The best way to become intimate with any city is to walk. The first time I came to terms with Paris, there was no other option.
That was in 1968, the year of what the French still refer to as "les evenements," when students occupied the Odeon theatre, when streets were barricaded and the night air was thick with the sickly smell of tear gas.A general strike forced those of us who had gone to cover the story to slog the streets on foot. Later, I was grateful for this way of discovering Paris.
Finding your way from one landmark to another soon becomes old hat, however. What you need is not just a nose for geography but an X-ray eye with which to see behind the shopfronts and hotel facades. Gilles Desmons' admirable book, "Walking Paris," is the next best thing.
I had long intended to test it but there had never been an opportunity. Whit Sunday proved the perfect time. The Louvre was closed; the line for the Corot exhibition at the Grand Palais was beyond contemplation. On the train, the RER, a group of over-dressed Americans sought directions to Les Invalides, pronouncing it as they would the name of a Mexican revolutionary.
The back streets beckoned as a sanctuary. Thus it was that I found myself transfixed by the Greek Orthodox liturgy and bemused by the homage paid to Serge Gainsbourg, the singer who was a fleeting icon of the 1960s. Base camp was the Hotel de Crillon, on the Place de la Concorde.
Normally, most guests leaving that hotel are ushered to limousines or at the very least, taxis. We headed for the underground. Like all Desmons' walks, this one began at a Metro station, Maubert-Mutualite, on a square close to the spot where Peter Abelard, who suffered the eunuch's fate for his love of Heloise, founded the city's first college.
Anyone keen to eat on the hoof could stock up with excellent sandwiches and tarts at the boulangerie on the Place Maubert before taking the Rue de Bievre towards the Seine. Bievre is the name of a tributary, long covered over. It is also old French for "beaver." Did they once live here?
Francois Mitterrand, the former president, certainly did. The logs which were floated down to the Seine on the Bievre gave their name to the Rue de la Bucherie, where a school of medicine was founded in the 15th century and where, opposite the elegant building which housed it, you will find one of the few vegetarian restaurants in Paris, the Grenier de Notre Dame, offering "specialites macrobiotiques."
You are only a short stroll from Notre Dame as you briefly emerge by the river but, in spite of the lure of a nearby tabac offering busts of Bonaparte for $29, few of the jostling tourists there walk across to Shakespeare and Co., the cramped and chaotic English-language bookshop run by George Whitman, great nephew of Walt, the 19th-century American poet.
You could have bought a paperback there and read it in the little park opposite, with the rhododendron, lime, copper beech and a false acacia, its split bole reinforced with concrete, which was planted in 1602.
Instead, we plunged from dazzling sunlight into the incense gloom of St. Julien-le-Pauvre, built in 1280 but which became a barn during the French revolution. St. Thomas Aquinas and Rabelais are said to have prayed there. Now it is Greek Orthodox.
The building seems tired by the weight of change. It leans sideways, threatening to keel over like an old horse. There was a Chopin recital in the church that afternoon, but there was more walking to be done.
So it was on into the pedestrian Rue St. Severin, full of tavernas where the congregation from the church of St. Severin could eat and talk after their service. A quick turn around the church, with its gracious fan-vaulting and chestnut-shaded cloister, and then a brief flirtation with a souk of streets where the managers of cous-cous restaurants tout for passing trade.
In the Place St. Michel, with its overblown fountain, a drink of Orangina at a pavement table cost about $6. We went on, thankfully, into the emptiness of the Rue St. Andre-des-Arts, where Albert Camus, the writer, lived, and the 17th-century Rue de Savoie, where Picasso had a studio.
Now, with the exception of a quick dip into the Boulevard St. Germain, past the Brasseries Lipp and Les Deux Magots, the walk leads you through streets reserved almost exclusively for Parisians.
We stopped for lunch at the Bistro Mazarin on the Rue Jacques-Callot, A steak meal at under $47 for two reassured us that Paris can still offer reasonable value in spite of the franc fort.
Off then along the narrrow, 15th-century Rue Visconti, where Balzac kept a print shop, Delacroix painted and Racine died. The shrine to Gainsbourg is on the Rue Jacob. Among the many messages scrawled there is one placing him "on a cloud between Stravinsky and Schumann," and another asking if God smokes Havanas.
There had been no such attention in the Rue des Beaux-Arts for Jorge Luis Borges, the blind Argentine poet, or Oscar Wilde, the writer, who also stayed there. Nor, come to that, was there any recognition for d'Artagnan, real life model for Dumas' musketeer, who lived in the Rue de Verneuil.
By the time we reached the Musee d'Orsay, rain was smacking the pavements. We had been minded to spend an hour or so revisiting a few old favorites - a Boudin or two, Millet's "Gleaners." But the crowd outside changed our minds.
A gentle wind down back at the Crillon seemed in order, in preparation for serious eating at Les Ambassadeurs, the hotel's two-star Michelin restaurant. The lines justified our decision to walk. The walk, we felt, would justify dinner.
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)