Paris for voyeurs

For those who walk at night, imagination soars in the City of Light.

By David Downie
July 3, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)
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Night had fallen. Lights began snapping on, illuminating room-by-room the
interior of the Ile-Saint-Louis mansion. We stood outside its thick stone
walls, leaning on the crumbling parapet above the Seine, and glanced from
the river's inky waters to the mansion's twinkling windows.

Women wearing tailleurs and men in tuxedoes mingled under a frescoed
ceiling. Huge portraits painted by a forgotten 19th century dauber stared
down at the merrymakers, the maid with her silver tray, and out to where we
loitered on the quayside.

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A bateau-mouche cruised downstream, its blinding lights further
illuminating the tableau being played out above us. Another boat slid along
behind it. This time my eyes followed the shifting, intricate pattern of
leaves projected onto the building's fagade as the boats followed the
river's flow.

One by one the tuxedos and tailleurs on the mansion's second floor
replaced their emptied champagne flutes on the maid's silver tray and
slipped out. Two chauffeur-driven limousines whisked them away. The maid
looked down, spotted us and yanked the shutters back till all we could see
were slits of light.

By silent accord my wife and I gave up looking at the river and began to
peer instead into other buildings on the island, drawn to their lights like
proverbial papillons nocturnes -- a nice way to say moths. Around the
corner from the mansion, a lamp winked on in a cozy mezzanine with low
ceilings. There were leather-bound books and shaded sconces over small oil
paintings. We could just make out a liquor cabinet and a stag's head.
Someone moved, casting shadows across the walls. We wondered if the owner
was smoking a cigar.

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Soon streetlamps flickered on around us, pooling yellowish light across
the stone sidewalks that ring the Ile-Saint-Louis. Farther east, facing the
Tour d'Argent restaurant, we heard a piano and glanced up to another tiny
mezzanine built above a carriage door. A straight-backed piano teacher with
her hair in a bun instructed her pupil in what sounded like Beethoven's "F|r
Elise." The girl shifted on her stool and played a single bar over and over
again before moving on clumsily, battling Beethoven. She wore a hairband
and a long dress with ruffles and might have been lifted from Van Gogh's
"Mademoiselle Gachet at the piano" -- the distilled awkwardness of French
bourgeois girlhood.

As we made our way from one pool of lamplight to the next, rounding the
island counterclockwise as we often do, we imagined a life story for the
girl, for her piano teacher, for the man with the stag's head in his
apartment -- oh, yes, he had to be a cigar-smoking man -- and then for the
maid and each of the merrymakers from the mansion.

The bateau-mouches babbled by in four languages, splashing images on the
fagades, raining light on lovers hidden along the Seine, revealing
interiors with Pompeii-red wallpaper and gaudy chandeliers, decorated
ceiling beams, stucco encrustations, 17th century chimney pieces, the
cluttered lodgings of elderly concierges. Glitzy and loud, the tour boats
and their searchlights nonetheless transformed banal parked cars or
sidewalk benches -- and strollers like us -- into elements of a magic lantern
show.

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The scene flowered in my mind. I began to realize why, in all my years in
Paris, I have unconsciously loved night-walking.
For one thing, daylight flattens and hardens Paris, emphasizing the
smog-blackened gray of its plaster fagades, the oppressive straightness of
its boulevards, the maddening symmetry imposed upon it by Baron Haussmann
and Napoleon III during the Second Empire.

Night-lighting, instead, brings out the bends and recesses, the jagged
edges, the secret interiors, the sinuous quality of the Seine, the flying
buttresses and other medieval escapees of progress.

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There are practical reasons, too, why nighttime strolling seems to me the
finest way to experience Paris nowadays, especially in summer. The later
the hour, the thinner the traffic, the cleaner the air, the more
quintessential the scenery and atmosphere, stripped of their superfluous
color and noise. When the cars and trucks and buses and guided groups fade
away -- unless they're part of a Paris by night tour -- the city's magic
steals back. Even garish Pigalle seems bizarrely wonderful with its
sizzling neon signs and fluorescent teeth flashing mercenary smiles. Seen
from afar, the Eiffel Tower becomes an eerie glowing skeleton. The
Panthion's leaden dome hovers weightlessly over a jigsaw puzzle of tin
roofs.

There's another practical reason I like walking around at night: We live
above a dozen bars, cafis and restaurants, so in summer, that joyful
season, there's little point in getting to bed before, oh, about 3 a.m. If
you can't beat 'em ...

