The Grand Axis of Paris

One evening, almost a decade ago, I looked up the sunset time and made my way to the carousel of the Louvre just before. I wanted to take a photo of the pyramid designed by I. M. Pei. The week had been overcast, and the evening was no exception. I hadn’t expected a large number of photographers there, but clearly this had become a photo spot de rigeur. Most of the people there had big lenses, tripods, light meters. I felt like a joker with my bridge camera in my back pack.

With some time to go before it became dark enough, I looked around for other shots. The dark clouds had taken on a golden colour as the horizon moved up to meet the sun. Through the Arc de Triomphe at the carousel I could look down the grand axis of this imperial city, to the Obelisk, and the Arc de Triomphe at Charles de Gaulle Etoile. In principle the Grand Arch of La Defense also lies on the same axis, but you have to go to one of the upper floors of the Louvre to get a view of all these four things lined up.

I’d passed by this spot the previous day as I’d walked up Rue de Rivoli from the Bastille and then decided to cut across the Seine to the left bank somewhere here. The sky was overcast, but the light on the quadriga was very good. I like the story of this sculptural group. As you probably know, Napoleon brought the original from San Marco in Venice and mounted it here. After Waterloo, it was returned to Venice by Austria. The present statue was put here to commemorate the restoration of the Bourbons after the fall of Napoleon. As the light faded I moved back to the scrum of photographers at the pyramid, and got the featured photo.

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Paris, petit four

While looking for photos of Notre-Dame de Paris two days ago I came across several other photos of the little lanes around it, in the 4th and 5th districts. I used to like to find an apartment in the 5th, and roam the streets of the 4th with my camera. The featured photo shows the embankment of the Seine river, at the Ile de la Cite, viewed from somewhere near Shakespeare and Company.

A door knocker which caught my eye as I walked around the 4th arrondissement. I have no record of the street and house number, and it will be very hard to find this again.

This is a clue to the location of that door. At least this drain pipe comes with a house number. I have a memory that it was in the same street as the door, but which street?

Again, somewhere in the 4th district, I think it is somewhere between Place de Vosges and Pont Marie, but again I didn’t take a photo of the street and house number. This shouldn’t be hard to find.

Berthillon in Ile St. Louis is an old establishment. Once upon a time The Family and I stood in this queue often. One of the servers suggested a combo of a scoop of sour lemon sorbet with another of dark chocolate ice cream which became my favourite one summer.

This door is certainly in the 4th arrondisement, probably between Place de Vosges and St. Paul. I really liked this, because I took many shots, but not a single one of the street name.

These water fountains are common through the 5th arrondisement. Now I can’t remember whether you see them elsewhere. Certainly not in the 1st and 2nd, but may be in the 6th?

I very clearly remember coming across this blue door and red sign after coming out from one of my favourite restaurants, where I first tasted Izarra, on Rue de Jarente. Doors in this particular shade of blue are very common in Paris, at least in my memory. Although the restaurant has now closed, I think I should go back to see whether this door remains the same colour.

Somewhere in the 4th, somewhere between Bastille and St. Paul. I spent much more time walking around the 5th and 6th, but so many of my photos are of the 4th. I call these petit fours, like the small confections you have with coffee. They leave a sweet memory, but they are not a meal.

Notre-Dame de Paris

When I saw video clips of flames leaping from the caved-in roof of Notre Dame de Paris, I thought of all the times it has touched my life. But when I looked at my folder of photos, I could find only two of the cathedral. In others, its 19th century spire is in the background; I must have more photos from the time I used film. This reflects accurately the role Notre-Dame played in my view of Paris. It was my entry point to the city, but it quickly receded into the background, used only as a landmark.

This supposition that the Greek temple is an imitation in stone of a wooden hut is of the same order as that which refers the architecture of our Gothic churches to the forest avenues of Gaul and Germany. Both are fictions well adapted to amuse the fancy of dreamers…
“Lectures on Architecture”, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc

I remember one summer when Victor Hugo’s book by this name was my constant companion on the Metro, to and from work. After work I would walk through the streets of Paris, trying to follow the routes taken by various characters. It wasn’t easy; the cathedral was built in the 12th and 13th centuries CE, and St. Germain, now in the 6th district, was then outside the city walls. The intervening years had changed the city as much as the cathedral. When I realized this I started looking at the city in terms of its history, so that the addition of a glass pyramid to the Louvre seemed like a continuity.

