After a leisurely Day 1 and a whirlwind Day 2, EZ and I approached our third and last day in Paris with a desire to fit in as much as possible of the remaining sites we wanted to see, while also somehow taking the time to savor them.
We awoke bright and early that misty Parisian morning, enjoyed some pastries and coffee from the corner boulangerie, and caught a metro to our first stop: The Grand Synagogue of Paris. As EZ is Jewish, we wanted to pay tribute to this beautiful temple, which was built in 1874 and remains the largest synagogue in France. We admired the classical style of the architecture, with the circular blossom windows, embellished columns, and other lovely flourishes. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed inside due to a private service.
Next, EZ and I took on the mother of all Paris sights: The Louvre. That magnificent, formidable fortress of culture and history…it looked even more imposing beneath the bank of clouds darkening above.
EZ and I skipped the long line at the main entrance by using the Porte Des Lions entrance, one of the “secret” alternative entrances. It was a good thing, too, because a pattering rain had begun to fall… we’d have been soaked if we waited in the main line.
Given the massive scale of this iconic art museum (one of the largest in the world), seeing everything the Louvre had to offer within one day would have been impossible. And we still had other places to visit on our last day. So EZ and I carefully selected the exhibits we most wanted to see within the next four hours.
We began with the Islamic Art, which boasted an array of gorgeous artifacts. Glazed dishes, enameled bottles, illustrated tapestries, intricate woodwork, decorated tiles…the relics were diverse and exquisitely crafted. It was interesting to learn how these objects were used in everyday life hundreds of years ago in Syria, Egypt, Iran, Central Asia, Spain, and other areas with Islamic populations.
The extensive European painting collections were next…in order to cover the long hallways and multiple off-shoot rooms within a reasonable amount of time, we had to glance at each painting as we walked at a brisk clip, lingering only at those paintings we found most compelling. Many of the works conveyed religious or mythological themes. EZ took pleasure in photographing some of the more bizarre paintings…
After wandering through the seemingly endless halls of European paintings, we went in search of the Holy Grail – that is, the Mona Lisa. She was surrounded by a large crowd of people taking selfies. As one pair of teenaged girls attempted their selfie, they knocked into an older French gentleman who cried, “Mademoiselle!” in deep indignation.
I eased my way through the throngs and attempted to commune silently with the mystical portrait. Because everyone had always exclaimed how she was much smaller than expected, I was actually surprised by her modest, medium size. I pondered the secrets behind her eyes, the mystery of her smile. Finally, I took a picture and moved on.
Our final exhibit at the Louvre was the Arts of Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. EZ and I found this to be our favorite, given the unique and delightfully whimsical sculptures, many of which served social uses in their respective cultures. I loved the aesthetics of the artistry – which clearly required considerable skill – as well as the playful spirit of many pieces.
Our time at the Louvre was capped with the requisite visit to the gift shop, which merited its own measured perusal. After a while, I decided upon some nice vintage-style art plates for my family, a couple of quirky art magnets, and an adorable mug that seemed to perfectly depict our rainy yet cozy day at the Louvre.
Souvenier bags in hand, EZ and I hopped a metro to the Ile de la Cite, where there was still more for us to see. But first we ducked into Ma Salle a Manger to warm ourselves with some soup. It was a quaint, nearly empty café with vintage French movie posters, a chandelier evocative of Alice in Wonderland, and other fanciful accents. While I enjoyed my French onion soup, EZ’s tangy vegetable soup left something to be desired.
Warmed and revived from our meal, we headed to Conciergerie Palace. During the French Revolution, the Conciergerie had been used as a prison from which convicts were taken to be executed at the guillotine down the road. Before that, it had been a royal palace.
It felt a bit eerie to wander the gallery that prisoners had passed through centuries before, many of them innocent. But the Gothic architecture was impressive, especially the twisted pillars in the Salle des Gens d’Armes (Hall of Men in Arms).
The spooky feeling lingered as EZ and I passed the prison cells that had once been occupied, and when we arrived at a room listing the names of all those who had been condemned to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. Once we reached Marie Antoinette’s final chambers, we found that the room had been set up with model guards and a model Marie beneath a black shroud to recreate the tragic situation. If one of them moved, I might have screamed…
In keeping with the creepy theme of the Conciergerie, EZ and I decided to check out the Notre Dame Crypts next, assuming that the crypts were, in fact, tombs. To our surprise, we learned that the crypts were actually historical ruins – archeological remains and excavations of early settlements on the Ile de la Cite. But this was still a fascinating discovery. EZ and I wandered through the dark, underground labyrinth, exploring the crumbling walls that demarcated ancient villages, and watching these old ruins come back to life in miniature model constructions and interactive video media.
