After March I was so utterly exhausted that I was thrilled to have a break from traveling. I spent the first weekend doing homework for the online differential equations class I’m taking so as not to fall behind with my physics work due to this time in Spain. The next weekend, I spent writing six blog posts to document everything I’d done in the past two months. In between, I went to classes, recovered from a rough astrophysics test, took a differential equations test, and just generally tried to get some rest. I even spent one precious afternoon away from all work, watching Captain America: Civil War with a few of my friends from the program. I say watching, but I had to pause it a lot to ask questions. It seems I’ve fallen woefully behind in the travails of the Marvel Universe.
That was the end of my break though, because after a whopping two weekends in Alicante, I was off to Paris. My aunt had been there for a week for work, so she stayed the weekend to spend time showing me the city.
This trip almost didn’t happen because there was a level 2 travel warning for France. The US Department of State advised increased caution and avoidance of public, touristy places (makes sightseeing difficult) due to a “credible threat of terrorism” and the Yellow Shirt protests. The Yellow Shirts we were okay with, because the protests happen on Saturdays and we decided we’d just go out of town to Versailles. But a “credible threat of terrorism” is serious.
In the end, my aunt had been there several days for her work and decided it felt the same as usual. We also found out that European countries are often on alert for terrorism, and that on level 2, the recommendation is that you just be careful and stay vigilant.
Hence, on Thursday night after astrophysics, lunch with my family, and packing my backpack, I caught the airport shuttle at five for a 7:40 flight to the so-called City of Love.
I caught my first view of the most iconic feature of the city from the air:
That blur at the top is, you guessed it, the city’s icon, the Eiffel Tower. Now perhaps you know more about the Eiffel Tower than I do. However, I was interested to realize that it’s topped by a rotating light like a lighthouse.
The surprises didn’t end there. As my taxi pulled into the city, I caught my first glimpse of the tower, lit up a stately gold. Imagine my shock when we rounded some buildings and I saw the full thing suddenly burst into sparkles. That’s right, the elegant, century-old metal tower was blinking from head to foot with white lights like a tall metal Christmas tree.
What can I say? This is France?
When I arrived, we went to grab some food, and I tried spaghetti carbonara (Italian food is very popular in France). It came out topped with a raw egg yolk, which would never fly in the US. However in Europe, they don’t refrigerate their eggs which is supposed to make them safe(r) to eat raw. Even so, we decided to skip that part, and just enjoy the pasta.
Our hotel was close to the tower, so the first order of business in the morning was to see that. I would have liked to climb it, but we had to wait for 2 hours in line in a freezing cold wind without our jackets (buy your tickets ahead and check the weather, folks).
On the upside, we got lots of time to admire the structure from the base. It’s very unusual to see a building composed of more negative space than positive.
Also, did you know that above the base arches there is a band of names going all the way around the tower? I recognized a few from physics and math, and sure enough, they are the names of 72 famous French scientists, mathematicians, and engineers.
In the end we went up by elevator to the second level as the top was sold out. It was fun to feel the elevator move diagonally instead of straight up and down, although the red signs warning us to watch for pickpockets were a little intimidating, since we were packed in so tightly that we couldn’t reach our pockets to protect them.
Nevertheless, we made it, contents of our pockets in tact, and after a brief stint in the deliciously heated gift shops, headed out to enjoy the view.
On the way down we stopped at level one to walk on the glass floor. The view of the inside of the tower is cool, but the floor was a little anticlimactic. It may be glass, but it’s not transparent, unfortunately.
By the time we left we were freezing again, so we headed across the bridge for some hot chocolate, pizza, and crepes. They were mediocre, but we figured we’d get the really good stuff for dinner.
So, after lunch, we went to the Sacre Coeur, the second most famous cathedral in Paris, passing by the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Élysées. The cathedral sits atop a mountain with a lovely view of the city and a beautifully painted and ornamented interior.
When we went in, there was a service going on, so our visit was enriched by the rhythm of the pastor’s voice and the melodies of the hymns the nuns led. It was all in French, the first time I’ve heard a service in a language I didn’t know at all.
