One of my favourite cities in the world is Paris, capital of France and city of love. I have been fortunate to have been many times, and each trip holds new and extraordinary memories.
Last month I had the pleasure of going once again, albeit after a several year absence. The city remains the same as it always has been, but to me it felt different. It took me a while to put my finger on it, and I soon realized that Paris, like every other European city, is suffering from the dark cloud of political risk.
My hotel was a block from the Arc de Triomphe, which meant I could walk everywhere. There was a busy presence of armed police, justifiably, as Paris has had its share of recent attacks. This however, was nothing new for me, as I have travelled to enough places to know that the world is no longer the safe and happy place that Canada still is.
I decided not to do the typical tourist stuff, instead walking more and visiting some museums, which I had not been to before. My first adventure was to start with a hop on – hop off tour, to give me an idea of where I wanted to go. I only took it once, as I had forgotten how busy Paris is, both with tourists and construction.
I decided to go on foot and walked to the Musée d’Orsay, about a two hour stroll. The museum is spectacular and avoids the hectic pace of the Louvre. The Orsay was once the train station of Paris, and the building has maintained its original charm. The giant clock on the 5th floor is still operational, and the platforms on the main level are home to statues and art, with the sunken walkway between them, where the railroad tracks once were.
The museum is home to Degas’ Little Dancer, Renoir’s Bal du Moulin, Van Gogh’s Starry Night and hundreds of other masterpieces. On the first Sunday of each month, admission to all Parisian museums is free of charge, but be prepared for a lineup.
The next day I took the bus to Pigalle, the setting for Billy Wilder’s 1956 classic film, Irma La Douce. In the flick, Jack Lemon plays a gendarme who falls in love with Shirley MacLaine, a prostitute. Pigalle has changed a little, in that the bars and restaurants have become more international, and the tourists have taken over the boulevard, but the Moulin Rouge with all its splendour still lights up the night sky, and suddenly you are whisked back into the past and all the seedy glamour of the area.
Continue on toward Montmartre and you will not be disappointed. This area of Paris sits high upon a hill and was the favourite haunt for all the artists of the past few hundred years. Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, Degas and many more chatted in laneways, painted in studios, drank in bars and solved the problems of the world, all from this area.
What I had never done before was enter the massive Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, or better known as Sacré-Cœur. The climb up the steps is not for the faint at heart and seems to go on forever, but once at the top, the view is spectacular.
The Basilica is magnificent and sits on the highest point of Paris. Construction began in 1875 and completion was on the eve of World War I. Upon entering I was dwarfed by the giant ceilings and arches, and the choir which was singing loudly during the mass, engulfed me into a very solemn state.
I left Montmartre and its secret vineyard (the smallest in the world), and headed back to the city to stroll along the banks of the Seine. Artists were plentiful with stalls occupying every possible location. I bypassed the Eiffel Tower, as it is now a security nightmare. A large, chain-link fence has been erected around the entire base and entrance is via one opening.
I walked the Avenue des Champs-Élysées from the bottom to the top (where my hotel was), and when I arrived at the Place du Concorde, I saw the street had been closed to vehicular traffic. A gate had been erected and police with guns were searching people as they passed through the opening.
Police trucks and concrete barriers had been set everywhere to avoid vehicles barging through and hurting the innocent. It is unfortunate that it has come to this, but once you are strolling along the large shopping street, with thousands of people, you soon realize the security is necessary.
It is difficult to explain Paris to anyone who has never been, and as Othman Nejjar, once said, “You can’t describe Paris unless you have wandered around the streets under the rain at night. You can’t describe Paris until you walk in a sunny park very early in the morning. You can’t describe Paris if you haven’t felt the atmosphere at les Quais de Seine, a Friday night after a full week of work. You can’t describe Paris when you go to your favorite terrasse on Sunday afternoon with your friends.” He is right. I can’t describe Paris. You have to experience it.
Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit photosNtravel.com