Monday, January 31, 2011

Je vois la vie en rose...

With the victory of Notre Dame (the cathedral, darn it, not the football team!) firmly under our belts and soaring in our minds, there was only one thing to do. I mean, besides eat and have more coffee and more wine. (Those are a given.) The thing to do was to take a train out to Versailles Palace.

Now, having lived in Dubai, which is nothing if not conspicuously indulgent in many, many ways, and having been to the Dolmabahçe Palace of Istanbul, the attempt by the sultan of the time to make Turkey appear opulent (unfortunately for the plan, it cost so much it almost completely bankrupted the country) we figured we're pretty well immune to such things. I mean, how gilded and over-the-top could a palace be?

Let me tell you.

Louis XIV took a hunting lodge and in a political masterstroke had it transformed into a palace fit for a god, the Sun God, actually. A place where he could rule supreme, forcing the nobles of Paris and the rest of France (and the world for that matter) to have to come to him on his terms if they wished to receive his favor. He strikes me as a man who desired to be nothing more than the most powerful king of the most powerful country in the world. Obviously such a king would not only need but was also entitled to the most magnificent palace in the world.

As the longest reigning European monarch in history, (72 years to Elizabeth II's current 58, if you're keeping score, but she still has the larger castle, good for her), Louis XIV the Sun King, had plenty of time to make his palace in his image, and he did a knockout job.

So here came Mike and me on the train, along with the millions of others each year who visit the palace that housed Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI, and then finally that little man with a particularly big opinion of himself, Napoleon. The train spit us out into the village of Versailles and it was with no difficulty that we found Versailles Palace itself.

Which, even when employing the panoramic option on one's camera, can't be fitted into one frame.

Just as big as you might expect, living up to the hype and legend, this palace consists of 700 rooms, surrounded by another 1800 acres or so of gardens. The line to get into the palace was proportional, seeming acres of people standing single file in line, a rope-defined maze of straights, corners, and boredom. Mike manned up in a highly generous gesture, asserting that he would have less interest in the gardens than I, and volunteered to wait in that very, very long line. I agreed, only half reluctantly, that we should conquer by dividing our resources, and feeling less guilt than I probably should, went out to the gardens, which are, incredibly, free to the public.

If you like topiaries, symmetry, and statuary, then the gardens of Versailles are for you, my friend. I cannot fathom the army of gardeners that it must require to keep up this level of perfection. Yet we never saw so much as one with a pair of clippers.

I suspect some sort of French magic is employed there to make it work.

Awestruck, I noted that not only are there the topiaries and brilliantly blooming beds of flowers, there are also beautiful urns and statues every few feet, aesthetically placed for the greatest impact, and each one is different. I could easily have spent an hour just photographing details from the urns.

But I had promised to hurry, and I tried, I really did. I honestly only went through the closest part of the garden, and I only took shots of my very favorite statues and scenes. Even so, breathless and overwhelmed, by the time I'd dashed back to where Mike had been waiting he'd was already inside purchasing our tickets. I had wondered about the folks who forked out 30 Euros per hour for golf cart rental to drive around the grounds, but I think that it might be a real necessity for true garden lovers. Or several days to explore and sketch and marvel. And good shoes.

I decided I would have to make sure Mike got out to the gardens, but for now we entered the palace itself.

What a place. The best word to describe it would have to be spectacular.

With honorable mentions to overdone, ridiculous, amazing, and holy guacamole.

While I'm not sure I should approve of the excess, especially at the cost (Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette's heads 100 years later, for instance), if you're going to go the distance, I suppose you had better do it shamelessly. I couldn't help but be pleased that so many artisians were employed to make it happen so many years ago. Gilt, crystal, velvet, marble, artwork, every surface covered with richness. By the time we'd reached the awe-inspiring Royal Chapel, Mike leaned towards me and whispered, this makes Dolmabahçe look like a trailer park.

He was right.

