Thursday, June 13, 2013

After a less than inspiring visit to Bologna yesterday, I’m determined to do better today. Over breakfast, I unfold a map and consider my options. The Hotel Davanzati has a sister company called I Just Drive, which offers a number of small group tours. I had hoped to go on their outing to Pienza, Montalcino, and Montepulciano, but as in Venice my timing as a solo traveler is bad. No one else has booked the trip this week, so it’s understandable that it’s been cancelled. Modena could be reached by train, but Tommaso thinks it’s too far to go for the day. Ferrara is within reach, but Fabrizio wouldn’t recommend it. I’ve already been to San Gimignano, and while it’s a stunning town with soaring medieval towers, it’s too small to consider going back so soon. And tomorrow I’m heading west to Lucca and on to Pisa, so those destinations are out as well. I consider Fiesole for a moment, or maybe Pistoia, but I decide to roll the dice and lay my bet on the surest thing I know. I’m going to revisit the classic Tuscan hill town of Siena.

I went to Siena on my first trip to Italy back in 2008, but after touring the Palazzo Pubblico to see the frescoes depicting “The Allegories of Good and Bad Government,” and climbing the Torre del Mangia, I was too weary to bother with the cathedral or the baptistery or the adjacent Museo dell’Opera del Duomo. I spent the afternoon instead wandering the hilly streets in a happy stupor induced by some truly excellent food. It was a memorable day. Only later did it occur to me that I had missed the finest view of all, which is reached from the top of an unfinished wall of the Duomo, abandoned in the 14th century when the Black Plague swept through the city. My return today is all about unfinished business.

I walk to the SITA terminal near Santa Maria Novella and board a corse rapide bus that offers little in terms of scenery, but gets to Siena via the autostrada in little more than an hour. By 11:30 AM we’ve arrived at Piazza Antonio Gramsci and just as before, I follow the crowd of day trippers along Via Banchi di Sopra toward the city center and Piazza del Campo. I stand on the sloping pavement for a few minutes, soaking in the surroundings and the grandeur of the Palazzo Pubblico. There are pigeons bathing in the Fonte Gaia, children playing tag, and people lounging with their backs upon the warm bricks. It’s such a lively and pleasant place to be on a summer’s day that I’m tempted stay and eat lunch at one of the cafés that line the campo, but the meal I had here in 2008 was so exquisite that I feel obligated to find something that competes.

I pull up some TripAdvisor reviews on my iPhone—a wonder of technology that wasn’t at my fingertips the last time I was here—and opt for a table at Dolceforte. The owner, Anna, is sunny and gregarious, and justifiably proud of her food. I order a plate of wild boar ragù, and an arugula salad with walnuts, pears, and pecorino cheese, drizzled with a homemade balsamic reduction. Everything is delicious, especially the balsamic and when I tell her so, she beams.

With fuel in my stomach and energy in my legs, I decide to tackle the most trying item on my itinerary first—the narrow, corkscrew stairway that leads to the Panorama del Facciatone. Because I am determined to do things properly this time, I invest in an all-inclusive Opa Si pass for €12, then enter the Duomo museum and start climbing. There’s a waiting line to get there, but the sight of Siena at my feet more than makes up for the bottleneck. Between the height of the unfinished nave wall and the topography of the land, I am high above the fan of Piazza del Campo, as if floating on air. It would be difficult to imagine a more sublime view.

I descend the winding stairs and explore the museum itself, which has a treasure trove of medieval art, including Pisano’s original statues from the front façade of the Duomo, and Duccio’s “Maestà,” a stunning two-sided altarpiece completed in 1311. When I see the enthroned Madonna with Child, though, I can’t help but think of Mario and his “dropery.”

Once outside again, I round the corner to get a better view of the cathedral itself. It’s a lacy confection with a round window that reflects the clouds and the blue of the sky. The pink and green marble reminds me of the basilica of Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, but the Gothic spires and the gold mosaics have me thinking of Orvieto instead, which makes sense since the architects there were Sienese as well.

Inside, the nave is lined with bold striped columns of black and white stone, and the floor is paved with intricate mosaics and inlaid marble panels. There is a Nicola Pisano pulpit depicting the life of Christ that was completed in 1265, and an adjacent library that houses a collection of illuminated manuscripts with a series of stunning wall frescoes devoted to Pius II. The entire cathedral is a deeply spiritual place, and impressively intellectual as well for its place in art history, and yet somehow I can’t stop giggling at all the tourists who have been forced to wear the “cloak of shame.”

