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Travels in France: Paris Day 1

Arnie Greenberg

We arrived by plane early in the morning. Trans-Atlantic flights leave late in the day and with the time difference, we lose six hours from Montreal. The shuttle into the city takes about an hour because of the traffic going into the city. It seems to get worse every year. I am on my yearly pilgrimage. I first came here in 1956.

The scenery is not at all interesting even though we will pass the Gothic Church at St Denis, once a major burial site. I promise to return one day. Drancy conjures up memories of transportation of Nazi victims. We pass quickly. As we enter within the periphery the city is buzzing with activity. We race across the city to our hotel near the Eiffel Tower. I am struck by its size and reputation. Built for the Universal Exhibit of 1899, the idea was to tear it down. Many thought it an eyesore. But sanity won out and not only did it remain but it is one of the great symbols of Paris. Every school child knows of its existence.

There is a story told about Guy de Maupassant, the French author who fought long and hard to have the tower torn down. He lost, of course. But one day soon after, a restaurant was built on top and the author was found by a member of the opposite, having dinner in the restaurant.

“For a man who worked so hard against this structures existence, I am surprised to see you here.” the gentleman remarked.

“This is the only place in Paris that I can sit without seeing this ugly thing,’ he replied.

I don’t think it’s ugly at all. It was new and different and I side with Picasso who once said of art, “The man who creates something news is bound to create something ugly.”

It was new at the time of De Maupassant and it took getting used to.

We unpacked, walked to the tower and went to the top on the efficient elevator. The view is awesome, partly because there is no other tall building around it. There are days when one can see the great cathedral at Chartres from the tower, a distance of 45 miles. At 274 meters or 899 feet it is like flying over the city. Below, the Champs de Mars and the Ecole Militaire seem s far away. Imagine, it was the tallest structure in the world until the Empire State Building was erected in 1931. 

Once on terra firma, we climbed into a flat bottom Bateau Mouche with a few hundred others and listened to a recorded guide in four different languages. The boat sails almost silently through the many bridges on the way to Ile St Louis. I won’t bore you with their names but I was surprised to learn that the oldest is called Pont Nouveau (new Bridge).

I was also pleased to see that the Napoleonic emblem The ‘N’ with the floral cluster around it was still there after almost 200 years. That’s as it should be. Napoleon was revered by the French people. After all, it was part of France’s glory years. History should be remembered.

From the base of the tower at Le Pont de l’Alma we take a taxi to the Notre Dame Cathedral. In front we discover a brass disk in the concrete pointing out Point Zero. All measurement in Paris or beyond is measured from this point. We wait our turn to take pictures. The cathedral has a long line up. We will return another day. But we do take a walk around this imposing relic and discover at the rear end of the island a memorial to deportees in France. We go below into the tomb-like memorial. It is stark, moving and worth the visit. I make note of the inscriptions and pay silent tribute.

Above, the Paris sky is a perfect blue. I am looking for that little boy with the Red Balloon I saw years ago in a film. Instead I find the bridge to the left bank and discover the most famous English bookstore in Paris. Now owned by a sullen old man named George Whitman, this store, originally in another location was started in the Twenties by Sylvia Beach. She operated it as a bookstore and lending library. Among her customers were Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and, of course, James Joyce. It was Sylvia who first published his ‘Ulysses’, which, at that time, was banned in the USA. Hundreds of expatriates used Sylvia’s services. They met each other, became friends and learned from each other. It is fitting that George has kept the Shakespeare & Co. going. Even though the building is nothing to write home about, the institution of Shakespeare & Co. as a meeting place of the literati is worth preserving. I introduce myself to George who invites me to look at Sylvia’s private collection. He stamps my Hemingway purchase ‘Kilometer Zero’ and I’m off to my next stop. It’s easy to find at #37 Rue de le Bucherie behind a beautiful water fountain, one of many in Paris, erected by a British Francophile named Richard Wallace. Of course the fountain is called ‘une Fontaine Wallace (pronounced VALLASS).

I have climbed the hill to the Pantheon dating back to 1773 as the neo-classical Sainte-Genevieve, inspired by the colonnaded dome of Christopher Wren’s St Paul’s Cathedral. I am taken with its size and the obsession the architect had with the excavations at Pompeii.