Even with its vast interior, Versailles was crowded, of course, and I was shocked more than once to see tourists actually touching the paintings. Crowd control there must be a nightmare. Just because there were rooms where there were mere inches between the frames, so covered were the walls with portraits of important persons and beloved pets didn't mean they weren't still valuable and irreplaceable pieces.

Much of the brushwork was fortunately beyond reach, above our heads as vividly painted ceilings, and everywhere were motifs of sun and fleur de lys and cockerel. The Hall of Mirrors (Grande Galerie or Galerie des Glaces), is rightly one of the most famous rooms in the world.

Mirrors were a true luxury in their day, and the room, designed to showcase such wealth, is stunning, especially in a historical sense. It was there that Louis XV met his future mistress, the Madame de Pompadour during a masked ball, (ironically, to celebrate his marriage) during which she daringly dressed as Diana, the Goddess of the Hunt.

And they say Hollywood has run out of tales to tell.

William I was declared Emperor of Germany in the Hall of Mirrors in 1871, and to really annoy the Germans and rub their noses in it for losing WWI, the French Prime Minister insisted the Treaty of Versailles be signed there in 1919. Today it is still used for State occasions.

I'd rather like an invitation to one of those.

Goodness, what would one wear?

I probably don't need to worry about it.

If you ever want to get a real insight into the thinking of the time, you must look up Louis XIV's Lever , the extremely elaborate ceremony of the king's waking in his bedchamber. Un-be-lievable. From being kissed every morning by his nurse to allowing only the most privileged nobles to address his majesty before he began to dress, (lesser favored nobles might see him whilst he dressed, which was quite the crowd, and then other courtiers would have to wait until he actually got up and left the bedchamber.) Benjamin Frankin, for instance, was personally received in the bedchamber, (France looking for ways to undermine England any way she could) which ended up being a good thing for the Colonies and not such a good thing for the coffers of France, but that's another story.

Either way, here is one of the Royal Beds, one of the rare pieces of furniture still left in Versailles.

Most of the original bits were carted away by the poorer and rather rebellious French commoners whenever the political winds blew that way. We were assured that the curators are doing their best to try and get some of it back.

We wish them luck with that one.

The Hall of Battles was another impressive area, stretching along, enormous paintings depicting the tales of French victories

(yes, there are French victories in battle, all joking aside, now!) next to the Coronation Room which I believe was bombed in 1978 by radical Breton separatists (they don't talk about that on the audio guide) a room devoted to artwork from Napoleon Bonaparte's time.

Napoleon was not only one heck of a military man, he also, we learned, employed artists to paint people in or out of paintings depicting scenes of historical importance should they have changed status in his favor. Therefore his mother ended up being a guest at his coronation after all, and I seem to recall that Empress Josephine was painted out of another painting after their divorce.

The Coronation of Empress Josephine. She got to stay in this one.

Being a god but short and with bad teeth must have made Napoleon a bit cranky, some days. Fair enough.

We were happy enough being mere mortals, walking the marble corridors of history.

Though we were fatigued by so much grandness, I insisted Mike must follow me outside to see the gardens, and to admire the palace from that side,

which he agreed was time well spent.

We couldn't bring ourselves to go chasing down Marie-Antoinette's estate, preferring instead to settle back onto the train with our feet up for the 40 minute ride back to Paris.

We ended up near the Paris Opera house, with a nod to the Phantom.

It really is glamorous, and a good place to watch the visitors and residents of Paris. I can only assume it is quite good for opera lovers as well.

The evening upon us, we drifted tiredly back toward the Arc de Triomphe and our hotel, and found, on the little side street Rue de Surène, a softly glowing and simply modern restaurant that appealed called Le Taste Monde.

Finally, on our last evening in Paris, a meal for the Gods. With exquisite service and an emphasis on wine, little English spoken, but what did that matter in the language of food, we had a simple but memorable evening. Mike even had Ratatouille for one of his courses, which pleased our Pixar movie lovin' children no end when they heard about it.

