Category: France

Art, Transformed

Art, Transformed

I was only two weeks away from my first solo trip to Paris when I stumbled across an online mention of an immersive art experience called Atelier des Lumieres (Workshop of Lights). From what I could gather, it was some sort of show featuring the art of Vincent Van Gogh.

I’m not a huge fan of Van Gogh, but I appreciate his “Starry Night” and “Sunflowers” as much as the next person. I’ve even seen a couple of his works in person. So I really didn’t get too excited about this art thing. After all, I had set aside an entire day for the Louvre… how could this possibly compare?

But then I kept seeing rave reviews about Atelier des Lumieres and FOMO kicked in. If that many people liked it, I reasoned, then surely I should go see it. You know, for the blog. So I ponied up the $16 or so and made my reservation. (As an aside, I’d like to remind you that I pay for all of my own travels. In the event that I am offered a complimentary admission/lodging/meal when traveling, I will disclose that up front.)

So… what is this art thingy, anyway?

In all of the rave reviews that I saw, not once did I find someone who could really explain what the Atelier des Lumieres experience was, exactly. And, believe me, I looked! So now I find myself in the same unenviable position as those who have reviewed it… trying to put into words something that, for the most part, defies description.

My goal here is to give you a realistic expectation of what the experience is like and to encourage you to check it out if you are in Paris. It truly is a phenomenal, unique experience.

The Immersive Art Experience

Upon arrival, you enter the lobby of the building, which is bustling with activity. You may have to wait a few moments, as they only allow guests to enter in between shows. Then, when the time is right, you will pass through a doorway into a very large, open, and dark space.

Take a moment for your eyes to adjust, and (if you want) look for a place to sit. There aren’t a lot of seating options, and if you really want to sit during the show, you may have to just find a spot on the floor. However, don’t despair if you can’t snag a seat right away. Most people will move around during the show, vacating their seats at some point.

As the show begins, you will see works of art displayed on the walls and floors while music plays. You won’t see dust particles swirling in a beam of light from a projector. You won’t see shadows cast by objects that have come between the image source and the wall. But thankfully, you will be too mesmerized to think about where the images are coming from, or how they are displayed so seamlessly. That’s something that you will ponder afterward.

Act 1: Van Gogh, Starry Night

Rather than keep the big name artist until the end, Atelier des Lumieres starts their show with the works of Vincent Van Gogh.

It begins with music, loud enough to keep you from being distracted by the sounds of others’ conversation, but not uncomfortably loud. The songs are about as varied as you can imagine. Some were fast-paced, some slow; some in English, some in (I assume) French; some relatively modern and others from decades past.

The pictures begin to appear, larger than life, on the walls and the floors. One of the first images I saw was this haunting self-portrait of Van Gogh, painted in 1889. Seeing it in a gallery is one thing. Seeing it larger than life in front of you, eyes fixed on you, is quite another.

There are a couple of things I’d like to point out about this picture. First, notice the scale of the space in comparison to the two people who walked into the frame. Second, as previously mentioned, the art was projected not just on the walls, but also on the floor. Third, the round-ish wall on the right of the picture has a completely different image, which is why it’s best if you don’t stay in just one spot to enjoy this immersive art experience.

As I mentioned, I appreciate Van Gogh’s works, like his Sunflowers, which I saw at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And while I tend to be the old school purist who says things like, ” Nothing can compare to standing in front of it and seeing it with your own eyes,” I would have been unequivocally wrong in this case. I saw an Gogh’s sunflowers in a while new light:

Sunflowers by Van Gogh at Atelier des Lumieres in Paris

Or perhaps you prefer irises to sunflowers?

The colors are intense. Music heightens the mood. The size and scale of the art is nearly overwhelming. Put all that together and you have a completely immersive art experience like no other. But as if that weren’t enough, Atelier des Lumieres adds animation to the mix:

The pictures come to life before your eyes! Birds fly, waves move, raindrops fall. It feels as though you are not looking at a painting, but rather standing inside it!

The Van Gogh portion of the experience ends with the soulful sounds of the 1965 hit, “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” by the Animals. It couldn’t have been more appropriate for a man who struggled with mental illness for most of his life. The final image of Act 1 was simply the artist’s signature.

Vincent Van Gogh's signature, the final image of the Starry Night portion of Atelier des Lumieres' immersive art experience.

Act 2: Dreamed Japan, Images of the Floating World

The next act took us from 19th century Europe to ancient Japan. It started with images of nighttime in a forest, with fireflies illuminating the space. Then kimono-clad figures appeared, gradually dissolving into the night.

We left the forest and traveled underwater, entertained by all sorts of aquatic life. They floated and swam past us, and seemed to watch us every bit as intently as we were watching them.

The scene transformed, and suddenly we were standing inside a shoji – a Japanese structure with paper walls. Two women were there, a teapot and cups on the floor by their feet.

Ancient Japanese warriors also appeared on the walls. Their facial expressions cracked me up, because in some cases it seemed as though they were scowling at the spectators.

Two of Japan’s most iconic cultural symbols came to life through the magical animation of Atelier des Lumieres. First, the ornately decorated hand fans, opening and closing in graceful sweeps of motion:

Second, the beautifully illuminated paper lanterns that float up into the night sky at a lantern festival.

Act 3: Verse

“Verse,” presumably short for Universe, is a piece created specifically for the Atelier des Lumieres. Bursts of light against a black background make you feel like you’re floating through space.

In all honesty, I didn’t like this segment of the immersive art experience as much as I did the other two. I didn’t even take any pictures. For me, the appeal of the Atelier des Lumieres is primarily seeing familiar things in a brand new way. The art showcased in Verse was not familiar to me, and seemed to be more of a movie than an experience. Which is not to say that it wasn’t well done or beautiful to look at. It simply lacked the excitement that the other two possessed.

