Even though the elevator made a lot of noise last night, I still managed to get a decent night’s sleep. That didn’t stop me from changing rooms the next morning. My second room at the hotel wasn’t as nice as the first one, and the bathroom could have used a refurbishing, but there was no sign of the creaks, whizzes and hums of the elevator that had driven me batty.
My plan for the day was to do an east-west circuit along the left bank of the Seine, stopping at various museums and churches along the way. I didn’t want to spend an enormous amount of time outside today; it seemed like it was getting colder. So the more time I could spend inside buildings, the better.
Leaving the hotel just after 9:30am, my first stop was the Musee de la Moyen Age, also known as the Cluny Museum. Occupying one of the best preserved 15th century mansions in Paris, as well as an 1800-year-old Roman cooling house, the museum was one of the best places in Europe to explore medieval history. I’d been to the museum once before but I’d always wanted to go back, and since it was located less than a five-minute walk from my hotel, it was an ideal place to start the day.
Inside the museum, I spent a couple of hours exploring its many exhibits. It had several rooms dedicated to 12th century stained glass, in which the glass was mounted on black walls with continuous light behind them, allowing you to inspect the details of the glass up-close. In one of the largest rooms of the mansion were the remains of the original statues that once adorned the front of Notre Dame. Most of them were severely damaged during the French Revolution, so they now reside inside the museum while copies occupy their places at the cathedral. Another room had a marvelous collection of gold work, some of which dated back to the time of the Visigoths.
But my favorite exhibit at the museum was by far The Lady and The Unicorn, the world-famous collection of late 15th-century tapestries featuring exquisite pictures of a young woman with a unicorn. Woven for the Le Viste family more than 500 years ago, they were largely forgotten until the author George Sand began writing about the at the turn of the last century. The tapestries are located in a special room designed to preserve them. Along with strict temperature and humidity controls, the room uses fiber optic light and specially focused lenses to illuminate the tapestries with the least amount of damage.
There are six tapestries in the collection, five of them representing the senses. In the first tapestry, Taste, the woman is seen with a lion on the left and a unicorn on the right. Throughout the tapestry are an assortment of other animals, including rabbits and dogs. The lady is tasting some kind of sweet; in the meantime, a monkey has grabbed a sweet as well and is about to eat it. The second tapestry, Hearing, features the unicorn, lion and most of the other animals; the woman is playing a small pipe organ sitting atop a table covered in a Turkish carpet. The third image, Sight, is perhaps the most touching. The unicorn has its front legs resting in the lady’s lap, while the lady shows the unicorn its reflection in the mirror; meanwhile, the lions sits to the left, looking forward with a happy expression on its face. The fourth tapestry, Smell, shows the lady weaving a string of flowers. The curious monkey plays a lead role in this tapestry as well, as it can be seen sniffing a rose it’s stolen from the flower basket. The fifth tapestry, touch, shows the lady holding a standard in her right hand, while her left hand gently grasps the horn of the unicorn, somewhat erotically.
The last tapestry in the collection is titled “A Mon Seul Desire,” which translates as “To My Sole Desire.” The tapestry features the entire cast of characters from the five previous images, including the lion, unicorn, the lady and her maidservant, the monkey and a host of playful rabbits. The lady is now standing inside a large tent, and she is removing a jewel-encrusted necklace, placing it in a box. (Until I looked at the tapestry, I hadn’t realized that she had been wearing the necklace in all the others.) It’s the biggest of the six tapestries, which makes sense since the weaver had to cram an ark’s worth of animals into it.
I stayed in the room for a very long time, coming up with creative ways to take long exposures with my camera since I couldn’t use a flash. There were several benches in the middle of the room, all with a flat surface, so it made it a lot easier to take exposures lasting as long as four or five seconds without blurring the image. The bigger challenge was taking pictures of the tapestries without getting any people in the way, though in some cases the blurry image of a person in the foreground with the tapestry in the background made for an interesting picture.
Just before noon I left the museum; I then walked west of Boulevard St. Germain, passing countless cafes and numerous boutiques. Several blocks into my walk I spotted the first Starbucks I’d seen in Paris. I stopped inside long enough to by a bottle of water, during which time I got to watch the staff argue with an elderly homeless woman smoking a cigar, demanding that she receive a free espresso. Eventually, she got the espresso, whereas I had to pay the requested 2.50 euros for my drink of choice.
A few blocks later, I arrived at St. Germain de Pres. Built in the 11th century on the remains of a 6th century abbey, the Romanesque church was the primary cathedral in Paris until Notre Dame was built. The church is named for Saint Germanus, the first Bishop of Paris, who was buried here. The church also served as the burying place for the Merovingian kings nearly 1500 years ago, but sadly their tombs were destroyed during the Revolution.
Inside, St. Germain de Pres was darker and more intimate than Notre Dame; still quite beautiful but more functional in design. In some ways, the church felt bigger than Notre Dame, but it was just an illusion caused by the sheer lack of tourists dominating its halls. There were perhaps another dozen tourists inside, none in groups larger than two people. Meanwhile, a small group of parishioners were seated in front of the altar, waiting for mid-day mass to commence. I sat in the back row for about 15 minutes, watching the priest and deacons make their way down the aisle and begin the service. It was very serene, particularly when thinking back to the chaos of Notre Dame.
When I had entered the church, I’d been listening to the Chemical Brothers on my iPod, which struck me as thoroughly inappropriate. But rather than shut off the iPod entirely, I switched to Arvo Part’s Te Deum, a haunting work of choral and strings, written for the Latin prayer of the same name. As explored the church, Te Deum brought it to life, adding a whole new dimension to the experience that I can scarcely describe.
