My friend Donna Morris of Best Friend in Paris has been reading Paris and Her Remarkable Women by Lorraine Liscio. It presents sixteen mini-biographies of women whose lives influenced Paris. They begin with Saint Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, and end with Simone de Beauvoir. Along the way you get new insights into the lives of women you probably already know about, like Sarah Bernhardt and Coco Chanel, as well as some women perhaps not so familiar, like 18th century Madame du Chatelet, an early physicist; Madame de Maintenon who was married to Louis XIV at Versailles; Camille Claudel, mistress of Auguste Rodin and often thought to be as great a sculptor as he was; and Elizabeth Vigée-Lebrun, whose paintings of women and children hang in the Louvre.
What makes the book particularly useful is that the author links the biographies to specific places in Paris associated with each woman. You can pick the woman and her time period and walk (well, almost) in her footsteps.
Donna had just finished the story of Heloise and Abelard. Heloise was a well-educated young woman in 12th century Paris, and the famous philosopher Abelard, so the story goes, was her teacher. They fell in love and Heloise became pregnant. They married secretly, but soon Heloise went to live in a convent. Her furious uncle Canon Fulbert had Abelard castrated; he then became a monk. They never saw each other again, although they corresponded throughout their lives. (The story is much more complicated than I’ve given it here, but at least you get the idea.)
The book indicates that one of the oldest restaurants in Paris now sits on the Ile de la Cité in the area where Heloise and Abelard lived. With Donna’s friend Annette, we tracked it down: Au Vieux Paris d’Arcole. Their sign says they’ve been an inn since 1594. We arrived early; the kitchen staff were still eating their dinners, but the waiters waved us inside and let us tromp through the building, taking pictures. I don’t know if they’ve really been in business since 1594, but the building is rickety enough to have been standing that long. Upstairs, all the walls and ceilings have been covered over in red brocade – astonishingly dust-free, we noted. The furnishings look like they’ve been around at least a couple of centuries.
We returned later for dinner. With wine and a little dessert, it came to €47 each. But the food was tasty and came accompanied with lots of vegetables, always a winner in my book. I can’t say we felt the presence of Heloise and Abelard, but we at least remembered them as we dined.