A perfect ending to the day.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The bells of Notre Dame

Throughout our trip, every time we went into a cathedral, however grand (and they were, oh, they were,) and Mike went WOW! I would assert, yes, yes, this is awfully special, but wait 'til we get to Notre Dame.

So, now in Paris, I was a little nervous. Had I given Notre Dame too much of a build-up? Would she truly be as magnificent as I remembered? Were my scathing lessons on NOT pronouncing Notre Dame the Cathedral as you would the football team -"noh-trah-daahme" vs (cringe) "nohtrrdam" too stringent?

We'd seen some dauntingly long lines in front of the cathedral the day before, would Notre Dame be so crowded we wouldn't be able to truly appreciate her grandeur in the sort of serene, awed silence she deserves?

Trying to beat the crowds, then, in the first clear morning light of Paris we hurried, as best as we could, through our croissants and beautiful coffees to get to the 4th arrondissement, that beautiful island in the Seine, the Île de la Cité. It is, I read somewhere, the oldest part of Paris, having been occupied for thousands of years, beginning with the Parisii tribe of Gauls. I'd always assumed Paris was named after Paris of Troy.

Guess I was wrong.

No worries, I'm used to it.

It took 200 years, beginning in 1163, to complete one of the most magnificent cathedrals in all the world. Victor Hugo called Notre Dame "a symphony in stone". I all the years that she has graced the Earth, I doubt that anyone could more aptly describe her.

We had chosen well to come early and were there before the lines formed, able to walk in and proceed through the holy spaces at our own contemplative pace. Few scenes, to my mind, compare with the complexity and brilliance of the masterpiece of the South Rose Window, which would take pages and pages to describe were I to to try and do it justice.

Which I'm not going to do to either of us.

Inside the cathedral is just as you would imagine, full of the work of centuries of artists and craftspeople, from paintings and sculptures to stonework and brickwork and woodcarving, and, over all second only to the skies themselves, the dizzyingly soaring architecture of the cathedral embracing and sheltering all.

I learned what gives a cathedral its name, by the way: it is the seat of the bishop, which I knew, but actually holds the chair where the bishop or archbishop sits called, wait for it, the cathedra.

Now that is some good trivia right there.

We walked the long, long circuit around the interior, admiring such things as the nave, transepts, lintels, archivolts, and trumeaus. And when we gazed up at the jewel-like stained glass windows there were terms to ferret out like medallion, lancet, mullions and tracery.

At which point you put down the guidebook, soak it all in, wallow in your ignorance, trust your own reactions to things and call it good.

Also, make donations and light candles for loved ones. It can't hurt.

The number of people inside was increasing exponentially, and we had a second destination for the morning, the towers of Notre Dame.

My record for climbing Parisian landmarks wasn't that great, and I was about to distinguish myself and add to my list of shame. Mike and I got at the end of the line, which stretched a good distance next to the cathedral on the Rue du Cloître Notre-Dame. The first guests hadn't been allowed to ascend the 387 stone steps yet, but we were fine with waiting.

There was a strange fellow who was undoubtedly held in great regard wearing a frightening mask and played pranks on passers-by, to the hilarity of some of the waiting crowd, and to the discomfort of others. The gargoyles looked down and grimaced...but then they always do that.

Another couple stopped and asked if we were at the end of the line, which we affirmed and they happily joined us.

many, many gargoyles

A woman came up to Mike and me and began to speak in a somewhat agitated manner, I believe in French, but I couldn't swear to it. I could understand a few words of what she said, but not enough to quite get it. I thought she was asking where the line began, especially since she was pointing to the other end of the line. We agreed, oui, oui, and smiled benignly at her, happy to help.

She walked away, then came back, and we went back and forth again. Bystanders joined the conversation. Many hand gestures, possibly several languages, and voices raised. We continued smiling and nodding, the gargoyles continued to grimace in their cheerful stony way.

Finally after many and impressively varied attempts at communication, it was finally made clear to us. We had, (in a perfectly innocent mistake, I would like to emphasise) cut and stood in the very beginning of the line, in front of the other good people waiting.

