Good-Bye, Paris! ’Til We Meet Again …

Saturday, February 18, Paris

We made a breakfast out of things left in the fridge, cleaned the place up a little, then went out for our last stop: Notre-Dame. We’d been walking by it at least a couple times every day, and I thought it would be nice to become visually familiar with the outside before taking in the interior. And since we’d really only have half a day (our plane would leave at four p.m., and it’s a forty-five-minute ride by express train out to CDG from the center of Paris, longer by bus), it was good to have something just seconds away.

I’d had enough of stairs, so we declined to pay for the privilege of climbing up four flights of stairs into the north tower (the south tower holds the bell). Besides, we’d already had a couple really nice views, both higher than this would afford. Instead, we just walked right in the front doors, for free.

The front doors at Notre-Dame. That’s Mary holding the baby Jesus in the center.

This (ahem) is a side door. And that’s grown-up Jesus.

Six apostles on each side.

It’s amazing and beautiful, and is a veritable monument to Christian symbolism. Every single thing, inside and outside, has meaning, from the windows shaped as rose blooms (a symbol of both Christ and his mother, Mary) to the statues of the “Kings of Judah” stretched across the front façade and the birds of paradise in the elaborate iron scrollwork on the thirteenth-century front doors. There’s so much to take in, it really needs a repeat visit.

Pope Alexander III laid the foundation stone for Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris in 1163, but it took hundreds of craftsmen 170 years to complete this Gothic masterpiece. Then, after over four hundred years of service, it was severely damaged in the French Revolution (the revolutionaries mistook those Kings of Judah for the Kings of France, for one thing). The famous gargoyles (as well as the spire) came to the building in the subsequent restoration, which occurred in 1841–1864.

I bought a book in the shop that does a pretty fair job of picturing and explaining much of the contents of the cathedral, including the three massive stone tympanums on the front of the building. I’d been walking past the thing for four days, staring at individual elements, but it was still overwhelming. Inside, I was most taken with the gilded wall known as the choir stall perimeter; one side depicts the events of Christmas week while the other tells the Easter story.

The choir stall; this is the Christmas side.

Outside, I really loved those flying buttresses that make the building look as if it could launch into space travel at any moment. The cathedral’s official Web site is here, but you can see a lot of photos here.

On the way back to the apartment for the last time, we shopped in the little touristy places for some last-minute souvenirs, then we were going to have a cup of tea and the last of our French pastries in the apartment as we waited for Giancarlo to come; he had very kindly offered to drive us to the bus stop, saying that the bus would be much easier than the train, both coming and going. And, frankly, he was right: leaving the airport, buses depart from every terminal (not just Terminal 3, as the train does), and you’ll never have to drag your luggage up out of the subway; going back to the airport the bus takes you to whichever terminal you need to be too.

So … Giancarlo arrived with his brother-in-law, an Italian, in tow. He loaded our luggage into the trunk, and drove us to the nearest main bus terminal. As I recall, the fare was a bit less than the train (which was E8, or about $9.70). We had an international carload—French, Italian, Irish, American—and on the ride we learned that Giancarlo has been to China, and that he lived in Japan for three years. This seems like a lot to know about a person, but they’re just unconnected tidbits; I bet his story is an interesting one (and I intend to interview him when next we meet!).

Back at Charles de Gaulle, we found that all those families who brought their children to EuroDisney this week were returning today! Merde! The place was chock-full of kids sporting Mouse paraphernalia. Worse, though, we couldn’t shop in duty-free—you see, you have to be leaving the country to take advantage of duty-free, and the advent of the European Union makes Ireland and France just part of one big, happy (sometimes) family.

Yes, there were signage problems again (we followed the signs to our gate number, but once arrived, could find nothing to confirm that we were actually in the right place), but they were minor. And yes, our plane was packed with families of young children. But it was a beautiful, sunny day, and upon takeoff we got the magnificent view of Paris from the air that we had not gotten on the way in: we were easily able to pick out the Eiffel Tower, and “our” island. Gorgeous view!

So this was our good-bye to a beautiful city that we both are anxious to revisit.

A little over an hour later, we got a similar gorgeous view of Dublin Bay as we came in, with the sun low in the sky. We picked up our rental car, dropped the luggage off, and said hello …

Bridie and Cleo

… then headed out to grab some take-home Chinese, as we were both in the mood for something spicy. We dropped by Gerry’s brother William’s place for a few minutes, where I was able to meet his wife, Gwen; so now I’ve officially met everyone in the family.

After all that excitement, I went down to the B&B for an early night.

Sunday, February 19, Co. Dublin

Lucky us! Gerry had a generous gift certificate to an upscale hotel chain, and we had plans to absolutely wallow in it! This was a day for which little was planned—probably a good thing, as I was still coughing, still walking around with a fist pressing my chest. So I slept late and then went down to Gerry’s to laze around for a couple hours (watching a string of “taped” American Idol shows, something I wouldn’t be caught dead doing Stateside, but it was oddly mesmerizing, in between the cringing), just kinda killing time until we could check in to the Towers hotel.

The Towers is attached to Jury’s (a hotel chain) Ballsbridge (which is, the Web site tells us, in the heart of Dublin’s embassy district), but it’s the upscale, exclusive, executive wing (UPDATE: the hotel was sold and subsequently closed the next year). Very quiet. The room was very nice, large, luxurious. We went down to one of the little on-site pubs to grab lunch (I had Guinness beef/potato casserole—and don’t be misled by that last word, it’s an Irish substitute for “stew”).

Let me tell you, whether we were in the Towers section, or the Jury’s section, the level of customer service was exemplary—off the scale, really. But I found it odd that in order to avail myself of Wi-Fi, I would have to pay extra. Free wireless has become routine on this side of the pond (I’d just spent weeks researching this type of information for a freelance assignment, which is why I can make that statement), not only in hotels, but in RV parks, libraries, restaurants, bars, diners, and, of course, coffee houses. (UPDATE: 2006 was early days for Wi-Fi in Ireland; ten years later, it is standard and generally free.)

We napped, watched TV, read … I even indulged in a very long and hot bubble bath, something I haven’t done in years and really should do more of. The bathroom amenities were from Molton Brown, a London-based company, and … well … I may have formed yet another expensive habit: loved the shampoo, loved the shower gel.

We dressed up for an eight p.m. dinner downstairs with Brendan and his lady friend Ruth, and Pat and his wife Brenda, an event that had been planned for weeks. Gerry and I hung out in the bar while we waited for the others; as it turned out, Pat had come down with the same flu that I’d gotten, and didn’t feel up to it, so it was just the four of us, but a good time was had by all: we didn’t get back to our room until after midnight. Brendan arrived bearing even more gifts: he’d been to the Avoca Handweavers and purchased a winter scarf for each of the women expected at the party, and for me, he also brought a beautiful white mohair/wool throw. It’s soft and gorgeous—and I used it quite a bit during the rest of the trip.

We drank wine with our meal, indulged in desserts, then lingered at the table talking until they were closing the restaurant down, so we moved out into the lobby bar (you may recall this phenomenon from my last visit, which I find very, very civilized: a section of the lobby is crowded with chairs and sofas and low tables, where you can comfortably relax and drink alcohol, as if you’re sitting in your own living room). I had an Irish coffee, and we continued our conversation until poor Ruth was just falling asleep. She had to be somewhere very early the next day too.

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Pinch Me Again—I’m (Still) in Paris

Friday, February 17, Paris

Bon jour!

Yes, we’d been here long enough, we were speaking French! You know: le bridge, le bottled water, le apartment, le mobile phone … all Gerry had to do is put “le” in front of something and I was cracking up. But seriously, the French have laws (laws!) about this sort of thing (zis Franglais, eet must be stopped!), so it’s a wonder we weren’t deported.

There are about 87 million native French-speakers, which actually puts it ’way down on the list of world languages (Chinese, of course, is first, even if you only count Mandarin, at 873 million; Wikipedia lists Hindi next, at 370 million, although that figure is made up of nine different dialects, the largest of which is only 180 million, and most lists of this nature that I found don’t include it as a combined figure; English and Spanish are neck and neck, each with around 350 million native speakers; then Arabic, and Portuguese … French is actually twelfth on this list, after Russian, Japanese, and German, among others)—but really, do you want to learn to speak Russian? Nah. My brief visit to Paris, on the other hand, has me considering French classes, if for no other reason than to stave off senility.

And to facilitate a return trip to the City of Lights, of course! : )

So, Friday. Every day we’d been getting tired earlier. What is that about international travel that is so wearing? As I mentioned earlier, Paris is one of those places that one simply has to return to. The first time you learn le ropes (how to get out of the airport, for example) … you learn what you like and what you don’t like, what’s easy and what’s hard, the little survival tricks, the names of things, how to speak to the store clerks. Now that we’d been here four days, we’d settled into a routine, we knew where things in our neighborhood were.

But we were definitely slowing down.

This day, after sleeping late and having a nice breakfast in, we rode le Metro to Boulevard Haussmann and went to le big department stores for a little old-fashioned shopping.

There are two, side by side: Au Printemps and Galeries Lafayette. (Naturally, there are more than just two department stores in Paris; but these are the most famous.) Printemps opened in 1864, and le façade looks like something out of the Gilded Age, sure enough. It carries everything you’d expect: designer clothing (plus middle-of-the-range labels) for men and women, children’s apparel, housewares, furniture, and perfume and cosmetics. On le sixth floor there is a lovely Art Nouveau domed cupola of turquoise glass over an in-house café. Galeries Lafayette opened in 1894, and is Printemps’s main rival. It has a beautiful glass and steel dome, an Art Nouveau staircase built in 1912, and a food hall that rivals Harrod’s in London.

Each store has its champions (some think women’s and children’s clothing are better at Au Printemps, some say you’ll be more pampered at Galeries Lafayette), but they were both pretty fancy, with excellent customer service. We were catching le tail-end of the extreme sales that start in January, so it was a good time to bargain shop, and we did. : )

After a few hours of unabashed consumerism, we rode the Metro back to what we’d begun to think of as our neighborhood—le carnival rides, le grocery store, le bridge back to Ile St-Louis—then walked through the quiet Marais neighborhood to the Musée Picasso.

