Notre Dame a year after the fire

Just a year after the fire that nearly destroyed Notre Dame, the cathedral is once again at the heart of a far bigger worldwide disaster. What can we learn about life after the Covid19 pandemic from the fire that almost destroyed it – but didn’t?

I live on the Ile St Louis, the little island connected by the Pont St Louis to the tip of the bigger Ile de la Cité on which Notre Dame is built. From this footbridge there is an excellent view of the Seine, dominated by the lovely apse of the cathedral. It is a favoured backdrop for films set in Paris, for wedding photographers and for tourists, with rival musicians and street performers often occupying both ends at weekends.

Notre Dame with the Pont St Louis leading to the Ile St Louis, right
Notre Dame with the Pont St Louis leading to the Ile St Louis, right. Attila Terbos, Wikimedia Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Of the four bridges connecting the Ile St Louis to the mainland,  the Pont St Louis is the one closest to my studio, so I pass Notre Dame almost every day. In 28 years I think I have been inside the cathedral itself only four times. But every day I have leaned out  from the seclusion of my top floor window to see the tip of its spire, which is at the same height. In fact, when I first moved there I actually thought the spire was a tv aerial, as the rest of the cathedral is completely hidden by houses. Once I realised what it was, it became a personal landmark.

Sunset view from my window, spire of Notre Dame far right
Sunset view from my window, spire of Notre Dame far right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At 7.15 pm on 15 April last year  a neighbour phoned to tell me that Notre Dame was on fire. I didn’t believe her, but went to the window to check. I saw a poisonous yellow-grey pillar of smoke belching rapidly upwards into the blue sky of that spring evening, with the spire  – my spire – briefly outlined by flames.

View of the spire fro my window, 15 April 2019
View of the spire from my window, 15 April 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I gaped in disbelief and frantically took a series of photos. Then the spire was hidden by smoke and when the smoke cleared not long afterwards it had gone forever. I felt exactly as if I had lost a friend.

Over the next few days access to the Pont St Louis was barred. I asked the policeman on duty when it would re-open and then to my horror realised that I was about to cry. He said, ‘On a tous la même réaction’ and patted my arm.  Two nights later I joined a crowd of silent Parisians on the Ile St Louis listening to a choir singing hymns opposite the burned out wreck. But at least the towers were still standing. Unsolicited, I made the largest donation I have ever made in my life to the fund set up to restore Notre Dame.

Although full access from the footbridge to the Ile de la Cité was only reopened in January 2020 and the damaged building itself was soon surrounded by a temporary perimeter wall, the crowds, if anything, were bigger than usual. People gazed in silence, and took pictures to reassure themselves that it was still there. I neither overheard nor exchanged any comments on the disaster with my neighbours, not even to talk about the dangers of lead poisoning. It seemed fatuous to comment on such a shocking and unexpected disaster which had touched people all over the world. Notre Dame looked very sad and sorry for itself, ‘as if it were wearing crutches and a mac’ according to my sister, to whom I sent this photograph

Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis, 29 April 2019
Notre Dame from the Pont St Louis, 29 April 2019

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And now, almost exactly a year later, Notre Dame is once again surrounded by empty streets and at the heart of a much bigger worldwide disaster. It reopened briefly on Good Friday for a service in the burned-out nave, with just seven people allowed inside, to broadcast a worldwide Easter message of mourning, comfort and hope.

The global effect of the COVID 19 pandemic on daily life, especially in cities, is beyond anything we could have imagined.  It is clear that when it is over nothing will ever be quite the same again.

But the story of the disaster which befell Notre Dame last year is also a story of human ingenuity, co-operation and resilience. By November everyone had got used to the scaffolding surrounding Notre Dame and the Pont St Louis was once again filled with people enjoying the view and the silver and gold Christmas lights strung in the trees overlooking the Seine (too subtle to be seen in this photograph unless you zoom)

Christmas lights on Ile St Louis, scaffolding around Notre Dame, right
Christmas lights on the Ile St Louis, scaffolding around Notre Dame, right

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By January 2020 the perimeter wall surrounding the cathedral had been cleverly used to display an exhibition of huge photographs showing the extent of the disaster and the scale of the restoration work, with explanatory text in French and English. The reopening of the cathedral is planned for 2024. Until the lockdown emptied the streets of Paris on 17 March, I saw passersby, both tourists and locals, slowing down to read it and I felt uplifted to think that Notre Dame will rise again.

It will do so, and so will we.

