Paris. The city of lights, the city of love, the city of romance. Once the western world's largest urban space and still famed globally as a leading hub of culture, civilisation, and arts. From its iconic landmarks to its unique visual beauty, Paris is ingrained in the collective consciousness. Since the Eurostar arrived at St. Pancras, it's become easier than ever to spend a few spontaneous days strolling around the streets of this beautiful city and I did just that. Take a walk with me and explore the grandiose aesthetics and winding medieval lanes of this vibrant city.
Arriving at St. Pancras, anxious to make sure I was on time to check in and board the train, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the whole process of travelling by Eurostar was swift and easy. Security took about five minutes and then I was away. We sped out of London and past Dover. The majority of the journey was spent watching the scenic fields of France float by, as those pastel-coloured horizons, peppered with farms and windmills, gave way to larger urban spaces. We arrived at the imposing Gare du Nord and I made my first attempt at using the Metro.
The Metro in Paris is lovely. Value for money, quiet and clean, with friendly staff. And the stations are beautiful. Compared to the hectic hustle and noise of London's underground, it was a breath of fresh air. With map in hand it only took me a few stops and one change before I reached the area I'd be staying in, the beautiful and serene Pereire.
This quiet area of Paris is dominated by a long boulevard, lined with blossom trees and surrounded by apartments in the iconic Haussmann style. Dotted between them are nineteenth-century townhouses and at the end of each street can be found stylish little restaurants. Parisian restaurants often have seating on the pavement and during most of the day you will see a few diners enjoying a small dish outside, usually accompanied by a generous glass of wine. There's something quite lovely and indulgent about it.
There are also a wealth of boulangeries and patisseries to be found on each street. Artisan cakes and rustic breads sit warmly in the windows. There's a real cultural value in France when it comes to the importance of baking.
I stopped at one patisserie to try some cakes. The ladies behind the counter were lovely and suggested a few specialities in particular. I ended up buying two and they were indeed the most delicious cakes. One was a delicate pastry filled with praline cream; the other a light, fluffy profiterole stuffed with pistachio cream and iced with pistachio-flavoured frosting.
ARC DE TRIOMPHE
The monuments and landmarks in Paris swarm with people, buzzing with tourists and swelling crowds. But there's nothing that can quell the thrill of seeing an iconic sight with your own eyes for the first time. The detail of the stonework stays with me. The intricacies of the statues watching down over us. Compare it to seeing a beloved painting in an art gallery for the first time, when you'd only ever seen it before in a textbook. The detail, the realness, the sensory experience makes it something else.
Even though I loved seeing the landmarks, idly exploring the streets was just as good. The aesthetic of Paris - the colour, architecture, details, and feel of the place - can be found by wandering the streets.
It's through these details that you start to see real cultural differences. Paris is a large city, but unlike London or Rome or other western metropolises, it is spacious and clean in the city centre. There is a prettiness and neatness to this place. There is a sense of relaxation. On the promenades by the Seine, people leisurely stroll with their dogs. Little groups of people enjoy quiet chats in cafes throughout the day. Mopeds sidle along the roads. The people are dressed in soft tailoring and neutral colours and even the language, with the "madam"s and "bon soir"s and "pardon"s, reflects a politeness lacking in modern English. The very centre is refreshingly free of any financial quarter, so you never see the bustle of businessmen in suits or the monochrome gleam of a corporate building.
As I made my way through the city, I walked past a car with its passenger door open. In what I'm still convinced may have been a hallucination, the only thing occupying the car was a baguette. I might have laughed a little hysterically. Shortly after a crowd of people crossed the road in front of me, all wearing berets. I imagine the locals must find that utterly delightful and not at all annoying. That was how I knew I had almost reached the Eiffel Tower.
WALKING ALONG THE SEINE
The Seine stretches along eastwards from the Eiffel Tower, wide and powerful, crossed by Paris's famous bridges. Many people have heard stories about the bridges of Paris. The arched Pont des Arts was famously lined with padlocks, locked there by couples celebrating romance. This bridge hit the news not too long ago when those padlocks had to be removed for safety, as the bridge had begun to weigh more than 45 tonnes and partially collapsed under the weight. Now the rails of the bridge are lined with works of art.
But perhaps one of the most lovely bridges is the Pont Alexandre III, an ornate structure leading to the glorious Musée de l'Armée. The golden statues, burnished bronze streetlamps, and carved stonework make it unlike any other bridge in Paris.
