Paris day one
28.10.2017 - 28.10.2017
A return to one of my favourite cities
Cité Metro station
We both love Paris - indeed, we spent part of our honeymoon there. But it had been twelve years, amazingly, since our last visit, so when Chris suggested a short weekend away to celebrate my birthday, it was the obvious choice.
We travelled on Eurostar and for the outward journey paid a little extra to upgrade to Standard Premium class, which proved well worth it. In addition to more comfortable seating in a relaxed, quiet carriage, we got a continental breakfast served at our seats - orange juice, coffee, croissant, roll and jam, yoghurt. This, and the friendly on-board service, made for a very pleasant start to our trip.
We arrived at the Gare du Nord exactly on time and headed for the Metro. We had to queue for one of only two ticket machines, where we bought a carnet of ten tickets. Then it was eleven stops on line 4 direct to St Germain des Prés, just a few minutes’ walk from our hotel, La Perle, in Rue les Canettes.
We wasted little time here though, but instead headed out to start to reacquaint ourselves with Paris. We walked north past the church of St Germain des Prés (which we would visit properly the next morning) and turned east along the Boulevard Saint Germain.
We stopped to take photos of the bronze statue of Diderot, the 18th century philosopher, opposite the church. This was commissioned by a Comité pour la Libre Pensée (Committee for Free Thought) to mark the first centenary of his death (1784). Since then, it seems, someone has stuck a cigarette in his mouth!
Diderot was not always appreciated in his own time, and indeed was imprisoned for a while. His writing showed an understanding of the idea of evolution by natural selection, well before Charles Darwin developed his theory.
Statue of Diderot
We followed Rue de Buci and Rue de Seine towards the river, of course taking plenty of photos as we went.
Market in Rue de Buci
In Rue de Seine
Shop in Rue de Seine
On the banks of the Seine
We arrived on the banks of the Seine by L'Institut de France which houses the Académie Française – the body that protects the French language, or tries to, from invasive Anglicisations such as ‘le weekend’. Behind the impressive building is a small tranquil square named for a composer, Gabriel Pierné, with several sculptures and benches in the form of open books, and opposite it a statue of Voltaire.
Sculpture of 'Carolina' in the Square Gabriel Pierné, and statue of Voltaire
L'Institut de France - view from the square and river side
We strolled out on to the Pont des Arts, where a teenage brass band was playing, for our first views of the Seine, looking as lovely as ever. There is something unique about the air here – a sort of delicate diffusing of the light which for me defines Paris.
View from the Pont des Arts
Music on the bridge
View towards the Ile de la Cité, and the Square du Vert Galant
Ile de la Cité
We followed the river past some moored houseboats and a few of the famous bouquinistes towards the Pont Neuf.
View of the Pont Neuf from the quai
Despite its name, which means New Bridge, this is the oldest standing crossing of the river and was the first Parisian bridge to be built without houses on it. We crossed on to the Ile de la Cité here, by the statue of Henri IV. This is an 1818 copy of a 1618 original, which was destroyed in 1792 during the French Revolution, when kings weren’t exactly popular! Some of the bronze for this copy came from a statue of Napoleon in Place Vendôme, which was melted down following the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy.
Statue of Henri IV
This has become a popular spot for the custom of attaching a padlock to a railing to commemorate a romance, and one enterprising young man was selling padlocks to any couple who felt like adding to the mass already on the bridge.
Padlocks on the Pont Neuf
When we honeymooned in Paris in 1981 we had stayed in a very cheap hotel in the Place Dauphine, named for the nearby statue, the Henri IV. On our last visit we noted that it had been smartened up as befitted this rather lovely location, but today we discovered that it has closed down.
Outside the Hotel Henri IV in 1981 and in 2005
Place Dauphine in 2005
But the Place itself retains the tranquil atmosphere we remembered, with the addition now of several smart restaurants.
The ‘square’ (actually triangular in shape, to fit into the tip of the island) was developed in the late 16th century and was originally lined on all three sides by identical stone and red brick houses. Those on the eastern side were later demolished to accommodate an expansion of the Palais de Justice, while most of the others have been altered and/or added to over the years – only the two that sit either side of the entrance to the square from the Pont Neuf are much as they were intended to be.
In the shadow of the Palais de Justice a couple of games of boules were in progress, while elsewhere locals walked their dogs or relaxed on the benches. With no traffic you could imagine yourself in a small town rather than a capital city.
