Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Going with the flow...

At this time of year, the population in Paris makes its annual shift. Schools are out, many children are packed off to grandparents, aunts and uncles, or to camp until their working parents join them, and they all take their vacation during the month of August. In their place pour in visitors by the thousands, all hoping, in a few short days, to find the Paris of their dreams. We're not usually here so far into the summer, but since we are this year, we have been adopting a "go with the flow" philosophy recently:  drifting around in a fairly random manner.

So it was delightful to find myself for the first time ever taking a "vedette" boat ride on the Seine with some Inverness friends,  "under the bridges of Paris with you..."

...past some famous icons (seen from a new perspective)...

...and including a low angle view of Nôtre Dame, basking in the clear, warm blue skies. Yes, summer has finally arrived!

Then, a couple of weekends ago, we joined a throng of visitors at the Chateau Vincennes -- on the east side of Paris --  one of the  glorious "Monuments Nationaux" of which the French are so justly proud. I have to say, it is so refreshing to be in a place where there is serious government investment in "infrastructure", whether it's providing excellent roads and public transportation, education and health care, etc., or maintaining and providing access to national treasures such as this one.

Our arrival coincided with a two hour guided tour, so, like two eager schoolgirls, we dutifully sat and waited!

We quickly learned we were in the hands of an encyclopedia. I learned more French history in the following two hours than in all my years of high school! And all fascinating.  For starters, within the outer walls of this monument, a manor, a keep (donjon),  and a chapel were built from the 12th to the 14th centuries.

Founded by Charles V in the late 14th century, the Holy Chapel was modelled on the Sainte-Chapelle of the Palais de la Cité in Paris, although this has only one floor. Its construction continued for 173 years, through the reigns of Charles VI and Henri II.

The interior, with its soaring vaulted ceilings and stunning stained glass windows just took your breath away.  At the time it was built, when most of the populace did not read or write, the windows became storytellers, laying out the bible narrative in visual form.

The heart and soul of the Chateau Vincennes, though, is the "donjon", the keep, completed by Charles V around 1370. At 52 meters in height, it is the tallest donjon in Europe. From its highest ramparts, soldiers could survey the forests and land for kilometers around.

Protected by an outer wall and a deep moat -- originally filled with water -- the angled sloping wall of the donjon served as an effective defensive tool. The King's soldiers would shoot stones down from the donjon's crenellated walkways onto this slope, where they would bounce and ricochet off, flying over the wall at the attackers!

An hour into our tour, with our wonderful guide barely taking a breath, some of us were glad to have a 14th century wall to lean against! But there was much more to come...

Basically a huge square tower, the donjon is flanked by four corner turrets, like this schematic, and divided into six floors with rooms whose archways rest on slender central columns. The walls are ten feet thick! Each floor housed the King's various rooms -- his study, council room, treasure room and his bedchamber.

It was not easy to photograph in such small spaces, but you can see how beautiful these columns still are, over six hundred years after they were erected. This one is in the King's bedchamber.

A kid's booklet shows how this room might have looked when Charles V was in residence.

The fireplace looks pretty much the same today!

Set up in the Holy Chapel, this "model" shows the original layout of the Chateau Vincennes, surrounded by dense forests. With its huge castle walls, it became a powerful fortified royal residence, providing refuge for the monarchs during the troubled times of the 16th and 17th centuries. Today, it offers visitors a wonderful glimpse into the life and times of Medieval Europe.

On another day, a random picking up of this flyer, led us to the 20th arrondissement, way out on the eastern edge of Paris, where we found an utterly charming remnant of an 18th century "domaine", a family chateau.

It was the Duchess of Orléans (daughter of Louis XIV and Madame de Montespan) who acquired this Domaine de Bagnolet in 1719. She enlarged it, decorated it, and in the parklands, she built three pavilions ("folies"), one of which, called "l'Ermitage", was installed at the very edge of the property, near the little village of Charonne.

Today, this little Regency Pavilion is all that remains of the Domaine de Bagnolet. The chateau itself was sold after the Duchess died. The new owner tore it down and sold the land in individual lots -- real estate development, 18th century style! Somehow, this "folie" survived through the centuries and, thanks to l'Association des Amis de l'Ermitage, it opened its doors to the public in 2005.

Inside, are three small salons, all with the original decorations from the Regency period...

 ...including beautiful murals, attributed to the French painter, Jean Valade.

Like all "folies" of this era, the decoration tended toward the exotic, "chinoiserie" or, like the ones here, "classique".

In one salon, there was an exhibition "De la Vigne aux Barricades", tracing the history of the adjoining village of Charonne from its wine-growing and gypsum mining days to the tumultuous years in the 19th century, when its citizens rose up in solidarity with the Paris Commune, tearing up the cobblestones from the streets and building their barricades. Looking at the faded photographs, you could almost "...hear the people sing..."

For years, one of my favorite Paris icons has been the Tour Saint Jacques, which stands on the rue de Rivoli, right by the Place Châtelet. For almost as long as I can remember, it was dirty, soot-stained black, with a crumbling facade and a pretty dodgy little park surrounding it. Then, somewhere around 2003, the city of Paris stepped in, covered the entire edifice with scaffolding and drapes, and undertook a full-scale restoration. When it was unveiled in 2009, Parisians were delighted to see the tower pretty much in its "original" state.

