Thomas Jefferson was right, at least with regard to walking about Paris. The former immense power of the aristocracy the church in pre-Revolutionary France is on display wherever you turn. The loss of that power and the rise of democracy is stamped on buildings, boldly declaring Liberté, égalité, fraternité – liberty, equality, fraternity; impressing these qualities into the minds of the citizens. Public monuments, gardens and buildings, some meticulously maintained, others slowly decaying through neglect, still more transformed and re-vitalised, are everywhere. History is alive and well, and living in Paris. And to the curious, its landscape and architecture, art and culture are a pathway towards knowledge and understanding about humanity at its best and its worst.
Paris is also breathtakingly beautiful. There is something about the careful laying out of its streets and avenues, gardens, churches, monuments and bridges; the symmetry and balance therein that sings to the soul attuned to beauty. It’s not the beauty of the wild untamed and sometimes desolate Australian landscape, but standing on Pont Neuf at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower in the distance illuminated by a thousand twinkling lights, is achingly beautiful, and so too are a myriad of other places in this city.
Today I walked along the Coulée verte René-Dumont, formerly known as the Promenade Plantée. It is a 4 km leafy footpath about 10 metres above street level, a genius re-purposing of an obsolete railway line running from the Bastille to the Bois de Vicennes. It was designed by landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Philippe Mathieux and opened in 1983, the first park of this type in the world. Shortly after, the viaducts supporting the walkway were renovated and recreated into artists’ studios, galleries and shops. What must have been an eyesore has become a beautiful community and creative space.
Spring was wearing its prettiest clothes, with cherry blossoms, hydrangeas, tulips, bright green hedges and other signs of new life springing forth wherever I looked. And to be above the level of the street, away form the incessant beeping of impatient French drivers, and the bleep bleep of police cars and ambulance sirens, listening instead to bird calls in the hazelnut trees, was a delight.
I stopped in and admired the most beautiful embroidery workshop and store, Le Bonheur des Dames, where exquisite framed samplers decorate the walls, and every type of linen. thread, and embroidery notions were available. I wanted to transport one of my friends, a keen embroiderer, to Paris just to see her face in this shop. In other studios there were furniture restorers, musical instrument makers and leather workers, combining their work space with a retail outlet for their output.
At the end of the walk the pathway returned to street level and the Allée Vivaldi, where local residents were walking their little dogs and the air was fragrant with cherry blossoms. I don’t know what the walk would be like in the middle of winter, but on a sunny spring day it was perfection. I read somewhere that the best way to see Paris is on foot, and it seems, from my experiences so far, to be true. And who am I to argue with Thomas Jefferson!