We spent the weekend with our teenager in Paris.
by barbara on April 29, 2008
Paris is the City of Lights. It is also a city of incrediable culture. It offers a feast of art and history for those who wish to see the beauty (and horror) visited upon the world by humankind. Who hasn't heard of The Mona Lisa with her half smile and wandering eyes? The towers of Notre Dame once inhabited by a love-sick hunchback? The Arc de Triomphe erected by Napoleon to the glory of his army? Masters of paint and light like Monet? Masters of sculpture like Rodin? If going to Paris for the weekend, you can't possibly see everything there is on offer. However, you can save yourself some money---and better plan your trip---by laying out the cash for a Paris Museum Pass. At 30 Euro per adult for 2 consecutive days, this was a bargain for me and my husband. (Passes for longer time periods may also be purchased.) Many of the major Paris attractions were covered, so we only needed to pay for the one ticket and be done with it. (Our teenager was free at most museums anyway.) This was great for planning our budget, but it also gave us permission in a way to stop at a museum that we might not have felt was worth the price of full admission for us when we knew we only wanted to check out one of its artist's work---maybe a thirty minute proposition---rather than spend substantial time. Since a long list of museums was already covered in the pass, we could breeze in and out of some of them to just see the Picassos without feeling as if it cost us a fortune.... What freedom! Things to keep in mind:The Museum Pass doesn't necessarily cover temporary exhibits that have extra charges. Kids under 18 are free at most of the museums anyway so they do not need a pass. Once in hand, you cannot exchange your pass for a refund. If there's a strike in France, your pass won't be extended to make up for time lost. Some museums don't have an entry fee on the first Sunday of each month anyway... so if you're going to be in Paris THEN, get your pass on MONDAY after looking at the stuff you can see without paying to begin with. You can't possibly see all the museums and monuments covered by the pass, so plan your vacation around the ones that are most important to you. You need to ask for the museum pass when you go to your first museum so that you don't pay any unnecessary entry fees. We bought our pass in the Louvre, but we had to ask for the office where it was sold because that was separate from where people bought regular entry tickets. In just two days, we definitely saved money with this pass, so I would highly recommend looking into it.
Walking through the Marais section of Paris, we were thrilled to discover Victor Hugo's old house in the Place des Vosges. First, let me touch upon this lovely square. Once a neighborhood for the rich and royally connected, all that changed after the French Revolution. By the time Napoleon was in charge, even the square's name of "Square Royal" was no longer acceptable. Sooo, Napoleon cleverly had a "naming contest" of sorts. Whatever region of France coughed up their taxes first would be honored with having the square named after it for ever more. It was like a pizza party for the class of students that turned in all its library fines quickest. The Vosges region loosened their purses first and voila! The square had a new name. On the sunny afternoon we had the pleasure of walking through Place des Vosges, French children were playing in sand boxes while their parents watched on from sun-dappled benches. Fountains spilled water into their basins. A statue of Louis XIII astride his horse puffed out his chest as if thinking, "These are my people...."Second, let's talk about the house itself. Located at number six in one corner of the square, Victor Hugo, the author of Les Miserable, among many other famous novels, lived here from 1832 to 1848. When you enter the house, there is a tiny gift shop to the right where you must get a ticket. This ticket is free, so entry doesn't cost anything. However, we opted to get the audio guide wands for an additional Five Euro each. Then it was up the grand staircase to the second floor that contained Victor's 280 square-metre flat in what was the Hotel de Rohan-Guemenee. What was the tour like? Personally, I loved it. There is a ton of detail for Hugo fans to hear, and I would have been very happy to listen to everything. However, my husband was more of the attitude of, "Uhhh... Can you hurry up? The object isn't to read a novel now." The bottom line is this tour is as meaty---or as sparse---as you'd like it to be. If you're on a budget, there are some explanations printed by the artwork in each of the rooms, so you could truly breeze through the house without getting the audio wand or spending much time either. To sum it up? The first room has a small drawing of Hugo's domineering mother, his general father, and the woman he'd marry against the will of both his parents. Then the rest of his life "story" is unfolded through the portraits on the walls and the interior design found in each of the spacious rooms. One room is decorated entirely in an Eastern flair as Hugo loved this style. Of course, Hugo was exiled from France because his writing was always of a political nature, and many of his personal effects were sold off. Fortunately, friends of the family bought some of these to re-create the apartment as Hugo once enjoyed it. The tour ends with Hugo's bedroom. Tip: On another corner of the square is the Hugo Cafe. We didn't stop there, but it looked like a good place to grab lunch or a glass of wine while looking onto the park. From the cafe, take a left onto the rue Francs Bourgeois, and you'll soon find the equally interesting Musee Carnavalet to explore a very short walk away.
