Thursday, January 24, 2013

Paris: The Best Christmas Present

While Christmas vacation began in late December, I left my temporary home in Andalucía, Spain, for France. First stop on the list: PARIS. (Warning: long post ahead!)

Paris, France, seen from Notre-Dame Cathedral
Paris, seen from Notre-Dame Cathedral

Riding the TGV

Rue Mouffetard, Paris, France
Rue Mouffetard, near my hostel
After an, uh, unpleasant experience missing the night train in Barcelona, I had to (painfully) shell out an extra 100 € to catch the train that was leaving in the morning. In the end, I think it was worth it to miss the night train since I got to ride the TGV, or high speed train! And boy was it FAST. Like, sinfully fast—200mph. I would look out the window at a mountain way ahead of the train, return to my book for a minute or two, and when I would glance up again it would already be parallel with me. I left Barcelona in the morning and, after a transfer at the Spanish-French border, hopped off in Paris’s Gare de Lyon in late afternoon. Progress!

Orsay Museum

Orsay Museum, Paris, France
The Orsay Museum
I arrived in Paris around 4:30pm but the Orsay Museum—one of my only planned sights for the day—was set to close at 6. Thankfully, I managed to get there and purchase a Paris Museum Pass by five-o’-clock, so I raced upstairs and blew through the “must-see” Impressionists Gallery in around 15 minutes. This was hardly enough time to appreciate such tender, glowing works like Manet’s The Luncheon on the Grass, Renoir’s Dance at the Galette Windmill, and van Gogh’s other starry night, but they began shooing us out around 5:30 so I had to look, sigh, and move on quickly.

As the museum was closing, I popped in to a temporary exhibition on the photography of Félix Thiollier and really, really loved it. His pictures surprised me because I had no idea that artists had already become so skilled at photography in the mid- to late-19th century; his composition and control of light made industrial France feel very contemporary, even in black-and-white.

Eiffel Tower

The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France
The Eiffel Tower
One elevator ride to the summit and I was on top of the Eiffel Tower. It was cold, and it was windy, but seeing the so-called City of Lights completely illuminated made me forget about all the stress, ticket-rearranging, and train travel from the past 24 hours. The summit made me really grateful for the Métro, ‘cause Paris is huge, y’all! The Notre-Dame Cathedral was just a tiny building in the distance from the top of the tower.

Anyway, on the first or second level, a couple got engaged. Yep…it was pretty much perfect. And yes, I was a creeper and took a picture of it.

Versailles

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, France
Hall of Mirrors, Palace of Versailles
I’m not the biggest fan of visiting former palaces, but I felt obligated to go (and I had the Museum Pass already), so I hopped on the RER commuter train and went anyway. I dressed up just for the heck of it but I really shouldn’t have worn loafers; I got two blisters since you have to walk miles (okay, one or two) all across the gigantic grounds just to see everything. But perhaps that was the point; after all, the French kings constructed the distant Grand and Petit Trianon palaces as refuges from all the politics and drama of governing in the main palace. Ah, the problems of royal life.

I didn’t really like the Palace of Versailles proper: there were too many massive tour groups to get decent pictures and, like I said above, I don’t give two hoots about palaces. The Hall of Mirrors gave me chills, though—that was were the Treaty of Versailles was signed (get it?) and, therefore, where the foundations of World War II were laid.

Grand Trianon, Versailles, France
Grand Trianon, Versailles
The Trianon palaces, a kilometer or so to the northwest, were much more intimate and quiet. Although I completely missed the Queen’s Hamlet (!), blisters were worth the pain to see the Grand Trianon, which is made of beautiful, almost absurd pink marble.

Museum of the Middle Ages / Cluny Museum

Visigothic votive crowns, Cluny Museum, Paris, France
Visigothic votive crowns, Cluny Museum
The Cluny Museum is mostly known for its collection of six well-preserved medieval tapestries called The Lady and the Unicorn. I’m not a big “oMiGoSh .~*uNiCoRnS*~.!!!” kind of guy, so it wasn’t that big of a deal for me. But since I am a pretty big Spain kind of guy, the museum’s three Visigothic votive crowns were what really drew me there. These golden, hanging, dangling crowns were offerings given to churches by the kings of Visigoth Spain, or so Wikipedia tells us, and were part of buried treasure (arr!) until being uncovered outside Toledo, Spain, in the 1800s.

Arc de Triomphe & Champs Élysées

Arc de Triomphe, Paris, France
Arc de Triomphe
Paris’s “Triumphal Arch” sits at the intersection of no fewer than EIGHT streets, so a massive roundabout circles its two weighty pillars. It was built by Napoleon to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz, and it was under this arch that both the conquering Nazis and the victorious Allies passed during World War II. It’s still militarily significant today; while I was there, a ceremony took place beneath the arch around the eternal flame to the unknown solider. The views from the roof weren’t nearly as great as those of the nearby Eiffel Tower, but it was really cool to see the avenue des Champs Élysées rolling out toward the east, filled with the lights of cars and shops.

Avenue des Champs Élysées, Paris, France
Avenue des Champs Élysées
Walking the Champs Élysées was next. Pronounced “shohn-zay-lee-zay” [ʃɑ̃.ze.li.ze], this street avenue stretches from the arch all the way to the Tuileries gardens in front of the Louvre and is the place for shopping (and sipping expensive coffee) in France. A pastry shop on that street called Ladurée is really famous for its macarons, or sweet, crunchy almond-flour cookies sandwiched together with flavored cream. I couldn’t care less about shopping, but if there are sweets involved, sign me up! I entered the store but got confused when they asked me if I had a “reservation”—I JUST WANT SUGAR, OKAY? Thankfully the concierge directed me toward the Subway-style ordering line after I mumbled something about macarons to her in French. I got eight flavors, the best of which were pistachio, vanilla, and rose petal. I’m not ashamed to admit I ate four for dessert and the other four at breakfast the next morning. Ah, Paris.

