Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Today, I am Paris bound!

I am up at the crack of dawn to catch a taxi to Waterloo Station where the Eurostar will carry me to the Gare du Nord. I try to sleep on the train, but it’s hard. There is a gaggle of teenagers in Carriage 3 and while I cannot place where they are from, boisterous behavior knows no language and requires no further understanding. They have clearly come from some bonding event, like summer camp. Before long, they are singing at the top of their lungs. I think again of the businessman I met on the train to York. That line seems to follow me everywhere I go.

After a few disorienting moments at the station, I find a cash machine and the kiosk that offers tourist information. I buy everything that occurs to me, but should have made a list. I get a 6-day Paris Museum Pass and a ticket for the l’Open bus tour. I forget all about the “forfait loisirs” for Versailles from the RATP counter, a critical mistake that will follow me later.

As I contemplate all of the French signs around me, I feel my courage wane. I won’t try the RER just yet. I’ll get a cab to the hotel instead.

I am staying at the Hôtel des Grands Hommes in a “superior” room facing the Panthéon. I booked it months in advance on the hotel’s website at a special summer rate. Seeing it now, I cannot believe my good fortune. It’s stunning! My room is small, but it’s exquisitely decorated with fine furniture, an open beam ceiling, and upholstered walls in a Toile de Jouy fabric. This is a boutique hotel in the truest sense of the word. There is none of the bland and uniform decoration typically found in chain hotels. As I look around, the daze that descended on my brain at the Gare du Nord suddenly lifts and I realize truly that I am in Paris

For the rest of the afternoon I sit on the top deck of the l’Open bus and snap pictures of places I have long known but never seenNotre Dame and the Louvre, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower. I stop at an Orange shop by the Madeleine and buy a French SIM card for my mobile phone. I’m traveling solo and am aching to call home to share this with someone.

I eat dinner at “Le Luxembourg,” a brasserie on the Boulevard St. Michel near the Luxembourg Gardens. By now I feel more relaxed and take my best stab at speaking French, something beyond the obligatory “bonjour” and “merci.” Granted, it’s not much beyond, but the waiter seems to recognize that I mean well.

For dessert, I stop at Dalloyau next door and buy my first pistachio “macaron.” It’s like sheer heaven in cookie form. I wonder if I could make these at home, but I know the answer to that question. Not in a million years would they taste this good.

On the way back to the hotel for the night, I gather up my courage one last time and ask for a Carte Orange at the Luxembourg RER station. I printed out the text months ago. I even downloaded the pronunciation from the AT&T speech lab on the internet. I want to get it right. And, buoyed by my relative success at dinner, I do. But I never thought about what would happen next. The gentleman behind the counter asks me a question. I panic. I don’t understand what he says and do my best to explain, in French, that I do not speak the language well. He becomes frustrated with me and starts saying “finis, finis” over and over again. At first I think he is finished with me, that he has run out of patience and wants me gone, but I gradually realize that he is trying to explain something about the Carte Orange. It’s ending soon. He doesn’t think I should buy it. I want to explain to him that I need it for just one week, but that’s beyond by abilities. I nod appreciatively at him and hope he understands. It must be a difficult job, dealing with tourists all day.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

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 Reasonmuch 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 usualin one of the sad ironies of Parisian lifeclosed 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”

un
deux trois

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.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This morning I am determined to try again for the bell tower of Notre Dame. It opens at 9:30 AM and I am there a full half hour early. When the gate unlocks I am among the first to climb slowly up the 387 stairs to the top. In the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo tells the story of the deformed Quasimodo who is deafened by the sound of these bells. It is here, far above the streets of Paris, that he lived his life among the gargoyles. With my own eyes I see the 13-ton bell in the South Tower, known as “Emmanuel,” which survived the pillagers of the French Revolution, and the great stone beasts that ornament the façade. Some are intended simply to ward off evil spirits, while others have the more practical purpose of directing water off the roof into drainpipes. I think again of Hugo and of the melding of fact and fiction, of past and present.

