June 4, 2016 – Even as I write this, the Seine is overflowing its banks and flooding parts of Paris this week. The 482-mile long river is expected to peak today at around 21.3 feet – its highest level since 1982 – but still short of the catastrophic January 1910 flood (26.2 feet).
While Paris scrambles to protect its priceless artwork (the Louvre closed in order to move some of its most treasured pieces to higher floors), this forced me to think: Wasn’t I “just” in Paris?
Well maybe not “just”. But exactly 31 years ago, I toured the Louvre, walked along the Seine, and explored the City of Light and its remarkable offerings. Some excerpts from my old Travel Journal:
Sat. June 1, 1985 ▪ Paris ▪ Exchange rate $1 = 9.41 Francs
Today was a gorgeous, sunny-blue day perfect for touring and taking pictures. After my usual breakfast at 10am of café au lait and a pastry, I headed straight for the Palais de Chaillot, which is built over the since-torn-down Palais du Trocadéro (1878-1937).
Palais de Chaillot consists of two wings shaped to form a wide arc. The building sits on a hill. A wide esplanade bisects the two halves of the wings, so you can see the Eiffel Tower and beyond. Adolph Hitler had his photo taken on the front terrace, with the Eiffel Tower in the background, during his short tour in 1940. Palais de Chaillot was also the initial headquarters for NATO.
I then crossed the Seine to ascend la tour Eiffel, my first-ever visit. For 37F, I rode all the way up to the 3e étage (the highest deck). Quelle vue! The best view in all of Paris.
The Eiffel Tower is the tallest structure in Paris. It was erected in 1889 as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. [Website]
Coming down was anticlimactic. From the 1er étage, I walked down the stairs. [Ed. Note: In France, street-level is not considered the first floor. What Americans call the “second story”, the French call it the “first floor” or 1er étage (premier étage).]
After the Eiffel Tower, I walked toward l’École Militaire, a military training facility. I could only see the entrance. Unimpressive. So on to Île de la Cité (see map above), one of two natural islands in the Seine. This is the center of Paris and the location where the city was refounded in the medieval ages.
I also visited the Palais de Justice, practically an empty building of many empty corridors and offices. It was a Saturday, so nobody was around. But les gendarmes (police) were everywhere.
For 10F, I saw the Ste.-Chapelle (Sainte-Chapelle) royal church building, a gothic relic of the 13th century built by the ultra-devout King Louis IX.
So much stained glass, so few walls. I was lucky to visit it on a sunny day.
I then lunched on the island, eating a jambon sandwich (long loaf of bread, butter & ham) and a Coke. C’est tout! Simple!
After my lunch break, I walked to the magnificent Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris, or Notre-Dame Cathedral, a medieval Catholic cathedral on the eastern half of the Île de la Cité. The architecture and sense of history are mind-boggling: This place was built between 1163 and 1330 – over 800 years ago!
For 5F, I could peruse the rich treasures of the church – a gold-and-diamond studded cross, more gold, silver, diamonds, vests, etc. Morbidly, I made a point of seeing the Conciergerie, where Marie Antoinette and Robespieere, among many others, were imprisoned during the Revolution prior to being guillotined in the Place de la Revolution (now called the Place de la Concorde).
Conciergerie is on the west side of the Île de la Cité. All stone, very gloomy, dark, dank and sad. Quite the contrast to the magnificence of Notre-Dame.
Behind Notre-Dame lies the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation on the upriver end of the island. This is a memorial to the 200,000 people deported from Vichy France to the Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War. The memorial is underground, constructed of many blocks of stone, sharp geometric lines, steel bars, and a plea: Never Forget. Not many people came to see it while I was there. Most were busying enjoying the sun and fresh air of freedom and leisure outside. Who could blame them?
My next stop, the Jardin du Luxembourg, was packed with children and families. A large pool was dotted with toy sailboats, urged on by children’s bamboo poles and the wind. Tennis courts, sandboxes, swings, lounge chairs for sunbathers, readers, artists, and groups of old men playing chess and cards.
I ate cotton candy and drank a Coke while watching Parisians play. Unfortunately, I never got to see the Palais du Luxembourg and its le Sénate, as the massive façade was covered for repair work.
As it was getting late, I skipped the Panthéon and Sorbonne for another day. Maybe tomorrow? Instead, I took the métro to le Cimetière du Père Lachaise, but it was closed by the time I arrived at 6:30pm.
Walked back to my hotel (the oddly named Hotel Pacific) via a short stroll through a poor neighborhood of many children and immigrants and the elderly, hanging out in cafés or on sidewalks. There is a certain dynamism here, despite the obvious poverty – not great poverty, but still obvious.
