Versailles and Pantheon

Paris has been hit with a crippling heat wave that is affecting large parts of Europe. All we had in us for the last couple of days was a brief visit to Versailles yesterday and the Pantheon today.

The Hall of Mirrors is the “must-see” room in the Chateau. But I take exception to the name–the English name, that is. To see why, first take a good look at the room itself:

Hall of Mirrors, Versailles

The French name is “Galerie des Glaces“, which of course can be reasonably and literally translated “Gallery of Mirrors”. But “glace” can also be “window” or “ice”. Notice there are as many windows on the right as there are mirrors on the left. And all those chandeliers with glass (ice)? I rest my case. But historically speaking, it was the mirrors that were the attraction. At the time of its construction, nowhere could be found such an installation of mirrors, and putting them directly across from all the windows gives the room a sparkle that even today is breathtaking.

Today we went to the Pantheon, not too far from our apartment. The building was originally intended as a church honoring Ste. Genevieve, patron saint of Paris, a gift of gratitude from Louis XV for being healed from a grave illness. Construction was not complete when the French Revolution derailed it.  The revolution being very secular in nature, the leadership decided to repurpose the building from a house of christian worship to a mausoleum honoring the heroes of France.  The cross atop and the traditional floor plan along with some artwork of historical events of a religious nature are the only vestiges of religion there today.

The Pantheon of Paris

Hanging from the 300 foot-high dome of the building is a dramatic demonstration of the rotation of the earth.  First exhibited in 1851, it showed the common people that indeed, just like scientists had been saying for years, the sun and moon did not spin around the earth, but the earth rotated on its own axis.  There are now several such demonstrations in other parts of the world.

Foucault Pendulum

And so we finish up another visit to Paris. A tip to travelers: if you plan a trip to Paris in the summertime, choose lodgings with air conditioning. Just sayin.

Light Workshop, et. al.

Today we headed off the one of the new must-see exhibits in Paris, the Atelier des Lumiéres, or Light Workshop. It’s an experience hard to describe, but describing is my job here, so I’ll give it a try. If you’ve ever seen a “camera obscura”, which is created by blocking all light into a room then opening a small hole to allow just a single source of light to be projected on the opposite wall of the room (, you have a beginning of what’s going on here. You are inside a room and images are project on all the walls and the floor, and appropriately chosen music to enhance the effect. And since the observers are inside the projection zone, sometimes you catch them bathed in the lights of the exhibit.

Atelier des Lumieres

The current exhibits are based on Van Gogh and on Japanese art.

Van Gogh, Atelier des Lumieres
Japanese, Atelier des Lumieres

After dinner, we visited the Abbey St. Germaine de Pres ( There has been a place of Christian worship here since 543. It’s not a large church, but inside it is exquisite.

Apse of the Abbey St. Germain des Pres

Tomorrow we are off to Versailles, to see how the other 1% lived.

Weekend in Paris

Did you miss me yesterday? I was tired.

We spent the day poking around MontMartre before having dinner with a friend. When on “pokes around MontMartre”, that usually entails a visit to Sacre Coeur, the very non-Gothic basilica perched on the hilltop in the north of Paris. It is very new, by French Standards, having been built beginning in 1875 and dedicated in 1919.

Sacre Coeur, up close

Compared to the bright white exterior of the basilica, the interior seems sombre and dark. This mosaic dominates the view from the nave:

View from the nave

After leaving the basilica our path took as past the famous “Passe-Muraille“. The name means “The Man Who Passed Through Walls”, the title of a short story by Marcel Aymé. The sculptor produced this work in the author’s honor, and placed it basically in his front yard.

Le Passe-Muraille

Today we enjoyed a late start. I actually took advantage of the time to attend mass and the post-mass organ recital at St. Sulpice, which is only ten minutes from our apartment. You do know it’s a mortal sin to miss that when you’re so close, yes?

