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Some cities are so complex, it’s as if the different neighborhoods are different worlds. What if we took the time to explore one such city? One whose streets are rich in history and inspiration like Paris?
Paris. The name alone speaks of dreams, ideals and emotions. Even for a Parisian. But on a simpler level, Paris is something of an urban catastrophe, whose city planners seem bent on achieving nothing but gridlock. And yet, the car is the only thing that can take you smoothly from one neighborhood to another, and from one world to another. Especially at night.
We glide through the streets, darting between two of these different worlds: the Place de la Bastille, shrine to the revolution and still the rallying point for angry protestors, and the Place Vendôme, home to palaces and jewelers, beautiful but reserved, slightly cold and uptight, harkening back to the days of empire.
It’s just six minutes between these two worlds; separating them are Rue Saint Antoine, Rue de Rivoli and Rue de Castiglione, three of Paris’ most famous streets. The latter switches suddenly on to a vast cobbled square, smooth as a dance floor. Here, it’s extremely tempting to start waltzing the car around the Vendôme column at the center of the plaza.
And then you hit it. The Eiffel Tower. Everybody knows its familiar outline, but the sheer scale of it still takes you by surprise. From the Bir-Hakeim bridge, also made of riveted iron, the Eiffel Tower seems the perfect size, in perfect harmony with its surroundings.
As much as we’d like to stay and admire it, there’s Paris’ other famed man-made structure to experience: the Périphérique Parisien, essentially a highway ring around the city. There’s not a whole lot of admiring to be done here.
Well, unless you count turning off to cross one of its many bridges. Four are pedestrian, and 17 carry subway and rail lines. We glide over each in one short burst, and sew the two banks of Paris together. The Pont-Neuf, is the city’s oldest bridge.
The Pont Alexandre III, in all its baroque flamboyancy, takes you from the Champs-Élysées to the Les Invalides and Napoleon’s tomb. The Pont de Grenelle, on whose central pier stands the blueprint for the Statue of Liberty, gazing out, like a ship’s figurehead, towards her big sister in New York.
Blurring the Lines
For a long time, the two banks of Paris stood in stark opposition. On the left bank were the artists, students and anti-establishment. On the right is the Bourse (stock market), the most beautiful neighborhoods and the Palais Royal.
Nowadays, the distinction has blurred. Various churches are to be found on the left bank and modern art has largely passed to the right bank.
On to the most beautiful avenue in the world, according to the French, who rarely display too much modesty when it comes to their national heritage. All the same, the Champs Élysées might actually disappoint drivers. For starters, it’s never quite empty, even in the early hours. Not to mention that its little service roads that allowed for some car-bound window shopping are now gone.
The Périphérique Parisien is France’s busiest road. Every day, the city’s inhabitants spend hours in an exhausting bumper-to-bumper crawl. But at night of course, it’s an open road . With a speed limit of about 50mph we’re not talking about the Autobahn here, but it’s a big departure from the 30mph limit on the capital’s main avenues. With cruise control set, one circuit takes half an hour. I circle the town, like an airplane coming in to land, and choose a new point of approach through one of Paris’ 36 doorways.
Every street in Paris has a story to tell. And the car has been the perfect travelling companion from which to hear those tales. But it makes me wonder, which other worlds of Paris do we have time to visit before dawn breaks?