Early the next morning, we made a quick stop at Starbucks for drinks, then strolled Fisherman’s Wharf. The only early risers were runners, cyclists, people making deliveries, someone power washing the sidewalks, a lone skipper loading fishing tackle into his boat, and us saying goodbye to the sea lion colony on our way to Ghirardelli Square to window-shop. Photo: Gardens and lake at Chateau Montelena. Continue reading
Monday morning dawned cool and gray, but the weather wouldn’t affect our plans for the morning, because we had reserved a tour of the Louvre. However, we hoped the skies would clear by early evening as we had dinner reservations at Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower and were looking forward to a panoramic view of Paris.
Breakfast at the Hôtel Duminy-Vendôme was on the bottom floor in a former cellar. Wine cellar, perhaps? Unlikely, since I had read the building was once a bank, and it had one of the smallest elevators I have ever been in. Our server led us to a quiet corner in the delightfully decorated room with a vaulted roof. I took in the soothing black-and-white decor while Dave perused the breakfast buffet. Mindful of the time, we ate, then left to meet our guide at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.
As we had done in Versailles, we opted to “skip the line” in favor of a guided tour of the museum, a good decision considering the size of the Louvre and all it has to offer. Our feisty French guide was organized, personable, and knowledgeable in both art and history, so she had no trouble keeping her small group entertained and engaged for the hour-and-a-half tour. I had my list of must-sees, even though I was still suffering from a slight case of visual overload after our visit the day before to the Château de Versailles.
Approaching the museum, I immediately zeroed in on I.M. Pei’s Pyramid, a seventy-one-foot-tall, interlinked steel structure sheathed in reflective, tempered glass—a masterpiece of design. Once inside, I, of course, had to photograph Pei’s self-supporting helical staircase that curls around and down from street level to the subterranean courtyard. The stair treads are of white stone with polished metal supports and the balustrade of clear glass and stainless steel. The staircase curves around an elevator that disappears completely once it has descended. Reluctantly, I left the staircase, sorry I didn’t have the chance to see the elevator in operation, and caught up to the tour. But I’ve since watched it in operation on YouTube.
We began our tour on the lower ground floor. Many people aren’t aware that beneath the world’s most-visited museum lies the ruins of a once magnificent medieval fortress constructed in 1190 AD. During the forty-three-year reign of Philippe Auguste (1180–1223), a rampart was built around Paris, then Europe’s biggest city. To protect the capital from the Anglo-Norman threat, the king reinforced his defenses with a fortress built on the banks of the Seine. The fortification became known as the Louvre. The castle was a fortress but not a royal palace, our guide was quick to point out. At the time, the monarch’s Parisian home was the Palais de la Cité. The fortress Philippe had built was an arsenal with a moat, bastions, and defensive towers. In the center stood the massive cylindrical keep, the Grosse Tour, a fortified tower within the fortress walls, usually the last place of refuge when defending the castle. In 1527 the medieval keep was demolished to make way for a Renaissance palace. Fascinated by this bit of history, I hung back to examine more closely the ruins of the moat and the model of the original castle, which was on display.
On the ground floor, I took my time viewing the Arts of Africa exhibition, my interest springing from the years I had lived on the continent. And I spent quite some time photographing and enjoying Michelangelo’s Captive.
On the first floor, while Dave was absorbed in checking out The Winged Victory of Samothrace, I was busy photographing the Napoleon III Apartments. He approached to tell me our guide was giving a brief history of the Mona Lisa. I broke from snapping photos of Napoleon’s opulent furnishings for my first glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. I had to wait for the hordes of tourists to clear from my viewfinder before I could take a picture.
On the second floor, Dave strolled from one painting to the next. My attention, however, was fixed on one, Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, created at the age of twenty-two. Dürer was born in Nuremberg, but his parents were Hungarian. Not only was he a painter, but also an engraver, and his attention to small details was what drew me to his work. During his lifetime he produced numerous drawings in silverpoint, chalk, or charcoal. However, in his later years, he produced little as an artist and concentrated on authoring two books, one on geometry and perspective and the other on proportion and fortification. They were published in 1525 and 1528 respectively.
Two hours later, we were ready to escape the tourist crowds at the Louvre for a relaxing walk through the Tuileries Garden. We sipped hot chocolate and drank in the tantalizing scent of orange trees in bloom, the citrus plants recently set out after wintering in an orangerie.
