|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.
| 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
| 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.
| 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.
| 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.
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
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
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.