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Caspar David Friedrich, Sea of Ice

Caspar David Friedrich, Sea of Ice

Werner Herzog can always give me a good chuckle.

Herzog's jokeThe dour German is more than a film director, he is a world treasure. If he did not exist, we would have to invent him. Just his voice, narrating a bit of documentary, or when filmed eating his own shoe, tells us that here is a man of substance, one who measures his gait against the cosmos. I will watch anything made by him, or in which he appears.

So, it made me laugh out loud when I was reading his book, Werner Herzog: A Guide for the Perplexed (conversations with journalist Paul Cronin), to see him disavow any romantic tendencies in his work.

“You can’t get a more contrary position towards the Romantic point of view than mine. Go back and listen to what I say in Burden of Dreams — the film Les Blank made on the set of Fitzcarraldo — about nature being vile and base, lacking in harmony, full of creatures constantly fighting for survival. Anyone who understands such things knows those could never be the words of a Romantic. If you’re interested in what I think about nature, take a look up into the night sky and consider it’s a complete mess, full of recalcitrant  chaos. …”

Does he know what Romanticism is? Here’s what he said in the film, talking about the Amazon jungle where he filmed Fitzcarraldo:

“The trees here are in misery and the birds are in misery. I don’t think they sing, they just screech in pain. … It’s a land that God, if he exists, has created in anger. It’s the only land where Creation is unfinished. Taking a close look at what’s around us, there is some sort of harmony. It is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder. We in comparison to the articulate vileness and baseness and obscenity of all this jungle, we in comparison to that enormous articulation, we only sound and look like badly pronounced and half-finished sentences out of a stupid suburban novel, a cheap novel. And we have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order. Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess. There is no harmony in the universe. We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no real harmony as we have conceived it. But when I say this, I say this all full of  admiration for the jungle. It is not that I hate it. I love it very much. I love it against my better judgment.”

If that isn’t the very definition of Romanticism, I don’t know what is. It reminds me of the lines by Lord Byron in Manfred, when the hero is wandering the Alps in search of an escape from his suffering and guilt. He summons the spirits of nature, which are vast and impersonal. They describe nature much the same way Herzog does.

One says of nature, it is “ Where the slumbering earthquake/ Lies pillow’d on fire,/ And the lakes of bitumen/ Rise boilingly higher;/ Where the roots of the Andes/ Strike deep in the earth,/ As their summits to heaven/ Shoot soaringly forth …”

Another says, “ The star which rules thy destiny … became/ A wandering mass of shapeless flame,/ A pathless comet, and a curse,/ The menace of the universe;/ Still rolling on with innate force,/ Without a sphere, without a course,/ A bright deformity on high,/ The monster of the upper sky!”

Friedrich, The Monk at the Sea

Friedrich, The Monk at the Sea

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog

On the next page in Herzog’s book, even he seems to admit his basic romanticism, when he admires the German Romantic painter, Caspar David Friedrich. He is “someone I do have great affinity for. In his paintings Der Mönch am Meer [“The Monk by the Sea”] and Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer [“The Wanderer Before the Sea of Fog”] a man stands alone, looking out over the landscape. Compared to the grandeur of the environment surrounding him, he is small and insignificant. Friedrich didn’t paint landscapes per se, he revealed inner landscapes to us, ones that exist only in our dreams. It’s something I have always tried to do with my films.”

There is a common misunderstanding of Romanticism, that it is somehow warm and fuzzy, that it has something to do with being in love. But if you read the texts, look at the photos, listen to the music, you discover that Romanticism is something dark and mysterious, placing tiny humanity in the looming shadows of a vast, hard and roiling universe. You find it in Friedrich, with his ship crushed by

Sadak In Search of the Waters of Oblivion

Sadak In Search of the Waters of Oblivion

icebergs; or Shelley, with the depressing parade in Triumph of Life, or the spinning orbs  “intertranspicuous” grinding “the bright brook into an azure mist/ Of elemental subtlety, like light” in Prometheus Unbound; or William Blake staring down into the abyss in Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and seeing “beneath us at an immense distance was the sun, black but shining; round it were fiery tracks on which revolv’d vast spiders, crawling after their prey; which flew or rather swum in the infinite deep, in the most terrific shapes of animals sprung from corruption, & the air was full of them, & seem’d composed of them.”

Romanticism is John Martin’s Sadak in Search of the Waters of Oblivion, and Berlioz discovering his beloved is turned to a harpie at the Witches’ Sabbath at the end of the Symphonie Fantastique, and Ahab blaspheming on the quarter deck in Moby Dick.

So, Werner Herzog, you gave me a good laugh.

The last real day and night in Paris; the next day, we suffered the indignity of Charles de Gaulle airport, the tedium of being stuck on a jet for umpteen hours, and the disappointment of returning to “real” life, jobs and the traffic on Seventh Street and Camelback in Phoenix.

tuileries statue with bird

The Tuileries
Sunday April 7

tulipsLes jardins. The gardens. The trees, flower beds, weathered statues, green-painted benches, the gravel walkways, with the dust blown up by the gusts. These French gardens are not just places to see nature. In fact, the nature in them is so unnatural as to make the idea silly. But, they are places where nature is rendered symbolic, so that even the real flowers function as symbols for flowers. That doesn’t make them any the less beautiful: The tulips especially this time of year, are open with that gesture of the hand held upright and the fingers together giving way to the fingers spread apart to the sunlight.

tuileries reading a book

We walked in the Tuileries today, that remnant of Catherine de Medicis royal front yard. It was once the property of the monarchy; it is now owned by les citoyens de Paris, who use it on a Sunday morning to sit and read the paper, to play boules on the gravel, to ride the ponies or the carrousel, to sit at the edge of the water by the fountain and hold hands. But mostly, it is used as we used it: to walk through.

tuileries horsechestnuts

The half nearest the Louvre is open, grassy and planted with flower beds. The far half is covered in horsechestnuts. The whole is populated with Olympians, nymphs, Bourbon matrons and the illustrious of science and the arts, all stony in their marble, sandstone or bronze. The pigeons roost in Hercules’ hair.

tuileries hercules

This French idea of a garden — a French idea of Paradise, the original garden — is one like so much else French, a curious, even tortured combination of nature and art, or the natural world and the procrustean world of “le systematique,” or the theory, or the “logique.”

tuileries gate

It goes against everything I thought I held dear about English gardens, about wildflowers in the woods, or even my own vegetable gardens. Those are more about real flowers, about appreciating the azaleas, geraniums or spiderwort. These French gardens remove you from the actuality and put you in the position of appreciating them esthetically, which is quite different from appreciating them sensuously. It is an important difference: All high art is stylization, whether it is a waltz or a sonnet or a Shakespearean tragedy. One can see these French gardens aspiring to the same status. They don’t want us to feel cozy, but to feel serious, to attend, to hold oneself in relation to the nature parodied.

tuileries 5

In the wild, you feel yourself in nature, and the self more or less dissolves, leaving the nature. In the French garden, the self is amplified by being the perceiver rather than the participant.

place de la concorde fountain horiz

In theory — to be French myself — I should hate the French gardens. I always thought I did. But the actuality is so highly wrought, so magnificently manufactured, so detailed and thought through, I cannot help myself admiring it, being moved by it, and actually loving it.

