On any Paris evening, a spectator standing in the middle of the celebrated axis stretching from the Louvre down to the Place de la Concorde and up to the Arc de Triomphe will find a feast for the senses.
Crowds swirl around as the noise of night's festivities carries through the air: food and wine being enjoyed, movies discussed, friendships made or unmade and lover's quarrels resolving or escalating.
Nocturnal Paris has been a paradise for the voyeur ever since the celebrated 18th century French writer Retif de la Bretonne wrote his famous novel
The Nights of Paris or the Nocturnal Spectator
, which describes all manners of murder, mayhem and madness in nighttime Paris in the days preceding the French Revolution.
This started a grand tradition of perambulating Paris in the dim hours of the night, eyes and ears open, which continues to this very day.
Anyone can do the same, especially with the near certainty that although you may come across eccentrics, hustlers and all sorts of strange people, you'll never be in extreme danger of risking life and limb -- in contrast to many similarly sized American cities.
The best place to start your stroll is on that most famous avenue, the Champs-Elysees, and to see for yourself why it's called
la plus belle avenue du monde
(the most beautiful avenue in the world).
Standing facing the Arc de Triomphe -- commissioned by Napoleon, and completed in 1830s -- you may muse on the obscure foreign film you've just taken in at the movie theatre Le Balzac (1 rue Balzac). There are now several options awaiting you.
To fortify yourself, sample the
(mussels and fries) at that quintessentially Parisian restaurant chain, Leon de Bruxelles (63 Champs-Elysees), washed down by some of the best beer this side of London.
If lighter fare is what you crave, point your wandering feet toward Flora Danica (142 Champs-Elysees), serving classic Scandinavian food -- and dig into herring galore, accompanied by a bracing glass of aquavit.
Regardless, this walk would have to end up at the Virgin Megastore (52-60 Champs-Elysees), where you can find American albums of hip-hop, jazz and everything in between -- even harder-to-get items of world music, such as a recording of the legendary singer Cesaria Evora, with a voice like gravel, who mixes Portuguese fado and Cape Verde rhythms with a lilt all her own.
Meandering in Saint Michel
Ordinarily, a visitor to Paris would have little chance of seeing the ethereal visions depicted by local photographer Brassai in the mid-1900s.
One of his most magnificent subjects is the Pont Neuf, with its obverse and obstructed view of the much-feared Palais de Justice, where many immigrants have to haul themselves to deal with the overworked bureaucracy.
To get to this crossroads of Paris, you can walk all along the rue de Rivoli, crossing de la Bretonne's old hangouts, or you can take the metro (line 1). Keep in mind that the trains only run until about 1 a.m., however.
Every Parisian subway line has its own personality, and line 1 is officially known as the "American tourist" line, since it hits such famous Anglophile institutions as the bookstore W.H. Smith (247 rue de Rivoli) and the chocolate lover's mecca Angelina (226 rue de Rivoli).
Of course, both of these landmarks -- one intellectual, the other very earthly -- will be closed at night, but window-shopping is quite de rigeur, especially at W.H. Smith.
As for Angelina's, the night wanderer can spy the famous Mont Blanc pastries (made of a secret recipe of chestnut cream) in the window, and eagerly imagine the taste of its velvety-smooth hot chocolate, always served with a pot of whipped cream.
(During the day, tourists are often amazed at the thin-as-sticks French society matrons often found downing this repast -- hot chocolate and Mont Blanc -- totaling at least several thousand calories.)
On to Ile de la Cite
However, it's time to continue on, whether by subway, bus or foot.
You'll eventually end up at Ile de la Cite for a stunning view of Notre Dame, the most famous cathedral in the world -- although many French claim that Notre Dame pales in comparison to the gothic cathedral of Chartres (about 30 minutes from Paris).
This breathtaking Paris icon was completed in the mid-1300s, and hundreds of years later it is still in use for Roman Catholic ceremonies.
Even on a pleasant night, with crowds milling around, you can feel completely alone and peaceful gazing up at the church's elaborate silhoutte, highlighted by the eternally twinkling stars.
But this section, Ile de la Cite, is a very urbane and congenial part of Paris -- full of wine bars and restaurants, and very much terra firma.
And the French know that there is no other way to end a metaphysical and otherworldly soul-searching expedition than with some robust, country food.
It is a late-night tradition to duck into a cozy wine bar such as the nearby Taverne de Henri IV (13 place du Pont Neuf).
Here you can accompany a glass of solid burgundy with a platter of
, those thin and aromatic slices of French sausage that even the local schoolchildren love to have on a baguette at the end of a rigorous and demanding day.
As you relax, you can muse on all the rest of Paris to discover -- Montmartre, the Latin Quarter, Bastille, the Marais and my all-time favorite corner of Paris-Pigalle and the Gare du Nord area. But that's for another day and another night.