassant, and where people were known to be drawn from all around the globe…’Dark diplomats from Martinique, pale Rastas from Peru/An Englishman from Bloomsbury, a Yank from Kalamazoo;/A poet from Montmartre’s heights, a dapper little Jap’ … as Robert Service noted in his poem, ‘The Absinthe Drinkers’.

For has it not been ever said that all the world one day

Will pass in pilgrimage before the Cafe de la Paix?’

(It is a delightful poem, if you are keen to take a gander at it.)

A quick note on the title. A receptionist at the Grand Hotel addressed Adi as Mr. Basu — the room was booked in my name. I startled that man by folding my hands in a ‘namaste’ gesture. And I said, ‘Why that is the best thing I have heard in a long time!’ For a few seconds, he had consternation writ large upon his face. Had he said anything wrong? ‘No, absolutely not,’ I assured him. You see, Basu is my surname. It has cleaved to my person so long that I could not envision being without it. Not to make a defining statement of any sort, just because it is my identity. Naturally, once in a while, when Adi is alluded to as Mr. Basu, fizzy bubbles of joy rise up my chest. 

Flughafen Frankfurt am Main
Le Grand Hotel
Inside our room
A dash of Eiffel Tower 
An excuse of a balcony is welcome too
A cross-section of the 9th arrondissement from our balcon
The ballroom
Café de la Paix


Dark-panelled old bars
Palais Garnier
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Column at Place Vendôme 
Place Vendôme 
Streets of Paris
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Le Maroc
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The Moroccan way to unwind, in Paris



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You know who’s got one of the best quotes on Paris. Victor Hugo. “He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic.
Nothing is more sublime.”