C’est Fini

I wake this morning feeling different to what I had expected. I don’t feel sad or reluctant to leave; I just feel like I know what I have to do. I have to get up, heave my twenty-five kilo bag up and down hundreds of steps, in and out of four trains, and check in at the airport. After all, all good things must come to an end or, as the French would say “c’est la vie”. So I get into autopilot and get myself going.

It is not until I am on the train heading to Charles de Gaulle that I start to feel a little sad. I am still not ready to leave. I look out the window as the city passes us and realise with disappointment, that I’ve missed the glimpse of Montmartre that I got on this train on the way into Paris. It’s like I have forgotten to say goodbye.

I have loved every moment of my month here, even the cold weather. I’ve enjoyed the lifestyle, the parks, the food, the shops, all of it, and I know I’ll be back to do it all again. I think fondly of all the things I have seen and done in the last month. Some things, feeling like they happened months ago, are not so fresh in my memory. But, I am also looking forward to seeing my family and friends back home, hearing what they’ve been doing and catching up on their news.

Once we’ve boarded our flight, as we taxi towards the runway a few more tears come. I blink them away. I’m sad not so much because I’m leaving Paris, but because I’m returning to all those things at home which I’ve successfully avoided for the last four weeks. As the plane moves closer to the runway, I hear the voice of my friend, Danielle, in my head. I can hear her telling me, as she has many a time before, “you can’t run away from things, Camilla”. As always she is right and it makes me smile.

My window is a little behind me so, when the plane takes off I literally look back at France and notice that many of the fields which were bright yellow when I arrived have now been harvested, leaving behind brown paddocks in their place.

Eiffel Tower Sunset

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Retour à la butte

We finish the holiday where it began – Montmartre. We start the day by visiting Cimetière de Montmartre, a short walk from the apartment. I’ve not been in this direction before and I’m now wondering why. Rue Caulaincourt is wide and tree lined in this direction, and relatively calm. We walk over an iron bridge and down some steps to enter the cemetery. I am intrigued by the juxtaposition of the iron bridge built, quite literally, over the top of a row of graves, the support beams of the bridge coming within a couple of centimetres of the cross which adorns the top of one of the mausoleums underneath it. It brings context to the idea of an underworld.

Cimetiere de Montmartre

The cemetery is like a village of sorts. There are wide cobblestoned streets bearing names, lined with mausoleums and tombs of different shapes and sizes, with narrower dirt paths leading off them. Each path is similarly lined with graves and tombstones. In a way there is no order, as the backs of some mausoleums will stand at a 45-degree angle to the front of another. Yet, this lack of uniformity adds character and charm. Unlike some cemeteries it doesn’t feel quite so somber and depressing. It’s quiet and we don’t see many other people, but there are leafy green trees overhead, with birds tweeting in their branches. Occasionally, we come across some graveyard cats sunning themselves or peeking out from behind a headstone, curious about us but also a little afraid.

As we walk the paths I am suddenly reminded of the last time I was in a cemetery, a little too recently for my liking. A deep sadness descends upon me for a moment before I push those thoughts away and listen instead to the sound of my shoes clicking on the cobblestones.

After a while we leave the cemetery and walk in the direction of Rue des Abbesses. If there were one street I wish I had discovered earlier in my trip this would be it. It’s lined with lovely clothing stores and cafes, and while the atmosphere here could be helped by the fact that Spring has finally arrived in Paris and it’s a beautiful 20 degrees with the sun shining, it is a joy to be here. With weather like this it’s not hard to understand why people recommend Paris in Spring. We walk in and out of the shops here and then stop for a coffee in the sun before making the steep climb to the top of la butte. I’m taking Mum to see Espace Dali.

I drop her off and sit in the square nearby, in turns reading my book, standing in the sun, and listening to a cellist who has set up outside a café nearby. When Mum finishes as the gallery we take a stroll around the Place du Tertre, crawling with other tourists. We’re looking at the impressionist artworks and deciding if I want to take one home. Mum is keen for me to take something home to remind me of my trip but I’ve seen nothing yet that I really love so we make our way back to the apartment to pack.

