Growing up in a small mountain village in the South of France, a trip to Paris always feels like a big deal. Whenever I walk around the grand boulevards, amongst the elegant people, I feel that the little girl who used to run around forests and sing La Marseillaise on the 14th July with the other urchins with a flickering flame in her hand, has finally made it to the big city.
The grey buildings of Paris, like stark Plane trees are dwarfed by the cold winter sky. Little flecks of color, little children’s balloons pepper the skyline. These love necklaces, chained to the bridges, a homage to the City of Amour and to the people who make it so special. The bells are there and all I am missing is Esmeralda as we cross over the waters to Notre Dame’s twin turrets. So many gargoyles, their mouths salivating as the rain stains the facade. Inside the darkness we look up to blue light, red light, flowers and rainbows. Orange glows from Virgin Maries lined up row on row.
An ornate Royal Palace stands side by side with the world’s most modern creations. A pyramid of glass, the only window into a modern world which Paris has stayed so aloof from. The vaults are detailed and made of intricate stone masonry but the entrance is guarded by steel and technology. A maze of treasures awaits us. Things only whispered about and stuff of legends, all found here side by side, each one more marvelous than the next. The Winged Victory of Samothace, one of the great surviving masterpieces of sculpture from the Hellenistic period, and from the entire Greco-Roman era. The statue shows a mastery of form and movement which has impressed critics and artists since its discovery. It is considered one of the Louvre’s greatest treasures, and since the late 19th century it has been displayed in the most dramatic fashion, at the head of the sweeping Daru staircase. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, a woman with a God like gaze. There are dozens crowded round, and everyone’s stares are returned like a mirror. But perhaps she isn’t starring at me or the gaggle of tourists in front of her, taking her picture and marvelling at her beauty. Perhaps she is gazing behind us all, at the guests of the wedding which adorns the entire back wall. Perhaps the curators felt they should do this for her, give her a room with a view, just in case she were actually alive. A masterpiece fit for a masterpiece.
The water of the Seine is green but verging on silver. It is still, but as the water hits the banks, I can see that underneath the calm there is a strong force at work. The streets are gridded. Waiters in la tenue de soiree de rigeur. Monsieur, Madame. The French will stand and talk around a table of drink and nibbles for hours. Strong coffee, black and cigarettes. The speeches are done and dusted.Blink and you will think you are in a different room – bottles are popped, chin chin. Handfuls of food, laughter and a great time. Don’t hesitate or be polite, the time for that is over and everything now is fare game. Lunch at the oldest restaurant in the world, Le Procope a place of literature, thought and revolution. Through arcades and colourful shops.
Down from the depths of Pigalle, with its red lights and blacked out facades. Wind up, up the hill, passed the XXXs and the high walls which keep so many secrets. This is the place where…apparently the swingers were…Le Moulin Rouge, like a bright red rose, grows like a forbidden flower in a forest of grey stone. We wind up, the streets are narrow and the house slant. A square of artists, wooden easels and berets. A cliche and one which I have spent good money to see. Colourful umbrellas and plastic protects the masterpieces from the little droplets of rain which could each turn into full blown rivers of colours. Then we emerge and the prize for our uphill journey is priceless. A 360 view over the whole city enjoyed night and day by a domed Cathedral, which shins bright white in spite of the lack of sun. The King of the Castle and what a privilege to share his seat of power for this moment.
Down the step steps, passed the Couroussel. The metros are rancid and smell. Do not sit down and don’t touch anything. Again from the dark corridors we emerge into a grand boulevard. The famous Champs Elysee. Beautiful restaurants, Gallerie La Fallette, shops galore. This time it is the roundabout which is the focus. An arch inscribed with names, to mark victory but also to remember the sacrifice and price that it cost. A flame burns and will always burn there and when the young no longer know or remember, the inquisitive will ask “What is that flame” and the question alone be enough to rekindle the past. The Tricolor, she shouts out and has never been prouder.
Passed Chocolatiers and Hippos made from chocolate and Patisseries with flutes full of cream, we make our way to the tower of iron, the backbone of the Republic itself. Built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, this centre piece of the World’s Fair was built according Mr Eiffel himself “not only the art of the modern engineer, but also the century of Industry and Science in which we are living, and for which the way was prepared by the great scientific movement of the eighteenth century and by the Revolution of 1789, to which this monument will be built as an expression of France’s gratitude.” Now off to bed, for tomorrow Versailles and hopefully the sun! 🙂