We had a brief visit at the Louvre. Our grand-daughter had never been there, of course, so we had the mandatory viewing of the Mona Lisa, along with a few hundred total strangers. Our search for the bus to take us back home took us past this great metro station entrance, with a pessimist and an optimist sharing the bench. Most stations are much less ornate than this, but that’s what makes Paris interesting–art in unexpected places.

Metro entrance

Like this, for another example. This has all the appearance of an interrupted attempt to repair some damage to the little plaza at the street corner.

Street art, literally

Tomorrow we’re off to the Light Workship (Atelier Lumiére), a new art display concept that’s getting rave reviews.

Orsay and The Orangerie

The finest collection of Impressionist art in Paris is at the Orsay Museum, across the Seine from the Louvre. It was once a railway station but was converted into a beautiful museum. A quick note about the bridge in the foreground of the image below: there is a long-standing tradition where lovers buy a padlock, write their initials and date, attach the padlock to a bridge, declare their undying love, and toss the key into the Seine to seal their destiny. As if. The center of this activity used to be near Notre Dame, but the city leadership became concerned about the damage to the bridge railings due to the weight of the locks, so they tore down the wire mesh railings and replaced them with plexiglass. So the practice has now relocated.

Orsay Museum

My own must-see item in the entire museum is Degas’ “La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans” (the Little 14-year-old danser). How a 14-year-old gets that girl’s attitude, I have no idea, but she has always been for me a source of motivation for better parenting! I don’t know how profitable she was for Degas, but a copy sold in 2009 for over $14 million.

Also in the museum is a scale model of Lady Liberty. There is at least one other in Paris, exhibited outdoors on an island near the Eiffle Tower. Hopefully our boat ride later this week will get us a view of it. The statue was a gift from France to the USA in 1886. Remembering that the USA cherishes the phrase “the pursuit of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” as much as the French cherish “liberty, equality, brotherhood (liberté, egalité, fraternité) helps to see why the French like having their own copy of what might seem an American symbol.

Lady Liberty

From the Orsay we headed across the river to the Orangerie. Originally built to protect the Tuileries garden’s orange trees during the winter, it now exists to house Claude Monet’s masterpiece “The Water Lilies” (Les Nympheas). We wanted to be sure to see this epic work before our day trip next week to Monet’s garden, the inspiration for this piece. The first time we were here, photos were forbidden. The city has since relaxed its ban in many museums, including both of today’s, where now only flash is prohibited. What you see here is one of four similarly-sized panels.

Les Nympbeas (1 of 4)

We rewarded ourselves for a hard day of museum-hopping with a stop at Angelina’s, the tea room where the most extraordinary hot chocolate is found. To get there was just a quick walk through the Tuileries gardens, which give a very nice green area to spend a warm summer day. Here you see the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, gateway to the Louvre.


Two Towers

Today we visited the Arc de Triomphe first, then the Eiffel Tower. Sometimes it’s good to get an overhead view of a place, and with Notre Dame off limits now, these are the two go-to places in Paris for getting that angle on things.

Yesterday I showed you a full-on view of the Arc de Triomphe as seen from the middle of the Champs Elysées. Here’s a closeup of one of its commemorative friezes.


It doesn’t take a historical expert to see all the sculpture and lists of battles on the walls to get the name: this was created as a commemoration of France’s military triumphs. But at the end of World War I, with the interment of the Unknown Soldier, it was changed into a place of honoring the fallen. The inscription reads “Here lies a French soldier, died for the homeland, 1914-1918”. By placing it on the axis of the Champs Elysées, the government intended that no more would conquering armies march through the Arc in triumph. According to the museum, this was honored even by the Germans when they paraded down the Champs Elysées–they went around the Arc, not through it.

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Standing in the geometrical center of the Arc on the ground and looking straight up, one can see the geometrical stonework overhead. Notice the one in the center. And smile–you’re on camera. In the museum is a monitor showing activity on the ground. I suspect a similar view, along with others I don’t know about, is also in the security center.


