The City of Light. La Ville Lumière. Paris. Its name, somewhat overplayed, for London glints out more in the gloom of night, is due to the old hotbed of Enlightenment and for its position as first city in Europe to adopt gas street lighting. Three days in Paris is not enough to take in all the wonders of this grand old edifice of a city, bedecked and bedazzled with so many palaces, churches and galleries, but would be time enough to scrape away at the old home of the Parisii. Though, grinning dumbly under the softened cushion of Bordeaux in some wooden-beamed bar on the Rue de Lappe, in Bastille, and but a stone’s throw away from flowers commemorating the poor murdered souls at the Belle Équipe, one toasted to the possibility of seeing it all.
That first day the sky hung heavily over the city like some bright grey blanket. Haussman’s streets, their beige facades, lofty and never-ending balconies, their slate-blue mansard roofs and homogenous splendour had had the colour sucked out of them. Grey and fine they seemed, making the whole of Paris an attractive but samey whole. The first hours, as glimpsed in a ostentatious blur on the back of a bicycle, took in the Rogue’s Gallery of landmarks that filled the pages in the guidebooks and made the tourists drool and squeal: Arc du Triomphe, Palais Garnier, Louvre, Hôtel de Ville, Notre-Dame, Parthenon, Sorbonne University, Jardin du Luxembourg.
I had seen these before. Memories of family holidays and school trips and a well-meaning charity hitchhike flickered through my eyes. The city held no surprises yet, just confirmation of the wealth I already knew. My neurons fired up old images as I smiled gladly at all the finery, yet my breath was not taken. Prior experience had dulled the edges and I still had a problem with the snootiness of the Parisienne, though it was not a rule that applied to all.
Sulpice, with its walls of poetry and stocky worship halls, and a lunch of roast duck led us to the Catacombs of Paris. Once the mines of Paris, the 18th century saw the tunnels become the home of bones. The carcasses and cadavers of the old cemeteries were overflowing and festering so found their new home underground. The resulting ossuary, some twenty metres below the tapping soles of man and spanning a couple of kilometres, is a dark and snaking labyrinth of skulls and femurs and death. When the squawks of the visitors subside, one is left in eery silence to contemplate the six million stacked bodies. Poetry and shrines break up the macabre decoration and lend a touch of grace and thought to an attraction so easily looked at as a practical endeavour.
Dinner was had at Chartier, a rambunctious and mammoth eatery swiftly peddling regional French dishes since 1898. Rillette with pickle, choucroute alsacienne, chou glacé, shovelled into a ready mouth and washed down liberally with two bottles of Burgundy. French do luxuriant heartiness well. Then, along with my dinner companions, the old whore quarter of La Pigalle - with its red windmills and sex shops - was attacked for all the alcohol it had within it. A Franco-binge of the highest order. Beer and strawberry rum at Fourmi, some hideous tropical cocktail at Le Dépanneur, then a taxi ride through the lamp-lit streets of Le Marais to drink wine and calvados in the chaotic booze-filled literary haunt of Le Connétable, where one collected any available glasses and found whatever seating possible. Red-cheeked and wobbly, Bastille arrived and the taximan was paid.
Pretty Montmartre wafted past our eyes under the painful fuzz of an immense hangover. Some semblance of reality came back to us as we feasted at Le Relais Gascon with plates of tartiflette, steak with blue cheese sauce and omelette all served with what seemed to be a whole field’s worth of potatoes. Montmartre, that bastion of picturesque streets and cafes and painters sitting high on its hill, was busied and noisy with walkers, cameras, lovers, anoraks and easels. School groups of foreigners passed by the elders who knew well enough to sit and take coffees in the newly arrived sunshine. An old man tinkled away at a piano in some tiny bar, whilst outside a young man caught the attention of a toddler by strumming his guitar. Then the Sacre-Coeur; the sacred heart with its view to all of Paris: whose reality was a solid line of civilisation studded here and there by an aged spire or scandalous office block.
Before the second day’s sun fell off the horizon, a wander around Le Marais was had; myriad cafes and brasseries and designer shops hid along the streets of the old Jewish quarter. Very fine apartments, the occasional square, and a mixture of boulevards and atmospheric alleys bustled with people, taking precedence over cars, as the sky peeled back to reveal a pastel-mauve evening.
Paris is fine under cloud, though opulent under sun. The third day saw the continued presence of light. We took the air at the Buttes du Chaumont park in the morning, Alphand’s playground for Napoleon III, where gulls and pigeons whirligigged over the waters as parakeets added colour to the trees.
Then tiny Rue Crémieux, the Portabello of Paris, with its painted houses and its seemingly unique ability to inject colour into Haussman’s beautiful dullness. And another street: Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche - the street of the fishing cat; the narrowest in Paris. A pointless waterside frippery, a senseless indulgence, but the Seine was glimmering and only a few shy clouds were able to throw the odd drop at us.
One of Europe’s great pleasures is surely cycling along the Seine in the sunshine. It is a pleasure so basic and easy as to be almost illicit. The fine houses of the Île de la Cité, the Medieval bombast of the Conciergerie - which Marie Antoinette called prison, the casual behemoth that was the Hôtel des Invalides, all the fine palaces and mansions in between, and then ending at the industrial wonder of the Eiffel Tower. It is a part of the world so peppered and full of people and touts, yet so undeniably attractive that you can’t help but find yourself playing the role of amateur documentarian and sycophant.
As the sun sets over the Trocadero and the great tower begins its nightly vigil, like some great stranded lighthouse, there is time enough to hurry back to Bastille. A nightcap is in order; always in order. Pigalle’s ferocious cloud had lifted and the palate no longer rejected spirits. Absinthe, in the traditional way, with ice-water melting sugar over the green, fire-crackles down the throat and sends off Paris in style.
Not cheap. Not original. Not new. Yet it is beautiful grandeur on a bombastic scale that has to be appreciated for what it is. A rich old artist, half-souse and half-aristocrat who has sold its soul, but you can’t help but love it.