Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Paris IV: Let Them Eat Cake!

On our final day in France, we took the train to Versaille.

Well, first we took the metro to St. Michel stop. But the RER (train) there was unexpectedly closed.

So the nice girl at the information desk sent us out to wait for a bus.

We were not clear on whether we needed to buy tickets. So we didn't. We just got on the bus and then got off when everyone else did. At some other stop. And then got on a train going to Versailles.

At the train station, we tried to buy the package deal that was supposed to cover train fare and admission to Versaille.

They stopped selling that package in January.

So we bought regular train tickets and hoped we had enough cash for the day.

When we got the Versailles, we felt sassy and daring and also poor (maybe it was the gold gilded gates).

So when we went through the line, instead of buying a ticket for admission, I handed my two-day (expired) museum pass to the ticket-taker, planning to be all confused and apologetic if he sent me over to the other line to actually buy my ticket. He took it, looked at the front (where it clearly said 2-day), looked at the back (where the date of purchase was clearly written) and sent me on through security. Same for David.

We felt rather smug and only a little guilty about ripping off Versailles. Let them eat cake, indeed!

Versailles was breathtaking, awesome, out of control. I did not burst into tears at the beauty of the Hall of Mirrors like the crazy lady who sat by us while we were on our layover in the Atlanta airport on the way home and was evidently moved to tears by Versailles. It was, however, very impressive. It was just the sort of palace you imagine when you imagine a palace.

Evidently the palace at Versailles was just a hunting lodge until Louis XIV decided he wanted to get away from Paris and chillax as king so then he built two huge-ass wings onto it. But I will say the "lodge" itself was pretty impressive to begin with.

I was impressed by one room that was created specifically to hold Louis XIV's daughter's wedding reception -- all gilt and marble columns and fancy wallpaper. I am not sure why my dad didn't have the 3M Clubhouse similarly outfitted for my reception. Perhaps it had something to do with our status as royalty (still pending).

It seems as though Louis XIV was possibly the last king who really got to rule as though it were his divine right without anybody questioning him. Which explains why the chapel was built so that Louis sat on the second story, everybody else stood on the first floor facing him, and they worshiped him while he worshiped God. Although I would argue that maybe he just worshiped himself, since he seemed pretty certain of his divine status.

The queen's chambers were all decked out in Marie Antoinette's "summer pattern" -- apparently they changed the canopy and bedspread and wall tapestries and curtains on a seasonal basis. I would like to do this at my own house, but unfortunately I lack the household staff to assist me. There was a little door built to blend in with the wall that led to King Louis XVI's room. I overheard a tour guide telling her group that Louis really got around but that he really made an effort to sleep with his wife a few times a week. What a standup guy.

The Hall of Mirrors was quite lovely and I told David that he should consider that as an option for the venue of my PhD completion party. It seems appropriate for such an occasion.

But really even better than the Hall of Mirrors, I thought, were the gardens. They were just so colorful and symmetrical and tidy and stretched on for miles (the grounds go on for 8 miles). The flower gardens led to tall hedges with paths that went to different fountains or sculptures or fake Grecian/Roman "ruins" where all the courtiers would have playdates. One path also led to a restaurant, but I think that's a more recent development.

I tried to imagine what it would have been like to stroll those grounds while Louis XIV was king and just felt like it would have been hot in those dresses and wigs. But really it must have been so amazing filled with people bustling around and participating in all sorts of aristocratic frivolities to occupy their time.

We ate lunch overlooking the grand canal. David was disappointed that the fountains weren't on, and I was too, actually, because I bet the fountains spewing out of Apollo's Basin are pretty freaking cool. Evidently they only run them on weekends. Probably have to save on costs since people like us sneak in on expired museum passes.

After lunch we walked through the gardens a little more. There might have been some skipping involved.

Then we had to choose between going to Versailles's cute little downtown area or scooting back to Paris to see the catacombs. Deciding that I didn't really need to do more shopping or eating, we chose the catacombs, so it was back to the train station. (I did pick up a Christmas tree ornament in Versailles so that was my major souvenier purchase for the trip. Christmas ornaments are the best souveniers because they make decorating the tree that much more fun.)

We managed to get off the metro at the station that put us right next to the catacombs and we walked across the street and got in the queue. It was about 3pm and the guy working there told us that they close the doors at 4pm. I asked him if he thought the line would move fast enough for us to get in and he couldn't say for sure.

So we debated whether to stand there and hope for the best or go do something else.

I reminded David that Monica had said this was one of the coolest things she did when she was in Paris.

David reminded me that Monica also recommended the movie Talladega Nights as the funniest movie EVER and we both thought it was totally the opposite and we fell asleep halfway through (there were a couple of funny parts, but I will never understand why she saw it in the theater three times).

I decided to give her the benefit of the doubt, plus we were standing in a nice shady spot, so we chose to wait it out. And we made it! Down 143 stairs on a claustrophically narrow, winding staircase, through dark, dank, damp tunnels winding under the city, into the "hallowed ground" where they had moved the bones of thousands and thousands of Parisian citizens. And arranged them in artistic fashion. Femurs stacked so neatly -- like firewood -- with skulls arranged in heart shapes or crosses within the pile. It was so macabre and yet kind of cool.

The Catacombs -- these be scary!

I was a little confused by the signage because it said that they moved the bones because the graveyards were causing illnesses but I wasn't sure if they really were making people sick or if people were getting sick for other reasons (like because they lived in filth, for example) and in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, before they had germ theory, they believed in things like "miasma" where illnesses would sort of waft over from cemetaries. So I still don't know the answer to that. But I do know they must have dug up a gazillion graves because there were so many bones.

It was sort of weird to imagine what an nineteenth-century citizen of Paris might think about their bones being on display for tourists who wait in line for an hour and then pay 8 euro to walk through 1.3 km of tunnels and look at them.

Another sign warned that this display might be disturbing for children and people of nervous temperment. I wondered if slightly high-strung and occasionally neurotic counted as nervous temperment, but decided I would be fine.

We came to the end, climbed up 83 tightly winding stairs to get out of there, and emerged in the bright sunlight, blinking our way to the nearest metro. Then it was back to the apartment for... you guessed it! Dinner, gelato, and the Luxembourg Garden!

Back at the Luxembourg Garden -- not quite in the Baroque style of Versailles, but still quite lovely for an after-dinner stroll.

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