It’s not the arriving, it’s how you get there. (Anon)
His stay in Paris this time was to last six days and gave him ample opportunity to explore this exciting pleasure dome. It was good to be back at the Hôtel Parisiana and to catch up with Veronique again. He was given room No.1 on the first floor, with a view over a rear courtyard away from the street entrance. Bede was made to feel welcome by the staff at the hotel and was treated like one of the family. One of his first tasks was to recover the large cycle carry bag (sac à vélo) stored at the hotel from his original visit, and to re-pack his bicycle ready for his eventual flight out of France.
Bede’s return to Paris coincided with planned celebrations for the 100th anniversary of the building of the Eiffel Tower. Built for the World’s Fair in 1889, the tower was intended to be the iron icon of France’s industrial and engineering might – and to be a temporary structure. Civic pride over having the world’s tallest structure at that time (1,000 feet) forestalled demolition, and the invention of the wireless gave Gustav Eiffel’s implausible creation a new lease of life as a radio mast. Long a symbol of the industrial age, the Eiffel Tower stands out as a superb metal sculpture of great symmetry and elegance – its ironwork seems surprisingly light and delicate to the observer.
On a clear, warm, Saturday night, Bede, along with 800,000 others, jammed the streets and banks of the Seine around the vicinity of the Eiffel Tower to take part in a magnificent public celebration. It was an occasion of wondrous colour and noise, which embraced trees and buildings bedecked in coloured lights, balloons set aloft, live music, the illumination of the tower itself, and a breathtaking display of fireworks. It was a truly magical occasion, celebrated in Gallic style.
Paris is a compact city and easy to understand. The Seine forms a beautiful boulevard for barge traffic and the bateaux mouches. Central Paris, with its 20 arrondissements spiralling out from the Louvre district, is easily explored on foot. Bede particularly enjoyed discovering the area known as Le Marais. It is a district totally distinct from the rest of Paris, which has retained a late-Medieval flavour. The Marais is studded with magnificent hôtels particuliers and aristocratic mansions. The physical evidence of the past is everywhere present in the Marais. Along the Rue des Jardins stands a lengthy section of the 12th century city rampart. Bordering a playground, the wall is taken for granted in a neighbourhood where stunning courtyards and mansions are commonplace. Bede visited the hotel Sale, where the Musée Picasso is located, and which includes a collection of more than 200 paintings and sculptures by this great master, handsomely displayed in the 17th century mansion.
In a quiet corner, near the Place de la Concorde, is the delightful small gallery of the Musée de L’Orangerie, containing the superb Manet, Cézanne, Renoir and Douanier Rousseau canvases of the Walter-Guillaume collection. In Halls 1 and II Bede was able to view Monet’s famous Water Lilies in a series of eight magnificent, outsized paintings arranged around the walls of the gallery.
Located on the top floor of the Musée D’Orsay is the impressionist gallery comprising a superb collection of paintings by Monet, Cézanne, Manet, Renoir, Derain, Degas, Cassatt, Pissarro, Morisot, Toulouse-Lautrec and the post–impressionists Van Gogh, Seurat and Gauguin. The gallery is a visual delight.
Bede found the best way to visit the Champs-Élysées was on foot, with occasional stops to watch everybody watching everybody else. Here is where the urban myth of the extortionate price of coffee in Paris actually has some grounding in fact (10 francs), so that he was quite happy to nurse a demitasse of espresso for as long as it suited him to sit and observe the other patrons and passers-by generally.
On the Île de la Cité he visited the legendary Notre-Dame cathedral. Begun in 1163 and not completed until 170 years later, the cathedral is the collective work of generations of architects and craftsmen. It combines Romanesque architecture (the massive pillars, rounded arches and thick, almost windowless walls), with later Gothic architecture embracing flying buttresses, giving strength to the walls to allow for stained glass tableaux. The cathedral’s façade has been designed to be viewed at close quarters, its balanced composition sweeping the eye up the bell towers and beyond. Inside you find magnificent stained-glass windows in the transept and many works of art.
The visual delights of Paris are by no means confined to her famous buildings. Architectural details abound on virtually every street. Great spaces like the Place de la Concorde and the Arc de Triomphe glorify the place of the people, while innumerable alleys and courtyards preserve privacy.
