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.