When I first visited Paris in the 1980s, I would sometimes meet up with friends in the pleasant square in front of the cathedral, a short walk from the pubs and restaurants of Odeon, St. Michele, or Jussieu. The last time I stood there and took photos was in the 1990s when The Family and I first went to Paris together. The two medieval bell towers and the rose window (one of the few remaining works of art from the 13th century) were as wonderful as ever, but the press of tourists had increased. After that we decided to leave the front to new tourists, and walked around the back.

My first illegal walk was at 20, between the towers of Notre Dame.
Philippe Petit, high-wire acrobat, referring to his walk of 1971

We’d spent a pleasant afternoon one May sitting on the lawns behind it, eating sweet and juicy cherries from a bag, and admiring the superb flying buttresses. The Family was as enchanted by the gargoyles as I’d been a decade before. Our admiration was not reduced by the discovery that they were 19th century additions, like the spire. The architect of this renovation was Viollet-le-Duc, who turned many things into his fairy-tale version of medieval.

Spira, spera
(Breathe, hope)

“Notre-Dame de Paris”, Victor Hugo

The bridge behind Notre-Dame, Pont de Sully, is named after Bishop Maurice de Sully who started building this iconic structure. It became our favourite place to stand in evenings, holding cones of ice cream from Berthillon, as we admired what Sully’s cathedral had become more than 800 years later. Ironically, the view from this bridge was dominated by the spire and roof added by Viollet-le-Duc. These are the parts which collapsed in yesterday’s fire. Not having heard anything to the contrary, I assume that the rose windows which date from the 13th century are intact.

House sparrow

I had time before catching my train. I sat down in the cavernous central hall of Paris Gare Montparnasse for a petit dejeuner. It was not to be complet, because a bunch of fearless sparrows descended on my croissant and picked it to pieces. It was a small price to pay for the photos. These Parisian Passer domesticus were perhaps the most fearless that I have seen, although I’d grown up watching sparrows steal grains of rice from my grandmother as she cleaned it for lunch.

I remembered these photos when I read a report about the genetic mutations which separate P. domesticus from its nearest cousins. The comparison of genomes of different species of sparrows showed two kinds of mutations: one which affects gross structure, and a subtle biochemical change. About 11,000 years ago, about when humans were busy inventing agriculture, the domestic sparrow separated out from its nearest cousins by changing its skull shape to give its beak the power to break the hard-to-shatter grains which humans were developing. At the same time, it developed the ability to digest starches, just as dogs did.

The house sparrow is not a domesticated species. It is a wild animal which has learnt to live around humans, like the peacock. And now we are beginning to learn how deeply we have changed the living world around us.

A decade of midsummer

Where have I been during midsummer in the last decade? I thought I would look at my photos to jog my memory. I don’t have photos from the solstice on every year. For example, the last photo I took this year was a week ago in Mumbai; that’s the featured photo. So I just put together a photo selected from June each year, as close as I could get to the solstice.

2017: Granada (Alhambra)

2016: Frascati

2015: Beijing (Lama temple)

2014: the stratosphere

2013: Mumbai

2012: Thane (railway station)

2011: Paris (the Eiffel tower)

2010: Germany (countryside)

2009: Mumbai

Paris: le reve generale

Paris conjures up many images: the beautiful monuments, the joyous life, and even the tedium of traffic. But the real spirit of France is the enlightenment, and the rights of man which came from the revolution.

On the first of May, 2009, I stood on Boulevard Saint Michel as a procession of 200,000 or more people passed by in a demonstration called Reve Generale. This was a nice play on words. "Greve generale" would mean a general strike; dropping the G made it everybody’s dream. This playfulness with language, politics and life is the essence of Paris for me. I am a foreigner in France, but one who feels at home with its spirit of fraternite and egalite. This spirit cannot die. Barbarism passes; New York and Mumbai have recovered. Paris will recover.