Cara Lutetia

Trip Start Jul 13, 2007
Trip End Jul 2008

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Flag of France  ,
Sunday, March 30, 2008

"Cara Lutetia"....The words of Julian Caesar (362AD) referring to Dear Paris as it was in his day.  Describing this locale in endearing terms the Roman Emporer was taken at his word.  Paris has been highly sought out ever since.  Lauded over the ages by young and old alike we wonder what superlatives we can add to describe this mecca of lovers, artists, and tourists alike?  The epicenter of luxury goods, haute couture, and exquisite cuisine it always has and always will always attract the rich and famous.  And they will in turn attract the rest of us who may try in vain to see it all.  Alas, it is impossible! It is easily the most beautiful city in the world and perhaps the most tourist savvy.  The 1950s campaign to promote it as the city of love with classy photos of   lovers kissing was a roaring success and the Robert Doisneau images disseminated all those years ago are still in the minds of the general public today.  There are dozens of kissy faces everywhere you turn.  Amusing to some, and simply disgusting to anyone under 14
We prepared ourselves by reading the requisite travel books but also by reading Victor Hugo.  If anyone ever owned Paris, it was most certainly this man. He was indeed a captivating writer, influencing the likes of Charles Dickens and Fyodor Dostoevsky among others.  But on top of his eloquent fiction he was an active statesman and philanthropist making him perhaps the most beloved Frenchman in modern history.   He is so revered it is unlikely one can find a town anywhere in the country without a street dedicated to him.  When he died there was a cortege of 500,000 people and literally millions of mourners lining the streets.  When we learned that it was his novel "Le Notre Dame de Paris" (Hunchback of Notre Dame) that saved the magnificent cathedral from demolition, we were compelled to read it.  Naturally we were drawn to the site and not just once.  It is officially the heart of the city. France's "Point Zero" is right out front marking the reference point for distances along roads commencing in Paris. During various visits we were able to climb the tower to see where Quasi-Modo lived and visit all those fabulous gargoyles; see a Gregorian chant concert; and view the pride of the church: a purported remnant of the Holy Crown of Thorns.  In the court out front there is always the free entertainment in the form of fire-throwers, jugglers, buskers, and a never ending stream of maudlin gypsies who will begin their petition with "Do you speak English?"  If you say yes they will enter your personal space in a rush to convince you that your money is their money.  Lesson learned - speak French to strangers.
We had many people ask us what do you do with kids in Paris?  Aside from our dates with La Dame we spent a good portion of time sussing out the city's many parks.  They are plentiful and expansive so that you feel you may escape the hustle and bustle whenever you wish.  We enjoyed the 63 acre patch known as the Tuileries for its trampolines and view of the Louvre. Also, an excellent place for a morning jog.  We loved the Jardin de Luxembourg (55 acres) for its outstanding playground, toyboat pond, pony rides, carousels, and puppet theatre.  Of course, there is a beautiful palace thrown in for good measure and plenty of coiffed greenery to tickle the gardener'e eye. It is the place to be on a sunny Sunday afternoon and most certainly the favourite locale of at least four of our troupe. 
The children were able to appreciate Paris in their own ways.  Even Eze, now two and a half years old was happy to go along with any plan and seemed satisfied with the environs.  On the occasions when he did misbehave we warned him "You are in big trouble, mon petit!"  It was not long before he deftly replied "I am NOT in trouble - I am in Paris!"  What could we say to that?
Of course, it is impossible to go to Paris without seeing the Eiffel tower.  It is perhaps the most recognizable icon in the world, and an architectural wonder in its own right.  It has been adored by mathematicians who have poured over scads of equations to describe its beauty.   It is alluring and larger than life but it is not, to our eye, a place which reflects the spirit of Paris. In fact it may display the opposite.  It is home to of the most tacky and overpriced souvenirs ever known to the French kind. (red, white and blue stuffed fun-fur towers anyone???)  In any case, it is worth a visit and a schmoochy photo at the very least. 