Marais means swamp—which is what this area was until Henri IV built a beautiful square and royal apartments (probably for his mistresses) here in 1605 (now called the Place de Vosges). And it still has a very medieval look to it: tiny, winding cobbled streets with ancient buildings; it is considered an upper class residential area. It’s very clean and neat, we noticed, and quiet. I’d definitely consider renting an apartment in the Marais (if I didn’t love 23 rue le Regrattier so much!). The area has many chic designer shops and plenty of funky markets and art galleries—enough to make window-shopping while we walked along a delight. There’s also a thriving Jewish Quarter, where we saw Haisidic Jews in their black clothing, distinctive hats, and long curling sideburns. All in all, a very pleasant and interesting ten or twelve blocks!

A note about the weather: you’ve noticed the grey skies in all the photos, both in Ireland and in France. You see, it was winter in Europe in February! No big deal—an overcast sky means there won’t be harsh shadows in your photos, no one squinting into the sun. And no leaves on the trees meant you could actually see more, see what was behind the trees, which was particularly helpful in Paris. Sure, it was cold (some days more than others). But when you’re out walking around in it, you warm up pretty fast. And you wear layers of clothing, as I’ve mentioned earlier, which is very cozy.

A note about packing for winter travel: sweaters, you may have noticed, are really bulky; they take up a lot of room in your suitcase. So leave those sweaters at home, kids. Instead, plan for layers, and bring t-shirts, turtlenecks, vests. The most useful items I brought were two lightweight fleece cardigans; the fabric is thin but oh-so-warm.

So. The Musée Picasso. The museum is in the Hotel Salé, former mansion of Aubert de Fontenay, built around 1656. He made his fortune as a collector of the salt tax (hence the building’s name). Classical in style, this building was chosen by the French government to house what is the largest collection of Picassos in the world (thanks to a law passed in 1968 that allowed heirs to pay inheritance taxes with works of art instead of money, as long as the art is considered an important contribution to the French cultural heritage; and since Pablo Picasso lived most of his adult life in France, and died there in 1973, these were definitely important) because Picasso would have liked it. I find that touching, and charming, and very French, that attention to detail. Since Picasso had amassed an enormous collection of his own work, this payment of his inheritance taxes instantly created the single largest collection of Picassos anywhere, which was further enriched upon the death of Jacqueline Picasso in 1986. The collection has also acquired a number of works through purchases and gifts.

I am not a huge fan of so-called modern art, but I’ve always enjoyed Picasso, perhaps because he had so many styles, perhaps because I find it intriguing. Often people think of his surrealist paintings when his name is mentioned, but don’t forget the blue period (and the pink!), his cubist works, and even his many classical works, which are quite lovely. And what’s nice about the Musée Picasso is that all techniques and all periods are represented, in an intimate way that makes every painting and sculpture accessible … you can walk right up to everything: nothing is cordoned off, nothing is behind glass. There was a very moving but very abstract drawing of the crucifixion of Christ; Gerry remarked that in this PC world we live in, it might be enough to make Christians riot. Ha!

In the museum’s bookstore I bought a small pamphlet about the collections and the larger official guide. Unfortunately, I failed to notice that I’d picked up the French version of the latter, so, while it appears to have lots of really interesting material in it, all I can do is look at the pictures. (All the big venues offer their official visitor’s guide in a variety of languages, and you’ve got to be pretty careful or you’ll go home with a guide to the Louvre in Japanese.) The Web site is a nice one—but does not have an English version (UPDATE: It does now, ten years later); click around, though, and you can get a sampling of the art displayed there.

I regret to say that I took no photos this day—nothing in the Marais, nothing at the Musée Picasso. In general, I took far fewer photos on this trip than I did on my trip in 2003, and I don’t really know why, particularly since I was carrying my very light, easy-to-use digital camera this time (as opposed to my very, very heavy Canon F-1 last time). But perhaps it was the very nature of the two cameras: I think of the F-1 as a “serious” camera, and when I have it with me, I’m aware of it, and I use it, carefully framing every shot. My digital camera (also a Canon, and I do love it) is more like a toy: I snap away, knowing that if the first shot doesn’t work, I can just take another; I’m less serious when I use it … and as a result, the photos I do take with it aren’t as good. I’m a bit sad about this dearth of photos, but it’s too late now. And I do have lovely memories. : )

Paris is also a city that’s been exhaustively documented, both on the Web … and in movies. Yes, movies. Two I’ve rewatched recently are Before Sunset—wherein a couple (Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy) walk through the very area of Paris we stayed in, starting at the bookstore Shakespeare & Co. It gives a really great sense of what Paris is like right now—and Le Divorce, a clever comedy of manners staring Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson as sisters, one of whom lives in Paris. When she throws open the window of her Paris apartment, you can clearly see the spire of St-Germain-des-Prés in the close distance.

Our little apartment really was very centrally located. The Musée Picasso was an easy walk from here, much closer than I’d guessed by looking at the map. There were many other places very, very close too; a whole trip could be planned in which one never even had to take the Metro—there was that much to see and do so close by. I could happily return and do just that.

We really enjoyed staying there, in that specific location. The walls were very thick, and the island itself very, very quiet. I read somewhere that Parisians themselves check into hotels on the Ile St-Louis to get away from the city noise; in very fundamental ways, Paris is no different from New York or Chicago or London or San Francisco (all places I’ve spent some time in)—cities are what they are, no matter what language is spoken.

Anyway, on our way home after the Musée, we stopped at our local grocery store to pick up some foodstuffs for me to take home for gifts, then stopped by the apartment to drop this stuff off before going off in search of Shakespeare & Co., the landmark English-language bookstore on the Left Bank. I’d finished my book the evening before, and hadn’t brought a spare with me to Paris; and since watching American television shows dubbed into French only holds limited appeal (it’s amusing for about two minutes, trust me on this), I needed more reading material. Previous occupants had left books in the apartment—there was a large selection of travel books, for example, and a few novels, but Maeve Binchy isn’t really my style, and that was the best of the lot.

So off we went to Shakespeare & Co. for a book in English, by way of the boulanger that had the cream crepes that Gerry fell in love with a couple days previously (I’d returned there yesterday in the very late afternoon for more, but they were out, so this time we went earlier, hoping to find them in stock and they were).

The owner of this bookshop, George Whitman, is originally from Massachusetts, but has lived in Paris for the last sixty years, all of them over the store he opened in 1951, when he found himself in Paris and at loose ends after the Second World War. (UPDATE: Whitman died in 2011.) It’s played host to a Who’s Who of authors, from Henry Miller and Hemingway to Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It’s tiny and cramped, with books stuffed into every conceivable (and crooked) nook and cranny. You can read more about it here.

S&C doesn’t really stock the current new releases like most bookstores, but it has a good solid backlist, so I was able to find a Louis de Bernieres (Captain Corelli’s Mandolin) I’d wanted to read. When you buy a book there, they stamp the title page with a rubber stamp that says the name of the bookstore and “Kilometer Zero Paris”—a reference to its location just a few hundred yards away from the dead center of Paris, which is in front of Notre-Dame. There’s a very cool 360-degree panoramic view of the outside of the shop here—you can see Notre-Dame in the distance. In the column on the left of this Web site you can click to see panoramic views of all the interior rooms of the bookstore, as well as—incongruently—the interior of Notre-Dame.

Having both made purchases, we walked back to Ile St-Louis, cutting, as we often did, through the peaceful side garden of Notre-Dame. There’s a small playground here, with benches for the mothers to sit, and by coming this way one avoids the crowds in front of the cathedral (and there always are) and the touristy shops and stalls along the other side. The back gate lets one out right onto the bridge that crosses from Ile de la Cité to Ile St-Louis.

Here’s a good reason to be in Paris in February: the trees are bare! We can see a lot more of Notre-Dame …

Notre-Dame is immediately on the left, just out of this frame. There are some children’s swings in this little side garden of the cathedral. We walked this way (and on into Notre Dame’s back yard!) every day to and from the apartment. Can you imagine living with this a five-minute walk from your home?

This spire was built in 1860, and those verdigris statues are apostles. 🙂

Once in, we cooked up the last of our groceries (except what we’d have for breakfast), and retired to the cozy living room with cups of tea to enjoy our books.

And no, we hadn’t been watching the Olympics, not the first event of it.

I Love Paris in the (Almost) Springtime

Thursday, February 16, Paris

We slept late again, which didn’t really surprise me: I was exhausted (still coughing like crazy) and Gerry was exhausted because he wasn’t getting much sleep (between the coughing and the snoring). As I did yesterday, I slipped out to the boulanger (and unlike the Frenchwomen of Paris, I had no compunction whatsoever about walking down the rue St-Louis en l’Isle in my I-just-woke-up-gimme-a-break fashions) for fresh bread, and then eased into the morning with a cup of tea and the itinerary. One could get used to this type of life (if only one could afford the apartment—ha)!

Yes, of course there was an itinerary, but I think it’s important when traveling to not be too set on following every jot-and-tittle of the plan. Things happen. And today I decided to swap it around a bit so that we could have an easy day. We both wanted to shop a little, maybe in the Latin Quarter. But first—the Musée d’Orsay. And we decided to walk; it seemed like more trouble than it was worth to go down into the Metro and change trains twice. So even though the distance was a bit farther than I would have normally chosen to walk, we just reminded ourselves that with all that exercise, we could eat aaaaaaaaaanthing we wanted!

And we were indulging, believe you me. Paris has this interesting phenomenon of street vendors selling crèpes (as well as that incredible Berthillion ice cream, and a patisserie on every block), which makes it easy to break your diet. Interestingly, a lot of French pastry is not particularly sweet, although it’s all rich and wonderful and delicious … and a veritable feast for the eyes too!

So, off we went, keeping the river on our right, taking photos and just wandering. For awhile we walked along the Quays (right on the Seine), which is where all the used booksellers’ stalls are—a Parisian landmark. Many were closed, this being winter and all. Still, we found one where we bought a couple of CD compilations of famous French popular music: Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Charles Aznavour, and such. (We felt quite French later when we played them in the apartment! OOo la-la!) We looked at old posters and magazines, antique books and postcards, even sheet music.

Leaving the island and crossing to the Rive Gauche. This is the back side of Notre-Dame.