Leaving the church, I continued down St. Germain, past Café Deux Magots, one of the most famous fin-de-siecle cafes in all of Paris. I then veered northwest towards the Seine, hoping to arrive at the river near Musee D’Orsay. The museum, formerly a grand train station, was later converted into once of the best art museums in Europe. I was very excited about visiting it, since I hadn’t been in many years, so you can imagine my disappointment when I discovered the museum was closed. It was Monday, and many Parisians museums are closed that day of the week, but I could have sworn that my guidebook had said otherwise about Musee D’Orsay.
There was no point getting upset about it, though I was mildly irritated that I had walked so far for no good reason. So I decided to salvage the situation by walking a few blocks east on the Seine and crossing to the right bank, for one of the greatest museums in the world was only 15 minutes away.
Now I know I wrote earlier this week that I would try to avoid the Louvre; its overwhelming collection and incomparable crowds can easily make a visit to the Louvre a very frustrating experience. On top of that, I’d been at least twice before, so it seemed prudent to invest my exploratory energy on other Parisian locales. But here I was, the Musee D’Orsay metaphorically flashing a giant “Non!” at me: nothing that a few hours that a visit to the largest palace museum in the world couldn’t fix.
For a moment I began to regret my decision as I entered I.M Pei’s glass pyramid to the museum’s central underground courtyard. Literally thousands of people could be seen in every direction: Japanese tour groups, busloads of French students, aggravated American parents dragging along their sobbing children, an assortment of random characters on a Da Vinci Code wild goose chase. I even contemplated leaving and finding a café somewhere, but the thought of descending into the Louvre and walking away from it with nary an art-filled glance struck me as a little silly. So I plopped down my eight euros like everyone else and got my ticket for an afternoon of art and world history.
Of course, you can’t just show up to the Louvre without a plan; its thousands of pieces were scattered in four enormous wings across an equal number of floors, throughout one of the largest palaces in Europe. Unless you had an inkling of a plan, chances are you’d wander aimlessly for hours, wondering whether the Mona Lisa was on tour in the US or if the Code of Hammurabi had been mistaken for a Da Vinci Code relic and put away for safe keeping. So rather than heading directly into one of the galleries, I grabbed a soda and a sandwich, sitting down with my guidebook and museum map to plot out Andy’s Ideal Louvre Tour.
My primary goal, I decided, was to focus on the ancient near east, which would take me through their Assyrian collection and the Code of Hammurabi. Rather than go directly, though, I’d start in the ancient Greek collection, and perhaps make a mad dash to the Mona Lisa and back. From there, I’d reach the near east collection, then cut through the French sculpture gallery to explore Emperor Napoleon III’s apartments, wrapping up my visit on the top floor in the Rubens collection. If all went well, I’d manage to explore about four millennia of exhibits in less than a hour per millennium. Seemed like a good plan to me.
Finishing my sandwich, I pulled out my ticket and entered the Denon Wing, to the south. On the bottom floor, I soon found the ancient Greek collection, an amazing exhibit of pre-classical pottery and figurines. My favorite piece there was the so-called Cycladic Idol, a eyeless, mouthless bust with a long, thin forehead and prominent nose. Not unlike a Modigliani piece or perhaps a Brancusi study, the idol reminded me of what Picasso said when he visited pre-historic cave paintings in southern France: “We have created nothing.”
Upstairs on the next floor, I passed briefly through the Etruscan and Roman collections, staying long enough to marvel at a sarcophagus for two, featuring a life-size sculpture of a husband a wife, reclining arm-in-arm on top of it. Going up yet another floor, I arrived at the legendary Winged Victory of Samothrace, one of the most confident looking statues of the ancient world, even though it’s missing its arms and head. A group of Italian teenagers were sitting on the steps across from the statue, flirting and smooching with each other like they were chilling on the Spanish Steps in Rome.
To the next floor, I found myself in the grand gallery of Italian art. Stretching the full length of the Denon Wing going west, the gallery is truly one of the great rooms of any museum in the world. The walls are simply packed with thousands of paintings, almost to the point that it’s hard to appreciate any of them individually. Whenever I think of feeling overwhelmed at the Louvre, this is the room that comes to mind. Hundreds and hundreds of visitors occupied each gallery along the hall, some banging into to each other while listening to their audio guides, others following their tour guide dutifully like a flock to its shepard. I made a game of weaving through the crowds, trying to avoid making contact with anyone as I worked my way west.
At the far end of the gallery, a large crowd had gathered in a room pointing northward. It could have only meant one thing: I’d reached the Mona Lisa. Frankly, the best reason to visit the Mona Lisa is to people watch: invariably there is always a group of at least 100 people crowded around the Da Vinci painting, encased in bullet-proof glass. People shove and prod for the best angle, holding up their cameras to capture the moment as best as possible. And amidst the chaos, the most famous image in the world smiles back — smiling ironically at the absurdity of the crowds jockeying for her attention and approval.
Now that I’d gotten that out of the way, I could concentrate on the Near Eastern collection. I backtracked through the grand gallery and exited the Denon Wing, pausing for a brief bathroom break before heading east into the Sully Wing. I spent the next hour or so slowly working through each room of the Near East collection, marveling at the diversity and enormity of the artifacts pillaged or purchased from that part of the world. In the Iranian antiquities collection, I had flashbacks to the Pergamon Museum in Berlin as I explored the giant blue bas reliefs of lions and other animals. A few rooms down, I found the Apadana Capital, the massive top of a column that once graced a hypostyle hall in an ancient Persian palace. Even though the column itself was gone, the capital was still probably 30 feet tall. At is base were four pairs of marble cylinders, then more column, then another four pairs of cylinders. Above them, two enormous statues of rams supported a giant wood beam, like a pair of Atlases holding up the world. The sheer size of the capital made it hard to fathom what it must have been like to have seen dozens of them atop giant columns. It truly must have been one of the wonders of the ancient world.