The view of the city in all directions is grand. I spot the neo-Gothic spire of Saint-Chapelle and the ovoid dome of the basilica of Sacré-Coeur high on the hill in Montmartre. To the west, Gustave Eiffel’s iron creation towers over a tangled mass of rooftops, challenged only by Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides and the ancient Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Back down in the square in front of the cathedral I rest for while on a bench and watch a little girl chasing pigeons. She runs toward them, her arms extended, and laughs as they scatter in all directions.

By midday I am heading west along the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay. The St-Michel station on the RER line B is closed for renovations, so I walk instead along the quai. The distance is longer than I had expected and my feet are tired by the time I arrive.

The Orsay derives its name from the old train station it inhabits. Today, it holds one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. For this reason, it does not surprise me that the line to get in is coiled tight and far out the door. I slip past it and use my Paris Museum Pass to enter off the Rue de Lille instead. Already on the second day I feel justified in the price that I paid.

My first stop is not the Monets on the top floor, but the museum’s restaurant instead. For lunch I order medallions of pork with tomatoes and gnocchi on the side in a room that is itself a work of art. I sit at a small table facing the Seine under a ceiling framed in gold leaf. There is a mural painted by Gabriel Ferrier in 1900 depicting the “Four Seasons,” from which a dozen crystal chandeliers hang. The food is fine, but somehow the view and the art make everything taste even better.

Before coming on my trip, I listened to the audiobook version of Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, which is about the birth of the French impressionist movement. In it he contrasts the lives and careers of Edouard Manet and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. In a reversal of their reputations at the time, Manet is well known to us today, while Meissonier’s work lingers in obscurity. With my energy recharged, I am excited to set out and find Manet’s most controversial worksLe Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympiaand to see Meissonier’s meticulous “Campagne de France” as well.

The first two canvasses are prominent and easy to locate. I listen to the commentary on the museum’s audioguide, and from there I find myself wandering from room to room, pressing numbers into the keypad. After a lazy afternoon spent with Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir, I head out into the sun. I am well down the Boulevard Saint-Germain when I realize I never did see Meissonier. It feels ironic and sad, but it’s too late to go back.

I stop walking to appreciate two literary icons, the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, before heading inside the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Dark and mysterious, lit almost entirely by candles used for worship, it’s a peaceful retreat from the traffic outside.

I am heading back to the hotel now and find it both convenient and pleasant to cut through the Luxembourg Gardens along the way. I come to the battered old carousel Adam Gopnik writes about in Paris to the Moon, the one where children use wooden batons to catch rings as they spin around on the backs of horses, camels and giraffes.

On this late mid-summer afternoon, the pond in front of the Palace is alive with miniature sail boats, rented from a nearby vendor. Sunbathers recline on lawn chairs next to potted palm trees, and a woman wearing what I can only imagine is a frog costume strides by without a hint of self-consciousness. I trust Ella Fitzgerald when she sings about “April in Paris” and the charm of spring, but the city in July is perfectly wonderful, too.

I pick up a caprese sandwich from “Pomme de Pain” along the Rue Soufflot and relax in my hotel room for a few hours before heading out into the “City of Lights.” This time of year it does not get properly dark in Paris until after 10 PM, an inconvenience that has me bordering on exhaustion. I put up my feet and flip on the TV. Before long I feel rested enough to venture out into the night.

I pick up the Batobus in front of Notre Dame and take it up beyond the islands. It loops around and follows the Right Bank past Hôtel de Ville to the Louvre. I take pictures of the museum with I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in front, the light leaking gently through the triangular panes of glass. Back on the Batobus, I hop off again at the Eiffel Tower, just in time to capture the light show that sparkles for ten minutes at the top of every hour.

The Batobus has closed for the night. I will have to take the metro back and face the long uphill walk from the Maubert-Mutualité station to the Panthéon. But for now, the view in front of me is all that matters.

 

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.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

I hear the unwelcome sound of rain as I wake this morning. It’s like Bath all over again. I think about the gardens at Versailles and the fountain show known as “Les Grandes Eaux Musicales,” and about the long walk from the palace to the Queen’s Hamlet I so want to see. For a moment, I consider pushing the trip to tomorrow instead, but I would rather not. I’m looking forward to the end of the Tour de France and would hate to have to rush back to the city to see it. Regardless of my hopes and expectations, the weather is what it is. At least I have my ticket in hand, and given how painful it was to obtain, I’m committed to making the most of it.

