Romancing History – A Travelogue Of Paris

As anybody remotely familiar with me can attest, I am not an active, ‘take life by its throat and suck its essence’ kind of guy. Like Dhoni on Day 4 of a test match on a dull pitch, I let things drift away too often. So when a quarter-life crisis hit me and made me realize I am wasting away my time watching stupid comedy news shows on Youtube, I surprised myself by taking a decision to do something more. And even more bamboozling was the fact that for once, I actually followed up on that decision.

The view of the tower at dusk is out of this world.

The view of the tower at dusk is out of this world.

I decided to travel to the places I have always wanted to see. Places of great historical importance. And since I am Grinch, who detests any form of human interaction in the physical world, I have to do it alone.

Thus began my preparation for my solo trip to Paris, Florence and Rome.

Despite hearing nightmarish things about the Schengen Visa process, I got it in 4 days flat, no questions asked. The next two months were spent planning the trip (for an unorganized guy, this is a most painful activity) and generally annoying my Twitter followers with my stupid excitement-based tweets.

Thus armed with tens of hours of online research I did instead of working in office, I began my journey fairly confidently. But all that evaporated once I landed at the Charles De Gaulle airport in the wee hours of Thursday morning. I did not feel this jittery even for my EAMCET exam. So unsure was I as to what to expect for the following ten days that I deliberately loitered inside the airport terminal for 30 minutes, refusing to step outside.

Only an escalating sense of shame and disconnection of free airport wifi prompted me to face the outside world. I reluctantly walked to the railway station and got into the train that would take me to the city. As I sat there in the largely empty train and looked at the world outside, the nerves started to settle.

After getting down at Gare Du Nord station, I played this fun game called ‘spot the exit’. It felt like a mini treasure hunt. Following myriad sign boards, dragging my luggage, bumping into rush hour commuters and annoying the hell out of them, after 10 minutes, I began to suspect that I was destined to spend the rest of my vacation roaming in this station, “Terminal” style. But fortunately, there was light at the end of the corridor. I rushed out, closed my eyes and eagerly filled my lungs with the scent of Paris’ air… and promptly threw a coughing fit.

You see, Parisians smoke a lot. They smoke like they didn’t get the memo about the cancer; inside restaurants, outside in public spaces, in gardens, you name it. And the first smell I registered in the city was the strong stench of cigarettes.

Now that the nerves settled, I couldn’t wait to explore the city. I deposited my luggage at the hostel, quickly freshened up, and started my invasion of the Parisian streets. A quick metro ride later, I was standing in front of the famous Notre Dame cathedral. Walking out of the metro station, that moment when the twin towers of the cathedral came into my vision was when it finally sunk in that I was here after months of day-dreaming.

The towers of Notre Dame

The towers of Notre Dame

If you wait in the queue long enough, you can climb the bell tower for a closer look at the stone gargoyles adorning the balconies.

If you wait in the queue long enough, you can climb the bell tower for a closer look at the stone gargoyles adorning the balconies.

Famous for its gothic architecture, this 13th century cathedral is immortalized by Victor Hugo in his novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. It’s huge. It’s beautiful. And I can’t stress this enough – it’s free!

As I entered the cathedral and looked at the stained glass portraying biblical fables, I realized that this is where Napoleon was coronated. He probably walked on the same stones I was walking on now! Yowza!!

My next destination was… um… a bookshop. After travelling thousands of miles to another continent, I spent two hours of my first day browsing books in Shakespeare & Co., the most famous bookshop in Paris (if you are a movie buff, you will see it in both “Midnight In Paris” & “Before Sunset”). This bookshop has been the favourite haunt of English writers, most notably, Ernest Hemingway. It has a Blossom-esque old world charm about it, despite its fame. And the upstairs has a small library where you can settle on a comfy chair and read a book to the view of Notre Dame. Bliss!

ఎవడో బ్రిడ్జ్ దాటితే చాలా బాగుంటుందన్నాడు. నరికెయ్యాలాణ్ణి...

ఎవడో బ్రిడ్జ్ దాటితే చాలా బాగుంటుందన్నాడు. నరికెయ్యాలాణ్ణి…

After reluctantly leaving the book store, I walked towards the Orsay museum on the bank of the river Seine. Seine, at least in the city, is a jujubee river when compared to our rivers like Godavari or Krishna. It’s barely a canal. On the banks of this river is where Paris began to be built and spread outwards. Lined up on both sides of the river are the historical monuments of Paris – the Louvre, Pantheon, Grand Palais and Orsay museum; the last one being my current destination.

Orsay used be a railway station till the early 20th century (think of the station depicted in Martin Scorcese’s “Hugo” movie). Then it was abandoned briefly before being converted into the second most famous museum in the city. A large hallway where clearly the tracks used to be now hosts a series of classical Greek sculptures. But the reason one must visit Orsay is the impressionist painting collection it has.

Impressionism, a school of painting which was developed in the second half of the 19th century, is path-breaking in many ways. It preferred outdoor sceneries to dull portraits. Gone were the portrayals of religious fables, which were to be replaced by whimsical buildings, hills, trees and water bodies. From being the subjects of a painting, people were relegated to being a small part of it. Nature took center stage. Instead of painstakingly etching fine details of the human figure, impressionists focused on the bigger picture, deliberately smudging the contours, playing with light and shadows.

