At the end of July I visited, for the first time, the city of Paris. A city, like many in Europe, that has had its fair share of front page headlines. Unfortunetely, for all the wrong reasons.
I would be travelling almost 9 months after the terrorist attacks of last November, in which 130 innocent Parisian socialites were murdered. Also, a week before I arrived in Paris, another city was in mourning after a lorry ploughed through families enjoying the Bastille day celebrations in Nice. France, it seems, was a country at war. I was kindly offered accommodation in a banlieue (suburb) north of Paris close to Saint Denis; an infamous ghetto and the location of a massive police operation after the November bloodbath.
It was from the apartment I was staying in that I got my first real glimpse of The Eiffel Tower at night, with it's impressive spotlight rotating its beam noiselessly over the whole of the French capital like a giant lighthouse.
I was rudely awaken by my bodies urinary system at around 5 in the morning, this did give me the unique opportunity to get my first glimpse of Paris in the daytime. I snapped a few shots and hurried back to sleep, conscious that I had a long day of sight seeing scheduled.
We all finally awoke, showered and dressed ready to have breakfast in central Paris on the Champs Élysée. To get there required a 30 minute journey on the Parisian metro. In a recent essay by British journalist Ben Judah he describes how "you only know Paris when you know the Métro". This was my inaugural into the shallow tunnels of that vast system, a system whereby certain people decide whether they will pay or not (I saw on multiple occasions people forcing their way through the security doors without a ticket). A system whereby some platforms allow shelter to the homeless. A system, to quote Ben Judah again, where there are spots in which "women look behind themselves at night". The main artery that feeds the north of Paris is La Ligne 13. "Don't get yourself a commute on La Ligne 13, they joke," writes Ben Judah "it may be light blue but it goes from Romania to the banlieue end of hell." I would ride this line everyday whilst I was in Paris, clutching my camera bag, contemplating whether to pull it out and snap away. Alas, with some regret I didn't have the courage.
The Champs Élysée is a long street running from the Place de la Concorde to the magnificent Arc de Triomphe. The French boastfully call this boulevard "la plus belle avenue du monde" - the most beautiful avenue in the world. It was here we enjoyed a coffee in view of one of Jacques Chirac's favourite restaurants Chez Clément. After coffee we walked past the many designer boutiques, theatres, cafes and - oddly - a Marks & Spencers towards the Arc de Triomphe. Due to heightened security only one subway tunnel was accessible to reach the roundabout on which the Arc is located. Whilst wondering aimlessly in search of this tunnel I managed to snap a shot of the Arc de Triomphe with The Eiffel Tower in the background, in the foreground the almost unbridled traffic speeding and veering around the roundabout.
We finally arrived at the foot of the Arc de Triomphe to marvel at it's architectural splendour. On the four main pillars are intricate sculptures depicting events from the formation of the First French Republic during the French Revolution in 1792, to the Treaty of Paris in 1815. My personal favourite is the La Résistance de 1814.
The sculpture depicts the French resistance in the War of the Sixth Coalition in which Napoleon was forced back into France and battled against vastly unfair numerical odds to defend France against a coalition of Austrian, Prussian, Russian, British, Portuguese, Swedish and Spanish soldiers. The bearded man cowering in terror whilst clutching the leg of another man standing gallantly always draws my gaze.
Inside the facades of the monument are engraved French victories and military leaders of the French Revolution and the Empire, those that are underlined died on the battlefield.
This magnificent monument is not just a opulent display of the France's history of military prowess. There is a more delicate and melancholy aspect buried underneath; the grave of an Unknown Soldier lies beneath an eternal flame. Since the soldier was interred it is now customary during military parades not to pass under the Arc, but instead to go around it. Even a man such as Hitler abided by this custom after the French surrendered Paris to the Nazi's.
It was from here that we took a stroll to towards Place de la Concorde to Pont Alexandre III, built in honour of the Franco-Russian alliance. This ornate bridge leads across the Seine to the 7th arrondissement, straight across is Les Invalides, home to the crypt like tomb of Napoleon.
To describe Les Invalides as anything but grandiose would be an understatement, this stunning building is a museum, hospital, home for veterans and a tomb. The sarcophagus of Napoleon lies underneath the Dôme des Invalides in the centre of the complex. The sarcophagus - I am told - is designed in a way that you only ever look down upon it or up at it. As you enter the chapel you look into a crypt down upon the grand sarcophagus of the late General. From there you can head down some stairs into a catacomb filled with the bodies (and sometimes just the hearts) of past military leaders, before reaching the viewing gallery surrounding the sarcophagus.
