Promenade de deux

The main hall of 104 Centquatre is a vast space. Concrete floor, skylight open to the cerulean-grey patchwork above, red brick, iron beams. Dancers of a world of styles – hip-hop, tango, salsa – are toiling joyously in the natural light that pours through that transparent roof. It’s hard to believe this building was once home to the city undertaker service, where up to 1400 people organised 150 funerals a day, where first horses then motorized hearses were accommodated on a site the size of Place de la République. The 1873 building has, since its rebirth in 2008, housed rehearsal and performance spaces, a start-up incubator, bookshop, cafés and vintage boutique Emmaüs. It’s a world unto itself – from the Open Wall neon installation by Pascale Marthine Tayou in the arched floor-to-ceiling glass frontage as you enter to the tucked-away Café Caché.

Paris does urban renewal with style, and this is the second example of it on our Saturday afternoon ramble through the 10th, 18th and 19th arrondissements to Aubervilliers, a copy of L’Autre Paris in hand.

When J and I meet at Gare de l’Est at 3pm, we have it firmly in mind that we’ll be finished and settled with beers in hand at Le Supercoin by six at the latest. Not so fast. Turns out perhaps we walk slowly, or take too long over coffee, or there are just too many things to see on Nicolas Le Goff’s second itinerary in the book to rush things.

Our first cool discovery is behind a high wall over the road from the 19th-century railway station, one of Paris’s six main hubs and the departure point for the first Orient Express to Istanbul (thank you, Wiki, for that titbit). The station façade is gorgeous. But more lovely in its way is the garden of Café A in the Maison de l’Architecture. Too late for lunch, too early for coffee. We snap a couple of pictures, take a look at the menu and promise to return another day.

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Right, to serious navigating, wandering, wondering and getting under the skin of a new part of town. (Sorry, 20th, you’ll have to sit this one out.)

We cross the forecourt of the station, up horseshoe-shaped stairs, over an iron bridge next to an old viaduct, around the corner to find the coloured façade of Collectif 23 is no more. We stand at the gate, making friendly noises to the dog on the other side. Eventually, a nice chap comes to ask if he can help us. I explain we’re doing a tour and hold up the book. He looks puzzled, then amused as he reads the entry that mentions this art collective squat – the mural was painted over, he says – and invites us in to see their latest photography exhibition, of women fighters during the Balkans conflict.

Onwards. Through the Indian quarter, past an incense-scented temple, piles of shoes at the door, to La Halle Pajol, our first repurposed utopia. The former mail exchange depot (built 1926) is now, yes, a cultural centre and 330-bed youth hostel. Its roof also supports Paris’s second largest collection of solar panels. We find a table at Les Petites Gouttes’ leafy terrace and order coffee (for me) and a house-brewed IPA (for J).

Breather over, next stop is the Marché La Chappelle on rue de l’Olive. The covered market, which stays open until 7.30pm most days, has immaculate stands of produce, fish, meat and cheese. I love French markets – rabbits with organs neatly on display, chickens with feet and head intact, pungent cheese, fresh oysters to be devoured standing up. Nearby En Vrac sells wine by volume – you can take your bottle and refill for just 3€.

Due to my inability to navigate and read instructions at the same time we’re halfway across the power-blue bridge over the train tracks before I realize we’ve skipped a garden or two. Regardless, we continue to the Jardins d’Eole, which stretch along the railway with basketball courts, lawns and a lovely view of the Sacré-Coeur off in the distance. It’s a green oasis between transport infrastructure and high-rise apartment developments and very popular, it seems.

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Around the corner, through a neighbourhood vide grenier in full swing, we stop to gape at the Orgues de Flandre, a monumental 1970s housing development. From there, it’s five minutes to Centquatre.

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Deciding not to have another stop, at Café Caché, we leave arts central and walk along Paris’s longest street art fresco to the new Gare Rosa-Parks. (It links to Saint-Lazare in seven minutes!) The pedestrian/cyclist thoroughfare takes us to Square Claude-Bernard, then over the Périphérique via a curvy wooden bridge, glancing right at the Forêt Linéaire but a bit too weary to explore further.

