Grand Boulevards – A Journey Through the Beating Hearts of European Metropolises.

If you search for the word “boulevard” on the Internet, you’ll find the definition: “Broad avenue with rows of trees and imposing buildings”. What an emotionless understatement when it comes to these grand streets that countless literature and films have made into legends.
byKonstantin Arnold

Rom – Via Veneto

You cannot actually imagine Rome without seeing it. The ancient seat of a world power, religious centre, and then the capital of Italy. Meaningless words, history lessons – until one day you sit in the taxi yourself and say, “Via Veneto, please!” “Beautiful”, says the driver. “Have you ever seen Fellini’s Roma?” “No.” “Or La Dolce Vita?” “Yes.” “Beautiful!” The driver tells me that the scene where Marcello Mastroianni leans on the bar with Anouk Aimée was filmed right here. Fellini, Visconti, Bellucci – he talks about so many films, cars, clothes, men and women, each shot a black-and-white picture to hang on a wall. This street was the centre of social life in the 1950s and 1960s, a mile of flesh and blood, new Alfa Romeos, like Pier Paolo Pasolini’s. He reels off the names – Umberto Eco, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Ursula Andress, Cary Grant, Monica Vitti. Ava Gardner, Kirk Douglas, Liz Taylor. And Frank Sinatra, looking for Ava Gardner on the trail of her diamonds, lost in the nightlife. But the greatest of these was Mastroianni. He married Sophia Loren countless times on the silver screen, and this is where he always sat – the driver points to a set of seats chained together. “Gran Caffè Roma.” And here, in the “Doney” Restaurant, is where the corpulent King Farouk of Egypt collapsed after dinner in 1965.

Today, such boring things as embassies and ministries are also found on this street. It has become an empty cosmic curve, no longer a boulevard with the Hotel Excelsior on the right-hand side and Harry’s Bar on the left as you drive towards Villa Borghese, as we are doing. It all used to be happening here on the Via Veneto. See and be seen. International jet set. We drive for quite a while, and I ask at the monument to Vittorio Emanuele, the National Monument, whether we are still on the Via Veneto. “No”, says the driver, “we are taking a detour.” We were going the right way though, and the right way Italian-style is just sometimes a detour. What’s the point of always arriving straight away? Had I ever seen the La Grande Bellezza?

Madrid – Gran Via

This beautiful, serious street with the powerful facades of its history. The shape of this country is remembered here like nowhere else. The buildings look like high-rise palaces and the high-rise palaces look like castles. Monumental, ornamented. The Edificio Telefónica is ghastly and has Franco’s eyes. During the daytime, the shutters are worn-out by the summer, and at night some of them glow red and others in secret-archive yellow.

The Gran Via is a gorge that devours life and brings the evening on. This is where you go when vanity shakes you out of a sweaty sleep and forces you to dance. You wake up late and go to bed even later, although in Spain there is no such thing as too late. The Gran Via has a bypass, but hardly anyone uses it. Here, the flow of the hustle and bustle of people’s affairs, errands, activities and issues carries on until everyone and everything is exhausted and congested. And then it starts all over again.

Paris – Boulevard du Montparnasse

Paris is at the start of everything. It all started with Paris. This is the city that changed my life. It made me rich – because it brought me to art. Since Paris, I know what it’s all for and why everything happens; that is, everything that had never appeared to be something happening until Paris. The city gave me eyes – or it taught them to see everything like Paris. Since Paris, I have wanted to become what I am: a person who feeds off his passions in Lisbon and therefore has to work on a construction site from time to time. Paris has had that effect on many. What is particular to me is that I had never been there before; I had only driven through once, got stuck in traffic jams, seen the Eiffel Tower from the Champs Élysées and had my valuables stolen at a rest stop. But I had read everything about Paris, everything you could read about the transition to the modern age, this last great Fin de Siècle, the Belle Époque and the war that destroyed everything and turned it into the Golden Twenties.

