Notre Dame Photo: Wikipedia
On my third trip to Paris, it was ten days of drizzly and bone-chilling December. We stayed in a cozy but insufficiently heated hotel, just narrow and winding streets away from the magnificent Basilica of Sacré-Cœur in Montmartre. The stark white dome of Sacré-Cœur situated on top of the hill was visible on a sunny day from most points in Paris. Winding down the cozy village-like streets from the Basilica was Place Pigalle. When we walked down the Basilica’s steps on New Year’s Day, remnants of the fireworks and parties were scattered everywhere.
Montmartre Cemetery with viaduct Photo: Wikipedia
On our daily treks to the Metro, we passed by Cimetière de Montmartre with its lugubrious atmosphere. Located in the 18th arrondissement of Paris in “the Butte,” the nickname Parisians gave to the Montmartre hill, it is the third largest necropolis in Paris which opened in 1825. Located below street level in an abandoned gypsum quarry used during the French Revolution as a mass grave, the cemetery has only one entrance under Rue Caulaincourt and is the final resting place of many artists and writers who lived in Montmartre such as Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Alexandre Dumas the son (1824-1895), Theophile Gautier (1811-1872), Emile Zola (1840-1902), and Heinrich Heine (1797-1856).
The Tomb of Heinrich Heine Photo: Wikipedia
We watched our steps carefully to avoid the dog poop and the slippery streets that were seldom clean. Nobody walking their dog carried around a plastic bag for their animal’s necessities. The metro tunnel reeked strongly of urine and the loudspeakers informed us almost every day that, ladies and gentlemen, there are robbers on the train.
No matter how careful we were with pickpockets, a little boy, perhaps 7 years old, managed to open the zippered-pocket of my purse resting against my hip. I felt a feathery touch to my elbow and caught him. He winked at the laughing Arab vendors by the Eiffel Tower and ran away while shouting back in perfect English a four-letter word when my husband tried to grab him.
The Eiffel Tower from Champ de Mars Photo: Wikipedia
The Parisians have a love-hate relationship with their expensive landmark that is so costly to maintain. Gustave Eiffel was highly criticized in 1889 for building such a gauche monstrosity for the World’s Fair but Le Tour Eiffel has become a cultural icon. Accessible by lift, the tower is 324 meters tall, the equivalent of an 81-story building, with 3 visitor-levels and restaurants on the first and second levels. We had a romantic dinner on the second level, followed by a very windy and spectacular 360 degree view of Paris.
Although the tower was to be dismantled twenty years later, the city decided that it was valuable for communications and meteorological experiments and let it stand. One of the most famous visitors, Thomas Edison, was invited by Gustave Eiffel to his private apartment at the top of the tower and signed the guest book. I was excited when we took photographs that are now catalogued into the permanent visitor database. The tower boasted its 250th millionth visitor in 2010.
Place Pigalle with its 19th century cabarets and the infamous Moulin Rouge, which I am ashamed to admit that I was talked into going to watch a very expensive and debauched show with elbow-room only, was a cacophony of neon lights, falafel stands, rotating hunks of shaved lamb, decadence, wine, irreverence, and a Sex Museum, in sharp contrast with the quiet and charming houses just streets away.
Parisians call Montmartre “the Butte,” a former village incorporated into Paris in 1860 as the 18th arrondissement. It has a storied reputation for depravity on account of its many brothels, cabarets, illegal activities, and Bohemian life that has attracted many artists, writers, and a bourgeois following from Paris.
Sacre-Coeur Photo: Wikipedia
Churches such as the Royal Abbey of St.-Denis, built in 1133 A.D. by Louis VI, St.-Pierre de Montmartre, and Basilica de Sacré-Cœur bear witness to the area’s earliest places of worship. The Roman-Byzantine Sacré-Cœur, dating to 1876, is a parish of pilgrimage where around the clock vigil has been held for over a century. The Savoyarde Bell, one of the largest in the world, resonating a high C note, was pulled to the top of the hill by twenty-eight horses.
The “Butte” escaped modern development because the gypsum and limestone quarries left throughout their existence numerous tunnels, crisscrossing the Montmartre underground.
I walked through Montmartre, looking for the feel of that bohemian village of long-ago and I only found the restaurant Moulin de la Galette, where one of the two windmills painted by Renoir still exists.
