Thursday, April 9, 2009

Paris: Part Two, Versailles

11:00AM April 3

I got up early on Saturday morning, around 7:30, with the intention of meeting John for coffee and pastry before heading off to Versailles. I told him to meet me at Notre Dame by 9:00, but he was nowhere to be found. By 9:20, I called him to find out what was up, and he told me that he'd just woken up. We bagged the cafe idea, instead planning simply to meet at Versailles around 10:30 along with Rishma and Marielle.

Seeing as I still had some time to kill, I walked around the Latin Quarter for a bit. Like most of Paris, it was really wonderful, but the Latin Quarter tends to be a night district, so few stores were open until 10:00, at which point I stopped into a great looking patisserie for a chocolate brioche, an apple fritter, and an elegant chocolate pastry.

At that point I hastily made my way to the nearest station, but the next train out to Versailles didn't leave till 10:22. By the time I got there it was nearly 11:00. I didn't see any of them at the train station, so I headed over to the palace and walked around the gardens there a bit, eating my first two pastries, but they were still nowhere to be found. Around 11:20 I got a text message from Marielle asking where to meet, and soon after all four of us met at the front gates. John had apparently been there since 10:45, but Marielle and Rishma had just arrived. I then pulled out the chocolate pastry to share with them. It was more like chocolate bliss. The thick and creamy chocolate was supported by a fine graham cracker bed. I don't think I've ever had something so tasty.

The palace itself was simply stunning, full of everything you might imagine from Louis XIV. It was simply gaudy, with a seemingly endless number of rooms—700, with 2153 windows, 67 staircases, and 6,123 paintings—each one decorated in a different bright colored cloth. Over and over again we were provoked to ask the question, "why?" Why have so many rooms? Why have a bed with a bed if it isn't a bedroom? Why would anybody need a church in their house, let alone a two-story church with a grand organ? Why put an obelisk inside? Why have a hall of mirrors? The only reasonable response we could come up with was, "why not?" It seemed that at least every other room had no function and was simply furnished with chairs around the perimeter of the large space, to which we asked, "when would anybody use such a room?" Would they inquire for tea in the slightly mauve room one day? "I think we'll take tea in the scarlet room tomorrow." For this we could only come up with one answer, "if you have the means, why not?" To the common man or peasant, Versailles was reason enough for a revolution.

John by the window

An incredible fresco at the Versailles Palace

The grand two-story church

A seemingly useless sitting room, one of hundreds that populate the palace, each decorated with a different color cloth.

The famous hall of mirrors

The palace was really gorgeous, and I particularly liked a room where maps were painted on the walls. It was fascinating to see the depiction of a vastly different looking Paris, and it's hard not to appreciate a room as grand as the hall of mirrors. After a bit though, the palace became numbing, as we seemed to be seeing the same rooms over and over again decorated in different colors. The whole place reminded me of Stanley Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, where an Irish peasant lucks into considerable wealth during the second half of the eighteenth century, somehow marrying into nobility. That movie, for me, depicted just how pointless much of the space really was, as some scenes showed the family sitting around in silence, basking in their own glory, not sure what else to do with it.

The gardens were equally endless and fabulous. We walked towards Marie Antoinette's private abode, twenty minutes out onto the property by foot. Of course, it began to rain halfway there, and we stopped in briefly at a cafe to grab some shelter.

There were not many flowers in the gardens, at least this time of year, but I think the French accounted for their climate, aiming to make it a beautiful landscape all year-round by filling it with fountains, sculpted bushes, orchards, and a gigantic cross-shaped pond that I can only imagine was used for rowing. It was built long enough to support competitions in both directions. As we approached the cafe, we saw two people coming off the pond in a small rowboat. Before long the rain subsided though, giving way to blue skies and brilliant white cumulus clouds. Just as we reached Marie Antoinette's house though, the next batch of rain began to pour down.

Outside in the gardens, looking back towards the east wing of the palace.

Facing the backside of the palace from the beginning of the gardens

Looking over the crossed part of the man-made pond--near Marie Antoinette's--which is nearly as big as the main length of the pond.

Marielle described this private residence as Marie's "Barbie" house due to its pink exterior. As she remarked, "even the orchard of trees outside is pink." Marie definitely loved this color, as a particularly intense shade of pink was used for the decorations in her bedroom. In keeping with the style of the rest of the palace, each room took on a different gaudy color. At least her house did not have nearly so many rooms, but upon seeing her large ballroom, we were again forced to ask, "why?" At least it seemed she had some hobbies, which could not be found in the main palace, represented in the form of a pool table and an easel.

When we were ready to return to Paris it was still pouring. We waited ten minutes for the shuttle to take us back to the palace. By the time we got back though, the weather had shifted back to blue skies and cumulus clouds. Even during our rainy season in Florence I didn't see this much shifting in weather.

