Breakfast at our little medieval hotel building this morning was held at tiny scattered tables with checkered tablecloths, in the warm and cozy quarry-tiled lobby, replete with heavy posts and beams from its construction in the 1400’s. We each had a hearty serving of baguette, jam of our choosing, succulent honey and delicious butter.
When we left our little hotel, Hotel Rue St. André des-Arts, in this morning, we immediately headed for I’lle de Cité and the fabulous Notre-Dame-de-Paris to catch it in the early morning light of a brilliant spring day! We were anticipating brilliance and we weren’t disappointed. One of the best things about the island and its cathedral was that the Japanese Cherry trees were in full bloom, on the glorious, early spring morning – “The most beautiful time to visit this area is in the early spring when all the flowering trees by the cathedral are in full bloom and you realize why everybody keeps telling you are lucky to be in Paris. The city reveals itself to you in certain moments, in certain angles of light. The aesthetic realization cannot be forced. It may only last a moment, and you may long for more primitive landscapes, but the flash of joy is recorded.” (source: aparisguide.com)
As we explored the magnificence of the exterior of the Notre-Dame-de-Paris cathedral, we soon found ourselves at the eastern tip of the I’lle de Cité, and at the very tip, where the two sides of the river separate to flow around the island, was the Paris Holocaust memorial, which was unfortunately not yet open for the day – “On the eastern tip of the island is the Deportation Memorial for the French victims of the Nazi concentration camps during WWII. This is obviously an extremely upsetting sight, but one that is necessary to witness. 200,000 lit crystals on dark walls commemorate the exterminated, as well a single flickering light for the unknown dead. The triangles in the adjacent passages are supposed to represent the patch or badge deportees were ordered to wear.” (source: aparisguide.com)
We walked all the way around the massive edifice, along the north side and returned to the western side, or main entrance, encountering the three massive portals and doors. We caught our collective breath and braced ourselves to experience the majesty, sheer size and grandeur of the cathedral’s massive interior spaces. Once again, we were not disappointed. In fact, we were awestruck by the huge, somber space. I cannot even begin to imagine how the scale of it must of overwhelmed and inspired the ordinary citizen of the Middle Ages!
From the beautiful stained glass – especially the three giant rose windows, to the stone groin vaults of the ceiling with its delicate ribs, the ornament; all together so impressive! Behind the choir in the apse there were two wooden scale models of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. One was of the exterior of the cathedral and the other was extremely interesting: a model of the construction of the cathedral (which spanned over 180 years!), with craftspeople and laborers employing all the ingenious machinery constructed to get the job done. Mandy, an architect by training and an architectural model builder by profession was blown away:
We wanted to climb the tall North bell tower on the western facade, but we couldn’t figure out the ticket machine. Oh well, c’est la vie!
After leaving Notre-Dame-de-Paris, we crossed the large plaza and found the interesting Crypt Archeologique Museum. The underground museum contains medieval ruins built on top of Roman ruins, dating back as far as around 200 B.C. – the modern Paris built, layer-by-layer over the older versions of the Roman city, Lutetia. The ruins were discovered during a 1967 excavation for an underground parking garage.
During the Roman Empire, in Gaul, Paris was known as Lutetia, or “place near a swamp.” “The Gallo-Roman town of Lutetia began to develop on the left bank of the Seine in the reign of Augustus (27 BC to 14 AD). This site was occupied by the Gaulish tribe, the Parisii, whose name features on coins recovered from the river Seine. In the first quarter of the first century AD, several small islands were joined together to form the current Île de la Cité.”
“From the middle of the third century right up until the fifth century AD, Lutetia which was threatened by the first Germanic invasions, was a strategic site for the defence of the Roman Empire against the barbarians. The Île de la Cité was fortified in 308, becoming the active center of the city and the settlement on the left bank was partially abandoned. The Middle Ages saw the rise of development focused around the cathedral, whose construction began in 1163.”(https://www.crypte.paris.fr/en/crypt)
There were interesting artifacts to be seen, as well as a map of Lutetia and a beautiful rendered map and scale model of medieval Paris.
