A Stroll Through Paris’ Sainte-Chapelle

 

Shimmering like a radiant jewel box, Sainte-Chapelle is often overlooked by visitors to Paris, who instead opt to tour Notre Dame Cathedral. I’d long read how Sainte-Chapelle is a must-see and favorite among shutterbugs, yet it took me several visits to the City of Light to see this Gothic masterpiece.

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Europe, Somewhere in Time: An Interview with Artist & Photographer, Maurice Sapiro

I recently happened upon the beautiful, timeless work of Maurice Sapiro, an accomplished photographer, painter and sculptor who calls Connecticut home. The images from his Europe gallery, circa 1956, are what captivated me: honey-toned scenes of Venetian gondoliers gracefully powering delicate boats across a lagoon; black and white images of Bavarians in frenzied celebration; silhouetted-figures spying London’s Tower Bridge under a veil of fog; and tiny figures standing among the lacy rivets of the Eiffel Tower. When I look at the photographs, they make me yearn to travel back in time. Perhaps that is why I enjoy Maurice’s gallery so much, for seeing its classic imagery makes me feel as though I have.

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An Ascent at Notre Dame

This autumn, I found my new favorite niche of Notre Dame Cathedral…

During past journeys to Paris, I’ve visited the Gothic masterpiece in varying seasons. I once rang in a new year on the edge of the Seine while the magnificent cathedral towered over revelers with her exquisite and graceful silhouette. On the chilliest of winter days, I strolled through her drafty interiors to see her chapels dressed up for the holidays. I’ve also meandered past her towers on warm summer afternoons as fluffy clouds glided by.

Until recently, my favorite Notre Dame memory was of the sun pouring through the jewel-toned Rose Window just as a musician dramatically tickled the ivories of the thunderous organ. The happenings were perfectly choreographed as we passed through the immense front doors.

I now love the views from her platform the best, for it is there that I can commune with Viollet-le-Duc’s gargoyles and grotesques and imagine the history that Notre Dame could share if only she could speak. High above Paris’ rooftops, I think of all the chapters of history the magnificent cathedral has hosted – from the crowning of Napoléon, to numerous royal marriages, to dramatic and damaging attacks during the French Revolution.

As the bells tolled on the hour, I pondered how Paris’ skyline has changed through the centuries, how Sacré Coeur and La Tour Eiffel sprouted from the landscape in the nineteenth-century and how Notre Dame’s platform looked before the extensive restoration, long before the gargoyles took residence in the 1840s. At times, I thought Quasimodo might even emerge from around the bell tower’s corner!

Many know Notre Dame largely because of her fictitious tie to Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, which was published in 1831. It might come as a surprise, though, that the author is actually credited with helping garner support for Notre Dame’s restoration in the 1840s.

Thanks to the novel’s popularity, Parisians came to realize that the cathedral was very much in need of some restorative attention, which it eventually received over the course of two decades, starting in 1845. Even today, some wonder if one of the chief architects, Viollet-le-Duc, somehow drew his gargoyle inspiration from Hugo’s Quasimodo. Regardless of the source of the architect’s motivation, Notre Dame’s restoration eventually motivated the French government to take more interest in its ailing monuments, thus helping to preserve the nation’s rich architectural heritage.

“Great buildings, like great mountains, are the work of centuries,” Victor Hugo once said. Indeed, Notre Dame is one great structure.

In 1163, Bishop Maurice du Sully laid the first stone for the cathedral’s foundation. The construction would take almost 200 years to complete. Once the 226-foot (69-meter) towers were in place, Notre Dame was crowned the largest religious building in Western Europe. It would hold this title until the mid-thirteenth-century.

As I admired Notre Dame’s flying buttresses, imposing towers and beautiful flourishes, I found myself disappointed visualizing the majority of buildings that contemporary architecture. Whereas builders of centuries past created structures that have stood the test of time (using only rudimentary building tools and poor scaffolding), many of today’s builders shoddily construct flimsy and characterless architecture, despite their access to sophisticated equipment. Perhaps the latter could also gain some inspiration from strolling about Notre Dame’s platform.

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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.

A September Day at Versailles: Visiting the Palace of the Sun King

 

On a day that was bathed in sunshine, we voyaged to Versailles, the decadent Baroque palace of France’s roi soleil (sun king). As we wandered among the palace’s 250 gardened acres and peered through windows into the gilded interiors  — just as a subject might have done 300 years ago — history lessons about the French Revolution came to mind.

Wanting to escape Paris’ stuffy climate in the seventeenth-century, Louis XIV summoned architects to spiff up and greatly expand his father’s hunting lodge and grounds. The King’s planners drew up extensive expansion plans that commenced in 1661, resulting in one of the world’s largest palaces. More than 30,000 laborers are said to have participated in the building projects!

