The City of Lights is illuminated, not just by the incandescence of its art, architecture, and culture, but by the blazing spirit of its people
My affair with the City of Light began a few hours before midnight, or in other words, in partial darkness.
With trembling hands, I stood outside Saint-Michel Notre-Dame station at 11:00 PM, clutching my suitcase, waiting for the next bus to take me to my hotel.
I found myself in Paris during the edge of winter, a season I assumed would drive the crowd to retreat to their opulent homes within cream-colored buildings at that hour.
Morning was just around the corner, yet the scene that unfolded before me contradicted the endearing image I held of one of the most romantic cities in the world: a boulevard filled with cafés bathed in a faint glow of red and purple light, with party music resonating from an apartment across the street.
Elsewhere, people munched on takeaway burgers and sipped soda as they walked through dimly lit alleyways. On the side of the road, heaps of garbage were piling up.
From a distance, gray smoke billowed into the air.
It was an unusual sight, I admit. After all, the city was still reeling from the widespread riots sparked by the French protesting a controversial pension reform bill.
As surprising as those first few hours in the city were, they were, in a way, a rite of passage to my mission of becoming a flâneur, a person who wanders with no clear purpose in the heart of the cityscape (a term coincidentally coined in mid-nineteenth-century Paris).
The City of Light, I would later discover, was not just radiant with its famous gastronomy, art, commerce, and literature. In fact, the city itself, at midnight, was ablaze.
Paris, the national capital of France, nestles in the north-central part of the European country. The city has expanded from its location along the famous River Seine, starting with the Île de la Cité and extending beyond its banks.
Its moniker, la Ville Lumière, or the City of Light, was earned during the Enlightenment period and still holds true as a hub for high culture and intellectual pursuits.
The following morning was much calmer than the previous night. I made my way to the Right Bank of the Seine in the city’s 1st arrondissement, where clear skies and the gentle morning sun painted the urban landscape around me.
I strolled through the breezy morning at Cour Napoléon, the main courtyard of the Louvre Palace, where the iconic pyramid stood as a massive testament to modern architecture.
My goal for the day was simple: arrive 90 minutes before opening time, outpace the crowds, and make a beeline for Room 711 in the Denon Wing of the museum to see the Mona Lisa.
The Louvre’s courtyard was eerily tranquil. I waited by the Louvre’s entrances a hundred minutes before opening time, aiming to be among the first to view the world’s most renowned painting.
Ten minutes before 9:00 AM, a group of people, carrying megaphones and protest signs, cut in line and blocked the entrance to the museum.
What I initially mistook for a guided tour entering the museum turned out to be a demonstration against the French government, echoing other mass protests throughout the city since the beginning of the year.
The protesters held their ground, raising their fists and chanting songs that sounded like a lament. We were then informed that the museum would remain closed until further notice.
Disappointment settled in, but the disruption served as a reminder of how protest had become an integral aspect of everyday life in France.
After all, these were the descendants of those who once defied the monarchy and executed their royalty.
C’est la vie. Indeed, nobody stages a revolution quite like the French.
In the days that followed, tensions between protesters and the police intensified. I navigated through streets where violence was likely to erupt. In well-known avenues of the city, firefighters rushed to extinguish burning piles of trash left uncollected as protesters played a cat-and-mouse game with the police.
One morning, I sought refuge for an entire morning at the Musée d’Orsay, a museum housed in a grand Beaux-Arts converted railway station, boasting a collection of 19th-century art. A sense of tranquility pervaded the museum’s spaces as I explored numerous galleries featuring Impressionist paintings by Cézanne, Degas, Manet, Monet, and others.
Following this, I did what any other Parisian would do on a cool April morning: aimlessly wander through the city’s largest parks and gardens, holding a paperback in one hand and a cup of coffee in the other.
In the Tuileries Garden, chestnut trees stood bare in the chilly weather. Yet, the open field appeared pristine, adorned with marble sculptures hinting at the approaching spring season.
From the gardens, the Arc de Triomphe was visible, standing at the western end of the Champs-Élysées. The triumphal arch, towering at 50 meters, symbolized French history, constructed from limestone, determination, and spirit.
