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The Old Naturalist's Curiosity Shop

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh explores a relic of old Paris that sells everything from lions to hummingbirds.

If you want to buy a stuffed elk, a frog's skeleton, a Goliath beetle as big as a fist, or a Stone Age axe head, I know the place.

Deyrolle must be the oddest shop in Paris. A modest entrance, on the fashionable Left-Bank rue du Bac, leads past a couple of stuffed horses to a rickety staircase, which winds to the first-floor showrooms. Here, little appears to have changed since amateur entomologist Emile Deyrolle took over the premises in 1831.

Cobwebs dangle from the ornate powder-blue plasterwork. Creaky parquet floors, sloping and uneven, stretch through a series of interconnecting rooms where elegant doors and floor-to-ceiling windows evoke the long-forgotten grandeur of the building's early 18th-century origins. Bulky but elegantly carved radiators, blisteringly hot, date back to the dawn of central heating.

But more astonishing, a dubious Noah's Ark of stuffed animals awaits - a crazy, overcrowded menagerie, unnervingly lifelike, yet frozen in a time warp, like the shop itself. Lion, llama and lesser kudu tower imperiously above lurking geese, foxes, parrots and snow-white rabbits.

Tiny yellow and green birds perch on lichened twigs under a glass dome. A donkey and a baby zebra stand by a grimy window, staring dolefully out at the bustling street. Puma, polar bear and pig are crammed on to high glass-fronted cabinets, their heads brushing the flaking ceiling. A couple of coypu tickle customers' shins in a doorway. A giant swordfish pokes his snout towards a mounted buffalo head. Everything within reach can be touched, patted, examined. And everything, whether high or low, is for sale.

Massive mahogany chests hold further magical oddities in their shallow drawers - hundreds of ghostly glass eyes on spirals of wire, sorted by colour, size and type of animal; thousands of spherical bugs and spindly beetles, impaled but unlabelled, of long-forgotten provenance.

There are trays of crumbling fossils, jumbles of shells, displays of frail and dazzling butterflies, row upon row of shiny insects with iridescent backs, hairy spiders with impossibly articulated legs, and tiny hummingbirds, arranged in a fan like a quiver of feathered darts.

Emile Deyrolle supplied equipment for amateur naturalists like himself - butterfly nets, insect pins, pooters and scalpels - but he was also a pioneering pedagogue, designing imaginative visual aids to introduce children to the mysteries of science. Cabinets, their once livid paintwork chipped and clouded with dust, still display plaster cross-sections of earthworms, dissected digestive systems and female reproductive organs.

The shop has its own take on health and safety. As customers trip over the paws of a recumbent lion or stumble into parts of the floor that have subsided, framed reproductions of Deyrolle's 19th-century posters carry wonderfully doom-laden educational messages: beware of "Accidents a la Maison" (a knickerbockered lad falls headlong from a window and a girl in a pinafore plays with scissors), or "Accidents dans l'Eau" (startled Victorian ladies look up from their picnic as their mustachioed companion dives into a pond too soon after luncheon).

Better still are the cautionary statistics on alcoholism. Deyrolle and his sons were champions of temperance, and produced wall charts demonstrating that alcohol leads to weakness, deformity and untimely death. Compare these muscular, smiling, teetotal heroes with those limp, puny, degenerate drunkards who collapse in a heap on the racetrack, and have their lifelines snipped by merciless but beautiful, goddesses.

The past 20 years have seen a few changes in the shop. The taxidermy desk - where white-coated men once took orders from elegant Parisians for the stuffing of favourite pets - has been replaced by racks of tasteful jerkins and hessian shoulder bags.

Butterfly enthusiasts can no longer buy killing jars, each containing enough potassium cyanide to poison hundreds of humans. Bundles of dog-eared geological maps are reminders of the time when this was a serious shop for naturalists, but today the shelves also stock novelty gifts, such as glossy photographs of leaves and flowers, framed with a single colour-matched butterfly or beetle on a pin.

More changes are afoot. The shop has been sold, and the new owner has plans to open a gardening shop downstairs. Visit Deyrolle soon, or it may be too late.