Once the packing is done, we go back into the city. My last stop in Paris is going to be the Tuileries, for one last gander. We select two seats by the round fountain near the entrance and sit surrounded by Parisians and tourists, to soak up the early evening sun. We walk up to the duck pond to see the ducklings again (they seem much bigger this time), before heading out to dinner and then home.

Jardin de Versailles et la Sainte-Chapelle

Today is a Monday and most museums in Paris are closed. We’re keen for a break from the city anyway so we catch a train to Versailles. Although the Chateau is not open today, the gardens are, and this suits us well.

We walk in and to the right of the Chateau’s golden gates, as we walk over the cobblestones my mind goes back to the last time I was here. It was ten years ago and I was with a friend I am no longer in contact with. I remember how icy the path was, and how afraid I was of slipping over. I think about my friend, what she might be doing now, and search my mind for memories of our first visit here. Did we share a laugh or was it all very serious? We pass under and arch and out into the gardens. To our left is the Chateau, on our right and in front of us, the extensive gardens.

Versailles Gardens

We walk first around the Chateau, looking down on the manicured lawns and gardens that surround it, before walking down the main stairs that lead to a large fountain currently being restored. Here, we head left and amble through the mazes which lead begin here and emerge further down on the long path that leads to the grand canal. We walk until we reach a large pond, at its centre, a horses and a chariot rider are emerging from the water.

Versailles Gardens - urn

We cross over in front of the fountain and enter a small walled courtyard. In it, we find a restaurant but I suspect this might once have been a stable. It’s a long narrow stone building, with a trough running the length of the far wall. Classical music plays gently in the background. It make we want to hear more so I get on the internet and book us in to a concert this evening in Sainte-Chapelle. On the back of yesterday’s chocolat chaud success, we order one here. It’s not quite as good but it’s still excellent. We decide to return here for lunch, but first we’ll walk the gardens some more.

Back in the garden we turn turn the right and move in the direction of the Grand and Petit Trianons. We walk along wide dirt paths, lined with shady trees. It’s quiet here and very peaceful. There are enough people around that we don’t feel like we’ve been deposited on a desert island, but not so many that we their presence or have to rub shoulders with them.

Versailles Gardens - trees

When we reach the Trianons we discover that their gardens are closed. I’m a little disappointed; on the map it looks like the paths here ramble, ideal for strolling. We turn and walk down to the canal and start heading back towards the chateau (and lunch), slowly strolling under the chestnut trees by the water, interspersed with small topiary bushes that have been meticulously coiffed.

After lunch we explore the last section of the garden, which we have not yet experienced, before taking a few moments to warm ourselves on a bench in the sun by a fountain. We then head back to the train station and home to Paris.

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I’m looking forward to the concert tonight for two reasons. First, music always sounds better in a church or chapel; somehow it brings me a feeling serenity and calm. Secondly, the concert is at Sainte-Chapelle, one of Paris’ sights I’ve not yet made it to. This has been a visit ten years in the making (I didn’t get here last time I was in Paris either) and the idea of finally seeing it is exciting.

There are about thirty or forty guests for tonight’s concert, and we all shuffle into the chapel. A few people, I must admit my Mum and I included, whip out their cameras to take some photos. It’s much smaller than I had imagined, and I’m immediately glad that I get to experience it in this somewhat intimate setting, rather than shuffling past with hundreds of other people during the regular opening hours.

It seems that tonight’s performance involves ‘flutes’ (better known as a series of recorders), violin and harpsichord. The concert begins with a single flute playing, the music floating through the chapel as the flautist approaches the temporary stage at the front. When he reaches the front, he switches to a larger flute before suddenly whipping a very small flute out of his jacket pocket. For a moment, I think perhaps I’m in a pantomime.

