56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars

eiffel-tower-picasso-blue-roofs-and-champs-de-mars-paris.jpgKicking down the cobblestones on a warm and sultry morning, there are just a few marble steps to climb ahead. And already, blue sky is rent by cool bronze metal, still tepid in the hazy sunshine across the river. From here at the Trocadero, the Eiffel Tower stands framed amidst the Champs de Mars. The green baize stretches far into the sun, with only the black morning menace of the Montparnasse Tower revealing the modern face of the golden city beyond.

If a million strands are bound together to make a life, then the thread of Paris runs through much of mine. The character of her seasons I know so well, the layout of her streets, the shape of her chestnut trees across the Seine.

And if I’ve never experienced Paris quite like this before, it’s because she retains the power to surprise, with a new view, a new insight, or a new vision of a familiar view like this one today. A cold October fog draped this view when first I saw it, twenty years ago, as skateboarders leapt from these steps beneath my feet. The Eiffel Tower’s top lay half shrouded in mist that day, yet we climbed it anyway, as all new visitors surely must.

I’ve been coming back here ever since, so many times, that it’s a rich and varied weave of Paris which makes her tapestry in my mind today. Not just a space to store winter snow along the quais, or a wet December night on the Pont Royal, but a special place where warm spring rain in Montmartre can freely mingle with autumn leaves in the Jardin du Luxembourg. Where leafy forest glades in Maisons-Laffite can be enjoyed alongside crispy steak-frites at the Gare de Lyon, whilst looking through that modern arch of freedom at La Défense.

A hundred hurried glimpses on business trips perhaps, such threads entwine to make this abstract Paris become so concrete for me now. And this visit, there is more time. Fresh from the flight, I let my lunchtime beer grow warm, trading short pavement pleasure for a long run snatched through a late afternoon’s brutal heat. I make new weave past shoppers on the Rue de Rennes, through the winding streets of St Germain. Down shaded riverside near Notre Dame, a raging thirst forces me to buy water at Austerlitz as I turn back along the cobbled quais. The busy Bateaux Mouches glide on the water and the light turns slowly yellow. The hot afternoon runs by.

The first runner of the evening overtakes me, a triathlete in training, with smart shades and twice my speed. I wonder, am I really running ? Hardly, at this slow pace, but 11 minute miles are hard work enough in searing heat today. Twelve are completed to reach the hotel at last, with my Seineside loop joining up my mental map to place the city’s cinematic tableaux in my head.

picasso-blue-roofs-paris-2004.jpgMy morning run today, it fills a different space. The evening ended last night with sparkler lights and rotating beam atop the Eiffel Tower glinting across the rooftops. A destination calling to me. And the curtains part at dawn to reveal chimney pots across the street, painting Paris like the Picasso ‘Blue Roofs‘ I remember from the Ashmolean Museum amidst my student days.

A shorter trajet awaits me now, and I take the Metro to Rue de Bac. At 7 am the city is still fast asleep in a way that London rarely is, the Pont Royal an open field of cobbles atop a greyly glassy Seine. Past the Louvre’s great glass pyramid, and flat-topped chestnuts of the Tuilerie Gardens, I pay a Tour de France homage from Concorde to Étoile. The entire length of the Champs Élysées, from Egyptian obelisk to Arc de Triomphe. It’s just 3 km, gently uphill all the way, one pass of many which the riders make each year to end their race.

I cross the cobbles, dodging moustachioed patrons at expensive cafés on Avenue Kléber, as they arrange cane chairs on the pavements to await the first arrivals for petit déjeuner. And then to the Trocadero at last, and this view I came to find.

Four days away, and just two runs, but they remind me of so much. That truly to see a city, to map it, appreciate it, and understand it more, it’s great to run. And more than that, these four days away, three hours of running – they’ve provided time to think. My work’s gone well, and the creativity eluding me has come back. I can see my path ahead, opening up like the sky above the Champs de Mars.

Les Champs de Mars – such a peaceful place, and yet it means ‘the fields of war’. Napoleon’s wars. And German troops marched here in Paris not that long ago, to claim her as the continent’s symbolic prize. My grandfather rarely travelled late in life, having fought through those turning tides of war, from Dunkirk, El Alamein and Salerno. He, too, saw a summer in France, one so unlike the one I stand in now. Exactly sixty years ago this June, from D-day’s Juno Beach, through an August storm at Falaise, his journey to Paris was such a different one from mine.

I return to Guildford in time to vote. It’s the European election – a semantic affair, some would say, not real politics, perhaps. Of course I’m British, even if so many times this year I’ve been ashamed to be, but above all that, I am a European. I’ve lived and worked, I’ve dreamed and learned and loved in Europe. The fears I have, of isolationism and unilateralism, are fears I share with many. The opening of minds and borders to new languages, to new ideas, new cultures – these are opportunities, and neither dangers nor fears to me.

I don my running shoes again and climb the hill above my house on the way to vote tonight. Along the Pilgrim’s Way, past green fields, hedgerows, and up onto the Chalk Downs. The evening sunshine of an English summer. Freedom and natural beauty, and all that’s green. From here up high, I can see the London skyline far away to the northeast, and across the Downs towards the English Channel beyond. A geological dividing line between the South of England and Europe.

It’s so hard to decide this time, an election crisis even here, where I can think. Of justice, freedom and moral right – so sadly lacking from my country’s path this year. I trot to clear my mind. It takes some time, but as I run back down to town, my three miles are behind me and there’s only one choice left to make.

A continent’s sixty peaceful summers are the gift we share, a prize so hard-won yet still fresh today. Europe calls to me, this June, as surely as she did so long ago, when first I stood above the Champs de Mars.

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2 responses to “56. Paris – a view from the Champs de Mars

  1. I enjoyed reading this short little travel story. I read it after a busy day of students who have not yet discovered the joy and wisdom of stretching the mind. I found it very relaxing.

  2. I’m glad you enjoyed this post, Pat, and a very warm welcome to Roads of Stone.

    Paris. Yes, it’s true that a short little travel report is nowhere near enough.

    I need to write more about this city. And I’d be delighted to go back there soon.

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