Clearly, I failed to be brief with my last post. So, no more impossible promises. This is going to be another long one, guys. I certainly won’t be offended if you just ignore all the text and simply flip through the pictures. But, by golly, I enjoyed writing it, just like the last one. Thanks for being the receiving end of my creative outlet.
I started my day with cornflakes.
“Everything will be closed on Sunday,” my host had said. “Nah, the museums are open,” I countered. However, I did believe that all other establishments would indeed be shuttered; Europe takes their days of rest seriously. But they take their ready access to fresh bread even more seriously than that, apparently. As soon as I rounded the corner of the apartment block, I regretted my confidence and the banana and cereal already filling my stomach. The corner bakery was open; I could have eaten a croissant instead.
But there was no time to mourn. Daylight savings time had caught me by surprise, and I was already an hour behind schedule. I could just picture the other Versailles visitors already forming lines around the entire palace as they awaited its opening and I waited for my train to the countryside. A throng of fellow tourists piled onto the train with me, and 40 minutes of travel journaling, while the Polish girl next to me on the bright vinyl bench stared over my shoulder between chatting with her mother across from me, brought me and everyone else to the end of the terminus of the train line and the “Versailles Château” platform.
For the umpteenth time of the short duration of my Paris trip, I was thankful for my naturally brisk gait. I grinned to myself as sped past nearly everyone from the train, but when I rounded the corner of a building onto a tree-lined path leading up to the chateau on the low rise ahead, my steps faltered at the sight of the mass of humanity milling around inside the gates of the palace. Stupid daylight savings time.
But, as usual, I needn’t have been concerned. The mass of humanity inside the golden gates wasn’t half as massive as I had suspected, and the metal detector line moved efficiently. Inside, however, was a different story. It’s a one-way street inside the palace; you just go with the flow from room to room – or in my case, shuffle along in all-too-narrow corridors, being constantly elbowed and jostled by other tourists desperate to keep up with the guides of their groups. Lacking a deep interest in French history, I stayed in the main stream of people and skipped the multiple, first-floor rooms of dioramas and historical information entirely and inched up the stairs to the suits of rooms of both the king and queen. The crowds thinned out just enough for me to whip through the overwhelmingly luxurious and gilded rooms with their painted ceilings and strangely small furniture, listening to another Rick Steves audio guide all the while. I would attempt to provide you with a more complete description of the chateau of Versailles, but it’s all a blur of crown molding, gold, and fleur de lis. I didn’t like it much. Surrounded by such excess, I find it nearly impossible to picture any real person living in quarters so absurdly sumptuous. And I’m just not a fan of battle scenes painted on ceilings. I’m sure I saw only a tiny fraction of the palace, but when Rick Steves directed me to exit to the gardens shortly after I gawked briefly at the smaller-than-I’d-imagined hall of mirrors, I readily followed his instructions.
I stumbled into the sunlight. What a relief! Space! Air! And, holy cow, the gardens. English needs a separate word to describe the arrow-straight lines of trees, perfectly symmetrical plantings, immaculately trimmed shrubs, and flawless organization of a French “garden;” the word doesn’t do it justice. Nature palace? That’s the best I can come up with.
In any case, the gardens spread out before me, straight back from the palace. My audio tour sent me down the wide boulevard – lined with massive marble urns and statues, of course – around several enormous fountain pools, past numerous alleys of trees and shrubs on either side, and up to the top of the broad, man-made canal. Besides the inevitable tourists, the gardens were alive with people who must’ve been locals, walking their dogs, biking with their kids, jogging, chatting on benches, boating, and generally enjoying the sunshine as if they were just in a giant park. Maybe that’s what the palace grounds are considered to be by the people who live nearby. Sounds fantastic to me!
I hurried on, growing ever more concerned that I would return to Paris too late to fully explore the Musée Rodin, which closed particularly early at 4:45. I couldn’t have walked even a quarter of the length of the gardens, but it took me at least 20 minutes to arrive at the Trianon Palace. But what a lovely, “little” country residence! I could much better picture the royalty of France spending their summer days sprawled across the bright-colored, velvet chairs of the airy, white rooms while their servants scurried to and fro over the squeaky, wooden floors, carrying trays of fruit sorbets and cream puffs, or perhaps strolling through the apple orchards and maze-like rose and tulip gardens just beyond the colonnade.
I didn’t venture too much further beyond the Trianon Palace, just far enough to peek into a few smaller buildings and to get a sense for the spring-time beauty that was just starting to emerge around every bend of the meandering dirt and gravel paths of the gardens. Then I turned back and made for the train station with as much haste as possible, without actually breaking into a run. Happily, a train was waiting for me, and 2:30, I was paused outside the Musée Rodin, taking a brief moment to scarf down some buttery crackers, the only thing I could find to purchase at the solitary convenience store open in the area around the museum.
