Thursday, December 29, 2016

Free Sunday Rolls Around Again in Paris

December 4, 2016, Sunday:

Free Sunday Rolls Around Again in Paris.

            One of the great advantages of being in Paris on the first Sunday of each month is that you get to enter a lot of the museums and monuments for free. Most folks make a bee-line for the better-known ones such as the Louvre or the Musee d’Orsay. But, having seen those several times before and being pretty certain that my Met ID card would get me into those for free, I chose to go to places I had never visited—and so after much research on the net, I zeroed in on four places to see—if I could muster the stamina and the endurance to see them all.

 Off to the Cathedral of Notre Dame:

            After carrying two pain au chocolate for breakfast, at 9.00 am, I used my carnet of 10 metro tickets and hopped on to the RER (B) from Cite-Universitaire to get to St. Michel. From there, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is just across the street. My idea was to get to the Cathedral for the 9. 30 am Lauds service which was quite well attended by locals and a number of tourists. It lasted 30 minutes and at 10.00 am, I joined the line at the side of the Cathedral for free entry onto the spiral staircase that leads to the twin towers. I had never been up there (although I have visited and attended services in the Cathedral pretty often), and was rewarded with an absolutely fabulous day—clear and sunny (although freezing cold). This would ensure really spectacular pictures of Paris seen from a height.

Climbing to the Towers of Notre-Dame:

            Having reached the line at 10.00am, I was shocked to find that there were at least 300 people in the line before me. So although the entry door opened at 10.00 am sharp, by the time I entered, I had waited in the line for one hour and 10 minutes. And the wait was brutal because the temperature was unseasonably low. Although I was very warmly clad, after about half an hour in the line, I started to freeze and actually had to enter one of the souvenir stores to warm myself.

            In the end, however, the wait was fully worthwhile, for the bird’s-eye views of the city from the towers are hard to describe in words. Baron Hausmann’s glorious city was basking in the winter sun in its lovely ivory shade of Caen stone punctuated only occasionally by a recognizable spire of a church or a landmark building that was easy to recognize. I took so many pictures of the buildings and of the Seine and its bridges snaking around the city. However, it was not just the city that lay as if showing itself off at its dazzling best and waiting to be photographed, that caught my eye; it was the umpteen architectural features by which I was surrounded that had me completely enthralled. The famous gargoyles, for instance, created through the genius of Violet Le Duc, can be seen up close and personal. Great ugly stone animals and birds (such as eagle-like griffons) that are unrecognizable form the Gothic water spouts through which rain water is ingeniously siphoned down the building. There are statues of saints and a number of angels in prayer that would be impossible to see from ground level. The huge bells of the Cathedral are so close when you are up in the towers that to hear them peeling is to jump out of your skin. As I stood there taking photographs, I simply could not help thinking how worthwhile it was to have climbed 450 steps to get to the top. In fact, after one has circumnavigated one level of the tower, there is another flight of stairs to climb to get even higher. It was rather grudgingly that I climbed those, but from up there too the views that came into focus were sublime—the Eiffel Tower, the heights of Montmartre with the Church of Sacre-Coeur crowning it, the funky design of the Centre Pompidour designed by the Italian Renzo Piano, the confection that is the Opera Garnier designed by the one and only Charles Garnier, the dissimilar spires of the Church of St. Suplice, the ugliest tower in Paris (Tour Montparnasse), the Pantheon with its serene dome and the exuberant golden Dome Church at Les Invalids. I have to admit that I had a field day and was absolutely thrilled with my decision to get to the top as it was my first time—and probably my last (although never say never!). I seriously cannot see myself being able to repeat the feat of scaling 450 steps—and so I was also delighted that I had the perfect day on which to click my pictures.

Back on Terra Firma:

            By 12 noon, I was back on terra firma and dying for some hot chocolate as I was unbelievably cold. As I walked along the back street, past the many souvenir stores that have sprouted on the streets leading from the Cathedral to the Seine, I arrived at Rue du Renard where I found a McDs! It was with such relief that I went inside to order a hot chocolate with whipped cream and gave my feet a well-earned rest. But then, not wanting to waste too much time on free Sunday, I hastened away to the next item on my agenda, past the legendary department store called BHV (and from where we once bought the best can-opener in the world!) to arrive at the Musee Picasso—the next item on my list.

Visiting the Musee Picasso:

         About 30 years ago, on my first visit to Europe, I had received my first introduction to the world of the legendary Pablo Picasso in this museum. I can still remember seeing the giant painting of Les Demoiselles D’Avignon at the entrance and being stunned. I can recall walking in reverence from room to room as I reviewed Picasso’s work from phase to phase in his life. Marvelous curatorial notes in each gallery introduced the many influences in his life, the many women who crowded it and became subjects of his work, the many places in which he lived and found inspiration, the many experiments he conducted with form and color as he traced a trajectory that took him from realism during his early years in Barcelona to the varied ‘color’ phases—his Blue phase, his Rose Phase--his experiments with Cubism, his imitations of the work of the Masters  (his obsession with Velasquez, for instance, that resulted in the endless variations he created of Las Meninas). I had seen them all and understood with exceeding clarity, very early in my life, what Picasso had attempted to do and why he is regarded as perhaps the greatest artistic genius of the 20th century.