There are two ways to get to the rooftop–stairs and elevator. At least that’s what I understand. I intended to take the elevator, but I zigged when I should have zagged, and walked up the entire way, all 284 steps worth. I think next time I’ll take someone who knows how to get to the elevator. But I’ll miss this view:


From the Arc de Triomphe, we headed to the Eiffel Tower, passing over my wife’s favorite bridge in Paris, the Alexander III, so named to honor the alliance between France and Russia in 1892. There are four corner towers on the bridge, each topped with a gilded statue. Here’s one of them:

Alexander III Bridge

We’ll have to return later to get some distant views of the tower. For today, I’ll just give a couple of views of the neighborhood as seen from the tower. Looking west, across the river, is the Trocadero. In the distance is visible the La Defense area. This is where to go if you want to see 21st-century Paris. Maybe someday we’ll do just that.


And just opposite the Trocadero is the Champs de Mars, site of a historic battle between the Romans and the local Gaulois who, though seriously out-numbered and out-armed gave the Romans a serious enough fight that when it was over, the Romans preserved this field in their honor. Today it is still used when huge numbers of people must be accommodated.

Champs de Mars

Tomorrow is art day. We’ll learn as much about Impressionism as we can in the time available to us.

Odds and Ends

Most of today was spent on the upper deck of a sightseeing bus to give our granddaughter a chance to see the major sights of Paris and decide which ones to return to. As a result, I don’t have much to say about Paris that I haven’t already said. But one can’t spend an entire day here without a few noteworthy things happening.

We had lunch on the Champs Elysees. Not a particularly fancy lunch (pizza), but, hey–it’s the most famous avenue in the world! And after lunch, we had to get a decent shot of the Arc de Triomphe. The avenue is so wide that there is a safety island in the middle, so this view is not as dangerous to get as it looks.

Arc de Triomphe

After a longer-than-expected day on a sightseeing bus, we returned exhausted to our apartment to get some much-appreciated rest. I was awakened from my nap by the sound of a crowd on the street. Aware of the unrest in Paris over the last several months, I looked cautiously out our third-floor window to see a small crowd rejoicing on the sidewalk below:

Street Celebration

Then I realized that in addition to the normal crowd noise I was hearing a brass band. This called for an up-close check, so off we went. The building in the photo is the Descartes campus of the medical school of the University of Paris. It turned out that the celebration was for the completion of the national medical boards exam, which carries the same weight here as it does in the states. But it was the brass band and the school mascot that intrigued me. I mean in the states I’d think no big deal–many (most) universities have marching bands and sports mascots. But here?

Brass band

Well, it seems that not only do they have a school mascot, but there is enough cause for celebration throughout the school year that the volunteer band members keep a lively repertoire of big band jazz to keep things hopping, and hopping they were.

After dinner at a little brasserie on Blvd. St. Germain, a bit of window-licking was called for. Oops, let me explain. The French are much more honest in their terms than the English. We say “window-shopping” as if we were actually going to buy something. They say “lèche-vitrine“, literally “window-licking” to express the idea that they are just coveting what’s on the other side of the glass. This shop is oddly enough one of my favorites. The first time I saw it, five or six years ago, I thought it was a bookstore. Anita says I should get out more.

Sonia Rykiel

After our ride-around, our granddaughter has chosen to get above it all: tomorrow we’ll get an overhead view of Paris from the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.

Back to Paris

This year our France trip will focus on Paris, sort of a reduced-scale version of our first trip in 2013 when we stayed four weeks. This will be a stay of only ten days because we have our adolescent granddaughter with us. She will not figure in our blog, but she will provide new eyes for us to see Paris as we have never seen it before. So, as the French say to get things going, c’est parti!

