It was an auspicious day upon our return to Paris – New Year’s Eve. It’s our favourite holiday of the year, the time when one makes resolutions and prepares to start afresh. The romantic symbolism of the day – that the person with whom you spend New Year’s night is that with whom you’ll spend the year – was not out of place with the mythology of the city. However, simply being in Paris does not confer some intense romantic spirit from the very air – Parisiens breathe out carbon dioxide like the rest of us. Lots of them also breathe out acrid, non-romantic smoke. We quickly discovered that even here, you have to make your own romance. Unsurprisingly, the city is a real place, with real people. But I think we managed okay all the same.
Upon arriving in the city, we installed our belongings at the hotel and took the metro to Place de la Concorde. A truly lovely Ferris Wheel is presently installed there, lit up intensely at the far end of the Champs–Élysées and providing an excellent counterpoint to the shimmering Eiffel Tower in the distance. Once you become used to the constant lightning storm of camera flashes in every direction – daytime, nightime, distant subjects or near, it doesn’t matter to these loathsome, lens-wielding degenerates – the view is lovely and is almost overwhelmingly Paris-y. We stayed until the evening, watching the tower sparkle as night fell and then returned to the hotel to prepare for our New Year’s outing.
Party animals we surely are not, and although we briefly consulted Rue de Lappe – a street in Bastille that is entirely composed of bars and bar-like businesses – we eventually decided just to spend the night alone together, taking a walk in the rain around the deserted, fairy-lit streets of Paris. Midnight found us on the Pont de l’Archevêché, a bridge which overlooks Notre Dame, and in the company of a dozen other starstruck couples drinking in the romance of Paris which – I know – I previously denied existed. Maybe it exists a little. The bridge is certainly a locale known for romance, as it plays host to many thousands of love locks left by amorous travellers. We kissed on the bridge to the sound of distant cheers and shouts of “Bonne année!”, welcoming the new year surrounded by love. It was perfect.
The French seem to approach national holidays with an almost religious zeal – on January first, everything is closed. Having anticipated this possibility, we spent the day continuing our exploration of this vast metropolis. There are, for better or worse, certain things which one must do when visiting Paris, so we begun the day with a walk down the famed Champs–Élysées and a visit to the Arc de Triomphe. In this city, I have fewer descriptions to furnish and many fewer photos – enough exist of both that, if printed, they would provide nests for every mouse on Earth a thousand times over. I will say that the Arc is amazing, and far bigger than it seems in pictures.
Next on our Parisien tourist checklist was the famed Eiffel Tower. In many ways, I feel it deserves the attention it gets; despite the opinions of Parisiens just after it was built, I think it cuts a comely figure on the horizon when one is exploring the city, and its grand, metallic frame is visible from damned near everywhere. We approached it from the Trocadero gardens and found it to be spectacular both from a distance and close-up. The huge metal beams are as striking as they are improbably huge and imposing. Unfortunately, but unsurprisingly, the tower was absolutely swamped with tourists and people attempting to sell things to them. It is one of the few things in Paris that remains open on public holidays and so – like every day – boasted a three hour line of surprisingly sweaty, frustrated foreigners. Electing not to become part of this elite cadre of humanity, we decided to forego the climb and simply admire the tower from the ground – there are other high places in Paris from which one can actually see the tower itself – and that don’t require standing in line for hours, being harassed by salespeople.
In order to satisfy our shared erotic fascination with death and dying, and to find somewhere less choked with tourists and their ill-prepared cameras, we decided to take the metro to Montparnasse Cemetery. All joking aside, I find cemeteries are a lovely place to visit as a tourist, as they have a way of telling stories about the city. Besides that, although this cemetery does not resemble the Millennium Falcon, it does contain some of France’s most celebrated intellectual, political and artistic elites. Among the graves we visited was the shared headstone of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, two authors whose works I had previously read – in French – and for whom I have some affection. Although apparently Sartre was a very unpleasant man in his personal life, it was reading one of his short stories that I first realised I could read French and grasp complicated ideas and further researches led me to develop a healthy respect for both Sartre and his long-time companion.
The cemetery is a veritable haven of calm in the busy Montparnasse district and it’s a bit of a shock how suddenly the silence falls upon entry – and how it the noise roars back into life as you leave. We made our way back to the hotel by way of a nearby pâtisserie, carrying with us two fat slices of tarte tatin and a huge, tasty shortbread cookie.
On Wednesday, our goal was the visit the Musée de l’Armée; Paris’ military museum at Invalides, which also has the celebrated distinction of containing Napoleon’s tomb. We deliberately planned nothing else for the day, which turned out to be a good choice – we spent nearly seven hours at the museum and very little of that was spent resting.The actual collections are described in detail elsewhere, and recounting them here would be very boring for us both, but they are divided into three broad thematic areas – Ancient (13th-17th century); Modern (from Louis XIV to Napoleon III) and the World Wars. Each one of these could be a museum on its own, the collections are extensive and extremely well catalogued and organised. The sections all feature weapons, uniforms and other militaria from their respective times – we were particularly impressed that so many relics from the Middle Ages still exist and are so well preserved – seeing real, sometimes battle-damaged armour worn by knights was quite a thrill. Early guns, too, were very interesting, as some of the exhibits take a chronological approach, explaining how the technology progressed from the matchlock pistol to the disgustingly efficient killing machines of today. The museum is amazing and at no time during our quite lengthy visit did we feel bored – although we did get very tired.
Napoleon’s tomb is part of the visit included on the ticket and is well worth visiting as well – the vast, ornate building also contains the tombs of a number of other military heroes, but Napoleon has pride of place in the centre well. He is interred in a huge, imposing sarcophagus surrounded by the names of his military victories. The former emperor spends the days of his death much like his living days, it would seem – surrounded by extreme opulence and in the company of powerful men.
That night, we headed out for dinner in a nice, trendy French restaurant near our hotel. It was one of the first times we’d really ‘gone out’ here in France and it was mainly on a whim. Fortunately, our experience was very good – the restaurant was lovely and the food was superb – we might even go again when we return to Paris later this month.
While we have been extremely busy in the capital, there’s generally less to say about it – everyone knows the sights already! And you’ve all seen enough photos of the Eiffel tower. Nonetheless, to see a gallery of photos relevant to this post, click here. Otherwise, to see an excerpt from the 1992 film Sister Act, starring Whoopi Goldberg, click here.