Monday, January 19, 2015

Return to Paris

Saturday morning and we were facing a small travel predicament. We were still booked for another night into the Chateau d’Esclimont, but do we want to stay? There were no more places we really wanted to see or explore in the vicinity of the chateau, although I am sure I could have found some activity if push came to shove. It is France after all, and there is nearly always something beautiful or wondrous just down the next country lane or in the next rustic village.

Additionally, the prospect of a very early, hour and a half, 80km, Sunday morning drive to Charles De Gaulle airport, a place I have never driven to before, (I have always used taxis or the train), finding the car rental returns and dropping the car off and then speeding to the terminal building to face the usual terribly slow security process (remember I am flying back to America) and thereafter the French passport control (and Paris airport is always heavily crowded with long lines) and to do all that and be at our departure gate by 10 AM, did not excite me at all. My mostly positive attitude when traveling for once was leaning towards the half empty bottom of the glass. There were so many opportunities for Murphy’s Law to rear its ugly head and started our return journey home on the wrong foot or no feet at all.

So we decided to return to Paris a day earlier. In hindsight, the best decision we could have made.

Inside Basilica Sacré-Cœur

Upon our departure from the chateau I set Samantha, our trusted Garmin GPS, to follow highways with the hope that it would use the A11 to get us to the city and from there around the city on the Boulevard Périphérique, notwithstanding the fact that it is one of Europe’s busiest roadways, I was more than prepared to drive on the Périphérique to get us to Gare du Nord, a train station on the northern side of the city. But Samantha was concocting her own plans and as I was concentrating on my driving because the roads got more congested as we got closer to the city, I did not realized what was happening until we passed Le Jardin du Luxembourg. Only when I stopped at an intersection and saw the Saint-Michel fountain on my left, did it hit home. What I didn’t want to happen happened. Shit! Samantha took a short cut, smack through the center of town, through one of the busiest parts of the inner city, at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. Total madness!

Selling art along the Seine

Coming from the south the Left Bank was congested, but nothing compared to the Right Bank. Once we crossed the Seine River traffic became horrendous. It was like being in the middle of a carnival. As we entered The Marais, the old medieval part of Paris via Boulevard de Sébastopol I allowed myself to be swept along with the traffic like a rudderless boat on a rushing river. It seemed I had to direct all my energy and concentration to bicycles, motorbike and scooters, who would suddenly appear and then disappeared again as they swerved from lane to lane just to see who can get to the next traffic light first. Mosquitoes chasing the wind! It was frantic, noisy, exciting, and chaotic and a total adrenaline rush all at the same time.  

We arrived at the train station and the car rental return quicker than expected, maybe because I was not thinking of mileage, but focused on surviving the ride, listened to Samantha’s directions and to get to our intended destination without causing or getting involved in a fender bender.  I am so glad I live in the countryside and do not have to face that kind of traffic on a daily basis. But we made it, safely, found a hotel a few blocks away across from the Gare l’Est, the train station that served European trains to the eastern side of the country.

Paris from Montmartre

There was no time for lingering and loitering though. Paris was alive, baked in sunshine and it seemed every Parisian who is capable of walking has fled their small damp apartments, spilled out into parks and gardens, onto sidewalks, and into shops and restaurants.  Spring fever was in the air. After a light lunch we got onto the Metro for a visit to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre, the towering white Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Mount of Martyrs that overlook Paris and the countryside beyond.    

After we arrived at Château Rouge metro station and fought our way to the surface passed aggressive street vendors who were trying to sell me their roasted peanuts, plastics trinkets in florescent colors and God knows what else in brown bags, we found our direction and started to ascend the mount via the narrow dirty streets. It seemed we have arrived in the African and Muslim part of Paris.

The Basilica of the Sacred Heart on the Mount of Martyrs
With its round corner cupolas and high bell tower the basilica reminded me a little of San Marco in Venice while its massive central dome and square and pointy south facade brought back memories of  Florence’s Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. It was nice to see something non-Gothic for a change. The Sacré-Cœur’s design, although only built in the 19th Century looked to be influenced by both the Italian Romanesque churches and the eastern churches of the Byzantine Empire.   

Inside the building’s clean lines, the general cleanliness of the stone (the building is still young: only about 140 years old since they laid the foundation stone), and the relative few statues and murals compare to other Gothic cathedrals, contributed to a feeling of spaciousness. After a walk through the church we sat down in one of the pews for a while to rest our weary feet from climbing the steep stairs to the top and to absorb the solemnness of the moment.   

Outside it was just as impressive. The building’s white stone glowed brightly in glorious yellow sunshine. From the steps that sloped down the hillside hundreds of visitors noisily enjoyed the supposed-to-be spectacular views of Paris below. But it was not a clear day. A thick bluish haziness caused by either pollution or weather conditions hung over Paris like fog over a river on a cold morning. Hard to image so much beauty exists underneath that cloud of haze.
On top of a pillar a soccer fan was entertaining the crowd, showing off his skills to keep a ball in the air without using his hands. On one side of the mount a series of terraces were transformed into tranquil gardens which allowed people to picnic and children to run around. All this contributed to a vibrant atmosphere of simple enjoyment, a getaway from the mundane and the ordinary to something exceptional and appreciative at that given Saturday.
It certainly felt like spring was in the air.