 

arena 2

Carole’s highlights:

tuileries horsey rideThe Roman amphitheater and the jonquils and tulips at the arena, and the little boys playing soccer. Also the Tuileries gardens today, and all the beautiful flowers there and the statues. And the large fountain with the black figures decorated in gold and green, by the obelisk. The happiest event of the day was seeing the waiter at L’Etoile d’Or and having him recognize me and asking me to speak French. I loved seeing the children in the pony cart and the little girl riding the pony at Tuileries, and the carrousel there. What I enjoyed most during the day was walking through the Tuileries garden today with Richard. I wish we could do it again tomorrow morning.

Richard’s top spots:

Musee d'Orsay

Musee d’Orsay

At the cafeI know what my least favorite thing is: that today is our final day in Paris. I’ve been grieving all day. Still, the Tuileries — Paris’s answer to Central Park — was like living in a live, full color Atget photograph, with the horsechestnut trees thick with flowers on their panicles, and the flower beds looking like the mille fleur embroidery in the tapestries. The short trip through the Musee d’Orsay was in all ways a disappointment, largely because of the crowds. But we had seen many of the most important paintings and sculptures in special traveling shows in the U.S., so it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen first-rate Monets or Van Goghs before. We pretty well wanted to get out of the joint as soon as we got in.

What never fails to give us pleasure is just walking around the streets. We walked along the quai, or even up the Rue Monge near our hotel, and look in the shop windows, drool at the patisserie, see what French vacuum cleaners look like, watch the people sitting at the round tables in the cafes sipping their cafe au laits. The cars are different; the way people walk or cross streets is different. It is all utterly and completely fascinating.

Pont Alexandre III and Tour Eiffel

Postlude: 2016

Our first trip to Paris was a kind of experiment. We worried — unnecessarily at it turned out — about not speaking French, about money conversion, about the pickpockets that guidebooks warned us of, about strange foods and the famed rudeness of Parisians. None of this was true. Parisians were uniformly warm and friendly, always helpful and frequently generous. After the first trip to France, I never brought along another money belt. Silly idea. And the era of plastic money meant conversion and cash were not serious issues. We paid at almost every restaurant with the bank card.Carole at the patisserie 3

And almost everyone we encountered either spoke English, or a little English, or with hand gestures, pidgin French and rudimentary English back-and-forth, we communicated just fine. I learned very quickly that you only really need three phrases in French to get by just fine: “Bon jour;” “Merci;” and “L’addition, s’il vous plait.” That is, “Good day;” “Thank you;” and “Check, please.” And the last can be sidestepped by the universal gesture of mime-scribbling on the palm of your left hand while smiling at the waiter.

As for the food, it turned out the stranger, the better. We have never had a bad meal in France. Even the cheapest dive we went to, for a cheap, fast lunch, gave us repast more delicious and better prepared than most we’ve eaten in the good ol’ US of A.

I remember particularly a day we popped in to a little charcuterie off the Boulevard Saint-Marcel and asked for some cold cuts we wanted to take back to our hotel room, and the proprietor smiled and spent about five minutes making up the most elaborate design on his platter, with about 10 different types of meat, amplified by several vegetative garnishes and pastas, and insisted we taste samples of each before he arranged each type on the plate. The obvious pride he showed in his workmanship, and in the quality of his meats, was not just palpable, it was absolutely joyous. With each sample he stared into our faces like a puppy dog to savor our approbation.Madjid and us

At a pizza joint we went to for a fast dinner, the waiter, Madjid Lahrouche, became a friend, and the second time we showed up, he wouldn’t give us pizza, but instead served us the cous-cous he made in the kitchen, so he could show us the food he grew up with as a Berber in North Africa, with great hunks of lamb and a tremendous soup of vegetables and potatoes. His grin was infectious. We have been back.

And going back is the watch-word. We have been back to France many times; on later trips, we tried to spend at least a month each time, and on subsequent trips, we got out of Paris, rented a car and have been to almost every quarter of the country, from Picardy to Provence, from Brittany to Alsace. Driving in France is a dream; one should not fear it. Signs are easily understood, and off the main freeways — which no sensible person want to drive on, anyway — traffic is light and easy, with many back roads practically empty.

When we are not there, we are always homesick for la belle France.

The last breakfast

The last breakfast

It has been an eye-opener to re-read my notes from our first trip, posted in these recent blogs. On later trips, the writing is less effusive, and show, I hope, a deeper understanding and appreciation for the culture, less wide-eyed and golly-gee than some of these entries. But there was a genuine openness that I sensed in these original notes that I thought might sustain an interest for readers. And I went through and re-edited the photographs I took from that trip and discovered several I had originally passed over, 14 years ago.

I certainly recommend for all Americans that they get out of their own country and limited experience and get to know a bit of the other parts of the world. It needn’t be France. It could be Japan, South Africa, New Zealand, Chile, Iran — just somewhere to escape the shackling prejudices of comfortable middle-class American assumptions. We are a provincial people, and that is actually dangerous when we are also the most powerful and influential nation in the world.

NDP under bridge

Notre Dame: round 3
Saturday, April 6

With only two days to go before leaving Paris, we have begun to feel a little frantic. We don’t want to go home. We want to stay here.

Meryon, Le StrygeBut even granted we have to go home, there is too much we haven’t gotten to do. So this morning was given over to making up some of the most important oversights — particularly, climbing the towers of Notre Dame de Paris to see the many carvings along the ramparts, including the most famous one, the Stryga, a grotesque with a garish nose, two horns, wings and the ears of Prince Charles, resting his chin in his hands looking out over Paris below him. He is a kind of ensignia for the cathedral, most famously in a 19th century photograph by Charles Negre, and an etching by Charles Meryon. If anything is the mascot of the church, it is the Stryga.

But he has a lot of company at the tops of the towers. Some have buzzard heads, some have wolves heads. One is eating the carrion of another, tearing long raw chunks from its side, like Goya’s painting of Cronus eating his children.NDP Gargoyle 6 hungry

We got to the cathedral by 9:30 a.m., when they open the tower, but there was already a long line. Weekends are busy for Notre Dame, with an invasion of tour busses parked under its apse and lines of tour groups flooding the parvis in front of the cathedral.

And the line for the tower proved to be even more infuriating, because they only let 20 people in at a time, and when you finally get inside, out of the blowing wind, you find yourself on another queue, just to pay your admission. You wait and wait, and finally, they let you through. The wait must have been a half hour.

