A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light

A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light

by David Downie


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"A top-notch walking tour of Paris. . . . The author's encyclopedic knowledge of the city and its artists grants him a mystical gift of access: doors left ajar and carriage gates left open foster his search for the city's magical story. Anyone who loves Paris will adore this joyful book. Readers visiting the city are advised to take it with them to discover countless new experiences." —Kirkus Reviews (starred)

A unique combination of memoir, history, and travelogue, this is author David Downie's irreverent quest to uncover why Paris is the world's most romantic city—and has been for over 150 years.

Abounding in secluded, atmospheric parks, artists' studios, cafes, restaurants and streets little changed since the 1800s, Paris exudes romance. The art and architecture, the cityscape, riverbanks, and the unparalleled quality of daily life are part of the equation.

But the city's allure derives equally from hidden sources: querulous inhabitants, a bizarre culture of heroic negativity, and a rich historical past supplying enigmas, pleasures and challenges. Rarely do visitors suspect the glamor and chic and the carefree atmosphere of the City of Light grew from and still feed off the dark fountainheads of riot, rebellion, mayhem and melancholy—and the subversive literature, art and music of the Romantic Age.

Weaving together his own with the lives and loves of Victor Hugo, Georges Sand, Charles Baudelaire, Balzac, Nadar and other great Romantics Downie delights in the city's secular romantic pilgrimage sites asking , Why Paris, not Venice or Rome—the tap root of "romance"—or Berlin, Vienna and London—where the earliest Romantics built castles-in-the-air and sang odes to nightingales? Read A Passion for Paris: Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light and find out.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250080370
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/05/2016
Pages: 320
Sales rank: 500,047
Product dimensions: 8.10(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

David Downie, a native San Franciscan, lived in New York, Providence, Rome and Milan before moving to Paris in the mid-1980s. He divides his time between France and Italy. His travel, food and arts features have appeared in print publications worldwide. Downie is co-owner with his wife Alison Harris of Paris, Paris Tours custom walking tours of Paris, Burgundy, Rome & the Italian Riviera. He is the author of the critically acclaimed Paris, Paris, and the bestselling Paris to the Pyrenees.

Read an Excerpt

A Passion for Paris

Romanticism and Romance in the City of Light

By David Downie

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 David Downie
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-4125-3



It was a chill spring dawn in the mid-1800s when a tattered gas-filled balloon heaved into the sky outside the bastions of Paris. Quivering, the sphere's onion-shaped, tasseled silhouette floated toward the sprawl of glistening tin and tile roofs. Rain, hail, and the year's last snow had swept Paris clean during the night.

A crumpled chessboard of canyons crawling with pawns, knights, and castles appeared below the balloon's dangling wicker basket. In it a lone passenger crouched, shivering, stunned by the view. As the light grew, the mist dispersed. The chess pieces focused themselves into miniature men and women, toy horses and carriages. The canyons turned into a strangely wonderful cityscape of dusty work sites, half-ruined churches, half-built boulevards or train stations, medieval turrets, towers and gargoyles. Symmetrical, freshly finished off-white apartment houses and massive old ocher monuments spiraled outward from the Seine.

Sinuous and slow, the river wore the same indefinite blue-gray tint as the sky. Instead of clouds, whitecaps flecked the surface. The river broke around islands, rejoined itself, split again around riverboats and bridge pilings, and then curved out of the camera frame to east and west.

From under a black canvas hood the young Gaspard-Félix Tournachon, better known as Félix Nadar, released the shutter, counted, then twisted around quickly, developing his photographic plates. After a half-dozen failures from a tethered balloon, he had puzzled out the problem. The process worked, the plates retained their ghostly images, and his balloon could float free.

The most daring of early photographers, an unapologetic Romantic, Nadar had decided one day in 1855 that it was time someone invented aerial photography and that he would be the man. A gifted jack-of-all-trades full of impractical ideas, he had evolved from bookseller, smuggler, spy, caricaturist, painter, novelist, and journalist to would-be revolutionary, marching from Paris to Warsaw in 1848 to fight for Polish independence—though he had no connection to the country. With equally madcap passion he had mastered the art of photography and reached the top of his newborn trade in less than five years. Then he had taken to the sky. Ballooning was big. Why not turn a wicker basket into a photo studio and lab?

As sensitive as his plates, Nadar had Paris on the brain. He sometimes imagined the city from romantic heights—but with no skyscrapers or Eiffel Tower to look down from. With a pigeon's-eye view in his head, he had prowled the streets, alleys, and parks, then had climbed down and explored the catacombs and the sewers of Paris—and one day would invent flash photography to record their lightless depths.