Looking west along the Seine (Notre-Dame on the right).

Notre-Dame in the background … but on this side of the river, you can see the book stalls, locked up.

An old-fashioned selfie, me standing on my tip-toes to get Notre-Dame in the photo.

For awhile we dodged into the labyrinthine pedestrian-only streets and alleys of the Latin Quarter, packed with tiny exotic shops and restaurants (and smelling wonderfully of lunch being prepared).

In the Latin quarter.

We finally found ourselves on the Boulevard St-Germain, a broad avenue that runs from Pont de Sully (the tip of Ile St-Louis) through the Latin Quarter and into the neighborhood known as St Germain-des-Prés. This area, once the bohemian epitome of café society, defined by the writers and intellectuals who lived and worked and partied here in the first half of the 1900s, has seen an influx of upscale shops and now is a very chic place to live. We meandered from shop to shop (there’s a bookstore on every corner, no joke!), oohing and aaahing and just generally enjoying the experience.

Most of you know I’m not much of a consumer (I have enough stuff), but I have to add something here about buying “stuff” in Paris. I’d read that shopping in France is different than shopping in the States, due to cultural differences in how we (Americans) and they (the French) think about it. Here in the US—and in most countries—a store is, essentially, a public arena; in France, the shop is an extension of the shopkeeper’s personal space, so the same rules of etiquette apply as if you were visiting someone’s home: greet the sales clerk, no loud conversations, and so on. This was actually easy to remember because in every shop we were greeted with a cheery “Bonjour!” and, upon leaving, an equally friendly “Au revoir!” I immediately fell into that high-pitched, sing-song tone of voice—“Bonjour!” “Merci!” “Au revoir!” and a big smile—and had to restrain myself for a couple days once we’d returned to Ireland, until the habit fell away again.

And what were they selling in Paris? Oh, my—it was a riot of color—rich colors, fuchsias and oranges and turquoises, purples, reds … gorgeous glass beads, beaded jewelry everywhere … tasteful designer clothing … unique, colorful toys. Textures were cottons, taffeta, Indian fabrics … patterns were stripes, polka dots, graphic designs.

Shops tend to be small (make that tiny); even the “large” grocery store we patronized was maybe 600 square feet. I actually like this: you can see pretty much everything there is to see quickly. I imagine it cuts down on shoplifting, too, since the shopkeeper is right there.

Jamie’s Travel Tip #13: Think in euro. That is, just as you reset your watch to local time, reset your mind to local currency. Learn the exchange rate so that you’re not agonizing over every little purchase, wondering “how much is that in dollars?” And then … “just do it.” : )

So … St-Germain-des-Prés. This genteel old neighborhood is centered around the oldest church in Paris, also called St-Germain-des-Prés (St. Germain of the Fields, since the church was once a country church, and the peasants literally walked across the fields to get to it). The original building was erected in 543, and by the eighth century was the site of a renowned Benedictine abbey. Destroyed by the Normans, a new church in the Romanesque style was built around the year 1000; it had three bell towers then, but now just one remains, and is the oldest part of the building. We didn’t go in (I did take a photograph, because, even in a city full of old historic buildings, there was just something about it that grabbed one’s attention), and I’m sorry we didn’t, now that I’ve researched it a bit: among the others interred here are Rene Descartes (or what was left of him after he was buried and moved three times*) and Jean-Casimir, the king of Poland who abdicated his throne.

St-Germain-des-Prés.

*Yes, another interesting story I stumbled onto while researching: the famous French mathematician and philosopher been attending the Swedish queen in Stockholm when he became ill and died in 1650. Since Descartes was a Catholic but Sweden a Protestant country, he was buried first in a cemetery reserved for unbaptized children! In 1667, his remains were taken to Paris and buried for a second time in the Church of St. Genevieve-du-Mont; then during the French Revolution, his remains were disinterred for burial in the Pantheon among the great French thinkers. Now, for reasons I was unable to determine, his tomb is in the church of St. Germain-des-Prés. Ah, the wonder of the Internet!

Like Chaillot, St-Germain-des-Prés is home to many foreign embassies that we passed in our walk. I took a photo of one (I think it’s the Spanish embassy, as there are four flags out front: European Union, France, Spain … and the American; it’s that last one that puzzles me), and was preparing to take one of another when Gerry stopped me—it was the Syrian embassy.

This is not the Syrian Embassy. 🙂

We decided that perhaps it wouldn’t be wise, and so whistled nonchalantly right past the flags and, yes, security cameras … I was charmed also, in this area, by little parks, each with its own statue, fountain, or other monument.

The Pont Neuf is the oldest standing bridge across the Seine.

Finally we worked our way back to the Seine, knowing that we were getting close to the Musée d’Orsay. We walked past the Louvre, sitting on the other side of the river. It’s just massive. I know I’ve said that before, but you can really appreciate the size of it from this distance; it went on and on and on …

The Louve on the right in the distance.

We arrived at the d’Orsay, and knew immediately that this museum was more to our liking. For one thing, there were not nearly the crowds, and those who were there were much better behaved; it was a quiet and respectful atmosphere inside. No loud voices, no running. The docents were friendly. The building is beautiful, with the high arched ceiling betraying that it was once a railway station; built in 1900, it was in use only until 1939, then closed. In the 1970s it was considered for demolition, but fortunately the authorities decided instead to create a museum, and the d’Orsay opened in 1986, dedicated to the art of the second half of the nineteenth century and the turn of the twentieth (or, as the official museum book says, a “timespan … circumscribed by the Louvre on one side and the Musée National d’Art Moderne on the other”).

We went immediately to the top floor, where they keep the French Impressionists.

Here I must confess something: I had not intended to put the Musée d’Orsay on our itinerary. The guidebook clearly states that the d’Orsay is all about the Impressionists, and to be frank, I had no interest in them whatsoever. My parents liked the Impressionists, I think, or perhaps the Impressionists were popular in the late ’50s (my—ahem—formative years). I don’t know. But these are paintings that I had become so familiar with in my lifetime that I felt like I knew them already—been there, done that. I mean, how many times have you seen van Gogh’s “The Starry Night” or Monet’s ubiquitous water lilies, in reproductions both good and bad, on posters, stationery, even tote bags? Yeah, me too.

So—it wasn’t on the list. But a friend who has traveled to Paris had insisted that the Musée d’Orsay is a must-see … so I made room for it in the itinerary. (Go here to see some nice shots of the interior.) And here we were, a bit blasé (me anyway), but here. And … they were amazing. They. Were. Amazing. Luminous. I get choked up just thinking about it, I cried in the museum. I was very, very moved.

There’s more than just the Impressionists, of course.

As always, we spent a little time (and money) in the bookshop, and then we decided to shop and photograph our way back to the apartment. Fun!

Our dinner was a simple one of fresh French bread with cold cuts, brie (oh kids, a big hunk of brie was just two euro at the expensive on-the-island supermarket! Needless to say I indulged myself) … topped off with pastries and hot tea. It was quietly raining outside again, but we were snug inside.

Bon soir!

The Land of a Million Plastic Eiffels

Wednesday, February 15, Paris
I don’t mean to make a big deal of my being sick, really, but I was. I was taking the antibiotics, sure, but I’d only had them a couple days. I was still weak. The itinerary had to be trimmed because I just couldn’t keep up with the original plan—mostly because I never could get a real breath of air. For roughly fourteen days—from the day I got sick (the day after I arrived) until two days before I left—I felt like someone was constantly pressing on my chest. But what can ya do? So … we just moved slower. And things, as I’ve mentioned already, slid off the to-do list.

One burning question you may have had that I am pleased to be able to answer: do they really wear berets in Paris? Absolutely. The young, the old, men, women—there are lots of berets goin’ on there. Also lots of cigarettes: the old and, sadly, the young. I wrote in my journal: “I’ve breathed more close-at-hand cigarette smoke here in two days than I normally do in a year. And the cell phones! Everyone’s walking down the street talking on a phone! Don’t get me started … !”

But berets: yes. Simple, classic, chic. I’d read that Paris is a city of fashion, of careful dressing, and I saw that to be true. Even French men seemed to be very fashion conscious, even the old ones (which I found quite charming). And everyone—men and women—were wearing scarves. You see older women in the shops, all dressed up in hose and heels and a skirt, buying their groceries—no running down to the convenience store in your sweats on a Saturday morning, oh no. Paris is simply not a casual city. You can immediately identify the tourists: we’re the ones in the comfortable shoes.

And in jeans, of course.

It was overcast this morning, the fifteenth, and I found that I’d slept until almost seven, which is really late for me. Poor Gerry was trying to salvage what he could of sleep (with my deviated septum, I am an Olympics-caliber snorer*), so I puttered quietly in the kitchen, washing dishes, boiling some eggs for breakfast, then ran out to the boulanger and patisserie. When I came back, I brewed tea and had a bit of toast while I read the souvenir book I’d picked up at Sainte-Chapelle the day before. Later we had a light breakfast of that wonderful French bread, the eggs, and some thin, lean ham before heading out.

We crossed over the Pont Marie (bridge) to the Right Bank to catch the Metro, a route we would take often, as just past the Metro station (with that lovely red Art Deco sign—or maybe it is Art Nouveau?—from the 1920s) is the grocery store we would come to use, on the Rue de Rivoli, a major thoroughfare.

The Pont Marie Metro stop.

The Pont Marie Metro stop.

In the center of this boulevard is a tiny, permanent carnival, just three little rides, including a merry-go-round … a cheery sight, I must say. Sort of the French version of the Mommy-will-you-put-a-quarter-in-it plastic horses you see outside Wal-Mart, only better. In our apartment there was a collection of plastic tokens to use there, left, no doubt, by a previous tenant with children.

It apparently rained last night, or perhaps in the morning before we were out; the streets were wet but it wasn’t raining just then. Down the Metro we went, to ride out to the Champs-Élysées to see the Arc de Triomphe, and when we climbed out again, holy moly, it was right there, sitting in the middle of a roundabout intersected by twelve streets. Actually, Gerry insists that it is not really a roundabout, “because roundabouts have a sense of order to them, and this had none.” It was more like a free-for-all. Thank God I wasn’t driving in this city!