In 1678, Louis XIV had begun moving his court to Versailles. By 1682, nearly 20,000 noblemen, servants and flatterers had moved into Versailles resulting in the court’s official establishment there. With the seat of government then outside Paris, and the nobility leading debauched lifestyles at Versailles, so the seeds of the French Revolution were born.

Despite the blazing sun, and ornamental gardens that lack shading and protective canopies, we spent several hours promenading through Versailles’ grounds, which actually form one of Europe’s largest parks. Amazingly, forests were once imported to ornament Versailles’ gardens, the focal point of which is the mile-long Grand Canal.

The flowerbeds and hedges were coiffed immaculately. Versailles’ chief landscape architect, André Le Nôtre’s quotation about the palace’s view into the delicate gardens seemed timely:  “Flowers can only be walked on by the eyes.”

In Louis XIV’s time, it was not possible to run all the fountains at once, so when Louis strolled through the grounds, the fountain-tenders turned on the fountains in advance of his footsteps and then turned them off behind him.

The gardens’ more than 600 fountains and statues were installed between 1661-1668. I most enjoyed the cherub statues as well as the creative manner in which fountainheads were camouflaged as cat-tail plants or as if they were coming out of turtles’ mouths.

Our readings about the palace’s posh interiors didn’t persuade us to venture into the treasure box-like rooms. Nevertheless, one guidebook statistic about the over-the-top décor stuck with me: Versailles’ paintings, if laid end to end, would equal more than 7 miles (11 km.) of canvas!

Note: This is Part I of a Versailles Series. Also see Versailles in Black & White (Part II) and

A Return to Versailles (Part III).

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Planning Pointers:

Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All rights reserved.

If Headstones Could Talk: Pondering at Paris’ Père-Lachaise Cemetery

I had long wanted to visit Paris’ famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery, yet during past jaunts to the ‘City of Lights,’ La Tour Eiffel, the Champs Elysées and Notre Dame had taken center stage on my itinerary. During our recent trip to Paris, our hotel, in Paris’ 11th arrondissement, was just a brief promenade from the cemetery. With blue skies overhead and the ground just starting to be carpeted with crisp, autumn leaves, we decided to embark on what we thought would just be a 30-minute stroll through the well-known cemetery named after Père-Lachaise, Louis XIV’s confessor.
On the way there, we dined outdoors at Mère Lachaise, a bistro-style restaurant that plays off the neighboring cemetery’s name. (In French, père means ‘father’ and mère means ‘mother.’) Not surprisingly, the bistro’s cook whipped up scrumptious fare for breakfast:  amazingly-tasty eggs, two café crèmes and crunchy slices of a freshly-baked golden baguette. The French have an amazing way of making the simple taste fantastique!

We then crossed through Père-Lachaise’s handsome gates to enter the cemetery, with its cobbled streets, hunter-green iron street markers and graceful old trees. Père-Lachaise is Paris’ largest cemetery consisting of 118 acres (48 hectares) of headstones and mausoleums that mark the final resting places of numerous prominent writers as well as political heroes and war victims. We chose to pay tribute to French chanteuse, Edith Piaf; Polish classical composer, Frédéric Chopin; and American Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the Doors.

Visitors who came before us had remembered the three musicians in different ways. Piaf’s grave was simply adorned with roses; Chopin’s was garnished with a Polish flag and hand-written messages from music fans. One person had drawn a treble clef on a rock and placed it atop a note so that it would not be carried away by the wind. On Morrison’s headstone was perched a clay lizard. A neighboring tree had a plethora of colorful messages and peace signs for ‘the Lizard’ scribbled on it: “Welcome to the Other Side” and “Can You Show Me the Way to the Next Whiskey Bar?”

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Photo du Jour: The Gargoyles & Grotesques of Notre Dame

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In the shadows of the Notre Dame Cathedral, we waited for just under an hour to ascend the 387 stairs of her north tower.

Once high above the rooftops of Paris, we strolled about the Galerie des Chimères marveling at the figures there. The statues gazing at La Tour Eiffel and Sacré Coeur are technically not gargoyles since they are spoutless. Also, the animal hybrids are not original to Gothic masterpiece Notre Dame as they were added during renovations in the nineteenth century.

Gargoyle or not, these grotesques indeed have some of the grandest views of Paris!

gargoyle-gazing-at-sacre-coeur-from-notre-dame-in-paris

gargoyle

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Photography & text © Tricia A. Mitchell. All Rights Reserved.