Bottom Line

By all means, if you are in Paris, go see the Atelier des Lumieres. It’s an amazing, completely immersive art experience like nothing else. I highly recommend it for anyone!

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Inside Père Lachaise: The Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris

Inside Père Lachaise: The Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris

If you’ve been a Travel As Much reader for any length of time at all, you know I have a long-standing fascination with and love of old cemeteries. So when I booked my trip to Paris, I knew visiting an old cemetery would definitely be one of my stops. I did a little research and discovered three big cemeteries from which to choose: Montmartre, Montparnasse, and Père Lachaise. Reading up on all three, it seemed that Père Lachaise was the biggest and the most interesting cemetery in Paris.

How Big Is It?

Rick Steves devotes several pages, a map, and a guided walking tour of Père Lachaise in his 2019 Paris Guidebook. I followed the walking tour dutifully for the first ten minutes or so, then managed to get lost. That was no fault of Rick’s – I am directionally challenged, not very good at reading maps, and often struggle with losing my bearings. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t find my way back to his neatly planned route. I decided to throw caution to the wind and just wing it.

Whether I’d been able to stay on the Rick Steves route or not, there is no possible way I could have seen everything in Père Lachaise in just one day. The cemetery covers 110 acres, and contains 70,000 burial plots with over 1 million bodies. That means there are roughly twice as many dead people in this cemetery than there are living people in Miami, Florida!

I tried to take some photos that accurately depict just how massive this cemetery is. The best I managed was this shot:

If you zoom in on the angel’s feet and look at the graves behind her, you will see that they stretch back at least 10 rows! This one photograph probably has about 75 graves in it, perhaps even more.

As the biggest, most interesting cemetery in Paris, Père Lachaise sees about 3.5 million visitors every year. It is the most visited cemetery in the world.

The History

According to Wikipedia, when Père Lachaise opened in 1804 it was not a very popular place to bury your loved ones. Roman Catholics did not wish to bury their dead at Père Lachaise because the site had not received an official blessing by their church. Others felt that it was too far away from the center of the city. In fact, it was such an unpopular choice that in its first year of operation, only 13 people were buried there.

The powers that be came up with a marketing plan to make burial at Père Lachaise seem more desirable. They had the remains of the popular poet Jean de la Fontaine and playwright/actor Molière transferred to the cemetery. That year, the burial numbers rose from 13 to 44.

Business continued to increase over the years and, in 1817, they tried a similar marketing stunt. This time they moved the 12th century philosopher Pierre Abélard and also Héloïse, the nun with whom he allegedly had an affair. Once again, the status of having one’s final resting place in the same cemetery as someone famous held great allure for Parisians. By 1830, the cemetery contained more than 33,000 graves and needed to be expanded. Today, the cemetery restricts who may be buried there (you must have either lived or died in Paris) and they even have a waiting list.

What Makes it the Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris?

The Graves of Famous People

One of the reasons Père Lachaise gets so many visitors is that some notable people are buried there. For Americans, the most famous is probably Jim Morrison, lead singer of the iconic 1960s/1970s band, The Doors. I’m not a fan, and as I’ve mentioned, I was hopelessly lost, so it wasn’t on my must-see list. I did, however, manage to find the grave of Marcel Proust, French author from the early 29th century. (Confession: I only found this because I saw someone else taking a photo and I was nosy enough to go see why they were taking a picture of an otherwise unremarkable grave.)

Other famous people buried at Père Lachaise include: playwright Oscar Wilde, composer Chopin, singer Edith Piaf, and the world’s most (only?) famous mime, Marcel Marceau. However, the casual visitor would overlook most of these. Like Marcel Proust’s grave, they are not overly ornate. I preferred to wander and look for more unusual and/or impressive gravesites rather than focusing on the people who occupied them.

Unusual Graves

Père Lachaise is full of unique graves and funerary art the likes of which I have never seen before. For instance:

Theodore Gericault’s grave was a fitting tribute for an artist. He lounges above a depiction of his best painting, The Raft of the Medusa, a paintbrush in one hand and a palette in the other.

I don’t know who this person was in life, nor do I know why he has a little man standing on the palm of his hand. If you know, please leave a comment and solve the mystery for me!

This massive chimney-like structure standing so much taller than all of the graves & vaults had me thinking it was the Crematorium, but it’s actually a grave marker, believe it or not. It belongs to one Felix de Beaujour. He was the French diplomat to the United States in the early nineteenth century.

Creepy Graves

I don’t know who she was in life, but she was definitely the creepiest thing I saw in Père Lachaise. The mystery here is whether her eyes are supposed to stare through the living, or if it’s just a coincidental streak in the patina. Either way, I almost didn’t want to turn my back on her.

Georges Rodenbach’s grave wins runner up for creepiest bit of funerary art in Père Lachaise. It reminds me just a little too much of a vampire coming out of his coffin once the sun has set. Yikes.

Graves Depicting Grief

Occasionally when touring a cemetery, I find gravesites that just overwhelm me with a sense of profound grief. For instance:

The person depicted by this statue slumps forward, face buried in her hands. I could almost see her shoulders shaking as she sobbed over her loss.

This statue atop a family grave touched me as well. A mourner leans over the body of the deceased, preparing (I suppose) to lay a wreath of flowers on her head.

And, at other times, a grave can be a symbol of the deceased’s grief for the ones they left behind.

Neglected/Overgrown Graves

As with any old cemetery, there are graves belonging to families who are no longer around. These graves eventually fall into disrepair and nature tries to reclaim them. I think they’re interesting because they show that, no matter how much you want the world to remember you, you may end up forgotten after all. (Is that too morbid?)

Thankfully, though, some people dedicate themselves to maintaining lovely old cemeteries like Père Lachaise. I stumbled upon one such group, spending their Saturday tidying up a plot.

