Travels in Europe: PARIS, and the Tour d'Chance

by wandering freditor / Sep 19, 2013 / 0 comments

You are wrong, Cole Porter. I can never imagine Paris not sizzling like a rasher of streaky bacon dropped into a hot frying pan, any time of year. Yes, even in the winter when you say it drizzles. I know that each time I leave Paris, there is an innate melancholy, a little lingering longing, sadness that tomorrow I won’t be walking the footpaths and cobbled streets any more. And I become the Terminator personified, I’ll be back an epiphany, not a mantra. For I know I will do anything to make it happen, again, and again, and again.


Paris is a city so magnificent, so breathtaking in its setting, so splendorous of its streets and buildings that we rue the fact that we don’t actually live there. Paris does savoir faire like no other city. So many great writers  have lived, drunk, (I use it as a verb, but take it as a noun if you wish) eaten, fought and won, or lost, often in the same hour, been jilted or scored (perhaps not in that order) demonstrated, been robbed, mugged, abused by waiters, taxi drivers and had a run in with the flicks yet slept the sleep of the Gods, simply because Paris is a God and it always has been, in a manner in which other cities are not.


Paris makes lesser droolers and scribblers like me reluctant to scatter our thoughts before you reader, for when it comes to writers, all the greats have been there, Hugo and Hemingway, Sartre and Scott Fitzgerald, Balzac and Blair (Better known as George Orwell, no reference to phony Tony!), in fact a veritable Anais and Alexandre all the way to Zola. When you are in love, so the songsters write, every town is Paris. Movie makers are often seen filming in the streets. It is a place that is always cool, whether you're at a bistrot having coffee under the colonnades, or simply walking down the street thinking in your mind you are Maurice Chevalier - "I lorve Paree in ze Sprinktime, I lorve Paree in ze Foal ..."


Of all the world's great cities, it is somehow the most special.


So pardon, mes enfants, as this rather wrinkly child of a lesser God, making my own all too brief personal pilgrimage to a petite portion of Paris, shares some brief his thoughts with you.


Journeys, we're told, start with the first step. Well that's not strictly true in our case because it started with the first pedal push, if you like. I have always wanted to see the Tour de France but alas, we have never been in France at the ‘right’ time, or even in England, Belgium, or Italy, when it starts from those exotic locations. But this time, the planets were all aligned. Well except for the one called Wife-as-well, which is responsible for all the storms, rain, and sunshine that come to my life.


I suggested we see the lycra lads somewhere on the section between Nantes and St Malo but no, she was busy with work and besides, one of the staff was away. Perhaps then, to the Alps, the area around Annecy? Simply impossible to get away at that time, sorry! “The time trial from Avranches to Mont St Michel,” I ventured hopefully, but also in vain.


So I simply gave up on watching the Peloton and its 20 seconds of exhilaration as like a flight of angry bees, the boys buzzed by.


“Know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em,” and like a bald Kenny Rogers, I played my last card.


"What if we watch the end of the race in Paris, you know, on the Champs-Élysées?"


Bingo! Like open sesame, I had said the magic word. Yes, Paris claimed yet another willing 'victim.’ She was bitten, as though by Dracula with an Eiffel Tower for you see, Paris is in all our veins.


I booked the flights that afternoon…


The day of the finish of the Tour de France was simply stunning. There are few better days in the year, clear blue skies, only a puff of wind, the Seine a majestic and friendly serpent full of river craft and crowds in their thousands, to watch the spectacle of the finish on the Champs. The Ile St Louis, where we had booked an apartment within a camel's bray of the Emir of Qatar's pad, looked serene from helicopter height, moored in the wake of the Ile de la Cite with the Notre Dame, anchored on the port bow. Paris at its best!


I should have been there. I wasn't!


