In Search of Romanticism
In Nouvelle-Athènes

Look for La Païva at St. Georges

Paris:- Wednesday, 31 July 1996:- It is not only that there are more than enough places in Paris to poke my nose into where it has never been before - sometimes I go off aimed at some particular thing, and in mid-journey, change direction towards something else unforeseen - and, for a rare change of pace, every once in a while, I look in a book.

I did this recently and was surprised to find that there is a part of Paris that is called, 'Nouvelle-Athènes.' I have been there before, but did not notice that it was particularly Athenian. This is not too surprising, as my cultural gas-tank has only about two litres in it and that much will only get me back to around 1955.

This morning I took some notes as a guide and got a real train ticket and emerged in Paris at métro station Pigalle. This is definitely not an 'Athenian' place, but this mysterious 'Nouvelle-Athènes' is below, downhill towards métro St. Georges, and the churches Notre-Dame-de-Lorette and Sainte-Trinité. These two also have métro stops and if you prefer uphill walks you can do 'Nouvelle-Athènes' from the bottom up. This is where the Mairie de Paris' little brochure starts its walk.

One weekend I stayed on a rooftop in Plaka and the only thing above it was the Acropolis and the all rest of Athens was downhill - and I must have remembered this when I went to Pigalle first. Plaka, as I remember it, looked a bit friendlier than Pigalle, in daylight.

Paris never stops expanding, and this district is the result of one of these expansions and it began around 1836 when Archbishop Quélen consecrated the church, Notre-Dame-de-Lorette. Rich types, intellos and artists had been installing themselves in the rue de la Chaussée d'Antin area, and this was the signal to cross to the north of the rue Châteaudun.

The phrase 'la Nouvelle-Athènes' was apparently originated by Dureau de la Malle in the 'Journal des Débats' in its edition of 18. October 1823, and was a reference to the ambient grecism - 'grécophilie' - of the time, which was concentrated in the rue de La-Tour-des-Dames.

paris-athens 1 That may be, but I came down from métro Blanche - or Pigalle is just as good - and found the painter Ary Scheffer's house in the rue Chaptel. It is now called the Musée de la Vie Romantique and it is quite an amiable place of human size, up a little alley from the street. It is a two or three story town-house, with ateliers as out-buildings, and light meals are even served under the trees in its front garden.

I don't know if you will like the paintings displayed here or even if you give two hoots about 'La Vie Romantique' - but this is a fairly quiet and unhectic part of Paris, almost country-like; somehow shut-off from the surrounding usual bustle and hustle.

athens-paris 2 If you have no guide-book in hand, you have to use your eyes a lot, because the delight of 'la Nouvelle-Athènes' district is not grand monuments, but in small details: some building facades, but above all, in the little decorative touches added to facades - and also the discrete additions that generations of residents have quietly added. Grape vines grow in courtyards, theatres are in cul-de-sacs, doorways have flared glass parapluies, and there are many neo-greco architectural touches. No gaudiness; in short: a neighborhood full of eye-candy for romantics.

My guide-notes turned out to be useless because they were for some other streets nearby, and the brochure from City Hall was printed too small to read - so I stumbled around with my eyes open. In the Cité Pigalle, just off the rue Pigalle, I found Theo van Gogh's house - although I was not looking for it - and a plaque says Vincent stayed here shortly before his death in 1890; and I doubt if either of them were 'romantics.'

Eventually I found the place St. Georges. I was looking forward to this because of the strange barracks of an antique shop here - but its roof is being fixed, so I looked at the rest of the place instead. Besides it not being Easter and raining, it seems to have changed sometime since I was here last - the métro entrances have been hidden. You can get out of them, but if you don't know they are here, you'll have a hard time entering.

paris-athens 3 I see people coming out of the métro exits from the fountain in the centre of the place, and while doing so I completely overlook the Hôtel Thiers. This was Mme Dosne's place from 1824 until she traded her daughter to M. Thiers and got 100,000 francs for the house on 6. November 1833. Thiers - 'un petit grand homme' - and property speculator, lived here until 1871, when he scooted off to Versailles while the Commune debated confiscating his collections and tearing the place down. The valuables were saved - by Courbet - and the building was rebuilt in 1873. M. Thiers received an indemnity of 1,053,000 francs.

This was handy because the three ladies Dosne - wife, mother-in-law and sister-in-law, had a 'salon' that 'tout Paris' attended; but considered them without grace or art - and it not said whether the free food and drink was appreciated. This is not the most interesting story about the place St. Georges.

Instead I am looking at the Hôtel de la Païva, which was built by the architect Renaud for Thérèse Lachmann in 1840. For some reason she because of doubtful class when she married the Marquis Païva y Arunjo, who took up residence in 1851. She had another 'hôtel' built for herself on the Champs-Elysées while maintaining a 'salon' at the Hôtel de la Païva; and she became a big society person under the Second Empire, and her house in the place St. Georges has a plaque in front of it - and although the nearby Hôtel Thiers may have one too, I overlooked it as I did the whole hôtel.

I don't know why I keep thinking her name should have been 'Doris,' and I wonder how relations were with the Dosne-Thiers family in the house next door. From the sounds of it, Lachmann and Thiers matched together would have made a formidable team - but that could only have been in fiction.

All these speculations reminded me that I haven't been to any good 'salons' lately, and I had a sandwich in the little café next to the eccentric antique shop while wondering if Oscar Wilde ever hung around here.

Note: The Musée de la Vie Romantique, 16 Rue Chaptel, will be closed from 2 September until 28 October, for renovations.

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