Saturday, February 23, 2013

Arc d'Triomphe - Paris Day 2

Once upon a time, 15 years ago, I traveled to Paris with my best friend. I didn't really know what I wanted to do or see while I was there, other than the iconic touristy things. Naturally, the Arc d'Triomphe was on that list. I didn't really know what it was, or what to do once we got there, but knew that it should be on the list. Dutifully, we walked up the Champs Elysees towards the Arc. It was late February, and a drizzle was falling. "Drizzle" doesn't sound threatening, but that slight bit of moisture while trudging uphill made it hard. We had already done a lot of walking that day, this was quickly turning into just an activity to check off a list.

When we got to the intersection, THE INTERSECTION where about 10 or 12 roads converge into a huge round-about, getting to the actual edifice seemed like just one more undesirable obstacle. I looked at the Arc, noting how much HUGER it is in real life than any movie or photo book can prepare you for, and said, "I'm done."

Cim said, "But we're almost there. Look! It's right there!"

"Yep," I agreed. "There it is. It's big." Pause. "Okay, what's next?"

"Aren't you even going to go TOUCH IT?" she exclaimed incredulously.

"Nope, I've seen it. Besides, I am not going to take my life into my hands more than necessary to get across that crazy intersection. There are no crosswalks! C'mon, let's go."

"But, look! There's an underground pedestrian access tunnel."

"Yeah, I've seen it. Let's go."

And so we left. Without touching the Arc d'Triomphe. It did not seem logical that there would be an underground pedestrian tunnel to it. It just was this huge THING in the middle of this crazy street surrounded by crazy drivers, and I was tired.

This time around when we were planning this trip, I had the option, because of my shortened timeline, of going to EITHER London or Paris. I love London. It is safe to say that it is my favorite city. I hadn't loved Paris before. I was glad I had gone and had enjoyed myself, but I hadn't really fallen in love with it the way you're supposed to. I had been yelled at on the Metro ("SORTIE!"), I had been pushed, shoved, thought the city was dirty and the people rude, and was glad when it was time to go back to London. This was my repentance opportunity. The more mature, experienced me wanted to make amends with Paris. And I knew that part of being forgiven would entail actually TOUCHING the Arc d'Triomphe this time around.

Did I mention there were stairs? Not only did I embrace the formidable Arc, we paid for the privilege to climb to the top. One hundred and eighty-nine stairs in the spiral staircase, and another three - four stories to get to the outdoor plaza. 

Spiral stairs, at least this many of them, are hard to climb. Not that they're more steep than other stairs, but there is no sense of distance achieved since it is just a never-ending circle.

The Champs Elysees:

We walked around the entire top of the Arc. I spent some minutes watching each traffic intersection, hoping to see an accident. I heard a statistic that there is an accident every 15 minutes (or I'm making that up), but I didn't see a single one. Lots of close calls, but no actual collisions.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Sacre Couer - Paris Day 2

At the museum, I asked for metro directions on getting to the Basilique de Sacre Couer. In hindsight, they were slightly shady. They got us there, but it seems to have been the back way. On the other hand, we got to see sights we wouldn't have otherwise, so there's that. (There's a parable in there somewhere.)

When we came out of the metro station, we heard church bells ringing. It wasn't the same church we were looking for, but it was lovely also. 

In that church's backyard, we found this interesting tiled wall. Imagine the outside wall of your house. That's about how big this is. We called it "The Love Wall," because it seems to have "I Love You" written in just about every language imaginable.

As seemed to be the theme of our trip, before we could get to our destination, there were stairs to climb.

Lots and lots of stairs.

Then some more stairs. I thought this street sign declaring this to be the Road to Calvary was particularly apt.

We knew we were roughly in the same neighborhood as the Moulin Rouge, but this was the closest thing to it that we saw:

Then, finally, in the distance, there it is!

Another plaza to walk through, a few more streets to circumnavigate, and finally, we have arrived. 

Historically speaking, this chapel is new. It is in the Montemarte district - the highest point in Paris - and construction finished in 1914. No photos were allowed indoors, but it is every bit as impressive as Notre Dame in its own right. 

We took the "front" way down, which meant a funicular ride down a rather steep two-three block hill. We had no idea where we were by this point, but the streets were happily crowded in a friendly, non-threatening way. Cinnamon found a chocolate shop. If chocolate sculpting is a thing, these guys were experts. 

