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.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rain, rain, rain.

I had planned to head to Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen this morning, a flea market on the northern edge of Paris, but the weather seems to be calling for some artful rearrangement of my itinerary. I think, why not go shopping?

I’ve been to Paris before, but never to the Galeries Lafayette. It’s a famous department store whose posters blanket the tile walls of every metro station in the city. My favorite is one that depicts a woman with an Eiffel Tower strapped to her head with a criss-crossing ribbon of red, white, and blue. The absurdity of it appeals to me somehow.

What seemed like a good idea back in my apartment strikes me as a terribly unimaginative one once I walk through the front doors. Every other tourist in town seems to have had the same burst of inspiration. The place is packed with sweaty bodies and dripping umbrellas.

I soon discover that the Galeries Lafayette sell what appear to be the exact same clothes as every other department store in the world, so it’s something of a disappointment. But the glass dome overhead, and the surrounding balconies that look as though they once rested in the Palais Garnier, are impressive and the city views from the rooftop terrace are lovely, too, even on a gray and dreary day. On the other hand, it amuses me to see that the shelves of the international food hall are well stocked with Oreos and Pepperidge Farm cookies. I suppose that to the French these are exotic international foods, but it baffles me why would anyone want to eat them when Gérard Mulot’s pastry shop is just a short walk across the Seine.

Still, here I am committing the same culinary sin. With little planning or forethought, I’ve just bought a sandwich to go, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water, with which I head back out into the rain.

When finding a dry place to eat turns into a monumental challenge, I end up sitting under the Pont de la Tournelle. Using the bridge for shelter, I open my poulet aux legumes croquants. It’s just a chicken sandwich with fresh vegetables on whole wheat bread, but the French label, along with the view of Notre Dame Cathedral, makes my pre-packaged lunch feel almost elegant.

For dessert I head to La Maison Berthillon on the nearby Île Saint-Louis for an expensive and shockingly small cone of peach and pear sorbet. I wander in and out of the shops the run the length of the island and buy what for me is the quintessential Parisian souvenir—a silk scarf in brilliant teal from Diwali, where racks upon racks of bright colors provide a welcome contrast to the gray outside.

Determined to stay indoors for now, I pull out my Paris Museum Pass, wade through the security line at the Palais de Justice, and make a repeat visit to Sainte-Chapelle. When I first visited in the summer of 2007, scaffolding filled the apse, blocking the windows entirely. Now the space is blessedly free of construction and it’s stunning—absolutely stunning, especially since I have a long lens on my Nikon D40 that allows me to zoom in for detail.

By the time I leave, the rain is coming to a reluctant stop. I hop on the metro at Cité and keep my fingers crossed all the way to Varenne because I would very much like to see the Rodin Museum and most of the sculptures are scattered about outside in various gardens, including those that are most famous: “The Thinker,” “The Gates of Hell,” and the “Burghers of Calais.”

Thankfully, the weather stays at bay as I take a pleasant, if somewhat sodden, turn through the grounds, although I am a bit miffed to be shunted aside while looking at the statue of “Ugolino and his Children” in the ornamental pool behind the Hôtel Biron. A squadron of professional photographers has descended with a young model in tow, dressed in a bright plaid dress, and they want everyone else out of the way. They say I can come back later to complete my visit, but the golden dome of Les Invalides, rising behind the hedge to my left, has already caught my eye and it’s only 3 o’clock, so I decide to head there instead.

In the 17th century, the Hôtel des Invalides was intended as a home and hospital for old soldiers, but it’s best known today for the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, which rests grandly inside of not one, but six coffins, which are further housed in a stone sarcophagus directly under the chapel dome. On the marble floor, an inlaid wreath of laurel circles the base of the tomb, and the names of Napoleon’s greatest victories are incised in gold: Austerlitz, Rivoli, Pyramides, and more. The names are familiar to me, even though I know little of French military history. Today, Gare d’Austerlitz is a train station in Paris; I once stood on the Rue de Rivoli to watch the final laps of the Tour de France; and Pyramides is the name of a metro station not far from the Louvre. Napoleon lives on, bigger than life, although here in Les Invalides, the overall effect is so enormous that the Frommer’s guidebook can’t resist noting that it is “almost lampooning the smallness of the man.”

It’s late afternoon and by now I’ve had my fill of museums for the day. I rest for a bit on a bench and then take a slow stroll through an antiques market on Rue Cler and down through the tree-lined streets that radiate out from Les Invalides. In doing so, I’m reminded of the final pages of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s the scene where Newland Archer and his son Dallas come to visit Madame Olenska. Wharton, who knew Paris well, describes it this way:

“The day was fading into a soft sun-shot haze, pricked here and there by a yellow electric light, and passers were rare in the little square into which they had turned… It was a modern building, without distinctive character, but many-windowed, and pleasantly balconied up its wide cream-coloured front. On one of the upper balconies, which hung well above the rounded tops of the horse-chestnuts in the square, the awnings were still lowered, as though the sun had just left it.”

Years have passed since their parting and Archer tries to imagine the life she has lived here without him. It is all fiction, I know, and yet standing here at the same time of day, looking up at the same streets, I find myself imagining it, too.

The light is fading fast by the time I make my way back on the metro to my temporary home near the Place de la Contrascarpe. I dine on coq au vin at Chez Robert on the tiny Rue du Pot de Fer, and then head to bed early, with Wharton’s melancholy vision of Paris still ringing in my ears.