“Why,” I ask, “of all the places in Paris, did you decide to come here?”
The American tourist looks at me like I’m an idiot, as well he might: we are standing outside of Notre Dame.
“It’s in the guidebook,” he says. “Besides, where else am I gonna go?”
I have been asking myself the same question. Since I learned of a recent 59-point plan by the Paris Mayor’s Office, to turn the French capital into the world’s most visited city, I have begun to wonder what it means to visit a city at all.
Paris’s officials simply want to overtake Bangkok and London in the Mastercard Global Destination Index, based on the yearly total of overnight stays by foreigners. But how many of those visitors go beyond box-tick itineraries of guide book sanctioned sites? Is it really Paris they are visiting, or an idea of what Paris is supposed to be: a Paris theme park, not Paris itself. Certainly, in the white-grey drizzle of this January morning outside Notre Dame, there’s an air of Alton Towers to the poncho-wearing crowds. But as the American asked, where else are they going to go?
My answer, like that of legions of tiresome tourists before me, is that the only true visit to Paris is one that encounters its “authentic” side. I imagine some magic side-street bistro in the 17th Arrondissement, stuffed with accordions and hairy-knuckled men eating eggs at the bar. But this, to be honest, is just more guidebook fluff. Surely, the most authentically Parisian part of the city, must be the part least tainted by tourism: a place where no visitor ever goes? According to my logic, the least visited part of Paris is the most Paris part of Paris.
The suburb of Clichy-sous-Bois became famous throughout France in 2005 as the epicentre of riots protesting unemployment and police harassment. And when commentators tried to explain why the violence had begun in that suburb, they blamed its unique isolation. Clichy-sous-Bois has its own administrative district, referred to in France as a commune, with a population of almost 30,000. Yet there are not only no direct transport links from Clichy-sous-Bois to the centre of Paris, but no direct transport links from there to anywhere else with direct transport links to the centre of Paris. Despite the suburb being less than 10 miles from Notre Dame, journey times can take up to two hours. Symbolically, I decide, this makes Clichy-sous-Bois, Paris’s least visited place. It is here I will go.
The city’s dedication to its tourists is apparent the moment I leave Notre Dame for the nearby Réseau Express Régional (Regional Express Network) station at St Michel. True, the 1970s-built RER is a masterful piece of public transport design, linking distant suburbs through the centre, but the first two trains that stop at St Michel will bypass the suburbs entirely. Both instead are heading direct to Charles de Gaulle Airport.
After waiting almost 15 minutes, the right train, packed as a peak-time commuter service, pulls into the platform. We are out of the city centre fast, pulling above-ground, and looking out on the grey, unplanned jumble of Paris beyond the Périphérique ring road. It is a Dorian Gray portrait of a space, growing uglier and older, while the face Paris presents to the world retains a museum-like beauty. Notre Dame had looked bad enough in this weather; the commune of Aubervilliers, which the train passes through first, with its close-together tower blocks and rusting industry, is grim to the point of cliché.
After 30 minutes, I change to a tram in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a commune in Paris’s Zone 3. Aulnay-sous-Bois is about the same distance from Paris’s centre as Clichy, but the journey takes less than half the time. Five tram stops later, I step into another commune, Livry-Gargan. The fastest way to reach Clichy-sous-Bois now is to walk. It is another half hour on a slight incline, along a busy road, through the rain.
Vast, brutalist apartment blocks loom from the distance. At first, they are just shapes in the white-grey. Close they are imposing, almost beautiful in their bleakness and size. But to start holiday-snapping the apartment blocks, impressive though they are, feels wrong. These are places where people live, not sights to be seen.
Besides the towers, there is little that differs this place from the suburbs I have already passed through. I feel a sense of anti-climax. My assumption that this might be the most Parisian part of Paris feels, suddenly, what it probably always was: silly.
Nevertheless, tiresome tourist that I am, I stubbornly set off in search of the essence of the place. I head to the town hall – incongruously old and low-rise – where I dutifully read an information sign that says something about the Knights Templar and something about the Duc d’Orleans. This information seems like the very opposite of Clichy-sous-Bois.
I find a café that is warmly lit, and full of men sat around large round tables playing cards. There are no women, and mine is the only white face. A football game from Africa is playing on a corner TV. The barman tells me they’re out of beer, so I settle on a coffee, which comes thick and rich.
Whenever a new person enters, they individually greet everyone in the room. I soon fall into conversation with two men, one from the Ivory Coast, the other from Mali. Both have lived in Clichy-sous-Bois for eight years. They are far from tourists, but still, I ask how often they go to the centre of Paris.
“Every day,” the man from the Ivory Coast tells me. “For work.”
His name is Di Batarad and he is a jewellery seller. Does he gets tired of the commute?
“It’s a long journey,” he shrugs. “But it is not a difficult one. And things will be better soon. They’re extending the tram.”
This is true. Though not part of the 59-point plan, work is underway to extend the tram into Clichy-sous-Bois. It was due to be completed in 2017, though has been pushed back until next year.
I ask Batarad whether he considers the suburb to be truly part of Paris, and he offers an exaggerated shrug.
“Technically, yes,” he says. “But in reality, no.”
It is the nail in the coffin of my idea. Batarad is as clear on what is the real Paris as any tourist: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame. I leave the café defeated.
The rain has eased, now, and in the distance clouds part to reveal a purple sky, against which is the etched silhouette of Sacré Couer, cresting the Butte de Montmartre. Before I can help myself, the view reminds me I am in Paris. Despite my pretensions toward the authentic, I’m struck suddenly by the importance of icons and of guidebooks in the creation of place, by the importance of the beaten track, particularly when encouraging visitors or counting their numbers. Clichy-sous-Bois may not or may not be Paris, I think, but you can definitely see it from here.