In contemplating this piece on Paris, the capital of Theme Park Europe, to follow Switzer-railway-land, I’ve been overcome by an attack of the “what-the-hells” – i.e. what the hell can I say about Paris that hasn’t already been said?
I suppose I could tell you about walking the Coulée Verte René-Dumont but by the time I get through explaining that it is a 4.7 km elevated linear park built on top of obsolete railway infrastructure in the 12th arrondissement you might be feeling a touch of the what-thes coming on too.
Or that, for me, the Musee d’Orsay alone is worth the price of an air fare to Paris, and that if you walk a block from there along the Seine and invest 4 euros in the 87 bus it will take you past the Tuileries and the Louvre, through the Place de la Concorde and all the way up the Champs Elysees around the Arc de Triomphe and back over the Seine to the western business centre of La Defense.
Or that following the trail of Manet and Monet to the Gare St Lazare didn’t add much to my appreciation of the Impressionist masters and their famous railway pictures.
I could tell you about the others gares I visited – Est, Nord and Lyon – which might set off a certain train of thought. This lunatic, I can hear you say, went to Paris and all he was interested in was the railways.
Well yes, and no.
I wanted to do three things in Paris. One, because of my interest in the High Line in New York (see The Traveller, 28 June), was to walk the Coulee Verte; two was to visit the former Gare d’Orsay and its Impressionist collection; and three was to see the station where Edouard Manet painted The Railway and Claude Monet set up his easel to paint trains directly from life. Thus I would link my lifelong obsession with trains with a recently discovered delight in Manet and Monet, triggered I have to say by their interest in this mode of mass transport that was revolutionising their world.
And that’s what I did – plus I visited Monet’s garden at Giverny and the Pompidou Centre, walked Montmartre, Place Pigalle and Boulevard de Clichy, did the tourist cruise on the Seine, saw Le Tour Eiffel, Notre Dame, the Louvre etc etc, and became familiar with La Defense. All the while accompanied by Cole Porter and Jerome Kern.
Porter reckoned he loved Paris in the springtime and in the fall, in fact every moment of the year. And the last time Kern (or at least his lyricist, Oscar Hammerstein) saw Paris her heart was warm and gay. He heard the laughter of her heart in every street café.
Well, neither lived in the era of mass travel when at high summer literally millions of tourists like me swamp the city of love, expecting romance and La Gloire. Paris does its best to comply. Those famous public buildings, squares and gardens are kept in splendid condition and everything that could have gold on it gleams in the summer sun. The gold paint concession would be a good one to have.
But the magnificence is almost enough to make you not notice the grubbiness that the tourists leave in their wake. Or the opportunism of the beggars, most of whom seem to have a certain ethnicity.
On the Champs Elysees the day I walked it, up towards the Arc, past Louis Vuitton and all the other famous shops, the female beggars seemed to have developed a new technique – that of lying face down, flat out in the middle of the footpath, mendicant cup held up, and every now and then turning a Munchian, voiceless but pathetic face towards the pedestrians stepping carefully around them, as if they were just another obstruction in the path, like, maybe, the stands holding restaurant menus. No one, including me, gave them anything. One woman in a sari kind of dress, sat up as I passed and the look on her face clearly indicated she’d had enough of this futile charade. I didn’t look back to see what she did next.
This was a different kind of begging from that on show at the Place de la Republique.
The evening I was there a crowd had gathered for a protest against capitalism – what else? Apparently the square is a favoured place for such events. The Charlie Hebdo murders drew a mass of “je suis” agonistes to its open space and its monstrous monument to the Third Republic. As protests go this one was pretty tame – more like old home week for the Class of ’68 – so I went walkabout and soon came across a group of jolly looking people who appeared to be living on the street. Standard flattened cardboard cartons and sleeping gear filled doorways and alleys. I don’t know how many men, women and children were living there like this but several families seemed to be involved. They were cheerily making their evening meals off the produce of the many fast food outlets in the area, and at the same time doing a bit of desultory begging with pleading signs and cups set up on little stands.
One fellow, though, had decided he didn’t need to leave “home” to hang out his cup. He had a long pole, like a fishing rod, extended out over the pavement from his slab of cardboard, with his cup dangling on the end. Neither he nor any of his confreres seemed to care they weren’t catching any euros, and the passers-by were equally indifferent.
Homelessness is, of course, nothing to laugh at, nor to dismiss, but when you see scenes like that it does engender a certain amount of scepticism. How, for example, are you supposed to react to the very tidy camp – tent and all – that I saw someone had set up on the bank of the Seine under a bridge near the Musee d’Orsay? The camper had been very strategic; there was a clearly marked potable water tap right at his front flap. He even had an office chair, no doubt for comfort while doing his e-mails.
