You can’t spend a few months living a few hours out of France without visiting the city of love and lights. Some dream determined through hundreds of years of media, literature and arts has created a city that draws romantics from all over the world every single day.
Paris is glamour solidified and a prime example of Europe’s long obsession with beautiful art and aesthetically-based architecture.
But even though Paris is super impressive and lovely, there are many problems to be found and perils to face. In one of the world’s most influential cities there is a lot of desperation, danger and dirt. Sure, a lot of it is hidden under the surface but it is quite a shallow burial.
We arrived in Paris after a long and awkward bus ride to the Trocadéro, the winged moderne square overlooking the Eiffel Tower and the River Seine, to an ever so misty day. With the sun shining through the Tower’s grids of iron and casting a long shadow through the clouds, everyone was immediately stunned, either into silence or ecstatic hootin’ and hollerin’.
The mass of tourists and pilgrims crowded around the steps and gardens around were all alike, all amazed and shocked to finally be in such a mystical, magical location. I kept thinking about how most of these people had probably spent a lot of their lives dreaming of that day, wondering if the city and it’s sites really did live up to all the expectation.
I also expect a lot of them felt how I did; unable to believe that they were actually standing there. You see the Tower everywhere, it invades lives all across the world, but to actually be there, to actually look up and see that monumental mass of dark iron, your brain just sort of shuts down. You forget you’re actually alive, you start to feel like what you’re witnessing isn’t real. Is this a result of years and years of media saturation? Or some collective psychic atom-wobbling caused by the belief of millions? Who can say. What I do know is that the only way I could ground myself, realise I was actually in this beautiful heart of Europe, was to touch things, to pick flowers, breathe and feel the well-trodden gravel underneath my feet.
But even then, it’s hard to beat that pervading sense of blurring magic.
Of course, we had to stop and capture the tower in hundreds of photos. Perhaps that was the ticket. If we can capture it in our devices then maybe it will seem more real, more tangible and collectable. But seeing life through the lens of a camera can also be dangerous. I tried to limit myself to taking only a few photos on this trip and just try to soak in the sites with my own eyeballs. Of course, it didn’t work out that way, but I tried at least!
After spending some time around the base of the tower, surrounded by impatient hordes trying there best to climb it’s grand structure, we moved on. The tower would be there when we got back.
Taking a bit of a detour, we headed to the Arc de Triomphe, where we continued to take photos. I tell you what, the ol’ Arc is just as impressive as I’d thought it would be, but also less so in a way. Once you’re there you do sort of realise it’s just a big chunk of stone covered in pretty scrollwork and figures. Still… it’s a very nice chunk of stone.
After spending ten minutes walking the wrong way in search of food, we eventually found ourselves trudging down the famous Avenue des Champs-Élysées where we were bowled over by the lights and the money. Hitting up the Disney Store (a wonderland for everyone in our group, but heaven for someone in particular… you know who you are!) and a rather lack-luster restaurant along the way, we eventually hit the Grand and Petit Palaces. These twin buildings were both equally beautiful, though the Petit Palais was definitely the one I felt drawn to more. It’s tempting collection of art beckoned me closer… but we didn’t have the time to stop. Oh well, next time!
The whole length of the avenue and surrounding squares are immaculately kept and stunning in this Autumn time. Seeing thousands upon thousands of people milling around this mile, you get the sense that you are in the centre of it all. Here is Europe.
We eventually hit the Louvre and it’s surrounding gardens… Well, what can I say that hasn’t been said before in this post… it’s incredible! With only a day in the city, though, there was no way we were getting into the museum. With a veritable army at the gates it was either spend the day trying to get in or trying to see everything else. We took the second option this time. However, just knowing we were only a few hundred metres from some of the world’s most important artworks filled me with longing and emotion.
The other main monument we toured was the absolutely breath-taking Notre Dame Cathedral. Though we were to late to climb its towers in the spirit of dear Quasimodo, we did get to tour it’s insides. It’s incredible stonework, stained-glass windows and vaulted ceilings really put the fear of God in ya. To think that this huge act of worship was a work of humans, you just begin to realise what can be accomplished. It’s a place of worship not just for the man upstairs, but to the ingenuity of human beings.
Across the river we stopped by probably one of my new favourite places in the world, Shakespeare and Company Bookshop, a quaint and atmospheric store with a long history. Here were the Beats and all those bohemian artists who had inspired so many, including myself. You could feel the history in this store, a dripping. I left drenched in inspiration and bubbling much more than I had felt after leaving the other monuments. That, as they say, is my jam.
We spent the rest of the day touring the beautifully crooked streets on that side of the Seine, even stopping in one of the best-stocked table-top-gaming stores I’ve ever seen (I was a kid in a candy store, of course). After a good few coffees at chic Parisian cafes and a long walk back we decided to get dinner at a cramped restaurant right under the tower. Though it was wildly expensive, as you’d expect, to just sit there and enjoy the presence of friends, history and wonder, was one of the highlights of my whole trip so far.
We watched the Eiffel Tower spark and explode as it hit ten o’clock, again, wowed into silence by what we were seeing. This really was the high-point. This was Paris. Even if it’s a tourist trap like no-other, even if it’s been seen and photographed to the point of meaninglessness, to see this with my bare eyes… well, I was definitely very thankful to just be there.
Garbage (and the very sad)
The Universe is balanced and so with all good there has to be bad.
Paris isn’t particularly the “cleanest” city I’ve ever visited. In fact, it had garnered quite a reputation from my friend’s back home as being just a little bit smelly. All around are bags of trash, broken bins and unknowable stains. Everyone’s so busy looking up at the monuments that they don’t notice the ground.
Really, I exaggerate, but there is a bit of a problem, at least compared to some other places I’ve visited so far.
Another problem, that we were actually warned about straight before leaving the bus, was the abundance of pickpockets and suspicious street vendors. We were told to avoid these people at all cost, which seemed a bit over-the-top at first, but was actually semi-decent advice. You have to be a bit wary in any city, but in places like this, with tourists packed together and carrying their wallets full of Euros and expensive cameras, you need to be even more on guard. I definitely felt a bit less safe in Paris than anywhere I’d been before, even Prague, which also had a reputation as a hive for pickpockets.
It actually made me quite sad at points, especially after seeing beggars out of the front of Notre Dame being completely ignored. Sometimes, you can sense trickery afoot, but other times you can see true desperation at play.
I realised how depressing it is that people can spend five Euro or more on a single candle inside the Cathedral, but can’t drop a few coins in the pockets of the needy. Have we been taught to be too suspicion and wary? Too selfish with our money? It’s definitely troubling, but a problem that is not going to go away anytime soon.
Also, don’t expect heavenly food if you aren’t willing to spend big. Way, way too big.
I’ll be back
But all in all, Paris is an amazing location. I’m so lucky to live so close by, even if it’s only for a few months. Despite the negatives, which all cities have, Paris is definitely a dream location, especially when travelling with such interesting and charming people.
I’ll be back for sure, next time either by myself or with a slightly smaller group. My goal will be to actually experience Paris’ art and culture a bit more deeply, hopefully get into the Louvre this time, and explore as many galleries and museums as humanly possible. I mean, hey, it’s a day-trip distance away. Gotta take advantage of that!