It has been, I must say, quite a beautiful few days here in Paris. The apartment I’m staying in is truly amazing, a fourth floor view out on to the Montmartre streets below, and the Sacre Coeur on the hill, lit up at night. The day after arriving, Kate (the other couchsurfer staying here) and I climbed the hill to the Sacre Coeur basilica, which was swarming with tourists and the accompanying host of performers, street artists, and souvenir hawkers. We walked around inside the basilica itself which, with its stained glass and massive stonework, looks ancient–but isn’t, at least compared to some of the other buildings here. It’s a sort of expiatory edifice, built and dedicated to the thousands who died in the uprising of the Paris Commune around 1870. It wasn’t finished until 1914, and wasn’t dedicated until after World War I.
It’s also built on the highest point in the city, and we climbed the long spiraling stairs high into the basilica dome. When we finally stepped back out into the sunlight we were on a high circular walkway which offered a full all-directions view of the city–and on an absolutely beautiful day. We stopped in back at the apartment for a bite to eat, and then Kate wanted to find a swimming pool, so we started walking in what we thought was the right direction. Paris isn’t a more or less simple grid of streets, like Manhattan or Washington or even London. Paris is built in the old Roman style, with diagonals dividing the city into non-rectangular geometry, and it’s easy enough to take a wrong turn.
Which is what we did. After walking several blocks we found ourselves, so suddenly it was a little surprising, in what might be called in some places “the wrong side of the tracks.” Graffiti everywhere, stalls on the sidewalk selling everything fr0m clothes to pirated DVDs. We decided to give it a look anyway, and walked a wide loop before heading back up to the apartment. The entire area had a very different feel than any of the central districts of the city–as a tourist, it’s easy enough to see only the front outsiders are supposed to take pictures of, and forget that there’s a whole other side beyond our normal existence.
An American couple was also visiting Marc, and that night all of us went out to a wine bar in Paris for some good wine and excellent food. This is another advantage of couchsurfing–rather than staying in a hostel and choosing between fast food or overpriced tourist restaurants, you’re staying with someone who knows the area and the language, which means a meal that’s cheaper, better, and more authentic. Marc and Mike (the American) knew each other through backgrounds in wine–Marc comes from a family of wine growers–which meant plenty of good wine, which easily outpriced the food, which Marc said is common enough when it comes to French dining.
After dinner Kate and the two Americans caught a cab back to Marc’s apartment while Marc and I walked back through the Paris night. As his apartment is right in the Montmartre district, we passed over the Sacre Coeur hill on the way–Paris was spread out and lit up all the way to the horizon.
The next day I headed out on my own to check out the Ile de la Cite, the center of old Paris and the location of the famous Notre Dame cathedral. Notre Dame dominates its square and, as you step inside, soars above you in a sort of shadowy architectural awe more recent buildings have entirely lost. Prayer candles flicker beneath statues of Christ and the saints, and people move in a continuous stream throughout the nave. Even the constant flashing of tourist cameras can’t fully detract from the majesty of the place.
From there I walked south across the Seine into the 5th Arrondissement, where, just north of center, I found the Pantheon. A massive construction of marble, geometrically simple and with towering pillars before the doors, the Pantheon was originally built as a church but has since been converted to a temple to the great men of France–a monument to human achievement. The difference between this and Notre Dame were striking; the Pantheon massive, pretentious, logical, sunny, Notre Dame shadowed, indefinable, mystical, and very clearly built for something entirely Other.
I visited some of the camping stores in the area, having lost my sleeping bag liner back in Newcastle, but found the Paris prices too high for my taste and headed home. Yesterday Kate accompanied me again, and we paid a visit to a bustling street market near Place de la Bastille, where we bought some groceries for dinner that night and where I took some time to take pictures of the people shopping in the street.
We’d checked a guidebook beforehand and, according to that, the famous Paris catacombs were open on Sundays from two to four in the afternoon. So, after the market, we rushed to the wide square where the entrance to the catacombs sits in a simple black wall across the street from the metro station. And on that wall, a sign: Catacombs closed Sunday May 31 and Monday June 1.
So much for that idea.
Instead we ended up a large (and very rich) cemetery nearby, full of massive marble monuments and inscriptions inlaid in gold. It all made me wonder what it is that makes us spend so much on our dead, or on ourselves, in our wills, in the event that we should die. We strive enough for status in our lives…perhaps it’s a life of habit that makes us continue to do so in death. It made me better appreciate Ed Abbey’s approach: to be buried illegally in the desert under a simple stone bearing the inscription of your name, the dates of your birth and death, and the words “No Comment.”
That night I cooked dinner, a sort of Middle Eastern pizza concoction some of my friends back in Virginia will remember and which I still haven’t named. Then more conversation, my last night here. The friends you meet on a trip like this are one of the truly amazing things about it; it’s only a shame our time together is so short. To quote Vanilla Sky, perhaps we will meet again in another life, when we are both cats.
It’s only a few hours now until my next connection, an ungodly long bus ride from here to Florence, Italy. I plan to spend a night in the Tuscan countryside, and then head for Livorno and a ferry to Corsica.