Others in our group were to come to Paris from England. I had not joined them in their across-the-Channel trip. I was instead in Geneva and had taken in Basle and Lucerne in the few days I had. We were to meet at Paris. One morning I took the TGV (Trans Grand Vittese), the fast train the French had connected Paris and Geneva with. TGV in 1987 was still in its infant stage. They had one more line from Paris to Lyon. That’s about all that they had. Now, however, they have expanded phenomenally to most of Western Europe. My wife and I had travelled in it from Brussels to Paris and back ten years later in 1997.
Geneva to Paris is about three hours’ comfortable journey by TGV. The Eurail passes that we had enabled us to travel by TGV in First Class. It travels at more than 350 km/h. The French have been lucky in being able to travel by train at more than 200 miles per hour since 1981. Perhaps, such speeds are not so much necessary for a small country like France. We, instead, need high speed trains more than them as the distances are formidable but we are struggling to put one on the tracks.
Paris is everybody’s dream destination. It is in the same league as London, Rome, Berlin, Vienna, etc. – perhaps more coveted than any of them. In our parts, politicians sell dreams telling people that they would convert their towns into a Paris; they, however, hardly ever try as they never mean what they say. Paris is a popular destination all over the world. In 2013 it was at the top of tourism destinations with as many as 32 million people visiting it.
My first recollection of Paris is a photograph that appeared in newspapers after defeat of Germany in World War II of General Charles De Gaul marching down Champs Elysees skirting the Arch of Triumph sometime in late 1945. The round-about around the Arch is now called Charles De Gaul Place. Later Hollywood movies of the 1950s like the musicals “An American in Paris” with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and “Gigi” (pronounced Zhee zhee) starring Lois Jourdan, Maurice Chevalier and again Leslie Caron set in Paris made the place a little familiar with its famous landmarks, its pavement cafes with distinctive checked table cloths and the River Seine. Talking of the River I am reminded of the chartbuster Eartha Kitt song “Under the bridges of Paris” that was very popular in the 1950s played frequently over the Delhi All India Radio in its Friday night program of Western light music ”A date with you”. A book that gave me information in pretty good detail was Moulin Rouge (meaning Red Mill), a biography of the famous artist Toulouse Lautrec. I read this very interesting book in 1955 and soon there was an eponymously named film with Jose Ferrer and Zsa Zsa Gabor.
Paris, too, traces its history back to more than 2000 years. Named after the Celtic people called Parisii, it was founded in the 3rd Century BC. By the 12th Century it had become the largest city in the Western world. In the 18th Century it became the centre of French Revolution. One can still see a few place connected with the Revolution. Post revolution there was a period of unrest though Napoleon Bonaparte ruled for more than a decade and a half. It was, however, under Napoleon III that Paris witnessed some works on infrastructure, wide boulevards, massive sewer line projects, parks and massive and now famous gardens like Bois de Boulogne. What we see in Paris today are largely the results of the works carried out in the 19th Century.
This time we stayed not in a pension but in a budget hotel situated very near the Tuileries Garden which has its own history. It was conceived and created in 1564 by Catherine of Medici as a garden attached to the Tuileries Palace. Located between the Lovre Museum and Place de la Concorde – two very important landmarks of Paris – it became a public park after the French Revolution. As they say, this is one park where during the 19th and 20th Centuries Parisians “met, celebrated and promenaded”. Once while going out for sight-seeing I peeped into the garden and found it in good deal of disorder, most unlike a European garden. It discouraged me from exploring further. Maybe what I saw was not a place meant to be well-displayed and was hence left pretty much untended.
We headed for Sacre Couer – our first destination. It is located on the Montmartre Hill and is a Roman Catholic Church with a basilica built more than a hundred years ago. Situated at the top of the Hill it dominates the area. The basilica though architecturally nothing great but is a beautiful piece of architecture and pleasant to look at and people love just to hang around in its green, pleasing and salubrious surroundings. Montmartre Hill is the highest point in Paris and is also known for art and artists who started collecting on the hill to paint and display their art. It all started during the belle epoch (beautiful era) between 1871 and 1914 – a period that was marked by optimism, regional peace in Europe, cultural revival, happiness and hope. Many now-famous artists like Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Toulouse Lautrec, Pablo Picasso, Vincent Van Gogh, et al lived and worked at Montmartre.
We moved to the artists’ square on the hill only to be captivated by a fiesta of art and colour. It was a veritable fair, packed as it was with colourful artists’ stalls with artists painting portraits or caricaturing or sketching landscapes out of sheer inner drive. Sitting under temporary structures they would paint a portrait of a tourist with astounding likeness in no time. Women love to get their own portraits painted and many of them were seen sitting for a painter. The cafes were crowded and tourists were enjoying the surrounding quaint architecture as also the walk on the streets of cobbled stones. It had an amazing atmosphere – elevating and edifying. Reluctantly we moved down the stairs of Sacre Couer and caught a bus for our next destination. We passed through what was Montmartre’s night club and cabaret district. On the way I spotted Moulin Rouge; regrettably I couldn’t take a picture of it.
Our next destination was the iconic Eiffel Tower an amazing structure of wrought iron. Named after its engineer Gustave Eiffel it was built in 1889 as the entrance for the World Fair of Paris that was held to celebrate the centennial of the French Revolution. It is one of the most recognizable structures in the world and it is also the most visited monument in the world. An amazing structure; one realizes the enormity of the Tower once one is close to it or beneath it. As tall as about 80 stories, it is more than 1000 ft. in height. It has restaurants on the first and second levels and one can go up its three levels by stairs or by lifts and even to the top by lift. The original lifts were made by the familiar Otis Company. As happens with every new initiative, there was strong resentment against the Tower. Writers, painters, sculptors and architects and the “passionate devotees of hitherto untouched beauty of Paris” all came together under the banner of “Artists against Eiffel Tower” to lodge strong protests with the government against the project. Among the protesters was that famous man of letters Guy de Maupassant. My wife went up the lift and she had a great panoramic view of Paris from up there. I moved around down below taking random shots.
Continued to Part 2