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.