Updated: Mar 26
For as long as I can remember, Paris has been the most celebrated of cities. It was where Sabrina (Audrey Hepburn) and Linus (Humphrey Bogart) absconded at the end of the 1954 Hollywood romance Sabrina. That same year, Coco Chanel returned to the city to reignite the fashion empire she birthed decades earlier. Where you ask? In Paris, of-course - where else? It was in Paris where Napoleon was crowned Emperor at Notre Dame Cathedral at the precocious age of 35. When you visit the Louvre, you can gaze at Bonaparte’s coronation as if on a live feed courtesy of Jacques-Louis David’s painting, “Coronation.” Paris was, and remains the mecca for artists on pilgrimage, eager to take their place among the greats who preceded them: Dali, Hemingway, and Picasso just to name a few. Paris possesses a rare, magnetic grandeur that beckons the muse from within; if you pause for a split second, the inner artist becomes you.
Skepticism is how I approached the city. So much fanfare, so much hype led me to believe that such a “City of Art” or love or fashion, of croissants and cafés was only a myth, a specter of imagination never to be fully realized. Surely, the Rom-Com junkies, dandified bon vivants, runway models, sous-chefs, and film auteurs were overstating Parisian pulp. Furthermore, the horror stories I heard through the years (themes highlighted in the Netflix show Emily in Paris) fed my suspicions. It was too expensive, Parisians are rude, the city is dirty, overcrowded, and uninviting, especially for Yankees from lowly America, the land marred by grotesque sunspots like McDonalds and Starbucks. And yet, I am happy to report, that I was, most emphatically, wrong. La Dame de Fer far exceeds the buildup the way Lebron James dominated Oak Hill Academy in high school, a man among boys destined for the Hall of Fame. Paris – is the city of cities, the fates have decided, and I must concede it so!
Sights and Spectacle
Walking through Paris is – spectacular. Its lathered streets, broad boulevards, mellifluous museums, honied cafés ornamented with perfumed pastries, subterranean metro tunnels, spiraling traffic circles, and glorious parks are meticulously stitched together like a golden quilt. Speaking of colors, to me Paris glows in golden highlights, by day and by night. I despise tourism and tawdry touristy things but in Paris they are a necessity so do not be deterred by crowds. Do go in winter or fall if you can. The Arc de Triomphe, Champs-Élysées, and the Eiffel Tower are appropriate way points from which to kick-off your journey.
Paris – is the city of cities, the fates have decided, and I must concede it so!
Hyperbole is an arrow in any writer’s quiver, but I try to employ it for emotional impact, less so for salesmanship. That said, the Louvre is worthy of the top-shelf marketing it receives. I am fortunate to have been to the Museo Nacional del Prado, the Met in NYC, and the Galleria dell'Accademia di Firenze (Michelangelo’s Museum in Florence) among others, and I can say with confidence that the Louvre is on another level. While my opinion that Michelangelo’s sculptures are the most impressive of human artistic endeavors still stands, the Louvre is the best museum experience bar none, and it is not close. I spent three hours inside and barely scratched the surface.
When you enter the Louvre, grab a map (I didn’t) and launch. For me, it was the Egyptian antiquities, Greco-Roman statues, the central sculpture garden, and of course, the French and Italian paintings. DaVinci’s Mona Lisa is jam packed but if you feel so inclined you can queue to view it up close. If not, the alternative draws are infinite – Jacques-Louis-David’s Les Sabines and – Eugène Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People (the inspiration for NYC's Statue of Liberty) are two of my favorites. Both are shown above. Beware, the museum halls are so well-conceived, immersive, and extraordinary that you may disappear into the abyss of boundless beauty never to be seen again. Don’t believe me? You will.
The Louvre is the best museum experience bar none, and it is not close.
For a less hurried venture, visit the Tomb of the Invalid. It is here where you will come to fully appreciate (hopefully) and understand, and feel the electricity of the “Little Corporal” who rose to become a modern Caesar. Napoleon transformed the revolution, he transformed Paris, he transformed Europe and indeed the le monde. The French recognize this fact and so consecrated his body in a sarcophagus befitting an Egyptian Pharoah, certainly Ramses or Akhenaten. His impact exceeds the scope of this essay so suffice it to say that Napoleon made Paris the new Rome and his shadow looms large over the city as you can see below.
