Normandy, Brittany & Chateau Country with Globus + Paris On Our Own
June 26-July 7, 2013
A lovely trip; pleasantly surprised by the beauty & charm of Paris and by how everything seemed to just “go right” for this trip. My daughter and I did first part of trip with Globus tours; then had 3 days on our own in Paris. We like art & history as you can tell from trip report. I know that many Fodor members think tours are not the best way to see a country but for rushed and inexperienced travelers such as ourselves they seem to work well.
Wednesday June 26th . . . Daughter and I left on a 5:30 p.m. non-stop flight from Atlanta to Paris. The plane was completely full and it must have been reconfigured to hold as many passengers as possible because the aisles were so narrow and so little room between seats. I was in the middle seat between daughter on the aisle and a tiny, petite Spanish speaking woman next to the window but there seemed no room to move. Any time our seatmate wanted out, we both had to get up and stand in the aisle so that she could wiggle out. This was the worst part of the trip!
Thursday, June 27th . . . We arrived promptly at 8:00 a.m., to a drizzly, gray cool morning in Paris. We were quickly through the lines and waiting for our Globus pick-up, waited longer for the fellow Globus passengers and then chatted with them ( both couples from Long Island) while waiting another hour for traffic to clear out after an accident so we could leave the airport. It was a long (1 ½ hour) ride in to the Marriott Rive Gauche in the 14th arr. (Montparnasse). It was the typical large international hotel, very busy and bright. We left our luggage and then set out to find lunch – cheese crepes bought from a street vendor but cooked in front of us. We walked around a bit and then were able to get into our room where we collapsed –both of us very tired, with swollen ankles from sitting so much on the plane. We took naps and were up by 3:00, walked a mile or so to the Luxemburg Palace and Gardens, built by one of the Medici queen regents, and felt like we were really in Paris. It was chilly and threatening rain. Daughter had her Paris map and we got there with no problems and then were charmed – we got our first sight of the Eiffel Tower, realized how the Parisians love statues (which were everywhere in the gardens) and just sat and watched people for a while. We could see the Pantheon in the distance & enjoyed the Medici Fountain in one of the corners of the gardens. I don’t think the Palace was open; I think it is “working offices” but the gardens were full of people, in spite of the lack of sun.
We were near a famous cemetery but needed to get back to hotel to change for our welcome dinner with the rest of the tour group. A pleasant surprise – it was a very small group, only 21 of us instead of the usual 44 or so. Our guide, Marie Clare, told us the Paris weather was very unusual; it should be at least 10 degrees warmer than we were experiencing.
Delicious dinner in a small restaurant near the Arc de Triomphe; I had salmon & for dessert, fruit in flavored sherbet (the best dessert I had the entire trip). The wine was good and also the special drink, kir, that we were served. Our table companions were a very well traveled Australian couple in their early 70s. We enjoyed their stories of past trips. After leisurely dinner, we were driven around the city, up the Champs-Elysses, by the Seine, over many bridges, and finally back to the hotel. The lack of sleep on the plane had caught up with me – I was ready for bed, looking forward to the next day.
Friday, June 28th – We left the hotel for Versailles at 8:15, threading our way through horrible traffic and light rain. I was wearing my jacket and grateful for it. We started in the gardens & they were huge, we only had time to walk briefly around the one closest to the Palace. The huge fountains are only turned on during weekend hours and our guide told us that Louis XIV was also frugal; he had them flowing for only very important guests. They were very cultivated and controlled gardens; everything trimmed.
The palace itself seemed to glitter with gold. Inside, of course, was impressive and we were told that was very intentional, the palace was built to awe and impress. The Hall of Mirrors is still amazing to us today; how much more amazing in a time when mirrors were very rare and expensive.
Back to the hotel for quick lunch of sandwich, washed down by tea, in the hotel room, we took off for a Globus city tour. The Eiffel Tower was ugly gray metal up close but impressively huge and imposing. It is inscribed with the names of the workers who built it and one of them was “LaGrange”, a reminder that my little city has French connections too (named for Lafayette’s estate).
