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Noyon Cathedral is a shabby little church, in an obscure little town in northern France that almost no one has heard of. Yet, it holds a special place in my heart; it may be small, but I know it more intimately than most other Medieval churches from the time. I have crawled through its guts.

The town has about 13,000 inhabitants, making it roughly the size of Fergus Falls, Minnesota. Never heard of Fergus Falls? Well, that’s my point.

In the Middle Ages, it was the seat of a bishop, although the bishop left and moved to Beauvais in 1801 after the Concordat between Napoleon and Pope Pius VII. The town had had a bishop since AD 531, when the Bishop Medardus moved his seat to Noyon, choosing it over a rival city because he deemed the wine in Noyon superior.

A cathedral had been built on the spot since then, being the place where in AD 768 Charlemagne had been crowned co-king of the Franks, and later, in AD 987, Hugh Capet was crowned the first Capetian monarch. It’s hard to imagine that now, with Noyon being such a backwater.

That early church — or churches (there were probably a sequence of them) — burned down in 1131 and the current building was begun in the new Gothic style soon after. Like most such churches, it was constructed and renovated, rebuilt and added to over the centuries. But the major part of the church is in the early style, including some Romanesque holdovers.  Indeed, it looks rather plain compared with its compeers.

Noyon is notably smaller than Amien or Beauvais, and its cathedral is almost a miniature version of the familiar formula. Yet, it isn’t merely its style that explains its homeliness. The French Revolution had treated it miserably, knocking off pretty much all of its external sculpture. You can see the scars.

You approach the cathedral through some narrow streets and we could see it before us, plain-spoken, with no statuary on its facade. Two nearly identical towers framed the central portals, of worn and weathered wood. The West Facade also had two flying buttresses, something I had not seen before anywhere. They stuck out into the parvis.

When we got closer, we could see that there had once been sculpture on the exterior of the building, but it had been chiseled off. During the French Revolution, anticlerical feelings ran high and many of these old churches were defaced. Some, like Notre Dame in Paris had been restored in the 19th century, but poor Noyon had been left bereft.

During the Revolution, churches had been deconsecrated and repurposed as “Temples of Reason,” or had, like Notre Dame in Paris, turned into warehouses for grain storage.

Noyon was, apparently, too insignificant for thorough restoration.

Chapelle Episcopale Saint Nicolas

You can walk around the building. To the right you discover the ruins of the Chapelle Episcopale Saint Nicolas, an 11th century revenant, pass around the back and on the south side, the half-timber library. The larger stone edifice beyond that is the cloisters and refectory.

Library

Time to go through the portal.

The interior is in better shape than the exterior and provides some of the awe and reverence you require from a Gothic church, and is truly their raison d’etre. It severs off a section of the universe, a bit of space, and lets you contemplate it divorced from the commotion and concerns of the day-to-day. You feel the immensity of that captured space and its stillness and it reminds you what is truly important, truly permanent. It is caged eternity and we watch it the way we see a panther at the zoo.

I walked around inside, taking photos. And when I got to the ambulatory and got around to the far point of the apse, I stepped up to take a few pictures of the altar and nave, when an old, withered man walked up to me and spoke rapid French to me in a stutter. I was worried I had broken some taboo or regulation, and the man indicated I should follow him. I thought I was being taken to the principal, or at least the monsignor. He dragged me along the length of the north aisle till he got to a side door, officiously pulled out a key and unlocked the door, opened it with a creak, and motioned for me to follow him into the cloister and garden that take up the north side of the church exterior.

Then he unlocked another door, to the refectory, and motioned for me to enter. Then he began speaking again, but with such a stutter, I couldn’t make anything out. I kept telling him, “Je ne comprend pas Francais,” and he kept answering, “Oui.”

He was thin as a rail, with a day’s whiskers on his pointy chin, and gnarled hands twisted with arthritis.

Je ne parle Francais pas,” I repeated. And he said, “Oui, oui,” again. Then I said, “I get ma femme. She parle Francais.” And he said “Oui, oui,” and I walked out of the refectory, down the cloister, into the nave, found Carole, waved at her wildly to get her attention, brought her back to the refectory, where the old man began speaking wildly to her.

She answered like she understood what he was saying and they had a grand conversation. I’m not convinced either one had a clue what the other was saying or intended.

“A frail old man with a terrible stuttering problem and crippled hands seemed to earnestly and excitedly be trying to communicate something to Richard,” Carole wrote in her diary entry for the trip. “And when I caught up with Richard, he took me to the cloister to the man and I told him I spoke only a little bit of French and he began speaking French as fast as he could. But, I was in luck. He was a terrible stutterer, so I got five or six reinforcements of every syllable. And after each of his phrases, I asked him in French, that is, my French, was I correct in thinking he had said so and so and so and so, and each time he replied “Oui,” and continued.

“Then I would speak five and six sentences at a time. I was totally on a roll. I was understanding everything he said. He was assuring me he was understanding everything I was saying. I left the conversation walking tall, my chest swelling with pride. Hell. I was ready to light up a Gauloise. Let’s go do something French. Let’s go drink some vin ordinaire.

“Then, Richard mentioned that this may have been a crazy man, and since the man was holding a basket, I asked Richard for some money and dropped coins in the basket. Now my confidence is going limp. I am realizing this is like the time I played the piano drunk. I could tell most of the notes I was hitting were wrong, but somehow, I felt it was my finest performance.

