The last day of 2016 was also our second and final full-day in Paris. We started the morning at our apartment dinette table, studying maps, and nibbling on bread and jam, hard-boiled eggs, and coffee. Our first stop was the Notre-Dame Cathedral, which had completed morning services, and was moments from opening to the public.
The cathedral is considered one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture with a tall spire, two towers, flying buttresses, plasterwork, gargoyles, chimeras, large stained glass windows, dozens of carved statues of saints and Biblical characters, and a wide staircase to elaborately carved wooden entry doors. Unfortunately, the fog cloaked and muted its intriguing features.
Construction on the church began in 1163. At the time, 80 to 90 percent of the people in France were peasants with many indentured to land owners, lords or monasteries. Life was difficult with sweat and muscle the primary means of getting work done. Therefore the idea of building a grand cathedral that could take generations to complete was fantastical. Nevertheless, under the leadership of episcopal Archdeacon Maurice de Sully, plans were drawn up for constructing the initial sections of the cathedral, and a road built to start transporting materials.
By 1177 the choir – the area that provides seating for the clergy and choir, located between the nave and sanctuary – had been completed. A few years later, the high alter was consecrated. Maurice de Sully’s successor, Eudes de Sully (no relation) oversaw more building, and by 1208 the transepts – area that lies across the main body of a cathedral, creating two sections like a cross — had been completed, and the nave – main body where the laity or laymen sit — was under construction.
Because of the length of time it took to create the segments of the cathedral, there were numerous architectures, each implanting his own version of what should be built. By 1345, 182 years after it was started, the remaining structures were completed.
The cathedral is built from stone quarried in France. To move the heavy block of stone to the top of the cathedral walls, large treadmill-like wheels, much like water wheels were created. As the wheel turned, a cable on a crane arm would hoist up a block. To turn the wheel, however, required men – often hunched after years of labor – to walk or jog inside the wheels.
Published in 1831, The Hunchback of Notre Dame by Victor Hugo revolves around Notre Dame, it clergy and parishioners. The novel, however, was written to bring attention to the plight of the Gothic cathedral, which had fallen into disrepair. Throughout the decades, Notre Dame has been damaged, repaired, rebuilt, and expanded several times, including used as a storage warehouse during the French Revolution. Aside from the spectacular architecture, what’s impressive about the structure is the sheer size, and the vision of the original patrons and architectures.
When you walk inside, you’re struck by the height of the ceiling (115 feet), length of the building (425 feet), rows of detailed stained glass windows, and number of seats (enough for 5,000 worshippers). The window over the pipe organ is 30 feet wide. Lining the walls are individual chapels, dedicated to various saints, such as the Virgin of Guadeloupe.
To be honest, I was very ambiguous about Notre Dame. It’s dark and gloomy inside with hundreds of invaluable religious artifacts from icons to tombs, statues, carvings, candlesticks, and alters. Maybe because there was a pea soup fog outside, little light shown through the stained glass. Plus it is lit by chandeliers, struggling to illuminate the nave from their lofty height.
The cathedral’s website has some great pictures, taken on a much sunny day then we experienced.
While snapping pictures, and negotiating through the crowds, a French-accented voice was heard over the loudspeaker, ““Shhhhhhh. Silencio. Silence.” We were witness to words from above!
Of course, the cathedral hasn’t passed up the opportunity to profit from visitors, with two gift shops, and charging fees to see the crypts and treasury, and walk the many steps up to the top of one of the towers. Then again, the maintenance on the cathedral is probably very high.
We were going to traipse up the tower, but they closed the tour while we were trying to discern the sign (in French) and cost. The cold weather and possible snow probably made it unsafe for tourist to climb up the potentially slippery steps. Instead, we opted to walk around the cathedral, hoping to spot the famous guardian demon gargoyle. No such luck!
Art at a Railroad Station
Our next destination was Musee d’Orsay, which is located in a railway station built for the World Fair in 1900. Its focus is Impressionist art. Because we hadn’t purchased tickets in advance, we had to stand in line, or more appropriate freeze outside for nearly an hour, as tiny groups of people where let into the museum, after passing through a metal detector.
Once inside, the misery of unsticking my Converses from the frozen ground and brushing snow flurries from my hair quickly evaporated. Like the Louvre, they had FREE coat check, which allowed up to peel off layers of warm clothing, and walk through the museum unencumbered.
The museum was so absorbing, we stayed until it closed, six hours after we arrived. We saw nearly every exhibit, which included paintings, sculptures, decorative art (furniture, curtains, dinnerware, jewelry, etc.), photography, and drawings.
