I was completely lost. My sense of direction had failed again. And the small map I kept in my pocket? I’d walked off its edge more than an hour ago. At that moment I could not imagine how I could possibly have more fun.
This was south Paris, I knew that much. Or it was west Paris. “What’s the difference?” I asked myself. My answer was a shrug. The electronic compass on my wristwatch was useless with that attitude. The old woman walking opposite me seemed to think that gesture made sense, and she smiled. I thought about asking her for directions—Ou est…?—but where did I want to go? I was here already; my nose would be as good a compass as an answer.
Of course, I’d read Tropic of Cancer and Orwell’s Down and Out in London and Paris; I’d read Michel Houellebecq’s Elementary Particles. I saw none of those authors’ Paris from where I stood. But then, it was the salutation to the literature that crossed my mind, not taking a step into its dark literalism. I have three credit cards in my pocket: if I want some of Marie Antoinette’s proverbial cake, I’ll stop at a café and buy it, with an espresso on the side. The sun came through the trees as speckled yellow spots, Parisian women wore short skirts and open-collared shirts, an old man drank beer on a park bench and talked to himself.
The subway station became a sort of salvation: I hadn’t yet photographed Parisian graffiti and was looking forward to some colorful work. Paris underground platforms are tiled and mostly clean. When a graffito finds its way into the system, it’s a matter of hours before the cleaners locate the tag and dissolve it with industrial fluids—a photographer must be quick on the draw. These images would be part of my pan-Europe collection of rail coach street art. Was this the real Paris? Do all city subways tote the truth beside their tourist lore? Cigarette-smoking, wine drinking, mistress sharing, café living Paris: the clichés of a Western icon.
Two transfers, fourteen stops later. Notre Dame Cathedral rose from its island like a happy Jesuit after successful confession. The dying light suntanned the flying buttresses and crown spire. Autumnal bell tolls shaded creeping vines into a crimson beard along the high walls reaching up from the Seine’s rippled skin. On the Quai de Montebello I crossed into the lights of Shakespeare & Co., and wondered if the ghost of Sylvia Beach would touch my arm, even if her original store was blocks and blocks away. The book stacks narrowed toward the back of the shop, where the light crept into the violet shades.
Paris Museums and Sites
Paris begins with its most famous street, Champs-Elysées. The avenue really starts at the Arc de Triomphe and ends at Tuileries Garden, the entranceway to Musée de Louvre. I point this out because it is not the other way around. The frenetic traffic roundabout circling the Arc introduces the verve of Paris. As you make your way down the avenue, you come upon the architecture and elegance that once embodied Champs-Elysées and Paris itself. For 50 years, from 1920 through the 1960s, people who walked this avenue dressed for the occasion. It only lost this sophistication when tourism fully hit European cities and the suburban folk demanded shops and restaurants that played to their bourgeois values. Nonetheless, some very chic shopping remains, as well as famous establishments, including Fouquet’s Café, Ladurée Tea Salon, and the Sephora Perfume outlet (between rue de Berri and rue de Colisee), where scents are mixed according to your every whim. At some point on your walk, cross the avenue and stop at one of the pedestrian islands. This spot gives a unique perspective of the Arc to the north, the Obelisk of Luxor to the south at the center of the place de la Concorde, and the trees lining the avenue—and hiding the shops. The place de la Concorde was renamed “place de la Revolution” during the French Revolution and its following “Reign of Terror.” This is the spot where Louis XVI, Marie Antoinette, and nearly 2,000 others ended their lives lying on the slab of wood beneath the swift falling blade of the guillotine.
The Louvre is an enormous complex of art galleries, and the largest indoor place in Paris. Miles of exhibit space are laid out on three floors and a basement. In the museum’s sub-basement you can see the original Gothic walls built at the command of Phillip II for a fortress beside the Seine River. Today the Louvre owns more than one million art pieces, and among those displayed are the ancient Greek statue Venus de Milo, and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
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