“I think what the man was telling me, and he reassured me at the time that I was correct, was that a great battle was fought in Noyon in the First World War, and that many British soldiers died and that this cloister, where he had taken us, was the part of the cathedral that was used for special prayers for those British men, who died in Noyon.”

He finally left us alone, and we enjoyed the refectory and the cloister and the garden.

When we went back into the nave, Carole went off on her own and I walked back to finish what I had started at the apse end. When I noticed that there was a door open at the east end of the north transept, with a light on inside and a spiral stone staircase. I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained, and began climbing.

Where I got was the triforium around the apse, a second story ambulatory, covered in chunks of stone and mortar, with an uneven floor, loose electrical wiring and in places a floor that might as well be dirt. It looked as though in 800 years, it had never really been finished, but left roughed out, since it had no useful function other than to be looked at from the cathedral floor.

I walked to the far end of the apse, took some pictures of the nave, full length, and was ready to walk around the triforium to the transept to have a look when four more people came up the stairs.

Great, I thought. I’m OK. This must be part of the tour.

But no, one of the four scolded me and told me something in French that made it clear I was not supposed to be there.

I walked over to them, apologized, explained that the door was open, and I asked if they spoke English. The woman said “un peu.” and held up the thumb and index finger to indicate about three quarters of an inch.

I told her that I didn’t understand what the man had said to me. She told me that I was not permitted up here, that she was bringing these two journalists up for a tour, and the third man was the sexton, who had the keys.

The young sexton was grim and adamant, but when I explained that I was also a journalist, and that I was studying cathedrals and had been grateful for the chance to climb to the triforium, she smiled and said, “We are going to climb the tower now. If you would like, you can come with us.”

Merci, merci, plus merci,” I said, and tagged along.

We went to the south tower at a door on the south aisle. The sexton pulled out his handful of keys and opened the door very slowly, to reduce the squeal of old hinges. We mounted the stone spiral staircase and began climbing, me bringing up the rear.


Well, I’ve been up towers before, and they can be worse than lighthouses: We climbed and climbed, with no relief of window or landing, till we got to the first level of the tower. The bells were clanging; it was quite an impressive sound, not quite enough to deafen poor Quasimodo, but loud enough. The floor looked like a construction site; the kind with grout and cement spilled on the ground and left to dry to a powder. The floor was bumpy and uneven, and the walls were unfaced stone, left as raw as when it was cut from the quarry. If it doesn’t show, why spend the time and money to finish it.

We went up another level — killing my poor knees, by the way, and practically bringing rigor mortis to my leg muscles. I huffed and puffed, but mostly, I sweated, Niagaras of sweat into my sports jacket. My shirt was a bathmat.

The next level was much like the previous, but with slots to the outside, allowing a cool breeze to filter through.

Yet one more level up, and we were at the top. Only the wooden roof was above us. Each of these levels was perhaps 30 feet high from floor to ceiling, and all left rough and unfinished.

But we could look out at the city and see the paysage all around: Farm field and woods as far as the eye could see beyond the village.

At one level, we ventured in towards the body of the church, and I could see the strut-work keeping the peaked roof up. Crawling through the guts of the cathedral, I felt the thrill of Rotwang and Maria traipsing among the buttresses and gargoyles.

Noyon may be a forgotten relic of centuries past, but it is now the church I feel most intimate with. I have seen it backstage as well as front.

After we walked back down, the church was being used for a funeral, and we all tried to be as quiet as possible. I thanked the woman and sexton for their hospitality, and left the church looking for Carole.

She was outside, having sat through some of the funeral, but then having felt a bit intrusive, left the building to walk around outside.

Anyway, it proved to be one of the best cathedral visits ever, and though I was drenched with sweat and beginning to stink that blue-collar stink, I was elated.

Next: Laon

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Size matters, at least in the case of Medieval churches vying with each other for bragging rights. The two tallest Gothic cathedrals in France are only a few miles apart, but they tell very different stories.

In the high Middle Ages, towns built churches the way American cities build sports stadiums, striving for the biggest, best and most impressive. They also advertised the best saintly relics, to draw pilgrims and their money to town. Some 70 miles north of Paris is the city of Amiens, which has the cathedral with the highest vaulted ceiling of any completed church and some 30 miles from that is the incomplete Beauvais, with a ceiling even higher, but an unfinished nave, leaving the church truncated and mutilated.

Amiens is a nearly perfect relict of the architecture of those years (and I shorthand the city’s name for the cathedral, otherwise I must write Notre Dame d’Amiens — or more precisely “The cathedral basilica of Our Lady of Amiens” to give it its official name — and almost all of these churches, cathedrals and basilicas are called Notre Dame or “Our Lady,” after the Marian cult that figured so prominently in Roman Catholicism in the area and at that time) It is the largest by volume and the tallest from floor to ceiling (save only the unfinished Beauvais, about which more later) with 13 stories of emptiness above the visitor.

It sits in the center of the town with a small by handsome parvis, or plaza, at its front. Three portals punctuate the western facade, which is covered with statues of saints and biblical figures. The north tower is slightly taller than the south, and because the building sits on a slight incline, there are more steps to climb at the north end of the facade than in the south.

Inside is brightly lit. Like the cathedral at Rouen, most of its stained glass is gone and the clear or frosted glass lets sunlight stream in.