But who is to say what exactly is the spirit if Paris?  Do you want sport? There is of course the Stade Francaise where our boys were able to see the national rugby team in action against Ireland, and England.   How about history? There is the Latin Quartier where one may discover Roman Gallo-Roman Baths from the 3rd century, and fawn over the medieval architecture, tapestries, and relics, as well as the Sorbonne which fostered famous minds such as Descartes, Rousseau and Hugo.   On top of all that there is a labyrinth of ancient alleys bustling with every race and creed poking in and out of antiquated bookshops, bistros and boutiques.  Of course fine dining deserves a mention and the list of establishments is exhaustive.  But thanks to a dear friend who escorted Isaac and Rosie to some cooking lessons with Chef Olivier in the Marais some of us now know in part just why the French meal is so superb.   Is shopping your goal?  Get thee to Les Galeries Lafayette - the most beautiful department store on the planet.  Theatre?...Opera?... Jazz?...Nightlife?  You name it - you can find it here. 
Once again we asked ourselves in the middle of this huge city, "Is it a small world after all?"  One fine Friday afternoon around 12:30 we went to see le Place Des Vosges, a beautiful sun dappled square upon which Victor Hugo would gaze between creative spells from his nearby apartments.  We began to picnic in the northeast corner but soon realized the southeast had a playground and would suit us better.  We moved, the kids played, and we enjoyed the space for an hour and a half.  We decided to mosey up some little streets towards home with one particular shop in mind.  Fragonard - a tiny little branch of the parfumerie we had visited in Provence.  We stopped, we shopped, and went on our way.  Little did we know...our Vancouver neighbors Mary and Georgia were at le Place Des Vosges just around 1:00pm, and in the northeast corner no less...after an hour or so they moseyed up to one particular shop they had in mind - yes you guessed it - Fragonard. They stopped, they shopped, unwittingly in our wake.  While we all knew we would meet the next day, who knew we were on such ridiculously similar paths that sunny afternoon.  What fun it was to discover the coincidence over brunch the next day.
When we were struck by urban overload we took daytrips to see what lay beyond.  Paris Disneyland was a must do for 4 out of 6.  On less commercial jaunts we enjoyed Chantilly, the world's largest horse stables; and the Sunday morning market in the northern suburb of St. Denis.  If you want the deal of the century, there is the marche for you.  Of all our side trips though, Versailles was the most impressive.  The palace itself is predictably ostentatious and overstated but it is the gardens that are a joy to explore.  We lapped up four hours of afternoon sun in Marie Antoinette's rustic retreat and reveled in the pastoral beauty.  Planned and prepared to the tee by her staff of architects, landscapers and artists, this place more than any other is the epitome of idyllic. A hamlet which would inspire poetry.  From there we carried on to the Grand Canal.  It is this spot where Marie Antoinette sat with her friends on her 21st birthday to watch the sun rise and reflect on the water's surface.  In memory of her we sat noshing on Ladurée Caramel Macarons (read food of the Gods) and watched the swans take flight.  It was a stellar moment to be sure. 
In sum, Paris and vicinity is in and of itself superlative.  It was a month of magic to be there buzzing amongst the locals and drinking in juste un petit peu of what it has to offer.  It has more facets than a diamond and will never stop changing. Ten million hearts call it home, and each one has a rich story to tell.  We met a man in Montmartre.  Gaston was old and weathered and he had no legs.  He had no family.  No riches.  He busied himself with the craft of winding chenille rope around wire animals which he sold as souvenirs.  And he warmed himself with a stole of mirth.  He sang a cheerful song (Champs des Elysees) and stirred up all vestiges of happiness that passersby, including ourselves, had stored inside.  He was not in trouble....  He was in Paris! 

We leave this city richer for having seen it and mindful that "joie de vivre" is a choice.  As we head out into a light rain towards Charles de Gaulle airport, we wave goodbye to the streets behind us.  Au revoir Paris.  You are indeed a city of marvels.  Et au revoir Europe.  It is time for us to set upon the place where our whole life began...
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