We were constantly warned about pick pockets, by both official announcements from the Eiffel Tower loud speakers, and Mary Clare. There were lovely views of the city from even the 2nd level of the tower (less than half way up?) which is as far as official tours go.
It was very gray and misty by the time we crossed the Seine over to Notre Dame & somehow that was an appropriate view of the cathedral with its gray stones. It did look medieval. Our guide wiggled us into the line & we walked through the huge cathedral all the while organ music was sending shivers up my spine. I could imagine it filled to capacity in its heyday, holding thousands.
A small group of us, guided by Mary Clare, set off on the extra excursion to Montmartre. We saw more of Paris again on this trip, up by the obelisk, up by the Opera House and then the windmill of the Moulin Rouge until we reached a funicular that took us to where we would climb up to Montmartre itself. Again, there’s quite a view of the city from this hill (highest point in Paris). We walked around a bit & then ate a quick sit down meal of French onion soup (not very good, in my opinion). And then, on to the churches – first the ancient Saint Pierre de Montmartre, originally site of a Roman temple, then a 7th century church, then a Benedictine abbey (until abbess was guillotined in French revolution), then church again, constantly being rebuilt in various styles at various times. We slipped inside and there was a small choir group rehearsing, perhaps for a service later. It was small and just felt old and dark, very different from its much bigger, more famous Basilica of the Sacre Coeur adjacent to it. This church, all white and very bright, in what seems to be a Byzantine style, was finished c. 1910 and built as “atonement” for the sins of the Commune rebellion and to honor the dead of the Franco-Prussian war. It is a silent church, no speaking allowed in it. Up next to the door as we entered was a woman asking insistently for money, which surprised the New York Catholics with us, who said such things were never allowed there.
We watched a street performer for a few minutes waiting for our group, made our way back to the bus through streets with lots of shops (but no time to stop), and then on to our Seine River tour. It was getting late (9:45) and maybe thanks also to the clouds; it was almost dark when we started. Even with coat & scarf, it was chilly up on the top deck of the boat but we enjoyed the views, particularly as we went by the Notre Dame and then back to the Eiffel Tower, all lit up for the night. Eleven o’clock and finally at the hotel, overwhelmed by everything we’d see during the day.
Saturday, June 29th – On our bus, headed out of Paris, with first stop in Rouen. We parked at one cathedral, that was closed because of lack of money for repairs, and then Mary Clare pointed out two others are we walked in the town central that we should see – the principal Rouen Cathedral, burial spot of Richard the Lion-Heart’s actual heart (Rouen raised a lot of the ransom money for him) and the subject of Monet’s famous series of Impressionist paintings on the play of light on the High Gothic façade of the cathedral. We did indeed visit the Rouen Notre Dame Cathedral and ate lunch outside the new, modern church built on the spot where the English burned Joan of Arc.
Also, saw a 13th century astronomical clock and many half timbered buildings in town.
Daughter wrote her senior college thesis on the London plagues so we had to visit the Rouen plague ossuary. It is chilling to see the carvings that the gravediggers made, all symbols of death, and to think of them still there, after 6 centuries, and also to think that the old half timbered building, encircling the ossuary, is used for children’s art classes.
We drove along local roads on the “Route du cidre” through the Normandy countryside, seeing hedgerows, cows, little churches, etc., until we reached our little village stop of “Beuvron-en-Auge” where we stopped for cider sampling (okay, but nothing great) and then Kerry and I walked through the village, admiring the half-timbered houses and shops, the flowers and finally the little local Church of San Marin, which felt like a real working church. Outside there was a big monument listing the men of the village who had died in WWI and then the much smaller list of men who had died in WWII.
The Normandy countryside and especially its flowers reminded me of England. We spent about 2 hours at the Peace Museum, outside of Caen. It’s a new museum, opened in 1988, and regarded as best WWII memorial in France. It mainly tells the story of WWII, with most of the exhibits underground, as a way of symbolizing the darkness of the Nazi German experience. Lots of film, pictures, newspapers – all exhibit explanations are in French, German and English. Interesting but not worth the amount of time we spent there, in my opinion.