Further west, I arrived at the Mesopotamia and Anatolia collections, featuring stonework from ancient Iraq and Turkey. In perhaps the grandest room of the collection were the massive sphinx-like guardians from the palace of Assyrian king Sargon II. Each guardian, which must have been 20 feet high and 20 feet long, was a mythic creature with the body of a bull, a lion’s tail, Pegasus-like wings, and the head of a bearded man with curly locks cascading down to its shoulders. The room featuring the guardians was a two-story arcade, giving the space a palatial feel; in one section, the guardians were paired next to each other and you could walk between them like you were entering the palace.
In the last room of the gallery I found the famed Code of Hammurabi. A black basalt stone carved like an elongated finger, the pillar was taller than a person, with a bas relief of King Hammurabi supplicating to the Gods at the top, and thousands of words in cuneiform text occupying the rest of the pillar. While Hammurabi’s Code wasn’t the first set of laws in history — there are at least three Sumerian codes that are known to be older — they were certainly the most comprehensive. The pillar is a laundry list of pronouncements by the king, hundreds of them, on a variety of legal subjects, ranging from the criminal to the administrative. The Old Testament’s notions of an eye for an eye perhaps originated from the Code of Hammurabi, which spells out laws such as, “If you are a mason and the house you built falls down and kills the owner’s son, the mason’s son shall be killed.” The code also outlines a woman’s right to divorce; if she brings forth a proper claim saying she’s unsatisfied with her husband or he has been cruel to her, she can return to her father’s house and take her dowry with her. But if turns out she was “a flirt” and caused problems for the husband, she would be “thrown in the river” as punishment (though it doesn’t make it clear whether this was a death sentence or merely a form of watery humiliation).
Beyond the Hammurabi gallery, I found a shortcut to the Richelieu Wing and the Cour Puget, an enormous glass-enclosed courtyard, with more than two stories of open space. The brightest, airiest, least claustrophobic room of the entire palace, the courtyard is home to a fine collection of neoclassical French sculptures from the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the statues in the courtyard appeared to have formerly graced the palaces of various French kings, and they truly captured the over-the-top opulence of that by-gone era. At various points in the courtyard, art students sat beneath the statues, sketching them in their notebooks. A pair of women in their 40s sketched with pencil and graphite, while across the courtyard, several young art students captured the sculptures with pen and ink.
On the far side of the courtyard, I found a series of long escalators leading to the upper floors, where I would find the royal apartments and the Rubens collection. Unfortunately, one of the escalators was being repaired, so a group of us had to walk up the steps. It was only one flight of stairs, but since one floor of the Louvre represents probably two floors of a modern office building, it was a rather steep climb. It didn’t help that there were giant bay windows to the south which were letting in huge quantities of sunlight, half-blinding you in the process.
On the next floor, I reached the entrance to Napoleon III’s royal apartments. This mid-19th century addition to the palace is one of the few parts of the Louvre that captures the Versailles-like richness of imperial life. The apartments were all fully appointed with Second Empire furniture and artwork, reminiscent of some of the grand mansions of Newport, but with even more opulence. The rooms were not well lit to protect the carpets, wallpaper and artwork, but the light from the windows refracted off the giant chandeliers, adding a subtle discotheque atmosphere to what was otherwise very formal and conservative. Surely the emperor’s uncle and namesake would have enjoyed himself here.
I, on the other hand, didn’t linger for long in the apartments, as they were somewhat musty. I’d noticed several American sneezing on their way out of the apartments, and by the time I’d reached the last room, I was doing the same. Since the apartments were at the far end of the Richelieu wing, you couldn’t just exit at the end; instead you backtracked through the apartments, exiting by the escalators. By the time I reached the end of my imperial visit, my eyes were watering from the dust and mold. I don’t think I’ve ever welcomed the open space of a giant escalator so fondly.
The final gallery of my visit to the Louvre was the Rubens Hall, an immense room featuring some of the largest work ever produced by the Dutch master. The paintings were commissioned by the de Medicis, and they all told a sequential narrative — a narrative I’d have to read about later, since there was no documentation in the room apart from the titles of each painting, and neither of the two tour guides working the room spoke English. (German and Japanese, in case you’re wondering.) Nonetheless, my lack of comprehension of the story’s details didn’t stop me from marveling at the sheer genius of his work.
I departed the Louvre late in the afternoon, walking back to the Latin Quarter by way of Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris. The bridge is under renovation at the moment, so the sounds of jackhammers and other equipment discouraged me from lingering too long. Besides, I only had a short amount of time to catch up on email and get ready for my evening with Gregoire Japiot of the Omidyar Network, who’d invited me to dinner with his sister at her apartment near the Eiffel Tower.
Back at the hotel, I grabbed my laptop and went to the local McDonalds for about an hour, going through my email and chatting with Susanne over the Internet. I’d just introduced Susanne to Skype IP-telephony software, which allows you to make phone calls over the Internet. When you use Skype to connect to another computer rather than a telephone, the call is free, and usually the connection is excellent. So despite the typical chaos of a busy McDonalds on a Monday afternoon, I managed to chat with Susanne for about 40 minutes, using my headset microphone to avoid the distractions around me.
Just after 6pm, I changed clothes at the hotel and walked down Boulevard St. Michel to the local RER commuter train station, where I caught a train heading west along the left bank. The train was jammed with commuters, and several people got caught inside the train, unable to get out before the doors closed. Taking a cue from their error, I got out of my seat and waited by the exit so there would be no chance of me getting stuck on the train. When we reached the Eiffel Tower stop, I exited and went up to ground level. I was actually surprised how far I had to walk to reach the tower, but it provided me with a nice stroll along the Seine, watching the Eiffel Tower getting bigger and bigger as I approached.
I arrived at the tower at 6:45pm, 15 minutes prior to my rendezvous with Gregoire. It was getting bitterly cold outside, making me regret not bringing a sweater as an added layer of protection. I stood directly under the tower, watching the passenger cars moving up and down each of its long iron legs. Precisely at 7pm, suddenly the Eiffel Tower began to sparkle with thousands of strobe lights flickering on and off. I remembered that the tower did something similar in the minutes and hours past midnight on New Years 2000, which Susanne and I had spent here in Paris. I didn’t realize that they were continuing the tradition.