The d’Orsay is a fun museum to tour with four floors of exhibits on either side of a grand hall, which was where the trains entered and left. You can peer over the walkways down to the bottom floor, which is filled with sculptures, seating areas, and people enjoying the sunlight streaming in from the curved pavilion. On the far wall is an inconceivably large clock, and the opposite side was a terrace on the fourth floor for taking in the full extent of the building.
There are also three eateries in the museum, one was the former restaurant of the Hotel d’Orsay, and looks the same as when it was opened in 1900, with chandeliers, painted and gilded ceilings, and waiters in long, white starched aprons. Here’s their current menu. I got the feeling people might go to the museum for the purpose of having a stylish lunch at this restaurant, Le Restaurant du Musee d’Orsay, and then stroll through the galleries.
The other restaurants are more pedestrian, but still very stylish like most Parisian places. The Café Campana offers the classic menu of a Parisian brasserie, and the other, Café de l’ours offers sandwiches, salads, and other light meals.
I love the artwork from the turn of the century through the 1950’s so I was sad to leave. There were amazing pieces by Rodin, Courbet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat, Signac, Bonnard, Gaugin, Monet, Degas, Manet, Bazille, and of course, Monet.
One gallery had models of sets, which were designed for the Paris Opera House which had several stories of wooden “sections” beneath the stage. Sets – hand-painted canvases — were raised up from the section. There might be dozens of sets for a performance.
There were also several galleries of Art Nouveau, Belle Époque, and turn-of-the-century furniture from France, and around the world.
Even though we hadn’t planned to see more than one art museum, we were glad that we saw Musee d’Orsay!
A few steps from the museum, we hopped on a metro train to the Eiffel Tower. We walk around the area for half an hour or so, debating where to eat, and finally settled on a little café. Well actually, we were coaxed in by the purveyor, who succeeded in placing a menu in Rich’s hand as you walk by, and convincing him we’d like the food.
The café, Le Castel, was very festive with the waiters dressed in red with jaunty bowler hats. They were getting ready for New Year’s Eve so their energy and enthusiasm added to the experience. Seated inside, away from the cold, we observed several people dining outside. Two women were having an engaging conversation over a bottle of wine. One ordered a plate of snails.
Since we were in a French café, I wanted to order some traditional food. Not brave enough for snails, I chose French onion soup. It was delicious with caramelized onions and rich broth lounging under a piece of French bread with a melted gruyere cheese on top and cascading down the sides of the bowl. Yum.
Rich wasn’t impressed. Then again, he’s not a cheese fan.
For our main courses, Rich had beef bourguignon, and I had salade de tomates et fromage, a salad with romaine lettuce, tomatoes, avocadoes, and fresh mozzarella with a lemony dressing. We topped off the meal with espressos.
Our hunger satiated (once again, we didn’t eat all day), we head to the Eiffel Tower. Since planning our trip, I’d expressed no interest in seeing the tower. I felt it was nothing more than a tourist attraction. However, as we got closer, and it was easier to discern in the fog, my interest intensified. It also helped that after leaving the café, it was on the hour, and the tower sparkled with lights (watch at the 1:04 minute mark).
As we walked closer to the tower, we lost sight of it through the trees, until we looked up, and realized we were directly beneath it. “It’s a giant Erector Set,” I declared professed.
Until you stand under the Eiffel Tower, you can’t appreciate its complexity and grandeur. It’s much bigger than expected, 1,063 feet or the same height as an 81-story building. Originally built as the entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair, the wrought-iron tower was the tallest man-made structure in the world until the completion of the Chrysler Building in New York City in 1930.
The elevators to the first viewing platform run up the sides of the tower. You can also climb the 300 steps to this level. Elevators to the second and third levels use a different principle, and are smaller. Because it was very cold outside, and the view would have been questionable with the fog, we skipped getting tickets to go up the Eiffel Tower. Plus, it was New Year’s Eve, and there were swarms of people and long lines.
Our memory of the tower will have to be a selfie… at least for this trip.
Anxious to warm up, we took the metro back to the Latin Quarter, where we were staying, and wandered through the narrow streets, which were hoping with activity. Every café was open with greeters standing in the doorways, luring people inside. The streets were peppered with confetti, ribbons, and people in party hats. It was super fun!
We got back to our apartment around 10 p.m., relaxed for an hour and a half, then ventured back outside. We headed up to Notre Dame, snapped a few pictures, and then found a bridge with a good view down the Seine to the Eiffel Tower. We were joined by several other revelers, and as 2016 ran out, the sky was filled with fireworks. It was a great way to end the year.