Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Paris: a tale of two cities ©

“They were the best of times, they were the worst of times…”

On Monday evening as I made my way through the streets of Paris, I was suddenly struck with a feeling that I often have in early Spring but certainly never October. It was 5:30pm, the sun was dazzling in a bright blue sky, casting long, dark shadows and piercing through the branches of the trees standing sentry down the boulevard… It was Magical Paris, the Paris of postcards and holiday brochures and the Paris I associate with the end of winter as Parisians crawl out of hibernation and tentatively prepare to bare their arms and legs to the world once more! With November fast-approaching and leaves crunching beneath my feet, how could I have had this feeling just a few days ago? Simple! It’s the Indian Summer: one last hurrah before we hole up for winter.  The terraces were full, shorts were back on and metros were uncomfortably hot. Happy days! It got me thinking, though, about the different facets of the city and I would have to conclude that in Paris, we undoubtedly have a tale of two very different cities.

I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody living in Paris that doesn’t have an absurd kind of love-hate relationship with the city and it’s not surprising really: you can go from a walk down the Seine to a metro ride and an elbow in your face in less than five minutes, so it’s little wonder that this city inspires and exasperates in equal measure. It can even make you ill! Paris syndrome is a psychological disorder known to affect certain visitors to Paris, with symptoms including delusion, hallucinations, dizziness, anxiety and feelings of persecution! And the cause? Largely the difference between the idealised image of Paris and the sometimes harsh reality.

And yet walking along catching the last rays of the sun this week gave me enough optimism to really count my blessings and recall some of my favourite things about the city…

To escape for a little while into a different world…
Far away from the hustle and bustle of Saint Michel and Montmartre, the north-east area of Paris is literally abounding with untouched diamonds and every time that I visit, I have the feeling that I have been somewhere new: the Parc des Buttes Chaumont with its tumbling green lawns and majestic folly standing guard like the king of the castle and the gentle waters of the Canal Saint Martin are two of my favourite areas of the city… And for a month now I have been making my way once a week to the Institut suedois to speak Swedish for the evening and every time, I feel that I have been transported north to the archipelago of Stockholm and the streets of Goteborg. At weekends I am back in Liverpool as I watch the matches among friends and fellow supporters. Here Paris is not a tale of two cities but a tale of two hundred cities…

To embrace the weirdness…
The lion’s share of Paris photographers have planted their feet firmly  on the Champs de Mars and the esplanade at Notre Dame, giving this city its elegant, refined air but you only have to watch a French film to realise that the French can be a quirky bunch! If this was in any doubt, the huge crowds descending daily upon the Cinematheque’s temporary Tim Burton exhibition should settle that issue once and for all. Showing the workings of an offbeat and potentially unhinged mind, the exhibition was a fascinating insight into the man behind the films. But if severed limbs are not your bag, the Maison Deyrolle on Rue de Bac and its large collection of stuffed wild animals could take your fancy. Less quirky but no less interesting was the Bob Dylan exhibition this year at the Cite de la Musique and the yearly open air cinema during the summer months at Parc de la Villette is another great Paris experience. There is more to this city than meets the eye!

To feel inspired
Like London, New York and other great cities, Paris is a muse for artists around the world and as you step into one of those typical old Parisian watering holes, you can almost imagine those who came before: Wilde, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Picasso, Dali, Sartre… pursuing their labour of love and spinning the legend of the city. Walk by the Seine or down the boulevards and you walk in the footsteps of the best of them and on warm, sunny days in Paris, anything seems possible, if you could just keep hold of that feeling… that inspiration.
So in keeping with the optimism, I’ve compiled a list of some Paris recommendations for the fabulous days of Magical Paris and the dreary days of Paris Syndrome:

Magical Paris
1)      Parc des Buttes Chaumont – give yourself a few hours to fully appreciate this fantastic space and think about getting hold of a map beforehand. Follow the paths, cross the suspension bridge, visit the waterfalls and ascend to the folly for views across Paris. Treat yourself afterwards with a pint at the atmospheric pub.

2)      Canal Saint Martin – watch the sunset and talk the night away or have a drink or a meal with friends at one of the bars or restaurants along the canal. Bellushis is a particular favourite of mine, serving cheap drinks and food, with a terrace right on the water.
3)      Take some drinks to the Champs de Mars on a balmy Friday or Saturday evening and watch the Eiffel Tower light up and sparkle on the hour.

Paris Syndrome
1)      Scrub up, head to the Ritz Salon, get yourself a champagne cocktail and pretend to be rich for the afternoon. The drinks don’t come cheap but the excellent service and opulent surroundings lift your spirits enough to make it worth every cent!
2)      Maison Deyrolle (Rue de Bac) – photo-taking is not allowed (I’d taken mine before I saw the sign in my defence!) but these incredible stuffed animals are really worth a look. And if you have a spare €20,000 in your bank account, take one home with you.
3)      Visit Les Deux Magots and order a jug of the best hot chocolate in town like Hemingway himself.
Bon courage!
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