Urban Walking in Paris
Let’s do Some Themed Urban Walks in Paris
There are times and occasions when it becomes simply impossible to have a civilized encounter with nature. When temperatures hover just above freezing, the wind is howling and the wet cold seeps under your skin, you would not dream of going on a “pleasure hike” any more than you would want to go fishing in a hurricane.
This is the time of year when the small outdoors shrinks even further, and urban walks appear to provide a sound, attractive alternative. On top of that, winter is the perfect season for city trips: there are few other tourists around (no long queues at museums and taxi stands), even the natives are short of money so soon after Christmas (no long queues at restaurants either, and perhaps you can even get a couple of hot tickets for a theatre show), plus you can extend your urban walks into the late afternoon or evening. Try this in January on a proper hiking trail.
The only problem with such an urban walk is that you must know what you are looking for – and where you can find it. Otherwise, you may find yourself walking up and down the same two or three shopping streets, looking in vain for the “unique atmosphere” that your guide book or magazine article had promised you.
This is less of a risk when you are travelling to a smaller city. It is nearly impossible to walk through Venice, for example, without stumbling upon some scenic view featuring gondolas and a bridge with a distant Renaissance church in the background: everything looks exactly as it does in that movie where Dirk Bogarde stalks Death-in-the-disguise-of-a-blue-eyed-boy.
In other, larger cities, finding the perfect walk is often not so easy. Visitors to London frequently leave disappointed because they have failed to find “London” between the shopping hysteria of Oxford Circus, the Elgin Marbles and a West End theatre performance of Mamma Mia.
The “London” they had been looking forward to was a different place: Big Ben in the fog, ale houses and loveable Cockney rogues, snow settling quietly on Victorian residences on Christmas Day, that sort of thing. This is the London of A Christmas Carol, Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper – partly myth and partly history. Traces of this London exist almost everywhere, but they generally fail to cohere into a single “Victorian tableau”.
Only a very few places can still deliver this and make you “travel in time”, but they are not easy to find, and you should not expect to bump into them by chance coming out of Harrods.
Paris, conversely, provides much richer pickings for urban walkers. For one, because modernity is far less intrusive here, and Paris has more carefully preserved its historical image – not as a conscious bow to the importance of the tourism industry, of course, Paris would never stoop so low. Rather as a consequence of historical accidents.
And for another, because Paris is much smaller than London –built, as it were, to cross on foot. The famous flaneurs on the 19th century Parisian boulevards were, up to a point, the “easy hikers” of their time.
To help you get the most out of your Paris trip, I have prepared three walks with historical themes. One about the Paris of the “Moveable Feast”, Hemingway’s city of the 1920s, one about the artists’ Montmartre of the Belle Epoque, and one about the working-class Paris of the inter-war years that was immortalized by the cinema of “poetic realism”.