Paris was a two-day stopover for my wife and I in 1973 while returning from Germany. I had learnt that airports in the major cities had a desk, manned by persons who would be willing to help transiting visitors like us find inexpensive accommodation and provide information about transportation and sightseeing options available. I was eager to stay near the Sorbonne University, known to me only by its reputation. The people at the information counter did not disappoint and we were directed to an excellent lodge on the Left Bank area of Paris in the Latin Quarter. I had heard the expressions, Left Bank and Latin Quarter, but had only the vaguest idea of what they meant.
Paris is divided by the river Seine, and the designation Left Bank is with reference to the river. An area here, dominated by the Sorbonne, is called the Latin Quarter, and it used to be occupied mainly by students and intellectuals. This used to be the site of various student protests and social uprisings. When I opted to be lodged in the Latin Quarter, I probably wanted to recreate in my mind the Bohemian ambience of Paris, evoking the names of Sartre, Camus and Beckett. Our lodge was close to the Boulevard Saint-Germain and a Metro station. As I learned later, most places in Paris had a Metro station.
In Paris I followed my time-tested practice while visiting a new place in India or abroad, of roaming around by foot as much as possible and using public transport when necessary. I have found this to be more rewarding than availing of formal conducted tours. Walking towards the right on Boulevard Saint-Germain, parallel to the Seine, took me to the vicinity of the Luxembourg Gardens, or the Jardin du Luxembourg. Several departments of the Sorbonne are also in this vicinity. A short walk further took me to the Fontaine Saint-Michel, an iconic fountain. From some point near here I could have a view of the spires of the Notre Dame Cathedral on the other side of the river. I visited the cathedral the next day by another route. Another memory that I retain of the bylanes of the Latin Quarter is that of wayside food stalls with a mind-boggling assortment of bakery items and crowds of unkempt youngsters.
In the night we decided to explore the night life of the city. The Metro was of course the chosen mode of transport. The Paris Metro is a wonderful thing,
easy to master. With the help of a map one can go to any part of the city and it does not cost you anything to walk around and soak in the ambience of the place. Remember, the journey is more important than the destination.
The Metro is a crowded place and on the very first outing, and my pocket was picked. No great loss; only a small diary was lost. Our destination was Montmartre. This is the territory that people have in mind when they talk about wicked, glamorous and fun-loving Paris. As the name implies (“Mont…“) this is a small hill with a white church on the top. The main street, Boulevard Clichy, is filled with clubs and bars including the night club, Moulin Rouge. We walked through the area, did some ‘window shopping’, so to say, and exited safely. We must have eaten some food in one of the many eateries there. French cuisine is justly famous but not readily accessible to the likes of us with limited cash to spend. The taste that lingers even today in my palate is that of the Turkish coffee we had in some place there. The thick brown, sour-sweet brew is unforgettable.
On Day 2 we decided to do some serious sightseeing, using the Metro, unguided. The first stop was the Eiffel Tower, which was on the same side of the river as our lodge. We went up the tower by lift. The panoramic view from the top was stunning.
After the tower, our destination was the Louvre Museum. We covered the distance by walking along the Seine and then went by boat. A boat-ride on the Seine, even for a short distance, is an experience to cherish. We had allotted one hour for the museum which, as it turned out, was far too short. It should have been at least one day, which we did not have. I remember standing gazing at the most famous occupant of the Louvre, Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, and many others, some of whom I recognised at least by name. We were intrigued to see many enthusiasts sitting all over the place, sketching.
From the museum we moved over to the Notre Dame Cathedral, also partly by walk and partly by public transport. My familiarity with the cathedral was through Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, an abridged version of which I had read. I had also seen in parts, the movie based on the book. The cathedral was impressive, both inside and outside. The famous gargoyles are visible from the outside. These are grotesque figures, but are actually drain pipes meant to channel rain water.
The evening of our last day in Paris was reserved for the Champs-Elysees, the famous street in the heart of Paris. This is a broad pedestrian boulevard with the Place de la Concorde at one end and the Arc de Triomphe at the other. We walked the full length of the road, about 2 km, before returning to our lodge to prepare for our flight back.
It is true that we missed many things worth seeing in Paris. But we do believe that our brief, unplanned and essentially unguided visit to the city was highly rewarding, and we said au revoir to France with a feeling of satisfaction.
It is of course a thought how different, yet essentially the same in terms of its broad physical contours and its socio-cultural milieu, the French capital will be today, all of forty-five years later.