The other two musicians join the flautist and as they play I take in the scene around me. I let my eyes drift up to the stained-glass windows that make up at least half of the space between the floor and ceiling, which is painted a navy blue with tiny gold stars. As the light outside changes with the setting of the sun, the colours most noticeable in the windows change. First blues, then reds, then the greens, and finally the blues again.

Sainte-Chapelle Windows

I take in the small nested archways behind the musicians. They’re made of carved, gilded and painted wood and stone, with tiled borders and painted ceilings. The rich colours and textures of the different materials make it even more interesting to look at.

I shift my attention back to the musicians and as the music crescendos so do the flautist’s eyebrows. In response the violinist is like a rock; immovable and serious. The pianist is about as old as his harpsichord, his skin has a somewhat translucent quality and his head reminds me of a light bulb. The music is good but honestly, I can take or leave a harpsichord and a flute. Violins, on the other hand, I love. They don’t so much sing as weep, whether tears of joy or sadness, to me a violin always produces such emotive music.

The violinist plays a solo piece, or perhaps the harpsichord is accompanying him. I’m not sure, I can’t remember now, but my focus is on the violinist anyway. The piece he is playing is about a series of animals and finally, the stoic expression of the music cracks, he starts to look like he’s enjoying himself, swaying with the music, leaning forward in some parts, smiling in others. He plays music for a chicken, a rooster, and my personal favourite, a cat. The violin whines or ‘meows’ a number times, and I can picture the lazy swagger of the kitty were it here in the room.

As the concert draws to a close with a Vivaldi piece, I’m reminded of a massage I went to with Mum once, when she thought that bringing along her Nigel Kennedy CD of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was preferable to the didgeridoo / running water / bird music provided by the massage parlour. I agreed with her, until we reached the percussion section half way through. This memory always makes me want to laugh, and as the lights are turned back up and the musicians accept the audience’s applause I have a massive grin on my face.

This has got to be one of the best ways to see Sainte-Chapelle. It’s intimate, atmospheric, and you are given about an hour to sit and really absorb all the detail within the chapel, with background music.

As we walk in the direction of the metro which will take us home, we catch the end of a beautiful Paris sunset, the sky beautiful pink and purple colours.

Paris Sunset

Musée Jacquemart André

We start today as many Parisians begin a Sunday, in the park. Today we choose Parc Monceau, in the 8th Arrondissement. We sit in the sun, eating breakfast and watching people going about their day. There are groups of runners doing laps of the outer walking path of the park. Others are walking, playing with their kids, or enjoying sitting in the sun as much as we are. Periodically, a group of ponies walk past, with small kids on their backs. Each time, they’re led by a handler and surrounded by the children’s parents like an entourage.

After an hour or two it’s time to move on. We head to the Musée Jacquemart André, which has been recommended by a friend. Although holding excellent renaissance artworks, the draw card of this museum for me is the building itself. The rooms of this 19th century house have been restored beautifully, with most of the décor and furniture original or in keeping with fashion at the time.

Having worked our way through the first half of the house, we go to move upstairs. We step into a large marble hall containing a statue surrounded by indoor plants. The ceiling is glass, allowing light to flood into the room. Opposite the statue, a double staircase leads to the first floor, twisting to turn back on itself before arriving at its destination. It is impressive to say the least. When our visit is over we move outside to the gravel courtyard. It’s a large circular yard with green bench seats dotted around the outside. Separating each seat are wide garden plots edged with low hedges, creating the illusion of privacy. We select an empty seat and sit reading our books in the sun for a while before heading for lunch.

After lunch we head towards the Grand Palais. We sit in a square at the side entrance to the building listening to a clarinet player for a while before walking around to the front. The queues are insane so we opt to go to the Minipalais for a coffee instead. I order what turns out to be, hands down, the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had. It’s creamy and chocolately and delicious.

