Ah, Paris, Paree. City of art. City of lights. City of tourists.
Yes, tourists, there’s the rub. The beautiful city is swarming with them, they are everywhere, clogging the sidewalks, forming queues in front of museums, and crowding the restaurants and cafes. Paris is the tourism capital of the world and one can hardly take a single step without hearing a plethora of languages, from Russian to Korean, from Dutch to Polish and Roumanian, and back again.
So what is an innocent visitor who does not want to define herself as just any old tourist, and who wishes to see some of the wonderful works of art that are to be found in the city, to do? One possibility is to avoid the Louvre and the Orsay museums, entry to both of which requires standing in line for at least half an hour. That still leaves plenty of places of interest that are not so popular and seem to be less well-known. Paris abounds in museums, both large and small, not to mention its other monuments, churches, and historic sites.
One of the most superb museums is the Pompidou Centre, which houses art dating from the twentieth century. Better still, it is open almost every day until 10 at night. It’s fairly crowded, admittedly, but it still provides a far better viewing experience than the two aforementioned museums, where one can barely get a glimpse of the scores of van Goghs, Cezannes, Manets and Monets there because of the throng surrounding them. The Pompidou Centre houses seminal works by Picasso, Braque, Soutine, Modigliani and many others. Not to mention a huge collection of Surrealist and Dada art. An experience not to be missed.
Any Parisian with any sense, and the wherewithal, too, of course, abandons the city in the summer months and goes to the south of France, or even the centre of the country, where the tourists are not quite so thick on the ground. Of course, the inhabitants of those regions are less than happy with the invasion by ‘northerners’ and tend to regard them with disapproval and even remove themselves elsewhere (provided their livelihood is not dependent on the seasonal arrivals).
So in the summer Paris belongs to the tourists and those who serve them, namely, Algerian taxi-drivers, African souvenir-sellers, Italian restaurateurs, Chinese waiters and sundry street-sweepers, hotel clerks, and the occasional native French person who probably just oversees the rest.
But if the sun is shining (and even if it’s not) Paris can’t be beat for the joy of just walking its splendid boulevards, admiring its architecture, trying to read the plaques that abound recounting the historic events that took place there or the important people who lived there. Or just to sit in a cafe and enjoy a pastry and a cup of coffee. I can recommend the strawberry tartlets, which are at their delicious best in the summer months.
Another sign of the times is that more and more Parisians seem to be prepared to try to communicate in English. For someone who likes to think that she has a certain command of French (i.e., me) it is a bit disappointing to get a reply in English, or what a French person considers to be English, to a query expressed in what I suppose must be somewhat laborious or perhaps even outdated French. Ah, well, I’ll just have to keep trying, I suppose.
A cruise on the Seine can also be fun, though tourists are the only consumers of that particular item (you have to queue for that, too). Recorded explanations in French, English and Spanish accompany the one-hour ride, recounting the history of the buildings one sees and the bridges under which one passes. If the weather is fine, that can be a lovely experience.
One word of warning. Avoid eating in bistros near the main tourist sites. These tend to be pricey and the food they serve is often of sub-standard quality. Of course, the poor waiters and waitresses are run off their feet, and one can also waste a lot of time waiting to be served. Often enough the food isn’t even worth waiting for either. However, if one makes a little effort, tired feet permitting, of course, and goes slightly off the beaten track to the side streets which are just a little bit away from the crowded main thoroughfares, one can find little cafes and restaurants where real Parisians (the ones that haven’t left, that is) go for lunch and dinner, and where the food is good and not so expensive.
So get your walking shoes and take a few days to explore Paris, the city of endless delights, even for tourists. But don’t forget to watch out for muggers on the Metro.