Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Paris day 3...le jour d'escalier

Having observed the lunchtime queue at Notre Dame yesterday, I hatched a cunning plan to avoid it. I arrived at Notre Dame at 8.30am and breezed through the door along with the other organised types giving myself an imaginary pat on the back as I did so.

The interior of the Cathedral is immense. There is simply no other word for it, it is immense. The ceiling is a very long way away and I stood in awe at the western end wondering, as I always do in these old buildings, just how on earth people built it all those years ago without all of our fancy modern access equipment. After the obligatory photo of the view before me, I turned to my guidebook to figure out where to go first. No sooner had I stepped into the left hand aisle when something entirely expected and perhaps slightly inappropriate slipped into my head. I didn't, you'll be glad to hear, go so far as to start singing 'God Help the Outcasts' but it was playing on a loop in my mind for most of my visit, especially when I came across the statue of Mary on the South side.

I walked around the back of the chapel, noting some very beautiful painted pillars and statues and headed for the centre to admire the stained glass windows. The sheer detail within them is breathtaking, every one of the tiny sections showing people and scenes and coming together to form a beautiful rose on either side of the nave.

After wandering around a bit more, I launched the second part of my cunning plan to avoid the queues: arrive at the entrance to the towers before 10am. I went around to the entrance at half past 9 and was met with a slight flaw in the plan: there was already a queue. It was not a very long one, however, and it was there with good reason. Only 20 people are allowed up at a time to avoid crowding on the tops of the towers so I took out a book and, like a good British tourist, joined the queue. (N.B. I have noticed that the old adage that noone knows how to queue like the British is certainly true, tourists from some nations seem to just shove people and go in front. When you try to complain, they look at you in an 'I don't speak whatever language that is and I couldn't care less' fashion...well really!) The book I was reading was one I found in my local library. Its called a CityLit guide and is basically a collection of writings about a given city. This one contains writings, old and recent, translated and not, about Paris so if you happen to be standing at Notre Dame and wanting a more interesting description of the splendour around you, look up Notre Dame in the index, and Voila! Victor Hugo!

The queue moved and after about 45 minutes of waiting, I started to climb the first stairs of the day. I discovered yesterday that in a wonderful stroke of good luck, if you are a citizen of the European Union and under 25 you can climb the towers of Notre Dame for free, instead of paying the 8 Euros 50. Handy to know if you're a poor 20-something in Paris!

Being a bellringer, I am no stranger to long, stone spiral staircases that seem to go on forever so I was perhaps a tad more prepared than some for what lay in store for my calf muscles. After a surprisingly short climb I emerged, camera in hand (lens cap removed for fear of clumsy fingers) onto the Chimera Gallery (that's the Gargoyles) all of which have individual characters including a bird eating some grapes (with a friend next to it looking on jealously), a cat-like thing eating a chicken carcass (his friend looked more unwell that jealous) and a lovely stone elephant. As I looked out over the city in the sun (yes, the sun came out!) Disney popped into my conciousness again and 'Out There' became my companion for the next leg of the journey.

I headed inside to see the big bell (which for those who might be interested, is in F Sharp) and it is a VERY BIG bell. Someone clapped under it and it seemed to have a rather nice tone but there wasn't much space and I had to leave the chamber so as not to get crushed by the hoards of tourists keen to have their picture taken next to it.

The final part of the tower tour (would that be tour des tour?) is right up on the top of the South tower from which you can see everything including the fine central spire with its marching apostles. From the front of the tower, I could see Sacre Coeur towering over the hill in the distance with an ominous cloud hanging over it. I took a picture in that direction and decided that since the sun was out I would head to the area that I had most been looking forward to: Montmartre. (after climbing down some more stairs first, of course).

I took a short detour to the Jardin Du Luxembourg for lunch, eating a sandwich on the wall of the octagonal lake and watching the nation-specific little boats sail around and about the duck house, while children threw bits of spare baguette to the canards. I wandered through the gardens and out towards a Metro station, heading for Montmartre.

I was unreasonably excited about getting off at Abessess (more stairs...shake shake go my legs) station having just re-watched Amelie prior to coming here. I thought I saw a photo booth at the end of the platform and rushed over to take a photo, only to be met by a vending machine and no Frenchman on his knees looking for torn up photos...ah well. The main reason I was so excited to go to Montmartre was not to find the Moulin Rouge or to have my portrait drawn by one of the characaturists, no, it was because the first time I came to Paris, 17 years ago, I stayed with my Dad in the Timotel in Montmartre. I remember eating sticky buns in the hotel breakfast room and heading out at night to the main square up the hill and watching my Dad eat huge bowls of mussels under an awning. I remembered it being a beautiful and magical place and was so excited to return.

I climbed the hill through the park in front of Sacre Coeur completing the main part of my stair torture tour for the day with the 130 odd stairs up to the top. When I arrived, I took in the view I remembered seeing as a 7 year old and smiled to myself. I turned around and headed for the Place du Tertre to continue my reverie.

I was slightly disappointed, to tell you the truth, with how tacky bits of it are now. I didn't remember this from when I was little, all I remembered was thinking that this place was why Van Gogh painted here, this was why people loved Paris, the feeling of this part of the city, up on the hill. Hence, I quickly tired of the centre and walked away to find more inspiring views. I found the little vineyard after not much wandering and imagined the great atmosphere that there must be in October when what few grapes there are get harvested and made into wine which is sold for charity at an auction.

I think my favourite part of my visit to the top of the hill, though, has to be the windmills. Not the ugly, tacky red thing on the nasty main road, the two remaining genuine windmills of Montmartre which stand on the Rue Lepic (A street which I think could benefit from a well placed Just me with my punctuation jokes?). They are both beautiful and straight away the feeling I had for the area from all those years ago was back in an instant. I sat and drew one of them, enjoying being a small part of the artistic scene of this inspiring place, and contemplated that, to me, the romance of Paris that everyone talks about is not at the top of the Eiffel Tower or floating on the Seine, but in the simple beauty of the winding streets of Montmartre.

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