5-8 February 2019
In December 1973, when I was 23 years old, I left Australia for the first time. The plan was to visit my sister who was living in Vancouver, see some of Canada and the US, and then return home for the beginning of the university year in March to complete my degree in Library Science. I didn’t get back to Australia until April of 1975 and promptly went to art school.
Anyway, during the (northern) summer of ’74 I spent some time travelling around Europe with a friend. It was my first time ever in Paris. There are so many stories I could tell about that summer, but here’s one: we’d taken the metro
to the station nearest to Sacré Coeur Basilica, still one of the iconic, and most visited buildings of the city. We walked up the stairs from the metro to the street above. At the top of the stairs there was a short squat older man in dark pants, a striped top, and a beret. I swear he looked as if he’d just stepped off a Gauloise packet. Before we’d barely even set foot on the pavement he said Sacré Coeur? Oui, we replied in our best French. Suivez-moi he said without looking back as he set off through the crowded narrow cobblestone streets of Montmartre . We almost had to run to keep up with him. After a few minutes at double-time and turning a few corners along winding streets he suddenly stopped and pointed up a flight of stairs. Voila! Sacré Coeur was clearly visible at the top of the stairs. He disappeared into the crowd before we could even thank him.
In 2008 I was back in Montmartre with Don and some friends from Australia for another day of exploring, and then again on this trip in 2019. Montmartre, with the incomparable Sacré Coeur Basilica, will always be one of my favourite parts of Paris.
After climbing the many stairs of the approach to Sacré Coeur we reach the panoramic viewpoint on this foggy hollow winter day.
There’s a man selling Eiffel Tower trinkets, and a harp player,
and very few people. It’s one of the blessings of travelling in the off-season.
After listening to the sweet sounds of the harp drifting like smoke in the air we climb some more stairs. The basilica, a pile of white meringue against a white sky entices us, and we enter into the golden glowing beauty and sacred silence of the interior.
This Roman Catholic Basilica, dedicated to the sacred heart of Jesus, sits on the summit of the highest point of the city, the Mount of Martyrs, a place that has been a site of worship since the time of the Druids. It was designed by architect Paul Abadie in the Romanesque-Byzantine style and built between 1875 and 1919.
I have to share this little morsel about Montmartre:
It’s about a twenty-minute walk from Sacré Coeur to St Denys-la-Chapelle, the Chapel of St Denis, situated on the spot where he died. How he got there is the stuff of myths and legends. The original Christian chapel on Montmartre was built in about 270 CE to honour St Denis who was the first Bishop of Paris. The story goes that after he was beheaded by the Romans, St Denis picked up his head and carried it on a twenty-minute stroll while his mouth gave a complete sermon. With the sermon over he closed his mouth and fell down dead never to rise again. And today on that spot sits the chapel that honours him.
I’d heard of Galeries Lafayette, but never been there. Every time I researched what to see in Paris for previous trips I would see Galeries Lafayette mentioned, as a department store, which was enough for me to immediately put it at the bottom of the list, or actually not even on the list at all. Why would I want to go to a department store? I can do that anywhere, and also I’m not a shopper.
I have never understood the concept of shopping as a hobby. Crafting is a hobby. Stamp collecting is a hobby. Skiing or fishing or skate boarding is a hobby. Sewing or knitting or painting or drawing or writing. Any of these can, of course, be professional activities but if pursued only for pleasure then they are hobbies, and with the exception of the purely physical, hobbies are usually somewhat creative endeavours. But shopping? Buying stuff just for the sake of it isn’t a hobby. It’s more like a heroin fix.
Anyway, enough of that. This time I read enough about Galeries Lafayette to discover that it’s not just an upmarket department store. It’s a building worthy of royalty! And apparently Galeries Lafayette and Sacré Coeur both have dibs on being the second most visited site in Paris after the Eiffel tower, though I would question both claims. And what about Notre Dame Cathedral?
There was a small haberdashery store on the corner of Rue La Fayette and Rue de la Chaussée d’Antin, near Palais Garnier, which I’ll get to in a bit. Back in 1893 two cousins Théophile Bader and Alphonse Kahn decided to establish a novelty store there. They called it Aux Galeries Lafayette. It was such a success that within three years – three! – it was set to become a gigantic department store when the cousins bought the entire building, and eventually four others nearby. After years of refurbishing the ambitious and enormous Galeries Lafayette was officially opened in 1912. There are now Galeries Lafayette stores around the world.
Théophile Bader had dreams of a sumptuous marketplace where luxurious goods would turn people’s heads, and a diffused golden light would shine over all making everything radiant. What a vision. Architects Georges Chedanne and Ferdinand Chanut designed the Art Nouveau store around a glorious neo-Byzantine 43 metre high dome. The dome, conceived by glass artist Jacques Gruber, quickly became the symbol of Galeries Lafayette.
So we walk into this department store not really knowing what to expect, but finally Galeries Lafayette has gotten to the top of the list of things to see in Paris. We snake our way past various counters overflowing with gorgeous things, all under a soft golden light, and eventually we ask where we go to see the dome.
When I finally see it, it literally takes my breath away. I hardly know how to hold such splendour. How does one take it in, this artistic and creative brilliance? My mind doesn’t know how to process it. I can only stare in gratitude for such beauty.