The odd effect of the church’s regularity, its brightness and its isolation from other buildings nearby, Amiens doesn’t seem as big as it is, with ceiling 138 feet above the floor, and encompassing 260,000 cubic yards of air inside — three times the volume of Notre Dame of Paris. It is, however, the perfect model of the Gothic cathedral and the one I would suggest be the first to see, so as to gauge all the other you find in the northern half of the hexagon that is France.

There are a whole series of such cathedrals and basilicas in northern France, usually not more than 50 miles between each, and in 2006, my wife and I took a trip through the area, visiting 11 of these monuments. From Paris, we took the train to Rouen, where we rented a car and drove to Amiens and Beauvais. Then to Noyon, Laon, Reims, Vezelay, Chartres and back to Paris and Sainte-Chapelle, ending at the earliest Gothic architecture at St. Denis.

Of all of them, Amiens is perhaps the most classical, the ur-cathedral, and certainly the most unified, having been built rather quickly, by Medieval standards, from 1220 to 1260, with additions made in following centuries. Where some other churches are still rather grimy from the exhaust of the Industrial Revolution, Amiens has been cleaned up and is bright and presentable.

If anything is true of these prodigies of architecture, it is that there is no such thing as a Gothic cathedral — at least no such thing as a “pure” Gothic cathedral. Each has been built over decades, even centuries, and each has add-ons in different styles, rebuilds made more “modern,” and restorations by well-meaning finaglers such as the 19th-century Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, who replaced damaged statuary, added grotesques and redesigned finials and gargoyles according to his Victorian sense of what Gothic style should be.

Viollet-le-Duc was put in charge of restoring Amiens in the late 19th century, and he added a whole new line of statues at the top of the west facade, called the “Galerie des Sonneurs,” or “Gallery of Bell Ringers,” a passageway arcade between the two towers. He redid a good deal of the statuary and had the cathedral floor redone to smooth out the cobbling of centuries of foot traffic. Modern standards for restoration were not part of his procedure. “To restore an edifice”, he observed in his Dictionnaire raisonné, “is not to maintain it, repair or rebuild it, but to re-establish it in a complete state that may never have existed at a particular moment.” In other words, as he might imagine it

But such rejiggering is hardly unusual for these cathedrals.

Amiens was originally built in what is called “high Gothic” style, but all kinds of stylistic incongruities have been patched on. Although the building was essentially complete by 1280, in the 16th century, the mayor of  the city of Amiens decided it should have a spiffy new rose window in the then-current “flamboyant” style, highly sinuous and curvy, so the front window of Amiens doesn’t match the rest of the facade.

Not that one can complain. Inside, there are altars added in the Renaissance and the Baroque eras, so completely out of sympathy with the more rigorous taste of the Gothic. In some cathedrals, there are even Modernist stained glass windows.

It is the genius of the Gothic style that it can absorb almost anything and still seem perfectly harmonious. Some historical styles that strive for unity require any additions to be matched stylistically or the new parts seem like carbuncles grown where they are least desired. (Can  you imagine an addition to London’s Saint Paul’s Cathedral designed by, say, Louis Kahn?) But Gothic is an accepting style. There is not much you can do to it and not have it welcomed into the family.

The 19th century gave us a pervasive sense of the Middle Ages. Whether it was Victor Hugo in his hunchback novel, or Sir Walter Scott in his Waverly novels, Alfred Tennyson in his Idylls of the King, or Mark Twain (who tried to take the whole thing down a peg or two) in his Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, there are knights in shining armor, kings and their courtiers, castles and cathedrals. Those artists and authors gave us an era of dour religion and grey stone monuments. And when we look at the front of Amiens, with its ranks of saints standing like an army between the portals, we tend to have a purist vision of the stern asceticism of that era. Yet, we now know, from recent restoration work, that those grey statues guarding the church were originally brightly colored with paint. Traces of that paint is found in the stone, and in recent years, a fancy computer program has managed to create a light show that projects the original colors back onto the neutral stone. We can see what the front of the cathedral was meant to look like. It comes as a shock. One is reminded of certain Arab sheikhs painting the statues in their gaudy Los Angeles mansions.

 

There are ranks of small bas reliefs at eye-height along the front of the cathedral that depict the zodiac signs, the works of the seasons, and the stories of local saints. They are now monochrome, but inside, you can find similar quatrefoil reliefs that are still painted.

The past as we imagine it is always a shaky construct. History is always being revised, and those scholars who do the work are initially derided as “revisionist,” when, of course, that is their job. To quote the revered Firesign Theatre, “Everything you know is wrong.”

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Beauvais

Some 35 miles from Amiens, the cathedral at Beauvais is a testament to overreach. One cannot avoid thinking of the Tower of Babel, where cultural hubris outstrips engineering acumen and it all comes tumbling down.

The central metaphor of all these Gothic cathedrals is altitude, the sense inside them, that they reach to the heavens — or rather, to heaven. Their naves and choirs get taller and taller as the years move along, and when you are inside, it is nearly impossible not to be drawn upward, craning your neck into the vast space above your head. The light in a Gothic church also comes from above, reinforcing the metaphor: Above your head is divine.

This spiritual metaphor exists alongside the more earthly desire of city fathers to brag that they have the biggest and best, and so, a kind of competition existed in the 13th and 14th centuries to see who could build the most vertiginous vaulting. The winner of this inter-city battle was Beauvais, although its victory was Pyrrhic.

