Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Nothing Much

Sometimes there's a lot going on, and sometimes there's just nothing much happening. The last two weeks have been in the latter category. We got heavy snow last week, resulting in my being snowed in for a couple days. Ok, I wasn't really snowed in, I could go out, but with nothing open, why bother? And then I had a nice lazy weekend. I went out and got a new purse: Longchamp, navy blue. I'd been wanting one, mostly because they're water proof and they have a zipper. I got a hair cut. Same place, different stylist, but a better cut I think. Nothing dramatic, just a trim and shortening my bangs. Nothing dramatic pretty much sums up the past two weeks. Life as usual in France. Normandy weather is unpredictable, but my daily life continues on. This weekend I'm going on an adventure though and I'm super excited! Can you guess where I'm going? The first place I'm going I've been before, but I'm expecting it to be the experience of a lifetime. The second place I'm going is a sister city of somewhere I've lived before. The third place I'm going is somewhere a friend has lived before.

* I was wrong it's not this weekend it's the next one. Time to figure what to do this weekend.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

The Louvre

In my previous post I mentioned that I spent Sunday in Paris, and I started at the catacombs. I had originally expected that I would have a fairly minimal wait at the catacombs. I rather underestimated its popularity. After grabbing some churros for lunch I headed over to my next destination: the Louvre. I was mentally prepared to spend quite a lot of time waiting to get into the Louvre and here I was surprised. I didn't wait more than about 5 seconds. How? How you ask did I manage to get into arguably Paris' most popular museum on a free museum day, and in the afternoon? Very simple: I didn't use the pyramid entrance. There are actually about 5 or 6 entrances to the Louvre but the vast majority of its visitors use the pyramid entrance. I used the Porte des Lions entrance, and once I was there I realized why no one uses it: it doesn't look like an entrance. It looks like it's maybe just for people who already have tickets or for groups or something; I actually asked the guard if it really was an entrance because I honestly wasn't sure. 5 seconds. Do yourself a favor and go in one of the other entrances. 

Once inside I got myself a map and planned out a visit that would a) get me to some of the interesting but less popular sections of the museum and b) avoid the "important" pieces. The first time I visited the Louvre was in the height of summer on a Saturday, and my friend and I went around checking off our list of the big ticket items. We saw the Mona Lisa, the Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, the large gallery of gigantic paintings, the Renaissance statues...All the things a visitor to the Louvre just has to see. And if that's the sort of thing you want to do, so that you can go home and tell everyone that you saw all those things, that's fine. But I recommend against it. First, those are the most popular exhibits, and they tend to be so crowded that you can't hardly see what you are supposed to be looking at, and people basically run you down in their desperation to see something famous. More importantly, there are thousands upon thousands of pieces in the Louvre that are just as worthy of your time as some long dead mistress of an Italian savant. Don't limit yourself, and don't visit anything just because it's famous. Have better reasons.

I started in the medieval section of the Louvre. Before the (relatively) modern palace you see today was built, a medieval fairy tale-like castle stood on this spot. Charles V would be very disappointed to find that the foundations are all that's left today of his once impressive castle. 

Medieval Louvre

The foundations of the keep
Next I headed upstairs to go look at some shiny stuff, because really who can resist the crown jewels?
Oh and lest we forget, the Louvre was a royal palace before becoming a museum.

Awesome door

Really awesome room

The royal crystal (with real gold)

Pretty goblets and what not

It's good to be king
Crown jewels! I forget whose sword that is, but presumably it belonged to a king or a prince.

Crown jewels

Below, the crown on the left was at one time actually covered with real gems of that size. After the coronation the jewels were replaced with fakes, and the real ones went back into the treasury. The crown on the right supposedly belonged to Charlemagne but definitely was worn by Napoleon. 

More shiny stuff!

The Empress would wear this little crown on top of the tiara. 

Over in the decorative arts section, I was practically alone with this guy:

a king's suit of armor (Henri IV maybe?)

He can save me any day he wants
Napoleon lived here for a while (when he wasn't busy conquering things), and parts of his former apartments are still decked out emperor-style. 

Fancy chandelier and staircase

Really fancy chandelier

Scarlett could make one
heck of a dress out of those

I don't know, I don't think there's enough gold...

The Empress

The Empress was not lacking in glittery jewelry


A gold and crystal vanity

View over the courtyard

Now if you're still stuck on the idea that you can't leave the Louvre without seeing some portraits of mysterious looking people, I suggest you head upstairs to the top floor and the European painting section. There was practically no one there and there are so many beautiful things to see. 