The Musee Carnavalet is in the heart of the Marais district in Paris, near the Jewish Quarter. Whether you have the Paris Museum Pass or not, it has great appeal to a person on a budget because... it's free. It's also a wonderful museum. While we only had a short amount of time to devote to the many rooms it has housed in two mansions, we decided to check it out, and we were glad we did. How was our visit? The first thing we saw when we passed the sign for the museum was a generous courtyard---suitable for carriages---with a statue of Louis the Sun King in the center. Apparently this was cast before the French Revolution when many such statues were destroyed. (Personally, I've always thought Louis XIV in his long curls and tight breeches looked a bit the sissy, but I know too much about history to not realize looks can be deceiving.) Then we entered the actual museum where we had to check our bags into a cloak room. On this ground floor we also dove right into exhibits about Parisian history, but we didn't linger long here. Instead, we pushed forward to a marvelous, vibrant collection of oil paintings. These were much more manageable than the rooms and rooms and rooms and rooms of art at the Louvre, so we somehow enjoyed viewing the works we saw here more! Still, the main attraction in this museum for us had to be the exhibits that dealt with the actual French Revolution. This time in history in which God was dead and "The Cult of Reason" reigned supreme is one of the bloodiest and most irrational on record. Included in the exhibits that chronicled these events, we found a re-creation of the room in which the ill-fated Queen Marie Antoinette was imprisoned as well as lots of information on the man who would betray the ideals of the first "republic" and try to dominate Europe: Napoleon. All of it was interesting... and we only scratched the surface. Nearby museums include the Picasso Museum, the Jewish Heritage Museum, the Pompidou Centre., and Victor Hugo's House. Depending on your interests, you might decide to linger a long time at the Musee Carnavalet... or just hit the highlights as we did. Either way, it's worth a visit.The website for the museum to check hours and upcoming exhibits, which may have an extra charge, is: www.carnavalet.paris.fr Closed on Mondays.
by barbara on April 30, 2008
One of the most interesting things about the Centre Pompidou is the building in which it is housed. Erected as an exo-skeleton structure with all its pipes, ducts, etc. exposed (and colour coded) for the visitor to see, it has a playful exterior that invites a childlike wonderment. As our son said, "It doesn't look stuffy at all." We had lunch at a corner cafe across the street from the museum, sipping on wine, staring up at the various pipes and air conditioning ducts, talking about various movements in modern art. While not exactly an art lover, our teenager's curiosity was piqued. Armed with our Paris Museum Passes, which cover admission into this museum, we made the decision to go inside. Walking to the front entrance, we enjoyed some of the street performers we saw in the square. A gypsy-looking lady made a screeching racket with a violin that sounded more like a cat in heat than music. An artsy looking girl with dangling earrings sat cross-legged while she tapped out a rhythm on the stones with one hand and held a long pipe that looked like it came from Africa with the other. She'd occassionally blow a series of deep notes on this pipe, reminding me of a happy steamboat chugging up the River Seine. Next, we entered the Pompidou itself and found the clear escalator to ride to the top. (You need to have a ticket or pass to access this.) Not airconditioned, the greenhouse effect was in full force, but the view at the top on the fifth floor is amazing. In fact, after having already walked up the Notre Dame Towers, the Arc de Triomphe, and the Eiffel Tower, this was the one view of the city that we didn't have to work for to get! Opting not to pay extra for the temporary exhibit on show, we went to the fourth floor to seek out the Picassos. With 59,000 works of art on display, we also knew we'd be able to find some interesting things to see by artists we'd yet to discover. Now, let me say, modern art is not typically my thing. I prefer the works on view at the Musee d' Orsay. However, some of the pieces just.... cracked me up. How office furniture arranged in groups is art is beyond me. My son liked the urinal the most... and the black and white photos of naked women, which were, actually, quite lovely. In truth, some pieces in the Pompidou are very strange. Some pieces are quite famous. You can find whichever you'd prefer to see.And while I admit I never liked Picasso much until I learned he actually could draw, there are several pieces here by this Father of Cubism that I truly enjoyed. Vibrant colours and an interesting perspective can be fun and uplifting to view. Melting things on Dali landscapes can be weird... but good conversation pieces. Paint splattered across a canvas reminded me of those brilliant works by my kid stored in his primary school scrapbook.... I must buy some frames!!!Go down a floor and you'll find some interactive exhibits and space for some "performance art" as well. Sitting down at a