Monday, October 02, 2006

Paris la Nuit

BY day, the Pont Royal, in the middle of Paris, is little more than an unremarkable stone bridge streaming with motorists making their way from the Left to the Right Bank. At night, though, this 17th-century structure is transformed into a platform of visual seduction.

As you stroll north across the Seine, the imposing facade of the Louvre dominates the foreground. To the right, in the distance, the gently lighted towers of Notre Dame and the dome of the Institut de France, home of the Académie Française, suddenly appear through the trees. To the left, you can make out the outline of the vast Tuileries Garden, locked tight behind iron gates and shrouded in darkness. Farther on, the illuminated curves of the Grand Palais’s glass roofs beckon. From behind, the twin clocks of the Musée d’Orsay burn bright; the tip of the Eiffel Tower peeks through.

Then, as you approach the end of the bridge and look up, you catch a glimpse of Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux’s small sculpture on the Flore Pavilion of the Louvre, with its laughing, naked nymph. It is a moment of magic. You look around. No one else seems to notice — and at that moment, no matter the weather or your mood, the city seems to be yours.

Late-night Paris belongs to the stroller, the idle walker with no purpose except to roam. There is always beauty to be discovered, and perhaps even adventure and love. “The night suggests, it does not show,” wrote Brassaï, the 20th century’s best-known photographer of Paris at night. “The night disquiets and surprises us with its otherness. It releases forces within us which by day are dominated by reason.”

That’s true because nighttime Paris operates on different levels. There is a constant interplay between the permanence and grandeur of monumental Paris and the serendipity and surprise of intimate Paris.

Paris is, after all, a small city, only 40.5 square miles — slightly smaller than the Bronx and much smaller than London, Madrid, Berlin and Rome. Eleven miles wide, almost six miles long, Paris can be walked from one end to the other in hours. Even Paris, Tex., is about the same size as Paris, France. Yet Paris has perhaps the densest population of any major city in Western Europe. By day, its streets are clogged with too many people in a hurry. Traffic snarls the intersections and circles. Shoppers lead with their elbows at the bargain stalls in front of the Galeries Lafayette and Printemps department stores. Bicyclists compete with motorcyclists to frustrate even the most determined pedestrians.

At night, though, the streets empty, the pace slows. Inhibitions evaporate. The later the hour, the fewer the people, the better. I started strolling at night in the late 1970’s as a correspondent for Newsweek, hopelessly fantasizing that one day I would finish a doctoral dissertation on Louis Sébastien Mercier. Mercier was the ultimate 18th-century wanderer and the first real street reporter of Paris. His best-selling 12-volume “Tableau de Paris” deciphered the habits and customs of everyday Paris in the years before the revolution. “This city,” he once wrote, “eternally rivets the gaze of the entire world.”

Mercier was fascinated not by the city’s monuments but its inhabitants — its police and prostitutes, its street vendors and beggars. If he were strolling the Pont Royal today, he would focus on the scene below, on the bank of the Seine.

There, a group of homeless people has pitched two dozen camping tents in a neat row. One recent night after midnight, all was still, except for the silhouette of one man hanging his laundry on a clothesline strung between trees. Bathed in the yellowish glow of the streetlights, the encampment looked like a tiny, peaceful village.

But then, the Seine has the power to romanticize even the darkest sides of city life. Because of its current, it perpetually shimmers with strips of light reflected from traffic lights and stoplights. It is also narrow — the Thames and the Danube are wider — which gives it a manageable scale and a feeling of safety.

The river’s many bridges serve as a magnet, for both visitors and Parisians. I can hardly remember ever walking over a bridge at night without seeing couples in passionate embrace. Maybe that explains why even the hokiest movie scenes on the Seine never seem completely absurd.

There’s that scene toward the end of the film “Something’s Gotta Give” when Jack Nicholson, thinking he has lost Diane Keaton, stumbles out of the Grand Colbert restaurant and past the Hôtel de Ville to find himself reflecting on life midway across the Pont d’Arcole. “Look who gets to be the girl,” he laments out loud to no one in particular, turning teary-eyed. Ms. Keaton suddenly pops out of a taxi to proclaim her love.

An even better Paris-at-night-along-the-Seine scene comes at the end of “Everyone Says I Love You” when Woody Allen and Goldie Hawn, their characters divorced long ago, dance on the bank of the river beneath the Pont de la Tournelle. This is not just any dance. This is Fred and Ginger topped with Peter Pan. What woman wouldn’t want to be Goldie Hawn at that moment, in her strappy high-heeled pumps and perfect flowing, long-sleeved black cocktail dress, her strawberry blond hair ever so slightly windblown, literally floating on air?

Indeed, Paris at night has the irrational power to trigger the imaginations of even ordinary folks. There are always Parisians who leave open the window shutters of their living rooms, allowing passersby to peek inside. The often high ceilings and tall windows offer glimpses of crystal chandeliers and fanciful moldings and projections about the lives of the inhabitants. What are they serving for dinner? And do they sleep in canopied beds?

So the real secret to Paris’s beauty at night can be described in one word: light.

In some cities, lampposts are designed to light only the sidewalks and streets, so that surrounding buildings recede into darkness. In much of Paris, however, streetlights are attached to the sides of buildings, highlighting the curves and angles of the structures themselves.

Much like an ordinary-looking woman who turns beautiful in candlelight, unremarkable buildings in Paris glow. Architectural details that are lost by day suddenly proclaim themselves. My 16-year-old daughter, Gabriela, passes Le Bon Marché department store every day to and from school. But walking home in the dark after soccer practice one evening, she suddenly saw something different: the store sign and upper windows framed in an eerie light. She later shot it in black and white for her photography class.