In many ways, Italy is still a conservative country, and a devoutly Catholic one, too. While in America, someone might attend mass on a Sunday morning wearing shorts and a halter top, there are standards of modesty here—shoulders at least, and often knees, must be covered. Surely, that’s not asking too much? I carry a scarf in my purse for such occasions, although today it is a looking a bit tattered and worse for wear after that wrestling match with the zipper on my purse in Bologna. But at least I come prepared. For those who don’t, there are disposable paper capes that must be worn, and they make people look positively ridiculous, as well they should. If only they could ban flip flops, too, I would be well satisfied.

Once I visit the crypt and the cool darkness of the baptistery, I’ve completed all the sites covered by my Opa Si pass, so I’m ready to wander about. I stop for some raspberry and lemon gelato at Grom, window shop for ceramics that display the coats of arms of the seventeen contrade of Siena that compete in the Palio each year, and buy a few ricciarelli cookies from Nannini to eat later.

By half past four, my legs have given out on the hilly terrain and I decide to catch the next SITA bus back to Florence. It’s been a scorching day and the slant of the afternoon sun warms the bus dangerously. By the time we reach the entrance to the city at Porta Romana, the temperature gauge on the dashboard is reading 40° Celsius, or more than 100° Fahrenheit.

Back at the hotel, I lay down to rest for a bit in my room and once again crank up the air conditioning. A while later, I come out for one final Happy Hour. As usual, there is music playing in the background, there are candles on the tables, and a dish of crostini alongside the hotel’s own Davanzati sauce. There’s a full house tonight, so I’m sitting at a table in the lobby when Tommaso comes over and sits down to join me. He leans over and peers into my glass. “What are you drinking,” he says, half curious, half amused. “Is that Coca-Cola?” Yes, I say, burying my face in my hands. With a good-natured grin, he says: “We do offer prosecco and Chianti, you know.” Will the embarrassment never end? Am I forever destined to be either pitied or scorned as “the woman who no drink wine”?

After enduring the heat on the bus, I can’t muster enough hunger to warrant going out for dinner. I grab a sandwich from the takeaway counter of a café instead and head over the Ponte Vecchio to buy a ceramic piece I saw in a shop there the other day on my morning tramp around the Oltrarno. The sign reads Sciccherie: Artigianato d’Arte Italiano. The woman behind the counter recognizes me and she introduces herself. Her name is Tiziana. She is kind and she enjoys practicing her English, which encourages us to talk. When I pick out an occupational plaque that depicts a L’INSEGNANTE, or teacher, she asks if I am buying it for myself, and I nod. At that, she wraps it carefully, first in bubble wrap, but then in paper, and ties it with a brightly colored ribbon, treating it with the care of a special present. “It is a gift you give yourself,” she says, and I like the sentiment very much.

On the walk back to the hotel, I stop and listen as Claudio Spadi sings Venderò. Tonight, Luca Sciortino has joined him and the mood on the Ponte Vecchio is as mellow as the setting sun. As I sit on the edge of the curb, I think about Tiziana and about Giovanni Turchi and the young man in the workshop of the Scuola del Cuoio, about Claudio who sings his heart out every night, and about Tommaso and Fabrizio back at the Davanzati. They’ve all been so nice. Perhaps that’s why I’ve grown fond of Florence over the years, and why I always feel wistful when it’s time to move on. It’s a strange feeling, to be so much at home in a place so far away from home, but there you have it.

When I pass the Mercato Nuovo, I make sure to drop a coin in the mouth of Il Porcellino and to rub his well-worn snout. It’s a ritual I’ve held to each trip on my final night in Florence. I suppose that means I’m a bit superstitious after all.

I know it works, though, because I always come back.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

I can’t believe my groggy eyes this morning. There is sunshine in Somerset. Oh, hallelujah!  

I rush through my breakfast at 3 Abbey Green and then dart up to the Royal Crescent and over to Pulteney Bridge and back. I’ve got to catch a train to Oxford, but I am determined to get at least one picture of Bath with a pleasant, blue sky overhead before I leave.

By the time I arrive in Oxford, it’s just past one in the afternoon and dense clouds have gathered overhead, casting a dull shadow over the city. I check into the Royal Oxford Hotel just down the street from the railway station, where my accommodations remind me vaguely of a dorm room. I drop off my bags and then follow the map in my hand down Park End Street and across to George Street and Broad Street, which are lined with book stores and souvenirs shops that have an endless variety of Oxford University t-shirts, sweatshirts, postcards, and coffee mugs in their front windows.

