Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Monday, 16th October – Paris

Today was a beautiful, sunny summery day, with clear blue skies and we took ourselves on a tour of historic Paris, based on & near the Ile de la Cité, which is the island in the middle of the Seine and where Paris began.

We began at Notre Dame, one of the most impressive gothic buildings anywhere. It took 200 years to build, and you can imagine how impressive it must have been to a medieval community. The ceiling of the central aisle towers 10 stories high above you, and apparently the church can hold up to 10,000 people. There are beautiful stained glass windows, and we particularly liked the impressive carvings on the choir area. Over the years and through the revolution it had become run down and damaged, but was extensively restored in the 19th century. We climbed a winding, worn stone staircase (in the footsteps of Quasimodo) up one of the bell towers to check out the many gargoyles and the stunning view of Paris. 400 steps! (Haven’t these people heard of escalators?) But it was worth it. The view is incredible and you get the best photos of Paris from there. Walking around the exterior of the cathedral you can see the ingenuity of Gothic architects in the enormous flying buttresses that took the weight of the stone roof and enabled the construction of higher and higher walls, which left plenty of room for large areas of stained glass.

Behind Notre Dame is something completely different, a memorial to the 200,000 French citizens (Jews, gypsies, political opponents etc) who were deported during the war by the Nazis and never returned. It’s a moving memorial, designed to draw you out of the light and into an underground space that echoes the conditions in the ghettos and camps. There is a tunnel lined with 200,000 tiny lights which gives in a small way a sense of the huge numbers of lost lives.

We crossed the Seine and entered the Rive Gauche (Left Bank), and it was like a different city. On the right bank are wide boulevards and lots of busy people, on the left bank the streets are narrow and winding, there are bookshops, cafes, lots of different ethnic shops (Greek, Chinese, Japanese, Tunisian …) – still the favourite haunt of struggling writers and artists, and people coming to Paris to “find themselves”. We saw the oldest tree in Paris, planted in 1602, and the oldest church in Paris (now a Greek Orthodox church).

Back to the Ile de la Cité to the church of Sainte Chapelle. Built to house the supposed Crown of Thorns bought by Louis IX in 1239 from the Emperor of Constantinople, allegedly taken to Byzantium (Constantinople) by Constantine’s mother in around 300AD. This relic, which if not the “real thing” is at least really ancient, is now housed at Notre Dame (it was taken from Sainte Chapelle during the Revolution) and brought out once a year for Easter. King Louis was a very religious man and later became St Louis. He certainly built an impressive house for his relic – it’s like a huge jewel case, with massive stained glass windows held together by as little stone as was necessary to hold the building together. You enter up a narrow spiral staircase, and the richness of the stained glass quite takes your breath away.

Back to the Latin Quarter for dinner (our first bad meal in France – Shelley’s dinner smelt so bad we sent it back – but it was cheap!). But the atmosphere and the people-watching was fun. We hadn't quite finished our historic walk, but we have worn ourselves out so headed back to the hotel for an early night.