Because of the closure on the RER B between St-Michael and Les Invalides, I have to take the metro further west to connect to the line. I get off at Javel – André Citroën and finally realize what those dashed lines on the map mean. I have to climb the stairs out of one station, walk a fair distance down the road in the rain, and connect with the RER at another. It is not a promising start to the day.

The ride to Versailles on the double-decker train is short but eventful. A group of musicians comes onboard and passes through the car laughing and singing and playing the accordion. Their gaiety is infectious and I am glad to contribute when they pass the hat around. They have distracted me from watching the weather out the window, so much so that when we arrive at the station near the Château I am surprised to see that the rain has stopped and that sun is breaking through the clouds. Oh, hallelujah!

When I see the ticket line, all of the bitterness I feel about yesterday’s quest evaporates. My pass does exactly what it was intended to do and I slip neatly inside. A woman at the information desk hands me a map, and while I am eager to get to the gardens while the weather is good, the suffocating crowd makes it impossible to do anything but follow en masse through the state apartments. The “Hall of Mirrors,” reopened recently after a multi-year restoration, is beautiful, but it is hard to gauge the full effect of the room while surrounded by tourists on all sides.

When I break out into the gardens at last, it is (quite literally) a breath of fresh air. I am just in time to see the fountains spring to life at 11 AM and stand in awe at the effect, looking down the “Grand Perspective” from the Palace steps. Classical music plays in background and I pick out the familiar strains of Charpentier’s “Te Deum.” Oh, to have been royal in the days of the Sun King

I sit for a while on a park bench, listening to the music and watching people pass by. I chuckle as young women traveling together, regardless of nationality, snap pictures of one another. They are happy and unaffected teenagers enjoying a summer’s day, but once the camera turns on them they adopt their best model’s pose. “The Fountain of Latona” becomes a catwalk, and they pout their lips and cock their shoulders trying to look aloof in these magnificent surroundings.

For lunch, I stop at one of the garden cafés and order an omelet served with French fries. Afterwards, I stroll down to the “Fountain of Apollo” and bear right, away from the canal. I stop first at the Grand Trianon and then at the Petit before winding my way to the Queen’s Hamlet, a quaint little village built for Marie Antoinette.

In my travels, I do not use the word picturesque lightly, or quaint for that matter, but both apply here. In my head, I know this small collection of buildings is the equivalent of today’s Disneyland. Built to amuse the Queen, it is here that she pretended to be a milkmaid while tending to her flock of perfumed sheep. Still, I am utterly captivated by it. I would move in tomorrow if I could, even if they all turned out to be false exteriors like those used on movie sets.

Along with Sainte-Chapelle and the bell tower of Notre Dame, this day in Versailles has been one of the highlights of my trip to Paris. Never would I have imagined after yesterday’s woes and this morning’s rain that things could turn out so very well.

Back home in the Latin Quarter, I cap off the day by treating myself to a classic French dinner at “Le Coupe Chou,” where I feast long and well on marinated sweet peppers, boeuf bourguignon, and crème brûlée.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

This morning I have entered the Empire of Death. I am not trying to be overly dramatic. That’s what the sign at the entrance to the Paris catacombs tells me: “Arrête! C’est ici l’empire de la mort.” I feel well warned not just by that exclamation, but by the bilingual note affixed to the door outside. It says: “We inform people suffering from cardiac or respiratory insufficiency of risks related to the visit to the Catacombs. The ossuary tour could make a strong impression on children and people of a nervous disposition.” Rather sure that I don’t qualify under the former conditions, I wonder about the latter. I wasn’t feeling at all jumpy until now!

Far below ground, it is a creepy, but not exactly frightening, place. Miles of disembodied bones line the paths of old stone quarries, neatly arranged into artistic compositions—femurs here, skulls there. It’s hard to believe that I’m looking at the remains of six million Parisians in this subterranean vault, nearly three times more than the number of souls living and breathing in the city proper today.

