The stones of the Left Bank are the bones of a bygone Paris.
The streets are narrow, the buildings jammed together and every turn seems to reveal another historical plaque or call out from a half-forgotten past.
At the same time, though, those bones are fleshed out in the most modern style imaginable. Inside a door framed by 19th century stone, shoppers can find up-to-date fashions in expansive rooms that feature just a few items. And along the walk from the massive Church of St. Sulpice to the Seine, those same old buildings house the most modern of art in a long stretch of galleries.
The contrast is sometimes jarring, but also revealing in a most fundamental way. Despite streets designed for pedestrians and wagons, cars, bicycles and motorbikes scoot by, intent on errands that must be completed by 21st century deadlines. And even though the Left Bank is built on a much more human scale than the big cities of America, it still must find a way to accommodate a world that no longer lives on 19th century time.
At the same time, the hotels and restaurants are filled with tourists, here to savor the one-time glory that was France, and its present-day devotion to good food and the good life. The Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay are in walking distance of St. Sulpice, and even the Eiffel Tower is only 30 minutes away for a determined pedestrian.
In short, there’s not really a better place to be for short-time tourists like Maggi and me. Our hotel was across the street – well, if you consider 10 feet a street – from St. Sulpice, and during our three days, we walked everywhere. Our broken knees did not thank us, but our immersion in the Left Bank was complete.
Of course we walked by other tourists, but we also dodged bicycles ridden by women off to work in stylish dresses, ducked under ladders to fifth-floor walkups that were unloading luggage for a departing renter, and dropped in to cafés for rest and revival.
And yes, French food and wine really are that good. From the gazpacho and croque artichaut at Le Comptoir du Relais to the excellent wine everywhere to the incredible pastries at the Louvre, the meals and snacks were exceptional. (And I bought a pre-packaged sandwich from something very like a 7-Eleven at the airport the morning we left – and it was so good. Even the fast food is delicious in France …)
And speaking of the Louvre, we spent six frustrating and exhilarating hours at the massive museum on the last day of our trip. We were beaten down by 10 days of walking and sightseeing in London, York and Paris, but we refused to give in. I wanted to see Hammurabi’s Code of Laws, and when Maggi’s first picture of “Joan of Arc at the Coronation of Charles VII” didn’t work, we were determined to find it again.
Nothing about the Louvre, however, is simple. The lines to get in, even with an assigned time, are lengthy, the bathrooms are few and small, and the museum itself is a maze of rooms that guarantee confusion, back-tracking and far more stairs than even young legs are excited about climbing.
And the “Mona Lisa” is, frankly, better viewed in an art book or on line than in person. The surprisingly small painting is protected by a large semicircular wooden barrier that keeps viewers 10 feet away – but those viewers also must stand in a Disneyland-like line that snakes its way for 30 minutes before they are rushed past a wonderful work that, for no apparent reason, is considered the best painting in the world.
The rest of the Louvre, however, is spectacular. Even getting lost is bearable because there is room after room of wonderful art, sculpture and classical artifacts. There are 4,000-year-old pieces of jewelry, superb Dutch paintings and Greek and Roman relics that show just how much those long-ago people were just like us.
The Musee D’Orsay is much more approachable, and its emphasis on late 19th century and early 20th French art resonates more with our modern tastes. It is significantly smaller than the Louvre and much less crowded, even for the rooms filled with Monets, Manets and the other big names of Impressionism.
We made a couple of other tourist stops – the Eiffel Tower, and the Cluny Museum – but otherwise we found our way to cafés and restaurants (one with live music) and rested our weary bones after a long day, and a long vacation.
And you know, even though Paris is filled with life and energy, the stones of the Left Bank looked a little weary too. They’ve been the bones for centuries of history and will serve for centuries more, but even though they don’t deliver the right angles and polished steel we’ve come to expect in a world capital, they are an integral part of the Parisian experience.
And really, what does it matter how narrow the streets are?