A tribute to the magical city
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.” — Ernest Hemingway
Upon climbing the stairs of the metro exit Abbé de l’Epée with your luggage and stepping outside, near the black bars surrounding Le Jardin du Luxembourg, the sun immediately blinds you — like it is installing a new filter behind your eye nerves: from now on, everything you will see in this city, will be in sepia tones, as if they have a veil of golden dust covering them. You don’t know what causes this effect, neither you will find out why. It’s just a part of the magic that this city has, and the more you breathe, the more you inhale these golden dust specks in the air. And the more you inhale them, the more it just settles under your skin, and becomes a city you are going to carry in you, for the rest of your life. Bienvenue à Paris!
You are now in the Quartier Latin. Your mind is filled with so many options about where to go from there. It’s like being a kid in a candy shop, you can’t eat everything at once. Just start walking, over the Boulevard Saint-Michel, and then Rue de la Harpe. Drop by the bookshop Shakespeare and Company, where Hemingway, Joyce, Fitzgerald and many other writers used to borrow books from its owner, Sylvia Beach, since they didn’t have enough money to buy books at the time. Buy a book — preferably from these authors who used to hang out in this bookshop as a memento, make it stamped with a stamp that has Shakespeare’s face on it, with the words around his head: Shakespeare and Company Kilometer Zero Paris. Walk towards Notre-Dame Cathedral, if you are lucky, you may catch an evening mass and become the target of the cold glare of a frowned old lady, who distributes the pages of the hymns which are going to be sang in the mass, just because you ask her to give you one of those pages. Listen to the organ resonating through the high ceiling and columns, and feel that divine feeling of being a tiny part of something much mightier and holier than you. Send your silent thanks to Victor Hugo, who wrote his version of Notre-Dame, so the cathedral itself could be saved from demolishing, and hundreds of years later, you still can visit there and taste of its divineness.
Yet, Notre-Dame is not the only sacred place to be seen. Visit the Église Saint-Sulpice, probably one of the most peaceful churches of the world, on the east side of the Place Saint-Sulpice. Light a candle, take a seat in front of a chapel and pray, even if you are not a Christian. Believe me, no matter what your religion is, the spiritual experience you live inside the Saint-Sulpice Church makes your heart calmer and closer to your God. After strengthening your spirituality and your heart, don’t forget to watch the birds that are taking baths with the waters of Fontaine des Orateurs-Sacré, right outside the church. While the sound of the water fills your ears, wet your hands to feel the cold, refreshing water of the fountain on your skin, like you are giving a suitable end to the spiritual experience you just had inside the church.
Continuing on the spiritual and sacred places, located at the summit of Montmartre Hill, there is a famous basilica, where the French movie Amelie, and the American movie Midnight in Paris has lovely scenes in front of it: Basilique du Sacré-Cœur. Start from where the colorful carousel is, as you climb the stairs in front of it, observe the people sitting on the stairs, benches or the green area between the two stairways going up, with tired but peaceful expressions on their faces, performers who are wearing costumes and paints that make them look like real statues, vendors selling tiny Eiffel Tower key chains, selfie sticks, I heart Paris t-shirts. Rest a minute or two, and catch your breath next to the fountains front below the basilica. Keep climbing and reach the giant doors of Sacré-Cœur. If you look up to see the dome from inside, you will see the painting of Jesus Christ in front of a highly blue and golden colored background, his hands are opened to both sides, like he is welcoming every passenger who stumbled into the basilica. Light a candle in a chapel, wish for something, inhale the years which have passed by inside the basilica before you stepped in. Then, go out and watch Paris, right below your feet, because watching the city from Montmartre Hill is not something you would do every day. Seize that moment.
Laugh at the contrast that while having one of the most famous basilicas of the world at the summit of it, Montmartre Hill has another most famous place at its foothills: the infamous Moulin Rouge. If you want to watch a revue show, the tickets start from 177 € per person in weekdays, 185 € on Friday evening, and 420 € if you are VIP. Around the show time, you can see the customers with chic clothes getting in line in front of the doors of Moulin Rouge. Yet, even though it is the main one, the Moulin Rouge is not the only attraction around there; there are also a lot of erotica shops, trying to draw customers with their bright, jazzy, neon signboards. Notice how people don’t really notice their neon boards, like they already got used to seeing that many erotica shops around them.
