I can't believe all I saw in a day. But before I share the magic and wonder of a wintry Saturday, I will begin where it is often said to be best, on Friday morning, at the beginning. Of course, the beginning could very well have been Christmas morning, when I opened the book 'Walks in Hemingway's Paris' and found there a letter stating that tickets had been purchased on Eurostar for a trip to the 'Most Romantic City' in the world. Or maybe the beginning was far beyond that... but for the purpose of this blog the beginning will be Friday morning at quarter past five.
The alarm trilled and as is the case, when I have purpose and a place to be, I launched from bed and into the shower. With very little thought I was dressed and ready to go, lugging the suitcase packed the night before down the narrow staircase to the front door.
The walk to the tube was beautiful, speckled with rain that fell gently, coating the bare branches of trees with shimmering droplets. It was made all the more stunning by the fact that, at such an early hour, no one inside the sleepy houses lining the walk to the underground could possibly know what they were missing. It set a mood which carried through the weekend because, as I quickly learned, Paris is not nearly what we imagine it to be. There is a romanticizing of it in our hearts and minds that I was fully prepared to encounter. I was reading my book, a snap-shot of Paris from the twenties to the forties, and discovering it through the words of such writers as Hemingway, E.E. Cummings, Fitzgerald, Stein and Ford.
On the tube and on the train, I read my book, which listed streets and memorable addresses for the literary traveler to witness. The train sped me forward to this city of dreams, a city of wonder. An iconic place to explore and discover awaited me and I it.
We arrived in the late morning to find the streets soaked in rain. It was far too cold to walk to the hotel, Les Jardin du Marais so we waited in a semi sheltered line for fifteen or so minutes, until we were finally able to catch a taxi. True to the French, everyone seemed to be smoking and upon closing the door of the cab the smell of feet and rancid smoke was enough to make me sit with a hand over my nose, subtly, so the driver would not notice. He took us through the mad streets of Paris, where there are few lines painted on the road beyond those there to signify a bus lane. I looked up at the buildings we passed and right away I found myself thinking, "Paris looks just like London...but with lace."
Our arrival at the hotel was not, in fact, a chance to go in and get dry. They willingly took the large suitcase filled with clothes for two for the weekend, but our room would not be available until 3:00, they said. As it was just past eleven, lunch seemed to be in order. The restaurant of choice, after reviewing a few menus (During which my cereal box grasp of French proved to be useful.) was La Vache Acrobate, 77 Rue Amelot. It was quaint and friendly, with a bar as the centre piece. The staff were delightful and sweet and many of the patrons seemed to be regulars. The food was incredible, beginning with a vegetable soup thickened with cream and potato, then moving on to a tuna steak served on shredded green beans, covered in a lemon cream sauce. Already Paris was living somewhat up to my expectations, but there was something about it I hadn't quite put my finger on.
I discovered it later, long after lunch, when the hotel had finally given us a room (One that had a kitchenette.) and we were in search of a Supermarket. I was drinking in the smells and sounds of Paris, the bustle of it's people and the hum of city life. It was a city, like any other. It was pretty, with it's decorative architecture and stunning monuments, but everything had a layer of modern grime to it. There was graffiti everywhere, with no particular rhyme or reason. Cigarette butts littered the streets. Cars were parked atrociously and signs and markers along the road were often bent at odd angles from acts of carelessness. But Paris it not about what you see. It's about what you feel and most of the feeling is brought by the tourist who is there seeking that romance.
Another though that occurred to me on that first day was that Paris was, for me, a sort of Hell. It was a food Hell, where every third window was a window full of baked things that I could not eat. The smell of fresh bread, the colours and richness of layered desserts full of fruit and cream, they mocked me in their own way. But I sort of knew this would be something to expect and ultimately, it did not sway me from enjoying every minute of it.
Because then there was Saturday. It dawned cool and crisp with a blue sky that seemed promising but delivered very little. It had snowed in the night and continued to snow throughout the day. But the moments when the sun came out were stunning and the day itself will not be marred by the memory of cold. It will be filled with the memory of so much captured in one day. It was a day without plans but a simple purpose and a step-by-step way of approaching each new destination. First was to get to the Seine, which could be followed easily to the Notre Dame. It was at the Seine when the sun first came out and I began to capture the absolute beauty and inspiration that can only be found in a city like Paris.
Along the Seine the walk was brisk but enjoyable. A speed had to be maintained against the biting wind and occasional falling snow. A stop in a cafe seemed to be in order so, after crossing to the side of the river that the Notre Dame was on, we began to seek a spot to rest. As it turned out the spot chosen was none other than Cafe Esmeralda, located just next to the Seine and just behind the Notre Dame. There was a cup of cafe a lait, a cup of tea and the smell of Crepes. Pigeons flew off in a clatter of wings as I wrapped my hands around my mug and breathed in the warmth of the tea. The sun warmed my face and the tea warmed my fingers whilst the setting itself warmed my heart and spirit.
The Notre Dame was being flocked to by droves of tourists and it was madness to stand before it. When the bells began to ring I felt my heart busting in my chest to behold something so brilliant. It loomed and it told a story, or thousands of stories, with it's intricate sculptures and detailed doorways and spires.
But the day was only just beginning and our feet were more than willing. There were rests between, lunch at the Sarah-Bernhardt cafe and many more photographs all along the Seine, but our next destination was clear.
Truly, the photos do not do it justice. In my mind I have always thought the Louvre was a boxy thing and at first, it appeared to be just that. But then you enter through an immense archway and you realise the French don't do anything with modesty or restraint for this is two long wings stretching out around a courtyard that is full of people. I was told I would need to spend the whole weekend in the Louvre if I wanted to see it all. I said I could handle a day there, if it was possible during this weekend trip. But not a day, not a weekend...no, indeed, a week would be needed to behold all the magic and wonder that fills those walls.
It was the left wing chosen, because I knew I wanted to see Mona Lisa and her little smile. But there was so much more than just her face behind layers of glass. There was the very lovely Venus De Milo and huge pillars with animals decorating them where they met the towering ceiling. There were paintings the size of a two storey house and sculptures so tiny you could wear them on a ring.
But it was far too much for that just a day and still there was one last place to visit and now that we were at the Louvre, it really wasn't too far at all.
So we walked along a dirt path lined with stark trees frozen by the winter cold and watched as our destination got nearer and nearer. It looked shrouded when it was distant, but as it grew closer it seemed to become more solid. And then there it was, the Eiffel tower. Like something from a dream and something on a list in my head under the heading 'One day...'
One Day was Saturday and on that day I couldn't believe all that I'd seen. Sitting in a cab, as it pulled away, the sun was sitting so low that the sky was turning a rich deep blue. I could feel so much joy and happiness as all of a sudden, the Eiffel tower turned on it's lights and glittered. It glittered and ended the most perfect of days for the artist and the writer.