In AD 1225, the city authorities decided to replace an older church with one in the new Gothic style. The ambitions of the church and the local barons coincided in a plan to make this church the tallest and best in the world. The barons were in in  struggle with the French throne of Louis VIII and wished to assert their supremacy with the building, and the bishop wanted to assert his own primacy in this grand construction.

They finished the choir of the new church in 1272, with a ceiling vault that was 157 feet above the floor. An empty space the size of a 15 story building.

A Gothic church is usually built with a floorplan in the shape of a cross. The top part is called the choir, at the east end nearest the sunrise, the cross pieces are called the transept and the long side of the cross is the nave. Such churches were usually constructed with the choir made first, because that is where the Mass is celebrated and where the altar is located. (Amiens was unusual, in that the nave was built first and the whole constructed from west to east). So, in Beauvais, the choir was up and church services begun before the whole was finished.’’

It makers were proud, certainly, not only of the tallest church, but the finest, slenderest flying buttresses supporting the roof. But 12 years after it was finished, the roof collapsed. It seems to modern engineering studies, that a gale wind off the English Channel caused sympathetic vibrations in the structure and it shook apart. They rebuilt.

But the collapse, which caused concern about the engineering, and trouble fund raising to complete the whole left the church with only the choir and transept. At some point, it was decided that instead of using the money they had to finish the nave, they would use it to top the whole with a giant spire, which was finished in 1569 and left the church — at 502 feet high — the tallest building in the world at the time.

“We will construct a spire so high that once finished those who see it will think that we were crazy.”

Perhaps they were. Unfortunately, on April 30, 1573, it, too, came crashing down, along with three levels of the bell tower.

As described by author Elise Whitlock Rose, “On the eve of Ascension Day, 1573, a few small stones began to fall from its heights. The next morning, a mason, who had been sent to test it, cried out in alarm; the bearers of the reliquaries, about to join the Procession of the people and the clergy who were waiting outside, fled; — there was a violent cracking, — and in an instant, the vault crashed amidst a storm of dust and wind. Then, before the eyes of the terrified worshippers, the triple stories of the lantern sank, the needle fell, and a shower of stones rained into the church and on the roofs.”

The choir was rebuilt once more, but without the spire. But the nave (except for one bay) was never completed, leaving Beauvais as the trunk of a cathedral, a mutilated fragment.

The shakiness of its construction continues to threaten the building even today. The inside, meant to be an awe inspiring sublime holy space, is filled with trusses and braces, attempting to keep the whole from final catastrophe.

“I can remember Beauvais, because it didn’t have figurative sculpture on the outside and it didn’t have a nave” wrote Carole in our journal, “and inside I was frightened because so much of it was supported by wooden beams and screws. I wondered if it could fall.”

The lack of nave makes another point about the architecture: Despite Beauvais having the highest vaulting, its spiritual effect is diminished by the lack of nave. When you first enter Notre Dame de Paris, or Amiens, through the west portal, the view down the long stretch of nave gives you perspective on the height, making it all the more effective. You can see the height because of the length. At Beauvais, despite the height, there is something of a claustrophobic feel to it, squeezed into the heights instead of expanding to them.

Next: Noyons and Reims

rouen-facade-sunny

Visiting the churches, basilicas and cathedrals of Gothic northern Europe can be an intoxicating experience, and one can find oneself drugged into excessive panegyric. One recalls the excessive gushing of early 19th century writers and artists over the Romantic Middle Ages, with their knights in shining armor, courteous chivalry, and ladies in distress: Strawberry Hill, La Belle Dame sans Merci, Ivanhoe, et al.

rouen-chandelier

Certainly, a visit to Chartres or Sainte-Chapelle leaves one almost breathless in the sublimity of the interior space, the vaulting of heaven, the light through the stained glass. It is easy to become drunk with love for such buildings. But you should be careful not to fall into idolatry. They were, after all, built by human beings, and like their makers, can be imperfect.

Rouen Cathedral as seen from Gros HorlogeThe antidote to such architectural genuflection can be a visit to a Gothic cathedral that fails to rise completely to such admiration. For me, that moment came on seeing the monster at the heart of Rouen in Normandy. Rouen cathedral bullies the town, dominating the city with its giant spire, so out of proportion.

There is a perfectly good cathedral in the middle of it all, but it is buttressed on both shoulders by giant towers so out of scale as to seem like prison guards hectoring the poor dwarf between them, and then topped with a Victorian-era cast-iron steeple that is twice the height of the church itself. It is this Gothic designed taffy-pulled into parody.

Inside, the cathedral is spare. It was badly damaged by bombs during World War II, and most of the stained glass has been replaced by clear frosted glass. This makes the interior brighter than in most cathedrals, but also makes it look, as Rick Steves says, “like the largest mens’ room ever.”

rouen-nave-toward-apse

It is hard to recognize just what the Victorian critic John Ruskin was thinking when he wrote of Rouen, “It is the most exquisite piece of pure Flamboyant work existing. There is not one cusp, one finial, that is useless, not a stroke of the chisel is in vain; the grace and luxuriance of it all are visible — sensible, rather, even to the un-inquiring eye; and all its minuteness does not diminish the majesty, while it increases the mystery of the noble and unbroken vault.” Ruskin may have been smoking something.

