April in the City of Light

The Eiffel Tower puts on a show!


I’m not sure what makes a city great, but I know a great city when I meet one. I’ve been fortunate to have visited some of the famed cities of the world: New York, London, Chicago, Dublin and Paris. Each is unique, but all have claimed a place in my heart. I’ve often wondered what it is about these cities that intrigues me so. What are the elements of a truly superior city?

A few years my husband and I visited Paris in April. While he ran the Paris marathon, I ran around Paris. These are some of my stops. Join me and maybe together we can decide what makes Paris great.

The architecture of Paris is justly admired, and none more so than the Eiffel Tower, Paris’s most iconic symbol. Standing tall and proud, it is the brightest beacon in the city of light.

The magnificent and monumental Arc de Triomphe was commissioned in 1807 after Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, when the Emperor rode the crest of fortune’s wheel. As I viewed the massive structure, I thought of War and Peace, Ozymandias and the Russian winter that would soon destroy Napoleon’s Grande Armée.

 These somber thoughts vanished when I climbed to the top of the Arc and saw the Champs Elysees below, glistening in the twilight like a magic carpet. Somehow, the impossible seems possible in Paris.

Versailles is one of the must-see tourist destinations. I like to look for the human side of history and it was

Doing the Versailles Shuffle in the Hall of Mirrors

difficult to find at that cold palace. (Clothes of gold offer little comfort–give me soft cotton and fleece.) I’m sure having to dance the  “Versailles shuffle” detracted from my enjoyment–the crowds were horrendous–but there was one human connection.

Passing through Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber, I recalled that this was where she and Louis cowered when the crowd of angry peasants arrived from Paris. The mob had marched from Paris carrying pitchforks and sticks and now they demanded their king’s surrender. In those final desperate moments of freedom, Louis and Marie Antoinette clung together.

From that point onward, it was a slow march to Monsieur Guillotine for Louis and his queen.

A recreation of Marie Antoinette’s cell, prior to her appointment with the guillotine

Paris is most alive in its streets and cafes. Unlike my fellow Americans who are protective of their personal space, Parisians happily sit elbow to elbow in crowded cafes.

I’m going to wind up this little tour with a visit to the exquisite basilica of Sacré-Cœur, which stands on a hill in Montmartre.  When I first saw Sacré-Cœur in the early nineties, I wasn’t familiar with its history. At that time I saw a gleaming edifice in white stone that was both elegant and imposing, a product of  La Belle Epoque.

Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris

First a little history: During the final decades of the nineteenth century Paris experienced an explosion of art and literature. Renoir painted, Gide brooded, and Stravinsky wrote music so revolutionary it provoked listeners to riot. Yet this golden age was rooted in blood, which brings me back to Sacré-Cœur.

The Franco-Prussian War was an unmitigated disaster for France. After the surrender of Napoleon III in 1871, a revolutionary uprising called the Paris Commune seized power in Paris. They held on for two brutal months before being obliterated by the regular French army and were buried on a hilltop in Montmartre.

In the humiliating aftermath of defeat, the people of Paris erected a grand basilica where the martyrs lay buried. After all, the Communards were secular and had no love of priests.  So this was a way of doing penance and erasing the past that had caused such pain.

The history of Sacré-Cœur reads like a metaphor, but I’m not sure what it means. I only know that there is something eternal in that white stone and something horrible as well. There are many places like Sacré-Cœur in Paris, places where the past and present collide.

So what makes Paris great?

The answer is everything. Architecture, art, open spaces, history, culture–all conspire to form the city of light. I don’t think I’d want to live in a world without Paris, and even though it may be years before I see her again, I keep her in my heart.

Perhaps Ernest Hemingway said it best:

“If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

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About mdarylanderson@yahoo.com

I'm a mystery writer living in Gainesville, Florida, with my husband and two dogs.
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