Sunday, June 22, 2008

Paris Je T'aime

"If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast."
~ Ernest Hemingway to a friend, 1950

I happened to be lucky enough as a young woman to visit Paris one winter with a friend (my first trip abroad) and then in the following year, lived there for a semester studying apparel design. Although it was a winter session, meaning the term wasn't very long, and it was bitterly cold that winter, I tasted enough of Paris to know that it was a city that would be in my heart forever.

Ironically enough, after returning from my first trip there, which had lasted only a week, I felt a bit disenchanted with the city. I thought too much had been made of its romanticism, and left wishing it hadn't been built up so in my imagination. However, when I returned a year later, along with classmates and professors from my university at the time (The University of Delaware), I found a city fresh with possibility. As I stumbled wearily off my plane, my first encounter was with an American man, heading to Paris to model. He was absolutely beautifully, and with Paris as our background, I could only find him more so. He only stayed there a few days before deciding to move on to Paris, but in that time, he took me up the Eiffel Tower and we had one of those movie moments.

My friend, Tim, headed to Paris about a month ago, and I promised to send him my list of must-do and should-do activities. He's leaving very soon, so, as a procrastinator, here is my list at last minute:

1. Visit the aforementioned Eiffel Tower. It was completed in 1889 for the Paris World's Fair of, well, 1889. Interestingly enough, just three years later, the Americans created their answer to the Eiffel Tower for the Chicago's World Fair of 1892: the Ferris Wheel. Although Ferris Wheels happen to be more ubiquitous (unless you count all of those Eiffel Tower souvenirs they sell), the Eiffel Tower just can't be beaten in terms of elegance, memorability, and overall representation of that fair city. And yes, it's touristy, but I think it's worth the wait in line to ascend to the top-- especially if you're with an attractive member of the opposite sex.

2. Say hello to the Champs-Elysees and the Arc de Triomphe. I would assume that anyone who has spent any time in Paris would have already encountered both the Arc as well as this famous stretch of road, but, if you haven't already, the view from the top of the Arc de Triomphe is quite nice. Just make sure you use the underground stairways to get there, or else you'll get run over by those crazy French drivers.

3. Have your picture taken with a bona-fide gargoyle. One of the things I enjoyed most was visiting the great cathedral of Notre Dame. Construction began in the 11oo's, and it is a fine example of Gothic architecture, complete with flying buttresses. The interior is quite beautiful, but I also loved climbing the stairs of the bell tower to see the gargoyles, a la Quasimodo of Victor Hugo's great novel, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Hugo wrote his novel in an effort to preserve the great Cathedral which, at that time, was being considered for demolition. The original French version was entitled "Notre-Dame de Paris" which reflects Hugo's belief that the cathedral is the main character of his novel. Click here to get directions to the cathedral. It is Monday through Friday from 8:00am-6:45pm and Saturday and Sunday from 8:00am-7:15pm. For other service times and other information, look here.

4. Pay homage to a great writer in a crypt. The Pantheon is a beautiful building which originally served as a church, but now is known more for the important and famous deceased that lie within. For instance, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas (author of "The Three Musketeers"), and Emile Zola (author of "Germinal" and other stories) are some of the authors buried there. Great thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau repose there as does that important figure of the French Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, who was stabbed to death in his bathtub (as seen here in the famous painting by David, a friend who had visited him one day prior to the murder.) The inside of the Pantheon is quite cavernous, making it the perfect place for Foucault, in 1851, to construct his 272 feet long pendulum, which he used to demonstrate the earth's rotation. You can still see it there today, tracing patterns in the sand. Tourist info is available here.

5. Let your spirits sour at Sacre Coeur. This is actually the one place that I didn't make it to in either of my trips. It's also one of my great regrets, as it is supposed to be amazing, but I keep telling myself that I'm saving it for my next trip-- I'll have something new to see when I return to Paris. I did wander around the maze that is Montmartre, the neighborhood it sits in. The neighborhood itself is full of charm, with winding streets climbing Montmartre hill, and cute little shops. Keep climbing upward and you'll come to the Basilica, where you can rest and enjoy the tranquility that these ever-white walls bestow. The outside is quite grand (and has famously been captured in the 2001 film Amelie), but apparently the inside should not be missed either. Don't be like me-- go whilst you have the opportunity! Click here for hours and costs-- the Basilica is free-- as well as metro info. In both French and English.

