Text and photos:
Source: Croatian Traveller
“As we all know, the French love snails. Escargots. But what few people (and even fewer snails) realize is that France has paid these sacrificial mollusks the ultimate tribute – its capital city is, in fact, a giant escargot”, wrote British author Stephen Clarke in his cultural satire about life in Paris, picturesquely titled A Year in the Merde. This quote comes after the scene where the main protagonist discovers on the map that the arrondissement of Paris create a giant snail shell – from the first to the last, they move away from the center of the city in a spiral.
Twenty districts (arrondissement) separates the city that is 6 times smaller than Zagreb from the entire urban zone with a total of 11.6 million people, but only 2 million of them can say that they actually live in Paris, because the two external rings are considered suburbs. When you first come to Paris, you will feel a slight cultural shock – a shock about the amount of culture and cultural attractions. All the ambitions about seeing everything in great detail should therefore be abandoned – not even the Parisians themselves know every landmark of their city.
Axe historique, a series of famous monuments and buildings going in an almost straight line from the center to the west, starts with Louvre and continues with the Tuileries Park, through Elysian Fields and Arc de Triomphe, all the way to the business district of La Défense that dominated by the rectangular Grande Arche. Bars in the open, pleasant ocean climate and a unique urban landscape made a walk around here a traditional affair. Paris is best revealed in moments of spontaneity and letting go to the atmosphere.
The first arrondissement is an ideal spot to start your explorations. Louvre, home to Mona Lisa, Place Vendôme, Palais Royal and Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel lie within a radius of two kilometers. The starting point is the square in front of the gothic cathedral of Notre Dame, marked by a bronze plaque with a star, symbolizing the geographical center. Two islands on the Seine are the heart of the city that was founded in 3 BC, the Gaul settlement of Lutetia, mentioned in Asterix comics as the “second most magnificent city in the universe besides Rome”.
Le Marais in the 3rd arrondissement was home to vast gardens in the Middle Ages. Their fruits were sold at the Les Halles market in the “belly of Paris” that fed the city. In 1960, it was converted into the “closet of Paris” – a giant shopping mall. But Marais is still the gastronomical hotspot, a combination of old stores and wineries with exotic restaurants and cafés, with especially attractive Jewish restaurants. The spot where the 1st and 4th arrondissement meet is the Hotel de Ville city hall and the futuristic Pompidou Center. Huge concentration of historically significant beauty continues on the left bank of the river, through the Latin Quarter and St-Michel Street along the 5th and 6th arrondissement.
With the biggest city park, Jardin du Luxembourg, that lies in front of the palace of the same name, monumental fountains and botanical gardens, the visitors risk missing everything else – but he also risks staying here forever. It would be a pity though, because at Champ de Mars in the 7th arrondissement lies the thing causing the hordes of Americans and Japanese to cross oceans and jostle on Trocadero and surrounding bridges to make a snapshot with its silhouette in the background. It takes 30 to 45 minutes to climb the Eiffel Tower, less than takes waiting in line for tickets. However, at the height of an eighty storey building, the view is amazing.
Another tourist cliché is a stroll down Champs-Élysées avenue. Since all big fashion brands have their stores there, the “window licking” (lèche-vitrine), a Parisian term for window shopping turns into quite an adventure. Printemps and Lafayette department stores on Haussann Avenue from the 8th to the 9th arrondissement have everything. You will be convinced that shopping was invented in Paris by Le Bon Marché, the department store that is considered the first purposefully designed commercial building in the world.
The trendy Canal Saint-Martin in the 10th arrondissement is going through its golden era. If you hear somebody talking about Les Bobos, it means they are describing a typical inhabitant of their neighborhood, the new social class that connects the bohemian styling with a bourgeois living standard. They frequent chic cafés and organic food restaurants where you can join them in tasting healthy foods and discuss art and the meaning of life. If the Parisian bourgeois can pretend to be bohemians, so can you! Bastille was a notorious prison castle. Its fall was the beginning of the French Revolution. Although Place de Bastille still stands in place where the strikes are held, the square is usually crowded and the disturbance is caused mostly by loud music and tourists club-hopping on their night out on the town.
Huge concentration of cafés and clubs turned the network of streets in the 11th arrondissement into the hot spot of nightlife. With a glass of wine or Kira, you can hear some good jazz in bars in Rue Oberkampf, and people who liked the Last Tango in Paris can dance in clubs with Latino music. For detailed information, look for a monthly clubbing guide in bars called Lylo. Among other things, the French are unusually attracted to rhythms from the east, so the sounds of Balkans, trumpets and Gypsy music can often be heard. Lylo marked with balkanique or chansons des Balkans tradition kafana, such concerts are particularly liked by the bourgeois bohemians.
Arrondissements 12 and 13 have a bit less spots interesting to the tourists, but the 14th hides an unusual attraction. In the 18th century, in order to alleviate the cramped Parisian cemeteries, it was decided to transfer the bones to the underground quarries in the 14th arrondissement. The halls have today been officially opened for the visitors, but the city common grave has parts where entrance is prohibited, which particularly attracts the Cataphiles (underground explorers), and a brigade of national police patrols the catacombs to prevent these intruders from walking around the dark side of the city of light.
Across the Seine, with the view of the Eiffel Tower, the Paris spreads in its most spectacular grandeur. There are no famous monuments here, museums or tourists, just the impressive Haussmann’s architecture, a few hidden parks, genuine Parisians and a feeling of a romantic city you always thought it would be.
Towards the east, the atmosphere changes into bohemian, in front of the Sacré-Cœur church and the bars on Montmartre hill. In the artistic commune of Bateau-Lavoir, young poor Picasso painted his first modern painting, The Young Ladies of Avignon. At the same time when the bohemians ruled Montmartre, the first wave of immigration started nearby. The eastern part of town and the Belleville, the Brooklyn of Paris, on whose streets Édith Piaf started signing, reveals today’s multicultural side of this trendy metropolis.
At the end of the stroll you have two choices - Bois de Vincennes or Père Lachaise cemetery. It’s the cemetery of artists, and although it is populated by dead people, the life of their works can be felt in the air. Anyone who roams Paris aimlessly, carried by some enthusiasm, becomes for a moment a bohemian who believes in love, truth and magic of the present moment. For generations, the American tourists tell the legend of the city that has a soul and watches everyone who walks its streets. Many cities are beautiful, but Paris is alive. It either loves you or not. Therefore, if you suddenly feel a strange combination of happiness and sadness as you are sitting on the terrace of the café with a coffee and croissant in hand, followed by the enthusiasm that is called joie de vivre, Paris probably thinks you’re cool.