Paris Part 2: Tidings of Antiquity

“History is the witness that testifies to the passing of time; it illumines reality, vitalizes memory, provides guidance in daily life and brings us tidings of antiquity.” – Cicero

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Like previous posts, pictures are coming as I’m stealing them from Jason this weekend (promise!!).

After all of the walking we did on Friday, it would have taken a miracle for me to drag myself out of bed early Saturday morning despite having fallen asleep at 7:30pm the night before.  With a headache and a body that felt what I imagine it feels like to be hit full on by a semi, I lounged in my warm bed while Jason went out for a run.  Even with the lounging, I was still up by 9:30 or 10:00am and by noon at the latest Jason and I were headed out on a new adventure that was evidently to start with prowling through a graveyard.

Cimetière de Montmartre (Montmartre Cemetery)

What is the perfect Valentine’s Day trip to Paris outing? A stroll through a necropolis of course!  A wet dream for Buffy fans everywhere, this place was easily the most incredible cemetery I’ve ever been in.  It had a similar feel to the cemeteries in New Orleans with lots of family crypts and mausoleums, but it had its fair share of in-ground tombs as well.  The Montmartre Cemetery is enormous.

Deeply quiet with huge black crows and stray cats all about it, I found it to be very peaceful and eerily beautiful.  It sits near the top of the list of my favourite places in Paris at this point.

A little bit of history:

Cemeteries were banned through the city center of Paris in 1786 due to them being a health hazard and so several new cemeteries replaced the Parisian ones outside the precincts of the capital in the 19th century.  Montmartre was the northern location.  It is built below ground level in the hollow of an old quarry and is the resting place of a number of famous artists, writers, and nobility who lived and worked in the Montmartre area.

Jason and I personally stumbled across the tombs of Edgar Degas (the painter famous for his paintings of ballet dancers) and Alexandre Dumas, famous writer of works like The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo.  We also found a lovely mausoleum belonging to a Countess/Princess.

Here’s a list of all the notable internments.


After spending several hours communing with the long-deceased souls of Paris, Jason and I wandered on toward the community proper of Montmartre.  Montmartre is a district of Paris and as such, I wasn’t aware we were even in Montmartre until we had already been there a while.  The area is primarily known for the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, which crowns the summit of the hill on which it is located, and as a nightclub district and popular drinking area.

Since we visited during the day, I unfortunately didn’t get to see much of Montmartre come to life at night save for the stretch of road near the Moulin Rouge and Le Chat Noir, which also belong to this area.  Jason was disappointed I think that we didn’t get to see more of Montmartre at night as he loves this part of Paris.  Nonetheless I enjoyed it even in the day.

To my eyes it was a charming labyrinth of winding roads and old apartment buildings with eclectic, artsy shops and cafes at street level.  A carousel stood in one of the more open areas near a subway station entrance, and in general the sidewalks stayed bustling for much of the time we spent here.

A little bit of history:

Though known in modern times as a district of the starving artist and the profligate lush, Montmartre claims a number of interesting historical facts.  Its religious symbolism is thought to stretch back to prehistoric times as a likely druidic holy site given that it is the highest point in the area.  In the 18th and 19th centuries there were a number of gypsum mines here as well.  In one of these, a fossil tooth was found that was later indentified to belong to an extinct species of horse.  A drawing of the animal from 1825 matched the full skeleton found of it later.  The hill was used by both Henry IV of France and the Russians when laying siege to Paris.

Basilica of the Sacré Cœur

Impressive and expressly majestic, the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur can be seen from just about any reasonably high point in Paris because it sits at the summit of the hill on which Montmartre is located (the highest point in the city).  It is an incredible structure that, I was totally shocked to discover, is only about a century to a century and a half old.  Having seen Notre Dame the night before, I suppose I simply expected that the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur would also be an exceptionally old structure.

Given its youth it doesn’t seem that there is very much remarkable about its history beyond it being an architectural masterpiece.

A little bit of history:

Construction on the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur was begun in 1875 and fully finished in 1914.  As far as I understand it the church was built in an effort to lend a “spiritual renewal” to the city and “expiate the crimes of the Commune” in the wake of the French defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the subsequent uprising of the Paris Commune of 1870-1871 (think “workers party”, Communists, Karl Marx, blah blah blah).  Basically all of that means that the while the history of the basilica itself is somewhat lacklustre, at least it’s a pretty building!