In the late afternoon, we made one last stop to see Sainte-Chapelle, a medieval Gothic chapel opened in 1248. It is located near the Palais de la Cité. The interior is eye-catching with its high buttresses, steep, rib-vaulted ceiling, and over six thousand square feet of stained glass windows in deep reds and blues. As we left the Gothic wonder, Dave commented that we had combined tickets, which allowed us access to the Conciergerie, Paris’s oldest prison, where Marie Antoinette and later over two thousand leaders of the Revolution were held for execution. I was told that normally there are no lines, but this wasn’t the case at the security check, so we bypassed the chance to see Marie Antoinette’s cell (not her real cell anyway) and headed to our hotel to change for dinner at the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower.
I don’t care for heights and never have, but in the past few years while traveling to many destinations overseas, I’ve done my best to overcome this fear by concentrating on anything, but the ground below. So as we ascended in the Eiffel Tower’s private elevator, I focused on photographing the tower itself, astounded by the engineering feat of building such a massive structure. After the short ascent to the second floor, which is one flight above the highest observation deck, the elevator landed and we were shown to a window seat in the restaurant. We had a breathtaking, panoramic view as the sun set over the City of Lights. I switched off my flash, so as not to disturb the other diners, and snapped at least a dozen photos of the city and several of the Parc du Champ-de-Mars that stretched out below.
We ordered à la carte. For starters, we had lobster in a sabayon broth, and duck liver with fig jelly and brioche. Within the week, we would be eating plenty of fish, so that night we chose meat for dinner—pan-seared beef tournedos with soufflé potatoes and a Périgueux (rich brown) sauce, and saddle of lamb from the spit, artichokes, and a meat sauce. For dessert, a chocolate soufflé and savarin with an armagnac cream. Full, we walked off our meal along the banks of La Seine, then retired for the night. Next week, we board the TGV, France’s high-speed train, to Dijon, where we will rent a car and begin our tour of the Burgundy wine region.
Next week: “Europe 2013: The Burgundy Wine Region.”
Sunday morning in Paris broke chilly but sunny. I started the day with services at the Cathédrale Notre Dame, a beautiful church with stunning architecture, two rose windows, and two organs—the great organ and the choir organ. The great organ has five keyboards, one hundred and ninety ties, and eight thousand pipes. It is the largest organ in France and the most famous in the world. During high mass the melodious tones of the great organ filled the basilica’s naves—indisputably the most spiritually moving sound any instrument has ever made.
Equally inspiring are the church bells, four of which sit atop the northern tower and have rung every fifteen minutes since 1856. During the revolution, between 1791 to 1792, previous Notre Dame bells were taken down, broken, and melted down. Fortunately, the great bell Emmanuel, the masterpiece of the group, was spared. It sits at the top of the south tower, remaining one of the most beautiful “sound vessels” in Europe.
In 2012, as part of a facelift in preparation for the cathedral’s 850th anniversary, some of the bells were melted down and replaced by nine new ones. But the great 1681 “Bourdon Emmanuel” bell mentioned above was preserved. The new bells were unveiled to the public on February 2013, and were rung for the first time two months before we arrived in Paris. Not all of the bells chime in unison every day, but when they do, they wake up all of Paris.
Not everyone was happy about the replacement of the bells, and some scoffed at the idea that the new ones could recreate the sound of the original seventeenth-century bells. But as Philippe Paccard, the owner of the oldest bell foundry in France said, “Bells are like human beings. They live and, one day, they fade.”
As I emerged from the cathedral and walked toward the Seine, I was followed by the resounding peal of bells. Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre-Dame came to mind:
No idea can be formed of Quasimodo’s delight on days when the grand peal was sounded. He mounted the spiral staircase of the bell tower faster than anyone else could have descended it… The first shock of the clapper and the brazen wall made the framework upon which it was mounted quiver… At length the grand peal began; the whole tower trembled; woodwork, leads, cut stones, all groaned at once…
With these words still ringing in my ears—or perhaps the sound of pealing bells—we headed to the Pont des Arts, a pedestrian bridge linking the Louvre to the south bank of the river. Over the years, it became a tradition for lovebirds to mark their initials on a padlock and hook it to the bridge’s railings, throwing the key into the Seine to symbolize a passionate bond that could never be broken. So popular had the pastime become that the weight of the padlocks, estimated at over forty-five tons, had caused serious structural damage to the bridge, even collapsing a section of railing. On June 1, 2015, workers began cutting and removing the lock-laden railings. The over 22,000 padlocks are now considered scrap metal and will probably be recycled in some fashion, and the wire mesh panels will eventually be replaced with Perspex. We were fortunate to have the opportunity to photograph the bridge with its padlocks clamped tightly in place. And no, we did not add to the already distressed bridge.
