A journey is about instant, unexpected impressions and well exploded emotions. It’a about moments and places lived through and forever imprinted into one’s forget me not mental drawers. It is hard to draw the line and stay on the journey tracks as a traveler, it is rather facile to jump over the line and become the typical lost and confused accidental tourist. Traveling through Impressions Françaises can offer a lot of charm, and the country shaped and renowned as the Hexagon has much of it to offer, convince and imprint a vivid collection of imagery, flavours and finesse into one’s mind. To prepare for a journey one needs to prepare a personalized map of the places to visit and add a quotidian disconnect dimension so as to help all the senses capture the quintessence of what the soul could vibrate to. History, architecture, the cuisine and la joie de vivre are all part of what one can define as the French character and are essentials of a model that can be traveled marvelously through.
To start a journey by flying over many hours and longitudes of time difference creates a state of perception dominated by the surreal and a form of dizziness that somewhat works against time. Adding that to the overall state of mind as being away from the daily routines, once contact is established with the city of Paris one is marked with a permanent emotion, that gets resurrected on each and every return to the citadel. This is after all, as Hemingway entitled it, “A Moveable Feast”, it moves the soul and offers a continuously enriching feast.
One can walk the streets of Paris and live through a continuous admiration, a walk in awe that becomes a wish to never end. Each step along the way opens up new gates towards worlds of wonder born in the City of Lights. To float along the Seine feels and sees the history as an intense spectacle, slowly unfolding its play at best through a windy summer afternoon wrapped around by a marvelous sunset. Each street has an elaborate building, a mysterious entry, a gate that inspires, something unique or remarkable.
Lodging is essential during travel times, and in the case of Paris rooftop chambres are the best as the view from above brings to life the still image of the city. The roofs are inundated by red clay pipes to form row after row of panpipes, and as the horizon opens up to the buildings and the people’s life’s from within, so are the reference points that one is in constant search for, as they made Paris famous: the Eiffel Tower, le Dome des Invalides, the Sacre-Coeur basilica, Notre-Dame cathedral or the skyscrapers of La Defense. They well give you a kaleidoscope of imagery that best transcends the essence of civilization.
The chance of having such a grandiose image dominated by a major structural monument makes one stare for a while in the distance, to feel and absorb the impression, be it day or night. The eye is at first involuntarily attracted towards what is prominent and imposing, but then it slowly zooms in on the detail for as much as one can comprehend. Even so historically the Eiffel Tower has been a subject of controversy it will remain for years to come a majestic landmark and a symbol of Paris. The impressions formed are largely dependent on the proximity to the tower, the surrounding light, time of the day or altitude of observation. During the day it can be a simple and dry, colorless image of a metal giant, at night though it’s inundated by light and comes alive, as the grandeur and the spectacle can become surreal, especially viewed from Champ de Mars.
Its floating image that seem to rise from the waves of the Seine are at best captured from aboard the open decks of the Parisian bateaux. The ascension towards the open skies through the arched metal arms raises into one’s feelings new forms of vision and understanding for the city’s landscape. This is in fact part of the majestic spell of Paris which allows one to be exposed towards worlds that feel suspended in time, the mind is invaded and agglomerated with elements extracted from different eras and allow the traveler to experience unprecedented sentiments.
The visual depths of the Luxembourg Gardens as looked at from the Avenue de l’Observatoire is unreachable, and is narrow in the immediate vicinity, but once one arrives on rue Auguste Comte it is overwhelming, serenity embraces into an opening dominated by vividly coloured flowers and alleys contemplated by intellectually inspiring trees. The art of tree and evergreen cutting and beautifying seems to belong to the french, or at least the precision of the cut in greenery adds to the charm of the gardens and to help one’s journey become integrated with nature in the middle of the city.
Although the gardens are filled with people, there is a surreal mystery and calm floating in the air, and one cannot react but let itself be taken away into such an involuntary timeless journey. Sculpture is an integral part of the gardens and the alleys drawn are marked with statues, busts and fountains, elegantly adorning the background image of the Luxembourg Palace that today hosts the French Senate. There are a multitude of chairs, green they are, that attract like a magnet people towards contemplation and dreaming, a seated person on the green chair seems to form an intellectual entity that slowly evades the present, and for a while seems to float in a state of trance.
And one should study the pond that feels like the center of gravity for the garden, it maintains an eternal image of childhood and of related memories, with boats floating amongst ducks and children running for laughters. The little boats seem to be taking the children on courageous voyages and the joy of innocence makes the heart surrender to such purity. Miniature sails float freely along the water and children start imagining daring journeys across the seas with sincere happiness and creates an atmosphere that help one’s soul relive its innocence.
Whenever a visit is made to unique landmarks of civilization the question arises of how did they do it, what was the driving force? Such principles and desires to enrich the wealth of our civilisation seems to have slowed down in its tracks lately. Jardin du Luxembourg goes back to the marvel of the Renaissance, as Maria de Medici decides to build a palace that somewhat resembled similar creations in her native Florence, including the unique grounds of the park and gardens, where she decided amongst other things to plant 2,000 elm trees.