From the garish Place Pigalle, past Boulevard de Clichy, there was Rue de Martyrs where famous Christian pilgrims walked on their way up to Sacré-Cœur. On rue Yvonne Le Tac, at number 9, it is alleged that St. Denis was beheaded in the 3rd century and Ignatius de Loyola founded the Jesuits in 1534.
The statue of St. Denis at Notre Dame Photo: Wikipedia
St. Denis, the patron saint of France, was the first bishop of Lutetia (today’s Ile de la Cité) where the Celtic tribe Parisii first settled. St. Denis was tolerated by the Romans for a while until they decided that Christianity was taking hold and they needed to suppress it.
According to legend, St. Denis was arrested, thrown to the lions, and crucified. Unwilling to give up his faith, he was dragged up the Mont des Martyrs (Montmartre), and finally beheaded. He rose from the dead and picked up his head and carried it to a northern village. In the never-ending churning rain, I searched the cobble stones for evidence of blood stains soaked by the dirt or washed by the rains of time.
I can spend days in the Louvre and in Musée d’Orsay. Opened in 1793 with 537 paintings, the Louvre is located on the right bank of the Seine in the former 12th century fortress turned palace. In 1682, the Louvre Palace became a repository for royal arts collections when King Luis XIV chose Palace of Versailles as his residence. The world’s most visited museum, the Louvre houses 35,000 pieces of art in many interconnected buildings covering 652,000 square feet.
Situated on the left bank of the Seine, the former Gare d’Orsay, a railway station built in 1898-1900, the Musée d’Orsay houses the largest collection of French art (1848-1905), paintings, sculptures, photography, and furniture, with the largest collection of impressionist and post-impressionist works by Monet, Manet, Renoir, Seurat, Sisley, Gaugain, and Van Gogh.
I loved the Palace of Versailles with its fabulous fountains and gardens. Château de Versailles is located in the Ile-de-France region, 20 km southwest of Paris. The court was located here in 1682 by King Louis XIV and then relocated to Paris in 1789 after the beginning of the French Revolution. Versailles is now a wealthy suburb of Paris. A symbol of absolute monarchy, Versailles is surrounded by gardens, fountains, and other quarters. Political functions are still held at Versailles today including exhibits. The dormant gardens were still magnificent and carefully manicured. The famous Hall of Mirrors appeared somewhat tarnished but it was understandable, Galerie des Glaces dates back to 1678.
Versailles, Hall of Mirrors Photo: Wikipedia
But the most fascinating places for me were the Cathedral de Notre Dame, Musée de l’Armée, and Napoleon’s Tomb.
The construction of Notre Dame began with the cornerstone in 1163 and ended in 1345, a labor of love that lasted almost two centuries. One legend describes the recasting of the great bell, Emmanuel, which weighs 13 tons, in the 17th century. As the metal was melting, ladies threw their gold and silver jewelry into the mixture perhaps contributing to the bell’s F-sharp tone. Although there are ten bells, all but one had been taken out of use due to their excessive vibration causing damage to the structure.
Notre Dame de Paris is an example of French Gothic architecture with flying buttresses, rose stained glass windows, water spouts in the shape of phantasmagorical gargoyles and decorative gargoyles called grotesques. It is the Cathedral of the Archdiocese of Paris, with important reliquaries such as the alleged Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the original Holy Nails of the crucifixion. These relics are brought out once a year during Good Friday.
We waited for an hour in the cold blustery wind and drizzly rain in order to climb the narrow stairs up to the south tower platform overlooking the spire, the flying buttresses, and the magnificent river Seine and Paris below. I imagined Victor Hugo’s character, the Hunchback of Notre Dame, carrying Esmeralda up to safety. Perhaps Hugo’s book inspired Parisians to raise money to save their Lady from demolition. Desecrated by radicals during the French Revolution, much of the religious artifacts and icons were damaged or destroyed. It has been restored continuously since 1845.
During Napoleon’s self-coronation in December 1804, Notre Dame was so damaged that tapestries had to be hung to cover the dilapidated interior. The Revolutionaries had robbed the treasury, pillaged the church, and smashed the 28 statues of the Kings of Judea thinking that they were statues of the kings of France. Twenty-one of the heads were found and are now housed in the Musée de Cluny. The head of King David is exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Notre Dame has great historical significance because it was built over the ruins of a Roman temple in Gaul dedicated to Jupiter, a fourth century church, and a sixth century basilica. Twelve stones originally used in the Roman temple were found in the foundation of the basilica. The Huguenots (French Protestants) damaged parts of the cathedral in 1548, having considered the interior statues, paintings, and stained glass windows idolatry. During the French Revolution, Notre Dame was rededicated to the Cult of Reason in 1793 and then to the Cult of the Supreme Being. Damaged by stray bullets in WWII, Biblical stained glass windows were replaced by geometric patterns. To me Notre Dame is a symbol of survival, in spite of numerous assaults from those attempting to destroy the house of God because it contradicted their beliefs.
