The skies hang low and close as we pull into Gare du Nord. The grafitti and the wet platforms are starting to become, if not familiar precisely, then at least half-remembered. I even remember my way around the station and soon we are meeting Navida, a friend who splits her time between London and Paris. We head for lunch in Montmatre, the Butte is crawling with tourists. It is a lovely little area, cobblestoned, steep lanes and old buildings. Lunch is a solid affair of moules au frites and for Jeff, French onion soup. As we eat the rain clears up and suddenly Paris is wreathed in sunshine.
We walk from Montmatre down to the Marais, still my favourite area in Paris, above and beyond the others, though the cafes of St Germain come close. Along the way Jeff and I talk about cabbages and kings. Paris is an eminently walkable city, small and compact. We eventually find Le Coiffeur, the little vintage shop in the heart of the Marais. There are shoppers out and about in force, and we dodge them all until we come to the Seine and the river’s broad quais.
Our destination is Notre Dame, that grand gothic cathedral. The massive H shape of its facade is as as Romanesque as I remember it. When we get there the light is just perfect and for a moment, the cathedral is lit in gold sun with a blue sky behind. The line to enter Notre Dame snakes across the courtyard in front of it, and in the dying light, Jeff and I join the queue. Eventually we enter the great cathedral. The space is huge inside, swallowing up the vast amounts of tourists. Notre Dame would have been a sanctuary, a grand and imposing, awe-inspiring space once, but the crowds, the noise and camera flashes detract from the atmosphere – perhaps we chose the wrong time to visit. The cathedral loses some of its splendour with too many visitors around.
The rose windows of Notre Dame are a deep, dark blue to my eyes – they were made in the 13th century and were spared the desecreations of the Revolution. The colour is rich and varied, and the windows describe scenes from the Bible. They call to mind the magnificent stained glass of St Chapelle, still my favourite tourist site in Paris. On our way back out we pass by the flying buttresses, crane our necks to see the famous gargoyles. The light is fading as we look around for the entrance into the cavernous depths of the Metro.
It is a difficult feeling to pin down but this, my fourth trip to La Citte Lumiere, is jarred by a general atmosphere of disappointment. The Metro and its rubber wheels have lost its magic, the tunnels smell of rust, decay, excrement. Bar the few hours of sunlight, the skies press in close and low. Perhaps the Parisien magic only holds for just so long; perhaps eyes accustomed to wonder cease to see magic at all after awhile, but Paris, for my fourth and possibly final time, after awhile, was decidedly lacklustre and I was glad to be home in London that night.
The light is wonderful in the last few hours we spend in Paris but I am hardly inspired to photography. We queue for macarons and coffee at Laduree, where Jeff has his first ever macaron and buy half a dozen at eye-watering prices. A wrinkled, divine little lady sitting next to us eats her ham and cheese croissant with a knife and fork, speaks animatedly to us in French despite my laughing insistence that “je ne parlez pas francais” and no, neither does he. She waves a waiter down to help her with her coat – a proper old-school lady with rings on her fingers and bells on her toes, this grand old dame, and with a elegant wave of her hand, tell us “au revoir.”