When we reemerged into the modern world outside, we found that the gloomy weather had banished half the line for Notre Dame Cathedral. Moreover, the line was moving at a fairly rapid pace, because the cathedral was about to begin mass. What serendipity!
Before long, EZ and I were through the handsome iron-worked wooden doors and inside the cathedral, where the pews were filled with locals attending mass. At the altar, below a lovely rose window, fragrant incense caused smoke to billow forth like a mystic apparition had just vanished from the spot.
EZ and I followed a handful of tourists around the cathedral, walking silently and respectfully as we admired the architecture and ornamentation. Beautiful, holy singing from the vespers service drifted over to us, reminding us that this famous cathedral was not just a historical marvel, but a modern-day place of worship for devout Catholic Parisians.
But, as Notre Dame is indeed a famous cathedral, featured prominently in well known cultural works such as The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, EZ and I had to see the notorious gargoyles and bells of Notre Dame. Unfortunately, the bell tower was not open to visitors at the time.
Having experienced the major sites of Ile de la Cite, EZ and I began to walk towards the Latin Quarter for some drinks. On the way, however, we encountered some lesser known places worth exploring.
First, we crossed a bridge with locks, of which there are several in Paris, although the authorities have been working to change that. According to tradition, lovers sign padlocks with their initials and the date, lock the padlocks onto the side of the bridge, and toss the key into the river. This is supposed to symbolize their undying love. While this sounds romantic in theory, the reality is that the weight of all the metal locks threatens the integrity of the bridge, and could potentially lead to collapse. Also, historical purists feel the locks mar the beauty of the bridge’s original architecture. As a result, Paris officials are in the process of removing locks from bridges.
EZ and I enjoyed reading the inscriptions on the locks, which dated as far back as the early 1990s (from what we found), but we did not feel compelled to create our own. Our love is expressed in other ways…in everyday affections and appreciation, in thoughtful surprises and sweet gestures. Plus, it would have been super lame if we created a lock only to have it removed by some Paris city worker!
After crossing the bridge of locks, EZ and I were continuing to wander toward the Latin Quarter, when we stumbled upon an interesting sight. Within a small, enclosed grass area, we saw a raised stone platform. On the side of it, etched in gold, were the words Martyrs Francais de la Deportation, next to the number “1945.” The style of the writing was made to look as though it had been etched by hand using primitive tools – sharp, imprecise lines; angular. Where were we? EZ and I asked an official-looking lady who stood at a kiosk nearby.
“This is a Holocaust memorial,” she replied solemnly. “For the French who were deported to Nazi concentration camps during World War II.”
We then noticed a set of stairs descending into what must have been the belly of the memorial. The lady allowed us to visit the memorial and pay our respects, on the condition that we did not publish any photographs we took; such images were to be used only for private reflection. And so I will try my best to describe what my photographs would have shown.
As you descend the stairs, you find yourself in a sort of concrete outdoor grotto, where black iron spears are mounted upon one wall, sharp black iron triangles jutting out from them like flags. Is this a piece of art? It looks stark and menacing, like medieval weaponry. You kneel down, and just beyond the spiked bottoms of the ironwork is a metal grate, through which you can see the flow of the Seine river. A peaceful, lovely sight…but the bars of the grate feel too confining. A barrier.
You stand. On the other side of the concrete grotto, you see a doorway. You enter into the dim, hexagonal subterranean chamber. In the center of the chamber floor is a large, circular metal plaque with a bright bulb in the middle. The border of the plaque bears French writing, similar to the angular inscriptions outside. You later learn that this inscription translates to: “They descended into the mouth of the earth and they did not return.”
Sadness trickles through you like a warm rain. You raise your eyes. Directly in front of you, just past the plaque, is a barred window glowing with the light beyond. As you approach, you realize the window looks into a long, narrow passageway, the walls on either side illuminated by thousands of miniature glass crystal bulbs – each golden bulb represents a life lost. Right at the front of the hall sits a black rectangular box, upon which five white roses lay. At the end of the tunnel is a light – a lantern or candle of some sort. The effect is altogether surreal. Like a trance, or a strange dream. You feel a shiver run through your body as you move back from the barred window.
You look up. More angular inscriptions are etched across the tops of the walls. They are also in French. But you later learn their translation: “Dedicated to the living memory of the 200,000 French deportees sleeping in the night and the fog, exterminated in the Nazi concentration camps.”