Oops. Er, pardon, pardon s'il vous plait, pardon...

line to enter Notre Dame

We made a good show of apologising to anyone who would listen and scuttling to the other end of the line as quickly as possible.

But after our slice of shame it went well. We waited politely and contritely with the other nice couple we'd invited to join us at the front of the line, Americans on a whirlwind honeymoon.

With the newlyweds we climbed the many, many spiraling stairs in their tight rotation. About halfway up was the gift shop, to entice the winded to pause and purchase. We pressed on, calling encouragement to one another until at long last we stood atop Notre Dame. It was thrilling to see Paris spread out below us this way, the way I think everyone should see this beautiful city.

The chimera stand guard there, mythical creatures looking out with us over the city, naughty and whimsical. These are not gargoyles, as to be a gargoyle, we learned, you must also be a rainspout. The word "gargoyle" comes from from the French gargouille, originally "throat" or "gullet", related to our word gargle. The rain, then, gargles in the throats of the gargoyles. Say that 10 times fast.

The gargoyles not only frighten away evil spirits, but also protect the masonry of the cathedral, rerouting rainwater that would otherwise cause erosion.

As for the purely decorative chimera, who could not love them? To me there is something deeply compelling and humorous about these fanciful stone denizens of the heights.

We even climbed into the belltower, to see the enormous bells that Quasimodo would have rung, had there been a real Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Up there, among the grotesque and amusing creatures, the angels and the heavenly city, I realised, if there is a part of Paris that speaks Paris to me, it is Notre Dame.

She is the heart and soul of the city. She has a long and complicated past, an enduring legacy, imposing and wonderful, serene and overwhelming, with rich treasures and humorous delights and layers and layers of meaning. Undeniably enchanting.

The Paris of my dreams.

Monday, January 17, 2011

C'est moi...

Paris is always a good idea.
~Audrey Hepburn

Our first full day together in Paris. For most of it, all we did was wander, eat, and then wander again as per our vacation modus operandi.

Modus operandi, as an aside, and a particularly irreverent and unnecessary one, is Latin, not French, and that's one language I'm even worse at than French. Utterly ruined my University GPA one year, I can tell you.

Pardon my aside. Back to the tale. Paris in August is especially nice in one particular way: most of the Parisians have flown the coop, gone on their own vacations. Thus many of the storefronts and restaurants have been closed for the month, leaving behind a Paris that is...a little bit, just a little bit, more peaceful. Slightly more relaxed.

You see? Empty seats at a cafe. We could sit down and have a coffee -a perfect European coffee- any...time...we...wanted.

And we could drift through the city on our own time, admire the architecture,

(those balconies! The wrought iron! Oh, the bliss!)

and since many of the stores were closed, I wasn't half as tempted to buy lovely Parisian wares.

Of which there were many.

More fun than buying tschotskes, though, and considerably less weight to carry, not to mention to later clutter up the house, was taking photographs. Parisians are infinitely visually amusing.

Who wouldn't love this turquoise Vespa scooter sporting the Virgin Mary?

Or this sign, which would have been amusing without the addition of the Star Wars Stormtrooper helmet:

No mini-me kilted Stormtroopers in this area

(What does that mean? No men with little girls? No pedestrians -which didn't seem to be the case, or maybe end of school zone? Don't forget to hold your child's hand when you cross? It was a mystery.)

Or this one, which I interpreted (with apologies) as: "Run away, kids! Happy humping here!"

It is an awfully cute road hump, one must say. Très adorable.

I made Mike wait...and wait...and wait as I drooled on the booksellers' displays along the Seine

and somehow managed to resist buying not only those intriguing tomes but also such things as French pepper plants, which I honestly couldn't have brought home with me anyway. They appealed in their charmingly the French even use hot peppers in their cooking? Did I miss that episode of Julia Child?

