Paris 2

The Romance that is Paris
 In the heart of Paris, the Ile de la Cité sparkles like a diamond set in the exquisite ring which is the Seine. From the Ile de la Cité cross over to the Ile St-Louis, and be transported to a fairyland of narrow streets and small-town charm.
 At one of the most picturesque vantage points of the Seine stands a well-known bridge, the Pont Neuf, which was painted from two perspectives, on a dreary winter morning by , and in sunlight by .
 Stroll down Montmartre Boulevard on a rainy day at the end of the 19th century with Pissarro, and capture its uniquely engaging atmosphere.
 Dominating the immensity of the Place de la Concorde  an Egyptian obelisk   stands as a monument to the triumph of French influence.
 Even if you are not interested in opera, the Opéra de la Bastille is a rhapsody in blue worth seeing. While at this square steep yourself in the events over two hundred years ago that led to the storming of the prison Bastille, whose site is now marked by the Column of July.
  The historical Opéra Garnier is still an irresistible magnet for all. From its front facade take in the magic of the unfolding scene ahead, particularly down the Avenue de l'Opéra.
 And if you are there, see its dazzling, ornate interior.
 The rhythm of Paris is like that of an Elysian madrigal set to Aeolian harp music.
 Spend a day, two days, three days, as long as you can, at the Louvre Museum to discover, study, appreciate some of the most outstanding chefs-d'oeuvre of the centuries. Vanish into Egyptian, Greek, Roman antiquities, and reemerge onto the Romantic era of Delacroix and beyond.
 To see 19th century and turn-of-the-century art, especially the Impressionists and Art Nouveau, just cross the Seine from the Louvre, and walk a short distance to the Musée d'Orsay. Ask why the Impressionists, whose works were so repeatedly rejected by the Salon sponsored by the official academics, came to dominate the art scene so completely in the second half of the 19th century.
Renaissance Florence
 See Florence, the glorious center of Renaissance art. Visit the Campanile built by Giotto and the Duomo of which he was the chief architect. The Duomo, the Baptistery, and the Campanile represent some of the finest examples of Florentine art and architecture from Giotto to the High Renaissance period. Climb the 414 steps of the Campanile to the top, and catch an unforgettable view of Florence and its surroundings.
 Visit the Uffizi Gallery , the oldest art museum in the world. Don't look for premises that rival the sumptuousness of the Louvre. Here the exhibits are housed in functional rooms. Instead focus on its unparalleled Renaissance works, and names like Raphael, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Botticelli, Mantegna, Fra Angelico, Donatello, Brunelleschi, Masaccio, Uccello, Perugino, Bellini, Verocchio, Pontormo, Titian, Tintoretto, Filippo Lippi, Ghirlandaio, Pallaiuolo, Ghiberti, Rubens, Veronese, and more. While in the museum linger on the statues in the Second Corridor. They are superb.
 Visit the Accademia Gallery , where Michelangelo's David stands self-assured and defiant.
 The incredible Pitti Palace has art displayed in probably the most elaborately decorated galleries of all. In its Galleria Palatina Renaissance art abounds rivalling the Uffizi Gallery collection.
Romantic Venice
 In Venice the Basilica of San Marco retains its unique Byzantine influence, testifying to a long history of trade relations with the Byzantine Empire.
 Crossing the Grand Canal Rialto Bridge offers wonderful opportunities to see the Grand Canal if you want a respite from too much culture.
 Get yourself lost, that is if you can afford the time, among the labyrinthine alleys (equivalent to streets in other cities) of this incredible city of rios (small canals), and don't bother to get Ariadne's clew of thread to find your way out. Every turn you come up against is as delightful as the last albeit at times a little too quiet or too deserted. Venice is so small that all you need is a general sense of direction to make it to the Grand Canal. Savor the tranquillity, the serenity of this idiosyncratically compact urban community where the past blends deliciously with the present.
Eternal Rome
 The metropolis of one of the most enduring empires of ancient history, Rome reached the zenith of its power in the second century, only to decline as the Western Roman Empire fell by 476 AD. Its fortune continued an uncertain course throughout the Middle Ages, but began a steady rise from the Renaissance period to its preeminent position today. Armies of archaelogists are still busy retracing its glorious past in many of its ancient sites.
 At the heart of ancient Rome the Roman Forum with what remains of its temples, arches, and streets still bears silent testimony to its past grandeur.
 A few blocks away rises the Colosseum, the unrivalled prototype of modern stadiums, seems to reverberate echoes of the spectators' excited screams of days long gone.
 Whatever you do or see in Rome can never be complete without a visit to the Vatican , its richly endowed museums, and the unrivalled Sistine Chapel, where Michelangelo's ceiling and wall frescoes dazzle and delight generations.
  See Paris, City of Light
  See Renaissance Florence
  See Lovers' Venice
  See Troyes, the Medieval City
  See Troyes Revisited
The Isle of the City, which was the legendary birthplace of Paris, is now graced with the imposing Cathedral of Notre Dame, and has become one of the most visited sites of the city. A notable symbol of Gothic architecture, the church was begun in 1163, and continued under construction over the next two centuries. The west facade, pierced by three huge portals every inch of their tympana and archivolts displaying Biblical stories carved in stone, peered down on a vast plaza where a plaque marked the focal point from which all distances from the French capital are measured. Crossing its massive oak door into the narthex, we were immediately overpowered by awe. Even before our eyes could adjust to the darkened interior, we sensed something different, the solemn ambience, the stillness, the proportions of the building dwarfing any groups of shadowy figures we could discern. My gaze was first directed towards the altar at the far end of the nave, then inevitably flew skyward to the arcade and the clerestory above passing huge rose windows over the ends of the transept, and stained glass windows punctuating the otherwise unbroken walls rising to dizzying heights. These windows admitted what light there was to illuminate the interior, creating an aura of eerie stillness amid the muffled noises from phalanxes of visitors who clustered here and there around their tour guides to listen to hushed torrents of information on every detail in sight. We joined one group to snatch a sliver of information, then drifted off to another, desultorily absorbing as much as we could of the history and facts about this amazing building.

