The door was already closing when we jumped into the packed train carriage, landing at an elderly gipsy who was in the middle of singing Lambada. The metro diva just sent us a toothless smile and carried on with her performance like a true professional, singing her lungs out to the upbeat tune oozing from her radio on wheels. This little woman seemed genuinely in her element standing squashed in between the commuters, happily entertaining her travelling audience. When the song finished, she elbowed her way through the crowd to collect the donations for her service, picked up her suitcase-karaoke combo and off she was to another carriage, to bring joy to the next lucky few. Welcome to Paris, city of art and surrealism.
The one problem that I usually have with travel to well-known places is the expectation of what it is going to be. Paris is one of those tourist-ridden must-dos that we’ve all seen terribly romanticised in all possible movies, photos and paintings. If someone asked me to compose music that best depicts the atmosphere of the French capital I would probably suggest something from Woody Allen’s soundtracks – jazzy, softly nostalgic, and make it heavy on contrabass and accordion. Now imagine my surprise at hearing EXACTLY that kind of music on every Parisian square!
I wouldn’t necessarily call Paris romantic, but it is certainly charming. If coming here you are imagining atmospheric cafes, intellectual conversations over a glass of wine and little side streets filled with vintage bookshops then you will be pleased to know that Paris delivers what it promised. When you get off Eurostar at Gare du Nord perhaps you won’t feel like you’ve been transported to the world of Amélie Poulain but if you lose yourself in some of the nearby alleyways you’ve got pretty good chances of finding a hidden gem.
I arrived in Paris last Friday exactly at noon. My 1.5 day stay started with a coffee at La Maison Bleue, nice little restaurant on the Place Franz Liszt, looking out on the beautiful Church of St. Vincent. By the time I finally managed to find the right square (I’ve got this habit of travelling without a map and asking locals for directions which does not seem to work in France where my version of “Franz Liszt” sounds completely different to the way the French pronounce it) my friend Tariq was already waiting for me. We have not seen each other since university and it was a lucky coincidence that my Bahraini friend happened to work for a Paris-based client at the same time I happened to spontaneously buy Eurostar tickets. After a quick catch-up over a coffee we started making our way to Gustave Moreau Museum.
We did a quick stop-over at Marche St. Quentin, one of the oldest and favourite covered markets in Paris, although, to be honest, on a Friday afternoon the market did not make the greatest impression.
Next on the list was Museum of Gustave Moreau, recommended by my friend Marcin, whom I was visiting that weekend. After the market fiasco, looking around the first floor of the artist’s house brought further disappointment. Sure, it was very interesting to see the rooms filled with beautiful furniture and paintings, I enjoyed imagining what life must have been like then (and remembering how short people used to be judging by the length of the beds) but nothing really stroke me there as fantastic. Not until I got to the second floor at least! Imagine meeting someone who seems pretty normal, just your ordinary guy going about his life like anyone else. And suddenly that person turns out to be an absolutely incredible painter who developed not one but A FEW signature painting techniques and produced dozens of breath taking art pieces that show the depths of his psyche through the biblical and mythological scenes he’s depicting in them! Not only were Gustave’s paintings stunning and made with unbelievable precision, but they were also filled with symbolism. Everything was there for a reason, every little detail thought through and perfectly conveying a hidden message. For a psychologist with a thing for meaning and symbolism the museum was like heaven! And to make my afternoon even better there were laminated hand-outs explaining each painting with some of the painter’s commentary taken from his diaries, as well as rows of framed sketches the artist made before painting his masterpieces. To make the whole experience even more fantastic, the artist’s house/workshop is said to be haunted by a writer and poet Andre Breton. I could have stayed there the whole day! But my list of things to see in 36 hours I was in Paris for was still quite long…
After the museum Tariq and I stopped by A La Mere De Famille, the oldest sweetshop in Paris. When I visited Rouen in France few years ago my friend took me to a place which sold those really amazing macaroons. I have been obsessed with finding the traditional almond macaroons but I could not get them anywhere. And here, out of the blue, a chocolate store we nearly missed sells the world’s best almond macaroons! Nothing tastes more like Paris than the soft yet crunchy, sweet and delicate macaroons. But the shop has something for everyone, from all kinds of chocolate to marzipan glazed animals. Even the act of buying itself was interesting – the cashier seats in an old wooden booth and rewards your purchase with a little chocolate coin of which flavour you can choose yourself.
Next stop: Anti-cafe, a fantastic creative workspace where the clients pay for the time they spend in this non-coffeehouse. For just 4€ you get an hour access to the internet and unlimited snacks and coffee (proper one, made by barista). And as an added bonus you get the company of all the beautiful, quirky people working on all sorts of creative things. Next time I get to work from home for few days in a row I might just come to Paris and hang out with this lot. Absolutely brilliant atmosphere!
