Thirza Vallois, my friend and author of the best selling guide books Around and About Paris was inspired by my Palais Royal bench photos from earlier this month and has contributed an excerpt today about the Palais Royal from her book.
Richard Nahem’s pictures of Paris always warm my heart. So much so that on a couple of occasions I asked him to accompany my articles with his photos. I relished in particular the photos he took of the benches of the Palais-Royal gardens. His play on colours is sheer delight. The benches of Paris are iconic, home to innumerable budding love stories, as illustrated by poet/singer George Brassens in his no les iconic “Les amoureux des bancs publics” which I translated into English to be included in my book, Romantic Paris, so important are they in the city’s lore. In the gardens of Paris, they alternate with those heavy metal chairs, as they do indeed in the Palais Royal where they (or their ancestors) have offered comfort to some of France’s celebrities for over three hundred years. You may enjoy them being mentioned in the following celebration of the Palais Royal adapted from a walk devoted to the Palais Royal, excerpted from my Around and About Paris books :
“Between 1784 and 1830, the Palais Royal was the bustling centre of both intellectual and dissolute Paris. famous for its “soupers” during the Regent’s light-hearted rule — veritable bacchanalia. The arcade with its shops as still to be seen, date from his grandson, Philippe d’Orléans, Duc de Chartres and father of the future king Louis Philippe. Deep in debt, he turned the Palais Royal into a profitable business, lining the gardens with cafés, restaurants, game houses and brothels where whores and courtesans converged from all over Paris, 'faire le Palais' as the saying went, witness Casanova who rushed here upon his arrival in Paris. The Duke’s new line of activities generated a huge profit for the Duke but was hardly to the taste of Louis XVI: ‘Cousin,’ said the King disdainfully, ‘you have turned shopkeeper and no doubt we shall see you only on Sundays’. In 1793, having espoused the Revolution, the Duke became known as Philippe-Egalité and went as far as to vote for the execution of his cousin the King (whom some claimed he had hoped to replace). The guillotine, however, took charge of him too, a few months after the execution of the King.
The writer and philosopher Denis Diderot was among the great minds of France who frequented the cafés and restaurants of the Palais Royal. In his superb book, Le Neveu de Rameau, the fictitious, beggarly, parasitical, yet delightfully worldly nephew of the composer Rameau tells us that the celebrated Café de la Régence (now the site of 161 rue Saint-Honoré south of the somewhat shrunken Palais Royal) was the Mecca of chess players. On wet days, when Rameau’s nephew could not meditate on one of the benches in the garden, he would step into La Régence and watch a good game of chess. ‘Paris is the place in the world, and the Café de la Régence the place in Paris where the game is best played,’ he tells us, and this is no fiction. François André Danican-Philidor, composer and co-founder of the Opéra Comique, and world chess champion, would take on the world’s best chess players simultaneously at La Régence, and beat them one by one mercilessly. Diderot’s preference, however, went to Légal ‘the deep’. Philidor ‘the subtle’ annoyed him with his chess activities. Diderot thought he should develop his musical talent rather than waste his time ‘pushing little wooden pieces on a chessboard’. In 1794 Napoleon shared a wretched existence between a grotty hotel on today’s rue d’Aboukir and Café de la Régence where he too spent time moving wooden pieces on a chessboard, rehearsing for the showdown on the chessboard of Europe and the Middle East soon to come.
The Michelin-star Grand Véfour is the only survivor of those times, then Café de Chartres (after the Duke) as still carved in the stone. Magnificently revamped in the post-Revolution years of the Directoire (1795 - 1799), it has preserved its interior with all its friezes, painted panels and ceilings, infinitely multiplied by mirrors. Thank goodness it escaped being blown up by angry Left wingers in 1983. Brass plates mark the names of the historical celebrities who dined here, General Bonaparte and Victor Hugo among them. For the best view, reserve the corner table used by the writer Colette who lived at the Palais Royal in the 1950s, at no. 9 rue de Beaujolais. By then the Palais Royal had become an enclosed world of outdated serenity, the social centre of Paris having shifted to the Grands Boulevards a century earlier.
‘In the morning we went out for a breath of fresh air — cat, bulldog and me — on the garden chairs, uncomfortable armchairs of a venerable age […] I like to think that a magic spell preserves, at the Palais Royal, everything that collapses and lasts, everything that crumbles and doesn’t alter.’ She goes on to describe some of the silent citizens of the enclave, the elderly lady leaning on her stick, the gentleman cultivating little cacti on his window sill, the little boy who might one day lay a marble in the palm of your hand, or the old lady who might read out to you the ode she had written for Victor Hugo. And Jean Cocteau of course, her admiring neighbour at 36 rue de Montpensier, who called her ‘a fountain of ink’ and would drop in on her ‘en voisin’ and referred to the Palais Royal as la campagne en plein centre de Paris’ (the countryside in the very heart of Paris’). I am not quite sure how he or Colette would have welcomed the posthumous addition of Daniel Buren’s striped columns, or the presence of day trippers and tourists. If you are courageous enough to head here early in the morning, you can still capture some of the old atmosphere of their times.
Thirza Vallois is the author of the Around and About Paris series, Romantic Paris and Aveyron, A Bridge to French Arcadia.
Visit also her website: www.thirzavallois.com
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