Wednesday, 10 February 2010

Culture Vultures

As you can probably tell from my total lack of posting, it's been a while since I've done anything worth writing about. It's even been a long time since anybody did something worth writing (or ranting) about to me. Life has been nice, but nice is for cakes, not blogging about.

Last Sunday, though, there was a clash of two important cultural events: Scotland playing France in the 6 Nations and free museum day in Paris. I was quite tempted to head to the Auld Alliance to watch the game but a dearth of Scottish people to suffer with meant that I ended up doing the museum thing instead and, given the (as usual) dismal outcome of the game, it was probably just as well.

On the first Sunday of every month, lots of museums and monuments in Paris are free to visit. More places are free in the winter, so my friends and I decided to try to tick off the ones that will no longer be free the next time we have a Sunday afternoon to kill in Paris and, being the tight northerners that we are, we aimed particularly for the ones that you wouldn't want to pay full price to see anyway.

First stop was the Conciergerie on the Ile de la Cité. This building was originally a palace, then became the seat of parliament and finally was used as a prison during the Reign of Terror. As a result, it's an odd place to visit. The main hall is vast, with a vaulted ceiling and illuminated pillars everywhere. You could easily imagine it being a banqueting hall or debating chamber, but it's odd right next door to the prison cells, which are towards the rear of the building. There are some interesting mock-ups of different kinds of cells (even during the Revolution, those with money and power could pay to have a bed and a writing desk) and a list of all the people (almost 3000) who were guillotined. Included on the list are many ex-nobles and clergymen, but also a frightening number of shopkeepers, school teachers and other ordinary workers. The biggest attraction, however, seemed to be Marie-Antoinette's cell, which was even more luxurious than the most upmarket accommodation we had seen, but probably still not quite a patch on the palace at Versailles.

After the Conciergerie, we went to the Sainte-Chapelle, which is just next door. Because it's part of the court buildings, you have to go through security checks before you enter, which took almost as much time as we spent actually in the chapel. The Sainte-Chapelle is famous for its ornate decorations and tall stained glass windows which stretch up to the high, high ceiling. They are beautiful and incredibly detailed, but it's pretty difficult to tell what the pictures actually are, so there's only a certain amount of time you can spend admiring them. And if, as they purportedly were, the windows were designed to recount the Bible stories to an illiterate population, why on earth did they choose the Book of Numbers as one of the most important ones to illustrate?

Our last stop was the towers of Notre-Dame. We waited almost an hour in the queue for this one, but the time passed fairly quickly, as we were entertained by a clown playing tricks on unsuspecting passers-by and comforted by the thought that between the three of us we had saved a grand total of 75 euros by making our visits on the free day.

Apart from the fact that they make you spend an obligatory ten minutes in the gift shop on the way up (why would the people who make the effort to come when the visit is free want to spend a fortune on tacky souvenirs?) Notre-Dame was definitely my favourite part of the day. You climb the 400 steps, stopping to admire the biggest of the bells and take photos of the gargoyles on the way, to emerge at the top to what is definitely the best view of Paris from on high. You are right in the middle of the city, looking down on the islands, and the river stretches away on either side with its endless series of bridges, while in every direction famous landmarks from the Sacré-Coeur to the air traffic control tower at Charles de Gaulle airport stand proudly in the distance. Often in Paris, it's easy to get caught up in the crowds and the narrow pavements and the exquisite detail of the city, and to forget to look at the bigger picture. Standing there, gazing at the endless crazy rooftops, the streets that looked like tiny alleyways and the miniscule dots of people going about their business, I had the strange impression that I was looking down on my own life, with all its complications and complexities, and suddenly I found myself able to see the bigger picture again. As my friend said, everyday life may be mundane, but we live in Paris, and that's pretty cool.

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