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Our final destination is the canal and the free shuttle ferry from enormous shopping centre Le Millénaire to the Corentin-Cariou métro station, where our “official” itinerary ends. The ferries come every 12 minutes and are a novel way to travel.

So, at nearly 8pm, we finally reach Le Supercoin, a close-to-perfect neighbourhood bar that specializes in craft beer. Oh yes. We get two demis of Rhythm’n’Blues, a smoked rye IPA from local O’Clock Brewing. At 7.5 per cent alcohol, it’s a big beginning but, hey, we’re been walking. And, oh yes, she’s a lovely drop, with clear notes of smoke and pleasing bitterness. We discuss barley wine and the merits of ambrée versus IPA, all the while continuing with a mini degustation (and nibble a complimentary crêpe complète). Our next beers, shared, in bottle not pression, include a coffee number from Brasseurs du Grand Paris that we agree would make a cracking biramisu.

Sweet.

 

 

Urban ramblings

On the other side of the southern wall of Père Lachaise cemetery, Le Jardin Naturel – the natural garden – has been left to self-seed and native species encouraged to proliferate thanks to chemical-free, eco-friendly maintenance. It’s tucked in behind rue de Bagnolet and feels, over its 6300 square metres, more like a walk in the country, with birdsong and sunlight breaking through spring leaves in patches. It’s unusually unkempt for a city park, charming and rambling, with signs offering information about the indigenous plants. Here, an oak, there a field maple, copper birch, bellflowers, ferns and so on in a tapestry of green, and pink, and gold.

I had forgotten the little park was there until yesterday when we came upon it during a “randonnée urbaine” organised by local bookstore Le Merle Moqueur. Our expert guide was Nicolas Le Goff, whose excellent new book, L’Autre Paris,  I’d brought weeks ago during a fact-finding sortie to FNAC. Happily, J and M agreed to come and we joined about 15 others (mostly women, as another walker noted while we were milling about waiting to begin) for the 90-minute walk. We started at Square Edith Piaf and ended with a signing at the bookstore. (When J observed that it was the first time she’d seen the statue of the Little Sparrow, M responded dryly that she was often skirted by locals and their bottles, which we all agreed was somehow appropriate.)

My hope was that Le Goff, whose book details 10 promenades around the greater city with a focus on architecture, urban design, parks, street art, culture and food, would offer some insight into my ’hood. I was not disappointed. It turned out that many of the participants were also locals, and he clearly felt the pressure to give us something special. At one point, as we walked through an innovative social-housing development, Le Goff asked J and me if we had seen it before. Our shaking heads elicited a very pleased, “Yes!”

We began at Campagne à Paris, which is utterly village-like in its spring finery, then tacked south through manicured Square Séverine, along the narrow elevated street that overlooks rue de Bagnolet from which we could see two elegantly curved staircases at the front of houses that once sat amid vineyards. Our path took us through the cemetery at the back of Eglise Saint-Germain de Charonne, and Le Goff allowed a few minutes for us to go inside the medieval church (the first time I’d seen it open) whose interior dimness showed off the brilliant hues of the stained-glass windows.

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Crossing rue des Pyrénées, Le Goff, who has previously worked at cultural centre Centquatre and clearly loves his subject, took us through the public housing development around Place Mélina-Mercouri, pointing out energy-saving features (heat-retaining construction materials) and how car-free thoroughfares linked adjacent schools. In this “eco-quartier”, there’s child-friendly, ethical Super Café, gardens and a sense of light and space. The design was created in consultation with the residents, he said.

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Cutting through Place de la Réunion, being prepped for the Sunday market, Place Marc Bloch and Jardin Casque d’Or, we emerged at rue des Vignoles, and another corner of the arrondissement that was completely new to me. And this is where having a guide really paid off because we were able to peep behind a private gate into another development, this one all external staircases and green walls. It was so lovely. And utterly hidden from the street.

