Are you ready for another story from Paris? Well then, I won’t keep you waiting a moment longer!
The day started off slightly overcast – after having been reunited with my suitcase, I spent a while deciding what shoes to wear on my day in the city before eventually settling for sensible flats. Heels are all very well but when you’re dashing all over the city and having to anticipate the thought of climbing lots of stairs at BREAKNECK SPEEDS (slight exaggeration) then flats are the best option… Satchel packed with a change of clothes, I headed to Maison Blanche (which is not a glamorous presidential house or home to Blanche Neige but a relatively small and quiet metro station) where I took line 7 to Châtelet. Emerging from the underground, I was greeted by the stunning architecture in Place du Châtelet.
I soon found myself crossing the Pont au Change (a bridge which features as an iconic location in two of my favourite books Victor Hugo’s ‘Les Misérables‘ and Patrick Süskind’s ‘Das Parfum’. The latter tells the story of a sensual yet gory quest for the perfect scent through 18th Century France and a large portion of the book takes place at a fictional parfumerie on the Pont au Change).
From the bridge, I got a great view of the Palais de Justice complex, which is a really impressive sight to behold. Whilst the gothic towers and spires look as if they belong in the illustrated pages of a fairytale book, it’s important to remember that Paris has more than its fair share of dark secrets. This building has a particularly bloodthirsty past, for it was in the Conciergerie, an ancient prison within the complex, that numerous prisoners (including Marie Antoinette) were imprisoned before they were guillotined during the Reign of Terror.
Just around the corner from the Conciergerie is the Palais de Justice – this is the most exciting part of the building because this is where all the action takes place and where justice is carried out to this day! This was a very busy area, with a heavy police presence. The national tripartite motto of ‘Liberté, égalité, fraternité’ is featured on the façade of the Palais, with one word chiselled above each of the three main doors.
When you cross over the Pont au Change, you leave the right bank of the Seine and find yourself on the île de la cité – a natural island on the River Seine, which is dominated by the iconic gothic cathedral Notre Dame de Paris.
The Cathedral of Notre Dame is one of my favourite sights in Paris – measuring over 70m high, construction began in 1163 and today the Cathedral is considered to be one of the most beautiful religious landmarks in the world, showcasing a perfect example of French gothic architecture from the Middle Ages. Notre Dame was also one of the first buildings to feature flying buttresses as a form of architectural support. I’ve already mentioned my love of gothic novels and admiration for the author Victor Hugo elsewhere on my blog, so the fact that I love the novel ‘Notre Dame de Paris’ (in English ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’) will probably come as no big surprise to the reader. Everyone knows the Disney version of the story – where deformed hunchback Quasimodo falls in love with the beautiful gypsy girl Esméralda and spends a lot of time singing and chatting with his anthropomorphic gargoyle friends and swinging on bells. The novel has much darker themes – as well as playing with juxtapositions of the grotesque and the sublime in the form of the different characters in the novel for effect, Victor Hugo was extremely passionate about the importance of preserving Notre Dame’s beautiful architecture from destruction and corruption. The character of Esméralda in particular serves as an important metaphor for the potential fate of the Cathedral…
Arriving at Notre Dame, I wasn’t too impressed with the massive eyesore ie. blue walkway that has been built in the Place Jean Paul II to mark the 850th birthday of the Cathedral. This pretty hideous looking construction (what was that about heeding the important warning about the corruption of the beautiful Cathedral by modern architecture?) leads to an elevated grey viewing platform which is covered with the names of French Saints (I was mildly appeased by the fact that the name Louise was included. Mildly. I remember visiting the Cathedral when I was much younger and being able to have a Mary Poppins ‘Feed the Birds’ moment, however now all the sparrows have been scared off by the terrifying sight of that walkway)
I do have to admit, however, that even though the view of the plaza was compromised by the big blue monstrosity, the view from the platform was spectacular, giving the viewer a closer look at the ‘Gallery of the Kings’, a line of statues on the Cathedral façade. The air was cold and even though I wasn’t that high up the ground, it felt as if I was at quite a high altitude. I stayed for a while gazing at gargoyles – and I ended up being approached by a seemingly never-ending chain of couples wanting to have their photographs taken with the impressive backdrop of the Cathedral. This went on for a good twenty minutes, (I started to feel as if I was a teacher on a school trip in charge of everyone’s cameras) but it was actually quite a lovely feeling helping others get a good memory to take home.
