After yesterday’s whirlwind tour, it seems only right to begin my real exploration of Paris where Paris began, on the Île de la Cité, one of two small islands in the very center of the city. After an easy walk from my hotel, I am standing outside of the Palais de Justice which serves as an inauspicious entrance to Sainte-Chapelle. My museum pass allows me to bypass by the ticket line and head straight for the security checkpoint.
Once inside, I appreciate the lower chapel, but the upper chapel… well, there are hardly words to describe how glorious it is. Compared to York Minster, St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, it feels small and intimate. Here, there are no cross-cutting transcepts, just a single nave in Gothic style. Built in the mid-13th century over a span of six short years, it was intended to house the relics of Christ’s passion, including the “Crown of Thorns,” for which Louis IX paid an exorbitant sum of money to the emperor of Constantinople. It is said that one item alone cost three and a half times more than construction on the chapel itself. Today, the remains of the crown rest in the Notre Dame cathedral, while the fame of Sainte-Chapelle lives on in the quality of its medieval stained glass.
My guidebook tells me that this space was once described as “one of Heaven’s most beautiful rooms,” and in looking around under a painted canopy of cobalt sky and gold stars, I believe it. There is scaffolding in the apse for restoration work, but it does little to distract.
In clockwise direction, the windows illustrate the biblical story from the Book of Genesis through Revelations. I spy the panel in which Cain kills Abel, and a graphic beheading from the Book of Kings with a face rendered in red glass to suggest a profusion of blood. Absorbed by the play of light and color, I feel faith and art and the violence of history merge seamlessly into one.
After leaving Sainte-Chapelle, I walk toward the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris and the bronze star embedded into the cobblestones in front. I am standing at “point zéro,” the official center of the city, the place from which all distances are measured. I claim a seat outside at Aux Tour de Notre-Dame, a large café next to the cathedral. I have my first genuine “pain au chocolat” and a glass of orange juice while soaking up my surroundings.
By the time I head into the church, the square in front is bustling with tourists. I am approached by a gypsy who nervously glances about before showing me a note on a slip of paper, written in English. Wary of pickpockets, I move quickly inside.
In The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo described this church as “a vast symphony in stone,” but one with a sad and difficult history. Tempus edax, homo edacior. Time is a devourer; man, more so. “[I]t is difficult not to sigh, not to wax indignant,” he wrote, “before the numberless degradations and mutilations which time and men have both caused the venerable monument to suffer, without respect for Charlemagne, who laid its first stone, or for Philip Augustus, who laid the last.” During the French Revolution it was converted into a Temple of Reason—much of the original stained glass was broken, the interior plundered, the statues beheaded. The popularity of the book was its salvation, inspiring Violet-le-Duc’s extensive restoration of the cathedral in the mid-19th century.
It is an awe-inspiring space, classic in its proportions. There are two long naves lined with small chapels that intersect in a cross, with rose windows at both ends of the transcepts. It was here that the tragic Mary, Queen of Scots was wed to a man to whom she had been promised since the age of five, here that Joan of Arc was canonized as a saint, here that Napoléon Bonaparte seized the crown of France from the Pope’s hands and placed it on his head himself to become emperor. Hugo was right. I look around at the statuary and the stained glass windows, both restored in painstaking detail. “Each face, each stone of the venerable monument, is a page not only of the history of the country, but of the history of science and art as well.”
After a brief walk through the archeological crypt under the cathedral (where nearly all of the commentary is in French) I move on to the Conciergerie. It is the ancient prison where Marie Antoinette and so many others were kept during the Revolution before their execution at the blade of the Guillotine. I read Antonia Fraser’s biography of the much-maligned Queen before coming here and now that I have it makes me sad. So much damage to so many lives.
In the early afternoon, I measure the length of the line to climb to the bell tower of Notre Dame. It’s long, but I decide to take a chance. The day is clear and visibility will be good. I stand there leaning against the wall for an hour and a half, moving mere feet at a time, with long intervals of nothing in between. I had planned to take a 2:30 PM “Paris Walks” tour of the two islands. Should I give up my place in line, or should I skip the walk? I decide to see it through. I have come this far. I am within twenty souls of the entrance when a woman comes out with a handwritten sign. The towers will be closed for the next two hours.
The translation is quickly passed from one tourist to the next like a round of “whisper down the lane” and soon those in line begin to scatter in disgust. Much of the afternoon has been wasted. There is nothing to be done. I think that perhaps I could find the tour group and join them late, but I decide to satisfy my hunger instead.