You come up out of the subway … and there it is. It’s huge.

You come up out of the subway … and there it is. It’s huge.

It’s huge. Often one finds that a thing that’s lived in one’s imagination since childhood is smaller than one expects (Stonehenge, for example, although that doesn’t diminish it one whit), but this was definitely much, much bigger than I’d imagined. So, we stood there and gawped for awhile, along with several dozen other tourists. We could see people all around it and on top of it, but we hadn’t a clue how to get over to it (because—trust me on this—there’s no way you could cross the traffic). Interestingly, the guidebook didn’t say, and it seems to me that this is a glaring omission, for tourists who might still be a bit overwhelmed by the whole getting-along-in-a-country-where-most-signs-aren’t-in-your-native-language thing (and I don’t just mean us English-speakers—at this point we’d seen people from all over: many eastern Europeans, a zillion Chinese, the odd Arab in swirling robes). Anyway, I must point that out to ol’ D-K Publishers—things that would be perfectly obvious at home in your comfort zone are not nearly so obvious here.

Because, of course, the reason it’s not in the guidebook is it is pretty obvious—we’d just overlooked it. There is a tunnel running under the street that brings you up like a prairie dog surfacing just to one side of the Arc. It has its own little stairwell that looks remarkably like an entrance to the Metro—two entrances, actually, on opposite sides; one was right next to us, but … well … we were turned around, and we missed it.

So we commenced to walk around the roundabout … and finally found the other end of the tunnel, on the opposite side, which took us under the street to the Arc. (It was here that we happened to look up and caught our very first view of the Eiffel Tower, and let me tell you … it was breathtaking.)

You know the story of the Arc. Napoleon wanted to celebrate his victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, where he suckered the Austrian and Russian emperors into thinking he was in a weak position, and then trounced them, virtually destroying both armies. This victory is regarded as Bonaparte’s greatest, a tactical masterpiece. So he began work on this memorial arch in 1806, envisioning himself riding through the center of it on a huge white stallion (I made that part up, maybe he wanted a black stallion), his victorious troops marching behind him. The Duke of Wellington put the kibosh on that, of course, and the Arc wasn’t finished until 1836, partly because of Napoleon’s fall from power.

Looking up at the center of the Arc de Triomphe. Beautiful.

Looking up at the center of the Arc de Triomphe. Beautiful.

Now it is a memorial to all French war dead. The names of major victories won during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods are inscribed around the top; lesser victories, and the names of generals, are engraved on the inside walls. France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is here, in the center of the Arc, topped by an eternal flame that commemorates the dead of the two world wars.

Names of battles.

Names of battles.

So we bought our tickets, followed the entry signs, and found ourselves in a very (very!) narrow spiral staircase, ascending what Gerry estimates to be nine or ten storeys. A long way, anyway; the guidebook says 164 feet. And I wonder: did the guy who sold me the ticket and pointed me at the entry door also assess my physical health before he turned me loose in that claustrophobic stairway with no warning or caution? There absolutely were not signs warning of the distance of the undertaking, nor of the tightness of the space, nor that there is absolutely no place to rest save on the stairs themselves, as others squeeze by, sighing or grumbling or pitying, depending on their mood that day. Was that gatekeeper confident that this chubby middle-aged woman would not have a heart attack in that narrow stairwell? I wonder, I do.

Behind me by several steps I heard a Brit mutter “Pace yourself,” and that was my first clue that we weren’t just going up a few steps to catch the elevator! Like my ascent at the Giant’s Causeway in the north of Ireland in 2003, I truly wish I had a T-shirt that says “I climbed the stairs at the Arc de Triomphe,” but, sadly, they don’t sell them. We got to the museum, one floor before the roof, and Gerry looked around while I sat on a bench and recovered my breath and my sanity (I’m a little claustrophobic) to go up to the viewing platform—one more floor—on the roof.

There are elevators; the guidebook says there are. But they keep them, if not hidden, cleverly unmarked, and apparently they are only for the handicapped, though, again, I saw no signs (we discovered the lifts by accident, when, as we were preparing to walk all those stairs down—and those of your who know my fear of going down stairs can imagine how I was dreading it—we found an employee heading into the thing, and we hitched a ride, with me saying a silent prayer of thanks all the way down).

So we went up one more level.

Seeing the Eiffel Tower from the roof of the Arc de Triomphe. And I say again: pinch me. February 2006.

Seeing the Eiffel Tower from the roof of the Arc de Triomphe. And I say again: pinch me. February 2006.

The view from the roof was magnificent.

Looking northwest-ish, down the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. What you see in the distance is the business district, La Défense, and more specifically, that square thing is La Grande Arche de la Défense, a monument meant to echo the Arc de Triomphe. It’s almost 4 miles away.

Looking northwest-ish, down the Avenue Charles de Gaulle. What you see in the distance is the business district, La Défense, and more specifically, that square thing is La Grande Arche de la Défense, a monument meant to echo the Arc de Triomphe. It’s almost 4 miles away.

Now looking the opposite direction, southwest, down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. (You can’t tell, really, without the leaves, but they shear the trees along the sidewalk into a square shape.) This avenue ends up ahead in the Place de la Concorde (a roundabout) that abuts the Jardin des Tuileries, and after that, the Louvre.

Now looking the opposite direction, southwest, down the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. (You can’t tell, really, without the leaves, but they shear the trees along the sidewalk into a square shape.) This avenue ends up ahead in the Place de la Concorde (a roundabout) that abuts the Jardin des Tuileries, and after that, the Louvre.

So … the view was really something—particularly of the Eiffel Tower. When I was planning our itinerary, I had us taking the subway from the Arc to get us a bit closer to it, but frankly it looked very close (and the subway took us out of our way), so after referring to the map we decided to walk. We also spent some time watching the cars going around the roundabout, but really: there seemed to be no order to it, it just looked crazy.

We’d laughed thinking that the Eiffel Tower was probably father away than it looked, and it was, but only just a little … and the walk through the Chaillot quartier was definitely worth it. We’d been in the city over twenty-four hours, and I was still walking around in a dream, asking myself: am I absorbing it all? Am I taking it in? I’m in Paris, for heaven’s sake! Well, this little stroll through Chaillot was very Parisian, and I did take it all in.

Chaillot was a separate village until it was engulfed by Paris as the city expanded during what’s known as the Second Empire (1852–1870). The wide boulevards and many public buildings and parks that are Paris’s trademarks all date from this period, and in Chaillot there are many lovely old mansions; some have been turned into upscale apartments while many now house foreign embassies. It was quiet, beautiful, and untouristy.

Walking through Chaillot, following the Eiffel Tower. Can you see it?

Walking through Chaillot, following the Eiffel Tower. Can you see it?

A beautiful Chaillot residence in a flatiron-style building.

A beautiful Chaillot residence in a flatiron-style building.

My guidebook had suggested that one of the nicest views of the Tower could be had from the approach from the Jardins du Trocadero, so that’s the way we headed. (Actually, it was the shortest way too.)

From the Arc we walked down Avenue d’Iéna into the Jardins du Trocadéro, where we got off the street and onto the park paths.

From the Arc we walked down Avenue d’Iéna into the Jardins du Trocadéro, where we got off the street and onto the park paths.

Like many public parks, the Jardins du Trocadéro has quite a bit of statuary. Like this one:

The Triumphal Dance of Pallas Athene by Carlo Sarrabezolles (1925).

The Triumphal Dance of Pallas Athene by Carlo Sarrabezolles (1925).

When we came upon this statue, my first thought was I’ll have what she’s having. 🙂 She’s dancing with wild abandon, I thought. But if you follow this link, you’ll see in the original, she is holding a long spear. This is a statue of the goddess Athena, who, in Greek mythology, rules over wisdom, courage, inspiration, civilization, law and justice, mathematics, strength, war strategy, the arts, crafts, and skill. According to Wikipedia, “Athena is known for her calm temperament, as she moves slowly to anger. She is noted to have only fought for just reasons, and would not fight without a purpose.” The statue was executed in plaster by Charles Marie Louis Joseph Sarrabezolles (1888–1971), but apparently this one in the park is a copy. (Here’s a little more about it.)

Standing by Athena, looking at the Eiffel Tower.

Standing by Athena, looking at the Eiffel Tower.

We didn’t spend any time, really, investigating the park itself, which has a beautiful water fountain and houses a large museum, all of which was created for the 1937 World’s Fair. We only had eyes for the Eiffel Tower (and we knew my energy was limited).

But the guidebook was right about approaching the tower from this garden. It was stunning and exciting. It’s quite a sight, of course, from any angle. It’s funny the way something as iconic as the Eiffel Tower, something you’ve seen images of your whole life and that you feel is as familiar as your own backyard can be so jaw-droppingly, staggeringly incredible when you finally see it in person. (I’ve since read that the Eiffel Tower is the single most recognized landmark in the world; I don’t doubt it.)

So, then, we walked right down to this little herb garden, and across the Pont d’Iéna to le Tour Eiffel.

And there it was, in all its glory. What a day!

And there it was, in all its glory. What a day!

Looking east along the Seine. It’s a busy river.

Looking east along the Seine. It’s a busy river.

Built for the Exposition Universelle (a World’s Fair) to celebrate the French Revolution (did you know that, the French Revolution part? I didn’t), le Tour Eiffel opened on March 31, 1889 (they’d begun building it in 1884). It’s over a thousand feet tall with its spire. Here’s something else I didn’t know (courtesy of Wikipedia): “Maintenance on the tower includes applying … three graded tones of paint every seven years to protect it from rust. On occasion, the color of the paint is changed (the tower is currently painted a shade of brown). On the first floor, there are interactive consoles hosting a poll for the color to use for a future session of painting.”

It was brown in 2006. (Or what is now known as oiled bronze in the DIY store.)

It was brown in 2006. (Or what is now known as oiled bronze in the DIY store.)

For fun, go to the official website, then click on “Eiffel Tower Gallery,” and then on “360° Virtual Tour,” for some splendid photos. (For a really lovely nighttime view from a different perspective, go here—this website has been up at least since 2005, when I discovered it, and hasn’t been updated, really, but it’s still beautiful. Use the scroll bars.)