The climb is at least as strenuous as the one at Chartres, but I’m in better shape after all the walking we’ve done, so although I got winded, my legs held up.NDP roof

The first stop is a large vaulted room with a gift shop. They don’t miss a trick on this tour. But you continue up till you get to the level just above the row of kings and pass around the north tower, where the Stryga holds court. As you pass between the towers, you get a look at the cathedral’s lead roof underneath you, and all the stone carvings that hide up in this stratosphere. And when you circle around the front of the south tower, you come upon a traffic cop who prevents you from climbing up to the very top of the south tower — at least until the previous 20 people have descended. They you get your turn, and are told you have only 5 minutes at the top.NDP Gargoyle 2

It is a heady view from on high, with the Eiffel tower in one direction, and the Pantheon in another. But you don’t get to see as much architecture as you do from the lower level, so when I climbed back down, I tried to reenter the chimeras gallery. The traffic copy stopped me and motioned for me to go down to the exit.

“But I am studying the architecture,” I told him. “I’m not just a tourist.”

He looked a little disgusted with me, in that particular French way, but let me pass and reenter the gallery, where I took another infinite number of photographs before finally descending the stairs to the bottom of the south Tower.NDP Stryga and friends

There were by actual count 3 billion people in the parvis waiting to enter the cathedral. There was a line just to get through the door. I’ll never find Carole in all this, I thought, but when I got in, I walked down the center of the nave, and there she way, sitting quietly, an unmoving point at the center of all the hubbub. She is always easy to find.la voie lactee vertical

On the way back to the hotel, we walked along the quai, did some last minute gift shopping and lunch at the Turkish restaurant around the corner from the hotel, the Voie Lactae. You can’t get a bad meal in Paris.

Later in the afternoon, we went for a longer walk down to the river, where we ran into a large angry protest parade along the quai, chanting for Israel to get out of Palestine. Carole was worried that they might do violence to Americans, but I plunged on ahead, walked across the parade and up the street. The walk along the quai beside the Curie Institute was a pleasant promenade, with flowers on one side and water on the other. We walked all the way past the Jardins des Plantes and up the streets past that, looking for a place to have supper. At 7 p.m. we came across a nice looking tiny Basque restaurant and thought it was just the ticket. We were the only customers at this early hour.prix pratiques

Until, that is, an invasion of American high school kids on a vacation tour of the Continent. With 13 instant new mouths to feed, the kitchen couldn’t keep up, and our meals took forever to get to our places.

The Piperade — a kind of scrambled egg with ratatouille in it, topped with a slice of Basque ham (think American Country Ham) — was magnificent, and a huge serving, so we hardly needed our plat. But we waited — and waited — and waited — while the chef and his one poor helpmate, a young woman, tried to trot out lots of snails and shrimp to the students. Meanwhile, more and more people started pouring into the restaurant. It was grand central station.street scene 1

It took so long, that after we finally got our plats, we declined the desserts — god knows how long it would take to get them — and paid our bill and got the heck out of that madhouse.

“We don’t want to go home,” we keep repeating. “We want to live in Paris.”

Carole’s recollections:

The pink petals from flowering trees were drifting in the air today and gathered in drifts in the gutters. I was frightened by a big white German shepherd looking dog on the loose.

There was a big demonstration in the streets with people carrying French flags and shouting “Quite Palestine,” and we stood around and R. kept leading us down into la monde arabe. But we came out on the other side and had a wonderful walk along the river and saw houseboats and cafe boats and one cafe boat also had a magic show.NDP Upper story with roofline

And when we went to Notre Dame this morning, while R. climbed the tower, I sat in the nave and looked at the windows for a very long time, and the ceiling of the cathedral gradually became rosy and a little bird, like a sparrow, flew up from the center of the nave to the top of the cathedral and sat on a ledge at the very peak of the arch of the central stained glass window. I spent a lot of time in the cathedral looking at the carved stone irises on the capitals of the piers, and outside, I compared the sculpture on the portals with the sculptures at St. Denis and I think the portals at St. Denis are more effective.

Supper at the Basque restaurant was wonderful and terrible: We had country ham on an omelet with ratatouille and it was glorious. But I ordered veal kidneys for my plat, and that is what they tasted like. We had wonderful wine and drank half a bottle.

At the fruit stands, I found three French apples — a big round ruddy apple; a smaller reddish one; and a little soft yellow one that looks wild.NDP gargoyle over street

Richard’s turn:

Climbing the tower at Notre Dame de Paris left me winded, but the treasures I found at the top took my breath away. The gremlins and gargoyles — mostly created by Eugene Viollet le Duc as replacements for the originals — were stunning, and like something created just for Victor Hugo. Most particular was the familiar Stryga, the grotesque resting his head in his hand surveying the city of Paris from the top of the tower.

NDP spire statues both sidesI spent more than my time up at the top, in the icy wind of this April day when the weather turned chill once more. Carole waited down in the church while I sauntered along the parapets taking pictures of every grotesque, chimera, every rain spout and quatrefoil. This visit finally completes the work of cataloguing the cathedral that we began three visits ago. Above all things, the Notre Dame de Paris has been the top of the list of things on our vacation, especially with the Easter service and the organ music. But the cathedral itself, above even Chartres or St. Denis, has been the revelation of this trip.NDP Gargoyle 1

Second to that has been the food, which is just as much a religious experience. After those two items, everything else is further down the list.

 

 

constant roux 1

Addendum, 2016:

For some reason, I didn’t mention in my notes the Institut de Paleontologie Humaine, which we passed on the Boulevard Saint-Marcel on our roundabout walk after dinner. I can’t imagine why I neglected it: It is a hoot. And a half. Constant Roux

The sculptor Constant Roux (1865-1942) designed a ribbon of sculpture around the building depicting “Primitive Man.” And it is an impressive display of invention and design. It is also a reminder of the pernicious racial ideas prevalent in anthropology then current. Roux has divided primitive peoples into racial groups, African, Asian, American Indian, Oceanic and Caucasian. For the Caucasians, “primitive” meant prehistoric, so his Caucasian examples are so-called “cave men.” For the others, his primitive peoples are contemporary, or at least existed within the past 100 years — like the Indians he sculpts stalking their prey in the skins of animals.Institut de paleontologie humaine Paris

Yet, if on the whole, it is hard to get past the inherent racism of his depictions, there is also something there to admire: He attempts to give a certain dignity to his idea of primitive peoples, and some individuality to his subjects. One feel apologetic for liking these friezes, but taking out the bias (admittedly hard — or even impossible to do), one can appreciate the  genuine life in them.

constant roux 2

And more, the variety of design, the variety of pose, and the ingenuity of making those designs in the restrictive space he has to work with, the thin band that circles the building. Each is broken into a nearly Cinemascope widescreen, and populated  with two, three or six individuals performing a task deemed characteristic for that ethnic group.

constant roux 10

Still, the problem is summed up most egregiously in one panel: A group of African women and a gorilla, or chimpanzee (it’s hard to tell exactly what is meant — it is a generalized ape). You sense the same root from which sprung King Kong in 1933. One of the women is tickling the ape with a flower. The women are naked with the same matter-of-fact prurience that used to fill the National Geographic magazine.