From here I take the metro to Place Monge for a walk along the Rue Mouffetard, one of the city’s oldest streets. It is late morning by now and the neighborhood markets are bustling with people, despite a light rain. For the first time, I feel as though I have slipped through the invisible barrier separating “tourist” Paris from the “real” Paris. In the square in front of St-Médard church, a crowd has gathered to listen to classic French chansons performed by two men on their accordions. Under a circle of umbrellas, I watch transfixed as a couple in the center dances to the tune of “Le Mer.” In English, it means “Beyond the Sea.” It’s a popular standard in both countries, used in America for the closing credits in Finding Nemo, and as the title song for a movie about Bobby Darin. The dancers are light on their feet, unconscious of the weather. Her skirt swings as she pivots in his arms. I know that when I hear the melody again I will associate it always with this place and this day.

I walk by fruit stands, butchers, and boulangeries, their windows filled to the brim with tempting treats. I devour a dish of oriental rose ice cream from “Gelati d’Alberto,” buy a box of Jeff de Bruges chocolates, and a delicate dragonfly pin in silver with green enamel wings made by a local artisan. Paris has been easy to admire, but hard to know. Here along the Rue Mouffetard, I feel at home.

As the afternoon slips by, I decide to make a return visit to the Louvre, this time to the Richelieu wing to see Napoleon III’s apartments, the Rubens Room, and two of Vermeer’s best known works, “The Astronomer” and “The Lacemaker.” I visit the Musée de l’Orangerie as well to see Monet’s waterlillies, and then settle into the crowd outside to wait for the riders to arrive in the Tour de France.

I am standing just off the Place de la Concorde, but the giant television screens that follow the race do little to tell me when they will arrive here. I listen for the cheers that roll like a wave through the city streets, and watch as the helicopters overhead swing around in my direction. They arrive in a pack and are gone in the blink of an eye.

After the riders disappear down the Quai de Tuileries, I look down at the screen on my digital camera. I have managed to take just one picture and I’m not entirely certain that the blob of yellow color I see is a bicycle. It could just as easily be Sponge Bob Square Pants running underwater at the speed of light. Thank God they’re on a loop! Before the riders return, I set my camera to multiple exposures and bump up the shutter speed.

I know nothing about cycling and never cared to watch the Tour de France on TV before, but being here in person has its own unique excitement. I am not near the finish line on the Champs-Élysées, and when it’s crossed at last, I am not there to see it. Like most in the crowd, my interest is tangential, my attention more on the lively atmosphere than the sport itself. It would be nice, though, if when I sort through my pictures later, I find that I captured the winner in one of the frames.

After a delicious dinner at the “Royal Thai” on Rue des Fossés Saint-Jacques, just around the corner from my hotel, I end the night with a sunset cruise aboard the Vedettes du Pont-Neuf. It’s a beautiful night, and by the time we arrive back at the bridge, there is a full moon rising high over the Île de la Cité.

Monday, July 30, 2007

I’m up early, heading by metro to the Tour Eiffel. This is my last full day in Paris and I hope to go all the way to the top. It’s a lovely morning and the temperature is cool, but when I arrive, I am disappointed to see that the tower is shrouded in fog. Hopeful that it will burn off soon in the summer sun, I join the queue.

Nearly seven million people visited this monument last year, but today the wait is pleasant and surprisingly short, which leaves little time for watching the trio of military men in fatigues and black berets paroling the perimeter. The ticket booths open at 9:00 AM and by 9:45 I’m standing in the first elevator heading up.

The scene from the top is indeed hazy. Looking north and east, Sacré-Coeur is little more than a silhouette on the horizon. I can see the glass roof of the Grand Palais, but not Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, the gold dome of Les Invalides, but not the Panthéon. When I look straight down, I’m surprised at what I can see—the unmistakable shape of a heart trampled into the grass on the Champs de Mars.

The sky is clearer in the west and the view of Trocadéro is broken only by the shadow of the Eiffel Tower itself. To the south, I spy a tiny replica of the “Statue of Liberty” on an island in the Seine next to the Pont de Grenelle, given by Americans as a gift in return for their own in 1889.

