By Iris Samuels
A day in Paris is often measured by the sky. Clouds turn it melancholy and brooding, force you into a state of contemplation that brings to mind Rodin’s statue of the Thinker. A blue-skied day, on the other hand, nudges you into constant delight; turns you giddy at the mere opportunity to walk the age-old sidewalks and soak in the city’s timeless glamour.
The perfect day to wander Paris begins with the sun. Awake early on a clear March day to breath in the smell of freshly-baked croissants wafting out of just-opened boulangeries; watch the sun paint the streets, touching first the rooftops and slowly progressing to paint the rest of the buildings. In a single run, you can cover hundreds of years of French history. The Louvre brings you back to the Middle Ages, when it was home to French royalty. The Notre-Dame de Paris Cathedral was completed in the 14th century. But the runners are pure 21st century, with their brand name shoes and headphones. As a runner, you can almost forget you are a tourist – there is no distinguishing between the sweat of an awe-struck foreigner and that of a jaded local.
Running or jogging is perhaps the only way to earn the rights to the best French culinary delights. After a run, a croissant is not a sin, but a necessity. Finding the best croissant in Paris is quite the challenge, considering the city has hundreds of patisseries. But those served in the Grand Pigalle Hotel in the ninth arrondissement are pretty close to perfection. They come from the neighboring Le Pétrin Médiéval patisserie. Order a cappuccino and dip the croissant into the delicate ceramic cup, while staring at the awakening city along Rue Victor Massé. This neighborhood is filled with the aesthetic pleasures of the bohemian bourgeoisie, who often dress up even when they are just walking their dogs.
Following this luxurious breakfast, head down to the Saint Georges metro station and ride to the Solférino station. Emerge onto the bustling Boulevard Saint Germain and make a turn onto Rue de Bellechasse. Musée d’Orsay, site of the best impressionist collection in the world, makes an appearance under the dazzlingly blue sky. This building once held a train station, and still bears large clocks on its exterior façade. Get in line along with a mixture of Parisians and foreigners, all eager to explore the art within. If you arrive early, you will have the luxury of exploring the halls when they are relatively empty. This popular museum fills quickly, but even when the galleries are bustling, they retain their charm.
If you are lucky, the museum will feature one of its rotating curated exhibits, which bring together art from across the world. On this particular day, an exhibit titled Beyond Stars: The Mystical Landscape fills the northern hall of the museum. Meander through the rooms to discover the connection between landscapes a spirituality, and end, fittingly, with a room entirely devoted to paintings of the sky. From Claude Monet to Georgia O’Keefe, this is a reminder of the pleasure of art museums – they tell us something about a world we dream to live in, one where aesthetics are the ruling force of nature, where delighting in small details, such as the color of the sky, is like a croissant after a run – never a sin, always a pleasure.
As the sun peaks in the sky, this is no time to remain indoors. Find a boulangerie along one of the side streets and select your favorites: quiche au fromage, pain aux noisettes, tarte au chocolat, flan de coco. Wander to the nearby Seine, where outdoor lunch spots abound. Taking a seat on the Pont des Arts will afford prime people watching: fashionable Parisians enjoying their dejeuner can be seen in anything from bell-bottom jeans to white floor-length frocks.
On the Right Bank, walk through the courtyards of the Louvre. As the sun streams through the glass pyramid, the museum’s shadowy indoor halls do not beckon, but its archways offer free classical music by violinists who just might be the city orchestra’s soloists in a few years. Offer them a few spare coins in exchange for a personalized performance of your favorite composers. In this moment, you are like the royalty who once inhabited this palace – master of all, ruled by none.
The famous glass-and-steel pyramid that has now become a symbol of the grand museum was once the topic of hot political and aesthetic debate. It is a beacon of modernity inside the court of classic French style. Does it steal the limelight away from the quintessential French architecture, or perhaps does it cast it in a newly amplified limelight? Pause to watch other tourists take photos with their hands posed to mimic holding the pyramid in their hands, or perhaps leaning against their palms. Many of these visitors can no longer divorce the old from the new. To them, they are fused together, a legacy of paupers and princes.
Wander up through the bustling streets of the first arrondissement. For an afternoon coffee, stop at the ZA, where your order will literally zoom to you on an electronic line. Located at the site of Les Halles, formerly the fresh food market of Paris, this trendy place brings together young Parisians for cheap coffee. Here is another reminder that Paris isn’t just a collection of old buildings: it is forever changing, a mass of glass and steel, of marble and human minds, a bustling hive of musicians and bankers and thinkers and losers. There are just as many beggars as there are street musicians. But an afternoon coffee always seems to accentuate the beauty of sunrays on soot-covered rooftops.
Back on the Left Bank, if you walk long enough along Boulevard Saint Michel you will reach Jardin du Luxembourg, where the setting sun turns the sky a pastel shade of pink. Children push around boats in the pool located in front of the Senate building. No glass, no steel. Some pastimes never get old – even with an iphone in your back pocket, the age-old pleasure of wooden stick against miniature vessel, of the French ship racing against the American one in a contest that has no stakes, never diminishes.
A day in Paris is often measured by the sky. Hold your breath as the sun dips into the space between Tour Montparnasse and Tour Eiffel. In this moment, Paris is everything you could ever hope for: brutally modern, and hopelessly romantic.