Seeing French soldiers patrolling with full riot gear, rifles at the ready, was a bit of a shock for my American eyes in 2006.

Seeing French soldiers patrolling with full riot gear, rifles at the ready, was a bit of a shock for my American eyes in 2006.

The tower is definitely geared for tourists, with signs in both French and English. It being winter, they were only running the lift in the Pilier Nord (north pillar), and I was very disappointed to learn that we could not go all the way to the top viewing platform, due to some construction work. Nonetheless, we bought tickets to go as far as we could (needless to say, there was absolutely no discussion about taking the stairs), which was the second stage, and the view from there was a fine one. It was breezy and chilly.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Champ de Mars (it’s a public greenspace) adjacent to the Eiffel Tower. February 2006.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Champ de Mars (it’s a public greenspace) adjacent to the Eiffel Tower. February 2006.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Palais de Chaillot, situated in the Jardins du Trocadero; it houses several museums.

From the Eiffel Tower: A view of the Palais de Chaillot, situated in the Jardins du Trocadero; it houses several museums.

From the Eiffel Tower: I loved this one apartment building with the garden and swimming pool on the roof.

From the Eiffel Tower: I loved this one apartment building with the garden and swimming pool on the roof.

The first stage—which you bypass at first, if you’ve purchased a ticket to go higher—is a shopping emporium, with a couple restaurants and, interestingly, a post office. Anything mailed from here is hand-cancelled, and the postmark reads “Tour Eiffel,” which is cool. I’d prepared postcards in advance of this, and bought stamps, and watched the postmistress as she carefully and thoroughly stamped over each postage stamp. (Regarding souvenirs: in contrast to what must be MILLIONS of people, given the number of them on offer in stores, I did not buy an Eiffel Tower trinket, plastic or otherwise. Not that I wouldn’t have—I just never found the right one.) 🙂

I’d thought this was going to be an easy day; after all, we’d knocked out the first two things on the list in fairly short and successful order. My itinerary called for a quick lunch and then to head over to the Louvre, which stays open late on Wednesdays—we could browse as we desired, without feeling rushed by a looming five p.m. closing. However, we (ahem) decided to press on, so … on to the Louvre.

It’s hard for me to articulate the feelings I had about the Louvre. Unlike the Arc de Triomphe or le Tour Eiffel, I don’t associate an iconic image with the word “Louvre”—it’s more of a state of mind for me. As if … as long as the Louvre exists, God’s in His heaven and all’s right with the world. Knowing that, then, you’ll understand why the next few paragraphs pain me.

We took a very short ride on the Metro to the museum, where we discovered that not only was this week spring break for Irish children (and, apparently, British children, too, as we’d seen loads of Brit families on this trip)—it seemed the French were on spring break as well. The area under I. M. Pei’s lovely pyramid was raucous with noisy children going to the Louvre with parents or grandparents … and that was only the beginning.

Under the Pyramid at the Louvre.

Under the Pyramid at the Louvre.

Unlike the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre is much less easy for non-French speakers to navigate, or at least it seemed that way to me. Something as simple as buying the tickets became a challenge. We walked through a courtyard to get to the pyramid, stood in line to go through security, and then went down an escalator into the lobby—but then what? Or where?

First order of business: we were parched, so we headed for a little café to get a bottle of water. They were only €2.30 each (that’s nearly $3 per bottle, kids). All I really wanted to do was sit down, and the lobby, as huge as it is, has very few places to sit. We were chased out of the café’s sitting area by a waiter who gestured that we couldn’t sit there (we’d unknowingly bought to-go bottles, not to-stay cups) and—for the second time in two days—I was about ready to provoke an international incident (this one intentional!), so tired and cranky was I. I just wanted five minutes of sit-down time. But no, Gerry rescued me from a night in jail by urging me away before I told the waiter to kiss my very tired behind, and, instead, we went in search of tickets.

As I’ve mentioned already, the ATM-like machine that I tried to buy tickets from spit my credit card out in disgust. Fortunately the lines to buy tickets from humans weren’t long, and we soon had them, although, again, we weren’t really sure where to go next. It just wasn’t obvious—and hey, call me an unsubtle American if you must, I just like a little unambiguity now and again. Like, you know, one of those schematic drawings they have at the mall, with the red arrow and the words “YOU ARE HERE.”

As it turns out, there are three ways to go in, because there are three wings: Denon, Richelieu, Sully. These wings, actually, are what’s left of the French monarchy’s royal residence, built over hundreds of years (and obviously without a building permit! Ha!). The guidebook tells us that King Philippe-August built a fortress along the Seine in 1190; some of this building, which was the royal residence, is still a part of the Louvre as it exists today (Sully). In the sixteenth century, François I built a Renaissance-style palace next to it (Richelieu), “and founded the royal art collection with twelve paintings looted from Italy.” By the time Louis XIV moved the royal court out to Versailles in 1682, various wings and buildings had been added by various monarchs, creating the behemoth that it is now; when the Sun King left, however, building ceased. Revolutionaries opened the collection (which had grown, of course) to the public in 1793, and shortly thereafter, in 1800, Napoleon renovated the building intentionally to create a museum. Today there are over 350,000 priceless objects in the Louvre. You could spend days there and not see everything.

The thing about these old museums in these old buildings is they’re just not user friendly. I’ve become quite spoiled by some of the newer American (and Irish) museums I’ve visited, where the visitor is led from exhibit to exhibit, all but guaranteeing that everything is seen. Well, you just can’t see everything in the Louvre. They say you should decide what you want to see, and then go to that spot—and that’s a great idea, if you can figure out how to get there. Even the maps were confusing (in fairness, the buildings’ layout is confusing), and I’m normally pretty good with a map. Can you hear a rant approaching?

The long and the short of it: the Louvre was the biggest disappointment of my entire trip. In a word: I hated it. (Gerry says I hated it because we were there at the end of the day, and I was tired and—don’t forget—sick; he contends that if we’d gone there first thing in the morning, I would have liked it a lot better … and next time—next time!—we will do just that.) But picture this: Jamie and Gerry, walking through room after room of magnificent art, eyes glued to the map (“What room is this, honey?”), trying to get where we’re going. We spent forty-five precious minutes doing that. The place was packed, and there were tons of kids running around loose. The crowds can’t be helped (if Paris is the number one tourist destination in the world, the Louvre may well be the number one destination in Paris; certainly my Paris Top 10 book lists it as number one), but don’t people understand they should point their eyes in the same direction they are walking? Walk, or look at art: it’s a choice you have to make! There were people taking flash photography when it’s clearly signposted not to (and this wasn’t a few isolated incidents; it was constant). The security personnel, standing around in groups of two or three, chatting with each other, didn’t bother to try to stop it. (End of rant.)

As I write these words, it occurs to me that perhaps it was the seeming lack of respect—even my own as I strode through rooms that I didn’t even look at—that got under my skin. Attention must be paid! This is the Louvre, for heaven’s sake!

I wanted to see the Dutch masters; I fell in love with Vermeer and Rembrandt as a teen, and I’m still fascinated by the detail in the paintings from that school, still fascinated with the realism, with the portraits of old people with gnarled hands. I know very little about art history, and understand even less, but I know what I like, and I like these paintings. So that is where we went, finally. After we walked through that area, we headed down to see the Mona Lisa (because that’s what everyone does, of course; and that smallish room was packed). You can’t get close, and she’s behind glass (as were many paintings we saw), which means you might as well look at a photograph, but, as Gerry says, now I can tell my future grandchildren that I’ve seen the Mona Lisa in person.

At that point it really was time to go. We hopped on the Metro back to the Pont Marie, found the grocery store Giancarlo’d told us about, and yes, the prices were much better than what we’d paid on the island the day before. We were both beat and ready to be home in our snug, comfortable little apartment. We were going to stop in the boulanger around the corner for fresh bread.

At least, that was the plan. We were literally just two blocks from the Seine at that point (and just another one block from the apartment), but somehow we got turned around when we came out of the store, and we headed off in the wrong direction; eventually we walked in a big circle, about thirty minutes’ worth. My feet were killing me. By the time we got our bearings and the right direction (thanks to a barkeep who spoke no English but who did “speak” map), we arrived back in our neighborhood too late for the boulanger. Not that that spoiled our meal.

And just in time—it began raining as we sat down to eat.

* It would also turn out—though I wouldn’t know for years—that I was suffering from sleep apnea.

Pinch Me, Please, I’m Going to Paris

Tuesday, February 14, Aer Lingus Dublin-to-Paris

WHO KNEW that Brad and Angelina would be in Paris (as the copy of People magazine I picked up in the airport informed us) on February 14th (and, in fact, for most of February)? But then as the world’s most famous lovers, why WOULDN’T they be in Paris on the International Day of Love and Expensive Meals, eh?

After some discussion with Anne Rogers last night (she and her husband, Kevin, owners of Blaithin House, were departing for Barcelona that day about forty-five minutes after we were due to take off for Paris), they decided not to ride to the airport with us. I can’t blame them—Anne offered to leave breakfast out for me, but I really couldn’t imagine giving up any sleeping time to eat, so why would they want to give up the extra sleep either? (I would come to regret declining that breakfast, though!)

Travel Tip: Eat your breakfast. You never know when travel circumstances may interrupt or delay your regularly scheduled feeding … forcing you to resort to, say, copious amounts of French chocolate until a real meal can be had. (Contrary to popular belief, chocolate—French or otherwise—is not one of the major food groups.)

Gerry likes to be early—or, I should say, he likes to have enough time to allow for mishaps, which, as we discussed in an earlier rant, are the herbs and spices in the recipe of international travel, in my humble opinion—so we arrived at the airport a bit after five a.m. Obviously there was no one to receive the rental car out at the lot, and by five-thirty, when we’d checked our bags, there was no one at the Europcar counter inside, either, so we just left the keys and went on.

We wandered through duty-free just to see what was there (forward planning for my departure in ten days)—and let me tell you, it was weird to see that much retail happening before six o’clock in the morning! Dublin has an excellent duty-free mall, by the way.

