Thursday, June 4, 2009

I’m up early this morning, getting ready for a day trip to nearby Mont-St-Michel, which I’ve been told is the second most visited tourist attraction in all of France, after the Eiffel Tower, with three and a half million visitors per year. I shudder to think how many will be there today, given the beautiful weather outside the window.

I flip on the TV in my room as I’m getting dressed and tune it to the BBC. I love the BBC. Not BBC America, which I have at home in Vermont, but the genuine article. I find it comforting somehow, and unbelievably quaint. As I head out the door for breakfast, a reporter is winding up a story about local wildlife in which he invites viewers to call in and “give us your thoughts about squirrels.”

The Hotel Churchill operates a daily shuttle to Mont-St-Michel, so by 9:30 I’m resting comfortably in the front seat of an air conditioned minivan next to Sabrina, our driver, with a couple from Wichita, Kansas and a businessman from Montreal in back. At 50€ each for a round-trip fare, it’s an expensive option, but with few trains and poor connections between Bayeux, Pontorson, and the Mont, it’s wonderfully convenient.

The landscape around us is mainly flat, so though we are still miles away, it’s not long before we spot Mont-St-Michel in the distance, offering the profile of a ragged mountain rising out of the horizon. Sabrina pulls the van off the side of the road so that we can snap pictures.

As we drive in along the causeway, she recounts the legend of St. Michael the Archangel appearing in a dream to the local bishop in the year 708. The angel had instructed the bishop to build a chapel on a rocky island at the mouth of the river near Avranches, but the bishop ignored the command once, and then twice. On the third night the nocturnal visitor came again, this time pressing his finger to the bishops’ skull, burning a hole in the side of his head. Not surprisingly, the incident turned the man’s skepticism into profound—if terrified—belief and led him to begin work on an abbey in honor of the saint.

Today, the abbey and its cloisters, topped by a tall gothic spire, perch high on the rock, surrounded by gardens and medieval fortifications. At the base is a small village, with shops and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries along a narrow and winding lane optimistically titled the Grand Rue. As we pull into the car park, we can hear the sounds of military bands playing in tribute to the week’s 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

It’s a painfully tight schedule, with just three hours to visit the church, the town, and the surrounding tidal basin, so together we make haste up the long, steep hill, intending to start from the top and work our way down.

The abbey church is stark and bare, constructed of honey-colored stone. The 11th century nave and transept are Romanesque, but the choir, built several centuries later, is thoroughly Gothic, with tall pointed arches and matching windows above, supported by flying buttresses on the outside. From here, the audio guide I rented takes me to the cloister, and then through a long series of stairways, corridors, and rooms, including a chapter house and refectory.

It’s a mammoth complex, and its construction over time has a higgledy-piggledy quality that reminds me of being in a maze. Indeed, when I arrive at a room with a large wooden wheel, attached to ropes and pulleys, that was once used to haul goods from the base of the Mont, I imagine a hamster wheel enlarged to comical proportions, although here I’m told that it was propelled by prisoners… very unfortunate prisoners from the appearance of it!

I’ve had a brilliant time exploring, but I am beginning to feel desperate for the exit. It’s midday and my foot is throbbing. Between the drive to Mont-St-Michel and the long journey through the abbey, I haven’t been able to take any ibuprofen. I make my way out along the ramparts and the down through the village, stopping for a bottle of water to take my pills. I decide, too, to snack on a regional specialty, the Galette Bretonne. It’s a thick and slightly sweet butter biscuit, similar to shortbread. It has a nice flavor, but it crumbles easily and makes something of a mess.

The village is thick with tourists by now and the shops along the Grand Rue provide a veritable gauntlet of overpriced souvenirs—postcards and key chains, placemats and shot glasses. For a moment, I stand outside the window of La Mère Poulard to watch them make omelets, rhythmically whipping the eggs to a froth in a giant copper bowl.  But instead of lingering further in town, I decide to make my way out through the massive King’s Gate, back to the causeway and to the beach and bay beyond. It’s low tide, so the sea has receded enough to walk safely (for now) out into the sandbanks surrounding the island. The day is cool and breezy and when 1:30 comes, I regret having to leave so soon.

Back in Bayeux, I have a few hours to spare before my train back to Paris. I rest for a bit and then take a final stroll through the town, stopping to eat and to buy a small bottle of Calvados to take home. The journey back is quiet and relaxing, alone in a private compartment with plush gray seats that reminds me of the train Harry Potter takes to Hogwarts.

By 9:00 PM, we pull into Gare Saint-Lazare, and I have only the metro ride home, with a pesky change of line at Châtelet. The Rue Mouffetard is growing dark and the bed in “My Little Home in Paris,” just around the corner, beckons.

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.