In the Place Dauphine
Watching the boules game
Palais de Justice from the Place Dauphine
We walked round the Palais and on the far side stopped for refreshments in a pavement café, the Deux Palais, where we had coffee and delicious tarte aux framboises (raspberry tart).
Palais de Justice
The Sainte Chapelle
The Sainte Chapelle
After relaxing over this treat (it was just warm enough to sit outside and people-watch) we walked back across the road to the Sainte Chapelle, one of the sights I was keen to revisit. There was a queue to get inside, but it only took about ten minutes to reach the airport-style security checkpoint (all Paris buildings are on high alert, given recent events). Another short queue to buy tickets, and we were in. And it was as magnificent as I had remembered from our first visit 36 years ago!
The Sainte Chapelle was built as the private chapel of King Louis IX, located in the courtyard of the Palais de Justice, which was at that time the palace of the kings of France. It was commissioned by the king to house the True Crown of Thorns he had bought from Baldwin II of Constantinople and is considered a masterpiece of pure Gothic style. But you don’t need to be a student of architecture to marvel at its richness. Outside it has a delicate spire, some beautiful statues and some rather weather-beaten gargoyles.
Sainte Chapelle, exterior details
But it is inside that its true glories are revealed. There are in fact two chapels, the Chapelle Basse and the Chapelle Haute. The former, where you enter, was the parish church for the palace staff and is relatively plain but still beautiful, although today rather dominated by the large gift shop along one side. At the far end is a statue of Saint Louis (the king was canonised after his death) and the ceiling is painted with fleurs de lys that look like stars overhead.
Chapelle Basse columns
In the Chapelle Basse
From here, be prepared to climb a fairly steep stone staircase to the upper chapel, which was the king’s private place of worship. Here you are immersed in colour from the 15-metre-high stained glass windows which glow from between the delicate columns that separate them. It is hard to believe that the building would be strong enough to stand for as long as it is, nor that two thirds of these windows are still the 13th century originals (albeit restored). Most represent scenes from the Old Testament, with each main window devoted to a different Book (information sheets available in the chapel explain which each is). A small number in the apse however show scenes from the New Testament, including the Passion of Christ.
In the Chapelle Haute
The apse also houses a replica of the casket that once held the True Crown of Thorns; the original and its contents were melted down during the Revolution. And in addition to the glorious windows there are richly painted columns, friezes and statues of saints – a wealth of colour and ornamentation to stun the senses.
Make sure to also step out on to the small terrace opposite the apse, beneath the rose window, for some different views and to see some of the marvellous detailed stone carvings in close-up.
By the time we came out of the chapel the afternoon had clouded over a little. We walked past the plant market next to the Cité Metro station to the front of Notre Dame. We had no plans to go inside, as we had done so several times in the past, but I did want to get some photos and luckily a hazy sun reappeared just as we arrived here.
Details of the west facade
The Last Judgement, above the main door
There was a small religious celebration going on, which seemed to be initiated by Mexicans living in Paris to mark the forthcoming Day of the Dead (although I’ve not been able to substantiate that with any online information). The air was heavy with the smell of incense, priests chanted, musicians played, and women in national dress gathered to join the procession of a banner.
With a nod to Charlemagne we made our departure and headed back to the Metro station and thence to the hotel, to relax a little before dinner.
An evening in the 6th
We started our evening with a drink at the Café de la Mairie, on the Place Saint Sulpice just up the road from our hotel, where I had a Ricard and Chris a beer. We then went for dinner at L'Enfance du Lard in the Rue Guisarde, of which I had read good reviews.
L'Enfance du Lard
Our experience though was a little mixed. The red wine was good, and we liked the amuse bouche of crunchy croutons with tapenade. But we had both ordered the same starter, one of the day’s specials, which consisted of fried oyster mushrooms with Parmesan cheese and a poached egg. The portions were large (we could have been advised that one to share would have been sufficient), and the mushrooms, while tasty, were not very warm - I think they may have sat waiting while the eggs were poached. My main course, duck in an orange and honey sauce, was delicious but Chris found his steak rather lacking in flavour.
After dinner we had a little stroll around the Place Saint Sulpice and took a few night photos, before deciding on an early night to rest up for tomorrow’s sightseeing.
Saint Sulpice at night
The Mairie of the 6th arrondissement