The Most Interesting Cemetery in Paris

In summary, Père Lachaise is a fascinating place with amazing art, peaceful walkways, and just a touch of creepiness thrown in for good measure. If you enjoy touring old cemeteries, you should definitely check it out the next time you’re in Paris.

Where to Get the Best View of Paris

Where to Get the Best View of Paris

Ah, Paris… The city of lights, love, and the iconic Eiffel Tower. Seven million people visit the Eiffel Tower each year to enjoy what they believe is the best view of Paris. But is it really? Or could they get a better view somewhere else?

The Iconic Tower

The Eiffel Tower is almost synonymous with Paris. Tell someone that you went to Paris and their first question will not be about the Louvre, or about Versailles, or the Arc de Triomphe. It will undoubtedly be, “Did you go to the top of the Eiffel Tower?”

This iconic landmark was constructed in 1889 and was the tallest building in the world for over forty years. (It lost the title to New York’s Chrysler Building in 1930.)

Controversy surrounded the structure almost from the beginning. Parisians banded together and sent a petition to the Minister of Works calling for and end to the Tower’s construction. The petition referred to the Eiffel Tower as called useless, monstrous, ridiculous, and barbaric (to name just a few undesirable adjectives). Such drama!

Gustave Eiffel, who apparently also had a flair for the dramatic, responded by comparing his tower to the Pyramids of Egypt. In part, he said, “My tower will be the tallest edifice ever erected by man. Will it not also be grandiose in its way? And why would something admirable in Egypt become hideous and ridiculous in Paris?”

Fortunately for Monsieur Eiffel (and us), the petition had no effect on the tower construction, which had already begun. By completion of the Tower, some of those who had fought against it came around to appreciating it. Others, like author Guy de Maupassant, remained opposed to the structure. Legend has it that de Maupassant ate lunch in the Eiffel Tower every day because it was the only place in Paris where the Tower was not visible.

Facts & Figures

I found these factoids very interesting. You never know when you might need this info for a trivia game!

  • The bolts that hold the four bases of the tower to the ground measured 4 inches in diameter and were 25 feet long.
  • Horse drawn carriages delivered finished parts of the structure from the factory to the building site.
  • The tower is comprised of 18,038 pieces that are joined together with 2.5 million rivets.
  • The planning office produced 1,700 general drawings and 3,629 detailed drawings of the structure’s 18,000+ parts.
  • During the construction, French tabloids printed articles with headlines such as “Eiffel Suicide!” and “Gustave Eiffel Has Gone Mad: He Has Been Confined in an Asylum!”
  • If you have a fear of elevators, you will need to climb 1,710 steps to reach the top of the Tower.
  • The guest book for the Tower includes a note signed by Thomas Edison.
  • The permit to build the Tower stated that it would only stand for 20 years. It was supposed to be torn down in 1909. Thankfully, the plan changed!
  • A scientist discovered the phenomenon of cosmic rays at the Eiffel Tower in 1910.
  • In 1914 (World War I), the Tower contained a radio transmitter used to jam German radio signals
  • When German forces occupied Paris in the 1940s (World War II), the elevator cables were cut and the Tower was closed to the public. That did not, however, keep German forces from flying a swastika-emblazoned flag from the top of the Tower.
  • In August 1944, Hitler ordered the German governor of Paris to demolish the Tower, as well as the rest of the city. (He disobeyed the order, thank goodness!)
  • The elevators that run between the second and third levels were replaced in 1982 after running for 97 years!
  • The iron parts of the tower weigh 7300 tons (that’s 14.6 million pounds)!
  • To recognize their contributions and achievements, Gustave Eiffel had the names of 72 French scientists, engineers, and mathematicians engraved on the Tower.
  • Painting the Tower to prevent rust takes place every seven years. It takes 60 tons of paint to cover it.

Inside the Eiffel Tower

Visitors to the Eiffel Tower can go to three different levels. The first level is primarily retail, with multiple souvenir shops and restaurants.

The second level offers more souvenir shops and another restaurant. But rather than spend time in those establishments, I was drawn to the view of the sprawling French capital and the Seine River. Boats, cars, people were all going about their business, heading from place A to place B… and I was watching them from my bird’s eye view of the city.

A beautiful view of the Palais de Chaillot, Seine River, and the Place du Trocadero from the second level of the Eiffel Tower.

After I had taken everything in, I headed up to the top floor, also called the summit. There the view was pretty much the same, just smaller due to the added height. Below is the same view as the one above, but taken from the summit.

The summit of the Eiffel Tower offers visitors one of the best views of Paris.

The third level of the Eiffel Tower contains two areas. The lower area, where the elevator drops you off, is fully enclosed and protected from the elements. But you can also climb a flight of stairs to the area above, which is open.

The view from the highest accessible point on the Eiffel Tower.

The Other Tower

Montparnasse Tower, in stark contrast to the graceful lines of Tour Eiffel, is a more modern structure. From a distance it looks like someone modeled the building after a darkly painted rectangular building block. In the photo above, taken from the open air summit of the Eiffel Tower, the large dark rectangle centered in the photo is Montparnasse.

As you can see, the Montparnasse Tower sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb. Designed and built in the late 1960s/early 1970s, Montparnasse was such a controversial building that within two years the city had new zoning regulations. From that point forward, no new construction in the city center could exceed seven storeys in height.

So why bother going to this out-of-place modern office building? For the same reason Guy de Maupassant supposedly ate lunch in the building he detested. If you’re looking out at the city from the building you consider an eyesore, you don’t have to look at it.

The best part of the view from Montparnasse is that it lines up perfectly with the Eiffel Tower. Yes, it’s a great experience to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower and look out at the city. But isn’t it just as exciting to see the cityscape with the Eiffel Tower in it? I thought it was, particularly since I was there as the sun began to set.

