Hi all. I am currently in Nice, France. The place I’m staying at has a few computer terminals, so I’m going to try to get more blogging done while I’m here. That said, all these computers have French keyboards and I’ve been unable to switch to standard qwerty setup, so I’m typing at a snail’s pace. Apologies again in advance for more typos than normal.
My last post on Paris gave you a view of my time in Paris from 30,000 feet, but at the end of it I was feeling really unsatisfied with the lack of details and commentary. So, I’m going to stall the engines, put this plane into free-fall, and try to pull up before we hit the ground. The focus of this post will be particularly on the three days of August 27 to 29.
August 27 was a day of perpetual rainfall. It was raining when I woke up, it was raining every time I stepped outside, and it was still raining when I went to bed. Seeing the weather forecast, I had decided to try to spend most of the day inside at museums, churches, and other places with roofs. I started the day at the Pantheon, which is not the same as the one in Rome. The Pantheon in Paris used to be a church but was converted to a secular structure during the French Revolution. It swung back and forth between being a religious building and being a secular building, so you’ll find a sculpture of the secular state right by a Jesus mosaic. Currently the Pantheon is something of a mausoleum, holding both the tombs of a number of famous French persons, like Voltaire and Rousseau. From the Pantheon, I walked through the Luxembourg Gardens, which would have been nice if it weren’t raining. The gardens also have the summer residence of the French senate, so there were a number of cops on patrol. The ones standing around the perimeter were in these glass booths, which allowed them to keep watch while staying dry, but they also look kind of silly standing in them. I continued on and visited a pair of churches; San Sulpice, and St Germain de Pres. In addition to taking in the art and architecture, stopping in these churches allowed me to get out of the rain and dry off for a few minutes. After St Germain de Pres, I went to the Cluny Museum, (name pronounced like the last name of famous actor George Clooney) which carries a number of things but specializes in medieval art. The Cluny is one of those museums you might be tempted to skip over but its worth the visit if you can spare the time. Speaking of which, I was trying to make the most of my time that day and quickly walked over to the Ilse le Cite (the island in the Seine with Notre Dame cathedral) after leaving the Cluny. The line for entering Notre Dame was unsusually long, so I went over to nearby St Chapelle and stood in line there for a few minutes to get in. When you have a minute, do a Google Image search for St Chapelle and you’ll better understand what’s in there.The upper chapel is nearly a wall of stained glass on three sides. The windows are meant to tell Bible stories, which I suppose would have been helpful to an illiterate population, though you’d need a priest to tell you what everything was, and the ones towards the top are hard to see. When I left St Chapelle I went back to Notre Dame, but the line was now even longer than before, so I decided to leave it for another day and instead went over to the Louvre. I had visited the Louvre three years ago and saw the Mona Lisa and the other stuff people normally go to the Louvre to see, so this time I figured I’d try to get off the beaten path and see different stuff. I didn’t even get a museum map; I just started walking. Normally this would be suicide, but I found myself strangely not knowing where I was going. It’s true that you could spend a whole day at the whole Louvre if you wanted, so after awhile I just called it quits and went over to the Orsay Museum. There will forever be debates on the respective merits of the Louvre and Orsay museums, but if there’s one thing the Orsay really has going for it, it is that the Orsay is much more manageable to visit. When you visit the Louvre you always feel like there’s still more to see, because there is. At the Orsay, you can genuinely see everything in a single visit and leave with a sense of accomplishment from doing so. Having “seen” the Orsay, it was now past 8pm and I hadn’t eaten since 7:45am. I got a meal from McDonalds (as part of my research on European fast food) but also made sure to buy some healthier food on my way back to my hostel. Were it not for the rain I would have stayed out longer, but at this point I was thoroughly soaked. I was up late writing in my journal and doing other things, all while listening in on other peoples’ conversations. It’s not that I was intentionally eavesdropping, but it’s hard not to hear when they’re right by you. I knew it was time for bed when I started to rant about one such conversation in the journal.
