Oh, France, what can we say. We just returned from ten lovely days in Normandy and Paris. Mind you, not quite as lovely as Italy (sigh!) or England (oh, they speak English!), but nice nonetheless.
We rented a car for a few days, which is always somewhat disorientating after not driving for many months, and we drove from Paris to Mont Saint Michel, which is in the top 3 of our favorite sights in Europe so far. I am always amazed the complex and massive structures the midieval architects were able to construct. (By the way, read The Pillars of the Earth for a good story of building a cathedral.) The cathedral/city is on a small island now connected to the mainland by a soon-to-be-removed spit. 900 years ago, pilgrims had to wait for low tide and slog through mud flats to reach the city gates. The small village at the base of the mount winds around to the stairs of the abbey, and then you keep climbing up hundreds of stairs to reach the cathedral. It is just a remarkable place.
The following days we meandered back through Normandy, spending time in Caen and the Normandy beaches. Eden and I walked through the last remaining Nazi battlements on the bluffs, and met a father and son from the Netherlands, who spoke of their gratefulness that America entered the war to drive out the Nazis. We climbed through the darkness inside a targeting outpost and peered out onto the sea.
At the end of the day, we spent a few hours at the American Cemetary at Omaha beach, which was sobering, yet peaceful. Something I’ve found amazing, living in Europe, is how a pan-European war is now basically inconceivable. After hundreds of years of wars between Roman culture and ‘barbarians’, followed by hundreds of years of religious destruction, followed by a hundred years of politcal wars, the continent is at peace, and even friends.
We ended our Normandy leg by spending a morning in Rouen, the city where Joan of Arc was murdered by the religious and political establishment. Unfortunately, it was Sunday morning and the ultra-modern church dedicated to her was closed for Mass. But we did find an outstanding street market teaming with delicious foods, smells, and bric-a-brac.
On our way to Charles de Gaulle Airport to drop off the car, I took the wrong turn. After many kilometers of tunnels, and then more tunnels, and then a few more tunnels, we emerged back above ground to find ourselves staring down the Arc de Triomphe. Not wanting to cause the worst traffic accident Paris has seen in decades, we quickly turned off, finding ourselves in the midst of a Jewish gathering (wedding? funeral?) patroled by militia in flack jackets. We eventually got back onto the highway. When Rachelle asked if we were going the right way I said, “I think so. The sun’s behind us.” which gave her tremendous confidence.
Our apartment for the week was, literally, two blocks from the Tour Eiffel. While we couldn’t see it from our windows, it was overwhelming close every morning as I picked up our daily pastries. At night once per hour the lights on the tower sparkle like fireworks, which we could see as reflections in the windows across the courtyward. Paris is a pretty city. The buildings are ornate, and the parks are massive and orderly. Several of the parks are half as large as central Copenhagen. As we often do, we took a tourist boat tour, seeing the varied bridgework of the city. In Montemarte, the girls & I continued our Towers of Europe quest by climbing Sacre Coeur. This relatively recent cathedral had the hallmarks of a good tower climb: high, winding stairs, and tight passages. We of course had to ascend the Eiffel Tower.
We skipped the Louvre.
Too much Egyptian, Greek, and Roman stuff, followed by pre-Renaissance art. Instead, we spent a day at D’Oursay, an old train station reborn as a fantastic museum. We walked through the progression from Neoclassicism to Impressionism, and marveled at the statuary. The works of Monet and Van Gogh are amazing (though the Art Institute of Chicago has perhaps a more extensive collection of Monet). It was also interesting to see how Picasso developed from realism to cubism.
Another day, we spent a few hours at L’Orangerie, soaking in Monet’s Water Lillies. The visual beauty of these massive works (15-30 meters long) in rooms built specifically to house their eliptical lengths is incredible. Coincidentally, we ran into an old co-worker from Seattle on our way out!
We also took the train out to Chartres, and had our first really good meal of the trip at a small restaurant a couple of blocks from the cathedral (somehow we have bad luck with food on our trips!). For the first day of the trip it was cold, and the warmth of the restaurant was quite inviting. We made it to the cathedral just in time for Rachelle to walk the labyrinth before they closed it (it’s open only one day a week). Despite Cate’s protests, we took the crypt tour–she dislikes the dark and sometimes creepy crypts under the cathedrals. Some new age energy-dowsing charlatan was there with a group of suckers, and domineered the labyrinth and later evicted us from the crypt.
It turned out that my former co-worker Darren and his partner James were in Paris the same week as us, and we spent a delightful evening with them at the oldest continuously running restaurant in Paris. It was fun to catch up over delicious food and drink with good friends, and a great way to spend our last night in Paris.