I spent way more Euros than anyone has a right to spend on chocolate, and did not regret one cent. Sadly, I did not purchase the piano or ship - just some chocolate baubles. Some chocolate heaven, is what it was.

We found a cafe for dinner, and watched some snow fall. Snow! One more stop to round out our Paris sightseeing - Arc d'Triomphe.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Musee d'Orsay - Paris Day 2

We got a bit of a late start due to some logistical necessities. One of us (not me) left a backpack on the train the night before, so there was some running around to see if anyone from the train company and/or station could be contacted for lost-found assistance. That means that something in our schedule for the day had to give. I made an executive decision that it would be my French meal at Chez Georges. I was disappointed, but didn't see any other alternatives to getting all the sights in that were also on the list. The meal seemed like the most logical option.

Rather than do multiple train changes, we got off the train at a stop across the river from the museum and walked several blocks. The view was lovely. The weather was a bit warmer than it had been the day before - not as much wind, though still coat-worthy cold.

The walk started at the bottom of the Champs Elysees where the giant Egyptian obelisk is. There were lots of lovely old buildings - probably mostly government.

The d'Orsay was beautiful. It used to be a train station, which explains the many clocks both inside and out, like this one.

That's on the fifth floor, the Impressionist floor. The d'Orsay boasts one of the largest Impressionist collections in the world. Sadly, I was underwhelmed. I thought it would be cool seeing Monet, Manet and Whistler (you've heard of his mother), etc., in person. I guess I was already museum-ed out, though. We had spent a fair amount of time on the lower levels exploring some Classical paintings and sculptures.

But I digress. Look at that view! If you biggify the picture, you can see the Basilique de Sacre Coure (Sacred Heart Basilica) in the background.

Pictures weren't allowed in the museum, so I snuck these two. I figured since it wasn't of artwork, even if I did get caught I could be easily forgiven my photographic transgression.

Speaking of the Classical stuff, one of my favorite paintings was by Jean leon Gerome called, "Jerusalem," or "It Is Finished."

As with any work of art that moves you, this does not really do it justice. There are so many details to be seen close up and in person. It made me appreciate, again, the selfless sacrifice the Savior made on our behalf. This depicts how very lonely it must have been for Him.

There was also an impressive Post-Impressionist collection. There were only four Seurat paintings on display, and they were postcard-sized.

The room I enjoyed most was the one with Van Gogh on display. Unfortunately, there were several school classes on a field trip, so getting close for an extended period of time without being rude was impossible. It is indescribably cool to be that close to paintings that you've read about or seen reproductions of in art history or humanities text books. To say that you are "viewing" them is not really descriptive enough. "Experiencing" is closer to the truth. There are textures and and depth and dimension that no flat, two-dimensional photograph can sufficiently capture. And to say I was captivated begins to describe my experience.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Eiffel Tower - Paris Day 1

After Notre Dame, we had "linner" at a little cafe Seine/Notre Dame adjacent. Then we did some Latin Quarter exploring. "Wandering" might be a better term. Linda saw a cool-looking building and said, "Let's go see that weird building!" I said, "That 'weird' building is probably a church," and it was. There are as many cathedrals in Paris as Mormon chapels in Provo, it seems.

There were charming little cobblestone streets, adding to the the "American in Paris" feeling.

Night had completely fallen by now, so it seemed time to go see the brightest lights - the Eiffel Tower. There is not much to say about that that hasn't already been said.

Every hour on the hour, twinkle lights go off. Up close, they resemble floodlights in size and brightness.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Notre Dame - Paris Day 1

After the catacombs, we bought crepes from a street vendor, then walked to another Metro station. What with all the train/metro travel and the catacombs, it didn't feel like we had spent a lot of time aboveground. The crepes were a necessity - to fuel both body and spirit. And I can think of few things more charming and Parisian than having a piping hot crepe made by a charming, flirtatious French man, shilling his wares with charm and friendliness.

The last time I was there, 15 years ago, Notre Dame was covered in scaffolding. Not so this time. In fact, 2013 marks the 850th anniversary of the building (I don't think that includes completion) of Notre Dame.

We did due diligence taking photos outside.

And then headed inside to the battle the crowds. Every few minutes a voice would come over the loud speakers, "Shhhhhhhhhhhhh," which would quiet the crowd for a few minutes.