Deyrolle, 46 rue du Bac, Paris (0033 1 4222 3007)

First published by the Telegraph


Sixth Sense in Paris

by Sarah Shuckburgh

Sarah Shuckburgh returns to an arrondissement full of faded grandeur, artistic heritage and extravagantly stylish restaurants.

My husband and I have a postmodern marriage. We don’t live in the same house, town or even country. We often visit each other (my London home is his urban pied-à-terre, and his pavillon in Normandy is my country cottage) but sometimes we decide to meet in Paris, the most romantic and invigorating of cities.

When this happens, we take the Porte d’Orléans metro straight to St Germain des Prés.

We love the sixième arrondissement, with its intoxicating mix of faded grandeur, bohemian spirit and Parisian chic. The grey ripples of the Seine shimmer and gleam. Pale sunshine highlights rooftops and spires. The winter sky is overcast but the cloud radiates brightness. It is impossible not to feel exhilarated by the City of Light.

Guillaume knew the area in the 1960s, and misses the old-fashioned bookbinders’ workshops and small specialist publishers, which have been replaced by designer boutiques behind plate glass windows. Today’s students are too busy planning their careers to sit in cafes all day, discussing anarchy and Marxism, and reforming the world. But the quartier retains a friendly, off-beat atmosphere, reminiscent of the days when it was the favoured haunt of intellectuals from Voltaire to Simone de Beauvoir.

The area has attracted the intelligentsia since the middle ages, when the scholarly but cosmopolitan Benedictine monks of St Germaine des Prés presided over an independent, walled fiefdom. For 300 years, until the revolution, the Benedictines held an annual fundraising fair - the biggest in Paris - with art, food, imported curiosities, theatrical shows and coffee houses, which set the lively, artistic tone that survives to this day. The important academies of language and art are still here, including the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and the 17th century Palais de l‘Institut de France, where members of the Académie Française meet every Thursday afternoon to defend the French language from foreign invasion.

This weekend, we open our shutters to reveal translucent winter skies. As we walk down the street, a miniature tidal wave approaches, with litter bobbing on its surface. Street cleaners are sluicing the gutters, an intriguing daily ritual involving gushing standpipes, and a collection of grubby sausage-shaped sandbags, strategically placed to build up a powerful flow, and to steer water round corners. We wander towards Boulevard St Germain for breakfast at the Deux Magots - touristy in summer, but cosy in winter, and pleasingly ornate, with its eponymous pair of grotesque oriental figurines. Verlaine, Rimbaud and other literary types made this café famous in the 1880s. Sometimes we choose the nearby Café Flore, whose regular customers once included Picasso, Sartre and Camus. People-watching is a serious business, and we try to sit in the window for an optimum view of the Germanopratine passers-by - well-heeled bohemians with small dogs, artfully tousled philosophers, youngsters with perfectly knotted scarves and policemen on rollerblades.

After breakfast, we look into the church of St Germain des Prés, built on the site of the 6th century Benedictine abbey that became the intellectual centre of Paris. I love the faded polychrome paint on the pillars, and the distant, deep blue ceiling scattered with golden stars. Behind the altar stands a wooden statue of Germanus, 6th century bishop of Paris, whose name now describes the area.

There are plenty of museums in this part of Paris, but most tempting (although just outside the 6e arrondissement) is the Musée d’Orsay, with its unparalleled collection of late 19th century Parisian art. This former railway station, a colossal iron structure built in 1900, was converted to a gallery in 1986. Today, we make for the fifth floor, where wintry sunshine illuminates an astonishing collection of impressionist masterpieces. There is almost too much to take in. We gaze at works by Monet, Pissarro and Sisley; by Renoir, Degas and Manet; by Berthe Morisot, Van Gogh and Cézanne. Elated, we head for the airy top-floor café, where north light filters through the massive glass-faced railway clock.

Between the river and Hausmann’s grand boulevards lies a wonderful labyrinth of narrow streets, lined with once-grand hôtels particuliers - aristocratic town houses dating from the early 17th century, with elegant ironwork, and cobbled courtyards glimpsed through imposing double doors. As in other European cities, during the industrial revolution the upper classes moved west, upwind of the smoke and pollution - to the leafy 16th arrondissement. Now, the rich are back again, but few own whole houses.

