Monday, June 11, 2012

Mass at Notre Dame Cathedral, a Tour of the Conciergerie

Sunday, June 10, 2012
Paris, France


'International' Mass at the Cathedral of Notre Dame:
It was the second time in a week that I took public transport to get to the Ile de la Cite and this time round, I learned that I could get there on the RER (much faster than the metro) in just 15 minutes from my appartement! I arrived for the 11. 30 am "International Mass" in time to join the throngs waiting to enter The Cathedral of Notre Dame on a cloudy Sunday morning. Thankfully, queues were divided into those entering for "Messe" and those going for a mere "Visite". I was ushered to a seat by une dame des colonies and a very good seat it was too.

International Mass turned out to be half in Latin, half in French, with a main celebrant from a former African colony. Thankfully, printed versions of the mass (with English, Spanish and German translations!) were distributed so that the obviously international congregation could follow easily. As opposed to the mainly non-white, immigrant congregations I have noticed in most Parisian churches, this one was mainly white, mainly tourists.

Beautiful singing and a beautiful homily in French, made the experience memorable. I had to pinch myself, not just to believe I was actually there in Paris at a magnificent Gothic cathedral that has stood since the 6th century but that it was neglected and almost razed to the ground until Victor Hugo stepped in to save it. His novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame is arguably responsible for bringing the cathedral to the public notice and saving it. Somewhat like my other hero--Sir John Betjeman--who single-handedly saved St. Pancras Station in London from the demolition brigade.

Visiting Rue de la Festival:
When Mass ended, I filed outside with the thousands of others who had taken a break from tourist hordes for quiet spiritual meditation. But outside on the Parvis, in celebration of Rue de la Festival, everyone was in festive mode. I entered a large white shamiana, out of curiosity, to discover a rap band belting out a song that had some reference to Sarkozy while cake, coffee, tea or jus d'orange were being offered if the audience cared to stay. I didn't. My aim was to complete the walk around Ile de la Cite that I had begun a couple of days ago and it was at the Conciergerie that I intended to start.

Comme Flaneur:
Unfortunately, as is my wont, I strayed off the intended track and arrived at the quais of the Seine which took me to the Place du Vert Galant, considered to be one of the most magical in Paris. It is the mid-point of the Pont Neuf, which, despite its misleading name, is actually Paris' oldest bridge. Its handsome masks enliven it, depicting, as they do, monsters with varied facial expressions--I found them fascinating.

Across the river, the Festival du Sud de France was in full spate. I simply had to check it out. So across the bridge and down the steps I went to the quai and roamed freely from stall to stall enjoying un peu degustation. Before I knew it, I was being offered every tasty morsel the South is capable of producing--smoked meats, cheese, delicious tapenades, wonderful sweet spreads, saffron-flavored honey, organic apricots and cherries, olive oil flavored with lemon rind or chilli flakes. I had eaten a madeleine earlier and I realized that these tidbits would have to suffice as it would be a while before I could get home for lunch. This is another one of the things I love about Paris--for the gourmet, there is always an endless variety of  goodies on which you can nibble. Sadly, my sulphur allergy keeps me from tasting the wines or else, you can be assured I would have been roaming the stalls with a verre in my hand!

The Conciergerie, Enfin:
Finally, I did find my way to the Conciergerie but not before I had taken many pictures of the bords de la Seine stretching along the length of the Louvre. How sad to see the famed department store La Samaritaine looking so hopelessly forlorn as it goes through a renovation. Many moons ago, as a struggling graduate backpacker in Paris, the rooftop of this store had been my poor man's Eiffel Tower. Arthur Frommer's 'Europe on $50 a Day' which had been my Bible at the time, had advised us to get to the rooftop for stunning views of the city--and I had done just that. How times change!

Well, to enter the Conciergerie, I had to pay a fee of 8. 50 euros--certainly well worth it. The man who inspected my ticket turned out to be a Tamilian from the former South Indian French colony of Pondicherry and how delighted he was to meet me and speak to me in French! He took special care to give me brochures in both French and English and directed me to the tour guide. But since the tour was only in French, I decided to use my guide book to find my own way around.

