[Longest title ever! I challenge any forthcoming comic book movies to take this record from me!]
On Wednesday, we walked quickly down to the river to avoid the impending rain… but were only partially successful. We chose a path that took us past the Opera again, but this time down the high-end shopping street at Rue de la Paix and Place de Vendome… we fit right in in our rolled-up pants and rain gear!
We quickly enjoyed a stroll through the Tuileries Garden next to the Louvre, and then picked up the pace for another brisk walk along the river, this time to the Pont de l’Alma, home of the Museum of the Paris Sewers! I had had this on my list since my Greece conference, where a presenter had mentioned the wonderful sewer exhibit in Paris. And since I’m a water nerd and Laura is a chemical engineer, this was right up our alley — not to mention perfect for an incredibly rainy day. The museum was full of school children — several classes’ worth on field trips. One teacher we met had lived in the Woodlands and actually knew Sugar Land when we told her where we were from! Small world.
The sewers and sewer exhibit was fascinating. There was a mix of technical (seeing the various techniques, current and historical, used to clean and maintain the sewers), historical (learning about the development and growth of the Paris sewer and water system), hands-on (actually seeing black and greywater channels and pipes), and interdisciplinary aspects (a fascinating exhibit about the growth of Paris and the impact on the city’s sewer, waste, and environmental management development; as well as several homages to Les Miserables).
I loved learning about Napoleon’s contributions to the wastewater system: at the beginning of his reign, one of the emperor’s ministers advised him to work on providing a stable source of clean water for Paris as a way to make a lasting impact on the city; later, in his last memoir, Napoleon acknowledged that his development of Paris’ sewer system had been his proudest accomplishment! He really knew what was up. I love learning about the pivotal role of water management to different civilizations, especially since most of us totally take it for granted. The people in power always know it’s important… it’s in the job description!
It was still raining after we’d finished our sewer tour–perfect museum weather–so we headed to the Army Museum next. We didn’t have much planned for that afternoon, so we speculated that we could afford to spend several hours there … and we did!! The museum covers a total of about 700 years, and it is all fascinating… particularly the narrative of the end of the 19th century and how European power grabs led to the First World War. That’s a time in history I don’t feel I’ve ever learned enough about.
The history of the building was also fascinating: it’s called the Hotel des Invalides, as it was built by Napoleon as a hostel/convalescent home for injured soldiers of the French army. It is absolutely gorgeous!
[a few nerdy asides. to carry you through this part, consider watching this in honor of the sewer tour-army museum combo]
It was fascinating to read about how Bismarck, the Prussian leader who helped to unite Germany after defeating France in the Franco-Prussian War, worked to prevent feuding alliances in Europe: if France and Russia became strong allies, and the Balkans still struggled to maintain peace after the Ottoman Empire broke up, Germany would be surrounded by turmoil and divided between its French border and its Russian border… inevitably fighting a war on two fronts. Once Bismarck died, the other European leaders disregarded his advice and what happened several decades later? A war on two fronts for Germany. And things just went downhill from there.
We were also able to walk ourselves through the history of the French Revolution a bit more during that part of the museum; I know a good bit from history and literature classes over the years, and I tried my best to explain to Laura the Engineer 😉 but some of those classes were a while ago now, so it was interesting to read about the different stages of Revolution as we progressed through the 18th and 19th centuries in the museum. It really makes you glad to be an American and thankful that our Revolution “took,” so to speak.
As we entered the Napoleon/imperial epoch, I was also taken by the apparent parallels between Napoleon and Hitler. Both took power during a turbulent time in their country’s history and used patriotism to gain the support of the people; both sought to conquer all of Europe, causing warfare and violence along the way, and met their downfall in Russia. Yet one is regarded ambivalently, as a powerful yet possibly oppressive emperor who did lots of good things for France but maybe could have cooled it with his ambitions of expansion, while the other is the most evil figure in modern history. I don’t want to defend Hitler, and obviously there are several dimensions of “human rights violation” and “racism” that set him apart from Napoleon, but the difference in PR between the two was intriguing to me as I noticed the parallels between them.
Finally, it was interesting and amusing to learn about the World Wars from a French perspective. There were several funny little quips that seemed to over-inflate the importance/adequacy of the French war effort… but maybe that was just our American bias 😉
Of course, the Army Museum is also the home of Napoleon’s tomb, so that was cool.
Once we finished at the museum, we were intellectually and physically exhausted – and our feet HURT. So we found a little café near the museum and treated ourselves to coffee and creme brulee… just the perfect indulgence for a rainy and museum-filled day!
