12.11.2008 - 14.11.2008 10 °C
Isn't the Louvre open late on Wednesday night?
We had big plans to get the most out of our last Wednesday in Paris. I finished my column on Tuesday evening, and Susan rose early and went first thing to the local supermarché so that we could have a quick dinner in and still get back out to the Louvre's evening hours.
Deceived by some early rays of sunshine on her early morning errand, Susan decided it was going to be warm enough that each of us could forego an extra layer of warm clothing. Paris, however, betrayed us. It was quite cool, breezy, damp, and raw — ah, the feeling of Maine in November, here in Paris.
We took the metro over to Châtelet (Paris's metro is absolutely the best subway anywhere — lots of lines, lots of trains, generally clean, and quite cheap. It must be ridiculously subsidized, but it's very convenient.)
By the time we walked the couple of blocks over to the Seine (and yes, I took a wrong turn and led us, briefly, away from the river not towards it — and was briefly fooled into thinking St. Eustache was Notre Dame), we were all freezing.
I wanted to see the Conciergerie anyway, but Susan probably would have objected, except that entry was free with our museum pass, and she was freezing. The place is not that much to see — a gothic basement, basically, with some prison cells where those waiting to be judged by the kangaroo courts of the French Revolutionaries were stored. There was a memorial wall listing all of the 2780 people executed by the guillotine during the Terror, and I was surprised both that the number was so small, by comparison to the atrocities of the Twentieth Century, and that so few of them were nobles.
From there we walked the two blocks up to the Sainte-Chapelle, which has the most amazing high gothic interior anywhere we've been, with a magnificent set of stained-glass windows. To appreciate the place properly, one would really like to go on a sunny day and have a pair of binoculars, so that the windows could be studied. We contented ourselves with identifying the few scenes that were low enough to see clearly (Moses being put into the reed basket, David and Goliath, Judith and Holofernes, etc.) and headed off to our next adventure.
After making it past the organized gang of beggars at Notre Dame, we quickly ate our lunch in the square and peeked into the cathedral. Having been recently cleaned and repaired, the facade is spectacular.
We really liked the statue of St. Denis holding his own head . . .
and the gruesome demons in the last judgment.
But when we went in, we found that noon mass was in progress. So we sat quietly for a bit, then went out to see about going up the tower. But for reasons not explained, it was closed. What to do? Shop.
We walked from the Ile de la cite (quickly, because it was still cold) towards the Bon Marché department store. (It seemed to be the closest thing Paris has to a Harrods, but, for the record, that's not very close). Along the way, we passed St. Sulpice church and enjoyed reading the church's official refutation of Dan Brown's interpretation of its astronomical gnomon and of the letters P and S in its stained glass windows. We snacked in a cafe across from Bon Marché to prepare ourselves for the store and headed in. I wanted to spend all our remaining money on foie gras and truffles (the mushrooms, not the chocolates), but Susan wouldn't hear of it.
The shopping done, we went home for an early dinner, followed by our second trip to the Louvre. We tried to follow the "Age of Revolutions" itinerary in our guidebook, but this tour involved traversing virtually the whole of the palace, since it started with the monumental 19th century tableaux, then moved through the smaller-scale late 18th and 19th century French paintings, and headed at last to the state apartments of Louis Napoleon (though, alas, we didn't make it that far). We did as best we could, admired the heroic Davids and got as far as the striking portrait of an African woman (one of the few paintings by a woman in the Louvre and one of the even fewer to feature an African as the subject). But, exhausted, we headed home. . . after taking one more photo:
Exiting the metro stop at almost 9, I proposed that we walk the two blocks to the Champs de Mars to see the Eiffel Tower put on its top of the hour light show, which we did. And then to bed.
If it's Thursday, this must be Versailles
The forecast for Thursday was sunny, but cold, and it seemed the hands-down best choice for our day trip to Versailles. Thanks to our late evening of touring on Wednesday, we didn't quite get the early start we had first envisioned, but we were still out of the flat by 9, which got us into the vicinity of the Palace (after a ride on the Metro and RER) by about 10. We had to check the backpack with our lunch, but our Museum Passes got us into the King's Apartments for no further charge (sans audioguide). The place was not too crowded, though we spent most of our time sandwiched between two Asian tour groups, the first of which was dressed and made up like a convention of Tokyo streetwalkers, but might just have been a group of high school or college students from Japan. They giggled too much, and posed at every moment in groups of four or six making "V for victory" signs for one another's telephones. Their guide — the only male in the group — basically ignored it all and plowed relentlessly through his spiel.
In each room was a ridiculous work of modern "art," each more grating and annoying than the one before. Par example. . .
I would like to think that these were intended as a high-minded commentary on the nature of monarchy. Once upon a time, people claimed to be ordained by God to rule over the rest. . . and this claim was believed! The king "needed" a palace for his mistress! And the public treasury paid for the thing. (It is beautiful, by the way, but I digress). These works of "art" are exactly the same — pieces of ridiculous crap that some impressario called "art" and demanded a lot of money for — and people believed him! And so the state, and prestigious foundations opened their wallets to pay vast sums to buy a "work" of "art" consisting of two inflatable children's pool toys attached to a galvanized chain-link fence! Unfortunately, I think that the people who organized the show actually liked the stuff!
