Friday, October 30, 2015

Au revoir, Paris

Fountain before Le Eglise de Saint-Suplice
Tomorrow, I bid farewell to Paris. Off on the morning train to Metz, thence to Luxembourg.

These last two days have been packed full of sight-seeing. Yesterday, I visited the Petit Palais (free admission and no line!) and viewed its collection of French art.

Entrance to le Petit Palais
Grand foyer of le Petit Palais
Woman with monkey
Paris street scene
The Good Samaritan
A Monet
Elaborate vase
"Allow me to light your smoke, Madam."
Then, this morning, I went to the Cluny Museum to see medieval art from that dark time between the fall of the Roman Empire and the Renaissance.

Medieval altar piece
Stained glass
The Lady and the Unicorn: Tapestry from the Middle Ages
More stained glass
Afterward, I took a stroll through the Jardins de Luxembourg and visited the small museum there. This afternoon I finished the day with a visit to the Paris aquarium and a walk through the Daumesnil Park.

Red piranhas at the Paris aquarium
I've spent a lot of time on this amazing journey enjoying high art. Great works of art inspire and mystify. And for art lovers, Paris is the mother lode.

Arc d'Triomphe
But Paris is more than the home of great works of art. It's a laboratory for politics, cuisine, and fashion. It's a cultural center of the world, an ancient civilization, and the former seat of a vast world empire.

Paris is not the friendliest city. People are often short-tempered and impatient. And everything here is expensive.

But, to the good, Paris is racially diverse and fully integrated. And there are many people here who are kind and good and willing to take the time to help a lonesome traveler with a tenuous grasp of the French language. And, just like people everywhere, Parisians will almost always respond to a smile and a hand offered in friendship.

So I thought I'd end this post with some photos of the people I've encountered while I've been here. Because, after all, Paris, for all its mystique and glamour, is really just the people who live there.

N'est ce pas?

Beggar on Champs-Elyseé
Friends on the Metro
Woman practicing her swordsmanship in Jardins de Luxembourg
Parisians enjoying Daumesnil Park
Chinese woman from whom I bought supper while in Paris
On the Metro
Serious security at the Eiffel Tower
Pony rides in Daumesnil Park

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Paris: Montmarte, Sacré Coeur, and Salvador Dalí

Paris, viewed from Montmarte
After two consecutive days of enduring interminably long queues, I decided that my third day in Paris would entail sightseeing that did not require waiting in line. And so, Wednesday morning I set out for Montmarte to see what I might see.

Sacré Coeur
Montmarte is the high ground of Paris. That is, Montmarte is the name given to the historic district that sits atop the eponymous hill from which Paris appears to spread out before you like an infinitely complex spider web.
Inside Sacré Coeur
Atop Montmarte sits the imposing and magnificent Sacré Coeur Catholic church and basilica,  constructed over a 15 year period at the beginning of the 20th century. The church was built as a sort of penance by the French people for their "moral decline" over the century since the revolution, which they believed was the true cause of their defeat in the Franco-Prussian war in 1871.

Admission into the church is free and the crowd, while significant, was not oppressive.

The architectural beauty of the church, both inside and out, is mind-boggling. Signs inside the church urge visitors to be respectfully silent, but such a solemnity, a holiness, pervades the church that the signs seem unnecessary. It is unimaginable that someone could enter such a place and be oblivious to it.

I sat for a while at a pew. My thoughts, befuddled and diffident at first, grew placid and serene over time. I felt a longing to see my wife. And I was acutely aware of the many miles between us.

But I was reconciled to it, somehow. It was as if I knew that, at that moment, each of us was at our appointed place. It's hard to explain and I don't want to go down that path too far, anyway. I can't write anything that anyone (myself included) would understand.

When I finally did make my way outside, into the cold Paris air, I felt alone and lonely. I reminded myself that this is a journey I chose. And I chose it knowing that, at times, I would be lonely. That was enough to hold me over.

Narrow stone street in Montmarte
I wandered around Montmarte for a while. There were many merchants selling tourist trinkets, and some quaint cafes selling coffee and sandwiches. And, just by chance, I stumbled on a museum dedicated to the works of Salvador Dalí, tucked away in a little alley.

This sculpture is, somehow, a self-portrait of the artist
Salvador Dalí, of course, is the modern artist famous for his recurring motif of melting clocks. The museum was not at all crowded and the collection was manageable such that you could wander through the place and feel as if you'd seen it all in an hour or so. Which I did.

Note the melting clock at the top of the torso, and the egg. Recurring motifs in Dalí's work
Dalí was a tormented fellow, suffering from a bit of an identity crisis. His parents had had a son named Salvatore, who died before Dalí was born. Throughout his life, Dalí struggled with the memory of his namesake brother. That struggle is reflected in his work.

This sculpture is an interpretation of the Holy Trinity
I can't say I have a clear understanding of his work, but I do find it fascinating.