That is the kind of gushing I believe a modern visitor to Rouen will find quelled by simply looking at what is in front of him. Ruskin, it seems, was still blotto on the overkill of breathy Victorian enthusiasm.

rouen-angled-facade

Historians like to divide the Gothic idea into subsets, early, high, rayonnant and flamboyant styles. Rouen, as it exists now, is primarily the last, gauded up with all kinds of filigree and tracery. Its west facade (aka, its front), is so detailed as to make it impossible to take it all in as a single entity. This is made worse by the twin towers muscling the central building into a cowering detainee. The older tower, the Tour St. Romain, sits to the left (to the south), and rises on decaying brick and stone. The newer one, the so-called Butter Tower, was added much later to balance the earlier one, and re-establish symmetry. The result is that the building’s footprint is wider than it is tall (not counting the spire, but just the actual nave and aisles huddled below) and therefore negating the whole upthrusting heavenward leap most characteristic of Gothic church architecture. Instead of reaching for the heavens, it seems as wide as a warehouse.

Most of the Medieval churches were constructed piecemeal over centuries, and in almost every case, styles changed over that time, and so Gothic architecture is an especially heterogeneous one: unity out of difference. Rouen takes that idea and runs with it. It was begun in 1035 on the ruins of a previous Romanesque site that had burnt down. Since then, the history of Rouen is one of calamity and rebuild. This constant reboot has made it a less harmonious jumble than one finds elsewhere, of ad hoc fixes, misguided redesigns and megalomaniac civic striving.

spire-destroyed-by-fire-in-1822It is the Peter Abelard of cathedrals, and a book could be written on the history of its misfortunes. The previous cathedral was struck by lightning in 1110, and construction began on the current building. The new one burnt again in 1200, destroying all but the nave arcades, the Saint-Romain tower and the left portal, with work ending in 1250. It was struck again by lightning in 1284, was partially taken down and rebuilt in 1302, the spire was blown down in a wind storm in 1353. The construction of the Butter Tower in the 16th century led to disturbances in the facade, which had to be reinforced (finished 1530). The original Gothic spire had burned down in 1514 and was finally replaced by a wooden spire covered in gold-plated lead in 1580, paid for, in part, by the selling of indulgences. In 1562, it was damaged by rebelling Calvinists  during the Wars of Religion, when much of the statuary and windows were destroyed. The cathedral was struck again by lightning in 1625 and 1642, damaged by a hurricane in 1683. The choir burnt in 1727 and a bell broke in 1786. During the French Revolution, the church, like many in France, was deconsecrated and turned into a civic building and metal parts of the church were melted down to make cannons and cannonballs. The spire was again blasted by lightning in 1822 and a new one made from cast iron added in 1876 (making it the tallest building in the world until displaced from atop the list four years later by the cathedral at Cologne. (Then to the Eiffel Tower in 1889).

rouen-wwii-2The misfortunes continued. In 1940, a fire damaged the building’s structure and burned that part of the city from the church to the Seine river, and later during World War II, the cathedral was bombed twice, first by the British, then by the Americans, just before D-Day. Parts of the south aisle were destroyed and the south tower burned. Much of the remaining stained glass was blown out, leading to the current situation with frosted glass in many of the windows.

Then, in 1999, a cyclone named Lothar destroyed one of the four wooden turrets surrounding the central lantern tower was blasted and fell crashing into the choir. The history of Rouen’s cathedral is one of constant upkeep and rebuilding, like trying to sustain a sand castle against the tide.

Yet, if the building seems a disappointment after Notre Dame de Paris, after Chartres or St. Denis, perhaps I am being too hard on it. It still has many redeeming details, and some very ancient survivors, like the north portal, or St. John the Baptist Portal. In its tympanum one sees the story of the prophet, Salome’s dance (more an gymnastics exhibition), the beheading of John and the presentation of his head on a platter. It was created in the 12th century and has survived fire, storm and the ravages of war.

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Then, there is the Booksellers’ Stairway (Escalier de la Librairie), which once led to the archives of the chapter, begun in 1479 and completed in 1788. And also on the north side is the only rose window that retains its stained glass, over the Portail des Libraires, created in the late 14th century by the artist Guillaume Nouel. The rose is partially blocked, but still can be seen. (The opposite rose window, above the Calende Portal in the south transept, is clear glass).

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There are some delightful tapestries hanging in the arcade between nave and aisle.

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Also, there is the Lady Chapel, growing out of the apse, like an elongated caterpillar, are some excellent windows and a huge 17th century altarpiece dedicated to the Virgin. The Lady Chapel (that is Our Lady — the Virgin Mary) was built in rayonnant style beginning in 1302 to replace an earlier, smaller chapel.

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And rising from the crossing of the transept is the opening in the ceiling that leads upward to the spire. While the vaulting is impressive enough, it is ever more striking to see the empty space defined by the interior of the nave opened up even higher, as if the incense and prayers could escape heavenward through it, like smoke through a chimney hole in Medieval dwelling. The vast spire tower and the godawful cast-iron spire are supported by four grand pillars marking the crossing of nave and transept, but even with those giant supports, the ceiling and the hole in it inspire an exceptional sense of what you could call “spiritual uplift,” as if the chimney had an efficient updraft.