  But more important to us was that we were there, strolling along the ambulatory at our own pace around to the chevet and the other side, pausing at each chapel and niche along the way to look at the details of the sculptures and paintings bathed in shafts of slanting sunlight penetrating the tall narrow stained glass windows. Each of these works recounted part of some story from the Bible, each bearing witness to the powerful faith that moved its creator. At every chapel votive candles lit by worshippers and passing visitors, some of whom remaining to pray, contributed to dissipating the darkness that enveloped the scene.

  We settled down on the wicker chairs in the nave, chairs that were probably older than anyone present, that had witnessed the vicissitudes of the country, and still endured silently to provide a connection across generations. Racing through my mind was the question of what celebrities or plain folks have sat on the same chairs before we ever knew they existed. It was an awsome thought. Nearby several women clad in black, frozen in an attitude of meditation and prayer, sat so motionless that they seemed to be an immutable part of the church. The contrast couldn't have been more stark: amid a constantly changing sea of curious tourists there were people capable of shutting out this world to communicate with the world beyond. We too stayed a moment and prayed.

  The clean soaring lines of this Gothic cathedral, with its massive pillars, ribbed vaults, stained glass windows, speak of a spirituality, as some would hold, that only such building techniques can foster above all previous ones. Though the interior is not as lavishly decorated as some Romanesque churches in Rome, Venice, or Florence, its austere simplicity communicated a dominating sense of faith. At first applied derisively for its radical departure from the Romanesque style, the Gothic appellation eventually came to characterize a powerful style of church building in which spirituality is expressed by heavenward heights. And as communities across first France then other northern European countries vied, out of civic pride, for outward manifestations of faith, taller bell towers and naves came into existence, always requiring decades, not uncommonly centuries, to bring to completion. In a forthcoming episode, we will share with you our adventure in the land of Caesar, the "grandeur that was Rome," the Florence that saw the flowering of the Italian Renaissance, and the ever-mercantile but culturally seminal, and, alas, hopelessly romantic Venice.