Five days before our departure I had to go to hospital for an urgent, and decidedly unexpected, hernia operation. It meant cancelling the visit, including a visit to family in Manchester where Australia was playing England in the Third cricket test and family had got me a much prized ticket. We were mortified but immediately after the operation, started re-planning the visit, sadly excluding England this time and knowing that for the next three months, Wendy would have to do all the heavy lifting!




We flew to Paris via Dubai and with the frequent mention of our destination by the pilot and crew as being Charles de Gaulle airport, I developed a crazy ditty which wound itself into my brain so that every time the airport was mentioned I began singing,


Charles de Gaulle, Charles de Gaulle
Nose as long as he is tall


And the bloody thing would not go away so I was glad when the dour douanier stripped me of slavish stupefaction by ferociously demanding, "Passport," without as much as a s'il vous plait!


Never mind, we were ‘in’ – even if the Blue Bus never showed despite our calls. Instead, we travelled rapidly to our Rue in a Renault, Rue Chapon, Apartment 26 in the 3rd Arrondissement, although I must admit, that arriving via the 18th Arrondissement is not via Paris’ most salubrious face, grubby rather than dirty, and not the appealing grunge of history either. Rather nose wrinkling too, like mudflats exposed by the fallen tide. Then suddenly, there gleaming brightly, was the white marbled marvelous Sacre Coeur, as distinguishable as the Statue of Liberty or Big Ben and metaphorically speaking, a short half head behind the Eiffel Tower in recognition stakes. 


Our tucked away apartment with a common flagstone entrance area, twisting narrow stairs and a front door that closed with the portent of a prison door, had shutters and dancing wooden floors, and probably an acquaintance with the time of Napoleon. But like so much of France, it had been modernized significantly since, in a civil coda sort of way! Like a sly old fox however, I slipped away from the unpacking to stretch my legs and absorb what was left of the daylight. I made my way past the Centre Pompidou with its colourful outside plumbing, down Rue du Reynard, to suddenly find the splendour the Hotel De Ville before me.



Hotel de Ville, Paris

Simply spectacular! I wish that we had booked rooms there instead of the apartment, although I couldn’t see a concierge there at all.


I gave the Seine one of those European kisses, a quick peck on both cheeks and back to the right bank again and met Wendy to have dinner street-side in a pseudo wicker chair, seated side by side at a table shrunk by the rain, amid patrons similarly jimmied in to epicurean espace. For make no mistake, during our week in France we found nearly all the food of gourmand dimensions and food-wise, the only two things that might kill you are over-eating and the taxes. Everything looks cheap, until you add the taxes. It is almost as though President Hollande is saying, “Let them eat cake … and we’ll make a killing on the taxes!” And few we met had a good word for Hollande, or his Valerie!


The beauty of the bistrots and cafes (they must number in tens of thousands) is that you get a chance to nestle and preen, sip a coffee or wine, and peruse the passing of people in perpetual motion – well while you are watching ‘em. The whole world seems to buzz, rattle, rumble, stumble, breeze, wheeze, and amble by. Helmet-less Lotharios with leonine locks on ludicrously loud Lambrettas, making much of their muscles, macho, and crooked noses, in that JP Belmondo tough guy sort of way. Or by women on bicycles or foot, women with strong noses, high cheekbones, and big teeth, who sashay as they walk, laugh easily, and talk with their hands, most, invariably thin, poured into shorts or short dresses, schmick rather than chic, made up by nature not Helena or Coco. It made ‘sitting on a coffee’ a simple passing pleasure.


Amid this street theatre and cacophony of aural assault, we stood out like the tourists that we were and invariably our proffered French was met with a smile and a shift into English faster than the paddle change on a Porsche does gears. People were welcoming and warm with the ‘arrogant Frenchman image’ tipped off to the antipodes. The service was good, plate presentation as though by Pissaro, and the knowledge of menus and food preparation, unsurpassed.


The morning is ‘my time,’ up before the sun to watch it rise, paint the city and draw the curtains for the flowers. The coming of the light is ephemeral, the lifeblood of artists, photographers, workers and the simply appreciative. Grand sandstone buildings dazzle, great railway stations too, finer and more grandiose than any airport ever could be, stone, iron and glass, Opera houses for the daily masses. It is the time to wander, led by a curious eye, trailed by following feet.


