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The Louvre and Saint-Denis

Paris, France
June 24, 2010

On our last day in Paris, we finally decided to go to the overwhelming Louvre museum. On our arrival, we were immediately met with an unbelievably long line to enter the museum. After about fifteen minutes, we were informed that the long line in which we were standing was not the line for the museum but a line to get the new iPhone at the adjacent Apple store. We were then directed to a considerably shorter line for the museum. This line, however, was not moving at all. The museum still seemed to be closed thirty minutes after the posted opening time. It was then that we got our first taste of the frequent strikes that workers unleash in Europe.

We were told that the strike would not end until at least noon, so we decided to take a walk in the adjacent Tuileries Gardens. These gardens go back to the time of Catherine de Medici, Queen of France, back in the mid-1500s. The gardens became a public park after the French Revolution in the waning years of the 18th Century. In the Tuileries Gardens, you will see a statue of a gentleman blowing a horn while riding winged Pegasus, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel (not THE Arc de Triomphe but pretty impressive nonetheless), and the Musee de l’Orangerie which houses Monet’s Water Lillies and some of Rodin’s sculptures.

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Sainte Karen poses with a local in the Tuileries Gardens

After lunch in one of the Gardens’ cafes, we took a train to the nearby town of Saint-Denis and the basilica which houses the tombs of many of the French monarchs from Dagobert I to Louis XVIII as well as several queens, princes, princesses and other influential French statesmen. The Basillica itself was the most amazing site. Built in the 1100s, it was one of, if not the, first gothic basilicas built in the middle ages.

Of course, the town and basilica are named for Saint Denis who is famous for losing his head. Literally. Back in the 3rd Century, Rome still ruled the world and had not yet converted to Christianity. In fact, during this time, the Romans were known to go out of their way to punish Christians in creative and brutal ways. Denis, who was the bishop of Paris, and a couple of his buddies were decapitated in the city by the Roman authorities. Legend has it that Denis then picked up his severed head and walked several miles preaching the whole way until he finally collapsed and died. It was at that exact spot where the Saint Denis Basilica was built.

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Excuse me, ladies…my eyes are down here.

The town of Saint-Denis is also known for its higher than average crime rate, so be mindful of your surroundings.  Following the 2015 Paris Attacks which included the mass shooting at the Eagles of Death Metal concert at the Bataclan theatre, the mastermind behind the attacks was killed in a gun battle with police in Saint-Denis.

 

When we got back from Saint-Denis, we still had a few hours to spend at the Louvre. We saw the Mona Lisa (now encased in a climate controlled, bulletproof glass case to protect it from loonies), the Venus de Milo, the painting of Emperor Napoleon’s coronation, other important paintings and sculptures, exhibits on Greece, Rome and Egypt, artifacts from ancient Mesopotamia (make sure you check out Hammurabi’s Law Code etched on a seven-foot stone), medieval objects and art, and Napoleon III’s apartments.

The Louvre, by itself, is reason enough to visit Paris. Just make sure you give yourself a couple of days in case of strikes and to ensure that you see all that you want to see.

Until next time…ramble on.

https://uk.tourisme93.com/basilica/

http://www.louvre.fr/en

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The Ghosts of Normandy

 

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Rouen, France

June 25, 2010

My high school French teacher once told me that with my southern accent and feeble attempts at pronunciation, I would be better served attending more English classes than foreign language courses.  It certainly wasn’t her fault that I never picked up on the language.  I spent a fair amount of my time reading the novel Lonesome Dove rather than paying attention in class.  As a result, one of the only French expressions that I have been able to recall over the years is, “Je ne parle pas Français.”  Fortunately for English speakers, this is a very helpful sentence that you can use when traveling in France.

Rouen, France, is an ancient town located in the northern portion of France known as Normandy.  It is a picturesque, medieval town with several examples of fine gothic architecture and a rich history.  Some Americans will know Rouen because of the role it played in both World Wars, especially during the Battle of Normandy in 1944.  By the time of its liberation by the Canadians, almost half of the city had been destroyed.  Another of its claims to fame is that it was the site of Joan of Arc’s burning at the stake in 1431. After reading Desmond Seward’s The Hundred Years War: The English in France, 1337-1453, I knew I had to visit Rouen despite Mr. Seward’s obvious difficulties with mathematics.

After an early morning, two-hour train ride from Paris to Rouen, Karen and I walked immediately to our hotel to check our bags at the front desk until our 3 o’clock check-in time.  The Cardinal Hotel is located adjacent to the spectacular church that dominates the center of town, the Rouen Cathedral.  This is yet another jewel of France’s gothic architecture and was featured in a series of Claude Monet paintings.

In addition to the Cathedral, we visited the Church and Abbey of Saint Ouen, the gothic Saint Maclou church, and the 600-year-old astronomical clock known as the Gros Horloge (large clock).  We also visited the dungeon and tower in the Rouen Castle where Joan of Arc was threatened with torture after her capture during the Hundred Years War. We had a café lunch near the spot where the future saint went up in flames, which is now the site of a modern church built in the shape of an overturned Viking ship.  This town kicks ass.