Inside the Basilica Sacré-Cœur
Loitering on the slopes of Montmartre

After dinner, a night time view of the Basilica Sacré-Cœur from out hotel room window

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

The Gothic Masterpiece of Chartres

The morning broke beautifully, crispy with all the potential of a sunny, but cool day. Give me sun rather than clouds any day. Since we left Burgundy we experienced slightly warmer days. After breakfast in the chateau near Bleury-Saint Symphorien we drove about 50km to Versailles for a revisit to the famous palace. This time though we were not planning on seeing the palace proper, we did that before, but rather the Grand and Petit Trianon and Marie-Antoinette’s little “Austrian escape”, at the end of the palace estate. 

Grand Trianon of Versailles 
After our visit to Versailles we initially took the boring but busy N10 motorway to Chartres, but near Ablis we exited the motorway and followed the D910 through the flat countryside and rape seed fields. We were on our way to see the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres.

 The Normandy influence of wood frame houses on the steep walk up to the Cathedral

Although I didn’t specifically looked for it, at the time of driving I didn’t even know in which direction the town was, and still 14 km away from the town, the cathedral’s spires became visible, rising like tiny mountain peaks from the horizon.  As so often the case, the cathedral was located at a high point with the town below it and river running around it. In this case, the town was built at the edge of a plateau on the west bank of the Eure River.

 The Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres

For nearly 1200 years Roman Catholic pilgrims have come to Chartres, a town about 60 miles southwest of Paris, France. It has always been an important place for religious people since 876 AD when King Charles the Bald of West Francia (reigned 840 – 877AD) gave the relic, the Sancta Camisa, believed to be the undergarment worn by the Virgin Mary at the time of Christ's birth, to the Cathédrale.

Some pilgrims came to see the relic specifically while others used Chartres as a stop-over from or to The Camino de Santiago, also known by the English name of The Way of St. James, to see the shrine of the apostle James in the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Distance did not seem to be a problem for those pilgrims. They came from Austria, Bavaria, Switzerland and from all over France. And if one considers the time in history, the modes of transport available and the extreme difficulty and dangers that involved travel in general in those days, the number of pilgrims were remarkable. But pilgrimage was such a powerful concept during the Middle Ages, and it was encourage by the church, so monasteries along the way provided food and safe haven for pilgrims.   

 Everything about the cathedral is in massive proportions
Today they still come to Chartres from all over the world. Some religious pilgrims get there by walking the Paris-Chartres Pilgrimage, a three-day walk from the Notre-Dame de Paris to the Notre-Dame de Chartres, approximately 60 miles. Once there many slowly walk around the labyrinth, their heads bowed in prayer or just stand on the labyrinth for a moment of silence.
The labyrinth
We came to Chartres to see the architecture.  The cathedral is said to be one of the best preserved Gothic buildings in Europe. Very little, compare to other Gothic buildings in Europe, has changed since the building was consecrated in October 1260 by King Louis IX of France. We also came to see the massive stained-glass windows, most of them still originals from the 12th century and which incidentally, were all removed in 1939 before the Second World War and replaced after the war. Very good thinking from the bishopric if one consider that the American Army had concrete plans to bomb the cathedral during the war, thinking that the Germans were using it as an observation post. Luckily a braved American colonel proved his command wrong and saved the cathedral from a bombing, but the outskirts of town and an old entry port into the town were bombed.

One reason why the cathedral is still in such a fantastic state is that it has been maintained on a regular basis. At least every couple of hundred years or so. It is currently undergoing a clean up inside the church. On the left of the picture one can clearly see the dirty walls and on the right the clean portion after recent restoration.
The chancel/choir and the altar of the Chartres Cathedral
 A portion of the monumental screen of statues around the chancel


The magnificent stained glass windows.

French kings were historically crowned in Reims, a city about 130 km north of Paris. The coronations took place first in the Abbey of Saint-Remi, and then from 1027 AD in the Cathedral of Notre-Dame de Reims.  29 kings were crown there. Only 2 French kings were not crowned in Reims: Louis VI was crowned in Orleans in 1108 AD and on 27 February 1594, Henry IV, the Huguenot king, was crowned King of France at Chartres. Being a converted catholic, Reims rejected Henry IV as a “poor catholic”.

When we exit the cathedral it was getting cooler but we still took a circular walk through town in search of some hot coffee before we headed back to where we parked our car.

Although I didn’t get to see much of the stained glass windows in detail, very high up and dirty, the numerous sculptures inside and outside the cathedral and the colossal proportions of the building makes this a masterpiece in Gothic architecture. The town itself is rather quaint. Even though our visit was very brief, it has a mixture of narrow old world streets with boulangeries, pâtisserie, fromageries and fruit and vegetable shops, and open modern squares and small shopping malls.

A beautiful river view near Porte Guillaume

Against the wall of a restaurant I saw a painting of what Porte Guillaume, one of several gates in the fortified walls of the medieval city used to looked liked before it was bombed in 1944. Today there are only a few ruins left.   

Sunset from the medieval side of town