Place du Tertre

Only a few streets away from the Basilica of the Sacré Cœur, Place du Tertre is the heart of the Montmartre quarter and is best known for its street artists.  During the day the square is packed with various artists selling works or creating new.  Many artists were drawing or painting portraits for the tourists there while others were absorbed in painting the city sites.

Jason and I were accosted on our way by one after another artist trying to get us to let them draw a portrait of us with tactics that would put the mall kiosk guys to shame.  We found the best way to deal with them was to be absorbed in conversation with one another and avoid eye contact at all costs!

We bought some souvenirs from the local shops and got lunch from a street vendor. Jason ended up getting a sausage on a baguette that was absolutely divine (I wish I’d gotten one).  And I got a crepe stuffed with melted cheese and ham.  While we ate we wended our way toward Place du Tertre and spent some time roaming the easels and stands of paintings admiring the works.  It was so very quaint and “French” it was hard not to be charmed with the area.  I imagine it’s a madhouse in the summer from tourists though.  It was very busy while we were there as it was.

A little bit of history:

Place du Tertre is a reminder of a time when Montmartre was the mecca of modern art.  At the beginning of the 20th century, many penniless painters such as Piccasso and Utrillo lived and worked here.  There is also a museum devoted to the works of Salvatore Dali a few steps away from the square.

Musée du Louvre

As it was getting late in the day now, we hopped on the subway and trained over to The Louvre to try to get in with enough time to at least see the Mona Lisa.  Oddly, even on Saturday, the museum closes at 6:00pm.  Since we didn’t get in until 4:30pm, our visit was unfortunately cut a bit short.  Nonetheless, the Louvre was every bit as spectacular a museum as it’s made out to be.

Housed in what was once the Royal Palace of Paris, the building in and of itself (both inside and out) is an architectural and historical masterpiece.  Probably the most decadent and elaborate building we saw in all of Paris, it is preserved to such a degree that standing on the massive lawns outside the entrance to the museum surrounded by labyrinths of shrubbery (trust me, Monty Python jokes abounded in my head) and statue-bedecked fountains it isn’t a stretch to imagine bewigged lords and ladies strolling about in hoop skirts and waistcoats.

We spent a bit of time outside admiring the lawns, the architectural artistry of the building, and of course the Arc de Triomphe’s little brother, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, which was built like its big brother in the early 19th century to celebrate Napoleon’s military victories.  Since it was outside and it was cold that day, I left picture taking of Napoleon’s “sorry about your penis” monument to Jason.

We entered the museum through the glass pyramid in the courtyard.  After passing through some security checks, you ride a few escalators down into a massive pit.  Each wing of the museum (including the one with all of the shops and restaurants) branches off from this central location, making you feel a bit like an ant or honeybee in a hive.

On a mission to see The Mona Lisa, we made a beeline to that wing stopping only briefly to take a few pictures on the way.  As with other places in Paris, none of the plaques for any of the pieces of art in the Louvre were multilingual.  Since we didn’t get headphones and translators to use through the museum, I wasn’t much able to determine specifics about the themes of the rooms beyond the art in each one.  The Mona Lisa was in a room with massive paintings I presume were also Italian in origin (images of religious or mythological themes seemed to dominate) probably from the same period as they were all painted in the deep, rich colors and minute detail of the renaissance period art.  She was hung inside of a floor to ceiling glass case that was then roped off so you could only get within about five feet of the painting.  Taking pictures was difficult from the glare of ceiling lights in the glass.  I thought also that the presence of the glass (which wasn’t around any of the other paintings) diminished the impressiveness of the painting. 

It has probably been said before, but I was shocked actually by how small The Mona Lisa was in person.  There were in many cases paintings so large in her room that you had to stand on the opposite side of the chamber in order to see them properly, such as this image in one of the adjacent rooms.  I took the image below standing on tippy toe with my arms held straight up over my head in order to try to get as “straight on” a picture as I could.  It was so big that even to these extremes my photo was still at a skewed angle (Jason’s was a little better but still not straight on).  The Mona Lisa in contrast was only 30X21in (which is pretty big in general but not huge by any means).

I can only describe the experience of seeing The Mona Lisa in person as reverential.  It is easier to see the details of it in images in books for sure, but standing there looking at what has been described as the most famous painting in the world, it was very easy to understand the enigmatic fascination it has drawn for hundreds of years.  Not wishing to deprive other people of the chance to move to the front of the large crowd around her, I didn’t stay there too long admiring it, but I am glad that we made the effort to ensure we saw it before leaving the Louvre.

