Few cities have quite as much to live up to as Paris. Known as the city of light and of love, the romance of Paris is a siren call to about 28 million visitors a year, all eager for a dose of that famous French savour faire. On my first visit to Paris, I was struck with how beautiful the city is, and how much there is to see. Here are my top 10 Paris moments:
1. Songs from the Sacre Coeur
We head up to Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart), on Montmartre, a confection of creamy white Byzantine and French architecture. It’s a Roman Catholic church, with a huge, glorious mosaiced dome on the inside. The view from the top of the hill is marvellous, stretching across the Parisien skyline. As we leave, a group of buskers sings Aicha, a favourite of mine, but in its original French; we linger on the steps leading up to to the church and listen while the sky turns grey and raindrops gently fall.
2. Lights from the Arc de Triomphe
Our next stop is the Arc de Triomphe, and we navigate the Metro, with its rubber wheels and latch-opened doors. It’s twilight when we reemerge aboveground, and set off towards the colossal hulk of Napoleans’ homage to his military. It is in the middle of the Place Etoile – 12 wide, sweeping boulevards radiating from the Arc towards the edges of Paris. The traffic is horrendously fast and a little chaotic; we cross over by the underpass and ask for “deaux billet tarif reduit“, available to EU residents under 26 years old, to climb up the Arc.
Serendipitously we managed to be in time for the ceremony to restoke the flame at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier beneath the Arc; complete with war vets bedecked in medals and a brass military band. The view, when we finally climb up, is of a windswept Paris, and the outline of the Eiffel Tower at twilight.
3. Ladies of the Moulin Rouge
We have an engagement with the ladies of the Moulin Rouge on our first night, and so we rush back to the IXe (9th arrondissement) where we’re based for the weekend. The space is intimate and crowded; hung with bunting and japanese lanterns and the trunks of trees. Our show is Faerie, and it takes a few moments to realise that the girls are topless at all; the costumes are so elaborate and bejewelled, speckled with so much glitter it is difficult to notice something as ordinary as a little flesh. There are some moderately good voices, and interesting dance choreography; witty costumes and some good variety acts, a passably energetic can can performed in tricolour costumes, a girl swimming in a tank with some bored looking snakes, shelties and a talking dog; the show is moderately entertaining, and I’m glad I didn’t shell out for the most expensive tickets.
4. Sunshine in the Tuileries Gardens
It’s a beautiful day; blue sky shredded with fluffy clouds and sunlight on the back of my neck. We walk through the Tuileries, filled with manicured lawns and calm pools and white graceful statues. There are Parisians out and about; jogging, reading in the sun, a boy lamenting his listing toy sailboat and yelling to his papa to save it. The gardens are huge and it beggars the imagination to think that it was once the inner courtyard of the enjoined Palais Louvre and Palais de Tuileries. The gardens lead up towards the Champs, consumerism HQ and witness to military parades, invasions, and city celebrations. The avenue itself is expansive and wide and generous, filled with shopfronts and tourists.
5. The Petit Palais
It’s lunchtime, and we head back riverwards, exploring the delicate beauty of le Petit Palais and the artwork inside it (free entry, and a charming garden were the drawcards), passing by le Grande Palais, which hosts anything from Paris Fashion Week to art exhibitions like Monet’s waterlilies.
Lunch is at an overpriced café, before crossing Pont Neuf into the islands; we visit St Chapelle first. The Lower Chapel is covered in fleur-de-lis, atmospheric and dimly lit; but the Upper Chapel makes me gasp – all the litreature in the world could not have prepared me for the beauty of its stained glass windows. Walls, really, of scintillating colour. There are over 1000 scenes depicted in stained glass, from Genesis to Christs’ resurrection. We sit for awhile, and watch the light change as sunlight streams through one side of the chapel and makes butterflies of jewelled light on the walls. The Chapel St Chapelle is one of my absolute favourite things in Paris.
7. Impressionism at Musee d’Orsay
It’s time for Musee d’Orsay, something I’d been looking forward to since landing in the city. The Museum is housed in an old train station, and the space is lovely; broken up into galleries and broad steps of housing statues in the main hall; some Rodins are on the mezzanine. The Impressionists are on the top floor, and I wander around in bemused wonder, stopping at every favourite, familiar piece. Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir – they’re all here, amorpheous suggestion of form and movement and light captured on canvas in oil and charcoals.
8. The Eiffel Tower
We trace a path through the metro down to La Tour du Eiffel to pay our respects; we have not seen her from close up just yet; and Paris would not be Paris without going to see her. The Eiffel tower must be one of the most photographed icons of the world. Originally only a temporary exhibition, she has remained a symbol of the city since the late 19th century. She is graceful, and aesthetically severe, all steel rivets and soaring lines, more installation than functional building, and she plays tricks on our perspectives – the tower appears larger the further you move away from her, for some reason. You might try taking a skip the line Eiffel Tower tour which offers a fast track option – given the constant crowds milling about the Eiffel, this is a time-saving option for most visitors.
We wander along the parks, under her arches, watch the military men holding big military guns (found at St Chapelle also, and the next day, at the Louvre) watching us, speak Italian back to the gypsies who ask us for money in English (this gets rid of them surprisingly easily) and watch the sliver of sunset behind the clouds. I buy candyfloss from a vendor by brightly lit carousel; the crowd is mostly tourists or young families. Tickets to go all the way up range from €3,10 (under 25s and using the stairs) to €11,50 (full rate and using the elevator). As we sit and soak in the moment in the dying light – she lights up like a glitterball as night slides in, and there is a collective gasp from the crowds come to worship at her feet.
9. The Louvre Museum
We’ve saved the Louvre to almost the last stop; after a breakfast at the café around the corner from our hotel. We sit at the bar, order deaux petit dejeuner and ask for pain au chocolat instead of croissants – the meal reminds me of Italian breakfasts standing at the bar. It starts to rain as we enter the grounds of Palais du Louvre, the pyramid is stunning and sculptural and jarring against the façade of the Palais.
There is so much to see here – the Mona Lisa, and Da Vinci’s sfumato paintings like the Virgin on the Rocks; The Winged Victory; Venus de Milo; the Egyptian antiquities, the Objets d’Art and Napolean III’s apartments. There is no time to visit Vermeer, or the other wings of the Louvre, not if we want to also make it to Rodin; so regretfully we leave behind the Grande Galleries pale parqueted halls and elaborately frescoed, trompe de ile ceilings.
10. Rodin’s Gardens
Rodin’s gardens and the house he stayed in are charming and a quiet respite after the crowds fringing the Mona Lisa at the Louvre. All his famous pieces are there – the Cathedral, the Kiss, the Thinker, the Gates of Hell, The Walking Man, the Burghers of Calais, the Shades. His pieces are raw, unfinished, seething with movement and passion. The trees are bare and the fountains quiet, but there is a peace about the grey sky and expanse of green lawn, the bronze cast statues scattered about the grounds.