Ladurée macarons, Paris, France
Ladurée macarons

Louvre Museum

Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Louvre Museum courtyard and pyramid
“Frustrating” probably best describes my experience at the Louvre, the world’s most-visited art museum. In the underground lobby beneath the pyramid, I couldn’t figure out what floor I was on or where the entrance to the main wing was; it was really hard to follow directions given by the Rick Steves audio tour; and there were so many stupid people there—from those who take pictures with damaging flash (I saw someone do this in front of a multilingual “No Flash Photography” sign), to those tour groups that move in massive herds, to those people who absolutely must get a selfie in front of every major artwork...with their iPad. All I’m asking for is a clear, head-free view of the painting so I can get my shot and move on. That isn’t too much to ask, is it?

Venus de Milo, Louvre Museum, Paris, France
Venus de Milo statue
But once I got oriented, the Rick Steves podcast tour was lovely. It lead me from impeccable Greek statues like the Venus de Milo into the Grande Galerie, an endless display of treasured Renaissance paintings. There was so much beauty everywhere. And yes, I saw the Mona Lisa, and yes, I pushed and shoved my way to get a photograph up close. Stepping to the side and observing photographing tourists leaning over the protective barrier was probably just as fascinating as Mona’s gentle grin. After the audio tour was over, I decided to just peace out and get some lunch—the museum itself is simply massive.

People photographing the Mona Lisa

Notre-Dame Cathedral & Midnight Mass

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Notre-Dame Cathedral, west façade
If you ask me what my favorite part of the trip was, I’ll immediately tell you it was the Notre-Dame Cathedral in the heart of Paris. The church building was unbelievably beautiful; when I came inside and looked up at the nave for the first time, I was literally stopped in my tracks, standing there and gaping at the tall, illuminated, arching ceiling. I was getting chills and misty-eyed not only because I was wandering through a cathedral of such huge historical significance (built in the High Middle Ages, raided during the Revolution, the site of Napoleon’s coronation) but also because the interior was filled with the music that the choir and organ were practicing for the evening’s mass.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Candles
Access to the bell towers closed early on Christmas Eve at 3:15pm (what gives?!), so I had to put off summiting the northern tower until the day after Christmas. A French lady next to me, also reading the sign and realizing the sorry truth, exclaimed, “Merde!” which, (excuse my French) is the equivalent of “Aw, shit!” She then glanced at me and looked halfway between shocked and embarrassed until I nodded in agreement and said “oui!” It really is amazing how much you can communicate and share knowing so little of a foreign language!

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Midnight Mass
I came back to the cathedral for Midnight Mass around 9:30pm after having dinner and piddling around town. I figured I had nothing else better to do and should probably be early for once in my life. Luckily, when I arrived at the parvis to the west of the building, the short entrance line was just then being let inside, so I went with the flow and somehow managed to get a seat in the central nave. Merely minutes after sitting down, it was standing-room-only; tourists and Catholics alike soon came in and filled all the aisles. We all watched a video about the cathedral and sang along during the choir concert that followed.

Notre-Dame Cathedral, Paris, France
Nave
By midnight, security guards had shooed out people who were standing in the central aisles, making way for a procession of incense, priests, bishops, and the archbishop himself. I was sitting close to the aisle so I got a huge whiff of other-worldly incense as the fragrance floated by.

Sacre-Cœur Basilica, Paris, France
Sacre-Cœur Basilica
We all sang in Latin the chorus to Adeste Fideles (O Come, All Ye Faithful), the choir sang a Kyrie, we had a responsive reading of the Gloria in Latin, they read from the book of Isaiah in French, we sang a short yet powerful two-line song from Psalm 95 in a call-and-response style (“Today is born to us a savior, he is Christ the Lord”), they read from the book of Titus in English, someone read from the book of Luke in French, and then the archbishop gave a little sermon (homily?) in French before they celebrated the Eucharist (Communion). To close, we sang Il est né, le divin enfant (“He is born, the divine child”), which must be a really traditional French carol since everyone was singing it without lyrics from the program.

Sacre-Cœur Basilica & Montmartre

Sacre-Cœur Basilica, Paris, France
Sacre-Cœur Basilica
Since most major tourist sights in Paris were closed on Christmas, I decided to visit one of the most famous churches in the city since I figured it would probably be open. The Sacre-Cœur (“sacred heart” of Jesus) is a tall, gleaming, white-stone building built on top of the hill of Montmartre on the north side of the city. Surprisingly, access to the dome was open (!) so I jumped on the opportunity since it was finally sunny outside. At the summit, it was incredibly windy—I was being pushed around by the wind it was so strong—but the views were glorious.

Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France
Sainte-Chapelle
The Sainte-Chapelle (“holy chapel”) is a beautiful little building covered wall-to-wall in stained glass. It was built by King Louis IX to house the supposed Crown of Thorns in the 1200s (although the relic is now housed in Notre-Dame). Because I got there early in the morning, I was afraid the windows would be ho-hum, but the sun was just high enough to let sunlight pass through the sparkly stained glass on the southern side of the building.

After Paris, the next stop would be Bayeux, on the coast of Normandy to the northwest.

If you’ve been to Paris before, what was your favorite thing about the city? If you haven’t been yet, do the infamous hordes of tourists make you afraid to even visit at all? Comment below!

For more pictures, check out my set on Flickr here.
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