The value of that 8. 50 euros became increasingly clear to me! The Conciergerie which derives its name from the prison-keeper or Concierge, is rich in French Revolutionary History. We started our tour in the Hall des Gens D'Armes--the men with arms. In fact, it is from this expression that the French police--the gendarmes--get thier name! In centuries gone by, this part of the building--which is part of the complex of the Palais de Justice--was double-storied. The top storey has disappeared with time, but fragments of architecture survive to indicate its former presence.In the medieval hall, said to be the largest surviving one in Europe, large banquets were held on a long marble table--of which only one fragment, now nailed to the wall, survives. There is a kitchen at the side where those banquets were prepared, but it is now shut to the public.

At the end of the hall, past the gift shop, is where the true interest of this monument to history lies. One sees first the stalls or cells (cellules) that were occupied by the three classes of prisoners--for the Conciergerie started its life as a prison. Wax human models of bygone prisoners recreated the feeling of life in that dismal space. The Pailluex, those poorest prisoners who could afford nothing more, bedded down each night on straw, paille  in French--hence their name. Conditions were appalling as several inmates were crowded into one cell and the stench was revolting. Those who could afford to pay for a bed were the second class of prisoner. Although their conditions were equally grim, at least they could segregate themselves from the odor of the common spaces. The more famous of the prisoners--writers, political dissidents, celebrities--were given a tiny cell to themselves, a bed, a desk, a candle by which they could continue to read or write. They were the most exalted class of prisoner.

The exhibition then wound its way up a flight of stairs to a room in which glass vitrines contained a list of names of the thousands were who imprisoned in the Conciergerie before being sent to the guillotine on the Place de la Concorde during the bloody Revolution of 1789-93. The lists go on and on--making it obvious how merciless were the scales of Justice in that awful time.

Celebrity Prisoners in the Conciergerie Including Marie-Antoinette:
In yet another room, the visitor sees paintings, drawing, letters and some personal effects of well-known prisoners such as Madame du Barry, Danton and Robespierre (who initiated the Revolution and then were guillotined by it) and Charlotte Corday who murdered the Marquis de Sade in his bath tub. This room leads to the one in which Robespierre spent his last days.

You then descend down a staircase that leads to a chapel. It is behind the altar of this chapel that Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned and from where she went to her trial that lasted two days in a neighboring room in the Palais de Justice. In this room are three paintings that depict her last days--her conversion to religion by receiving Communion and making her last confession. Bas-reliefs on the wall pay homage to the memory of her husband, King Louis XVI who was killed before her and her sister-in-law Elizabeth.

The chapel leads out to the Women's Courtyard where female prisoners were allowed to take the air daily. Contemporary accounts state that despite their incarceration, these French women still focused on their fashionable appearance and vied with each other to look their best. The poorer women rushed to a large marble fountain (still standing) to wash their clothing and themselves in an attempt to keep their sanity amid their decrepit conditions.

Marie-Antoinette's Last Days:
A small door then leads the visitor to the most poignant part of the visit--the cell of Marie-Antoinette which has been replicated quite stunningly with wax models. Uneasy indeed lies the head that wears the crown. There are her guards and the partition screen that she was afforded to allow her to maintain her privacy. Her meagre possessions are also evident. Dressed in her final days as a widow, following news of the guillotining of her husband, she cut a sorrowful figure. It is reported that she remained a model of dignity during her trial--like the true Austrian princess she was. Two days after her trial, she was also guillotined at the Place de la Concorde where, again, she was possessed of tremendous dignity.

There are several films and slide shows that visitors can watch throughout the visit to get an idea of the horrific times that gripped France during the Revolution, when the Monarchy was overthrow and the nation was on the road to becoming a Republic.You can take pictures everywhere to immortalize your visit and at each stop there is a great deal to read, to look at, to take in, to absorb.

I spent over two hours at the Conciergerie and felt completely enlightened by my visit. Continuing with my intention to focus in Paris on those places I have never seen or been to, I am keeping the more celebrated sights for later in my stay. Tomorrow, for instance, in planning to get to the Catacombs and the Cemetery of Montparnasse, I will come to close grips with the morbidity of Paris,

Back at my apartment, I spent most of the evening online and, inspired by The Barefoot Contessa (Ina Garten)  made myself a superb grazing platter with all the odds and ends following what Nigella Lawson calls a Fridge Forage: cheese, pate, prosciutto, roast chicken, olives, tomatoes, apricots, cherries, toasted baguette--washed down with cups of my Laduree tea with lemon and honey. It is delicious and I will probably still have some scraps leftover for tomorrow.

A demain! 

1 comment:

premkishore said...

So much history and "morbidity" in Paris.Away with catacombs and guillotines, kick up yr heels(can can perhaps?) and enchant the Parisians with yr engaging charm and wit.