Crossing over the Pont Royal, you get your first glimpse of the Musée du Louvre. One of the most-visited museums in the world, the Louvre is housed in what was once the Royal Palais and is home to some of the world's great treasures - most famously Leonardo Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. It is one of the grandest buildings I have ever seen. The statues, arches, and orangery gardens were just the cherry on top.
The Louvre was opened as a museum in 1793, after the imprisonment of King Louis XVI and the fall of the royal house of Bourbon as the result of the French Revolution. The French Revolution is often casually remembered as a bloody reign of terror, but it was a political upheaval that has shaped our understanding of democracy in the modern world. Seeing this place, once a centuries-old Royal Palace, transformed so long ago into a quintessential place for conserving historic artworks and education is an impressive reminder of that.
A little further along the Seine you reach one of the most historic parts of Paris, Notre-Dame. Notre-Dame is a medieval cathedral, with incredibly Gothic architecture. The famous flying buttresses, some of the first ever created, are spindly and evocative. They lend the place an atmosphere that is only added to by the statues and gargoyles. In its early days, Notre-Dame would have been painted but the colour wore off long ago and the stonework is all we see today.
The building is situated on Île de la Cité, one of two remaining natural islands in the Seine. It is the centre of Paris and surrounded by remnants of the medieval city which was re-founded here, as well as yet more beautiful Parisian bridges. Around the cathedral railings, you can spot more of the padlocks left by lovers.
If you stand on Pont Saint Michel, you can look out over the Seine and view the Pont Neuf. The stacked apartments of the Latin Quarter line the riverbank and pop-up riverside market stalls sell everything from art, to trinkets, to books. Turning right, you pass the facade of Notre-Dame. A little further on you will find the Haagen-Dazs ice-creamerie, which is worth seeking out on a warm day to get yourself a scoop of some delicious ice-cream and have it rolled in the topping of your choice. I chose two scoops of the salted caramel and had it rolled in sugared pralines.
Montmartre, famous bohemian quarter and home to Sacre-Coeur Basilica, is built on and around a hill and therefore provides a prime location to view the rooftops of the whole city.
Although Montmartre has been gentrified, it is still remembered as the home of the Moulin Rouge and the bohemian crowd. The old apartments line the winding paths up the hill like staccato sugarcubes, layering texture on texture. Rustic doorways, peeling paint, old-fashioned street lamps, and cobbles define the aesthetic of the place. The steep stairways and blossom trees are sprinkled here and there around the hill. Next to the basilica you will find artisan bakeries, street vendors, and art galleries in the narrow lanes.
One particularly curious place in Montmartre is the cemetery. Opened in 1825 on the site of a quarry, formerly used as a mass grave during the Revolution, the burial ground is crammed with eerie and elaborate graves and obelisks. It sits below street level and is divided by a viaduct. The cemetery is large enough that it spills across the hill and is chopped up by winding staircases and cobbled walkways. The worn and crumbling monuments almost sit on top of each other, but look hard enough and you'll see the familiar names of Parisian artists among the dead.
The trip to Galeries Lafayette is indulgent in every sense of the word. If you're from London, the equivalent is most likely Selfridges or Harrods. If you're from New York, it's probably Bloomingdale's or Macy's. Housed across huge department store buildings on Boulevard Haussmann and decorated inside with elaborate gilding, here you will find the world's most luxury brands across fashion, beauty, perfume, jewellery and more. Famed for its window art and weekly fashion shows, the store is usually crammed with eager shoppers and tourists.
Paris left me with the impression of a charming and sophisticated city. That is most likely true, but not the whole picture. Like all modern cities, it has economic and racial divides to contend with, as well as the threat of terrorism that has culminated in several tragic attacks over the past few years. For all the charm of Paris, those realities are there to be seen.
But it's through keen observation that we sometimes find the most curious things. I'll leave you with one place I stumbled upon purely by chance, but which has become one of my favourite streets in Paris. Hidden away between more prominent roads and buildings, you find Rue des Barres. It already existed in 1250 and appears on one of the earliest maps of Paris in the 1550s. It is tucked behind St-Gervais-et-St-Protais church and opens onto Square Couperin. It is one of the most picturesque little places and, if I hadn't been looking, I'd have almost missed it.
My adventure in Paris sadly came to an end, but I will be returning to this incredible city soon enough!