Story and Photos by Stephanie Levin.
The first time I heard “My Father” lyrics by Judy Collins: “my father always promised me we would live in France, go boating on the Seine and learn to dance,” I knew I would have a relationship with Paris. I recently dug out a photo of me on my first trip to Paris, posing on the ledge bordering the Seine, legs crossed, hair twisted up French style. I could not foresee then that I would live in France for some years and, upon each return, fall more passionately in love with Paris.
After four years of not traveling to my beloved city, I wondered if it had changed with the pandemic, as has so much else with travel. I snobbishly view Paris through the eyes of an adopted Parisian rather than a tourist, whether I am gallivanting up her spacious boulevards, sashaying down streets rife with history–rue Descartes, named
for the 16th-century philosopher, rue Decamps, named for the 19rh century painter, or strutting down an alley. The quotidian heartbeat of the Le Ville Lumière, translated as the city of lights or enlightenment, thrives after a stormy start with the pandemic in 2020. Indeed, from the Tour Eiffel, its golden beam illuminating the night sky, to the luminous light bathing Paris at dusk, the same light that inspired numerous painters radiates across Paris. This illusive light captivates and draws me to the Seine on warm evenings as I stroll along her banks, watching her current churn and change with the seasons.
At night the Seine’s historical bridges are alight: Point Neuf- Paris’s oldest bridge built in 1578, connecting Rue de Rivoli on the right bank to Rue Dauphine on the left bank to île de la Cité. The island houses île St-Louis, Notre Dame, and the famous Berthillion ice cream; Pont Alexandre III, named for Tzar Alexander III, designed between 1896-1900, is considered the most beautiful bridge in Paris, boasting its Beaux-Arts style, imposing gilded statues and Art Nouveau lamps; and, of course, the popular Pont Des Arts, officially named “the lovelock bridge” as couples added locks on to the side of the bridge inscribed with their names before tossing the key into the Seine, representing an unbroken bond of love. While lovers may not break the bond of love so-locked, the weight of the lovelocks was too much for the old bridge, and they were removed in 2015. Nevertheless, Pont Des Arts continues to attract lovers and spontaneous evening picnics. On sweet summer nights, couples, families, and friends mingle.
This year marked a stellar return to tourism in Paris. Visitors who chose to venture away from the more touristy and congested areas-Avenue des Champ- Élysées in the 8th, or Boulevard Saint Germain in the 6th, tended to rely on their phones for directions, and often missed the throb of the city around them The best way to become intimate with Paris, to discover her hidden treasures, is to wander.
Paris curls out from the 1st arrondissement, the center, encompassing the Louvre, Palais Royal, elegant shops, famous hotels, and the Jardin des Tuileries to the 20th arrondissement encompassing the famous Cimetière Père Lachaise, where renowned politicians, playwrights, and musicians rest. Each arrondissement has its own charm and character. If you aren’t peripatetic, take the metro or bus to the arrondissement (neighborhood) you want to discover, and then lace up your walking shoes.
People from all over the world travel to Paris for a flock of reasons: architecture, cuisine, museums, parks, romance or simply to savor the beauty of the city, and though some museums now require reservations, other attractions do not.
Architecturally, Paris can feel inconsistent. Noted examples of architectural periods define Paris as we know it today. The Gallo-Roman period–the Romanesque Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés Church, the Gothic French Notre-Dame, (currently under construction due to the fire) Haussmann’s quintessential 19th-century style marrying independent landscape to urban structures seen today in grand boulevards and verdant parks, in 20th-century modern museums designed by world-renowned architects. Every contemporary architectural treasure has withstood strong public outcry and condemnation. Parisians pride themselves in their public spaces and historical preservation. To tear down the heart of the outdoor market in 1971 to construct a mass of colorful tubes and glass escalators amounted to heresy. Yet, The Centre Pompidou is the most widely visited tourist attraction in Paris today and an architectural point of Parisian pride. Then, in 1981, Le Grande Arche de la Defense, the window into the world, flanked by Wall Street-style office buildings, had Parisians scratching their heads, and I admit, I’m still scratching mine. La Defense feels like another city within Paris-ultra modern without a trace of history. Perhaps the most vociferous outcry came in 1989 when I.M. Pei designed the glass Louvre Pyramid. Upon completion, the outcry muted. The pyramid is yet another point of Parisian architectural pride.
Of course, there is the old Gare d’Orsay converted to the stunning Musée d’Orsay on the right bank, which houses the largest impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world. Because the station was declared a historical building and could not be destroyed, the Musée d’Orsay resembles the layout of the original train station. Tourists flock to Musée d’Orsay, and so should you. It’s an architectural, artistic pleasure.
In warmer months, music al fresco spontaneously appears on bridges and along the Seine. Winter weather finds Parisians enjoying music in the L’église de la Madeleine, in the 8th, for classical concerts and choral music, while the Église Saint Julien-le- Pauvre in the 5th favors piano concerts, some free, others for a modest fee. Theaters and cinemas continue to thrive.