constant roux 3

We all grow up in a Zeitgeist, a common world view: Within it come wide variations. When Thomas Jefferson dithered over the morality of slavery, there were some few who recognized the enormity of it and rather more who accepted slavery as a given, even God ordained. But we look back at the founding fathers now with an uncomfortable eye. We find it easy to judge those earlier people by our contemporary standards. If we are to truly understand them, we need to have a second sight that judges them by what we know now, but also forgives them for what they didn’t comprehend.  We all accept things now that our progeny will condemn us for.

constant roux 5

Roux had a long career and his work is found all over: A journeyman sculptor, he chiseled out whatever was required for building design, cenotaph or memorial, and was at the very least, enormously talented.

constant roux 4

Born the year our Civil War ended, he died during World War II, and his style, formed in the Belle Epoque, never really caught up to the modern art that was being made all around him, yet, with commissions like the Institute for Human Paleontology, he was up to date with the now out-of-date science of his time. One has to feel a twinge of sympathy for a man of undoubted talent, but without individuality or genius, who struggles to use his gifts as best he can in a world that has shifted around him. While Roux was still making busts of Achilles or statues for the “gloire de la patrie,” Picasso was making Cubist portraits, Matisse was painting Dance, Kandinsky was theorizing the symbology of color, Egon Schiele was stretching bones and skin into contortions of angst. Modern art was exploding all around him, but Roux kept faith with his small art. One wonders if he was even aware of a world headed into two world wars and a culture turned topsy-turvy.

constant roux 9

I have been back to the Institute, and have photographed the panels again. These images are from the first day, and only from one side of the building. I wish I had them all catalogued.

constant roux 12

You will not find Roux in your Jansen, or taught in your art history classes. One feels a need occasionally, to appreciate the many excellent working artists who will never make a dent in the progress of culture, but merely do what they do well.

If there is one theme that overrides the whole set of notes on our trip to France in 2002, it is that of the French love of “logique” and systemization, versus the older Gothic love of “the things of this world.” Even the Baroque in France is oddly static and toned down. So, when we finally got to the megaplex that is the Louvre, it is hardly surprising that the same questions arose again.

As usual, click to enlarge any photo.

Louvre and pyramid

Louvre
Friday April 5

After nearly two weeks, we finally made it to the Louvre. It isn’t that we weren’t interested, but we’ve had a lot of other stuff on our agenda, mostly dealing with Gothic churches.

Hall of RubensTo say the Louvre is big is to say the Pacific Ocean is wide. It hardly covers it. We spent the whole day there and saw maybe a 20th of it. We saw parts of the Greek statuary, the northern European late Medieval painting, the big hall of Italian Renaissance and Baroque painting and a few halls of French Baroque painting, to take in the Poussins and Claudes, which I was hungry to see.

That not only wore us out, it took from about 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m., when, exhausted and with throbbing feet, we finally set our course back to the hotel.

There is a problem seeing so many “hall of fame” paintings, so many “greatest hits” in one go round. You cannot do much but cover the highlights and you look at one famous painting after another and take notes on this small aspect or that: the way the brushstrokes feather in Leonardo’s La belle jardiniereVirgin and Saint Anne; the overall bluish caste to Ingres’ Odalisque; the tricolor reflections of the water drops in Delacroix’s Dante in the Boat.

It isn’t just that there wasn’t time to spend an hour or two with each masterwork, but that just being in the Louvre, with the crowds of tourists, and the hugger-mugger of Jansen regulars, the occasion of it all, prevents you from being able to concentrate.

Here is Raphael’s Belle Jardiniere, there is the Mona Lisa. Here is the Avignon Pieta, there is the Bust of Homer. You take them in with the instantaneity of an art appreciation slide show, one after the other. Even if you wanted to spend a few extra minutes with the Wedding at Cana, there is Liberty on the Barricades calling to you.

Which is all a terrible shame, because even with the little time you get to spend with each painting, you recognize once and again, deep in your eye sockets, how different the real painting is from the picture in the book. The looking at libertythickness of the layer of oil paint, the fineness of detail, the actuality of the color — uncaptured by the cyan, magenta and yellow inks in your Jansen text — gives you that sense of quiddity, that sense of thusness, of actualness, of event, of richness, of sense experience, that the pictures in the book can never deliver.

It is probably the ubiquity of reproduction that has led to the pathetic and word-ridden French philosophies that rule art criticism currently. All you can get out of the reproduction is the iconography, which is the intellectualized part of the painting, and if that is all you get, you miss the sense experience, which subverts the intellectualization and renders it shallow.

For me, this is most evident in the northern Medieval and Renaissance paintings, which have a textured surface of paint, mimicking the damasked cloth being represented, or the gold leaf which sits atop the oil paint.Van Eyck Rolin Madonna

And what a deep and satisfying green Van Eyck has found. You can practically see it as ground up emerald or other jewel, suspended in the oil. The green is dark, intense as a clear night and transparent as stained glass. Louvre guardWhen one sees a real painting, one knows great beauty, and great joy in its apprehension. Though it soaks in through your eyes, you feel it in your fingertips, smell it, taste it, and almost hear it. It makes all your senses buzz.

Part of it is taste, certainly — gout. Others may prefer the Italian Renaissance to the Northern one, or may really like the sweeping flesh tones of Rubens or the sausage fingers of Ingres. But whether it is the vermilion in the cloth painted by Poussin or the ultramarine of Mary’s robe in a million other paintings, the direct, uninterpreted experience is the primary gift of great art.

Of course, not all the great art in Paris is paint.

Chez Alexis&DanielWe went back to Chez Daniel et Alexis for dinner tonight. The tiny toy pinscher met us at the door and followed us to the table. He must have remembered my petting him the other night, because he was all affection. He climbed up on the seat next to me and nuzzled his little nose in my coat the whole time we ate supper.

Which was, again, magnificent. Carole’s asparagus in melted gruyer was heaven in a dish. Our chicken plat, stuffed with mushrooms, was tres bien, and our desserts — well, we couldn’t finish them.Louvre lunch

And this is only dinner. For lunch, we ate at one of the Louvre restaurants and had quiche with tomato and chicken in it, and desserts: Carole had three little custards, and I had chocolate.

It is embarrassing to keep on about the food, but food by itself is sufficient reason to visit Paris. Everything else is gravy — I mean, sauce.

Carole’s take on things:

Felt good all day because I wore black, like the French women. And fashionable shoes, rather than the athletic shoes I’ve been wearing.

Thrilled to be going to the Louvre. I still can’t believe we went.

Carole & LaurenWe got a beautiful bouquet of lilacs for Lauren, our waitress at Le Petit Cardinal and she was very pleased.

Now, at the Petit Cardinal, no one even asks us what our breakfast order will be. This morning, it was simply delivered to our table.

Richard hugged me on the way down the steps to the metro and smiled at me.

There’s no highlight better than that.

