The first time we traveled to Paris back in 2004, we went primarily to the major tourist attractions, as well as exploring Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Catacombs. Our second trip in 2010 was a home swap in the 14th arrondissement. We took a slower pace, tried to live more like locals, and visited less touristy areas including Belleville, Canal Saint-Martin, the Bois de Boulogne where we went biking, and Montparnasse, which was our home district.
We stayed in a large airy loft on the top floor of a low-rise Art Deco-inspired apartment building with two long balconies that allowed us to have breakfast outside on the warmer days, and provided a nice view of the Eiffel Tower from the bedroom. The apartment was a long and narrow corner unit with floor to ceiling glass "windows" or doors in most of the rooms and hallways. This meant that there was always plenty of light, but it also made us feel a bit exposed since there were no curtains anywhere to shield us. Since we could easily see into the rooms of apartments across from us, it seemed logical to assume that they could see us as well.
Although it is fairly simple to get from the airport to anywhere in Paris using their excellent public transit, we did not want to try it when we were jetlagged after an 8 hour red-eye flight, and while our home swap hosts were waiting to meet us and give us the key. So we decided to catch a taxi to the apartment, but take transit to get back to the airport at the end of our trip. We asked our hosts ahead of time how much the taxi ride should cost and were told it is a flat rate of around 50-60 Euro depending on time of day. Like in Toronto, there is a taxi stand where all legitimate taxis queue for their turn to take the next passenger. So when we were approached by a very persistent man who said that he could provide us with “private” taxi services, we knew we were being scammed. When I asked whether it was a flat rate and he said the ride would cost 85 Euros, this confirmed our suspicions and we waved him away. It was a good thing that we checked how much the ride was supposed to cost ahead of time.
That same night was the Euro Cup Soccer finals between France and Portugal. When France beat Iceland in the semi-finals, there were fireworks and cars honking well beyond midnight, so we braced ourselves for the results of the finals. Based on a previous post-game soccer experience in Barcelona where riot police had to be sent to control the unruly crowd, our assumption was that win or lose, the French would be making noise that night. Our neighbourhood was abuzz with excitement and the sight of fans draped with French flags. We did not need to watch the game since there were viewing parties in the buildings and restaurants all around us and we could follow the action just by listening to the cheers, gasps and groans. Every time there was a near-goal, we would hear a short roar of hope followed by a whimper of disappointment. The score was 0-0 after regulation time and went into overtime where it was likely that the next (and possibly only) goal would win. Suddenly we heard a collective wail all around us and we knew that Portugal had scored. Surprisingly, there was no more noise after that, as the downtrodden French fans just quietly filed away. Perhaps they never really expected to win, since we were advised by the taxi driver who drove us from the airport that France was great at defence but had no real offense. Still, it was nice to see that the French were not sore losers, at least the ones in our immediate neighbourhood.
Even before visiting his most famous Art Nouveau work, we had previously seen examples Guimard’s design without realizing it–the ornate entrances of some Paris Metro stations, modeled after the intricate ironwork of French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc. En route to the Castel Béranger, we came across a few other buildings by Hector Guimard, including a much less elaborate house that bore his name and had similar “bone-like” features that reminded me of Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona, which features skull and bone structures for its balconies and pillars. We passed by a restaurant with similar features that I now could recognize as Guimard’s without even reading the plaque bearing the architect’s name.
The highly decorated Lavirotte Building by Jules Lavirotte reminded me even more of Gaudi’s building since it rivaled the Casa Batlló in terms of colours and decorative features. Located in the 7th arrondissement just across the River Seine from the 16th arr., the Lavirotte building includes the architect’s signature usage of sculptures and glazed ceramic tiles imbedded into the stone and brick facade. He partnered with ceramist Alexandre Bigot and multiple leading sculptors to create the final result. There are wooden carvings of bulls’ heads hanging under the central balcony, a bronze lizard and bird-like iron motifs on the front door, which is surrounded by elaborate sandstone carvings, and adornments in the shapes of flora and fauna scattered throughout the exterior. The more you look at the façade, the more details you see.
On the way back from viewing the Lavirotte building, we encountered the “Flame of Liberty” monument, a full-sized, gold-leafed replica of the flame held by the Statue of Liberty. It was donated by the New York Times in 1989 as a symbol of friendship between France and the United States. Because of its proximity to the tunnel under Pont de l’Alma where Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, the sculpture has been co-opted to become an unofficial memorial for the beloved Princess. The base of the monument is covered with photos of Diana as well as “love locks” like the ones that are attached to Paris bridges.
There was so much to see in the 16th arrondissement that we allocated several more days for exploring our home neighbourhood. Museums, parks and Art Deco architecture still awaited us.