Coronavirus and a fondue restaurant by the river

The River Oise at Eragny
The River Oise at Eragny in summer

What does a fondue restaurant by the River Oise have to do with the coronavirus pandemic? Nothing at all, and that is the point. I am currently in an Oxfordshire village in England, sitting out the lockdown at my sister’s house, having decided to leave my Paris studio just hours before the travel ban came into effect on 17 March. Like everyone else, I don’t know how long this will last. But even though no one can travel within France at the moment I’m posting this blog as a reminder of the good things in life Before Coronavirus and as an affirmation of their continuity After Coronavirus.

Back in February, while trying out a Sunday walk along the River Oise 30 km north west of Paris, not far from the village of Auvers sur Oise made famous by Van Gogh, I came across a modest little restaurant with a garden

O Chalet restaurant, Eragny sur Oise
O Chalet restaurant, Eragny sur Oise

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The tables, gay with red and white checked tablecloths, were packed with local families, and when I went inside to ask for their card I noted that the house wine was half the price you’d pay in Paris and the place was pervaded with the delicious smell of melting cheese. They specialise in the Savoyard dishes of fondue and raclette. My friend and I didn’t stop but I made a mental note to go back and try it out. Soon after that we passed the Carrière à Pépin, a former limestone quarry

La Carrière à Pépin, Eragny
La Carrière à Pépin, Eragny

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

which displayed a photograph of several Parisian visitors posing outside it in 1902, including Claude Débussy and his wife.

Débussy at Eragny

 

 

 

 

 

 

I found out later that Eragny, like Auvers, had become quite popular with Parisians when the train line to Cergy made the villages along the Oise easily accessible.  We continued along the river until we reached the bridge to Cergy Port, a modern but attractive little marina with several cafés, before taking the train back to Paris.

Cergy Port
Cergy Port

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several weeks later my family came to visit me for a few days in Paris.  I booked the  fondue restaurant on the Oise for Sunday lunch, feeling sure that it would be a success. But when I went to collect them I found my niece and two nephews, all in their twenties, looking very fragile. They had been out clubbing the night before, had got home at 3 am and were clearly suffering from hangovers as well as from lack of sleep. My sister and her husband had slept badly too, as their luxurious-looking bed was uncomfortable.  It was raining again and the forecast for the day, which turned out to be accurate, was that the rain would be continuous.

I got them onto the RER train at St Michel and watched as the 30-minute train ride had its usual calming effect. My youngest nephew slept off his hangover while the rest of the family started to take an interest in the rural scenery opening up around us as we left Paris behind. But I didn’t have a clue about how to get to the river, as the station was one I had never been to. The millennials took over, whipping out their phones to locate us on Google, and we three elders trailed after them through a nondescript suburban landscape, washed by rain.

And then we found the path to the river. Abruptly the noise of traffic ceased and we heard birdsong. The family, who are used to birdsong, pricked up their ears. ‘It’s not the same’, they said, and ‘How loud they are!’ We concluded that some of the woodland birds might be different from the ones found in Oxfordshire, and for all I know this is true.

By the time we had walked the kilometre along the River Oise to the restaurant everyone’s mood had changed. We were all fascinated by the huge working barges silently sliding past us along the the grey river, through softly falling rain. My sister was intrigued by the grand nineteenth century houses with gardens sloping down to the towpath, probably second homes built by Parisian escapees. My brother-in-law stopped to read a notice giving the history of the restaurant and excitedly informed me that it was a former guinguette. These were modest riverside restaurants with a dance floor, patronised by working class Parisians spending their Sundays boating, walking or fishing, which reached the peak of their popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I was not surprised, as the busy friendly  atmosphere of the restaurant was far removed from the ‘traditional’ half empty restaurant in Paris, also sporting red and white checked tablecloths, where we had been ripped off the night before.

We dripped inside, where a table for six had been laid near the window. Every other table was taken, full of multi-generational local families, so although we were the only foreigners we were not particularly conspicuous.

The rest of the afternoon was pure pleasure. The apéritif was a generous glass of rosé wine flavoured with griotte cherries, something none of us had tasted before, accompanied by little home-made canapés, and it was good. The bubbling fondue arrived, and it was very good. So was the house wine. The charcuterie tasted like charcuterie, not like something taken out of a packet. The salads were freshly made. My youngest nephew, in between appreciative mouthfuls of fondue, asked whose idea the restaurant had been.  I modestly acknowledged that it was mine, to general approbation.

O Chalet
The family, taking fondue seriously

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As we were nearing the end of the fondue the owner’s wife came over and showed me how to stir it properly to prevent it sticking. I explained that I had been doing that, but clearly not well enough. She smiled, so I volunteered the information that we had come from Paris by train just because I liked the look of the restaurant, and that we had not been disappointed.

‘You came from Paris by train in this weather!’

