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Is it even possible to write a fresh word on Paris? “La ville lumière” is Europe’s most celebrated destination for tourists and it has attracted a galaxy of fine travel writers.
The dust had hardly settled after the Napoleonic Wars before a flood of English-language guidebook writers descended on the city. Edward Planta’s 1814 guide set the standard for some generations. It also set a record for the longest guidebook title. It ran to 30 words, concluding with the magnificent “…accurately describing remarkable edifices, places of amusement and every other object worthy of attention.”
In the 200 years since Planta’s smart debut, a dozen guidebooks a year have come out on Paris and most sweep through the city without bringing much that is new to the endeavor.
But this spring, a very special new guide to Paris is on the market. Duncan JD Smith’s new book on the French capital has echoes of Planta in the full title: “Only in Paris – A Guide to Unique Locations, Hidden Corners and Unusual Objects.”
But while Planta is encyclopedic, Duncan JD Smith is highly selective and the appeal of this book is in the sheer ingenuity of the author who is an accomplished urban explorer. For Smith, Paris is a blank canvas, a place waiting to be discovered. One has a sense of a man who has conducted impeccable research but still contrives to arrive in Paris with an open mind. That’s a rare touch.
Discovering “Only in Paris” has been a real delight, and something of a surprise too. We had Smith marked down a natural citizen of “Mitteleuropa.” We ran across his guides to Vienna, Prague and Budapest and have over the years followed with interest as the “Only In” series extended to German cities and last year to Zürich. With “Only in Paris,” Smith demonstrates very convincingly that he is equally at home in the Latin world. Where next, we wonder?
Paris’ many faces
In “Only in Paris,” Smith tracks down 98 curiosities that have helped shape the texture of Paris both past and present. Each sight is the touchstone for a story. This is a delightful way to be led around a city. Smith escorts us through Capuchin quarries, up the “buttes” in the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont and to the remains of the Bastille.
The book is especially strong on “Paris mondial” and nicely captures the many faces of Paris with its migrants from Africa, Indo-China, Russia and beyond. But the itinerary is not limited to the obscure and offbeat. Familiar Paris gets good coverage too, though invariably with a very novel perspective. Yes, there is something new to be said about the Eiffel Tower and the hunchback of Notre Dame and Smith rises to the challenge with authority and good humor.
Last but not least
“Only in Paris” is a great read and a handsome tribute to one of Europe’s loveliest cities. The book is published by Christian Brandstätter Verlag in Vienna. It is a volume that oozes high production values, with decent quality paper that is perfect for showcasing Smith’s photography. A German language-version, called “Nur in Paris,” is available from the same publishing house.