Speaking of Julia Child, I also dragged Mike to Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank, as they say, at 37 Rue Bûcherie, THE bookstore to visit in Paris, in a picturesque spot across the Seine from Notre Dame.

The publishers of James Joyce's Ulysses, Shakespeare and Co was a gathering spot for authors including Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald. As far as I know, none of those distinguished names ever darkened the door of this Shakespeare and Co; the spot where they met was closed down by the Nazis, never to be reopened, after the proprietor refused to hand over the last copy of Joyce's Finnegan's Wake to a German officer during the occupation of France. Or so the legend goes.

Regardless, I had burned through all my reading material on the trains and, feeling it a worthy and carryable souvenir, purchased a stamped copy of Julie/Julia (a romp of a read -brace yourself for the language, which I loved and will not apologise for but may not be your cup of tea, and a fun foodie movie to boot), Meryl Streep beaming from the cover as the immortal Julia Child. I thought about getting Hemingway's Movable Feast as well, but everybody does that, ergo it's especially overpriced.

Unlike many places we've visited, in Paris I never found myself wondering, what if we lived here? What if our residence was right through that door?

I simply couldn't imagine living in such surroundings. To you who have actually done it I tip my hat. Wow. Life in Dubai has given me great resistance, almost an immunity, really, against being impressed by monied surroundings, cars, stuff, clothing, the latest plastic surgery, but while the United Arab Emirates have a varied and fascinating history, with their Bedouin past they do not, for the most part have the richness of historical buildings.

Paris has plenty of that. to say the least.

We especially gawked at the elaborate and very beautiful exterior of the Louvre museum. The statues, the columns, the windows and wonderful symmetry of design on such an impressive scale, well, it was great.

Remember how I said that Paris is a little less crowded in August? This was true, but not so much so that major attractions like the Louvre had lines short enough that we were willing to stand in them. The line to enter the glass pyramid went on forever.

And, frankly, we were more than a little bit intimidated by the size and scope of the Louvre. This is somewhat embarrassing, to be sure, but honesty is still a virtue, correct?

Besides, you're going to laugh way harder at me by the end of this post, unless I am very much mistaken.

The one place I had scheduled for the day, the place I was making absolutely totally utterly and absolutely sure Mike got to go, was up the Eiffel Tower. I'd bought our tickets far in advance, on the same day I bought tickets to the Burj Khalifa, in fact. Two iconic buildings to experience, for very different reasons.

We were scheduled to ascend at 6:30 pm. The thought was to watch the light change and then go to dinner afterwards. Romantic, yes?

We rode the peerless Paris trains and got off at the station where the inevitable Eiffel souvenir sellers were in the greatest numbers, their wares spread out over the pavement, many tiny towers blinking merrily with LED lights.

While we waited for the elevator, again trying not to feel, or worse, look smug moving past the ticketless line to the ticketed line (taunting the have-nots in Paris didn't work out well for Marie Antoinette, best not to push one's luck) I had a serious surge of guilt. You see, I had mentioned buying tickets to the Eiffel Tower to a running friend in Dubai, and he had said something along the lines of "oh, you MUST run up the stairs there, there are plaques at various points showing jaw dropping records set by runners in the past. It's great."

I breezily said that of course I would run up the stairs. Of course I said that. No one is surprised by this.

What might surprise you was that my left foot hurt quite a bit by that stage in our trip and I wasn't actually looking forward to trying to run up those stairs, having checked the height out the day before. I was determined to grit my teeth and do it anyway, and limp a lot more the next day, but then it turned out that the ticket for both of us didn't allow for climbing the stairs, which you would do up a different leg of the Eiffel Tower and from a completely different line.

the wheel that turns to bring the elevator up and back down

So, hoping karma wouldn't bite me too badly, and looking at the elevation gain, a hidden but major sigh of relief, I rode up the elevator with Mike who unsurprisingly had said something along the lines that there was no way he would climb those stairs, what an utterly asinine idea.

Actually, his phrasing probably wasn't that polite, but you get the gist.