Go to Château de Versailles, take a tour inside the palace, see the statues of Delacroix, Voltaire, Montaigne, Napoleon and Descartes, be amazed at the sight of white, long pillars, the gold-leaf ornaments, the paintings covering every inch of the ceilings, the bedrooms of the French kings and queens. And definitely take a walk in its gardens. Breathe the clean air, feel the afternoon sun on your face, listen to the rustling of green, tall, magnificent trees while you walk among them, and feel yourself like Alice in Wonderland. Sit down on the ground on the side of the lake where the white swans swim, fill your eyes with its amazing silver, which reflects the sunny afternoon sky with white clouds floating above. Maybe drink some spicy mulled French wine at the nearest café, and steal a broken piece of marble you find on the ground next to the palace’s walls — to say that you have a piece of Versailles now.
Go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower, even though the three of the four elevators that carry people to the top are out of order that day and you have to wait in the line for nearly four hours to go up. Watch a performer who is happy to find some audience to do funny things, like pretending he has a leash on a pigeon, which happens to take a stroll on the ground near him. Laugh at him, put some changes in his hat after the performance, since he made the waiting easier for you. And when you manage to go up to the top of the Tower, stay there at least two hours, watch Paris from the top, both in the daylight and after dark, when all the lights are turned on. Remember what you read about Maupassant in one of Roland Barthes’ books, that every day Maupassant supposedly ate lunch in the tower’s restaurant because it was the one place in Paris where the tower was not visible. Smile, feel the joy of being at the top of Eiffel Tower, realize that this may be a once in a life time moment, because you can’t know for sure if you are going to go up here ever again. Feel the triumph inside your heart. You conquered the Eiffel Tower today.
Visit the Louvre, lose your way among its corridors. Go to that wide room with wood parquet floorings, to see Leonardo’s Mona Lisa among the crowd of people who has come to see it just like you. Maybe have a little bit of disappointment to see that the portrait is much smaller than you expected. Yet, the more you watch it, the more you are captured by its enchantment. You don’t know why, but you are moved by it. As you keep seeing the other paintings and sculptures of Da Vinci’s, Botticelli’s and Michel-Ange’s feel your horizon expanding, like you are seeing the world for the first time. Be amazed by the simple beauty and the substantial ways of conveying the reality of those famous paintings and sculptures that you have seen online, in magazines or in the movies before; they certainly couldn’t convey these masterpieces’ beauty in the true sense.
If you want to see a different side of Paris, definitely go to its cemeteries. Pay a visit to Charles Baudelaire’s tomb in Cimetière du Montparnasse, maybe mumble a quote from him:
“What can an eternity of damnation matter to someone who has felt, if only for a second, the infinity of delight?”
See how Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir is sharing the same tomb, mixing their remains even after death to be together. Visit Oscar Wilde’s tomb in Cimetière du Père-Lachaise; even though they cleaned the grave stone and put a bell glass around the tomb to protect it from the kisses, you can still wear a red lipstick and kiss the bell glass, leave your lipstick mark on Oscar Wilde’s grave. It is a tradition of showing him your affection. Then, maybe you can come across a crying woman who cleans the tomb of the famous composer Frédéric Chopin, changes the dead flowers on the tomb with fresh ones and keeps the tomb neat, as if Chopin had just died and she is his widower. Or listen “Non, je ne regrette rien” while two Edith Piaf lovers playing it next to Piaf’s tomb:
« Non, rien de rien, non, je ne regrette rien
Ni le bien qu’on m’a fait, ni le mal
Tout ça m’est bien égal… »
While losing yourself in the melody, feel the melancholy filling your heart, with a tad of peace in it, maybe shed the tear that has grown in the corner of your eye.
Or come across a man, while walking the path among the graves and trees, who is absorbed in his journal, writing something that you think he can only find his muse in here, this peaceful cemetery.
Take a stroll in Le Jardin du Luxembourg, feel the peace and liveliness around you. Sit on the edge of the lake in front of Le Palais du Luxembourg, soak your hand in the water while watching the excited children setting tiny rented boats with different countries’ flags afloat on the lake, and a duck family to swim. You may also sit on one of the green dyed metal chairs around the lake, eat a delicious tuna sandwich you bought from a boulangerie, while chasing away the bumblebees, which smell the sugar in your ice tea, with a wave of your hand. You may read a book, or even fall asleep on your metal chair, and allow your face to get sunburns like you would get by sunbathing at a beach.
The more you sit there, the more you feel like a Parisian, since Paris is starting to flow through your veins now. At first, your sense of wonder brought you here, to see if this city is really great as they say. Maybe you’ve been here for only a week, maybe you don’t even understand a word of French. Yet, now, no matter what, as the sun playfully reflects its lights on your face, the laugh of the children running to meet with their floating boats fills your ears, an old jazz song, “Si tu vois ma mère” by Sidney Bechet starts to play in your mind, and the golden dust of Paris fills your brain with its sweet scent, you are at home. You have finally found your Ithaca.