After the Notre-Dame and the Crypt Archelogique, we had timed tickets to ride to the top of the Eiffel Tower. After a short cue at the gate, we rode the quick elevator to the top, where the views of metropolitain Paris from 984 feet in the air were breathtaking, especially so because of the crisp, smogless spring morning air:
After strolling all sides of the top observation deck of the Eiffel Tower in the cold, stiff breeze of an early April morning, we took the elevator back down to the second level observation deck. The Eiffel Tower is such an engineering marvel, a 1,063 foot-tall wrought-iron lattice tower, constructed for the 1889 Paris World Exposition. Strangely enough, it was meant to be merely temporary, so was to come down after 20 years. Parisians, who at first hated the tower, grew to love it and lobbied for saving it. Cleverly enough, it was saved through the eventual installation of pioneering telecommunication equipment during World War I, a purpose it proudly serves to this day.
From the second, then the first-level observation decks we took the stairs back down to ground level, which was really fun. I would have hated to have to climb up those stairs!
After a brief nap at our nearby hotel after a not-so-good and unreasonably pricey French café lunch, on a major corner near the base of the tower. (Here we discovered for the first time, the hard way, that in Parisian street cafés, especially the more touristed ones, it will cost you almost double to sit outside rather than taking your drinks or meal at the bar, for there is a “service fee” attached to every outdoor seat!)
Next, we headed by Metro for the Basilica Sacré Cœur atop the highest hill in Paris, in the Montmartre district, to get a glimpse of it in the waning evening light. The basilica exterior is constructed from white marble, so it really catches the colors of sunset:
After walking through the interior of the Basilica Sacré Cœur, we wandered through the back streets of hilly Montmartre, a still medieval tangle with lots of cobblestones, windy streets, hills and stairs. We happened upon a world-famous landmark, the tiny and picturesque Cabaret Au Lapin Agile (the oldest in Montmartre), dating from the 1700’s.
We were getting hungry, so started looking at menus hung in the windows of the neighborhood cafés – mostly out of our price-range. Happily, we eventually settled on the wonderful Café de la Butte, on the Rue Caulaincourt in Montmartre. The atmosphere of the small space was wonderful, with a cloud mural on the ceilings and a view of Paris from high atop the hills of Montmartre painted on the wall of the tiny dining room we were lead into.
The day’s menu was written on a chalkboard, which the waiter held up for us to read. Thankfully when he flipped sides, the back was written out in English. He was very friendly, so I asked him if he knew of Édith Piaf, the famous French singer I am in love with. The 2007 movie, La Vie en Rose, earned Marion Cotillard an Academy Award for best actress. I’ve cried through the film more times than I care to count. He said he did and he knew the movie, but didn’t know where the long hillside staircase Piaf and her companion run up in “to get some grub,” in Montmartre, in a famous scene from the movie.
The waiter said one of his other customers, G., who was dining with her French husband and friends in the front room, did. It turns out G. knew a lot about Piaf. She was charming and told us about her life on Broadway, and her recording in French of Édith Piaf tunes. She went on to tell me about the real Piaf, a much stronger person than portrayed in the movie. When G. was in Paris researching Piaf, she met and eventually married a Frenchman who had helped string the high wire between the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City for the high wire walker, Philippe Petit, while it was still under construction, in 1971. A very daring and death-defying stunt indeed (Petit had no net or harnesses – if he fell off the wire it was to his death on the streets below – it turned out he crossed the wire 20 times before finally stepping off after a 45-minute high wire walk, and into the police who promptly arrested him. The charges were dropped that day and Phillipe, an impish redheaded 24-year-old at the time, became an overnight celebrity around the world. The WTC was his victory walk; he never performed a high wire walk again after this death-defying feat!)! Watch a YouTube video of his amazing life leading up to the daring high-wire walk here, as well as rare photographs of that incredible day!
It was a very fun 45 minutes talking to her about my favorite French songstress and G.’s life on and off Broadway. She was so interesting and engaging, it was very nice to meet someone we could talk to at length in Paris. By the way, the dinner was marvelous. We ended with a spectacular dessert: Rhum Baba, with a bottle of French rum provided by the friendly waiter, meant to pour over the gleaming dessert.
Metro subway stations closed at midnight – the time we finally left Café de la Butte and G. We even watched in desperation as one gate closed electronically right at the stroke of midnight. We walked a good part of the way toward our little hotel, on the other side of the Seine, as we tried to hail a cab after midnight, on the still bustling boulevard leading away and down the hills from wonderful Montmartre. I stayed up until 7 a.m. this night, due to my remaining jet lag, which always crops up for me on the second night after arrival from a long international haul.