We’d heard earlier from Pat that this week is spring break for all Irish schools (the first time ever, it seems, that the event had been coordinated), and suddenly it made sense why there were all those teens roving around like packs of wild dogs—our plane to Paris was packed with teenagers on the loose, as well as families with small children on their way to EuroDisney, which is just outside Paris, apparently. Considering that Gerry’s house (and my B&B) is just a fifteen minute drive from the airport, and I still had to rise at four a.m. for this seven a.m. flight, I could only imagine how long some of those Irish folk had been up, and how cranky some of those kids must be, although we were, of course, soon to learn.

Another Travel Tip: Europe is awash in discount airlines; Ryan Air, originating in Ireland, is one, but there are several, all competing to fly folks between the major European destinations. Can you say “Price War”? If you’ve got your heart set on Rome, but the cheapest flight from the States is to London, jump on it. You can get there from … well … there. Anne and Kevin flew from Dublin to Barcelona for €25 each. Hel-lo—you read that correctly: twenty-five euro (roughly thirty bucks). Think about it, and plan accordingly.

Our flight was, as I’ve said, full, but it was uneventful (and in the case of air travel, that’s a good thing)—but that was the only easy thing about the morning. The French—with apologies to F. Scott Fitzgerald—are different from you and me. Especially as it regards, um, signage.

Yep, Charles de Gaulle airport is just a bit confusing, and I’d done my homework, I knew where we wanted to go! I could even see it—the RER (in other words, the underground train into/through Paris)—on the signs. I just couldn’t find it.

Here’s the thing in a nutshell: we landed at Terminal 1, and the RER only departs from Terminal 3 (oh, did I mention that CDG is spread out into several different terminals?). My guidebook failed to tell me that important piece of information, because it’s intended for the American market, and if you fly into Paris from the U.S., you’ll land at Terminal 3, and that will be that. But I entered Paris from another country in the European Union! Suddenly, it was a whole new ballgame.

Yet Another Travel Tip: I love the DK Eyewitness Travel Guides. I’ve bought more than one brand of guidebook in my time, but I keep coming back to DK (I love the detailed street maps of the more important towns, for one thing). And now they make these “Top 10” books—Top 10 Dublin, Top 10 Paris—for people who have a limited amount of time. They give you the top ten don’t-miss spots, and then they break down each venue (the Eiffel Tower, for example) into the ten things you should see while there. They’re small (fit in a small purse like mine) and reasonably lightweight.

French signage is like a scavenger hunt: they only give you one clue at a time. So, we collected the luggage, said to ourselves, “OK, let’s get to the RER,” and then found a sign that looked something like this: RER —>

Hey! We don’t need to speak French to follow arrows, right?

We walked in the direction the arrow pointed, and ended up at an elevator. When we got to the elevator, the sign regarding RER only told us to go down one floor. When we got down one floor, the arrows pointed us outside, where shuttle buses were pulling up, and we overheard someone say that we could catch the train at Terminal 3 (someone who knew more than us). So that’s how we got to the train station, along with a load of puzzled Irish folk. But what should have taken us about ten minutes actually took about forty-five; there were some moments wandering around the airport when I felt pretty hopeless. I stopped and asked airport workers twice, and that interaction left us a bit frustrated too (oh, let’s be honest: they weren’t helpful, and it felt … as if they were unhelpful on purpose).

A note on foreshadowing: this isn’t foreshadowing. Normally I like to just let the story unfold. But right now you may be thinking that I had a bad French experience, which, in fact, couldn’t be further from the truth. So I just want to tell you now that this all has a happy ending, I had a lovely time in Paris, France, and want to go back as soon as I can manage it. Frankly, Paris is one of those places that you have to go back to, because you do spend a certain amount of time fumbling around in the dark, so to speak. But then you figure everything out—what works and what you like, and where things are, and how much time to allow—and the vacation becomes everything you’d hoped it would be, only two days shorter. 🙂

But back to those frigging signs. It just seems like it could have been easier. For example, a sign that said RER, TERMINAL 3 would have made a lot of sense to me, and would have set us on the right path. After all, all we had to do was take the luggage fifty feet from the carousel to the elevator, go down one floor, catch a shuttle bus to the next-plus-one terminal where the train station and ticketsellers were, buy two tickets, and get on. We’re both reasonably intelligent people; this should have been doable. (Later our landlord agreed that Terminal 1 is, in his words, “a nightmare.”)

And don’t get me started on the kiosk-computer that was supposed to sell us a ticket; even with the help of an American woman who spoke (and read) “a little” French (in case I was doing something wrong, which I wasn’t), we never could make it sell us a ticket. We gave up, and she tried to buy a ticket and had the same problem as us (later I had the identical problem trying to buy tickets from a machine at the Louvre, which led me to conclude that my credit card—and possibly many American credit cards?—had some fundamental incompatibility with the French automated system; the machine would just spit it out after a certain point. Makes me wonder about their ATMs. It worked just fine, thankyouverymuch, at French stores though! Ooo la-la!)

Bottom line: I’ve only traveled to English-speaking countries thus far. Stepping outside that particular comfort zone (although, let’s face it, sometimes in Ireland I’m not completely certain I’m speaking the same language) takes international travel to a whole new level. I read up about this trip, I tried to prepare, and I actually thought I could handle it (and I did, most of the time). Having said all that, though, most places that tourists might go in Paris had (ahem) English subtitles. Restaurant menus had English translations. Most shopkeepers spoke more than enough English to sell us what we wanted. Paris is the number-one tourist destination in the world, for heaven’s sake, and, trust me, most of those tourists do not speak French. Parisians have definitely gone the extra mile to make us welcome.

So … putting all that behind us, we bought tickets from a human, not a machine, and finally dragged our luggage on to the train—the RER B-line, which goes straight through the middle of Paris. We exited at the St Michel-Notre Dame exit, which is pretty much dead center. Gerry was cursing as he dragged my suitcase up those last stairs—but there we were … Paris!

As we’d been instructed via e-mail (in English), we crossed the street, and met our landlord, Giancarlo Buccafusca. He is an emergency room physician at the Hôtel-Dieu (apparently that means hospital in French), and we just walked in and asked for him. Giancarlo came out to give us the keys and the security entry code, told us he’d drop by later to settle up on the rent, and gave us directions to the apartment.

Something Interesting: I didn’t know this until recently, but in major tourism cities like San Francisco, say, or Paris, there’s quite a bit of business done in short-term apartment rental. This gets you out of the hotel district and into a neighborhood, and in the case of Paris, integrates you into the life pretty quickly. (Of course, you take your chances: sometimes you end up in the Village of the Damned. But sometimes … you end up at 23 rue le Regrattier.) My friend Jenny had had a good experience with this type of accommodation in Paris, and had suggested several Web sites; I’d chosen one that you worked directly with the owner of the apartment (thus no brokerage fees). I’d decided what part of Paris to stay in, looked at several apartments, e-mailed Giancarlo, negotiated a price (because it was the off-season), set a date—and that was that! I cannot emphasize enough how much we loved this apartment, loved the location, loved having more than just a room in a hotel—for a lot less than we’d have paid for “just a room” in a hotel.

So we walked the seven or eight minutes to the apartment on the Île St-Louis, dragging our luggage behind us. Île de la Cité is pretty touristy, even in mid-February; there are dozens of shops selling little plastic Eiffel Towers (and other plastic Paris memorabilia) lining the streets. We walked right past Notre-Dame, and I was literally agog with the wonder that only a girl from Murfreesboro, Tennessee, could feel. Notre-Dame, y’all! Flying buttresses, gargoyles, tourists in the courtyard, yeah.

This is the backside. We walked up this street, along the side of Notre-Dame, many, many times. And it’s magnificent.

This is the backside. We walked up this street, along the side of Notre-Dame, many, many times. And it’s magnificent.

The temperature was in the 40s, just as weather.com said it would be. But when you’re on the move, it doesn’t feel all that cold.

Île de la Cité is where Paris was born: the first inhabitants of this area were a Celtic tribe, the Parisii, who settled on the island in the third century BC. Romans later destroyed the Parisii city and founded their own on the Left Bank (calling it Paris, after the Celts); and in 476 the Franks captured the city, converted it to Christianity, and made Paris the capital of their new kingdom, France. French kings even made their residence on the island until 1358.

Kilometer Zero stone, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 30 January 2004.

Kilometer Zero stone, in front of Notre-Dame de Paris. Photograph taken by Michael Reeve, 30 January 2004.

Nowadays, all distances in France are measured from Point Zero, which is in the courtyard just outside Notre-Dame Cathedral—so you see, this island is pretty meaningful in French history. Its little sister, connected by a small bridge that ends up at Notre Dame’s backyard gate (so to speak), is Île St-Louis, where we were headed.

For a long time, Île St-Louis was nothing but a cow pasture, but in the seventeenth century, lords and financiers and other important folk began building their homes there, and that is pretty much the situation now. It is considered to be the most exclusive address in Paris. It feels like a small village, and when you leave Cité and walk into St-Louis, you can even sense the noise level dropping … it was quiet in among those old, old buildings. The island is fortified by a stone wall; you can take the stairs down to the river level and walk all the way around the island, which, I’m told, takes about ninety minutes all in. (Because I was still ill, this was one of the things that just slid off the to-do list.)

Islands …

Islands …

The street that runs down the middle of the island (rue St-Louis en L’ile) has plenty of shops (although the grocery store was pricey, so we shopped off the island for grocery items, once we learned where), and not a touristy shop among them! We did get in the habit of running out in the morning for fresh bread, right around the corner from the apartment. Oh, those French pastries. Oh, oh, oh.

Looking down rue St-Louis en L’ile.

Looking down rue St-Louis en L’ile.

And what a gorgeous apartment! Just a block away from Notre-Dame, we turned left on rue le Regrattier …

Turned left on rue le Regrattier …

Turned left on rue le Regrattier …

… went to the third doorway (past an antique shop and an entrance to another apartment building) …

The third doorway!

The third doorway!

… inserted the funny plastic key and waited for the lock to release. Once inside there’s a covered anteroom where the mailboxes are, which ended in another door. This required entering a security code; past that door the tiny, tiny courtyard held garbage bins and more doors. Ours was the first.

This building is very old (built in 1642, we’ve read); since our apartment was mostly below street level, Gerry speculated that we were probably in a piece of what used to be the servants’ quarters. From the front door stairs you can go down into the living quarters or up into the loft bathroom and sleeping area. (Note: these photos were taken on my old [film] Canon F-1, with no flash. They’re not great.)