Because I was closer to the ground than at Tour Eiffel, I was able to pick out the landmarks more easily. I spotted Luxembourg Gardens and Notre Dame Cathedral, to name just a few.

Best view of Paris: From the Montparnasse Tower, you can see Notre Dame Cathedral, the Church of Saint Sulpice, and the Jardins Luxembourg.

And when I saw several blocks of what appeared to be very small buildings, I realized that it was the Montparnasse Cemetery.

Best view of Paris: From the Montparnasse Tower, you can see all of Montparnasse Cemetery.
Sorry for the crazy camera tilt. I was trying to make sure I got all of it in the frame.

Comparing Pommes to Pommes

So, how do these two buildings compare to each other? Here’s what you need to know.

Height: Eiffel is 1063 feet; Montparnasse is 689 feet.

Admission Cost: Eiffel is 25.5 Euro; Montparnasse is 18 Euro. (That’s a difference of about $8.50 in US currency.)

Convenience: You can only use Eiffel Tower tickets on the specified date at the pre-selected entry time. Montparnasse Tower tickets can be used on any day/time and are good for one year. (Please note, however, that for special events and holidays, you will need to purchase a special admission ticket.) Additionally, if you are traveling by subway, the Montparnasse Tower has a station basically right underneath it. In contrast, to visit the Eiffel Tower you will have to walk a ways from the closest station to reach it.

Weather: Both towers have enclosed and open air decks for viewing the city. Inclement weather may affect your view, but you will at least be able to stay dry/warm.

Security: Needless to say, the Eiffel Tower is a very popular spot with tourists. As a result, it is also very popular with scam artists and pickpockets. Montparnasse, on the other hand, is an office building and less likely to be crowded with people trying to relieve you of your wallet.

My Take

Therefore, in my opinion, the best view of Paris is at Montparnasse. Now, I’m not saying that you should forego the Eiffel Tower. After all, it pretty much represents the entire city. But if you would like a majestic view of that iconic tower, by all means make the trip to Montparnasse as well. You won’t regret it.

where you can get the best view of Paris
Everyone thinks the Eiffel Tower has the best view of Paris.
Sacre bleu! Could they be wrong?
My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour: 11 Days Before the Fire

On Monday, April 15, I returned to work after taking nearly two weeks off for my first solo trip – to Paris. I emailed my co-workers to let them know that I had brought a box of Parisian chocolates and some other souvenir trinkets for them.

Around mid-day, one co-worker emailed me back. He wasn’t in the office but had checked his work email from home. Did you hear about what is happening in Paris? he wanted to know.

I had no idea what was going on in Paris, so I Googled it. And my mouth fell open when I saw the news that Notre Dame Cathedral was on fire. Nothing could have prepared me to see the iconic church set ablaze while millions watched, helpless. Especially since I had been there just eleven days earlier.

But that wasn’t my first time visiting Notre Dame cathedral…

1984: My First Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour 1984 - I thought I was heading to the toilet and ended up atop the cathedral.

This photo was taken in April 1984, when I took a trip to Paris with our high school’s French Club. Now, I wasn’t studying French… I was taking Spanish. But they needed extra people to go on the trip, and because my Spanish teacher considered me “gifted” with foreign languages, I got to go. Even though the only French I knew was basically “oui” and “non.”

Part of the pre-departure lecture my parents gave me was to make sure that I got lots of pictures of me in front of “French things”. At the time I rolled my eyes and thought that was just silly. However, I’m glad I followed their instructions. This picture alone is worth it. Here’s why:

It was our first day in Paris and we attended mass at Notre Dame cathedral. Jet lagged and confused by all the French (or maybe it was Latin – I couldn’t tell), I nearly fell asleep during the service. When it ended, the teacher ushered us outside and began speaking to us in French. I’d venture to guess that everyone knew what she was saying except for me. I assumed by the vigorous head nodding and enthusiastic responses of “oui!” that she had asked if anyone needed to go to the bathroom. I certainly did! So I too nodded my head and said “oui” like everyone else.

Off we marched, back inside the cathedral, up a stone staircase that twisted and turned. Up, up, up. Imagine my surprise when we emerged not near a public bathroom, but at the top of the cathedral!

So, dutiful to my parents’ instructions, I had a friend snap this picture. I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m sneering a little because (a) I still needed to go pee, (b) I’m afraid of heights, and (c) the gargoyles were really quite creepy. For the rest of my time in Paris, I made sure that I understood the question before I said, “oui.”

35 Years Later…

On this trip to Paris, I flew from Newark NJ to Zurich and then from Zurich to Paris. Unfortunately, my luggage stopped in Zurich and didn’t accompany me to the City of Lights.

I usually travel with only a carry on – a practice to which I will now return! – and I was at a loss as to how to proceed without all of my stuff. The way I saw it, I had two options. I could hole up in my Airbnb and stay there until the courier brought my luggage. Or I could get over the jet lag, then go ahead and see the sights as I had originally planned.

After a two hour nap and a bit of a meltdown with an emotional call to Hubs at home, I decided upon the second option. After all, I had a plan for every day of my trip and missing one day would throw all of my other plans off kilter.

The next morning, I awoke rested and determined to not let a thing like missing luggage derail my vacation. After getting a call that my luggage would arrive around 2:00 in the afternoon, I headed off to see Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, and the Deportation Memorial. All were located on Île de la Cité, one of two islands in the Seine River in Paris.

I’ll cover Sainte Chapelle and the Deportation Memorial in separate blog posts. Today, in light of the devastating fire that recently took place, I want to focus on Notre Dame Cathedral.

2019: My Second Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

Almost as soon as I arrived, the bells of Notre Dame started ringing:

As you can see, it was a beautiful day – all blue skies and sunshine. I stood outside the cathedral and took in all of the amazing architectural details.