Nadar was also famous as a professional nomad and heartbreaker. Standing six feet tall when other Frenchmen were a head shorter, he habitually tossed his head to keep his luxuriant russet hair out of his slightly walleyes. Life was a lark, an endless chase. He had changed his name to Nadar after the Gothic fashion. It sounded vaguely medieval, bohemian, and provocative, and went with his lifestyle. He and his unruly comrades decamped from one dive to the next a day ahead of the eviction squad.

It was Félix Nadar who starred in the original cast of La Bohème before it migrated from Paris garrets to the realm of operatic art. He loved and immortalized the flesh-and-blood Mimi, the consumptive beauty of Puccini's masterpiece—or one of her many sisters. Mimi was a made-up name. Nadar and his comrades the poet Charles Baudelaire and the novelists Théophile Gautier and Alexandre Dumas knew the artists' studios and unheated rooftop rooms of Paris better than just about anyone.

Nadar's life inspired legions of latter-day romantics, among them a kindred spirit from San Francisco: me. Nadar was my hero. When I first saw his photographs and learned about his life I did not know I was a Romantic. But I felt an affinity for the Old World and its characters, a world of old monuments, old books, old photos, and old movies, a sophisticated world of exquisite naughtiness filled with romantic garrets and ruined castles surrounded by wineries and restaurants serving sinfully delicious food Europeans enjoyed without guilt.

Like them, I did not understand the meaning of guilt. I also suspected there might be more to the Old World than hedonism or nostalgia for times past, though I could not articulate why.

When not waiting on tables at a self-consciously romantic French restaurant in the San Francisco Bay Area, or clumsily overexposing rolls of black-and-white film in a fruitless effort to become a photographer, I wrote never-to-be-published stories set in European locales and indulged my fulsome imagination. One summer I volunteered as an usher at the San Francisco Opera and was swept up and away by La Bohème. I followed its roots from Puccini to its origins and discovered Scenes from Bohemian Life, author Henri Murger's bittersweet autobiographical book the opera was based on. Then I found the connection between Mimi and Murger and their friend Nadar. I dreamed of merging life and art, the romantic world of these long-dead men and women, a world of books and photography and wayward balloons in a black-and-white Paris where flowers when distilled into poetry by Charles Baudelaire could be both sweet-smelling and evil. I began to wake up at night with my arms thrown out, calling for Mimi.

Like others in San Francisco I watched vintage movies about Paris when they came to town or ran on late-night TV. I wore a beret, bought baguettes, and considered buying an old Citroën 2CV. Troubled by constant drought and blinded by unrelenting sunshine, I imagined myself singing in the rain on a Paris street full of bobbing old cars with yellow headlights. In my head I was the bad guy played by Jean-Paul Belmondo seducing Jean Seberg on the Champs-Élysées in Breathless, or Jean Gabin trailing Michèle Morgan on the quai des Brumes. I devoured secondhand French books. Their lusty, lichen-frosted fantasies featuring Gustave Flaubert's heroine Madame Bovary ravished in a bouncing carriage, or Victor Hugo's Quasimodo and Esmeralda entangled among the gargoyles of Notre Dame, seemed engrossing, outlandish, and mercifully disconnected from the deregulatory orgy that had overtaken California.

Then one day I made my way east across America and did not stop traveling until years and several putative career changes later, I crossed the Seine on the Pont des Arts and moved into my own opera-set, seventh-floor walk-up coldwater garret on the Right Bank in rue Laugier. Too excited to unpack, I found a wooden ladder in the plank-floored hallway and propped it into the shaft below a small rectangular skylight. Clutching a map of Paris, I climbed up and stuck my head out.

Transfixed, surrounded by pigeons, I balanced on the ladder and blinked. Snow fell. It was April 5, 1986, April in Paris. That tune played in my head but was soon replaced by a Puccini aria. My room was windowless and even smaller and colder than the one in La Bohème.

The scene seemed strangely wonderful. The only thing missing was an apparition—Nadar in his balloon, for instance, with Mimi in his arms. No balloons were overhead, however, not even the little helium-filled character from the short movie shown to us in kindergarten, The Red Balloon. This short movie had provided my first vision of Paris, lodging in my brain.

Summoned by sympathetic magic, a blimp eventually glided into view. Advertisements flashed on its flanks. Following its trajectory I made out the crown of the Arc de Triomphe. Belching chimney pots, black iron balconies, and pockmarked Art Nouveau turrets gently crumbled into the gutters between me and the Champs-Élysées. Farther out on the south side of the Seine stretched the lacy swan's neck of the Eiffel Tower. I blinked the snowflakes out of my eyes. The light was soft, the air scented by baguettes and croissants, coffee beans and chickens roasting—and fuel oil and cabbages from the other maid's rooms on my floor.

