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

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