I was taken back by how seriously the French take there military history, the chapel was really a mausoleum for past generals. An interesting sarcophagus engraved with golden Arabic text contains the remains of one Hubert Lyautey a French colonial general based in Morocco, who later become heavily involved in the Fascist movement in Europe and admired Benito Mussolini. The second contains the remains of the ruthless Ferdinand Foch, the French Commander-in-Chief who perpetuated the 'war of attrition' tactic which made WWI an infamously sanguinary conflict. This open celebration of military might seems, to me, slightly perverse knowing what we know now about the the sheer wastefulness of such conflicts and the various Commanders and Generals blatant disregard for human life. Of course, we view history through the prism of hindsight and historical analysis and this leads us to such conclusions. I'm sure these military men firmly believed that what they were doing was both necessary and just. If you're in anyway interested in a stunning account of the horrors of The Great War, listen to Dan Carlin's Blueprint for Armageddon.
I will dedicated a whole blog to the monumental splendour of The Eiffel Tower, therefore I will skip over our brief hiatus there for the next blog. I will only include this panorama; which was taken on the same day from the top of shopping centre. In this image you can see the Les Invalides, Grand Palais and the Eiffel Tower.
I made it clear that I wanted to travel to the part of Paris that was attacked in November and this required us to take the metro to Place de la République. This is a vibrant area bustling with bars and restaurants, the square itself has a large bronze statue of Marianne, the female personification of the French Republic. This statue is now a graffiti covered memorial for those killed in recent terror attacks, a fresh display was in memory of those mowed down by a lorry on Bastille Day in Nice.
I should take this opportunity talk about what I think is happening in Paris and France in general. There has been an experiment in Europe with an concept known as multiculturalism. This is the idea that peoples of differing faiths, backgrounds and languages can live harmoniously together. This utopian concept is, in part, true providing the cultures are similar; that of a Spanish person emigrating to the UK. The idea falls apart when two entirely different cultures, with different lived experiences and, thus, different truths meet. Someone like Kenan Malik will argue that diversity - one of the principles of multiculturalism - is a good thing as it allows contrasting ideas to engage with one another, and through this engagement the value system most conducive to human well-being can triumph. Unfortunetely, it is just this type of dialogue that is being suppressed by well-meaning liberals in the name of 'tolerance' and 'respect'. There is also another issue; some cultures wish to be immune to such criticism and will do what they can to curtail it, this is especially true those that are heavily religious. Europe has seen a large influx of peoples from Islamic cultures and they have brought with them very conservative and, in some cases, anti-western sentiments. Attempts to integrate these cultures has, in the most part, failed (Angela Merkel even said so herself back in 2010). These ghettoised societies (like Saint-Denis) practice their cultural traditions in lieu of the cultural norms of the majority and are seed beds for Islamist/Jihadist radicalisation.
The French intelligentsia and liberal politicians tend to obfuscate the issue, this is best highlighted in Michel Houellebecq's novel Submission; in which France - with the help of liberals - rejects it's national motto of Liberté, égalité, fraternité for an Islamist government. This is merely a satire, but there is one thing Houellebecq predicted accurately, and that is the rise of the far-right in France as a result of the failure of liberalism to stick up for its core values.
It seemed business as usual Place de la République, with restaurants and bars crammed full of people (including A La Bonne Biere, one of the bars that was attacked). The square itself was festive with demonstrations, live music, art, lectures etc.
The opening chapter to Ernest Hemingway's A Moveable Feast we find him wandering the rain sodden streets towards "a good cafe" in Place St Michel. This was the an area of Paris that charmed me the most. It is situated in the 5th and 6th arrondissements on the left bank of the Siene, with Notre Dame on the other side. We arrived there in the late afternoon and the light was almost perfectly golden, Notre Dame shone brilliantly; it was magnificent introduction to the famous cathedral. A long the banks of the Siene people sat and drank whilst bikes whizzed past them. According to my friend to sit and chat whilst consuming wine was a common past time in Paris.
From here we wandered to La Sorbonne or the 'Latin Quarter'; a small network of thin street lined with restaurants. We chose the set menu that appealed to our appetite, I enjoyed, for the first time the local delicacy of snails. We ate and drank until it was dark, the streets around La Sorbonne were busy, with middle aged restaurant owners tempting people in with the reasonable priced 'authentic' menus.
Once we emerged from the tight and hectic streets of La Sorbonne we were treated to a truly exquisite sight; across the Rue Saint-Jacques past the restaurants was Notre Dame, it's facade lit up brightly with a full moon in the background. It is this image that is my favourite, for me - excuse the cliche - I feel a captured a quintessential image of Paris at night.