December 9, 2016, Friday: Paris
An Exhausting Second-Last Day in Paris—Eiffel Tower, La Defence, Sacre-Coeur and The Louvre
Awaking at Cite-Universitaire to the sound of the tram bell on Boulevarde Jourdan, I showered, dressed and decided to try to find a coffee nearer at hand than the café of the complex (which was a five minute walk away in the adjoining building). The Receptionist on duty, the lovely Morgane, showed me how to use the vending machine and for 65 cents, I got myself a café latte and walked with it and my Pierre Herme croissant Poire William across the street into Parc Montsourris. This venture ticked another item off my To-Do List as I had promised myself that I would try to find the time for a ramble in this park in which I have spent many a lazy hour in past years.
Breakfast in Parc Montsourris:
There are not a lot of visitors in Parc Montsourris at 8.30 am on a late autumn morning. The decidedly nippy weather does not attract too many—and not on a working morning. However, there were a few dog-walkers around, a few energetic joggers and a couple of Asian men doing tai chi exercises! I munched on my croissant and sipped my coffee while my ankles were sniffed by curious dogs. It was great to start the day in this serene fashion as it grew frenzied as it progressed for I was trying too hard to fit in a whole lot of major sights into my second-last day—in order to leave tomorrow free for re-packing and closing shop in my room at Cite-Universitaire.
On the Metro to Climb the Eiffel Tower:
My main aim of the day was to make it to the summit of the Eiffel Tower—another first-time experience for me. Every time I have been to Paris in the past, the serpentine lines have put me off trying to get to the top. Since it was winter, I presumed there’d be fewer tourists and that the wait would be shorter.
I rode the No. 6 metro train towards Charles de Gaulle/L’Etoile and got off at Bir-Hakeim. If the name sounds familiar, it is the spot in Afro-French history notorious for one of the most important French battles ever fought during World War II. There is information about this battle on the platform of the metro station (which is overground).
Viewing the Jewish Memorials of the Velodrome d’Hiver (the Vel d’Hiv):
The metro stop of Bir-Hakeim is where you get off to see the Eiffel Tower. But it is also where the notorious Velodrome d’Hiver once stood. It was a stadium for cycling tournaments and it had once attracted thousands of Parisians to its crowded stands. During World War II, after Paris was occupied by the Nazis and the Jewish purge began, Parisian police began rounding up Jews from the Marais and bussing them to the Vel d’Hiv where they were held for five days with barely any food or water. A number of children and elderly Jews perished here even before they were further bussed to Drancy or Beaune from where they were deported to the concentration camps. I had become aware of the Vel d’Hiv and its association with World War II history after reading the wonderful novel by Tatiana de Rosney called Sarah’s Key—of which a rather wonderful movie has also been made. (It is, in fact, a text in the course I teach on ‘Migration, Marginalization and Partition’ at NYU).
Descending from the metro platform in the elevator to ground level, I asked the staff at the ticket window where I could find the memorials. I had already visited one of them before—it was then a large marble slab crowned with wreaths on the main road. But when I got there this time, I found the entire area cordoned off behind construction partitions. On reading the information available around it, I discovered that a major renovation project is currently on and that the small memorial is going to become a most impressive spot with a visitor center and other such monuments added to it. It will probably be finished in the next couple of years.
However, the ticketing clerk also directed me across the main road to the Quai de Grenelle where another monument to the fallen Jews is to be found. I followed his instructions, crossed the street and found myself in a small strip of garden—rather forlorn at this time of year—with a very large and impressive sculpture at the end of the pathway on the Isle de Grenelle (the third island in Paris about which not many people know. It is the same island that also contains a miniature version of the Statue of Liberty). I walked along the pathway and reached the sculpture which depicts a Jewish family of varied ages sitting in despair around their meagre belongings with little knowledge of the fact that they were being moved towards their deaths. I found the monument deeply moving.
Off to the Eiffel Tower:
Having ticked another item off my To-Do List, I walked quickly for another ten minutes towards the Eiffel Tower. As I had expected, the line was barely there. I reached at about 10.30 and stood in line to get a ticket for about 15 minutes and for another five minutes to get into the high-speed elevators that whisk you to the top for 17 euros. Had I come in the summer, I would have waited in line for at least two hours!
I have to say that I was excited about getting to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I have always loved this monument, the strange vision of Charles Eiffel who thought it okay to create a great wrought-iron tower on the banks of the Seine that would rival every other building in height and prominence. Its wonderful design fascinates me and I love the decorative work around its various tiers. Going up, however, is altogether another experience and I loved every second of it.