Oxford is the oldest university in the English-speaking world, with such beautiful and harmonious architecture that the poet Matthew Arnold once called it the “city of dreaming spires.” Both C.S. Lewis—author of the Narnia Chronicles—and J.R.R. Tolkien—who wrote The Lord of the Rings series—taught here and met regularly at a local pub as part of a literary discussion group known as The Inklings.

My own academic credentials are sturdy enough. I was fortunate to spend six years at Yale University in the 1990s, earning two master’s degrees and a Ph.D., but for the first time ever in my intellectual life—as I wander past the Sheldonian Theatre, Radcliffe Camera, and the Bodelian Library—I find that I am green with envy. Sterling Memorial Library at Yale is beautifully ornamental, with stained glass windows and gargoyles and fan-vaulted ceilings, not unlike those seen around Oxford, but Sterling was built in 1931 in the neo-gothic style, a modern ode to the great cathedrals of Europe. In contrast, the Bodelian Library dates to the mid-15th century, and the circular Radcliffe Camera with its beautiful Palladian proportions, was completed in 1749, when Yale was still in its infancy.

The sprawling Oxford campus, make up of 38 individual colleges, is impressive to say the least, and on this June afternoon it is pulsing with energy and excitement because there are new graduates, dressed in black gowns, hoods, and mortarboards, posing for photographs alongside their proud families.

From Radcliffe Square, I slip between Brasenose and All Souls College and emerge onto the High Street, where I spend some time browsing Jigsaw, Reiss, Whistles, and L.J. Bennett—all of Kate Middleton’s favorite shops, if Britain’s tabloid press is to be believed. When I reach the clock on Carfax Tower, with its two “quarter boys” chiming the bells at every quarter hour, I turn left down Saint Aldate’s, past Old Tom and a bookstore that inspired Lewis Carroll’s “Old Sheep Shop” in Alice in Wonderland, and into the War Memorial Garden at Christ Church.

The sun has broken through at last, and the view of the cathedral is sublime. The manicured lawn looks emerald green against a stone retaining wall, from which cascading waves of purple flowers fall. For the first time in more than a week, I take off my jacket and sit on a park bench, my head tilted back, soaking in the rays.

I check my watch and see that there is still time to tour the Christ Church before the evensong service at 6:00 PM. I head down the stone path to the Meadow Gate and follow a small crowd inside and up the stairs toward The Hall, a grand dining room crowded with old portraits and heraldic shields that inspired the filmmakers who created the Great Hall at Hogwarts for the Harry Potter movies. There are parallel rows of long wood tables that run the length of the room, lit with charming sconces and set with college china, and there is a medieval ceiling supported by thick, oak beams high overhead. I glance around and wonder if they would mind if I pulled up a chair and stayed for dinner and some delightful conversation? The looming presence of a guard tells me they probably would, so I take my pictures in quiet resignation and file out toward Tom Quad. 

The tour also includes Christ Church Cathedral, which serves both the diocese of Oxford and the college as its chapel, dating back to the days of Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII. It’s a small space by the standards of European cathedrals, but it lacks nothing in grandeur. There is a long nave and a chancel with a fan-vaulted ceiling, and a beautiful rose window in stained glass above the altar. There is also an impressive early-17th century window depicting Jonah with the ancient city of Ninevah.

I rest for bit in the War Memorial Garden and then make my way back to the cathedral in time for evensong, which by tradition operates on “cathedral time,” five minutes late. There is a mixed choir tonight, make up of both men and women, the harmonious sound they create is peaceful and soothing, the perfect end to a busy day.

For dinner, I’m not in the mood to wander or to wait. It’s after seven on a Saturday night in a bustling, college town, so I’m more than grateful that a table is available at a chain restaurant named Bella Italia. I order an arugula salad with parmesan cheese and a bowl of pasta carbonara, and both are reasonably tasty. On the walk back to my hotel, however, I can’t help but wonder what they’re serving in the Christ Church dining hall tonight, and the graduate student I used to be, countless years ago, wishes I was there.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

This is one of those days that I’ve looked forward to for a very long time. It’s the Sunday after Corpus Domini and I’m up early to catch an 8:14 AM regionale train to Orvieto for an annual event known as the “Procession of the Holy Corporale.”

The day itself, which honors the Eucharist, is an important one in predominantly Catholic countries such as Italy, but the celebrations here extend far beyond church services. Over the weekend, many towns hold an infiorata in which flower petals are arranged into art, creating stunning street mosaics that last mere hours. Spello, a tiny town near Assisi, has one of the most famous of these festivals, and I had wanted to go, but it conflicts with the parade in Orvieto, and in the end, I decided to attend the latter instead. And so here I am, waiting for the funicular to take me to the town at the top of the hill.

