Paris, Condensed

After a spending a week in Provence, our friends Brice and Aline were determined to show us the city they know so well – Paris. So we boarded the train in Marseille and arrived in Paris two and a half hours later.

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The first thing we noticed was the weather – much cooler. Even in July Paris was cool and rainy. Brice and Aline had arranged for us to stay in a friend’s apartment in the northeast quarter of the city, so we dropped our luggage there and took the metro to Montmartre, the highest hill in Paris topped by the impressive Basilique du Sacré-Cœur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart). We walked through the old neighborhood and plaza famous as a haven for dissidents and then for artists where the likes of Picasso, Dali and Monet lived and painted. Oddly, the artists on the street there today were all Chinese. We ate in a brasserie there and returned to the apartment, tired from our day’s journey.

Next morning we rode the metro to the metropolitan opera house and walked to the Palais Royal en route to the Louvre. I knew of the Louvre of course, but the enormity of the place took me by surprise. Approaching the main entrance, the facade extended a quarter mile away on either side and once inside we saw that the entire palace was an in an enormous H shape with the rear façade along the River Seine as large as the front. It was hard to imagine this enormous place was a king’s palace. The displays were impressive and seemingly endless – Egyptian sarcophagus, Persian statues, paintings from masters throughout the ages. The Mona Lisa was surprisingly small and actually we were more captivated by the paintings of Napoleon’s victories and defeats.

We left the Louvre for the nearby Jardin des Tuileries and had a light lunch in coffee shop there before walking on along the Champs Elysées, the main boulevard leading to the Arc de Triomphe. Along the Champs Elysées Aline and Sonia window-shopped the fashion shops while Brice and I ducked into a building with displays of prototype Peugeot and Citroen cars. We finally reached the Arc de Triomphe which is truly a massive structure, by now having walked five or six miles since the morning. But Aline wasn’t done with us yet, and with aching feet we rode the metro to the Eiffel Tower.

The lines were too long to go into the tower so we rested in the park beneath it before Aline led us to the River Seine and the tour boats there. We took 1 ½ hour tour around the island in the Seine where the original city began, admiring the ornate bridges and medieval buildings. With our feet now screaming from all the miles we’d walked we stopped for dinner and returned to the apartment for the night.

Today, Notre Dame. But first we toured through the 13th century Sainte Chapelle built by king Luis IX to house Christ’s crown of thorns which he purchased from the Turkish emperor of Constantinople (since been moved to the treasury at Notre Dame). This fairly small medieval chapel is famous for its stained glass gallery and gothic arches, a marvel of engineering in its time and still impressive today.

From Sainte Chapelle we visited the nearby Concierge, part of an ancient palace taken over by revolutionaries during the French Revolution where they held court and sentenced royalists to the guillotine. Inside are the cells where the likes of Marie Antoinette and Luis XVI were held and the deceptively pleasant courtyard where prisoners took their last walk before facing the executioner.

We walked through one of the oldest street in Paris, Rue des Barres, entering a medieval world before reaching the Latin Quarter for lunch in a brasserie.  Across the street we noticed a church  that appeared particularly old and when we entered we found it had been built around an ancient Roman bath house.  Paris is full of surprises like this, with ancient ruins mixed in with medieval buildings all surrounded by modern Paris. From there we took the metro to the Île de la Cité, the island in the Seine where ancient Paris was founded, where Romans built their walls, and where Notre Dame was built in the 12th century.

The whole area is fascinating, but Notre Dame is the main attraction – and easy to see why. The massive gothic cathedral soars above the courtyard and the entrance is a massive stone arch covered in medieval carvings. It was crowded with long lines to get in, but we noticed a small sign at a side entrance advising that the towers of the cathedral would be open later than night. So, we toured the interior of the chapel while a mass was ongoing and made plans to return later that night. After dinner, as the cold rain poured down on us, we returned to Notre Dame and found we had the towers almost to ourselves. The gargoyles were gushing water from their mouths and Paris was lit up with the blinking Eiffel Tower on the horizon. We walked around the towers until we were too cold and wet to continue and left for “home.”

July 14th – Bastille Day! The day the infamous prison of le Bastille was stormed and sacked by French revolutionaries. We took the metro to Bastille Square and though the Bastille itself was destroyed many years ago, we watched the French military parade roll past the historic spot. But Aline had other plans for us and from Bastille Square we hopped the train to Versailles and the famous chateau there.
Before going to the Chateau de Versailles we had lunch with friends Sandra and François who we met when they lived in the U.S. but now lived in Versailles. After a fine meal of fish and home-made tiramisu we walked from their apartment to the Château de Versailles, former palace of Luis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

King Luis XIV moved the royal court 12 miles (20 kilometers) away from Paris to the small city of Versailles in the late 17th century.  By the time of the French Revolution in the late 18th century Versailles had grown into the largest palace in Europe with its famous gardens hosting mock naval battles with real ships on its ponds and the sprawling palace full of riches from around the world.

when we arrived the gardens were closed for invitation-only Bastille Day celebrations, but it was raining anyway so we spent the day inside the palace and still didn’t see it all. We walked through Marie Antoinette’s bed chambers and the famous hall of mirrors, a marvel in its day using reflected sun light to brighten the interior of a grand reception hall. It seemed as if every square inch inside the palace was covered in gold leaf, the ceilings painted with extravagant murals, corridors leading from one magnificent room to another. The extravagance of the palace was overwhelming and it was hard to imagine there was that much wealth in the world, much less concentrated in one place. And, it was easy to see why the starving French peasants revolted against such flagrant opulence and chased the monarchy out of the palace in the late 18th century.

We returned to Paris and walked to the Pigalle district of strip clubs and sex shops but also the location of the Moulin Rouge, the burlesque theatre most famous for its can-can dancing shows, and the Chat Noir cabaret of Toulouse-Lautrec fame.  From there we walked to the adjacent Montmarte district for our last dinner with Aline, Brice, Sandra and François before flying out to Seattle the next morning. We found a bar with a table large enough for the six of us and ordered a large bowl of mussels in a sauce of white wine and shallots – excellent!

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Next day we left the apartment knowing we had to come back. There’s just too much to see and do in Paris and we’d met some fun and welcoming people in our few days there. I don’t know where the image of snobby Parisians comes from that many Americans seem to have, but what we found was a place full of fun, welcoming people and a city with a lifetime of things to see and do.

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