Thought to be on the former site of a Roman temple to Jupiter, Notre Dame Cathedral has stood in Paris for over 850 years. Until the completion of the Eiffel Tower in 1889, the massive towers of Notre Dame were the tallest structure in the city of Paris (226 feet high).

I wish I could find a statistic for how many figures are carved into the stone facade of this amazing piece of Gothic architecture. Let’s just say a lot. But there’s a good reason for that. The cathedral is an example of a liber pauperum, or a “poor people’s book”, covered with sculptures that vividly illustrate biblical stories. During the era in which the cathedral was built, the vast majority of parishioners were illiterate. The only way they could learn about biblical stories was by looking at the figures carved into the church building.

For instance, if you face the towers of the cathedral, you will find above the middle doorway a vivid portrayal of the Final Judgment:

Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - the iconography of the central portal shows a vivid depiction of the Final Judgment.

Jesus sits on his throne in Heaven. Beneath his feet there are two figures holding scales. On the left is the archangel Michael; on the right, Satan. Each side of the scale holds a person whose life is being judged. Those who have been condemned are being led away by a demon on the right hand side.

The stained glass windows at Notre Dame are just beautiful. There are three circular “rose” windows, and the one on the west facade over the Final Judgment scene is the smallest. That said, the window still measures over 31 feet in diameter. From the outside of the church, you can see three figures in front of the rose window: the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus, and an angel on either side of her.

My Notre Dame Cathedral Tour - The Virgin Mary and two angels stand in front of the cathedral's smallest rose window on the western facade.

Below the window you will find statues of the 28 kings of Judah in “The Gallery of Kings”. During the French Revolution, rebels thought that the statues represented the kings of France. As a result, the angry French citizens lobbed off the heads of the statues. Fortunately, the statues have been restored, and you can see some of the old heads at the Cluny Museum in Paris.

While I stood there admiring the cathedral’s exterior, I started to notice some odd details that I might have overlooked if I hadn’t paused to take it all in. For instance, this poor fellow:

When taking a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to study the figures carved on the outside of the building.
I’m not sure who this king is, but a much larger man is standing on him!

Inside the Cathedral

As stunning as the outside of Notre Dame is, though, its real beauty lies within.

As with most Gothic cathedrals, Notre Dame has chapels on each side of the building. These alcoves, dedicated to saints, can hold some of the most beautiful artwork found inside the church building. For instance, a memorial to the 14th century heroine, Joan of Arc:

Notre Dame Cathedral tour - statue of Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc)
Statue of Joan of Arc

I especially liked this memorial, dedicated to Denis Auguste Affre, the Archbishop of Paris from 1840 to 1848. The phrase inscribed above his head translates to “May my blood be the last shed”.

Memorial to Denis Auguste Affre

Affre was led to believe that his personal involvement in the June Days uprising of 1848 could lead to peace between the French military and the insurgents. Mounting the military’s barricade, he waved a branch as a symbol of peace and began to speak. Insurgents heard some shots and suspected a betrayal, so they opened fire upon the National Guard. A stray bullet hit Affre, and he died two days later.

In another spot, there was a model depicting the construction of Notre Dame Cathedral.

Notre Dame cathedral tour - model of cathedral's construction

The 14th century wall separating the choir from the main walkway of Notre Dame was decorated with stunning detail.

This scene shows Jesus with the apostles. the inscription, in Latin, says “Christ appears to the Apostles near Lake Tiberias” (Lake Tiberias = the Sea of Galilee). This scene constituted only a small portion of the scenes depicting the life of Jesus.

One massive piece of statuary that caught my eye was the mausoleum of the Earl of Harcourt:

Cancre [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

Note that there are four figure here. An angel carelessly holding a torch, a woman kneeling as if pleading to someone, a man who appears to be coming out of a coffin, and a hooded skeleton holding an hourglass in his bony hand.

I read that this memorial’s name/theme was Conjugal Meeting. The angel has lifted the lid on the Count’s sarcophagus, and he has risen. The skeleton, AKA Death, is holding an hourglass to symbolize that the Countess’ time has come. The Countess is reaching out toward her husband and Death as if she is ready to join them. (She outlived her husband by ten and a half years.) It was beautiful and tragic all at the same time.

On a Notre Dame Cathedral tour, be sure to look for the three rose windows of stained glass.
The South Rose Window, one of three in Notre Dame Cathedral.

The south rose window was constructed in 1260, and most of the original thirteenth century stained glass is still intact, even after last week’s tragic fire. Larger than the west rose window that I wrote about earlier, this one measures more than 42 feet across. Unlike the north rose window, which features Old Testament prophets and kings, this one is dedicated to the New Testament.

The center medallion features Jesus reigning as King in Heaven. The sixteen panels beneath the south rose window feature the prophets of the Bible. The four center panels depict the great Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel) carrying the four New Testament evangelists (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) on their shoulders.

From outside the cathedral, the south rose window looks like this:

A Notre Dame Cathedral tour offers glimpses of the church's three rose windows - from inside and outside the building.
The south end of Notre Dame’s transept, featuring the south rose window.

You can see the church spire sticking up above the roof in this photo. Sadly, the spire was completely destroyed by the fire.

At the very back of the Cathedral, I found a small area with the most venerated holy relic in France: the Crown of Thorns.

The Crown of Thorns display, as seen on my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour

The crown of thorns, worn by Jesus at the time of his crucifixion, has been in the possession of the French since 1238, when the Emperor of Constantinople gave it to King Louis IX.

King Louis IX had the cathedral of Sainte Chapelle built to receive and hold the crown of thorns and other holy relics. The crown stayed at Sainte Chapelle until the French Revolution, at which point authorities hid it at a different location. From 1806 until the fire, it was located in Notre Dame cathedral.