Our second indulgence was an extra Metro ride. We had found a restaurant in the 13th Arr. that got rave reviews: it was supposed to have amazing food typical of the Basque region (near Spain) at a student-friendly budget. So we splurged and were rewarded for our risk, because the restaurant was amazing. We both had duck, because we figured we’d go for the option that isn’t typically found in the US. Mine was served with a Rocquefort cheese sauce, which I had had in Spain when I was there and really loved. It was delightful in France, as well! 🙂 My mouth is watering just thinking about it. We also enjoyed some delicious wine. The restaurant got really busy shortly after we arrived, so they seated another guest at our table, and it was really interesting talking to him. He was from Israel, an animation student a bit older than us, and it was cool to talk to him about his travels and his opinions about animated movies. He listed Sleeping Beauty as one of his favorites, which made me proud of my taste in Disney, since that is one of the best in my opinion!
Back at the hostel, we enjoyed more chocolates and Friends episodes after planning our excursion for the next day… a trip to Versailles!!
When I went to Versailles with my family in 2001, the biggest story of the trip was me getting lost on the Metro on the way back. All I wanted from this trip was for it to be less eventful and I think we accomplished that! It was raining — of course — when we arrived, but my free entry to the palace made me feel better about the terrible weather! The palace is magnificent of course… we paced ourselves a bit oddly, spending a lot of time in the exhibit at the beginning talking about the history of the palace, which kings built which parts, when different renovations were done, etc etc. Which is interesting and all, but… you will never find a museum talking about my landscaping decisions at my vacation house. And that’s all I’m saying.
So maybe I was a bit tired out from that, but nevertheless the furnished parts of the palace are gorgeous! I guess I was surprised at how heavily Greek and Roman mythology themes figured into the decor, but the idea of decorating one’s home allegorically is fascinating! It was interesting that the audio guide didn’t mention the Treaty of Versailles at all in the Hall of Mirrors, but I knew about it anyway so I suppose I win. Do I sound jaded? I’m sorry. I sound totally jaded. I would use the excuse of “but I’ve just been to SOOO many royal palaces in Europe… Munich, Würzburg, Vienna… how is one supposed to have energy for them all?” but come on. Worst problem ever. 😉 Maybe I just had museum fatigue at the end of a jam-packed week in Paris!
The good news is that by the time we had finished with our tour of the palace, the sun had come out!! So we were able to walk through the gardens with blue skies overhead. That was just wonderful. The gardens are just massive!! And the mythology tropes persist in the decor (the fountains and the naming of things and such). It was so nice to celebrate the return of the sun in such a gorgeous location.
We took a little walk through the town of Versailles after leaving the gardens… we got a coffee at a little café and I went to buy stamps for my postcards and we even saw the architecture school where my Aunt Mary Beth, blog commenter extraordinaire, spent a year during college! I hadn’t really thought of Versailles being a “town” outside of the palace (though I knew that it was) but it seemed like a cute little place. I’m sure the locals are tired of palace tourists, though!
On our way back to the hostel, we grabbed some pastries we’d had our eyes on all week, which we then ate during a quick siesta. Our plan was to spend the evening in Montmartre, which we hadn’t seen much of outside of our hostel and the Metro station. So after a little rest, we headed up to Sacre Coeur, which is up a deceptively high hill!! It is absolutely gorgeous. Just totally striking.
We decided on a whim to climb up to the top of the Dome, which was incredible. You already have a great view of the city (sans the Eiffel Tower) from the overlook at the foot of the church, and from the Dome you can see EVERYTHING! It was just gorgeous.
We descended just in time for Mass, which was beautiful. There are (Augustinian? Benedictine? I think Benedictine) sisters who live at the convent next door and they sang Evening prayer and at Mass. It’s interesting to go to Mass in a language you don’t understand… on the one hand, you could use it as an excuse to zone out, but on the other hand, it can be an opportunity to deepen your prayer because you have to really concentrate on what is going on, and in the end it’s your belief in what actually happens at the Mass that determines your experience… that doesn’t depend on the language at all!
Anyway, we finally got our crepe fix after Mass when I spotted a little creperie on our descent from Sacre Coeur. It was really delicious… especially the very simple lemon crepe we had for dessert.
Afterwards, we went on a little stroll through the neighborhood looking at souvenirs and ended up at Moulin Rouge, our last sight of the week. We didn’t see a show or anything; we just wanted to see what all the fuss was about from the outside. We spotted some mini horses being brought in, ostensibly for that evening’s show! Then, after an awkward walk through the red light/sketchy district full of sex shops and burlesque clubs, we made it back home and called it an early night…. since we both had very early trains/flights in the morning!
It’s already been 2 weeks since I got back from Paris and I am really nostalgic for the time Laura and I spent there. It was such a lovely week seeing lovely sights in the best company… the city is so full of life, there’s so much to discover, and everything is so pretty… even when it’s kind of ugly. I really do think I could live in Paris (but maybe just short-term), a distinction I’ve only awarded to a few cities I’ve visited. I do hope I get to return someday 🙂