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Next door was the brick-red cobbled courtyard of Flamenco en France, opposite a retro barber shop, and down from tempting bar Café de l’Amitié and organic restaurant La Petite Fabrique (where J and I went last night for delicious homemade quiche, brandade de morue and natural wines).

Our route back to rue de Bagnolet also offered a glimpse at the art deco Eglise Saint-Jean-Bosco de Paris, built in 1937, with its 53-metre clock tower.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Paris rewards curiosity at almost every turn, but it does help to be pointed in the right direction. All around Père Lachaise are little cul-de-sacs. We wound our way up and down several, one through Le Jardin Naturel and another that seemed to be lined with warehouses, where work was going on to re-lay the cobbled surface. I immediately wanted to live there.

Yet another took us past the Cité Aubry community garden, one of 14 in the arrondissement, where weekend gardeners were happy to pause in their work to explain the project to us. (I discovered later from the website that the garden was created nearly three years ago, and there is a long waiting list for plots.) The walls surrounding the garden are covered in beautiful murals, and the garden makes excellent use of wooden palettes for planters, dividers and racks. The most magnificent yellow and red tulips filled one box; strawberry plants donned white flowers in pots by the red-arch entry.

We finished back at the bookstore, which has recently had an update, filling its industrial-style interior with more light and opening up the space. We took the opportunity for a browse, particularly the graphic novel section; J bought a copy of L’Autre Paris and we made plans to do the itineraries (watch this space).

The 20th can feel like the ultimate urban mash-up, dominated in so many places by nondescript high-ish-rises from decades past. The walk with Le Goff revealed some of the neighbourhood’s hidden greenery and, even better, offered a chance to learn about projects putting heart and soul into the built environment. Yes, another Paris, indeed.

Walk this way

The camellias are in bloom. So too the daffodils and tulips. The trees are full of flowers or sprouting shy signs of green. In Square Édouard-Vaillant, a small park near Place Gambetta, the benches are filled and the playground rings with the squeals of children, their shrill cries of delight carrying on the breeze’s chill edge. At the foot of a statue of Léon Gambetta himself, a carpet of fat pigeons are grazing busily in the sun.

I’m about five minutes into a 2.5-kilometre walking circuit (the first in a series of neighbourhood strolls), which is, under blue skies or grey, interesting for its village-within-a-city, browse-inducing boutiques and typically 20th vibe.

But I should begin, like a civilized guide, at the beginning: Place Gambetta with its modern jagged glass fountain and imposing town hall (more on that later). It is, as always, a hive of activity – buses, shoppers, flower sellers clutching bunches of yellow daffs, with Père Lachaise adjacent and groovy Belleville up the hill. We’ll return here at the end.

For now, though, let’s walk down rue Belgrand and look right to appreciate the ornate façade of what is these days the MK2 cinema. Built in 1920, originally as a theatre, and restored in 1997, the Gambetta-Palais has a distinguished pedigree; its architect was Henri Sauvage, one of the pioneers of the art deco movement. The original interior is long gone but it retains its awning and decorative frieze.

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The aforementioned park, on the opposite side of the street, is a verdant oasis in the Haussmann mold, opened in 1879. The Gambetta statue, which once stood in Jardin des Tuileries and then the Napoleon courtyard in the Louvre, was installed in 1982 to commemorate the centenary of the great politician’s death. (Fun fact: Gambetta – lawyer, statesman, publisher – lost an eye in a childhood accident and that eye is apparently preserved at the museum of Cahors, the town where he was born. His heart is in the Panthéon.) The park also has a couple of playgrounds and a small glasshouse.

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On Wednesday and Saturday mornings, the stretch of rue Belgrand beyond Square Édouard-Vaillant (named after one of the founders of French socialism) hosts an open-air market. It’s dominated by fresh produce but also has wine, flowers and other goodies.

Another block along is the frankly a little down-at-heel Place Édith-Piaf, where the Little Sparrow (or the brat of Ménilmontant), immortalised in bronze by French sculptor Lisbeth Delisle, reaches for the sky. The singer was born in the 20th and is buried in Père Lachaise.

