You’re never alone in Paris. Wherever you go, you’ll see a familiar face.
Out of the corner of your eye, you can see Gene Kelly dancing in the streets, and didn’t you just catch a glimpse of Amélie’s face in that Montmartre apartment window? Wasn’t that Quasimodo behind the gargoyle on one of Notre Dame’s bell towers?
Cole Porter composed here. Claude Monet painted here. Ernest Hemingway wrote here. Lance Armstrong rode to his sixth Tour de France victory along the Champs d’Elysees.
No matter whether it’s your first visit, or your fiftieth, Paris is at once familiar and foreign. You’ve seen it – and heard it – before.
The City of Lights has a soundtrack. It’s Edith Piaf’s "La Vie en Rose," Charles Aznavour’s "Et Pourtant," and Jacques Brel’s "Ne Me Quitte Pas." Maurice Chevalier is forever singing "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" in Paris. And, if you close your eyes, you can see Leslie Caron and Gene Kelly dancing along the banks of the Seine to the strains of George Gershwin’s "It’s Very Clear."
I always begin my Parisian journeys in front of Notre Dame. Imbedded in the pavement in front of the cathedral made famous in Victor Hugo’s classic "Hunchback of Notre Dame" is a bronze disc. Known as the kilomètre zéro, it marks the point from which all distances from Paris are measured.
The cathedral is the latest in a series of sanctuaries built on the Ile de la Cité, an island in the middle of the Seine River. Here’s where Paris got its start when a Celtic tribe, the Parisii, settled here at an ancient trading crossroads.
Under the landscaped mall in front of the cathedral is a museum centered on the island’s ancient history. Among the finds highlighted in the Crypte Archéologique are remnants of earlier churches, ancient streets and ruins of Roman villas.
Notre Dame, of course, isn’t only the place where Quasimodo rang the bells for Mass. Countless novelists, including Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Simenon, have spun fictional scenes within its walls. This is where Napoléon grabbed the crown from Pope Pius VII and anointed himself as emperor of France in 1804.
It’s not easy to catch glimpses of Napoléon in Paris, but his ghost clearly inhabits the Hôtel National des Invalides. Originally built by Louis XIV in 1670 as a home for old soldiers, it’s now a massive complex including the Musée d’Armes (with its collection of military history and artifacts of war) – but also the final resting place of the little dictator. His remains were interred under the golden dome in 1861, forty years after his death in exile.
The place also served as a royal armory. Many of the guns used by the mob when it attacked the Bastille on July 14, 1789, were taken in a raid on les Invalides earlier that morning.
The French Revolution still haunts the city’s shadows. Although the infamous prison itself no longer exists (except for an outline on the ground at the Place de la Bastille), its ghosts – both the fictional and the historical ones – remain in Paris. I can hear echoes of Marie Antoinette’s fervent prayers as she takes Holy Communion at the Cathedral of Notre Dame before her imprisonment, and I always think of Charles Dickens’ "A Tale of Two Cities" as I walk past the Hôtel de Ville. Sidney Carton is forever proclaiming, "It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done…" as he mounts the steps to guillotine.
Both the Hôtel de Ville – Paris’ city hall – and the site of the Bastille are on Paris’ Rive Droite – the "right bank" as you follow the Seine to the sea.
Here, too, is the Louvre, the single-largest building in Paris. It’s impossible to spend too much time contemplating its fabled collections of fine and applied arts, but I always seem to find myself in the same place each visit, standing in front of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (along with the tourist hordes).
Since the publication of Dan Brown’s novel, "The Da Vinci Code," there are even more reasons to visit. In the opening scenes of the bestseller, Jacques Saunière’s body is discovered in the Louvre’s Denon Wing.
Across the street from the Louvre, I found some of the Arago plaques marking what Brown calls the "Rose Line" – one next to the Palais Royal and another next to la Comédie Française (founded in the 17th century by playwright Baptiste Molière). They delineate a longitudinal line first plotted in 1672 to be the "prime meridian." (It lost out to the one running through Greenwich, England.)
Following the "Rose Line" took me across the Seine to the Rive Gauche – the "left bank". Here I found another key location in "The Da Vinci Code," the 17th century Saint Sulpice Church (where the novel’s villain searches for the key to a heretical plot).
The neighborhood – Saint-Germain-des-Prés – includes elegant shops and residences. Sometimes I think I catch a glimpse of Catherine Deneuve – which might be true, because she lives here. But so did the Three Musketeers, the heroes of novels by Alexandre Dumas, and the 19th century novelist George Sand.
Every time I survey the multitude of boulangeries, cafés and bistros in Paris, I think of Ernest Hemingway – one of a generation of American expatriates drawn to Paris between the two world wars.
"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man," he wrote, "then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."
Picking up bread, cheese and wine and enjoying an impromptu picnic is a very Parisian way to enjoy a leisurely lunch. (I never forget to buy a half-dozen of Marcel Proust’s favorite madeleines for desert). The Jardins de Luxembourg is one of my favorite picnic destinations.
Another American expat, Gertrude Stein, had an apartment just around the corner from the gardens, at 27 rue de Fleurus. F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Sherwood Anderson and Ezra Pound also lived nearby.
Many of the cafés mentioned by the writers in their diaries and novels still attract tourists. Hemingway liked especially Closerie des Lilas on Boulevard de Montparnasse, although it’s hard to imagine him there now, hunched over a notebook. (You need a reservation for dinner far in advance these days.)
The "hot spots" shifted to Boulevard St. Germain after World War II. Café Flore and les Deux Magots (still going strong) were favorite haunts of Jean Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and James Baldwin.
Many of the writers found a "home away from home" at Shakespeare & Co., a combination bookstore/library/coffee house once located in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. I like to visit its current incarnation in the shadow of Notre Dame.
Fact and fiction are always mixed in Paris. Although he never drank there, a bar is named for Hemingway at the Ritz Paris, the luxurious hotel founded in 1898. It’s where the protagonist of "The Da Vinci Code" stays, but real-life guests have included Coco Chanel, the Prince of Wales and Elton John.
"Foucault’s Pendulum", a novel by Umberto Eco, drew me into the Musée du Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers. Foucault’s original pendulum still hangs from the apex of what used to be the nave of an abbey church and is now an out-of-the-way scientific museum in a technical college.
Views immortalized by the Impressionists are everywhere in Paris. In Montmartre, Renoir painted "Bal du Moulin de la Galette" in a garden on Avenue Junot, and the Van Gogh brothers, Theo and Vincent, lived at 54 rue Lepic. In 1877, Monet completed a series of seven paintings in the Gare Saint-Lazare.
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, in particular, immortalized Montmartre with his paintings of life in disreputable nightspots like the Moulin Rouge. Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, Vincent Van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec and Paul Cézanne all painted the Moulin de la Galette on rue Tholozé.
Montmartre is most familiar these days, though, as Amélie’s neighborhood. On my last visit to Paris, I found myself walking in the footsteps of the heroine of the 2001 movie known in French as "Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain." I sipped a café au lait at the Café des Deux Moulins, where the fictional Amélie works as a waitress, and ended the afternoon at Marché de la Butte, purchasing (as she did) exactly three hazelnuts and one fig.
Somehow, in Paris it’s easier to listen to fictional characters and ghosts. History is all around me, and if I keep my eyes wide open, I can see beyond the surface. In Paris, I know I’m never alone.