A BRIEF STOPOVER.
8TH JULY 2015.
It is now three months since we began Encountering the Past Part 3 and because in the past month we have rubbed shoulders with thousands of summer holidaymakers we thought we could avoid Paris and head directly to Dieppe and take a ferry from there to England. However this was not to be as all major transport links from south-eastern France to Dieppe go via Paris and due to train connections we had no alternative but to stay in Paris overnight. In retrospect we were glad we were forced to stay as anybody, including us, who visited the city during their romantic youth could not help but be overcome by the nostalgia of Paris.
Note my beautiful hand knitted cable stitch jumper that my mother made especially for our 1972/3 grand tour of Europe. In the 1970/80s I had a theory that if roadside hitchhikers wore a hand knitted jumper it was OK to pick them up as it indicated that somebody loved them and they were unlikely to do anything untoward.
The days of our romantic youth bring to mind the lyrics of the song:
Once upon a time there was a tavern/Where we used to raise a glass or two
Remember how we laughed away the hours/And dreamed of all the things we could do
Those were the days my friend/We thought they’d never end
We’d sing and dance forever and a day/We’d live the life we choose
We’d fight and never lose/For we were young and sure to have our way.
One commentator suggests that nostalgia is a denial of the painful present. The term given to this thinking is ‘Golden Age’ thinking, believing that in a past time things were better than present times. People who adhere to ‘Golden Age’ thinking are those who may have difficultly living in the present.
Personally I have no qualms about indulging in a little nostalgia. If I did we would not be on this journey. I do accept that too much fantasising about the good old days might make one melancholy and unsettled. The reasons Bev and I are indulging in the past now is because we want to experience old places with fresh eyes and record stories for our descendants relating to our travelling experiences.
Many cities in the world have changed but Paris is not one of them. Its architecture, cuisine, fashion and language remain classic. Parisians we met back in the 1970s and today love their city and everything associated with it. Romantic love and love of country was probably invented in Paris. Some Parisians have been heard to say ‘anyone living outside Paris have not experienced love to its fullest’.
Recently I heard an interview on ABC radio (Australia’s national radio network) and the interviewee told a story about her husband who was in a coma and for weeks she sat by his bed all day talking to him about their past life and their travel experiences. After some weeks her husband was on the verge of dying and in desperation she said to him, ‘You promised me you would never leave me…. if you do I’m going to Paris without you’. Her comatose husband opened his eyes and said ‘you are not going to Paris without me, there are too many men there seeking love’ and he didn’t want his darling wife falling victim to one. Such is the power of love and Paris!
From what I understand, lovers who decide to seriously commit to each other have a lock engraved with their names and then lock it to a bridge railing and throw the key into the river. Some local authorities have decided that bridge railings are not designed for the weight of the thousands of locks so they go along with bolt cutters and remove them, much to the displeasure of the lovers but to the pleasure of the local locksmiths.
The River Seine is the second longest river in France after the Loire. The river is 776 kilometres long and rises on the Langres Plateau nearby the city of Dijon. In January 1709 the Seine froze as a result of temperatures dropping to minus 40 degrees. The freezing of the river caused shipments of food to cease and during the big freeze between twenty-four and thirty thousand persons died in Paris from hunger and cold.
In the 1970s the River Seine was so polluted that it supported only three species of fish. Today after a concerted effort to improve water quality there are around thirty species. However the river is far from pristine; it is illegal to swim in the river, even dipping a toe in its murky water can effect a hefty fine. Most of the pollution including heavy metal comes from upstream agricultural activities, industrial discharges and sometimes from sewage outflows.
Notre-Dame Cathedral has not always looked as splendid as it is today. During the French Revolution it was knocked about a bit and turned into a Temple of Reason. Followers of the Cult of Reason had atheistic views bent on eradicating France of Catholic thinking and these views meant the destruction of religious icons and places of Christian worship including Notre-Dame.
Regardless of the comings and goings of believers and non-believers Notre-Dame Cathedral, also called ‘Our Lady’, is an architectural masterpiece and is said to be finest example of French Gothic architecture in all of France. Our Lady is an old old lady now, over eight hundred years old and its building took place over two hundred years. Its construction was started in 1163 and was completed in 1345. In the early 19th century the cathedral was in such a state of disrepair that consideration was given to tearing it down but fortunately for us author Victor Hugo heard about it and wrote the Hunchback of Notre-Dame to raise awareness of the cathedral’s glorious past. Fortunately Hugo’s writings stirred the locals into action and the cathedral was saved from the demolition hammer.
A cycling nightmare when riding around Europe: to ride off an embankment into a river or the sea. We envisaged it often and took extreme care. There was a two metre drop into the water in front of Bev in the above photograph.
Of all the cities we have visited in the past three years while encountering the past, Paris is the only one where, after exiting the station we gazed at the cityscape and said to each other ‘I can’t believe we are here’. A certain sense of familiarity enveloped us and we were so pleased we had a forced overnight stay.