In the semi-darkness, the city’s heart was pumping, cleaners and street sprayers, delivery men, people on bikes, and some of the bistrots glowed with life, the aroma of coffee and fresh bread. Paris was cleaning up after the night before and stocking up for the day ahead. Then again, the cleaning service was conducted by efficient swarthy Caucasian Frenchmen, maybe with a measure of union job reservation involved and unlike in many other countries where the latest wave of immigrants usually found their start in cleaning the streets.


Like a lady of easy virtue, Madame Seine drew me to her wares, as she does everyone, and I was rewarded by the hour with La Conciergerie, once a palace, once a prison, now basked in a soft wash of light. I stood long moments before the Pont Notre Dame, just looking … and looking. It was before the bateaus with their cargo of camera carrying tourists, address systems sprouting their four language commentary and the thrum of morning traffic. It was Paris serene that held me to its bosom, the distant Eiffel Tower a wary sentinel showing none of the wrinkles of its 124 years, but then again, I was a fair distance away. Nevertheless, its iconic shape confirmed that if I pinched myself, I would still be in Paris, France, as those Yankees say.


I ventured further, singing to myself, “How would you like to be, down by the Seine with me; under the bridges of Paris with you …” Well stop right there! Quite frankly, I wouldn’t and nor might you if I altered the lyrics in a representational way. Reprise please, Maestro! “…down by the Seine with me, down in the pissoire of Paris with you…"


Hmmm, I thought so. While in Paris we saw many homeless kerb-side squats, people sleeping rough in the way that major cities always attract the not so well off in straitened economic times, as is the case with France today. Victor Hugo could identify with the modern day miserables looking not unlike their C18 counterparts. And at night and in the rain, sleeping under the many bridges offers a form of shelter, and of course a protected place for all manner of bodily functions and the stench of mensch – and of cats and dogs, as many had them on leads - is alas one of the side effects. So by all means walk above, or glide by in bateaux mouches, preferably at night when it all looks romantic, and we can all keep the romance of the city alive.     


La Conciergerie beyond the Pont Notre Dame, in the early morning light

La Conciergerie beyond the Pont Notre Dame, in the early morning light


We walked so much in Paris that I made a mental note to book my Timberlands in for a retread. First to the Place des Voges built for Henri IV at the very beginning of C17, a true square made in red brick with identical residential properties, which became the fore-runner for European city squares. Henri and the following Louis (plural) paid it scant attention but Cardinal Richelieu and V Hugo had places there, above the colonnaded, vaulted arcades. Now it is an oasis of tranquility in the bustling area around the Bastille, fittingly the place where all the actions started that overturned much of the Bourbon accesses.


The back streets of the Marais district are a warren of shops as we oldies knew them, intriguing, intimate, inviting, the fruiters shops as though painted by Renoir, cheese-mongers with a different cheese for every day of the year, fish-mongers with everything from reel to eel, and next door usually a wine store where Bacchus would be merry for a month. Also real butchers shops with not a hint of polystyrene and plastic wrap, meat hung from hooks, chickens, ducks, rabbits, and cuchon (sounds so much nicer than ‘pig’). Dress and shoe shops, tailors and real toy shops with wooden toys, model trains and painted tin soldiers. And everywhere, planter boxes in bloom, geraniums, daisies, ranunculus, and violets, all thumbing their noses at the fact that the next day was the beginning of autumn!   Oh, it all took me back.


We crossed to the Ile St Louis, the discrete tender to the Ile de la Cite, long habitat of the discreet very rich and famous, now including the Emir of Qatar. We should have had ‘our’ apartment on the island but our second spasm timing was not propitious, and with a measure of envy we walked its gentle streets and ate with a view of the backside of the Notre Dame looking upon its wonderful shaped buttresses, its best side, in a Pippa-ish sort of way.


