If your boots were made for walking, blaze a trail across the French capital. Jon Winter laced up his sensible chasseurs and stepped off at Gare du Nord
Wednesday 26 February 1997
Flanerie, the pastime of the flaneur, is essentially the action of aimless strolling, lounging, observing, idling. It is solely a metropolitan pursuit, and one historically confined to crowded streets and arcades of 19th-century Paris, where the meanderings of the flaneur became a theme for writers such as Balzac and Baudelaire.
What exactly these meanderings entailed has never been straightforward. There has been a great deal of debate on the subject - so much so that the flaneur has become a character of literary mythology whose definition remains almost as ambiguous as his pleasures.
With Paris so easily within reach for day trips, flanerie is possibly more popular today than ever. Perhaps the main difference is that today's flaneurs and flaneuses have escaped intellectual discourse and have put their feet firmly back on the street.
So as the 05.50 Eurostar from London unloaded its bleary-eyed passengers at the Gare du Nord last Wednesday morning, and most day-trippers began unfolding maps, one would-be flaneur headed straight for the first exit, turned his back on the fierce February winds and disappeared into the city.
The plan was to have no plan, just to walk aimlessly, guided by whatever caught the eye. Once out in the melee of the streets of rush-hour Paris, and tangled in the massive roadworks in the environs of the Gare du Nord, the hapless wanderer feels momentarily cut adrift, spinning in the wake of everyone else's movements. But indecision soon becomes fascination as the eye engages its surroundings, flitting between faces in the crowd and the face of the city.
Paris is unlike the city I left a little more than three hours ago. Even the grubby warren around the terminus has an instant appeal, a wondrously worn quality that trains your gaze to the smallest details, to the texture of the masonry, to the graffiti, to the shuttered facades. You find yourself dawdling, but with an odd sense of urgency endeavouring to absorb everything your senses encounter, as if all this fragile beauty might somehow be washed away in the next passing storm.
Progress through the streets in this trance-like study of all things Parisian can be glacial. Often, it takes a close shave with a motorist, (one of the perils of flanerie in the Nineties), or hunger pangs which prompt a change of course perhaps, following the smell of fresh bread to a boulangerie.
Those who find themselves steered by the prevailing westerlies will be blown east to the higher-numbered arrondissements - the 10th, unable to decide whether it is grand heart-of-the-nation or plain marginal cityscape; the 11th, increasingly trendy and decreasingly working class. Ironically, it is on a small hill in the 11th that the rich and famous have always clamoured to make their final home. If you are drawn to the clump of trees cresting this rise, the cobbled paths and winding trails riddling Pere Lachaise cemetery make a pleasant strolling ground. Visitors are made to feel comfortable among the dead by a healthy contingent of the living, most of whom have come to pose for pictures at the modest grave of Jim Morrison, who left this life and the Doors in 1970. Others come to pay respects to some of great advocates of flanerie, nodding respectfully at the contented bust of Balzac, and leaving thoughts scratched on Metro tickets at the resting place of Oscar Wilde.
And so your day in Paris passes, roaming the streets doing little else except accumulate glances of this walkable city. It matters not where you go, for Paris proper and all its rewards are held within the confines of the Boulevard Peripherique. This ring road marks the limits of the city and therefore the domain of the flaneur. Your only other limitation is when successive hours of flat-footing fill your boots with lead and you begin to curse those sensible shoes. There's a word for feeling like this in Paris: completely flaneured
Eurostar (0345 30 30 30) offers a fare of pounds 69 for a day return from London Waterloo to Paris Gare du Nord if you book 14 days in advance and travel between Monday and Thursday. At weekends, the fare is pounds 10 more. The special fare is not available on Fridays, when the standard day return, priced at pounds 155, applies. The first departure from Waterloo is at 5.50am, arriving in Paris at 10.14am. The last train home leaves Paris at 8.13pm, arriving at 10.43pm; all times local.
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