Paris, Je t’aime: What is it about the French capital that tugs at your heartstrings and makes you long to return? (Photos: Satarupa Paul)
Summer had surreptitiously morphed into fall, the September sun still a warm tingle on the skin. Along the length of the Champs-Élysées — often acknowledged as “the most beautiful avenue in the world” — rows of meticulously pruned London plane trees had begun to turn a luminous shade of copper and gold. On the terraces of the numerous restaurants and cafés that line its massive sidewalks, people idled over rounds of coffee and conversation, while others watched the world go by with a glass of rosé in hand. On one such terrace of a boulangerie, I sat tucking into the buttery goodness of a fresh-out-of-the-oven croissant and a luscious café crème. In the foreground, stood the Arc de Triomphe at the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle, its impressive façade inscribed with the names of the heroes of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars. At the next table, an artist sat translating the scene around him on to paper.
Much has been written about Paris — one of the greatest cities on earth — and the everlasting sway it holds over visitors. Yet, it isn’t until you experience the French capital for yourself that you begin to understand why. That morning, and for many mornings thereafter, I walked the perfectly straight length of the Champs-Élysées, all the way from the Arc to the historic Place de la Concorde. The largest square in the city, this 18th century landmark is noted for its chequered history, most importantly the public guillotining of around 1,200 people during the French Revolution. Today, the square displays a giant 3,000-year-old Egyptian obelisk at the centre, and leads to the beautiful Tuileries Garden, on the other side.
At the gardens, I’d often slow down to a leisurely stroll to take in the green expanse, occasionally stopping to admire one of the 200-odd sculptures peppered around. Commissioned by Queen Catherine de’ Medici in 1564, the Tuileries Garden were built to accentuate the Tuileries Palace and act as the venue for many a palatial banquets and soirées. Originally designed in a Florentine fashion, the gardens were re-landscaped a century later into the current formal French style, and, subsequently, opened to the public. While the palace was burnt down by the radical Paris Commune in 1871, the gardens still stand, leading to the Louvre through the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel — a triumphal arch of Corinthian architecture, built between 1806 and 1808 to commemorate Napoleon’s military victories.
Standing Tall Louvre: Arc du Triomphe.
The first time I walked through the arch and rested my eyes on the world’s largest and most famous museum, its sheer scale and beauty took my breath away. The magnificent Baroque-style façade of the Louvre Palace that houses the museum, rose gloriously on either side, enclosing two massive courtyards in between. Originally built as a fortified castle in the late 12th century, it was reconstructed in 1546 by Francis I to serve as a royal palace. In 1793, the Louvre was opened as a museum with a collection of 537 paintings, which was expanded upon by Napoleon and subsequent kings. In the 1980s, the Louvre underwent a major remodelling and a vast underground complex of offices, shops and exhibition spaces was built underneath the central courtyards.
The entrance to this was crowned off by the controversial steel-and-glass pyramid, which soon became a celebrated landmark. Today, the Louvre displays an astounding collection of over 38,000 works, including Egyptian antiques, ancient Greek and Roman sculptures, crown jewels and royal artefacts of French nobles, and one of the richest collections of paintings in the world — including the entire gamut of European art, up to the revolutions of 1848. It can take up to three full days to visit each room in the museum; however, a guided tour gives you a sampling of the most important masterpieces, including the Winged Victory of Samothrace, Venus de Milo, Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
On that first visit, I spent hours aimlessly walking through the Louvre and marvelling at its collections. Other days, though, I gave the tourist-infested museum a miss and walked down the shaded boulevard along the serene river Seine, the lifeline of Paris. The tall towers and the central timbered spire of the Notre Dame, yet to be engulfed by that fateful fire last April, reached high, beckoning me from a little island on the Seine. Exploring the 800-year-old cathedral, one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture — with its gargoyles, strix, chimeras and scores of sculptures vividly illustrating Biblical stories on the façade, and with its awe-inspiring vaulted roof — remains etched in memory. So does sitting in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower on a cold night and feasting on a delectable spread of French staples — onion soup, coq au vin and chocolate souffle, with a glass or two of champagne for company.
One such evening, I lingered long past my dinnertime waiting for one of the world’s most photographed landmarks to light up and sparkle gloriously for five minutes. In that interval, as I waited with childlike wonderment, I realised that it wasn’t just the famous and the iconic that make Paris irresistible, but all the little moments that lead up to them. Whether it’s discovering a chic café you had missed before, or a mobile crêperie around the corner, serving the most delicious crêpes; whether it’s riding the Metro to your destination or cruising down the Seine on a boat; whether it’s an aimless wandering that leads to nowhere or one that unearths fascinating museums and obscure churches, Paris is a city that reveals itself only a little at a time, captivating you enough, yet leaving much to the imagination.