August 28 continued my assault on the French capital, and with the rain now gone I could spend more time outdoors. I talked briefly with a guy named Ben, who was from Dallas, over breakfast. He was at the end of a two week vacation in Europe and was about to be returning stateside. We said goodbye and I went back to Notre Dame, which now had a much shorter line than yesterday. A few minutes in line and I was in. Gothic style churches like Notre Dame are not as ornate as the baroque or rococo ones that followed them, but on the other hand you can better take in the actual structure of the church since its not covered in ornamentation. You can also go up Notre Dame’s towers but I decided to put that off for later, partly because the line extended a good distance down the side of the building. Instead I went over to the Army Museum. I had been to the Army Museum the last time I was in Paris and had focused on the medieval and 20th century sections, so this time I spent time in the 19th century section. This era is roughly book-ended by the Napoleonic Wars and the disastrous (for France) Franco-Prussian War. Seeing stuff from the Napoleonic era was fitting since I next paid a visit to Napoleon’s tomb, which is connected to the Army Museum. A giant coffin is fitting for a megalomaniac of Napoleon’s stature, and a few other French military greats are in their own oversized coffins nearby. I suppose having the biggest coffin around is a consolation prize for being the best French general of all time, but ultimately losing. But there was no more time to give Napoleon; I had to get to Versailles. It takes about 20 minutes to reach Versailles by train and on arrival during high season you arrive to find that a thousand or so other people had the same idea as you. The tour groups can make the inside of the chateau miserable, so you have to try to time yourself around them, arriving either early or late in the day. I went through the chateau and then headed out into the gardens. There must be a gun range near Versailles, as I kept hearing gunfire near one end of the gardens. In spite of all the crowds, Versailles is still worthwhile to visit. Nearly every other great palace in Europe is modeled after it and if you’re willing to journey out to the more distant parts of the gardens you can escape much of the tourist horde. With the sun going down, I returned to Paris and went back to Notre Dame, where the line for the tower was now reasonable. The tower of Notre Dame has good views of the surrounding area, but I was frustrated by the nets over the viewing area, as they made it unnecessarily hard to take photos. There are better views of Paris that don’t come with inconveniences like that, so I don’t think I’ll be climbing Notre Dame’s towers again. When I got down I got on the metro and speedily went over to the Arc De Triumph to climb to its roof, but right when I arrived they closed it down. Actually, I got there six minutes before they were supposed to close, so I felt a little cheated, but I’m not going to argue with the security dudes with guns. A walk down the nighttime Champs Elysees was my consolation before returning to my hostel, where emails, Feacebook updates, and journal writing, among other things, were waiting for me. I finished up just before 2:00am.
Compared to the two days before it, August 29 seemed almost reasonable, in terms of time spent out and about. I was a bit nervous that I had annoyed the other people in my room by showing up late and being in and out of the room until early morning, but there were thankfully no hard feelings. I started the day at the Montparnasse Tower, which you can think of as a less glamorous alternative to the Eiffel Tower. Montparnasse Tower is an awkwardly out of place skyscraper in the middle of Paris that I think has the best all-around view of the city during the daytime. It also usually has short lines, so you normally don’t have to wait long to ride the elevator to the top. From up there you can take in all of Paris, and as a bonus you can’t see Montparnasse Tower, because you’re in it. I came down the tower after a little while and went over to the nearby Gare Montparnasse train station to catch a train to Chartress. I was visiting Chartress to see the town cathedral and the town itself. Granted, there’s not much to see beyond the cathedral, but I still enjoyed my time there. One of the things you’ll notice about Chartress Cathedral is that its towers look different, and that’s because the church burned down at one point and one tower was made of wood and got consumed while the stone one survived. I made my way back to Paris, and interestingly enough I didn’t get checked for a ticket on either the ride to or from Chartress. I noticed this on other regional train rides and I don’t know if the ticket screening for regional trains is randomized or just inconsistent (on the trains between major cities they always check). Back in Paris I visited the Petit Palais, which is a free museum near the end of the Champs Elysees. It is sort of a jack of all trades museum, possessing a wide spectrum of art and artifacts but not specializing in any particular thing. I left when the museum closed and had intended to just catch the metro back to my hostel, but I saw a bunch of people walking along this path beside the Seine, so I decided to join them. People were out walking, playing games, and lounging. I came across this large chalkboard that everyone was writing on, and I wrote my name and took a photo. I also wrote “Yeah Wing!” (some of you know what that means). When I reached the National Assembly building I left the crowd and returned to the hostel to eat and clean up. Since it was my last night in Paris, I went over to Ile St Louis and got both ice cream and gelato from places I had read about. It seemed like everyone was hanging out along the banks of the Seine, so I found my own spot and watch the boats go by for a few minutes. My time in Paris was about to end.
The next day, August 30, I departed Paris and got on a train to Rouen. My time there will be the subject the next post. Going forward I’m going to try to do one post per major city/region. Stay tuned.