Paris in Review July 15 – 19

Although I originally had hoped to post a report after every one or two days spent in Paris, our busy schedule prohibited me from doing so. Fortunately for readers, this means that our Paris experience will be condensed into its highlights while I omit some of the comparatively more mundane items from our itinerary such as buying fresh sandwiches for lunch from an excellent French boulangerie (bakery). However, I will not completely abandon the format that I outlined in my last post. I will first list what places and activities I discuss and then follow up with more detailed reports and finally a short section weaving in any information or musings that might not have been included in the prior sections.   Sites: Notre-Dame Cathedral, food, Versailles, Louvre, Napoleon’s Tomb, Musee d’Orsay, Petit Palais, Catacombs, Centre George Pompidou.   One of the first sites that we saw in Paris was the Cathedrale Notre-Dame, a spectacular gothic style cathedral built and refurbished over the course of nearly the past millennium. As one of the oldest sites in Paris, the cathedral served as an excellent starting point for our tour of Paris. Placing the cathedral in context, Dr. Kroen led our group around the “isles” of Paris, that is, the ancient quarters of the town just north of the Seine. Curving through the backstreets of Paris and gazing upon the relics of eras long since gone, I certainly felt a better sense of the Parisian character – an acknowledged connection to deep and rich history while celebrating the triumphs of the present with clean streets and an incredible public transport system. The palace of Versailles, in many ways embodying the grand celebration of past, present, and future that I alluded to above, came next on our list. Built by King Louis XIV in the late 17th century, Versailles struck me from at least a quarter mile away when all I could see was a small section of the dome and tip of one wing. Throughout the grand rooms of the king and his men, I could see how the court rituals promoted the authority of the king while its audacity haunted the palace when the Revolution broke out. The real treat, of course, was being able to see the hall of mirrors where numerous peace treaties were signed and the luscious gardens flowing all over the surrounding countryside. Our journey through history continued to move forward. Another cultural spectacle, the Louvre, quickly followed up our visit to Versailles. While the most famous painting had its own room, I opted for sticking with the 18th and 19th century works to stay closer to the period that we will be studying in Cambridge. The sheer size of the collection at the museum was amazing and seeing the outside of the museum at night was a nice addition. Next on our movement through time and history was Napoleon’s Tomb and the museums of the army at Invalides. Originally built by the monarchical state as a place for retired soldiers, Invalides became a monument to modern French military history from Napoleon to de Gaulle. Fortunately, I was able to see three of the four main exhibits: 17th through 19th century, the World War’s section, and the de Gaulle post-war period. The emphasis on World War I revealed the sensitivities of French character to the nation’s perceived victories and questions of how compliant the state and people were under occupation. Of course, I hesitate to draw conclusions based on such slim evidence, but it certainly reinforced the important role that our interpretations of history have in defining our present. As a continuation of the art history that we saw in the Louvre, the Musee d’Orsay presented some truly outstanding pieces. One of my favorites was Joseph Tissot “Prodigal son”, a reworking of the biblical parable into 19th century life. Of course, the even more famous Monet bridges and lilies paintings at the end of the museum were spectacular too. And yet life has a way of exceeding our expectations as I found out when I peered out the old glass clock cover from the museum’s days as a train station over an incomparable Parisian sunset. While none of the paintings lost their luster in that moment, I appreciated the view, the experience, and the significance of the moment in ways that are sometimes impossible to capture in art however heretical that might sound to artists. In a similar vein of seeing art and history interact, I visited the Petit Palais on my own time. While the art was definitely great, I was more interested in the spectacle of the building since it was used for the great exhibitions of the 19th century. What was it like to bring the world to this grandiose hall and present France as the epicenter of modern life? From what I saw, I can imagine that the experience would have had an incredible impact both on visitors comparing their country to France and on Parisians taking center stage. On our final day, the group decide to see the Catacombs. Although there was a lengthy wait, the site was definitely worth the wait. Basically, the Catacombs were a limestone quarry that became a burial site for remains deposited in overcrowded Parisian cemeteries. The most intriguing part though was the story that the museum told with the quotes and markings around the graves. There were several inscriptions reminding visitors of the frailty of man, but they clearly reminded one of the historical heritage that the site represented and hinted at the French obligation to uphold the nation’s place in the world. I would definitely like to see more about how the Catacombs are interpreted by Parisians. Finally, I completed my tour of art history with a stop at the modern and contemporary art museum known as the Centre George Pompidou. Again, the architecture of the building indicated what purpose the museum served as glass encased escalators decorated the outside and the view from the top floor (the first floor most people visit) celebrate the heights of man’s modern life. Beyond that, the collection touches on every corner of the globe reminding one of how interconnected mankind has become in the last one hundred years. I would love to go back and see more of the museum, but I was tremendously happy to put closure on my journey through Parisian museums from the 17th and 18th century through the present.   Musings and Extras I’ll try to keep this section short since I covered a lot of ground in this post already. Mostly, I’d like to let readers know how receiving the city of Paris was to our group. Personally, I had some experience with the French language heading into the trip and even though my speaking skills are quite limited, I enjoyed a slightly better connection to the city than I might have otherwise had. More importantly, the extremely convenient transit system (metro, bus, tram) made navigation easy and opened up Paris to us in ways that would have otherwise been impossible. In fact, in one afternoon I covered the Petit Palais near the center of the city, Balzac’s house in the Western region, and Victor Hugo’s house back on the Eastern side. Rarely do I have the chance to fly across different parts of a city with such ease and I really applaud the French government for their tremendous efforts in investing in institutions that link visitors – and even natives – to their town. That being said, I am extremely glad that this program included the introductory days in Paris because I truly felt history come alive under the direction of Dr. Kroen and the self-exploration that allowed me to develop my own thoughts and connections to the city and its story. Vive la France! Vive l’universitaire de floride!

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