We got a quick drive through Caen, views of two beautiful Romanesque cathedrals, built by William the Conqueror as gifts to the Pope for allowing him to stay married to his wife (what a concept! Wife was a cousin.) Then, on to our hotel, Mercure Centre, near the Caen harbor and shopping. It was nice to be in a smaller hotel, to walk around in a place without lots of traffic and hustle & bustle. And it was nice to have bright sunshine and warmth in the evening although we were, again, too tired to really get out after dinner.
Sunday, June 30th
We woke up to another gray morning with light mist and a strong breeze . . . giving me a better appreciation of the difficulty in finding good weather for the D-Day landings. We stopped at Gold Beach and saw the remains of the portable harbor that the Allies had brought across the Channel. Mary Clare told us the story of the landings & I realized how formidable the task the Allies had. My father was in North Africa from early 1942 & part of the Third Army that struggled so to push Rommel and the Germans back. He always said that Rommel was the best general on either side and that if Hitler had left him to run the war, the Germans would have won. It seems Rommel was in disgrace with Hitler because he withdrew from North Africa when he realized he could not win and put in charge of the Normandy defenses (since Hitler was convinced the invasion would come at Calais so Normandy unimportant).
We traveled on to the American Cemetery and museum – both very moving experiences. Kerry and I wandered in the huge cemetery, with mist hanging over it, looking at the endless rows of white crosses, interspersed with the occasional Star of David. The museum, owned and curated by the United States, had good displays – most amazing was seeing the heavy pack that the American soldiers carried, it included all sorts of things including a “guide to France” and a French dictionary. We stopped at Omaha Beach briefly and saw the rocky cliffs that hem it in, which made it the most difficult beach landing. Some of our fellow travelers (especially the men) were disappointed that we didn’t spend more time on the beaches but it was fine for me. I hope to read and watch more about the landings but this was enough D-Day for me.
We had lunch (quiche and tea at a British tea shop) at Sainte Mere Eglise, the first town to be liberated. An American parachutist had been caught by the church spire & had “played dead” for hours. Most moving was going inside the small church and seeing some of the old stained glass (the church dates back to early medieval times) and then some of the windows that had been shattered during the war have been replaced by scenes of the parachutists landing, surrounded by angels.
Then on to what I was looking forward to the most . . . Mont San Michel. On the way, we passed the sign for Cherburg, which is where my uncle Paul landed for his part of the Normandy invasion a few weeks after D-Day. I’m very grateful that I got to hear the recording of his account of the war from a local archives – recording was done in 1999, a few years before he passed away. Our French guide pronounced Cherburg very different than what he did.
I was excited to see the wonderful view of the abbey from our hotel, the Relais Saint Michel – enjoyed that view from the dining table and would have enjoyed it from our room except the abbey was partially wrapped in fog and clouds by 8 p.m. and still indistinct when we left the next morning. It was finally mostly sunny when we rode the bus a short distance to the “starting point” of the trek up to the top of the mont. The two oldest couples stayed behind in the little village at the bottom of the abbey while the rest of us following our guide up 300 stone steps.
We saw “pilgrims” walking across the sand, had a marvelous view of the coast and a sense of the monastery as being on an islet. I loved the little garden, the cloister, and especially the scriptorium where the monks copied manuscripts. The kitchen was huge & the fireplace took up one entire wall of it; the fireplace still smelled strongly of smoke. The dining room is still in use occasionally; recently a new small “mixed” (both male and female) order has been given permission to use the monastery. We saw the now empty huge room next to the kitchen where the king or nobles slept when they came on pilgrimages; the guide told us to imagine it as it was then, hung with colored tapestries, warm from the fire. We saw the huge wheel that was turned by human prisoners (the monastery was made into a prison during the time of the Revolution and remained one for decades) to bring up supplies from the village below. The church was beautiful, Romanesque or Norman in style, very old. Kerry and I walked all along the ramparts after the tour itself was over and saw a huge fig tree, with large green figs on it, that baffled me – in the climate that I had been seeing for the past few days, how did it ever get enough sun and warmth to bear figs? I wished we could have stayed up in the church area until time for 7:00 Mass (not that I’ve ever attended Mass in my life but thought it would be an experience there) but instead we made it back to our hotel for the 7:00 dinner they provided. And all during the time we were up on the Mont, I remembered that a few hundred years ago, when it was the site of such sacred pilgrimages, I would never have been allowed above the village area because I am female.
