Sometimes it’s just a matter of saying out aloud what you want to do and by some juxtaposition of stars, you are brought in touch with the right people and the rest just works out.
So my second trip to Paris – 13 years after the first one in 2005 – materialized quite like this. I had read an article about which palace was the original that made Louis XIV take notice and order the construction of his own palace on a much grander scale at Versailles. Since my friend C, loves both France and art & architecture, I shared this article with her, mentioning that I haven’t even seen Versailles yet and now there is this one which is said to be the original! She said we could make a trip. I jumped at the chance and we made plans to go there over the last weekend of April. And there, just like that, on a nice Spring weekend, we were in Paris.
As it so happens, C has some really nice friends M and P, in a small town close to Paris. They graciously offered to have us as guests in their home. It is a beautiful and completely different experience of staying with someone local as compared to staying in a hotel! I am so very grateful to M and P for their hospitality and of course to C, for introducing me to such a nice family.
We reached their home in the night and after exchanging pleasantries and chatting for some time, we went to sleep. In the morning, after a lovely breakfast, P drove us to the station from where C and I could take the train to Paris. That is definitely better than driving into the city. Since both of us have seen Paris, C more times than me, so this time, we decided to take a guided walking tour of the city. This was something that neither of us had done before and this way, one gets to know the stories which one cannot know when exploring a city on her own. We managed to reach the venue on time, despite the small unexpected inconvenience of the metro stop, where we wanted to reach, being closed for repairs. The tour was to start from the fountain of St. Michel. There was quite a number of people interested in the tour, so we were divided into a few groups. We got a guide who was British (possibly a student) and had been living in the city since a few years.
So the history of Paris starts, of course, from a long time ago but the guide started with the history of Napoleon’s Paris. In 1804, after Napoleon became Emperor, he started projects to make Paris grand like ancient Rome. The Arc de Triomphe, three bridges on the river Seine, wide street Rue de Rivoli, are some of the landmarks for which the credit goes to Napoleon. Some years after his death, his nephew and heir Napoleon III became the president of the second Republic of France. Paris was decaying at that time – the population having grown too big for the infrastructure. So in 1853, he tasked the architect Georges-Eugene Haussmann to make the city modern like London. To do that, he had to bulldoze off huge parts of central Paris to make way for the big streets and modern sewage system. That was the birth of Paris as we know it today. However, he had to face a lot of backlash for his work – political of course, as the whole idea of second Empire, hence Napoleon III and by association Georges-Eugene was not liked by the republicans like Victor Hugo (“Les Miserables”). So he had to be sacked by the emperor due to political pressure.
With this introduction, we moved on and reached Notre Dame. Here we were told about the ancient history of Paris. In around 250 BC, there was a celtic fishing tribe of the name Parisii which settled on the island “Ile de la Cite”. That’s the center of Paris today. In 52 BC, the Romans took over and established the town called Lutetia. The construction of the cathedral of Notre Dame was started in 1163 AD and finished in 1345 AD. The style changed from Roman to Gothic with thinner walls, bigger windows, stained glass designs and the height of the ceiling. The left tower is wider than the right one and it was a deliberate imperfection. Probably because of the notion that only God himself can have perfect creations.
In 1792-93, a cult arose in France – the Cult of Reason and Notre Dame became its biggest center. It was an atheistic philosophy against the Roman Catholicism during the French Revolution. This cathedral and several others in France were converted to Temples of Reason. The cult lost its steam sometime in 1794 when its leaders got executed. Thereafter, Notre Dame was abandoned. It became a wine and gunpowder warehouse for some time. In the winter of 1804, Napoleon invited Pope Pious from Rome to get himself coronated as the emperor. Anecdote says that things didn’t go as expected by Napoleon when the Pope didn’t want to give him the crown. Then Napoleon snatched the crown from the Pope and crowned himself. But nobody of course can say that for sure. The only fact about the event that’s known is that Napoleon placed the crown on his head himself. Fast forward to 20th century – during the WWII, the headquarter of SS in Paris was right opposite Notre Dame!