A few moments later, I saw a young brunette man approaching me with a large smile on his face. I’d never actually met Gregoire in person, but we recognized each other immediately. He and I walked south along the Champs de Mars, pausing every few minutes so I could turn around and snap yet another photo of the still-flickering Tour Eiffel. We walked through a new peace monument at the end of the mall; the metal and glass structure had video screens set up along its inner passageway, some of which gave access to a website with messages of peace from people all over the world. I clicked the screen to go to the page that would let me add my own message, but then we realized that there was no keyboard for us to type. I half expected to see instructions on how to send an SMS text message, but no dice.
We took a left at the end of the mall, heading a couple of blocks to his sister’s neighborhood, first to his car and then to the apartment. She gave me a warm hello when I entered the flat; she’d spent time living in the US so she had a great command of English. We spent the next four hours going through a culinary tour of their home town, Dijon, and Burgundy province in general. Gregoire has worked on and off in the winemaking industry, so I couldn’t have met a better host for the experience. We started with an aperitif of Chablis, served with slices of a spicy dried sausage and salted cashews. For the main course, we switched to a classic Dijon meal of charcuterie and cheese. The meat was seasoned with parsley, chilled and sliced, reminiscent of a moist pastrami without the intense spices. There were four different cheeses, including a raw, soft cheese made by Burgundian monks; a stronger bleu cheese, a mild, semi-soft cheese and a flavorful chevre. On the side we also had a variety of fresh breads and a local salad reminiscent of watercress with a dash of balsamic vinegar.
Gregoire selected two red Burgundies for the main course, both pinot noirs. The first bottle, a Nuits St-George, was young and fresh, a very nice complement to the two mildest cheeses. I thought I was in heaven until I tasted the second pinot noir, which was several years older; I’ve never had a wine like it. It was rich, complex, a hint of smokiness, but still velvety smooth, and paired with the stronger cheeses it was pure perfection. As I told them that night, I’d never full appreciated the concept of pairing certain wines with certain foods; I’d grasped the basics but rarely ever paid attention to them. But tasting that second pinot noir with the pungent cheeses, it was a sensory paradise. I’ll have to email him and get the exact name of the wine to see if I can track it down anywhere.
It was a wonderful, relaxing evening. Gregoire and I didn’t really know each other very well; in many ways, we were just online professional acquaintances. But he and his sister welcomed me into their home like old friends, eating and drinking, chatting about politics, religion, family, world affairs, and of course, food and wine. Before I knew it, it was past 11pm; I still needed to pack in preparation for my 7:30am departure the next morning. On top of all his generosity that evening, Gregoire was kind enough to offer me a drive back to the hotel. We took his car across the Seine to the Right Bank, following the one-way road along the quay until crossing back to the Left Bank. I managed to get back to the hotel just after 11:30, giving me enough time to pack and get a good night’s sleep. -ac
Archive for the ‘France’ Category
Even though the elevator made a lot of noise last night, I still managed to get a decent night’s sleep. That didn’t stop me from changing rooms the next morning. My second room at the hotel wasn’t as nice as the first one, and the bathroom could have used a refurbishing, but there was no sign of the creaks, whizzes and hums of the elevator that had driven me batty.
An old Patisserie Sign in the Marais
My first night in Paris wasn’t a pleasant one; my room is right next to the elevator, and every time it goes up or down, I can hear its gears turning. I’m a notorious light sleeper, and repetitive noises grate on me like Chinese water torture, which is why I found myself dragging the hotel’s overnight attendant to my room just before 1am to show him I wasn’t imagining it. He seemed honestly surprised by the amount of noise made be the elevator, but wasn’t in a position to help; the hotel was fully booked, and my first chance to move into another room wouldn’t be until I’d spent yet another night in the same room. So I stuffed yet another pillow over my head and somehow managed to doze off around 2am.
Waking up at 7:30am the next morning wasn’t that pleasant. I hit the snooze button a couple of times before dragging myself downstairs for a continental breakfast of baguettes, pain chocolate, egg whites and strong coffee. After a long shower to wake me up, I headed out the door around 9:30am, hoping to get to the Musee du Monde Arabe prior to the 10am opening. Yesterday, a queue with several hundred people trailed out the front door of the museum do the fact that a major exhibit from the Cairo Museum was in town. So today I wanted to be there as early as possible and hopefully avoid a 90-minute wait.
Heading towards the quay along the left bank, I realized what a beautiful day it was going to be. Though chilly, the sky was blue, with a scattering of puffy clouds here and there. Meanwhile, the bells of Notre Dame chimed in the distance, calling Parisians to Sunday morning services. I found the bells calling me as well; though I really wanted to get to the museum as soon as possible, it was hard to say no to Notre Dame.
Entering the giant wood doors yet again, I joined hundreds of people, many of whom were already seated in the pews for services. At first I planned to just watch from the side, but the thundering tone of the pipe organ beckoned me to sit down. Soon, a group of seven deacons dressed in red came walking down the aisle, chanting hymns and carrying a large cross. They were followed by several priests in white, one of whom swung an immense incense bowl, wafting sweet frankincense into the air.
I stayed for a little while until I realized it was quarter past 10am; so much for getting to the museum before it opened. I left the cathedral and followed the quay a few more blocks east until I arrived at the Musee du Monde Arabe; as I’d feared, my delay at the cathedral had allowed at least 200 people to pile up in front of the entrance. I joined the queue and waited; nothing happened for at least 10 minutes. I started to wonder if I would be at this all morning, when the line suddenly lurched forward by 20 feet, then promptly stopped. Apparently they were staggering the number of people allowed inside at any given time; at this rate I would probably be inside in 30 or 40 minutes.
