Sex and strolling in the city of light

28th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

Marius Benson visits the world's most visited city.

Walking along Rue St Denis in central Paris I sensed that the rhythm of pedestrian life had subtly changed.


The urban ballet here was dancing to a different beat, slower, staccato. The men were idling and many of the women were stationary.

"Ah-hah," I thought in my worldly wise way, "and a double ah-hah...the oldest profession in the world."

I was congratulating myself on having noticed the blindingly obvious and summed it up in a tired cliche when my thoughts were shattered by a brisk arrival.

She was young and black, her lipstick was luminescent pink. She came at me at a 45 degree angle from the left, established unblinking eye contact and when she was about a metre away declared: "On y va!"

If I was going to go with anyone on Rue St Denis it would have been her, but I declined. Still she snapped me out of my strolling reverie.

The greatest walking city

Paris is perhaps Europe's greatest stroll-able treasure. Of course you'd have to put Rome up there too, and Barcelona, ummm St Petersburg, Amsterdam of course, London — not very pretty, but what about those bookshops — Krakow, Dublin on a good day, Milan, and what about Dresden by the river...Riga...

OK, ok! Among the many, many great walking cities of Europe is Paris.

And Paris has a few things unique to itself.

Chief among these are the city's great galleries. The Louvre is now big beyond belief and the queues at the glass pyramid entrance stretch from here to Tuesday.

However, once you get in, the place is so vast that you can find plenty of rooms not filled with anything except masterpieces.

That is unless you want to see "The Picture". Large photocopies of "The Picture" guide you to the general area and when you get close the crowds do the rest. Crowds that rush unheeding past other paintings by da Vinci, determined to see the one that counts.


The finest picture ever painted!

The world champ!

The Mona #!*/'#! Lisa!!

Did you know that in pre-eminence of the Mona Lisa is quite a recent development?

In the 19th century when the Louvre was insuring its works the ML was valued at something like 70,000 francs, while works by Raphael were put at ten times that and more.

The ML really took off in the public imagination when she was stolen — by a disgruntled gallery staffer.

Regardless she is now the notch that every cultural tourist must put on their belt when in Paris.

But not me. Not this little black duck.

I've done the ML before, I've had that sense of anti-climax that almost everyone feels when they finally set eyes on the dark, dark canvas, behind reflecting glass, which bounces back the flashes of dozens of cameras.

(By the way why, alone in the art world, does the Louvre — and maybe other Paris museums — allow flash photography?)

So on this visit I could, with a clear conscience, peel off as the crowds grew denser and steer into the calmer waters of Giotto, Fra Angelico, Vermeer, Pieter Bruegel and Bosch.

And right up there with all of them, the Islamic area where wonderful worlds are captured in the deep, deep colours of ceramic works from 16th century Syria or 18th century Iran.

Over two days my total time in the Louvre was about ten hours and I took away clear images of maybe twenty works of art. Time well spent.

Neon lights and earthen igloos

The third day of the Paris long weekend was passed in another world of art at the Pompidou Centre.


This is the world of modern art starting with the oil-on-canvas genius of Picasso, Braque and Matisse and working through to Joseph Beuys doing strange things with felt and pianos and Mario Merz conjuring his world out of neon lights and earthen igloos.

The gallery is superb and the masterpieces on display there lose nothing in comparison with the creations of earlier centuries on display at the Louvre.

But the greatest masterpiece available at the Pompidou Centre is not in the gallery, it is outside. In fact it is all around.

As you go up in the glassed escalator through six floors of the centre all Paris becomes visible around you.

It is like going up through the decks of a liner afloat in a great, grey swelling ocean.

Pick a day when the clouds and sunshine alternate and mix so the sunlight plays over the city like a great spotlight; picking out Montmartre for a minute, then Notre Dame, next the Eiffel Tower.

Then you understand why Paris is called the city of light.

November 2002

0 Comments To This Article