Published: July 8th 2008July 8th 2008
We got down at the Charles de Gaulle - Etoile station and stepped out to be bowled over yet again by history, the Arc de Triomphe. The 164-foot Arc de Triomphe commissioned by Emperor Napoléon in 1806 evokes sheer military power and triumph. It was built in an age when leaders erected monuments in their own honor, to boost their egos. The arch's beautiful sculptures commemorate Napoléon's generals and soldiers. As I stood on the equally grandiose Avenue des Champs-Elysées, the most prestigious and broadest avenue in the world, I couldn’t help but feel grand myself. On my one side was, Arc de Triomphe and the other, Place de la Concorde. I was caught between both, unable to decide which side to linger my gaze upon.
The Champs-Élysées is known in France as La plus belle avenue du monde (The most beautiful avenue in the world). The avenue runs for 2 km, from the Place de la Concorde in the east, to the Arc de Triomphe in the west. The eastern part of the Champs-Élysées is bordered by greenery and palatial buildings. The western side adds to the glamour with brightly lit shopping arcades, the Lido cabaret, cafés, restaurants, bars,
dominated by the famous Fouquet's high-class bar and restaurant, plenty of cinemas and outrageously priced luxury specialty shops. The avenue is considered a very fashionable place to walk.
Haute couture is at its peak here. I passed Cartier, Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, Versace and much classier, trendy designer boutiques. French women stood out from the tourists. I found French women to be very delicate, chic and sophisticated. Clothes in France were stylish and colorful, without being gaudy. All kinds of American brands could be found. I saw Gap, Guess, Disney Store and even a Mac Donald’s. While Disney store in Crossgates Mall was shutting down, its Paris counterpart was doing a roaring business. Kids walked on Champs-Élysées clutching on to Minnie Mouse and hugging Winnie the Pooh. Moms bought Disney beach towels and sweatshirts, while the dads nodded in approval.
Everyone is in love, in Paris. On the banks of the Seine River, in the numerous Jardines (gardens) of Paris, on Champs de Elysees, lovers embraced in passionate hugs and intimate kisses. It was absolutely delightful to watch them and always brought a smile to my lips. Their love was wholesome and unconditional. It was not
at all vulgar as it felt to me in the States, where couples kissed with lust in public, their tongues sliming down each others throat with the main purpose of tasting each other’s dinner. The original French kiss was sweet!
I strolled along what I considered the most beautiful walk in history; people watching and window shopping, pausing now and then to sit on the benches to let everything sink in. Rajesh hurried as though he was late for a Geneva meet, but was forced to slow down his pace and be more compatible with mine. We stopped to buy something sweet at Ladurée, a luxury cakes and pastries tea shop. I was amused that they had a dessert called ‘French kiss’ and I absolutely had to have it. As we neared Place de la Concorde, embassies lined the avenue, ending with the US embassy in prime position on the corner. Wooohoooooo!!!
The octagonal Place de la Concorde, situated along the Seine is the largest square in Paris. During the French Revolution, it became the Place de la Révolution and held in its center the guillotine that executed Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette. The place today maintains the general
appearance that it had in the 18th century. I stood there near the stone that said in French that Marie Antoinette was executed at this spot and recalled the events in history that led to her death.
In 1789 a mob descended on the Chateau de Versailles and demanded that the royal family move to the Tuilerie Palace inside Paris. From that point on the King and Queen were virtual prisoners. Marie Antoinette sought aid from other European rulers including her brother, the Austrian Emperor, and her sister, the Queen of Naples. When Austria and Prussia declared war on France, she was accused of passing military secrets to the enemy. In 1792 the royal family was arrested on suspicion of treason. In 1793 King Louis XVI was convicted and executed on the guillotine. Marie Antoinette followed her husband to the guillotine a few months later, without proof of the crimes for which she was accused. She was only 37 years old. Very sad!
We strolled through The Jardin des Tuileries, which was one of the first parks to open to the public and it quickly became a place to see and be seen. Even in the 18th century
the park featured amenities such as cafes, kiosks, deck chairs and public toilets. It has several beautiful fountains, large basins, numerous sculptures and two museums, one of them, the Musée de l'Orangerie, displays Monet's large water lily paintings.
Feeling hungry, but rejuvenated, we decided to eat dinner before heading back to our hotel. Not knowing where to go or what to eat, we got down at Hotel de Ville (The City Hall of Paris) station. Rajesh suggested going near the Nordstorm. Puzzled for a minute, I realized that he meant the Notre Dame. LOL. But we walked in the opposite direction and found ourselves in front of the Centre de Pompidou, a museum that housed modern art. It was a very ugly structure, but I had read that next to the Louvre and the Orsay, it was the highly visited museum.
Rajesh asked a local for directions to the ‘Nordstorm’ and I had to correct him yet again; he just couldn’t get the American store out of his mind. I was thrilled to see the beautiful structure for the third time. We walked around browsing at the souvenir shops and I bought Paris T-shirts for the kids. A
chatty Indian guy approached us and enquired if we were from India and if so what part. We chatted with him and learnt that he was from Pondicherry, just married and a tourist guide, mainly for Indians. He was responsible for taking around a lot of Indian film industry celebrities who visited Paris; and he named a few big shots. Interesting!
We wandered behind the Notre Dame into the narrow old streets and quirky little alleys discovering yet another Paris. We stumbled upon an alley filled with cafes, bistros and bars selling all kinds of food - French, Italian, Greek, Oriental and what not. There were a couple of cabaret joints where women were actually dancing within view of the street. We passed another bar that looked like a Victoria Secret place where lacy lingerie was hung all over the bar. Kids with their parents strolled down the street and I wanted to shut their eyes. The street was filled with jaunty French music and the ambience was totally inviting.
The Maitre de’s stood outside the bars and restaurants joking in French and inviting people to walk in and try their menus. I found broken plates in front
of one restaurant and paused. My civic sense having lived in the US, wanted to let the restaurant people know. But, I was caught unaware, startled by a waiter who appeared suddenly out of nowhere yelling “Gotcha!” in French and broke yet another plate in front of me, while the diners clapped and laughed at my shocked face. The French and their sense of humor!
We picked a cozy little French bistro and sat down for a relaxing dinner. It had been a long day; we had walked a lot and absorbed a lot of French history. We ordered wine and hot French onion soup and entrees with poulet something or the other and Rajesh ate Caviar on toast. I did not even attempt to sample those fish eggs, as even sushi is repulsive to me. I sniffed at the aroma of the soup and took my first sip. No wonder the soup is called French onion soup. Only the French knew how to make it right, the Americans should stop attempting to cook the crappy version. It was absolutely delicious and went well with French baguettes. The menu had frog’s legs, which is a delicacy in France. But
neither of us was that adventurous!
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