Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Chapter 35: Allure of Paris

With a four day Thanksgiving weekend at our disposal and no family to share it with, Lawna and I decided to spend it in Paris. I booked tickets for the train and reservations at a small hotel in the Montmartre district, high on the hill near the famous Basilica de Sacre Coeur, and on a cold Thursday morning we took off. The train journey itself was interesting because the French leg of it was on one of Europe's high speed trains. We lucked out with a cabin, away from the noise of some rowdy, drunken Frankfurt soccer fans who were singing songs at full volume in the adjoining car. At Saarbrücken, our transfer station, the polizei were out in full force with dogs and full firearms, apparently in case of hooliganism from the fans. We finally arrived at the Paris East station and orange-arrayed Frankfurt fans disgorged from the train chanting and singing so that their voices reached the rafters of the station (see early clip in the video).

From there we headed to the Paris Metro gate and found a place in a busy subway car which then hurtled us about four stops to our destination. It is a surreal feeling to emerge from the underground metro into the daylight after having spent hours on trains and then suddenly see Paris! The scenery, though there were no recognizable landmarks apparent, was unmistakably Paris--busy, noisy and full of life.

Montmartre is one of the old artists neighborhoods, originally settled by bohemians on the outskirts of town because of cheap rent and cheap wine from a small winery maintained by nuns. It was a seedier part of the city that is still known for its erotic entertainment, the most famous of which is the Moulin Rouge, home of the scandalous can-can. The Moulin Rouge is still an exotic night spot, like a Las Vegas casino. Rick Steves' Paris guide describes this district as seedy, but I suppose it depends on how you define seedy. It's not a poor area. The sex clubs and exotic theaters are pretty upscale looking and appeal to moneyed tourists. Unlike in the days when Montmartre first attracted artists looking for cheap, unconstrained digs, today's erotic entertainment is big business, slick and professional. All of this dazzle shares blocks with pleasant residential streets dominated by charming garden apartments and upscale Parisian garret flats. Cafés and tourist shops abound, and the chaotic network of streets, which on a map look like shattered shards of glass, meander crazily around the dominant landmark, the Basilica of the Sacre Coeur, an imposing domed church that was built in the early half of the twentieth century. The Basilica is reached by climbing a long, grand series of steps that leads you to the best view of Paris this side of the Eiffel Tower. Unfortunately, we huffed our way up the stairs on an overcast day, and the view was obscured by haze. It was still a lively spot to hang out in, with tourists enjoying themselves, especially the young ones. The neighborhood around the church is home to many spectacularly large cats. They look like house tabbies in the U.S., but are sized like bobcats. Friendly and comfortable around tourists, they love to wander around the Basilica grounds and be petted.

The basilica itself is, of course, not medieval like most of the churches we have visited, but, like similar vintage cathedrals in New York and Washington D.C., imitates traditional styles of architecture. I was not supposed to take pictures inside, but I snuck out some video shots for you. After visiting the church, we walked around the neighborhood and quickly became a little lost on the confusing streets. Not a scary kind of lost. This is a very touristy area and feels quite safe. We just went with it until we found the Moulin Rouge and the Chat Noire, a club made famous in the posters of Toulouse-Lautrec. It was starting to drizzle, so we began to get serious about finding our way back. We had spent a day traveling, and done some pretty hilly hiking, so we were about ready to make our way back to the hotel.

by Toulouse-Latrec

Moulin Rouge
the "seedy" section with all the tourists

The following day, after a fairly hearty petit dejeuner at the hotel, we hopped back on the Metro (I wish we had one of those in San Antonio!) to visit Notre Dame cathedral before the Friday crowds grew too big. Luckily, the crowds were just forming, so we slipped in easily and strolled around the great church without having to deal with too many other people. What can I say about Notre Dame? Everyone knows about it, especially about the hunchback and his desperate love for the gypsy girl Esmeralda (oh, that's just fiction--Victor Hugo, or was it Disney?). We've seen a lot of beautiful cathedrals while we've been in Europe, and I don't know that Notre Dame de Paris is that much more special than Strasbourg or Metz, but it is beautifully cared for. Inside, it looks like it could have been constructed yesterday. It is a marvelously maintained site. There is maintenance work ongoing today.

Notre Dame (you knew that!)

Jeanne d'Arc

one of the famous rose windows

interior of Notre Dame

over the door way

looking up, up
After being guests of Quasimodo, we crossed the bridge over the Seine and ate some wonderful tandoori quiche at an old cafe that probably served Ernest Hemingway or James Joyce at one time. Just a wishful guess! After we finished, we discovered some tourist siteseeing buses outside and decided to buy a day ticket. The bus took us on a tour of the city, which is too spread out to do any justice to in a few days, and at each stop we were free to get off, spend as much time as we wanted and then catch the next bus. It's a good way to see a big city in a hurry. The bus features earphones that explain the sites in several languages. You can listen to as much of the presentation as you like, or just ignore it, which is what I did. I was too busy taking pictures. I had the shutter speed set fast so that I could try to get some good shots from the moving vehicle. Some of them worked out. We ended up at the Eiffel Tower, spent some time there, ate some enormous crêpes and then caught the next bus. Here are some pictures from the bus tour.

