Skip to main content

Originally published Sunday, June 22, 2014 at 7:00 AM

  • Share:
  • Comments (0)
  • Print

Paris, London and Venice by the book

Three recently published books will take you beyond the standard sights in beloved European cities.

The New York Times


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.

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.”

Four weeks for 99 cents of unlimited digital access to The Seattle Times. Try it now!

Also in Travel & Outdoors

News where, when and how you want it

Email Icon

 Subscribe today!

Subscribe today!

99¢ for four weeks of unlimited digital access.


Partner Video


The Seattle Times

The door is closed, but it's not locked.

Take a minute to subscribe and continue to enjoy The Seattle Times for as little as 99 cents a week.

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Subscriber login ►
The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription upgrade.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. For unlimited access, please upgrade your digital subscription.

Call customer service at 1.800.542.0820 for assistance with your upgrade or questions about your subscriber status.

The Seattle Times

To keep reading, you need a subscription.

We hope you have enjoyed your complimentary access. Subscribe now for unlimited access!

Subscription options ►

Already a subscriber?

We've got good news for you. Unlimited content access is included with most subscriptions.

Activate Subscriber Account ►