The blimp's vapor trail joined the dots between the sights of Paris, the same ones Nadar had seen from his balloon. They were still here. I unfolded my map and traced lines to Montmartre and Belleville, the Marais, the banks of the Seine, the graveyard at Père-Lachaise, the Latin Quarter, and Luxembourg Garden. They were places I had read about or seen on celluloid, places I had passed through on other short visits to Paris in the 1970s and early '80s. Now I could possess them. Paris would be mine.

I wonder if I knew on that first April morning that this would be it: I was stuck and could not leave, indeed would spend decades prowling the streets seeking Félix Nadar's gallery of images—the romantic men and women of Paris' finest hour. Did I realize I would lose myself in libraries, cemeteries, house museums and administrative offices, pestering bureaucrats, getting married, battling the spinners of red tape over birth certificates and driver's licenses, voter registration and noisy neighbors, unwittingly attempting to penetrate the mysteries, the secrets of what might well be the world's most enigmatic, compelling, paradoxical, maddening yet seductive city?



Of course I couldn't have known anything of the kind. But I must have had some inkling the first time I climbed the seven stories to my maid's room that the allure of Paris might derive as much from hidden sources as it did from the physical beauty and quality of life of the city, and that to discover them would take time.

At first I either didn't think about the magic behind the spell or attributed it to the obvious—the art and architecture, the cityscape; riverbanks and parks, cafés and outdoor restaurants; accordions in cobbled squares, Chopin in mossy churches, or Coltrane in smoky, underground clubs. Not to mention the spectacle of stylish, modish, often haughty, self-adoring, handsome or gorgeous, perversely svelte natives who were capable of challenging conventional notions about almost everything—including courtesy, metabolism, gender, morality, and hygiene.

Combine these piquant ingredients with the barrage by Hollywood, and what more need explain Paris' bizarre black-and-white magic, why look further than the mesmerizing, hedonistic surface, the great conspiracy to enjoy life that we seemed to have suspended back home?

Despite my love affair with Mimi and other romantic phantoms, I had not entirely lost my senses, nor was I easily seduced by manufactured dreams. The French had not invented love. Paris had no monopoly on romance. I knew that firsthand. The San Francisco I'd savored was undeniably bohemian and in a roughshod way romantic; Rome and Venice were supremely so. Many of the cities I'd known were as well endowed as Paris. Some were even more spectacular or exciting. They had rivers or canals, bays or waterfronts, hills and dales or real mountains. Most had stunning architecture; some had sublime weather, beautiful, stylish, sexy, friendly inhabitants, great food and abundant wine, history, mystery, and more.

So what was it about Paris? Did the yeast of romance grow on the puckered plaster like sourdough leaven? Was constant rain romantic?

During my first months in town I strolled blissfully past the foundations, the roots of romance, the big buried dark secret things that really count—the lifeblood of Paris and Parisians.

Then something clicked and I realized nothing comes from nowhere. Symptoms have a cause. Puccini's opera, Flaubert's and Victor Hugo's novels, Hollywood movies and the photos of Nadar, Brassaï, Doisneau, and Cartier-Bresson capture romance; they make people think Paris is romantic. They don't make Paris romantic.

After this revelation, everything seemed different. I saw the banks of the Seine and quays of the Canal Saint-Martin in 4-D and knew they were not fashioned in primordial times for the delectation of visitors. They were shaped by Parisians, generations of fishermen, boatmen, whores, engineers, speculators, and despots—above all, despots—each with an agenda.

The same went for the handsome old buildings on the chaotic medieval streets or the Second Empire avenues of the city rebuilt by Napoléon III and Haussmann in the mid-1800s: They had not sprouted overnight like champignons de Paris. Little was left to chance. Stagecraft was all. The components of the city would not spontaneously combust to create the urban crucible of seductive mood, the Paris When It Sizzles backdrop, the subtle, studied nighttime apparition of urban perfection enlivened by song, wine, and roses that everyone everywhere seemed passionate about, ready to love, sometimes to the point of delusion or obsession.

With the tingling sensation that Paris was Paris thanks in large part to its querulous inhabitants and bizarre culture, its literature and history, and that it might actually supply a lifetime of enigmas, pleasures, and challenges, I began a quixotic quest to uncover the romantic secrets of the City of Light.