computer, we got to listen to a French guy pronouncing all the different vowels in an exagerated fashion. I could imagine his tongue doing gymnastics inside his mouth. Bottom line? At this point in my life when I know modern art isn't really my cup of tea, I'm not sure I would have paid extra to view a giant spider in the middle of the floor. However, since I had the Museum Pass, this was a great place to spend an hour looking at work that was in complete contrast to the work we'd already viewed in the Louvre. If you like Modern Art, this is an absolute must-see. It's the largest modern art collection in all of Europe! If you're not a modern art fan, but you're in the neighborhood... well, expand your horizons a bit. At the least, you can point at the urinal and laugh. To look up hours and exhibits, visit www.centrepompidou.fr
Millions of people have lived and died in Paris. Some of their deaths were helped along by the French Revolution, which presented a problem for the government. When you've got a pile of headless aristocrats, they've still got to be buried somewhere, right? To be fair, even before the "Cult of Reason" started lopping off people's heads, the cemeteries were becoming overcrowded. To use an old quarry as a new resting place seemed the perfect solution... thus the Paris Ossuary was born. While consecrated ground, this collection of bones has now mutated into a macabre tourist attraction. With a teenager in tow, we thought it would be worth a look. At the least, we were curious. Where is the ossuary?Go to the Denfert-Rochereau Metro Stop. There will be signs directing you to it, but the address is 14 Avenue Du Colonel Tol-Tanguy. There's a statue of a lion in the middle of the round-a-bout. What was the ossuary like? After standing in line for about a half hour, we finally gained entry to this city for the dead. Tickets are 7 Euro per adult, 5.50 for teachers, 3.50 for young people who are 14-26, and free for under 14s. We went down a very small, spiral staircase... and down, and down, and down. These catacombes are deeper than the Parisian sewers, more than 60 feet under the surface. Finally, we were in a narrow, dimly lit hallway and moving forward. It was here that my claustrophobia first kicked in. This is not a big space, and I started thinking about exactly how much earth was between me and sunlight. Big mistake. I started walking faster, but I could not pass the people in front of us. The passage is too small. I tried to concentrate on the occassional sign we'd pass that would have a small bit in English as well as French. I closed my eyes and started a whispered mantra: Breathe! Breathe! Breathe!I was completely relieved when the walls opened up (a wee bit), and we came to the first thing that was really interesting. Stone masons had carved amazing cities underground, and these were lit up for viewing. Of course, when I read a sign that informed us that one of these stone masons had died during a cave-in, the claustrophobia returned. We pressed on. Finally, we reached the largest room on this dark journey. Here were pictures of some of the more famous people whose bones are laid to rest in the ossuary. It was easy to see the supreme irony in the fact that Robespierre, one of the main architects of the French Revolution, was executed and then deposited here. His bones are as anonymous now as the bones of the royals who were executed before him and thrown into the ossuary, people like the king's sister and Marie Antoinette's best friend.... I found reading about these victims of history very interesting and forgot for a moment that I hated the dim space and felt as if my own world was closing in.Then it was into the ossuary itself. Here I noticed people taking pictures of the skulls that were arranged in various patterns, hearts and squiggly lines between hundreds and hundreds of other bones. Somehow, this seemed really disrespectful to me, so I put my camera away. With that said, I strongly believe C.S. Lewis was correct when he observed, "We don't have a soul. We have a body. We are a soul." Therefore, I was not spooked by these skeletons.... I did not fear a haunting or anything like that. I believe the bones are simply discarded remains that are no longer useful to the souls that once used them. But, come on. When you're moving through a tiny passage that serves as a mass grave... it's bound to feel a little... strange. Let's just say I kept up my mantra... perhaps whispered it more fervently: Breathe, breathe, breathe!I do wish that I could have read the various plaques dotted throughout this section of the ossuary, but all of these were in French... no translations. From the few words that we could recognize, I think a lot of the signs spoke to humankind's mortality. Instead of reading about a well when we got to another larger room, I told my sun I was pressing onward. Finally, I had climbed the stairs up to the exit where an attendant asked to look in my bag. Did he think I'd take a skull back home with me? Now that would have been macabre.Bottom line? If you're easily freaked out (or have trouble walking), this isn't for you. If you can put the skeletons in respectful perspective, it's another look at Paris... one you won't find at the Louvre... or quickly forget afterwards.
