Many Shades to the City of Light

Welcome to our new regular travel column! Every issue, Woroni will run an article offering comment and advice on an overseas destination, for the benefit of anyone who may be travelling there. If you’ve been somewhere popular and you’d like to share your recommendations, please feel welcome to submit an article.

Very few places on the globe call to mind such a vivid array of images, ideals and stereotypes as does Paris. Ever since the late nineteenth century, the so-called City of Light has been associated with glamour, romance, mystery, and beauty. It has also, in more recent decades, become closely linked in outsiders’ perceptions with notions of French hostility and inhospitality: the famous Parisian contempt for tourists and foreigners. Both stereotypes are a lot closer to the truth than you might expect. But as you might also expect, there’s a great deal more to Paris than this – indeed, it’s one of the most varied and exciting cities in Europe, if not in the world.

In central, historic Paris, surrounded by an old and beautiful cityscape, it is possible to relax in a way that you can rarely relax in London, Berlin or Rome. Walking by the Seine river, admiring vintage clothes or drawings at street stalls, or sitting in one of many quaint little street-corner cafes, it’s easy to feel peaceful. This sense of peace is all the more remarkable when you consider what a hectic and difficult time you can so often have with the practicalities of life in this city. The public transport is confusing and unreliable, the food and drink are hideously expensive, and the Citizens of Light, if you will, can be far from enlightened when it comes to helping out their city’s visitors. And whatever you do, don’t attempt to do Paris by car. Parisian traffic is among the most notoriously chaotic and unsafe on the continent. So allow yourself plenty of time, whatever you’re planning, and be prepared to be patient. If you can bear the occasional pain, Paris will offer you rich rewards.

Paris probably houses more of the world’s great buildings, artworks and monuments than any other city outside Italy, and they nearly all live up to their reputations. No other cathedral in Europe has quite the elegance or the delicacy of the exquisite, white-stoned Notre Dame. Moving from the graceful to the spectacular, the Eiffel Tower is a jaw-dropping mass of towering iron that has to be seen up-close to be truly appreciated. Make sure you go back to it at night, when it is lit up with golden lights and looks like the citadel of the great wizard from some kind of epic fantasy novel. And for something off the beaten track, descend to the catacombs and explore tunnels lined from floor to ceiling with grinning human skulls.

There are more art galleries than you could visit in a week, ranging from the mighty, labyrinthine Louvre, with its exhaustive (and exhausting) collection of old French treasures, to the vast collection of modern and contemporary pieces in the Pompidou. This latter is more likely to bore and baffle you than to entertain you – indeed, probably the best thing about the place is the building itself, a fascinating “inside-out” design that colourfully places the plumbing, heating and so forth on the exterior of the building. A good middle ground in art galleries is the Musée d’Orsay, which is dedicated to the Impressionists, Van Gough and other stars of the city’s artistic golden age. Smaller and easier than the Louvre and housing an arguably more interesting and relevant selection of artworks, this is the place to visit if you don’t want to spend more than an hour or two of your trip looking at paintings.

The true joy of Paris, however, lies not in any particular site or famous landmark, but in the experience of simply passing your days and, more importantly, your nights in this often gorgeous city. Paris can be unfriendly, but it can also be every bit as seductive and exotic as films and poetry suggest. If you’re going to Europe at all, do not miss out on the City of Light.