The Rodin was excellent. A reasonably-sized, two-story house hosts the majority of the sculptures – all by Rodin. Outside are – wait for it – beautifully groomed gardens, which are scattered with bronzes of some of the more famous pieces, the only one of which you’re likely to have heard of being “The Thinker.”
Back inside. I love sculptures. During our family trip to Italy in 2012, I discovered my favorite Italian sculptor, Bernini, whose dynamic works captured my fascination in the Borghese Museum in Rome. While both Bernini and Rodin seem to have loved to sculpt freezes of figures right in the midst of movement, Rodin wins: his subjects’ limbs fly in all directions; muscles ripple; hair bounces. It’s so vibrant and alive! And the neatest aspect of the museum was being able to see his sculptures progress from rough, miniature models plasters to detailed terracotta carvings to life-sized bronzes. Pieces from every step of the process are displayed, and on some of them, you can still pick out the marks made by Rodin’s tools as he worked. It was fascinating! A large number of the pieces were featured on the audio guide I rented, but all of the descriptive title placards were translated to English – in glorious contrast with ever other museum or location I visited in Paris – so even without the audio guide’s explanation, you could have an idea of the significance of every carving.
Once I had made two circuits of the museum, I mosey through the gardens and admired the bronzes. The door, depicting scenes from Dante’s Inferno, for which “The Thinker” was originally created, was particularly impressive. Its tormented figures writhed almost in unison, like waves of suffering sweeping across and up the face of the door panels. Though I did make certain that I found and inspected each statue in the garden, I spent the majority of my time sitting on a bench overlooking a circular pool and several bronzes, brushing crumbs out of the pages of my notebook as I travel journaled and munched my way through the rest of my packet of crackers.
Thanks to that unanticipated time change, it wasn’t even close to getting dusky when I left the museum around 4:30, licking my lips parched by cracker salt. So, without even bothering to consult my metro map, I got on the ever-useful yellow line 1 and rode it to its terminus to visit the Arc de Triomphe. The list of stops along the line posted just below the ceiling of the train stated “Grand Arche” in white letters on brown highlighting, which is the way that sightseeing attractions are denoted – same for the Louvre, the Rodin, the Eiffel Tower, et cetera.
But when I exited the metro and stepped above ground, I surrounded by skyscrapers. If that wasn’t unexpected enough, one of the glassy, modern buildings was shaped rather like the Arc de Triomphe – only it was huge, and, well, and office building of some kind. Weird. Besides the 20th- or 21st-centuryfied Arc replica, to my left was a giant, bronze thumb sticking up out of the ground and to my right appeared to be a massive indoor shopping mall. I was confused.
Over the following two and a half hours, as I explored the Grande Arche de la Défense and its surroundings, my confusion steadily resolved itself. Far in the distance, down a long boulevard of pedestrian-only pavement dotted with little, urban parks between the towering buildings and then down a busy road – the Avenue des Champs-Elysees – was the Arc de Triomphe. The Grande Arche was a reflection of the older monument. Cool.
Behind the Grande Arche I discovered a pier-like structure, that stretched out into the city, above an orderly, Secret Garden-like cemetery. People promenaded up and down the wood planks of the walkway, gazing out into the apartment buildings and countryside beyond. After traversing the length of the pier and climbing both sets of white stone steps of the Grande Arche, I returned to the main square out in front of it, which was – for a Sunday, at least – positively bustling with the activity of Parisians enjoying their evening by roller-blading, drifting here and there arm-in-arm, licking ice cream cones, and looking on as a group of people constructed an art installation that appeared to be taking the form of sparkly camping tents.
I ventured inside the mall, which was just as vast and crowded as I had suspected. Sunday must be shopping day in Paris. I found a bakery stand with a lengthy line, and purchased a beignet au chocolat – like a chocolate-filled donut, only better – which I enjoyed as I sat on the edge of a planter in an atrium, taking advantage of the free wifi, since the internet hadn’t been working at the apartment for 36 hours. Then I headed to the real Arc de Triomphe, via a long walk to the end of the pedestrian avenue between the skyscrapers and then via metro.
Since I’d already had my dessert, I felt obligated to stop at another bakery for some real food: a baguette, duh. Alas, this one’s crust was overdone and far too thick and crunchy, so I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much as the one from the previous day. Nevertheless, I believe I appreciated the bread more than the Arc de Triomphe. That monument is situated in the middle of a traffic circle in a busy intersection. Sure, the ornate reliefs carved on its faces are impressive, but otherwise, I didn’t find it too fascinating. So, I circled one, twice, and left. A brief jaunt down the famed and over-peopled Avenue des Champs-Elysees brought me to a metro stop. And home I went, exceedingly pleased with my accidental visit to the unique, non-touristy, and – shall I say? – authentically Parisian Grande Arche. I felt like I’d discovered the real Paris, where actual Parisians go to relax and escape the tourists. And, accurate or not, that was a happy feeling.
Last post in this series: Paris – day 3: churches, gardens, tired feet, the end.