Sunday, 12 August 2012

Paris - The Wow Factor

les Invalides
Today we experienced the "wow" factor of Paris, feeling at the end of the day like we were drowning in a sea of overwhelming history and beauty.

Unfortunately banking problems hung over our heads until the late afternoon but a third phone call to our bank in Australia finally rectified the problem. I am also still suffering the effects of the flights which bought us here and living with dizziness and lethargy but I wouldn't describe it as suffering as the scenery makes up for any inconvenience.

We started the day with a coach tour of the city and her main landmarks under the leadership of the humorous and delightfully playful Fabian, our local guide for the day. The facts and figures were interesting to note but it was the anecdotes which made for the greater entertainment. She would spot a pickpocket and luridly describe their characteristics and tricks of the trade. Before arriving at Notre Dame, this was useful advice.

Stopping first at les Invalides - originally a church and then a hospital for those in the defence forces - it is the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte. The former cathedral part of the complex has a huge gold leaf covered dome which sparkles in the sunshine. Directly beneath the dome is Bonaparte's tomb. His relatives are in side chambers. The floor of the central chamber was removed, forming a large circle at the crossing and Bonaparte lies inside six sarcophagi, each outside and larger the the preceeding one, much like the a series of Russian dolls. Outside of that is a huge wooden casket. The original alter has remained in place - an ornate structure of marble and gold with Christ on the Cross as its central, most powerful motif.

Bonaparte died of an overdose of arsenic. There are several popular theories as to how, including an accidental overdose. It was a popular treatment for upset stomachs and paintings of Bonaparte suggest he had such problem. Others say the English or perhaps a jealous husband poisoned him. My own theory relates to the recent theories that he suffered from bipolar disorder and the access he had to arsenic provided a means to a quicker end in a life that had been full of many highs and also many lows.

The design and architecture was staggering.

We went down to the Seine (pronounced sen) and enjoyed a cruise which started below the Eiffel Tower and took us past the two riverine islands, Ille de la Cite (the City Island) and Ille Sainte-Louis (Saint Louis Island). Our arrival began a day long, jaw-dropping adventure for my girl from Woodford Island, near Maclean. These were her dreams, parcels of escape which she had used to remove herself from sadness, fear and desperation. Our son, the immensely talented songwriter Chris Langston, wrote a song of hope encouraging the belief that a better day was ahead of us if only we had the courage and tenacity to trust it would come. Today was Sue's day to walk in the moments of those long cherished dreams.

Seeing the Eiffel Tower loom in the coach window was just the start.

The inner city of Paris, especially as seen from the Seine, is not like we are used to in Australia's oldest city, Sydney. There, old architecture stands almost alone like isolated islands standing like light houses shining their beacons from the past. In Paris, its the new buildings which do that. As soon as you have seen one amazing building, the next is right beside it. Even apartments are magnifique. Whilst many impose themselves, the classically Gothic Notre Dame takes the breath from your conversation. It has been built and repaired many times but its first stones were laid in 1163 and it was one of the first buildings to use the flying buttress as a means of supporting its walls and three tiers. A lot of religious artifacts inside the church were destroyed in the French Revolution but the inside still remains a powerful symbol of the Christian church.

Outside, in the square which faces it, the crowds are always dense, the line to enter long and the pick pockets plentiful. We were approached twice by gypsies pleading their case for support of dying brothers and relatives in war torn somewhere but its all a scam to see where you keep your money and then a second man, or usually child, bumps into you and fleeces your hard earned. I found that aspect of the crowded places we went quite daunting.

We ordered Subway, through a combination of poor French, pointing and patient staff and ate beside the northern walls of the cathedral.

After lunch, Fabian took us on a stroll of the Latin Quarter, a fabulously cosmopolitan part of Paris, full of cafes and bars. It is also home to one of the oldest bookshops still trading, The Shakespearian Bookshop, supposedly a haunt of Hemmingway and Plath and many others. The then owner became their first publisher and the seller of their initial writing. There were small parks where young lovers lay together on the grass in embrace of Eros and many small lanes and alleys to be explored. Up one such alley, we came upon the fortified home of Francois Mitterand, former President of France. He said to say hello.

After walking past the Sorbonne and into the courtyard of the Musee National, we all collapsed in the coach for the trip back to the hotel. Despite needing rest, I was back on the phone and backward and forward to the ATM trying to resolve our lack of cash issues. Just before we were due out, things came good.

If the day had been amazing, the evening was no less so, for we were taken to Le Petite Chaise (The Little Chair), claimed to be the oldest continuously operating restaurant in Paris. Down a little side street, where the occasional scooter races past, we were whisked up a narrow stepped and steep flight of stairs to a small but delightful space. The walls had hardly changed since WWII. The tables were tiny and the seats narrow but everything else was superb. I had to fore go alcohol - still swimming in jet lag - but it hardly mattered. Sue relaxed and was perhaps a little rude to the American couple we sat with but with no real cause as they seemed nice enough. My girl latched on to her concern for the invasion of American culture into Australian society - a just point but hardly their fault. Le vin rouge does such things to my lady.

To cap an already staggering day, we were taken to le Trocadero, a square with a round about at its centre, which is considered the best place to view the Eiffel Tower. Out on the pavement, Sue and walked hand in hand, rounded a building into the crowds and their she stood, all orange illuminated iron, pointing to heaven from the Champ de Mars, a triumph of vision over common sense. It might have been pointing to heaven but it was far from revered when it was first built by Gustaph Eiffel to coincide with the opening of the 1889 World's Fair. Parisians hated it and with some justification. Paris was a city built with glorious stone and masonry and poetry of line, The metal triangles of le Tower were far from  that. Had it not been that an antenna at the top provided much improved radio reception, it would have been torn down by a city well versed in the power of the people.

I have rarely experienced such dumbfounded awe at a man-made structure. Certainly, natural wonder has left me speechless: sunset at Uluru; the coastline north of Cairns; Anbangban Billabong at Kakadu; The Kimberleys; standing in the canopy of the giant tree forests of south west Western Australia. This was such a moment and made the more amazing but the fact that despite the presence of probably 2000 people, Sue and I felt almost totally cocooned in our own space. A few minutes later when the lighting was augmented by twinkling white light which looked like hundreds of cameras flashing, the crowd erupted into cheers.

Sue was asleep before we got home. More dreams I guess.

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