© Copyright 2003 by Andrea Bastone
Touted as the "City of Lights", Ernest Hemingway wrote, "It's the aura of personal discovery that has always been the most compelling reason to come to Paris."
I love Paris. It was our third visit to Paris. My husband and I and my best friend and her husband, who had just turned fifty, decided to celebrate his birthday there. This was their first time to Paris (and Europe) for both of them. We had a lead on an apartment and decided that leasing it for the week was a better idea, financially, plus, emerging ourselves into a neighbourhood would gave us a deeper feeling for the Parisian lifestyle.
Paris is divided into twenty municipalities called arrondissements that work spirally clockwise from the centre of Pairs. The numbers of the districts are marked on the street signs. We rented a two room fully contained apartment in the 14th arrondissement locally known as the Montparnasse. Never really highlighted in travel books, our district is a traditional working class area. An area where, in the early part of the twentieth century artists and writers flocked to for inspiration and refuge. The cafes and studios in the 14th were once the homes of Hemingway, Fitzgerald and cohorts. The bohemian lifestyle became synonymous with Paris and many of the famous literary cafes, including La Rotande, Le Select and La Coupole still exist. It's an eclectic district away from the hustle and bustle of tourist Paris.
Our flat was a traditional Parisian flat, a spiral staircase walk-up (72 stairs to be exact), double French windows in each room, that were graced with wrought iron balconies opening onto the very busy Ave du Le Clerc. Our neighbourhood was full of markets that fortified us daily with French specialties. A treat for the eyes the overflowing displays of fruit, meat, breads, cheese and fresh baked pastries greeted us each morning. The different smells that came from the shops were appetite enticing and the markets strolls became a wonderful routine. Two different permanent outdoor markets (food being the object of worship in Paris) selling a myriad of items from cheese to rabbits, were displayed to perfection. An incredible array of seafood, poultry and game hung from hooks, different from our markets at home. The stall proprietors could be heard blocks away inviting customers to come and buy their products because they were the best. A discount shop, just down from our apartment provided our staples like local wine, cheese and hourly fresh baked baguettes for our evening breaks that we purchased each evening on the way home. On sore feet and after long and busy days walking and exploring this magical city, it was a comfortable thought to have our own private Parisian haven to stagger home to.
When deciding what to see while in Paris it was decided that we each pick a site that we really wanted to see. Because there are a plethora of sites to choose from it can overwhelm even the most discriminate traveller and, as seasoned Parisian travellers, we designated some places as "a must." Giving our friends input and making the planning a collaborative effort gave them ownership to their first experience and introduced us to some new places as well. A little pre planning ensured that we had very wonderful, full days in Paris.
So each evening, armed with a local wine in hand, we'd lay maps on the table, consider suggestion from Parisians and decide on our route and plans for the next day. Anything that had been missed because of time restraints or just pure weariness were either added to the next days itinerary or to our list for our next visit.
We mastered the Parisian metro system. A bit confusing at first, it was easy to learn and allowed us to maximize site seeing and the area covered in Paris. We learned that you can never get lost in Paris if you can find the Metro. It was a very cheap and efficient means of travel. We also found out, it's a great breeding ground for pickpockets (we had our wallet lifted), but that's another story.
Paris oozes history. Those hours spent in Social Studies finally made sense. Paris was conquered by the Romans in 55 BC. During the middle ages it prospered as a religious centre and the Sainte-Chapelle was built. The Sorbonne University was renowned as the best learning venue which lead to many European scholars to study there. In 1799 Napoleon Bonaparte installed himself as counsel and crowning himself emperor in 1804, set out to make Paris the most beautiful city in the world. He filled the city with grand monuments of his conquests. In 1814, Prussian, Austrian and Russian armies invaded France and a year later Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo. Many years later in 1851, Bonaparte's nephew assumed power and proclaimed himself Napoleon III. He hired a city planner to modernize the city, clearing all the slums and completed the sewers and aqueducts that the Romans started centuries before. Under his rule, Paris became the most magnificent city in Europe.
Therefore, how appropriate that we would start our first day at the Place De L'Etoile were the Arc de Triomphe is. We took the metro there getting our first view of the Arc as we climbed from the depths of the subway. This wonderful Roman arch was built at one end of the famous Champs-Elysees quarter. Erected to commemorate Napoleon's military high points, it was begun by the success of the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Wonderful, detail laden reliefs depict scenes of Napoleon's battles and victories. Twelve avenues radiate like a star from the arc, many named for famous military generals and battles. The unknown soldier's flame is here and all military ceremonies begin from this point. State funerals for famous Parisians, such as Victor Hugo and Ferdinand Foch, have been held here.
When you look from the Arc, towards the Louvre Museum and the Tuileries Gardens, you're looking down the Champs-Elysees, known throughout the world for its famous fashion houses, mansions and exotic automobile dealerships. It is a must to walk the Champs-Elysees that stretches from the Arc de Triomphe to the Place de Concorde (formally called the Place de Revolution, site of the busiest french guillotines). It is one of the most widely visited tourist areas in the world. If you travel three streets on either side and away from the main drag, you get a truer feel of the Parisian life.