Another inspiring place we went to was Shakespeare & Company. This charming bookstore located next to Notre Dame Cathedral, which strangely enough had a few anti-terrorist cars parked outside when we passed it, opened in 1951 as an English-language bookshop. George Whitman, the American founder of this unique place, initially called it Le Mistral (after the monastery that the building formerly belonged to, as well as after the little game the owner played pretending to be the only surviving monk living there). In 1964 George renamed the place to commemorate Shakespeare’s 400th birthday and to maintain the spirit of the original Shakespeare & Company set up at rue de l’Odeon by Sylvia Beach. Just like Beach brought together her contemporary writers (including James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, T.S. Eliot, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald), Whitman wanted to get the next Joyces and Fitzgeralds together in Paris. In order to do that, George offered a scheme in which prospective writers could come and live at his bookstore if only they promised to read one book each day, help few hours at the store and write a one-page autobiography. When his daughter Sylvia (I suspect the name was not the same as Beach’s by coincidence) took over after his death, she pushed her dad’s initiative even further by organizing various literary events at Shakespeare & Co. When asked about this truly unique place, George Whitman said: I created this bookstore like a man would write a novel, building each room like a chapter, and I like people to open the door the way they open a book, a book that leads into a magic world in their imaginations. I can’t think of a better way to describe his shop – the world’s most “soul-full” bookshop.
After feeling inspired came time to feel something a whole lot different. At 6 o’clock I said goodbye to my Bahraini friend to welcome my Polish friend, whom I was meeting at the Catacombs, known also as the World’s Largest Grave! I don’t want to bore you with history, so I will tell you a short (and slightly creepy) tale instead.
Once upon a time there were people who spent most of their time underground digging tunnels to get the deposits of limestone onto the surface. Years after the tunnels were no longer used, the Parisian authorities decided to make a “good” use of them. At the time (in the 18th century) Paris was struggling with a serious problem – they had too many dead people! The cemeteries were overflowing with the dead bodies, bones started being stored on top of each other creating two meter tall walls of death. Due to overcrowding and health hazard, as well as life risks (a house fell down under the weight of neighbouring pile of bones), it was decided that the older bodies will be excavated and moved to the empty tunnels left by the miners. And this is how the Catacombs came to being.
Entering this ossuary you are informed that it is not fit for those with “nervous disposition” (the information board actually uses these words exactly). I thought it referred to the bones and skulls I was going to see but entering the catacombs through a long and narrow spiral staircase that seemed to never end I had my doubts whether it wasn’t the descent into this graveyard that the board was referring to. Having managed my discomfort with the claustrophobic conditions I entered an underground room outlining the geography of the region and history of limestone mining. After few minutes spent exploring other similar rooms and outlines, the REAL catacombs finally started. Narrow and damp, dimly lit corridors led me to an entrance with a warning sign saying: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort”. So I was pretty much warned to be careful because I was entering the empire of death. I felt a little chill go down my spine.
And an empire of death it was! The creepy little corridors continued, only this time both sides were filled with bones and skulls. I was walking among the bodies of six millions dead Parisians! Hollow eyes with toothless smiles peered from every corner as I meandered through the sea of human remains. That memento mori theme was enhanced by plaques reminding the living to embrace life, carpe diem, and remember that fairly soon we will all turn into one of such skulls. Maybe this was the secret to Parisian’s famous joie de vivre? Maybe French schools send the little ones to the catacombs for school trips and thus produce a nation of life-loving hedonists? It could also explain why everyone in Paris is so skinny…
The macabre of the place was further amplified by skulls being arranged to form patterns, including a heart! It also didn’t help that at the exit a man checked my bag to see if I didn’t steal any human remains (which, as tempting as it was of course, I did not take). The catacomb-enthusiasts will be pleased to know that the communing with death experience can stay with you forever with the help of a souvenir from the gift-shop.
Who knows, if you’re lucky you may even get invited to one of the secret “let’s rave with the dead” kind of parties where people sneak in to the catacombs for a rave. Oh well, maybe next time.
After the grotesque experience Marcin and I headed for the well deserved glass of wine and a dinner. We found a cosy restaurant just by the Stravinsky Fountain, an eclectic installation of colourful sculptures representing works of the composer Igor Stravinsky. The day finished at Montmartre where my host kindly let me use his guest bed. Falling asleep to the relaxing sounds of Radio Fip, I recollected the beautiful weirdness of the past 12 hours.
I started the next day at Montmartre. I walked through the narrow streets of this artistic hub of the city, which was once home to Dali, Zola, Renoir, Modigliani, Picasso and other renowned artists (mostly due to low tax and wine produced by the nuns of Sacre Coeur). This hill in the 18th district (all the neighbourhoods in Paris are numbered) famous for the Basilica, took its name, which translates into “Mountain of the martyr”, from the beheading of Saint Denis in the 3rd century. Nowadays however Montmartre is famous more for its nightlife and the scandalous Moulin Rouge than for its holy beginnings. The nightclub known for its naughty cabaret and forbidden cancan was also regularly frequented by painter Toulouse-Lautrec, where he drunk bohemians’ favourite – absinthe (also known as the green fairy).
