Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Paris in Pictures

We left Barcelona at 1pm, flew over the snow-capped Pyranees, and arrived in Paris around 3ish. On the RER train in, we witnessed a bag snatching. It was the first time I've ever seen any kind of theft or crime, and it was pretty awful. It happened so very quickly: a guy stepped through the doors, dashed over to the set of seats across the aisle from us--the quick movement drew my eye away from the book I was reading--and snatched a small suitcase, even as he turned to dash back out the doors. The woman jumped up and tried to grab it back; she ended up with a snapped strap in her hand, but she couldn't get off the train with the rest of her things still on it. A bunch of passengers, including Mom, also jumped up to hold the doors and call the authorities over. The victim collected her things and went off with the transit police, but I doubt there was much hope to catch the thief.

For awhile after that, Mom and I both sat in shocked, sad silence. What an awful thing to happen; I'm a bit ashamed that mostly I was relieved it hadn't happened to either of us. And that it wasn't the woman's purse. I tried to imagine what would happen if my purse was stolen: it had my cell phone, my passport, my debit and credit cards, and my driver's license. I only know each of my parents' phone numbers by heart, I'd forgotten an extra copy of my passport, but it's on my computer...which is 3,000 miles from either of my parents. I'd have zero money and zero identifcation, and no way to recover either, or contact anyone from home. Shudder.

Eventually we arrived in the 14th arrondissement, my preferred place to stay. It's quiet, it's got a metro and an RER stop, there's a big park and the university where I lived for a month five years ago (feeling old!).
This time we had no jetlag to worry about, so we got settled in our lovely small hotel room, I brushed up on the Paris goods, and we set out...

... to get crepes on the corner (mm, how I love butter and sugar crepes!), and then to Saint Michel, my favorite place, due to its Gibert Jeune and its proximity to Notre Dame.
We walked west along the Seine, passing shops, like this couture store--look at that sumptuous dress, and there are wings behind it!--not to mention pubs and museums.
Eventually we crossed the iron pedestrian bridge toward the Louvre.

Since we've both been to the museum at least five times, but it was Wednesday (late-open night), so we went to the gift shops instead. Sweet! I spent too much time and too much money...but the Louvre is awesome, thus so is its shop.
I wrote postcards right away and sent them from the museum post office.

The next day, our first full day in Paris, we headed by train (SNCF) to the town of Chartres, to see the cathedral. Isn't my monster fuschia scarf gorgeous?

This cathedral, pardon my French (ha!), is fucking huge. You can see it for miles and miles around. Literally. To take this picture, with the entire facade, you have to walk to the very opposite end of the square, and then to the other side of the street. It was a bit cloudy when we arrived at 10.45, but just look at this deep blue sky when we left around 3.30.

These windows are the oldest and some of the most famous. They are original stained glass from the 12th century.

We were lucky enough to take one of Malcolm Miller's tours. When I told Mom about it, she was all meh, skeptical. She came around quickly enough though. He's been leading these for 48 years, and written numerous books about Chartres. All the information in the gift shop is written by him. He's also featured in a fascinating documentary called Chartres: The Sacred Geometry.

Anyway, he is obviously the leading expert; he has so much knowledge that every tour he does is different. For us, he "read" the panels of the stained glass windows. First he discussed the three on the main facade. They are read left to right, bottom to top, like the world's biggest religious comic strip. The window on the right is the Jesse tree, nameless kings of Israel forming the trunk, Mary on the top, Jesus as the fruit and flower. The middle window is Christ's life. The left window is the Passion.

Each square (the middle window is three squares across and about seven rows high) is four feet square. It doesn't seem like it, but it makes sense, since people have to be able to read it. As he mentioned each square, the small colorful scenes suddenly sprang into focus. Have you ever seen Jesus shown on a green crucifix? That's because it was supposedly made from a tree from the Garden of Eden, or living wood.

This is the reason the cathedral in its current size was built: the Sancta Camisia, the Sacred Shroud that Mary wore when giving birth to Jesus. Pilgrims have been arriving from all over the world for a millenium to see it and invoke Mary's blessings. The people and bishop knew that a very large place was needed to house all those pilgrims. And that's literal; they slept there too. The floors slant toward the middle to facilitate washing down all the filth from the travelers.

Another reason that Chartres is so famous is its labyrinth. Labyrinths go way back into early Celtic times, but I think this one is the first "modern" (again, 12th century) one that still survives. This is the rose center, which is supposed to be a spot of extra-powerful energy. Unfortunately, that's all we could walk on; there were rows of chairs covering the outlying circles.
Here's a reproduction of the labyrinth.
The first thing Mom and I did was actually climb the north tower. It's 300 steps, with lots of interesting things to see along the way. Here are the flying buttresses, the copper rooftops, and a Gollum-like gargoyle creature, tail wrapped around a vine as it climbs down. Creepy.

Behind the cathedral are some gardens, including this half-labyrinth made in grass.

Mom's yoga pose looked right at home in the spiritual path.

The Place de la Concorde (Place of Peace, to attempt to make up for its previous incarnation as the Place de la Revolution, wheren 1,000 people were beheaded). This Ferris wheel has been up for at least five years. And you can make out the Obelisk of Luxor in the background.
The Champs-Elysees lit up for the holiday evenings. Or maybe those lights are always on the trees. In any case, it's quite gorgeous between the Place de la Concorde (one end of the boulevard) and the Arc de Triomphe.

The Pont Alexandre III is the most ornate bridge in Paris, full of gilded statues. This one looks to me like Neptune, but who knows. Notice the Eiffel Tower (this is as close as we got; we've both been to the Tower on previous trips) and the reflections in the Seine. Also gorgeous, no?

On Friday, our second and last full day, we began by heading to the Opera Garnier (the famous one you've heard of, as in The Phantom of). As we ascended the stairs in front of the facade, we saw that it was snowing gently. We'd really wanted to take a tour of the building, but the auditorium was closed for rehearsals (Swan Lake), plus there were no English tours at that time. So we only looked at the lobby, including this lovely lamp.

From there, we walked around the corner to the Galeries Lafayette, the original department store (no, really, the first one. There's a French novel based on it...something about the happiness of women. I read one part about the store: it was designed to be confusing and overwhelming, to instill a sense of exhilaration in the shopper.). We ate a picnic-style lunch in the upstairs cafe, watching the snow fall on the back of the Opera. To the left is the Art Deco? dome.

A handful of Parisian snow outside the Galeries. I love all the textures and shapes in this photo!

After the Opera and Galeries, Mom and I visited the Pantheon, a huge building now dedicated to the Great Men of the Grateful Fatherland. Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Antoine St-Expury, and Pierre and Marie Curie are all entombed here, among many others.

When we left, in the cold and windy rain, we wanted to head up to Notre Dame; it should have been only a ten-minute walk. Before we got out of the square, we stopped to warm up in Saint Genevieve's church (she's the patron saint of Paris). Mom noticed a tourist who had taken advantage of the heating vents and propped up her gloves to warm up. A modern prayer and blessing from the saint.

The last morning, returning after the ridiculously-overpriced hotel continental breakfast.

I was glad to go home, but very sad to leave Paris.

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