First Time I Saw Paris OK, I know this probably sounds naïve now as we all know Paris I suppose. Today, twenty or so years on from my first visit so do I after so many wonderful days spent in the city during those intervening years but even now the approach into Paris whether it is made by road or Eurostar still has a particular thrill for me. It certainly did on that balmy early summer evening back in 1997. It was a real event in our lives for us and one that I still recall quite vividly with a special feeling. The first time I saw Paris was truly very exciting – I hope it was for you. Never let that feeling leave you and it will repay you well on every visit you make. This account is of that first trip but the full story of our relationship with Paris must be for another time, another book. Writing chronologically cannot always work and Paris is special to me and those thoughts and recollections I will eventually put altogether in one story, for my pleasure certainly and hopefully yours also. Coming in to Paris on the Autoroute the blue distance Kilometre signs some of which have period lettering remind you of the art deco times between the wars. The kilometres on these markers gradually reduce in value and you find yourselves in the Paris suburbs. On this first visit we get a great view of the new Stade de France coming to completion in time for the soccer World Cup being hosted by France in 1998. France won but we missed that party. The Charles de Gaulle airport is adjacent to the road and the coach seems to try to keep pace with the taxiing aircraft but these win and you have an excellent view of them becoming airborne. Once in the suburbs these neighbourhoods are nothing special to view and in fact appear quite neglected and intimidating. The graffiti is everywhere, no solitary space is left untouched and you find yourself open mouthed at the resourcefulness of the street artist at work in the dead of night, perilously risking his or her life for their art. Soon you can get a sense of what the city of Paris promises to the visitor. Looking over to the hill of Montmartre the Sacre Coeur Basilica reflects its light back out over the city and you begin to try to visualize how the village of Montmartre may have appeared in the Belle Epoque when the many artists lived and worked in its rambling streets. The reality of Montmartre today is quite different to the days of the impressionist painters but this is what Paris will always do to you, she makes you imagine. You are provided with virtual reality images in your mind. Turning back to look the other way over the cityscape you are dazzled by the many vast neon signs that are blindingly bright and colourful, fixed to the high rise buildings and advertising in typically French script anything from cars and air travel to restaurants. You can sense the excitement that awaits you as a first time visitor to this vibrant city. Sensibly you do have to remind yourself that this is only going to be a fleeting visit and this is not the main purpose of your journey but that fact just heightens your feelings as you approach the city determined to squeeze every last drop of pleasure from this special part of the trip. This city will not disappoint us on this introduction to it and this brief experience opens the road to many more visits for us solely to enjoy Paris and all that it can offer to this lover of history, food and wine. Oh, I knew about the history part before we set off on our journey - but the food and wine. Oh, what a discovery they would be. My only previous taste of the exotic was indeed garlic bread and that would all have to thoroughly change and most enjoyably so.
We will only be here to admire central Paris for a couple of hours or so but the impression it makes on us in this short time changes our future travels forever. We will always incorporate Paris into our French jaunts as often as we possibly can and it will be a future venue for the most memorable times with friends and family and hopefully with still many more excursions to come. We soon leave the suburbs behind and we are at the Place de l’Etoile or Place Charles de Gaulle with the instantly recognisable Arc de Triomphe at its centre. This is a stunning first view of the famous centre of Paris with the Arc de Triomphe brightly lit up against the backdrop of the clear Paris night and then seeing spread out in front of this giant edifice the nearly two kilometre length of the Avenue des Champs Elysees with streaks of light from the cars all down the centre and the boulevard being illuminated from either side by cafés and bars and vivid exclusive shop fronts. First of all however this Place must be crossed and certainly not on foot but from the safety of a seat in the coach. The driver very hesitantly inches his way to the starting line waiting for that smallest of gaps that heralds the starting gun. I change my gaze away from the exciting new sites all around me and look down from my high vantage point at the bewildering road below and see that barely two feet from the side of the coach and immediately below my window is a Citroen automobile with its manic driver, hunched over the steering wheel, hustling for a way forwards. He has positioned his vehicle exactly at a 90 degree angle to the side of the coach. All around our coach there are cars cutting in at speed into any possible space but somehow it seems that no one crashes into another as they insert their vehicle into an opening that only they can judge. Apparently it must be that the story claiming that your insurance is not valid on the Place de l’etoile concentrates the mind. Surely though I would consider that just being in your car on this frenzied spot could induce a panic attack thus making a helpless driver become rigid and immobilised in the centre of this impossible roundabout. Our coach though is still somehow moving forward, the speedometer barely registering, and we edge our way over without any scrapes to the exit leading onto the Champs Elysees. A very definite mental note is made that any thought of taking my own vehicle into the centre of Paris is not to be acted on – not ever.