On leisurely afternoons, I followed the banks of the River Seine and familiarized myself with the bouquinistes of Paris, who had become a cultural fixture of the city, selling second-hand books and various antiquarian materials.
These literary entrepreneurs were a part of the city’s rich literary heritage. I scoured the open-air bookshops, examining the colorful book covers with titles I couldn’t pronounce, let alone understand.
To me, they symbolized the perpetual air of mystery that enveloped the Parisian landscape. I was content to peer through that veil in a place steeped in history, art, and culture.
Much of Paris was a wonder to behold, with its artistic ambiance permeating every corner. From cafés adorned with bookshelves to squares frequented by locals, there was a rhythm to the city that became apparent when experienced intimately.
One Tuesday, I ascended 222 steps to reach Sacré-Cœur de Montmartre, a minor basilica dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus located at the summit of Montmartre. The church radiated grandeur with its travertine stone façade and imposing domes dominating a portion of the sky.
The basilica’s south façade provided an overlook of Paris. I approached the slope of the hill, where the city unfolded as a picturesque landscape of Haussmannian architecture, defining modern Paris with its grids, showcasing a variety of block shapes, triangles, and elongated rectangles in neutral tones.
My stay in Paris became a blissful blur at one point.
On one day, I found myself in the hallowed grounds of Père Lachaise Paris Cemetery, searching for the graves of Edith Piaf and Pierre Bourdieu. On another day, I perched on the bleachers in front of Notre-Dame de Paris, observing the ongoing restoration work before heading to Bd. du Palais to marvel at the Gothic architecture and dazzling stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle.
Yet, amid all these experiences, the Eiffel Tower remained my guiding star, a constant reminder of my location. The wrought-iron lattice tower on the Champ de Mars was intrinsically linked to Paris and, by extension, to the entire nation.
It wasn't just an architectural marvel; it represented France’s cultural and artistic heritage. Every day, no matter how indifferent I became to my bearings, I was irresistibly drawn to the 136-year-old edifice at sunrise and sunset.
On chilly evenings, I strolled through the greenery surrounding the tower, capturing photographs from different angles, anticipating the golden lights that would illuminate the night.
From a distance, the Eiffel Tower's glow was like embers lighting up the sky, a commanding presence radiating Parisian elegance and romance.
Paris, a renowned gastronomic paradise, offers a rich and diverse culinary experience, spanning from affordable street food to opulent dining fit for royalty.
The city is teeming with bakeries featuring iconic croissants, baguettes, and delicate pastries displayed in their windows. A walk through the Marais district led me to open-air markets showcasing crêpes, galettes, falafel, artisanal ice cream, and more.
Traditional brasseries and bistros serve classics like coq au vin, escargot, and boeuf bourguignon, paired with an exquisite selection of French wines.
I had the privilege of dining at Septime, a restaurant on Rue de Charonne, renowned for its refined tasting menus and creative dishes, earning its place among the World's 50 Best Restaurants.
My table was graced with innovative takes on grilled asparagus with garlic, black pork bacon, and a tart of fig leaves with blackcurrant sorbet and purple basil.
In between savoring these eclectic dishes, my thoughts often returned to the day of the protests at the Louvre entrance.
So, on an overcast afternoon, I marched to the museum courtyard and joined the line in front of its glass pyramid. It was 3:00 PM, and by then, tourists had overtaken the entire area.
Upon entering, I navigated through the bustling hallways, ascended marble staircases, and paused near the Coronation of Napoleon.
Following a crowd of museum-goers, I entered a room with a winding line that spilled into a gallery wing.
Then, from a distance, I glimpsed her eyes.
After waiting for my turn, I finally reached the end of the line to stand face to face with the famed Mona Lisa. Her subtle smile held a mysterious quality, blurring the line between illusion and allusion.
Her eyes, like much of the City of Light that day, seemed to burn with intensity, following me from every angle.
There was an enigmatic quality to her features, concealed within the curved lines and folds of her clothing, a riddle that remains unanswered to this day.
Just before I had the chance to capture that mystery on my smartphone once again, the museum staff directed me to the side to allow other visitors in. I had overstayed my welcome.
I hurried to the side of the gallery, and as I turned to leave, I looked back at the Mona Lisa, hoping that even from that particular angle and distance, her smile would still be there, welcoming me.
No Code Website Builder