For the record, John said he would have given Versailles three stars out of five (we'll have to post his full set of castle ratings at some point), but the modern art was so ugly, he knocked it down to two.
In fact, even apart from the "art," Versailles was something of a disappointment. We enjoyed the Rick Steeves self-guided tour, and the rooms are very nice, but we've seen a lot of palaces in the last ten weeks, and Versailles is not displayed as effectively as, for example, was Schönbrunn. The hall of mirrors is, of course, spectacular, but it's sad to realize that the mirrors that were a marvel when they were installed are decidedly inferior to what can be bought for almost nothing today at any Home Depot. After touring the King's and Queen's rooms, we retrieved our bag and headed out to the garden. Margaret, our good, rule-following, eldest child insisted that we had to take our picnic in the officially designated picnic grounds. But there was a group of French school children there, making a lot of noise, and Susan refused to subject herself to the presence of fifty middle-school kids, French or not. So we wandered a bit through the garden, till we found a discreet place near a fountain, and ate our cheese and baguettes.
We continued on our walk away from the palace and reached the Grand Canal, where the bike-rental stand was still open. I felt bad that John had pretty much hated the palace, and so we rented the bikes. We biked around the Grand Canal, where, back in the day, the king had imported real gondoliers from Venice so as to amuse and debase the French nobility.
Then it was off to the two Trianons. The Grand Trianon first, because everyone who has a really big palace needs a little and more intimate palace to spend some private time in when the splendor of court life proves to be too much. And then to the Petit Trianon, which Louis XV had built for Mme de Pompadour, but is now marketed for its connection to Marie Antoinette, whom the French dream of marketing as effectively as the Austrians market their Sissy. The highlight here are the English gardens and the fake village Marie Antoinette had built so that she could play at being a dairy maid (inspired, alas, by Rousseau).
As you can see from the photo, it really was the first "Disney" village, but, luckily for us in America, the French were not so good at marketing.
From the Petit Trianon, it was most of an hour's walk back to the train station and about another hour's worth of travel back to the flat. A quick meal of leftovers and it was off to bed for everyone.
Notre Dame, more Modern "Art", and a date with Jean-Jacques Rousseau
We got off to a slow start this morning. Though I was in bed by 10:30 last night, I didn't rise until nearly 8, which was about when the kids awoke as well. We weren't on our way till nearly 10 and, though the weather had turned cloudy and gray after yesterday's sunshine, we headed off to do one of our "must see" sights — the view from the Notre Dame tower. When we arrived, the queue was deceptively short. Though there were only about 30 people ahead of us, it was almost a half hour till we entered the tower, with another ten minute layover in the bookstore. When we got to the level of the facade between the towers, we discovered that the top of the South Tower, which is normally open, was closed. There was no explanation. No sign. Only a locked door. C'est la France! Despite (or perhaps thanks to) the gloom, Susan got some good photos of gargoyles.
From Notre Dame, it is only a short walk to the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, which is an excellent, highly literary bookstore, with a varied and interesting collection of classic novels and recent literary fiction, with a smattering of thoughtful works of history. Unfortunately, we were really looking for a good children's section, which S&C didn't have. Worse, the one store employee wandered off somewhere, saying she'd be back "in a few minutes." She left as we arrived. After twenty minutes, John had decided that he might just read a Hardy Boys mystery. Margaret had found nothing. I would have bought the mystery had the proprietress been there to take my cash, but she wasn't. We waited a minute, until John realized that he'd rather go to another bookstore than wait till this mysterious Frenchwoman decided to return to her day job.
We crossed back over the Ile de la Cité and stopped by a charcuterie and bought lunch, which we ate in the square in front of the Hotel de Ville.
Thence to the Pompidou Center, which we skipped on our last visit to France.
The building is good for a few laughs, and the modern "art" is good for a few more — except for the really disturbing stuff, which may give me nightmares tonight. We've succeeded in imparting all our prejudices against post-representational art to our children, so they begged us to leave at the first available opportunity. After about an hour, we decided that they had suffered enough, and we let them free. Unfortunately, there is not much going on outside the Pompidou on a Friday in November, so we had to go elsewhere for our fun.
At this point, we separated. I have been eager to see the Musée Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Montmorency (a north suburb of Paris), and the rest of the family has been equally determined not to go. So Susan took the kids on a forced march from the Pompidou, back to the Bon Marche, from there to the Louvre Carousel, and only then, after hours of walking and shopping, allowed them to take the metro home. By contrast, I tubed it up to the Gare du Nord, got on the suburban line to Einghein les Bains, and walked from there to 5 Rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau in Montmorency (our map doesn't reach that far, so I had sketched one on a piece of notebook paper, based on the museum's website). The museum is located in the house Rousseau lived in after leaving the Hermitage on Mme d'Epinay's property, and in which he wrote Julie, Emile, and the Social Contract. (Actually, he did his writing in his "dungeon" — a sort of stone shed in the garden out back). The guided tour, in French, was excellent, and I understood almost all of it. The highlights were the manuscripts on display (of the Confessions, and of a letter) and the pastel portrait of Rousseau by Maurice Quentin de la Tour, which is the only portrait of his that Rousseau ever liked.
As luck would have it, I and the rest of the family arrived back at the Ecole Militaire metro stop on the same train, though in different cars. We toyed with going to the evening hours of the Louvre tonight, but we had all done too much walking during the day for that.