Paris. How should I describe her to you? Her wide, sweeping boulevards, the grand elegance of her palaces, the perfect lines of her domes and spires and Gothic towers that rise gracefully against a cloud-flecked sky, her plane trees along the Seine whose black waters ripple gold in the spring sunshine, her sudden, quiet enclaves of green, her lanes and alleys and crowded pavements… The roaring traffic spewing throat-clutching fumes of pollution into the air, the sudden spatter of rain that sends the crowds scurrying for shelter, the chattering sparrows and busy pigeons… Sights and sounds and memories merge and melt and flow and create in my mind a collage as vivid and intricate as the stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle. Paris, for me, is a city like no other, where the heart and the mind come together like lovers who complement and complete each other, where one does not preclude the other, but rather, enhances and enriches. But words are not enough, never enough, to describe Paris. So let me not attempt the impossible; let me take you instead on a walk with me along her tree-lined avenues, and show you Paris as I see her, and maybe you too will fall in love.
First, of course, is the Eiffel Tower. Viewed close and personal, it is a monstrosity. It rises, tall and grey into the sky, looking as out of place as an alien spaceship. Viewed from a distance, though, it is transformed and restored – once more an icon and emblem, and the reference point around which I slowly map the rest of Paris.
This wasn’t my first view of the Eiffel Tower and really, its lack of charm was no surprise. What was surprising though, were the crowds. It seemed as though all of Paris had gathered there that afternoon – for a football game that was in raucous progress at the foot of the Tower. The noise was unbelievable, as was the traffic and the pollution and the complete unavailability of any kind of transport out of the madness. Taxis stood parked under a large blue sign that said ‘Taxis’ – but so what? Parisian taxi-drivers, if they do not wish to take you, are capable of ignoring your presence so completely that very soon you begin to question the fact of your own existence. Green and white buses passed by regularly, stopping dutifully at their stops, but so packed they were not taking on more passengers. As for the Metro – that was a nightmare. This couldn’t be Paris, the city of my dreams! But wait - all was not yet lost, for there was the Seine, steady and dark, and there below the bridge, the bright orange awning of a roadside cafe selling gaufre au chocolat, waffles with chocolate!
Waffles with chocolate was as far as our experimentation with French cuisine went (and strictly speaking, waffles are Belgian, not French). The French have not yet learnt to cook without adding pork or fish or chicken or some kind of dead animal to their food. So, for vegetarians, especially rabid ones like me, food in Paris is a big problem. We found some unexpectedly beneath the brooding towers of the Notre Dame - at a restaurant called Le Grenier de Notre Dame on the rue de la Bûcherie. It’s a tiny restaurant, its front overgrown with leafy shrubs and vines, its interior cramped and dim. But the food made up for my issues of space and light. Salads, lasagne, chickpeas, polenta - with a twist of France and a pinch of Paris!
A little way down the road was another hidden (and to me till then completely unknown) delight: Shakespeare & Company, a bookshop that is Mecca to readers and writers alike. I was led there, by a pleased and triumphant threesome grinning mysteriously at each other - ‘Surprise!’ they cried. And surprise indeed it was! An English bookshop in Paris, and no ordinary one at that! It is larger inside than outside, thus qualifying as a magic portal right away. The original bookshop, owned by an American, Sylvia Beach, was the first to publish James Joyce’s Ulysses. A comfortable sofa lay hidden in an enclave of shelves, and had I more time perhaps I would have used it. Another time, I said to the sofa, and reluctantly moved away.
Outside, across the road, stands the Cathedral. Stop here with me - there, let’s sit there, on that ledge that runs around the flowerbeds and rest our feet a while. Around us flow streams of tourists armed with cameras and guide books; they squint up at the soaring towers, and join the entry queue that meanders across the Square. I don’t like it inside – inside it is dark and dim and makes me gloomy; I am content to sit in the sunshine outside, in the massive presence of the Cathedral and to let my mind wander where it will.