It is lovely being on foot and we feel sorry for motorists, searching for elusive parking spaces. The ground floors of many stately mansions contain small specialist shops - a delight, even for reluctant shoppers like us. Windows are piled with antiques - beautifully upholstered chairs, glittering chandeliers, statues and oriental carpets. Designer boutiques offer clothes which are bohemian yet chic. In rue Verneuil, I spot an absurd baby shop, offering tiny fur coats and haute couture romper-suits. The rue de l’Odeon has lovely bookshops, each stacked from floor to ceiling with dusty tomes. Shakespeare and Co, by the Petit Pont, is a literary institution - an English language book shop, which dared to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses, and where struggling poets can still doss down among piles of books. Guillaume’s favourite shop is Deyrolle, at 46 rue du Bac - upstairs, panelled salons with polished parquet floors display stuffed animals and cabinets of butterflies.

At one o’clock, we sit down to a proper 3-course lunch (no snacking in Paris), perhaps in the belle époque elegance of Brasserie Lipp in Boulevard St Germain, or the bustling Pré aux Clercs in rue Jacob (where there’s a non-smoking room). For a quieter, old fashioned meal, with starched tablecloths and elderly waiters in long aprons, we choose Aux Charpentiers, by St Germain’s covered food market, or Chez Maitre Paul, among the second-hand bookshops, or Allard, on rue St André des Arts - bistrots where time has stood still for half a century.

After lunch, we stroll past Picasso’s house on rue des Grand-Augustins. Running parallel is rue Dauphine, the street which earned Paris the name of City of Light when France’s first street lamps were installed here in 1763. Delacroix‘s house, in rue de Furstenberg, now contains a museum of his work. He lived here while he was working in the nearby church of St Sulpice, which we enter, to admire his radiant frescoes. Founded in the 12th century by the St Germain monks, the present hefty, cavernous church dates from the 18th century. Here, Baudelaire and the Marquis de Sade were baptised, and Victor Hugo was married. Fauré and Widor were both organists here, and we listen as the magnificent organ competes with the tuneless chimes of the church clock.

Just down the road, the 17th century Jardin du Luxembourg is romantic even in February. The park is full of couples, strolling arm in arm, and kissing. Solitary eccentrics sit on benches, muffled against the chill wind, reading newspapers and weighty books. Leafless plane trees form stark silhouettes against the pale gravel. Marble statues grace every vista, including one of Queen Marie de Medici, widow of Henri IV, and founder of the gardens. She also built the Palais du Luxembourg, now home to the French Senate. To warm up, we pop into Paris’ oldest public art gallery, the Musée du Luxembourg, and find another stunning array of masterpieces, on loan from an American collection, including works by Renoir, Cézanne, Picasso, van Gogh, Matisse and Braque.

Guillaume doesn’t go in for le 5 o’clock (tea), but I do, so on our way back to our hotel, we join old ladies with elegant chignons, to nibble mouth-watering macaroons in the opulent Laudurée tea room, on rue Jacob.

After a bath and a short siesta, it’s time for another big meal. An extravagantly romantic place for supper is Lapérouse, on the Quai des Grands-Augustins. Painted panels outside the restaurant prepare one for the lavish Second Empire interior, with private cubicles for diners in adulterous liaisons. Or there’s Procope in the rue de l’Ancienne-Comédie - the oldest café in Paris, established in 1670 by a Sicilian called Procopio. The décor of the rambling dining rooms evokes the 18th century, when Voltaire and Rousseau were among its many literary patrons.

But for less pretentious surroundings, we head for the lively crowds in the Marché du Buci. Despite the hour, the street is still full of flower sellers, chestnut vendors, and stalls selling pastries, cheese and meat. Fishmongers are selling their last oysters and mussels, sweeping heaps of crushed ice on to the cobbles. We have a drink at the crowded Bar du Marché, and listen to pavement jazz musicians, before strolling to la Citrouille in rue St Grégoire de Tours, where, for 11.50 euros each, we tuck into soupe a l‘ognion, pot-au-feu and tarte aux pommes, with red wine. As we walk back through the cold night air, we look up and see that the cloud has lifted. A curve of silvery moon shines from a starry sky.

Even in winter, the City of Light never disappoints.

First published by the Telegraph

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