Fortunately for us we arrived early and left late the following day giving us time to explore. One of the great advantages of travelling with a bicycle is you can cover around ten times the distance than if walking.
Due to time restraints we were unable to visit the Louvre, which didn’t concern us too much as we visited it in 1973 and were enlightened. This related to the wonderful works of French artists impressionist painters such as Cezanne, Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir.
Our visit to the Louvre forty-two years ago was an event we have never forgotten. It was crowded and thus difficult to view the paintings unobstructed but at the right time in the right place the crowds parted and there in front of us was Impression Sunrise by Monet. We stood there in awe.
Many of the impressionist paintings in the Louvre reflect the street life of Paris and one particular painting, Bal du moulin de la Galette by Renoir in 1876, typifies the frivolity of Paris in the 19th century. The reason I mention café life is because there are countless cafes in Paris where coffee and delicacies are on offer.
The composition of the photograph above has always fascinated me and I think it’s because the artist is kneeling and the fact that his hair resembles the hair of the model in the painting. There is a certain calm compatibility between the artist, his painting and the original. The painting he is copying is hanging on his right.
The most famous painting in the Louvre is probably Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci (1503-1519). In 1973 when we viewed Mona Lisa it was possible to walk up to the painting within a few centimetres. These days security is overwhelming, according to our friend Steve who visited the gallery recently. Following is a description of the security arrangements sent to me by Steve relating to the Mona Lisa.
‘Unlike most of the art in the Louvre, the Mona Lisa is enclosed by bulletproof glass almost two centimetres thick. There is also a wooden barrier that runs in a semi-circle, approximately 2 metres back from the painting. When I was there, there was also a temporary barrier about 3 metres back from the wooden barrier – I wonder if that was because I was there in summer and it was so busy – in quiet times they may only use the wooden barrier. There were at least two museum workers standing either side of the painting, keeping people back. The only people who could go beyond the temporary barrier were people in wheel chairs.
Directly in front of the Mona Lisa is a wooden shelf, that some people think is part of the security, but it actually contains a light to illuminate the painting.
The glass enclosure, as well as keeping the painting safe, also keeps it at the right temperature and humidity level, and prevents vibrations from the visiting hoards, all designed to keep the most valuable painting in good condition.
Although most of the paintings in the Louvre allow you to get up very close to them, the Mona Lisa is different. I know that famous art works can attract crazy people who want the attention – a Russian tourist hurled a cup of coffee at the Mona Lisa not too long ago, and in the early 90s a mentally ill man attacked Michelangelo’s David with a hammer, so I can see why they need to take extra precautions!’
Art is everything, everything is art. I have often said that pure art is cooking; a chef spends hours creating a new dish and then in a relatively short period the piece of art is eaten, gone and never to be made again. This is pure art.
Here is a simple piece of French food art.
Judging by the number of open air coffee houses in Paris and France generally I thought per capita the French would consume more coffee than any other country in the world but after researching the subject my assumption was wrong. France is seventeenth on the list for per capita head of consumption, they only consume 5.8kg per year whereas the Finnish top the list with a whopping 12.0kg consumed per year.
Many visitors to France feel that France, particularly Paris, is the worst place in the world to drink coffee as it tastes burnt, a product of being made from over-roasted beans, it is ground in batches well before being brewed and UHT milk is sometimes used. Coffee connoisseurs suggest the French buy their coffee from former French Asian colonies such as Vietnam where the coffee species are nowhere as refined (of course this point is debated) rather than from South American or African countries.
Coffee gained popularity in Paris in 1669 when the first Turkish ambassador arrived. The drinking of coffee with milk came into fashion in 1685 and the first successful Parisian café opened in 1672 so one would think that with a coffee drinking history dating back three hundred and forty six years the brewing of a good cup of coffee would be perfected. Not so, according to many, Bev included. To be fair, I dare say there are good brewers in Paris, all one has to do is find them.
The main tourist attractions of Paris are not clustered in one area but spread out across the city. I now take you to three of them…the Champs Elysees, the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower.
The problem with Europe today is too many people and too many cars, bring back the Golden Age! Bev and I rode our bikes through the conglomeration of people and cars, not an experience we will ever forget, why did we do it? I wanted to tread in the steps of the conquerors, victors and ours of the 1970s.
France is still at war, not with the Germans, but with Islamic terrorists who unfortunately plant bombs and carry out dastardly acts against the population. Even though on the surface Parisians appear happy as they wine, dine and drink coffee I detect there is an underlying tension that is reflected in the warning signs around the city. Adjacent to the Eiffel tower is a sign stating ‘UNATTENDED PRAMS, MOTOR CYCLES and BICYCLES WILL BE TAKEN AWAY AND DESTROYED’.
Obviously the authorities are worried about bombs. Not being able to leave bikes unattended has distinct disadvantages. Imagine locking our bikes to a lamp post and returning to find the bikes taken away and destroyed.