The Louvre was vast and I was amazed. I thought it would be like the old Smithsonian, with paintings from the floor to the ceiling, and the interior spaces jammed with objects, but it was very open and some rooms had only three paintings. I saw the son of god crucified for probably four continuous hours and then a lot of rosy flesh flying through the air (Rubens). A whole lot of satin flying through the air. But the first part of our visit to the Louvre was my favorite, seeing the northern European late Medieval paintings of the Virgin and child, and other religious subjects.

I like them because they’re fervent.Avignon Pieta

Winged VictoryNear the end of the day, after seeing all of the extravagant paintings on biblical subjects and historical paintings, the museum began to smell funny to me, at first it seemed like the bathrooms, then I thought maybe it was the restaurant. Then I became disgusted with what I thought might be the smell of all the people. And then, because I was getting so tired, I began to have a horrible feeling that I was smelling death around the old Grecian tombs and I was very happy to go out into the air.

On the way back to our hotel, we stopped at a perfumerie and I had a wonderful time there and got some Lalique for Paul, Jolie Madame for mother and a little tube of cologne for Aunt Veosie and a bottle La Nuit for myself. Jasmine.

I chose perfumes you could only get in France. These are not exported.

We came back and rested. And the sweetest part of the day was seeing the little dog nestled against Richard in the restaurant.

Richard’s version of events:

Carole wanted to see northern European late Medieval paintings. I wanted to see Claude and Poussin. We did both, but in the end, I had to agree the northern European art was better, or more enjoyable, with a deeper commitment to real life.

I was a bit surprised at how loose much of Poussin’s paintings are, and especially, how dark, brown and gray they are. How much of the dinginess comes from too much varnish over too many centuries and how much was by design, I cannot tell.

I wanted to love the Poussins more. But I have to admit, on the whole, they seem constipated, both in subject matter and in execution.

The Claudes fared a bit better, although they also seemed yellowed with ancient varnish. Perhaps the film of yellow suits him better than it suits Poussin.

But, ultimately, the Claudes disappoint, too. They are simply too far removed from real experience, too stylized, too fantasized. Too intellectualized, and not immediate enough.

Unlike the Memlings, Holbeins, van der Weydens and — hallelujah — van Eycks in the northern European section, which bristle with real experience.Graces recto et verso

Constitutionally, I also respond to the textures of those early Flemish and German paintings, with their tight patterns and brilliant color, so unlike the artificially brown and slate tones of the French Baroque.

Gericault dans le LouvreIt wasn’t really a big surprise to see how vast the Louvre is. I knew it was big. But I was surprised by several familiar paintings that are much bigger than I ever imagined: Veronese’s Wedding at Cana; Gericault’s Raft of the Medusa; David’s Rape of the Sabine Women; Gros’s Napoleon at the Pest House of Joffa. They would have taken scaffolding to paint.Twin Venuses

Oh, and Delacroix’s Death of Sardanapalus. Another giant.

I can’t say I was overwhelmed by the Big Noises in Hellenistic sculpture: the Venus de Milo, the Winged Victory of Samothrace. Yes, they’re nice enough, but a little too deracinated for my taste. I want either the Classical Hellenic sculpture of the Elgin marbles, or the really over the top Hellenism of the Laocoon. These marquee pieces at the Louvre seem a bit tame, and the stylization of the nude female figure bothers me: No real woman was ever built the way the Venus de Milo is — and I’m not referring to her missing arms.

“You’re not going there, are you?” we heard, over and over, when we said we planned to go to St. Denis.
“It’s dangerous,” they said. The reputation of the Paris suburb, six miles north of the Ile de la Cite, couldn’t be worse. The crime rate was double that of France overall. It is a working-class suburb, with high unemployment, rampant poverty and a population that was one-third immigrant, largely from the Maghreb. It is where the Islamist attacks on Paris began on Nov. 13, 2015, when three suicide bombers tried to blow themselves up at the soccer stadium. St. Denis slum apartment
But, it is also where nearly all the kings of France were buried, and where the oldest Gothic church stands. The Basilica of St. Denis is one of the most beautiful, and most historically important icons of Gothic architecture.
“What, another Gothic church?” you say. I apologize, but the chance to visit a string of such churches was the primary reason we chose to visit France rather than Italy or Greece. There is something about the dark, old, art that drew both of us. The cloudy, rainy, cool-blooded Romantic north attracts us more than the sunny, warm, Classical Mediterranean south. For me, perhaps, it is my Scandinavian DNA.

Sunlight on the floor

                     Sunlight on the floor

The Abbot Suger ordered the rebuilding of the church in St. Denis in the 12th century and its choir was completed in AD 1144. Suger was a Neoplatonist and saw in light — sunlight, daylight, any light — a metaphor of Deity. Churches built in the earlier Romanesque style were heavy, stone-ridden and with tiny windows, leaving their interiors dark and dank. Suger wanted to throw open the drapes and let the light in. The Gothic style, which he innovated, eliminated the heavy stone walls and replaced them with pillars and columns to hold up the roof, leaving the area in between to be filled with glass. As in Genesis 1: Let there be light, and there was light. A great C-major chord is sounded and a new vision of worship is begun.
Much of the basilica of St. Denis has been altered, and most of what is there now post-dates Suger, but the choir (that area at the east end of the church where the altar and apse are located) is his, and shows the Gothic plan of three stories: a ground floor, a triforium and above that the glorious clerestory windows, all color and light. SD nave wallThe experiment was so successful, that for the next four hundred hears, it was the template for church construction. Churches under construction throughout Europe that had been begun in the Romanesque style were finished in the Gothic. Relics of the style remain even in churches built to this day: Somehow, like King James English becoming the sound and vocabulary for clerical language, Gothic has become the accepted ecclesiastical “look” for Christianity.
Entering St. Denis — like Chartres, or Rheims, or Notre Dame de Paris — you see the metaphor working: The light illuminates the darkness the way the moon and stars light up the night, or the burning embers of a hearthfire glow in the cracks of the dark ash. The building becomes an expansion of the human soul, spread upward and outward: The vaulting becomes the inside of your skull and the rose windows are its eyes.
The imagery is so successful that even a lumpen atheist can feel the emotional wallop: You can call it spiritual, if you want. The vocabulary is unimportant. The experience is genuine.

Again, click on any picture to enlarge

SD from ambulatory to crossing

St. Denis
Thursday April 4

Gothic architecture began at St. Denis and we were there to see it.

SD effigies in the naveAnother Gothic church? You may well ask, but the fact is, each experience has been singular and distinct. The Basilica of St. Denis, with its odd mixture of Romanesque and Gothic, is very different from Chartres, which seemed chaste in comparison, or from Paris, which seems even more baroque.

St. Denis is also the burial place of French kings, and their funeral effigies lie like so many tanning salon patrons in the transepts. The effigies are of a much later date and not at all Gothic (with a few exceptions), but they didn’t seem out of place. Again, this is the peculiar magic of the Gothic style. Nothing seems out of place in it: It absorbs everything and makes it part of itself.SD front view

The west facade is rather blocky, with only one tower on the south side, leaving the north side truncated. There is the hint of a rose window in the center of the facade, but it doesn’t show inside, where a giant set of organ pipes takes pride of place at the west end of the nave.