The next day we made acquaintance with the street of Jean Jaques Rousseau, the philosopher I’d made an acquaintance with in my political philosophy studies and in his home-town of Geneva. He’d missed the Revolution of course, dying in 1778, but was its most inspirational leader. His rue led us, with abundant food for thought, away from what was once foodie heaven, the great market at Les Halles, once the “stomach of Paris.” If you’ve seen the Billy Wilder flick, Irma La Douce, it remains simply unforgettable, as does Shirley MacLaine’s green underwear, for it (Les Halles!) buzzed like a bee hive in the spring. Now it is a hole in the ground with concrete intestines, entrails of yet another ubiquitous super mall in the making, and the locals just sigh.


A quick look at the Palais Royal and on to the busy Rue Rivoli, past the golden Jeanne d’Arc past which the Tour de Francers annually ride eight or so times and to the Salon de The Angelina. Now take some really good chocolate, say by Lindt or Godiva, break off a square and swirl it round in your mouth for a good five minute, but despite temptation, do not swallow! When it runs like the Mississippi, slow and oleaginously, take in a tablespoon of the richest clotted cream available, and swirl it in your mouth once more. Now swallow … and you are close to the famous hot Chocolat Afrique served at the always packed, Angelina.


It is a legendary fin de siècle tea and coffee house, frequented for over a century by actors, royalty, artists, spivs, spies, ministers (of cloth, and cavorting), and Nazis (During the occupation of Paris in WWII, the German HQ was in the still fashionable Hotel Maurice next door). Coco Chanel came there every day, to Table 11 to sip Afrique and sit by the mirror observing the Mediterranean murals and patrons. Maurice probably sat there too, ogling the waitresses in their black skirts and pinafores and thinking sank evans for leetal gerls …  The whole place screams ‘calories’ like Becks his pecs, or was that a chocolat éclair in those boxer shorts? Oh the Angelina it is very much a Paris “must do.”


The walk up Rue Castiglione to Place Vendome with Napoleon Bonaparte restored to his plinth and surrounded by the molten bronze of his battle conquest cannon, is always majestic although this time the nearby Ritz Hotel looked most un-ritzy, en-clouded as it was in white builder’s boards for yet another renovation. As it was only mid morning, and we had just come from the ‘Coco Chanel Sweet,’ we also resisted the temptation to go to the Hemingway bar, both in the Ritz. Besides, despite claiming that the sun also rises, the ghost of Papa was sure to still be in bed! Instead, in the nature of chasing phantoms, it was the sighting of the Paris Opera House as we turned the corner into Avenue de l’Opera, which took our breaths away. We’d both been there before and alas, retail therapy was short, and rather essential … and well, you know how it goes.


Like being inside a wedding cake, under the stained glass dome at Galleries LaFayette

Like being inside a wedding cake, under the stained glass dome at Galleries LaFayette


Galleries Lafayette is no ordinary store. If Harrods be the world’s grand pappy of great stores, then GF is surely the grand-mere magasins. Every time I step in from Boulevard Haussmann, named after the boulevardier of all town-planning who delivered up this great city by knocking much of it down in the 1860s, I look up at the great stained glass dome and think this was created by one of those clever surgeons who does all his best work on the inside! Between the basement and the Seventh floor, it is a cornucopia of women’s luxury and beauty while the view from the terrasse over the Opera house and the Paris skyline, is indeed stare-worthy. You need to cross a walkway to a ‘regular-guy’ sort of building for the menswear brand names, but the food hall would see Grocer Charles Henry Harrod raise an un-begrudging eyebrow in appreciation of what “those Frenchies” were able to do with a food-hall. Yes, it really is that good.