Les Invalides Hotel Photo: Wikipedia
Within the grounds of Les Invalides, there are three museums, Musée de l’Armée, Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation, and Musée des Plans-Reliefs. Napoleon’s Tomb is located behind Les Invalides massive courtyard.
Musée de l’Armée, one of the most complete military museums in the world, was established in 1905 and contains Napoleonic memorabilia, his personal effects, antique armor and weaponry through modern times, artillery, uniforms, paintings, and anything imaginable of military history.
Musée des Plans-Reliefs contains collections dating back to 1668 of three-dimensional models of fortified towns. The newer Musée de l’Ordre de la Liberation was established to honor all who fought for France during WWII. General de Gaulle created the Order of Liberation in 1940.
Les Invalides was a hospital commissioned by Luis XIV in 1670 for 1,500 invalids among his veterans of war. Its success prompted other monarchs to model their military hospitals after Les Invalides. During WWII German troops set up headquarters in Les Invalides with its huge interior courtyard.
The church of Les Invalides is the final resting place of Napoleon Bonaparte and several of his family members, military officers who served under him, and French military heroes. Designed as a royal chapel and completed in 1706, it became a mausoleum for Napoleon’s body when it was returned from Saint Helena in 1840. His ashes were incased in a porphyry crypt in 1861.
In the middle of the church dome, Napoleon’s remains are encased in six coffins, iron, mahogany, lead (2), ebony, and oak. The exterior is a huge red quartzite sarcophagus, resting on a green granite base. In the recessed opulent marble walls encircling Napoleon I massive sarcophagus are the resting places of his family, his officers, and other French military heroes.
Napoleon’s elder and younger brothers are buried here, Joseph and Jérôme-Napoléon Bonaparte, and his son, Napoleon II (1811-1832). The bodies of many generals, marshals, vice-admirals, and admirals are interred here as well as the hearts of some military men of note. My friend Harriet would be pleased to know that a Gen. Henri Putz was buried here in 1925.
Not far from Notre Dame, the national French pastime of drinking wine and dining with friends late at night is visible everywhere. King Louis XVI believed that persons not drinking wine are fanatics. He blamed the French Revolution on the fact that its leader, Robespierre, drank only water. (David Hoffman, Little Known Facts about Paris, 2008)
The poetic Parisian moniker, the City of Lights (La Ville Lumière), of the Age of Enlightenment, has perhaps little to do with the electricity from the 276 monuments, thousands of hotels, 70 churches, fountains, bridges, and canals that illuminate the romantic city every night, even though Paris was one of the first European cities to be lit by gas street lights. It refers more to the light of knowledge borne by philosophers, poets, writers, artists, sculptors, painters, and musicians when Paris became the cultural center of Europe and of the world.
Parisians have never been frugal, leaving behind a legacy of unmatched beauty, with the exception perhaps of Etienne de Silhouette, King Louis XV’s finance minister, who attempted to balance the nation’s budget by melting down all items made of gold and silver. Thankfully, reasonable minds prevailed. He was so cheap that he became the symbol of frugality gone awry and of “silhouettes,” shadow profile portraits cut from black paper that were cheaper than real portraits.
So much history, so much art, so much heroism, so much beautiful architecture, music, and so many firsts in our western civilization can be found in Paris alone. What will happen to all the art, to church icons, sculptures, outdoor statues, monuments, obelisks, old Basilicas, stained glass works of art, archeological ruins, and ornate fountains when Muslims become the majority in Paris and elsewhere in Europe? Would all evidence of our civilization be wiped out as idolatry? Would they suffer the fate of the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan that were blown up by the Taliban in spite of protests coming from around the civilized world?
What would happen to the priceless works of art at the Vatican, the very Vatican that is now embracing with ardor the violent religionists of peace who put fatwas on snowmen because they are overtly sexual?
Would all symbols of our advanced culture meet the fate of the Madonna in Perugia, Italy, which was shattered and urinated upon? What would happen to our western civilization that fundamentally clashes with the cult of death and destruction?
Paris, a Symbol of Our Western Civilization
Notre Dame Photo: Wikipedia