On our second day in Paris, before our tour started, Michael and I visited the Army Museum and Napoleon’s Tomb. As we later learned, Napoleon’s “little Napoleon” is not buried with him. It has a history all it’s own and is rumored to currently reside in New Jersey. A women inherited it when her father died – a urologist who bought it in 1977. It’s said that she has received an offer of $100,000 to sell it. I thought this was interesting, to say the least.
Our tour included a visit to the famous Louvre museum. I was really interested in one particular piece, and it wasn’t the Mona Lisa. It was entertaining to be in her midst, however. A thick wall of 20 to 30 people deep were crowded in front of her, all jockeying for photo position. So I took a photo of the people taking photos.
The piece I was anxious to see at the Louvre was the Winged Victory (or Nike) of Samothrace. She’s a beautiful 2nd century BC, several ton marble sculpture of the Greek Goddess Nike, minus a few parts. Thought to be once perched at the prow of a ship, she’s missing her head and arms. None the less, she’s strong, powerful and in my opinion gorgeous. Her large triumphant wings outstretched behind her, one doesn’t need to see her face to know she’s victorious. What I love most about this piece, is I can actually see her moving through space, much like a dancer.
During some free time on one of our days in Paris, Michael and I toured the Paris Opera House. Started in 1861, it took 15 years to build, due to various wars and such. This theatre is steeped in artistic history and is still used for performances of the Paris Opera Ballet. It also inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera. It was fun to see such a richly historical theatre that was once the place to be seen among Parisian society.
Of the various churches and cathedrals we saw, all were massive, most were gothic and several were modeled after Notre Dame. We did see Norte Dame up close from the outside, however due to it being rather cold that day and not wanting to bother with standing in line, we didn’t actually go in it. But I feel as if I had gone in it because several of the churches we did go in, such as the St. Etienne Cathedral in Bourges, were inspired by Notre Dame. It still amazes me how dwarfed and small one feels when entering a great cathedral. I certainly experience a powerful sense of awe and worship upon standing in the midst a holy and sacred place.
Only two places throughout our entire trip were we not allowed to take photos of any kind. One was the Orsay Museum and the other was a church. I felt a slight tug in the pit of my stomach every time I was in a church taking photos. I was incredibly mindful of this and tried to show great respect to my surroundings. I rationalized the photos I took as being artistic and with the purpose of showing the beauty of the space, not simply for the sake of taking a mindless photo.
We visited several different chateaus, varying in size from a quaint abode to what we would consider a great castle. I fell in love with two in particular. Chateau Chambord in Chambord and Chateau Chenonceau in, you guessed it Chenonceau.
Chateau Chambord in the Loire Valley is visually stunning from the outside with it’s French Renaissance architecture. It was originally built as a hunting lodge for King François I (1494-1547) and he later gave it to his mistress Comtesse de Thoury, Claude Rohan. A unique attribute of the chateau is the double-helix staircase, thought to be the first one of it’s kind and possibly even designed by Leonardo da Vinci. Do take the time and look up the link I have provided below!
Chateau Chenonceau, also in the Lorie Valley was built on the site of an old mill on the River Cher, sometime before the 11th century. In an era dominated by men, this chateau had the touch of several women throughout the ages (including two K/Catherine’s). Once again, this is French Renaissance architecture, but vastly different from Chambord. The grounds and surrounding gardens are magical. There is even a tall hedge labyrinth on the outskirts of the property. What could be more beautiful than a castle built on a peaceful river?
Two things worth mentioning about Chenonceau are due to the design of several of it’s many female inhabitants. The first straight staircase in France is here in the house (all previous staircases were spiral). Taken from an Italian design, it’s useful in allowing bigger items to be transferred from floor to floor. Second, is the design of the kitchen. Located on a lower floor, several large rooms each with it’s own purpose make up with kitchen. There is a butchery, a room with a brick oven for making bread, a prep room, a wash room, a dining room, a room with a large stove, a room with a huge cooking hearth and several other rooms I can’t now remember. A platform was built so boats with supplies could pull up and off load directly into the kitchen. The pantry was a large room located on the floor adjacent to the river, because it was coldest there.
Mont St. Michel is a rocky tidal island and a commune in Normandy. Before the construction of the first monastic establishment in the 8th century, the island was called “monte tombe”. According to legend, the Archangel Michael appeared to St. Aubert, bishop of Avranches, in 708 and instructed him to build a church on the rocky islet. Aubert repeatedly ignored the angel’s instruction, until Michael burned a hole in the bishop’s skull with his finger.*
We spent one night on this extraordinary place, population 44 in 2009. The island is now connected to the mainland by a causeway, but the tide still comes in and at high tide, blocks the doorway in which to enter the city. If you wish to visit the abby at the very top of the “mountain”, be prepared to get your stairclimber on cause it’s a trek!
And finally, I’ll finish with with our visit to Versailles. Michael and I visited Versailles on our own, as it was not included in our Rick Steves’ tour of France. Versailles holds a special place for me because I consider it the birthplace of ballet. King Louis XIV the Sun King was fond of dancing, music and not only attending performances, but he often performed himself. He took the court dances of his time, and transformed them into ballet, give or take a pliè here and there. He was also particularly fond of his own legs and often had his portrait taken showing them off, in a ballet position of course.
One can not comprehend the vastness of Versailles. Throughout it’s rich history, Versailles was added on to. Several new wings, an opera house, more gardens & fountains, the list is endless. The royal family also changed and moved their rooms or apartments a great deal to suit their wants and needs. Versailles was built so the King could escape the stresses of hectic Paris life. Eventually, an escape from the escape was needed, so additional chateaus were built further out in the property.
The Hall of Mirrors was truly magnificent! So much so that I didn’t want to leave it. The grounds with their perfectly manicured lawns, bushes, hedges, trees and topiaries were a joy to behold. Countless statues added a Greek feel to the estate and grand fountains were the focal point between great distances of grass.
I had a wonderful time in France, no doubt about it! However, it sure feels good to be home. The saying, “You don’t know what you’ve got, until it’s gone.” is so true. It’s the little things I missed, such as a wash cloth in the hotel bathroom. Or a meal that doesn’t take 3 hours (every time). Dry shoes, beds that are a “normal” height off the floor, and crossing the street without fearing for your life. You know, the small stuff.