Paris and the French Riviera are very much like fish and bear’s paw in the popular Chinese aphorism (魚與熊掌, 不可兼得) – I would never want to have to choose between them. In the past couple of weeks, in the company of a friend, I had a chance to savor them both to my heart’s content. On this self-pampering trip, which I hope I well deserve (I haven’t had a long vacation since 1999), we stayed four nights in Paris and six nights in Nice. During the sojourn in Nice, we visited towns on the Cote d’Azur by train, including Monte Carlo in Monaco, Cannes, St. Raphael, Antibes and Marseille.
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 fillets, 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.