Your eyes press shut in a moment of silence and respect. Then you continue on to the small adjoining rooms that look like prison cells. That unnerving style of angular writing, as though etched by a prisoner using a sharp stone, is there again at the top of the walls. Later, you learn these are fragments of poetry.
I have dreamt so very much of you
I have walked so much
Loved your shadow so much
That nothing more is left to me of you
All that remains to me is to be the shadow among shadows
To be a hundred times more of a shadow than the shadow
To be the shadow that will come and come again
Into your sunny life
These rooms contain earth and bones from the concentration camps. You realize that you are in a crypt, a real one, and begin to feel claustrophobic. The dim lighting, the enclosed space, the strange style of the inscriptions, the sadness of the place…it all flows through you in a tangle of emotion.
Air…fresh air. You move back toward the entrance, which is also the exit. Above the doorway are the words “PARDONNE N’OUBLIE PAS…” Your French is not very good, but you know this much.
Please never forget.
* * *
EZ and I emerged from the memorial feeling as though we had undergone some momentous, transformative experience. We held hands and walked in silence, reflecting to ourselves before we felt normal enough to discuss the visceral memorial. We had never seen anything like it, but found it to be much more powerful than traditional memorial structures.
After a while, we arrived in the Latin Quarter. EZ and I popped into Esmeralda and Chabana’s for a drink or three. It was a fun little Latin hole-in-the-wall, lively with neon lights and Spanish music. One wall was papered with paper currencies from around the globe, along with photographs and art. Here, we finally got a chance to unwind over peanuts and booze.
But wait! We still wanted to check out the Pompidou Center, which would close in a couple of hours. Would we make it in time? EZ and I checked the clock…we could…if we left right now. We downed our drinks, paid the tab, and rushed toward the nearest metro stop.
Soon, we found ourselves in the rainy Pompidou Center, a modern art museum aptly contained in a funky, contemporary complex. The exposed, color-coded framework gave the museum an industrial yet playful feel. Inside, we were one of only a few visitors. EZ and I meandered through the rooms, admiring the modern works, which had their own air of playfulness. However, as we read the texts beside them, we learned that despite their seeming lightheartedness, these works often served as political or social commentary when interpreted appropriately.
Of course, we didn’t have time to cover the entire museum before it closed, but EZ and I were glad to have seen enough to appreciate it. By this time, it had grown quite dark, and our stomachs were rumbling. Too weary to discover a new restaurant, EZ and I headed back to our apartment and dined across the street at Le Souris Verte once more, knowing that we already enjoyed the food. We were not disappointed…I relished in a delicious yet affordable salmon dish prepared in the classical French style, while EZ loved his “Burger de la Revolucion.” And our waitress was very amiable as she attempted to speak English, and I attempted to speak French, in order to decide which wine we should order. She was also frank enough to tell us, in no uncertain terms, which wines were NOT good.
Here, at the restaurant, EZ and I happily and comfortably recapped our three-day Paris trip. It was quite pleasant to relive the highlights, and to realize just how much we were able to cram into three days. Of course, we also realized that some of our planning was not the most efficient; for example, we should have bundled all of the sights on Ile de la Cite into one day to minimize travel and maximize time. Still…overall, we were pleased with our vacation.
And what was my impression of Paris, then, after three days? In my mind, before coming to Paris, I imagined the city preserved in some picturesque, quaint old state…perhaps in the 1920s. Of course, Paris still retains many timeless elements, but it is also a bustling modern, commercial center, with aspects not unlike those found in the U.S. Once I got used to that fact, I was able to love Paris for what it was, an amalgam of old and new, of historical and contemporary, but in any case – beautiful. Full of culture. Brimming with charm.
I shall end on a pair of quotes from Midnight in Paris, a very delightful film that you must see if you have not yet had the pleasure:
Adriana: “I can never decide whether Paris is more beautiful by day or by night.”
Gil: “No, you can’t, you couldn’t pick one. I mean, I can give you a checkmate argument for each side. You know, I sometimes think, how is anyone ever gonna come up with a book, or a painting, or a symphony, or a sculpture that can compete with a great city. You can’t. Because you look around and every street, every boulevard, is its own special art form and when you think that in the cold, violent, meaningless universe that Paris exists, these lights, I mean come on, there’s nothing happening on Jupiter or Neptune, but from way out in space you can see these lights, the cafés, people drinking and singing. For all we know, Paris is the hottest spot in the universe.”