When I was younger, my father had a picture of Napoleon in a gold frame at the end of our hallway. You know the one. The dashing Emperor in ribbon-bedecked uniform is on a rearing horse, his face a visage of confidence, his finger pointing in the air as if rallying his soldiers around him.... This was a man in the midst of his glory, the leader who has reached such heights in history that he has grown partially into a mythical figure, a hero still in France. The fact that Napoleon also tried to dominate the rest of Europe is forgiven by those who admire him because he was a man of military genius who transformed European armies into meritocracies---who introduced the Napoleonic code to the world---even though he didn't seem to have much of a problem with nepotism when appointing new leaders to head countries.At the absolute least, any study of this person who was most certainly an ego-maniac is fascinating. I mean, here is this guy who rose from real obscurity to lead an era.... the Napoleonic Age.So, of course, I wanted to go to his tomb in Paris. As we approached the glittering gold dome first erected by Louis XIV---another ego-maniac who transformed himself into the Sun king---I thought Bonaparte really had acheived the status of legend.. Covered by the Paris Museum Pass for adults, admission for under 18s is always free. We walked inside and picked up an audio tour that helped us pinpoint things of interest inside the building. For instance, there were the initials of the Sun King around the building as well as the tombs of some of Napoleon's most admired generals and brothers. Yet, we had come to see where the Emperor himself was resting. On the bottom floor in the rotunda is a gigantic tomb made of a special, reddish stone where Napoleon's bones are preserved inside several different coffins. On the floor around this tomb, we could see the names of the leader's greatest victories on the fields of battle etched onto the floor. In addition, on the walls were many marble reliefs. If you followed the circle, you would see in the center of each motiff an idealized carving of Napoleon reveling in some of his greatest civil accomplishments. Here, I kept thinking.... Man. That Bonaparte must have done a lot of sit-ups. Shown as a Roman Emperor who seemed to not want to wear a lot of extra clothes, the Emperor's body was... well... perfect as carved in marble. Still, there is only so much one can do at a gravesite---even the grandest of the grand kind---so we left Napoleon behind us to visit the excellent Musee de l'Armee housed in the attached building. Of course, Napoleon's life is chronicled, but we bypassed this wing and went directly to WWI and WWII, more modern history. Our son wanted to find references to the battles in which two of his great grandfathers had served to defeat the Axis powers. We took our time trying to acheive this personal mission because many of the historical exhibits for this period were written in both French and English... and it was all interesting. Some of the films even had English subtitles. Finally, we spotted exhibits on the liberation of Paris, the Battle of the Bulge, and a model of the American aircraft carrier, the Enterprise.... all connected to our family. While proud of my country's efforts to defend liberty around the world--and the part many of our grandfathers played in this aim--I couldn't help but hope that my son who was intently reading posted explanations on the walls of the museum would never have the occassion to follow future generals into battle... to experience the worst of humankind while fighting for its perservation. Anyone interested in military history will find this museum well worth the time. The heavy doors slammed shut behind us as we left the building and walked back out into the warm sun.
by barbara on May 2, 2008
Easier, quicker, and cheaper to access than the Eiffel Tower, Napoleon's "arch of victory" erected to the glory of his army was on our list of must-see things to show our son because my husband's grandfather has often told us that he put a bullet hole in it when shooting at a German during World War II. Without this personal connection, the Arc de Triomphe has long served as a symbol of France's greatness, and it is worth the time to visit. It was, after all, conceived by their greatest general. The modest entrance fee is covered by the Paris Museum Pass, and, since we already had this, we didn't have to wait in line. The first thing for us to notice was the gigantic tri-colour flag hung between the columns of the arch. A magnificent sight with golden sunlight filtering through the fabric, this served as the perfect backdrop for the veterans' group carrying out the daily rekindling of the flame of remembrance at 6:30 PM. This is always a solemn moment as France has their Unknown Soldier buried beneath the arch to stand for all of those men who have lost their lives fighting for French ideals. The arch is really quite impressive to view from underneath as it's easy to see the detailed friezes that depict highlights of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars.Then it's time to go into the Arch itself. Climb the 284 steps (taking a rest in a small gift-shop and mediocre museum on the way) to the platform roof from which you have an amazing view of Paris. Look down the Champs-Elysees to the modern La Defense arch (built in 1989) in Paris's business district where high-rise buildings cluster. Take a picture with the Eiffel Tower behind you. Think about the Allied Troops as they marched into Paris so many years ago to liberate this lovely city from the Nazis. You can just imagine Charles-de-Gaulle waving at the soldiers, the women with flowers, the joyful sounds of soldiers whooping, even as their boots clattered in rhythm as they stayed in line, marching in the parade. Bottom line? If you want to climb something, but you don't have a lot of time, this is the place for you. The wait is tiny compared to the Towers of Notre Dame or the erector-set-looking Eiffel Tower. Keep in mind that the architects Chalgrin and Raymond were inspired partly by the Arch of Titus in Rome as Napoleon was a student (and admirer who took the thought of "world domination" close to heart!) of the Roman Empire.