The splendid avenue Champs Elysees is just amazing to experience just in taking in its length alone but most of all in observing the vibrancy of its street life and there is no better time to see it than on a clear balmy night when it is crowded with people strolling and eating and drinking at the many terrace cafés. Watching the people on the pavements you notice the flower seller proffering a single stem into the hands of a pretty young lady. She gratefully accepts and her partner soon realises it is not an admiring gesture – he has to pay for it. The whole scene I might add is especially pleasing from the comfort of a coach. What would you say is the most famous feature that you can recall about the Champs Elysees that now suddenly you find is really there stretching out in front of you? Is it Le Fouquets Restaurant at 99 Champs Elysees with its famous red exterior, the tables comfortingly secluded behind the neat hedges around the terrace? I remember reading a book by the English writer Frank Muir who described how in the weeks just after the war he drove in uniform over to Paris from England in his open topped sports car pulling up right outside Le Fouquets and in those different times was actually able to park his car and leave it there. He relates how he was able to be enjoying a delightful meal in the days following the liberation that contrasted with the frugal situation back at home. It is so evocative to see the famous old restaurant bustling with many stylish contented diners no doubt with loud chatter over a superb long meal and a bottle or two of wine. Or for you is it located just over the road, the famous white M sign for McDonalds? This is the only white sign of that famous chain of restaurants for it was demanded of them for the privilege of being on such an exclusive venue. The children certainly think that this is the highlight but they cannot this evening stop for a ‘happy meal’. The men on the coach are purring at the glass fronted exclusive car showrooms, amazing to see on such a boulevard of shops and cafés. Perhaps it could be Maison Laduree with its exquisite shop front that reminds you of sophisticated times past, displaying their perfect macarons in all their colourful glory? For the ladies in our party the real highlight, though not necessarily on this visit but most certainly in years to come would have to be the large Sephora Perfume store. This fragrance store is still open at this late hour and as we pass tantalizingly by you can see that from the entrance there leads a long gently sloping ramp that makes it appear as if you may be going into a stadium, which I suppose to a certain degree you are. Along both sides of this ramp there are a multitude of glamourous store assistants, male and female, poised and ready to squirt you with any number of delicate scents. After negotiating that first runway you then emerge into this cavernous apparently underground space where you will be made aware that if they have not got your favourite perfume, lotion, eau de cologne etc… then it doesn’t exist. It is a store that would test the limit on my credit cards in years to come and those of many of our friends. Not tonight however. The list could go on and in our future visits to Paris we will happily stroll down both sides of the avenue and that is the only real way to gain full appreciation of this most famous and beloved of avenues. Yes, we also did it in the Paris rain. When the coach finally reaches the end of the Champs Elysees, it is the sight of this particular location that really captures my imagination. For the first time in my life I am on the Place de la Concorde, the largest and most famous square in all of Paris. On being there it evokes any amount of remembrances from your knowledge of it and in your imagination. It is the site of the most infamous events of the French Revolution, scene of the execution of Louis XV and Marie Antionette amongst hundreds of other lesser luminaries. My interest is in the more recent history of Paris so in my mind I can visualise the fighting in this Place towards the end of the war as Paris is finally liberated in August 1944. The square was then most certainly not a place to find yourself in as the cornered Germans were harassed and shot down as they vacated the Hotel Meurice and their other occupied headquarters of Central Paris, their occupation signposts in Germanic script ready to be torn down. How this Place makes your mind race as you take in the entire scene around you. At last, the coach comes to a halt adjacent to the fountains facing down towards the Tuilleries Gardens that are now firmly in darkness and at this time of night looking uninviting. These Gardens would for us become one of our most favourite spots in France, but that will be for another future day. Towering up in front of us as we step from the coach is the giant Egyptian obelisk brightly decorated in hieroglyphics that glorifies the reign of the Pharaoh Ramesses II, a treasure originally located in Luxor and given over to France in the 19th Century. A truly fabulous monument. Once outside on the Place we can examine at close hand some objects and sites that we have only seen previously in books and photos. That surely has to be the great joy of travel, to see such familiar yet never seen before objects and places. What we are seeing on this first evening I am certain will be for many people reading this just familiar and routine but just like any place or object seen for the very first time there is no naivety here on this night but only wonder. These sights and sounds I am happy to say will never appear as mundane but will still give a thrill for us to see over and over again. Certainly the children are in wonderment and I have to admit so am I. However, I do sadly totally despair at the sight of the odd one or two of my fellow travellers who simply view this majestic place as just another cigarette break and the only fleeting pleasure they are interested in is lit up between their lips. There is no point wasting any informative lecture on the wondrous sights obliviously shining down on them far more brightly than any cigarette. Much too soon we are ushered back on to the coach but this is not to be for very long. Crossing the Pont de la Concorde it is to the left that we catch sight downriver of Notre Dame, the historic Cathedral that is all splendidly lit up on the evening skyline of the islands. As the coach speeds away across the river we just have time to take in this section of the River Seine from its banks, night-time reflections of the bustling cafés and restaurants that sit alongside the water shining back at us from the shimmering river.
