Thursday, December 6, 2012

In A Paris Trance

Initially I found writing about Paris difficult. The blockage was created by a thought. A single, simple thought: What could I possibly contribute about Paris that so many famous writers and many more bloggers and travelers have not already said? It left me with only one approachable angle, the same angle that all these writers also took – The personal angle.

Sunday was barely breaking on the eastern horizon when our plane descended through thick, bumpy clouds to land at Charles De Gaulle airport. Most of Paris was probably still sleeping. The famous city lights were nowhere to be seen. Two hours later when we eventually emerged from Chatelet-Les Halles train station, not too far away from our rented apartment in the heart of the Le Marias, the oldest part of Paris, it was grey, cold, windy and rainy. Not the best weather for dragging a suitcase behind you, holding an umbrella and trying to read a map while walking. Thankfully we were on a direct flight from Cincinnati to Paris, but still, the overnight flight did not allow for any meaningful sleep.  The long, slow moving queue at the RER train ticket booth at the airport, and the process, the sheer amount of walking, of finding the right street exit from Chatelet-Les Halles, one of the biggest train stations in the world, and then to get momentarily stalled on the inside at the exit because of several malfunctioning turnstiles, did not contribute to lift our mood of tiredness.

"Parisienne Walkways"

Time for rest was not yet insight though. We found our apartment on rue Chapon after about 15 minutes of walking.  After we put our luggage down and listen to all the instructions and directions from the rental company’s host, we were off again to find a groceries store and a bakery to buy some necessities like coffee, milk, bread and pastries for lunch and dinner at “our home” for the next few days. Most of Paris’s groceries stores, bakeries and even many restaurants are closed on Sundays and those open closes at noon or shortly thereafter.

Street scenes

Crisscrossing Paris

The next few days was all about absorbing what Paris had to offer? Using all forms of transport - our feet, the hop-on-hop-off red buses, taxis and the metro and RER trains, we crisscrossed the city from Notre Dame to the Trocadero and the Eiffel Tower, from the broad Avenue des Champs-Elysees to the narrow streets and alleyways of the Latin Quarter. We bought crepes from street vendors and rested tired feet in brasseries. On the Tuesday, in nice sunny weather, we were off to that ultimate tourist trap of Versailles for most of the day (more about that in a later post) and on Wednesday it poured with rain again but we locked ourselves into the Louvre for the whole day and didn’t care about the rain outside. At times my camera worked overtime and at other times I totally ignored it and just enjoyed the Paris induced “trance.”

Street food

It is interesting to observe how quickly one feels one can become a “temporary” Parisian. Go to the corner groceries store and buy some salads and a bottle of wine, at the boulangerie a loaf of olive bread, and some pungent cheese at a market on a square and you instantly feel at home in Paris. It doesn’t make you French, but it makes you want to become more than just a tourist in Paris. It makes you feel “temporary” at home. I like that feeling and that’s why we always try to enhance the local sensation of our trips by staying in apartments/flats, houses, anywhere but hotels. We did stay in a hotel on 2 different occasions in Paris but it was because we were in transit to Avignon and then again the night before we returned to the US.

By Monday afternoon the rain and clouds have disappeared, thankfully, and on our way to the Eiffel Tower to ascent at dusk and watch Paris grow dark and see the city of light in, well, lights, we were presented with a glorious sunset that coated the Fames at the Pond Alexander III and the dome of the Invalides in gilded glory. At this time of day I already wanted to be on the tower but I underestimated Paris’s rush hour traffic.

Stuck in traffic enabled us to enjoy scenes of the Seine River at dusk as it corkscrew through the city and the Eiffel Tower edged against a cloudless sky painted only with the occasional aircraft condensation trails.

The Eiffel Tower at night

Ascending the Eiffel Tower was kind of a waste – of time and money. Paris doesn’t really look any different than any other city at night time. Certainly not much to write home about.

Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris

The Heart of Paris

The Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris has been at the center of Parisian life for centuries. Building started in 1163 and it took more than 200 years to complete it. The church is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. On the first day in Paris we visited the church on our walkabouts but did not go inside. The line was too long and it was raining. Puddles and mud everywhere. There is some pavement project taking place right in front of the entrance. Quite a mess. The famous organ is also currently quiet due to restoration work and it is all part of a major restoration project started in 1991, all due to be completed by the end of 2012. Neither did we visit the garden at the back of the church due to the rain. I read it was one of Paris’s best little parks (and best kept secrets seeing that few tourist venture there) and also excellent for photographing this Paris icon. When we returned to Notre Dame the next afternoon I totally forgot about the garden so I never got to see it. Blame it on creeping old age or being blown into a Paris “trance” after a long morning of gorging on the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the city. Oh well, there’s always a next time.

As mentioned before on this blog I visit churches mostly for their architectural value not for religious values and did not visit the Treasury where they keep the church relics. For example, Notre Dame claims to have Jesus’s crown of thorns and part of the cross. I simply don’t believe any of the relics are authentic, especially if you look at how many churches in Europe and elsewhere claim to have pieces of the crown and other relics.

However, Notre Dame itself is impressive in size and architectural detail. I can’t really comment on the stained glass windows because they are so high one cannot see the detail. Our next stop was the stained glass palace of churches, the Sainte-Chapelle.

  Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France
In a Sea of Stained Glass
Every guidebook about Paris will suggest a visit to Sainte-Chapelle. It is invariably described as “a cathedral of glass” or “exceptional”. After a long, slow moving line due to strict security at the entrance door to the Palace of Justice, understandably so because France’s Supreme Court justices have their offices in the same complex, we entered Sainte-Chapelle, a relative small church in the courtyard of the old royal palace during the reign of Louis IX (1226-1270). Sainte-Chapelle is one of only two buildings left in Paris from the Capetian Dynasty that ruled France for 341 years from 987 to 1328. The other Capetian building standing is the La Conciergerie (the old royal palace and prison) in the same Palace of Justice complex. The Conciergerie was abandoned as a royal palace and seat of government in 1358 when Charles V converted an existing fortress across the river Seine into a residence and moved his court to the Palais du Louvre, today’s Louvre Museum.
Surrounded by a sea of stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France

Stepping into the upper Sainte-Chapelle is like walking into one of those underwater tunnels at aquariums. You feel surrounded by a sea of stained glass windows and multicolored panels. Light filtered through the mostly sky-blue and red stained glass windows tints the chapel with a bluish, purplish haze. Every conceivable surface and every basic and derivative color from the rainbow has been used to beautify the inside of this building. In the upper chapel, reserved for royal usage only, while the lower chapel was for all other palace workers, it seems the main function of the building’s long thin frames is to keep the stained glass in place but they also give the ceiling a floating effect.

Visiting Sainte-Chapelle immediately after Notre Dame it is difficult not to make comparisons between the two churches. One shouldn’t of course, seeing that one is a cathedral and the other a royal chapel. But both were Gothic in design and appearance, and where Notre Dame was huge and spacious, Sainte-Chapelle was small and intimate. Where Notre Dame have many statues and religious art as decoration but with walls mostly bare stone, Sainte-Chapelle is  richly and colorfully decorated with virtually no bare walls. They both are masterpieces in their own right.
However, if I thought Sainte-Chapelle was something to behold, Versailles, the next day was over the top.

Inside the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, France


BoerinBallingskap said...

Ek moet bieg met hierdie inskrywing van jou en die pragtige foto's, het jy my nou ook in 'n trance geplaas. (wat is tog 'n goeie Afrikaanse woord vir trance?).
Ek was nou skoon weggevoer saam met jou na daardie pragtige stad van stede. Dankie vir die moeite wat jy gedoen het met die inskrywing!

(sit hier met stram vingers en tik, want dit sneeu en is ysig koud)

BluegrassBaobab said...

Jy's reg, Paris is die stad van stede. Ons koue moet nog kom.

Anonymous said...

Ja, stem saam met Boer se comment oor jou inskrywing :) Ek was op ho-erskool heeltemal "verlief" op Parys, soos ander meisies op rock-sterre en so aan. Prnet van die stad teen AL my kamermure opgeplak. Daardie verslawing aan Parys het ook toe nooit heeltemal gewyk nie :)

BluegrassBaobab said...

Dis maklik om op Parys verlief te word. Die stad verleen hom daarna.

BluegrassBaobab said...

Dis maklik om op Parys verlief te word. Die stad verleen hom daarna.