  Our trip to the Abbey Church of St.Denis on the North side of Paris, reputed to be the first Gothic church ever built, probably took an hour. But to us the time was well spent. Here in what looked like a cramped neighborhood the church seemed to be compressed so that it had nowhere to grow but up. Of course, that was only my imagination. Closed to the public that day, the church occupied a relatively small piece of land, hemmed in on three sides by other encroachments of the city. The front side opened onto a small square decorated with simple flowerbeds. From that vantage point, we were able to take in the entire height of the church. Yvonne, who was generally by my side, was mildly excited, but after seeing so many churches she had become a little blasé about it all, so that the flowers and trees retained much more of her attention than the bell towers and the architecture.

  To think that during the 12th century Abbot Suger of the Church of St. Denis had to restore it to its former wealth and power in the face of criticism of his ostentation! It is revealing of the man's character that his unshaken faith had kept him in his belief that in worshipping God inner purity and spirituality should be manifested by outward opulence. Whatever the merit of this vision, posterity can now look at the legacy with gratitude.

  No city boulevards in Paris or any other cities in the world is as well-known as the Avenue des Champs Elysées which runs from the immense Place de la Concorde just beyond the Jardin des Tuileries to another historical landmark, the Arch of Triumph. If you stand from the Louvre Museum and look straight out towards the west, your eyes will race through la Voie Triomphale (the Triumphal Way) along the length of Champs-Elysées through the Arc de Triomphe and beyond to the modern international business park, La Défense, where American, Japanese, and other European corporations maintain their headquarters. The tree-lined Champs-Elysées resplendent and steeped in history offers an endless vista of ritzy hotels, exclusive stores, expensive restaurants, and bustles with all sorts of activities. On this gray afternoon our Parisian friends took us on a drive through this historic avenue in their small car, which was as nimble as any you would see in the city. Our starting point, the beautiful Place de la Concorde, is a vast square adorned at its center by a 3,300-year-old Egyptian obelisk from Luxor engraved with hieroglyphs, which was bordered by the imposing Madeleine Church, the Navy Ministry, and from where you could see the Palais Bourbon across the Seine, which housed the National Assembly. A place not for the agoraphobic most assuredly, but for those imbued with grandiose dreams.

  Our drive on the Champs-Elysées seemed to last forever, with so many sights fleeing by all through the length of this grand boulevard. After bobbing along for I knew not how long we arrived at the Place de l'Etoile, in the middle of which stood the proud Arc de Triomphe. Commissioned by Napoleon to commemorate his victories over Germany, the monument was not completed until after his death. At this vast roundabout, the traffic converged from twelve wide boulevards creating a giant whirlpool of moving vehicles which seemed miraculously to avoid imminent collision only by a hair's breadth. While I recoiled in my front seat in mortal fear of crashing into some intrepid driver out there in the maelstrom, my heart coming to a near standstill from terror, my mind praying for salvation, and my hands clutching the seat with the strength of desperation, my Parisian friend in the driver seat was the very epitome of calm and composure, nay, of philosophical fatalism, firm in the belief that somehow we would all emerge from this madness unscathed. No one driver in this sea of vehicles seemed to yield an inch; everyone seemed to be wanting to get to the other side, which was invariably blocked by everyone else. By sheer courage, by perseverance, or by miracle depending on viewpoint, we finally got out of this nighmarish circle.