Hotel de Cluny

Our dose of culture for today is provided by the Hotel de Cluny, better known as the Museé national de Moyen Âge, a building constructed in the 15th century on the same land as Gallo-Roman baths. Today, the museum incorporates both the baths and the hotel into its exhibition space, filling each room with squillions of artifacts from history. The first room is showing a series carved monks called ‘Tears of Alabaster’ and the detail in each little statue is exquisite. Arranged in a wide arc that slowly rises, it is as if the monks are forming a procession up a hill. We slowly move along the installation taking in the details of each monk; some are crying, others have their faces covered by their hoods, and one is carrying a tiny bible. They are so enchanting that we double back to have another look.

We move through room after room of artifacts, some rooms are filled with stained glass windows, some with church pews; many are filled with tapestries, jewellery, and illustrated books. Still others contain sculptures such as the heads of the Kings of Juda, which originally adorned Notre Dame but were removed and buried during the Revolution because they were believed to be a link to the French monarchy. There is, in fact, so much to see here that it is a little overwhelming so, after an hour or so, we hand back our audio guides and go in search of retail therapy.

We spend the afternoon shoe shopping in Saint Germain, returning to a shop we had seen a few days before but hadn’t gone into. The shop attendant doesn’t really want to help us, but when he realises we’re quite serious about the shoes, his attitude seems to change. We must spend about forty-five minutes here, trying on pretty much every shoe they have in our size. At some point, Mum being dissatisfied with what she’s seen so far, asks the attendant to bring her everything they have in a 35. He gets quite a gleam in his eye.

Having made our shoe purchases, the attendant tells me they custom make shoes for their customers. He pulls out a board with what looks like about fifty different leather samples on it. I can choose from any of these and they will make the shoes for me. It only takes 10 days. The good news? They ship to Australia.

Shoe shopping over we stop for dinner before walking the Paris streets at night. We walk up to Notre Dame, and back along the Seine past all the bridges. We turn in at the Louvre to see the Pyramid alight, before turning onto rue de Rivoli and walking under the colonnade to Place de la Concorde. It is not until here that I think the lights are worth seeing. Until now we’ve seen bits and pieces of buildings gently lit. They’re nice but, like Mont Saint-Michel, they’re not spectacular. However, rounding the corner onto Place de la Concorde, I see the Eiffel Tower lit with one green leg, one yellow, and the upper section in red and blue. As we walk towards the metro it changes. Suddenly, it is like thousands of little flash bulbs are going off on the tower and it is sparkling. It’s fabulous to watch. As we descend into the metro the tower is still flashing.

Normandy – Le Mont Saint-Michel

We start the day with a French breakfast of coffee and croissant on the water before getting back on the road. Somehow time gets away from us and it’s about 11am before we’re on the road. I realise now, when I think about the myriad family driving holidays we’ve had, that my father is a miracle worker when it comes to getting us in the car and on the road at a reasonable time.

Today we need to get as far as Mont Saint-Michel and again we opt for the smaller, winding roads. Not far from Honfleur we round a corner and see an old wooden house on a grassy hill, with fog and clouds pushing through the trees behind it. Further on, we turn off the coast road to head inland and South towards Mont Saint-Michel. We choose a road that is barely wide enough for two cars to pass each other as it meanders through the hills. It is flanked by fields of rapeseed with beautiful bright yellow flowers growing as high as our shoulders.

house in fog Honfleur outskirts

It’s a beautiful drive and we reach Mont Saint-Michel around 5:30pm. We’ve booked accommodation over the internet during one of our pit stops during the day so we go for a drive around the area before heading to our hotel to check in.

For dinner we go to a restaurant known for its local ‘pre-salted’ lamb. The sheep graze on the reclaimed pastureland along the coast in Beauvoir and are alleged to have saltier meat as a result. I enjoy the meal but honestly, I can’t tell that it’s any different to any other lamb I’ve eaten.

