Saturday, April 19, 2008

Paris Tour—Part 1

Bonjours de Paris, La Ville-lumière. I’ve dropped by momentarily to give you a little report of my research progress on my current book, a historical fantasy about a girl, Vivianne, from medieval Prussia, and a boy, François, from modern-day Paris (see my previous post).

Toulouse and I settled in very nicely in a little apartment on Rue Princesse, just off Boulevard Saint Germain in the 6ieme arrondissement. Once the hangout for bohemians and intellectuals, this neighbourhood underwent gentrification and is now newly chic, with upscale boutiques, art galleries, and restaurants.
The part Toulouse and I truly appreciated, though, was the boulangerie and patisserie (rolled conveniently into one) just around the corner from our place.

A short walk away, we found ourselves strolling along the Seine towards Ile de la Cité. This splendid island in the middle of the Seine is a trove of historical treasures, including the Conciergie, Palais de Justice with associated Saint Chapelle, and, of course, the Notre Dame Cathedral. The Conciergerie was the gloomy prison that incarcerated over 2,000 victims of the guillotine, including Marie Antoinette. We focused on the two churches, the Cité Metro Station, and the walk along the Left Bank, as these played a key role for Vivianne and François in my book.

Toulouse and I started off by taking the métro to the Cité “Metropolitan” Métro Stop, part of Vivianne’s first experience with underground transportation (remember, she’s from medieval Prussia). The Cité Station is a funky place, darkly lit with metal retro-futuristic walls, complete with rivets, and iron spiral staircases. The elegantly curved ironwork canopy of the entrance is one of the last surviving pieces of the 1900 “Art Nouveau” Paris métro design. We scaled the stairs, buffeted by a rushing wind, and emerged in a flower and plant market on Place Louis Lépine. From there, we made our way along Rue de la Cité, past the Prefecture de Police (where Inspector Clouseau of the Pink Panther used to work). As we rounded the corner of the Hôtel Dieu Hospital, there—magnificent behind the horse-chessnut trees in full bloom—stood the masterpiece of Notre Dame. Dedicated to “Our Lady” (Notre Dame), Mother Mary (you can see her cradling Jesus in the centre rose window), this massive structure was built in stages over two hundred years from 1163 to its completion in 1345. Toulouse and I walked the Place Parvis to get a better look at the cathedral and the statue of Charlemagne, whose coronation as the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800, marked the birth of modern France. My two heroes barely avoid some Black Knights (Nazi police), by skirting around the side of the gothic church and crossing to the Left Bank.

The walk along the embankment below the Quai de la Tournelle reminded me of the pivotal last scene in the 1998 film version of Les Miserables, where Jean Valjean is finally set free by an act of self-immolation by his pursuer. The Quai on the Rive Gauche bustles with the green metal stalls of bouquinists--used book stalls-- and artists with their paintings and sketches lined against the walls.

My characters cross the Quai into one of Paris’s oldest surviving medieval parts of town, untouched by Haussmann’s renovations, past the Old Shakespeare & Company Bookstore, and finally at the fountain of Place Saint Michel, where they meet François’s eccentric uncle at le Café Fontaine Saint Michel. It is here that our heroine’s pursuer through time catches up to her and the ensuing skirmish reveals her extraordinary powers.

Eager to research another scene, in which François takes Vivianne to Saint Chapelle to atone for his previous injustice to her, Toulouse and I joined a line-up to enter the secured grounds of the Palais de Justice, where the chapel resides. This turned out to be, perhaps, the most awesome and memorable part of my trip; despite my previous research, I was unprepared for its impact…Here's how the two characters in my book reacted:


They entered through the dark entranceway of the thirteenth century cathedral into the lower chapel and the girl seemed to instinctively know where to go. She led them up a spiral staircase where the smell of candles, smoke and incense pervaded. When they entered the sanctuary, the girl drew in a breath of wonder. The tall and elegant hall was bathed in a rich colorful light; it resembled a giant lantern. The girl made the sign of the cross over her breast and bent briefly on one knee with her head bowed. François stilled his breath and stared at the enormous panels that seemed to float in the dark of empty space, like holograms animated by the light that streamed through them.

“Light shines through it like God’s grace, creating lanterns of divine light,” the girl whispered, her voice echoing in a hollow reverberation, as if it too floated in the air. “…God is light.”

He glanced briefly at her and found her smiling tenderly at him. It drew a smile from him and he returned his gaze to the rose windows, feeling a warm glow surge through him. François almost believed her. He’d never been inside this place and now that he was, François exalted in its unearthly splendor and felt deeply humbled by it. This place was built by those who believed in something. François recognized the girl’s description of the interior as he gazed from the arcades of floral ornamented arches, spandrels filled with angels and colonettes from which projected the twelve Apostles to the vaulted ceilings and tall jeweled windows of light. Everything in this place pointed upward, toward the heavens. Toward God, the girl would have said. Finding her eyes still on him, he turned back to the girl.

Danke,” she said softly. “Thank you for bringing me here.”

For a brief moment, he felt like her hero and basked in the exultation of the sensation. The place reminded him of a vivid yet disturbing dream he’d had two nights ago, of a medieval knight, wading through a swamp with the spoils of war scattered about on the rocks, but no bodies…The knight was himself. Above him towered the vaulted ceiling of an immense cathedral with eerie light bathing down through its translucent walls and straight ahead a great ball of light…He’d woken in a sweat. François wondered that he’d only now remembered the dream that he seemed to have forgotten until now. And odd that he’d dreamt of a medieval knight the night before the girl, dressed as a knight, had swept into his world.

She leaned close to him and whispered, “This place reminds me of a vision I had. Of a knight wandering on a quest through a swamp…He encounters a cathedral of heaven and stands, sword in one hand and shield in the other, mesmerized by its utter beauty.”

François stared at her, blinking. That was his dream!
...More on Paris in my next post (like Montmartre, le Marais, the Eiffel Tower and more...)

Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of novels, short stories and essays. She coaches writers and teaches writing at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. For more about Nina’s coaching & workshops visit Visit for more about her writing.


Jean-Luc Picard said...

A lovely Parisian tour, Nina, Beautifully done.

SQT said...


It looks beautiful.

sfgirl said...

It WAS beautiful, SQT! Thanks, Jean-luc. I will definitely be returning!