Rouen has maintained a medieval feel while embracing the modern world.  One thousand-year-old streets are lined with shops and boutiques filled with tourists buying iPhones, perfume, Monet posters, dresses, scarves, and pastries. During the late afternoon, Karen and I walked into a wine shop and proceeded to buy ten bottles of French wine and two bottles of Calvados (apple brandy made in Normandy) to bring back home.  The proprietors of the shop acted as if they had something important to tell us, but they did not speak English.  After trying to communicate with each other using primitive sign language, one of the gentlemen asked Karen to accompany him to the nearest post office where they found an interpreter.  This is when we found out that you can only bring two bottles of wine or liquor in your luggage on flights back to the US.  It is also the first known instance of Karen using a French word appropriately.  That word was “merde.”

When Karen and the owner returned, we managed to negate the wine purchase despite our language barrier.  I kept the two bottles of Calvados and did indeed bring them back to the States.  We found many more instances of kindness like the owners of this wine shop showed to us during our visit to France.  The myth of French rudeness was nowhere to be found for us during our stay.

Late that night while sleeping in our very comfortable room, I dreamed that I heard the sound of birds in the trees near our hotel and the cathedral.  The sound then turned to one of children playing and running.  It then turned into the orderly stamps of platoons of soldiers marching in time through the streets of Rouen. We spent the night in our hotel under the imposing spires of the cathedral and the ghosts of Normandy’s past.

I normally do not remember my dreams, but I attribute the night’s hallucinations on the “sausage” that I had for dinner.  Just as Karen and I sat down at an outdoor café that evening, I realized I had forgotten to bring my food glossary with me.  With a sense of adventure, we poured through the French-only menu to find words that looked familiar.  One dish that caught my eye was Saucisse Andouillette, which to me sounded very much like andouille sausage, a spicy sausage known in the U.S. as a Louisiana Cajun delicacy.  It took me about three bites to realize that “andouillette” can best be translated to English as pork chitterling.

Don’t get me wrong; eating pig intestines is not necessarily an unappetizing meal.  With the right wine pairing and “mother sauce,” a properly trained French chef can make a bowl of catfish anuses taste like what a Ravel sonata sounds like. However, when you are expecting something very different, it can be quite shocking.  I am somewhat embarrassed to say that this Son of the South had his first taste of “chittlins” in northern France.

Looking back on my time in high school, now thirty years gone, I would like to apologize to the very talented Madame Mixon for not paying attention in her class, especially when we studied cuisine.  I would also like to apologize to Ms. Allen, my twelfth-grade English teacher, who specifically told me to never use the phrase “catfish anuses” in an essay.

Until next time…ramble on.

 

 

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Rouen Cathedral

 

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Napoleon’s Necklace

Most of the stories that I post will not be in any kind of chronological order.  They will just be excerpts from my travel journals.

Paris, France

June 23, 2010

Day three of our visit to Paris.  We began the day at the Army Museum at Les Invalides located near the Eiffel Tower.  Les Invalides is an army hospital and convalescence home that is still being used today by the French military.  Louis XIV, the Sun King, began construction on the hospital in 1670, and France has kept it well stocked with wounded soldiers ever since.

Inside Les Invalides is the impressive Musée de l’Armée, where we saw an interesting exhibit on the Charles de Gaulle Call for Resistance in World War II.  After Paris fell to the Nazis in the early stages of the war, the Vichy regime was established to make peace with Germany.  Marshall Philippe Pétain, the French World War I hero of the Battle of Verdun, was named as the Prime Minister.  By contrast, Free France, the government in exile and the one recognized by the allied powers was led by General Charles de Gaulle who refused to recognize the armistice with Germany.  In 1940, while in England, de Gaulle recorded via BBC his famous speech known as the “Appeal of 18 June” which encouraged the French people to resist German occupation, launching what is now known as the French Resistance movement.

The next exhibit we saw was one of the most impressive displays of Medieval and Renaissance-era armor I have ever seen.  An entire room was reserved for the suits of armor worn by the kings of France. Elsewhere in the museum were displays of uniforms, weapons and other miscellaneous wartime paraphernalia spanning the stone age to the end of World War II.  Tombs of many of France’s military heroes, including Napoleon, can also be found here.

The section dedicated to the Napoleonic Era was a particular favorite.  Before our trip, I read several books on the French Revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars.  It was here that we stumbled upon the famous portrait of Napoleon as Emperor.  While Karen was snapping a picture of me beside the painting, I noticed a glass display box which housed the huge necklace that Napoleon is wearing in the portrait.  I pointed to the necklace in the display case, then back to the portrait to show Karen what I had discovered.  Evidently, when I pointed at Napoleon’s neck my finger came too close to the painting and an earsplitting alarm began screaming in our ears.  Immediately four armed soldiers ran into the small room that was occupied by only Karen and me, noticed our confused looks, and escorted our red faces out of the exhibit.

 

 

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Calm before the storm.

If you are ever in Paris and have any interest in military history, please take an afternoon to visit the Musée de l’Armée.  Just keep your hands in your pockets.

Until next time…ramble on.

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Karen gets chummy with some French sailors.