After seeing The Mona Lisa we wandered through a few more of the rooms in the same wing. I spent much of the time with my head tilted back and mouth hanging open at the gorgeous artwork covering the ceilings in just about every room we went through.  At some point in our meandering through the halls we ended up transitioning away from paintings into sculptures.  These too were in exquisite detail and likely of Italian or Grecian origin.  Though I couldn’t off the top of my head guess their age I would say they were probably also from the renaissance periods.

Who knew the Louvre housed such a lovely collection of historical boudoir?! I found a few very beautiful sculptures toward the end of one of the long halls that were worth photographing.  Beyond their aesthetic appeal, I thought it interesting that these in particular had a subtle sexuality to them often missing from nude sculptures which usually appear completely oblivious to the fact that they are nude in the first place.  I snapped a few as homage to Pink Martini Photography.  I only wish my skills as a photographer were as good as theirs.

After a bit, Jason started to get playful, striking poses amidst the marble for me to randomly stumble across!

Right around the time he decided to mimic Apollo (at least that is my best guess who the bust is meant to be) we heard an announcement in French.  Thankfully we didn’t need to know French in order to surmise that what was said was something along the lines of, “You have 30 minutes to get out or we’ll kick you out.”  It was not lost on me that in the entirety of the hour and a half or so we had been in the museum, Jason and I had been through only a handful of rooms.  The Louvre is a massive building.  To see everything, or even a sufficient amount of things, you should easily dedicate half a day to a full day to the museum alone.  Given how much we’d accomplished on the tourist front this weekend, I suspect this might be on the agenda for a future visit to Paris in the summer.

By the time we left the museum it was starting to get dark.  Tired and with ambitious plans for a night of depravity at the Moulin Rouge, we decided to head straight back to the hotel to rest up a bit and get ready.

A little bit of history:

The Louvre Palace, in which the museum is held, began as a 12th century fortress, remnants of which can still be seen in the basement of the museum.  In the 17th century, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his home and left the Louvre to the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres (The Academy of Inscriptions and Attractive Letters…I think it’s an academy for writing?) and the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture (The Academy of Painting and Sculpture).  The Académie remained in the Louvre for a hundred years until the French Revolution when it was decreed that it should become a museum to house France’s masterpieces.  The museum opened August 1793 and has been opened and steadily growing since save for a period between 1796 and 1801 when it was closed due to structural problems.  The Louvre today contains more than 380,000 objects and displays 35,000 works of art in eight curatorial departments.  It is the world’s most visited museum averaging 15,000 visitors every day.

Moulin Rouge or Bust

Since a night out doesn’t legitimately start until at least 10 o’clock, we didn’t leave the hotel much before this.  Decked out in finery we made our way to the entrance of the cabaret hopeful that we would be able to get tickets at the door after some difficulties with attempting to order them online.  Unsurprisingly it was sold out, so we revised our plans and decided to hunt down a “nice” restaurant for dinner (after all, we were already dressed up).

Unfortunately for us, the Moulin Rouge area of Montmartre boasts a plethora of bars, pubs, and a restaurant by the enigmatic name of “The Hippopotamus” but nothing that was particularly fancy.  With an idea to try the Eiffel Tower area for something a bit more upscale, we descended into the bowls of the city and hurtled across Paris hoping we wouldn’t be too late for dinner anywhere.

Like some subways in the States, the Parisian subway is partially underground and partially above.  As we neared our Eiffel Tower stop, our train was above ground passing over the Seine.  I was gazing out the right hand window when I noticed a reflection on it of scintillating lights.  Turning to find the source I caught a glimpse of the Eiffel Tower lit up and sparkling!  As it turns out, every hour after dark for the first ten minutes of the hour the lights on the Eiffel Tower twinkle.  It wasn’t a cabaret, but the sight was definitely a worthy substitute.

Jason and I hiked from the station to the base of the tower for pictures, but as rain was imminent and the temperature was dropping to a point where my flimsy dress was no longer cutting it, we hustled a few blocks away in search of food.  As it turned out, our “fancy” dinner ended up being a cheeseburger in an overpriced corner cafe, but I can’t honestly imagine things turning out more perfectly.  We lazed over dinner for an hour before rushing back to the Eiffel Tower for the next round of glitter then finally trained back to the hotel and fell into our warm bed face first.



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