Ever since the hot weather arrived, and I had my epiphany on the
Ile-Saint-Louis, I've not only begun walking ever more and ever later at
night, I've also been searching in literature for references to fellow
night-walkers. It seems that noctambulism has a long and noble history in
Paris. A strange sounding word, in English it simply means sleepwalking.
But in French a "noctambule" is a night owl, someone who literally walks
about -- awake -- in the darkness, a denizen of the night, a night-walker. To
serve such people, there is even a Noctambus -- a late-night bus service
whose symbol is an owl.

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Everyone knows that Paris is called la Ville Lumihre or City of Light, but
a century or more before it earned that moniker, a restless writer named
Restif de la Bretonne pioneered the Parisian nighttime prowl. He recorded
his adventures from 1786 onwards in "Les Nuits de Paris ou Le Spectateur
nocturne," a rambling account of 1,001 nights spread over a period of many
years.

I was gratified to learn that De la Bretonne's first and favorite
night-walks also began on the Ile-Saint-Louis, which, physically at least,
must have been much the same then as it is today. The mansions were already
150 years old (most were built in 1600-30), the quays cobbled, the
traffic sparse. De la Bretonne's nocturnal wanderings were lit by feeble
riverbhre lanterns -- oil lamps with reflectors -- that hung from the center
of the street.

As in the rest of central Paris, public lighting on the island today is a
mix of handsome 1800s lamps and more recent units. The resultant glow
entices papillons nocturnes from far and wide.

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In my reading and walking I've also confirmed that no other city cultivates
so zealously its nighttime ambience, a sort of luminous identity card
spelling out the words Ville Lumihre. Ever since the term was coined about
100 years ago (probably inspired by the 1900 Universal Exposition),
artifice is what the City of Light has been all about.

Several hundred technicians, engineers and lighting designers work full time
creating Paris' magical nighttime kingdom. They follow a master plan that
covers the lighting of everything from pedestrian crossings to fagades,
monuments and bridges. Lamp posts are staggered at studied intervals and
heights to produce a luminous blanket. Nothing is left to chance.

Restif de la Bretonne may have invented the genre of nighttime sketches,
but to many French people the literary night belongs to Charles Baudelaire.
The inveterate noctambulist distilled his shadowy world most notably into
"Le Spleen de Paris" and "Les Fleurs du Mal" -- flowers of evil nourished, with
poetic license, not only by the sun but also by the flickering gas lamps of
the Second Empire. Lamps that lit the wide new sidewalks of Haussmann's
boulevards and the cafes and theaters and railroad stations that sprang up
on them, where people came and went at all hours of the day and night in
what had become the world's first modern metropolis.

Being able to walk safely at night, under lamps on paved surfaces, was a
novelty Baudelaire didn't take for granted: Paradoxically, for him it meant
the death of old Paris. Today, many of the cannon-shot boulevards that
Baudelaire tramped along, ambivalence in his heart, are nearly 150 years
old and people now think of them as the quaint old quintessential Paris. I
don't, and rarely include them (with the exception of the boulevards
St-Germain, St-Michel and Montparnasse) in my noctural itineraries. Though
some of the grand cafes and theaters are still around, the Avenue de
l'Opira, Boulevard Haussmann and dozens like them strike me as about the
worst places in town for an amble. Even skillful illumination fails to give
them charm.

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Here's something else I've deduced: Whether you have prurient inclinations
or not, noctambulism induces voyeurism. Outside, in the dark, you can't
help peering inside apartments, into countless doll-house tableaux.
Exhibitionism is also part of the equation. Parisians are often
unself-conscious and I sometimes wonder if they get a thrill by not drawing
the curtains.

Beyond the Ile-Saint-Louis, the most exquisite doll's houses I know are
found in and around the Place des Vosges, the centerpiece of the Right
Bank's fashionable Marais neighborhood. The square's 36 identical
pavilions -- all of them built in the first decades of the 1600s -- offer
remarkable architectural detailing throughout. And a chance to indulge your
innocent curiosity. There are bull's-eye windows in the slanting slate
roofs, arcades and painted timber ceilings. At times, the magic-lantern
effect reveals the fabulous art collections of a former French minister,
famous auctioneers and the old rich families who have lived here for decades
or centuries.

When the window-shopping culture vultures who cruise the Marais by day bed
down for the night, the area's narrow streets and townhouses provide
endless permutations for the intrepid noctambule. A head looms in a
backlit, arrow-slit window on a tower jutting over the Rue Saint-Paul.
Tattered curtains flap in a ghostly old building -- recently a squat -- in
the Rue Pastourelle. Mystery awaits around every turn in the road.
The Palais Royal is another nocturnal treat, its long, moodily lit arcades
little changed since the days of Restif de la Bretonne (though what you now
hear echoing as you go are not the clogs of prostitutes or the boots of
assassins, but the taps of the well-heeled tripping home from fancy
restaurants like Le Grand Vifour).

