John Baxter’s “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World: A Pedestrian in Paris” isn’t as definitive as it sounds. That’s not a bad thing. Rather than limiting himself to a single superlative route in his adopted home town, Baxter takes readers on a variety of romps through the City of Light with a casual familiarity that most of us can only envy.
A mash-up of memoir, travel guide and history, “The Most Beautiful Walk in the World” is the result of Baxter’s unwitting entry into the tour business. A friend running a week-long literary seminar persuades him to tag along on one of the event’s organized walks with a Harvard professor/Robert Redford look-alike. The academic, Baxter observes, turns out to be “more than dry. He was parched. Desiccated.”
Suddenly, Baxter — movie critic, biographer, food lover — finds himself in charge of the seminar’s other two walks. He tries hard not to become a tour guide stereotype even as he portrays some of his clients as uncouth, clueless tourists straight out of central casting. (American readers may cringe at his story of the three Texans who show zero interest in Paris until they unleash their voracious appetites on French cuisine.)
On his first tour, Baxter struggles to gain his footing with his charges, until an opium pipe in the window of an antiques store sparks a conversation about the narcotic and the dens where the French smoked it. The anecdote is typical of the line Baxter walks between the scintillating and the seedy. He tells us about the serial killer who murdered women for their money, luring them into meetings at the Luxembourg Gardens. And there’s the building in the Cour du Commerce where the guillotine was born. Baxter’s description of strolling down the Rue Mazarine, ruminating on its eclectic array of galleries, provides him with the perfect segue to discussing a little erotica and including a particularly, um, cheeky lithograph by way of illustration.
If you’re interested in some of Paris’s more mainstream attractions, Baxter delivers there, too. We sit in the city’s quintessential cafes and bistros, prowl the legendary catacombs and experience “the magic hour,” when “sunlight, striking obliquely, and softened by longer process through the air, is at its most flattering.” Drink it in.
And of course, because Baxter is a writer leading literary walks, the book is full of tales of expat authors. The transplanted Australian seems to feel a particular kinship with Ernest Hemingway. Also making lively cameo appearances are Henry Miller, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jean Cocteau.
Baxter is just as engaging, though, when he talks about his own life. He spins a memorable yarn about a broken door lock that keeps him from leaving Paris on Christmas Eve ahead of the traffic. He recalls a touching childhood encounter with a “swagman,” a journeyman wandering the Australian outback, who had come to his house asking for a handout of flour.
In the end, Baxter remains true to the book’s title and reveals his most beautiful walk. I won’t give away where it is, but it’s someplace ordinary and remarkable at the same time. In describing it — and elsewhere — Baxter makes Paris approachable to anyone willing to explore on foot. As an effort to understand this seductive, confounding city, it’s a step in the right direction.
The Most Beautiful Walk In The World
A Pedestrian in Paris
By John Baxter
Harper Perennial. 320 pp. $14.99