The reliquary holding the crown of thorns is in the case that you see between the candles in the above picture. A semi-translucent sheet of bright red material (resembling a cascade of blood) hangs over it. Through it, you can just make out the circular outline of the reliquary.

Inside the reliquary, the crown of thorns is actually thorn-less. Some 70 thorns were removed and distributed to holy sites across the world over the centuries, leaving just a band of rushes for this reliquary. One of the thorns was inside the rooster that sat atop the Notre Dame spire. The day after the fire, someone found the rooster in the rubble … dented but intact.

On the first Friday of every month at 3:00 p.m., the time of Jesus’ death, the faithful attend a special “veneration of the crown” church service.

Conclusion

The fire at Notre Dame Cathedral was certainly tragic, but it could have been much worse. I am so thankfully that I was able to see the beautiful building and all of its treasures before the fire took place. I am looking forward to the day when I hear that the cathedral has been fully restored and rebuilt. Until then, I will cherish the memories of my Notre Dame Cathedral Tour!

My Travel Planning Process

My Travel Planning Process

How to Plan for an Amazing Trip (My Way)

I recently found a great airfare deal and booked myself a ticket to Paris. Just me. No one else. This is my first ever solo trip, and I’m a little nervous but also very excited. Okay, considering that I don’t really speak French, I’ma lot nervous. But in the words of Dr. Sheldon Cooper, “If there were a list of things that make me more comfortable, lists would be on the top of that list.” So I’m making a lot of lists in preparation for my trip.

Travel Planning Process: How I'm planning my first ever solo trip to Paris.

As I dive into doing this trip 100% my way for 100% me, I thought it might be helpful to show you what my travel planning process looks like.  But first, a disclaimer: I am a highly structured, type A, over-planning kind of person, even on vacation. If you prefer to be a little less organized more spontaneous than me, you might want to follow this guide loosely and omit anything that seems like it might be too much effort.

Step 1: Have No Destination or Date in Mind

travel planning process - if possible, and to save money, start out being flexible on destination or dates

Yes, you heard it here first. The best plan starts by having no plan. Amazing vacations often present themselves as unanticipated opportunities in the form of cheap airfare. When you choose your destination or dates first, you lose a lot of flexibility in how much you will need to spend. My family and I have flown from Baltimore to both Peru and Iceland for around $200 per person round trip. It can be done. And since we want to travel as much as we can, it only follows that we need to do it as cheaply as we can.  After all, money saved on this trip means more money for the next trip!

Step 2: Start Putting Together a Destination List

travel planning process - make lists of where you want to go

One of the first places I look once I’ve booked my tickets is Pinterest, which I have written about before. Pinterest is great because not only is it a place to find destination ideas, it’s also a place to keep destination ideas. As soon as I’ve booked a trip, I create a board for my new destination and start pinning away. At first I pin everything that looks even vaguely interesting. For instance, my trip is to Paris but I’m pretty much pinning everything in France that I find of interest. I’ll be able to go through later and scale down, but if I find 3+ points of interest relatively close together outside of the city, that might make for a good day trip.

Depending on how anal organized I want to be, I might then set up a different board for each day of the trip with the activities for that day. I realize that it sounds over the top, but when you’re in an unfamiliar place, it actually makes sense to plan a day’s activities according to where they are located. Less time in transit between points makes for more time to see the sights.

The only caution I have to offer about using Pinterest as part of your travel planning process is to not allow your board to become oversaturated with images. You only need one pin with helpful information about visiting, for example, the Eiffel Tower. You do not need eight to twelve pins about the Eiffel Tower because they all have stunning images to go with them. The more you look at pictures, the less impressed you will be when you stand before it in person.

Other sites I like to peruse for things to see at a particular destination are Roadside America (US travel only) and Atlas Obscura. Both of these sites offer tips for seeing things that are off the beaten path and not likely to be on every tourist’s must-see list. They also usually have some history attached to them, which you know I love.

Corollary to Step 2: Accept That You Can’t See it All

travel planning process: to stay sane, set limits as to what you can reasonably hope to see/do on your trip

Unless you are visiting your destination for a very long time, you will have to prioritize what things you want to see and do on your trip. You cannot realistically expect to see every great architectural wonder, museum, monument, cathedral, park, and restaurant in one week’s time.

If you compile a massive list of all the places you want to see, and add to it all the places someone (friends/family/blogger/travel guidebook) recommended that you see, you are going to end up with a very long list. And when you find that you only have time to do about 20% of the things on that list, you will probably be disappointed and/or feel like your trip has been a failure.

I prioritize my destinations into three distinct lists:  Must See (I will not forgive myself if I don’t do this), Should See (important in order for me to consider the trip a success), and If There’s Time (everything else). The Must See List should be reserved only for iconic sights and experiences – things that, if you don’t do them, you won’t feel like you really even went to that location. In the case of Paris, it would be visiting the Eiffel Tower and seeing the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. The Should See list will have a reasonable amount of attractions/activities – between one and four per day. The If There’s Time list, if you’ve kept track of all those recommendations, should be the largest list.

Step 3: Finding Lodging

Travel Planning Process: Things to consider when booking lodging on your trip

A lot goes into finding the perfect place to stay. Here are just a few of the things you must consider:

  • Expense – How much can you afford for this portion of your trip?
  • Area – What sort of neighborhood do you want to stay in? Hip and trendy, or residential and quiet? How safe is the neighborhood you’re considering? Do you want to have a room with a view?
  • Type of accommodations – Do you want complete privacy? Do you want to be able to fix some of your own meals? Do you want to stay someplace that provides you with breakfast each day? Will you need local staff to provide you with recommendations on where to go?
  • Convenience to public transport – If you aren’t renting a vehicle, you may want to make sure that you are within walking distance of a subway station or bus route

As for when to book, I’ve found that you want to do it far enough in advance that you have plenty of options (particularly if you plan to stay in an Airbnb or private home), but not too far in advance in case your itinerary changes. There is nothing worse than booking a place for an entire week, only to decide later that you want to spend part of the time elsewhere. I’d say three months ahead is probably a good window, but you can go with less advance booking if you’re staying in a hotel.