Kerry and I walked a little along the river after dinner but we were tired and very cold – I fell asleep before it got dark. We were told that the abbey was beautiful with its lights in the evening but the fog prevented us from seeing anything.
Monday, July 1st . . .We headed out again in the gray cool of a French summer morning. We had a good, quick bathroom stop at Chateaubriant with time to explore a church there (which impressed me with its plaque honoring the war dead – again a long WWI list, a much shorter WWII dead or deported, and then some names for the Algerian wars and a few for the Vietnam one.)
We had time to explore the exterior of the local castle for just a few minutes before hurrying off to the lunch stop at Angers. The bus parked right beside the Plantagenet Castle, overlooking the Maine River, & while Kerry and I walked past it and the cathedral up to an area with shops and restaurants with the guide, we decided to skip lunch and explore the city instead. And for the first time with our explorations, we were without guidance from our Rick Steves book – he didn’t include Anjou at all. The castle itself was fascinating . . . very old, with few visitors wandering around & the high ramparts not roped off. We had great views of the cathedral itself (that we had stopped in on the way back), of the river, and of the garden growing in the old moat. Also, on the top of the ramparts, there was a small garden and beehives (much larger gardens inside the castle walls, of course). The castle is most famous for its Apocalypse Tapestry.
We rushed back to the bus and ate crackers there but wished for another hour or two in Angers. The tapestries were huge and needed much more time to appreciate.
About 4:30, after going through beautiful countryside & spying some of the chateaus through woods, we arrived at our hotel, the Chateau de Breuil. We had a lovely room on the 2nd floor, woods to walk in, a beautiful lawn & rose garden, a cherry orchard & pasture with a horse near the annex where some of our tour group were, and some small country roads bordering fields that we could walk along also. A real “out in the country” feeling. We did take a short walk in the woods before going off to dinner & I thought I might meet Little Red Riding Hood any moment – woods were thick and dark. Dinner was at a small “house restaurant” nearby & a delicious meal: wine, pate, salmon, crème caramel for me, roasted duck, melon & prosciutto and chocolate something for Kerry. We walked along the little roads after we returned, with it still light after 10 p.m.
Tuesday, July 2nd We started the day with usual breakfast buffet but this time in lovely dining room, with lovely tea service & the best Brie cheese I’ve ever eaten – that alone could have been my breakfast on their toasted dark brown bread. Our first stop on the day’s “tour of the chateaus” was Clos Luce, where Leonardo da Vinci spent the last few years of his life. This was the smallest of the chateaus we visited but the most interesting, perhaps because of the da Vinci connection or perhaps because it was more intimate seeming and furnished. King Francis I lived in a nearby chateau, connected to the Clos Luce by an underground passage (tradition says) so he could visit Leonardo frequently. It took Leonardo several months to make the trip from Italy to France, over the mountains, and he brought 3 paintings with him, 2 unfinished, 1 his “favorite”, the Mona Lisa. There was a copy of it hanging in Leonardo’s dining room just where the real one had been during his time in the chateau. There were lovely gardens there, a pond, terraces, a kitchen with the smell of smoke still in the fireplace and a museum in the basement where models of Leonardo’s inventions were displayed. The chateau was bright and airy; must have been a pleasant change from medieval castles.
2nd chateau was the most beautiful place . . . Chenonceau, built by King Francis’s financial minister over the River Cher, gifted to Diana de Poiters by King Henry II, who then expanded it and developed one of the formal gardens. Catherine de Medici, Henry’s widow, claimed it for herself after his death and she added a second formal garden and of course, more rooms. It’s had a long history with the gallery over the river serving as a hospital during WWI and then as the “escape route” during WWII for some, since the River Cher was the dividing line between occupied and Vichy France. During the Enlightenment, its owner was an enlightened lady (grandmother of George Sand) who entertained Voltaire and Rousseau and when the Revolution came, she was so popular with the local villages that the chateau was spared the pillage that damaged many noble houses.