I explained that five of us had actually come over from England, let alone Paris. She went away, and a few minutes later her husband appeared and offered to drive us back to the station, as it was still raining.  I was about to politely decline when I saw the family’s faces and realised that this was an offer not to be refused. Meanwhile my sister had noticed the old photos of the restaurant and of barges on the walls and asked the owner about them. His face lit up as he told her that several generations of his family, including his own, had made their living from the river.

His car held three of us and the remaining three elected to walk. Not for long, because he passed us trudging through the rain on his way back and offered to drive the second batch too. I hesitated for only a second this time and we were whisked away to join the others at the station, where our English voices elicited fascinated interest. Clearly,  Eragny doesn’t get many international visitors, unlike Auvers or Barbizon, where you can sometimes feel that you are in an over-visited theme park.

Later my niece wrote to me that the high point of her Paris visit had been the trip to the fondue restaurant. As I think it was for all of us, even though we had abandoned the planned walk by the river. The short stretch we had walked in the rain to a genuinely local restaurant had been all that was needed to transport us to a different time and a different world and the whole family had appreciated the experience.

Now that all six of us are likely to be sitting out the coronavirus pandemic in isolation together for an indefinite period, that happy memory will be even more precious.

Below are details of the walk for when better times return.

Savoyard restaurant on the Oise: www.o-chalet.fr, tel 01 34 66 02 51, open noon-2.30 pm Wednesday-Sunday, except August.

Nearest stations, around 1 km from the restaurant: Neuville Université RER A, every 20 minutes or less, taking 30 minutes from Châtelet-Les Halles or Eragny Neuville SNCF, every 30 minutes, taking 35 minutes from Gare St Lazare.

The recommended walk is 2.5 km along the river from the SNCF station St Ouen l’Aumône Quartier de l’Eglise (38 minutes from Gare St Lazare) to the restaurant. It’s worth visiting the 12th century church when you arrive. After lunch at the restaurant (booking essential) you could return via either of the above two stations or continue for another 5 km. Follow the river and cross the bridge over to Cergy Port to reach the RER A station at Cergy Préfecture, from where it is 37 minutes to Châtelet-Les Halles.

Annabel’s talk at the American Library in Paris

American Library in Paris, 18 December 2018The American Library in Paris has just sent me this photo of my talk about Half An Hour From Paris on 18 December 2018 and will send me the YouTube recording when it is ready.

Thanks again to those of you who were able to be present and helped to make it such a success! I will post the YouTube recording as soon as I receive it.

Winter walks

Here are my top five recommendations for daytrips in winter. All are in An Hour From Paris except for Malmaison, which is in Half An Hour From Paris.

Château d’Ecouen

Château d’Ecouen in the snowThe short walk through the forest to the Musée de la Renaissance in the château is particularly magical in the snow, which doesn’t melt as quickly as it does in Paris.

 

 

 

Conflans Ste Honorine

Speedboat ferry to La Goèlette restaurant, Andrésy (Conflans Ste Honorine)La Goèlette island restaurant at Andrésy is reached by speedboat. Optional short riverside walk to the station at Conflans Ste Honorine.

 

 

 

Villeneuve Triage

The patron of the Guinguette Auvergnate at Villeneuve Triage
Jean-Pierre Vic, the patron of the Guinguette Auvergnate

Watch or join the dancers at the Guinguette Auvergnate riverside restaurant. Optional short riverside walk to the station at Choisy-le-Roi.

 

 

 

 

Poissy

L'Esturgeon and old bridge, Poissy
L’Esturgeon restaurant at the old bridge, Poissy

Visit the Villa Savoye built by Le Corbusier in 1929. Optional short riverside walk to the station at Villennes sur Seine.

 

 

 

Malmaison

Château de MalmaisonVisit the home of Napoleon and Josephine, perhaps followed by lunch at the nearby Brasserie du Château.

‘Evenings with an Author’ at the American Library in Paris

Tuesday 18 December 7.30-9 pm at the American Library in Paris, 10 rue du Général Camou, 75007 Paris, métro Alma-Marceau

Annabel Simms’s talk, “How to briefly escape from Paris to France,” will outline her criteria for selecting daytrips in her original guidebook, An Hour From Paris, and its recent sequel, Half An Hour From Paris. She will explain why the Ile de France is one of the most accessible and rewarding regions in the country, still little-explored by many Parisians, let alone foreign visitors. She will illustrate her talk with a detailed look at one of the destinations in Half An Hour From Paris, including some of the experiences that went into writing it. Finally, she will try to assess the future development of the Ile de France, now that it is being rebranded as Le Grand Paris.

https://americanlibraryinparis.org/event/evenings-with-an-author-annabel-simms/