Ah, let’s not get cynical. Remember I’m in the city of love, and on the Champs Elysees on a fine summer’s afternoon.
Somewhere near the Societe Generale building some young bucks were admiring a couple of Ferraris parked at the kerb, wishing they could afford the price of the burn some other young bucks were offering. The best they manage was to snap pictures on their phones of their giggling girls leaning on the bonnets. Alas.
Nearby, a striking, dark-haired white woman, accompanied by a large, athletic-looking black man, was standing against the wall watching the passing parade. She was dressed quite ordinarily – white blouse, I think, and those form-fitting, stretch black pants women everywhere seem to be wearing these days. She had a big bag slung over one shoulder. Nothing really unusual about any of that.
But I caught her eye for a millisecond; it had a curious, defensive/hostile cast about it and in that moment I knew – I just knew – what she and her companion were doing, mid-afternoon, weekday, tourist season, on the Champs Elysees. Not quite the romantic Paris that Cole Porter and Jerome Kern had the world singing about.
Nor are Place Pigalle and the Boulevard de Clichy which runs westwards down to the famed Moulin Rouge, which is of course just that – red, violently so – and about as uninviting as an “attraction” could be.
Clichy is a long, wide road with a park as its median strip. It’s a terrific walk and it should be beautiful but it isn’t. Through the lovely trees, on both sides of the boulevard, is a mile of ominous night clubs, tacky bars and sex shops, populated by dodgy looking males with open shirts and porn-star moustaches. Boulevard de Cliché.
I wouldn’t like you to think that I didn’t enjoy Paris. I did. I enjoyed just walking in it. I found central Paris, which is after all what everyone goes to see, a visual tour de force, mainly the result of the French propensity for making grand statements. The low-rise buildings, the star-patterned street plans, wide avenues and parks and squares with which Napoleon III’s architect Georges-Eugene Haussmann replaced much of medieval Paris in the second half of the 19th century have given Paris an open feeling, all the better for taking in the grandiose follies and imperial pomposities of La Gloire.
Where else would anyone build a railway station that looks like a palace (ordered so, because it had to fit in with the surrounding buildings), and then, when it could no longer operate as a station, remake it as an art gallery that equals anywhere you like to name for its combination of beauty and utility? And yet that’s what happened to the Gare d’Orsay. Truly, I felt I could stay all day at the now Musée d’Orsay wallowing in the sheer pleasure of its space, light and contents – unlike, say, the Palais Garnier (aka the Paris Opera House) which, while truly magnificent, was to me oppressive in its opulence, or the Pompidou Centre which is vast, industrial and, I found, overpowering.
Indeed my wife and I virtually fled the Pompidou: its wall after wall of modern art was such a visual blast in contrast to the D’Orsay’s almost gentle Impressionist images (the black edges of Cezanne notwithstanding) that we were overwhelmed. As an aside, the exhibition celebrating the work and life of modernist architect and town planner Le Corbusier that was on at the Pompidou when we were there showed me who to blame for the eyesores of today’s mass housing apartment blocks.
Which brings me to La Defense. This business and residential district on the Left Bank of the Seine, west of the Paris of the arrondissements, is a 1950s town planner’s wet dream, in the mode of all those post-war English new towns but with French overstatement and grandiosity. Developed since 1958, it is a huge complex of high-rise, glass office buildings and residential blocks surrounding a vast concrete plaza on top of a major, multi-mode transport hub – the realisation of all those futuristic movies in which people live in uncluttered, clinical, numbered skyscrapers, wear pastel-coloured catsuits and whizz around in driverless electric vehicles.
La Defense’s centrepiece is the giant, square Grande Arche set on a platform reached by a broad, steep staircase reminiscent of the pyramids, no doubt deliberately. If you stand under the arch at the top of the stairs and look down over the plaza, you can see all the way to the Arc de Triomphe, down the Champs Elysees to the Louvre. This is the way it was planned, as the western end of the 10km long Historical Axis of Paris. It is, to my mind, a pathetic end to La Gloire – pompous without the beauty.
I had plenty of opportunity to reach this conclusion because that’s where we stayed in Paris, with an exceedingly generous friend who has an apartment there. The residential tower blocks are large but set in spacious, well tended gardens. They flank a massive shopping mall and great public transport (the No.1 Metro line which starts there hits all the tourist hotspots and connections on its way east to the Chateau de Vincennes). I saw no graffiti and, in our nine days there, no evidence of insecurity. It was quite pleasant, away from the plaza and the Grande Arche.