There were so many beautiful views of the gardens, the river and the woods nearby from the chateau’s gallery (my favorite place) Once again, we didn’t have enough time – we very briefly walked through the gardens, had to skip the maze and walk through the woods entirely. As we were walking away from the chateau, a Japanese tourist caught our attention and pointed to the sky behind us and there was a rainbow. A beautiful, beautiful place!
On the bus again to Chateau Chambord, the largest of the Loire Valley chateaus, built by King Francis I, with amazing staircase designed by Leonardo. This one was very impressive but cold (literally cold inside, what would it have been like in winter?), stark, and basically unfurnished.
Kerry and I had a great time up in the towers and turrets, walking around, taking pictures, peering into the courtyard. I was afraid of getting lost in the place.
We were back at the chateau by 5:30 and had dinner at a long table in their lovely dining room. We had risotto, roast guinea fowl with large roasted fig and smears of pureed broccoli & carrots, and an unmemorable dessert.
Off the next morning, with heavy gray clouds again, to Chartres, a place I’d really looked forward to visiting. It was beautiful and I did find the statues as amazing as I’d read but felt no magic from it as a sacred place. The labyrinth was covered with folding chairs; no sunshine lit the stained glass although the cobalt blue in the glass was as beautiful as promised. The moment that touched me was looking down one of the aisles and seeing at the end a simple wooden cross. I am so Protestant at heart. And, of course, we were pushed for time. I could see Chartres as the center of medieval life, as a gathering place. I imagine all the old cathedrals as they must have been when filled with life instead of tourists. Saw the relic that “inspired” the cathedral, the vest that the Virgin wore during Jesus’s birth, it was prominently displayed but most people seemed to pass it by and there was nothing to indicate the huge regard it was once given.
Back in the bus, back to crowded Paris and the even more crowded underground parking for the Louvre. We followed Mary Clare in and then left the group for lunch and to use our own museum passes to get in. The main floors seemed crowded so we escaped to the top floor for French art. The views from all the windows of the Louvre itself impressed me the most although it was pretty cool to come upon the painting of Marat killed during the Revolution.
We were back in the hotel (Mercure Paris Centre Tour Eiffel) by 5:00. It was a very gray day and the hotel was ultramodern with garish colors (our room had lots of purple in it). I was grateful we’d only be there for one night. We didn’t do the Moulin Rouge evening; instead set out for the Monuments Museum (which covers the history of French architecture from medieval times to present). It had lots of models & seemed to help us understand a little more of what we had been seeing (also, delightfully uncrowded). We bought more cheese crepes for supper, rested a bit and then set out to find an ATM.
Thursday, July 4th We had a leisurely “last hotel buffet breakfast” and visited again with several of our tour companions. We had no trouble getting the taxi to our new hotel, the Timhotel at the Louvre, which (to my relief) turned out good. It was wedged in with many other buildings, of course, and small but the staff was very nice & spoke excellent English. We left our luggage there and set out exploring. Kerry indulged me by heading first for the Bibliotecque National but to my disappointment, we weren’t allowed in. An American student flashed his ID to the guard at the same time I was trying to explain that we wanted to go in (entrance was blocked by construction) & he said we could follow him to the entrance of the reading area but they wouldn’t let us any further. Guard agreed and so we wound through a little bit of garden, got through outer door but then watched as student showed his ID again and got into the reading area, which we could only peer into. I had expected exhibits and a “public area” (my older guidebooks seemed to indicate that but Rick Steves didn’t include the Bibliotecque so perhaps its renovation has closed it to the public.)
We walked back through the Palois Royale courtyard, then headed off to the Jewish Museum. We went past shops & stores and couldn’t resist riding the Pompidou Museum’s escalators to get a good view of our area. I would have liked to have walked through the Museum, spent an hour or two there but daughter has great aversion to modern art. We did stop at their gift shop and she bought a cute clock for her collection. The Pompidou seems terribly out of place architecturally but I rather liked it.