Paris Opera (a phantom to go with the hunchback)

Arc de Triomph

What's that tower in the background?

Another picture looking up, up.

Such a photogenic tower!
Our latitude of Europe grows dark fairly early during the winter, so as night fell, we found a restaurant near the Notre Dame area, and then walked the meal off along the Seine. We saw boats glide along and decided to take our own boat ride. We didn't ride on one of the restaurant boats, just a glassed in siteseeing boat. More pictures, including the lit up Eiffel Tower.

City of Light
Notre Dame at night

The Seine

walking along the Seine
more Seine (I took these night shots without a tripod! Steady hands.)

On day three, Saturday, we made another early Metro run downtown to beat the Saturday crowds at the Louvre. We succeeded. A bus of Japanese tourists unloaded right as we made the grounds of the massive palace, outside the famous glass pyramid (you know, the burial place of Mary Magdalene. Ha.) The Louvre was the palace of Louis XIV until he outgrew it (excuse me!) and replaced it with Versailles. It is hard to imagine anyone outgrowing the Louvre, but France has always been known for its big bureaucracy, and Louis XIV designed the basis of much of it. The Revolution tried to destroy it, but couldn't live without it, so Napoleon just built up another one.

Once inside the Louvre, I told Lawna, lets go see the Mona Lisa and get it over with. I have read about the huge crowds that gather around it. Interestingly, there are signs all over the Louvre pointing in the direction of the da Vinci's masterpiece. Obviously, I'm not the only one who wanted to see it first. It's not really my favorite painting, and I'm not impressed by the old "following eyes" canard. Alfred E. Neumann of Mad magazine seems to follow you with his eyes, too. Any portrait of a person looking straight at you seems to do that. I just wanted to avoid the mob. So, we rushed to the Renaissance section and saw it. It's a fairly small painting, cordoned off so that you can't get close. It's more a pilgrimage site than an art exhibit. I took pictures, mostly of the tourists around the painting, then we moved on.

Eiffel Tower in the early morning light


Mona Lisa

This painting has a partner on the other side that shows the same struggling figures from the rear.

among the masters

copying the original

The Louvre is an intimidating museum. There is so much to see. Room after room features works of art that are readily familiar to any reasonably cultured person. Also, the art work in the Louvre is impeccably maintained. The paintings looked like they could have been painted yesterday. Parisians take excellent care of their treasures. Of course, after the Louvre, there are many other fine museums in the city, and if you have time you can use a citywide museum pass to visit any of the collections. A Thanksgiving weekend isn't enough time. I could spend a year in Paris and never be bored!

So, in the end, what are my thoughts about Paris? It is one of the great cities of the world, and this is the first major city in Europe that we have visited. Paris is big and full of activity and life. It reminds me somewhat of New York City--there is so much to do. While NYC is a celebration of big business and capitalism with all of its dizzying skyscrapers, Paris is a city of monuments and massive civic buildings, like Washington D.C. The grandeur of Louis XIV and Napoleon are everywhere, and the buildings are so impressive when seen in their real proportions, not just in a postcard. Most importantly, Paris is a city of revolution. Parisians overthrew their king and started the revolutionary age that toppled the old bloodlines of Europe and culminated in the Russian Revolution. When two world wars robbed France of its colonial empire, its old colonies carried on the revolutionary spirit, sometimes with their own reigns of terror. Paris has hosted revolutions in art, lifestyle, sexuality, and I suppose a host of other areas of human activity. It's a diverse city that has welcomed bohemians, political radicals, avant garde artists, African Americans who were discriminated against in their own country and more recently droves of immigrants from former French colonies. Immigration is always a hot issue in France, yet Paris keeps accepting them and the cultural transformation that they bring. Most of the people we saw in the Montmartre neighborhood were black--not African Americans, but African French. The main disputes over immigration tend to be about religion rather than race. The French treasure a strong tradition of keeping religion out of the civic sphere, so the issue of Muslim women wearing burkas in public has been particularly controversial in a country that simply doesn't trust a mix of faith and state. That's a big part of what the Revolution was about. Religion enjoys pretty much complete freedom, as long as you don't bring it into the government or schools.

The Parisians we met were all friendly and courteous. I just don't understand the charge so many Americans make about the French (and Germans) being rude. They often don't mind talking about politics, and Europeans are much less hesitant to speak about world affairs than are most Americans. Disagreements on these issues are not necessarily taken personally. Maybe that's where some of  the alleged "rudeness" seems to lie. Trying out a little of the language, even if you stumble, helps. If you refuse to deal in any language but English, then it is like when wealthy people from Mexico shop in San Antonio and refuse to try to speak anything other than Spanish. It's disrespectful both ways. Paris is big, friendly and a lot safer than many American cities. It's packed with history, culture, attractive and well-dressed people, great food and beautiful sites.


  1. One of my favorite experiences in Paris was sitting through a mass at Notre Dame. It was all sung and the sound was otherworldly.

    1. I can imagine! These old cathedrals have otherworldly sound when music is performed. We heard an organ recital at the Mainz cathedral and a brief rehearsal of Mendelssohn's "Paulus" at a smaller but still impressive sounding church in Worms. Few places in the States, apart from a few cathedrals in New York and Washington DC, have that kind of sound.