After two hours shopping at the equally grand, but not as grandiose Printemps, we made our way to the corner of the beautifully tongue rolling Boulevard des Capucines et La Place l’Opera, the site of the  Café de la Paix with its immaculately maintained period fittings and appointments, and now regarded by the French Government as a National Historic Site. Many had whiled away the hours over a gourmet meal, a glass of wine or the much debated absinthe which had reputedly led to Vincent Van Gogh’s madness and lopping off an ear. Emile Zola and the great writer of parables, Guy de Maupassant, were among the regular clients, as later were high ranking Germans and French men and women during the WWII, for the Café never closed its doors. The champagne flowed after De Gaulle’s speech at the Hotel de Ville on the Liberation of Paris on 25 August 1944. We relaxed and enjoyed the food and the view of L’ Opera House with the flitting flock of footpath flyers ensuring that our sightings were never dull.     


Behold the old world charm of the Café de la Paix.

Behold the old world charm of the Café de la Paix.


We walked home tired and footsore but the afternoon was Paris at its sizzling best, the last day of the summer and there might not be many more days like this. The parks, footpaths and bistrots were full and in front of the Centre Pompidou the giant bubble blowers tossed their wares on the air, drifting like see-through Anacondas that appeared to have been belched by the plumbing, delighting dozens of kids.


Down by the Seine, Les Bouquinistes, the owners of those great (and expensive to lease) green numbered boxes full of prized books and souvenirs, antique objects’ d’art, CDs, postcards, and old LPs, had their material open to the bevy of browsers. On the roads, the cyclists in summer rig sped past as though trying to capture every moment of the day. On the trees, the autumn harvest stood ready, but for want of a breeze, and lovers wandered hand in hand as they have done for centuries although that experience is perhaps more new to the many gays one sees.


I wandered to the Pont des Arts where in 1984, an identical iron footbridge to that constructed in 1802 which had earlier crossed the Seine, had replaced the original. As with the graves of people like Jim Morrison, Oscar Wilde, and a host of celebrity figures at the Pere Lachaise cemetery which have become the place of pilgrimage, so too now, the Pont des Artes. You can buy padlocks, of varying size, from an enterprising Bouquinist and with the love of your life – or the moment - pledge a troth, lock the padlock, if you can find a space, and throw the key into the Seine as a symbol of your undying love. And many have done so, for the bridge is covered in locks, right bank to left bank, and I presume that ships compasses go haywire at passing over the hurling spot! And some scrap metal dealer with a dredge is set to make a scrap-metal killing. Each year, the authorities remove all the locks, so the process begins again, to the joy of lovers and lock sellers. My cash and keys stayed in my pocket and in fading light, I set my path for our little apartment. No lock left on the Pont, but I could still open the door!


Paris simply locks in love … but keep the key handy! Pont Des Arts

Paris simply locks in love … but keep the key handy!


On the first day of autumn, a Sunday, the taxi came and stopped in the narrowness of Rue Chapon and put on its hazard lights. The folk behind waited patiently. We may have entered Paris through the back door, but we left through the Pearly Gates, through Place de La Concorde and up the Champs-Elysees like a motorized Sir Bradley Wiggins, clattering over the cobbles past the evocative, striding, Charles de Gaulle. Oh what a glorious sight it is, looking up towards the Arc de Triomphe, so simple and majestic, the rightful way of entry to a great city. The troops of various victors had passed through it, Napoleon’s coffin too, on its way to Invalides and Victor Hugo had laid in State under it before his internment in the Pantheon. Now the huge Tricolor fluttered gently over the resting place of the unknown soldier.


We joined the surge, flicking across lanes like propelled flotsam and into Avenue Foch, one of the wide arms that radiates from the Etoile like the rays of the sun. Half an hour later, in our Peugeot, we were zooming down the motorway, and saw Paris no more. Sweet memories and a yearning hope to return, but always in the joy that we can tell everyone in the words of the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein song,

The last time I saw Paris
Her heart was young and gay,
No matter how they change her,
I’ll remember her that way.






Winfred Peppinck is the Tales of the Traveling Editor for Wandering Educators


All photos courtesy and copyright Winfred Peppinck