Down and about in Paris
“A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty and the point of life.” So wrote Thomas Jefferson, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. Few truer words have been penned about the attraction the capital city of France holds for generations of Americans. Ernest Hemingway, Henry Miller, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Man Ray are among many cultural giants who came here to find (or lose) themselves, and millions of compatriots have followed in their footsteps, as Paul Trow has done
Insouciance… that’s the word! Definition (with poetic license): A carefree attitude that owes much to culture, heritage, style and fashion. This, surely, is Paris in a nutshell.
The city that attracts more tourists than any other in the world is both a cornerstone of medieval history and the cutting edge of modernism.
Hemingway lived here, ditto Picasso and Chopin. Artists like Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec certainly made an Impression while Louis Vuitton, Thierry Hermès, Christian Dior and Coco Chanel helped fashion the future.
Paris has seen revolutions galore and even more Michelin-starred chefs, since the Belle Époque spread its grandeur and largesse across the four decades that preceded World War One.
And yet, it’s the light touch that really counts, the pretense that nothing matters when in fact everything is riding on the slightest shrug of the shoulders or the merest twitch of a moustache.
Whether Paris has a sense of humor is open to question; it does, however, have more punch lines than any other city in the world.
For those seeking hauteur, let’s start with the world’s most famous wrought-iron edifice—the Eiffel Tower. Gazing watchfully over the left (south) bank of the River Seine and the Champs de Mars, one of Paris’ many classical parks, it was built to a height of 1,063 feet by the eponymous engineer Gustav Eiffel as an exhibit for the 1889 World Fair. For the next 41 years, until completion of the Chrysler Building in New York City, it was the world’s tallest man-made structure. Visible from most vantage points across the city, especially at night when its girders sparkle hourly like fairy lights on a Christmas tree, it seems hard to believe the original plan was to dismantle it in 1909. Ultimately, that proved impossible and its permanence is underlined by its standing today as a social center as well as a tourist attraction. Not only is it home to a panoramic champagne bar, but also a popular brasserie and the Jules Verne restaurant.
Running the Eiffel Tower close as the city’s iconic skyline image is the Arc de Triomphe war memorial, at the apex of the Champs-Elysées avenue that begins a couple of miles to the east at the Louvre Museum on the right (north) bank, before marching through the Place de la Concorde, the city’s largest square. This is a journey televised worldwide each year on the last Sunday in July when the Tour de France cycle race reaches its ceremonial conclusion.
There can be no more fitting climax to this sporting ordeal than the Arc de Triomphe which took more than 30 years to complete having been commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to mark his 1806 victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Today it predominantly commemorates the fallen of two World Wars with the symbolic grave of the Unknown Soldier located below the center of the arch. At the heart of a configuration of 12 radiating avenues, it also provides a window on Parisian driving techniques. The unmarked traffic island creates anarchy—have an accident here and it’s automatically 50/50 on the insurance claim, no matter who’s at fault!
Those pursuing other architectural gems could easily spend their entire time ticking off the plethora of churches and museums with which the city abounds. At the top of Montmartre, a hill in the northern part of Paris much beloved by pavement artists, coffee drinkers, time-warp hippies and, incongruously, night-clubbers, stands the magnificent Sacré-Cœur, a Roman Catholic church topped off by a gleaming white basilica and the largest bell in France, the 19-tonne La Savoyarde. Begun in 1875 after the Franco-Prussian War and the chaos of the Paris Commune, the Sacré-Cœur was seen as a symbol of the former struggle between the conservative old guard and secular, republican radicals. Finally consecrated in 1919, it certainly provides a stark contrast to the bohemian lifestyle that surrounds it.
The city’s dominant religious establishment, though, is the Notre-Dame, a Catholic cathedral completed in 1345 and brought vividly to life by Quasimodo, the central character in Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Built on the Île de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine, to its north is the Pompidou Centre, a modern-day cultural complex named after former president Georges Pompidou, and to its south the Latin Quarter and Sorbonne University. The views from Notre-Dame’s 220ft towers are especially evocative on a cloudy day when the skies spin a moody hue across the Seine.
One other church that cries out for attention is Sainte-Chapelle, also on the Île de la Cité, but it is best saved for a sunny day, when Paris’ oldest stained glass is at its dazzling best. This exquisite Gothic monument was completed in 1248, just six years after the first stone was laid.