I know what floor Vincent van Gogh lived on, where Monet and Renoir met, what bars Maurice Utrillo boozed in – and I also know the street corners that Paul Verlaine vomited on after too many absinthes. I know what cafés Henry Miller sat in when he could afford café au lait. I read Francis Carco, Arthur Rimbaud, Joseph Roth, Murger, Breton, Hemingway. They all hung out here, in the “Café de la Rotonde” or the “Dôme”, but the main thing was on Boulevard du Montparnasse. The pavements under the awnings were stages of their age. Still beautiful today, even when a Citroën “Picasso” drives past.

Naples – Via Toledo

A classic shopping street. Always busy, unless you walk the 1.2 kilometres from the Piazza Dante to the Fontana del Carciofo in the cool morning of a hot day to have breakfast at the “Gran Caffè Gambrinus”. If you pass through the Galeria just before the Fontana del Carciofo, you almost pass Piazza Bellini, the Galeria and the Opera. The “Gambrinus” is at the end. There you have the most beautiful window seat in the world. In the salon, second table on the left. You sit at open windows before the gaze of painted women, you leaf through the newspaper with the day in front of you and you look at the early square warming in the sun, as it has done for many hundreds of years. If you make friends with real Neapolitans while eating pizza or trying to find the most beautiful monuments, you will meet this or that person, you will have to eat here and there and you will absolutely have to try that. You end up in dark backrooms, ride without a helmet on strangers’ motorbikes, walk into national monuments paid for with a wink, celebrate at wedding parties, must marry some distant cousin, mourn at funerals, attend private theatre rehearsals. There is no getting away. You get drawn into life on the Via Toledo, into which the Port District masses from the Spanish Quarter are now flowing. You become part of it, you blur, become a drop in the sea. You tear yourself away and lose yourself in the alleys with all the bookstores, which also become bars after midnight. You should stay on the Via Toledo though, not venture down to the “Nova Central” bar – just have another drink on a square that spreads in front of a dark church. On the tables sit candles, against the transparency of the night.

Milan – Via Alessandro Manzoni

Finally sunshine in Milan. Not well-dressed due to bad weather. Fashion as the centrepiece of life. Shopping and getting drunk and finally those pizza things that everyone is talking about. The cold air of the mountains flows down into the valley. The trams all going somewhere.
It gets dark long before the day is done and becomes pleasant on the Via Alessandro Manzoni, once the last fashion addicts come out of the shops, exhausted, hauling their purchases home, or getting them hauled home for them. The tranquil light of the displays falls quietly onto the pavement, and you stroll hunched, your head deep in your collar, past the shop windows, casting a look inside, from the world of joy into the world of dead things. It’s nice to be young and in love in this city without having to buy anything. It was my first real time here, because the first time I did not know who Puccini was, or Verdi and Antonio Mancini, who paints the aristocratic pack, at least in tears. I only remember the rain, a translucent curtain, the mist and the park that I could see through the haze from my window. The park today is radiant in the last of the light and is called Giardini Indro Montanelli. From there on to the cathedral, in front of which I always imagine someone playing “Nothing Else Matters” by Metallica. Strolling through the Galeria and drinking caffè standing up at Camparino. Tragic, beautiful severity.

I could now write about another “boulevard”, but this one is in a village 1,800 metres above sea level. It leads past hotel castles, costs over 30,000 Swiss Francs a square metre and presents dead things to the world in their displays left and right. Bottega Veneta, Louis Vuitton, Gucci, Loro Piana, Cartier; the world’s best-known designers in a unique concentration on probably the world’s shortest luxury mile. The only village street in the fifth most expensive location in Europe, where you can buy watches, furs, paintings, Engadine nut cakes and rare teas without crossing one traffic light to do so. So, you don’t even have to fly to New York, and you can have a drink at the bar in Badrutt’s afterwards (they’re better drinks anyway) to recover from the shock, if you still have money left over – or if not, then even more so. For those who do not judge the value of something based on how big it is, what it weighs and how much it cost, there is also something priceless – the winter, when large snowflakes fall and cushion the impact on your purse of the items at the Christmas market. Jazz plays in the background, and some dance as if just dodging the flakes. Nothing has greater value than the moments that come for free. The title at the beginning may not quite apply to village streets, but many of those who have experienced the grand European boulevards will sooner or later also walk the Via Serlas.

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