Despite having issues with youth unemployment and disturbances in the ill-at-ease suburbs, in Paris, such occurrences are rare. But when such an amusing if not bewildering event sticks in your mind, you tend to displace other memories and forget all else. I have passed through Paris twice since, but both journeys were fleeting and accept for being forced off the Boulevard Peripherique (the city ring road) by a truck, there was nothing to add to my memory of this historic city.
So little was I prepared for the visual wonder I encountered as I stepped out of Gare du Nord at sunrise after a long haul night flight and a train into town. On first appearances, architecturally Paris is a breath stealer. And in the moist, cool, early morning Autumn air I found myself breathing in simultaneously the sights and sounds of this great city. From the bistros and cafes on almost every corner through to the myriad of dramatic arches and spaghetti-like but amazingly convenient metro system, the architecture and the lifestyle is something to behold.
The Regal Factor
With the two great capitals of London and Paris in such close proximity and separated by a short, two-hour, Eurostar train ride, there is a tendency to throw these two metropolises up for comparison. But that is where it should end.
While France and Britain have a shared history, a language that is 30 percent the same and similar but distinct cultures, their largest cities have fared differently over time. The biggest influence on the look and feel of today's Paris came in the form of Baron Haussmann, the prefect of Napoleon III, who in the 1850s and 1860s bulldozed large swathes of the city, replacing it with the wide boulevards, squares and the six or seven-storey window shuttered, cast-iron railed balcony buildings prevalent around the city today. London, too, went through an urban planning revolution in the 19th century, but wartime bombing in the 1940s destroyed large sections of the city. So while London is a mish-mash of styles and is both easy and difficult on the eye, except for Le Marais, which was left largely untouched by the restructuring fervour of Haussmann, the rest of central Paris bears his magesterial mark. It is at once charming but full of similitudes, endearing but steeped in strict, unnerving tradition, full of surprise but predictable.
And then of course is the grandeur. Except perhaps for St. Petersburg, Rome and maybe Istanbul, nowhere has as many astonishing historical sites to make your eyes more than just bulge. Forget the cliché of the Eiffel Tower, the city's most famous landmark, here almost every place of note has something astonishing attached to it.
Take Musee d'Orsay, a former train station transformed into one of the city's many art museums. Walk inside and you are embraced by the multitude of sculptures, oils and installations. Together with high ceiling decor, this is enough. But this museum, like its more modern inside-out contemporary, The Pompidou Centre, says it all about Paris. The exhibitions on my visit included a semi-permanent selection of post-impressionist works by Gauguin and Van Gogh together with a non-permanent exhibition of late 19th-century aesthetic movement works translated badly into English as ‘The Cult of Beauty' — it was qualified in French by the word “voluptuousness” and the “time of Oscar Wilde”. At the Pompidou they were showing the work of Norwegian artist Edvard Munch, known most for his recently stolen oil, The Scream.
While France has played its role in more recent, artistic movements, it is still the 19th and early 20th centuries that remain predominant here. Paris is a city endowed with a wealth of history and both a glorious and tumultuous past. And while the modern age catches up fast in its suburbs and city limits, with even theme restaurants and chain stores starting to make themselves heard, in town the ambience has tradition written all over it.
Past and Present
It is my last morning and I decide to head to the fabled Puces de Saint-Ouen, Paris's best known collection of weekend markets. Located just beyond the ring road, although only a short metro ride from town, Saint-Ouen lies at the northern extremity of the old city and at the start of the urban sprawl. I arrive early — the stall-holders are still setting up — and as I wander through the maze-like collection of markets I am struck how Saint-Ouen represents a microcosm of this city. The clothing, accessories and artifacts stores on its periphery are mostly run by the country's North and West African minorities. And in the centre, the antique and furniture outlets are under the auspices of the Caucasian French majority.
As I meander through one of the covered markets with French, North African-influenced rap blaring out somewhere beyond, I notice the almost wall-to-wall graffiti on the walls above and surrounding all the stores. One shopholder opens a door out back and shows me a small football pitch with a back wall and end-to-end mural-like street art. Images of Nelson Mandela, African desert poverty and black power stand out from the rest, a token of the affections of the people in this area.