The ride up in the elevator is itself quite chest-heaving for you rise to unbelievable heights so quickly that you are likely to feel a twinge of vertigo—I certainly did—until you adjust to the sudden difference. You will also find your ears popping at the difference in air pressure. There are also stairs, of course, and you can climb up all the way to the top—but I was not built of such stern stuff (at least not after having climbed to the top of Notre-Dame and the Arc de Triomphe on this visit!). When you get off at the first level, you are amazed at the sights you see. Sadly, although there was no rain, the air pollution in Paris had caused a hazy smog to settle over the city. The pictures I got were, therefore, not the best. But as I circumnavigated the city, I saw every monument and could pick it out so clearly: the Dome of Les Invalides Church, the mountain (Montmartre) topped by the Church of Sacre-Coeur, the many bridges over the Seine, etc. There are restaurants and souvenir stores and all sorts of attractions to keep the visitor busy in addition to the thrill of taking pictures or posing for selfies against the backdrop of Baron Haussmann’s glorious city.
When you are done on this floor, you take the elevator again to another level which allows you to climb to the summit. Here you can see the office that Charles Eiffel used when the tower was under construction. It is the same office in which he entertained a visitor in the form of a fellow-inventor Thomas Alva Edison of the USA who used the tower and its height to test his own wireless and radio inventions. The view from this level is even more scintillating for the mountain on which Sacre-Coeur stands is dwarfed. You also can see the Arc de Triomphe very clearly as well as the avenues that radiate from out of it to form a star (the Etoile) after which the entire square (or circle) is named. You can see the island of Grenelle and Lady Liberty holding aloft her torch. You can see the Palais de Chaillot with its lovely classical semi-circular design. You can see the Musee de Quai Blanly designed again by the famed Jean Nouvel only a few blocks away with its interesting glass walls and its lovely landscaped garden. Basically, from this height, you can see everything and you can see it from an entirely novel and quite incredible perspective. So, in every respect, I was completely floored by my first-time rising to the Eiffel Tower’s summit and it was with difficulty that I dragged myself away after using the facilities on the lower level again. It was 12.30 pm by the time I left the premises after taking a few pictures.
Off to La Defence:
Instead of walking towards the metro station at Bir-Hakeim, I decided to cross the river Seine just in front of the Eiffel Tower and walk past the gardens of the Palais de Chaillot towards the metro station at Trocadero. From there, I took the metro to La Defence, a rather longish journey (but free today as a result of Paris’ continued pollution) as I wanted to see the gigantic contemporary arch that has been built there, up close and personal. It was very easy to get there and, basically, all I expected was to see the Arch and to take a few pictures.
What I did not expect to find and what I did see was a huge Christmas Market that had sprouted up in the courtyard that is surrounded by a concrete jungle—for La Defence is similar to London’s Canary Wharf or New York’s Financial District. It is a glass and concrete jungle filled with banks and other financial institutions and surrounded by upscale stores that cater to the heavy-walleted. Naturally, I cannot pass by a Christmas Market without browsing through it and since it was lunch-time, I was fortunate to be offered a lot of tasters—cheese, honey, nougat, sausages. It was lovely to nibble as I had begun to feel hunger pangs. After I had spent about half an hour taking in the sight of all these edible goodies and having passers-by take my picture against the towering arch, I got on to the metro again and set off for my next destination: the Church of Sacre-Coeur at Montmartre.
On past visits to Paris, I have thoroughly scoured Montmartre which is rich in artistic history—many Impressionist painters had either made their homes in the area of had hung out here (as Picasso did at the Lapin Agile, a local bar). On this occasion, with less time to linger, I made it quickly out of the metro station at Abbesse (which I always admire for its original Art Nouveau-style arched iron-work at the metro stairwell) and followed signs along Rue Yvonne Le Tac to the funicular train. Indeed, on past visits, I have actually climbed up and down the lovely set of stairs that leads to the top of the mountain. This time, I was content to do it the easier way.
The funicular train, which is ordinarily accessible by a metro ticket, was also free today. Luckily, there were not a lot of people and although one of the trains was out of service (annoying!), the ride to the top did not involve a wait of longer than 20 minutes. They were, however, 20 minutes on my feet—so my fatigue levels were also growing consistently as the day progressed.
Visiting The Church of Sacre-Coeur:
Once I got off the funicular train, I made my way towards the main entrance of the church as that was my first priority. There were lots of people milling around the steps that provide strategic picture ops as the entire city of Paris seems to lie at your feet. I had my own picture taken and then began the ascent to the church entrance.
Mass was going on when I entered the church—so I crept around as quietly as I could, stayed on the last pew and said a prayer. The altar is remarkable for its mosaic work and its lovely sculptures of Christ. There was a crib up already—even though it was only early December. A few minutes later, I was out of the church and making a right out of the exit towards the Place du Tertre.
