“We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
- John Hope Franklin

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Bikes, Rodin, and " 'Tis only a flesh wound!"

Ana and I on the Champ de Mars
How many ways can one person possibly see a city? By foot? Check. By boat? Also check. By bike? After yesterday, I can scratch that one off my list as well!

I spent this past Sunday afternoon with my "auntie-to-be," Ana, who lives close-by, and we went on a bike tour of Paris with Fat Tire Bike Tours. We spent four hours in the sunshine pedaling our way around Paris' monuments, through crowded parks, and even in crazy Parisian traffic! The tour was in English and comprised of 13 cyclists and our knowledgeable and funny guide from New Zealand, Karl, who happened to really look and sound like Chris Martin from Coldplay...

Our super fashionable bikes
[As a side note, I learned this past Friday that Coldplay (who I absolutely love!) is having a concert here in Paris in December. I found out at 10am, the tickets had gone on sale that morning at 9am, and by the time I checked the website to buy my ticket barely an hour later, they were ALL sold out. SO SAD!! I was really hoping to see them here, but since they always tour in the US after their gigs in Europe, there is still hope once I get home...fingers crossed!]

l'Ecole Militaire and our tour guide Karl
We made many stops during our four hour pedaling extravaganza - and let me tell you, biking on cobblestone paths and through sandy parks loaded with people is not a simple task, especially for me, as I am absolutely not a member of the Nimble Club!! The lover of useless knowledge that I am, I really enjoyed our tour as I added many new facts to my repertoire. Since I'm sure you're as curious as I am, I'll share some of what I learned:
Wall For Peace, Champ de Mars
The Wall For Peace, inaugurated in 2000, is a modern-looking structure modeled after the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem which sits at the far end of the Champ de Mars opposite the Eiffel Tower. While Parisians support the idea behind it, the Wall has caused controversy due to its futuristic appearance which doesn't jive with the older buildings which sit in the square adjacent to it.

Les Invalides
Napoloon's tomb rests inside Les Invalides, and while I haven't had time to visit the monument itself yet, I learned a few things about the building during our ride. Napoleon is buried inside six nested coffins sitting inside a massive stone sarcophagus, and he rests with his innards preserved in a separate jar placed between his legs so as not to deteriorate the quality of his corpse. Not that anyone can actually see him or would know either way, but I guess they wanted to give him some sense of dignity.

Hitler in Paris
His son, Napoleon II's body is also buried in Les Invalides, and was actually gifted to France by Hitler. Hitler was obsessed with Napoleon and his militaristic way of life, and upon his only visit to Paris - which lasted a whopping 4 hours - he decided that Napoleon's son should rest near his father, so as an act of respect to his idol Hitler ordered the transfer of the tomb from Vienna, Austria to Paris. Never though Hitler was a gift-giving kind of guy, but I guess you learn something every day! 

Also, did anyone else know that the Russians occupied Paris much like the Nazis did? This was news to me, and I've taken many classes involving French history... After Napoleon's failed attempt at successfully invading Russia in 1813, the Russian army followed the French troops back to Paris to make sure that Napoleon abdicated his position as emperor. While the Russian troops were in Paris, they would go to cafes and demand that they were served quickly, shouting the Russian word for quick, "Bistro!", at all the waiters. To advertise their quick service, many cafes started posting signs saying "bistro" on their windows, and thus the bistro that we know today was born.

Place de la Concorde
Last one, I promise! During the French Revolution, Place de la Concorde was the place to be if you wanted to watch mass executions! Execution by guillotine was such a commonplace occurrence that women were often reportedly knitting in the crowd while watching heads roll. When King Louis XVI was executed in 1793 after being found guilty of treason and other various crimes against France, the guillotine was located near the center of the plaza where the famous Egyptian obelisk stands today. (Revolutionaries apparently threw rocks against the blade to dull it before it was used on the King, and it had to be dropped an agonizing four times before completing the task at hand...) Horses wouldn't even think about approaching this square for nearly two years after the violence had ended as they could still smell the blood which had tainted the earth below.

Rodin's "Le Penseur - The Thinker"
Speaking of thinking, I went to the Musée Rodin before my bike tour to check out some of the sculptor's most famous works. While the museum is rather small, there are many large bronzes artfully displayed throughout the gardens which surround the old house-turned-museum. Rodin's famous "Thinker" sits perched upon a stone pedestal in the middle of the rose garden and is truly a sight to behold. As sculpture is a 3D art form, it is best appreciated when one can view it from all angles, and the museum is set up in a way that lets the visitor walk completely around each work, which is really cool!

Hydrangeas from the museum's gardens
Made a quick trip to Versailles on Saturday as well, but since I'm planning on going again when my family comes to visit, I'll only reveal one of my pictures now, more to come later!
La Galerie des Glaces - The Hall of Mirrors
I'll quickly wrap this post up with yesterday's visit to Musée de Cluny, Paris' museum of the Middle Ages. The museum is built in and around les thermes, the vestiges of ancient bath houses which date from 14-37 AD. They constitute the only elevated Gallo-Roman ruin preserved in Paris, which is also one of the most important edifices from Antiquity that survives north of the Loire River. The rest of the museum is situated inside l'Hotel de Cluny, a 15th century building with a later-added Gothic flair.

Nicolas Flamel's epitaph
One of the first things I saw when I walked in the door happened to be Nicolas Flamel's epitaph. For all you Harry Potter fans out there, I'm sure you'll recognize him as the maker of the Sorcerer's Stone...

Durandal (on left), the sword of Roland
I rather enjoyed this museum as I took a course in Medieval Art and Architecture last semester, and that, coupled with my knowledge of French literature, made for a visit full of artifacts that I had studied. Take this sword named Durandal, for instance. It belonged to Roland, the warrior and nephew of Charlemagne, and was made famous in the medieval chanson de geste (sort of like an epic poem) called "The Song of Roland." According to the plaque next to the sword, it is the only mythical weapon known to still survive today.

"A Mon Seul Desir"
Most famous in this museum, however, are the unicorn tapestries. A series of six, each depicts a woman with a unicorn and a lion, where five are dedicated to the senses and this, the sixth, represents "mon seul desir" ("my only desire") - the jury's still out on what exactly that is, however! There was a very informative exhibit about the tapestries, but this one still remains a bit of a mystery, even to the experts. It is thought that the artist may be suggesting a sixth sense, either 'understanding' or that of the heart. I had read an excellent book (historical fiction of course, as that is my genre of choice) called "The Lady and the Unicorn" by Tracy Chevalier which invents a story to chronicles the creation of these tapestries - highly recommended! It definitely helped me to appreciate the years of work that go into making these masterpieces!

And finally, I leave you with this video. As a part of the exhibit on Medieval weaponry, I was surprised to find a TV playing the clip of the Black Knight from "Monty Python and the Holy Grail"! I watched it and found myself chuckling in the middle of the otherwise silent room where this was playing (it was in English but subtitled in French) - I guess the French do have a sense of humor after all!


  1. Wow Rach...
    Can you be any more informative? Simply amazing!
    Can't wait to be there with you...see you soon!
    Love, Aunt Wen

  2. "It's just a flesh wound!" Is the quote :)