PARIS — Picnic in Paris.
The term just exudes romance, doesn’t it? Like “Stroll in Rome” or “Hike in Alps.” Every time I come to Paris I have a picnic in a park. It’s one thing you can do alone that isn’t touristy. It puts you nose deep into local culture or however far your nose can dip into a big creamy pile of Brie. It’s eating fantastic French food with equally spectacular atmosphere. Talk about a table with a view. I’ve picnicked in Jardin du Luxembourg and Jardin des Tuileries. This time I wanted to upgrade.
Parc du Champ de Mars at the foot of the Eiffel Tower.
No, it’s not that touristy. It’s what the French do. That’s because they’re French. Give a Frenchman a fresh baguette, a bottle of wine and a beautiful view (a beautiful woman is optional) and he’s pretty damn happy.
So am I.
The best part about a picnic in Paris is shopping. Food shopping in Paris is like strolling through an art gallery where you can actually taste the art. It’s like Rome. I shop every day in Rome because I love to smell the cheeses and prosciuttos and look at the rainbow-colored fruits and vegetables. Paris is the same landscape but the smells are different.
Just down the street from my Paris apartment on bustling Boulevard Saint-Germain, food stalls open in the morning to compete with the little permanent establishments. At one stall, I saw cheeses from the breadth of France, from Bleu de Gex from the Jura near Switzerland to Munster from the Vosges mountain range near Germany to Tomme de Montagne from the Auvergne smack dab in the middle of the country. I settled on two little blocks of cheese that were shaped like big hockey pucks. They were Camembert from Normandy, hard on the English Channel. It was perfectly spreadable on a spongy sesame baguette.
A few feet away, a meat store has big, fat, dark brown chickens slowly roasting on a spit. In one display case was a big pile of chicken legs, glistening in their spit-roasted splendor. A fruit stand next door provided me with a small tin of bright red strawberries and I stopped by my favorite bakery where they automatically packed up a chocolate croissant before I even opened my mouth, just out of sheer habit after three days.
I walked down the street to a little wine store organized by French wine regions. Spurred on by the wine I drank at Hemingway’s old cafe the other day, I went to the Bourgogne section and bought a nice red for only 11 euro.
So I walked to the subway toting a backpack with a long baguette sticking out of the top like a French flagpole. Suddenly I looked very French. I felt French. At least, I did a little. Picnics are what the French do real well. Paris has so many parks. Open a Paris map and it’s scatter sprayed with large swatches of green. Rome has very underrated parks — Villa Borghese, Doria Pamphilj, Villa Ada — but Paris not only has parks but huge gardens perfect for laying down a blanket and spread of food.
The Eiffel Tower is on the west end of Paris, towering directly over the Seine River. It is butted by Parc du Champ de Mars, a huge park about a kilometer long and four blocks wide. In the 18th century it served as a parade ground for the nearby Ecole Militaire military academy where a kid named Napoleon Bonaparte once developed his complex.
Today, Parc de Mars is a parade of joggers, lovers, cyclists, photographers, school groups and, of course, picnickers. The Eiffel Tower came into view as soon as I turned the corner from the St. Francois Xavier Metro station. The first glance of the Eiffel is jarring. I always seem to lose my balance. Paris is flat as an Iowa farm town. With its four gracefully curved legs, the 1,063-foot tower stands above the city like a showgirl teetering on stilettos over a dollhouse. To me the Eiffel Tower always seemed like the most feminine building in the world. Then again, I’m a leg man. Until I saw the Taj Mahal two months ago, I thought the Eiffel Tower was the most beautiful building in the world.
As I wrote from India, once under the massive brown girders, the Eiffel Tower loses its feminine touch, its splendor. But from a blanket a few hundred meters away, it’s as pretty as any sunset I’ve ever seen.
It’s an architectural masterpiece yet so many Parisians complain about it. Then again, Parisians complain about everything. They lead the world in protests and strikes. Designer Gustave EIffel built the tower for the 1889 World’s Fair and it took two years and 300 laborers to put in 2.5 million rivets. It was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the Chrysler Building went up in New York in 1930.
Yet Parisians labeled the Eiffel Tower the “Metal Asparagus.” They were scheduled to raze it in 1909 until they realized it provided the perfect platform for radiotelegraphy antennas.
I found a place in the shade which unfortunately hid part of the tower but was welcome relief to temperatures that reached 79 degrees. The food and wine were spectacular. Then again, it’s French food. It would’ve tasted spectacular in a Nebraska parking lot. But the people watching was even better. A large group of French college kids plopped down near me and ate baguettes and cheese and drank large cans of cheap French beer.
Two construction workers, their clothes thick with dust and dirt, took their lunch break under another tree. One couple let the romantic atmosphere get to them and their wild kissing turned into a pretty impressive display of unabashed dry humping. No one around them seemed to care.
Paris is a great place to love and not just other people. Cheese, chocolate, bread, wine, history, architecture. And your date is always a grand lady who never ever gets old.