Paris to home

Charles de Gaulle Airport: I really dislike it. This time our gate was in a pod-shaped annex that resembled a flying saucer. The wasted space below the walkway collected garbage like a little gutter. Looking down through the puny round windows showed us only the pavement outside. Disgusting. Concrete must have been cheap and glass must have been expensive when the airport was built. Every time I walk through there all I think is “Ugh.” What a terrible last thing to see of Europe. I’ll just close my eyes and dream of Parthenon.

A male flight attendant on the plane to Chicago had “Stuart Hess” embroidered on his apron. We debated whether it was his real name or not.

Versailles and Chartres

We rode a train out of Paris to Versailles, one of the great monuments to excess, on a beautiful fall day. Trees here in northern France are in full fall color.

Gilding and stone sculptures adorn the exterior of a baroque palace.
One beautiful corner is a mere fragment of the majestic palace complex.

Saturday visitors swarmed Versailles. It is an intimidating and beautiful complex. I imagined myself as an American commissioner, arriving from the distant colonial world during our Revolution to negotiate with this great and ancient empire. I doubt if any buildings in the new United States were as large as even one wing of one of Versailles’ palaces.

Gilded sculptures of female figures support crystal candelabra.
We could use a few of these around the apartment.

As a museum, Versailles had an appropriately baroque bureaucracy. We visited two information desks, bought tickets at an automated kiosk, and bothered a couple of docents before we finally found our way to the royal quarters in the Grand Apartments.

Spacious as they were, the Grand Apartments weren’t designed to circulate such crowds, so we shuffled from room to room, each one as ridiculously lavish as the last. Our own apartment building could fit in the king’s bedchamber. Nothing in or out of the palace was under-decorated with gold or marble or crystal or mirrors. I could see why the French had their Revolution when they did.

Precisely manicured trees and white marble sculptures line the approach to a grand canal.
The afternoon light, the colors of the leaves, the white sculptures, and the blue water all came together for a stunning view of the Grand Canal.
Late afternoon sun and shadows fall on autumn leaf litter in an alley of trees.
An alley of plane trees glowed like gold in the fall afternoon.

The grounds were even more impressive with their fall ochers under the blue sky. The crowd had a chance to spread out along the long canal and in the maze of gardens. We rented an oar boat for a short and erratic row on the Grand Canal before heading into a cafe for lunch.

The cafe on the grounds of the Louvre was the opposite of everything I thought French food ways stood for. We were herded into a high-density factory feed lot and served swill at inflated prices.

A man rows a boat on a garden canal.
I took Lore for a row on Louis XIV’s personal pond, symbolically pissing all over royal privilege in the name of democracy.

The whole Versailles experience struck me as very funny. Louis XIV would have been appalled. The place was never intended for “the people” and there we all were trampling through his bed chamber, wandering in his garden, and paddling across his pond. Even more obscene than the sight of an unshaven American dipping rented oars in the regal waters was the temporary art exhibit of plastic anime-style cartoon sculptures displayed throughout the palace and gardens. The tacky sculptures were even more alien at Versailles than I.M. Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre. I think this reflects a healthy sense of irony in the French. It’s a suitably republican way of saying “This is ours” to the monarchy they left behind over 200 years ago.

A baroque palace behind squared hedges and gardens.
Another head-exploding view of the garden and palace at Versailles.

From Versailles we took the train a little further into the French Republic to Chartres. Lore and I can’t pronounce the town’s name correctly; nobody understood where we wanted to go until we finally pointed to the name in our Lonely Planet guidebook. “Ah, Shar-TRUH,” a man said before we nearly got on the wrong train.

Two dissimilar spires of a massive Gothic cathedral pierce the late afternoon sky.
I nearly jumped for joy when I first saw the cathedral.
Rows of wooden chairs in the dark nave of a Gothic medieval cathedral.
The parishioners cleared out after Mass, leaving behind empty chairs.

We arrived in Shar-TRUH late in the afternoon, as the sun was about to set. The monstrous cathedral greeted us with bells calling the start of Mass. Scaffolding and safety netting covered the famous eastern facade and signs prohibited photos during Mass. I was afraid I wouldn’t get any good photos, but as before it was an opportunity to look around without filtering the sights through my camera lens.

Detail of figures carved in stone on a choir screen of a medieval cathedral.
My camera flash revealed a small patch of the otherwise dark but expansive choir screen.

Chartres Cathedral is massive, spacious, and dark. The interior is pretty simple except for the stone-carved choir screen and of course the towering stained glass windows which glowed coolly in the late afternoon sun. I walked around the outside which though dingy and in need of a scrubbing, had plenty to keep me occupied. When Mass finished I had a chance to take some photos inside. The sun had set and the light was gone from the stained glass so many of my photos didn’t turn out very well. It doesn’t matter. I’ve always wanted to see this cathedral.

Columns of a stone archway carved in twists.
The twisted columns on the south facade looked like they were actually wrought by some powerful machine.

Back in Paris we had another un-French meal, but this one was better: chicken in a Cuban-style restaurant in Bastille. We are tired and ready to go home, and to sleep in our own bed. Daylight saving time ends here tonight, so we get an extra hour of sleep before tomorrow’s early start for Charles de Gaulle.

Everything we’ve seen on this trip, like Versailles, Chartres, the Temple of Olympian Zeus—even the Parthenon, which strove for balance and proportion—has been beyond the human scale, monumental and overwhelming.

Louvre

We had a good flight back to Paris but it took us a while to get out of the airport. The ground transport from Charles de Gaulle is not as seamless as it is in Athens; that’s maybe one thing Paris can learn from its older, less refined sister city. We even had a broken train, but eventually we checked in to our hotel and headed out to the Louvre Museum.

