An Interview with David Downie

In his new book A Passion for Paris David Downie embarks on an irreverent secular pilgrimage to the most romantic sites in Paris, weaving his own observations of the city's most alluring parks, atmospheric cafes and inspiring vistas with those of literary lights Victor Hugo, Georges Sand, Charles Baudelaire and other great Romantics. In this interview he answers our questions about Paris, revealing some unexpectedly romantic spots, from aisle seats to cemeteries.

  Longitude. How did your own love affair with Paris begin?

Downie. In the fall of 1976, on a dark and stormy night... the affair was not love at first sight for either of us. I was 18 and bent by the weight of the world. Everything about Paris seemed wonderfully bleak, unexpected, darkly magical, negative, perplexing and therefore enchanting—the opposite of my sunny native California. I stayed for a couple of weeks, returned a few months later, and, ten years after, in 1986, moved here full time. The bizarre charm of the place had captured me. In many ways Paris still baffles and enchants, and I suppose it’s the challenging, complex character of the city and its people that keeps me here. The touristy, glitzy, glamorous side of Paris isn’t my thing.

Longitude. In your previous book, Paris to the Pyrenees, you follow the route of religious pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago. In your new book, you are on another kind of pilgrimage, this time to secular and literary sites. What does that form of travel, pilgrimage, mean to you?

Downie. Without meaning to sound trite, I think life is a pilgrimage, for some it’s secular, for others it includes a religious or spiritual component. The exploration of landscapes and cityscapes as reflections of our societies is surprisingly similar: if you look carefully you find wondrous things sprouting in hidden places. When my wife and I walked 750 miles across France we discovered sublime surprises everywhere. Each day was a day of exploration and novelty. What I discovered when researching and writing this book is that I could experience Paris in a similar way, directly, physically, but also meditatively, reflectively. With Paris to the Pyrenees I was tracking the Ancient Romans and the Gallic peoples they conquered, following in the footsteps of pilgrims and non-believers who had found a route toward “truth” by walking, and I was looking for the linkage between Antiquity, the Middle Ages and modern France. With A Passion for Paris I researched and then stepped into the lives of Victor Hugo, George Sand and Chopin, Balzac, Baudelaire and many others. The quest this time was to find the linkage between their world — when the notion of modernity was born — and the Paris of today. The French, more so than any other nation, live in the Age of Romanticism. They are modern-day Romantics with a capital “R”. Paris, their capital, incarnates this. The Parisians are the key: without them Paris would not be Paris — it would not have been preserved, for one thing. And it wouldn’t have its special, mysterious, melancholy, romantic tang.

Longitude. Where is the most romantic place in Paris?

Downie. That is like asking, what is the greatest art masterpiece in the world? There are many. For me the most romantic place is the hillside in Père-Lachaise Cemetery where Balzac, Nodier, Nerval and Delacroix are buried. It is exquisitely evocative, a gorgeous time tunnel where tombs and twisted trees and off-kilter paths lead you — whether you know who these people were or not — straight back to the mid-19th century. Beyond the physical beauty of the hillside it is charged by a powerful spirit of place. That said, I also find the banks of the Seine on the Ile Saint-Louis extremely romantic, and those who are put off by cemeteries will be happier under the poplars, watching the boats go by.

Longitude. In the book, you often return to the idea that the more things change, the more they stay the same. How has Paris changed for you over the years you’ve spent there, and how has it stayed the same?

Downie. It is cleaner, better run, more walkable — you can walk all the way across town nowadays along the Seine without being bothered by cars — and probably safer than it was 40 years ago, and, despite the choir of ill-informed critics, the quality of the food overall is probably better, though the restaurant experience today is less “Parisian” than before and more international. It is also a more prosperous city, an enclave for the wealthy and the young, whereas in the 1970s whole neighborhoods were full of working class families, and Paris was cheap, grubby and wonderful in its brusque way. What never changes is the essential quality of being elusive, thoughtful, challenging and “difficult” as cities go. Paris really does seem to have human characteristics. Also unchanged are the bourgeois families. They live in splendid flats rarely or never seen by outsiders: they are the same today as they were 40 or 150 years ago. Read Balzac and you’ll understand.

Longitude. Window seat or aisle?

Downie. Aisle for physiological reasons and because my wife always gets the window so she can take photographs: I get to lean over her and look out; it’s very romantic.

Longitude. You dive deep into the lives, loves and affairs of the great Romantics, including Victor Hugo and George Sand. How did you go about researching the lives of the poets and the places they inhabited?

Downie. Simple: I spent decades reading the works of the great Romantics, and reading about them. Then I set out to find where they lived and loved and slept and ate and got in trouble or did heroic things, and so forth. I probably walked 1,000 miles through Paris on my “pilgrimage.” Sometimes I snuck into places I wasn’t meant to be. Mostly I created a kind of Great Romantic Treasure Hunt — it was amazingly fun and rewarding.

Longitude. What books would you recommend to the romantic pilgrim in Paris?

Downie. All of Balzac but especially Peau de Chagrin which is usually translated as The Magic Skin, plus Alfred de Musset’s Confessions of a Child of the Century (it sounds better in French) and Gustave Flaubert’s Sentimental Education, a wonderful coming-of-age novel. It’s also fun to pick up an old guidebook, the older the better, and then wander around checking to see what is still there. Astonishingly many things, even restaurants and cafes, have been around for a very, very long time. I have a 1912 Ward Lock guide to Paris and love it.

Longitude. How can travelers to Paris book a custom tour with you?

Downie. They can visit www.parisparistours.com or my author website www.davidddownie.com and then email me: parispundit@gmail.com. My wife and I create bespoke, private tours—nothing off the rack. Each is a challenge for us and we have great fun.

Longitude. You’ve written extensively about France and Italy; where will your next book take you?

Downie. Paris again! I’ve signed up to write A Taste of Paris: The History of the Parisian Love Affair with Food. It will be a lively quest to understand why Paris was the first and greatest food city in the world for centuries, and asks the question, is it still? Stay tuned.