I’ve delayed writing my Paris post because I’ve been struggling to find something clever and original to say about the City of Lights; this has proven an impossible task. My own intellectual resources a failure, I searched around for some pithy quotes from real writers, but it seems that the business of finding a new and unique way to describe Paris has bedevilled not just your humble correspondent but many adroit and astute writers throughout the centuries. One of the most trenchant and witty (IMHO) of them all seemed at a loss for a real bon mot when trying to describe the city. After his first visit, Charles Dickens wrote: “I cannot tell you what an immense impression Paris made on me. It is the most extraordinary place in the world.” The usually dazzling Mr. Dickens seems to have been so overwhelmed by his experience that his prodigious facility for words failed but, there it is – not brilliant, not sparkling, not sprightly, but true.
Everyone’s favorite Francophile Founding Father, Thomas Jefferson, no sluggard with a pen, summed up a visit to Paris pretty well: “A walk about Paris will provide lessons in history, beauty, and in the point of life.” Amen to that, TJ, especially the last part. James Thurber gives it a pretty good shot, too: “The whole of Paris is a vast university of Art, Literature and Music…it is worth anyone’s while to dally here for years. Paris is a seminar, a post-graduate course in Everything.”
So, yes, Paris is every superlative you can think of – and a visitor frequently finds himself standing dumbstruck, agog and agape, slack-jawed yokel-like (I’ll credit The Simpsons for that phrase) in front of one wonder or another. As I sit here writing this, I’m trying to figure out how I can wrangle another trip there before I leave.
The biggest treat of my December trip to Paris was the opportunity to share Daughter No. 1’s first visit there. (The only thing missing was Daughter No. 2, who was busy with school. Next time, for sure.)
Here’s what we did. Monday, December 11: I took the TGV from Avignon to Paris, which is an amazingly short 2.5 hour ride. (It would have taken 8 hours or so to drive.) Liz arrived a few hours before me and, after her 19 hour trip from Portland, I was sure I would find her asleep in the hotel room. Surprise – she was showered, dressed and ready to go, not wanting to waste a minute of our four-day pre-Christmas ramble. (That’s my girl!) Her passion is vintage everything, so she wanted to hit one of the famous Paris flea markets. As the big ones are only open on Saturday, Sunday and Monday, this was our only chance, so we rode Metro Line 9 to the far eastern edge and went to the final stop, Montreiull. This was definitely not the high end antique market, but more of a free-for-all of bric-a-brac, lots of cheap and horrible new stuff, and a little cool old stuff. We strolled, looked a bit, and were ready to leave when Liz found a treasure she just had to have – a very old taxidermied weasel or ferret or fuene, a weasel-like animal that crawls into cars’ engines (they have a penchant for old Renaults) and eats the wires – the French hate them. Its face was strangely compelling, and for ten euros it was hers. I guess that is a more unique souvenir of Paris than another set of coasters with Toulouse-Lautrec prints …. and where would you find a fuene but in France?
Next stop, Pere Lachaise Cemetiere, probably the most famous cemetery in the world. Some may not place cemeteries high on their list of places to visit, but this one is amazing. The architecture and design of the various tombs, mauseoleums and statuary is incredible. Art Nouveau and Art Deco motifs abound. The interior roads wind in random patterns, and it’s fun just to stroll quietly and see who you (literally) stumble upon. If you are more ambitious, you can search for some of the famous artists, musicians, writers, actors and statesmen buried here. They include the artists Corot, Pisarro, Delacroix, Seurat and Ingres. Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan and Marcel Marceau are here, as are American writers Gertrude Stein and Richard Wright. Chopin, Bizet and Maria Callas share space with Balzac, Collette and Proust. Oscar Wilde famously said “When good Americans die they go to Paris,” but apparently Englishmen do as well, as his final resting place is in Pere Lachaise. The most “popular” grave continues to be that of Jim Morrison, famously decorated with several bottles of Jack Daniels.
The next morning we headed to the Ile de la Cite – first stop, Ste. Chappelle, built in the mid-13th century by Louis IX (later St. Louis) to house holy relics. For those who cry, “No more churches!” when wandering through Europe, this one is definitely very different and worth a stop. It’s quite small, and walking inside is like walking into a jewelbox – the entire inside of the upstairs chapel is stained glass windows, ribbed with golden bands.
Next door to Ste. Chappelle is the Conciergerie, which is my favorite building in all of Paris. Its three iconic towers, rounded with conical roofs, hovering over the Seine are one of the most beautiful silhouettes in the Paris cityscape. Unfortunately, two were being rehabilitated and were wrapped, so I have no cool pictures to show. The building originated as a palace in the 10th century, and continued as such until the mid 14th century when Charles V moved the court to the Louvre. La Conciergerie evolved and grew through the centuries from palace to prison. During the Revolution, Marie Antoinette and Robespierre were both imprisoned here before their trips to the guillotine. A permanent exhibit on the Revolution is on view at the Conciergerie, and several rooms have been recompositioned as Marie Antoinette’s cell. The main hall of the old palace, which is a beautiful, ribbed and vaulted medieval cavern, is an exhibition space. We were totally enthralled by the installation that was there when we visited. Betes Off (sorry, I can’t get the accent over the e), was an amazing exhibit of animal/environment-based art dotted through the hall. I generally am not fan of “installation” art. (The last straw was this past summer, when a large group of family members was subjected to one Lee Ifans, who took up the ENTIRE Guggenheim with cotton balls and rocks!!! Peggy would have been rolling over in her grave. Never again, we said! But I digress…..) This was really cool – the contrast between the spare modernity of the installation and the soaring Gothic vaults was incredible.
Anyhow, then we went to Notre Dame, which was everything Notre Dame is supposed to be – beautiful, inspiring, incredible. We spent a lot of time outside dissecting the various layers of gargoyles, statues, embellishments – fascinating!
Everyone loves a Gothic nave: