Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Cathedrals and modern art magnifique!

Day 7 (Sun, 8 June 2014)

Our first stop of the day was Sainte-Chapelle, a royal medieval Gothic chapel famous for its stained glass windows. To be honest, we only decided to visit this chapel only because it's close to the other attraction we wanted to see - Notre Dame.

From the outside, the chapel didn't look particularly impressive.

But when we entered the second floor, our jaws just dropped. It was absolutely breath-taking.

Fifteen large 13th century windows fill the nave and apse while a rose window fills the western wall. Each window tells a story from a different book of the Bible. Having a wall almost entirely built from tall windows is an architectural feat as the supporting structures need to be strong enough to hold up the building. The sunlight shines through the windows, creating a vivid sparkle of hues. Truly magical.

In fact, of all the spectacular sights we caught in Paris, Lesley-Anne maintained that Saint-Chapelle was her all-time favourite. It even beat our next venue, Notre Dame Cathedral, which is a short way down from Saint-Chapelle.

Notre Dame was, of course, made famous in Victor Hugo's novel, the Hunchback of Notre Dame. It's widely considered as one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture. I remember the first time I saw Notre Dame with its flying buttresses and gargoyles, I was so in awe that for a long time, it symbolised Paris to me.

What I like about Notre Dame is that entry is free, unlike most of the famous cathedrals in London. When we were there, Sunday mass was going on with ethereal Gregorian chants and a majestic organ solo on the massive 7,800-pipe organ. Yet, visitors were allowed to go in along the sides, as long as they didn't disrupt the mass in the main hall.

The inside of Notre Dame has many exceptional features, including three awe-inspiring rose glass windows.

On the exterior, there are the famous gargoyles. Old cathedrals tend to have them and we noticed that they all faced downwards, as if scaring away passersby. The Catholic church used them as a symbol to ward off evil spirits. However, they actually have a more functional purpose and that's to channel rainwater away from the roof and sides of the building.

Other angles of the exterior.

After that very fruitful morning, we crossed River Seine and walked along the main road, stopping at Shakespeare and Company. This is a famous bookshop where writers used to gather, including Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce and Ezra Pound.

It's hard to describe the atmosphere of Shakespeare and Company. It's not just an indie bookshop - it's a place where people come to live and breathe books. The original store was opened by Sylvia Beach. George Whitman opened this store in the current location and even named his daughter Sylvia Beach Whitman, who runs the bookstore now after her father died in 2011.

There's a library upstairs where you can just sit and read, and George Whitman apparently used to encourage people to read the books at the store instead of buying them. There are even beds for people to sleep there! Whitman called it "a socialist utopia masquerading as a bookstore."

Photos are not allowed in the bookstore but I just had to sneak in a shot of this totally contented cat on the upstairs sofa.

The bookshop is like an other world completely detached from modern society. To me, it represents the unvarnished essence of Paris past which is so much more romantic than the bright lights of the Eiffel Tower or Champs Elysees. This article in the Guardian is a good read to try and understand the spirit of this place.

Sylvia Beach published James Joyce's Ulysses in 1922, so when Lesley-Anne wanted to buy a book from here, it was a no-brainer. She bought Ulysses. The great thing about buying a book from here is that you get your book stamped (pictured left). How cool is that?

After that, it was time for lunch and we knew what we wanted - crepes! We'd read about this nearby creperie - Creperie Genia, where many food bloggers have raved about, like this one. with delicious and cheap crepes.

We ordered ham and cheese and egg crepe, ham and cheese crepe, and the French favourite - Nutella and banana crepe. The owner is extremely generous with ingredients. Look at that overload of cheese!

The Nutella and banana is a must-try for Nutella fans. He slathered on the Nutella and even drizzled on a little extra on the top for the benefit of Lesley-Anne's shot.

Each crepe was only about €4 (about S$6.80). Fantastic value considering we paid more than twice that in London! 

After lunch, we took the Metro to Rambuteau to Pompidou Centre.

Pompidou Centre is the largest museum for modern art in Europe with a permanent collection featuring artists like Picasso, Kadinsky, Dali, Matisse and Miro. The architecture of the centre itself is pretty standout with its coloured tube escalators.

Children get free entry to art galleries in Paris, which is superb.

However, I think my kids quickly discovered that they're not great fans of modern art. There was a piece where Andre looked sceptically at and whispered to me, "That looks like when I drew something wrong and then painted black all over it."

On the 6th floor of Pompidou Centre, you can enjoy a panaromic view of Paris city.

In keeping with the fun spirit of Pompidou Centre, there's the popular Stravinsky Fountain on the centre grounds - a whimsical fountain with 16 sculptures, representing the works of musician Igor Stravinsky.

There were also chalk artists and this guy, we just couldn't figure out how he's levitating!

Before we headed back to the hotel, we made a stop at the nearby Anne Frank's garden. Opened in 2007, it was so named because a tree in garden was a graft from a tree mentioned in Anne Frank's diaries. It's a small garden but quite pretty.

By then, Andre was all tuckered out and ready for some peace and quiet. This picture says it all.

We took the Metro back to Gare du Nord. We'd intended to have dinner at a restaurant we'd read about but it was closed. We wandered around the area, came across a Chinese restaurant and decided to eat our first Chinese meal this trip. It was a mistake. The food definitely looked better than it tasted, even though the restaurant is run by Chinese.

It was so unsatisfying that we went to Carrefour after that and bought brioche buns and pate for supper. MUCH better! Lesson learnt: never eat Chinese in Paris.

The great thing about coming to Paris in summer is that the days are almost ridiculously long. Sunset is 9.50pm and the sky doesn't really get dark until about 11pm. How lovely to end the evening around after a long day of sight-seeing, with this picturesque view of Gare du Nord outside our hotel window.

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