In a pavement café nearby a man scribbles on a notepad, his cigarette jutting out precariously from his pursed lips as he breathes out smoke through his nostrils. With one arm dangling at the back of his chair, he holds his gaze on passersby as if prowling for inspiration. Not far away, a young couple canoodles on a park bench backdropped by the Eiffel Tower, oblivious of the street artist sketching away their fervid affection. I sip on a Bordeaux, wondering if I’ve just caught the ghosts of Hemingway and Picasso.
It is early July, and the buttery aroma of warm croissants rolls on the soft summer breeze. The bistro’s terrace buzzes with multilingual tete-a-tetes of lounging tourists and locals. I cut through my filet mignon slowly, letting its pink juices spill into the buttery pepper sauce before I raise a tiny piece to my mouth. Though tempted to devour it quickly and ravenously, I slice it with carefulness better suited to retouching a valuable Renaissance painting. In a city that has been perfecting beauty and l’art de vivre since the reign of Napoleon III, it would be a shame not to take pleasure in both fine things and the mundane. Even the crisp-collared waitresses across me glide with elegance, like ballerinas dancing to the cadence of porcelain cups tapping against saucers, between neatly arranged tables.
Paris induces a trance-like obedience in its visitors, making them slow down, listen to the street jazz musicians and appreciate the sensual details of nearby statues. It inspires non-poets to scribble a line or two, as it did some of the world’s greatest painters and writers, like Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Scott Fitzgerald and James Joyce. Everywhere I look is a head-spinning array of historical monuments and architectural wonders- centuries-old cathedrals, chandeliered chateaus and museums filled with the world’s greatest masterpieces. While it may take a lifetime to fully experience Paris, here are five things to do to at least scratch the surface:
1.) See the Eiffel Tower at night
Ditching my backpack at a graffiti-covered hostel with cracked front door glass, I rush out to catch a Metro to the Eiffel Tower. To see the iconic landmark, especially at night, has to be anyone’s first order of business in the City of Lights. As I step out of the carriage, the streets are in full swing. Chicly dressed tourists saunter on the sidewalk. Brasseries are filled with men and women deep in wine and conversation. Then I see it, a wondrous vision bathed in ethereal, golden light. The Eiffel Tower soars a thousand feet into the sky, looking like a sparkling rocket of iron lacework. I pause to admire its imposing presence. How on earth did I get lucky?
It is hard to imagine that Parisians were initially against it. In 1889, on the 100th anniversary of the French Revolution, Engineer Gustave Alexandre Eiffel completed this elegant, 320-meter tall signature skyscraper as a temporary exhibit for the World Fair. It was publicly denounced as useless and monstrous by a group of artists and intellectuals, and was already scheduled for demolition in 1909 until the government saw its potential as a transmitter of telegraph and converted it into a grand science laboratory for radio communications and weather research. Over the years, research and innovations conducted at the Eiffel Tower have brought dramatic payoffs, saving it from becoming a pile of scrap. During World War I, for instance, the French Army used the tower to intercept the German communications, which led to the arrest of a notorious spy. Today, the Eiffel Tower attracts around seven million visitors each year, making it the most visited paid for attraction in the world.
2.) Douse yourself in art at the Louvre Museum
The grandeur of Musee du Louvre is impossible to ignore. Lining up to enter the massive glass pyramid at the center of the courtyard, I let my eyes survey the palace buildings around the museum, moving across its ornate walls and intricately carved pediments inch by inch. Set into the stone facade high above the ground are statues of angels and noted French scholars, looking like stalwart guardians of the palace, which was originally built as a fortress by King Philippe-Auguste in 1190. In the 16th century, it was reconstructed into a royal residence, and was expanded many times to become the astounding palace that it is today. When King Louis XIV moved his household to Chateau Versailles in the 17th century, the Louvre became a grand museum that exhibited the royal collection and artifacts.
My predicament is that an entire day seems insufficient for the staggering collection inside the museum. Besides masterpieces from neighboring countries like Italy, Greece and Spain, the Louvre also houses artworks from Africa and the Middle East. When Napoleon Bonaparte rose to power in the 18th century, he demanded art pieces from the countries he conquered. Acclaimed paintings, Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, each piece silently tells a story of the bygone era’s opulence and tragedy.
With strained eyes and aching feet, I follow the signs pointing to the mysterious lady who attracts nearly 10 million visitors each year. Deep into the endless labyrinth of paintings, Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” sits behind a bulletproof glass, flanked by guards. She is lovely; her enigmatic smile fades and reappears, depending on my viewpoint. She is much smaller than everyone thinks she is, only 21 by 30 inches, but inarguably the most famous among the 35,000 artworks displayed inside the world’s largest museum. I would pay much more to see her in solitude, but with a crowd constantly battling for a good photo with her, I know it is one hopeless wish.