I order a ham and cheese crêpe from a street vendor next to the cathedral, half way down the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. There is a steady line, but the man behind the counter is unfazed as he swirls the batter with a small wooden mallet and flips it gently over from one griddle to the other. I linger just to watch him work. He must make a hundred crêpes or more every day, and yet he seems intent on making each his very best. When I finally bite into mine, he asks me how it is in broken English, a genuine smile upon his face. Très bon, I say, and mean it.
By the time I cross the bridge to the Île Saint Louis a few minutes later, my crêpe has vanished into my stomach and I am already thinking about dessert. The legendary ice cream shop La Maison Berthillon is, as usual—in one of the sad ironies of Parisian life—closed for the summer. But thankfully there are Berthillon signs everywhere in the take-out windows of cafés. I stop by “Le Flore en l’Île” and order a double cone of pistachio and raspberry which I eat while window shopping up and down the island’s quiet streets.
Eventually, I cross over to the Left Bank and browse the stalls that line the Seine, opposite Notre Dame. The “bouquinistes” offer an eclectic mix of second-hand books, antique prints, and modern souvenirs. I’ve seen old photographs of Paris and the view is wonderfully the same. I drop by “Shakespeare & Company,” a bookshop once frequented (albeit in a different location) by American ex-pat writers of the “Lost Generation,” such as James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Further down I cross over the Pont Neuf and laugh at the odd faces (or “mascarons“) that hang like ornaments on the side. My destination is one of the great museums of the world.
When I arrive at the Louvre through I.M. Pei’s infamous glass pyramid, the “no photography” signs are turned backwards facing the wall. To my surprise and temporary delight, hundreds of people are snapping happily away. In some rooms, so many flash bulbs burst I feel like part of the paparazzi chasing a Hollywood movie star.
I plan to return to the Louvre again later in the week, but suspect that the crowds will be smaller in the evenings and so I decide to hit some highlights now: the “Venus de Milo” and “Winged Victory of Samothrace,” Delacroix’s “Liberty Leading the People” and, of course, Leonardo’s iconographic “Mona Lisa.”
In the Denon wing on a Wednesday night, watching people watch the Mona Lisa is a fascinating study of human behavior. All attention in the room is trained on a single fixed point, the other works of art unnoticed and abandoned. The crowd presses in toward the center, its momentum checked only by a tenuous section of nylon rope. Unable to see above the crowds, people stretch their arms high and I see her image refracted onto the screens of dozens of cell phones and digital cameras. I find that my own self-interest in taking pictures conflicts with a deep understanding of why they banned photography in the Louvre in the first place.
There is subtle pushing and shoving under the watchful eyes of the guards. Parents put their hands on their children’s backs and press them forward. The kids look mortified. In a jumble of various languages, I hear them beg their children to stand still for just one more picture. One more. The kids clearly don’t believe it, and neither do I.
And then there are those who want only to have their picture taken in front of her. They jockey for position and attempt to clear the crowds around them for a clear view. Of them. Some never bother to look at the painting at all. It is as inanimate as the Eiffel Tower. A backdrop which exists only to prove that they were in Paris.
I think of these distractions and about a song Christine Lavin sings called “Two Americans in Paris“:
We run the length of
one more cavernous hall
a knot of people has gathered
round a certain painting
on that wall
you push me toward the front
of the reverent crowd
yes it’s her, I know that smile
can we leave now?
But you whisper
“Look the Mona Lisa
look at that face”
but I’m thinking
of the waiting cab
and flying back home to the States
You hold me by the arm
say “count to twenty-five
don’t miss this opportunity
it makes me feel alive”
but I’m looking at my watch
I’m telling you we must go
but you can’t release your grip
you shake your head “No”
“Look at the Mona Lisa
stare at that face
I will do the counting for you
just stand here in place”
quartre cinq six sept
huite neuf dix onze douze treize
quartorze quinze seize dixsept dixhuite dixneuf vingt
vingt-de-un vingt-deux vingt-trois vingt-quartre vingt-cinq
I start to count myself, but it’s hard in this crowd.
Out of nowhere, two little girls in identical green dresses and pale pink shoes squeeze under the rope line. With the guard’s permission, they stand alone in front of the painting and stare. Innocent of the madness around them, one crosses her arms on the wooden railing and rests her chin upon it, as if contemplating the mystery of Mona Lisa’s smile. Perhaps they are counting, too.