Dinner was between 10:00pm and midnight. Very leisurely. I found the restaurant tucked away among rows of alleys, which I had stumbled across near Métro stop Cardinal Lemoine. For 95F ($10.11), I had L’andouillette poêlée (frog legs minced and stuffed into sausage form and served with french fries) – a bit disappointing and rubbery; an apéritif of le riz niçois; des escargots (only 6F for 6 escargots!); and a 37.5cl bottle of le Beaujolais Villages, an excellent red wine that made me dizzy the remainder of the night.
Dessert was an unexciting mousse au chocolat. But for two hours, I had some fantastic company: Sitting next to me were two young Americans who had just graduated from Franklin & Marshall College (Lancaster, Pennsylvania), Class of 1985. First time, like me, in Europe. The girl looked like the actress from Flashdance. [Ed. Note: I suck at remembering actors’ names, or much less even knowing who they are.]
During dinner, we were serenaded by roving musicians with guitars, singing in Spanish and French. For money. Outside were more entertainers – singers, flame throwers, acrobats. Some were quite good.
Sunday, June 2, 1985
My first stop was the Cimetière du Père Lachaise, a very large cemetery. I came to see the grave/tomb of French singer Édith Piaf. There is almost no grass, just miles of cobble stone roads and acres of vain memorials to people long since forgotten. Everywhere you turned, there were gray-black mossy stones, time-worn memorials, broken glass, dried-up flowers, rusty railings and spider webs.
It was very cool, especially as rows of trees provided shade. And stray tomcats were everywhere.
Families are buried together, as many memorials (looking like sentry boxes or outhouses) said “Famille so-and-so”.
Turns out that the tomb of Édith Piaf was on the far, opposite corner of the cemetery – a long walk. Some German ladies (I think) and I found it by 12 noon. It was a simple black marble slab with the mold of Jesus resting on it. Someone had placed flowers alongside it. I was surprised it was so simple. I took pictures of this and the more dramatic tomb-memorials to the victims of the Nazi concentration camps. Then I left.
As I was hungry, I stopped by a Chinese restaurant and ate beef with tomatoes, noodles, rice, and a Chinese cake. Washed it all down with a beer. Somewhere down the street, I grabbed a Coke (only 4F) in this poor neighborhood.
Next stop: La Basilique du Sacré-Cœur de Montmatre overlooking much of Paris. [Ed. Note: I don’t know why the French squish the “o” and the “e” together. I think it’s supposed to be its own vowel: “œ”].
The Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris, or Sacré-Cœur for short, is a Roman Catholic church and minor basilica, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. Consecrated in 1919, Sacré-Cœur sits at the highest point of the city. Visually, it’s stunning and just calls out to you.
After a while, it seems all the churches begin to look alike on the inside. I have visited so many already (including in London). There were probably more people outside soaking in the sun rays or just sitting on the steps. And everywhere, children played.
L‘Opéra de Paris (the Paris Opera) is absolutely grand, ornate, rich and …. you have to see it to understand. The outside is superb. The inside even better. It’s so opulent, words fail me.
Grand chandeliers, marble balconies, velvet-lined doors, floor-to-ceiling mirrors, huge vases, columns, royal sets, and staircases everywhere. The stage and auditorium, unfortunately, were closed off to the public.
Down the street, I took a picture of a memorial column to Napoleon, a likeness of him standing atop the column. Surrounding the memorial were fancy and exclusive businesses – Cartier, a Ritz Hotel (I tried to enter but was turned back as I wasn’t wearing a coat and tie), and others.
Visits to the Panthéon in the Latin Quarter of Paris aren’t worth the effort. Originally built as a church, it now functions as a secular mausoleum containing the remains of distinguished French citizens – Victor Hugo (novelist: Les Misérables, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame); Rousseau (philospher/writer), Émile Zola (French novelist/playwright), and others.
The building looks imposing and even inviting from the outside. But the inside is dark and very cold. The old lady selling the tickets and the ticket-taker are even colder. They deserve to work at the Panthéon. [Ed. Note: I wrote this journal entry when I was 21. Three decades later, I might be more understanding.]
Back at the Hotel Pacific, I napped from 7:00 til 9:30 PM. I looked forward to taking night photographs. And how! No sooner had I reached the Place de la Concorde by métro when – voilà – all the street lamps lit up as if by magic. And a large white moon begged for photos against a blue-violet sky.
I took photos of the Obélisque de Louxor (shipped from Egypt in 1833) and l’Assemblée Nationale (the National Assembly, or the lower house of France’s parliament).
From the Place de la Concorde, you can see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance. So I decided to walk all the way from the Place de la Concorde to the Arc de Triomphe along the Champs-Élysées: You have to do this at least once in your lifetime!
Once I reached the imposing Arc de Triomphe at the Place de Charles de Gaulle, I walked a full circle around the monument, taking lots of pictures. An eternal flame burns within the circle.