Its effect is striking. The majority of France's best footballers grow up in suburban Ile de France, in areas like Saint-Ouen. And then there is the art. The imagery of the past has wound up in the scores of museums littered across the city, while the work of the present, not backed up by galleries and curators, has wound up on the streets.
Places To Visit
The Eiffel Tower
Yes, it’s a cliché, but stand under the tower itself, look up at the structure and you will see why this architectural wonder is revered. If you want to go up to the top, though, be prepared to queue
(Metro: Palais-Royale-Museé du Louvre)
I went on a Tuesday when the world’s most famous art museum was closed. Typical. But for sights of the Mona Lisa and images out of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code, this is the place to go. The museum is enormous, though, so be prepared for tired feet
Set on one of the city’s two islands in the middle of the River Seine, Notre-Dame is quite a sight. Inside is even more impressive. Just don’t expect to see any hunchbacks unless you pay extra to head up to the tower
(Metro: Anvers / Abbesse)
The highest point in Paris, this former hillside village outside the city walls is home to Sacré-Cœur, one of the city’s more impressive churches, and was once the playpen of artists such as Renoir, Degas, Picasso and Toulouse-Lautrec. Full of winding, cobble-stone streets, traditional boulangeries and charcuteries, and with places like the Moulin Rouge at its base, it’s best to visit early before the crowds block out the views
Puces de St-Ouen
(Metro: Porte de Clignancourt)
Open at the weekend, this huge collection of flea markets on the edge of the old city sells everything from antiques to iPods, classic furniture to streetwear and African tribal souvenirs to Turkish rugs. A great place to get a taste of the real Paris, just keep your eyes on your wallet
Dramatically filling a restored train station with paintings and sculptures dated between 1848 and 1914, this museum also houses a number of unparalleled collections of impressionist and post-impressionist work. It als has a number of rotating, non-permanent exhibitions
(Metro: St-Paul St-Louis)
The former Jewish Quarter of the city and filled with a wealth of museums, around the narrow streets of Rue des Rosiers and Rue Ste Croix de la Bretonnerie are a number of independent clothing boutiques sat next to Kosher Pizza restaurants and bagel bakeries. Quite a contrast. The only area that escaped the urban planning of Baron Haussmann, this is the Paris of old, perfect for a wander
The Grands Boulevards
Built on the old city ramparts, the Grands Boulevards are eight broad streets that extend in a long arc eastwards. Once the chic quarter of Paris, these streets have now turned into the closest the city has to a shopping destination with both top-end boutiques and cut-price luggage and souvenir stores battling for space. Scattered around the area are 19th-century arcades or passages that hark back to a different era while close to the Opéra Garnier are the famed department stores Galerie Lafayette and Printemps
Paris isn’t a cheap option for anyone looking for budget accommodation, but it’s still possible to find rooms for €50 or €60 a night, especially if you stay close to Gare du Nord or Gare de l’Est. Otherwise, expect to pay around €100 per night for a two or three-star hotel. Check out Hotel Saint Quentin (www.paris-hotel-saint-quentin.com), Hotel Parisiana (www.hotelparisiana.com) and the quintessentially classic Hotel Chopin (www.hotelchopin.fr).
Getting There and Travel
Direct flights from Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City to Paris take under 12 hours and are available with Air France and Vietnam Airlines. There are now six flights a week to Paris Charles de Gaulle from Hanoi and five flights a week from Ho Chi Minh City. Go to airfrance.com.vn for details. Charles de Gaulle airport is a half-an-hour RER train ride to Gare du Nord close to the centre of Paris. The airport train costs €9.10.
The metro system in Paris is both efficient and convenient — the walking distance between stops is between five and 10 minutes. A single fare costs €1.70 and you can buy multiple tickets at the same time from machines in the stations. For a map of the metro system and information on how it works, go to www.parismetromap.org.