2013: Paris

Cathedrals

Apr. 27

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We had a number of stops planned for today, if I could handle it; fortunately I was feeling pretty good. Last night I remembered my New York hotel trick for dealing with a rock-hard bed. I'd found a cabinet in the apartment stuffed with extra pillows, which I used to make a mattress topper. Finally some sleep! Another delicious croissant to start the day, and we were ready to go. I suspect I know what I'm going to miss most about Paris.

All of today's sights would be close by on Île de la Cité, the island at the center of Paris and the site of its earliest settlements. Our first mission would be a climb to the top of the Notre Dame bell tower. It was again gray and cold, not the best weather for a view. We walked the two blocks from the apartment and fell in line behind a couple of dozen other people; we had about an hour to wait. I looked up nervously at the spooky gargoyles looming above us in the cold and decided perhaps snapping a couple of pics would keep them at bay.

While I shivered and stamped my feet, we struck up a conversation with an American couple just ahead of us. The man was dressed in exactly the kind of ugly-American clothes I'd forbidden Mike to wear: bright red windbreaker, worn jeans, floppy wide-brimmed hat. Turned out this fellow is -- of all things -- a tulip-bulb inspector. He gave us some valuable information about Keukenhof, the famous bulb garden near Amsterdam. Usually the prime season for visiting Keukenhof is from mid-March to mid-April; by early May, when we would be in Amsterdam, the bulbs are spent. But due to an especially cold winter, the bulb bloom was delayed, and apparently the garden is in its full glory bloom right now, so we should be good for a visit in another week. Finally a bit of luck!

A little after ten a.m., the security guards finally left their plexiglass heated cage to open the gates. The crowd started to shift forward, but it was not yet to be. They held us for another fifteen minutes in the chill air to let in a group of high school students who'd just arrived. Grrrrr. Finally the line started to move, somewhat slowly. I'd soon find out why.

The climb to the bell tower is up a narrow spiral staircase that winds around and around and around AND around...for over 400 footworn stone steps, hundreds of years old. The guards space groups of about twenty people a few minutes apart; due to the incursion of the high school class, we were about four groups back so it was another half-hour before we could start. But once we did...oh, what a climb. Clinging to an iron handrail on the outside of the narrow wedge-shaped steps, looking down so as not to trip, looking up to fight the vertigo, looking BACK down AFTER you stumble. More than once I had to take a brief rest, huddling against the wall while folks behind climbed around me.


Finally, when my legs were just about to cross the Jello border forever, we reached the top and spurted out onto a narrow stone catwalk. As with the Eiffel Tower, we were completely caged. Why, I mentally whined, could I not be free to view Paris unobscured? And also plunge gloriously to my death if the spirit (or a stupid lack of caution) moved me? I paused briefly to mourn the lost Darwinian opportunities.

After I got over my snit about the wire cage, I observed that the view wasn't that impressive anyway, especially compared to, say, New York City. Paris is rather flat, sprawling, and monochromatic, and we'd already seen probably the best views she has to offer on our trip up the Eiffel Tower. Add in the dull gray skies and the effect was decidedly ho-hum. So we gazed at gargoyles and strolled the catwalk in search of a worthwhile picture. I never did find a bell, BTW.


We were ready to go pretty soon, but exit was just as controlled as entry. Once again we were forced to wait; only when the group of high school students had their fill and started down were we allowed to leave. Sheesh. Is this Notre Dame or the Bastille?


After a crazy-legs descent, we took a few more photos while heading away from the monument. It seemed even more imposing and foreboding in the gloom.

Entrance to Deportation Memorial. Each crystal represents a deportee.

Just behind Notre Dame, we found the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation, a monument to the 200,000 people from Vichy, France, who were shipped to Nazi concentration camps. Its claustrophobic entrance between two large concrete blocks is below ground level, down a narrow staircase which leads to an austere concrete-tiled plaza. The interior is equally spartan, consisting of a dimly lit, long narrow corridor whose walls are covered with 200,000 lighted crystals, each crystal representing one of the deportees.

For our next stop of the day, we walked a few blocks to Sainte-Chappelle, an incredible Gothic chapel built in the 1200's by Louis IX. It's considerably smaller than Notre Dame, but its interior architecture is stunning. It is most notable for its huge stained glass windows soaring to the very top of the nave. As our bad luck would have it, we visited while the stained glass was undergoing a years-long restoration, so one whole side of the chapel was encased in a boxy opaque structure. Still, the remaining glass, the rich colors, and the ornate decorations were still eminently worth viewing.

We moved on down the street to La Conciergie, the remains of the former Palais de la Cité (royal palace) which was built in the Middle Ages. Today, only the lower hall survives from that time and serves as a museum. Its vaulted ceiling and supporting columns are architecturally breath-taking; it's easy to imagine flickering candles illuminating each support instead of the modern electric lights. Originally this haunting room would have been used by the household staff, but in the 15th century the building was converted to a prison, and the room became known as La Salle des Gens d'Armes (the Hall of the Guards).

Recreated cell of Marie Antoinette.  Cell for ordinary prisoner.

During the French Revolution this hall became known as the "antechamber to the guillotine". A few thousand people walked through here to their deaths by beheading, including Marie Antoinette, who was held here for two months prior to her execution. The museum includes a recreation of her cell, as well as cells for less notable prisoners.

Conciergie chapel.   Enormous keys! Cuff 'em, Dano.

On our way back past Notre Dame, we decided to make one more stop at the Archaeological Crypt beneath the adjoining square, and it turned out to be one of my most memorable Paris experiences. This is an underground museum which preserves and displays archeological remains discovered during excavations in the mid-twentieth century.

Rampart stone from 4th century town of Lutetia. Basement of house from the Middle Ages.

Much of the experience was in the "tour", a series of explanatory plaques on the wall that lead you through two thousand years of urban and architectural development. Remains from time periods a thousand or more years apart coexist in this fascinating display. There were also interactive 3-D monitors showing such subjects as the 200-year construction of Notre Dame, and the inner workings of a 4th-century bath house with a boiler room and an under-floor heating system.

Pictures were difficult because of the dim lighting and cramped quarters, but I did my best to capture a representative sample.

 Remains of a 4th-century bath house. Staircase from the Middle Ages. Walls of a 3rd-century house. Notre Dame construction in 3-D.

It had been a busy, busy day. Rather than spend energy hunting for a new restaurant, we returned to our first choice where I had my fave chicken dish once again. Just as good the second time!