We looked out over Paris. Apparently some folks voice their surprise that you "can't see the Eiffel Tower, where is it?" from such a height.

Some people shouldn't be allowed to speak at all, but there it is. One can only hope they don't hold public office.

Looking up the Eiffel Tower from midlevel.

The 1889 tower itself wasn't the steel gray color I remembered it being. As it turns out, they paint it now and then and do indeed change the color. I read that it has 40 tons of paint.

I had lots of time to take creative shots like the one above since we had to wait an hour in line for the next elevator, this one to the top.

Occasionally an employee would remind us, make sure you have tickets to the top. No problem. It was printed right on our ticket, of course, 2nd floor. We had taken one elevator and climbed some more stairs, and now we would take our second elevator to the top.

Looking out over the landscape of Paris, we spotted a rainbow over the Louvre. Can you see it?

The waiting in line for the second elevator got a little old, of course, and it wasn't the warmest, we still adjusting from desert weather, but finally we shuffled our way to the front of the line. Big smile, I presented our ticket to the ticket taker perched on a stool next to the elevator doors.

Oh, non, she said, without too much emphasis, this is only a ticket to thees level.

There was a very long second of total disbelief after her pronouncement. My mind stopped, total blankness that must have shown on my face, then the brain raced. How in hell had I messed this up?

OK, I said slowly, what do we do?

view from the Eiffel Tower. Not the top, though.

First, she said firmly, you get out of line.

We stood to the side, while others proceeded past us, they failing not to look pitying and possibly, though I didn't look to verify either, smug.

When the elevator had left us behind, I implored the ticket taker as to what we should do next.

Now, she said, you must go over zhere and purchase ticket at ze stand to go to ze top. Of course, you remember that zeticket stand is closed.

How we were supposed to remember this, I do not know, but it was definitely closed. In a very French film moment, no one could tell us when it might reopen, either. There were a few folks standing there in a ragged line, looking confused. We could have joined them, I suppose. But we didn't.

To say I wasn't happy would be a major understatement. I was furious, furious with myself, and when I'm upset with myself no quarter is given. All I wanted to do was to bonk my head repeatedly against the cold metal of La Tour Eiffel and see if it made a resonant sort of sound. Poor Mike, who, if anyone should have been upset, it should have been him, tried to console me, but it was no use.

I was pissed off. I'd ruined the party. I wanted off of the Eiffel Tower and off the world and that was it. I nearly stamped my foot. Which would have hurt, and looked really childish, so I sniffed and snuffed and tried not to bawl like a cow.

I didn't even want a couple photo with Mike when he, of all people, volunteered to have one taken. This was a major concession: Mike hates having his photo taken. I refused to preserve the moment and took one of him alone instead, calling it good.

My wise spousal unit must have seen something in my eye he didn't like, because he didn't press the issue and we went back down to ground level, where I continued my self berating until even I was sick of it.

Eventually I got over my pique. I think we had left France by then. Mike spent good time and energy that evening trying to convince me that it was no matter, that he didn't mind, that it was all OK. He's a good sort.

But I couldn't let it go. I'd screwed up the Eiffel Tower, ruined, I had no perspective. Even now I'm not smiling about it.

But I hope you are.

After La Tour debacle we went out for our second mediocre dinner. Mike was carefully solicitous of my feelings. I tried, probably unsuccessfully, to look at least moderately cheerful.

I also confessed, via email, to my friend back in Dubai about not running up the stairs. He forgave me easily, not concerned in the least.

There's a postscript to this story. There always is, isn't there? When we got back to the States and I was recounting the tale to my Mom, she protested gently, but Natalie, you told me when you bought the tickets that you never planned to go to the top, remember? You said that you were already going to the top of the Burj Khalifa and that you'd read that going to the top of the Eifel Tower wasn't worth the cost or the wait in the line on the second floor.


heart created by some lovely soul in the grass beneath the Eiffel Tower.

Some days I am my own worst enemy, and that, my dears, is the truth.