Unlike Chartres, St. Denis is brilliant inside, which was the idea of its deviser, Abbot Suger in the 12th century, who had a rather neoPlatonic idea of divinity, with light being its metaphor. His design for St. Denis opened the way for the Gothic revolution in northern Europe.

The stone of St. Denis doesn’t seem as worn as that of Chartres. Certainly much of the sculpture is later restoration work, but even the oldest stonework seems a little crisper than its counterpart in Chartres. The basilica is also smaller than the cathedral, perhaps two thirds the size, or maybe a little smaller.

Yet, the proportion of the clerestory is greater and the nave arcade lower, making more room for glass — one of the things that makes the basilica so much more brilliant inside.SD clerestory horiz

On the west face, the tripartite portal is black with soot. Carole first thought it was made of black stone, but you can see through nicks and chips that the stone is the typical limestone-sandstone grey. Paris has dumped a load of grime on St. Denis.SD central portal detail

The windows are also easier to read, with larger imagery in proportion to the size of the glass. Again, the windows are not as old as the oldest windows at Chartres, but they are old enough, and they are less obscure.

There are only two large rose windows, at the ends of the transepts, but they are particularly brilliant and colorful, with a deep purple blue and a bright stopsign red. And, like Notre Dame de Paris, they are large enough to fill the pediments they occupy.

Its setting favors Chartres, which looms high on a hill above its village, and can be seen for miles around, the highest and most impressive point. St. Denis is stuck in a streetcorner in a lower class neighborhood in a suburb of Paris, surrounded with low rent apartments, tobacco stores and a shopping center.SD rose window 2

We spent most of the day at St. Denis, soaking it in, walking around the crypt, the raised ambulatory, the nave. Sitting and meditating on the rose windows, feeling the weight and lift of the stone, the intensity of the sculpture.SD apse at angle

I wound up making about 500 photos of the basilica and its surroundings. I got most of the sculpture and a good number of windows.

We have not tired of the Gothic, but each taste, like the food of Paris, only makes us want more.

chocolate bars

Carole’s notes of the day:

A veritable pyramid of chocolate exquisiteness, poire ganache with fluted shell on the outside and inside, the top layer, chocolate ganache flavored with pear liquore and the bottom half tasted like black walnuts and reminded me of wet black walnut shells on the ground in the rain in the wintertime at home.

In the morning, I had a wonderful time at the packing and mailing shop, because the couple running the establishment were so kind and intelligent. And the stationery products were so cool. I had fun picking out stuff for friends back home.

We had such a good time there, it put R in a happy mood, too.

Butcher, tree pruner, winemakers

                                           Butcher, tree pruner, winemakers

Then, I loved the sculpture on the entrance of St. Denis. It was black and smooth and looked like soapstone to me. And my favorite band in the arches was a passage of angels praying as they flew. And, stepping inside St. Denis made me gasp on the second step because of the ceiling and the light inside the basilica and the proportion of glass to stone. All of the sculpture on the outside of the basilica of workmen and farmers felt very fresh and took me back in history. There were lots of sculptures and carvings of musical instruments and musicians outside and inside, too.SD crypt 5

The experience of going down in the crypt was something I have always wanted and it also felt like going back in time. I enjoyed talking with the French black teenagers on the lawn who wanted to practice their English. They were so much like my old students at Lindley Jr. High, where I taught in Greensboro, NC, in the 1970s.

I met an English couple outside the basilica and chatted with them for an hour. They told me about all of their vacation travels in America, out West. They haven’t been east of the Mississippi. Richard has taken me many times to every place they mentioned and so we were able to have a good conversation. We got along very well and laughed almost the whole time. They had studied the basilica and had attended a lecture about it and they showed me where the building had been greatly damaged during the French Revolution and where Napoleon had had it repaired and they were very upset with the poor quality of the repairs. It really was sickening to see all the heads missing from the statues.

They asked me if we thought South Dakota was a bit barren, and I replied, “Oh, yeah.” They did not know there was any food available in America besides hamburgers and iceberg lettuce salads. They thought American milk was strangely sweet. They were amazed at the long distances between cities and points of interest in America.

Richard’s faves:

Greatest salad in the worldObviously, the basilica of St. Denis was the high point of the day. It was everything Chartres wasn’t: bright, colorful, richly adorned, well proportioned.

But I want to put in a word for the salad we had at lunch. Yes, the food again comes near the top of the list. The salad at Le Table Ronde in St. Denis, just across the square from the basilica was one of the best salads I’ve ever eaten. It was a “salad with ham and poached egg.” It had mixed greens, fried baconlike ham in shoestrings, artichoke hearts, black olives, pommes frites, tomatoes, a poached egg sitting on a slice of baguette, shoepeg corn, all lightly coated with a dressing of oil and vinegar mixed with mustard, salt and pepper. It was heaven.

Beside that, it hardly seem worth mentioning the pizza marguerite we had for supper. “Take that, Domino’s,” said Carole.

It isn’t only the cathedrals that lead our souls to the sublime; it is also the restaurants. On the other hand, sometimes the toilet facilities lead to the ridiculous. Three vignettes.

pastry

Shopping
Wednesday April 3

Unless you have experienced it, there is no way you can understand French restaurants and food.samaritaine

I can tell you that it is good, but that doesn’t do justice to the art of the cuisine. And it is an art. Not just of preparation, but of presentation, as well.

We spent most of today shopping at Samaritaine, trying to get a few souvenirs to bring home to friends and loved ones. We stopped for lunch again at Toupary, the fifth-floor restaurant at the department store.

We had a chunk of salmon on a bed of cabbage, covered in a bacon and cream sauce, that was exquisite. There are no words to describe the complexity of the flavors, and how well balanced they are.chez alexis et daniel exterior

But that takes second place to the dinner at Chez Alexis et Daniel tonight.

It is a little hole in the wall right across the street from our hotel. We hadn’t gone there before because it hadn’t been open.

But tonight it was and we walked over. Inside, it is all tarted up with mirrors, putti, fringe, and red-filtered lights.

We had our only “bad” experience at a brasserie that catered to tourists. (The food was just fine, but we have come to expect magnificent, and just “fine” seemed like a total failure).

And Chez Alexis et Daniel has a menu posted outside in English. We were suspicious. But the items on the menu were too seductive to pass up, so we went in anyway.chez alexis et daniel statuette

There were perhaps six or seven tables in the place, each about 2 foot square. A big mirror in a baroque frame hung on one wall. A plaster boy with big hips and bare feet stood on the remnants of a fluted column in the corner.

Daniel (or Alexis) sat us at our table up against the front window and handed us the giant menus. It went on for pages, but like many French menus, it features a prix fixe option (called a “menu” in French, where what we call a “menu” they call a “carte.”)

