Although I have visited Paris on many separate occasions, I had never previously been to La Défense. After all, it is such a long way from the centre of town. Given this knowledge, what perverse motivation decided me to attempt to walk to it, when the Metro would have been so much easier?
My starting point was my hotel, close to the Sorbonne, on the Left Bank. I started out early, mindful of making good time along Boulevard Saint-Germain before the lunchtime crowds started to gather, cutting onto Quai des Grands Augustins somewhere slightly after Boul Mich. The Seine is a good river for walking, and I kept to my familiar Left Bank until Pont de la Concorde, where I crossed to enter the Place of the same name.
A wealthy, pony-tailed poseur was noisily and ostentatiously parking his black muscle-car outside the Hôtel de Crillon, but I was more impressed by the classic Citroën DS parked next to it.
A short stroll from here, and I am at the Grand and the Petit Palais. I make a brief loo stop and take in an exhibition––Giovanni Boldini, since you ask.
And now I am on the Champs-Élysées, with La Défense straight ahead. Some way still distant but, nevertheless, straight ahead. Don’t deviate from my course, and La Défense is straight ahead. The Avenue des Champs-Élysées is crowded, but I motor past both the serious shoppers and the serious bystanders. Louis Vuitton, Dior––shame the multi-floor Citroën showroom is gone––and I am at the meeting of the ways, marked by the Arc de Triomphe. Remember, straight ahead, straight ahead, don’t deviate from the route, straight ahead.
I keep straight and true along Avenue de la Grande Armée as far as Argentine, but then at Neuilly there are roadworks; major improvements; big development works, and I am forced to zig a bit, forced to zag a bit, and then, before I know it, I have made a detour, and I am heading off into the Bois de Bolougne. I justify my deviation by the fact that I have never seen the Fondation Louis Vuitton before and, while I am so close, it seems a shame not to visit it.
And then you know how it is… despite all your best intentions to keep to the straight and narrow, once you stray a bit it is just the start of a slippery slope, and you find yourself so far from your original path that there seems little point attempting to return to it. Surely there must be a quicker shortcut this way?
I cross the Seine at Pont de Puteaux passing over Île de Puteaux in the process and, before I know it, I am in the district of Puteaux itself and, unexpectedly, one of the most interesting areas of my entire walk. A surprisingly quiet enclave of quiet, cobbled streets and pretty colourful shops and cafes and houses, which look like they are from a different century to the high-rise buildings, which surround it.
But now I am lost. I know that La Défense is close but, for some reason, I cannot see it: the Grande Arche; all the skyscrapers; why are they not evident?
My transition from one world to the next is an innocuous glass elevator. A lift, which transports me from the old-world style of vieux Puteaux to 21st-century La Défense. It looks like the kind of lift where you are more likely to be stuck in a urine-soaked prison without recourse to help rather than a benevolent time-machine, but I put my faith in it, and my faith is duly rewarded. Five floors skywards, and here is the La Défense of my imagination, and more. I had always equated La Défense solely with the Grande Arche, but the scale of the entire area is so much more impressive.
I had known that La Défense was a major business district, but alongside the glittering glass skyscrapers is a wealth of art and sculpture and public spaces, which are genuinely innovative. The Bright Trees sculpture in Takis’ Pool; the multi-coloured Agam Fountain; Miro’s Two Fantastic Characters; César Baldaccini’s Thumb. It was clearly an area, which was being used and enjoyed. Skateboarders slalomed along the wide central boulevard; people-watchers sat on the steps of the Grande Arche; while a Korean film crew shot the latest K-Pop video against a backdrop of space-age architecture.
I rested a while on an over-sized Giant’s bench––the work of artist Lilian Bourgeat––which required some considerable athletic ability even to scale, and gazed out over Le Bassin Takis where various elements of local youth jumped and splashed in the cool waters; rested, because I knew that I had the same dozen or so kilometres to wander back before I could return to my hotel once again.
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny likes nothing more than a good walk.