About 35 minutes later — not a bad guess — I reached the ticket booth, where I bought my pass and paid for an English audio guide. It was the same audio guide I’d used a few months ago while touring the mansions of Newport; key in a number associated with a particular exhibit and you’d hear a story about it. I turned the corner and found myself amidst a huge crowd of visitors; I hadn’t seen so many people jammed into a room at a museum since the Vermeer retrospective in Washington’s National Gallery of Art in the mid-90s. The exhibit, which covered the first two floors of the museum, focused on the life and times of the great pharaohs. Rather than focus on a single ruler, the exhibit was more of a pharaonic retrospective, picking and choosing items from at least a dozen different ancient rulers of Egypt.
As I explored the exhibit for the next 90 minutes, several pieces stood out in particular. The first was an enormous bust of Akhenaton, the long-headed, full-lipped pharaoh most famous for throwing Egyptian religion out the window and introducing his own brand of monotheism. I’ve been fascinated with Akhenaton for a long time, particularly since some historians have speculated that Akhenaton’s religion never actually died out after his death. According to this somewhat controversial theory, monotheism was never totally stamped out, and was practiced by certain members of the ruling elite, including a prince under the reign of Rameses II. This prince became known as Moses. Yes, that Moses. In other words, Moses wasn’t an Israelite who showed up in a reed boat and was adopted into the royal family as a young prince; instead, he was a young prince who broke from Rameses’ pantheon of gods by reviving Akhenaton’s monotheism, using the Hebrew slaves as a political base. So like so many other times in history (think William of Orange or George I in England), the Hebrews adopted him as their leader, even though he was ethnically Egyptian. This, of course, would mean that Moses’ brother Aaron was also Egyptian, which would then mean the high priests of Israel — the Cohanim, of which I’m a card-carrying member — would be descended from him. Kinda blows your mind if you believe any of it.
I found all of this racing through my mind as I stood below the giant bust of Akhenaton towering over me, realizing that I wasn’t paying attention to the audio guide. I replied the guide just to hear what I missed — no mention of this Akhenaton/Moses revisionism, mind you — before continuing on to a collection of pieces found in Tutankhamen’s tomb, including a wicker bed and night stand that looked so new you might have mistaken them for a Pier One collection. Off to the side, a long pane of glass housed a 20-foot papyrus scroll containing thousands of words written nearly four millennia ago by some forgotten bureaucrat.
Death Mask of Psousennes I
To no surprise, they saved the best for last. In the final room, a familiar golden mask stood before me. Was it actually the gold death mask of Tutankhamen? Couldn’t be — it wasn’t on tour yet. It turns out I had found the death mask of Psousennes I, whose tomb was one of the few besides Tutankhamen’s that was never looted. At first, I thought it was strange I had never heard of this discovery, but the exhibit explained why. Apparently, the mask was unearthed soon after the French archeologist Pierre Montet re-discovered the lost city of Tanis in 1939. Just like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Tanis was discovered and excavated at the start of World War II, which meant the news media was pre-occupied with bigger stories. Otherwise, the Tanis/Psousennes find might be as well-known as King Tut’s discovery.
After a brief tour of some of the museum’s permanent exhibits (its carpet and porcelain collections were utterly deserted compared to the Pharaoh exhibit), I left the museum and crossed Pont Sully onto Ile Saint-Louis, one of the two islands occupying the heart of Paris. I’d visited Ile de la Cite countless times, as it’s the home of Notre Dame, but for whatever reason I’d never stepped foot on Ile Saint-Louis, even though it was right next door. An oasis of calm, the island is surprisingly residential, with neighborhoods bakeries and cheese shops that you’d expect to see in a smaller town. Since it was Sunday morning, the neighborhood was deserted; I only saw three or four other people as I crossed the island.
Exiting the island at Pont Marie, I arrived at the southern end of the Marais, one of the city’s most famous neighborhoods. My plan was to explore the Marais for much of the day, weaving through as much of it as possible. Just above Pont Marie, I turned right on Rue L’Hotel de Ville and reached the private gardens of the Hotel de Sens, the oldest mansion in the neighborhood. Built for the archbishop in 1475, it was a grand building with gothic flourishes and a mock turret that was added in the early 20th century. I continued heading west several blocks until I reached a walled playground. Calling it a playground doesn’t do it justice, though; to the left of the football pitch were the ruins of a 12th century wall; behind it, the dome of Eglise St-Louis St-Paul, a 17th century Jesuit church.
I took a left and followed the path along the edge of the playground, then cut right a couple of blocks until I reached Rue Beautreillis. Half a block up the street, I reached apartment #17-19, which would otherwise be quite forgettable if it hadn’t been the place where Jim Morrison had a heart attack in a bath tub. Unlike his grave at Pere Lachaise cemetery, which is constantly adorned with flowers and bottles of liquor, there was no acknowledgement that this was the place where the lead singers of The Doors died. Perhaps I should have brought a bottle of Jack Daniels, a pant zipper or some drug paraphernalia, but the muse didn’t move me this morning.
Heading west of Rue Neuve St. Pierre, I reached an arch passageway that led to the side entrance of Eglise St-Louis St-Paul. From the outside, it looked deserted, but entering the church I found it packed with parishioners in mid-service. I quietly walked along a side aisle and stood to the back as the priest sang a hymn. Incense smoke rose slowly to the dome’s ceiling, where I noticed a sizable representation of good king St-Louis himself.
After 10 or 15 minutes, I exited the church by the same side entrance and walked a block north on St. Paul until reaching busy Rue St. Antoine, the main thoroughfare through the Marais. A stream of people were exiting the main entrance of the church; I hadn’t realized the service was so close to the end. I walked west on St. Antoine until it turned into Rue de Rivoli, then went north on Rue Pavee, so named because it was the first paved street in Paris. I was now entering Pletzl, Paris’ historic Jewish neighborhood. Never a particularly wealthy neighborhood, the area has gone through a bit of a renaissance in recent decades, with trendy couture shops and cafes joining the butchers and delicatessens that have called Pletzl home for more than a century.