            When I lived in Paris, four years ago, the Musee Picasso, which is located in a lovely hotel particulier (private manor) in the city on the Rue de Thorigny, was under renovation. They were going to re-structure it so that it would cease to be chronological and would only display some of his masterpieces at a time and often in conjunction with the work of other contemporary artists. Thus, when I arrived at the venue at about 1.00 pm, I found about 75 people in the line before me.  However, the line (unlike the one at Notre-Dame) moved speedily and I was inside in about 20 minutes.

Exploring the Musee Picasso:

            This time, to my utter disappointment, I found that the museum had completely changed its display style and I am afraid I was neither impressed nor delighted. The early work was present but then the work transitioned too suddenly and with barely an adequate explanation from one gallery to the next. Also, this time the exhibition featured the work of Picasso and Giacometti, the sculptor who also made Paris his home. I surveyed the comparative exhibits very carefully and enjoyed it, undoubtedly…but my enjoyment and enlightenment were not nearly as profound as they had been 30 years ago. Still, I am glad I re-visited this museum and I would say that to anyone who has not been to it, a trip to Paris ought to include this museum.

Off to the Fondation Cartier:

            Next on my agenda was a visit to the Fondation Cartier—which, as its name implies, was created under the patronage of the famed French jewelry house. My interest in seeing the place was to view the architectural genius of the great Jean Nouvel whose work I have seen in various parts of the world (the Opera House in Lyon, the Musee de Quai Blanchi in Paris, a Tower in Barcelona, etc). He is an architect with a non-conventional vision. He introduced the concept of blurring the lines between indoor and outdoor spaces, of creating hanging gardens that scale a whole wall, of using glass walls to block out traffic sounds, etc. So off I went to the Rue Raspail by metro to get to the museum—not really knowing what to expect inside.

            To my surprise, a rather weird exhibition themed around ‘The Orchestra of Animals’ was in full swing. It had attracted a great deal of children (it was, after all, a Sunday) and was portrayed through multi-media. There were movies, film clips, paintings and, downstairs, in the basement, some more rather strange films. The exhibition wasn’t really my cup of tea at all, but I have to say that Novel’s building is striking. There is a lot of glass (his signature touch), miles of what look like pipes and loud primary colors everywhere. I did not spend too much time here and within the hour, I was out.

Off to the Arc de Triomphe:

            Nightfall was not too far off by the time I emerged from the Fondation Cartier and out on the street. I took the metro again and made my way across the Seine on the 6 line which runs aloft and overground for most of its route. When you cross the Seine on the 6, you get glorious pictures of the Eiffel Tower and by day or night, it is compelling. My destination was the Champs-Elysses as I was headed to the Arc de Triomphe to climb it for the first time—also for free. I dreaded to think of how long the line would be, as it had been a long day and I was fatigued. But I pressed on and I arrived at my venue at about 5.00 pm when it had already become pretty dark.

A Word about the Champs-Elysses:

When I emerged from the metro station, I was stunned. The Champs-Elysses, the main artery that radiates from the Place de L’Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe, which some folks believe to be the most stylish of Paris’ avenues and certainly the one most used for public parades, was ablaze with Christmas color. It is indeed such a great time to be in Paris. The city is wearing its holiday best. There are lights everywhere. The stores are simply glittering with eye-candy of every sort. The jewel in the crown, however, is the Cartier building which was covered with red lights and wrapped in a dazzling bright red bow with the Cartier logo, the panther, also picked up in lights at the top of the building. I would have liked to have lingered longer on this lovely avenue, but I did not want to have too long a wait to get to the top of the Arc and hurried along.

Climbing the Arc de Triomphe:

            There were about 250 people in the line ahead of me when I reached the Arc de Triomphe which looked gorgeous in the reflected aura of so many holiday lights. The line also moved quickly and in an organized fashion and, in no time at all, I was at the top taking in the beauty of the city as picked out in its lights. This time I had climbed 250 steps—you can just imagine how heroic I felt after having climbed 450 steps in the morning! I do not believe that I will ever be capable of accomplishing this again. The climb to the Arc was also the first time ever that I would be undertaking it—and so I was excited.  

            All the way to the top of the Arc, there are exhibits—trivia and other facts that can keep the visitor occupied. Once at the top, you circumnavigate the viewing platform to take in the sights. I deliberately decided to see the views of Paris from the Cathedral of Notre-Dame by day and then to see the same sights by night from the Arc de Triomphe as I was sure that illuminations would portray the city in a completely different light (pun unintended!). Needless to say, I caught the Eiffel Tower ablaze at the 6.00 pm hour and that was a thrill in itself. I went through the process, all over again, of taking dozens of pictures and was particularly taken by the Champs-Elysses itself with its holiday decorations and its giant Ferris wheel at one end (close to the Place de la Concorde). By the time I descended all those steps again and came down to ground level, I found out that the daily ceremony of the Changing of the Guard that takes place around the immortal flame at the tomb of the unknown soldier, was in full swing. It was quite moving to see the simple pageantry with which these rituals are observed. It involved reading from a text, the hoisting and carrying of the bleu, blanc, rouge, the blowing of bugles and the singing of the national anthem, La Marseillaise. Again, I took many pictures and thought to myself how wonderful it was that I was having all these varied experienced on a single day.

            By this time, as you can understand, I was quite drooping with fatigue and decided that I needed to get straight back home. However, I was hungry and needed something more substantial than a salad—so I hopped into a McDs to get myself a Croque Monsieur which is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich—I got a takeaway and was soon on the train arriving at my room at 9.00 pm. I was exhausted and after eating it with a salad, I showered and did not waste any time in going straight off to sleep.

Free Sunday in Paris had been a resounding success! 

            A demain!      

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