Napoleon III and the baron Haussmann have changed the architectural facade of Paris. Wide boulevards were built and so was the majestic architectural landmark Opéra Garnier, and some have said with many sacrifices, of emblematic medieval Parisian buildings, but it has brought a fresh new perspective and has transformed the city into what is known today. A good Haussmannian transformation point can be visited around Place d’Etoile, where no less than 12 boulevards converge towards the same central point – the Arc de Triomphe.
The medieval boroughs were demolished and replaced by multi-level stone buildings that were layed down as a continuous unit and exposed in 45 degrees angles at corner streets. Cast iron rails surrounded the new balconies and windows were adorned with encrustations and sculptures fully integrated into the newly born facades. Such a change over Paris was major and the new boulevards have opened wider horizons, even so they were originally built by Napoleon III as means of repression against the communards. Opéra Garnier has revamped the theatre, arts and shows, two new railway stations were brought into existence, the Gare du Nord and Gare de Lyon, Hotel-Dieu was immensely transformed, and the Conciergerie prison changed from feudal and austere to stand well and renovated along the Palais de Justice. All these have had a major urban, social and demographic impact, criticized at the time of development but fully admired today.
Father and son playing football in the park is a common image in European cities. Sunday afternoon when the sun warms up the paths to a serene atmosphere, children’s laughter and silliness of parents emerge from playgrounds, balls fly high and a positive sentiment fulfills the blessed day of Sunday. And with that comes a family picnic on the grass and the fresh baguette strolls out of panniers in such a french manner that one expects the cheese and wine to follow. And so it does. The classic ham and cheese sandwich on a fresh and crisp baguette is unbeatable, simple but filled with pleasure and desire. One should not attempt a walk in the park on an empty stomach.
A natural continuation from the Jardin du Luxembourg is a walk around the streets of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Boulevard Saint-Germain is yet another contribution of baron Hausmann, and for anyone willing to feel the days of the existentialism movement that surrounded Paris in the 1940’s and 1950’s, should visit some of the famous cafes Deux Magots, Cafe de Flore or Brasserie Lipp, where Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Luc Goddard or Francois Truffaut used to gather and discuss the arts in a jazzy bohemian atmosphere. The density of cafes and restaurants in Paris is probably one of the highest in the world, it is a culture in itself, with waiters and bartenders flying their profession like true artists, well spoken and mannered, with the occasional temperamental eruptions due to tourists invading their space, manners and principles.
The Louvre is a lesson in architecture on the exterior, and a marvel through time and creativity in the interior. One has to be prepared to become an invader of the museum and also to feel the invasion of others, in a collective attempt to capture and understand the works of art hanging of the walls. The incredible collection that the Louvre exhibits to the world is worth of days and days of absorption and admiration.
There are certain structures that do not seem to belong to the fame of Paris, such as the glass pyramids built in front of the Louvre, which except perhaps the practical aspect of allowing light to travel through to the underground where the ticket booths and the museum entrances are, their exterior presence disturbs the aesthetic senses of the visitor. Such is the same for the Luxor obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, perhaps of historical importance and an appreciated antique originating from Egypt, this is though a piece that will better fit into a museum.
In Paris the intellect is invited to reflect, contemplate on things of the past, or envision creation as a normal but essential artifact of life. This is part of the french character, as Salvador de Madariaga was well describing in his book Englishmen, Frenchmen, Spaniards – the intellect as being one of the major characteristic of the french folk, as a consequence of the social manifestation and exposures that helps to draw one’s thinking into action.
And so here come the books and the creators of their words and pages that have given Paris a lot of its weight and majestic aura, as this is the place where books are loved, adored and created as nowhere else. Take the bouquinistes that are on display along the banks of the Seine, every day selling their antiquarian books and collectibles at low prices – 240 bouquinistes make use of 900 green boxes to hold around 300,000 books and a large number of journals, stamps and cards.
At 37 Rue de la Bucherie sits a one of a kind bookstore, an English one that is, in the heart of Paris and all, it is a place of cultural wander setup by an american, George Whitman, with a name handed over from another american, Sylvia Beach, who founded the original Shakespeare & Company.
The original opened in 1922 at 12 rue de l’Odéon, a bookstore and lending library that hosted and cultivated an impressive lineup of literary figures that crossed through its doors – James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot, André Gide, Gertrude Stein, and many others. James Joyce’s Ulysses, at the time controversial, was first published here, and also young Hemingway’s first book Three Stories and Ten Poems, was encouraged. But perhaps the strongest reference there is to it is the Moveable Feast where Hemingway mentions the uniqueness of the bookstore.
The later version of Shakespeare & Company was consolidated as the place to be for expat artists, and some of the guests included Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin, and Alan Ginsberg. The bookstore gained its fame from the open invitation it send to all writers and artists in need of a place to stay, find their creative pen, enjoy the city and also help with the daily chores around the bookstore. It is said that around 40,000 artists have stayed over the years and experienced such inspirations.
