People and Places

A Paris dispatch

Posted on May 26, 2014

The Eurostar through the “Chunnel,” the 23.5 mile long passage under the English Channel?  Not so much drama, as it turns out.  Pretty much going through a dark tunnel.  Which, when you think about it, is what one should expect, but it seems oddly detached from the widely hailed engineering feat it was when the it finally opened in 1994.  That said, going from London’s St. Pancras station (which really seems too close to Pancreas) to the Gard Nord in Paris in just 2.5 hours is pretty special and Eurostar trains are the highest expression of railroading. 

As one boards you can arrange a taxi and there was our taxi driver waiting for us on the other end, making the journey feel faintly old world and a lot less dehumanizing than most air travel.  By the way, we flew back from Paris to Heathrow to make our connection to Boston and just that leg alone took a lot more than 2.5 hours when you factor in time to the airport, two hour pre-arrival for an international flight, and actual flying time.  In that light, the trip on Eurostar really was dramatic, dark tunnel syndrome notwithstanding.

Realizing that this was Memorial Day weekend, we added on three days in Paris to ur UK trip as a last minute bonus.  So here’s the deal.  London is grand, New York amazing, Mexico City full of charms, Istanbul exotic, and Shanghai post-modern, but Paris is the hands-down most beautiful city in the world.  Any other candidate is a distant second place.  No other city has the same combination of the utterly grand with livable neighborhoods with cultural blockbusters with charming hideaways with magical combination of food/history/culture/art.  It also works: the Metro is great; the city is walkable; there are lovely green spaces; there is food at every level; and there is a great civic sense of pride. 

We stayed in the area of the Opera, the 8th Andrissoment (the name for the city’s districts) and a short walk to the Place de Concorde and the L’eglise de Madeleine (where Chopin was held in state).  The 8th has the highest concentration of great Paris restaurants and we were on our way to Costes, a concept hotel/bar/gallery when we came upon a huge crowd outside a pack of paparazzi. 

Turns out that Kim Kardashian was inside with members of her wedding party.  It really was the last place we wanted to be and it really is sort of depressing to think that a mob of people would turn out to see some vapid bimbo whose real claim to fame was a sex tape, while an extraordinary scientist like Roger Davies gets 35 people to show up at an Oxford pub (though if he would get into a relationship with Kanye maybe that would change….).

My favorite chuckle moment in this scene was when we asked an American looking woman (that’s her in the white coat in the above picture) what was going on, she mentioned that she was from Georgia.  Then she paused and said, “Georgia in America.”  Ah…yeah, we sort of got that.

Anyway, we returned to Paris with no drive to see the “great” sights that we have visited before (though any one of them invites repeated visits).  Instead, we set out to explore the neighborhoods.  We have always been huge fans of London Walks and were delighted to go online and discover Paris Walks.  These are 2 to 3 hour walks with a local guide and usually organized around an area or a theme.  We think these are the best bargains in travel and one learns an amazing amount. Almost always the walk includes stops at places that you might walk right by without a second thought.  In this case, the courtyard where Joyce had an apartment and completed Ulysses,

the building that held Hemingway’s writing studio, the store that was once the home of the leading opposition press during the French Revolution,

the oldest café in Paris where Napoleon, then a broke young officer, left his hat as a guarantee that he’d come back to pay his bill (he never did and the hat is still there!).

The stories are often rich and make the places come alive and when the guides are great, as they are often, one wishes the tour would just go on.  I felt like I came to my best understanding of the French Revoultion and the stories of Danton, Robespierre, Marat, Hebert, Louis XVI, and others came alive in the telling.  We sat on the steps where the car/time machine pulls up in Midnight in Paris while our guide evoked the creative and liberating cultural scene that was Paris in the 20s. 

We stood in the Place des Vosges, where King Henry insisted on jousting, forgot to secure his visor, and was lanced through the eye and later died of the wound (what guy thought it was a good idea to actually go up against the king; though given a pardon by the dying king, he was later executed).  Where Cardinal Richelieu spied upon the aristocrats from his aprtment windows, where Victor Hugo lived at No.6, where the endearing Madame de Sevigne was born.  It’s where modern day and disgraced politician Dominique Strauss-Kahn lived.

Plus it’s great exercise.  We came back to our hotel each day foot sore and weary. 

In Paris, every day ends with the promise of a great meal.  On one night it was at Café Sud, offering contemporary takes on traditional French dishes from the south of the country. 

But the highlight meal was the simplest and cheapest, at Le Verre A Pied. 

One of our Paris Walk guides, Chris, suggested this tiny family run restaurant in the Latin Quarter.  It looks like it hasn’t changed in 100 years, with simple wooden tables and chairs, old silvered mirrors, and a hodge-podge of art on the walls.  It still has a squat toilet (porcelain hole in the floor with two foot pads – pretty rudimentary).   There are about three entres on the menu (no menu actually; they bring a small blackboard over to the table) and two red and two white wines.  Mom cooks and her daughter serves. 

It was a fabulous meal: pork in a sweet prune sauce with potatoes, great crunchy baguette, and maybe the best crème brulee I’ve ever had.  No, I take that back: THE best crème brulee ever.  All for about 25% of the price we paid at Café Sud.

The best thing in Paris is the walking.  There is amazing people watching, especially the French.  Maybe only the Italians rival the French for sense of style, for that insouciant air with which they carry themselves.  The French add that slightly heavy lidded and pouty lipped sexiness that has no analog anywhere else.  They really do kiss on the corner…and on sidewalks and on bridges.

They are among the last of all peoples that still make cigarette smoking look absolutely cool (and it appears that all French citizens are required to smoke at least some of the time).  Even toddlers have artfully wrapped scarves around their necks. This was a child’s dress in one boutique window.  Really.

 

Aside from the people (and let me add to the French ample and cosmopolitan representation from Africa, the MidEast, and South East Asia – all reminders of the colonial days), there is great architecture everywhere, charming corners, little squares, and flowered hideaways.  

For you Les Miserables fans, this is the street where Valjean carries Cosette and hides her with the nuns, Javert in hot pursuit.

And then the big public places like the palaces, the churches, the parks, and great government buildings.  We were walking back from dinner when we came upon Notre Dame and a light rain shower started.  Then the sun broke through and a rainbow curved over the cathedral and everyone’s breath was taken away. 

Those are the moments Paris offers – again and again.

No other city in the world quite matches its powers of magic and beauty.

 

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