Even as we went underground to the metro station in order to get to L’Arc de Triumph, I still couldn’t believe it. “You’re telling me you can actually go inside the arc and climb all the way to the top?” was what I kept asking. And the answer was always yes, every time more irritable sounding than the last.
Champs Elysees was busy that Friday afternoon, traffic flowing constantly down its wide streets and pedestrian going in and out of the high end stores with their shopping bags. After a long day of crossing the English Channel on the Eurostar, finding out our hotel would be an hour away from the city and cancelling half of the day’s activities, just being on the avenue was rewarding enough.
The first and last time I saw the Arc de Triumph was in 2004 at the end of Le Tour de France, the time Lance Armstrong won for the seventh time. However, to me, the arc was always an icon you admired from afar like a famous sculpture you are not allowed to get close to. So imagine my surprise, and slight embarrassment, when I found out you could actually go inside the monument and enjoy the Parisian view from the top.
We had to cross Place de Charles de Gaulle, the famous road junction where twelve avenues meet, through an underground passage. I was finally only a few feet away from the arc, for the first time noticing all the details carved on the marble. The monument honors the ones who fought during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. The names of their victories and generals are inscribed all around. Beneath the arc, an eternal flame burns for the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the memory of those who died at war and were never identified. It suddenly didn’t feel like such a coincidence that the biggest avenues in the city met at such a centric and historic site.
We found the secret entrance, at least it felt secret and magical to me, paid our fee and made our way up. Midway we stopped at mid level where we found the gift shop and all sorts of illustrations explaining the history and construction of the monument.
We moved on after a quick glance and before long we were at the top just as the sun set over Paris casting a warm light over the white buildings.
Even though we were not at the highest point of the city, we were able to see everything. We were high up enough that we were able to see as far as Montmartre and the Grande Arche but still low enough that we got to appreciate the details of the roads, the landmarks and the vibrancy of a city that was just starting its activities at sunset.
There is something unique about Paris, that je ne sais quoi you can’t put into words. You can only feel. I can’t help hearing in my mind an accordion’s melody even if it has been implemented in me from years of watching movies set in this city. I know it sounds cheesy or cliché but that is only because it’s been said a million times. And yet, it hasn’t come close to accurately describing this feeling.
It’s not just the influence of movies that sets her apart. When you are there, witnessing everything as it has always been described, you understand the world has not defined Paris. Paris just is and all of her travelers have exposed fragments of her but never a complete picture.
If you ask me, I can tell you Paris is the art of café au lait. It is history and complexity, a collection of incredible minds and the most indulging cuisine. But even as I stood there and walked the streets, I could not tell you in a single sentence all that is Paris. It is a few fleeting seconds of awe, of losing yourself completely in her and later it will fizzle when attempting to add logic to it.
Only if you manage to piece together everything Balzac, Hemingway, Maupassant, Hugo and Van Gogh have said about Paris can you begin to understand what it’s like to actually be in Paris.
I understand how centuries of literature, art and iconic movies have set the highest standards for the first timers in this city but for me Paris has never been disappointing. And people who say they get bored in Paris will always be a mystery to me.