C’est la vie in le heart of France

Lovers’ locks on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor. (Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP)

Lovers’ locks on the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor. (Kenzo Tribouillard, AFP)

‘Philipe loves Buna”, “Harry loves Alex” and “Roos loves Sjoerd”. I know this because I saw the locks bearing these inscriptions, in permanent marker, clinging to the fence of a footbridge crossing La Seine.

The “love locks” have their own story. The civic concern of the Paris authorities has been no match for these spontaneous expressions the city has inspired. Even the rollerblade-wearing Paris police have not been swift enough to stop lovestruck couples from making such public declarations.

Just 48 hours in a city is enough to leave a lasting impression. (Frankly, in Paris, the first place you feel it is in your financial situation. A glass of fresh orange juice will set you back R80.) The city draws you in, almost with a wink.

Before the walk across the bridge I felt a growing attraction. There were hints of seduction — the shimmying nightlights of the Eiffel Tower, the finest almond croissant on the Rue Saint-Honoré, the uncountable household treasures at the Les Puces de Saint-Ouen antiques market. But with those steps across the Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor the match was made.  

It seemed particularly fitting that the bridge’s name is African, named after Senghor, once the president and poet of independent Senegal. Senghor was a great intellectual and a founder of negritude, an ideological and literary movement that asserted cultural pride in response to French colonialism. I took it as another statement that this is a city that invites you in (an interesting contrast to its local visa authorities).

The Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor links the Jardin des Tuileries — built as a private royal playground in 1564 and then liberated (along with some heads) for public use after the French Revolution — to the spectacular Musée d’Orsay, which houses the world’s largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces in a former railway station.

The footbridge also connects this grand, elegant and expensive Parisian quarter with La Rive Gauche and Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the city’s intellectual heart. On that short walk — best taken before the city wakes sometime around 10am, when your only companions are the runners and new parents wheeling strollers through the perfectly manicured park — it’s not hard to imagine what might have inspired the time travel in Woody Allen’s film Midnight in Paris.

In Allen’s love letter to the city, the unlikely named modern-day hero Gil Pender, played by Owen Wilson, is transported to Paris of the 1920s, then the centre of the cultural universe, where he meets Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Zelda and F Scott Fitzgerald, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso.

In less than one kilometre, you can move through centuries of history, great works of art and ideas, and get a sense of the ties that bind the city of Paris to so many other places, and to so many hearts. And although leaving a bridge memento is frowned upon, I know of a locksmith in the alleyways of Saint Germain where they will engrave your message on a padlock of your choice. It’s definitely more dignified than locking yourself to the bridge.  

10 things to do

1. Walk the city. Stroll along La Seine and cross as many bridges as you can. En route, visit Île de la Cité, one of the city’s two natural islands and the centre of Paris. Night walks are mandatory for admiring this most beautifully lit city.

2. See Claude Monet’s Water Lilies at the Musée de l’Orangerie in the Jardin des Tuileries — having ditched the crowds and pickpockets at Musée du Louvre for the priceless tranquillity induced by this contemplative space.

3. Eat macaroons and tarte tatin at one of the city’s finest teahouses, the legendary Ladurée on the Champs-Élysées. It has kept Parisians happy since 1862. Try one of its €450 Easter eggs. Or sip hot chocolate where Marcel Proust and Coco Chanel once sat at Angelina on the Rue de Rivoli. Taste an almond croissant just about anywhere, and admire the art of chocolate artisans such as Patrick Roger on Place de la Madeleine.

4. Shop — breathe in the rarefied air of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré district, where you can spend hours admiring the window displays of the world’s most influential fashion design houses. Stop in at the city’s most contemporary and trend-setting department store, Collette on Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, or Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. Merci on Boulevard Beaumarchais is a concept store where avant-garde design finds philanthropy — profits from their couture collections are donated to charity.

5. Visit the Centre Georges Pompidou for its astounding architecture and modern and contemporary art and then recover from the tourist encounter by sitting at a sidewalk café and watching life pass you by.

6. Browse the Les Puces de Saint-Ouen weekend market, a warren of antique and second-hand furniture stores that could decorate anything from Versailles to a retro chic Art Deco pied-à-terre.

7. Dine at the Hôtel Costes, the “see and be seen” venue of the international glamour set, or, for a simpler option, join the queue at L’Entrecôte for medium-rare steaks and lashings of French fries (they only serve it one way so don’t even ask) or try traditional onion soup and other French menu delights at Brasserie Flottes.

8. Admire the view of Paris from its highest point, the La Basilique du Sacré Coeur cathedral in Montmartre, a louche district famous for the Moulin Rouge. If you are a Salvador Dali fan, his melting clock hangs in the overpriced museum.

9. Join the trendy set in the fashionable Le Marais district for shopping on Rue des Francs-Bourgeois, and for eating and walking.

10. Peruse the bookshops in a city where writing is revered and the book is still a sacred object. Among the city’s best English stores are Ernest Hemingway’s haunt, Shakespeare and Company, and the first English bookshop on the Continent, Galignani, on Rue de Rivoli.

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