It's hard to fathom the enormity of this gorgeous building when placed in the context of it being 850 years old. How did those people DO that? How did they achieve such wondrous vaulted, gothic ceilings put in place without benefit of cranes or other modern technology? Did they even have such a thing as slide rules? It boggles the mind. Without amazing architects, mathematicians and other intellectuals, the way could not have been paved for the technological gadgetry of today.

Catacombs of Paris - Day 1

Our first scheduled stop of the morning was Les Catacombs. I knew which Metro stop to take, and we saw one sign when we got off, but nothing after that. We crossed a few intersections, all while making a vague circle. I even tried asking a passer-by, a young French woman, but she apparently couldn't get past my horrendous French accent, or just wanted to pretend ignorance that such a thing existed. When all was said and done, we were only about 50 m from the entrance. My goodness! I didn't think it was THAT horrendous. I saw a green kiosk-looking thing inside a little fenced area, and sure enough, that was the entrance. It was practicing being incognito.

After paying the entrance fee (8 Euro), we went down a seemingly endless spiral staircase. (There was a sign at the exit indicating that that one was 83 steps, so this one must have been close to that.) It's far enough underground to be under the Metro lines. 

At first, it's just a lot of walking through tunnels. I found out later that it's a 1.5 km walk through the mining tunnels to get to the ossuary entrance. Lots and lots of tunnels. Lots and lots of walking. Hard to judge distance when it's just tunnels and more tunnels and hey look! another tunnel! There were signs here and there talking about the history of the mines, so it wasn't completely boring.

 And then there were little architectural touches like this that helped to break up the monotony.

This was an underground pool that the miners found quite accidentally one day, when they walked into it. It's so clear that it wasn't distinguishable from the ground. Now it is fenced off so that other similar accidents don't happen. This picture does not do justice to the clarity or depth of the water. It's a little breath-taking in real life, because you think, "Holy cow. I could totally fall into that and drown and no one would know."

This was a little diversion that one of the miners carved into the soft limestone rock. It's a model of some port city (Italy, maybe?) that he did from memory. There's a little room of his carvings, and the detail is astounding.

That same man was killed in a cave-in that happened during excavating more walls for him to do more carvings. (Or something like that. I'm kind of vague on the details because of all the walking. Like pioneer children we walked.)

As we drew closer to the actual catacombs entrance, I began feeling a bit apprehensive. Creeped out a tad, not knowing exactly how all these bones would be presented. The only thing I knew was what I heard from two separate people: "Imagine what it will be like during the resurrection. Bones flying everywhere!" So yeah, I was feeling apprehensive. The sign below didn't really help much. "Empire of the dead?"

First, a little history lesson. What are the catacombs and what are they doing underneath Paris?

By the 10th century, many of Paris's parish cemeteries were getting overcrowded. An attempt to remedy this situation came in the early 12th century with the opening of a central mass burial ground for those not wealthy enough to pay for a church burial. Once an excavation in one section of the cemetery was full, it would be covered over and another opened. As you can imagine, this was not exactly a sanitary situation as decaying organic matter entered directly into the ground, affecting the city's main water source - wells.

By the 17th century, the sanitary conditions around Saints Innocents had become unbearable. As it was one of Paris's most sought-after cemeteries and a large source of revenue for the parish and church, the clergy had continued burials there even when its grounds were filled to overflowing. By then, the cemetery was lined on all four sides with "charniers" reserved for the bones of the dead exhumed from mass graves that had "lain" long enough for all the flesh they contained to decompose. Once emptied, a mass sepulchre would be used again, but even then, the earth was already filled beyond saturation with decomposing human remains.

The catacombs in their first years were mainly a bone repository, but  Louis-√Čtienne H√©ricart de Thury oversaw the renovations that would transform the underground caverns into a real and visitable sepulture on par with any mausoleum. In addition to directing the arrangement of skulls and femurs into the configuration seen in the catacombs today, he used those tombstones and cemetery decorations he could find (many had disappeared after the 1789 Revolution) to complement the walls of bones.

There about six million bodies in the ossuary. 

No flash photography was allowed. Luckily, I had a little high-powered flashlight with me (I travel prepared) that I used to illuminate the bone walls enough to get these pictures. I really enjoy the x-ray/midnight lighting of the first one, though they weren't all like that. While I didn't necessarily feel like I was walking on sacred ground, you could definitely tell that this had all been done with a great deal of reverence and respect. And "wall of bones" is really a very apt description.