In the righthand corner of this photo is the entry door (covered by curtains). From there you can go up to the loft or walk down into the living area.

In the righthand corner of this photo is the entry door (covered by curtains). From there you can go up to the loft or walk down into the living area.

Standing on the stairs looking down into the living area. The living room is out of the frame; this little central wall/closet separates it from the kitchen (left) and dining room (right). The refrigerator and a small closet are hidden inside this wall.

Standing on the stairs looking down into the living area. The living room is out of the frame; this little central wall/closet separates it from the kitchen (left) and dining room (right). The refrigerator and a small closet are hidden inside this wall.

The efficient little kitchen.

The efficient little kitchen.

The high ceiling has two magnificent—and obviously ancient—wooden beams running the length of it; again, these probably supported the floor of what was once a mansion above, though now it’s just other apartments. There is nary a straight line on any wall in the place, such is the age of the building.

Standing on the stairs, looking at the high ceiling with the very old beams. On the left, the loft bedroom, made private by this canvas curtain. When you look out this window, you see people’s feet and ankles. :)

Standing on the stairs, looking at the high ceiling with the very old beams. On the left, the loft bedroom, made private by this canvas curtain. When you look out this window, you see people’s feet and ankles. 🙂

The apartment is small; if you’ve looked at the Web site [now defunct] you’ll have seen it’s just 560 square feet—but let me tell you, it’s 560 well-used square feet, and, of course, modern and nice and comfortable. (Unlike the Village of the Damned, the heat had been turned on in anticipation of our arrival.) The kitchen was fully stocked with plenty of dishes, pots and pans—and, amazingly, olive oil, spices, condiments in the fridge, even cookies and cereal in the cabinets! (We made sure to leave some treats behind too.) The bathroom is quite large, with a built-in washer and dryer, and plenty of extra towels. And a bidet (a first for me). And there was even a box of Kleenex in the kitchen, which I would make ample use of as I continued to recover from my cold.

“Hey! Come see this!” Gerry called from upstairs. “Steve McQueen is on the telly, and he’s speaking French!” During our stay in Paris we also managed to see Starsky and Hutch speaking French, and Billy “City Slickers” Crystal speaking French; who knew these guys were bilingual, eh? (While this phenomenon of familiar American movies dubbed into French was amusing at first, let me assure you it lost its charm pretty quickly—especially when there was, um, Paris to explore.)

So we were out the door. We found the baker (la boulangerie), and yes, we walked around with a pair of loose loaves of bread stuck under our arms. Found the greengrocr (la marchand de legumes), the cheese shop (la fromagerie), and ooooh yes, the patisserie (need you ask?). A deli (la charcuterie) for cold cuts. Found a small grocery store and bought a few supplies for breakfast. Since we didn’t speak—or read—the language, we shopped by looking at the pictures on the packaging, although I was amazed at how much of my high school French started coming back to me. We carried all this culinary loot back to the apartment (it’s so cool, this neighborhood shopping!) and then set off again.

Now we crossed back over to Île de la Cité, walked past Notre-Dame—it was much larger than I expected—straight up the island to Saint-Chapelle (translated literally, this means “holy chapel”). This is what the official guidebook says: “The Sainte-Chapelle was built by St. Louis, king Louis IX, in the middle of the thirteenth century, at the heart of the palais de la Cité, the sovereign’s residence and the seat of his administration.”

It is a spectacular little jewelbox of a building, originally built by the very devout Louis to house holy relics: Christ’s crown of thorns, a fragment of the cross, and other items. (Remember, of course, that this was in 1239—in other words, more than a thousand years after the Passion. Everything Louis kept in Sainte-Chapelle is gone now, so we’ll never know if they were … uh … real, but I for one have serious doubts.) Be that as it may, the chapel was built (consecrated in 1248), and attached to the enormous royal residence. At that time it was taller than everything around it, sitting in the center of the palace’s courtyard. Now it is almost invisible, having been swallowed up by larger buildings built all around it, most notably the Palais de Justice.

[My photographs aren’t great, so I poked around the Web trying to find some. Back in 2006, there wasn’t a lot but these days, Saint-Chapelle has a Facebook page. 🙂 The photos here are magnificent, and I recommend you stop and take a look.]

Admittedly, it doesn’t look like much from the outside, until you’ve been inside: gothic in style, the building is in remarkable shape (think of every World War II movie you’ve ever seen and then remind yourself that the Nazis entered Paris in mid-1940 and stayed a really long time—it’s a miracle it survived). It reminds me of a doll’s house, with every perfect little detail.

A website I investigated gave these directions—“To visit, go to the Palais de Justice, and follow the signs”—which made me laugh out loud.

You see, we did that. And once again we fell victim to the whimsy that is French signage: we saw the sign that said Sainte-Chapelle, and we followed the arrow, which led, as best we could tell, right into the Palais de Justice, which houses the city’s Judicial Court.

One view of the Palais de Justice, 2006.

One view of the Palais de Justice, 2006.

We got in line, went through security, removing belts and shoes and coats—and then realized we were actually on our way into a court of law, not into a tourist destination. (Later, retracing our steps, wondering what happened, we realized that we should have seen the next sign and arrow, just past the doorway we entered; sort of the bread-crumbs-in-the-forest method of directional signage.) Anyway, I almost caused an international incident when I dashed out the next exit: an agitated cop followed us, shouting the French version of “Stop or I’ll shoot,” but when he saw me and realized that all he really had on his hands was a chubby discombobulated Yank, he just threw up his arms, rolled his eyes, and let us go.

I’d been told that late afternoon was the perfect time to see it, so our timing was excellent. The building is very tall, and very narrow. You enter, at street level, the lower chamber, where services were held for the palace staff during the time of the French monarchy. The colors are rich: reds, golds, and blues, with the French fleur de lys appearing everywhere. It’s impressive enough (until you get upstairs); I kept repeating to myself: “Built in 1248, built in 1248, oh, my.”

Just to show you the magnificent color. The lower chapel, 2006.

Just to show you the magnificent color. The lower chapel, 2006.

Although in Louis’s day there was an outdoor ramp-like staircase that led into Sainte-Chapelle, today we climb an interior spiral staircase to reach the nave above, which is 34 feet wide, 108 feet long, and 67 feet tall. There are practically no walls—it’s almost all glass (but remember, it didn’t look like that from the outside!); what walls there are are cleverly disguised.

“Doesn’t look like much” from the outside.

“Doesn’t look like much” from the outside.

But those same windows on the inside … oh my.

But those same windows on the inside … oh my.

And besides, who would notice a wall beside those dazzling 51-foot-tall stained-glass windows! More than two-thirds of the original thirteenth-century windows survive; the rose window at the front of the building was damaged and repaired in 1485. There was a major restoration of the building in 1840, to repair damage sustained during the Revolution. It is, in a word, stunning. Nothing I can write can do it justice—you’ll just have to go there and see for yourself. : )

We walked around the outside of the building, then headed further along toward the tip of the island. We ended up at a little triangular park, the Place Dauphin. My guidebook says it is a charming place, but in winter the grass is dead, apparently, and, even though it is clearly posted to scoop your pooch’s poop, the first thing I saw in the Place Dauphin was dog crap. Everywhere.

The Place Dauphin, Paris, February 2006. Click twice to zoom in—you can probably see all the poop.

The Place Dauphin, Paris, February 2006. Click twice to zoom in—you can probably see all the poop.

Walking to the north edge of Île de la Cité near the Place Dauphin, looking at the buildings on the other side of the river. On the far left is La Samaritaine, a department store. The other buildings are also shopping emporiums, I believe.

Walking to the north edge of Île de la Cité near the Place Dauphin, looking at the buildings on the other side of the river. On the far left is La Samaritaine, a department store. The other buildings are also shopping emporiums, I believe.

At this point—having been up since four a.m.—we were tired, and, frankly, my feet hurt. On the way back to the apartment, we stopped at Marche aux Fleurs to buy fresh flowers; hey, it was Valentine’s Day! Marche aux Fleurs is sort of like the floral section of the Nashville Farmer’s Market: held in the center of a plaza-like area, it’s a combination of vendors in semipermanent stalls, selling potted plants and cut flowers. It’s the oldest market of this kind in the city, dating from the early 1800s. I picked out red tulips to match the apartment’s decor. The shopkeeper wrapped them in cellophane and tied them with a burgundy satin ribbon, which she affixed with a pretty sticker. This was my first experience in Paris with such elaborate packaging, but that is the way they do it: everything carefully wrapped, often beribboned. Presentation is important.

Presentation is important.

Presentation is important.

Just over the bridge from Cité to St-Louis there is a little brasserie with brick-red awnings hanging over plenty of outdoor seating (though it was too cold for that), and a prix fixe menu posted. It looked reasonable, so we went in, where the seating winds itself around a central bar. It’s all very close and cozy. No one spoke English, but everyone was friendly, and we managed to get a good hot meal, although it was a bit pricier than we’d expected, as the prix wasn’t REALLY fixe (The French fries were extra! Who knew!).

Just over the bridge there is a little brasserie … Can you see the awnings?

Just over the bridge there is a little brasserie … Can you see the awnings?

The Cassoulet Maison on Île St-Louis, February 2006.

The Cassoulet Maison on Île St-Louis, February 2006.

After this nice rest, we strolled down the main shopping street to get some Berthillion ice cream (it’s considered the premium ice cream in Paris, and, I can assure you, it is very, very good)—and it’s not busy in February!—then walked back to the apartment to relax and wait for Giancarlo to come and settle up.

Tulips in the dining room make the place cheery.

Tulips in the dining room make the place cheery.