The Place du Tertre is the biggest attraction of the area. It is a cobbled square in which artists take up residence to paint portraits, do caricatures or present you with pen and ink drawings of your likeness. Through the years, almost all members of our family have had their likeness sketched here and I have framed versions of them in our home in Connecticut. The square is surrounded by restaurants and eateries that spill on to the pavement during the summer in the typical French concept of the café-trottoir. However, in winter the entire atmosphere is different. The large trees have lost their foliage and rise bare towards the skies. There are fewer artists, fewer people and the pavement chairs and tables were nowhere to be seen. I walked around the area and felt somewhat forlorn by its emptiness. There was no reason to linger any longer although the souvenir shops were tempting. A few minutes later, I walked as briskly as I could across the cobbled streets and arrived at the stop for the funicular train from where I made my way down quite easily.
Since there was a Fragonard shop right at the funicular train stop, I popped into it to try to find a particular item I was seeking: a small set of ten perfumes. Alas, it has been discontinued—all they carry now are the ten eau de toilettes (much lighter versions) of their signature fragrances.
Off to the Louvre:
With three major items ticked off my To-Do List for the day, it was only left for me to make a visit to the Musee Louvre. It was about 4.30 pm and I knew that since the museum is open on Fridays until 9.45 pm, I had several hours ahead of me to view its treasures. I have, of course, been to the Louvre several times—and I do have my favorite canvasses to which I say Hello each time I am there. I also adore the building itself—the gorgeous confection of a Palace that the Bourbon kings added to as they multiplied their wealth and their desire for luxury. The galleries themselves are so splendidly decorated that most of the time I am taking in their treasures rather than the stacks of paintings, sculpture and decorative arts that actually make up this diverse and quite overwhelming collection.
Emerging out of the metro through a quite different way this time (underground, through a large upscale mall), I arrived at the base under the marvelous glass triangular canopy created by the Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei. I headed straight for the cloak room, left my bag there, then headed to the ticket office where my Met ID card got me free entry into the museum—a huge bonus! With the museum’s floor plan in my hands, I tried to find my way through the three wings that comprise this humongous space: the Denton, Sully and Richelieu wings.
So here is what I managed to cover on this trip, beginning my wandering at 5.00 pm.
1. Winged Victory of Samotrace (classical sculpture believed to be figurehead on ship’s prow).
2. The Borghese Athlete.
3. The Battle of Romano by Paolo Ucello
4. Portrait of Grandfather and Grandson by Ghiurlandaio.
5. The Visitation by Sandro Botticelli
6. St. John the Baptist by Leonardo da Vince.
7. Madonna of the Rocks by L da Vini.
8. Portrait of Italian Female Aristocrat by L da Vinci
9. Madonna with St. Anne and Jesus by L da Vinci
10. Wedding Feast at Cana by Paolo Veroneze
11. Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci
12. Odalisque by Titian
13. Coronation of Napoleon by Jacque-Louis David
14. Portrait of Female French Aristocrat by J.L David
15. Murder of Horatio by J.L. David
16. Rape of the Sabines by J.L. David
17. Crown of St. Louis (This is a replica). I adore the gallery in which this is displayed as it is stacked with portraits of French worthies from the Baroque period.
18. Crown of Josephine
19. Michelangelo Showing the Pope his Plan for St. Peter’s Basilica.
20. The Seated Scribe
21. Venus da Milo
22. One of the Parthenon Marbles
23. Dying Slave by Michelangelo
24. Liberty Leading the People by Delacroix
25. Raft of the Medusa by Gericault
26. Two Sisters Readings by Renoir
27. The Astronomer by Vermeer
28. Lace Maker by Vermeer
29. Lute Player by Franz Hals
30. Self-Portrait by Rembrandt
31. Bathsheba by Rembrandt
Needless to say, in addition to seeing all these highlights and more, I took loads of pictures of the interiors, especially the ceilings as their decoration is quite lavish. Also as darkness fell over the city, the Louvre was illuminated with the loveliest, softest lighting, I took many pictures of the courtyards of the Palace of the Louvre—but none did justice to their beauty.
I was ready to collapse with fatigue by the time I finished at 8. 30 pm. I also had the good fortune of meeting an Indian art scholar called Usha Sharma who told me that she teaches courses on Indian Art in Paris. I hastened out of the museum and took the metro to get myself back to my place where I reached at 9.30 and went straight to bed.
My second-last day in Paris had been chocobloc—but what a blast I had! As it turned out, every item of my To-Do and To-Taste List had been covered! I could pay myself on the back as I fell asleep for tomorrow, all I have to do is pack and clear up his room and check out.