25 March 2009

Un pour tous, tous pour un

*With apologies to Dumas and all the Google users who have found this page by searching for the Musketeers' battle cry. Salut, by the way.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008.

Welcome to Paris. Quoi de neuf?

Basilique du Sacré Cœur

L and I made a leisurely start to the morning...there must have been coffee...before taking the Métro to a station under Montmartre, the highest hill in central Paris. We climbed a lot of stairs up to Sacré Cœur. It was almost unbearably hot that morning and I was wearing shorts, so I was unable to get more than a few steps inside the basilica because there was a service going on. I would have worn pants had I known we were going straight to church. Ladies, take note, don't wear shorts in Europe. It was actually quite funny: we joined the crowd pushing to enter the church, and there was a funny little man standing off to one side of the entrance. He wouldn't look straight at anyone, but when I came near, he started growling "Nooooooooo shorrrrrrrrrtz."

We walked across to look out over Paris. We could see all the landmarks: the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, the Louvre. L says the view from Montmartre is better than from the Eiffel Tower. We went into the Espace Dalí, a little Salvadore Dalí museum. I didn't have much appreciation for Dalí (or any surrealism) previously, but now I understand. My favorite was the 12 Tribes of Israel, thirteen etchings he did for the 25th anniversary of the State of Israel in 1972.

View from Montmartre

After we left the museum, L pointed out the neighborhood from the film Amélie, including the little market she visits. It was chock-full of Amélie postcards.

Au Marche de la Butte - the market from the film Amélie

We headed down from the hill to continue our walking tour of Paris. That is to say, we went down to old Moulin Rouge and strutted our stuff on the street.

Le Bal du Moulin Rouge

Just kidding. We only walked past and took pictures of the revue that gave us the only French phrase known to most of my generation (and if you don't know what I'm talking about, you clearly haven't seen the film), mocking all the high school students that were so intrigued by it and the sex shops in the vicinity.

From there we went to the Jardin du Luxembourg. It's like most of the gardens I saw in France and Belgium: trees grow in straight lines in bare, sandy soil, statues poke out from the trees like Robin Hood's band of merry men, and there are always lots of sunbathers draped around the fountains. Sometimes there's even grass in the parks.

La Statue

Piscine reverse peristalsis in Jardin du Luxembourg

Not far from the Jardin du Luxembourg is the Panthéon, the resting place of grands hommes Voltaire, Rousseau, Hugo, Dumas, Braille; and grand femme Marie Curie. C'est magnifique.

The Panthéon

Our next stop was L's Roman ampitheatre, the Arènes de Lutèce in the Latin Quarter. It's a 15,000 seat arena was built in the first century, destroyed in the third, and filled in during the thirteenth. It was rediscovered in the 1860s and Victor Hugo campaigned to preserve it. It was fully excavated at the end of the first World War, and now it's a public park and garden. You can walk around it and check out the stage, the niches, and the barred animal cages. Naturally, kids love to play in the arena, and L brought a friend once who sat in the stands and shouted commentary: "Boo! Send out the lions!" and "12 denarii on the dwarf!"

In the Arènes de Lutèce

We took our books and laid out on the grass in the arena for an hour or two. There were two guys near us who apparently created a public disturbance, because they were approached and patted down by five policemen for about 15 minutes. We couldn't imagine how a good time and a bottle of booze could warrant that, but the policemen left them alone after a bit and they carried on as though nothing had happened.

One thing I love about Paris: it's divided into twenty neighborhoods, or arrondissements. L lives in the fifth arrondissement. The arrondissement is usually noted on the side of the buildings, so you know where you are, however, it is abbreviated. Thus, L lives in the Fifth Arr. of Paris. How very piratey.

And it's ok if I'm the only person who laughs about that.

03 March 2009

Between Bretagne, Normandie and the sea

Monday, 11 August 2008

Abbaye du Mont-Saint-Michel

European Adventure Travel Day 9
Le Mont-Saint-Michel, France

The train from Rennes to Pontorson was much smaller than the high-speed trains, and as it turns out the station is near the end of the line and has only one track. At the station, I jumped on a big bus with a sign in the window for the abbey (2 euro). The bus careened around the bends in the narrow road out toward the coast, and we passed a windmill that one of the Americans sitting in front of me defined as a "pointy building with a big fan." I think she was joking...