Now it is time for us to catch sight of the truly recognizable sight that signifies Paris and a ‘wow’ comes not just from the mouths of the children but also from most of the adults as Gustave Eiffel’s most famous and crazy creation comes into our view. The famous tower is a structure that was conceived as a temporary exhibit for the 1889 Paris World Fair but is of course still here dominating the Paris skyline. All brightly lit up now and very soon the tower will be sparkling and twinkling in the clear night sky, the sight of this monument is a fabulous and unforgettable first viewing. We get out of the coach and are able to sit at the top of the Champs de Mars, joining in with countless others reclining on the dry grass as they come to the end of an evening’s picnic (with wine), the temperature is still pleasantly warm and we gaze in wonder at this structure and all present agree it is breathtakingly impressive to see this in reality and not merely in photographs or film. Thankfully, once again that initial wonder for us will be retained for future visits. Our children are so excited at this view that they make many attempts to record this spectacular photo opportunity shining in front of their eyes. Sadly, in those pre digital camera days I am afraid they will be rather unsuccessful but it will be two more weeks before we eventually find only grainy unfocused images emerging from the exposed reel of film. Camera technology has advanced so much now that even from the tiny camera on our phone we can expect a quality souvenir ready for immediate posting to our friends on Instagram. So, frustratingly it must be that we live on our memories this first time around. The radiant looming Tower draws you in and quite a few from our coach, ourselves included, move closer to it down the Champs de Mars approach but it is unfortunately the catchphrase of Marty Feldman from that incredibly funny ‘Lightning Tours’ sketch from the late 60’s that gets us scurrying in reverse. ‘Everybody back on the coach.’ Then a chorus of ‘Wait for me’. It does feels like a lightning tour and indeed it is but perhaps no bad thing for that as it really whets the appetite for a return trip although I think not for the smokers who apparently are merely content to smoke anywhere and have seen nothing to interest them further. On y va, off we go, there are many more delights to see but there are more grumblings on the coach that someone had wasted most of a lighted cigarette having tried to cram a whole packet worth of smokes into a 15 minute stop.
The difficulty and certainly regret that comes with writing in hindsight is surely that at the time of experiencing your travel have no conception about the future. If you possibly had such a gift then you would not only be able to let your imagination run wild about past events in Paris but you would be able to realize that the places you are now seeing on this night would shortly become more famous and would be marked indelibly in history. Tragically, some of these views would be historic in a very short space of time. One of these places the coach is crossing over now, the Pont de l’Alma. This evening in June 1997 it stands as a merely commemoratively important bridge recalling the Battle of Alma in the Crimean war of 1854 where a rare Franco/British collaboration brought them victory. In just two short months Princess Diana would meet with tragedy in the adjacent Alma Tunnel but a thought of such appalling magnitude could not even be speculated about on this night. We would as a family a couple of years later travel back to Paris by Eurostar and my French by then was sufficiently good enough to decipher a metro announcement that indicated that it would be in our interest to leave the train at the next station and change routes. This next stop turned out to be the Pont de l’Alma station. Emerging from the platform below the first sight for us was the Flame of Liberty statue completely encased with tributes, mainly floral, but of every possible type and significance to the person that was using this spot as a place to be remembering Princess Diana. It was quite a poignant sight and especially as I reflected that we had passed by that very spot so very shortly before that dreadfully sad historic event.