Behind the church, we found an abbey, which one would suppose is where the nuns live. It was lovely and peaceful inside, with music setting the ambiance. It also had a lovely rendition of a some decapitated saint or other looking equally as peaceful as his surroundings, endowing a whole new meaning to the phrase holding your head in your hands.
Outside, there was an elaborate gate to a graveyard where some aristocratic families had burial plots.
After that, we explored the artsy neighborhood spreading down the hillside and ended up in a beautiful shop with ceramics and paintings. I began to realize that the French are in love with women, looking at a group of lovely paintings in the shop depicting women sleeping or getting out of bed. Caught in unguarded moments, their sensuality was evident. However, dominant was their purity, captured in light colors and the natural grace of their figures. This symbiotic portrayal of sexuality and purity seemed unusual, but as my stay continued, I noticed it was a theme in their art. This perspective strikes me as far healthier than the American taboo, which makes sexuality dirty, encouraging unhealthy behaviors. In a way, the art I saw redefines purity so that it is not synonymous with virginity, but rather is the sum of the good within the whole person.
Speaking of the French and sensuality, on our way out of the hilltop neighborhood, we saw the Moulin Rouge. We decided not to see a cabaret, but we did admire the building, including the rich red carpeting that leads in. Oh, and “Moulin Rouge” actually just means “Red Mill,” hence the rooftop decoration.
After a long day walking around in the cold and wind, we took the metro back to the hotel, rested about 40 minutes, and then asked the concierge for somewhere we could get, in my aunt’s words, “just really good food.” The concierge gave us a few suggestions and we ended up in Monsieur Bleu in the museum Palais de Tokyo.
We were probably a bit underdressed, but I hadn’t packed slacks or a dress in my backpack so there was nothing I could have done anyway. It was the best food I’ve had in a long time, and I’ve been eating very well here in Spain. This restaurant was just unbelievably good. I suppose I should have known, since the favorite Disney movie of my childhood was Beauty and the Beast, and Lumiere himself says it:
“After all, Miss, this is France! And a dinner here is never second-best.”Lumiere, *Beauty and the Beast*
Having been to France, I can attest to this being true, at least in the nice restaurants. 😉 On the menu for my delight was raw salmon immersed at the table in front of me into a hot sesame broth with vegetables. It was rich and savory. My aunt had filet mignon with a side of mashed potatoes, and I had a side of green beans, all of which was also mouthwatering. Even the rolls we were served before the meal were unusually soft, warm, and delicious. It was one of those places where you get what you pay for, and it was so worth it.
For desert, I savored a thin crust apple tart with vanilla ice cream on top. I would have taken a picture, but I didn’t have time because it was too delicious. Also, the place was a little upscale for me to be taking a lot of pictures of my food.
We headed back to the hotel along the Seine, because the next day we had to get up early for our excursion out of town. The Eiffel tower rose serenely into the night, notably sparkle-less, as if it was trying to convince me of its elegance once again.
In the morning, we rose and shone at 7 am to get to Versailles 15 minutes before it opened at 9. Thank goodness the line was unusually short (that is “short” on a relative scale; it was still about a half-hour wait after it struck 9), because we didn’t have timed tickets, which allows you to skip the main line. Anyway, we took the train there and walked a few minutes through the town before arriving at the golden gates of what is undeniably the most ostentatious display of wealth I have ever seen. Given, I come from the US, where we have never had kings and queens, much less absolute despots. Nevertheless, this little democracy bumpkin was very impressed by the opulence of the Sun King’s palace glinting in the morning sunlight. Not saying I would want to live there or justifying the methods used to make it, just saying, in the present day, it is stunning.
Not only are the gates golden, but the roof, third-level windows, and central clock are trimmed in delicate gold patterning set off by the black below and the blue above. I did not get tired of looking before the line reached the door.
We passed first through an antechamber with the security and ticket checks. Then we got a peek into the chapel, fit for a king:
And on through a doorway where suddenly an enormous room opened up before us, high ceilings, open windows, and breathtaking paintings accentuating the grandeur and feeling of space. Everything was gilded. It is a theme at Versailles.
We were in the royal apartments, which continued with unmitigated luxury in every form conceivable in the mid 1700’s. The grand marble of the passages gave way to lush red fabrics covering the walls, floors, and beds, set off by gold adornment and crystal chandeliers. Grand portraits exhibited the royals in all their glory.