And, Dalí, eccentric that he was, is attributed with one of my favorite quotations: "There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad."

It was a full day, and I returned to my hotel footsore and tired, but feeling it was a day well-spent. I've decided that the best days are those that come to me, rather than those I have to chase. Make sense?

Maybe not. I don't know. I'm in Paris. That's all I can say.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Vie et mort à Paris

Gothic arch at the entrance to Notre Dame Cathedral
I arrived in Paris late Sunday night. The train pulled into Gare de Lyon train station at about 915pm. To reach my hotel, I had two quick hops on the Metro and a 250 meter walk up the narrow Rue du Picpus. Easy, thank God. It was late and I was tired.

Paris. The City of Light. The city that captures the imaginations of people the world over. This would be my third visit and I knew enough to brace myself. Paris is an adult dose, as they say. It comes at you full on.

I was both eager and apprehensive at the prospect. I got checked in to my little room, unpacked, and crashed.

The next morning I set out, hoping to see the famous Catacombs of Paris. But, after a half-hour Metro commute I arrived at the entrance only to learn that the Catacombs are closed on Mondays. Ah, well.

I made a snap decision to instead make a visit to the Louvre museum.

Michael whipping up on Satan. Why can't we all just get along?
I had a vague notion of the direction to take and decided to walk rather than take the Metro. It worked out alright. I found the Louvre easy enough and queued up outside the famous glass pyramid that marks the entrance.

But the line was long, long, long and moved at a snail's pace. The interminable short step shuffle was made all the more unpleasant by a group of boorish Germans behind me who jostled everyone around them, yelled and guffawed, and just generally set my teeth on edge. I spent 2 full hours on queue before, footsore and grumpy, I finally got inside. 

Hoard of ravenous art consumers
But, of course, once inside it was all worth it. Art lovers know that one of art's main functions is to affirm life. And the Louvre is one of the greatest art museums in the world.

First, I saw some sculpture.

Cleopatra in the Louvre
Narcissus couldn't get enough of himself
The most crowded wings of the museum were those containing the works of the great Italian renaissance painters: Leonardo, Botticelli, Raphael. The works defy description. But the insufferable crowds detract from the experience.

Well, what can you do? These masterpieces belong to everyone. No one has the right to deny them to anyone else.

Passion of the Christ
Death of Cleopatra
Another renaissance masterpiece
Can't remember the name of this one, but everybody sure was making a fuss over it
Eventually, I made my way down to the wing that displayed Oriental and Islamic art. It was much less crowded and the rewards were just as great.

Islamic tile art
Islamic tile art
Oriental tile art
All told, I spent about 2 and a half hours viewing art in the Louvre. Between this visit and my two previous visits, I calculate that I've spent roughly 10 hours inside this collection of humanity's greatest works of art. And guess what? There are entire wings that I haven't even visited!

If, dear reader, you ever find yourself in Paris, I urge you to allot some time to visit the Louvre. You won't be disappointed. And don't let my story about the long line discourage you. There are ways you can bypass the line by purchasing tickets in advance or through an agency. I've done it that way before.

Entrance to the ossuary
The next day, today, I finally made it to the Paris Catacombs. The Catacombs are tunnels that were originally created by limestone miners who mined in the area around Paris from ancient times. Problems arose in the late 1700s when the long-abandoned and forgotten mines collapsed and swallowed Parisian streets and structures. At about the same time, another problem arose when a mass grave from the cemetery, Les Innocents, collapsed a basement wall of an adjoining property, making apparent a need for a solution to Paris's problem of massive ancient cemeteries becoming overcrowded.

The French government, came up with an ingenious "kill two birds with one stone" solution. A project to reinforce the tunnels to prevent collapse coincided with a decision to evacuate the human remains in Paris's many cemeteries and to inter them in the tunnels. The idea was adopted as law in 1785.
Walls of bones
Cataloging the remains
Skulls and femurs
Today, you can visit the Catacombs and walk through the reinforced tunnels with their walls of bones. Skulls and femurs --yes, actual human remains --line the walls and are often arranged in macabre designs.

Poetry in the Catacombs: "Think in the morning that you may not live until the evening and in the evening that you may not live until the morning."
Estimates are that the Catacombs contain the remains of between 6 and 7 million Parisians, some of them famous. (Robespierre, for example, is down there somewhere.) At several points, as I crept through the tunnels, stooping for the low ceilings, I espied a particular skull and wondered, "Who were you? Were you a man or a woman? What was the story of your life?" The answers to these questions are lost to the ages, of course. But at one time, each skull was a living, breathing human being. Odd to think about that.

Join you soon enough, I warrant.
Afterward, I walked under the Eiffel Tower. But, you know, the whole thing --that tower of human achievement --seemed --I don't know --pretentious and impermanent. A little candle flickering before the Void.
Tour Eiffel
Paris will do it to you every time.