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The slope of rue de Capitaine Ferber is gentle. I can never resist popping into Le Village (2 rue Etienne Marley) to see what jewellery, homewares and trinkets they have, especially at sales time in January and June.

On the other side of Place Octave Chanute, up a photogenic stairway, is one of the arrondissment’s – and indeed the city’s – hidden treasures: Campagne à Paris. This early-20th-century housing co-operative of about 90 one- and two-storey townhouses (over principally rues Paul Strauss, Jules Siegfried and Irénée Blanc) is a world away from the high-rise hodge-podge of today’s cité developments. Its cobbled streets, manicured gardens and climbing ivy feel part of another time. When the project was inaugurated in 1926, houses cost about 37,000€ ; today, a quick Google search of estate agent sites shows those picturesque workers’ houses change hands for about 750,000€.

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Leaving the urban bucolic behind, at the top of rue Irénée Blanc, turn left, then veer left again into rue du Lieutenant Chauré past the impressive L’église du Coeur-Eucharistique-de Jésus, constructed in 1938.

From there, we weave our way through streets with the typically 20th mix of architectural styles. The arrondissement only joined Paris proper in 1859, so it can feel part provincial, part city. An upward glance is usually met with a mix of roofs and materials that is at odds with ideas of uniform Parisian stone façades.

At local pitstop Le Quinze, go left into rue du Surmelin. We’ll hold off on coffee for now in order to visit Maison Bohème (at No.15), a pocket of all things craft and hand-made. When I was there on Saturday, the owner Cécile kindly interrupted her radio interview (discussing knitting workshops) to help me and introduce her beautiful store. I bought iron-on patches and a card.

Over the road is Goldy Mama (who are relocating their vintage/retro boutique to rue Orfila around the corner) and Au Chat Qui Pêche (No.12), a true local bistro that I haven’t yet tried but whose classic menu, including a bargain 12.50€ formule, scores excellent online reviews. Personally, I love the little sign with its black cat and cute feline postcards in the window.

At the intersection, check out the art deco Pelleport metro station (built in 1921 and dwarfed by the super-modern extension to Tenon Hospital behind it). You can take a detour to Julien Davin (129 avenue Gambetta) – I bought duck breast but they also have horse steak. Horse butchers (chevaline) are less and less common in Paris – usually recognizable from equine features above the awning.

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I grabbed a coffee (une noisette – espresso with a stain of milk) on the terrace at Les Tontons Flambeurs (127 avenue Gambetta). Again, I’ve not eaten there but the plates coming out looked generous and fresh and online reviews are positive.

The wide avenue Gambetta, put through in 1883, is an easy stroll. At the corner of rue de la Chine (95 avenue Gambetta) is an art nouveau landmark apartment building, with ornate bay windows and ironwork. A few steps up rue de la Chine is Iris Absinthe, the leather workshop and store of Picardie native Candice Caulle. She has just reopened after a three-month break and her bags, purses, belts and keychains are rather lovely (as is her enormous snowy dog who greeted me with tail wags when I walked in).

So, back down the hill to Place Gambetta. The town hall has recently been cleaned back to its creamy 19th-century glory, and its patrician officialdom dominates the square. According to the council website, the building took 10 years to build, and was finished in 1897. The salon des fêtes is 400 square metres replete with chandeliers, but on Saturday I found my way (after being scanned at the entrance as is the case with all public buildings in post-attack Paris) to the salon d’honneur and its current exhibition of war photography by Syrian activist and AFP reporter Zakaria Abdelkafi. The images, taken in Aleppo between 2013 and 2015, contain blood and destruction, snow, kids playing in a burnt-out car and, in one extraordinary picture, three upended buses blocking a street.

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It was blunt contrast to my historic, quotidian wanderings, but also, in a way, it being there is emblematic of the quartier. Any itinerary, random or planned, is as likely to deliver an eye-opener as an expected history lesson or simply a way to get from A to B.

