Friday, July 17, 2015

Pausing in Paris

Bridge over Seine River
Paris is one of my all-time favorite cities! Perhaps the only thing I don’t like is the number of tourists. As we wandered the streets, renewing old acquaintances with landmarks and eateries, it dawned on me that I’ve never been to Paris without a jacket and without needing a raincoat. This trip was no exception; we got damp and chilly, but it didn’t dull our enthusiasm. I was surprised, however, at the increase in the number of people who spoke to us in English. This doesn’t mean that you don’t need any French to travel in France. Having a few phrases (please, thank you, where is, I would like, what does it cost, etc.) are always helpful, particularly if the person with whom you are dealing has the same level of English as you do of French. And being polite goes a long way toward getting folks to communicate with you. Although the French have a reputation for being surly and rude, I have not found this to be the case; rude people are everywhere and there are no more in France than in the US. As a population, they are more likely to speak more than one language and are much more tolerant of poorly spoken French than Americans are of poorly spoken English.

As with the towns in Germany, Paris has a long history of human habitation. The oldest traces show that there was an encampment of hunter-gatherers living here between 9800
Left T to B: Flying Buttresses, Altar in Notre-Dame
Right T to B: Abbaye-Sainte-Geneviève,
and 7500 BC. And since it is situated on the Seine River it is not surprising that the opportunities for trade drew tribes of Celts as early as 250 to 225 BC. The Romans arrived some 200 years later and held the area until about the 3rd century AD when it was beginning to be colonized by the French. 
The Abbey of the Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés (Church of Saint Germaine) was founded in the 6th century by King Childebert I who then caused the church to be built to house the stole of Saint Vincent. This is a beautiful little church, but for some reason the congregation is having to raise their funds for renovation and restoration; hopefully the French Heritage Society will take this on as one of their projects. In the Middle Ages, Paris reigned as the largest city in Europe because of its importance as a religious and commercial center; this is where the Gothic style of architecture started. Notre-Dame de Paris (Our Lady of Paris) began in the mind’s eye of Bishop Maurice de Sully in about 1160 with actual construction commencing in 1163. This Gothic monument, with its fabulous flying buttresses, was finally finished in 1345; its brilliant rose window graced the church for about 100 years prior to the building’s completion. The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) is a royal medieval Gothic chapel. Construction of this chapel was begun in the early 1200s and completed in 1248. Sainte-Chapelle is ranked as one of the highest achievements of the Rayonnant period of Gothic architecture. Built to house King Louis IX’s collection of Passion Relics, Christ's Crown of Thorns is still housed here. Though it was damaged in the French revolution, Sainte-Chapelle is one of the oldest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace. It was restored in the 1800s and still has a most extensive collection of in-situ 13th century stained glass. Restoration of this church was also undertaken more recently with a seven year process to take the stained glass windows apart, clean them with lasers, then add a protective layer of glass to keep out traffic pollution without changing their appearance.

Top L to R: Spiral Staircase, Guards' Room
Bottom L to R: Marie Antoinette memorial,
Women's Garden
Also a part of the Capetian royal palace, the Conciergerie was constructed by King Philip the Fair in 1300. At this time it held legal, administrative and financial services. However, during the French Revolution’s Reign of Terror it became known as the waiting room for those who were to be guillotined. Hundreds of prisoners were taken from the Conciergerie and executed. These prisoners included the 21 Girondins, André Chénier, Charlotte Corday, Madame du Barry, Madame Élisabeth and most famously Queen Marie Antoinette. The room where the Queen was held, her garden, and a memorial to her have been reconstructed in this building. Despite the political upheavals, things were going swimmingly in Paris until the Bubonic Plague hit in the 1300s, followed shortly thereafter by the Hundred Years War in the 15th century.

Having established one of the first universities (the Sorbonne) in the mid-1200s, the intelligentsia grew in power and prestige even while the French Wars of Religion were
Left: Fountaine Saint-Michel
Right T to B: Bookstore, Latin Quarter
raging, eventually producing the Enlightenment which was the basis of the 1789 French Revolution. The Sorbonne is located in the Latin Quarter, just across the river from Notre-Dame. Full of students, shops, eateries, and small museums, the Latin Quarter is a great place to stay if you are either walking or using the subway to get around. The Fontaine Saint-Michel, which dates from about 1860, is an excellent landmark for entering the Latin Quarter. This fountain is graced by a sculpture of the Archangel Michael fighting a demon while dragons spout water into the pool; along the edge of the fountain are figures that depict the cardinal virtues. Another great landmark is the slightly off beat Shakespeare and Company bookstore with its warren-like rooms and eclectic selection of used books.

