Another Side of Paris

December 30, 2016

[Something I’ve long been thinking about doing are photo stories or essays, combining a set of photos into a larger, more cohesive, work. This is my first attempt after recently taking a trip to Paris, one of my favorite cities. Comments welcome! Click on a photo to view it full size on Flickr, until I add some fancy gallery.]


As the train pulled into Gare du Nord and I took my first walk in Paris after many years, I was once again struck by the magic that I feel in only a few cities I have ever visited. On that first night, and for every day on this trip, I thought about how to put into words and photographs what exactly is that magic. I did not find it where I thought I would, and instead found myself experiencing yet another side of Paris…

When I think of Paris it is not just one aspect of the city that jumps out at me, but the plethora of offerings: history, art, cafes, shops, and on and on. Paris plays perfectly into my preferred way of exploring urban life, wandering from sight to sight, camera in hand stumbling onto something unexpected around every corner. On this visit though, I got a taste of typical winter weather in Paris: it was chilly, rainy, and all together unpleasant to be out and about for long, especially given my lack of preparation. I would not find the Paris of summers before, and my quest to find some way to capture the magic of Paris would have to turn in new directions.

There is a freedom that comes from repeat visits to a place. Once you have seen what you feel obligated to see (“How could you go to Paris and not see the Louvre, Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomph, etc. etc.?”) you can wander without the pressures of what you “should” do, without the worry of missing out on the most famous sights, even if there is always more on that list. In a place like Paris it is impossible to not bump into something famous wherever you turn, and I couldn’t resist seeing a few again.

High on my list was to visit the Catacombs again, and one day hopefully take a walk in the unsanctioned maze of tunnels that lie beneath the entire city. In the officially open part of the catacombs are piles and piles of bones from long dead residents of the city that have been moved as cemeteries filled up and the city expanded. Perhaps what is most remarkable is how the bones are all neatly piled, sometimes with skulls arranged in a cross or some other shape, going on and on in long corridors beneath the bustling city above. After the long line and the crowded initial parts, if you walk slowly, you soon find yourself alone with the anonymous remains of countless former Parisians. It is quiet and otherworldly. A unique experience, as eerie, exciting, and just plain different as the first time I was there years ago.

Some of the main attractions of Paris are even more beautiful at night, long after the crowds have gone, lit up to shine in the brisk evening air. Notre Dame is breathtaking every time I see it. Being able to leisurely stroll around it, seeing it from front and back, from right under its towering facade to across the Seine, warms the eyes and heart, if not the hands.

While the weather was not what I imagined, thinking back to sitting on the bright green grass in the sun beside the Eiffel Tower, it lent itself to yet another way to see Paris. The Eiffel Tower was still there, somewhere, hiding and blending into the fog and clouds, gray everywhere. The city took on another look, another feel, different from the typical postcard look.

In the last several years I have made a point of visiting graffiti or street art in the cities I travel to. Besides appreciating the message and aesthetics of the art itself (as the counter culture turns both more mainstream and yet still subversive), it is a wonderful way to explore a city, often taking me to parts I wouldn’t have otherwise found myself in.

A highlight of this trip was visiting an abandoned railway circling Paris, Chemin de fer de Petite Ceinture (the “little belt railway”). It has not been in use for many decades and now the tracks in at least one section are home to wonderful street art.

Walking along the tracks, alone even as I was surrounded by occupied buildings on expensive real estate, felt special, like a secret hidden in plain sight in one of the biggest tourist cities in the world. The art mingled and battled with nature, while the tracks, long since unused, were a constant reminder of the function this place once had, of a different world entirely.

Nearby is one of Paris’s famous cemeteries, Cimetière du Père Lachaise, perhaps most famous as the final resting place of Oscar Wilde, Jim Morrison, Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, and Georges Bizet, among many others. I visited a couple of large cemeteries in Paris for the first time, filled with some familiar names and countless others I did not know. The tombstones range from simple to elaborate and ostentatious, some within the past few years, while others had years that were barely legible in their age.

Another terrific spot for street art is in Belleville, on Rue Denoyez. The quiet street (at least on a weekday afternoon) is absolutely covered in art over the walls, doors, and shutters of the stores and buildings on the street.

Belleville itself is a more working class neighborhood filled with artists and many different ethnic groups, and all the languages, stores, and restaurants that come with it. It may well be next up for the hot new neighborhood in Paris and the gentrification that comes with it, but for now it remains off the usual tourist lists.

My favorite time to wander a city to see it in its best light is as the sun goes down, from dusk into the night. There is something about the mixture of the last embers of the fading natural light with the awakening lamps and neon signs of human creation that always draws my eye. Paris, “The City of Light,” truly shines as day turns to night.

I did not find what I expected to when I set out to try and understand what it is that makes Paris that special city to me, but instead found yet another side to the city. I will have to come back again (and again…) to chase those words and images that might somehow capture it, hopefully coming a little bit closer each time. And I think I will be lucky again, and find something new around the next corner to keep me coming back, the magic always there in some new and different way.


Thanks to Bruised Passports for a great guide to alternative thing to do in Paris


Categories: Photo Essay
Tags: Photography, Street Art
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