Respirer Paris, cela conserve l’ame. –Victor Hugo (Breathe in Paris, it nourishes the soul.)
Ever since I was little, I had had a special longing for Paris. Maybe that’s why when I finally got here, to a pretty fifth-floor apartment in Montmartre, I immediately felt like I’ve come home. Paris makes you a bit dreamier, happier…like falling in love.
We started most mornings with a jog around Montmartre, finishing with runs up and down the stairs to Sacre Coeur. Afterwards we broke fast with a fresh baguette, still hot from the oven–sometimes tearing off a piece on the way back (comme il faut). If we were going out later in the afternoon, I would work on Peaceful Dumpling and then sit on the patio with my journal, drinking hot chocolate–and noticing different colors and lights by the time of day.
Our neighborhood of Montmartre in the 18th arrondisement, on the north side of Paris, was my favorite by far. At the foot of the magnificient Sacre Coeur, there are narrow cobblestone streets lined with old-school cafes, bistros, and brasseries, gourmet groceries, charming boutiques at every turn. At the turn of the century this was the favorite haunt of artists like Van Gogh, Monet, Picasso, Modigliani, and of course Toulouse-Lautrec. Renoir’s Bal du moulin de la Galette depicts a Sunday afternoon dance here. Even today the air feels freer and more bohemian here. At night you can hear students and young people singing and laughing in the streets until dawn.
One Saturday night we passed by this “Soiree Vide Tes Poches” (Empty pockets night)–basically, their version of Hipster Special. 1 Euro wine or beer! When it’s like this, no one is drinking inside–you bring your drink out to the street.
One of our first stops was the Louvre, where we paid hommage to the Big Three of course (Venus di Milo, Winged Victory, and Mona Lisa). But the pleasures of the Louvre isn’t just in the most well-known works. This light-filled Renaissance gallery, where pictures are hung with visible cords, for example…
Or finding the other Renaissance gems in La Gioconda Room (named after Mona Lisa), like this Woman with a Mirror by Titian. Did you know that right behind the Mona Lisa is Giorgione’s Pastoral Concert?? Yet no one was taking any notice. I loved saying hello to paintings that feel like my old friends.
Another big name on our list of the Chateau de Versailles, easily reachable by taking a train from Gare St. Lazare (which still looks similar to when it was painted by Monet). The interior of the chateau, while lavish, was also overwhelmingly crowded and somewhat claustrophobic. We found relief in the huge gardens with its manicured lawns and Baroque chamber music playing softly from the mazes. It surprised me how much I enjoyed this austere French-style garden–but maybe thought of the royals’ skirts rustling on the gravel, and underneath the shadows of the maze, also played on my romantic imagination. I would come back to Versailles, just to visit the gardens again.
We went down to the Seine at least every other day since it’s near most important monuments and neighborhoods. Here, a late afternoon view from Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris.
Near Pont Neuf, on the Ile de la Cite, is the “heart” of Paris, the Notre Dame. On our first day, we literally stumbled into it as the bells pealed at sunset. It is equally gorgeous at night. Unlike other beautiful cathedrals I’ve visited in the U.S, Notre Dame feels still very much alive, and not just because it’s a tourist attraction, either. Everywhere in Paris I noticed this about historical places, that everything old seems to blend so seamlessly into the life of the city.
I think Paris might be called the City of Lights because at night, the lights reflecting on the Seine makes everything twice as brilliant. It’s truly wonderful and to best enjoy this, we hopped on a boat that took us from one end of Seine to the other.
One of my favorite things about Paris was the view of the Eiffel Tower. There is something about it that moves just about anyone–even the most cynical, travel-weary or cold-hearted person could not remain untouched by the sight of Eiffel Tower at night.
I’ve heard that the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) is considered the more elegant of the two sides. Here you can find the Latin Quarter, La Sorbonne, the Luxemburg Gardens…
And nearby, you can walk down the St. Germain-de-Pres Boulevard and end with a coffee at the famous Cafe de Flore, the haunt of Simone de Beauvoir and her lover Sartre. Not coincidentally I had just finished Beauvoir’s The Woman Destroyed before leaving for Paris. That makes for grim, moody piece of reading right before Paris. But Cafe de Flore is anything but grim–these intellectuals must have really had a penchant for pessimism. 🙂
If Rive Droite lays claim to the Louvre, Rive Gauche has Musee d’Orsay, home to a vast collection of Salon, Impressionist, and Post-Impressionist paintings where you can get lost for hours in the galleries.
When you’re tired of seeing monuments, swing by trendy Le Marais or Ile St. Louis for some shopping! There are flower shops, artisan bakeries, cafes, boutiques, art galleries to your heart’s content. Of course, those are things that you can find in any so-called hip places nowadays. (Ever notice how every single “36 hours in…” piece in the NYTimes looks exactly the same?). Paris is truly special though. Maybe it’s the ever-changing light. Maybe it’s the beautiful people (yes, they are really, exasperatingly, very pretty). Maybe it’s the sound of accordions and violins on every street corner, playing ridiculously charming French tunes. Maybe it’s the smell of fresh baguette and taking the time to sit in a cafe with a friend. Time seems to stretch longer here, and in the best of ways. But I think it’s that it makes you think about the things in life that matter to you, and somehow allows you to escape into your own world and still feel very much a part of a larger world at the same time. Perhaps this is why it feels so good to my soul.
Have you been to Paris? Tell me about your favorite memories! (p.s. I still have 2 days left!)
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Photo: Peaceful Dumpling