Now, to pop around the corner to Maison Landemaine to pick up bread…

 

 

Escape to Burgundy

The young men at the table next to ours seemed overdressed for Saturday coffee on the terrace in a tiny village. We had watched them file in, solo and in twos and threes, and now their large table was surrounded, long limbs and bare ankles stretched out underneath, seersucker suit jackets slung carefully over the backs of chairs. They ordered a raft of espressos, salade chèvre, a smattering of beers, and we waited for the waitress to lower the awning to protect us from midday sun.

Once our corner was in shade, I set to eavesdropping. (There can be no more satisfying use for nascent French skills than this.) It took fewer than three sentences before someone mentioned a wedding. The medieval church was just around the corner in the main square. My travelling companion, P, and I looked around, discreetly, to try to work out who, among those smooth faces, some adorned with tastefully groomed beards, was the groom. I couldn’t tell, but neither could I help being pulled into their orbit, into that early-twenties mixture of hope and uneasiness, feigning adulthood, learning the motions. Their energy was familiar and alien to my forty-something head. They were deep in agitated conversation, like sparrows around a birdbath.

Amid times and names and organisation, the details of which flew by too fast for my intermediate-level comprehension, I caught mention of Munich, nine dead, scores injured, and so real life intruded on southern Burgundy. The topic moved on, and the cobbled patio filled with more voices, glasses filled with local pinot, reflecting sunlight breaking through clouds. The market gardener out in the main street packed up his little stand, the thoroughfare emptied of cars.

P and I split a dozen snails, which arrived sizzling in golden butter, heavy with garlic and flecked with parsley, and two of those goat’s cheese salads, and watched the sun peak and dip into clear afternoon over Saint-Gengoux-le-National.

Much can be said of the virtues of beating a retreat from Paris in the company of an old friend, with a shiny hire car in which to explore vineyard-checked hills and crumbly hamlets. We started in Dijon, devoted a couple of hours to Beaune, then took the B roads south to digs in Saint Boil. That was Friday. This was the first full day of our long weekend and, on the advice of a laconic English neighbour (“it’s nice and there’s a shop”), found ourselves in this centuries-old village, wandering blindly. Isn’t that the best way to travel? On arriving, we asked a local to point us towards a lunch spot, and to highlight sights of interest on the map helpfully billboarded in the car park. After coffee, no dessert, we began at the church, with its twin spires (one religious, one secular) joined by a narrow wooden bridge high in the sky. We didn’t want to disturb the wedding, so we didn’t go inside.

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L’Eglise de Saint-Gengoux was first cited in the 10th century, according to Wikipedia (yes, I need to upgrade my research tools), under the growing influence of the abbey in nearby Cluny, but a new church was built in 1120, just a few decades before the village and its surrounds were ceded to King Louis VIII. (The town was then renamed Saint-Gengoux-le-Royal, becoming Jouvence after the Revolution, and reverting quietly to Saint-Gengoux-le-National in 1870.)

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Opposite the church, more or less, are the remains of a 13th-century castle and washhouse (pictured below), and all around the town centre snake immaculate narrow streets, with requisite geraniums, passageways and picturesque cats posing for next year’s Felines of France calendar. As P was snapping someone’s private garden, the owner appeared with a breezy “Bonjour!” and an offer to visit the wine cellar under her house. Chantelle introduced herself and explained that the house had once been used to produce wine, pointing to the hole in the cellar ceiling where the pressed juice would pour into barrels below to be turned into wine. These days, the constant temperature makes it ideal for the family’s pinot noir collection. We silently willed the invitation to include a tasting. No such luck. But a quick exchange about the perils of modern life and the necessity of living boldly regardless of threats and current events did offer a chance to practise French.

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The village is built on a hill that slopes gently to the Grosne river. We went in the opposite direction, up past the fountain, up to the remnants of defensive towers, up to a view over fields and forests. Up past rows of 19th century houses that care little for time. I stood on the picnic table to better frame my photographs.

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On the way back to the car, we met wedding guests, tottering in heels, chiffon dresses floating on the breeze. The bunting over the streets could have been strung for the occasion, rather than for the twice-monthly Tuesday markets. By this time, even the supermarket was shut and it was easy to re-imagine the streetscape as it might have been in its Middle Ages heyday.

