A group of young men and women dressed in running gear practice diligently on a quiet street, cheering for each other loudly. The street is empty but for the odd vehicle that passes by silently. The sun has started to set casting its golden glow on the athletes and their surroundings; the sky meanwhile has turned deep shade of orange with streaks of crimson, violet, and silver. The evening chill has started to set in and so has the drizzle. This scene could be happening anywhere, except the cheering is in French, and the street is flanked by the Seine on one side and the Louvre on the other. As I walk along the river towards the gleaming Eiffel Tower, soaking and shivering in the rain and yet smiling at the setting sun, the colourful sky and the dreamy setting, I realize that the moment perfectly personifies the city for me.
I had not planned anything about my trip to Paris. I had done no research and booked no tickets, I hadn’t read any books set in Paris, neither did I watch any movies filmed here. It may sound like an oxymoron, but I wanted to discover Paris at my own pace, in my own space.
The beauty of Paris dawns upon you the moment you step into the city—whether you are in a residential area with tall, imposing apartment blocks, quaint street-side cafes, and tiny neighbourhood shops, or in the historical centre with palaces, boulevards, museums and bridges, Paris leaves you awestruck. But then the very foundation of Paris is based on grandeur—from the teardrop shaped island that gave birth to the city, to the medieval castles and palaces, and the not-so-old boulevards and avenues built by emperors and kings. The grandest of all, however, is the majestic iron and steel structure in the heart of the city.
The Eiffel Tower was built as a temporary exhibit to commemorate the 100 years of French Revolution, but such was its impact on the city and its people— including the Nazi general who defied Hitler’s order to demolish it—that it was never taken down. Decades later, it still stands tall and proud as a symbol of Gustav Eiffel’s defiance.
I had, of course, seen my share of pictures of the Eiffel Tower, but I had no idea of its magnitude. And now, that I was right in front of it, I could not believe my eyes. The 324 metre high spire pierces through the sky and it golden metal glistens and glimmers in all its might. I almost topple over as I crane my neck to catch its peak. It’s only when you see the Eiffel Tower you know what it is — truly a marvel, I promise to come back to it later and gaze at it at leisure.
There are many ways to see Paris—on a bus, by the metro, through curated tours, and by personalised taxi services. I, however, want to walk. Walking, in my view, is the best way to get to know a place. I also realise though that I have very little time, there was a lot to do. Who goes back from Paris without going to the Arc de Triomphe or the Louvre? So I decide to hop on to the underground for longer distances and walk the rest of the way.
My first stop is Ile-de-la-cite, the island where Paris was born. While the tiny island boasts of places of historical significance, like the gothic Notre Dame and Sainte-Chapelle, it is to the adjacent island of Ile-de-st-louise where I headed. Dotted with cafes, lined with bookstores and boutiques, this neighbourhood boasts of 17th century architecture and is dedicated to the good life that Parisians cherish. I’d have perhaps lived here if I were a local, as a traveler my choices however are limited to sipping coffee, ambling along the Seine, watching a street performance, or just wandering on the streets. I decide to do all.
And so, I spend my morning ambling in the lanes of Latin Quarters, watching a cute boy play accordion, shopping for souvenirs, and stuffing myself with cheap Greek sandwich and strangely tart Fanta.
"Be Not Inhospitable to Strangers Lest They Be Angels in Disguise.” The words displayed prominently on the wall tell me that I am finally at Shakespeare and Company, the playground of world famous writers like Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and James Joyce. Set up in 1919, and again in 1951, it happens to be the oldest English bookstore in Paris and the only place I have as a must-do on my itinerary.
The store is famous not only for its literary significance, which is huge, but also because it offers shelter to anyone who may need it. The only catch—you have to be friendly with the resident cat. Apart from the cat, and the two beds, the place is overflowing with books of all kinds. The tiny room on the first floor has people sitting by the sunlit window browsing and reading. Muffled sounds and bits of conversation filter in from the window but it is still quiet inside. Strangers smile and make conversation with each other even as they squeeze through the tiny doors and narrow walkways. As I pick up a collection of love poems from a shelf dedicated to verses, the man next to me smiles in approval. Content with his acknowledgment, I walk out of the store.
Paris has been a torchbearer of fashion and style for centuries and no place in the city demonstrates this better than the Champs Elysees. It is said that the famous brand H&M was denied space here for years because the authorities believed that the shop would turn the elite high street into a commercial marketplace. You know what they meant when you take a stroll along the avenue flanked by the likes of Tiffany’s, Chanel, Breitling and more such. A short metro ride has brought me to the most coveted High Street in the world, and I must confess that I feel embarrassingly under-dressed in my pink sneakers and tacky jeans. But what is a traveller who cannot overcome embarrassment to enjoy the moment? Forgetting all about my attire, I join the chic locals in window-shopping. Soon I become one of them.
While people from world over go to look at Paris, Paris enjoys looking at people. People-watching is serious business here. Whether it is sitting by the Seine watching the boats cruise by and waving at the tourists occasionally, or sipping espresso from tiny mugs while smoking cigarette after cigarette and smiling at the passerby, or just lazing in the umpteen parks of the city watching the tourists go gaga over it, you will always see the Parisians relaxed and smiling, watching the world go by.
As they say when in Paris, do as Parisians; so I decide to indulge in some people-watching too.
It is late evening now and I am in the gardens of the Louvre. The sun is still shining bright and the sky is as blue as it can possibly be. At a little distance a lady plays ball with her tiny dog, a little further, some young men are having a picnic; around me in the hedge, two boys play hide and seek, and in front of me is a group of girls jumping every few seconds trying to coordinate their smiles with their height of the leap to get the perfect picture. Across the museum, on the far end of the horizon, I see the Mona Lisa smiling at the world, and at the other end of the horizon stands the majestic Eiffel Tower. I know I have to keep my appointment with it in the evening, but for now I lay on the grass, happy and content, experiencing the joy of Paris through its people.