According to tradition, a religious miracle occurred here in 1264. When a priest on a pilgrimage to Rome stopped at a church in nearby Bolsena to celebrate mass, he is said to have witnessed the Host bleeding. A piece of the habit he wore that day—known as a corporale—was stained by the blood, and to this day it is kept in Orvieto’s cathedral. Once each year, the relic is taken through the streets of the city in a lengthy procession that includes hundreds of men, women, and children in medieval costume.

It’s just after 10 when I reach the top and rather than wait for a bus, I decide to hurry as best I can down Corso Cavour, navigating from a flimsy map I printed out from home, and the low rumble of drums in the distance. The parade is already under way.

I approach the cathedral from behind and slip along the barricades into a doorway along Via del Duomo, near the piazza. I barely have time to glance up at its glorious façade—which guidebooks hail as a masterpiece of the Late Middle Ages—when the first heralds arrive with their trumpets. They are followed by a swirl of sights and sounds that set my camera’s shutter into high speed. There are waves of flags, banners, and shields with various coats of arms, knights and squires dressed in richly embroidered cloth, priests releasing incense from brass thuribles, and soldiers in plumed helmets and chainmail, armed with spears, crossbows and halberds. From their breastplates to their buckles, the attention to detail is a marvel, like a legend come to life off the pages of a book, and I think of Robin Hood or the Knights of the Round Table.

When the corporale makes its appearance at last, it’s under a white canopy trimmed in gold, seated upright in an ornate reliquary, richly decorated in enamel. The people lining the streets grow quiet and bow their heads in respect, many making the Sign of the Cross. An old woman leaning out of a window overhead applauds.

Round and round they go, from Piazza del Popolo through the streets to the duomo and back. It’s a grand spectacle and one in which the citizens of Orvieto clearly take pride. In fact, I don’t think I’ve never been so grateful for the zoom lens on my camera. The experience aside—and it has been a memorable one—if I don’t walk away from this with some truly excellent pictures, it will be no one’s fault but my own.

Once the service inside of the cathedral begins, the audio is conveyed on loud speakers to the crowd outside. The Italian that is spoken is lost to me, but the music—a mixture of sung hymns and traditional organ—most definitely is not.

As the crowds disperse through the narrow streets, I settle in for a light lunch at L’Antica Pizzetta, where I order a plate of polenta with mushrooms, drizzled in olive oil, and a glass of the local white wine, known as Orvieto Classico.

Afterwards, I drop by the tourist information office in the Piazza del Duomo to purchase a carta unica, which covers admission to nearly all of the city’s monuments. The Torre del Moro is my first stop of the afternoon, for its panoramic view, that blessedly comes with an elevator.

I spend the rest of the afternoon pleasantly, again shopping for ceramics, visiting the market in Piazza della Repubblica and the rustic church of Sant’Andrea which faces it. By the time I make my way back to the duomo to examine its façade in detail—an astonishing mix of gold leaf, mosaic tile, and bas-relief sculptures—it’s open once again for visitors, and after a day of bright sunshine, I welcome the cool air and the dim light of the interior. The stone walls and massive columns that support the nave are constructed in green and white horizontal stripes and they are nearly as vibrant as the cathedral’s famous façade. Yet the highlight for me is the Chapel of St. Brizio, which features Luca Signorelli’s frescoes of the Apocalypse (1499-1502). I’ve seen imagery of this, and of the Last Judgment, before, countless times—on the wall of the Sistine Chapel, on the ceiling of the baptistery in Florence, on the St. John Altarpiece in Bruges, on a portal of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, and so on—so the writhing, naked bodies come as no surprise. But there is something fantastical here, something animated, that appeals to me and creates beauty out of misery and torment.

At 4:00 PM, I arrange to meet a guide named Anita for a group tour of the Orvieto underground. The city was built on a massive mound of soft limestone rock known as tufa, through which the Etruscans dug miles of caves, the rounded edges of which remind me of the Flintstone’s. In some rooms there are rows of small recessed holes in the walls. When Anita asks us to speculate on their use and purpose, we offer a variety of guesses. Some think the niches were used to store olive oil, others as a kiln for ceramics, and even a World War II bomb shelter. They were, she said, carved to create nests for breeding pigeons.