Before we return to the hotel for bed, we drive out along some narrow roads that run through the middle of some crops towards the coast. We drive until the road ends. We’re here to look at the Mont at night, illuminated by various lights on the island, a sight that is supposed to be spectacular. Like the lamb it’s nice, but it’s not amazing. We notice though, that the lights on the Mont are illuminating the clouds behind the Abbey’s bell tower, making it look like smoke is rising in curling tendrils from the island.

le mont saint-michel

The next day we go out to the Mont ‘early’. It’s not that early, but it’s too early for day-trippers and families so it’s quite peaceful on the Mont. There is just one road that leads up to the Abbey, in a wide arc from La Porte du Roy, where we enter the monument. It is lined with souvenir shops and restaurants, as it would have been centuries ago when travellers came here on pilgrimage. We follow the road up before turning into one of the gardens, and working our way up the Mont through these instead, appreciating the view back to the mainland and out to sea at various points along the way. We tour the Abbey before heading back down the Mont. It certainly is impressive given the size of the island, the engineering issues, and the age of the buildings. As we leave, fighting against the tide of visitors working their way up from la Porte du Roy, we celebrate our decision to come out here early.

le mont saint-michel - view

Normandy – Honfleur

For the next three days we travel around the North West of France, tracing a path from Paris, north to Giverny, then west to Mont Saint-Michel before returning to Paris. We try to avoid the motorways, instead using the smaller and older highways so we can see more of the countryside and small villages.

After collecting the hire car we make the usual wrong turns, suffering from GPS ambiguity as it navigates us through Paris’ streets. Finally, we get onto the motorway and make a beeline for Giverny, our first stop. We intend to see Monet’s Garden.

The village lies about an hour North of Paris. We snake our way along the narrowing streets, moving deeper into the small village, and then meander our way on foot to Monet’s house. When we arrive, there’s a queue of about fifty people at the front door. It’s not too bad as far as French queues go so we join it and wait… and wait. After half an hour, we’ve moved halfway up the queue. As a snail overtakes us we decide to give up. Although we’ve been told the garden is magnificent, we have a lot of ground to cover today and we can only imagine what hoard of people awaits us inside the garden.

We opt for lunch instead, and a walk around the village, before getting back in the car and moving on. Mum’s about ready to find accommodation for the night but we really haven’t gotten anywhere near as far as I wanted to today, and we still have hours of daylight left. The GPS is taking us to Les Andelys, famous for its white castle, which was built in 1196. Somehow we manage to miss the village and don’t realise until too late.

We continue on instead of turning back, again taking older highways. We’re heading for Honfleur, where we’ll try to get accommodation for the evening.

We arrive in Honfleur at about 5:30pm, driving as far into the old part of town as we can. We’re driving in narrow cobbled streets, only wide enough for one car and lined with old wooden buildings.

We secure a room at the first hotel we try. It’s on a corner of the square boasting France’s largest wooden church, St Catherine’s, built in the 15th century. Across the road from the church is its bell tower, built this way because the church building could not support the weight of the bells if it were attached. Our room overlooks one side of the quiet square.

Mum settles in for a nap and I take myself off for a walk to explore the little seaside village. I wander up and down the many little streets, soaking up the ambience and letting them take me wherever they lead. I go down to the port, just one street away from the hotel, entering through the archway of La Lieutenance, the old town gate, and watch the restaurants and carousel from the port entrance.

La Lieutenance - Honfleur

On the way back to collect Mum for dinner I stop to buy some chocolate and have a chat with the shop owner. My last stop is St Catherine’s. Its interior is very modest, with simple statues, not a skerrick of gold leaf; the only colour is provided by the glass windows at the end of the church. Outside, the detail is quite amazing. Although all made of wood, the texture, colour and carvings of each part of the structure is quite varied, from the feathered shingles on the exterior walls, to the beautifully carved window arches.

Mum and I head for dinner. Being on the coast, I’m definitely having moules frites. Dad would be jealous, so I take a photo to send to him.

Before retiring, we go for a walk down to the port, the lights from the restaurants are reflected in the still water.

Honfleur - night