He was a lovely guy; interestingly, exactly what I expected in terms of age—looked to be early forties. He speaks excellent English, and is very chatty and friendly … and this at the end of a long day in the emergency room! He spent an hour with us, giving us tips and suggestions (“Don’t buy groceries on the island, it’s very expensive!”), showing us on the map where we could find wifi (that would be wee-fee in French!), giving us directions to the closest supermarket (about a five-minute walk away), showing us features of the apartment, asking us if we needed anything. We had a laugh about trying to get out of the terminal, and about dragging our luggage up out of the subway—and we got our first real insider’s tip: although the guidebooks may recommend it, don’t take the train from the airport—take the bus. Buses depart from all the terminals (not just Terminal 3), and you don’t have to schlep luggage up a flight of stairs once you’ve arrived. In the end, Giancarlo even said he would come pick us up on Saturday and drive us to the nearest bus terminal; he wrote it in his Daytimer (and he showed up too). But that’s a story for another day. 🙂

Addendum to Clonfert Cathedral

There were several very old gravestones and memorials preserved inside the tiny cathedral at Clonfert. This one was was so sad it took my breath away:

To the memory of James Frederick Henry Dennis, son of Major James Dennis of the 4th Regiment, whose remains lie interred near this place. He was born at Newark in upper Canada the 17th of January 1805 and died at Shannon Bridge the 8th of Sept 1820, aged 15 years, 7 months, and 29 days. This humble stone was placed as the last tribute of his fond parents bereaved early of a son whose affectionate and religious conduct endeared him to every acquaintance. His infant sister Ellen, aged 2 years, 6 months, and 24 days also lies interred by him, having only survived him 10 days. Blessed be their peace for ever.

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

To the memory of …

Naturally I imagined a story to go with it: Maj. Dennis and his wife were emigrated Irish and had come “home” to Ireland (for a visit? to stay?) with their two children.

But I wasn’t thinking like a historian. My dear friend Margaret, a skilled genealogist, set me straight: Maj. Dennis must have been stationed in Canada with his regiment for a while. She found numerous mentions of his presence with British forces in Canada in the early nineteenth century (Newark, where the son was born, was the capital of Upper Canada, which is now Ontario) and quickly discovered that the major was a career officer who saw service in several countries. She quoted from some official records; he

served in Copenhagen campaign; wounded in both hands. Present at Queenston, wounded (Bvt. Major 28 Nov. 12), Fort George, Stoney Creek, twice wounded, Hoople’s Creek. Commanded a Division at Maharajpore, 29 Dec. 43. Bronze Star and appointed K.C.B. for his services.

You caught that, right? He was in Denmark, then shipped to Ontario for what we Americans call the War of 1812 (these were battles: Queenston, Ft. George, Stoney Creek, Hoople’s Creek) and brevetted to major; then they shipped him to India sometime before 1843. Think about how long that took with a wife and kids and household goods. As a result of the awful and bloody Battle of Maharajpore he was awarded the (bronze) Gwalior Star and made a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath. (I just report these things, kids, but you’ll see it really does have to do with, well, taking a bath.)

Margaret continued to poke into the records over the next half hour as we speculated via e-mail about why Maj. Dennis happened to be in Ireland in 1820. Was it his home? Or was he there as part of the British forces keeping the “Irish problem” in check? This period of time in Irish history was pretty tumultuous (when was it not?) and the English had garrisons all over the country.

Then she found an obituary that told us this:

In 1801 he married a daughter of Hugh Lawton, Esq. of Cork. That family were descended from an old Cheshire family, Lawton of Lawton Hill, who went to Ireland with Wm. III. In Ireland Hugh Lawton Esq.’s seat was called Marsh Hill. Maj. Gen. [promoted again and again!] Sir James Dennis, K.C.B., died at age 78, Jan. 14 1855, in Pall Mall.

Now, Wm. III would be that darned Dutchman, the Prince of Orange, who as the English king in 1690 won the Battle of the Boyne, and set in motion many of the problems that still exist in the north of Ireland. Thus we might assume the Lawtons were Protestant. And Pall Mall is in London, so I’m betting ol’ Jamie was English born. Margaret told me she found his obit in “Gentleman’s magazine and historical chronicle,” vol. 43, with all the details of his service, including Canada. Interesting is that he started in the Royal Navy as an ensign who distinguished himself and later switched to the army.

A few minutes later, Margaret had even more information:

Mrs. Dennis was Sarah Lucia Lawton, and she died in 1828, having had ten children. Seven of those children died under the age of fourteen. From what I can determine only two grew up and married. After the death of Maj. Gen. Sir Dennis there was a complicated court case between representatives of the children, competing for shares of the estate. One was the widower of an adult daughter.

So there is the rough outline of a life. Of two lives. James Dennis married Sarah when he was twenty-four and stayed married to her for twenty-seven years (a long time in those days; an average marriage was ten years, due to all the wives dying in childbirth). But it’s still very odd that—if Sarah was landed gentry from Cork—she was so far away from her home. Shannon Bridge is in Co. Offaly—the Midlands—and St. Brendan’s in Clonfert is about two or three miles away. So that part makes sense, but she was still a long, long way from Cork, especially by the standards of travel in 1820. What was she doing in Shannon Bridge? It’s a very small town, and it’s not really on the way from/to anything.

It’s a mystery.

A Little Old Church With a Big Name

Monday, 13 February 2006, Co. Clare/Galway/Offaly/Westmeath/Meath/Dublin…
We had a lovely breakfast that Gerry fixed, then packed up our stuff and left the Village of the Damned behind forever.

Good-bye, Village of the Damned!

Good-bye, Village of the Damned!

After stopping in Ennistymon to fill my antibiotic prescription (and take some photos of their pretty church), we were officially on the road.

Artsy photo …

Artsy photo …

And this morning I felt so much better! Driving was fun, the scenery was beautiful … I was so much better, in fact, that I was actually driving the car and seeing the scenery, which I hadn’t really done yet. It was a gorgeous day—sunny and breezy. Just perfect.

Let’s call this part When Jamie Got Her Groove Back.

We took the N85 to Ennis, the N18 to Gort, and the N66 to Loughrea. We passed the pub—named Christy’s Bar—that my friend Christy found on her first trip to Ireland, and decided she wants to own. I recognized it immediately from the picture I’d been shown (and Christy, they’re taking real good care of it for you!).

From Loughrea we took the N7 on towards Ballinasloe. Our destination was Clonfert, a tiny little town that has a lovely, ancient cathedral with a doorway that is considered one of the jewels of Irish-Romanesque architecture.

Am I right? Clonfert Cathedral (St. Brendan’s), 2006.

Am I right? Clonfert Cathedral (St. Brendan’s), 2006.

One of the oldest continuously functioning churches in Ireland, St. Brendan’s was originally a monastic community founded by Brendan, one of Ireland’s three patron saints; he is said to be buried here. Although the monastery was established in 563, nothing survives, as the first buildings would have been wooden; portions of the current stone cathedral date from the twelfth century (the rest from the fifteenth).

St. Brendan is best known, particularly to Americans, as Brendan the Navigator or Brendan the Voyager—in other words, the Irish monk who might well have preceded Columbus to North America … by about nine hundred years. The evidence is plausible, perhaps.

We arrived at St. Brendan’s just as a funeral was breaking up—we’d passed the hearse on our way in, and the funeral-goers were all standing around the grave talking as the gravediggers shoveled the dirt back into the hole. We waited politely outside for a bit, …

Waiting outside the church walls, politely.

Waiting outside the church walls, politely.

… but it began to be cold, so after we’d put our coats on, we decided to go on in. I mean, Clonfert is really off the beaten path, and it had taken no small amount of time and attention to get there, so I didn’t want to just leave.

Coming in through the gate.

Coming in through the gate.

Looking to the right, into the churchyard. We didn’t look left because funeralgoers were still huddled together talking.

Looking to the right, into the churchyard. We didn’t look left because funeralgoers were still huddled together talking.

The highlight of the building is that Romanesque doorway. There are six intricately carved arches, and above them a triangular-shaped tympanum. One Web site I referred to pointed out that this odd triangle of stacked human heads bears a striking resemblance to ancient Celtic structures that were used to exhibit the severed heads of fallen enemies, and thus demonstrates the continuing influence of pagan Celtic religious belief—some eight hundred years after the establishment of Christianity in Ireland! That may be a stretch, but the doorway is certainly awe-inspiring.

Look up.

Look up.

You can’t enter the church through the front door anymore, though, because it’s so fragile; brush past the sandstone columns and yet another piece of ancient history might be brushed away by your coat or scarf or purse.

It’s beautiful, though.

It’s beautiful, though.

Detail of the door, Clonfert Cathedral, 2006.

Detail of the door, Clonfert Cathedral, 2006.

The base of the 6 arches that surround the door.

The base of the 6 arches that surround the door.

Detail on the columns. Cats, maybe?

Detail on the columns. Cats, maybe?

So you have to walk around the side and enter through the transept. (It was positively freezing inside—so cold that when we came out again, even though the temperature had been dropping and it was about to rain, it still felt balmy! It was the oddest sensation!) The inside looks like it hasn’t really been renovated since the 1800s, and is otherwise unexceptional.

It’s small. And so very cold. Note the space heaters.

It’s small. (Each pew seats 3 or 4, I’d say.) And so very cold. Note the space heaters.

There are a few very old gravestones inside, from the late 1500s and very early 1600s. They are pasted, more or less, to the inside walls, helter-skelter. But at least they’re safe.

Old gravestones, preserved inside.

Old gravestones, preserved inside.

Another gravestone, this one from 1612.

Another gravestone, this one from 1612.

And then there was this, so sad I had to take a photograph:

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

To the memory of … (There’s an addendum to this post, to tell you all about this.)

From there we drove on to Dublin, listening to the radio for traffic reports, as there’d been two major wrecks earlier in the day, one of which caused the southbound M50 to be completely closed for roughly four hours (can you imagine I-24 shut down for four hours? Rutherford County would have a collective nervous breakdown!). Wonderfully, no one was killed. What this meant for us, though, was that we arrived in Dublin just at evening rush hour, so I sampled my first real driving in Dublin at rush hour (up to this point, Gerry’d been pretty protective of me: whenever we’d go “in” to Dublin city we’d take a cab, and then walk)! As you know, though, I’m an experienced rush hour driver, so … no big deal! We stopped at “the chipper” (fish-and-chips takeout) on the way home to grab chicken and fries for supper, then I headed down to the Blaithin to get to bed early, since I needed to get up at four a.m. … because (tra-la!) we were going to Paris!

Stay tuned for a Paris interlude. And oh—did I tell you that Brad and Angelina were there too?