From there we walked towards the Sainte Chapelle. Built in the Gothic style, it was the Royal chapel in the 13th century. It was constructed on the orders of Louis IX to house the religious relics that he had collected, the most famous being the crown of thorns that Jesus was supposed to have worn before the crucifixion. Looking back at my blog post from my first trip, I should have known this but of course, 13 years is a long time!
Then of course, we saw the Le Conciergerie – which is such a beautiful building but used to be a prison at one point from where poor Marie Antoinette was taken for her execution. The guide told us that she was more the victim of propaganda than being a really bad person in reality. She was just like the other royals of her time. The revolution would have taken place – with or without her. With her being of foreign origin, the mob found it more convincing that she didn’t care about them (which the French origin royals didn’t do either, but you know..) and made her the target of their hatred.
Walking down, we reached the Pont Noeuf. We found a nice spot in the shade to sit down while the tour guide told us the stories about this bridge. It is the oldest standing bridge in Paris – having been completed in the beginning of the 1600s.
“Noeuf” means new but then you have to see that it was the new bridge at the time it was made :-). The expenses for this bridge were covered by having a tax on wine that was brought into the city – sounds to me like a version of “Import Duty”! Henry IV, who made the completion of the bridge possible, was raised a Protestant in Catholic France but he converted to Catholicism to make things easier in those religio-political times. But that didn’t work out for as he would have wanted it to – he was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic. Anyway, about the bridge. There are ~381 stone heads called “mascarons” on the walls of the bridge. They have all possible human expressions on them. One story goes that the king threw a party. Then the artist captured the faces of drunk people and made these. Another one goes that they may be based on the faces of the husbands of the numerous mistresses that the king had! Who knows the purpose of anything anyway?
After sitting there for a while, we moved towards the Pont de Artes – Bridge of Art. It was made in 1801 or so and it was the first bridge to be made of iron in Paris. It connects the Louvre to Institut de France across the Seine.
The fame today of that bridge, however, is because of the crazy trend of putting love locks on the bridge that started in 2008! The city had to remove about 45 tons of locks in 2015 from the bridge as they were weighing it down. And now, there is one pole only where the locks can be put. Anecdote – the trend of love locks seems to have started in Serbia with the first one having been locked in Belgrade.
The bridge is supposed to be for art and it was interesting to see the “find the card” game artists there who could very “artfully” make you part with your money :-). The Institut de France, consists of five academies, the oldest of which is the Academie Francaise. This academie was established in 1635 by none other than Cardinal Richelieu (remember him from The Three Musketeers?)! There are forty members in this academie who are called Les Immortels! These people have the official authority on everything about the French language. If you have heard a French sounding word and there is no way to find if it is of French origin or not, you can send it to them and they would figure it out!
Then we walked towards the Louvre. It used to be a Fortress earlier and then a royal palace. Now – it is the house of Monalisa, and a lot of other treasures. I had gone inside the Louvre in my first trip to Paris a long time ago. It’s just impossible to see everything there in one trip. While the guide was explaining something about the Louvre, I found a chestnuts vendor and bought a few chestnuts. The aroma of freshly roasted chestnuts is so tempting! So I missed some of what he talked about the museum but there was anyway, more pleasure for me in the chestnuts at that point than what he was saying!
The tour ended at the Tuileries Garden. The guide told us the story of how Paris was this close to being being ravaged to dust in the second world war by the German army but for the intervention of a Swedish diplomat! He also told us that despite the Eiffel Tower being today the symbol of Paris, the Parisians actually hated it when it was constructed (and may be even today :-)). I read somewhere that one famous writer hated it so much that to avoid looking at it, he would dine in the restaurant situated on the Eiffel Tower! My memory of it from my first visit is that it was a cold autumn night and all I was interested in after taking the boat ride in Seine prior to climbing the tower, was a restroom, but which we couldn’t find anywhere, until we reached the second floor of the Eiffel Tower!
Back to spring 2018, the tour ended and we took our leave. I am so glad that I could finally complete this post. And now that the momentum is set, I believe I can complete this long pending travelogue. The next post will detail out I what we did next on our first day in Paris. Until then, au revoir..