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BW Businessworld

Finding Feet In Paris

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The gaze doesn't shift from the window where Vincent van Gogh once lived. It is swathed in white,  and when we take a closer look at the window,  a happy bunch of bright yellow sunflowers stare down at us from the third floor. “There’s no better way than this to keep van Gogh alive in our hearts,” smiles our guide, an enthusiastic middle-aged woman who is taking us on a walking tour of Montmartre — arguably one of the most beautiful areas of Paris that’s steeped in art, history, literature, given the numerous artists who lived there. Vincent van Gogh, we’re told, lived at 54 Rue Lepic, from 1886-88, a charming cobbled street that we’ve just crossed, sharing an apartment with Theo, his brother. It was while living here that the Dutch artist, inspired by the palette of the French Impressionists, painted the first in the series of Sunflowers, which would later become one of the most iconic series of paintings in the world.

We are a group of seven — my husband, me, and another family of five, including three children in their pre-teens — taking a walking tour of this illustrious hill in the north of Paris. Our final destination is Sacre-Coeur, the iconic basilica resting atop the hill, which promises panoramic views of the city. En route the guided walking tour, it’s hard not to capture some of the most iconic sights of Paris — the roadside cafes; local artists busy in the trade; the aroma of sizzling hot street-side crepes; the wafting smells of freshly baked breads at the neighbourhood boulangerie; a young couple kissing on a bench; the sound of water from the distinctive cast-iron Wallace fountains…

It’s actually at this point, you realise why destinations need to be covered on foot. Walking tours, especially in a city like Paris allow you to pause, relax, meditate and really soak in not just the bohemian spirit of the artists who lived here but also experience the joy and the wonder of walking on the same narrow streets where the likes of Picasso, Vlamenck, Derain, Soutine, Modigliani, van Gogh and many others lived and worked.

In fact, it wouldn’t be incorrect to say that even the walls of Montmartre talk to you in the language of art — something that you’d definitely miss if you’re on a touch-and-go Paris visit. I spot the ‘Grego’ face peering from a wall shortly after I’ve had a brief date with ‘the man who walks through walls’. While the Grego self-portrait face is just one of the 400-500 faces done by a 39-year-old Greek artist, Dutilleul is a unique sculpture in bronze inspired by Marcel Aymé’s story, about a man who could — what else — walk through walls before he got stuck halfway in a wall when the magic eventually wore off. The charming thing about this half-man sculpture is that it emerges out of nowhere; just like the statue of Saint Denis, the first bishop of Paris who is said to have walked for six km with his head in his hands after it was decapitated by local pagan priests. The silence of the Montmartre cemetery with colourful blossoms  is a melodic symphony complete with the sounds of birds chirping, a cat purring, the cool breeze and water in the distance.

While the must-do trips to the Eiffel Tower, Moulin Rouge and Lido are good to strike off the bucket list, it’s walking tours in areas like Montmartre and Latin Quarters that give you a chance to feel the pulse of Paris. In roughly two hours, area-specific guided walking tours allow you to be gently transported in time, getting to feel the heartbeat of what is considered the Mecca of cultural movements in art, architecture, literature, fashion, and so much more. The meandering journeys on foot unearth Paris gently with rich moments that you capture for a lifetime.

As you walk down the cobbled pathways, streets and bylanes of Paris, it’s a meditative introduction to the city even as it embraces you powerfully and gently, all at once. So, the next time in Paris, wear your comfortable pair of shoes, grab a crepe from the roadside and walk, explore and fall in love. Paris won’t let you down. 

(This story was published in BW | Businessworld Issue Dated 11-08-2014)