Step 4: Buying Tickets in Advance

travel planning process: consider buying tickets for attractions in advance online so you won't have to wait in line when you arrive

I will admit, this step is riskier than the others. The potential benefits of buying your admission tickets in advance are:

  • Little to no time spent waiting in line when you arrive at the attraction.
  • Allows you to start paying for your vacation expenses before you go
  • No need to worry about an event being sold out; your admission is guaranteed
  • Some venues offer a cheaper admission rate when booking online.

The potential drawbacks of buying your tickets in advance are:

  • Your plans change and you cannot go on the day for which you purchased admission
  • You forget to take your tickets with you when you go (or lose them, or they get stolen, etc.)

Now, as you can see, there are more pros than cons here. Also, in many cases, venues who offer online admission sales either are not date specific or will honor your ticket on a different date if you cannot use it on the date you originally booked. These days, you will most likely have an email or other electronic record of your ticket, which should suffice if the printed version got lost.

Step 5: Keep it Together, Girl!

travel planning process: keep your information color coded and organized in a binder or folder

This is where my type A super-efficient personality makes most people roll their eyes and groan. I color code all of the information I’ve assembled (green for financial, blue for nighttime activities, orange for daytime, hot pink for anything in the Must See category, etc). Then I make a folder or three ring binder with all of the information I will need for my trip.

I keep everything that I need together and sort it by day. Typically, each day’s packet will include:

  • a list of activities for the day
  • maps and/or directions on how to get from A to B
  • printed admission tickets if purchased online
  • brochures or other information about what I will be doing (opening and closing times, special significance, etc.)

It might be important to note that I do not carry the entire binder around with me – just that day’s pertinent documents. Apps are great, but I’m old school enough that I like paper. Using paper doesn’t have me at the mercy of finding a wifi connection.

YMMV

I cannot stress enough that this is the process that works for me. Following these steps is what gives me peace of mind so that I can relax and enjoy my trip. If you prefer to be impetuous and plan as you go, that’s great. You do you! The point is to be prepared for your trip, know what you want, and not spend valuable vacation time under stress.  Bon Voyage!

The travel planning process - practical tips to get the most out of your trip.

 

 

 

The Romance of Brittany, France’s Celtic Nation

The Romance of Brittany, France’s Celtic Nation

Very few people would think of France as being Celtic. However, the region of Brittany in northwest France is one of the original six Celtic nations. It’s also one of the most beautiful regions in the country, and it’s often overlooked by international tourists. Just four hours away from Paris by train or six by car, Brittany captures all the romance of Paris and more. Here are some of the most romantic destinations within the Brittany region.

St. Malo

St Malo - Romance of Brittany France Walled City

Image via Flickr by www.rubenholthuijsen.nl

The distinguishing feature of St. Malo, on the northern coast of Brittany, is the wall that surrounds the area. Construction of the original wall began around the 12th century, and with the help of many improvements over the years, it still stands strong today. Visitors can walk the entire length of the ramparts while holding hands and gazing out at the sea. Alternatively, you can explore the historic streets, admire the architecture, do some shopping, and stop for a drink at a café.

Pink Granite Coast – Morlaix

Pink Granite Coast Morlaix - Romance of Brittany France

Image via Flickr by Rizla+

Adventurous couples will enjoy exploring the Pink Granite Coast of Morlaix Bay. The area is renowned for its unusually shaped pink rock formations. You’ll find them on the coastal path between Perros-Guirec and the port of Ploumanac’h. Wind and waves have worn down the rocks, resulting in strange shapes that will remind you of animals or everyday objects.

Mont St. Michel

Mont St Michel - Romance of Brittany France and Normandy

Image via Flickr by rognonton

Technically, Mont St. Michel is in Normandy, but it’s quite close to the Breton coast. Since it’s such a spectacular site, I would be remiss not to include it.

Mont St. Michel is a tidal island, which means that when the tide is low, you can walk right out to it. At high tide, water surrounds the area. The island’s development started in the 11th century, when it was the site of an abbey. It was fortified for defense in the centuries that followed. Today, it’s home to posh hotels and charming restaurants. I’d recommend booking a room at the romantic Auberge Saint-Pierre, which features magnificent views of the sea, half-timbered walls, a stone-paved terrace, and a four-star restaurant. You’ll feel like royalty!

Beauport Abbey

Beauport Abbey - Romance of Brittany France

Image via Flickr by niessbernard

Beauport Abbey, constructed in the 13th century, overlooks Paimpol Bay. After the turmoil of the French Revolution, the site became a stable, town hall, residential accommodation, school, and cider press. Maybe I read too many gothic romance novels during my formative years, but there’s something so romantic about larger-than-life buildings that still stand as ruins. The beautiful flowers and gardens at Beauport make it even more romantic.

Brittany has a lot to offer in the way of romantic destinations, with cobblestone streets in historic towns, the cozy isolation of small islands, stunning vistas, and so much more. Enjoy the romance of Paris, but be sure to set aside a few days for a side trip to Brittany and keep the romantic vibe going strong. You’ll be glad you did!

The Romance of Brittany, France's Celtic Nation
How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

How to Maximize Your Savings on Rail Travel… and Possibly Even Travel for Free

On our recent trip to the UK, we had a bit of a rail travel nightmare. We were leaving Northern England (Newcastle) to head back to London. The trip was to last about three hours, roughly 10:00 AM to 1:00 PM.

