Sunday, April 24, 2011

Paris in the Spring


This year, for some reason, I found myself traveling to Europe on my breaks: Venice in the fall and Paris in the spring. For our much-anticipate Spring Break, last week my friend, Katy, and I traveled to Paris for five days to visit our Turkish friend, Gozde, whom we met acting in the pantomime this fall. Through the Erasmus program, Gozde is in Paris for a semester of working on her phD. The three of us stayed with her friend who has an apartment just around the corner from the Eiffel Tower. We enjoyed the perfect mixture of relaxing in sidewalk cafes and walking the streets, seeing some famous sights, accidentally lighting on fire a napkin in a fancy restaurant, and belly-laughing.

On our first full day, we walked along the River Seine alongside used book stands, a tradition occurring here since medieval times. As we walked, we watched the original island of Venice start and Notre Dame come into sight.

We crossed the bridge to Notre Dame, and came across these padlocks on the "Bridge of Love," where sweethearts have padlocked their love.

Notre Dame was by the far the most impressive church I've seen in Europe. Everywhere you looked, an intricate story was carved into the stone. Its construction began in 1150AD and took 200 years to finish; the foundation was built by volunteers who could only imagine their great-great-grandchildren enjoying the fruits of their labor.

And in the Gothic style, the church was just drippppping with gargoyles.

I looked up the myth of the gargoyle on wikipedia, and here's what it said: "French legend that sprang up around the name of St. Romanus ("Romain") (AD 631–641), the former chancellor of the Merovingian king Clotaire II who was made bishop of Rouen, relates how he delivered the country around Rouen from a monster called Gargouille or Goji. La Gargouille is said to have been the typical dragon with batlike wings, a long neck, and the ability to breathe fire from its mouth. There are multiple versions of the story, either that St. Romanus subdued the creature with a crucifix, or he captured the creature with the help of the only volunteer, a condemned man. In each, the monster is lead back to Rouen and burned, but its head and neck would not, due to being tempered by its own fire breath. The head was then mounted on the walls of the newly built church to scare off evil spirits, and used for protection.[4]"

Here's a few pics from inside the church:

Across the bridge from Notre Dame, we visited a famous bookstore called Shakespeare & Company in the Latin Quarter. The Latin quarter has been the home of bohemians since medieval times, when the language of intellectuals was Latin and what you heard on the streets. In that tradition, an American woman, Sylvia Beach, opened this English bookstore here during Post World War I when many American writers were moving to Paris because the rent was cheaper and the atmosphere was more free than prohibition America. She offered upstairs apartments to struggling artists, and helped James Joyce publish Ulysses when no one else would. Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others visited this bookstore for their English books. I could've spent all day in there.

It's always fun to be in a Christian country during holidays, for the familiarity. As we were here a week before Easter, chocolate stores had amazing chocolate Easter displays, and amaaaaazing chocolate in general.

We stopped for coffee in the same cafe Sartre frequented and discussed existentialism in its early days. The city was full of literary ghosts, which I loved. Not only stories, like The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Man in the Iron Mask, but it seemed like every cafe was home, at some point, to a famous author.

The following pictures are from our evening walk that night along the Seine and to the Arc de Triomphe, which we climbed to view the city.

The Basilique du Sacré-Cœur can be seen in the distance. Since our baggage was lost arriving in Paris, I didn't have my camera the first day. But that was the day we bought a baguette and a bottle of wine and hiked up the Montmartre Hill to visit Sacré-Cœur (The Church of the Sacred Heart). We sat on the steps overlooking the city and, over a bottle of wine, caught up with Gozde, whom we hadn't seen in a few months.

The church is not only interesting architecturally (it was built in the late 1800’s in the design of the ancient Romano-Byzantine), but bears an interesting story, too. During the years following the French Revolution, there was a schism in France between the devout Catholics/royalists and the socialists. It was a trying time for all. Many were starving still, and resorted to eating animals off the street (dogs, cats and rats). The church was built to inspire faith in the French people. During WWII bombs blew out all the stained glass windows but the church remained standing, giving locals the feeling that this church was, in fact, blessed. Our favorite fact about the church, however, was that at any given moment, a nun is on duty with the responsibility of directing her prayers to ask God for forgiveness of the sins of the world. In the main apse of the church, there is a mosaic among the largest in the world, called "Christ in Majesty," in which he opens his arms and bleeding heart to the visitors below.

Okay, back to our evening walk through the "City of Lights."

That pretty much sums up our aimless wandering. Since we had only five days in this magnificent city, we carefully chose our tourist activities to be visiting the impressionist paintings at the Musée d'Orsay (Monet, Degas, Gaugin, Van Gogh) of which I took no pictures, and visiting Versailles.

Versailles amazed me in the way Conrad's Heart of Darkness amazes me. When there are no checks and balances, there is no limit to what man can do.

The court of Versailles was the center of political power in France from 1682 when Louis XIV moved from Paris to this "suburb" 20 kilometers outside the city. The royal family ruled from this retreat until the French Revolution forced them to return to the capital in 1789.

Though the riches of the chateau had us "oohing" and "aahing," the wealth was so over-the-top. And the fact that the angry mobs of the French Revolution had dragged out King Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette resulting in their trial and death, gave this beautiful place a strange feeling.

Everyone was milling about the chateau with handheld audioguides glued to their ears, which inspired this silly pose from us... which snowballed into the goofy "Triplets of Versailles" series you will see interspersed throughout the rest of my pictures.

The gardens were expansive, like the chateau. We had lunch at a cafe hidden away in a landscaped maze, then walked towards Marie Antoinette's hamlet, a 45 minute walk away. If we had been royalty in the 1700s, we would have taken a boat along the "Grand Canal" to her retreat. But alas...

Marie Antoinette's gardens of Le Nôtre consist of 86 acres of a pond, farm, windmill, and cottages. She was known to have idealized the life of the peasant, and prance around in lawn dresses and straw hats. It was here that she gambled, played parlor games, held concerts, put on plays with her friends in her very own theatre (we were a little jealous of this), and discovered the joys of a simpler life — churning butter, raising animals and growing a garden. This hamlet was so much like a fabricated fairytale world, you couldn't help but feel sorry for her. She seemed such a little girl.

On our final day we had sunshine, so we picnicked under the Eiffel Tower before catching our flight back to Ankara. It was complete with baguette, goat cheese, wine, strawberries and chocolate, so as you can see, we had become fully Parisian after just five days in Paris!

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