“The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris”

John Baxter is an acclaimed Australian-born writer, journalist, and filmmaker who has made his home in Paris since 1989. His career successfully spans several different genres and mediums from science fiction to screenwriting, documentaries to memoir.

Baxter is a bibliophile (the first of his memoirs written in Paris was A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict) and a serious movie buff. He’s authored several biographies of famed film luminaries including Federico Fellini, Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, and Robert De Niro, just to name a few.

Baxter’s latest work, out this month from Short Books, is The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris. Composed of 37 chapters, each elegantly linked to the next, the book is a delightful stroll through the city, its history, and the author’s own observations about his adopted home.

What I particularly liked was Baxter’s seamless weaving of personal anecdotes with fascinating facts, a fluid prose that makes it one of the most pleasurable Paris books I’ve read in a long time. His love of the city comes through, as well as his wit and intelligence. A vignette might evoke Paris’ classic beauty (Luxembourg Gardens, for example), but is just as likely to veer into lesser known terrain (mass murderer Henri Désiré Landru who often met his victims in those very same gardens!) Hemingway haunts, opium dens, “political walks” (manifs) – Baxter covers wide ground. I also liked his asides (“Not great laughers, the French…Interestingly, there’s no French equivalent of the phrase ‘bedside manner.’” That one gave me a chuckle).

Explaining that my blog is called “paris (im)perfect” because I like the quirky and offbeat and because the imperfect is a verb tense used for recounting stories, I asked John Baxter if he’d be willing to write about one of his strolls off the beaten path. Happily he agreed! I’m so pleased to be able to share an original piece by him here. He also provided the photos.

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John Baxter

Plastered on the haunch of the butte of Montmartre, the 18th arrondissement is off the beaten track, with an architecture and lifestyle all its own. Along rue Marcadet, diamond-shaped lots from the days when these were market gardens or guinguettes have dictated apartment blocks with parallelogram floor plans. What does it do to your brain, to live in a room with no right angles? Maybe it accounts for the pale faces that stare out from a few windows; shut-ins, with nothing to do but watch the world go by.

Caught in the gaps between these crooked habitations, like bits of gristle in a set of crooked teeth, businesses survive that you seldom see in more prosperous districts; plumbing supply shops, shoe repairers, furniture movers, moulders of false teeth.

And probably undertakers too, along with makers of funerary monuments. The Montmartrois joke that once you visit the dixhuitieme, you stay forever – because it’s the arrondissement with the largest number of graveyards.

The Cimitiere de Montmartre is certainly a tourist magnet. Some visitors come to lay flowers on the tomb of a relative, but most make the pilgrimage to view celebrity graves like those of Vaclac Nijinsky, with its statue, commissioned by the choreographer Serge Lifar, of the dancer dressed for his puppet role in Petrushka ; of Adolphe Sax, inventor of the saxophone, the only tomb in the world decorated with a facsimile of that instrument; and the resting place of Marie Duplessis, the original Lady of the Camellias, inspiration of Dumas fils’ Camille and of Violetta in La Traviata. After she expired, young and destitute, a lover paid to have her buried in a sheltered spot in the lee of low wall. The sun falls lightly on her sandstone crypt, which is often decorated with fresh camellias.

Duplessis’ grave

Like a gated community of the prosperous departed, the cemetery has only one entrance, and that on the uphill side, tucked out of sight under a viaduct on busy rue Caulaincourt. (There is a second gate but, with typical French quirkiness, it’s open only one day of the year – Toussaint: All Saints Day.) Next to the main entrance on quiet rue Rachel is a modern residential block, part of a chain of self-catered holiday apartments, though one has to wonder who would choose to spend a visit to Paris in such a dismal location.

Most days, the gate admits a flow of exasperated tourists and mourners who, having got off the bus at the downhill end, have been forced to trudge around the entire circumference of the cemetery to get in. Because of this, nearby streets are well supplied with bars in which parched visitors can enjoy a reviving beer.