by barbara on May 4, 2008
On a small island in the River Seine, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame is the very center of France. Erected in the 12th century to the glory of Mary, the mother of Christ, Notre-Dame translates into Our Lady. While I was able to visit here on an earlier trip to Paris, I took longer to linger in this Gothic church the second time around. Entrance to the cathedral itself is free. In the winter, I remember not having to wait to go inside, but this was a beautiful spring day, and the queue spilled out into the courtyard. Having just visited Aachen, Germany where he has his tomb, I took greater interest in the statue of Charlamagne, the "father of Europe", who is sitting on a horse to one side. As we got closer to the church itself, I hunted the facade for St. Denis near the door. This former bishop lost his head for the Christian faith. (No! NOT during the French Revolution!) He's easy to spot because he's holding his head in his hands near the door. Kids will like finding him as well. Inside the church, you can either walk and look for free, or you can hire an audio guide for 5 Euro. I wanted the extra information at this point, so I ponied up the money. Interior Highlights? There are the Gothic stained glass windows---the "roses"---but I especially liked the segments of the Christ story that you can see "illustrated" in beautiful friezes along the center of the church so that priests could explain the basic stories in the Bible to those who could not read it. You can also hunt out the statue of Joan of Arc.If you're on a budget and don't want to get a guide, you'll still feel as if you've spent your time well here because it is a gorgeous structure worth seeing. The Towers:After turning in our audio wands, we exited the church and found another line. I had not climbed the towers here before, so this time I was determined to do so. After all, I know all about Victor Hugo's hunchback... a story that became so popular in the 19th century that it helped get the money needed to do necessary repair work on the church, which had been neglected after the "Cult of Reason" took over Paris. What a debt is owed to this author for helping to preserve this Gothic gem! The line to access the towers moved much slower than the line to enter the church. So I was intently reading a book to wile away the time... when a gargoyle looking creature stuck his face between me and the pages I was studying. I gave a startled jump but managed to keep my cool as the "creature" continued down the line. This was a street performer of the highest class. After garnering the waiting crowds attention, we were amused as he put his arms around strangers, grabbed for people's hands, and basically made the unsuspecting come out of their "city shells" in which they mentally blocked out the crowd around them until they found this... out-of-place thing invading their personal space. Many of them would jump in the air and yelp. Then the tower crowd, of which I was a part, would laugh and clap, thus letting the "victim" in on the joke. Most of them were very good sports about it, and the gargoyle was masterful. I can't promise you'll see him as well, but he was my son's favorite things to see in Paris. When he finally took off his mask and passed it around for Euros, we were happy to give generously because he was very entertaining, making our wait seem like no time at all. Plus... he was actually a handsome devil. Tip: If there's no street performer on the day of your visit, take heart! You can still buy ice cream to eat from one of the kiosks you'll see on the street. You'll have plenty of time to lick a cone, and this is a great treat for children.After that "show", we made it to the front of the line where our Paris Museum Pass was flashed, gaining us entrance. Similar in difficulty to the climb at the Arc de Triomph, you first stumble across a small gift shop where there is information about Victor Hugo's work as well as his books for sale. Then you can press forward to the platform from which you can stand behind gargoyles and gaze out across Paris. The bell tower with its wooden supports (to absorb the sound waves and stop them from cracking stone) is worth a quick look-see. Then you can climb to the very highest point before beginning your descent. Was it worth the climb? I think so. If you don't have the time to wait, the view from the Arc de Triomphe is quicker to get because the lines are shorter... but there's just something cool about this church. Tip: After you see Notre Dame, you might want to take a boat ride down the Seine for an easy-to-get tour. You can walk down to where a myriad of boats dock and buy tickets. We took a tour that set us back 11 Euro per adult and 6 Euro for the kid. That was a little pricey... but it was nice to just sit down for an hour as a live tour guide pointed out points of interest in multiple languages.
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