26 September 2011

Paris Days and Nights 3

Posted in Talking about . . .

I could get used to breakfast in bed and the magic of Paris – oh, yes, I could . . .

Tuesday and Wednesday were spent exploring the two biggest churches in Paris and their environs – Notre Dame and Saint-Sulpice. I was also treated to breakfast in bed both days – my darling husband organized for my tray of milky coffee and croissants to be brought to me when I awoke. Trés luxueux!

On Tuesday, we walked to Notre Dame along the Seine, past the famous Les Bouquinistes (open-air booksellers), and the beautiful fountain at Place Saint-Michel (built in 1855). It was originally meant to be another monument to Napoleon III, but luckily it ended up depicting Saint Michael, as Napoleon III was exiled to England in 1870, and the fountain would probably have been destroyed by the Commune.

Seine Booksellers

Seine Booksellers

St Michael's Fountain

St Michael's Fountain

If you look carefully at the photograph of the fountain, you will notice something curious. On the left hand side, next to the lower part of the single column, you will see a number of pigeons sitting on the ledges next to the column. Now look at the corresponding section on the right-hand side – no pigeons! And let me say that, at the moment I took that photograph, about half of the pigeons on the left had just flown away. So we were struck by the fact that the left-hand side had lots of pigeons doing what pigeons do on statues, and on the right-hand side there weren’t any. Curious . . .but be patient . . . all will be revealed in due course.

We met up with our Discover Walks guide, Kevi, at Notre Dame and learned about this extraordinary building. It was originally completed in the mid 1200s, and the west side is divided into three enormous portals. These three portals depict St Anne (mother of the Virgin Mary), the Last Judgement (in the centre), and the Virgin Mary. Each portal comprises magnificent marble statuetry on a number of vertically arranged horizontal panels. Tremendously intricate marble carvings tell stories from the bible or depict the weighing of souls on Judgement Day with depictions of heaven and hell. Kevi did a great job of getting us to imagine that we were illiterate 13th century Parisiens and how we would be educated (and terrified) about Christianity from the abundant and intricate statues and carvings on the friezes.

East view South view

Notre Dame (from Left to Right): East view, South view

Notre Dame (west view)

Notre Dame: West view

Portal of the Last Judgement - yikes!

Portal of the Last Judgement - yikes!

Then, in the mid 1500s the cathedral was damaged by Huguenots protesting what they perceived as idolatry, and at the end of the 1700s it was extensively damaged by the revolutionists who wanted to destroy the reminders of the monarchy and the legacy of Catholicism. In fact, by 1830, there were plans to demolish the damaged cathedral altogether. The legendary playwright novelist and poet, Victor Hugo, was horrified by this idea, and in 1831, he published his famous novel, Notre-Dame de Paris, known to the rest of the world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame. The characters of Quasimodo and Esmerelda captured the imagination of the public, and, prompted by public urging, a decision was made to restore the cathedral, beginning in 1845 and taking 25 years.

The restoration of the cathedral was under the control of an ambitious young architect, Eugene Viollet-le-Duc, who restored and reinstated the cathedral to its former glory, and made some notable additions. Within the restoration and additions, and to ensure that his role in the work would not be forgotten, he included images of himself in the Kings’ Gallery (the kings of Israel and Judah – and le-Duc himself!) and another standing at the base of the enormous new spire. He also added the Gallery of Chimeras, the gargoyles around the top. However, we learned that the chimeras weren’t like the original medieval gargoyles in that the new additions didn’t act as downpipes like the original gargoyles had – hollowed out as conduits for water to escape off the roof. Fascinatingly, when viewed from the North side of the cathedral, the spire is quite black, but when viewed from the south side it is white. I understand that this is simply a function of the light – the south side is the sunny side in the northern hemisphere.

As we were taken through the area that was inhabited by the Cathedral School of Notre Dame (the area close to the cathedral that was reserved for the teaching monks and their students - the setting for the love story of Heloise and Abelard) I saw more of my beloved alleys.