  Beyond the Arc de Triomphe we arrived at the modern business park known as La Défense, dominated by a giant arch, La Grande Arche, under its 112-meter height Notre Dame Cathedral could easily fit, and graced with a small, well-manicured luxuriant park where cascades of water roared down a terraced slope creating an illusion of verdant nature amid this man-made agglomeration of glass-enclosed buildings reaching into the skies as so many modern-day Gothic cathedrals of commerce with artworks interspersed here and there by no less names than Miró. In this oasis you are induced to leave behind your daily cares and worries, your bills and debts, your heartaches and ulcers, in short whatever it is that makes life less than enjoyable and meaningful. The only flaw in this Lilliputian paradise were the thunderous waters rushing down the slope that kept you from communing with nature in a subtle and intimate way. Not too far from this garden of Eden, a gargantuan multi-level shopping mall provides all-weather comfort for the shoppers, and the garish food court, the food emporium to be more grandiloquent, offers a plethora of fast foods of all kinds with a French touch, alluring enough to tempt the least ravenous of visitors into gorging themselves like hungry ogres after an unsuccesful hunt. Then there are the ubiquitous theaters, the obligatory street performers, and the crowds that seemed insatiable for excitement and diversion.

  Montmartre. The name conjures up the bohemian atmosphere of a Paris with a seamy side of life to flaunt. Our brief incursion into this segment of Parisian life one late afternoon was filled with memories. The climb to the Basilica of Sacré-Coeur standing guard atop a picturesque hill gave us a photogenic view of the city around, but best of all, of the quarter just below where Toulouse-Lautrec had lived and which he had immortalized in his art. This cabaret and entertainment district exuded life in all its excitement and exuberance. From the parvis in front of the church, a busker mesmerized the crowds with a flawless mime performance to the accompaniment of his portable audio system. In nearby Place du Tertre, you can get your pictures drawn by any one of an army of "artists" nestled under bright-colored umbrellas against the backdrop of the Sacré-Coeur. All around you waves of tourists dodged each other, some with sweaters tied around their waist, others with sweaters draping their shoulders, all with a determined demeanor to get "there." When I looked at such landmark as the cabaret Le Moulin Rouge, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec, I could not help wondering what sort of activity would go on inside that kept attracting people so irresistibly. For some tastes such activities may be anathema, for others they may be a refreshing respite from daily drudgery or a perverse sensuousness that adds spice to life. Being amidst this vibrant, noisy, almost surreal environment was enough to set your imagination free, and fill your muse with inspiration. Depending on your mood, you could wax poetic, eloquent, disgusted, or you could leave with an indelible impression of a place that gratified your sense of adventure. Yvonne and I were simply tired but delighted. Whatever one may think about Montmartre, it is very much part of what makes Paris such an endearing place. Down the ramp to the subterranean Metro, and we were ready for the train that would take us anywhere in the city.

  Soon we were in a district that was so incised in my mind that every time I hear its name a whole drama of the French Revolution came back vividly as if I had been there as an eyewitness: the infamous Bastille, where King Louis XVI incarcerated his political enemies by merely signing an order. A column now rose in the middle of a square where the prison had once stood. My boyhood memory still echoed with the sounds of the people who stormed the Bastille on that fateful day of July 14, a little over thirteen years after the American Declaration of Independence. I could still "see" the King's prisoners languishing in the dark, dank cells dying a slow death. I could "see" before the people rose up in revolution that they had petitioned the King for more bread, and more security from arbitrary arrest. In response to the widespread civil unrest, King Louis XVI convened the three estates in parliament to find a way of calming down the situation without yielding an inch to the people's demands. I could "hear" at one point a Third Estate deputy defying an order of expulsion from the assembly's meeting place, "We are here by the will of the people. And we will leave here only at the point of the bayonet." Today where the revolutionaries had taken the decisive action that changed the course of history there was bustling traffic of the most pacific kind. Close by the Opéra de la Bastille pertly proclaimed its bold presence in a rhapsody in transparent blue glass contrasting starkly with the old opera house, the traditional Opéra Garnier, which some people judge shocking to their esthetic sense. Perhaps they found the building too ornate, too Baroque, too rococo, too...French. The architect Garnier himself, when asked by the Empress Eugénie what style the building was going to be, simply said it was the Napoléon III style. Personally I found this Opera house magnetic not only for its splendid interior but also for the classical ballet repertoire that it offered. To be sure the grand staircase, the foyer, everything emanated an exuberance not at all consonant with the historical juncture in 1870 when the French army was defeated by the Prussians, who laid siege to the capital for nineteen weeks, and which caused a hiatus in its construction. Over the years, this opera house has been as much a part of Paris and Parisian cultural life as the far more time-honored and majestic Louvre. Degas himself had painted dancers in this setting. More interestingly, it had a history as turbulent and arresting as the best fiction that you can imagine.