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Nowadays, the parvis (plaza in front of the cathedral) is notably commercial, with an underwear store across from the triple portals —

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the western exterior of the church has nevertheless inspired one of the great painting series of the Impressionist era. Claude Monet painted that cathedral front something like 30 times, in sun, shade, rain, moonlight and in morning, afternoon, and night. The paintings are now spread around the world in various museums.

The painter would set up his easel — sometimes easels — across from the church and paint on one canvas in the morning to catch the first glow of light, then switch to another canvas later on to paint the afternoon light. He might switch canvases many times, over days and weeks, to catch the various effects.

I couldn’t do that in my short visit to Rouen, but I did photograph the cathedral throughout the day to make my own mini-Monet spread.

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Some years ago, we knew we wanted to see Europe. But we weren’t sure where we wanted to go. This was at the beginning of our new century. Friends had just visited Rome and brought back exciting video, photographs, watercolors they had made, and most of all, stories. It whetted our appetite.

But once we made the decision to go to Europe, we stopped to wonder if Rome was our only option. Perhaps we should think carefully if there might be some other destination that might call us.

We thought of Prague, Paris, London, Florence, Budapest.

London we ruled out because we wanted the experience of being somewhere that doesn’t speak English. We agonized for some months, fantasizing this place or that. We finally narrowed it down to Paris or Rome.

Rome — Baroque palaces, Classical ruins. Paris — Gothic cathedrals.  Do we want the classical experience, or the Medieval?

Yes, that’s what it came down to. Ultimately, the gray stone of the 11th century was more appealing to us than the sunnier marble of the Mediterranean.

nd-fruiting-branch-sculptureWe decided on Paris, with the plan to avoid all standard tourist fare and attempt to feel what it might be like to live in the city. We would eat in the neighborhood, shop in the neighborhood and walk up and down its streets. In addition, we would try to see as many Gothic churches as possible. In each subsequent visit to France, we managed to add to our life list of important architectural sites, and we developed a growing appreciation for both their beauty and their ability to inspire a profound inward-looking sense of the infinite.

I hope the reason for all this will be clear as I write about them. We kept a journal of our visits, over the years, and alternated portions written by me and often more personal portions written by my wife, Carole. There is an immediacy to these journals that cannot be recaptured in a more finished ready-for-print version and I hope you can enjoy them.

Over the years I have visited Notre Dame de Paris maybe a dozen times — multiple occasions each time we ventured to France. It was a lodestone that drew us back over and over for that glimpse into eternity that only an 800-year-old empty space can provide. The first time I went, was in 1964 and I was a teen ager, barely able to grasp what I had seen. It was before the cathedral was cleaned, and was a giant sooty briquette on the Île de la Cité. The second time was our first trip together in 2002, which was covered in an earlier series of blog entries (see: Paris 2002 Part 1). That included accidentally participating in an Easter Mass; we did not realize it was Easter. (See: Paris 2002 Part 5).

This new series of entries begins two years later when we went back. The photographs for each of these entries were taken at the time we wrote the journals.

Here is our return to Notre Dame in 2004, first my entry, then Carole’s (she puts me to shame).

nd-transept-and-north-rose-window

Richard’s entry:

We walked to the river and down the quai to the cathedral.

“This is why we came here,” said Carole.

And we walked in and the building did not disappoint us: The space remains magic. The rose windows remain the most beautiful art I have ever seen.

“Most buildings are constructed to contain something,” she said. “Most contain furniture, or people, or warehouses that contain lumber or dry goods. This building is constructed to contain the space itself.”

nd-vaulting-diagonalShe is certainly right about that. The space itself, the negative, if it were turned positive, is the shape of — what — infinity. The shape of the interior of our “souls.” The shape of the inner dome of our skulls projected out into space.

It was early in the morning and the rising sun poured directly in through the apse windows. A small mass was being said in the choir and the light shone down on them.

I went around making photographs, mostly of the sculpture at the west portals. Carole sat still inside and soaked up the ambiance.

We stayed most of the morning. We will go back.

Notre Dame is the reason we visit: There is nothing in the U.S. that gives quite this same spiritual sense. One begins to understand the appeal of Christianity to the Medieval mind. There is something mythological rather than ethical to the religion engendered by such a building, something theatrical rather than pious.

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Carole’s entry:

Oh. Notre Dame was just the place, just the room, just the building.

nd-chandelier-2This time, I spent most of my time looking at the windows from the center of the cathedral. And I especially loved the trees around Notre Dame, because they have grown in a special environment. They haven’t been treated like ordinary trees and they’re just a short distance from trees of their same species, but they’ve been treated like sacred statues because they’re part of Notre Dame.

Something else I loved, was the wood in Notre Dame. It reminded very much of the logs in Aunt Donie’s house in Wilkes County (North Carolina). Aunt Donie’s cabin was very old and there is something about the wood in both places that is the same.

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This time, the part of Notre Dame that became very real for me is the empty space above my head and it was like the empty space around a still life that I drew a long time ago on the day I realized that the empty space was not empty.

nd-stained-glass-panel

Today I thought the most beautiful window was the one at floor level behind the altar because the sun was coming in and the leading in that window looked like a tree with branches and it gave me the very human feeling of sun behind trees in the evening.

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Oh, the sculpture outside Notre Dame is a different color now and it is so smooth it looks like modeled clay.