Through more gilded rooms we passed into the Hall of Mirrors. Among the marble, gold and crystal, I found one of my favorite goddesses, Artemis (although it’s probably Diana because they seem to be sticking with the Roman mythology).
Next was the Gallery of Great Battles, a long room lined on both sides with enormous depictions of important battles. It was really interesting to see how the people in them were portrayed: some watching the battle sternly, others serenely skewering an enemy from horseback, and a few wildly hacking away at the enemy force in a frenzy.
A few more rooms and elaborate staircases:
Regretfully exiting the palace, I found myself outside in the ornamental gardens. They are impeccably designed and meticulously maintained, in keeping with the French monarchy’s insistence on grandeur and perfect appearances.
In addition to being very grand, the gardens are also enormous. We walked miles that day, and that without taking all the inner paths. On one break from walking, we took a rowboat out on the Grand Canal for a half hour, which was very fun and absolutely stunning (would highly recommend).
Walking through the halls or the grounds, it is not difficult to imagine the people who spent their entire lives there. They might go to a different wing or garden path each day and were constantly surrounded by incredibly beautiful things. But immediately following that revelation comes the feeling that it’s not big enough, that over time the grandeur would become commonplace, and shortly thereafter, suffocating. That there are not and cannot be enough halls for years or decades. That spending all your life locked behind gates is a life sentence, whether their bars are covered in gold or not. With a sense of regret for a difficult (although imaginary) choice, I realized that if I had lived then, I would have left behind all the beauty if it for a life with more freedom. Beauty is spoiled by imprisonment.
It seems that the royalty also felt closed in at Versailles; our next stop was the grounds of their smaller palaces a mile down the road where they spent their summers. In fact, awkwardly, there is the Petite Trianon for the Queen, Marie Antoinette and the Grand Trianon for King Louis XVI and his mistress. Just another hint that there was something wrong there.
Marie Antoinette also had a picturesque farm, called the Queen’s Hamlet, where she would entertain her closest friends and enjoy a bucolic existence in her time away from Versailles.
It’s easy to judge this lifestyle; the court was known for the romantic intrigues between its members, married or not. However, idle hands are the devil’s workshop, as they say, and these people had literally nothing of significance to do. They lived cooped up in one place, married for power or money but not love, were waited on hand and foot, and had no work to occupy them. What kind of a life is that? It’s no surprise their morality became twisted.
The Grand Trianon played host to many foreign and domestic nobles over its lifetime, in addition to the King and his mistress. After the revolution, it was also used by Napoleon and host to foreign diplomats, including several US Presidents.
The next morning, my aunt had to catch her flight to the US, and I was planning on spending the day at the Louvre. I considered also visiting Notre Dame, but I wanted to see the Louvre really well. After all, I could always come back and see Notre Dame, right? I believe my decision would have been different if I had known that it would catch on fire not 18 hours after I left. However, hindsight is 20/20, and sometimes, hundreds-of-years-old iconic monuments just randomly catch fire the day after you decided you’d see them next time.
Despite the fact that that’s a bitter pill to swallow now, I had a really good day at the Louvre. It was nice going there alone because I could take my time, stop where I wanted and keep walking where I wasn’t interested. I was also free to immerse myself in the art and feel everything without worrying what my face looked like.
To get there I could have taken the Metro, but it was a beautiful morning and I had more than an hour until my ticket came into effect (I got the timed one this time) so I decided to walk. Our hotel was right by the tower, so the walk was along the Seine, through the monumental center of the city, and it was absolutely beautiful. On the way I ran into the marathon, which I didn’t know was happening, but it was. I had never been to a marathon, and it had a surprisingly festive atmosphere. The spectators yelled encouragement and assistants passed the runners water which they drank and then tossed at garbage cans set with backboards to bounce the bottles in. It was a little hard to find a gap in the runners to cross the road though.
Anyway, with the sounds of the cheering crowd and the rustle of the Seine and the sunlight and the breeze, it was really lovely.