Brownstones and iron balconies line the streets. Flower boxes over-flowing with brightly colour blooms decorate the otherwise colourless buildings. Little green corners of heaven act like park lands to these city dwellers. Unbeknownst to us, this area, closest to the Seine is called the Chaillot quarter. This area is wonderful to walk through. Many of the beautiful mansions in this area are occupied by embassies from around the world. People of all nationalities and wearing their country's traditional clothes can be seen strolling down the streets, sitting at cafes and playing with their children in the surrounding parks. The area is notorious for famous elegant cafes and the greatest concentration of museums in Paris.
We approached the Eiffel Tower walking through the Trocadero (also know as the Palais de Chaillot). The palais is a huge, curved pavilion with four museums, a cinema and the Cinematheque. On the terraces in front, spilling out to the Seine are several large sculptures, fountains and the Jardins du Trocadero. The great sweeping roadways from the terraces to the Seine is a favourite with skateboarders. They set up obstacle courses and routes. Watching them preform trick jumps and manoeuver is fascinating. From these terraces we saw our first view of the Eiffel Tower which dominates much of the sky line in this city of lights. Built for the World's Fair in 1889 by Gustav Eiffel, the tower was meant to be a temporary exhibit and is now the most recognizable symbol of Paris. More than 899 feet above the ground, the 360 degree, the viewing gallery leaves you breathless. On a clear day you can see upwards of 45 miles. I never tire of touring the Eiffel. Double decker elevators whisk you up to one platform, and another takes you to the top. There we viewed the vast outlay of Paris (incredible to view during sunset when the lights famous city monuments are lit are consecutively) and gave us a clearer idea of the lay out of the city. Saturated with visiting the Eiffel Tower we headed toward the Seine to grab a baguette filled with smoked meat and cheese from a street vendor. It was incredibly good and with a cold beer and sandwich in hand, we wandered along the river looking at the kiosks selling original paintings, jewellery and tacky souvenirs. As we neared the Latin District, the stalls changed to selling used books in various languages.
Walking along the river we crossed the Seine on a pedestrian only bridge where we persuaded a Parisian to take our picture with the beautiful Ile de Cite and Notre Dome in the background. Our next stop was the elegant Tuileries Quarter with its formal gardens, street arcades and, our destination, the world famous Louvre museum.
The Louvre was first built as a fortress built into the city wall in 1190. It was first opened to the public as a museum in 1793 and now houses one of the most important collections in the world. Many of the masters are shown here including the famous Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci, Marley Horses, a sculpture by Guillaume Coustou, The Lacemaker painting by Jan Vermeer and The Venus de Milo, sculptured in the Hellenistic age at the end of 2nd century BC. Painted ceilings, carved stairways and perfectly contoured courtyards make the Louvre more than just an art gallery. It's easy to get lost by following a wrong staircase or turning a corner and suddenly you are transformed from Ancient Greece to France, Italy or Mesopotamia.
In 1981 I.M. Pei, American-Chinese architect designed the glass pyramid which now designates the entrance of the museum. It caused a huge uproar with the Parisians when it erected. Over time they have accepted it. It allows natural light into the lobby of the museum and amazingly, doesn't take away from the facade of this wonderful building.
We tried to commit as much time as possible to the Louvre but the immense size and the sheer volume of art, sculptures and displays is overwhelming. The museum society created a "quick" visitors tours to allow tourists to visit all the "famous" works. On this visit we decided to follow the route saw the highlights. It was great for our friends since we had many more museums to see and didn't want to over whelm them. I've been so many times that my favourite past time is lying on the benches in the middle of display rooms, soaking up the atmosphere and looking at the most exquisitely painting ceilings. The ceiling work is a beautiful as some of the works on the walls. We stayed about four hours which is only enough time to Louvre, to fully appreciated it would take a lifetime.
After our full morning sight seeing and the afternoon at the Louvre we headed home. Still jet lagged and badly in need of a rest, we decided to retire early in hopes that we would be refreshed in the morning and ready for more exploring.
So, whether you start on the Ile de Cite, where the Seine weaves around the heart of Paris or in one of the districts, rich with history, exploring Paris is fun. We poked into alleyways, covered arcades and hotel lobbies. One of the things we always remember to do in Paris is to look up and enjoy the wonderful facades.
I'm always surprise after a visit to Paris how intimate and romantic the city feels.. It's a real user-friendly place. Even though Paris is home to more than 10 million people I never feel crowded. I'm comfortable walking the streets and it seems to have something for everyone.
Back home, while kicking back to relax and sip my wine
and nibble my cheese, with both double French doors opened to the cacophony
of streets sounds below, it's then that I realized Hemingway was right
- discovery is reason enough for coming to Paris.
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