Jewish Bakery in the Marais
A block up Rue Pavee, I reached the Guimard Synagogue. Now closed to the public, the synagogue is an early 20th century Art Nouveau building designed by the architect who also created the famous Metropolitain signs above the old metro entrances. Continuing up the street, I took a left on Rue des Rosiers, the historic heart of Pletzl. Nearly every store front had a Judaica connection in one way or another; a religious bookstore, a kosher butcher, a Moroccan Jewish sweet shop, bakeries full of golden loaves of challah. Most of the bakeries had lines out the door, as patrons waited for freshly baked bread and other treats. The local restaurants were doing quite a good business as well, which made me realize that it was approaching 1pm and I was getting hungry.
Walking further west on Rosiers, I finally settled on Chez Hanna, a Sephardic café with a tempting display of North African salads and the sounds of French reggae calling me inside. The small restaurant was packed with diners, most of whom seemed to be Italian or Spanish, with a smattering of Japanese women whom I overheard mentioning the word “Tex-Mex” on several occasions. I ordered a meze platter: a large plate overflowing with hummus, tahini, eggplant puree, falafels, pickled red cabbage and salted cucumber. The waiter then placed a basket of warm, puffy pitas, each lovingly sliced with a smile-like arc on one side to allow each one to be stuffed to the breaking point. With a wine bottle full of water and a tall glass of mint tea, I relished every bite, thoroughly enjoying the complex dance of flavors frolicking in my mouth. Definitely the best meal I’ve had on this trip.
Lounging over the dregs of my mint tea for a while, I eventually left Chez Hanna and continued west until I reached Rue Veille due Temple, at which point I turned north. Not all the shops were open, but those that were seemed to be doing smashing business, whether they were purveyors of up-market olive oil, Moroccan pastries or handbags. I walked north for several blocks until I reached Hotel Aubert de Fontenay, a magnificent 17th century mansion now home to Musee Picasso. One of my favorite places in Paris, the Picasso Museum, a gift from Picasso’s family in lieu of municipal taxes, contains the artist’s personal collection of his own work, as well primitive masks he purchased over the course of his lifetime.
Two women admire a sculpture at Musee Picasso
While other museums may have Picasso’s most famous works, the Musee Picasso possesses the pieces that may have been closest to the artist’s heart, as he kept them in the family until his death. For two hours, I explored the mansion, marveling at the way it traced Picasso’s life, from his work as a confident 20-year-old to a elderly man in his 90s still producing stunning portraits. What I love about the collection is the mix of media he used; of course, there are his paintings and sketches, but there are also bronze statues, concrete busts, drift wood, strips of aluminum, ceramic — the list goes on. My favorites were probably the three-dimensional representations of his early cubist work. While I was quite familiar with his series of guitarist portraits, I’d forgotten that he’d rendered them in 3D form as well, cobbling together strips of metal, wood, wallpaper and other found objects until they captured the spirit of cubism as well as his paintings. I also loved his collections of ceramics, some of which he painted to look as if they were Roman-era pottery.
By 4pm, I started to head back from the Marais. But first I had to make a diversion a few blocks east to Place des Vosges. Since the early 17th century, Place des Vosges has served as home to 36 houses laid meticulously around a beautiful tree-lined square. I’d never been to it before so I was eager to see it myself. The square was oddly reminiscent of Barcelona, just without the palm trees or the Gaudi lamp posts. It was a charming place, but my long day of walking was starting to get the better of me, so I didn’t linger for two long. I retraced my way through the Marais, exiting at Pont Marie across Ile St-Louis, which I ambled through long enough to buy some hot chocolate for the rest of my walk.
The sun was getting low in the sky as I passed Notre Dame, crowded as always with tourists of every imaginable nationality. Eventually back near my hotel, I decided to do some neighborhood reconnaissance to find a café with wireless Internet access. To my surprise, I found free wi-fi at the local McDonalds, where I planted myself for much of the rest of the evening, catching up on email and blogging about the previous day. Before long I realized it was 7pm; I was still rather full from my excellent Sephardic lunch, so I nibbled on a few chicken McNuggets and wrapped up my email, before returning to my hotel for the evening.
Ever since arriving in Paris yesterday, I’ve been baffled by the state of wi-fi here. When I checked into my hotel, I found a little wi-fi sign on the counter, which was good news, since I selected the hotel partially because Hotels.com said the place had wireless Internet access. But then I turned on my computer and opened my Web browser, only to discover that the hotel had the nerve of charging 25 euros a day for the privilege. That’s more than 30 bucks to us currency-challenged Americans, which is sheer lunacy.
So I briefly sunk into a cyber funk and wondered if I’d be able to tolerate being offline. Of course, the answer was no, so I started to download emails from my cell phone. Granted, I bought the phone for that very purpose, but the download charges while traveling international can be a couple of cents a byte, and that can add up when you get as much email as I do.
This afternoon, though, while I was strolling down Boulevard St-Germain on the way back to my hotel, I noticed a little sign in the window of the local MacDonalds. “WIFI ICI,” it said. And below that, in somewhat small print, “gratis.” Yep, Ronald McDonald has gotten into the municipal wi-fi business — at least for a few days. It turns out the free wi-fi is part of a promotion announcing wi-fi at French McDonalds, but it’s only free for a short time. Fortunately, I’m only here for a short time as well, so that suits me just fine. So in between touring the sites and soaking up the Parisian joie de vivre, I’ll be soaking up the bandwidth at the local Mickey Dee’s….. -andy
Notre Dame on a Sunny Afternoon
I slept in a little late on Saturday morning, given the fact I didn’t have to be at the UN Palais des Nations at 8am once again. I couldn’t lounge around for too long, though, as my train to Paris departed at 10am. Fortunately, the train station was literally 50 feet from my hotel, so I didn’t have to head out the door until just after 9:30am.
