Paris: Belfast man recounts his visit to the city following terrorist attacks

Tributes to those who lost their lives in the ISIS attacks on November 13, 2015
Tributes to those who lost their lives in the ISIS attacks on November 13, 2015

In the wake of deadly attacks that left 129 people dead, Paris and other parts of France were placed under immediate lockdown, raising concerns for travellers.

However, Belfast’s Aidan O’Donnell was determined to go ahead with his plans and is currently enjoying a break in the French capital. Almost four weeks on from the Isis terrorist attacks, he reports on the current mood in the city

Aidan O'Donnell in Paris

Aidan O'Donnell in Paris

Je suis arrivé à Paris. Yes, I have arrived in Paris.

Two of my Facebook friends, Julie and her husband Dan, set up a group called Freedom and Fun, ostensibly to visit the city to show solidarity with its citizens after the recent terror attacks.

Fifty people are invited, only Dan, Julie and I actually travel.

I get extremely lucky with my flights. As a semi-retired gentleman my travel plans are always flexible. Ryanair advertise an incredibly cheap fare. Five euros each way! My flight costs 10 euros return. At that price I’m obliged to travel.

Friends ask if I’m worried or concerned about travelling to Paris? I’m not. Defiantly, I gently remind them I grew up in Belfast during the worst of the Troubles, Paris holds no fear for me. Rather, I’m excited. Thrilled. Expectant.

Originally I’m booked to fly in on a Tuesday and out on Thursday, giving me one full day in the capital.

The flight from Dublin is almost full. Most seats are taken. Listening to conversations it’s a blend of French and Irish accents. People travelling for business and leisure. French visitors to Ireland returning home, Irish visitors on vacation in France.

My accommodation is in a six-bed dorm at Le Regent Hostel in Montmartre. A busy bustling place and all beds are taken. Business as usual. On arrival I decide my stay is too short and hastily rearrange my travel plans. As the flights are so cheap, I simply book another for the following Tuesday, and find accommodation at the appropriately named Peace and Love hostel.

The next is spent drinking in the Parisian atmosphere. I find a city resilient and defiant. Normality is the antidote to terrorism. Fair enough some soldiers are patrolling the streets but no one pays them any heed.

My first tourist stop is the stunning Sacre-Coeur cathedral, perched high on Montmatre it offers a spectacular vista over the wide expanse of Paris.

I pop inside the chapel, and though I’m not usually one for prayer, I’m moved by the silent solitude, so kneel down and offer a prayer for the souls of the victims of the Paris attacks.

Then I wander, to give myself a sense of the city and orientation. Firstly the Champs-Elysées, the Arc de Triomphe and its crazy traffic.

Next stop is the Eiffel Tower. Iconically Parisian. I feel I have arrived. Moseying along the banks of the Seine I relax with un tasse de café.

My friend Elaine has contacted her friend Gaby, and we arrange for a drink before she attends a dance event at a local theatre.

I try for a ticket, but the show is a sell out. Business as usual. Gaby is a PhD student originally from Uruguay, and has been resident this past 12 years.

I reflect that like London, Paris is largely a city of immigrants. Most people here are from elsewhere. We chat casually in a mixture of French and English and whilst Gaby is saddened by recent events, she too has no fears of the future.

On Thursday I finally arrange to meet up with Dan and Julie, the prime motivators of my trip, for lunch at the Buddha Bar Hotel. The food is superb and the bar hideously expensive. One bottle of Belgian beer is 14 euros, which is more than the price of my flights!

We fall into the company of three American ladies. Judith, from Texas, has lived in Paris for 30 years and is best placed to give me a flavour of the mood of the city. She says something which hits home: ‘‘the blood dries quickly on the streets.’’ This is not cruel or callous, merely defiant. Life goes on regardless.

On my agenda for today is my own personal pilgrimage to The Louvre to visit the Mona Lisa. Is anything more symbolically French?

The following day I take a trip to the Bataclan theatre where the most bloody of the Paris attacks was perpetrated, to pay my respects and show empathy and solidarity. I’m woefully under-prepared for the profound sense of sadness and loss this experience engenders. It’s unsettling. Like visiting a cemetery with no graves, yet still a deathly encounter.

Hundreds of people mill about mournfully as if identifying a body in a morgue. The atmosphere is sombre. There is a palpable sense of collective grief and sadness. The railings of the park opposite have become an impromptu memorial, festooned with flowers, pictures, poems, flags and hand-written heartfelt personal tributes illuminated with a plethora of tealight candles.

Overwhelming emotions rise and flow as prematurely ended lives are mourned. Some of the tributes are moving in their simplicity. Biro pen drawings and words scribbled on foolscap pages ripped from the file pads of school children. Heartbreaking, poignant.

Five minutes walk from Le Bataclan brings me to Place de République. A statue on a column representing French freedom, has been transformed into a makeshift shrine in tribute to the dead. Photocopied pictures of lost loved ones are protected in plastic covered sleeves. One image in particular haunts me and moves me to tears. A photograph of a smiling, vivacious young woman is inscribed simply Lola, 17ans. Seventeen years old, murdered in the name of who? To further what cause? At this point there are no words, only sorrow.