An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences

Classic experiences on the Left Bank of Paris…

Roman-founded Lutetia Parisiorum (mud town of the Parisii or Celt settlers) to epitome of all things classy…the antithesis is complete. And how! The French capital of today is a symbol of urban sophisticate…larger-than-life grandeur laced with old-world charm. Illuminated by the pure glow of intellectual and artistic heritage. And wrapped in a timeless enigma. First visit or not, some eternal Paris experiences will never lose their appeal for the romantic at heart. So, flag-off with the Left Bank of the Seine…

1. Drench in the cafe culture

There’s a parallel Paris this side of the Seine that’s artsy, bohemian and literary…the Latin Quartier. Boulevard St. Germain and Boulevard St. Michel run like two main arteries through the area. Uniformly distanced Hausmann-styled buildings create a perfect harmony in architectural detail. Hundreds of crooked medieval alleys lead off in different directions, filled with pizzerias and pubs, crêperies and cafes, classy home décor shops, upper-crest fashion boutiques, gourmet food stores and trendy chains. Pick A traditional café near the Sorbonne University, sink into a rattan chair, order your coffee and pretend you’re in esteemed company of Jean Paul Sartre, Ernest Hemingway and Simone de Beauvoir. Its no crime!

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Explore the area till your legs complain. The baroque fountain at Place St. Michel of St. Michel killing a demon is no frivolous design element. This earlier site of protests and social uprisings used to be filled with hippies, artists, writers, poets, dancers, musicians and art students at one time! Breathe in the hangover of history, before heading to the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co. Potter around the English-only floor to ceiling bookshelves. Wonder if there were any young writers still staying above the shop, making small beginnings for bestsellers of tomorrow. Browse for second hand books, vintage postcards and poster at the green-painted makeshift bookstalls lining the river banks. Spot the Pont de l’Archêveché (‘love bridge’) and you seek the answer to a rhetorical question. Can love be tied down with locks and bolts?

The twin-towered Notre Dame Cathedral calls from across the Seine. Nothing should deter you from entering this masterpiece of French Gothic architecture…especially not the queues. Use the time to study the flying buttresses on the roof, gargoyles, fantastic birds and hybrid beasts. They peer down the balustrade of the 850-year old great landmark of Paris, as if keeping count of today’s batch making up the astounding 4 million visitors every year. Inside, the delicate stained-glass windows, brilliant colours and dainty roses make you stare longer than necessary. A location befitting the 1804 coronation ceremony of Napoleon. Deserving of your unbroken attention.

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2. Undertake an art odyssey

In Paris, culture calls from every corner…its museums and artwork overload. But if you have to pick one, make it Musée d’Orsay. Its 8 million euros makeover (from a former train station to a world-class museum), over two years has put it on the world map. At the entrance esplanade, a large long pedestal displays six allegorical statues of women representing the six continents. Perfect symbol to celebrate world art. Orsay draws three million visitors a year. Go see what the fuss is all about.

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Past the elaborate security check, stop at the central sculpture gallery topped by the museum’s huge semi-circular tunnel-shaped glass roof. At one end, high above, is a gorgeous monumental clock, a brilliantly decorative timepiece with lovely golden tones. Take your time in the galleries spread over five floors…its a vast collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist masterpieces, including Van Gogh’s Bedroom and Manet’s Luncheon on the Grass. The museum itself is worthy of wordless stares. Its an exuberant showplace, with state-of-the-art lighting, spunky red, purple, deep blue and dark green wall colors and warm wood-covered floors reflecting contemporary Parisian chic. A famous ‘waterfall’ bench, commissioned from glass artist Tokujin Yoshioka, stands in one of the galleries. Consider perching on its delicate rippled surface…its perfectly legit. 

Venture into the crowded fifth-floor French Art Nouveau styled Café Campana. Not for a snack, but also for the hazy views of the rain-soaked Paris from the huge windows behind the giant clock face. Orsay is not just another museum, it is an art odyssey with a modern twist. You can thank Paris later.

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3. Feel the power play

The gold cupola of the Invalides was inspiration for the United States Capitol building…and that’s something! Massive fortifications of the monument speak volumes about the military prowess of French kings of the bygone era. The row of giant copper cannons behind a wide moat, still seem poised to attack and protect. You can feel yourself walking in the footsteps of royalty on the broad cobbled path leading up to the main entrance of the complex that Louis IV had built in the 1670s to house 4000 disabled war veterans. Rows of smartly uniformed soldiers of the royal guard would have gracefully led disciplined horses here…halting only to salute Napoleon himself. Ironically, in the distance behind, is the Place de la Concorde, where King Louis XVI, Queen Marie Antoinette and thousands of others were guillotined during the French Revolution, after Parisian rioters raided Invalides, seized arms and stormed the Bastille. Take your fill of French military history in the museums inside.

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The long walk to the Dome Church at the far end of the complex is worth it. Napoleon I’s extravagant tomb rests here, down a marble banister that circles the room, directly under the dome, under rays of sunlight from the heavens. Twelve giant marble statues of angels with solemn expressions stand in a circular corridor surrounding the huge tomb of the great hero. Pay homage the beloved emperor.

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4. Resign to romance

7 million people visit the iconic Eiffel Tower every year. Its the most photographed monument in the whole world. Why should you care how cliched it is? Get a thousand pictures from every street and from every rooftop and every direction and with every backdrop possible. You can’t get over how elegant it is, so don’t waste time trying. Ironical that thousands had protested to tear down what is today Paris’ most beloved landmark, labelling it as a ridiculous giant piece of metal. Thank God Gustave Eiffel’s genius creation, symbol of the centennial of the French Revolution and France’s industrial prowess, survived the controversy.

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Up close and personal, the Iron Lady is even more glorious…all 1,063 feet of her, all 10,000 tons of her. Lie on the expansive grass lawns, marvelling at the incredible engineering prowess. Or take the elevator up to the second platform, 376 feet up above the city, for an incredible view of Seine winding through the exquisitely laid out French capital, its 16 arrondissements displayed like a map, its historical landmarks standing out in quiet grace. Its a city was like no other. 

5. Float without a care

Make magic happen with an evening cruise along the Seine in the Bateaux-Mouche. Trace the restaurants, discos and cafes lining the riverbanks. Watch locals sitting on benches, enjoying the view with wine, bread and cheese. Note the water marks on the quay from past floods, and giant iron rings to tie river barges to the docks. Observe the odd iron gate or doorway leading to an underground passage, an ancient sewer system, a metro portal and an unknown catacomb. Bridge after bridge, gawk at all the familiar landmarks in a new light, until you reach the most wondrous of them all. The Eiffel has shifted to ultra-glam mode with 5 billion diamond-sparkly lights. The moment is special. You’re holding hands. And time is standing still. When your head touches the pillow that night, the vision of the City of Lights will still be in your eyes, promising to stay as an indelible print in your mind forever. To be continued…

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