Saturday, February 6, 2010

Walk 1: Paris in Layers: Notre Dame, Sainte-Chapelle, Conciergerie

Can you say overwhelming??? This walk included the Hôtel de Ville, Notre Dame, an archeological crypt, the Conciergerie, and Sainte-Chapelle, and probably covered less than a half-mile. I'd barely been in Paris a week when we completed this walk, and couldn't believe how much there was to see in such a small area. I still can't believe it, actually, but at least I don't walk around with my mouth agape anymore.

Did I mention that I love cathedrals? Basilicas? Churches with high ceilings? Well, I do. And Notre Dame represents so much of what is fantastic about Paris. Walking down a single street here, you pass an unassuming apartment building that was built in the 1700s and then a neon-signed pharmacy; an enormously ornate cathedral, and then a McDonald's. The French are like elephants (wait for the end of the sentence...)--they never forget. The fourteenth-century buildings are as much a part of their city and their lives as the supermarkets, post offices, and schools. For them, history is inseparable from daily life--everything just kind of blends together into one big, beautiful, hip-yet-historical city. And Notre Dame is like a microcosm of Paris. Its construction began in 1163, but it's a bit of this-and-that from every century since, including some stained-glass windows that were added in the 60s, but it all works together to make one of the most beautiful buildings in which I've ever been privileged to set foot.

Ready for some more history? Notre Dame is actually built on the same site where once stood a church commissioned by Clovis (who is widely recognized as the first king of France) in the 6th century. We visited an archaeological crypt below the square in front of Notre Dame that houses remains of columns, dwellings, and other architecture dating back to the Roman days of France (we're talking stones from the 400s). And, while, looking at a bunch of brick got a little old, it was fascinating to contemplate the continuity of civilization here, and to think that I'm now a (small) part of it.

The Conciergerie was used as a prison during the Revolution. Various members of the nobility, and those loyal to the King, were held there until being executed. Most notably, Marie Antoinette was imprisoned here until meeting her end at the guillotine. This is me in her cell.

We ended the walk with Sainte-Chapelle, and what a finale! The ground floor is tiny, just one room covered in blue, red, and gold ornamentation that almost looks like it might be painted plaster. We knew there had to be more, but it took several minutes of scanning before I noticed a little staircase at the corner of the room nearest the entrance. We hiked up (seriously, it is the narrowest, steepest, windiest staircase in existence) and found this:

Breathtaking, am I right or am I right or am I right (sorry, I just watched Groundhog Day)? The ground floor must have been designed as a test of devotion--anyone who really cares enough to find and climb the staircase wins this incredible view. And, boy, did we win. Every day that I'm here I kind of feel like I've won some kind of cultural lottery. Every corner I turn, I find some new, indescribably gorgeous thing, and sometimes it doesn't feel real. I have a habit of blinking every time I come to any exquisite new monument , like I'm expecting to open my eyes to find that I've only been fooling myself, that I'm not really standing in the midst of such immense beauty. I've been blinking a lot lately.

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