The Museum of Jewish Art and History, founded in 1988 with items from other museums such as the Cluny, is in the 17th century mansion (hotel as the French seem to call any large building).
We got an English audioguide with our pass & took time going through the exhibits – especially impressed with the first room that had a jumble of what seemed to be white stone tablets covered in text & turned out to be tombstones from the medieval Jewish cemetery. The French were very suspicious of all the Jewish writings since they used art and symbols to communicate religious ideas while the Jews were strictly text. We saw lots of Torahs, including a few illuminated manuscripts, hannecuhs, candelabras, and even a house of brush. I had not realized that the late 19th century anti-Semitism was based more on race than religion (or at least that was the excuse). The French Revolution started the emancipation of the Jews (and for the first time I understood the word “emancipation”, I had only associated it with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation here that freed the slaves). There was a lot of interesting exhibits devoted to the Dreyfus affair and to Theodore Herzel, whose disillusionment with France over the affair led to the founding of Zionism. The museum’s history exhibits ended with 1900 although there was some art going into more recent times (Chagall and Magalloni paintings).
I wish we had walked around more in the Marais district since that turned out to be the only time we were there but we headed back towards hotel, eating lunch outside with view of Pompidou Museum and its fountains. We walked in the open doors of the Church of Saint Mercy on our way back. Even though this church also seemed very old, it seemed alive – it had plants, pictures of African missions, etc., and wasn’t “all restored”.
We got into our hotel room, which was up 5 flights of stairs (there was a small, slow elevator), small but very neat, with good lighting, and rested for an hour before setting out for the Orsay Museum.
The Orsay was an impressive building on its own, a restored train station. It had a different atmosphere than the Louvre; more strict rules (no interior photographs), guards all around. The paintings were wonderful. Lots of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Pissario (a personal favorite), Degas, Seurat, Van Gogh, Gaughin and Cezanne; also the earlier “historical painters”, paintings of the Arab world from 19th century, and pre-Impressionist paintings I’ve always liked such as “The Gleaners” by Milet. Quite a surprise to see Whistler’s Mother in the Orsay. Again, who I liked was a surprise – Cezanne has never been my favorite when looking at plates in an art book but hanging on the museum walls, his paintings really stood out. Degas has never been a favorite, either, but I really liked his early paintings of horse races. There were so many famous paintings here that while the museum itself was crowded, there wasn’t a crowd in front of any particular painting.
The museum closed at 9:30 on Thursday but we were exhausted and made our way back to the hotel by 8:00. We were chilly, very tired and thirsty. We walked to a little market and bought fruit, yogurt and sandwiches for supper in the room and fell easily asleep.
Friday, July 5th
This was our day on the other side of the Seine. After a quick breakfast in the room, we first went in Notre Dame about 8:30 a.m. and took our time walking around, still amazed at finding ourselves there, I think. We were in line by 9:15 for Sainte-Chapelle, probably the most beautiful of the churches we were in, built in the Gothic style as the King’s chapel by King Louis IX in the mid-1200s to house his very expensive relic, the thorn crown of the crucified Christ. The stained glass colors were beautiful, meant to represent the beauty of heaven, I think. There were charming little sculpted animals on the balcony door, all the animals from Noah’s ark, the pair of egrets, turtles, etc. Such art and such attention to detail.
We went next door then, to the Conciergerie, possibly the saddest stop in our entire Paris trip. I wish I had known more about the Revolution before this visit but even so one could feel the weighing of the spirits here. The bottom part is the old medieval hall, part of the oldest surviving palace of the kings of France, and then we visited the prison parts, saw Marie Antoinette’s cell, the place where the Ghiardins partied together their night before the guillotine. Part of the building is still used today for judicial processes.
This is the medieval hall, this is the oldest surviving residence of the French kings. Also, the oldest public clock in Paris is attached to the corner of this building.