Style equals Substance, Class equals Culture
What is the Joie de vivre the French made famous? What about the Franco-sophistication and pomposity elites around the world flatter (or sully) with mimicry? Or the verve that can only be enunciated in a language uttered in poetry more than phonetics? At first it's elusive, some would say inaccessible to outsiders. The Butterfly Effect refers to microscopic changes in initial conditions that can change macro events. On the surface, Parisians tend to be brooding, cynical, they are unimpressed by much. They are not impassioned like Italians, nor harsh like Germans, they are not aggressive like New Yorkers, or busybodies like Chinese. Instead, the French float on little clouds above peering down at you, occasionally. But do not be fooled because as history teaches when Parisians thunder the world changes!
Parisians make a virtue of superciliousness. Like irony, if not invented by the French they unmistakably perfected it.
Parisians make a virtue of superciliousness. Like irony, if not invented by the French they unmistakably perfected it. The French are in a sense, optimistic pessimists, too gloomy to be positive, too relaxed to be that negative. Often, you will pass by unnoticed. If you are lucky, they will give you a half-hearted smirk. Again, unimpressed. The glory of France, its geographic centrality, ineffable museums, resplendent architecture, and eminent history makes Gaul (France) the inter-dimensional cosmos and Paris the string theory that binds it together. Given such provenance why be impressed with much else?
Form and function are conjoined in Parisian style. Everyone dresses exceptionally well here. Men are dressed in blue suits, brown shoes, and often black coats. In casual attire they wear elegant sweaters or cardigans with silky scarfs. As spiffy as Frenchmen dress, les dames surpass them in every way. They wear form-fitting and tapered dresses or skirts, golden jewelry, and hints of color when appropriate, sometimes burgundy, occasionally pink, often shades of purple and brown. Parisian femme fatales also have a fetish for black leather pants like many European women these days. They are the best dressed women in Europe, except for Italian donnas of course!
Secret Spots and Fancy Delicatessens
Let’s talk about expense. It is not breaking news to say that Paris is expensive. It is very expensive indeed: the metro is expensive, restaurants are expensive, goods are expensive. Fortunately, museums tend to be reasonable and that’s about it. Bakeries are ubiquitous and pastries are fresh and can be affordable as long as you skip the touristy places. Make sure you order in French if you can, a little practice goes a long way si vous plait!
Picking a favorite café or restaurant in Paris is like picking your favorite film or book or child I suppose. It is a fool’s errand and entirely unproductive since most of them are excellent. Here are some recommendations anyway. I really enjoyed Le Café Marcy right across from the pyramid square in the Louvre. For croissants, I think this is a pretty good list. For night spots, I recommend taking a gander at Topjaw's video. The food scene in Paris is beyond reproach sans service of course. Food is exquisite, well prepared, beautified, and delicious. (See the duck plate below!)
Take note, if ever there were a place to prep for an evening out, it is Paris. Hostesses sometimes seat you according to dress. If outfitted in a suit you are rewarded with indoor seating, if not, better luck outside. Customer service is not awful as many suggest, but it’s a few degrees from good. Servicing others is tough when you have better things to do like catch a smoke break or learn how to furrow your brow unironically. There is no better deterrence against common courtesy than decades of socialism. James Joyce's lead antagonist Stephen Dedalus exhorted us to relinquish service to others in the Latin sentiment Non Serviam, an apt characterization of the French mentality.
What an Incredible City!
On my last day in Paris this trip, a friend of mine said that she grew up dreaming of living here. I asked if it was everything she hoped for. After scarfing down our raspberry croissants, peering at a golden and pearl white church in our sights, and a quick promenade through her local park she said – after Paris, everything else is a step down. Gertrude Stein famously agreed. “America is my country and Paris is my hometown,” she said. The skeptic in me is now convinced.
Where else can you hear Claude Debussy in the airport? Where else can you see Louis XIV's statue rearing his horse astride the Louvre? Where else can you sample the best food, the best wine prepared with exquisite style and artistry? Where else can you strut through the gardens at the Palais-Royale or sidle along the Seine and reminisce about the ancient Celtic village that became a Roman outpost and now stands immortalized as the Neo-Rome? In short, nowhere, which is why iconic Hollywood films, the most furious of revolutions and the vainest of megalomaniacs reached climax in Pari – the city of cities.
More to follow after my next trip!