Cathedral School Area Cathedral School Alley

From Left to Right: Cathedral School Area, Cathedral School Alley

Just to add to the mystery of the whole area, this interesting woman appeared at three different places during our wanderings around Ile de la Cité. I got these pictures of her on the second and third sightings. What is her story, I wonder?

First Encounter of the Strange Kind Second Encounter of the Strange Kind

From Left to Right: Mysterious Woman 1, Mysterious Woman 2

And just to clear up the mystery of the pigeons-present and pigeons-absent - a number of techniques are used to discourage pigeons from perching on statues: Setting up electrical currents in stainless steel rods that give them a little shock if they land; spikes sticking up from the statue to discourage landing; or painting foul-smelling stuff onto the statue (but this can turn statues black). Notre Dame uses the electrical rod system.

After the tour, we wandered through the streets behind Notre Dame, and then into the area known as Le Marais across the river from Ile de la Cité, and we found some real treasures. First, as wonderful as the Amarino gelato is to look at, the best ice cream to eat in Paris (and probably the world) is Berthillon – I had the Chocolat Noir and it was utterly heavenly! A little later, we stopped for lunch at L’etincelle on Rue de Rivoli (which has something of a reputation for having the snootiest waitstaff in Paris) where we were treated well, and I had the best French onion soup I’ve ever had. We also stumbled on the magnificent Hotel de Ville (town hall) which has its own amazing history. I’m sorry I didn’t know more about Le Marais before we got there, because I would have been able to make better use of our time. Ah, well – another time, maybe.

We got back to the hotel about 4pm , had a sleep, caught up on writing and other bits and pieces, and went out for dinner about 9pm. How’s that for living like locals!

Wednesday was spent getting to know the Luxembourg Gardens and the church of Saint-Sulpice – both really close to the hotel. The Luxembourg Gardens were commissioned by Marie de Medicis in 1611 to go with her palace, the Luxembourg Palace (which now houses the French Senate. The gardens are formally laid out, with treed areas, open areas, lovely planted beds, and lots of statues. There is a gorgeous fountain, and 20 statues of the queens and female saints of France commissioned by King Louis Philippe in 1845. There were lots of people amongst the trees doing tai chi – everyone seemed to know the routine because there didn’t seem to be a leader, and people just joined in and immediately knew the moves. Their faces were very still; it was all very silent; and their movements were very slow and smooth – all ever so slightly spooky. There were also lots of chairs available where people were sitting reading or eating or chatting or just staring into the middle distance. Very nice.

Les Jardins Lux

Luxembourg Palace

Luxembourg Palace

Medici Fountain

Medici Fountain

We also spent some time exploring the Church of Saint-Sulpice. It’s the 2nd biggest church in Paris (second only to Notre Dame), and, in its present form, dates from the early 1700s. There are a number of very special features of the church: The 3 Delacroix murals decorating the walls on some of the side chapels; the extravagant pulpit; Servandoni's Rococo Chapelle de la Madone (Chapel of the Madonna), with a magnificent statue of the Virgin and Child by Jean-Baptiste Pigalle, the renowned French sculptor; and, of course, the gnomon made famous by Dan Brown in the da Vinci Code.

So what is a gnomon, you ask? A gnomon is used to help determine the time of the equinoxes and hence of Easter each year. In 1743, a gnomon was set up in Saint-Sulpice church for this purpose. A meridian line of brass was inlaid across the floor ending up at a white marble obelisk, nearly eleven metres high, at the top of which is a sphere surmounted by a cross. In the south transept window a small opening with a lens was set up, so that a ray of sunlight shines onto the brass line. At noon on the winter solstice (21 December), the ray of light touches the brass line on the obelisk. At noon on the equinoxes (21 March and 21 September), the ray touches an oval plate of copper in the floor near the altar.

Pulpit Madonna

Church of Saint-Sulpice (from Left to Right) Pulpit, Madonna

Gnomon Line Obelisk

Church of Saint-Sulpice (from Left to Right) Gnomon Line, Obelisk

Oh, and by the way, I gather that the Da Vinci Code stuff told about the church is bollocks.

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Comments (1)

  • Rose Clarke
    Rose Clarke
    03 October 2011 at 10:05 |

    love it!

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