Mesdemoiselles Molliens by Georges Ruget

Mysterious-looking girl

This dude who looks like he'd be fun to know

And this hottie
Ok, one final set of questions for you: So you saw the Mona Lisa: did you love it? Was it life changing? Did you experience something new and different by seeing it in person? Was it worth getting shoved and pushed out of the way by huge groups of frantic tourists? And did you, who spent all that time just to get to see a portrait you've already seen hundreds of times, did you get to see any of this?

The world's largest cereal bowl

A disdainful man-beast

The decorative top piece of a
column from the Byzantine Empire

Giant Goat-men

Hammurabi's Code

Because I did. And I had a fabulous time not getting knocked over by someone who just had to get the perfect shot of the winged victory, not getting rundown by a stroller trying to keep up with the kids who can't live without seeing a real mummified cat, not getting my view blocked by some old man who needs to stand directly in front of a piece of art for half an hour in order to fully appreciate it.  The Louvre is huge, and there is more to see in it than Mona Lisa. Visit the other floors. Trust me, you will have a much more enjoyable experience. 

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Dark Side of the City of Light

Yesterday I spent the day in Paris; this is the first of two posts about my adventures. One of the things I've been meaning to see in Paris are the Parisian Catacombs, but they were closed the last time I was in town. What are the catacombs? Well, back in the Middle Ages when the citizens of Paris began building more and more big buildings (like cathedrals) they needed more stone and began mining the stone below their feet. In order to get to the pretty white stone they so loved, they had to go down very deep, about 19 meters (or about 6 stories underground). There they turned the Parisian underground into swiss cheese, a maze of tunnels running about 300 km in total. Meanwhile, since France was a heavily Catholic country, they were burying their dead in churchyards around the city. You can imagine how quickly they filled up, without any room for expansion. In the early 1100s a large mass cemetery was opened for those unable to afford to bury their loved ones in a proper church cemetery. By the 1600s however even the Saints Innocents was filled to overflowing. There simply wasn't room for more bodies, but there wasn't anywhere else for them to go. On top of it, dangerous chemicals were leeching into the ground water, and since most of the city relied on well water, this was a serious health hazard. It wasn't until the late 1700s that the city officials found a good solution: the old abandoned quarries. They opened up three new cemeteries on what was then the outskirts of town to replace the old ones and began the process of clearing out all of Paris' dead. They cleaned up and prepared the space underground, and then brought in a small army of priests to consecrate what was now to be holy ground. Then each night a quiet parade of priests would escort black wagons of bones to their new home. Initially they were just sort of dumped in, but Louis-Etienne Hericart de Thury (what a name!) insisted on making it into a real mausoleum, complete with whatever cemetery decorations he could find, since most of them had been destroyed by the recent revolution. Today the catacombs are home to 6-7 million of Paris' dead, and are one of the creepiest places in the city.

If you would like to visit the catacombs, I assure you it is well worth checking out, but I must issue a few warnings. First, I would not recommend this for children. The rules of the museum stipulate that anyone under 14 must be accompanied by an adult, but there seemed to be quite a few parents in line with me who had ignored this well meant warning. This is not a good thing for kids. There a lot of great things around Paris for kids, this isn't one of them. Second, if you don't like caves, you are going to hate the catacombs. As I mentioned they are very deep underground, and they are very enclosed. If you don't like tight spaces this is not for you. You spend the first 3/4 mi walking down tight winding stone corridors that are dimly lit at best. It is dark, damp, and creepy as all get out. It's not crowded inside, and there were times when I was alone in my stretch of corridor. It's not for the faint of heart. Third, if you are not a patient person, this is not for you. Due to space limitations, they can only allow 200 people in at a time, so though the line is not terribly long, it moves very slowly. I waited about an hour, and this is the off season. Once in, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to get through.

A carving done by a quarry man named Decure

Another of Decure's carvings, the fortress of Port-Mahon

A beautiful series of archways,
a nice relief from the low ceilings of the corridors

Entrance to the Ossuary
"Stop! Here lies the Empire of the Dead"
The bones line the walls

The bones are mostly arranged in this linear pattern
One of several subsidence cavities

A remark on the final photo: what you see is a (poorly lit) subsidence cavity. They were one of the greatest hazards to the mine workers. They form naturally, but they collapse naturally too. Eventually all subsidence cavities do collapse; it's just a matter of when. When the city 'renovated' the catacombs, they reinforced the cavities with cement to prevent their collapse. Still, the swiss cheese that is Paris' underground was one of the earliest reasons why tall buildings simply don't work in this city. When they were building the metro, one of their big concerns was the structural integrity not above the metro tunnels, but below them. Let us all be thankful for civil engineers.