Sunday, May 6, 2012

Unexpected Finds in Paris

I sprung for one guided tour to Versailles and Claude Monet’s Giverny with hotel pickup. Pricey but I didn't want to have to find my own way there. We landed at Versailles in the pouring rain to find a huge queue snaking the entire courtyard.  Andre, the tour guide, snuck us near the front as we attached ourselves to a group belonging to a fellow tour guide.  Between the rain and the fact that Europeans don’t seem to have any regard for personal space, we were squeezed together through the entrance, security check, and through the first few rooms.  It was like passing through the birth canal.  People took pictures from above their heads, we got pushed through doorways, stuck in corners with no way out, and bruised all over. This is why there are stampedes at soccer games.

 It wasn’t until we got to the Hall of Mirrors that, birth complete, we actually got to breathe and look around.  Yes, Versailles is a beautiful example of the opulence of that time—gilded ceilings, famous paintings, elaborate furniture.  But if you’ve seen the mansions at Newport, or been to the Louvre, it’s just more of the same with claustrophobia. 

The gardens were lovely but the 40 mph winds blew the water from the fountains over everyone.  So though it was no longer raining when we finally got outside, I got soaked when the wind changed as I passed one of the fountains. 

Giverny, however, is a whole other story. And Andre drove the last leg of the trip through some cute little, typically French villages. Giverny is beautiful, serene, and picturesque. It’s not difficult to see why Monet was so inspired by the grounds.  You cannot take a bad photo there.  His home is open and filled with paintings he collected by Japanese masters.  The kitchen and dining room are sooo French country in blue and bright yellow. 

We strolled up the road that leads from his home to the church where Monet is buried to see a typical French village and hanging wisteria.

Andre, the ultimate tour guide, made sure to provide comment or history on everything we came across from the historic buildings we passed in Paris to information about the bright yellow rape seed fields on the way to Giverny (it’s where canola oil comes from).  Do you know the derivation of canola?  Unfortunately the couple from Toronto who should have won the prize didn’t know it was a mashup of the words “Canadian oil”. 

There are Roman ruins very near our hotel which Andre pointed out as we were going to pick up the next couple on our way to Versailles.  On the way back he was still talking about these ruins and really wanted to make sure we understood what Paris had unearthed in the Latin Quarter.  So as we were the last to be dropped off Andre stopped at what looked like a gated park.  Here people sat and chatted and kids played ball in what remains of a Roman arena from the 2nd or 3rd century.

Discovered in the late 1800s during excavation for a new building, the arena is mostly intact—circular stone walls, tiered seating, and lion’s cages.  Gladiators really fought there!  We would never have even known about this had it not been for Andre and his pride in all things Parisian.

One afternoon we made our way across the Seine to find that we had crossed one of the love lock bridges. These bridges are found in many countries and in Europe the custom began around 2000.  Sweethearts etch or otherwise put their names on a lock, affix it to the wire mesh on the bridge, and throw the key in the river to symbolize their everlasting love.  

Another night around 9 pm we were working our way home, the streets were quiet with few people around, when we passed what I would call an alley.  It was all lit up, we heard music, and it was packed with people.  We had accidentally discovered an area where dozens of restaurants compete for business with colorful displays on the pedestrian-only streets near the Gothic church of St. Severin.  This is where we found my favorite chocolate shop and where we had fondue for supper one night.

The only sunny day we had in Paris was our last day.  I was pretty bummed as I thought we would be able to see more of the Marais district.  But it was May 1, May Day on the French calendar, and a labor holiday.  Nothing was open except restaurants.  So Plan B was to head toward the Pantheon and south toward the Luxembourg Gardens.  It’s actually quite beautiful there and being a holiday there were lots of people just sitting in the sun, reading, or strolling.   The gardens are part of the Luxembourg Palace where the senate resides.

There’s a large pond in the center and on Tuesday it was filled with sail boats.  Apparently you can rent sailboats with different colored sails and children push them off with a large pole.  It was windy so they were all moving nicely.

Farther along our walk on our way to St. Sulpice we noticed a man writing what looked like a poem on a large wall just outside the St. Sulpice Square.  A kind Parisian with limited English was kind enough to explain the poem was by a famous French poet and was a metaphor for life.  He didn’t know why this man was doing this but I was fascinated by his beautiful freehand lettering.

Scenes from the DaVinci Code were filmed in St. Sulpice.  It’s a beautiful church that has huge matching genuine clamshell holy water fonts at the entrance. It contains 2 huge paintings by Eugene Delecroix who helped with its restoration, and it has one of the world’s greatest organs (as we found out from a fellow tourist and organ player who came just to see it).
As we learned in the DaVinci Code -- St. Sulpice contains the meridian line, a narrow brass strip that begins near the middle of the nave on the right side, near a stone statue with a Latin inscription and runs north across the nave and transept to an obelisk next to the statue of St. Peter. The meridian line is a fascinating astronomical instrument of the 18th century, used to study the planets and determine the date of Easter each year. The sun's rays enter the church through a small opening in the south transept and rest on the line at various points throughout the year. 

Several times during our walk off in the distance we could hear music and chanting.  We tried to find the source but we seemed to just miss it.  We were told there would be parades for May Day so we figured that’s what we were hearing.

We walked east past our hotel to the Garden des Plantes.  This botanical garden was just coming into bloom.  It has a zoo (menagerie) on the grounds but we arrived too late to get in and only saw the kangaroos.  After leaving the garden we noticed police tape blocking one of the streets along the Seine and again heard drums and chanting in the distance.  We headed down to the walkway along the water and sure enough saw the May Day parade crossing one of the bridges in the distance.  The group must have picked up people during the day because it had to be a mile long.  This worker’s holiday is celebrated in many countries and often includes riots.  The police in Paris were ready.  Seven vans of swat teams lined the Seine as the parade crossed this bridge.  And gendarmes were ready in the river.

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