The pink orchard in behind Marie Antoinette's house. If you look closely, you'll notice the edges are all trimmed at a right angle, forming a perfect box of trees.

Rishma and John walking up to Marie Antoinette's pink "Barbie" house

An example of the more functional rooms that seemed to populate Marie's humble abode

Out front of the Versailles Palace, with clear skies.

John departed when we got back to Paris, and Rishma, Marielle, and I went back to the hotel. We hoped to meet up with some of the other girls at the catacombs, but by the time we got back, it was already 5:00, and they were closed. Rishma and Marielle had yet to see the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower, so I left them for a bit, planning to meet up at the foot of the tower a bit later. I went off to see Montmartre and the famous Basilique du Sacre-Coeur.

The neighborhood of Montmartre, built up on the hill behind the Moulin Rouge, was really wonderful. I had a great time walking around up the hill, and I finally witnessed my first street artists in Paris at a plaza near the top. I'd expected to see artists around many of the major tourist sites, but today you mostly just find cheap copies of paintings others have made of the Eiffel Tower or Notre Dame sold by street hustlers.

The Basilica was really fabulous, topped by white stone domes which appeared to me to have a large muslim influence. Of course, I went for the view though, which I'd heard was possibly the best in the city, and it did not disappoint. Up on the hill, you can see out over most of the city, although trees mostly obstruct a view of the Eiffel Tower. The great thing was, only thirty minutes earlier I had said to Rishma, "I'm surprised we haven't see a rainbow today with all of this sunny and rainy weather," and there at the top of Montmartre, I spotted the beginnings of a rainbow over one of the business districts out to the east. How much more could you ask for than a rainbow in Paris?

The neighborhood our hotel was in


The Basilique du Sacre-Coeur, atop Montmartre.

Looking east towards a business district, the small rainbow on the right side.

I then scrambled down to meet Rishma and Marielle at the Eiffel Tower. By the time I got there, they hadn't ascended it yet though, so I walked around the surrounding neighborhood for awhile, eventually making my way back towards the tower through the Jardin du Champ de Mars just as the tower lit up for the night. When I reached the foot of the tower, Rishma and Marielle were nowhere to be found. I knew we had to meet back at the hotel soon though, so I thought they might have already left, and I headed back myself.

In front of the cavalry building, at the bottom of the Jardin du Champs de Mars.

When I reached the hotel, only Alex and Jen were there, but they informed me we weren't going out until 11:30. We were having a large dinner for Kate and Jen, who would each be celebrating their twenty-first birthdays in the coming week. I used the spare time to catch up on my sleep, as I napped a little while watching the French-Lithuania soccer match.

We went to a fancy place in the Bastille district for dinner. They had the best butter for bread, and Jen's dad treated us to two bottles of champagne. I was tempted by foie gras again, but I thought once was enough for the trip. Instead, I ordered a pumpkin-chestnut soup, which was quite tasty. For an entree, I did get duck though, this time in the form of a confit over sauerkraut. I liked the duck, but I didn't really enjoy the juxtaposition of flavors with the sauerkraut. Dessert was my favorite, as I got a chocolate cake which turned out to be closer to a fudgy mousse, like I'd had earlier in the day. It was served over a layer of vanilla sauce with a hint of rum.

By the time we left the restaurant it was 3:00AM, and we had an early flight that morning. Tryson, Jaimie, and Marielle decided to head back to the hotel, and the rest of us decided to stay up, killing the next two hours between a few bars near the restaurant. At 5:00 we had to head back in order to make our 6:45 bus to the airport. I was mostly packed though, so I headed off in advance of the group, and I went to see the Arc de Triomphe at night.

When I reached the Arc, it was 5:55. The giant roundabout, known as the Place de L’Etoile, which surrounds the Arc was practically empty, and I was able to walk straight across all twelve lanes without being passed by a car. I stood outside the chains at the perimeter of the Arc, taking pictures of the Champs-Élysées, when at about 6:03, a police office came up to me. I was a little nervous that he was going to make a fuss, and as soon as we sorted out what language to speak in, he told me in broken English, "you are not allowed to be here until 6:00, you have to leave, but now that it is past 6:00, you can come in and take your pictures." The whole encounter was quite odd, and I had no intentions of going under the Arc in the first place, but seeing as he was now inviting me in, I took the opportunity to walk through and observe it up close.

I then headed down Avenue de la Grande Armée towards the bus station, and was there with plenty of time to spare, so I stopped for a cappuccino at the cafe across the street. It took me a while to adjust to the Italian concept of drinking coffee while standing at the bar, but now I quite like the idea, and I was happy to find that this French place did the same. I was at the station by 6:35, and soon thereafter met up with the rest of the group as we departed for Beauvais, Pisa, and eventually Florence.

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