Thursday, 20 June 2013

J'ai Deux Amours, Mon Pays Et Paris

 [I have two loves, my country and Paris]

My first ever visit to Paris was in winter 2011. Paris in mid-February is a different city to Paris in the summertime. It's quiet and grey and drizzly. I'd left one dull, rainy country and arrived in another one!
Ah well. Living in the North of England, you get used to constant clouds. I was decidedly unfazed, standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower in the rain, squinting through the clouds over the Champ de Mars. The Eiffel Tower is a lot bigger than you think it's going to be, but climbing 1710 makes the views from the top even more precious, even if you are in clouds.

You can't see the end of Paris, even from this high up. It just goes on and on into the horizon, in all directions. Just as London could be described as a serious of villages (Hackney, Camden, etc.). Paris' arrondissements divide the city up in a elegant spiral shape. How French! Even so, from the top of the Eiffel Tower, it just looks like an infinite sprawl of Parisian deliciousness. I could have spent hours with my chin on that railing, looking at all the nooks and crannies of the city.

I'm in the minority here, but I'm not a fan of l'Arc de Triomphe. It protrudes too much, and its position in the middle of a busy road is cumbersome. Still, landmarks are always popular (I also don't like Blackpool Tower, but whaddayagonnado).

Like any capital, Paris is bursting full of people. I'd happily be squished into an attic apartment if it was at the top of a beautiful Parisian block. Although being a capital brings about inevitable grime, grittiness, shady folk and exorbitant prices, the beauty of Paris, even just its architecture, outweighs all of that. The amazing food, culture, and music are helpful too.

The size of Paris means you can get lost in its districts, and feel like you're in a completely different city in Odéon (the cinema district) than Saint-Honoré (the luxe fashion district). My personal favourite, and one of many people, is Montmartre, the historically bohemian artist district.

Looming over Montmartre is this Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the Basilica Of The Sacred Heart Of Paris. It's peculiar to see such a serene, beautiful, old, and religious building above what is now a nightclub district. It's also separated physically by a set of steps so large that a mini railway was built to get up the hill to the Basilica, much to the dismay of my thigh muscles.

Not too far away from Montmartre, the Stade de France is the national stadium. Admittedly, I'm not a fan of football, but those crafty French use it for other things, like being turned into a massive nightclub for French treasure, or housing signed instruments of legends who've played there, like U2 [The Edge's guitar pictured below].

Architecture, Sport, Landmarks... Now onto my favourite aspect of Paris, the food! I'll put this into perspective: the following photo (which I've left in colour to show how beautiful it is) is a salad from the café on the top floor of Galaries Lafayette, an upmarket department store. No, it's not from a restaurant. Yes, it is better than most restaurants in England. It's from a shop! It's a salad of mainly cheese, ham, egg, and olives! In a bowl as big as my head! I'd come to Paris being vaguely dismissive of the hype around Parisian cuisine (very British of me), but even their shop food was amazing. Of course, I sampled other Parisian cuisine, from an incredibly rare venison burger at a buffet, to croque monsieur in a café with a view of Notre Dame, and even service station food and room service. [you know you love a place when you miss its service station food.]

Oh and did I mention that Galleries Lafayette is a gorgeous art nouveau construction?

Of course, the Louvre is a must if you're coming to Paris for the first time, or the second time, or the sixtieth time... I prefer classical art to modern art, but the Louvre is much more than a museum and gallery. It's the world's most visited museum, but it still feels vast and airy, thanks to marble buildings and a lovely atmosphere inside and out.

You could walk around and marvel at the building itself as well as its art. Like all museums, the Louvre has a gift shop... well, more like a gift department store. I personally loved the huge bookshop. There's so much to do, I'd recommend spending a whole day there.

Paris is always so busy. People everywhere, in cars and on bikes or walking, music and lights everywhere. I was relieved to reach Notre Dame, the city's magnificent cathedral, tucked away in a noticeably posher area of the city.  It was eerily quiet, so I slipped inside and sat in a pew. [sidenote: I'm an atheist, but I think cathedrals and churches are beautiful] As a chorista myself, I was thrilled to sit and listen to the choir sing. Even if you don't like classical or choral music, choral singing adds to the gothic, reverent feel of the cathedral, especially with the echo.

If you get tired of the overly busy landmarks, there are many other things you can do to really show you the flavour of Paris, without banging elbows with another person. Being a French cinema addict, I went to Théâtre Le Rex, also called Le Grand Rex, the biggest cinema in Paris, with the largest cinema screen in Europe. I didn't watch a film, however, but had a tour of the bowels of the cinema called Les Étoiles Du Rex ('The Stars Of The Rex'), with archive footage of the reams of stars that have starred there, as it is also a theater and music venue. Built in the 1930s, it feels like a relic of a time when films weren't all bland remakes. Of course the geek in me had to take a photo of the signatures of the cast of 'Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers' ('Le Seigneur Des Anneaux: Les Deux Tours' in French).

I'd only visited for 4 days, but it went very quickly. I'd done all the touristy things, and explored the city like millions of others do every year. Why am I so in love with Paris then?

It is hard to explain a place if you've never been, even through pictures. There's a vibe, an atmosphere that you can't see or touch. The French star Josephine Baker, in her song of 1931 'J'ai Deux Amours', says 'Ce qui m'ensorcelle, c'est Paris' [What puts a spell on me is Paris]. She moved from America to live in Paris, and I can see why. It's peculiar and enchanting, the so-called 'Ville-Lumière' [The City Of Lights]. I guess I love it so much because there is so much to discover; even those who have lived there for decades find new reasons to love the city all the time. Me, I've only been once, but I swear it won't be the last time. 

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