If one is in search of a quiet Parisian afternoon it should head to Place des Vosges, a little exquisite square park in the Marais district. High risen roofs with chimneys standing tall like soldiers are supported by red bricks and arched entryways that lead to dimly lit galleries. A perfect setting for a late lunch or an afternoon coffee, an open invitation to contemplate and imagine papa Hugo going for a stroll or looking out the window at no. 6 where he spent a few good years of his life.
To continue on the cafe culture scene of Paris, Emile Zola and Paul Cezanne open up the doors to a place of tradition where many hours of debate and poetry flowed through its doors – La Closerie des Lilas. It is said that Tristan Tzara and Andre Breton debated and decided the fate of the Dadaism movement in here, and for any of the Hemingway fans this is the another place to be as the great american writer put down most of the lines for The Sun Also Rises at the bar of the Closerie. To add to the list here are some other strikes of genius that touched the zinc and wood of the brasserie – Modigliani, Paul Fort, Picasso, Jean-Paul Sartre, André Gide, Oscar Wilde, Beckett, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald, Henry Miller.
France is, of course, the heart of Western civilization. And much as the heart gives life and meaning to the rest of the body, so France gives life and meaning to what we call culture, history, and worthwhile experience; France is the loyal guardian of civilization with a capital C, despite constant assault by the spreading global monoculture and its twin engines, television and advertising.
Much in France and French culture is immediately familiar to the first-time visitor: we have all been exposed one way or another to its exquisite art and architecture, to images and stories of Paris or the south of France, to memories of the invasion of Normandy and the battle of Verdun, to French cuisine and wine, and to manifold stereotypes of the French people. Many of us also have a romantic fantasy of France that is hard to shake, even after repeated visits, simply because we want to believe that a place such as France exists, that a people such as the French exist, that a language such as French is still spoken and written, that a way of life one can still experience all over France is still possible.
Travelers’ Tales France opens a series of anecdotal windows to life in France—the life of centuries but more important for the traveler, the life of the day. For while you can indeed go to France for museums, châteaus, and cathedrals until the sight of one induces coma, while you can indeed stuff yourself with foie gras, cheese, wine, and the world’s best bread, while you can cycle and barge and balloon and hike till you’re blue in the face, these aren’t the real reasons for going to France. The real reason is to experience Life As It Should Be. And then in your own way, you can return home and set about making your life The Way It Ought To Be. And if you must return over and over again for further inspiration, the French will forgive you, and you will be infinitely rewarded each time.
But countries, like individuals, don’t stand still. They change, they endure crises and bad leaders, they grow old and die, perhaps to be reborn, or to evolve and accept new missions in the world and the life of the mind and spirit. France, much like its ally and nemesis, England, has gone from being one of the world’s largest empires to being (almost) just another country in Europe after being shredded by two World Wars in the same century. It is a great power no more in the old sense, but as the rest of the world devolves into a new century of barbarism, stupidity, and historical amnesia, France still has the power to influence, to civilize, to teach, and to inspire.
Yet as more and more people visit the shrine of culture and good living, the French face monumental challenges. It is no easy thing to host 60 million guests each year, nor is it an easy thing to absorb a multitude of immigrants from recent history—the Algerians, the West Africans, the Vietnamese, to name a few. It is no easy thing for a country which has been and still is so Catholic, to absorb and integrate Islam without being changed, nor to digest the post-socialist neo-pagan who worships only financial success. It is no easy thing for a people so in love with their language to see it threatened and usurped by the rampant weed of worldwide English. It is no easy thing for the French to master tourism on a massive scale, which is both an economic blessing and a modern disease. It is no easy thing to see the standards and traditions of French farming change, perhaps irrevocably, in the face of the needs of the European Union.
We can only hope, for the sake of the rest of us, that the spirit of France prevails, and that the French move into the new century with undying savoir-faire.
James O’Reilly, Larry Habegger, Sean O’Reilly – Travelers’ Tales France
It is now the end of the Anno Domini 2015, and it is with heavy heart that one looks towards Paris, after Charlie Hebdo and the November 13th incidents, and can only wish for the celebration of Christmas to restore some of the hope for Parisians and normality for their streets and rekindle Paris to what it’s best known for, a fantastic hub of civilization.
There is so much more to be traveled through on such a journey of Impressions Françaises, and to best experience some of this, and more, there can only be one recommendation. Go. Go and see the City of Lights, bite into a baguette, climb the Eiffel Tower, float through history along the Seine, take a stroll in the Luxembourg Gardens, buy a book from the bouquinistes, watch the world pass by from a cafe, contemplate towards a remembrance of things past, immerse into the impressionism at the Musee d’Orsay, or visit Napoleon at Les Invalides. Allez!
“There is one spectacle grander than the sea, that is the sky; there is one spectacle grander than the sky, that is the interior of the soul.”
Victor Hugo, Les Miserables
“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a movable feast.”
Ernest Hemingway, to a friend, 1950