Moving swiftly onwards, I left Notre Dame to have a look at the ‘Bouquinistes of the Seine’. Along the river, you will find green stalls which have a large variety of second hand and antiquarian books – as well as the obligatory postcards of the Eiffel Tower, cats and Brigitte Bardot.
In the two lower pictures, you can see some examples of Parisian graffiti. On the left hand side, brightly coloured Chopin and Gospel concert posters have been stuck to the side of a green box covered with tags and scribbles, whilst on the right hand side there is evidence of some of the more tongue in cheek graffiti artwork that you can see around Paris. Just above the street sign ‘Rue des trois portes’ there is a red horned octopus – Octopuses seem to be a popular image to use as graffiti in Paris. According to this interview with Underground Paris (http://undergroundparis.org/gzup-interview) street artist Gz’Up has managed to place over 214 plywood octopuses in locations hidden around the city. (I’ll interject here with a vaguely fun and random fact about Guernsey and the octopus. The French word for octopus, ‘pieuvre‘, originally came from the Guernsey French language of Patois. When Victor Hugo came to live on the island of Guernsey for 15 years whilst he was exiled from France, he wrote a book dedicated to the island called ‘The Toilers of the Sea’. One of the villains of the novel is an angry giant octopus. Victor Hugo quite liked the sound of the Guernsey word ‘pieuvre‘ and so decided to ‘borrow’ it in order to give his aquatic beast a name, and after the book was published, the word ‘pieuvre’ came into common usage in the French language)
Pieuvres aside, I continued on my travels and eventually stumbled across a weekly market. Taking a break to buy a drink, I was amused momentarily by the commotion caused by a small flock of pigeons flying out from behind the counter of a bakery before I looked at the time and realised that I had to meet a friend in the west of Paris and that I had no idea where I was supposed to go, which metro line to take… or indeed where the nearest Metro station was. Although I was cutting it very fine, I made it just in time and promptly found myself in a Japanese restaurant with ‘G’ struggling to make a dent into a large platter of avocado sushi, rice, mushroom skewers AND miso soup whilst trying to appear elegant and demure using a pair of chopsticks. A sushi massacre ensued.
Seeing as I had moved onto the west side of Paris, I was relatively close to the big department stores Printemps and Galeries Lafayette on Boulevard Haussmann. Outside, the grey clouds were dispersing, leaving the skies over Paris a glorious shade of bright blue, so I decided to go for a walk along the boulevard. The blue skies were contrasting beautifully with the golden art nouveau domes of Printemps’ Flagship store. The shop windows were beautifully decorated for the festive season.
Just across the street from Printemps is the rear façade of the Palais Garnier, l’Opéra National de Paris. This structure was planned by Napoleon III and designed by Charles Garnier – the project completed construction in 1875. It’s an opulent, beautiful building – and was the scene and inspiration for Gaston Le Roux’s 1910 novel ‘Le Fantôme de l’Opéra’. Having recently been bowled over by Gerónimo Rauch’s performance as Erik the Phantom in London, I had been particularly looking forward to getting a closer look at the building. Florence had told me that if you turn up an hour before certain performance then it is possible to get cheap tickets, however I didn’t have time to try this out. The Opéra interiors are gorgeously decadent and can be toured for a small fee of around five euros.
I allowed myself to get lost in the glitzy decorations of both Printemps and Galeries Lafayette (which was built 30 years after Printemps) for a few hours. The Christmas tree in Galeries Lafayette was the most beautiful tree that I’ve ever seen. It was lit up with electric blue lights and studded with large pink flowers with mechanical petals which opened and closed at regular intervals. A big snowy owl perched at the top of the tree whilst animatronic puppets of mice, cats, rabbits and monkeys danced above the heads of shoppers making extravagant purchases at the make up counters on the ground floor. Galeries Lafayette has ten stories and so there are escalators on each floor in order to make the ascent to the heavenly glass domed ceiling – ‘la coupole‘ – much easier on your legs. I decided to make my way up to the top in order to get a closer look at the big fluffy owl.
For many families, it’s a time honoured tradition to go and see festive displays in the big Parisian department stores. The 2013 window displays at Printemps were designed by Fashion House PRADA. Grown ups and children alike were peering into the colourful vitrines whilst upbeat retro music played from speakers – I especially enjoyed hearing the goose walk from ‘The Aristocats’.
I would return later to Boulevard Haussman later in the week with my mum to bask some more in the bright lights and beautiful shop displays. As dusk began to fall, however, the time came for me to head to Chatou, a town in the suburbs famous for being popular with impressionist painters, to spend an evening with my uncle, aunt and cousin.
We would be leaving for Disneyland Paris in the morning…