One of my favorite night circuits wends from the Palais Royal via the
colonnaded Bourse (the stock exchange), through ill-lit passageways and
alleys to the Rue du Faubourg Montmartre, whose hollow-eyed façades look
like craggy cliff dwellings. The road changes names as it mounts in an arc
past Notre-Dame-de-Lorette -- homely by day, almost pretty by night -- and
Place Blanche to the famous hill crowned by that marvelously obscene
basilica called Sacri Coeur.

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Over the centuries countless French and many foreign writers have
contributed to the literature of noctambulism. In the 1920s and '30s,
Louis-Firdinand Ciline ("Voyage au Bout de la Nuit") trotted obsessively to
and fro between Paris and the outskirts (near Levallois) where he lived,
ruminating on the horrors of contemporary society. When he wasn't searching
for outdoor urinals or gazing at his navel, Henry Miller was taking (or
describing) his so-called "obsessional walks" -- presumably a kind of
revelatory nighttime ramble -- around the Place de Clichy and Montmartre,
under the night-lit silhouette of Sacri Coeur and its "savage teat"
cupolas.

When I walk around Montmartre I can't help thinking of Amedeo Modigliani,
nicknamed Modl, which sounds like "maudit" and means, in French, "cursed" or
"luckless." Modl may never have written about the night himself -- he used
his pencil for other endeavors -- but his lustful wanderings are the subject
of many a biography. It seems that if the perpetually thirsty and penniless
genius couldn't be found at work in one of the hovels he occupied in the
neighborhood, he was usually leaping from bed to bed, or mooching a drink
in the Place du Tertre.

This square and the streets fronting nearby Sacri Coeur are a zoo from dawn
to about 2 a.m., daily, and if you're into high kitsch then be my guest. In
the dead of night, though, they emanate a haunting sadness scented by sour
memories (yes, the good old days are long gone) and stale beer. Roads like
the Rue des Saules and Rue St-Vincent, instead, wrap around the backside of
the hill to a small vineyard whose vines are imprisoned behind high walls
and fences. I like to wander around it and over to the armspan-wide Allie
des Brouillards -- Fog Alley -- which crosses an area once called Le Maquis,
a no-man's land filled with ramshackle studios where Modl drank and smoked
himself toward oblivion.

Modigliani's Montmartre is dead and buried by junk food wrappers, but at
night you can still spot the occasional (wealthy) artist's (stunning)
atelier illuminated from within, or catch keyhole views of the city from
streets that tilt and turn, like the Rue Lepic. I discovered recently that
the lighting engineers have even transmogrified a series of Montmartre
outdoor stairways into "light sculptures," a new expression of
environmental art that taps into the magic of the night -- and might even
help prevent tired tourists from tripping in the dark.

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Cost-free, non-polluting and amazingly safe, the best thing about
noctambulism in Paris, however, is its inexhaustible variety. Here's
another wonderful walk: Follow the curving Canal St-Martin from the Seine,
along the Boulevard Richard Lenoir, all the way to La Villette on the edge
of town. On cobbled sidewalks under towering plane trees you pass the Httel
du Nord (atmosphere! atmosphere!), several drawbridges, mossy locks and the
wild circular La Rotonde customs house designed in 1789 by visionary
architect Claude-Nicolas Ledoux. Or wander around Belleville, an unsung
neighborhood in the 19th and 20th arrondissements, with surprising views
from the Parc de Belleville, and enough ungentrified urban edge to keep
your heart pumping.

For a tamer tool, I walk all the way from the 24-hour cafes of Montparnasse
across sleeping St-Germain-des-Pris to Notre Dame on the Ile-de-la-Citi and
back home to the moody Marais.

But my favorite night-walk will always remain that slow, meditative trawl
around the Ile-Saint-Louis, guided by the words of Restif de la Bretonne
and the lights of the bateau-mouches. When my wife and I finally got home
the night of my great noctambulistic revelation, I sat on a bench in the
square below our apartment and waited for her to climb the stairs and turn
on the lights. True, there was no sweeping vista, and the building couldn't
compete with the pavilions of the Place des Vosges or the Ile-Saint-Louis'
mansions. But it wasn't too shabby, either. Above all, I now knew what all
those charming noctambules stare at as they carry on till 3 a.m. in the
square beneath our windows. Bonne nuit.


David Downie

David Downie is Salon Travel's correspondent in Paris.

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