If all department stores looked like this I might spend a little more time in them.
When we were in Paris for three weeks in 2008 we were sharing an apartment with my sister and I remember the two of us getting the metro to a market and coming home with our packs stuffed full of fruits, vegetables, and other groceries for the coming week or so. My memories are a little loose. I was sure it was Marché Bastille we went to, but when I look back at my photos they are all of a flea market, not food. Anyway wherever it was, I wanted to go back to it, so early one morning Don and I set out for Marché Bastille.
We arrive so early on this chilly morning that the market is hardly set up and there are few people around. So we do what any sensible Parisian would do. We go to a nearby bar for coffee and a croissant and watch the crowds of regulars lining up at the bar for their morning shot of espresso. It’s warm, and busy, and the whole place smells of fresh coffee and croissants. We find a table towards the back in the narrow dimly lit room and sit there for quite a while. As we slowly sip our coffee and chocolat chaud, and munch on the classic delicate pastries, it feels like we’re part of the real Paris.
Twice a week Boulevard Richard Lenoir comes alive with purpose and brilliant colour. Locals flock to Marché Bastille,
a conglomeration of stalls offering a dazzling array of, well, just about everything. There are over 100 stalls offering fruit and vegetables,
seafood, flowers, clothing, preserves, baked goods, fresh yogurt, nuts, cheeses, more varieties of olives than I’ve ever seen,
embroidered cloths from India, hot meals, or oysters for breakfast,
One of the biggest markets in Paris, it stretches from the outspread wings of Colonne de Juillet, the July Column, which rises in the centre of Place de la Bastille celebrating the three glorious days of 27–29 July 1830 that saw the fall of King Charles X of France,
though I doubt any of the Parisian shoppers are thinking of this as they make their choices, or the vendors as they call out their wares. It’s relatively quiet, and not at all what I remembered from that previous visit with my sister, but still, a slice of real Paris on this chilly winter morning.
We go back to the apartment and make ourselves baguettes filled with chicken, avocado, and tomato and eat them sitting in the thin pale sun in a nearby park all rugged up in just about every layer we have with us.
I’m a bit of a magpie. I’m attracted to shiny things and bright colours, and the entrance foyer of Palais Garnier is not radiantly colourful. I think I was a bit overwhelmed by all the brown marble. Also I didn’t know at the time how to photograph such a huge imposing space, and anyway I didn’t want all those tourists in my photo! So I focused on details.
As a result I have no images of the grand staircase and foyer that is the entrance of Palais Garnier. And it really is grand. Grand enough to take your breath away. Like Galeries Lafayette is a department store fit for royalty, Palais Garnier is an opera house fit for royalty. It is truly majestic. If you follow the link you’ll see what I mean.
The building, a 19th century architectural masterpiece named for its architect Charles Garnier, opened in 1875. It has always been one of the wonders of Paris, and has been called the most famous opera house in the world, but its celebrity was really cemented because it was used as the setting for the enormously successful and popular musical Phantom of the Opera, based on Gaston Leroux’s 1910 novel of the same name. I always think of the phantom as the original stalker. Creepy.
Now the Grand Foyer! Not remotely creepy. This is a room that fills my radiant magpie heart. All that gold! And the chandeliers, and the lush ceiling! The room, 18 metres high, 154 metres long and 13 metres wide, was designed as a drawing room for Paris society; a place for them to stroll and mingle, to see and be seen. It is situated right next to the most expensive theatre boxes.
Apart from croissants and baguettes we don’t really eat French food in Paris. One evening we discover Tien Hiang, a vegetarian restaurant just down the road from our Airbnb, serving seriously good Asian fusion food. Don has Pad Thai and I have the pho. It’s so good we go back twice more. On the other hand after a day spent walking in the cold we try the place across the road from Tien Hiang. Big mistake! We have the chicken salad rice bowl at Le Bichat. Flavourless overcooked chicken. Worst meal in Paris, one of the worst meals anywhere ever. On another day, for lunch we have excellent chicken with rice at a place called Indonesian Street Food. You win some, you lose some.
Twice I’ve been to Notre Dame Cathedral
and not gone inside because of the long lines. A third time, during the 2008 visit, I do go inside and shuffle along behind a few hundred other tourists. My only photos of that time are of the stained glass windows, and I have no memory of actually seeing the interior. We didn’t climb the tower because we’d have had to wait hours. This time I’m determined to see inside no matter how long I have to wait. It’s winter in Paris; there is no line up! How sad and appalled I was by the fire just two months after we were there that has seen the closing of the cathedral until further notice. How lucky and grateful I am that I finally got to see the glorious interior,
and climb the tower before that happened.
And yes, we walk a long way to get a shot of France’s mini Statue of Liberty (given to France by the American community in Paris in 1889) in front of the Eiffel Tower, because no matter how many times you’ve been to Paris you always have to see the tower, and why not go to where you can see it with the Statue of Liberty in front of it?
So that’s it. Four days in Paris in February. I’ll close with a shot of the city from the tower of that Gothic grand dame of cathedrals.
May she be repaired soon and be better than ever. May the repairs be a gigantic perfect piece of kintsugi!
On the fifth day we went to Chartres – next post.
All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2020.