Archive for July 21st, 2006

The Thinker

An American in Paris: Part Four

Here is a snapshot of some of the other places we visited recently during our vacation in Paris.

The first museum we visited in Paris, on a grey Friday morning, was The Hotel Des Invalides. It was never really a hotel, but was instead built to be a home for disabled French soldiers. The “hotel” is grandiose in size. It feels almost as big as The Louvre, just not as well maintained. Today it is a French military museum, with some wings hosting exhibits and some left empty. The exhibit I most wanted to see (the one with the medieval catapults) unfortunately was closed for renovation. If you are into suits of armors (many worn by nobility), pikes, endless variations of swords and lethal cutlery collected in Europe over many centuries then this is your museum. Cannons must have been as common with weeds hundreds of years ago, for Invalides is overrun with them. Many of them are stood up on their sides and ornately engraved.

Picture of the courtyard of The Hotel des Invalides

Of more interest to us were the buildings attached to and near the museum. These included a church, the Eglise du Dome, the first of many we would visit. Its dome and altar seemed very impressive at the start of our vacation. The sound of a soloist rehearsing in front of the enormous pipe organ in the back of the church added an unnecessary feeling of reverence. Yet compared to the other churches we would later visit, it was rather unspectacular. In contrast to the other churches we visited, it was unusually bright, perhaps because it was constructed after the Gothic era.

Picture of the Eglise du Dome

Anyone who knows anything about France has heard of that Corsican general/tyrant Napoleon who eventually elevated himself to the title of emperor of France. St. Helena apparently was apparently glad to get rid of him after he died, so eventually his remains were returned to France for a proper interment. Next to Invalides and Eglise du Dome is Napoleon’s Tomb. It is probably more accurately described as Napoleon’s casket, as you can see from the picture. His casket is enclosed within two other caskets, and placed on a large dais, giving the impression that the Jolly Green Giant, rather than the relatively short Napoleon, is entombed there. Napoleon’s Tomb also includes wings containing the bodies of other, lesser-known French military heroes.

Picture of Napoleon's Casket

Across the street is the Rodin Museum. Auguste Rodin’s famous statue, The Thinker, is there, along naturally with a wide selection of his works, including part of his infamous Gates of Hell. When Rodin found a theme that worked, like The Thinker, it showed up in various scales in many of his other works. Since I shamelessly use The Thinker to dress up my own blog, I felt sort of like a lost dog coming home to its master.

You would think The Eiffel Tower would have been one of our first destinations. However, we did not get around to touring it until the second half of our trip. Based on our experience, do not try to tour it after a long day on your feet. The lines in the evening though were less daunting than the ones we considered in the afternoon the day before. I did not expect The Eiffel Tower to be as large or as tall as it actually was. It is enormous and very imposing up close. In 1889, when it opened, this 1040-foot high behemoth instantly became one of the wonders of the world. Amazingly, more than a hundred years later, it has lost none of its impressiveness or sense of wonder. If you are not vertically challenged you can walk to the second level of the tower, but to get to the very top requires an elevator ride. Unfortunately, there are queues for tickets, queues to get on the elevator to the first or second level, queues for the elevator from the lower levels to the top (on a different elevator), and queues to get in the elevators to get back down again. You need to allow a couple hours at least to take in this attraction. Even if you are footsore like we were, it is worth the hassle. Our legs felt like lead when we traipsed back to our hotel around 11 PM. Nevertheless, it was neat to be on the tower in the twilight. Once an hour starting at dusk, they set the strobe lights on the tower dancing. They delight both those on the tower and those watching it from afar. Here is a view from the top of the tower.

View of Sienne and Paris from Eiffel Tower

The Arc de Triomphe on Paris’ right bank celebrates the victories of Napoleon’s armies. It remains today the largest arch in the world, yet you can climb to its observation level without too much effort, or take the elevator. While impressive when it was built in the early 19th Century, now it feels overshadowed by The Eiffel Tower, which can easily be seen across the Seine River. Since a traffic circle surrounds it, you need to take an underground walkway in order to get to it. Crossing the street anywhere near the traffic circle is not for the faint of heart.

It is a short walk from the Arc to the Champs-Elysees, Paris’ tree lined version of New York’s Fifth Avenue, only nicer, wider and less congested. You can walk the Champs-Elysees all the way to the Louvre and hardly strain yourself. Along the way, there are numerous places to purchase classy and overpriced merchandise, as well as enjoy an expensive meal at an outdoor café. Both Toyota and Honda have showrooms on the boulevard, not really to sell cars so much as to show off what they are working on in the future. Take a look at this short movie clip (18.3 MB) filmed by my daughter to see what the Japanese car wizards are up to.

One of the last museums that we went to in Paris was The Pantheon. Yeah, I thought it was in Rome too. I guess France was feeling an inferiority complex so they created their own. This Pantheon fascinated me not so much for the Foucault pendulum in the center or the enormous painting or embroideries on the walls, but for the tombs in the dark crypt beneath the building. Here we found the tomb of Francois-Marie Arouet, otherwise known as Voltaire. Nearby you will find tombs of other French literary idols, such as Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas. I was delighted. France is indeed a civilized country. I am aware of no place in America where we immortalize our greatest writers and scientists (including Marie Curie, who inadvertently gave her life learning how to harness radiation). The satirist Voltaire is one of my heroes, so I truly felt in awe being so close to his body. Near his tomb is a large, marble statue of him. Perhaps it was against the rules, but a tourist left a small note on the top of Victor Hugo’s tomb, thanking him and saying his stories were immortal. Indeed they are. My little blog will be a footnote of a footnote in human history, but writers like Voltaire, Hugo and Dumas have truly achieved immortality. I should have felt envy, but instead I felt awe.

Statue of Voltaire, near his tomb

My next entry will discuss our day trip to Mont St. Michel on the coast of Normandy, as well as give a few final thoughts about France.

 

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