Every item on the list seemed fantastic. There was foie gras, goat cheese, pears, exotic mushrooms, snails, scampi and lamb.

There were three “menus:” one for €15.95, one for €19.95 and the most elaborate for €24.95. In each, diners had their choice of entree (first course), plat (main course) and dessert.

Carole ordered a chicken liver pate for her entree, with onion confit. When it came, it was the size of an American serving of meat loaf.chez alexis et daniel family at table

Richard ordered grilled goat cheese with mixed greens.

One bite, and I knew, this was not like the other restaurant. This was Beatrice pointing the way to Dante. This was the gates of heaven being thrown open and the light streaming through.

For her plat, Carole had a rump steak in poivre sauce. Richard had a beef rib with foie gras and poivre sauce. Both came with cubed fried potatoes.

But who could eat the potatoes? The beef rib was so big, and after an entree the size of most whole dinners, one had to conserve space for the impending dessert.chez alexis et daniel inside

Carole, being very continental, had a pear half with almonds. But Richard pigged out with a “cake of three chocolates.”

The L-tryptophan kicked in, the seratonin flowed like a water hose and the melatonin gushed like a geyser. I sat with a goofy grin on my face and lost the use of my mother language.

All the while, a tiny dog with skinny legs wandered around from table to table looking for a little loving.

We waddled back across the street to the hotel knowing that the promise of Christian salvation has little value compared with the presence of a good French meal.

pont neuf metro entrance horiz

Carole’s take on facilities:

I would like to entitle this essay, les toilettes du Paris. One approaches une toilette dan Paris with trepidation.  Because one does not know how much it may cost, or how to get in, and after one does get in, how to negotiate the flushing mechanism and how to get out.

Nine times out of ten, the light, which is inside the cubicle, shorts out while one is engaged. The toilet papers are most unusual and varied in color from newspaper gray to dusty liver.

The lavatories are sometimes in the cubicle, and when they are, they come out from the wall just a smidgen more than the length of my hand. They are totally cool and I wish I had one.

One never knows what device one will encounter for flushing. The most frightening ones make an alarming rushing sound on their own when one least expects it. The others flush with buttons on the wall, buttons on the top of the back of the toilet, a pedal on the floor, or a chain hanging down from the ceiling.pont neuf metro stairs

My most amazing urinary experience so far, was underground at the metro stop in front of Samaritaine, in a beautifully paneled labyrinth. There were about 10 stalls, some with doors, some without, all within view of each other.

Men and women integrated, not separated at all. One could pay 38 cents and relieve oneself before god and man with no door at all, or one could pay 50 cents and have a door.

I scampered behind my door as quickly as possible just barely missing a man attending to his ablutions a few feet away in the “economy class.”

I paid my money to a little Chinese woman (the hostess) and she was chopping onions, right there in the middle of the bathroom. As I departed, she had begun rolling these chopped onions into some kind of rice balls which I pray to god she was not prepared to sell to bathroom customers.

I have so much experience in these matters because I seem to have picked up a bit of a urinary tract infection. I have averaged going to these toilettes 10 times a day, when I can find them but I believe I have experienced a Catholic miracle, because yesterday, I gave money to beggars all day and I’m getting well.

Richard:

on the metroIt has become a regular thing on the metro for a group to jump on the train with accordions or guitars and start playing music with a little tin cup or a hat to collect donations.

There is little more annoying than accordion music on a subway, but today, at one stop, two accordions got on at once, accompanied by a woman with a tambourine.

There is a good deal of begging in the subways. Much of it includes music, either a violin or guitar. One black woman at the Odeon stop today was singing a beautiful, bell-clear soprano. It was a cross between plain song and something operatic. She rapped a small tuning fork in her hand periodically to keep on pitch. Whether she needed the help, I don’t know, but her voice was angelic. Carole gave her money.

Carole has been giving money right and left these past few days. She is a sucker for a beggar. I know they can see her coming up Sixth Avenue like a parade float.begger

The championship beggar was the man at the entrance to the Chartres cathedral who was singing “Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, Hallelujah, Hallelujah.” It was a bizarre macaronic song, made up of bits of familiar tunes and words, but all jumbled up. And he kept repeating it over and over, hat in hand, waiting for people to drop him a Euro or two.

He snookered Carole when she went to give him some money. He had a little plastic cup with a lot of American change in it, but told Carole that he had trouble changing the coins for Euros, and would Carole consider giving him a substantial donation in Euros in return for the pile of nickels, dimes and quarters.

Well, Carole only had a 20 Euro note, and that was too much. So the guy took her to the toilette, where an attendant changes bills for coins so people can use the pay toilets. But the woman there refused the hugto change the bill for Carole (perhaps she knew what the guy was up to), so they went to the gift shop, where Carole bought some bijoux or other and with the change, gave the guy a 5 Euro note in exchange for about 3 pounds of American metal.

It weighed down her handbag for the rest of the day.

“That cured me of giving money to beggars,” she said, but experience has proved otherwise. She still stops, even when our train is in the station and we need to move expeditiously, and scours her handbag for something to give to the beggar.

We have now been to Chartres three times, and I pray we may get back there yet again. There are a few places on this planet that impress themselves into your experience so profoundly they define the joints and hinges of your biography, just as a marriage, birth or death can. Among those for me have been seeing the cave paintings from 30,000 years ago in the Vézère valley of France, standing in the breeze-twisted grasses of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, dawn at the Grand Canyon in Arizona — and Chartres Cathedral, some 60 miles southwest of Paris. looking into apse
 
Chartres is the archetype of northern Gothic cathedrals, and the one perhaps least touched by time and remodeling. Entering the cave feels like spelunking: it is a cave, huge, dark, cool, chthonic. On our first visit, in 2002, I was admittedly unprepared for it. As you will read in these notes, I was slightly underwhelmed; I must have been expecting something different. But in each subsequent visit, I have become more and more moved. For our first visit, the sky was a bit hazy, the temperature touching on the raw, and the interior of the cathedral was darker than it has been on our revisits. We made a trip in 2006 that made the rounds of the cathedrals in northern France, from Paris to St. Denis to Chartres to Amiens to Beauvais to Laon to Noyon to Rheims, and seeing them all has given Chartres pride of place. It is not just the architecture, not the sculpture or the stained glass — there is something singular about the site, as if it were the champion, having taken on all challengers and knows it has nothing left to prove. It was built by businessmen to advertise their market — the way cities now build NFL stadiums — but it has captured something sublime, something that speaks to the magnum misterium. If I were not an atheist, I might call it spiritual, but that word is so overused, it no longer has any real meaning. Suffice it to say, a day in Chartres cathedral lifts you out of the quotidian and places you among the stars. I am embarrassed that I was so thick-brained on first seeing it, that it could not penetrate.

The north rose window remains the single most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen — ever experienced.

There will be more photos with this entry than normal; click on any of them to enlarge.

row of saints horiz
Chartres
Tuesday, April 2

As they say about football: That’s why they play the game.

west facade fullYou can never know what an experience will be like until you have it. You can read about Chartres and see the photos. And you can visit other cathedrals, as we have on this trip. But you have to be there, at Chartres to see how it is different.

