Friday, May 20, 2011

May 20, 2011: Paris - Chartres Small and Big, Cars Rouges, Seine Dinner

After a couple of busy days in the big city of Paris I thought we could use a little break, so I booked us train tickets to the town of Chartres, about an hour away. My friend Clémence, a Parisian native (who I got to know while she was doing chemistry research work last year in Toronto) joined us for the outing, which was great. We met at the Montparnasse train station and caught up on the news of the last half year since she moved back to France.

Our first destination in Chartres was not the famous cathedral - it was the lesser-known Maison Picasiette. This is a very quirky little house, decorated by its owner, Raymonde Isidore, with pottery shards over many decades. Who knows how he got started, but he never stopped - walls, furniture, kitchen appliances - everything is covered in a mosaic of scavenged pottery pieces. You can see that this obsession was deeply meaningful to him, and it is a very personal, touching experience to walk through the house's rooms and gardens. Unfortunately no photographs were allowed; it would have been fantastic to record some of the odd little discoveries within his creation.

After the Maison we visited Chartres' main attraction - its cathedral. It doesn't have the most awe-inspiring interior, as its medieval design doesn't soar as high or let in as much light as later cathedral designs permitted. What is amazing about it is its stained-glass windows - few cathedrals in Europe have such an extensive of original medieval windows left intact after the centuries of wars, vandalism and religious reformations. We really benefited from going on the guided tour led by Malcolm Miller, an art historian who has been at the cathedral for over 50 years, studying its windows and leading tours (as he pointed out, it is rare that he leads a tour these days that someone's parents or grandparents didn't attend). He was a very funny man, with quick-witted quips and insights into the cathedral's decoration. He took us in detail through just one of the many windows (teaching us that the decoration is read from bottom to top) and explaining the historical context for the window - what it meant to medieval audiences, who paid for the window and why. He also took us to one of the exterior portals and explained in detail some of the sculpture.

The cathedral is currently undergoing extensive renovation (which will take far longer to complete than it originally took the cathedral to be built - which was remarkably less than 30 years in the mid-thirteenth century), so we didn't have a view of the large rose window, but we did get to appreciate the dramatic difference in the recently cleaned gleaming white stone and bright windows, compared to the dark and gloomy dirty stone and soot-stained glass - you would actually think the cleaned portion of the cathedral was rebuilt from new material, rather than just cleaned up.

Then back to Paris! As a free benefit from our tour the day before of Versailles and Giverny we had two-day passes to Les Cars Rouges, an open-top double-decker bus tour of Paris. It was a great way to see the city - English audio guide of the sights passing by, and good weather for sitting up top (a bit overcast so not too hot). We rode along for over an hour until we got to the Eiffel Tower, then hopped off to walk up close for some photographs. We were also hungry, so got a snack from the limited food options available there. I thought we were going to be able to get some French fries, but they were sold out - we had to settle for a hot dog. Doesn't it seem ironic to eat such a typically American food as a hot dog under the Eiffel Tower? Although it wasn't a fully Americanized hot dog - it was a wiener with a thin coating of ketchup inside a hollowed-out baguette.

Then we continued our tour, hopping off again for a quick admiring look at the exterior of Notre Dame Cathedral, then walking down the river to our evening's activity - a dinner cruise on the Seine. The food wasn't that great (just a cut above airline food) but the view was fantastic - sitting in big comfy leather chairs facing out onto the water, as we passed under bridge after bridge.

Chartres old and new - uncleaned to the left and newly restored to the right

Not the large rose window, but impressive nonetheless

The window that our guide explained - the stories of the Expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the Good Samaritan

A trace of green paint remains on this dragon  (the sculptures would have originally been brightly painted polychrome)

Mary's soul ascends to heaven (see the tiny torso being lifted up by angels in the upper right?)

Mom keenly photographs the sights of Paris from atop Les Cars Rouges

A fountain (this is the problem with photographing from a moving vehicle - no opportunity to photograph an accompanying sign to record which fountain it is)

A view down the Champs Élysées to the Arc de Triomphe

Gold statue (atop the Opera House I think)

Strange "bubbles" in this plaza - they look like they might be some kind of art performance tents?

Don't remember what this one was - must do some research...

Alarmingly spiky projections separating balconies on a typical Parisian residence

An obelisk

A view along the Seine

Tourists atop the Arc de Triomphe (their tiny size shows how large the Arc really is)

Rounding about the Arc in the insane traffic of the roundabout at Place d'Étoile

No explanation needed

One of the few interesting examples of contemporary architecture in the city centre

Odd to see a British mini here

The Eiffel tower, fading into the distance

The elevator ascending the tower

Directly underneath - it is enormous

Another great building seen on the tour, but I don't know what it is...

Lover's locks on a bridge (couples mark them with their initials and lock them on) - apparently they were all cut off a year ago, but have since reappeared

One of the Seine's many beautiful bridges

Notre Dame

Flood marker on the embankment along the Seine

Couples picnicking along the Seine

Inside our cruise boat

Many people waved to our passing boat

A nice car on a moored boat - it looks like many of the boats are full-time dwellings

We didn't get to see the Eiffel Tower lit up at night (sorry Mom) but with the magic of Photoshop you might almost think we did!

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