Also near the Latin Quarter are two wonderful gardens. The Jardin du Luxembourg is the 1611 creation of Marie de' Medici, the widow of Henry IV and the regent for the King Louis
Left T to B: La Reine Mathilde, Jardin du Luxembourg
Right T to B: Donkeys, Snow Leopard
XIII. She decided to build a palace that reminded her of one in her native Florence, the Pitti Palace. Once construction started, she planted 2,000 elm trees, and directed a series of gardeners to build a park like the ones she remembered from her childhood in Italy. Along with trees and fountains, the garden has over a hundred statues, and monuments. Twenty of these statues depict French queens and illustrious women standing on pedestals, including Saint Clotilde who had in life been married to King Clovis I and established the Abbaye-Sainte-Geneviève. The other garden, the Ménagerie du Jardin des Plantes within the botanical garden named Jardin des Plantes, is the second oldest zoological garden in the world (after Tiergarten Schönbrunn). Rather than the large mammals, this zoo specializes in rare, smaller and medium sized mammals as well as a variety of birds and reptiles. The menagerie began in 1793 when the National Assembly mandated that any exotic animals in private zoos had to be donated to the Royal Menagerie in Versailles or killed, stuffed and donated to the natural scientists of the Jardin des Plantes. The scientists, rather than wanting a bunch of carcasses, preferred to let the animals live. Eventually, the Royal Menagerie in Versailles was disbanded with their animals transferred to the Jardin des Plantes. Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre (1737–1814), the founder of the menagerie, believed that exotic animals should be kept in their natural environment, with their basic needs met and with scientific supervision. He also felt that the public should be educated about these animals through access to the zoo.

Just after the French revolution, the Louvre Palace was turned into a museum and has remained so ever since. This wonderful museum houses more than 35,000 objects from
Clockwise Top Center: Winged Victory, Mona Lisa and
admirers, Grand Louvre Pyramid, Venus de Milo
prehistory to the 21st century, exhibited in an area of 60,600 square meters (652,300 square feet). You can’t see it all in a week; and because of all the tourists, it’s taken us three visits to get close enough to see the Mona Lisa. There is always a crush of tourists around the well-known works of art, so we plan our visits to take in lesser-known but equally amazing exhibits. In 1989 the Grand Louvre Pyramid was opened to allow visitors easier access to the museum; two smaller pyramids serve as skylights for the massive entrance lobby. Many folks think the pyramid design was the worst idea in French history since it is completely at odds with the architecture of the Louver, itself.

Top L to R: Aphrodite, Etruscan Vases, Three Graces
Bottom: Une Odalisque

Architecture, monuments, and infrastructure were given a boost when Napoleon I came into power (late 1700s to early 1800s) and even with the various revolutions Paris became the
Top L to R: Ophelie, Grand Palis
Bottom L to R: Petite Palis, Entrance Hall
European capital of fashion. People from around the world considered Paris a vacation destination; this impression was strengthened with the construction of the Eiffel Tower for the World’s Fair in 1889. The train station, Gare d’Orsay, that now houses the Museé d'Orsay, was built during this same time period; it was constructed to bring people to Paris from the south of France. The Grand Palais des Champs-Élysées and the Petit Palais were also built for the 1900 Exposition Universelle (World’s Fair). Both are in the style of Beaux-Arts architecture with ornate decoration on the stone façades.  And both remain true to their original purpose of housing artistic events. The Grand Palais, however, is more likely to have some sort of temporary exposition that requires the grand scale of the building, while the Petite Palais contains eclectic permanent exhibits along with smaller traveling shows. During World War I, the Grand Palais was used as a military hospital with local artists decorating the hospital rooms or making molds for prosthetic limbs. Although Paris was bombed in World War I and occupied by German troops in World War II, it continued to attract international artists and writers. Interest in the arts has continued as can be seen by the increase in the number of museums and in the restoration of historic buildings. However, not everything in and around Paris is focused on the arts and history. Just outside of town is Disneyland Park (originally Euro Disneyland) with its very American-looking housing development.

For information on What we did, Where we stayed and What we ate, go to ‘Review of the Viking Cruise from Prague to Paris’.

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