The American television show, Pricing the Priceless, speculated that in 2011 the tower today would cost in the vicinity of $480 million to build and at 2011 real estate values the land on which it sits is worth around $350 million. The tower occupies a square 125m x 125m and a simple calculation tells us that each square metre is valued at $22,400. Pricing the Priceless also calculated that the scrap value of the tower to be around $3.5 million and that fifty to sixty tonnes of paint is applied to the tower every seven years. The entire structure including non-ferrous components weighs in the vicinity of 10,000 tonnes, of which 7,500 is steel.
The tower is considered an engineering wonder of the world. It stands at 324 metres high and each day the height varies by 150 millimetres due to expansion a consequence of ambient temperature changes. Expansion and contraction movement also applies to sideways movement depending on which side the sun is falling. The side facing the sun expands and pushes the tower sideways up to 180mm.
More than 250 million have visited the tower since its construction in 1889. In 2012 there were 6.2 million visitors. An average of 25,000 people ascend the tower per day so is easy to imagine the lengths of the waiting queues. Visitors pay out about $29 million a year for the privilege of going to the top of the tower.
Some years ago I read that underground at the base of each pier there is a huge hydraulic cylinder and piston that control the erectness of the tower through careful manipulation of oil into the cylinder. A plum bob strung from the centre on high to a marker point on the ground at exactly the centre of the tower indicated the tower’s straightness. If the plum bob was off centre the vertical aspect of the whole tower could be adjusted by forcing oil into one of the pier cylinders. I looked for a marker on the pavement where I thought the dead centre of the tower would be and all I could find at first was a beer bottle top and a piece of chewing gum and then I found a small self-tapping screw which I assumed was dead centre. I thought a bronze marker would have indicated such an historical point.
It is a wonder that some advertising company has not thought of the dead centre under the Eiffel tower as a location for advertising. I can envisage a circular bronze plaque set at dead centre reading ‘The closest McDonalds is located just one kilometre away at………’
On many occasions during our Odyssey writings I have mentioned our bike-riding friends Rolf and Erika from Zurich. Rolf is one of those people who enjoys cycle touring and stealth camping as he goes. One tour he dreams about is to ride his bike from Zurich to Paris and stealth camp as close to the Eiffel Tower as possible. Bearing this in mind, when Bev and I visited the tower I thought I would check out possible camping spots for him. Unfortunately, Rolf, I think your chances of camping anywhere near the Eiffel Tower are zilch as security around the tower is probably more intense than around the Mona Lisa. The following photograph shows a possible campsite but I doubt if you could get to it as it would mean getting your bike over a fence and across the grassed area, which no doubt would attract security guard attention.
Before leaving the Eiffel Tower I must make mention of the tower during WW2 German occupation of Paris. During the occupation (1940-1944) the French cut the lift cables so German soldiers had to climb to the top to erect a swastika. The flag was so big it blew away just hours after being erected. Hitler never went to the top of the tower and when the liberation army of the Allies was nearing Paris in 1944 Hitler ordered the destruction of Paris including the tower. Fortunately the military governor of Paris at the time ignored the direction and so left us with one of the most alluring cities in the world…Paris.
The Tuileries Gardens, attached to the Tuileries Palace, were created by Catherine de Medici in 1564. Eventually it was opened to the public in 1667 and became a public park after the French Revolution.
Some might suggest that the glass pyramid in front of the Louve is out of place, it does not sit well with the museum’s classical style. The pyramid serves as a main entrance hall to the museum and was commissioned by the French President Francois Mitterrand in 1984. It has been claimed by some that the number of panes in the pyramid number 666 the number of the beast often associated with Satan, however the Louve Museum official brochure states there are 673 (603 diamond and 70 triangles). The latest count from mathematical calculations and reference to official documents suggest there are 689 pieces. Dan Brown made mention of 666 in his best-selling book The Da Vinci Code, he suggested President Mitterrand actually requested the pyramid be built with 666 panes as a show of power, the fact is no official record that Mitterrand did request 666 panes.
Both Bev and I have a fascination with lamp posts. We have been photographing them since the 1970s. The above photograph is one of many in our collection. Once again: art is everything, everything is art.
Never in our wildest dreams did we think when motoring in our Beetle around Paris in the 1973 we would be back forty three years later on bikes. What turns life takes!
Finally, a couple of interesting snippets relating to Paris: did you know that it was Napoleon who introduced to Paris (and consequently the world) the system of odd house numbers on one side of the street and even numbers on the opposite side? And the name Paris is derived from the Celtic Parisii, an Iron Age tribe who lived along the banks of the River Seine.
That’s the end of another post but before we move on I think it fitting to contemplate what Victor Hugo and T.S Eliot had to say about Paris. Hugo said ‘He who contemplates the depths of Paris is seized with vertigo. Nothing is more fantastic. Nothing is more tragic. Nothing is more sublime’ and Eliot wrote ’The chief danger about Paris is that it is such a strong stimulant’.
The next post takes us to the French port city of Dieppe where we take the ferry to England. My last visit to Dieppe was in 1970 at the end of my overland drive from Colombo in Sri Lanka to London.
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