Paris Trip Report, Part II of III

A continuation from Part 1:

Day 4 Friday, 27 September: Chartres
This was the day I was most nervous about! As I had been warned by various travel sites, Gare Montparnasse was rather overwhelming! It took us some time to find the ticket selling booths, but once we finally tracked them down the lines were not long, and there was an attendant who spoke English (we looked for the British flag on the window). We got three round-trip tickets with open returns, 90 Euros total. The attendant also kindly gave us a paper schedule with the return times. After that we just had to find the right track!

We waited beside the giant screen, waiting for the display to tell us where to go. Voie 24! We found our train, started to settle in, then realized we were in a first class car (ooops!). Thankfully there were plenty of seats in second class. Then I remembered something about validating tickets– so Bob took our three tickets out and tried to validate them at one of the yellow machines we saw other folks using. It didn’t seem to work but a kind conductor wrote the validation on them instead. Whew! Finally we could relax and enjoy our trip.

I found myself getting quite antsy on the train ride, after being in Paris where I could be constantly on the move. But it was only about an hour, and then we were disembarking at the considerably less imposing station in Chartres. It was easy to find the Cathedral, following the distinctive mismatched spires!

There was a convenient tourist shop right outside with a 50 cent bathroom and various necessities for sale. We availed ourselves of this and then found our way into the Cathedral.

It was beautiful. Overpowering. Massive. The contrast in dark and light: the beautiful stained glass and the vast, shadowy heights. I had arranged our schedule so that we could hopefully see the stone labyrinth in the floor uncovered: it is only opened for people to walk it on certain days. Thankfully my interpretation of the schedule was correct: and it was already quite crowded with barefoot visitors wending their slow way along the stones smoothed by thousands of past pilgrims.

I joined them, listening to atmospheric music on my iPod to block the tourist chatter (though most people were being quiet, it was still rather crowded and the hum of conversation was ever-present). You enter on one side, following the spiraling, turning pattern of raised stones until you eventually reach the center. Some folks simply exit at that point, while others retrace the path out. It was moving to imagine all the past centuries of pilgrims walking there, especially when you see the places where the stones are worn, both in the labyrinth, and along the bases of the great columns (where thousands of past visitors have rested).

Afterward, we continued to wander. The scale of the structure is overwhelming, inside and out, and it does its job: making you aware of how small you are, but also uplifting you and making you feel a part of something greater. I wished we could have stayed for the concert they were preparing for that was to be performed that evening — it would be glorious to hear music in that space! But at least I got to hear one of the cellists warming up before we left!

Outside again, we explored the lovely gardens overlooking the Eure river valley, and decided they would be a perfect lunch spot. It was sunny and blue out, wonderful weather! But as it was still a little early to eat, we decided to see if we could take the tourist “train” trip down into the village. This was very helpful for my mom who otherwise might have had some trouble with the steep slope and cobblestones.

We took seats in one of the little open carriages, pulled by the small motorized “engine”, and enjoyed a fun trip through the narrow medieval streets with half-timbered houses looming out over us, down along the river where the old washing houses are, then back again to the cathedral. There was recorded commentary in French and English, telling us a bit about the history of Chartres, the architecture, etc. I believe this ride cost about 7.50 each, and lasted about 35 min. It was worth it to us to spare the walking!

After that we picked up sandwiches and drinks at a corner store, then ate them in the lovely gardens overlooking the Eure.

I wished I had taken the time to go down and explore more of the gardens, including the outside labyrinth, carved into the grass. But we also wanted to take the tour of the Crypt, so we went off to do that. The tour is only offered in French, but there is a handout with English notes. It was a rather lackadaisical affair, very short, but only 3 Euros each and it allowed us to see the underbelly of the cathedral. My favorite part was the dim, red-lit, long, spooky chapel — which we wandered while the guide moved on (albeit with some concern that we might be left behind and locked in, as I recalled reading about in another traveler’s journal!). We also saw the impressively deep well, and foundations.