My first stop and favorite spot almost from the day I arrived was Père-Lachaise Cemetery. A direct ride on Métro line 2 or a long meandering walk from my garret, it provided air, greenery, silence, and solitude. None were available in my crow's nest in rue Laugier.

The top floor of a luxury apartment house designed by Henri Sauvage in 1904 at the pinnacle of Art Nouveau, above the apartments of the wealthy lived a stratum of squalor. This was a blend of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths and the upper deck of a vintage tramp steamer. The stained-glass windows separating the service stairway from the elevator—which was of course reserved for apartment dwellers—rattled with the shaking of each scalloped wooden tread on the seven serpentine flights of stairs. There were no Frenchmen, let alone women, on this upper deck. A dozen Moroccan and Tunisian guest workers and I lived in atonal harmony, our rooms separated by plaster panels covered with mildewed posters of palm trees and camels or Playboy pinups. We shared three squat toilets and a cold-water tap. Transistor radios were tuned 24-7 to dueling stations. My Mozart and Coltrane were drowned out by Maghreb ululations or Edith Piaf crooning on radio Nostalgie. I was the only tenant with a secondary education, a typewriter, or that marvel of technology, a cassette player.

I paid a year's rent up front. Beyond being cheap, these lodgings offered hidden advantages. The lack of hot running water and bathing facilities was an incentive to exploration. On my second day I bought a pass to the municipal swimming pools of Paris. This led me to discover parts of the city I might never have seen. I had no kitchen, so I got to know cafés and bistros in each arrondissement. The rooftop view from my ladder was magical, yet the lack of a proper window encouraged me to walk, read, or write outdoors much of the day, often in the Parc Monceau a few blocks away or at Père-Lachaise.

The first time I entered the monumental gateway of the cemetery, I felt part of me had always been there. I don't suffer from necrophilia and am not particularly nostalgic, but it was as if an alter ego lived a parallel existence under the climbing, winding ranges of horse chestnut trees. Père-Lachaise is where I first heard voices from Paris' past, voices eager to share secrets. They were not speaking to me but to one another, their words carrying over the off-kilter tombstones and ivy festoons.


Excerpted from A Passion for Paris by David Downie. Copyright © 2015 David Downie. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Thanks and Acknowledgments xiii

Part 1 Romantic Encounters in a Maid's Room

1 Overhead in a Balloon 3

2 Deciphering the Paris Palimpsest 9

3 A Tramp Steamer to Père-Lachaise Cemetery 11

Part 2 Discovering the First Great Romantic Circle

4 Bastille Day 19

5 Guest Appearances 22

6 The Romance of Rebelliousness 25

7 Defining the Undefinable: Romanticism 29

8 An Arsenal of Poetic Weaponry 31

9 Love Triangle: Victor, Adèle, and Sainte-Beuve 42

10 The Battle of Hernani 46

11 Romeo Seeks Juliette 53

12 The Conquest of Victor 57

13 Knight Templar 61

14 The Historic Present 72

15 Balzac's Marais 82

Part 3 Baudelaire's Island

16 Joie De Tristesse, Or the Romance Of Unhappiness 91

17 Sex, Drugs, and Striking Poses 97

18 Islands in the Dream 109

Part 4 The Cult of the Les Grands Hommes (Et Les Femmes?)

19 The Architecture of Romance 117

20 The Anti-Romantics 123

21 The Academy of the Dead 135

Part 5 Romantic Romps

22 A Leafy Pantheon of Romance 149

23 The Sand Pit 157

24 Butterfly Catcher 164

25 Merry-Go-Rounds and Talking Heads 169

26 Merging Into Bohemia 177

27 The Water Drinkers 183

28 Momus is the Word 189

29 Color Versus Line 195

30 A Drunken Boat, a Starving Writer, and Two Giant Clarinets 200

31 Delacroix's Last Stand 206

Part 6 Quai Voltaire

32 The Seine's Scene 213

33 D'Artagnan's Cask of Amontillado 218

34 Delacroix Rebuffs Dumas 225

Part 7 The New Athens And Montmartre

35 Delacroix's Permanent Ephemera 231

36 Parisian Acropolis 237

37 Chopin's Hand, 252

38 A Real Butte 260

39 Devil May Care 267

40 Slumming Stein and Picasso's Blue Rose 270

41 Spirits Set In Stone 274

Part 8 Open Endings

42 The Long and Winding Road 281

43 Quiet Days in Passy 288

44 Sending Out an SMS: From Balzac with Love 294

Key Dales 299

Key Characters 301

Image Credits 305

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