My fellow blogger, Heather, has been at it again, teasing me with stories and images of Paris. In a recent blog she has unveiled 5 more things not to miss when visiting La Ville Lumière; and to be honest, I think she has “nailed it”. Here, for the record, are my comments on her list.
6. La Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre
The “Wedding Cake” was almost as controversial when it was built as the Eiffel Tower, the Pompidou Centre, The Grande Arche and the Pyramid (du Louvre) were when each of them were visited on the citizens of the capitol. But Parisians have a way of learning to love their monstrosities. And so do I. Whether it was the elevation that drew me inexorably up to the summit of the Butte de Montmartre; or the brilliant white beacon of the basilica hypnotising me; I don’t know; but I found myself there on many occasions during my stays in Paris. In my view, this is the most picturesque part of the city; and while the Place du Tertre shamefully exploits its artistic past, there are so many quieter corners worth seeing that you will not question why those artists were attracted to the Butte.
The more popular area is to the west of the basilica; but those of stouter heart may be tempted to descend the eastern slopes, if only to find themselves in the infamous Rue de la Goutte d’Or, and the teeming streets that surround it.
On the subject of pickpockets, however, I endorse Heather’s warning and extend it to cover any part of the city where crowds, especially crowds of innocent tourists, gather. On one occasion, I agreed to accompany a young American woman to the Marché aux Puces (flea market) in Clignancourt. We had barely entered the area when she pounced on something she had seen and had to have; but a few minutes later, the joy of purchase was erased by the realisation that her wallet had been stolen from her bag. We approached a policeman and explained the situation as best we could to him but he simply shrugged and shook his head. There was no hope of finding the contents of the wallet now.
Another time, a colleague and I had made arrangements to hire a car in Paris and drive around France. I had already been in Paris for three weeks when she arrived from London by train. Following my directions, she caught the métro to St-Germain-des-Prés where we had arranged to meet in a café called Le Mabillon. Unfortunately, I didn’t direct her to beware of pickpockets and when she opened her backpack later that afternoon, she discovered that she had been robbed: passport, airline tickets, driver’s license, travellers’ cheques, cash, credit cards…all gone. We had a week before picking up the car and we spent it trying to see something of Paris in between recovering her documents. Fortunately, the Australian Embassy was near the Eiffel Tower; the airline was on the Champs Elysées near the Arc de Triomphe; American Express was near the Opéra…and so on. It was an interesting week. Beware of Pickpockets!
7. Musée d’Orsay
If I ever go back to Paris this will be way up at the top of my to do list for the simple reason that I haven’t been to Paris since it was converted into an art gallery from its former role as a railway station. Of course, I have already seen many of the works now housed there; and one in particular that Heather mentioned that is etched so deeply in my memory, for all the wrong reasons.
I had gone to the Jeu de Paume to see my very favourite Impressionist painting: Le Bal du moulin de la Galette by Renoir; and I was making my way up the broad, stone staircase to the room in which it was displayed when the air was rent asunder by the shrill cry of a young woman standing at the foot of the stairs, calling to her friend who was somewhere near the top: “Hey Charlene! Have you seen M’nay’s Lurrrnch on the Grayiss?” And from that moment forth, I can never think of Manet’s painting without also recalling that glass-shattering voice from south of the Mason-Dixon line.
If Montmartre is the most picturesque area of Paris, Montparnasse is anything but. There is nothing of note to see there except, perhaps, the Statue of Balzac and La Ruche; and I have it on good authiroty that even La Ruche is closed to visitors now. But one doesn’t go to Montparnasse to see it; one does there to feel it. Montparnasse is totally about the people who once lived there and the impact they made on the worlds of art, literature, music and dance. And that means that you really need to study its history beforehand to get the most out of it. But just imagine, sitting on the terrasse of one of the big four cafés on the Boulevard du Montparnasse near its intersection with the Boulevard Raspail in the heyday of this area. You order an aperatif and sit back to watch the passing parade. There goes James Joyce, sauntering along the boulevard, peering through his thick glasses, cane in hand, fedora on his head, chatting with his amanuensis, Samuel Beckett. At a table behind you, Hemingway is holding forth in monosyllables about his latest trip to Spain. Just then, Modigliani sways up to you and asks if he can sketch you for the price of a drink; just as Gertrude Stein sweeps past dragging Alice B Toklas behind her. Montparnasse! Okay, I might have jumbled the timeline here. But if ever there was a reason not to judge a book by its cover, it’s Montparnasse.
9. Château de Versailles
A few months back, my wife floated the idea of us taking a holiday in Europe sometime in the next couple of years (before I grow to old to travel!). My wife has never been to Western Europe before and Australia is about as far away from it as you can get so she thought she’d like to do all of it…and just get it over and done with. So, I went to a local travel agency and brought home some brochures, just to give her an idea of what could realistically be seen in the sort of timeframes that we might have available to us. But when I read the description of the Paris leg of one of the more likely tours, I was appalled. “After visiting the Chateau of Versailles, you will have a city tour of Paris and then you will have the afternoon free at leisure.” You have got to be kidding! I’ve been to Versailles twice, taking the train each time and spending the whole day there: once to see the Chateau and once to see the gardens; and I still haven’t seen all of it. Versailles is not like the “show house” of a new building sub-division. Make sure you give yourself some time.
10. Luxembourg Palace and Luxembourg Gardens
Apart from my first brief visit to Paris, when I stayed in a tent in a camping in the Bois de Boulogne; I have always found accommodation in either the 5th or 6th Arrondissement; and the Luxembourg Gardens is situated on the border between them. Consequently, it is the park I know best, having visited it more often than any other. In the summer of 1976, while Paris sweltered in a heatwave and there were reports in the press of televisions exploding, chocolatiers were complaining that their chocolate confections wouldn’t set, Perrier was unobtainable, Vichy too, and for the first time in history, the Garde Republicaine were allowed to man their posts outside the Presidential Palace in their shirtsleeves, I would take myself to the shady grove in the Luxembourg Gardens where the exquisite Medici Fountain presides over a long, still pool; and there I would find refuge from the heat, and the traffic and its fumes.
There is so much more to see in Paris than the brochures have to offer; but just being there right now would be enough for me.