We ate an early lunch, outside, on a side street near the Cluny Museum. I had a big vegetable salad & we just watched people walking by. A young boy, of maybe 10, came by and asked to finish the glass of water at a table near us (we had no food or water yet at our table at this time). It reminded me again that we had seen only one public water fountain, that one at the back of Notre Dame, while we had been in Paris. As we were finishing the meal, I nearly got covered with mustard; a large (German?) woman, with a large bag, walked by on the sidewalk and brushed against the table, knocking off the glass jar of mustard which shattered on the cobblestone sidewalk. Some splashed up on my shoes but luckily the rest of me was spared. She was most apologetic.
The Cluny’s gardens were very nice, not the usual formal, over manicured French flower garden, but an approximation of what a medieval garden would have been like. The original building was intended to be the Paris residence of the Cluny abbots but by c. 1500 it was owned by others . . . and also, it seems it was pre-dated by a Roman bath on the same site.
Inside, we saw lots of reliquaries, stained glass, the tombstones & coverings of medieval abbots and abbesses (surprising because these were covered with symbols and art, little text), and of course, lots of tapestries. I suppose it should be a disappointment that we didn’t see the famous Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series (museum renovations had taken its space so it was off on a visit to Tokyo) but we did see many other medieval tapestries, including some that included text.
We were once again tired and thirsty so we stopped at a little store and bought a big bottle of water, iced coffee and apple pastries. We went back to the Cluny’s benches and just watched people again. Then we set off through the Latin Quarter, heading for the Pantheon, passing the Sorbonne (and me wishing badly that we could get inside somehow). The Pantheon was built as a magnificent church for St. Genevieve shortly before the Revolution & it has gone back and forth several times in its history from “national temple” to church. It was built in the style of a Greek temple.
I had enjoyed seeing the Pantheon’s dome from all over the city but up close and inside, it was one of Paris’s dullest buildings (in my opinion). Normally, Foucault’s pendulum is there but it was off being repaired. The huge paintings on the walls represented the history of Paris. We did go down in the crypt and see Voltaire & Rousseau’s tombs, very near one another, and also Victor Hugo’s tomb, with fresh flowers on it.
We then spotted the Bibliotheque Sainte Genevieve, that my art history professor friend thought I must visit. The guard sent us over to a young lady who seemed to be in charge of doing brief tours. She took us to the reading room, told us a bit about the library (explaining the Dewey Decimal system to me), and we looked around but we couldn’t go in to wander among the shelves or reading tables, nor were there any manuscript or book exhibits. It was a beautiful reading room, with iron supports, all through the building but I also noticed the open windows and how warm it was in the room. This was our warmest day of the France trip, bright & sunny, with a predicted high of 79. She said there was no air conditioning so I wonder what the building was like in the later part of the summer when the newspaper was saying Paris had a high of 90.
We then went on next door to the Church or Abbey of Sainte Genevieve. I’m still confused by what we saw – I think this was the site of the original abbey of Paris’s saint. It was particularly attacked during the Revolution and the tomb of Sainte Genevieve was destroyed with her remains tossed in the Seine. Years after the Revolution, her bones were recovered and she was reinterred in the church. At first, we couldn’t get in and then when the church opened at 4:00, there were suddenly lots of people. It was a small church.
We again walked by Notre Dame, going in the “below the Notre Dame” museum to see Roman ruins, and continued on a little below the church, maybe on to the next island and then it was a long, long hot walk back to our hotel. We had supper at the Thermidor Café next door; Kerry had roast chicken, French fries and a salad; I ordered vegetable soup, which to my surprise came pureed.
Saturday, July 6th . . . “The Day of the Louvre” . . . I bought us croissants for breakfast at a nearby shop and we were in the courtyard before the Louvre opened, slipping easily through the line at the Pyramid entrance thanks to our Museum Pass and no backpacks to check.
We hurried first for the Mona Lisa and contrary to guidebook warnings I was not disappointed by the painting. The face has magnetism, an expression that holds attention (maybe like she’s secretly amused). We saw several other Leonardos and one painting that was “school of Leonardo” but nothing as good as Mona Lisa. The Winged Victory statue was indeed beautiful and seemed to have movement carved into the stone. Venus de Milo managed to be both solid and graceful, in spite of missing pieces. I don’t think of myself as a fan of sculpture but in the Louvre it was different . . . all the views of the sculpture courtyard from above, walking in the courtyard with the statues were wonderful.
