Friday, July 27, 2007

My first stop of the day is the massive building directly outside my hotel window, the Panthéon. An inscription in gold lettering above the portico reads: “AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE.” To great men, the grateful homeland. This is the burial place of France’s favorite sons, its best loved national heroes—Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, Alexander Dumas, and many others. In 1995, when the great scientist Madame Curie became the first and only woman to be honored here, her remains and those of her husband had to be reinterred from the small town of Sceaux just outside of Paris.

It is a quiet space bathed with natural light from the rotunda, and with the exception of the young couples that congregate outside to kiss and watch the sunset over the Eiffel Tower each night, it seems to go largely unnoticed by tourists.

From there, I walk to another overlooked jewel of the Left Bank, the Musée National du Moyen Age. It is best known for a series of 15th century tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn,” but the museum’s collections also include important fragments of Gothic sculpture—the original apostles from the Sainte-Chapelle, and several heads from the statues of Notre Dame that were mutilated during the French Revolution. The latter were discovered thirty years ago in the basement of a Parisian bank and are thought to have been salvaged by an ardent royalist and then forgotten.

It is a pleasant and relaxed morning, far away from the maddening crowds. But things are about to get worse…

I am planning to head to Versailles tomorrow morning and given the closure of the RER line B between St-Michel and Les Invalides, getting there will be cumbersome. It will be easier, I think, to buy a combination rail and admission ticket, known as a “forfait loisirs,” today. Like the Paris Museum Pass, it not only saves money, it saves time by allowing pass holders to cut queues. But despite my best efforts in halting French, this is something I cannot manage to do, and I obsess by travelling from station to station. I am angry with myself for not buying a ticket when I had the chance the day I arrived. More than at any other time since I came to Paris, I feel helpless and lost, deeply aware of the fact that I am alone in a foreign country where I do not speak the language well. The feeling will pass, but for now it consumes me.

I finally end up back at the Gard du Nord, where I meet a sympathetic clerk at the Transilien ticket counter. She speaks excellent English. At last, I have what I need.

In looking at a map I realize that I am not terribly far from the famous Père-Lachaise cemetery. It is not a major item on my itinerary, but with some time to spare before the 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of Montmartre, I decide to take the metro down for a brief look. I choose not a buy a guide at the entrance, so I walk somewhat aimlessly up and down the lanes. I know that an eclectic mix of famous people are buried here—Sarah Bernhardt, Édith Piaf, Frédéric Chopin, Jim Morrison, Marcel Proust, and Oscar Wilde—but I don’t know where. I wonder though, if in a country of brilliant minds, they are somehow considered “B list” stars, since they rest here and not at the Panthéon.

I grab two quick crêpes—one savory and one sweet—from a café across the street before heading to the Abbesses metro station to meet up with the tour. Together, we wander the back streets of Montmartre with a knowledgeable and enthusiastic guide. We see the studios where Van Gogh and Renoir painted, learn a bit about Saint Denis and his famous head, and are rudely interrupted by a well-dressed drunk who insists we should know him from the newspaper. We don’t.

Afterwards, I gaze down at the rooftops of Paris from the steps of Sacré-Coeur and circle through the artist’s square, where the paintings are mediocre at best. The sky is grey and when it starts to rain I take shelter in the funicular down to the base of the hill. When I see the carousel in Square Louise Michel, I am reminded of a playful scene in the movie “Amelie,” but I’m awakened from the memory by an insistent man who wants to tie a string bracelet on my wrist. Having read the Trip Advisors forums, I know this scam well. I cross my arms, refuse to make eye contact, and push quickly by. He yells after me, but does not follow.

Back at the hotel, I follow the advice of the desk clerk and go out for Italian food at “Casa Valentino” on the Rue Saint-Jacques, topped off with a delectable combination of crème and caramel ice cream from Amorino on the Rue Soufflot. There are so many places to eat in my neighborhood, and so little time left in which to explore.

I end the night with a surprisingly short elevator ride to the observation deck of the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a tall, nondescript skyscraper that looks awkward and out of place in the Paris skyline, but the view from the top conveniently removes it from sight. From here, all of Paris is at my feet. The night is dark and the glow of the Eiffel Tower, École Militaire, Les Invalides, and the Arc de Triomphe makes the city’s greatest monuments look like stars in some constellation; the “Little Dipper” perhaps, with Notre Dame at the end of its handle.

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