This is not a panegyric to Chartres. Others have written them. My reaction is a bit different. I was surprised to see how sparse the cathedral is. After Notre Dame de Paris, I was expecting something a little more crenelated, more decked out, more flamboyant.

After all, Notre Dame de Paris was an early example of Gothic architecture. Chartres is considered High Gothic. It was followed by Rayonnant and Flamboyant styles, each increasingly geegawed up.

But Chartres is a veritable Spartan of cathedrals. Her west facade, for instance, is spare in the extreme, with only a few decorations, not counting the portals and their sculpture. royal portalBut those portals are rather small and restrained, unlike their cousins in Paris. You almost get the idea of a facade that isn’t finished, that is waiting for someone to come along and add the finials, Hebrew kings, garlands of trefoils and quatrefoils.

Instead, it almost looks like the Gothic cathedral equivalent of plywood.

We walked first around the building, from the facade to the south transept, around the apse and treasury, along the north transept and back to the front.nave

Yes, the portals of the transepts are splendid, rich with sculpture. But the walls of the building are generally plain.

And when we went inside, we were blinded by the dark. It is a dimly lit nave — again contrasting with the brightness of Paris, to say nothing of Saint-Chapelle.

The proportions of the nave seem almost primitive. The large aisle arcades take up almost half the height of the nave. The small triforium leaves room for a rather scaled down clerestory. The result of these odd proportions is that not much light drifts down to the nave floor. It takes quite a while for your eyes to adjust.worn floor maze

When they do, there is a good deal of wear to be seen. Not only is the stone floor worn wobbly, but the vaulting in places is peeled or exfoliated, showing some brickwork behind the stone.

The rose windows are also smaller in proportion to their settings than those of Paris.

The west rose window, in particular, is at least half stone. The tracery is heavy and dense, leaving only small patches of glass to shine. Unlike the Paris rose windows, this one seems almost a crude, early attempt at constructing one.west rose window exterior

The north and south rose windows are more elaborate, but even they are small in comparison with the space of the transept walls. They could easily have been made 20 percent or 30 percent larger without overwhelming their setting.

The interior almost gives you the feeling of an empty apartment, after someone has moved out. Where are the paintings, the furniture, the curtains? In Chartres, where are the windows, the interior carving, the elaborate bosses in the vaulting?north rose window

Of course, we didn’t see Chartres in operation, as we did Paris. Perhaps it has the same awe inspiring grandeur when a mass is being said.cathedral on the hill

And you cannot fault its setting, on the hill above the town. From miles around, you can see the twin towers looming. It was the first thing we could see from the train arriving in the morning: Those towers poking up out of the countryside.statues 2

One of the reasons Chartres is so highly prized is because so much of it is original. The statuary at Paris is cleaner and more neatly featured. But then, it is only 150 years old, having been restored by Viollet le Duc in the 19th century. Viollet le Duc was a magnificent man, and his restoration work at Paris is convincingly original looking. You don’t sense much of the 19th century in it.

But it is still pristine. At Chartres, the statuary is weathered. You can see the lichen growing on the stone.

Even the walls of the cathedral sport tufts of daisies high up, in unlikely places, growing straight out of the masonry.north transept from roof

The limestone is mossy, lichened and eroded. Paris has only recently been sandblasted. Its stone seems newer — although there is plenty of erosion to go around there, too.

But Viollet le Duc’s restoration has made Paris look fresher than her matronly cousin in Chartres.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to pooh-pooh Chartres. It is glorious. And it is the very prototype of the high Gothic. But there was a certain musty odor in the nave; Paris smelled more urban, more used.

If I sound disappointed, I don’t mean to. This was one of the true high points of our travels. We spent 12 hours from the time we left the hotel in the morning till the time we returned. With an hour each way on the train, and time out for breakfast and lunch, that left a good 9 hours spent with Our Lady of Chartres. We spent that time feverishly. I photographed every one of the main sculptures of the portals, and a good deal else beside.south fleche

I walked the eleventy-hundred stairs up the north tower and dangled acrophobically over the roof, the bell and the south tower, taking photos of gargoyles, tracery and stone foliage. gargoyle pairLiability laws must be quite different in France. In the U.S., they would never allow anyone to climb up grotesquethose stairs, let alone hang out over the precipitous drop, with its low balustrades and that steady breeze that must often become a wind.

Visiting Chartres was one of the highlights of our lives.

Now we have experienced it, have it in our blood. This is very different from ID-ing the photos in the art history textbook.

For lunch — because we have to mention such lowly things among the lofty ones of the cathedral — we had a pot au feu at the Cathedral Bistro, just across the courtyard from the south nave exterior. As we sat eating our boiled beef, potatoes and turnips, restaurant interior with tablewe could see the masonry through the plate glass window of the restaurant front.

And when we finally got back to Paris, we went down to L’Etoile d’Or and had a cassoulet with duck and sausage. C’est magnifique.

Carole’s highlights from Chartres:

I loved the ride on the train. I loved the white flowering trees by the train tracks, and loved watching the men come out and work in their little back yard gardens. The sculpture outside the cathedral and the windows inside. Inside the cathedral, in the chapels, one of those had a statue of Mary and draped on her was what looked lancetlike a very old white silk garment encrusted with pearls and there was a little group of people sitting there and there were five or six fresh floral arrangements, and every time I walked past it I could feel the heat of the candles on my face. I walked by five or six times just to feel the heat. That was very nice. While R. was photographing outside, I walked around and around the carved stone rood screen pretending I was there in the Middle Ages and I was reading the stories from the statues; and the statues worked great. There was this really remarkable carpet at the altar in the center of the cathedral and it was tapestry work and it was blue and red and as a carpet it was made in the form of a cross, so it draped down all four sets of steps of the altar. It had 8 large medallions and each was different. One had roses another had wheat. Oh, and one of the things I liked best was the floral arrangement at the altar. It was branches of those white flowering trees with birds of paradise and orange day lilies. I spent a lot of time looking for a spot on the floor that looked like nobody had ever stepped on it, but I couldn’t find even an inch in a corner that wasn’t worn. I loved knowing R was happy all day.

Richard’s greatest hits:

south rose window exterior detailThere is no way to break it down: It is the sum total of Chartres cathedral, including its architecture, stained glass, sculpture, setting, the town around it and the people in it. If there was one event that stood out, it was the climbing of the north tower. It was a trial, but there were several stops along the way that I had all to myself and could sit in the air above the roof of the cathedral, contemplating the whole thing. The train ride was also good, through forests and past villages with old stone houses covered in vines and lichen. When we finally got back to Paris, there was a cassoulet with my name on it at L’Etoile d’Or.

west facade 1west facade central portal tympanummary detailclerestory from navevaulting and organsouthside with treeroofroof and south transeptrood screen and ambulatorydreamer statue basebegger at the doorkids