As we make our way back up towards daylight, I have a decision to make. I’ve seen posters around town for a cavalcade at 6:30, where riders on horseback will parade in Piazza del Duomo, and there is bleacher seating being set up now. Should I stay? I would like to, but it’s been a busy day and energy is starting to flag. I decide against it, and head back towards the funicular for one last stop at St. Patrick’s Well.

The well was built in the early 16th century and it’s famous for its clever, double helix design, which allowed people and livestock to descend down one set of stairs to the water at the bottom, while directing traffic up an entirely different staircase for the ascent back to the top. When my legs make it only part way down, and I am forced to retrace my original route, apologizing to the young woman at the ticket counter when I emerge from the wrong path, I know I’ve made the right decision to head back to Arezzo now, rather than staying late for the cavalcade.

On the way back, I realize that I forgot to validate my ticket before boarding the train. I panic, remembering the stories I had read about the fines that are imposed. An old Brit onboard says, “I wouldn’t fuss about it, my dear.” And he’s right. The conductor never comes through the car to collect tickets anyway.

Tired when I arrive, but grateful for my good fortune, I return to the same kebob shop along Via Guido Monaco and order a falafel to go.

Just before I fall into bed, I remember the uncharacteristically harsh words Henry James wrote about Orvieto when he visited in the 1870s. He found it “meanly arranged and, as Italian cities go, not [a] particularly impressive little town.” It was, he thought, quite “inferior to its fame.” As I scroll through the pictures on my camera, I think that perhaps if he had visited during Corpus Domini, he would have changed his mind.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

This morning I’m traveling by train to Milan. It’s a three hour journey, so there is ample time to sit back, read, and reflect. I pull out my iPod and tap on the Kindle reader. Soon, I’m back with my old friend Henry James, immersed in his Italian Hours.

When it comes to Milan, he says, “in its general aspect still lingers a northern reserve which makes the place rather perhaps the last of the prose capitals than the first of the poetic.” After spending yesterday afternoon staring across the Gulf of Poets, and finding all of the Ligurian coast perfectly disposed to lyrical verse, this has me worried. I’m reading between the lines, and Milan doesn’t sound very interesting.

I know just four things about Milan—it’s a large city, long considered the financial capital of Italy; with names such as Ferragamo, Versace, and Valentino, it has a major influence in the world of fashion; it is home to Leonardo Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper”; and it has a famous cathedral. Altogether these seem like promising ingredients, worth a three night stay.

My entrance into Milan through the massive Centrale train station is not auspicious, however. It’s early afternoon and the weather has turned. The crystal blue skies I enjoyed in the Cinque Terre have been replaced by a suffocating blanket of grey.

I’m staying nearby at the Hotel Berna. It’s a nice place—quite luxurious on the inside, actually—but as in most cities the area surrounding the station feels a bit seedy. There is a Thai massage parlor next door and, according to the sign, a “Sexy Shop” across the street.

After checking in and unpacking my bag, I buy a day pass for the Metro and ride the yellow line four stops down to the Duomo. When I emerge from the subway below, the massive cathedral stands before me and at first all I can think to compare it to is a wedding cake. It is, perhaps, an overused comparison when it comes to ornate architecture. Londoners refer to the Victoria Memorial in front of Buckingham Palace as the “wedding cake,” just as Romans call the Vittorio Emanuele II monument in Piazza Venezia the “wedding cake.” There is even a private home in Kennebunk, Maine that locals dub the “wedding cake.” But here I’ll allow myself some latitude. After all, Twain suggested it more than a century ago in the Innocents Abroad. He thought it was “a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath!” and I find myself hard pressed to improve upon the metaphor.

Reaction to the cathedral has always been mixed. It took workmen nearly 600 years to complete it, using a jumble of architectural styles, and even then it required a direct order from Napoleon Bonaparte to finish it off in 1805. John Ruskin, that cranky arbiter of good taste, hated it. Henry James was more circumspect, declaring it a “structure not supremely interesting, not logical, not… commandingly beautiful, but grandly curious and superbly rich… If it had no other distinction it would still have that of impressive, immeasurable achievement… a supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.” It’s hardly a ringing endorsement, but as for me, I like it well enough.

The interior is a massive cavern, supported by fluted columns of grey stone that rise from the floor like giant sequoias, between which oil paintings are suspended. There is some impressive stained glass, a graphic sculpture of a flayed St. Bartholomew carrying his skin slung over his shoulder, and an interesting treasury below with jeweled goblets and reliquaries. But the real highlight lies above, way above. I make my way back outside and around the corner where I purchase a ticket for the elevator that speeds me to the roof. From here, visitors can walk among the flying buttresses, admiring the thousands of statues that stand like sentries at the top of lacy spires. A little girl nearby says in amazement to her mother: “But why did they put them all the way up here where no one can see them?”