Bede took a stroll through the Jardin des Tuileries, which is in the formal French style and designed by Le Nôtre. It is said that the Tuileries has been a favourite Parisian promenade since the 17th century. He found it a gentle place of pools, terraces, shade trees and statuary, including a series of sensual female nudes sculpted by Maillol and scattered about the garden’s eastern extremity. In a quiet corner of the gardens he watched a group of older men playing boules .This is a game which involves a small wooden ball, the cochonnet, which is tossed up the playing area at the start of each game. Each player has three boules, identified by different patterns etched into the steel, and at the end of the round the closest to the cochonnet is the winner. There are two basic types of delivery: the low, rolling throw that skitters along the ground, or the high-trajectory drop shot aimed at knocking the opponent’s boule off the court. There is a distinct, if slow, rhythm to the game. A throw is made, and play stops while the next to throw strolls up for a closer look and tries to decide whether to bomb or whether to attempt a low, creeping delivery that will sidle round the other boules to kiss the cochonnet. The group Bede observed that day took their sport seriously and displayed real skill in the execution of their deliveries. They were a convivial lot, too, and not readily given to disagreement.
Bede took trips out of the city to Giverny and Versailles. The purpose of his visit to Giverny was to view the home and gardens of Claude Monet, who lived at Giverny from 1883 until his death in 1926. Monet’s son left the house to the Académie des Beaux-Arts, which restored and opened the property in 1980 as a museum. An enormous amount of work has gone into replanting the gardens to recreate the palette of colours Monet himself created and then depicted in hundreds of paintings. The iris flowers are profuse and spectacular, as is the water garden complete with a Japanese footbridge, weeping willows and water lilies. The great painter’s studio, called the Nympheas, and house have also been extensively renovated. The house is now more like a museum, with the artist’s personal collection of Japanese prints and reproductions of Monet’s works hung throughout the various rooms. It is a lovely two-storeyed house in an exquisite garden setting.
Bede’s visit to Versailles was with a group of people, with a guide as leader. The château is enormous and imposing . It speaks of Louis XIV’s proclamation of French omnipotence and his own glory. A heavy cast-iron gate opens into a large courtyard, flanked by two buildings that once housed government ministers. A monumental statue of Louis XIV stands in the Cour Royale, and behind it the Cour de Marbre, constructed from squares of black-and-white marble, is surrounded by the original château, whose façade is by Hardouin-Mansart.
The apartments within the château are relentlessly luxurious and pretentious. Marble, gilt, mouldings and frescoes are everywhere. The sheer mass and ostentation of the décor is distracting. For all that, it is superbly crafted. The staggering Galerie des Glaces, with its mirrored wall, reflects the superb ceiling frescoes, which describe Louis XIV’s early years and were apparently designed to show off the wildly expensive costumes of the ladies and courtiers of the court.
After the heavy luxury of the apartments, which were designed primarily to celebrate the importance and majesty of the Sun King, the planned beauty of the gardens is a delight. Directly behind the château, steps lead down to two large basins. To the right, a parterre wends through flower beds to the Neptune fountain, the largest at Versailles. To the left, more gardens lead to the orangerie, where hundreds of orange and palm trees bloom every summer. Paths lined with statues thread through the garden, which is divided into areas where different geometric patterns dominate. A long central path, the Tapis Vert, runs from the centre of the château at a right angle to the Grand Canal. It, too, is bounded with statues and the view of the château façade over gardens and fountains is stunning. The Grand Canal extends to the horizon from the perspective of the château and, because it is laid out on an east/west axis, the setting sun is reflected in it.
Before leaving Paris, Bede also caught up with Gatienne, the young avocat whom he had met earlier in the month in Avignon. They enjoyed lunch together in a delightful restaurant close by her office, run by a rather ill-tempered patronne ( female owner ). The food, however, was excellent, as was the company.
Bede took his leave of Paris on 20 June, taking a taxi from his hotel to the airport at Roissy-Charles-de-Gaulle. He was booked on Singapore Airlines, which took him to Rome and then on to Singapore for a few days, before arriving home on 26 June. It was a memorable homecoming.
BARRY JOHNS ( aka Le Vigneron )