A tour of the building and are reminded of the greatness of those entombed there. The first was Honore Mirabeau. Robspierre, once there, was removed when he fell from grace. Voltaire as is Rousseau, Hugo and Emile Zola. Even the wartime Resistance leader, Jean

Moulin is there. The most impressive statue is to the writer Diderot. But there is just so much one can do on the first day with jet lag so we repair to the nearby Luxembourg Gardens where we have a picnic, feed the pigeons and watch the children play. Paris is alive with activity. The day is unfolding as it should.

A cold beer ‘en pression’ for me (draft beer) and a café crème for my wife suits the time and place. We head back along the Boul Miche to the Boul Montparnasse. Here the places I taught about, read about, dreamed about are stretched out before me. The first landmark I come to is le Closerie Des Lilas. This is a Hemingway hangout; just below rue Notre Dame des Champs the street where he once lived.

I continue to the corner of Boul Raspail and gaze into le Select and Le Coupole, hoping to see someone I know. I never do.  It is crowed with theatregoers, office workers or tourists looking for a place to ‘people watch’. The cafes are everywhere and can be traced back to 1686 when Le Procope was opened. But that is where we’ll have our dinner tonight, after a short rest.

I insist on a walk through the Montparnasse cemetery. I want to see the last resting place of Man Ray, the American photographer-painter who contributed so much to the arts during the 20s and 30s. I fall upon the tomb of the 19th century poet Charles Beaudelaire who is buried along with his mother. Nearby is the painter Chaim Soutine, the Bohemian painter from the Ukraine who was a friend of Modigliani. On the way out I pass Brancusi’s ‘The Kiss’ and I pause to pay my respects to Alfred Dreyfus. This Jewish officer was falsely accused of selling military secrets to the Germans. After a stint on Devil’s Island off the coast of South America, he was retried, eventually pardoned and was awarded The Legion of Honeur. He is only yards away from Marshal Petain and De Maupassant, about whom I wrote earlier. I looked for serge Gainsbourg the French singer, composer and icon of the 70s, but I couldn’t find him. Maybe next time.

There’s time to change before a taxi ride to Le Procope. As we drive down the Boul St Germaine, I notice Le Flore and Deux Magots, reminders of Jen-Paul Sartre and an era of intellectuals.

Le Procope is just off the Boulevard at 13 rue de l’Ancienne-Comedie. It was founded by a Sicilian, Francesco Procopio dei Colyelli over 300 years ago. Famous patrons included Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire. My visit will go unrecorded. The meal is adequate and over-priced but if it’s historical ambiance you’re looking for, this is the place. It was once a meeting place for literati like Moliere. Later it was fashionable for the Imperial Guard officers. More recently the clientele is made up of theatergoers and tourists. I’m not sorry I went. But the jet lag has caught up with me. We meander along Boul St Germain as the darkness finally comes. It seems to get dark later in Paris. It’s as though the day refuses to end and in Paris that’s a good thing.

I’m asleep in minutes. Tomorrow is another day.

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You can Contact Professor Arnie Greenberg at


Over the past few years, Professor Greenberg has traveled with groups to France, Italy, Spain, Greece, Budapest, Vienna, Salzburg, Prague and both Sorrento and the Bay of Naples plus most of Sicily. His tours traveled to the far reaches of the globe including Italy and most of China (Beijing -Hong Kong) and to Russia where his group cruised the waters from St.Petersburg to Moscow. 

"He took a group to Greece and another to northern Russia. In Nov 07 he took a tour group to much of India and ended his tour groups by revisiting France. He now travels with his wife and friends. They winter in Argentina or San Miguel Mexico.  His newly found spare time is taken up with his painting and writing. "I must write every day." His current work is a cautionary manual for would-be tour leaders..  "So You Want To Be A Tour Leader." 

Arnie now travels with friends. He continues writing Travel articles about unusual places but often concentrates on novel writing. Two books based on French Art will be published this year.  Keep reading his web for travel ideas.  His next novel HELLSTORM'S Folly, will be available this fall. He now lives in British Columbia.

Go to: or contact him directly at

(More about the writer.)


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