Paris, London, Venice: hardly the most mysterious places on the planet. Yet beyond Notre Dame, Big Ben and the Basilica di San Marco lie hidden iterations of these well-trodden cities: obscure corners, faded histories and the daily pleasures and aggravations of those who live there
Three recently published books are likely to trigger the wanderlust and thoughts of those eager to get closer to the authentic heart of a place.
“Old-Fashioned Corners of Paris” (The Little Bookroom), with whimsical text by Christophe Destournelles and photographs by Christophe Lefébure, takes readers to places that evoke the past in its most palatable forms.
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Most Read Stories
It is a nostalgic wisp of a book, good to have on hand if you’re looking for, say, old-fashioned caramels, a shoe shine or a belle époque bistro where the check is scrawled on napkins. Old phone booths, one of the city’s last artesian wells, antique weighing machines in Luxembourg Gardens, a button shop.
In “London Stories” (Everyman’s Library), the city’s sprawling historical and literary landscape is served up in a tidy collection of 26 short works that span four centuries of plague, fire, destitution, war, class struggle and social ennui. OK, there are brighter moments: J.B. Priestley on the glittering literary parties of the 1920s; Sherlock Holmes in his purple dressing gown solving a very Londonesque caper involving a jewel, a goose and a battered hat.
Still, Jerry White, the social historian who compiled the stories, which date from the 1600s, doesn’t stint on delivering the goods on London’s dark side, which, of course, will delight true London devotees. You will recognize the bylines of Charles Dickens, Graham Greene, Jean Rhys and the former London resident Doris Lessing.
In “The Politics of Washing: Real Life in Venice” (Robert Hale), the author Polly Coles notes that some 16.5 million visitors flit through the canal-threaded core of Venice each year; 12.5 million of them don’t even spend the night. Amid this sea of tourists, about 60,000 “officially registered” residents cling to the remnants of a normal life. Venice, Coles concludes, is in danger of becoming “one giant day-trip destination.”
Determined to experience the city not as “a museum-fossil,” but as a place “where ‘real’ Venetians live ‘real’ lives,” Coles moved there with her family. “The Politics of Washing” is an account of a year residing in a gloomy apartment with “lumpen Murano glass chandeliers,” a seductive view across rooftops and towers, and a pulley line strung between buildings that served both as a clothesline and a territorial symbol among nosy neighbors.
Not immune to Venice’s treasures, Coles occasionally waxes poetic. The church of Santa Maria Formosa looms “white, arctic, against the night sky”; even the controversially modern Ponte della Costituzione over the Grand Canal has steps “as elegantly pleated as a piece of Fortuny silk.”
But it is to the uncertain fate of Venice that she repeatedly returns, urging that it not be reduced to an “exquisite, empty backdrop over which we coo and gush.”