I was looking forward to the Egyptian and Middle Eastern section of the Louvre since that is my favorite part of the British Museum and it didn’t disappoint either. In the Egypt section there were lots of funeral items (big and small), animal sculptures, particularly ibises, but also ravens and cats, as well as a beautiful mosaic of a lion.
There were big statutes from Aken (Sun God) Temple and there was the very beautiful painted scribe. Everything was nicely displayed in beautiful space, with lots of light, comfortable seating, comfortable temperature, etc. I wasn’t expecting that. There were big stone Assyrian doors and reliefs, also a beautiful Persian “blue room” with artifacts. Perhaps what made the biggest impression on me was seeing Greek and Roman “ordinary glass” displays, including what looked like an ordinary glass punch bowl and measuring cups.
There was also a special exhibit on loan from Israel from excavations of the Roman town of Lod. I particularly liked the mosaic floor.
We went back to the 4th floor to see Vermeer’s Lacemaker and Geographer, which somehow we’d missed on our first afternoon (honestly, though, the de Hooch paintings in the same room were more beautiful and interesting to me). I like Dutch painters of that time period.
Then we headed to medieval section and saw more great tapestries, including my favorites, those that had bears in them. We were also very impressed with a beautiful ivory altarpiece there.
Outside, mid-afternoon, it was warm. We walked through the Tuilleres Gardens and around to the entrance of the Orangery. It was more crowded than the Louvre, particularly the first two rooms with Monet’s famous huge water lilies paintings. So amazing to be in the long gallery crowded with so many Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne paintings hung one above the other, lining the wall. I really liked seeing the Renoir and Cezanne still lifes side by side. There was also an Italian 19th century painting special exhibit that we enjoyed; most of the paintings were “historical” in nature, telling the story of Italian independence & unification struggles.
I was already getting sad as we walked across the Seine for the last time so that daughter could climb the Notre Dame towers. We spotted the “oldest Paris clock” that we had missed the first time, also the marvelous sign for the Metro.
The “climbing the tower” line was very long so we ate more sandwiches and did some souvenir shopping (scarves and place mats) while we waited. I kept her company in line for a while and then wandered off, walking down a bit to the Ile de -----, and then just sat in the gardens behind the cathedral and watched people. I wandered back into the Notre Dame itself but it seemed a service was starting and I was afraid of being stuck & not back to meeting place on time. Daughter had good views from the tower & thought it very worth the wait but I was just as glad that I had skipped it.
We packed and I worried a bit about waking up for the taxi to get to the airport so early but we had no problems – I checked us out quickly, with no problems, and waited in the little lobby for a few minutes, amazed that there were still people out walking on the Paris streets at 4:45 a.m. , including one lone young woman. The taxi was prompt and we got one last fast ride through the dark city and by the time we got to the airport, dawn had arrived. The entrance area to the airport seemed crowded and confusing but once we got our bags checked and headed back to the Delta area, it was very pleasant. We ate a light breakfast and soon it was time to board the plane, which was full just like our first flight, but was a smaller, older plane with (thankfully) more leg room. We arrived back to a cloudy, rainy Atlanta about 11:50, 10 minutes before the listed arrival time. The warm humid air hit us immediately.
Things I wish I had done differently:
• Worked on learning to read French & recognize French numbers
• Packed less
• Brought a coat with lots of pockets
• Brought a small (6 oz) pocket size water bottle
• Brought more snacks
Only disappointment – the food
• Lace curtains everywhere, many with designs (ships, etc.)
• Sheet lined comforters on the bed – too hot
• French women wore jackets, sweaters, coats all the time – they dressed for colder weather than it was, unlike British women who seemed determined to dress for summer weather in March temperatures
• Homeless men with dogs common in Paris
• Scarves, almost all women wore them, in lots of different ways
• No water fountains, the one in the airport even had instructions
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