(Hit play and listen to the sounds of Paris while reading the following post)
And I know that saying that is probably offensive (if not merely defeating) to the some 70 million tourists that invade the city each year, not to mention the 2 million Parisians that call this City of Lights their home, but the view from the upper deck of the Eiffel Tower looking out over the urban sprawl below is, quite frankly, unimpressive. Brown stones melt into grey streets and its vast mundanity fails to inspire. The iconic Notre Dame cathedral is merely another building one has to search out in the crowds below and the Arc de Triomph is easily confused with the myriad of tourist traps and other boutiques that run the two-mile length of the Champs-Élysées. When you are standing on the one building that defines the city’s skyline, all other buildings seem squat and pallid in their feeble attempts to impress.
And as I stood there, surprisingly unsurprised by what Paris had to offer from on high, I was struck by this thought: was Paris ever meant to be viewed like this? Cathedrals that reach upwards towards the grandeur of God, and palaces that spread outwards proclaiming the grandeur of kings, wasn’t that the point? Is it not a pedestrian city, rich in its delicate architecture and overwhelming in its deliberate beauty? Is it not a city of artists, of those who choose to see life lived in its details, through its intricacies? There are no thousand foot views or dizzying panoramics but rather street vendor smells and cathedral patterns and metro sounds that catch one, that give pause as one moves through the everyday, that quicken one’s blood. And so I say this: if you want to meet Paris, start at the very bottom and look up.
Deep beneath the city there is a symphony of sound, a musical conducted by the passing by of metro trains and moving bodies. The rhythms of everyday life play out to the melodies of cadging accordion players and bustling cell phone talkers; the metronomic arrival at each station is the cadence to which they keep time. And as you rise to surface level and walk the length of the Belleville market, the chords vary to the shouts and singsongs of produce venders, the language ever shifting with each interchange. Asians pack crowded in the narrow lane, giving way with each passing step to North Africans and Arabs calling out their wares in a cacophony of sound, and yet they are not any less Parisian for it. It is a swirling dance of cultural color that continues up the hill, past shuffling French men and women out to purchase the morning’s produce and tourists stopping at each trinket shop to buy their cast iron Eiffel Towers, some pausing long enough to listen to the Spanish man plucking out flamenco on his classical guitar. Others realize his genius and drop coins in the upturned case. And at the top there stands the Sacred Heart of Paris, this Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, the highest point in the city. Step after step leads to its doors, steps littered with bored teenagers and dedicated pilgrims alike, basking in the cathedral’s domed shadow. There is a new sound if you walk through the heavy wooden doors, when suddenly the world outside is muted and the only echoing song is that of reverent believers. The notes collect like cobwebs in the stone archways and galleries. This, this is the top.
And only then can you turn around and look back down on it all, down to where the buildings melt together into a city block. Only then can you see it as an artist would, as it was created to be seen. Only once you’ve ridden its subways and bumped through its busy streets and sat quiet in its cathedrals can you begin to understand it, to converse with it.
This is Paris. The beauty is in the details.
See the sights of Paris too: Portraits: Paris