Back on the piazza, I walk next door to the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th century shopping arcade named for the first king of a unified Italy. The soaring space inside is covered by a vaulted glass ceiling and it reminds me of a cathedral, although clearly it is the god of commerce that is worshipped here.

I scan the mosaic tile on the floor, looking for the coat of arms of the city of Torino. There is a bull in the center, and in my guidebook it says that if you place your right heel on the animal’s testicles and spin around, it will bring good luck. I’m not in the least superstitious, but I give it a whirl anyway, figuring it can’t hurt. It can’t hurt me, in any event. Unfortunately, a century or more of this clearly has hurt the bull, because the poor beast’s underbelly has worn away into a deep crater.

I walk around the Galleria a bit, but I’m too timid to actually enter any of the shops, which include Prada, Gucci, and Louis Vuitton. There is, however, a McDonalds, and I find the juxtaposition so intriguing that I’m tempted to grab an early dinner there. Unfortunately, I settle on the nearby Caffè Letterario instead.

Every region of Italy has its own signature dishes. In Rome it’s saltimbocca and in Milan it’s ossobuco—a classic braised veal shank, usually served with saffron risotto. This is what I have my heart set on, although in retrospect a Big Mac would have been the better culinary choice. Yes, I am eating in the stylish Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which has its own rewards, but the food is horrible, and to add insult to injury, wildly overpriced.

Later, I stumble across a blog called The Simplistic Aphrodisiac. The author visited the same restaurant just two days before me and he says that the experience was “memorable,” but for all the wrong reasons. “After having had so many delightful meals throughout the trip, I finally hit a brick wall with this deceitfully established restaurant in downtown Milan.” And boy, does that ever hit the proverbial nail on the head!

As I walk down Via Dante toward the Castello Sforzesco, I find myself falling into a sour mood. The street itself fails to impress and just as I reach the grounds of the castle, they are pulling the gates closed for the day. On the way back to the metro and the Hotel Berna, with its “Sexy Shop” across the street, I give in and finally admit that I don’t like Milan.

I wonder if I somehow overslept on the train and slipped quietly over the border into, say, Switzerland. Henry James was right. Milan, indeed, symbolizes the “supreme embodiment of vigorous effort.” Its solid streets, banks, and shops represent “difficulties mastered, resources combined, labour, courage and patience”—all admirable qualities, to be sure, but as travelers we seldom want to visit such joyless places.

My Italy exists in poetry. When Milan speaks, I hear only prose.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This morning I am sitting at Café Delmas, watching the world go by. Soon, I’ll be heading to Bayeux for a two night stay, in part to squeeze in a tour of the D-Day sites before the 65th anniversary attracts larger crowds—as well as President Obama and his entourage—later this week. But for now, I feel lazy and content with my pain au chocolat and café crème.

The train to Normandy leaves at 12:10 PM from Gare Saint-Lazare, the station made famous in a series of impressionist paintings done by Claude Monet in the 1870s. To my eyes, its vaulted ceiling of iron and glass looks much the same, and the continuity across the intervening century impresses me.

By 2:15, I’m resting comfortably in the back seat of a cab heading for the Hotel Churchill. With a jovial smile, Daniel greets me at the front desk and hands me the key to room 200, which is (at least for me) unnecessarily large and expensive. It is testimony to the popularity of the hotel, or perhaps to the importance of the week, that it was—even seven months ago—the only room left.

I pause for a moment to enjoy the view out the window, which looks out across a sea of gray rooftops, from which the spires of Bayeux Cathedral rise in the distance. I decide to make that my first destination.

From Place de Québec, behind the hotel, I take a short walk down Rue Larcher before turning onto Rue de Nesmond towards the cathedral. It’s an impressive structure dating to the 11th century, both Norman and Romanesque. Made of a honey colored stone, the façade is ornamented with gargoyles and grotesques. The contorted faces are meant to ward off evil sprits, or so I’m told. I’ve seen these fantastical beasts clinging to the sides of churches all over Europe, and I usually find them more charming than frightening. But here their wildness is enhanced by the occasional tufts of vine and grass growing from cracks in the ancient mortar.