As can be expected from a Swiss train, it left the station on time, winding its way northwest through beautiful French farmland and snowy hillsides. I spent the better part of the 3+ hour ride reading my Paris guidebook, refamiliarizing myself with the layout of the city and circling interesting cafes and restaurants. I’m not a huge fan of French food (though I have been trying to be open minded in recent years), but I’m a big fan of the cuisines of many of their former colonies, from Southeast Asia to Mauritius to North Africa. So hopefully I’d get to have my fair share of noodle dishes, creoles and tagines before I’d have to hit the road again and continue to India, where a wonderland of delicacies would surely await me.
Sadly, my first meal on French soil was a soggy pita sandwich slathered in butter, stuffed with egg yolks and bacon — perhaps the worst idea for a sandwich I could have come up with, but alas, it was the only sandwich available for sale on the train. I should have gotten a yogurt.
So while my stomach wrestled with these unwelcome contents, I absorbed as much as I could from my guidebook. This would be my fifth trip to Paris, so I didn’t feel the need to do the usual Louvre-Eiffel-Notre Dame circuit. Okay, I’d probably visit at least Notre Dame at some point, particularly since it was such a short walk from my hotel, but I wanted to be sure I’d visit some new places this time. I’ve always wanted to go to the Museum of the Arab World, and explore the Jewish quarters of Marais and Belleville; plus, I’ve never been to the cathedral in St. Denis or seen Sainte-Chapelle. Anyway, I only had a couple of days to play with, particularly if I managed to get over to UNESCO on Monday as I hoped, so I probably had more than enough ideas to keep me culturally and historically enriched for the weekend.
The train pulled into Paris’ Gare de Lyon station just after 1:30pm. Exiting the train, I found myself in what was perhaps the busiest train station I’ve seen — well, at least the busiest for its size. Sure, Penn Station or Delhi’s station are madhouses, but Gare de Lyon was wall to wall people, and for whatever reason, I wasn’t expecting such a claustrophobic experience. The big challenge for me was finding an ATM, or point d’argent for all of you French-speakers out there. I had a wallet full of dollars and Swiss francs, but that wasn’t going to get me a taxi ride in Euro-licious Paris. I squeezed through the crowds, careful not to step on small children or dogs, and soon found an information booth. The map in front of the booth showed that there was one — one — ATM for the entire train station, and it was at the other end of the building. I worked my way with my bags in tow, soon reaching the location of the ATM. Unfortunately, all I found was a hole in the wall that was once occupied by the aforementioned point d’argent. Another information booth directed me to the currency exchange booth, which just happened to be right where I’d started, near the first information booth.
Exchanging 20 bucks and my leftover Swiss francs at a criminally bad rate, I hailed a taxi and headed southwest through the city, crossing the Seine just east of Notre Dame. Before I knew it, I was passing the Musee de Cluny, cruising down the Boul Miche. My mind raced back to my first trip to Paris when I was 14 years old, then to New Year’s 2000, the last time I was here; suddenly a three-dimensional map of the Latin Quarter formed in my mind. I knew exactly where I was, and I knew exactly where I needed to go to walk to the hotel once the taxi dropped me off. There’s nothing quite like arriving in a city after such a long time but having it feel like you just returned after a weekend elsewhere.
I walked a block down Rue St. Severin until I reached the entrance of my hotel, the Europe St. Severin, a cozy little two-star joint with a cool see-through elevator and rooms decorated with bright Provencal linens and exposed rock walls. (Frankly, I’m amazed I was able to find a place so charming for same price that I’d paid for the austere Hotel Bernina in Geneva.) Not wanting to waste too much time at the hotel, I grabbed my camera and my guidebook, then quickly booted up my laptop to see if there was wireless Internet access. It turns out the hotel did have wi-fi, but you had to pay a staggering $13 an hour for it, or $30 a day if you preferred. I guess I’d just have to access email on my cell phone until I could find a wifi-friendly café in the quarter.
Unburdened by my luggage, I left the hotel and winded through the heart of the Latin Quarter’s tourist ghetto, passing rows of Greco-French restaurants all offering the same menu-fixe of onion soup, coq au vin and chocolate mousse. Soon I was able to breath fresh air as I reached the quay, still lined with book stalls the way it’s probably been for 100 years. Behind the stalls, Notre Dame dominated the view, the soaring gothic building that’s been a Paris landmark for almost eight centuries. The square in front of the cathedral was packed with tourists, none of whom seemed to care that it was dreary or February — I guess a dreary February day in Paris is better than a nice day in most other places. Flocks of pigeons showed no mercy as they swarmed the unprepared tourists, overwhelming them St. Marks-style, thanks to the North African men selling small bags of pigeon feed.
I joined the queue and entered the cathedral, noting a large “Silence Please” sign as I entered. Passing through the cathedral’s great doors, my ears were bombarded with the voice of a woman announcing the schedule for free tours in Russian, Spanish and Italian over the cathedral’s public address for them. (“Silence Please” must be either sarcasm or the cathedral itself begging for a moment of tranquility.)
Tourists explore Notre Dame
For whatever reason, as I explored the cathedral’s grand interior, I found myself more interested in the tourists than the cathedral itself. Perhaps it’s because I’ve been there about a dozen times — since it seems I go more than once every time I’m in Paris — or perhaps I was still so wound up from my meetings in Geneva that I wasn’t ready to be a tourist yet — but I just couldn’t get my mind around the magnificent vaults, the ornate carvings or the glorious rose windows. The tourists just fascinated me. There were hundreds upon hundreds of them in the cathedral, though compared to other claustrophobic tourism experiences past, during this visit they were all very patient, focused. No shoving or loud talking (unless you count that woman who kept announcing the next tour — German, Portuguese, Xhosa, Klingon….) So I slowly made the counter-clockwise loop around the cathedral with my fellow visitors, watching them peer up to the rose windows, contemplate the bas reliefs, sit for a moment of prayer or reflection.