Day One is always a short day from the point of view of the blogger or journaller, because half or more of it is spent on an airplane getting there. But get there we did. We are housed in an apartment on Rue Saints Peres at the boundary of the 6th and 7th arrondissements, about 100 feet from the intersection with Boulevard St. Germain, Anita’s dream street. She feels good being only a short walk to the Ralph Lauren store. We both feel good about being next door to food. Saint Pearl is a tiny cafe just next door to our apartment, and on the other side of that is a bakery. What’s not to like?

Food next door.

We tried lunch at Saint Pearl today and were not disappointed. Following our granddaughter’s lead I had a dish of pancake (no, not a crepe), eggs, bacon, and asparagus. I could do that again.

Pancake, eggs, bacon, asparagus

We’ll check out the baker for breakfast tomorrow.

After our late lunch, we headed down to Notre Dame to see for ourselves how it was faring. Like many of you we were pained this past Holy Week to watch the near destruction of this awe-inspiring symbol. I know it’s still very fragile, but seeing its towers still standing guard over the city was somehow very reassuring to me.

Notre Dame under restoration

In the shadow of Notre Dame across the river is a little park hosting the oldest tree in Paris. It is a “false acacia” but called a Robinier, after M. Jean Robin who introduced the strain to France in 1601. This one still stands, even if a little propping up is required. It is listed among the 200 or so “Remarkable Trees of France.” Of course it is: any living organism that outlives so many wars, revolutions, and constitutions is indeed remarkable.

Robinier across the river from Notre Dame

So we’re here and our seventh visit to France is off to a grand start. Tomorrow we’ll capitalize on the transportation system to see some of the iconic sites in the City of Light.

Chateau Brissac

We try to plan one big splurge for each of our trips. This trip we decided it was time to fulfill one item that had been on our French to-do list from the beginning: spend the night in a chateau. Through one of her innumerable sources, Anita learned of Chateau Brissac and we were able to book an overnight stay there. This chateau is sometimes called The Giant of the Loire valley, since it has a reputation as the tallest chateau in France. You can visit its website here.

Upon arrival, we were greeted by the Marquis himself, a charming man full of energy and hospitality.  He showed us to our suite and to say it was beyond our expectations would be an understatement.  The main room, a 16th-century bedchamber, covered about 600 square feet.  Our minds boggled to think of who might have slept there in its 500 year history.


Between the bedroom and the bathroom was “my” study.  This is what a computer programmer looks like hard at work in a centuries-old castle.


The home has been inhabited by the Cossé family for over 500 years.  They were highly placed in the service of the kings of France, one of them having paid the ultimate price for that in the Revolution of 1789.  But before that, Louis XIII chose this house for one of the most dramatic scenes in French history.  The full details can be found here, but for my purposes, it is enough to say that this bedroom, down the hall from ours, was the scene of the famous, but temporary, reconciliation between Louis XIII and his mother, Marie de Medici in 1620.  Bedchambers often served as the sites of official acts and ceremonies.  According to the documentation, there were eight witnesses to the event.


Besides its sumptuous interior, the chateau is an architectural joy to behold.  It started life as a fortress, and was in the process of being converted to a residential castle when work stopped for a variety of reasons.  One of the owners a few generations ago called it a “partially finished castle built on a partially destroyed fortress.”  Returning to it after dinner, we were greeted with this view:


I got up with the sun (except that it was a gorgeous overcast day with mist lying low over the park) and took a stroll around the grounds.  Looking back to the castle, you get a feel for the magnitude of the place and its tranquility.


The “back yard” of a couple of thousand acres offered strolling, fishing, and just sitting.  There is even a track for training race horses, one of the traditional family interests.


We also discovered in conversation with the marquis that he is the host of the FAI European Hot Air Balloon Competition.  We had brought as a token of friendship a book filled with photos of the annual Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta.  He was very interested in how it differed from the Brissac event, and was delighted to recognize one of “our” balloons as also being one of “his” balloons!

So why do this kind of splurge?  It seems that Walter Benjamin had the answer.  This quote is found on the trail leading away from the castle out to the park.  My translation: The true measure of life is memory.  We will remember this visit.