Cole Porter’s jaunty song, I Love Paris in the Springtime, came to mind as I strolled along Avenue des Champs-Elysees, Paris’ signature thoroughfare. It was early spring, the weather was still cool, and a pale sun shone as I savored the sights and sounds of a great European city pulsating with vitality.
I had been in Paris twice before, in 1967 en route to Israel and again in 1978 on my way to Egypt. These visits were little more than fleeting stopovers. But now, in Paris for a few days, I could finally begin to discover its magic.
I arrived at Charles de Gaulle Airport on a cloudy morning, and reached the Cayre Hotel — a smart four-star hostelry in the center of town — at around 9:30 a.m. Unable to check into my room until noon, I took the reception desk clerk’s advice and walked a short distance to my first destination, the Musee d’Orsay.
Housed in a Belle Epoch railway station at rue de Bellechasee, it’s a fabulous trove of 19th century art featuring the works of masters from Edouard Manet, Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Paul Gaugin to Edgar Degas, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Cezanne and Camille Pissarro. A few of the paintings were absolutely stunning — Degas’ Nude after a Bath, Monet’s Saint-Lazare Train Station, Van Gogh’s In the Garden of Dr. Gauchet and Cezanne’s Two Men Playing Cards.
I then headed to the Musee du Louvre. Walking across a bridge spanning the Seine River, I stopped in the middle to gaze at a gentle vista of barges and houseboats at anchor, a peaceful scene that might well have been painted by Cezanne or Monet.
The Louvre is vast, containing about 6,000 paintings and an assortment of archaeological exhibits.
After climbing an elaborate staircase, I turned right and found myself in the company of an Egyptian mummy. His torso was blackened and his kinky hair clung to his scalp. The piece de resistance lay just ahead, in a high ceilinged airy space festooned with the outsized paintings of an Italian master, Paolo Veronese.
At the other end of the huge, congested exhibition hall, I feasted my eyes on Leonardo da Vinci’s inimitable work, Mona Lisa. Encased in glass and roped off from the crowds, da Vinci’s opus was far smaller than I had imagined. Try as I might, I could not decide whether she was smiling or frowning. To me, she will always remain an enduring enigma.
The following day, I visited the iconic Arc de Triomphe, where 12 grand avenues converge. Commissioned by Napoleon Bonaparte to commemorate his military victories, it was finished in 1836, and is Paris’ most famous landmark after the Eiffel Tower.
Successive armies have marched past the Arc de Triomphe: The Prussians in 1871, the Allies in 1919, the Germans in 1940 and the Allies in 1944. Walking through a subterranean passageway, I reached the base, where a high-speed elevator whisked me to the top, to a platform that offered a stunning view of Paris.
On another day, I left my hotel on Boulevard Raspail, in the heart of the St. Germaine district, and started walking. A stylized statue of Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish army captain who was unjustly accused in 1894 of being a German spy, caught my eye. Dreyfus, after being stripped of his rank, was sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island, a remote penal colony off the coast of South America. He was eventually released, exonerated and pardoned, but the Dreyfus affair divided and rocked France to its very foundations.
There was more to Boulevard Raspail than Dreyfus. Like many thoroughfares in this cosmopolitan city, it was dotted with cozy cafes, brasseries and restaurants, all attesting to the sybaritic French preoccupation with fine food and drink.
Exercising my epicurean impulses, I dropped in on two luxury food shops, Fauchon and Hediard, both on Place de la Madeleine, where the decor and delicacies are second to none. I left with several jars of French jam, a jar of purple Greek olives, a few tins of Portuguese sardines and Dutch herring, packages of German smoked turkey and French cheese and a crusty Parisian baguette.
I also enjoyed the ambience of Place des Vosges, a 17th century square of stylish antique shops, art galleries and cafes framed by charming arcades. It is easily one of the most enchanting places in Paris.
On my last afternoon, I roamed through the Pletzl in the Marais, a traditional Jewish neighborhood of narrow streets, quaint buildings, synagogues, cafes, restaurants, delis, bakeries and boutiques. A desirable residential district before the 1789 revolution, the Marais fell on hard times as it degenerated into seediness.
During the 19th century, Jewish immigrants settled on streets like rue des Rosiers, rue des Ecouffes and rue des Hospitalieres-St. Gervais. In the past two decades, gentrification has set in, and today the Marais is trendy and fashionable.
Until a few years ago, the best known Jewish restaurant here was Jo Goldenberg, which specialized in East European food. But it has since been converted into a boutique.
Like any other city, Paris is always changing, but its magical essence remains wonderfully intact.