Notre Dame de Paris, Our Lady of Paris. Once the heart and centre of Paris, it still, to my mind, exemplifies the spirit of the city. For me, this is more than a ‘stunning example of Gothic architecture’; it is a living, breathing presence. My thoughts turn to Quasimodo, Hugo’s hunchbacked bell-ringer and his love for the gypsy Esmerelda… A simple association of ideas makes me abandon my comfortable perch to squint up at the towers in search of the gargoyles, those grotesque creatures that are the stuff of nightmares. There they are, high up, silhouetted sharply black against the sky. I follow them round the side, dodging people and pigeons and squinting against the bright sun… As I turn the corner to the south, my eye is caught by the soaring spire and the delicate flying buttresses, whose lightness and grace never cease to surprise, no matter how many times I see them. I stand there silently and marvel at the hands and minds that created such beauty and such harmony.
Now – away from the Notre Dame, down the shady lanes of the Ile de la Cite, into the Latin Quarter with its bistros and discos and stands of roasting meat, past the narrowest house in Paris where once upon a time lived the Abbe Prevost, past the Sorbonne…till there, ahead of us, rises the perfect dome of the Pantheon. Its columned facade, modelled on that of the Pantheon in Rome, makes it look strangely out of place in Paris. Once a church to Ste Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, it is now a national monument and the burial place of some of France’s greatest citizens. Here lie the remains, amongst others, of Voltaire, Rousseau, Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, Marie Curie and Louis Braille. We enter. The interior is light and bright. The walls are hung with paintings, but my eye is caught by a slowly swinging brass ball suspended by a long strong wire from the centre of the dome. Foucault’s pendulum! First installed in 1851, this is a simple experiment to show that the Earth rotates on its axis. A circular table beneath the pendulum marks out the degrees of rotation; I notice that the pendulum is swinging along the line which marks zero. As the minutes pass the direction along which the pendulum swings rotates with the Earth’s rotation, and when I look at it again, fifteen minutes later, I see that the pendulum is no longer swinging along the zero line – the direction of its swing has changed by some 2 or 3 degrees. This is because the plane along which the pendulum swings remains fixed in space while the Earth rotates beneath it. It is a simple demonstration of a fact we take for granted today, but which mankind took centuries to realize and to prove. With space travel and Hubble and Stephen Hawking and Star Trek, we are perhaps inured to the wonders of this Universe and take them too much for granted. But as I stand there, in that quiet space full of grace and light, and watch the degrees of rotation increase with every passing minute, I feel my mind bending to the edge of insanity, and I understand why Man had to invent God – reality is too much for us mortals to handle without the toning effect of religion.
But then, if we can’t take Reality, in Paris there is always Art. The Venus de Milo, the Lady and the Unicorn, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, Monet’s Water Lilies, Rodin’s Thinker…Picasso, Braque, Dali, Magritte… they’re all there, the best that Western civilization has produced through the centuries. Walk with me, but walk in silence here, so that both heart and mind can gaze their fill undisturbed by words.
From Pigalle, walk with me up the steep narrow streets of Montmartre. We leave the traffic and the smoke behind as we climb higher and higher, to the Place Emile Goudeau and the Bateau-Lavoir, where we pause in reverent awe. Matisse, Modigliani, Utrillo … Braque, Picasso, Cubism… Les Demoiselles d’Avignon… the trees whisper in our ears as we resume our walk.
We climb higher and higher, till we reach the white, straight-out-of-a-fairytale Basilica of the Sacred Heart, the Sacre Coeur. From here, the highest point in Paris, I can see all of the city spread out before me. The bustle of Montmartre carries faintly up the hill; haze softens the skyline. Feet tire before the mind, and gratefully I sink down upon a step. Courting pigeons bow and bob around me, dodging feet and little children. An old man sets up his harp, and plays My Heart Will Go On; the music mingles with the crowd, and rising, silver sharp into the air, floats away down the hill to lose itself in the streets of Montmartre.