PARIS — The lockdown in Paris arrived with a crash and a bang. First, my Bastille dance center closed with a couple of hours notice. By midnight that Saturday, March 14, the cafes and bars had shuttered. By Tuesday lunchtime, a full lockdown was in effect.
Those of us who didn’t charge the city’s train stations that morning — one million people fled Île de France overnight — faced a new reality of downloading forms to present to the 100,000 militaires sent to monitor our limited outdoor trips.
Paris is one of the most beautiful cities on earth. But with the commotion and fear of the plague setting in, what we didn’t realize then was that those who had stayed behind were in for a treat. Without a tourist in sight, Paris now belonged to us.
During my allocated one-hour daily jog, I set off on a voyage of discovery around my chic Gros Caillou neighborhood in the 7th arrondissement that runs between the Eiffel Tower and Napoleon’s Tomb. I usually flee the area every morning to avoid the seven million tourists who visit the Eiffel Tower annually.
A born nomad, my mind had been wandering as Europe’s borders shut. Where could I run to? I lost sleep over the idea of not being able to move anywhere — not even home to England for fear of not being allowed in. But soon, I found myself on one of the most magical travel experiences of my life: a surreal adventure around my hometown, when death was knocking on her door.
Paris, I discovered, was all the more beautiful abandoned.
And then the lights went out.
The City of Lights gets its name from the sites, monuments, and bridges that illuminate Paris by night: 296 locations turn on at sunset, including 33 bridges. But after President Macron declared on March 16 that Paris was «at war,» the city went dark. All of a sudden, Paris was more than beautiful and solitary. It became an abandoned film noir set.
When I could still move more than one kilometer from home, I replaced my swimming and dance routine with long, late night jogs. Notre Dame has been shrouded in darkness since the fire last year. But now, much of the Seine stood black. I ventured out at sunset the first night of lockdown, armed with my self-authorized certificate, scared of the military checks that never materialized. Soon I was running close to midnight for hours, past major landmarks, down dark and silent streets.
Past the darkened Musée d’Orsay, through an abandoned Louvre. Around the arcades of Palais Royal. On to the Opera, which stood forlorn and unlit. Sprinting through Place Vendôme. Past the shuttered doors of legendary hotels Le Meurice and The Ritz. Through Place de la Concorde and on to my last stop, the Eiffel Tower, which still twinkled on the hour — with nobody there to see it but me.
A few weeks into lockdown, when a new limit restricted Parisians to the area within one kilometer of home, my travel odyssey became much more local. My neighbors were the only ones I saw. Not a tourist or pickpocket in sight. The little old ladies bravely hit the food shops each day in their formal coats. Children played tennis in the beautiful bourgeoise streets.
I found myself discovering the statues, gardens, and war monuments that are dwarfed by our more imposing attractions, including the abandoned Trocadero viewing platform, Napoleon’s Tomb, and a statue of a naked man called «La Seine» that stood forgotten near Pont d’Alma bridge. The faded words from a Nelson Mandela quote outside on The Palais de Tokyo terrace were just visible: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin.” I got to know, and am eternally grateful to, the gourmet food-makers on Rue Cler, the foodie street by my studio. Food kept us going in those darkest of days. A Cordon Bleu takeout meal from the fabled Italian foodie shop Davoli felt like a prize. Celebrity chef Christian Constant spent lockdown pottering around his price-friendly Cafe Constant, making takeout meals for locals. I finally explored my backyard because there was nowhere else I could go.
My home is 350 meters from the Champs de Mars park at the foot of the Eiffel Tower, and many nights, I had this great engineering feat to myself, with the reminder “Restez Chez Vous” (“stay home”) beaming out from the first tower where I’m sitting as I now write.
I photographed the golden domes of the newest neighborhood landmark, the modern architecture gem the new Russian Holy Trinity Cathedral. Like other locals looking for nature when parks were closed, I discovered a side alley alongside the manicured vertical gardens of Musee du Quai Branly, which had been commissioned by Jacques Chirac to add modern architecture to Paris, along with Bibliotheque Francois Mitterrand and the Institut du Monde Arab.
I ventured a little beyond the one-kilometer limit to run down an empty Avenue Montaigne, the high fashion street. A few shops still had jewelery and dresses on display. Noura, the fabled Lebanese restaurant and one of my favorite eateries, was open for take-out. It was like finding an oasis in the desert as I stepped inside to retrieve my sandwich. The Petite and Grand Palais on the other side of the river were a place the police gathered en masse, but I ran past them some nights with my press pass in hand to see an empty Champs-Élysées.
After seven weeks inside my 20-square meter-studio, I hopped on my bike to see if the rest of the city still existed. I photographed the hospitals at the forefront of the pandemic and cycled up to Sacre Coeur, which was still empty and beautiful, like the rest of the city.
One hundred days later, there still isn’t a tourist in sight. I can still have the Eiffel Tower to myself, but not for long. Along with other monuments throughout France, it’s finally reopened.
The Eiffel Tower had been my focal point and lighthouse during the dark sea of confinement. So I asked if I could be the first up on, the day it re-opened. As the other reporters waited downstairs for speeches, I had whizzed up to the fifth floor, out of bounds in a service lift, smuggled inside.
There is a God because in those moments of darkness, not knowing which way things would go, or if we would live, the Eiffel Tower became my closest companion.
I now have a new friend who works on the Iron Lady year-round. Next week we will go for lunch in one of the cafes that has reopened nearby and awaits foreign guests.
My journey has taken back into life in a reopened city, but anyone who can get here soon may see get the treat of a rare, beautiful, and still somewhat empty Paris.