After a walk through the leafy square surrounding the Abbesses underground station, with its flea market, carousel and a live band performance, I went to the Wall of Love, or as French call it Le Mur Des Je T’aimes. This beautiful place was created from the initiative of Frédéric Baron, who went from one foreigner to another, collecting the I-love-yous in 300 languages. On the projects official site you can read: “In a world marked by violence and dominated by individualism, walls, like frontiers, are usually made to divide and to separate people and to protect them from one another. On the contrary, The Wall is a link, a place of reconciliation a mirror which reflects an image of love and peace”.
From the Wall I walked pass the Moulin de la Galette, which you may have seen on Van Gogh’s and Renoir’s paintings. This windmill is not only one of the last remaining testimonies to the district’s milling past, but also a symbol of galette, a special kind of brown bread which somehow contributed to the bohemian appeal of the area. Artist would come here to enjoy a different kind of bake over good wine in local restaurants which created perfect background to intellectual conversations.
Like the flâneurs of the 19th century French literature, I explored the streets of Montmartre, observing its everyday life. The richness of the food stalls selling fragrant produce to the locals provided a more literal explanation to why Balzac used to call the art of flânerie the “gastronomy of the eye”.
After breakfast at Des Deux Moulins, a local restaurant which became the film set for movie Amélie, my hunger for the magical nostalgia was only greater.
From Montmartre I took the metro to Père Lachaise cemetery, to see the graves of such great individuals like Chopin, Oscar Wilde and Molière. Apparently, when the authorities first suggested this location for the new cemetery, Parisians were outraged that they would need to travel outside the city. To make the destination more “chic” and enticing, bodies of the famous writers and composers were added, to give the mourners an extra incentive to make their trip worthwhile. I personally think Père Lachaise is worth visiting even just for its aesthetic value. On a beautiful, sunny day the unique graves with elaborate facades and stained glass windows create a breath taking mosaic while the trees and greenery surrounding this cemetery, combined with the softness of the birdsongs, fill you with inner peace and gratitude for being alive. If the calm is not your thing however, you can always do a sort of treasure hunt – graveyard edition, where you look for the graves of public figures. Forget about the map and try to find the graves of Jim Morrison or Abelard and Heloise, a famous pair of lovers from the medieval romance, on which tomb modern lovebirds leave their declarations of everlasting love.
The relaxing atmosphere of the cemetery gave way to the busyness of the Paris’ streets where all kinds of groups decided to protest. Communists, Christians, African immigrants, all kinds of people chose to speak up for their passions on the busy arteries of the city, while its parks and squares leisurely hosted sunbathing and dinning Parisians. Place de l’Odeon and the Luxembourg Garden seemed to be the best examples of it. On a Saturday afternoon the wide stretches of greenery were neatly decorated with hundreds of Parisians hanging out with friends or playing with kids. One of the popular past time activities among French children is a boat race, or what can be more accurately described as poking a boat with a stick to make it cross the pool. There was some beauty in the simplicity of that game. I could picture children in the 18th century Paris spending their Saturdays doing exactly the same thing.
From the park Marcin and I started making our way to Printemps, one of the city’s massive shopping malls. On our way we passed a religious gathering outside Pantheon and headed towards Church of St. Etienne to see the iconic staircase from which Gil in Midnight in Paris got picked up by a mysterious car and transported to the charming Paris of the past. Next, we walked by the stunning Opera building and made it to the rooftop bar on the top floor of Printemps, which has one of the best (free) views on Paris.
We finished the day with one more movie location, the Alexander III Bridge, where another of my favourite movies, Angel A was shot. Maybe it’s cheesy and superficial to visit movie locations. But to me that’s my way of getting closer to something you cannot be a part of, making that dream more accessible. The hopeful film noir about an angel saving a man who wants to end his life, the surreal comedy of surprising depth – next time I watch it, the bridge won’t be just a setting, it will take me back to Paris, every scene will transport me back to this magical city. City that evoked some longing that I couldn’t fully explain.
If I was to summarize what Paris is like I would say she’s a woman. One of those whose women whose age is difficult to tell and it doesn’t really matter because she’s just got that something, that je-ne-sais-qua, an aura that draws people to her. Her hair is a dark, a wavy mess, but her clothes are always best quality. Some little known eccentric designers next to items from world’s top luxurious brands. At the first glance she looks scruffy, like her life is too busy to care, but at the second glance she makes you jealous of how perfectly all the elements of her clothing puzzle fit together. Paris smokes, she’s got a little dog sleeping next to her while she’s sipping yet another espresso. She is sexy, sociable, reads Baudelaire and Balzac, watches independent movies and embraces life with all its shades. She makes pain seem deep and joy – eternal. This is how I see Paris. But it’s probably best if you meet her yourself…