Before I leave, I buy a few cards and mail them from the post office on the first floor, assured they will receive a special cancellation stamp to prove that I was here.

My next stop is the Arc de Triomphe, built to honor France’s dead during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s an impressive site, especially after I find the tunnel underground which leads me there without the necessity of crossing a dozen lanes of traffic. Actually, as the view from the top makes clear, there are no real lanes, just chaos as cars and trucks hurl around the rotary.

By now, the fog has receded and the sky is bright. Looking out at the Paris landscape, I can appreciate what Baron Haussmann had in mind when he modernized the city in the mid-19th century—twelve grand avenues lined with trees, radiating from a single point. I snap a series of pictures from north to south, hoping to combine them later into a sweeping panorama.

For lunch I stop at the “Ladurée” tearooms on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, an elegant choice on the most famous street in the world. In the upstairs dining room, I order the Salade Concorde and a cream puff for dessert, called a “Religieuse à la violette.” There is soft music playing in the background while I eat. At first I notice the classic French song, “La Vie en Rose,” followed by a Norah Jones piece I can’t quite place, and inexplicably, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” I’m serious. It’s a downright strange mix. I buy a box of assorted macarons to take home to my family and then head out down the street.

I walk as far as the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, window shopping along the way, then take the metro to the Marais district to see the Place des Vosges. It is the oldest public square in Paris, built for Henry IV in the early 17th century. Here, Parisians and their dogs are lying on the grass, basking in the sun. I sit in the shade on a park bench instead and listen to the narration of one of Sonia Landes’ ParisWalks tours on my iPod.

Afterwards, I head south past the Paris Plage onto the Île Saint-Louis one last time, stopping for a raspberry tart from the Gabriela pâtisserie on the Rue des Deux Ponts. It is, quite possibly, the best thing I’ve tasted all week, and in a city of outstanding cuisine, that’s saying something.

Back in my room, I start to pack my bags, reluctantly. I’ll have to get an early start to the airport in the morning, but for now I’ve planned one more excursion into the City of Lights. I’ve scheduled an “Illuminations” tour on an open top bus and need to meet the group outside of the Paris Vision office on the Rue de Rivoili at 9:30 PM. I have little time to spare and stop only for a quick crêpe along the Rue Soufflot, where discover that I dislike the buckwheat version of this classic very much.

If the Rue Mouffetard felt like the genuine Paris, this is tourism at its worst. The bus is careening through the streets of the city at breakneck speed. I am grateful for the seatbelts. We pause no where, and I begin to rely on traffic lights for brief windows of opportunity in which to take pictures.

I enjoy photography and don’t mean to discourage anyone from taking the same liberty. I understand full well the memories a camera can capture. But my experience on this bus makes me wish I could give some well-intended, if somewhat sarcastic, advice to fellow travelers everywhere:

Rule #1. When taking pictures of landmarks at night, please turn off the flash. I beg you. It will not illuminate the Eiffel Tower a quarter of a mile away. Trust me, it won’t.

Rule #2. Please do not hold your camera or your cell phone at arm’s length. Yes, I know you want to see the picture on the little screen, but unless you are middle aged and you left your bifocals back at the hotel, there is no need to thrust your arm so far forward. The extra three feet you gain will not make a difference, and there is a very good chance you will whack someone else in the head if you do it while turning on a moving bus. This is especially dangerous to other passengers if you have not also followed Rule #1. A blinding flash directly in the eye is not pleasant at any time of day. Ever.

Our one stop of the night is on the Champs de Mars. By now my stomach feels queasy, perhaps from the buckwheat crêpe, but more likely from the lurching of the bus and the strobes of a hundred flash bulbs. When some in the group disappear and fail to re-board ten minutes later, part of me wishes I had done the same. But there is a bright moon over the École Militaire tonight and I can see the Tour Montparnasse rising out of the darkness behind it. It’s 11 PM and behind me the lights on the Eiffel Tower are sparkling like diamonds. I think of all the places I’ve been and what I’ve seen from those heights and know that I leave with no regrets.