Even the most jaded walkers are never bored. As I strolled with a French foreign ministry official after dinner one evening, we found ourselves in front of the Madeleine church, whose Greek-temple design and imposing scale makes it a nighttime showstopper.

But it was another church that caught the ambassador’s eye. Looking up the Boulevard Malesherbes, he spotted St.-Augustin, a gray 19th-century eyesore by day. “Ahh!” he proclaimed. “Even the ugly St.-Augustin looks beautiful at night.”

Lighting the monuments, churches, bridges and public buildings of Paris is not left to chance. The project to adorn the Eiffel Tower with 20,000 flashing lights (they dazzle for 10 minutes every hour on the hour until after 1 a.m.) cost $5 million and involved 40 mountaineers, architects and engineers who had to endure high winds, raging storms, pigeons and bats.

An entire lighting division in City Hall is responsible for choosing the design, style, color, intensity and timing of the lighting for nearly 300 structures.

And there are even two separate “schools” when it comes to the science (or is it art?) of lighting the city’s public buildings. There is the Paris school, a holistic approach that bathes a structure in a warm, even glow. The Conciergerie, the one-time medieval prison on the Île de la Cité, and Palais Garnier, the extravagant 19th-century opera house, are lighted this way.

Then there is the Lyon school, a pointillist approach that uses small spotlights to highlight the elaborate decorations and details of buildings for more drama. The balconies and niches of the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s City Hall, and the Pont Alexandre-III, with its candelabras, cupids, sea monsters and other elaborate decorations, are lighted in the Lyon style.

The city turns off the lights on most public structures at about 1 a.m. It is a Cinderella moment in which suddenly, they seem to disappear. The bridges and banks of the Seine, still lighted by streetlamps, take on a muted, more distant look.

THE seasoned stroller, then, is familiar with the rhythm of both natural and artificial light. That’s the best way to see one of the hidden gems of Paris in the evening, the perfectly proportioned, 16th- and 17th-century square courtyard at the east corner of the Louvre known as the Cour Carrée.

Accessible through archways from each of its four sides, it offers an oasis of calm in the heart of Paris. Peeking through each of the archways from inside the courtyard, the visitor can see the Louvre’s brightly illuminated pyramid on the west, the St.-Germain l’Auxerrois Church on the east, the Rue de Rivoli on the north and the Institut de France on the south.

But the courtyard closes at 10 p.m. The lighting system is undergoing renovation, so the only light comes from beyond the walls, or the few lighted offices of the Louvre or perhaps from the moon. You must sit on one of the cool stone benches for several minutes before your eyes adjust to the darkness

If you’re lucky, Nicolas Lemaire will be playing his cello near the pyramid under the west arch.

Music-making is banned from the inner courtyards of the Louvre, but the security guards make an exception for Mr. Lemaire, a professional musician, as soon as the museum closes. The archway makes for a tiny, acoustically perfect concert hall that amplifies the sound. “There is hardly an auditorium in all of Paris with such a beautiful sound,” Mr. Lemaire, 44, said at the end of an all-Bach concert. “There’s something very spiritual about playing here.”

There are countless other discoveries while navigating Paris after dark: on the Left Bank, the narrow Rue Mazarine, which ends in a covered archway opening out onto the Seine and a view of the wooden pedestrian bridge known as the Pont des Arts; the sudden appearance of the Eiffel Tower at the end of the Rue Monttessuy; the dome of the Invalides from a picnic blanket on the lawn of the esplanade; the Champs-Élysées from the top of the Arc de Triomphe; the colored neon of restaurants and cafes from a perch on the steps of the Opéra Bastille. (Sometimes seeing Paris at night isn’t totally voluntary. As the Métro shuts down at 12.30 a.m., those who cannot afford a taxi often have to make it home under their own power.)

Beauty doesn’t necessarily mean quiet, however. On weekend evenings throughout the year, the Champ de Mars, the vast lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower, for example, is clogged with hundreds of visitors.

In warm weather, families take picnic baskets and coolers, and dine on the lawn. Young people party. In France, drinking alcohol in public is allowed, and the drinking age is 16, which means that a lot of drinking goes on.

There are no public toilets, so designated bushes give some cover. There are also, my teenage daughters tell me, peeping Toms, drug dealing, hashish smoking and the occasional mugging and purse snatching. The neighbors living in the elegant private houses nearby are driven mad by the music — particularly the bongos. The police, who are out in force, seem to see and hear little.

In the end, what makes Paris so special at night is more than its physical beauty. Even more memorable, perhaps, are the encounters with Parisians who revel in their own experiences with the city.

One recent Friday evening, I went walking with Dominique Bertinotti, a deputy mayor, through the Fourth Arrondissement, the district she administers that covers much of the Marais, the Île St.-Louis and half of the Île de la Cité.

On the Rue des Barres, she pointed out a private garden through a wrought-iron gate of a building under renovation. On the Quai d’Orléans at the tip of the Île St.-Louis, she shared one of her favorite night-time views: the flying buttresses on the back of Notre Dame visible through the trees,and lamented the addition of Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s spire to the cathedral in the 19th century.

On the Rue du Temple, she led me into Le Latina, a Spanish- and Portuguese-language movie theater-bistro-art gallery. We climbed up a flight of stairs to a small dance floor where tango music was playing.

A pair of aging women dressed in black and sensibly heeled dancing shoes owned the floor. They seemed to be a couple. They also seemed as if they had been dancing the tango together forever.

ELAINE SCIOLINO is chief of the Paris bureau of The Times.

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