Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Crossing the Pont de Tournelle several times a day, I have always turned right on reaching the Left Bank. This morning, out for my early walk, I turned left and it was a fortuitous move. Heading upstream along the Seine, I came to a very nice sculpture garden populated with a good number of pieces by contemporary artists. Particularly eye-catching is a marble figure of a nude (at least that I what I think it is), right on the river’s edge. A nice piece in a garden of nice pieces and a welcome vista. Just up the way and off to the right is the incredibly imposing Museum of Natural History, the centerpiece of the botanical gardens which were established here in the 1600s. This huge complex has buildings dedicated plants, biology, zoology, and the park itself must surely be something to behold when everything comes abloom. Lots of workers with hoes out chopping and readying the grounds for spring. A pretty fantastic spot, the Jardin des Plants as it is called, and I don’t believe I am just now finding this spot so close to home here.
The Metro lines in Paris are numbered, but are known also by their endpoints. You have to know which way the train is headed so as to get on the right one. Metro 1, which I board at St. Paul, runs east-west through the middle of Paris. Today, just out of curiosity, I decided to ride it end-to-end. So I hopped on at Saint Paul and headed west, where the last stop is called La Defense. Past all my familiar exit stops, I continued. Now this move is certainly not something touted in any guidebook I have seen, but if I ever write one I will be sure and encourage everyone to do it. I had no idea what I would find at the end on the line. Well, what is there is a structure so huge that it dwarfs everything in its considerable shadow. It is called, appropriately, the Grande Arche and it is massive beyond belief. Grande Arche is the centerpiece in a “village” of beautifully-designed skyscrapers which are grouped on the western edge of Paris. I thought of Sixth Avenue in New York City when I first saw them. This is a community of tall buildings that came into its own when French President Mitterand facilitated their construction in the 1980s, though some of them preceded that time frame. The Grande Arche has offices scattered within its white marble and glass structure and a glass elevator that takes you on an nerve-jingling ride to the top. From the huge outside observation deck I am sure that on a clear day you could see the Pyramids of Egypt. It is set on a line which runs from the Place de la Concorde up the Champs Elysees through the Arc de Triomphe and continues to the business district where this is the focal point. From up in the clouds I spied the forest/park Bois de Boulogne and the Thoroughbred horse race track. Many moons ago I was down there at Longchamps to see the classic Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe race, and it was an amazing thing to see the famous old track today from this perspective.
Reboarding after a quick lunch, I headed east on Metro Line 1 to its other extremity, Chateau de Vincennes, a small community actually just outside the Paris city limits. I don’t believe that it would be possible to concoct a more striking contrast to the Grande Arche than this place. Set on the edge of Paris’ other huge forest/part, Vincennes, the land here was appropriated by King Henry I in about 1037 and building on the chateau itself was begun about 100 years later when Louis VII began work on his royal residence. What stands here today are many magnificent old structures, some recently restored, with a wondrous history. It was here, for example, that the relics of the passion, including the crown of thorns now in a vault under Notre Dame, first were housed after coming into possession of the French royalty. The “keep” here, where the royal family had residence in the mid-1300s still stands and is the highest keep in Europe and the oldest residence of a medieval monarch surviving in France. I suppose this is the original “skyscraper” and it is in astonishing shape. Splendid and gorgeous. Most folks do not make this entire journey as I did today, but those who take the time to enjoy the complete metro ride east-west on Line I are transported across 1000 years of history in about 35 minutes. I can barely wait to have a repeat of this day.
Tonight I had dinner with Thomas Spencer, my friend who is working to develop narratives for the television project focusing on medieval churches around France. We visited a small restaurant close to home here on the Ile Saint Louis for a nice dinner. Thomas’ understanding of French history gave him a particular appreciation of the contrasting ends of the Metro line which he, too, takes every day, though not from end-to-end as I did today.

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