I think maybe Notre Dame is the most important art that I’ve ever seen. I wanted to sit so I could line up the top of my head with the part of the ceiling that had a curve most like the top of my head.

I truly felt in a human attitude that I share with people who lived centuries ago, or maybe thousands of years ago. I was frustrated by knowing anything that I do know about architecture or art or history or Christianity and I kept trying to clear my mind so that I could put myself in the right relationship with the room that I was in and the same with the outside of the building.

nd-scenes-of-hellI almost got to the point where the demons on the outside of the cathedral were comprehended by me on a completely visual level. I wanted very much to have the experience of an ordinary person who was seeing Notre Dame for the very first time centuries ago and would have been able to read the building visually. Today the cathedral worked on me profoundly in a visual and spacial way, but I regret that I am not one of those who participated with that architecture with innocence and terror and devotion.

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And all of that is the part of today I don’t ever want to forget.

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I feel like I don’t understand the windows yet, even though I did sit there and look, not at the side windows, but the three rose windows and they were beautiful, but I couldn’t make them work on me the way the window behind the altar began to work. I want that kind of thing to happen with the rose windows. But I do understand the rose windows at a level now that is not just intellectual and I think they’re very mysterious and that they must work but that I haven’t been able to get them turned on yet.

The sculptures of the actual humans and the idealized humans — the saints and the kings — and the symbolic humans suffering in hell, and the other worldly figures of angels and little grinning devils affect me in a way that is really beyond language except that if I try to describe it it would be like going on one of our trips out West and seeing really massive places of stone that nature had created naturally, and seeing how it was made completely by the mighty forces of time and weight and heat and wind and water, but especially time, and that those big outcroppings of rock, faces of rock, are completely indifferent to being perceived by any kind of intelligence, but are profound and affecting faces of rock and the statues affect me in almost the very same way, amazing and profound to me, and because they have been affected through time, they seem mighty to me.

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Not just that they show the evidence of time, but most of all that they testify to the mystery that is inside our minds. I love the silence of Notre Dame, the silence of the architecture.

When we go to sleep at night here knowing that Notre Dame is there, it is a lot like going to sleep in the Blue Ridge knowing the mountains are there.

Click on any picture to enlarge

carnac-alignment

We went to see the stones. They stretched for miles, each stone like an  upright soldier in a formation. They are called “menhirs,” and they populate the area around the seaside town of Carnac in Brittany.

When we drove up to the first formation, the sun was low in the sky and shadows stretching long. We stopped by a field filled with menhir and dolmen, the ancient stones erected some 7,000 years ago for god knows what purpose. Thousands of the stones in stripes across fields, and made of a type of granite that is not local. No one knows how they were made nor why. Carole was especially worried about why.

“Maybe they were religious,” she said. That is the most common supposition. But that didn’t really satisfy her.

“I know,” she said, “they must have been used for some sport. If something was important enough for men to exert this much communal effort to transport tons of stones over miles and miles, there must be a stick and a ball involved.”

We’d drive for a few more miles and she’d pop out with, “Or maybe they were the foundation for some kind of building,” and then, after not saying anything for a long while, “Maybe they were meant to line up like soldiers; maybe they scared off an enemy.” She seemed obsessed with the stones.

tourists-at-the-menhir

Click on any photo to enlarge

 

The next day, we went out to explore. Some 4,000 menhirs, or upright granite stones, from about three feet high to almost 20 feet, are striped across the landscape in three or four major “alignments,” as they are called.

Erected some 5 thousand years ago, or maybe 7 thousand — it all seems lost in the haze of prehistory — the Celtic forebears of the Bretons hauled these logs of granite from their origin, miles away, and lined them up over the rolling meadows just north of town.

No one knows that they were erected for. The usual theories of religious meaning are trotted out, but no one really knows. Carole persists for a while that they must have been used for some sort of sport or game, going on the theory that only a Superbowl or the Olympics can bring that much commitment out of a guy, let alone a lot of guys.

menhir-3

We talked about it at lunch, in Locmariaquer, the site of some other megaliths.

Over the oysters, I said, “I think that it is just as likely that someone in the old days went crazy, heard voices in his head telling him to to this, and he then, through the intensity of his insanity, persuaded the community to erect the menhirs. Like a sachem in an Indian tribe. ”

Carole dislike the idea that this might reflect badly on shamans. She maintains there is a difference between visions and psychosis. She has her own reasons for holding this distinction.

“That’s not quite what I mean,” I said. “I mean that someone genuinely nutso hears voices, like Son of Sam — ‘My dog told me to do it’ — and because to ordinary people a shaman and a nutjob are very hard to tell apart, they might have signed on to follow him, the way the Germans signed on to follow Hitler to Valhalla.”

“But the shaman’s vision is always one to help the people, never to harm them,” Carole said.

“Well, Hitler certainly thought he was helping Germany, but we’re getting off on a tangent,” I said. “I just mean that, well, like Moses in the desert, perhaps touched by the sun and heat, came up with a lot of crazy ideas, maybe some prehistoric Celt went off the deep end and the voices in his head told him they needed to build a field of giant upright granite stones.

“It makes as much sense as any of the other ideas,” I said.

Of course, we’ll never know. Carole is obsessed with them right now, wanting to have an answer.

“Don’t you want to know?” She asked.

“But I can’t know.”

“But doesn’t it eat at you?”

