A Cartier-Bresson moment is never far away in the French capital
Let loose on the streets of Paris armed with just a simple smartphone, anyone can be a Doisneau, a Lartigue, a Brassaï or even Henri Cartier-Bresson. Of course, the City of Light has been off-limits for its many admirers, but now this living open-air theatre with its still leafy boulevards and multiple walk-on parts for the natives is ready to say bienvenu all over again.
With no time to waste after negotiating the crush at Gare du Nord, we were quickly in full Magnum reporter mode. Check that ageing trilby-wearing Sicilian gangster and his gold-toothed protegé on the corner…CLICK! See the diminutive young female cop cradling her big sub-machine gun outside the American embassy…CLICK! How about those two lively madames playing table tennis in the afternoon sun?…CLICK! CLICK! CLICK!
Of course, it’s hard to compete on an artistic level with the greats of Parisian street photography. They had the advantage of major historical events and keen subjects, who perhaps in their naivety, seemed to come alive in front of the lens. Another thing that distances Cartier-Bresson and his ilk from the phone-wielding masses is ego. Or rather the lack of it.
Cartier-Bresson, whose exhibition Revoir Paris (Paris Revisited) has recently ended at the Musée Histoire de Paris Carnavalet, was a master at capturing those miraculous coincidences and strange juxtapositions that flashed before him as he explored his home city clutching a Leica 35mm camera. Not for him the star treatment. The quiet, besuited flaneur documented moments ranging from the 1944 liberation to the student riots of 1968 without anyone noticing he was actually there.
The two hundred or more exhibits at this museum dedicated to Paris’s history turned out to be the perfect re-introduction to the city as we broke out of the gallery into the sunshine. Immediately beyond its elegant courtyard with its statues and formal gardens, is the Marais district – a very Cartier-Bresson kind of place as it turns out.
Occupying the area east of Hotel de Ville but before the Place de la Bastille, the Marais was once an aristocratic enclave survived today by the wonderful Place des Vosges and the substantial former town houses along Rue des Francs Bourgeois. For an area so close to Paris’s old centre and major attractions such as Notre Dame and the Louvre, it has a secluded and serene feel with a pace entirely of its own. Here you can rub elbows at dining tables en plein air with the locals – try the secretive Place Saint-Catherine.
A little bit further to the east, the streets just north of Place de la Bastille are a touch livelier after dark. There is a mouth-watering choice of bars and restaurants in and around Rue de la Roquette, and should you tire of the boudins or boeuf bourguignons elsewhere, there are Japanese, Thai, Vietnamese and Indian dishes to tempt you.
The attractions of the old city were plain to see, but much like the young Cartier-Bresson we were somehow drawn to the less populated banks of the river Seine only a few blocks away. Here you can enjoy a wider vista of ancient bridges, medieval town planning and cobbled paths where second-hand books and antiques stalls give way to routes used almost exclusively by joggers, walkers and cyclists like us.
Rent a bicycle and your short stay will begin to seem that little bit longer. The landmarks just seem to tick themselves off one by one. In less than a couple of hours we had managed the Ile de la Cite, the Louvre gardens via the Porte des Lions, the classic railway station exterior of the Musée d’Orsay and selfies at the Tour Eiffel before pedalling over to Trocadero and the Arc de Triomphe then home via the Champs Elysées cycle lane and the Place de la Concorde.
After that, where better to contemplate our existence on this earth than a typical Parisian corner brasserie. That’s what everyone else seemed to be doing that afternoon, anyway. No wonder so many writers and artists are drawn to this place – the passing parade of characters that catch the eye and demand you to fill in their back story is endless. Notebook out, quelque chose à boire please waiter, you know that Cartier-Bresson moment is never far away in Paris.