Death in Paris

The biggest green space in Paris is not that green at all. It’s grey. Mostly, anyway, in hues of slate and granite. Right now, perched on the crest between summer’s Indian brilliance and looming winter, it’s also carpeted with the gold of fallen leaves and studded, as it always is, with flowers. The green in Père Lachaise cemetery comes from its manicured remembrance lawns, moss on weathered tombstones and the patina on its statues.

Entering the 44-hectare site is like stepping into another world. It’s not exactly hushed due to the tourists, who visit in endless waves, and the activity that goes with being an operating cemetery, but it is its own alternative universe.

I’ve often thought there was something odd, clearly morbid, about visiting a cemetery as a tourist. But I’ve changed my mind. The other day, I got off an overcrowded bus at Gambetta to walk the scenic route home through the site. For the first time, I went down the eastern side, past the memorials to air disasters and the impressive equestrian statue immortalising General Antranik, an Armenian national hero, only to be stopped in my tracks by the sculptures and monuments to the thousands who died in the death and work camps, and fighting for the Resistance, during World War II. The inscriptions were tough going, as they should be, with numbing figures and graphic details of firing squads, hangings and beheadings. The statues were painful in their beauty.

The man next to me observed to his friend, “It’s really quite overwhelming,” snapping another photo. I followed his gaze over the tombs, crosses and angels in perfect rows down the hillside, sunlight flashing on polished stone and marble, and had to agree.

I continued on my way, past the grave of surrealist poet Paul Éluard and the memorial wall where the last holders-out during the Paris Commune of 1871 were shot. The air smelt of damp earth. It was all pretty sobering.

And yet Père Lachaise is impossibly romantic and beautiful. I suppose that is why the most-worn path is not down the eastern wall, but to Jim Morrison, to Oscar Wilde, to Edith Piaf. It marks pilgrimages to French literature’s heroes Molière and Proust. These are the landmarks I have ringed on the map I give to visiting friends, encouraging them to go, perhaps to stroll further to pay respects to Bizet, Ingres, Chopin, Colette, Delacroix or Brillat-Savarin.

As a place to wander, it’s hard to beat, with all that history and sadness, and love and grief, stories, heritage, pathos and ghosts. The faith and follies, suffering and cruelty of humanity are grouped together like exhibits in a Big Questions museum. I also think, more and more, that rather than avoiding such places, it makes sense to walk among them, that life and death should be side by side. For all the sadness and tragedy, the memorials also celebrate struggles for dignity and freedom, great art, compassion, intelligence, enduring love.

My favourite tomb, if it’s reasonable to have such a thing, is that of Héloïse and Abélard, the ill-fated lovers of the 12th century. Their stone likenesses lie side by side, hands clasped in prayer, under an ornate canopy, their resting place having been relocated to Père Lachaise from the Oratory of the Paraclete monastery in northern France (via the Élysée in Paris) in 1817. The move was a ploy to give this monumental cemetery, which was established in 1804 according to the romantic ideals of the time, more favour with Parisians suspicious of a burial ground within the city limits. (Now there are about a million people buried here.) It has become a tradition to leave letters at the tomb to celebrate true love or the hope of finding it.

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However, for me, the romance is less fascinating than the notion of their intellectual connection. In the early 1100s, she was a renowned scholar of letters, and he of philosophy and theology. He became her teacher, they had an affair, and a child. Their subsequent marriage was kept secret to protect his career in the church, and he later moved her to a nunnery, an act for which her guardian had him castrated. The letters they exchanged after both had retreated to monastic life, and which are the foundation of their myth, suggest that Héloïse didn’t believe in marriage, however, seeing it as bondage or even a form of legal prostitution. Interpretations of their story differ, of course, but it continues to be told, disputed, made and remade to fit the teller’s ideas or politics. Stories are shifting sands, and they tell us what we need now as much as what happened in the past.

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I didn’t stop the other day to see Héloïse and her lover, although I have many times before, to take photos or to listen to another tour guide’s version of their story. It was getting late. Beyond the main gates, the traffic thronged. I joined the pedestrian flow under the green arch and back into the land of the living.