When I reach the heavy wooden doors at the entrance to the cathedral, I pause for a moment to appreciate the tiny figure carved into the tympanum above the south portal. I’m certainly no expert, but last year’s trip to Italy taught me something. It’s easy to spot a depiction of the “Last Judgment,” and there he is, the Devil, guarding the gates to Hell.

Inside is another matter entirely. This is pure Heaven. So quiet and serene, in fact, that for a while as I wander from one side chapel to the next, I forget that this is the place where Harold swore allegiance to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the man named by Edward the Confessor, King of England, as his heir. It was this oath that Harold broke, leading to the Norman invasion and William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which later through the charms of history gave him the far superior name of William the Conqueror.

Today, the cathedral owes its preservation to the speedy success of another invasion eight centuries later. Bayeux was liberated by the Allies soon after D-Day in 1944, which spared the structure—and its medieval stained glass windows—from the bombardment that flattened nearby Caen. I am grateful for that as I watch colored light spill out through the cobwebs that have collected in the window frames, like some manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It’s a peaceful space and I would stay longer if it weren’t for my gnawing hunger.

In search of something to hold me off before dinner, I make a loop through the town, along Rue de Cuisiniers and its half-timber frame buildings, then down Rue Saint-Martin, to the riot of shops that line Rue Saint-Jean. For an unbelievably cheap €1.60, I buy a luscious pear and almond tarte from a pâtisserie called La Reine Mathilde and munch happily as I make my way to the Tapestry Museum.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry is really not a tapestry at all, but rather a long piece of embroidered cloth, said to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Measuring nearly 230 feet, it depicts in consecutive scenes the events leading up the Norman Conquest of England. For centuries, it was displayed once in a year in the cathedral for the Feast of the Relics, but since 1983 it’s been hanging behind glass in a darkened room in the city’s former Seminary.

With the museum’s audio guide planted firmly on my head, the experience is a feast for the senses. It’s all here. Edward the Confessor sending Harold to France, Harold shipwrecked and held for random along the way, Harold’s oath of loyalty to William, and the bloody aftermath of his defiance following Edward’s death. There is a Latin inscription along the way, but the message is overwhelmingly visual. There are soldiers in chain mail riding horses into battle, a hailstorm of arrows, and decapitated bodies littering the ground.

Afterwards, in the museum gift shop, I overhear a conversation between an American husband and wife. The wife, it seems, missed the crucial scene at the end where Harold is killed by an arrow in the eye. In a deep southern drawl, tinged with disappointment, the man says: “But that’s the best part!”

I have just enough time to change clothes back at the hotel before making my 7:30 PM reservation for dinner at Le Pommier. It’s an expensive meal, but a well-earned treat. I order a glass of wine and three courses from the Norman cuisine menu—a salad with warm goat’s cheese to start, followed by medallions of pork in a Neufchatel cheese and cream sauce, ending with an apple pie served with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream.

At the table next to mine, a middle-aged couple is dining with two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The girl is acting moody, pulling her fists deep inside her navy hooded sweatshirt. She doesn’t know what to order, but more than that, she doesn’t much want to be here, and from where I sit I’m not quite sure if her complaint is associated with this restaurant in particular, or France in general. When she looks over at my entrée, I show her the pork, which I can heartily recommend, but when she sees my bread plate a genuine smile grows across her face. “Oh, you have butter,” she says, animated at last. “H-o-o-o-w did you get butter”?

Ah, the French. They may be well known for their rich sauces, but it is true that they rarely serve butter with their bread. Nonetheless, here it is, unprompted and nearly overlooked, in a miniature crock on my table. The simple gesture brings pleasure to us both, something familiar far from home, and we both grin.

On my way back to the Churchill, I use my cell phone to call my nephew to wish him a happy 18th birthday, and then I linger to take some pictures of the cathedral, floodlit against a fading blue sky. I can see it still from my hotel window, until I pull close the drapes, turn out the lights, and fall into bed.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This morning, I’ve taken the metro from Cardinal Lemoine to Odéon, where I’m standing on a street corner in the middle of rush hour traffic trying to get my bearings. I’m looking for 76 Rue de Seine, which is the Left Bank address of the famous Gérard Mulot. I have an unrivalled sweet tooth, so for me the pâtisseries of Paris are a kind of heaven, made up of pastel-colored macarons, flaky croissants, and buttery madeleines. This one comes highly recommended, mentioned appreciatively in guidebooks from Frommer’s to Lonely Planet and everywhere in between.