“No, I can’t say so,” I said.

“It’s driving me nuts,” she said.

menhir-6

Later, in the evening, after supper, sitting in the hotel room, she started up once more.

“I thought they might be made as a display to the stars, or a sighting device to line up with stars or the sun or the moon seasonally,” she said. She sat for a moment and then began a litany of possible explanations.

“Maybe people stood on them and covered their bodies and the rocks with some sort of long garment that made them look like thousands of extremely tall and powerful people.

“Maybe they were set up to baffle a stampeding herd of animals.

“Maybe they were set up to make it difficult for an enemy to advance.”

I imagined them like some prefiguration of pachinko, used as a military tactic. Ingenious, I thought.

“Maybe,” she went on, “they were put in the ground so that if one were far, far from home, one could climb up into the mountains and look down and find these stones as a marker for home.”

The only problem with that: No mountains here.

menhhir-7

“Maybe they were part of corrals and used for the beginning domestication of animals.

“Maybe they were racetrack lanes for racing animals.

“Maybe they used to be part of another kind of a structure that included wood and animal hides.

“Maybe they were part of ancient stalls filled with trade goods.

“Maybe they were an arduous maze a person had to thread through like the meditation mazes in cathedrals.

“Maybe they had something to do with cognitive development — a step between concrete thinking and abstract thinking. Maybe they used them to learn to count from one to a thousand.”

After worrying about this for two days, she continued as we drove out of town, on to Concarneau.

“I need to know what they were for,” she said. “I still think my best guess is that they were for some sort of ball game. You know men are fascinated by a combination of sticks and balls and counting. The counting is important.”

menhir-7

A woman we met, who was from Great Britain, said that she read that the rocks at Stonehenge were transported from far away, also, and that there is a theory that they came from a site powerfully effective in healing.

“But I don’t think that is what these stones were for,” Carole said after we drove on. “They must have been for something massive, because there were thousands of them. They must have been very important for the people who arranged them, because the second group we looked at were actually stone paths, completely straight, leading toward the horizon for many many many miles. So I thought maybe this part of the stone arrangement is a runway for souls. Souls taking off to their journey to the afterlife on foot, that is.

“Maybe they were foundation stones upon which wooden logs were placed for some type of a floor and another structure made of wood came up higher. If they were used as foundation, the equidistant placing of them makes sense, because they are about as far apart as an ordinary tree trunk.

“Or maybe creatures with immense strength arrived from outer space and used some sort of anti-gravity device to pick the rocks up and put them down again in this part of France.

“Maybe they are thousands of monoliths like the black rectangle in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

“Maybe they were a huge dentist office and each person had his own stone to come to and bang his head against until he was senseless and no longer could feel the toothache.”

She was beginning to get a little punchy.

“I also think my first impression of them might be worth something —  that was that they were the earth’s teeth.”

cairn-frontispiece

Part 2

I am a reasonable man and my goals are reasonable. Some burn for the challenge of climbing great peaks; my more modest goals involve the less famous ones. They can have their Everest, their K-2, their Matterhorn or Aconcagua. I have Tucker Mountain.

It sits in Hancock County, on the coast of Maine, north of where any tourists go. From its summit, there is a great view to the south and Cadillac Mountain and Mt. Desert Isle. Its summit, by the way, tops out at 394 feet above sea level. More my style. Still, in places, it is a rugged enough hike.

My friend Alexander wanted to show me the view, and we walked through the mossy woods up past rocky outcrops and on to the goal. Along the way, we kept passing cairns — piles of rock set up by hikers. Some were simply rock-piles, but others showed more ambition, and could easily have passed for sculpture in any trendy art gallery. The more of them we passed, the more it seemed as if something cultural were going on — that there must be some compulsion to make these stony reminders that Kilroy was here.

cairn-quad-01

I photographed them as we walked, and by the end of the day, I had something like 50 or 60 images of them, and that counts having given up on cataloging every single instance; I did not photograph many of the more mundane piles.

I don’t know if such things litter the tops of all the local mountains. I don’t remember seeing so many cairns when Alexander and I climbed the summit of the more daunting Schoodic Mountain nearby (summit: 1,069 feet). Perhaps the cairns on Tucker Mountain (I should call it Tucker Hill) are the work of a single artist, or a single obsessive personality, or a small group of people wanting to make a statement. Usually cairns are left either to mark the trail, or to commemorate some important event. These seemed to exist for their own sake.

But they certainly brought to mind the dolmens, cromlechs and menhirs of Celtic Europe. They don’t have the permanence of those menhirs, which have survived thousands of years; these cairns are just rock set on rock, so the first hard frost could topple them. But I had to wonder if the impulse might have been the same: Make my mark — the X on the dotted line — the proof that someone was here.

cairn-quad-02

There is a resistance to cairns; many dedicated hikers despise them for being unnatural, and for being the equivalent of vandalism. I can’t join their ranks. The best of these cairns are genuine works of art and should be appreciated for such. Their artifice can hardly be a valid source of complaint when the hikers are marching along equally artificial trails through the woods, marked with paint blazes or diamond-shaped route markers stapled to tree trunks.

The cairn-makers may well think of themselves as being clever, postmodern, or snarky, but the bottom line, on which their “X” resides, is that the cairns are the universal cry of the one among the many, like the opening wail of the newborn baby: I am here.

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.

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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.

 

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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.