Perhaps the reason I wasn’t getting into Notre Dame was that it all seemed so — familiar. I knew this cathedral better than any in the world. I knew where to find the cool looking statues, the best spot to photograph light coming through the stained glass…. I needed to see something that I’d never seen before. So I joined the queue to exit the cathedral and headed a few blocks west to Sainte-Chapelle.
Despite all my visits to Paris, I’d never seen Sainte-Chapelle. Honestly, I didn’t know much about it except that it was famous for its stained glass — and having just left Notre Dame, one of the most famous places in the universe to experience magnificent stained glass, I wondered if I’d always skipped Sainte-Chapelle because I assumed it wouldn’t be as grand. But Susanne and her mom had visited the chapel last year, and she made a point of mentioning it before I left on this trip, so I figured I should make it a priority. Fortunately, it wasn’t more than a five-minute walk from Notre Dame.
Actually, it turns out the wait to get inside Sainte-Chapelle was longer than the walk itself. First, you had to queue through a metal detector and x-ray your bags. Then, you joined a second line to buy your ticket. Finally, you waited in another line for someone to take your ticket and let you inside. At first it seemed like totally unnecessary bureaucracy, but then again, the chapel was fairly small, so they needed to stagger people’s entrance into it, or you might end up like a gothic sardine tin.
Entering the chapel, I found myself in a small, gorgeous room with vaulted ceilings and dark blue walls. It felt more like a royal wine cellar than a chapel. A large group of Italian tourists crowded the second half of the room, so I had to wait for them to clear out before I could explore the space more comfortably. I was in the lower chapel of Sainte-Chapelle, which French king Louis IX built in the mid-13th century as his personal chapel. The room was indeed beautiful, but the cynic in me wondered what all the fuss was all about. Perhaps I’d find my answer upstairs in the Upper Chapel.
Sainte-Chapelle’s Upper Chapel
I walked up the winding staircase and found myself in one of the most sublimely beautiful rooms I’ve ever seen. The Upper Chapel was much taller than the lower one, its walls seemingly made entirely out of stained glass. My eyes must have been playing tricks on me: it truly looked like all the walls were made of stained glass. It took me a moment to adjust to the optical illusion and understand the brilliant architecture that was unfolding around me. At strategic points along the walls stood nine pillars that supported the weight of the roof. Apart from these pillars, the walls were almost entirely made of stained glass. The style of the glass, combined with the patterns of arches, added to the illusion that the glass was supporting the roof; glass dominated the foreground while the pillars sunk into the foreground, almost an afterthought.
The Italian tourists that had mobbed the Lower Chapel were occupying much of the Upper Chapel, but I wasn’t going to lose my patience. I’d wait them out so I could experience this place as best as possible. This was truly the pinnacle of gothic architecture, the holy grail of an engineering quest to make walls disappear and let heavenly light reign supreme. Photos would not do it justice, but I did my best to capture what I could.
After leaving Sainte-Chapelle, I returned to the Left Bank and followed the quay past Notre Dame to the Museum of the Arab World. It seemed like a good place to enjoy the rest of the afternoon, and perhaps they’d have an interesting touring exhibit. When I arrived, though, I discovered a queue of several hundred people winding down the block, and an enormous sign showing a golden pharaoh mask. Aha — the Egyptian Museum world tour must be in town. An even better reason to visit the museum, I thought, but I didn’t want to spend the next hour in the cold, waiting to get inside, only to have another hour or so before the museum closed. So I made a command decision to visit the museum first thing tomorrow morning.
Before I went any further, though, I needed to get some cash. The horrible exchange rate at the train station prevented me from changing over more than $30, and it had quickly dwindled down to almost nothing thanks to the pathetic value of the dollar. So I started walking south into the heart of the 5th arrondisement, hoping to find an ATM. Amazingly, I walked for nearly 45 minutes before I found one, which was quite agonizing as I passed all of these lovely little cafes that I wanted to visit – cafes that didn’t accept credit cards. By the time I found the ATM, it was nearly 5pm, and I was now just a stone’s throw from the Pantheon and the Sorbonne. Rather than backtracking to one of the cafes I’d seen during my walk, I stopped at a Belgian beer café, where I had a yummy glass of kriek beer and a bowl of peanuts while reading my guide book.
Just after six o’clock I returned to my hotel for a quick shower — my feet were really cold from the walk so the hot water did them a world of good. I then went and explored the Latin Quarter in search of dinner. My initial plan was to go to a Lebanese restaurant, but when I got to the one recommended in my book, it looked deserted, which I took as a bad sign. I then found a Moroccan restaurant that looked more promising; I sat down and waited for nearly 45 minutes, trying to get the attention of one of the four waiters who was spending their time trying to repair the restaurant’s stereo system rather than serve customers. Eventually I left, along with a couple other people frustrated with being ignored. In the end, I found myself at an Indian restaurant around the corner of my hotel. I come all the way to Paris — on my way to India, no less — and end up eating samosas and chicken masala. I must try harder tomorrow night.
It’s just before 7am at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. My Air France flight from Boston arrived here about 50 minutes ago. I had a sleepless night – my section of the plane was very warm and the guy next to me coughed all night. I managed to kill time by reading about Tunisia and Whitey Bulger – no, not in the same book, as surreal as that might be – and playing solitaire on the in-flight entertainment system.
After a quick visit to TJ’s Cafe for an espresso, I’ve settled in at my departure gate. If all goes well I’ll be boarding in 45 minutes, so my next blog will hopefully be from Tunis… -Andy