I feel that my first visit to Paris was the same as a thousand other peoples. The long weekend trip that has to be filled with every famous landmark that Paris is so well known for. The Louvre, Notre Dame, The Arc de Triomphe and of course (you know what’s coming) The Eiffel Tower. Can you truly brag to your friends about visiting the oldest dream destination if you haven’t seen all of these places?
Upon reflection of my visit to Paris I see that I too, fell into this trap of trying to cram everything into one trip. I don’t think I stopped during the day apart from a quick lunch, and I made sure I was out of the hotel by 9am the latest. When looking through the old photos I decided to make it into a game – almost like a ‘Paris bingo’. How many of the typical tourist landmarks could I tick off the list? Well here they are:
Not a bad effort for a simple weekend trip I don’t think. I definitely saw pretty much everything that Paris has to offer – at least on the surface anyway. I know there is so much more under the touristy surface, an underground Parisian scene just waiting to be explored. First time Paris visitors, there’s nothing wrong with kissing under the Eiffel Tour or walking down the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles or admiring Notre Dame’s beauty. Just don’t feel pressured to run around Paris trying to see them all, then feeling disappointed when you don’t. It’s not always what you want to see, most of the time it’s what you didn’t expect to see. If I’m fortunate to visit Paris again I want to make sure I take it slow and see what alternative treats Paris has waiting for visitors who dare stray from the crowds.
“I never travel without my diary. One should always have something sensational to read in the train.” Oscar Wilde – famous for his witty quotes and endless lists of plays and stories. I’m pretty sure anyone who has studied English at school has come across him in one way or another. Being a dedicated creative writing student on a trip to Paris, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to pay my respects with a trip to his grave in Père Lachaise. I’m sure many of my fellow students would feel the same!
Père Lachaise was a trip that I managed to fit into my last day visiting the great city of Paris. I realise writing this that I’m trying to sell the idea of walking around a graveyard in the most romantic city in the world to my readers. Hear me out! – It’s a meaningful and special trip I think everyone should attempt to do. The Père Lachaise is located near the Paris Metro station Philippe Auguste on line 2 – this is next to the main entrance and Gambetta station on line 3, this stop allows you to enter near the grave of Oscar Wilde then stroll down the hill while visiting the rest of the cemetery. I went the opposite way and walked upwards, which is the tiring way of doing things!
The Père Lachaise is home to many other well-known names, one being Edith Piaf the famous ‘La Vie en Rose’ singer. When I walked past her grave I saw a group of people quietly stood around in a circle. They were paying tribute to someone that they admire, the laying of a rose on her grave symbolised to me how beautiful of a place I was standing. To be able to come and pay your respects to someone that you idolise is a pretty special feeling.
I eventually made it to the grave of Oscar Wilde, standing there proud. The famous Sphinx is the first thing you notice, a real testament to the skill and artistry of its creator Jacob Epstein. Unfortunately the grave has been vandalised many times over the years (there are still markings of this now) a barrier has been erected to try and stop people from doing further damage. It’s upsetting to think that people would disrespect someone whose work still impacts us today. I stood there feeling disheartened… That is until I saw the lips of the Sphinx covered in red lipstick and flowers laying at the base of the tomb. The love and admiration that people have for Wilde overcomes the ones that don’t and that was beautiful to experience.
As the sun started to grow intense I nonchalantly made my way back down the hill. The streams of light broke through the trees and shined over the beautiful works of sculpture all around me. After trying to communicate with a group of Spanish tourists that wanted to see Wilde’s grave as well, I reflected on the journey I had just taken. I knew that I had discovered a very special part of Paris not everyone gets to see. Now every time I’m sat in class and we are studying Wilde I think back to that day and the beautiful moment I shared there with strangers – remembering a great writer.
Talk to me of Paris and like most people I imagine the majestic Eiffel Tower overlooking the city. I imagine couples walking down the streets lined with boutiques and cafes, laughing with each other as they nibble on a croissant as if Paris had been made just for them. I imagine podgy old Frenchmen sat outside a restaurant sharing a bottle of red wine. Part of me imagines a mime dressed in black and white with beret to match playing tricks on people. Is this the Paris that tourists really experience?
The main attraction of Paris for me is the ‘Pont Des Arts’, which is more commonly known as the ‘locks of love’ bridge. It takes centre stage as the reason why I wanted to visit the city (move aside Tour Eiffel!). I came across the bridge after doing a project about the locks at college. The tradition, which gets confused by many as being an ancient Parisian tradition actually dates back at least 100 years ago in Serbia. Time for a brief history lesson! – Nada; a Serbian schoolmistress fell in love with an officer named Relja. After the two committed to each other Relja went off to fight in Greece where he fell in love with a local woman. Stricken with a heartbreak Nada dies from her unfortunate love. Young women started putting padlocks on the bridge where Nada and Relja used to meet to protect their own relationships. The ‘Pont Des Arts’ bridge didn’t see a padlock until around 2008.
I find it melancholically beautiful for the tradition to come from this tale. I wanted to see it for myself. Paris was going to be more accessible than Serbia at the time as my partner had just surprised me with a trip to the city for Valentine’s Day – which in itself was something plucked out of a movie. I told him my plan and the next day we went and bought ourselves a padlock. Now the whole thing was becoming a reality when previously it was something I thought only Carrie Bradshaw and Mr. Big would get to do, or something a wanderlust Twitter account would post. I would be sitting at my computer retweeting it thinking “wow I need to do this one day!” but never getting to – how wrong was I!
After first stepping on the bridge the thing that I remember the most was how quiet it was. We were in Paris on Valentine’s Day and it was an evening so obviously the city was bustling with activity, at least everywhere apart from the bridge seemed to be. Instead you had couples whispering to each other, their soft giggles carried through the air as they shared an inside joke. People sat on the floor reading messages on the locks, either getting inspiration or maybe recollecting a past and lost love. I scoured the rails of the bridge to find a space for mine and my partners lock, my eyes catching glimpses of the messages that other couples had written. We settled on the location and attached it to the bridge. Our story was now part of thousands of others. The February sunset drenched the night sky in a palette of silken yellow and faint red. We looked over the River Seine and threw the key into its deep waters completing the ritual.
The scene on the bridge was this: People. Singles. Couples. All different ages, ethnicities and cultures. Each person had with them a different story as to why they were putting a padlock there. It didn’t seem to matter who you were or where you came from. The love between you and your other half was the important thing – everything else was irrelevant. It felt like you were sharing a special moment with every person standing on the bridge, yet at the same time it was completely personal to you. Two years later and the memory is still there and I am still just as happy as when I was on the bridge with my partner. I wonder if the other couples are also looking back. I wonder how much their story has changed. Where is Nicolette Santos now? Is Thais Larry married? One thing is left certain though, the bridge will still continue to shine as a symbol of attachment. A jewel nestled within the city of love.
Since 2014 (a year after I visited the Pont Des Arts Bridge) the Parisian government has taken a stand after complaints from locals that the locks of love were a health and safety risk. The locks caused a parapet on the bridge to collapse under the weight and as a result some locks have been removed. The mayor’s office now encourages people to take a ‘selfie’ instead of putting a lock on the bridge as a means of protecting it. “Our bridges can no longer withstand your gestures of love. Set them free by declaring your love with #lovewithoutlocks”. I write this article encouraging people to not be disheartened at not being able to attach a padlock. I want people to still see the bridge as a place of love and to respect the locals by showing that love with a picture instead. Above all the memory and the first-hand experience is the most important thing.