Mine au Poivre on rue Montcalm is just such a place: a shady retreat to escape from the heat and catch one’s breath. But there are plenty more like it, and I might have walked right by but for the music drifting out its door – an old Tina Turner number, but sung in French. Glancing in, I glimpsed a large painted board above the door to the kitchen. It announced “Vérigood”.

Statue at Nijinksky’s grave

On a whim, I went in and sat down. The music tape segued from Nutbush City Limits to the Flower Duet from Lakme. Odd.

A few minutes later, the waiter materialised at my elbow. “Je vous ecoute” .

I nodded towards the sign. “Pourquoi ‘Vérigood’?”

“Because is very good.”

“What is?”

Boeuf bourguignon. Best in Paris. Fifteen hours cooking.”

The music tape switched to a wailing tenor, singing in Arabic.

“OK. And a pichet of bourgogne.” I knew without asking that it would be, consistent with the tradition of boeuf bourguignon, the same wine as used in cooking the dish.

Tiny establishments like this make me feel I’ve stepped into a film from the 1940s; one of those dramas about a middle-aged train driver or cinema projectionist, driven to murder by his love for a randy and restless woman: Manon Lescaut meets La Bete Humaine.

Who was the killer? Probably the middle-aged man sitting in silence at one of the tables on the sidewalk. And his victim? Obviously the woman opposite. Their marriage was flat as the half-drunk glasses of Stella Artois on the table between them.

At the bar, a man in a baggy suit paged through Liberation. He would be the jaded cop who solves the case, a soixante-huitard plodding through his last months before retirement, but not so dulled that he doesn’t recognize homicide when he sees it. Two stools along, a thin woman with a mass of black frizzy hair drank a Pernod and offered her bony profile to be admired. Too old to play the femme fatale , she could be the malicious neighbour, forced by a shady past to inform on the killer…

Rue Marcadet

“Bon appetit.”

The waiter plonked down a deep dish, with a basket of bread.

I’d expected the usual stringy meat swimming in watery gravy with boiled potatoes and carrots. Instead, the beef arrived in a dark heap, barely moist, piled on a bed of puree. I tasted the puree first, an infallible test of authenticity, and found, with pleasure, those few scattered lumps of unmashed potato that signify the home-made variety. As for the meat, it fell apart under the fork, tender and succulent. Fifteen hours of cooking hadn’t been wasted.

In a word, verigood.

And very dixhuitieme.

Thank you, John! Pick up a copy of The Most Beautiful Walk in the World for more Paris tales and visit John’s Facebook page to learn more about joining one of his literary walks around Paris.

Question to readers: In the beginning of Baxter’s book he writes “…every Parisian, and everyone who comes to know Paris, discovers his or her own ‘most beautiful walk.'”

What is your most beautiful walk?


20 Responses to ““The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris””

  1. 1 wonderthon March 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    The world is small: before we came to settle in Paris my husband Mauro interviewed Mr. Baxter for a documentary about Kubrick and now…we live in rue Marcadet!


  2. 5 scottage March 28, 2012 at 5:13 pm

    Just received this book in the mail and can’t wait to start reading. Thank you so much for the great teaser! Paris – here I come!


  3. 7 Lindsey (@LostNCheeseland) March 28, 2012 at 5:16 pm

    Fantastic guest post! I believe I’ve read his work in the Guardian. My most beautiful walk? Probably through Saint-Germain, along the Seine, winding around the Marais and ending up in my neighborhood for an early evening drink. What I love about strolling the labyrinthine streets of Saint-Germain is that I RARELY go so I still appreciate the beauty of the left bank! 🙂


  4. 9 nicoleegidio March 28, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    I read The Most Beautiful Walk in the World a couple of months ago and absolutely loved it. So many authors seem to write about Paris as if their experience is the only true Paris, but Baxter manages to share his personal stories without overgeneralizing. He realizes that everyone’s Paris is different even in the ways it is the same!