Lastly, I climbed the tower– 300 steps! Mom and Bob stayed below. The view of the countryside was not particularly compelling to me, but I really enjoyed the chance to see the gargoyles up close! I loved the external architecture of the cathedral as much as the inside — so many massive, sweeping buttresses and sharp stone angles against the blue sky!

I also spotted a little rooftop terrace on part of the cathedral that I had not seen from below. I like to imagine the priests sneaking off to enjoy a secret break there.

We headed back to catch our train home, full of beauty and a (just okay) nutella crepe from one of the shops in Chartres. We took the bus home from Gare Montparnasse, stopping at Franprix for eggs and pasta and tomato sauce. Bob fixed a dinner of pasta, and we had a nice salad of mache and arugula with a dressing of apartment-furnished olive oil, vinegar, honey and garlic flakes. I had more of the amazing hazelnut yogurt for dessert. It was a good day!

Day 5 Saturday, 28 September: Palace of Versailles
I was up early, and enjoyed a quiet time drinking tea and listening to the first soft rainfall of our trip outside, as the others slept. I went out eventually on a pastry run, and was perhaps overenthusiastic knowing that many of the shops would be closed Sunday! At Boulangerie Julien I got croissants, a pain au chocolat, a slice of rhubarb tart, and apricot pastry, choquettes, and a cannele. I walked back via the Luxembourg gardens, stopping at Bread & Roses for another cannele (for scientific comparison only, of course!) and then at Secco for coffee for Mom, plus a citron tart and a pistachio macaron. Whew!

Everything from Boulangerie Julien was amazing — especially that rhubarb tart! We set aside several of the sweets for later, and feasted on the rest for breakfast. Then Mom and I took a short walk to visit Bon Marche, where we admired the glitz and glamour, collected some scented perfume cards, and ogled the high-priced luxury goods. Then it was time to go back home and collect Bob for our day trip to Versailles, to ogle a different sort of luxury.

We got tickets from the metro machine that would be valid on the RER C train to Versailles. This was a little challenging, mostly because my nerves were still wound up after the train travel the day before. But we managed, and were soon on our way.

Versailles was overwhelming, and not necessarily in a good way. There was just so much! So many tourists, so much to look at, so big a site…!

We started off with a quick lunch in the chateau cafe, then headed over to the tour entrance for our Hidden Rooms tour. This was fantastic — definitely worth the additional (small) fee above general admission, especially as it allowed us to escape some of the worst of the crowds and to skip the long entry lines. The rooms we saw were not as large as those on the public display, but they were interesting and more personal. My favorite was the Opera House — so gorgeous! Also a pleasant chance to sit, after a lot of walking and standing!

When the tour finished, we could have continued on to see the public rooms, but we were so tired and overwhelmed, and the crowds were so thick, that we just zipped through to the Hall of Mirrors (which was indeed very impressive!).

Then we headed down to the gardens. Because it was Saturday, the fountains were on, and we had to pay a fee, but I thought it was worth it. The grounds are so vast, and several areas were under construction, but we really enjoyed viewing the sculptures (both original/classical, and the temporary installation of tree-inspired modern art that gave one the impression that a troupe of Ents from Middle Earth had come to visit). One of my favorites was the Grove of Apollo, with those gorgeous horse sculptures blazing white against the green grass and gray rock.

We ended our visit at the main fountains, for the finale of the day at 5:20. We sat in the grass along with hundreds of other tourists, to watch as the dozens of fountains came to life, twisting and spraying to the vibrant (recorded) musical accompaniment.

Then it was time to head back to the station! The line for the ticket machine was huge, and we were hungry, so we decided to have our supper first. We went across the street to a brasserie, where we had a really delicious meal. I had a salad with chicken and roasted vegetables, Mom had baked cod with steamed vegetables, and Bob had pasta alfredo with salmon. I splurged on a creme brulee for dessert that was the perfect end to the meal. Bob visited the Starbucks next door for a more prosaic but still tasty chai.