When I reach the white awning above the shop window, I cautiously peer in. On display are giant cones covered in a rainbow of concentric circles, with rows of lemon yellow, turquoise blue, and pistachio green. And then there are the cakes, piled high with meringue and fresh raspberries. It’s a feast for the eyes, but at the moment I’m more interested in satisfying my stomach. I settle on a pain au chocolat and a pastry filed with buttercream and carmelized hazelnuts—both wildly successful choices!

Quite content, I make my way next to Gare Montparnasse to catch a train to Chartres. After I composter le billet in the yellow machine by the track, I settle in for an easy hour’s ride.

The gray spires of Chartres cathedral—curiously mismatched—dominate the skyline in town, drawing tourists like a magnet to the front doors of the church. I’m no sooner inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark, than I hear a familiar group of voices calling me from behind. It’s Terry and Steve and the kids, who I met on the Battlebus tour in Normandy. We all laugh and enjoy the serendipity of the moment. I mean, really, what are the chances of running into each other quite by accident in a country of 62 million people, even if the itineraries of American tourists are much the same?

Their departure a short time later leaves me on my own in the cathedral, and I begin to circle around with my neck craned high towards the windows. I’ve been drawn to medieval stained glass ever since a visit to the Victoria & Albert museum in London in the summer of 2006. I’ve seen fine examples at York Minster, at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and even at the The Cloisters in New York City, but these do not disappoint. The mass of scaffolding in the center of the church does, but the windows are lovely. There are signs of the zodiac rendered in colored glass—a scorpion, bull, crab, and ram—as well as scenes depicting various tradesmen at work—masons and stone cutters, wheelwrights and furriers. All are details that reward careful inspection.

I had wanted to visit Chartres on a Friday, in particular, because of the cathedral’s famous labyrinth. On other days of the week it is covered by chairs, but on Fridays the chairs are removed to allow visitors to walk upon it, as pilgrims have done since the year 1200, either by foot or on their knees. According to the Malcolm Miller guidebook in the gift shop, it’s the oldest and best preserved of its kind from medieval France.

I’m going to walk it myself, but for now I’m watching others take their turn. An older British couple has drawn my eye, mainly because they’re moving at an unexpectedly fast pace and their voices are echoing rather loudly. In a race to the end, the man instructs his wife to go left while he goes right, but moments later he’s sure that he’s lost and retraces his steps.

I’m torn between impatience with the spectacle they’re creating and outright amusement. Someone really should take these folks by the arm and explain that it’s a L-A-B-Y-R-I-N-T-H, it’s not a maze. There are no trophies awarded to those who reach the center first, and for that matter, there is only one way in. It’s not a logistical challenge, it’s a spiritual exercise intended for contemplation, and they’ve missed the point entirely.

Hoping for a different kind of experience, I begin my own walk slowly. I navigate the serpentine path and feel the unevenness of the marble beneath my feet, a channel worn away by centuries by repetitive motion. It has a subtle, calming effect, but it’s not exactly transcendental, in part because there are distractions all around me—a crowding of bodies, the sound of voices, the flash of cameras.

Afterwards, the ascent to the top of the tower brings some welcome air into my lungs. Halfway up, I meet a little girl no more than 5 years old. She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt and a lavender beret on her adorable blond head, and she’s looking intently down at the stone supports that curve like ribs towards the belly of the cathedral. Her father asks if she knows what they’re called. “Of course,” she says, “flying buttresses.” When she looks up at the tower and at the stairs yet to be conquered, I lean in and ask her if she’s sure she can climb all the way. “Yes,” she says solemnly, because she has already climbed an even bigger tower in Geneva.

I end the afternoon by making a slow circle around the cathedral grounds, down the hill and through the town, stopping for a late lunch at Migeon. I order a chicken salad sandwich and point to a chocolate pastry in a glass case, but don’t much mind when through some act of miscommunication I end up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate instead.

Back in Paris, the night is young and I am splurging at the Opéra Garnier with a prime ticket to a ballet inspired by Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” It’s titled, Proust ou les intermittences du coeur and it consists of a series of impressionistic tableaux that trace the author’s moods at various periods in his life, from times of great happiness to deep sorrow. Through my uncultivated eyes it seems disconnected and rather avant-garde, but the human body is a thing of beauty and great wonder, and I like the show very much. But even if I had not, the chance to sit in a chair of red velvet under a ceiling painted by Chagall, to see in the Palais Garnier the remains of La Belle Époque at its finest, that would be worth the price of admission on its own.

On the way back to the apartment, I stop to take a few pictures of Notre Dame and the Seine against the clear night sky. There is time enough yet to enjoy the “City of Lights,” but in the morning there will be rain.