    This mini guest post by Baxter is great! Thanks so much for sharing it with everyone!


    • 10 paris (im)perfect March 28, 2012 at 10:01 pm

      What a great comment and I completely agree! I love the acknowledgment of our own idiosyncratic tastes. Each person experiences Paris – and anyplace! – in their own way. You’re right that a lot of Paris writing can overgeneralize or try to feed into that sort of “fantasyland” Paris. But what I find far more interesting is the specific gaze through a specific person’s lens. It was a pleasure strolling through Baxter’s Paris.


  5. 11 Paris Karin (an alien parisienne) March 28, 2012 at 6:09 pm

    What’s fun for me about this post is that just last week on the Jour du Macaron (the 20th), I went & got macarons in the 18th and then went for a walk with a friend and her son in just the spot that John Baxter writes about (back along rue Caulaincourt and then down to the Montmartre Cemetery). The cemetery is so great. I still love Père Lachaise best, but Montmartre Cemetery has some very quirky charms to call her own.

    But that coincidence cannot top Wonderthon’s up there! How synchronous is that?!?

    I loved the word pictures give in Baxter’s piece: “Caught in the gaps between these crooked habitations, like bits of gristle in a set of crooked teeth, businesses survive that you seldom see in more prosperous districts; plumbing supply shops, shoe repairers, furniture movers, moulders of false teeth.”

    Love that one especially!

    There are so many walks I appreciate in Paris. So many places to walk that are wonderful! I still think that probably one of the most beautiful walks to me is strolling in the Parc des Buttes Chaumont. Going through the park was one of the first walks I ever took by myself in Paris, and the views, especially in spring, are amazing.

    Thanks for sharing Baxter’s book and writing with us, Sion!


    • 12 paris (im)perfect March 28, 2012 at 10:02 pm

      Great writing, huh?

      Oh, Buttes Chaumont! It was in my first neighborhood too and so I feel a special affinity for it, too. What a gift to have that in your ‘hood! My gosh, with these beautiful spring days we’ve been having….enjoy!


  6. 13 Franck March 28, 2012 at 6:21 pm

    AM? PM? Alone? In love? Chased? Hunting? Winter? Springtime? Resident? Tourist? Open-minded? Knowing the Parisian codes? So many mini-miles to walk and zigzag. Hard to answer, especially when you are a pedestrian, a Parisian and a writer. One think is sure, off track, you can’t be wrong. Beside each tourist path there is a shady place, a tiny lane or a “troquet” as gems fallen from every yesterdays of this city.


  7. 15 thetravelingpear March 29, 2012 at 5:15 am

    Oh this sounds like an amazing book. My very own beautiful walk is in the 6th where my husband and I lived this past summer/fall. Such a magical city where we made so many memories!


  8. 17 Buffy March 29, 2012 at 5:46 am

    I am on Chapter 35…..love the book! I read his Immovable Feast as well. He makes you feel like you are really there in Paris, enjoying the walks as well. I am looking forward to more books by Mr. Baxter.


  9. 19 Amy Kortuem March 29, 2012 at 5:34 pm

    What a lovely gift Mr. Baxter gave your blog – and us! I haven’t read his book but believe me, it’s on my list now. Thank you so much for bring this to us.

    My favorite walk – from Notre Dame to the Musee de Cluny, along a variety of routes. I’ve made it so many times, as those are two of my favorite destinations in the world. So many memories, just thinking about it…


    • 20 paris (im)perfect March 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm

      Truly Amy! A lovely gift, indeed. I realized, good gosh, I basically just “commissioned” a new piece from him – and he accepted! Very generous.

      I know you’ll be making that walk many times more in the future.


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paris (im)perfect?

Sion Dayson is paris (im)perfect. Writer, dreamer, I moved to France on – no exaggerating – a romantic whim. As you can imagine, a lot can go wrong (and very right!) with such a (non)plan. These are the (im)perfect stories that result.

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