Museums are everywhere in Paris but few feel like mausoleums. Leading the way is the Louvre, home to two of the art world’s greatest treasures—Leonardo da Vinci’s enigmatic Mona Lisa portrait and the armless Greek marble Venus de Milo sculpture—along with a security system to match.
Across the river, on the left bank, the old Orsay train station was converted into the Musée D’Orsay in 1986 to house Impressionist paintings and Art Nouveau baubles. The best vantage point here is the café behind the museum’s giant transparent clock.
Meanwhile, The Thinker can be found in contemplation just south in the gardens of the Musée Rodin while other “culture vulture” ports of call include the Opera Garnier, Grand Palais and Petit Palais on the right bank, near the Place de la Concorde and its defining Luxor Obelisk, and the Hôtel des Invalides, built in the 1670s by Louis XIV to house 4,000 disabled war veterans. A mob broke into this building on July 14, 1789 and seized 32,000 rifles before heading to the prison at Bastille and triggering the start of the French Revolution.
The serious sites aside, Paris is universally recognized as a gastronomic, sporting and shopaholic paradise, and, of course, a bastion (if not Bastille) of light entertainment.
Where else would the can-can ladies of the Folies Bergère and the warblers of the windmill-coiffed Moulin Rouge rub shoulders harmoniously with the world’s pre-eminent opera singers and orchestras? Indeed, all work and no play really would make Jacques a dull garçon, and Paris certainly isn’t in the business of being dull.
Sport is one business of special interest to Parisians as they await the 2024 Olympic Games and all of the spin-off legacy benefits. Between now and then, though, the Stade de France in the north of the city will continue to host soccer and rugby union internationals and Roland Garros in the west the annual grand slam tennis championship. Golf National, venue for the 2018 Ryder Cup, will remain the home of the French Open while Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne park, also to the west, hosts one of the world’s greatest horse races—the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.
For visitors keen to explore beyond the city limits, a short drive west brings you to the palace at Versailles, where Louis XIV moved his court in 1682, while, for visitors with kids, a similar journey to the east leads to EuroDisney.
Shopping in Paris these days goes beyond couture-lined boulevards, Printemps high-street stores, produce markets and centers like the Montparnasse tower in the south (the city’s second tallest building) and the Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. Much of the good stuff is to be found in emerging shopping neighborhoods like Marais, Rue du Château d’Eau in the 10th arrondissement (boroughs are called arrondissements in Paris), and Les Halles in the center.
Parisian dining may have become more casual in the last few years, but dinner for two at Michelin-starred spots like Le Clarence, Dame de Pic and Restaurant Sylvestre at Hotel Thoumieux will still set you back at least $400. More sensible is a table for lunch when the same establishments rarely stretch their charge beyond $150.
Other culinary attractions include Roger la Grenouille on the Rue des Grands Augustins where frogs can be seen in the window, Fromagerie Quatrehomme which is famous for its goat’s cheese, the Ladurée patisserie just off the Champs d’Elysées, and Alain Ducasse’s chocolate factory near Bastille.
The chicest watering hole has to be the Bar Hemingway behind the Hotel Ritz while those with literary pretensions can lose themselves for a few hours in La Belle Hortense in Marais where the walls are lined with bottles, books and manuscripts. Les Deux Magots on the Boulevard St. Germain, a beloved haunt of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, is also recommended.
For those of a more morbid disposition, Paris is choc-a-bloc with cemeteries, though the Catacombs, laid out some 60ft below the south of the city to stop disease spreading, are by far the spookiest attraction. Those who embark on this chilling stroll along miles of tunnels are warned not to steal any of the bones: Yorrick might look good on the mantelpiece but guards check your bags on the way out.
But it’s not just Parisians who are buried in Paris. Oscar Wilde once wrote: “When good Americans die, they go to Paris.” That might not apply to every good American, but Jim Morrison, the lead singer of The Doors, is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in the northeast and his grave has been a shrine for mourning rock fans since his demise in 1971.
Paris is a city that resonates with ghosts and memories, transcends the ages and sets the world’s cultural agenda. As Humphrey Bogart said to Ingrid Bergman, with grim insouciance, at the end of Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.”