It’s 2:30 AM as I write this. I wonder if they’ve turned off the gas and flame for the night?
Monday, June 3, 1985
It’s 12 midnite. I just returned from my final night out in Paris, mainly to take pictures. That’s the last time I’ll ever have to climb those six flights of stairs at the “Hôtel Pacific”. No ascenseur (elevator) – which partly explains why the bill is so cheap (only 85 Francs or $9 per night).
On the way back to the hotel, I saw an old lady – a street person – in the Metro station begging for money. I felt guilty passing her by, especially with all this heavy change in my pocket. So I turned around and gave her some money. She gave me a warm “Merci”. I still feel guilty for not giving her more.
Then on the subway platform there was an even raggier old lady, with a moustache, sitting asleep and snoring aloud. Her leg twitched and bumped over her bag, from which one of two bottles of cheap alcohol rolled out onto the platform floor. The loud “CLINK” awoke her.
I picked up the bottle for her and she gave me a rotten-toothed “Merci”, smiled and nodded, and took a swig from her bottle. My train came and I left her to her bottle.
So what else did I do today? For starters, Monday was a bit warmer and still sunny. Most stores were closed. So I found a different café/brasserrie where I had my usual café au lait and morning pastry.
I had intended to revisit St. Quentin, a large open-air market filled with rows of produce, veggies, fruits, fish, chicken, wine, so I could take pictures. But it, too, was closed. C’est dommage. Instead, I bought some postcards and mailed them back to family in Hawai’i.
After a 12 noon interview at offices of the English section of Radio Française Internationale (I was doing a college research project), I headed back to the Arc de Triomphe for some daytime photos. It was 2:00 pm.
I spied a nearby Burger King. While eating, a kind older British lady in her 50’s sat next to me. She was dressed richly. Her husband lectures abroad extensively. They’ve traveled throughout Europe, Asia, the U.S., Maui even, and will soon visit Africa. They’re in Paris for the airshow. We just talked niceties: travel, Paris experiences, and so forth. Then we parted company.
The Louvre museum was my final stop, a most impressive musuem. At first I read everything and stopped to look at the displays. But a 5:00 pm/6:30 pm closing time (different sections close early) and fatigue soon forced me to rush through the Egyptian, Greco-Roman, Oriental, paintings and statuary displays.
I came mainly to search for the Mona Lisa, the Venus de Milo, and the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Satisfied upon finding and seeing them, I left.
Walking along the Seine, I stumbled upon the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris (again), but it was closed. I bought a miniature Venus de Milo figurine and a replica of the Eiffel Tower at a nearby store.
As the sun set, who should I stumble upon but four classmates from Georgetown University, all in front of Notre-Dame Cathedral. Not only were they my classmates, they were also dorm mates from our freshman year. Small world indeed!
I read a Paris-Soir newspaper while sitting on the fountain ring whose name I still don’t know. It contains a golden angel figure atop a long column. Below are four small sphinx-like figures spouting water. A plaque mentions “bourgeois” and “Paris” and “parlous”. Notre-Dame and the Palais de Justice are visible across the Seine. I will have to do some research and find out the name some day.
[Ed. Note: Mystery Solved! The name of the fountain is Fontaine du Palmier located at Place du Châtelet. Opened in 1808, it is the largest surviving fountain built during the reign of Napoleon Bonaparte. The Roman triumphal column gets its name from the sculpted palm leaves at top, commemorating Napoleon’s victorious Egyptian Campaign. In 1858, the lower base was added, including the Egyptian sphinxes spouting water.]
It was still very light outside, so I went back to my hotel. But sometime after 10:00 pm, I had returned to the area – this time taking pictures of the fabulous Hôtel de Ville, which houses the city’s local administration and the Mayor of Paris. It has served as Paris’s headquarters since 1357. It’s a monstrous white building that looks like a castle. A plaque in gold-lettering commemorates those who fought and died to liberate Paris.
Across the street, I drank a Heineken beer at a sidewalk café. Notre-Dame sat across the Seine to my right. Children skated across the square, which was bathed in white lamplight. And loving couples romanced near the fountain.
I spied a McDonald’s, couldn’t resist, and bought a caramel sundae and a Coke to go. It was a bit surreal because nine days ago, I sat at this same exact spot – at the unknown, unnamed Egyptian fountain – chatting with a French screen actor (zut! I didn’t write down his name!) til 11:00 PM. So I ate my sundae and left in peace. [Ed. Note: This is the Fontaine du Palmier]
I really love Paris and will carry these memories with me forever.
As the British lady today at Burger King pointed out:
“Traveling around the world doesn’t satisfy the longing for travel. It only makes you yearn for more.”