The Literary Landscapes of Paris with Sandrine Voillet

The famous Sorbonne Library in Paris
The famous Sorbonne Library in Paris | © Alamy.com

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French art historian, TV presenter and tour leader Sandrine Voillet has a unique perspective on Paris, the city at the heart of her new book. Literary Landscapes Paris takes the reader on a photographic stroll around the bookshops, famous literary restaurants, and storied streets of Europe’s favourite tourist destination. Culture Trip spoke to Voillet to find out what makes the city perfect for culturally curious travellers.

Culture Trip [CT] – Tell us about yourself and your special relationship with Paris.

Sandrine Voillet [SV] – I’m an art historian, curator and TV presenter who loves reading and exploring the city. My special relationship with Paris started when I came to study at the Louvre school. At the time, I was impressed by the capital but also a bit daunted. Now I know it better than my birth place of Nantes.

What I like especially in Paris is the café culture, a place to socialise and yet, you can also push the door on your own and feel comfortable eating, working, day-dreaming there. The real Parisian spirit lies in cafés.

[CT] – What makes the city such a great place to visit?

[SV] – Like many European cities, Paris combines beautiful and charming sceneries, a rich history and cultural life. It is a very walkable place so you don’t need to drive. In fact, it is best discovered by foot. It is a combination of concentrated culture, boisterous life style, a feast for the eyes with remarkable museums and galleries, monuments and perspectives, a feast for the stomach with cafés, restaurants and bakeries at any corner and a temple for shopping with high fashion flagship shops, department stores and a wealth of small boutiques. For all these reasons, Paris has created its own myth: Fashion, romanticism and good food are the triple treat.

[CT] – What makes it such a great place to live?

[SV] – I will answer in a very candid way. If you think the city is like in the famous American TV series Emily in Paris, you might think Paris is a great place to live. The reality is quite different and Parisians have this love/hate relationship with their city, even though they wouldn’t consider living anywhere else. Life can be wary in this densely built capital with the hassle of traffic, noise, pollution and prohibitive rental prices like in any metropole. Tourists are exhausted after living one week in the city, imagine how the Parisians feel!

The iconic restaurant Le Train Bleu at Gare de Lyon in Paris is a popular spot for food, relaxation and casual reading

[CT] – Why does Paris have such an important place in the literary world?

[SV] – Not only many stories have been written in Paris and many locations are linked to the memory of an author but also Paris casts a special charm, it has a certain spell. It appears as a permissive city where adventure is allowed. Many authors went to Paris to try a new experience or looking for revelations like the American writers of the Lost Generation – en mal de sensations (craving for excitement) – or ‘the Beat Generation…’

Paris is also the centre of intellectualism in France with iconic libraries and bookshops, editing and publishing houses, cafés and restaurants where prizes are celebrated or where writers simply work.

Besides publishing has a long history in Paris and editors such as Gallimard are still pillars of the literary world.

This editing house counts 38 Goncourt Prize winners and 38 Nobel Prize for Literature winner, edited Marcel Proust, André Malraux or Albert Camus and in the more recent years Annie Ernaux who received the literature Nobel Prize in 2022. These authors are translated in many languages and read all around the world.

Also Parisians and French people are avid book readers. The literature scene is important and lively. La Grande Librairie is a weekly TV literary show compiling literary news in all its forms: novels, essays, history, thrillers, comics, youth and invites writers to talk about their work.

In September, the rentrée littéraire, meaning the new book releases is always an event. Each literary prize like Prix Goncourt, Renaudot, Femina, Médicis… is an event and guarantee good sales for the author. In other cities you rarely see large posters advertising the new book by a famous writer in the metro/tube/subway.

Parisians and the French in general love reading novels and among them polars (whodunnit) stories. Fred Vargas and Michel Bussi are among the most popular French crime stories writers and translated in many languages.

Sandrine Voillet shares some of her favourite literary spots in Paris with Culture Trip

[CT] – What surprised you about the places you found for the book?

[SV] – The writer Dominic Bliss and Frank Hopkinson from Harper Collins chose the places for the book and did a great job. I was surprised to find the way George Orwell lived in Paris, deliberately choosing a life of poverty to gather material for his work and show a different vision of Paris, far removed from the one promoted by the Lost Generation.

[CT] – What’s it like leading tours around the city?

[SV] – Over the last years, Paris has been subject to over-tourism and after two years of pandemic when nobody could travel, 2022 was called the « revenge travel »year.

What I like about leading tours in the city is to take a couple or a family down the off beaten tracks of the capital and make them feel as insiders, revealing little details or hidden stories about the city.

[CT] – What do most visitors want to know about first?

[SV] – It depends on whether they are first timers asking “How much should I tip ?,” or regular visitors thinking “We don’t have to see the Mona Lisa !”. In my case, I often lead people who already know the major landmarks and want to scratch under the surface with a local. They’re interested in knowing the history of Paris and what it is like to live in the city, the customs…

To be honest, I’m not very good at boasting about measurements like the tallest or the biggest monument…

[CT] – What are some of your favourite hidden gems or places people might not know that much about?

[SV] – Favourite hidden gems and places should be kept secret otherwise they don’t stay hidden very long ! One of my favourites is wine bar/library La Belle Hortense in le Marais, which is a long held secret.
But I often suggest people to wander around the city themselves and dare to leave the boulevards, push the door of an unremarkable bistrot with locals, sensing a good vibe, there is a good chance that it is a little hidden gem within reach.

Cafe Le Consulat on Montmartre in Paris. Montmartre area is among most popular destinations in Paris and Le Consulat is a typical Paris cafe perfect for late night drinks

[CT] – Why should people consider taking a literary journey through a city? What can this type of trip reveal about a place?

[SV] – We often pass places without knowing who lived there or what happened there. It’s only when you read or someone tells you : « By the way, did you know that Oscar Wilde died in this Hotel or Hemingway lived in this building ? » that suddenly the place reveals a new interest or a new colour. Like an archaeologist, you scratch the surface to find new layers of knowledge about the place and gain a better understanding of it.

You can consider following the steps of your favourite author in the city or just go to places used as sets or backdrops for a book or an action in a book and see how a place inspired the fiction. I like places when fiction and reality meet.

Paris is a perfect place for a literary journey or bibliotherapy, sitting at the terrace of a café or at the tip of the Ile de la Cité in the Vert Galant square, with a good book.

Literary Landscapes Paris by Sandrine Voillet publishing 2nd February from Pavilion Books, £20

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