Down the hill towards the river is the suburb/town of Puteaux, with narrow streets, traditional small shops and a real (as opposed to super) market. Puteaux is not without its own grandiose statements, however, such as the town hall and its Olympic swimming pool-sized fountain. A multi-coloured, arched building called the Palais de la Mediatheque had me baffled for a while until, after much huffing and puffing through its website with my minimal French, I deduced it was Puteaux’s update of the bibliotheque – i.e. a library but with cinemas, internet and whatever else multimedia might mean.
This kind of flourish seems to be written in French genes, or Parisian at least. Along the Coulée Verte I spotted in the parallel street below, Avenue Daumesnil, what appeared to be an apartment building but with its top two floors surrounded by repeats of a statue which looked to me to be styled after Michelangelo’s David.
This was extraordinary enough in an unremarkable road channelling traffic to and from the Gare de Lyon, but what capped it off was that, as I peered down at the grilled ground-floor windows and entrance flanked by two Tricolors, gendarmes started coming and going. This building might have had apartments above but, below, it was very much a cop shop.
This was not the only architectural surprise along this elevated rail trail. A couple of apartment blocks have been built around it, to give the impression that this old rail viaduct had sliced through their hearts. But, of course, it’s done nothing of the sort: the Coulée Verte was started in 1993.
The trail itself is a pleasant park much used by joggers and walkers. I thought I was probably the only tourist in Paris who had actually made an effort to climb the stairs up there and walk its length but, no, I was accompanied part of the way by an American family of three who, judging by their standard American tourist uniform of chinos and sensible shoes, were clearly not residents. I should have bailed them up and asked them whether they had been attracted there, as I had been, by the High Line and the underlying notion that something built originally to be utilitarian had been preserved and nurtured as art.
For, in case you don’t get it, the bureaucrats who control such things have given the Coulée Verte René-Dumont another identity – the Viaduc des Arts. Underneath its arches are located galleries and artisan workshops, only a couple of minutes’ stroll from the arts centre of the Opera de Paris Bastille. But I have to say it all looked a little like an idea that hadn’t quite worked. Some shops were vacant, there were few people around and even the ubiquitous cafes appeared less than energised. And, as I say, Avenue Daumesnil is a fairly ordinary thoroughfare.
At the Gare St Lazare, meanwhile, no one seems to have made any effort at all to capitalise on its centrality to the work of Manet, Monet and other Impressionists such as Berthe Morisot and Gustave Caillebot. Like all big stations (and airports) everywhere, it is now a shopping mall with trains attached like an afterthought. You can’t see them just by standing at the entrance, if you can find the entrance, let alone get an impression. Of course, the atmosphere of smoke and steam is no more.
In the environs, there are still the long Haussman avenues and the six-way junction of the Place (originally Pont) de l’Europe, a spreading iron bridge over the tracks heading to Monet’s garden at Giverny and which carry the successors to the Normandy trains he painted. I wonder what he would make of those sleek TGV-like expresses and the square suburban trains arrowing through the cavern under the Place de l’Europe
It is impossible on a casual walk to find the place where Manet located his epoch-making The Railway – no train, just its smoke and a young girl peering through the railings at it – and to see exactly what Caillebot saw for his Pont de l’Europe. Even from the train below there is not much evidence left of their day – only the steep stone walls, Manet’s railings and grimy ironwork. The passage of more than 130 years will do that. This is one place I saw in Paris where the utilitarian has defeated the grand, although I have no doubt it is by no means the only instance.
The Musee d’Orsay cancels that out. This building, inadequate as a railway station, has proved to be a magnificent showcase – light and spacious with a layout that deliberately leads the visitor through almost a history of art until you reach the Impressionist gallery on the top floor. Here is housed, as you might expect, the largest collection of Impressionist paintings in the world. My only tiny regret is that few of the railway-related works are there. The Railway, for example, graces the National Gallery of Art in Washington and Monet’s Gare St Lazare paintings are spread far and wide, in Paris and around the world. They’ll have to wait for next time, should that ever come.
En norvégienne – the “three girls in a boat” picture – is at D’Orsay, however, and, two days later when we visited Giverny, what should appear on the famous water lily pond adjacent to the equally famous bridge but, yep, girls in a boat! They were gardeners clearing weeds or whatever from the banks, in work clothes, not the feminine finery of the late 19th century but, yes, definitely girls, definitely in a boat, definitely reflected in the water, although, alas, only two of them. Why quibble? Snap, snap, snap.
And so, after that memorable encounter with languid gentleness and peace, it was on to the fast-intercity train through the suburbs and back under the bustling Place de l’Europe formerly known as Pont to the shopping mall formerly known as the Gare St Lazare. Thence to the hard edges of La Defense and the beckoning prospect of next stop London, and a somewhat different, and more prosaic, railway experience.
But as Humphrey Bogart almost told Ingrid Berman, I’ll always have Paris.