All went smoothly until we arrived at York, when the operator announced that the train line was closed due to a herd of cattle on the tracks near Peterborough. We were advised to disembark and catch a different train to Manchester, from whence we could take yet another train to London. Since the train to Manchester was essentially carrying two trains’ worth of passengers, many of us rode standing up, packed in the cars like sardines. It was not fun.

Further problems (and delays) ensued when the driver of the Manchester-to-London train fell ill. Long story short, we arrived in London around 5:00, a full four hours later than we planned.

During the Manchester-to-London ride, the operator made an announcement that because there was a significant (i.e., more than 30 minutes) delay, we would be eligible to receive a refund for our rail travel. I honestly didn’t think much about it because, ugh!, paperwork is not something I care to bother with when I’m on vacation. But once we got home, I looked into it.

Delay Repay in the UK

Sure enough, Virgin Trains (the company we booked with) has a “Delay Repay” policy. If your train runs 30-59 minutes late, you could receive a 50% refund. If your delay is 60 minutes or more, you can receive a full refund for your rail travel. And depending on how you booked, you might even get it automatically!

I was skeptical, though, because the train I ended up arriving in London on was a different carrier than the one I had originally booked. In fact, each of the three trains we took to get to London was with a different carrier. I wasn’t sure who to apply for the refund with, so I applied with Virgin Trains East Coast (our originating train in Newcastle) and Virgin Trains (the one that actually got us to London… finally).

Within a week Virgin Trains contacted me to say that they were denying my refund request because of inadequate documentation. Well, that’s it, I figured, no refund for me. Imagine my surprise when nearly two months later I found this in my mail from Virgin Trains East Coast:

img_2639

A refund check for the full amount we paid for that journey! Now, granted, it is going to take a small eternity for it to clear the bank due to currency conversion, but it’s still close to $70 that I wouldn’t have received if I hadn’t tried.

And it turns out Virgin is not alone.  Other rail travel operators have generous compensation policies for delayed passengers as well. I was lucky in that the train operator advised us we would be eligible for a delay, but if he had not, I would have had no clue. It pays to be aware of your rights as a passenger. Thus the purpose of this post. 🙂

In addition to Virgin Trains and Virgin Trains East Coast, other UK rail companies operating with a Delay Repay policy are

  • CrossCountry
  • East Midlands Trains
  • Greater Anglia
  • Great Northern
  • Southeastern
  • Southern
  • Thameslink, and
  • TransPennine Express

Elsewhere in Europe

Within the EU, there are refund policies in place for rail travel as well.  If your arrival at your destination is canceled or delayed by an hour or more, you are entitled to the following compensation:

  • full and immediate refund upon cancellation of the journey
  • return journey to your original departure point if the delay prevents you from completing the purpose of the trip
  • transportation to your destination, including alternative means of transportation if the rail line is closed
  • meals and refreshments proportionate to your waiting time
  • accommodations if you must stay overnight as a result of the delay

If you decide to continue your journey as planned or to accept alternative transport to your destination, you may receive compensation of:

  • 25% of the ticket fare, if the train is between 1 and 2 hours late.
  • 50% of the fare, if the train is more than 2 hours late.

And, finally, if your luggage is lost or damaged on a rail journey within the EU, you have a right to compensation, unless it was “inadequately packed, unfit for transport or had a special nature.”

  • Up to € 1300 per piece of registered luggage – if you can prove the value of its contents.
  • € 330 per piece if you can’t prove the value.

Remember, forewarned is forearmed. Knowing your rights as a rail travel passenger will prepare you for any scenario!

 

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris

This is a bit unusual, but when I was in my senior year of high school and studying Spanish IV, I got to go to Paris with the French Club. They needed extra people to go on the trip, and because I was a considered by my Spanish teacher to be “gifted” with foreign languages, I got to go, even though I spoke not one word of français.

That bears repeating.  I did not speak any French at all.

We took the bus from my small hometown in Maryland and traveled to JFK Airport in New York. From there we flew to Paris. I think it was some time in the morning when we arrived at Orly. I could be wrong. All I remember is that before you could even say “jet lag,” the French teacher whisked us off to Notre Dame Cathedral. For a mass. Which may have actually been held in Latin. Or maybe it was French. No matter – I wouldn’t have understood a word either way.

Combining jet lag with a church service in a foreign language is a surefire way to send me off to La La Land. My head fell forward and I started snoring. My friends’ elbows found my ribs, and I tried to focus on the priest, only to fall asleep again within just a few minutes.

rsz_1rsz_notredame

Finally, it was over, and we made our way outside the church to the plaza. I needed to find a bathroom and was trying to ask my friend how to inquire about the facilities, but the French teacher was demanding everyone’s attention. She asked us a question (I use the term “us” loosely because I had no way of knowing what she said). My fellow students nodded their heads and said “Oui!” with enthusiasm. I figured she had asked if anyone needed a bathroom, so I said “Oui!” too.

Off we marched, back inside the cathedral, up a stone staircase that twisted and turned. Up, up, up. Imagine my surprise when we emerged at the top of the cathedral — where the gargoyles are!

So, dutiful to my parents’ instructions that I get pictures of myself in front of Paris landmarks, I got this picture taken up there.

paris

I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m sneering a little because (a) I still needed to go pee, (b) I’m afraid of heights, and (c) the gargoyles were really quite creepy.  In retrospect, however, this was really a cool experience and I’m glad I did it.

I was so happy to return to the plaza, and for the rest of my time in Paris, I made sure I knew what I was being asked before I said, “oui.”

Notre Dame Cathedral is located at 6 Parvis Notre-Dame – Pl. Jean-Paul II, 75004 Paris, France. The cathedral is open daily from 8:00 am to 6:45 pm.  Free tours are presented in a variety of languages at designated times; check the web site for full information.  Touring the towers of the cathedral is available for a fee.