When I was almost to the Louvre according to my Google map, I glimpsed statues and grass through some buildings, so I turned toward them on a whim. When I had almost reached them I glanced toward my right and caught my breath. There was the glass pyramid, surrounded by a beautiful, huge, stately building. In front was the long park that I had glimpsed a part of, lined with bright white statues. In the middle stood an arc de triomphe and some hedge maze gardens with black statues. I just stood there for a minute, taking it all in. If you look down the park away from the Louvre, in the distance you see the official Arc de Triomphe on the Champs-Élysées and the obelisk in the middle. It is breathtaking.
Once in the Louvre, I saw the Mona Lisa first because I thought it would be more crowded as the day went on, and that way I wouldn’t have to worry about missing it if I got there too late to wait for my turn. It’s in a huge room all alone, and people just mob the wall on which sits the 2×2.5 foot painting. Yeah, it’s tiny.
It is pretty though. Something that never really came out in pictures or movies is the shade of green in the background, which is really lovely.
As I began to walk around to look at the rest of the art, a growing suspicion of mine was confirmed. There is one thing you must come to terms with if you want to enjoy your time in Paris, and that is the naked female body. In the Louvre, you would be hard pressed to find a woman (excepting a traditional portrait or a representation of the Virgin Mary) with both breasts covered. And that’s only the maximum amount of clothing. Even so, once I sighed and attempted to set aside my American puritanical modesty, I found the representations, even in the nude, very beautiful. You can tell they are painted with bordering-on reverence for the female form. It comes through in the softness of the color and the elegance of the lines.
Many of the works stem from mythology, which of course I love. One of my favorite stories also seems to be a favorite with the artists: Psyche and Cupid are a frequent choice of subject in painting and sculpture.
Of course about half the museum is full of Christian-based works (due to the long periods of time in which that was the only subject choice that wasn’t heresy, and the following periods of time in which it was just commercially efficient), so there must be hundreds of representations each of the crucifixion, ascension and coronation of Mary, adoration of the Magi, and Mary with the Christ child. It was a bit repetitive looking at the same thing over and over, but the quality of the paintings made the repetition acceptable. Even more, with so many representations I appreciated it much more when I found one that struck me as unique or different, just because so many paintings had depicted the same event the same way.
The sculpture is also stunning of course, ranging from Greek/Roman age relics (many missing limbs), to modern neoclassical monuments. There are halls of busts, walls of reliefs, and an absolutely beautiful, glass-covered courtyard filled with statues that came from Marly Park, the grounds of an estate that has been parceled out. That was one of my favorite places in the museum.
What I least expected is that the Louvre is less of a building and more a masterpiece in its own right, built to house other masterpieces. I would catch my breath when I walked into a new room, just looking up at the on the ceiling – a masterful work with no name attached or artist to take credit – the detail on the arches, the pillars, the walls, the shape of the rooms or arrangement of the pieces, the statues on the outside of the building, and the crown molding. . . it just went on and on.
I wasn’t able to get a picture of the full painting above, but in the center should be the square one with the man in it (bottom right in my setup), then curving down toward the walls are the four seasons (the other four).
I felt like I was immersed in uppercase Art, and if there had been more accessibility to affordable food, I would have been thrilled to stay there for days.
There were also large vaulted windows and a balcony cafe (I bought only a blueberry muffin to minimize the damage to my wallet) that showcased the beauty outside.
But the Louvre was not just full of paintings and sculpture. The 38,000 objects on display at any given time include scores of rings, crown jewels, altarpieces, crucifixes, pottery, ancient Egyptian sarcophagi, cartouches and mummies, Muslim mosaic floors, mirrors, tapestries, armor, funerary monuments, and entire sumptuous apartments from some famous Frenchmen.
It’s like walking through a collection of humanity’s most treasured artistic triumphs, which I suppose is what they are.
As I stared out the airplane window back to Alicante, I reflected. Paris is a city of human-made beauty. “City of Love” I didn’t really get… at least not how I imagined it: in a uniquely romantic way. From the tower to the palaces to the monuments to the buildings and the official art, Paris pays homage to a different kind of love: to the creative genius of the human being, and to the awe of the world around us that inspires that genius.
It’s very fitting that I went to this city with my Aunt Mary, who is one of the most creative people I know. She has inspired me to carry creativity and faith with me wherever I go, and I am blessed to have her stories and adventurous nature enriching my life. Thanks for a wonderful visit to Paris, Aunt Mary. ❤