There is always a line to visit or see a performance at the Opera Garnier, the setting for the novel, “The Phantom of the Opera.” The sumptuous opera house, with its grand marble staircase, Italian horseshoe-shaped theater and the ceiling painted by Marc Chagall, is renowned for its 19th-century architecture and beauty. Across town in the 12th stands the Opera de Bastille, built in 1985. The round, modern, unaesthetic building houses a state-of-the-art acoustic system and comfortable seating. This is the neighborhood I lived in for five years. The once thriving neighborhood has changed and has a more industrial feel, yet it offers a sweet stroll along Port de Plaisance also called Bassin de l’Arsenal with gardens and houseboats.
For all the time I’ve spent in Paris, I’d never gone inside the Pantheon until this last summer. Designed in the neo-classical style, the Pantheon is where some of France’s greatest men and women rest: Voltaire, the defender of tolerance; Victor Hugo, Romantic writer, and poet; Rousseau, father of equality; Also, Josephine Baker, American-born French dancer and resistance fighter, and Simone Veil, French politician and health minister, the first woman to hold such offices in France. Sculptures and Foucault’s Pendulum dominate the first floor. Downstairs the well-lighted and well-documented crypt finds visitors wandering through the mausoleum, map in hand, to find where France’s most famous citizens are entombed.
While it’s easy to spend your hours inside museums, Paris is also a green city. There are dynamic parks, and small neighborhood squares abound, and in summer and early fall, the parks, particularly on Sunday, are where Parisians escape the noise and bustle of the city. The more well-known parks boast royalty or revolutionary histories: The Tuileries, named after the tile factories that stood where Queen Catherine de Medici built the Palais de Tuileries in 1564, and today is better known for its tree-lined Grande Allée to stroll or jog, or the Provence circular garden with lavender, sage, irises, and roses thrive. Maillol sculptures enhance the Tuileries, and when I lived in Paris, I passed chilly winter days in the Musée de l’Orangerie, home to Monet’s famous Water Lilies.
While Paris is bookended by two massive parks – In the eastern section, Bois de Vincennes, the largest public park in the city and home to a zoo, English Gardens, botanical gardens, and an arboretum; and in the western section is the 2090-acre Bois de Boulogne with man-made lakes, thousands of trees and miles of walking paths.
However, Jardin du Luxembourg, inspired by the Boboli Gardens in Florence, Italy, and bordering the Latin Quarter and Saint-Germain-des-Prés neighborhoods, is perhaps the best-loved park in Paris. Designed in 1612 by Marie de’ Medici, the 57-acre park is a magnet for chess players, tennis matches, martial arts practitioners, concerts, and alcoves to sit, read, picnic, or contemplate.
The park’s splendor fascinates me, but it’s the people I love to watch. Parisian women of all ages tend to saunter through the park on Sundays wearing stylish dresses, never tennis shoes and jeans. The chess players, with the concentration of mathematicians, pass the entire day hunched over chessboards, and the Saturday and Sunday concerts are free.
One of the great benefits of wandering without directions is discovering galleries and smaller museums. Three treasures I adore are the Musée Maillol at 61 rue de Grenelle in the 7th, home to Maillol sculptures and focused rotating exhibits. Musée Montmartre at 12 Rue Cortot in the 18th is the oldest house in Montmartre, dating back to the 17th century, flanked by forests, views and a garden to sit and savor tea. The sweet Musée de la Vie Romantique, located at 16 rue Chaptal in the 9th, also
offers a small garden café. Whatever your interest, Paris offers a museum to explore from science to haute couture, history to photography.
I was pleasantly surprised to see all the movie theaters thriving in Paris as so many cinemas have closed in the Bay Area where I reside. In the summer of 2022, theaters and concerts were in full swing.
During warmer months, one gets the impression that all of Paris dines nonstop. Cafes and restaurants are packed both inside and outside. Paris is a hub of cuisine with offerings from fine dining to a continual queue for take-out falafels. You will not go hungry In Paris, and although prices are a bit higher than a few years back, I found dining out cheaper than dining in San Francisco. The real bonus is you can still buy a
great baguette for just over one euro and dawdle over coffee in a café.
Yet, there were noticeable changes to my beloved city, from greetings to transportation. Take the kiss, for example. Parisians traditionally kiss on each cheek when meeting friends or being introduced for the first time. I noticed less cheek kissing, a lovely tradition I hope reappears. And while Paris has one of the
best mass transit and train systems in Europe, complaints about smaller regional trains being canceled or running late abound. Also, in the transit hubs, there are more machines requiring credit cards resulting in fewer attendants working in train and metro stations. For the traveler who is befuddled by the French language or needs directions, this is a challenge. In some of the metro stations, attendants are incredibly patient and helpful, others not so.
Paris streets continue to be a maze of congestion during peak hours. Many more bikes and scooters are vying for space with cars, buses, and taxis. This doesn’t bode well for pedestrians who need to look both ways when walking. Some bicyclists use their horns or have lights at night; others simply assume you will get out of the way as they speed down the bike lane or streets. Scooters tend to be the speediest as they careen up curves and zip through traffic. Nevertheless, it’s a marvel of ingenuity as cars, bikes, motorcycles, and scooters manage the streets with apparently few serious accidents.
What hasn’t changed in Paris is the joie de vivre, the spur-of-the-moment impromptu gatherings– friends in a cobblestone alley, plopped on sofas sipping wine, sidewalk chessboards set up waiting for players, a tiny bar, its bay window thrust open, framing a guitarist and singer. Chairs appear. Drinks appear. People settle in to enjoy the duo. Ahh, this is my Paris at its quotidian best.