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Paris, Mon Amour
It’s been thirty-five years since my first visit to Paris.
The stunning city that once made my heart throb has no doubt aged, but only
with grace and elegance. My love for the city was rekindled the moment I
stepped into it.
Like all other great metropolises, Paris
has not been spared the usual environmental scarring like air and noise
pollution. Yet it has managed to retain a certain air of serenity and
complacence in the midst of maddening growth and development over the last
several decades. Despite all its trials and tribulations, it has stubbornly
clung onto its old charm. In the unstoppable rush towards modern-day
globalization and commercialization, the unshakable cultural roots of the
French nation have proudly kept the glorious city in steady balance.
There’s perhaps no better place to have a glimpse of the
French lifestyle than the colorful and vivacious open air marches (markets).
During our stay in Paris,
we visited the Marches de L’Opera Bastille on Boulevard Richard Lenoir on a
Sunday (these markets open only on Thursdays and Sundays). The place was
literally packed by ten o’clock in
the morning. Vendors of all sorts displayed their plethora of food and
merchandise on makeshift canopy-covered tables arranged neatly in several rows,
leaving pedestrian corridors in between. Eager shoppers were busy browsing and
looking for the food or product they wanted to buy. The enticing aroma of
freshly baked baguettes and croissants filled the market and tells that the
French are really into such staple food. Strangely, it also brought to mind the
image 35 years ago of Parisians strolling down a quiet street in St. Germain
des Pres in the early morning, carrying long baguettes under their arms (I was
staying at a hostel in the area). At some delicacies stalls, samples of goose
liver and duck liver/meat pate were being freely offered to interested
passers-by. Cheeses and pastas came in an abundant selection. Vibrant colored fruits
and vegetables and mouth-watering smells of roast chickens were competing for
the attention of lookers-on and shoppers alike. Vendors of fish fillet, prawns, shrimps and mussels attracted long lines of buyers. Other goods on sale ranged from
scarves, clothes, shoes, accessories, to kitchen utensils, pottery, linens,
plants, etc. etc.
On the day before (a Saturday), when we passed by the Place
de la Bastille, there was a musical parade of floats and youngsters were
dancing joyously on the streets. It was hard to picture that just a few months
earlier, riot police had had to put down a protest that emulated the Spanish anti-austerity
demonstrations. The protest had taken place on the steps of the Bastille Opera
House, right next to where these rapturous markets were held.
Being used to the suffocating crowds of skyscrapers bearing
down on the city of Hong Kong, my friend and I both found it was a breath of
fresh air to see a clear and uncluttered skyline in Paris as we sat admiring
the city’s panoramic view, along with hundreds of others, on the flights of steps
leading up to the Sacre Coeur cathedral in Montmartre. We chuckled and imagined
what Paris would look like if Hong
Kong’s developers were to “invade” the city. Much of how Paris
looks today, with all its enormous squares, plazas, straight and wide
tree-lined boulevards, public parks, beautiful building facades of quarry
stones and standardized building height, is owed to the 19th century
architect Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann, with the support of Napoleon III in
the Second Empire era. My favorite are the artistically
patterned wrought iron balcony railings that embellish those buildings. I do
believe that long-term vision in urban planning pays.
A pantomime artist draped in white cloth from head to toe
with his face painted all white was seen doing his stuff standing on top of a railing
baluster at the bottom of one flight of steps. Tourists were lining up to have
photos taken with him. A newly-wed couple were walking ceremoniously down the
steps, the groom dressed in a cream-color safari suit and the bride in a
bare-shoulder, body-hugging white lace gown with a short train. There weren’t
any guests and they seemed to be quite happy with just the photographer taking
pictures of them. When they kissed, spectators (us included) gave a generous
round of congratulatory applause. In a city (or country) where people’s liberty
is sacrosanct, this is just another day.
Le Marais was certainly on my list of places to visit. Hotel
de Sens, Village St. Paul, Musee Carnavalet, fashionable Rue des Francs
Bourgeois, Rue des Rosiers where restaurants cluster and historic Place des Vosges
were all worth our time. This is one district that was not touched by the
Haussmann renovations and is marked by interesting narrow streets.
Another day was spent walking down Quai des Tuileries and
Avenue des Champs Elysees. I paid a visit to Musee De
L’Orangerie to admire Claude Monet’s wondrous water lilies.
I have to admit that the famous Avenue des Champs
Elysees no longer awed me like it had 35 years ago. The heavy flow
of traffic made it a nuisance rather than pleasure to stroll down the avenue. I
couldn’t imagine how anyone could enjoy a cup of coffee at the curb-side cafes
with vehicle emissions filling one’s nostrils.
When we reached the Arc de Triomphe, we took the Avenue d’Iena
to Pont Iena, which was at the foot of Tour Eiffel. There, we wound up the day
by taking a “Batobus” (like a water taxi) to go back to our hotel, which was
located at a walking distance from the Jardin des Plantes stop.