Paris Moveable Feast: Fit for a King
By Theadora Brack
In giddy anticipation of film director Baz Luhrmann’s upcoming ritzy, glitzy retelling of “The Great Gatsby,” let’s give a nod to the original king of the shindig! That’s right. This week, we’re winding it back to party down in the garden of the dashing King Henri IV. Grab your beaded glad rags and galoshes, too.
Spring has sprung in Paris, so with arms tangled, let’s roll on over to the centuries-old romantic hot spot, le Square du Vert-Galant at the tip of the Île de la Cité. Created by passionate King Henri IV, its spectacular view of la Seine and currents crashing into its banks still move the rendezvous-ers, so hold on tight while I straighten the back of your frock coat collar.
Follow my plume: The Saint-Michel Métro stop will allow for a little bouquiniste browsing as we make our way. Along with a book, we’ll pick up a dough-so-filling crêpe fromage. I’m not the first to propose the Île de la Cité as the perfect spot for a little picnicking, and I certainly won’t be the last. By the way, the bouqinistes have been pushing their wares along the Seine banks since the 16th century. Politics, fashion plates, and leather bound erotica still reign here.
Looking curvaceous and fabulous at 406-years-old, the “New Bridge” is actually the oldest standing bridge in Paris. Created by Henri IV, it was the first bridge in the city to be built without houses or shops (i.e., “firetraps”) lining the spans.
This Side of Paradise
During the bridge’s construction, it became popular for young daredevils to jump from rampart to rampart. Following suit, even the King made the leap after hearing about the craze. Sadly, more than a few men fell and drowned. When this tidbit was reported to Henri, he quipped, “This may be so, but none of them were kings.” Touché, King Henri. And well done, you.
Henri was also the king of the original urban re-do. He not only banned timber construction throughout the city, but he also promoted symmetry in its public architecture, connected the Tuileries with the Louvre, and created Paris’s first city square! Thank Henri’s Place des Vosges for getting the party started in the Marais. Even today, the square is still a prime place to see and be seen.
Tender is the night
So pinch your cheeks and rouge the knees. As we promenade across the bridge, we’ll stop and cool our heels in one of its nook-like bastions. Originally these niches were created for the safety of pedestrians seeking to avoid being run over by passing carriages madly clattering by. Street vendors, entertainers, and thieves also set up shop here.
Today, they’re the perfect spot for lip-locking, picture taking, and retrospection. The shapely bridge blends so well with the river that the eye can’t always separate the organic from the man-made. Its resulting beauty both soothes and re-energizes my spirits every time.
Jolly Green Giant
The bridge cuts across the island connecting the Right and Left Banks of the river. In its very center, you’ll find a huge bronze statue of Henri IV on horseback. Some folks consider the square around it the very center of Western Civilization. I don’t know about that, but I can vouch for it as a great place to make momentous decisions. See, this is where my beau proposed to me. (I accepted.) You’ll find the King’s garden directly below. Just follow the steps.
What’s in a name?
For the love of vitality, gossip, and admiration, Parisians gave this little tear-drop-shaped park the flamboyant King’s nickname, “Vert-Galant,” or “Gay Blade,” since he was larger than life, compassionate, and wildly loved. Mad about music, wine and women, Henri would horse around here with his friends, entertainers, and favorite mistress, Gabrielle d’Estrée. As he liked to say, “Great cooking and great wines make a paradise on earth!”
And speaking of big appetites, this is also where Ernest Hemingway relaxed with books, wine, and sausages while watching the fishermen. “They always caught some fish,” he wrote, “and often they made excellent catches of the dace-like fish that were called goujon. They were plump and sweet-fleshed with a finer flavor than fresh sardines even, and were not at all oily, and we ate them bones and all.”
Just beyond le Square du Vert-Galant, you’ll find the downstream tip of the Île de la Cité. Pick a spot on the stone ledge for some smooth bateaux-cruise watching from underneath the weeping willow—the first tree in Paris to leaf out each spring. Listen hard for King Henri’s laughter and soft music, faint and pleasant, as the Louvre, Notre Dame, and Samaritaine rise above the pea green river, twinkling like stars among the whisperings, pink clouds, and bubbly champagne.
Bookworms, ignite. Desire more time travel? Checkout the nearby Shakespeare & Co. at 37 rue Bûcherie. Located in a former 16th-century monastery near Notre Dame, it’s my favorite bookshop in the city.
A favorite Beat Generation haunt, the late, great George Whitman opened the Bûcherie location in 1951 under the name of Le Mistral. He changed its name to Shakespeare and Company as a tribute to his friend Sylvia Beach after she closed up the original shop by the same name, which had been a few blocks away. (Sylvia also inspired Hem, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, James Joyce and yes, F. Scott Fitzgerald—just to name a few.
Clipping from Fitzgerald’s Gatsby
“The lights grow brighter as the earth lurches away from the sun, and now the orchestra is playing yellow cocktail music, and the opera of voices pitches a key higher. Suddenly one of the gypsies, in trembling opal, seizes a cocktail out of the air, dumps it down for courage and, moving her hands like Frisco, dances out alone on the canvas platform. A momentary hush; the orchestra leader varies his rhythm obligingly for her, and there is a burst of chatter as the erroneous news goes around that she is Gilda Gray’s understudy from the Follies. The party has begun.” Yes, the party has begun.