Just by chance, I happened to come across a small article in one of the daily newspapers last week announcing that guided visits of the tower would be available Friday to Sunday, from early July to mid-September.  For the first time in its 500 year history, the public would be allowed to enter. Needless to say, we did not hesitate!

The Church of Saint-Jacques-de-la-Boucherie began as a small chapel in the 11th century. In the 15th century it was rebuilt and became a landmark on the Way of St. James' pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela. The bell tower was completed in the early 1500s. At one time the tower counted 13 bells.

Like many churches, l'Église de Saint Jacques fell victim to the "sans-culottes" during the French Revolution. By some miracle, the bell tower was spared destruction, and by 1804 it was officially considered "a precious monument of antiquity." Because of its height (62 meters), it is also thought that it was saved so it could be used as a fire watchtower.

We gathered with our guide and our group under the bottom arch, that boasts an impressive statue of Blaise Pascal who, it is believed, carried out experiments on atmospheric pressure in the tower in the 17th century.

After some brief introductory remarks, the side door was opened and we all entered, single-file, and began the climb up...300 steps to the top -- via a narrow, claustrophobic, steep, twisting, spiral staircase. Definitely not for the faint-hearted or weak-kneed! I'm pleased to report that my titanium hip and half-cobalt-chrome knee both held up...

Happily, along the way, we made stops in two rooms. In this one, we learned the difference between a chimera and a gargoyle: the first is a statue, the second is a downspout!

The second room was, until the late 20th century, a working scientific laboratory. The Montsouris meteorological observatory was installed here in late 1898, working out of this room as well as the roof terrace.

At one time, there was actually a Foucault Pendulum in here. Imagine!

Up and up we went, pausing for breath every now and then, and noticing initials, signatures, scribblings on the walls -- couldn't tell how old they were, but I suppose it's always been a human desire to want to leave one's "mark".  Finally, one by one we emerged, at the 300th step, onto the roof. What an amazing sensation! A total 360 degree view over Paris. In no particular order, here's what you can see from the top of the Tour Saint-Jacques. With Matthew's telephoto lens, some of these familiar landmarks look a lot closer than they really are!

The Eiffel Tower with the golden dome of Les Invalides to the left of it...

...the Eiffel Tower and Les Invalides again, with the Théâtre Châtelet in the foreground...

...Nôtre Dame, with the Pantheon on the skyline...

...the spire of the 12th century Sainte-Chapelle in the middle foreground, the big Tour Montparnasse in the rear...

 ...our very own Saint Eustache, seen through the tree of cranes still working at Les Halles. Our flat is just behind and to the right of it!...

...over in the 6e, the twin towers of Saint Sulpice... the north, the blue roof of the Centre Pompidou, and way in the distance the Gare du Nord and the Gare de l'Est.

As I sat on the pitched roof, drinking in all these views, I tried to imagine being back in the 14th or 15th centuries, up here on top of the Tour Saint Jacques, a bell tower in those days. Most of these other churches were there as well, their bells ringing out over the city to celebrate a Mass or a special holy day. With no 21st century noises to interfere, it must have been quite a stunning symphony. What's amazing to me is that all these bells still ring out today. Talk about continuity -- how beautiful is that!

Well, dear readers, with this final, rather lengthy post, I must take my leave of you. We fly to New York next week to spend a few days with the adorable Little Miss Toots, before going home to Inverness. Thank you for following along with our various and sundry adventures, thank you to those who braved the challenges of Google and left a comment. The blog will return in January 2014!

I'll leave you with one last "going with the flow" episode -- As Matthew was navigating the flow of traffic at the Place de la Concorde on his bicycle the other day, he came upon this military band, practising for their parade on Bastille Day, coming up on July 14th -- Vive la France! (and Happy Birthday, Sonya!)

Au revoir!


  1. Bravo, Janet! A grand finale to your most recent 'semestre' in Paris...We envy your discipline and perseverance with this project and want you to know how much we have enjoyed following your Parisian escapades in 2013... A suggestion....Why shouldn't Inverness and Point Reyes become the fodder for further blogging in the August - December time period??
    Hope to catch up with you with either in Paris next Spring (we are planning May-June) or else in Marin County perhaps in January 2014..Fondly, Rick Theobald

  2. The kids' booklet picture of Charles V's bedroom includes a wee TV and a gramophone. Are we to suppose that the Roi was way ahead of his time? Or that French children cannot imagine a bedroom without a une petite télévision? As always you delight and surprise. Merci and can't wait for January!

    1. Good spotting, Ms. Rascova! The instructions for this page of the booklet called for children to circle what would NOT have been in Charles V's bedroom!

  3. No, no, no, surely not the last one! I endorse the suggestion that you continue blogging from Inverness. Anyway, enjoy your time with "little Miss Toots". Much love, Mrs L

  4. Oh no last blog!!!!! Amazing as always!! Thank you for being with us for Mum much love xx

  5. I have so enjoyed reading about your life in Paris, thank you! Susan