The lines were still quite long, but we prevailed, and used the last of our coins to get the tickets we needed to return home. We got off at the Champs de Mars stop, so that we could see the Eiffel Tower at night. Having just missed the hourly sparkles, we decided to wait for the next. We entertained ourselves by visiting the Trocadero and people watching. Bob and I also took a ride on the old-fashioned merry-go-round! Spinning along beneath the colorful lights, surrounded by brightly lacquered horses, accompanied by rollicking carnival music, catching glimpses of the glittering spire of the Eiffel Tower across the river: it was magical!

Finally at the top of the hour the tower sparkled, and the fountains of the Trocadero began an impressive display. It started to rain just a bit, but we didn’t care. I watched a mother and her small son doing a little, jaunty dance down the street, under their umbrella.

We had a bit of trouble getting home after this, due to several busses being no longer in service. But we finally located a line running from Champ de Mars that would take us back to our neighborhood. While we waited, we were entertained first by the passage of the “Party Bus” — literally a moving party, in a bus, booming techno dance music with the windows revealing flashes of dancers and bright lights inside.

Then, we noticed what seemed to be a figment of our tired brains: a white horse, standing alone in the dark grassy fields. It took us a moment to realize it was in fact one of the carriage horses that pull tourists around during the day — the driver and carriage itself were nearby. But it was fun for the brief span of time when I could imagine it was in fact some sort of magical manifestation. As much of a unicorn as I would be able to see on this trip, since one of my favorite exhibitions (the Unicorn tapestries as the Cluny Museum) were not on display as they were traveling out of the country, alas.

Day 6 Sunday, 29 September: Musée du Louvre
Mom and I had eggs for breakfast, with that delicious Poilâne bread
bread. Then we took a stroll up past Saint-Sulpice, to Boulevard Saint-Germain, to find American-style coffee at a Starbucks for Mom. I enjoyed exploring some of the twistier side streets, with their nubby cobblestones and mysterious turns and passages.

We visited Saint-Sulpice for the morning service, primarily to listen to the organ music. The music was indeed powerful, thrumming into my chest. I also especially loved the small green-lit chapel in the rear, and the enormous carved clam shell.

We headed home to meet up with Bob, and take the bus to Saint-Germain, where we had lunch at an Indian restaurant on Rue de la Harpe. It was tasty, though not as good as our favorite Indian restaurants back home. But we’d been craving something with more spice, so this was a nice change. We had a pleasant table, on the second floor, by the window, overlooking the pedestrian street outside, surrounded by the vivid orange and fuchsia silks of the restaurant decor. Dessert was more Berthillion– pistachio this time! So good…

Finally we scrambled onto a bus to take us to the Louvre. The weather was expected to be a bit rainy, so it seemed a good day to visit a museum. We had not bought tickets in advance or gotten the museum pass, but the lines were not bad. By the time we were in it was already 3PM, but we knew 3 hours would be more than enough for us to see a few of our favorite exhibits before developing museum fatigue. Since we all had different favorites, we split up, agreeing to meet again just before closing time.

I focused on the Near East antiquities, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and the Egyptian antiquities. I was very sad that my favorite piece of art (the Winged Victory of Samothrace) was not on display, but that just means I will have to return again someday! I still enjoyed the lustrous darks and lights of Vermeer and Rembrandt, and the chance to be reminded that peoples all through time are not that different than modern humanity. I felt this especially looking at an Egyptian cat carving, which shows the tiny kitten pawing playfully at its mother’s face. I imagine the artist must have loved cats, to capture such a bit of truth.

We were all quite wiped out by the time we had finished our individual tours! We headed home via bus, then Bob and I went out to pick up some dishes from one of the Asian tratieurs — greasy, but tasty enough! Even better was the melon we got for dessert from the corner market. So juicy, sweet and ripe.

To be continued…


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