Thursday, April 30, 2009

Gargoyles and Impressionists

The next morning, fueled by pain aux chocolate (also known as Schococroissant or “A croissant with a bunch of chocolate in the middle”) and fantastic coffee, we set out for another symbol of Paris: Notre Dame.

The Cathedral has always been highly significant in my imagination. I honestly didn’t know anything about the cathedral in Cologne before I arrived on the banks of the Rhine, and arguably it’s the more impressive building, but there was a kind an excited anticipation fueling my progress to Notre Dame.

As a Catholic Midwesterner, I’ve always known the name Notre Dame University, and somehow always have known it shares a name with a big church in Paris. “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” is also one of the finest animated Disney movies they ever created (“The Lion King” is number one in my book, but I have this thing for animals, you see.). The Disney Hunchback drove me to read an abridged version of the novel (I thought it was the real thing and felt duped when I later found the Victor Hugo Classic is more than 200 pages). So, I was pretty pumped as music from the movie’s soundtrack looped through my brain. Finally we emerged from the Metro and saw the twin bell towers dominating the plaza before us.

The structure is has a kind of solidity that the Cologne Dom lacks. Perhaps because this entire Cathedral was built during the actual height of the Gothic, while the façade and bell towers of the Cologne Dom were completed in the 19th century and are a kind of loopy Neo-Gothic. Still beautiful to behold, but it’s not as ancient as Notre Dame. The gargoyles and saints leered down at us as we filed into the building from perches they'd clutched for six hudred years.

The stained glass and rose windows were capturing all the light of the clear spring morning, the shards of color falling on tourists and the faithful as everyone prepared for Holy Week. But Dad and I quickly left the solemnity of the cathedral’s interior for a higher power: We wanted to see Paris from the roof (I have a history of climbing churches).

The line seemed incredibly long and we weren’t quite sure if it would be worth the time. It was long, but it was worth the time. Fortunately, for most of the wait we were entertained by a street performer who made his change by sneaking up behind people while the crowd looked on. I was waiting for a protective husband or mother to sock him, but most people were too bewildered to become violent. Ultimately, there’s some comfort in that.

After hauling up a couple hundred stone stairs, we finally broke out onto the “bridge” that goes between the two towers. There we were able to meet and greet some of the more famous inhabitants of the cathedral:

After spending some time taking in the view with some pensive gargoyles and checking out the massive bell that only rings on special occasions (for fear of shaking the bricks to the ground), we went up to the next level top of one of the bell towers. The view was breath taking.

We then went all the way down the stairs accompanied by a little girl who sang, “We’re going down the stairs!” to the tune of “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow” for the entire descent. I couldn’t shake the song for a solid six hours. She was lucky she was so gersh dern cute.

Our next stop was the Musée de l'Orangerie or just “The Orangerie.” The museum houses a relatively small collection of Impressionist and post-Impressionist work from a private collection. The centerpiece of the exhibit are Claude Monet’s “Nymphéas” or “Water Lillies.” There are eight canvases in the series, and each stretches 30 feet. They’re among Monet’s final canvases and were painted as he developed cataracts, his eyes forcing him to paint on a larger scale just so he could see what he was doing. The paintings were made exclusively for this museum. You enter one of the galleries and are literally surrounded by water lilies and natural light. Each canvas depicts a different time of day and slightly different arrangement of trees and lilies. Absolutely gorgeous, and almost too much to take in.

One of the massive galleries housing the massive canvases.
A detail from one of Monet's final works. Each of those flowers is about the size of a dinner plate.
All men who jump in rivers in Paris are in Seine.

On to the Orsay. Most people know about the Louvre, the museum that houses ancient to early 19th century art. The Louvre is an art history book come to life…to a point. Once you reached Impressionists, it cuts off and before 1986, you had to trek all over the city to get the rest of art’s modern history. Then the city took an abandoned railway station and installed the Musée d'Orsay. Name the great Frenchmen and you’ll find his work: Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cezanne, Courbet, Pissaro, Manet. Throw in Van Gogh…again, overwhelming. The art seemed endless, but never monotonous. We also discovered new names and works. I’ll only give you a small sample here:
Paul Gauguin's "Arearea. Joyeusetes" (1892). Gauguin had a brainwave. What if I got out of Paris? What if I painted, you know, the rest of the world?
Olympia (1863) by Édouard Manet. Not an idealized nude. Thus a scandle. Manet loved it.

Georges Seurat (1891) The Circus. This is the guy that did that huge picture with the woman in a bustle and a monkey on a leash (A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte). I didn't know he could get...trippy.

Don Quixote and the Dead Mule (1867) by Daumier. I've made it a new goal to see as many Penguin Classic book covers as I can. Check.

Nikolai Nikolaievitch Gay's Le calvaire (1880-ish). One of the more striking, excruciating crucifixion paintings I've ever seen.

We went on a day the museum was open late, and we stayed until closing time, slowly herded towards the door by the guards. After waving our arms for a couple hours, we flagged down a cab and had dinner at a slightly darker restaurant than we had visited the night before, Café Terrane. Our waiter seemed like he was born to serve, with perfectly groomed facial hair and just enough of a business-like demeanor to make you feel like he would never want to intrude and would only do so when it was absolutely essential. I enjoyed rabbit (only the second time I’ve eaten lagomorph) in mustard and crème sauce. I’ll admit that I spent a good chunk of the meal trying to figure out if I was eating dark chicken meat or rabbit. When I finally got to the bones I knew I was dealing with a mammal. Desert was a sampler of crème brulee, little slices of cake, and espresso. So good. So filling. So tired, and we had THE palace to visit the next day.

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