Paris Part 1: City of Lights

JULY 2010…

It would seem preposterous to try and introduce Paris because, com’on, who doesn’t know Paris, right? Home of the Eiffel Tower, city of lights and the land of romance.

But what you might not know (or noticed) is that Paris has a very low-lying cityscape, with buildings in the city centre no more than seven storeys high. Its reputation of being the city of lights isn’t mere marketing spiel as well. Paris was one of the first European cities to light up the city streets with gas-powered lamps back in the 1860s.

Touristy but still a must-see
If you only have budget to explore one location in Europe, you must start with Paris. It may be touristy, but the vast historical and cultural heritage are definitely worth the trip. With 2,185 monuments, 206 museums and many other places of interest, there’s plenty to see and do in Paris. And the first stop you must make, of course, is to the Eiffel Tower.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris.

Eiffel Tower, the icon of Paris.

Originally built as a temporary exhibit for the World’s Fair in 1889, the Eiffel Tower has become the icon of Paris today. Standing at 324 m high, it towers over its low-lying neighbours, stamping its authority over the city. The Eiffel Tower is so tall it can be seen all over Paris. And to prove my point, here is the Eiffel Tower “photo-bombing” my other shots…

The panoramic view of Paris from Parc de Belleville.

The panoramic view of the city from the highest park in Paris, Parc de Belleville, Eiffel Tower included.

The Eiffel Tower standing tall in the city of Paris.

The ever-present Eiffel Tower as seen from the top floor of the Galeries Lafayette departmental store.

Though the Eiffel Tower looks the same from all four sides, it is more photogenic from the Champ de Mars (the lawn side). With the green of the grass and the blue of the sky complementing and contrasting the metallic tower, it is no wonder that the Eiffel Tower has graced countless magazine covers and travelogues.

The Arc de Triomphe, a war memorial in Paris.

The Arc de Triomphe, a war memorial honouring French soldiers lost in the world wars.

Another structure that stands out (seemingly in the middle of nowhere) is the Arc de Triomphe, the biggest arch in the world. From afar, this triumphal arch may seem all business-like with its straight lines and sharp corners, but head up close and it reveals its hidden beauty.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

Erected in 1836 to celebrate Napoleon’s war victory and to honour the soldiers lost, it now also serves as a war memorial to the French soldiers lost during the world wars, with an eternal flame that burns above the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

Located at the centre of Place Charles de Gaulle, a huge traffic roundabout of 12 avenues, the juxtaposition of the two eras is fascinating – the modern world endlessly buzzing with vehicular traffic and the tranquillity of the ancient world, standing stoically in the middle of it all.

Arc de Triomphe, Paris.

Equally fascinating was figuring out how to get to the Arc without becoming roadkill in the process. And that would be the underpass (which I spotted only later… Phew!) The absence of an overland connector creates the effect of being stranded at sea. But at the same time, it allows you to detach yourself from reality and immerse yourself into the Arc’s world, where you can take your time to savour all that it has to offer.

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris.

The French Gothic side of the Notre-Dame Cathedral…

Next on my list was the Notre-Dame Cathedral. I was approaching Notre-Dame from behind but I couldn’t spot it on the skyline. When I finally entered its grounds, I did a double take. This was not the Notre-Dame that I knew (read: the one on the posters of the Disney film “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”).

The Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris.

And the twin bell towers on the western side.

Turns out, the Notre-Dame looks very different from the western facade and the eastern. On first glance, the eastern side looks more French Gothic, spires and all. But look closely around the twin bell towers on the western facade and you will see the gargoyles staring back at you. Now, that’s the Notre-Dame I was looking for.

The Louvre in Paris, home to the Mona Lisa.

The Louvre – the world’s largest museum and home to the Mona Lisa.

Another famous name to visit in Paris is the Louvre, or more correctly, the Louvre Palace. As the world’s largest (and most visited) museum, the Louvre showcases 35,000 works of art over three wings and four floors, one of which is the iconic Mona Lisa. Still, that’s a lot to take in for the average tourist. So, some serious planning is required if your aim is to see every piece.

Equally iconic is the 21 m-high glass pyramid that serves as the main entrance to the Louvre. Parisians are divided over whether it enhances or spoils the architectural landscape. But if you ask me, it is a perfect marriage of old and new, and both are now inseparable from each other.

Attraction-shopping (think window-shopping) is not a bad experience
Needless to say, the bane of being one of the world’s most popular tourist destinations is the crowds. And I do mean never-ending queues that snake around the ticket booths at just about every top 10 attraction listed in the guide books.

That said, spending all day waiting your turn in the queue is not the only way to experience Paris (or some may say queuing is part of the experience as well). Although I did not queue to enter many of the attractions, it did not dampen my Paris trip one bit. In fact, I dare say it made it less stressful without having to navigate and squeeze my way through the crowds.

What I ended up with, instead, was a leisurely stroll through the cobbled streets of Paris, admiring the architecture of the magnificent buildings while sipping a caffè latte nearby. Which suited me just fine… more than fine perhaps.

But that’s not the end of my Paris trip. To find out what else I saw, stay tuned for the next article!


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