Travel Writing: Paris

Paris is a city that exists in the mind long before you visit. As the setting of literary classics, Hollywood romances and children’s adventures, the iconic images of the city flood your imagination before you even arrive: the Eiffel Tower’s spire, the stately arch of the Arc de Triomphe, the glitter of the Seine at night. On the flight over, practicing my halting French as we cross the surprisingly turquoise English Channel, I am excited to see this city that already feels familiar for the first time.

I check into my hostel in Montmartre. Historically a popular haunt for artists such as Van Gogh and Toulouse Lautrec, it now feels both like a tourist hotspot and a homely, comfortable neighbourhood. I am a short metro ride from the hectic atmosphere of central Paris as is bustles with tourists and commuters, but just across the street the enormous, bright-white domes of the Sacre-Coeur peek between the apartment buildings. I’m here to meet up with friends, one of whom is studying in Paris for the semester, and after a short pause in a café to catch up, the Sacre Coeur is our first port of call. We take the easy option and ride the cable car up Montmartre’s substantial hill, and are rewarded for our minimal effort with stunning (and free) views of the urban sprawl of Paris. We follow this with a walk through historical Montmartre. Littered with painters producing watercolours of Paris’ most famous sights and small shops selling prints of Alphonse Mucha and Van Gogh’s art, it is pleasantly touristy while retaining it’s small-neighbourhood charm in the neon-signage of its café’s, skinny cobbled streets and can-can dancer murals.  In a quiet lane we find signs detailing Van Gogh’s time living in this once-vibrant creative hub, and are reminded of this neighbourhood’s rich history.

With the help of my thankfully French-speaking friend we navigate Paris’ dense metro system, pop out on the other side of the Seine, and head to a place that retains almost mythical status in the mind of English Literature students: Shakespeare and Company. This small, English-language bookshop has the layout of a rabbit run, all extra rooms, low ceilings and hidden corners, dotted with comfortably-worn chairs, as well as a modest bed and a piano, in case you want to pause a little longer in this cosy, curious shop. We do, briefly, but we must move on, myself with a new (and slightly overpriced) book in hand.

Notre Dame is so iconic that it could almost be boring, but in person the intricate details of its architecture become apparent and fascinating: the exterior decorated with carvings of France’s medieval kings, the interior lit by glowing stained-glass windows in every colour. We arrived in the middle of mass, and the heavenly voices of Notre Dame’s choir added to this gorgeously peaceful way to end the day.

Our first stop next morning is the Louvre. I expect outrageous queues but am pleasantly surprised; we only wait 15 minutes in the courtyard before entering via its enormous glass pyramid. In three hours, we see nowhere near the entire collection – the Louvre is very big – but are impressed by both the world-famous artwork and the grandiosely ornate ceilings.

Having seen our fair share of gold and marble for the day – the Louvre was at one time one of France’s palaces and shows the greatest excesses of the pre-Revolution monarchy at its height – we walk up through the pretty Jardins du Tuilleries to the Musee de l’Orangerie, the centrepiece of which are eight enormous Monet’s spread across two rooms and curved to the walls in 360 degrees. The paintings are expansive and dreamlike, impressions of waterlilies and weeping willows in all shades of purples and greens. Surrounded by them in large, white oval rooms they are as impressive in atmosphere as they are in scale. We spend a long time here for such a small collection, happily taking it all in.

The walk up the Champs-Elysees is long, and our feet have already put in a lot of work going round the Louvre, but our next destination, the Arc de Triomphe, looms in the distance as we wind our way through the crowds outside the expensive shop fronts. The mood under the Arc is sombre, standing next to the tomb of the unknown soldier and its eternal flame. Even the underside of the Arc is intricate in its neoclassical detail, as impressive up close as it is on the Parisian skyline.

It takes some searching, but we find a reasonably-priced restaurant in Montmartre and enjoy enormous pizzas, accompanied by a restaurant cat who, despite my attempts to win her over in French, will not let me pat her. As the sun sets we walk up through Montmartre’s red light district, surrounded by lurid red and purple neon, and locals who are extremely relaxed, casual and, well, very French about this (by this, I mean they do not laugh at a shop called ‘Le Sexodrome’). We find the glowing red windmill of the Moulin Rouge, still a venue for cabaret shows, though not in our price range. Instead we take the metro to the banks of the Seine, and sit on the Pont de Bir-Hakeim (which my friend insists on calling ‘the bridge from Inception’) to see the Eiffel Tower glittering at night. Every hour, on the hour, hundreds of lights inside the tower flicker and it sparkles.

We spent most of our next day in the Musee D’Orsay, a converted railway station filled largely with impressionist and romantic art. This, to put it mildly, is my shit, and I can (and do) pour over the enormous canvases for hours. We spend a quiet afternoon in Le Marais, a trendy, student-y area, browsing bookshops and wandering through upmarket streets.

I feel a little sombre on the morning of my final day; I say goodbye to a friend who has to head home first thing in the morning, and the mood in Montmartre is slow and subdued; it is a Sunday, and almost nowhere is open outside the tourist spots. We head back to Le Marais and walk into the neighbouring Beaubourg to visit its highlight, le Centre Pompidou. This contemporary art complex covers several floors, and its ultra-modern design, all exposed, brightly-coloured pipes and tubes, reminds me of a children’s playground, or the board game Mousetrap. Their collection of contemporary art is impressive, encompassing many of the twentieth-century greats: Picasso, Kandinsky, Rothko and Duchamp, to name a few. The most impressive aspect, however, is the view from the roof terrace; the whole of Paris is spread out before you, from Sacre Coeur’s shining domes to Notre Dame’s ornate towers, to the shining glass of modern Paris far off in the distance.

Our next stop is a quiet favourite of mine; Pere Lachaise cemetery. Outside the street bustles with what seems to be one of Paris’ coolest markets, the vendors all sporting brightly-dyed hair and brilliant street fashion. But once we are beyond the gates, it is peacefully quiet, the sounds of the city blocked out by birdsong. The mausoleums of Paris’ historic great and good are ornately-carved, Gothic arches, often with beautiful stained-glass. I am astonished by the cemetery’s size, with its long crisscrossing paths marked with street signs, almost giving it the feel of a village. Again proving my role as a stereotypical English Lit student, we stop at Oscar Wilde’s grave, his headstone disappointingly now protected by glass to put an end to the tradition of leaving lip-stick kisses. I am pleased to see someone has tried anyway, applying lipstick to the carved, naked angel atop his monument.

The Latin Quarter in the South-East bustles with the students of Sorbonne University – and I’m delighted to discover that they too use eduroam, and that I can make use of their wifi. Here we visit Le Pantheon, the final resting place of France’s greatest figures since the French revolution. On ground level it is almost impossibly ornate, with enormous domes, classical murals and marble statues. The underground crypt is the sombre cream of the natural rock, and surprisingly cold. We search in vain for the only woman buried here, Marie Curie, but have to hurry out as it is almost closing time.  

We sit in the immaculately-tended Jardin du Luxembourg, watching ducks and toy boats circle each other in its impressive fountain as the sun sets. Aside from slightly dreading my 4am start to catch my flight the next morning, I am content. The real Paris is a little different to the fantasy version – busier, louder, more modern – but just as vibrant, exciting, and iconic.


[Clare Patterson – @clurrpatterson]

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