The weather in Paris was quite comfortable for the first week in May. The normally bright city was shrouded in a layer of cloud, with occasional drizzle sweeping the Champs Elysées, driving tourists and Parisians into cafés and shops for shelter. Yet, my friend, Frank, and I didn’t mind. We were on a three-week vacation. Frank had been there to Paris before, I was enjoying the city for my first time, lost in the splendor of what I saw. The rain was irrelevant. I was fascinated by the sights and sounds of Paris. Its frantic and subtle paces, its sense of history and tradition, its style and culture.
Our first stop was a café on the Champs-Elysées. Small, intimate, casual, with a waiter dressed in black slacks and vest, white shirt, white apron and towel over his arm – the traditional French serveur look. On this famous avenue one could spend half-a-million dollars in ten minutes on a Cartier necklace or under ten dollars on a Big Mac meal. Louis Vuitton and Gianni Versace, Mercedes Benz and Renault, Rolex and Baum and Mercier, plus countless other names run the gamut from the unique to the shoddy. It exudes an air of sophistication and elegance that could match nothing back home. Even Fifth Avenue in New York City is second class by comparison.
“The dark clothes. You can always tell the French by the dark clothes, Frank said as we people watched.
Paris is like no other place I have visited. New York might be larger, Washington cleaner, Boston more intimate, but Paris has a life and energy uniquely its own. A truly cosmopolitan city, Paris offers something for everyone, whether in art and fashion, food and architecture, traditions and culture. It does so at a pace set by the individual. If you want to spend three hours in a sidewalk café sipping coffee or beer or a liqueur, that’s fine. If you want to join the frantic pace of visiting the major museums in a day, that’s fine too. If you want to sit in the peace and quiet of the Jardin des Luxembourg or the Jardin des Tulleries, enjoying the expansive formal gardens and the quiet ponds, go right ahead.
Arc de Triomphe
Leaving the café we headed to the Arc de Triomphe. Begun by Napoleon I, in 1805, the Arc was intended to honor his men for their victory at the Battle of Austerlitz. Various factors, including the decline in Napoleonic power, delayed the completion until 1836. We stood before it, rising more than 1600 feet above us and covered with magnificent heroic images – mainly of Napoleon Bonaparte I – sculpted on the sides of the arches, and the names of soldiers immortalized there. At the base of the Arc, on one side, is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, placed there November 11, 1920, to commemorate the dead of World War I. The eternal flame at the tomb is rekindled every evening.
We climbed to the top and viewed the twelve avenues radiating outward from the Arc into the City of Paris, designed by Baron Hussmann who, in the nineteenth century, planned the symmetrical order of the hub-and-wheel structure of the roads.
Gardens and boats
In the Jardin des Tuileries, a wonderful formal garden with pools, we sat on wrought-iron chairs. Then we continued walking alongside the Seine River, past open book stalls and cafés where people sat reading or talking over a glass of merlot or a cloudy pastis.
As night fell, we hopped on a bateaux mouche (fly boat). These city river boats seat more than two-hundred people and take in the sights along the Seine. We passed the Musée d’Orsay, a magnificent nineteenth century train station now meticulously restored and housing a superb collection of art. Past the magnificent Louvre, dominating a city block. The Ile de la Cité, the original site of Paris, on which sits Notre Dame Cathedral. And the Ile St. Louis, an island housing elegant houses from the seventeenth century. We passed Hotel de Ville, the home for the city council, a 19th. century reconstruction of the 17th. century town hall burned by insurgents of the Paris Commune in 1871. We sailed by la Samaritane, a huge complex of shops, topped by a scenic restaurant offering incredible views of the city. And we cruised beneath several magnificent stone bridges, with intricate sculptures on their façade, including the Pont de la Concorde, the Pont des Invalides, and the Pont de l’Alma.
Ahead was the Eiffel Tower, rising over 1000 feet and brilliantly lit by floodlights and thousands of individual lights on its steel frame. Built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889 and to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution, the Tower was initially designed to be a temporary landmark.
Finally, the boat cruised past the Pont de Grenelle home to an exact copy – but smaller – of the Statue of Liberty, given to Paris in 1889, by the American community living there to celebrate the anniversary of the French Revolution. The statue’s tablet shows two dates: July 14, 1789 – the storming of the Bastille, and July 4, 1776, the signing of the United States Declaration of Independence. The stature faced west, toward New York and the original Statue of Liberty.
Paris has it all I thought, all that I hoped for and I remembered how Ernest Hemingway described it: “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.”
By John Pekich producer, director, actor and writer, especially of original Sherlock Holmes and Victorian Mysteries in Cape May, New Jersey, USA