3.) Climb the bell tower of the Notre-Dame Cathedral
Without blinking an eye, I try to figure out which biblical events are depicted by the intricate carvings on the three large portals of Notre-Dame Cathedral. I only recognize two: the resurrection of Jesus and the coronation of the Virgin Mary. The angry-looking gargoyles perched atop the bell towers seem displeased at my ignorance. At the center of the façade, a large rose forms a halo around the sculpture of the Holy Mother, who carries the baby Jesus and is flanked by two angels. I join the queue at the entrance, stealing glances at the statues of Israelite kings carved right above the portals.
Soaring 223 feet into the sky, the Notre-Dame Cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture, a style that originated in France during the Middle Ages and is characterized by pointed arcs, ribbed vaults and flying buttresses. The construction of the edifice began in 1163, under the reign of Louis VII, and was completed in 1345. The grand Cathedral has played host to many religious ceremonies and historical events, such as the coronation of Emperor Napoleon I in 1804, the wedding of King Henry IV to Margaret of Valois in 1572 and the canonization of Joan of Arc in 1920.
Inside, I stroll along the pews, oftentimes pausing to admire the curves and contours of the vaulted ceilings and the elaborate carvings of the Stations of the Cross. In a rainbow burst of colors, the stained glass windows above filter the sunshine through images of Jesus, the Apostles, saints and martyrs.
Puffing heavy breaths as I climb up the tower, I somehow keep a lookout for a hunchbacked man moping in a dark corner near the 300-year old bell. The Cathedral’s imposing towers became legend because of 19th century novelist Victor Hugo, who wrote the classic “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in 1829 with the intent of saving the gothic church from neglect and demolition. Of course, there is no monstrous man at the tower, just statues of grimacing demons and chimeras staring out into the city, petrified over time. Expecting a nice bird’s eye view of the city, I am not disappointed. The tower perhaps has the best view of Paris, and I can clearly see the Eiffel Tower, Louvre, Pantheon, Arc de Triomphe and Sacre-Coeur Basilica in Montmartre.
4.) Indulge in some royal scandal at Chateau Versailles
“King Louis XIV and his wife Marie Therese were actually first cousins,” says a tour guide in her thick French accent, eliciting gasps of shock from a group of Asians. I run my fingers on the pink marble walls of the Grand Trianon, an elegantly proportioned single-storey mansion located near the main palace of Versailles. Outside, geometrically arranged beds of orange and purple flowers nod and sway in the light breeze. “King Louis XIV housed one of his mistresses, Madame de Montespan, here at the Grand Trianon. Rumor has it that he also had an affair with his brother’s wife!” the guide continues, raising a finger across her lips.
For the French peasants in the 17th and 18th century, the Chateau Versailles was an offensive display of opulence and power. In 1661, King Louis XIV transformed his father’s hunting lodge into a grand palace and gardens, with the intent of creating a place where his court could live under his watchful eye. So costly it nearly wiped out the treasury of France, the apartments of the palace are lavished with countless paintings and sculptures, velvet draperies, carpets, gilded bronze, chandeliers and large mirrors, which were staggeringly expensive back then. The Chateau Versailles was the seat of political power in the Kingdom of France from 1682, when King Louis XIV moved the royal court from the Louvre, until 1789, when the royal family was forced to return to central Paris at the beginning of the French Revolution. Three generations of self-glorifying kings lived here: Louis XIV, XV and XVI, each spinning their own brand of scandals that fueled the public hatred, which eventually led to the decapitation of the youngest Louis and his wife Marie Antoinette in 1793.
5.) Retrace the steps of Hemingway and Picasso in Montmarte
Deftly moving the bow across the strings, a grizzly old violinist in a dirty beret serenades strollers on a crowded street in Montmartre. Tourists munching on overpriced crepes line the staircase that reaches up to the sparkling white Basilica of Sacre Couer, whose domes curve like women’s breasts pointing to the sky. I make my way up the hill to find Place du Tertre, a small square frequented by Pablo Picasso and Ernest Hemingway during the decadent years of Post WWI Paris.
Montmartre is a large hill on the outskirts of Paris known for the white-domed basilica on its summit and as a nightclub district. At the beginning of the twentieth century, flocks of artists including Vincent Van Gogh, Henri Matisse, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Pablo Picasso had studios here because of the low rent and the congenial atmosphere. The neighborhood also fueled the creative fires of expatriate writers such as Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway, who was so enamored with Paris he wrote a few books about it.
Today, artists are banished to outdoor sheds because of skyrocketing rent. Art studios have been replaced with gaudy nightclubs, souvenir stores and sex shops that sell unimaginable things. Past a street of pimps who discreetly invite passersby for a “boom boom”, I find the legendary Moulin Rouge, a cabaret known for its extravagant circus-like shows and overflowing champagne. Here, courtesans in exotic feathered costumes popularized the can-can dance, a high-energy dance that involves high kicks, jump splits and cartwheels. The Moulin Rouge eventually became a symbol of Paris’ exciting nightlife during its most glorious years, when arts and festivities combined and life was all about beauty and pleasure.
OTHER PLACES TO SEE IN PARIS:
Arc De Triomphe