Saturday, 19 May 2012

Travel: Paris ~ C'est la vie

The Eiffel Tower, Paris 

(This piece was written in 2000)

Paris is a city with a song in its heart. A song that soars and throbs along the banks of the river Seine. For this city doesn't sleep at night.

My mind's eye is crammed with images as I set out on my first sortie into the French Capital. The French Revolution... the guillotine... the Eiffel Tower... the art wonders at the Louvre... the cathedral of Notre Dame... ever-flowing wine... delicious provincial cuisine ... 

Notre Dame

But I found on my very first day that my illusions had to remain in my backpack. For at every turn, Paris took me by surprise.

The Seine that flows sinuously through Paris is worth a second glance. Its banks are crammed with tourists and Parisians. Cuddling couples in niches along the waterside. Youth munching long baguette sandwiches and sipping wine from uncorked bott les. Vendors of art prints and flowers, hurdy-gurdy accordian players along the Rive Gauche or Left Bank. Remember, there's even a French perfume named Rive Gauche?

The call of the Louvre is like a siren song. I join the queue to enter through an amazing glass pyramid in its central courtyard. Wandering into its weather-worn buildings, it's hard to imagine that the Louvre dates back to the 13th century, when Philippe Augustus built a fortress near the river for defence. And now? It's undoubtedly an astounding museum crammed with global wonders!

What will I choose? Before I find my way to Leonardo da Vinci's immortal Mona Lisa, I have other treasures to explore. Art from Mesopotamia, Persia, Egypt and Greece. Great brooding figures, impeccably carved, sharing stories without words. How did the collection come to Paris? Mainly through Napoleon I, who demanded a tribute in works of art from the nations he conquered! A roll call of master artists -- Rembrandt, Raphael, Titian, Rubens, Velasquez. My feet ache and my eyes light up before I'm through. All day at the Louvre -- and even that's not enough.

But let me tell you a secret. The Mona Lisa, close up, is smaller than the frame in my imagination. She's mysterious, her smile melts and reappears -- depending on your angle of vision, I'd give a million francs to view her in solitude -- but the teeming of a curious crowd around made that an impossible dream. Because all signs in the Louvre point towards the legendary beauty.

Another day, another view. Notre Dame cathedral, magnificent and soaring towards the azure autumn sky. It's amazing within, leaving me breathless with awe. For it's 426 ft long, 164 ft wide and 115 ft high -- and can accommodate 9,000 people. Monsters and saints, apparently petrified beyond time, emerge like ghostly figures as I peer around the arched interiors. The south rose window haunts me still. Depicting Christ in the act of benediction, the assembly of stained glass appe ars at first glance to be a star of dazzling luminosity. 

Within walking distance, I come to La Saint Chapelle, built to contain the relic of the crown of thorns which King Louis IX bought in Venice in 1239. The relic was brought to the Italian po rt city from Constantinople. The upper and lower chapels, standing one above the other, are adorned by high windows crowned with cusps. The whole interior is marked by airiness, as if from the most delicate embroidery, and the dazzling light that filters through the soaring stained glass windows all around.

But is antiquity all? Not to me. So, off I went to a bookshop I'd heard of years ago. Shakespeare and Co, set up by an expatriate American, where Hemingway and Gertrude Stein once spent days in debate. Among its books in nooks, I find one I'd dreamt of -- painter Vincent Van Gogh's letters to his brother Theo. Soon, francs exchange hands, and the book is mine! 

Musee Rodin

Later, I brood with Rodin's awesome sculptures at the Musee Rodin during my week in Paris. For hours, I contemplate his famed figure of The Thinker over lunch. Was he a genius? Was he a warped personality? Did artistic licence allow him to distort the life of young Camille Claude, the disciple who loved him? After a day amidst his work, I admire his talent but can't quite fathom the man. Does it matter? I'm not sure, even today.

My artistic excavations continue as I untangle a fantastic life at the Musee Picasso. I wonder at the portraits -- distortions to untrained eyes -- of Marie-Therese Walter, Dora Maar, Francoise Gilot, Olga, Jacqueline Rocque, all his lo vers down the years. What was the essential mystique of the man? I catch glimpses in his delicate wash drawings and sculptures of the bullfights he was addicted to, a true Spaniard at heart, despite all those years in Paris.

More art beckons before I've even assimilated my first helping. A friendly artist whisks me off to a Fernand Leger retrospective at Le Centre Georges Pompidou, with the gigantic pipes that adorn its ultra-modern facade. Since Leger develop ed a style that reflects modern life in an industrialised society, it seems apt to view his work in these surroundings. Even on a busy Wednesday afternoon, I find hundreds of Parisians thronging the Leger show during their lunch break. It's social  nterchange at its Parisian best. 

I walk for hours through the gardens of the Tuileries, and march down the imposing Champs Elysees. I sit on a park bench and watch the world drift by, admiring its impeccable sartorial elegance!

Enchanting Paris soon allows me to enter its street-bright life. To visit the bouquinistes, who sell art prints and rare books by the Seine, while dripping orange juice from the hot crepes that I munch. To discover a gallery of medieval relics while biting into a luscious chocolate eclair oozing whipped cream. Even to watch the city's night lights dancing on the river.

Paris is basically a dreamy state of mind, which is why I didn't make a trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower. To me, the famed landmark remains in a luminous pillar of twinkling lights viewed from a whistling distance away.

C'est la vie! That's life, as lived in gay Paris every day. 

(The Hindu Business Line 2000)


No comments:

Post a Comment