First look at the abbey

The sheer number of people out at the abbey was overwhelming. Never go anywhere in August! Tourists had pretty much taken over a field with their cars, buses and campers. People were walking in the narrow road and didn't even seem to notice when the bus lurched by, mere inches from their bodies. Sometimes, a fellow tourist would pull another one out of the way.

Coastal parking lot

The history of Mont-Saint-Michel is interesting. It began as a shrine to the archangel Michael in 708, and became a site of pilgrimage. As it evolved over the centuries into more than a sanctuary, the abbey was built wrapped around the hill and crowned with the abbey church. The Benedictines settled in the abbey in the 10th century, and after that a village began to grow below its walls, extending all the way to the foot of the rock by the 14th century. It was a stronghold during the Hundred Years War, then a prison from the revolution until 1863. People of the middle ages regarded the abbey as a representation of the heavenly Jerusalem on earth, Paradise.

To get to the abbey, you have to walk up the steep, winding streets, just wide enough for four people to stand abreast. Of course, in August, there are about four lines of people trying to go down and two lines pushing their way up, so progress is very slow. The streets are lined with shops full of postcards and ice cream, and the beer is as cheap as water.

Enochlophobes, beware!

After climbing up to the actual abbey, there was a line to stand in for tickets (8.5 euro). The five Americans from the bus and I noticed each other scrutinizing the time tables for the train, so we started talking. It turned out that we were all headed back to Paris, and we needed to catch the last train out of Pontorson about seven o'clock. By this time, it was late afternoon and we knew we didn't have time to dawdle along with the audio tour, so I sort of joined up with them to see the place.

The abbey is magnificent. It's cool and dim inside, especially in the huge rooms with vaulted Gothic ceilings and massive pillars. There are rose windows set in round the top, so light streams down from above, casting strange shadows on the floor. There was a an international art exhibit going on as well, so we would pass the altars and crucifixes in alcoves and come out by the photographs of China and the Serengeti. I wish I could have seen the abbey without anyone in it. The arrows pointed us our through a little door, and we emerged in a flagstone courtyard, with a wall overlooking the Bretagne coast. People were on the beach below scrawling all sorts of things in the sand and waving at everyone who would look down.

Vive le libre!

Inside one of the galleries are a set of models, depicting the different building stages in the history of the abbey, literally from the ground up. The statue atop the belfry was designed at the end of the 19th century, and was cleaned and restored to its postition -via helicopter- in 1987.

That's St. Michael up at the top

Aware that we were running out of time, we pushed our way down the streets to the bottom of the hill. Half the group made it to the bus stop on time, but let the bus go because the others were late. The next bus came an hour late, so Brent-from-Texas and I left the others and took a walk around the base of the hill. This little chapel is built on an outcropping of rock and is reached by stone steps. The wind kicked up all of a sudden, blowing sand in our eyes. This picture makes me laugh... it looks like the tourists have chucked one of their own over the side and are telling him "Spain will be on your left in a bit!"

Man overboard at the chapel!

Brent-from-Texas was quite nice, and smart. We got back around to the others, but decided worrying about the bus coming on time wouldn't help anything, so we sat and talked. As it turned out, the bus came on time, but that parking lot full of cars was emptying onto the road when we pulled out, so it took an agonizing 36 minutes to get back to the station, during which the two girls kept an eye out for hotel vacancy signs. We pulled up to the station with one minute to spare. We could see the train coming toward us, so we literally bailed off the bus and dashed through the tiny station. The conductor was standing on the other side of the tracks, hollering for us to jump because the train was coming (because it's a one track station, Paris-bound train board on the far side so you have to walk across the tracks).

I wish you could have seen how utterly ridiculous we were... hot, sweaty, desperate tourists madly sprinting through a building and flinging ourselves across the tracks. The station master must have had a good laugh after our train pulled away!

Said goodbye to the other Americans when we changed trains in Rennes, went to the ticket counter and asked, in French, for un billet pour Paris.

Got back to L's flat long after dark, found her a little bit worried by my tardiness, and quickly settled in to exchange my tales of bomb threats and mad dashes for hers of the Tunisian sun. She made me a Tunisian royale (Tunisian fig liqueur and champagne) and my Paris adventure started in earnest.