6. Contemplate life and death amongst piles of bones. Below the bustling city streets of Paris lies something a bit more sinister: the catacombs. These former quarries received new life in the late 1700s when the city cemeteries were overflowing and a new place was needed to inter bodies. It was decided that new cemeteries would be built outside of the city limits, and that the bodies in the existing cemeteries (whose crowded conditions had led to open and mass graves, which, in turn, were creating disease and unsanitary conditions) were to be discreetly moved to the quarries. Nowadays you can tour the catacombs, which are pretty awesome. It's dark down there, and it provides a nice respite from the summer heat (or so I imagine-- I was there in winter). Also, be a good citizen and respect the remains of these poor disinterred souls-- and if that's not good enough reason for you to leave them alone, the catacombs police patrol the area as well as check your bags before you exit. I wanted to post visitor info but the English site seems to be down. The French site is here.

7. Continue your tour of all things macabre by visiting a famous cemetery. Besides the catacombs, the other thing I really enjoyed doing was visiting Pere Lachaise Cimetiere. I seem to have a thing for cemeteries-- they represent to me the circle of life and death and seem to possess a strange beauty. This one in particular, however, seems to be more beautiful than most. Beautiful tombstones and mausoleums are crammed packed into the spacious cemetery that is hidden behind a tall stone wall. It seemed me that they were shoved in there without uniformity in any way that they would fit, which gives it the appearance of an earthquake having moved and shuffled these resting places. Consequently, you find yourself climbing over tombstones and squeezing through small spaces as you try to find any deceased in particular. Some of the luminaries you might find buried here? They range from singer Jim Morrison of the Doors, to star crossed lovers Heloise and Abelard (who are apparently buried together-- see my prior post for their story. By the way, it's kind of gruesome-- he gets castrated before it's all over), to the great author, Oscar Wilde (bring some lipstick-- it's customary to honor his grave by leaving a big smooch mark on the white stone.) In fact, the list of greats goes on and on: Proust, Sarah Bernhardt, Edith Piaf, impressionist painter Pissarro, Balzac, Chopin, and Bizet are just a few of a much longer list. Therefore, if you're looking for particular people, you will need a map. Also, a word of warning: cemeteries have long been known as places for the nefarious to hide and do their work. It is always a good idea to visit cemeteries during broad daylight and in the company of others as robbers and their kin have been known to hide behind tombstones and prey upon innocents. This cemetery is quite touristy, so you should be okay, but it is always good to have your wits about you. (It is free enter, and maps can be bought in the neighborhood. This website has visiting hours. Give yourself plenty of time to explore.)

Shakespeare & Co 04
8. Have tea with a lovely old man. I haven't been there in ages (seeing as I haven't been to Paris is ages), but when I was passing through, I "discovered" an old bookshop called Shakespeare and Company, which is a bohemian delight. The proprietor at the time was a lovely older gentleman who invited me back for tea. I don't know if these tea parties still go on, although I am sure they probably do. The bookshop, which is crammed floor to ceiling with books, also has beds for the weary traveler. It is my understanding that anyone may stay there as long as they make their bed, help out in the bookshop each day for a few hours, and they read. What a wonderful world it is we live in when we can find places such as this. I have been warned about the fleas, but otherwise, visit, enjoy, andread your heart out (in English, no less)! Oh, and don't forget to ask about tea. It is located at 37 Rue de Bucherie, near Place St. Michel.

9. Let the sunshine in at La Sainte-Chapelle. Best visited when the sun is high in the sky and the clouds are few, this chapel on the Ile de la Cite becomes a veritable kaleidescope on sunshiny days. Feeling a bit blue? Then visit what some have called "the most beautiful church in Paris." The main chapel seems to have stained glass windows for walls, and it is an absolute treat to visit. On a side note, I once heard that the reason the early Christians (this church was built in the 1200s) used stained glass was that they wanted to replicate the jewels that will line the streets of heaven. When the sun shines through, it casts bits of colors onto the floor, making a room gleam as if it were full of emeralds, sapphires, and rubies. It is located next to the Palais of Justice on the Ile de la Cite and appears to be open at this time of year from 9:30-6. I believe that entrance is free, but be prepared to wait in a line, as you must go through security.

10. I need a number 10 so... Actually, I do have more ideas, but I need to finish and get this posted. I will hopefully be uploading some of my own pictures from my time in Paris (I gotta dig those up), but, I did find this blog by a guy who traveled to Paris. I didn't read his journal portion, but if you scroll on through, I think you'll agree that he takes beautiful photos of the so-called "City of Lights."

If you haven't already, do take a stroll along the Seine, eat crepes, gaze upon Venus at the Louvre, visit Versailles. The possibilities are endless. Enjoy the rest of your time there, and I look forward to seeing you back in New York.

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