An hour later, after a leisurely walk along the Seine, we ducked into the first metro/RER station we came to, bought tickets, and boarded the train for Versailles-Château–Rive Gauche, the last station on the line. When we arrived at our destination, it was a short five-minute walk to the château, where we would meet our guide. Normally, we favor self-guided tours, but this time we decided to “skip the line” and take a guided tour.
Maria Antonia was the fifteenth daughter of Maria Teresa, Empress of Austria of the Hapsburg house. At age fourteen she was married off to the crown prince of France, who became King Louis XVI in 1774; she became Marie Antoinette, Queen of France while still a teenager. At the time, France was the most powerful nation in continental Europe and the royal palace of Versailles the most opulent.
Unhappy in marriage and initially unable to produce an heir (she later produced four, but only one survived to adulthood), she turned her attention to enjoying a lavish lifestyle. Every year she exceeded her clothing allowance, spending recklessly on headdresses, plumes, and voluminous dresses, and garnering the disdain of her public. She was also extremely generous when it came to gift-giving and entertaining her friends. Her extravagant spending included building her retreat at Petit Trianon, the small palace that adjoins Versailles, as well as a village called the Hamlet. By the end of 1780s, hatred for Marie Antoinette was widespread, and after several crop failures, which triggered rampant starvation, the common citizens revolted.
She worked hard to restore royal authority and even sought aid from aboard, but in 1792 a republic was declared and the royal family imprisoned in the Temple fortress. And so began the Reign of Terror. In January 1793, Louis XVI was executed on the guillotine, and on October 16, 1793, Marie Antoinette met the same fate. The gruesome thought of these deaths vanished as I neared the Château de Versailles on foot and caught my first glimpse of the palace.
After two hours inside taking in the splendor of the gilded entrance gates, the gold-inlaid bathroom floors, the glitzy salons of the king and queen, the ornate furnishings, and the dazzling Hall of Mirrors, our jaws were dropping at the opulence.
As a minimalist, I found the palace awesome to behold but visually overwhelming, with too many intricate details to take in. I was ready for a respite from gawking in the form of a long walk through the equally stunning gardens, their vastness alone impressive. I caught my first glimpse of the grounds, works of art unto themselves, from the central window in the Hall of Mirrors: a breathtaking view of the lawns, the Royal Alley, and the Grand Canal. The palace park covers eight hundred hectares (one hectare is equivalent to around two and a half acres).
Photographing the Grand Trianon, “the little pink marble and porphyry palace with delightful gardens,” as our guide stated, I thought how ironic it was that Marie Antoinette, who so loved luxury, would seek refuge in her quaint hamlet in the countryside to play peasant. On the other hand, she was still surrounded by her royal comforts even on “the farm,” and I would soon see that its rustic exterior belied a luxurious interior. Yes, our next stop on the tour was Marie Antoinette’s estate, the fairy-tale village that was her private retreat from the rigors of conforming to court etiquette, and where no one could visit without her permission.
Far from the madding crowds of tourists that flock to the Château de Versailles, we found ourselves virtually alone on our self-guided tour of Marie Antoinette’s “farm.” It offered a welcome change of pace as we strolled through the village homes, the queen’s house, and then the gardens, the setting idyllic and “grounded” after the headiness of the opulent palace.
On the walk back to the train station, I dwelled on what life must have been like in Marie Antoinette’s time, but by no means did I envy her. Despite all the privileges of being rich, her personal life was filled with tragedy, and I prefer to keep my neck and head squarely planted on my shoulders. I would have settled for a few hectares of her Versailles gardens, complete with the Grand Canal and fountains, of course.
When we reached our hotel, we had just enough time to shower and change for a late dinner at Epicure in the Le Bristol Hotel. We were enticed by a table on the outdoor courtyard, but the evening was a bit too chilly. However, we did have window seats, and with our backs to the rest of the patrons, we felt as though we were the only diners—a very romantic anniversary celebration.
For starters, we ordered the stuffed macaroni with black truffle, artichoke, and duck foie gras, gratinated with mature Parmesan cheese. And the frogs’ legs paned (breaded) with tandoori spices, pan fried, and served with a garlic and parsley juice, and brown butter. For mains, we ordered line-caught whiting from Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie in a crust of bread with almonds, and “New Zealand” spinach and olive oil flavored with curry and péquillos pepper. And wild turbot roasted with pink garlic from “Lautrec” and pine tree nuts, sautéed baby spinach, and brown butter zabaglione. The regions listed were lost on us as we don’t know France that well, but the preparation and presentation of our meals was definitely four star. For dessert, we bypassed anything sweet in favor of “seasonal cheeses” and a glass of French port. The perfect way to end a most enjoyable day.
Next week: “Europe 2013: The Louvre.”