  That glorious autumn morning brought chill in the Parisian air. With gaiety in our hearts, and fall foliage on the sidewalk cushioning our steps toward the Métro station a few blocks from our friends' house, Yvonne and I boarded the subway to downtown where a tour bus was to take us to the one place without which a visit to Paris would not be complete: Versailles. The bus wound through a countryside ablaze in magnificent autumnal hues, finally to deposit its passengers onto a huge parking lot. Herded like sheep we followed our guide in a good long walk to the gate. What struck us all was the immensity of the building ahead unfolding itself in a sweeping vista. Of course, we knew this was the French King's palace. This stupendous domain, and its monstrous structure that dwarfs anything we have seen in Paris, Florence, Venice, Rome, New York, San Francisco simply boggled my mind. Certainly Versailles is a royal palace to end all royal palaces. But it was only on the inside that we were dumbfounded by the opulence, ostentation, and power such as only the King of France could display. From hunting lodge to royal residence, Versailles was transformed under King Louis XIV into the greatest of all royal residences. As we strolled through one room to the next mere specks among legions of wide-eyed tourists, centuries of priceless treasures began to reveal themselves to our excited vision. I was seized with an ineffable sense of connection with a past made prestigious by time and distance. Here I was amidst the splendor of a way of life that was denied to most mortals and accorded only to a few. A thought raced through my mind about why such inequity could not be allowed to last. But for the moment we were gratified that this relic of the past still remains to enrich our minds, and sharpen our appreciation of a bygone era. As I looked at the chambers, apartments and salons of Versailles, every inch of which decorated with skill and craftsmanship, a sense of irony came over me: why is it that so much of the cultural patrimony of a nation, which now commands pride and respect, had to be built on the suffering of so many? All the enlightened values we now hold up as uncontroversial and sacred such as life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, freedom of conscience, freedom of speech were trampled upon in the centuries during which these achievements came to pass.

  We looked at portraits of kings, nobles and statesmen, and remembered their roles in shaping their world. We admired landscapes of idyllic scenes in gilded frames and marveled at the beauty of the world of imagination that nature then had inspired in their creators. We gazed at marble busts of men resting on pedestals, and shuddered at the thought that in their days they were the movers and shakers of one of the most powerful absolute monarchies in Europe. It was Louis XIV who proclaimed, "The state, it's me." We gaped at the tapestries depicting scenes long past hung on painted walls bordered by extravagant decorative mouldings, and appreciated the skills of the artists from Gobelins whose fruits of labor adorned the lives of the powerful who controlled their very existence. As our eyes met the glittering crystal chandeliers suspended from elaborately frescoed ceilings, we vicariously savored the delights of living in these apartments and chambers illuminated by their glow. We stared at the sumptuously upholstered armchairs, exquisitely carved tables, luxuriously appointed beds that chronicled their periods, and stood in awe of the tremendous talents of the artisans who had made them. And we turned our eyes on the thick rugs which covered the parquet floors which together with the heavy draperies on high windows helped to keep the interior warm in the winter. In my ears the laughter and music of soirées in the King's Apartment rang with happiness although no affairs of state were conducted without intrigues. It is here that Kings Louis XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI presided over the rise and fall of one of the most resplendent absolute monarchies in Europe. Today Versailles stands as a heritage to preserve for all peoples and for all generations.


  See Paris, City of Light   See Renaissance Florence   See Lovers' Venice   See Troyes, the Medieval City   See Troyes Revisited   Across Northern France

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