A Renaissance style palace seen through a steel and glass pyramid.
Lore and I debated the merits of the pyramid.

Lore really likes the Louvre’s glass pyramid. It is pretty cool but looks out of place amid the Renaissance architecture of the palace. Lore pointed out that the Louvre is a pretty impressive building and something similar but of lesser caliber would have been even more out of place.

A crowd of museum visitors look at a painting.
Which is the spectacle, the crowd or the painting?

So we saw La Gioconda, a.k.a. the Mona Lisa. As I’ve said to pretty much anyone who would listen after my last trip: elbowing through a crowd to squint at it from 20 feet away is no way to enjoy this fine little portrait. On our way to it, we made sure to admire some of the other Italian Renaissance paintings in the same wing. A lot of people just blow right past these to get to the most famous painting on Earth, but the Louvre is just full of them, each one a treasure of Western civilization.

A turquoise figure in Egyptian royal dress.
Our photos of the Renaissance paintings didn’t come out very well but this little Egyption fellow did.

What’s really amazing is that this is just one museum’s worth of little treasures. I noticed the Italian painters were very ethnocentric. They managed to make Biblical characters, even Jesus, all look like Florentine burghers. We went up the Northern Renaissance galleries so I could show Lore what I liked about Flemish paintings. I get a little bored of Italian Renaissance renditions of Bible stories. Flemish artists painted more everyday stuff and images from nature.

We had dinner in Bastille again: this time my meal was duck, apples, and chevre. My head nearly exploded from the sensory overload of the evening.

Two European capitals

Charles De Gaulle Airport is the ugliest thing I’ve seen so far in Paris. It’s concrete and steel and has ceilings made from some weird plaster covered with mesh netting. It looks like it was designed in the 1960s and is way too small for the amount of traffic it has. We can’t hear the announcements, and there are delays. There was a flight to Nantes before ours that took an hour to board. I doubt it takes an hour to fly to Nantes from here.

But the flight to Athens was on a nice, wide A320 with plenty of baggage space and leg room. The seats are smaller, perhaps because Europeans aren’t as fat as Americans on average, but it worked for us. Air France’s food was quite good.

The Athens International Airport is much nicer than de Gaulle. Metro workers are on strike, so there is no train from the airport, but the city is providing plenty of buses. We are staying in the Koukaki neighborhood, about a 15 minute walk to the Acropolis.

An ancient Greek temple in lights glows against the night sky.
Seeing the Parthenon up there at night made us anxious to visit the next morning.

There are a lot of tourists here even though this is the end of the busy season, including lots of Americans and even some Argentinians. The weather is in the 60s, making a great night for walking around. The Acropolis is lit up from its dark perch on a bluff overlooking the city. All the Greeks here speak English. The city of Athens seems to be lacking in charm except for the stunning ancient ruins sprinkled here and there.

A city plaza at night with ancient buildings lit up on the hill above.
We came upon this lively square below the Acropolis.

We wandered around Plaka, the old neighborhood of central Athens looking for a good place to eat, and found one. I had a very good moussaka, which is like a ground beef, mashed potato, and eggplant layer cake. Our waiter looked at Lore’s unfinished plate of stuffed bell pepper and said, “What?” We assured him it was very good as well. At the next table, amid the several tables of tourists, were some unhurried old Greek men chatting and occasionally bursting into song.

Eiffel Tower

We had a good flight to Paris. Everything was exactly on time with a take-off and a landing so smooth we barely felt them. We did a passable job of transporting ourselves around the city.

A tower casts a long shadow over a large city.
The Eiffel Tower casts a long shadow over Paris.

We needed a nap at the hotel, so we got to our first order of business in the very late afternoon. The Eiffel Tower was crowded and had long lines. It was also very cold and windy. We got to the second level for sunset and to the top as the city lights blinked on in the dusk. The passengers who crammed into the lift car to the top rode in total silence. We heard only the clanking of the lift car cable. Perhaps we were all in awe of the legendary city dropping from the copper-colored steel beams.

When we descended the steps to leave the tower, we were greeted by the legion of immigrants who sell cheap tower souvenirs on the plaza; five for €1, which they could say in many tourist languages. They displayed their wares on cloth blankets with straps, and simply scooped them up in one move as they scattered at the sign of the police, who passed by often.

A man in front of the Eiffel Tower lit in gold at night.
The obligatory Eiffel Tower photo.

By the time we got down it was night and the tower was lit in gold. For a few minutes at 8 o’clock the tower sparkled with thousands of bright white lights like camera flashes. It was literally and figuratively brilliant, as if the tower was taking pictures of us taking pictures of it. An amusing bit of playful mockery, I thought, probably dreamed up by some Paris intellectual to make a statement about spectacle-gawking.

We wrapped up the night with crepes and coffee in Bastille. My crepe had Roquefort cheese and walnuts. The flavor was unbelievable. We didn’t see any strikes or protests, though there were some disruptions to train service. I did see more nudity in five minutes of late night French television than in my whole life on American television.

Flying to Paris

We’re on an American Airlines flight from Chicago to Paris. For a flight to France it’s not very French-friendly. None of the signs are in French and some of the crew don’t speak French.

This is Lore’s first trip to Europe. I was in Paris briefly during a trip to the United Kingdom over six years ago. Jet-lagged and exhausted, I whizzed around Paris seeing the “essentials”: the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame of Paris, and the Arc de Triomphe. I hope to have a more lucid visit this time.