It was a whole new way of looking at art. And it was born right in this city.

Sacre Coer. Inside, people quietly pray. Outside, on the steps of the church, people hang out, drink, and play music. Spirituality and epicureanism mix seamlessly in this place.

Sacre Coer. Inside, people quietly pray. Outside, on the steps of the church, people hang out, drink, and play music. Spirituality and epicureanism mix seamlessly in this place.

In the evening, I roamed around the streets of Montmartre. This was a double delight for me because a) this neighbourhood is the setting for “Amelie”, which is basically my spirit movie; b) this neighbourhood was where famous artists at the turn of the 20th century hung around, living their bohemian lives. Traces of that spirit are still felt even now, with small-time artists offering to paint portraits of tourists, and street performers singing beautiful melodies on the steps of the Sacre Coeur, the magnificent white church sitting pretty atop a small hill overlooking the city. Sitting there, listening to some performer singing the Beatles’ “Let it Be” and looking at the lights of the city, I finally had a chance to take a breather and contemplate where I am.

One final thing to cap the day off though. I couldn’t leave the neighbourhood without visiting the world-famous Moulin Rouge, could I (Only from the outside, though. Too poor to actually enter)? Walking through the narrow, zigzagging streets of Montmorte, thanks to Google maps, I arrived at the cabaret, only to encounter the most bizarre scene I would experience in the entire trip.

Two groups of college students, boys and girls (none of them can be in their twenties), are having a kind of dance-off on the public square in front of Moulin Rouge. This consisted of one group coming to the center, dancing while stripping to their essentials, and challenging the other group to do so. Then things escalated. To my horror and others’ amusement, they got completely naked; laughing, swinging their clothes in their hands without a care in the world.

I shook my head and started my long walk back to the hostel. It had been an interesting day.

*******************************************************************

The skies of Paris were very dramatic.

The skies of Paris were very dramatic.

Paris is a big city, but is well-connected by its metro. Figure out the complex metro map, and you no longer have to worry about travelling anywhere in the city. You are not far from a metro station no matter where you are. After travelling extensively on my first day without any mishaps, I thought I had figured out the system. And of course, the city had to humble me. On my way to visiting the Versailles palace on Day 2, I promptly lost my way for 2 hours. I boarded the wrong trains, not once, but two times.

Je suis clueless tourist!

Versailles was the stage for one of the most famous events of the last millennium, the French revolution.

The story of the French revolution is somewhat complex. To put it in a way gults can easily relate to, it’s like the movie Chatrapati. The interval felt like the climax. The second half was kind of okay.

Fed up with the over-indulgent king and the plummeting economy, the brewing unrest among the French populace burst into a revolutionary spirit, toppling the king and establishing a more democratic government. But sadly, the scales tipped the other way. The new set of rulers started killing off the key people of the old regime, which culminated in the beheading of the erstwhile king Louis XVI, followed by that of the queen Mary Antoinette. The king was replaced by a savage regime which didn’t hesitate to kill off anyone who spoke against it. The beheadings became commonplace; and the guillotine became a symbol of France. Out of the chaos and these aftershocks of the revolution rose a general who slowly amassed a following, won many a battle, stamped his authority on the country, and declared himself the emperor. Good old Napoleon Bonaparte!

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. The palace of Versailles is a symbol of the opulence in which the king lived while the public starved. Built by his grandfather Louis XIV, Versailles is the place for which the phrase “jaw-dropping” should be reserved. So rich was the king that he basically created a village out of a swamp, planted hundreds of acres of gardens, and dug an artificial lake. For about a century, the King of France was the most powerful man in Europe, and Versailles was the seat of that power.

Gardens of Verailles. రాజు తలుచుకుంటే నదులే పెరట్లో పారతాయి.

Gardens of Versailles.
రాజు తలుచుకుంటే నదులే పెరట్లో పారతాయి.

The logical place for me to visit after Versailles was the final resting place of the emperor who benefited most from the revolution that ended its power. The tomb of Napoleon lies in the Invalides museum in the heart of the city. There, surrounded by larger-than-life sculptures of guardian angels, in a larger-than-life coffin measuring at least 10 feet tall, rests the general who had a love-hate relationship with France. Kicked out of power by a coup and imprisoned, he had managed to get out, and had tried to raise an army and take back his throne. Defeated again, this time imprisoned for good in a small island far from his homeland, he died a lonely man. I think Napoleon was the closest history ever came to producing a benevolent dictator, after Augustus Caesar.

The next day, I started the day early and presented myself at the entry gates of the other abode of the King: the Louvre. This is where the King used to live before relocating to the obscenely beautiful Versailles. And when you look at the Louvre and think about the fact that this palace wasn’t good enough for the king, you feel like banging your head against the glass pyramid in front of it.

People have warned me about the insane crowds and the futility of trying to cover everything. The best you can do is pick up the things you want to see and solve a travelling salesman problem to arrive at the most optimum route through the museum, skip a lot of art, and exit with the heart-breaking knowledge that you are unlikely to set foot inside this place again.

image

This is the oldest exhibit in Louvre. This little guy is 9000 years old. Just pause and chew on that number.

So yes, I covered the usual suspects of the Louvre – the Da Vincis, the Raphels, Venus De Milo et al. But the biggest exhibit I was looking forward to was comparatively low-key. Far from the maddening crowds of the star-studded Denon wing, among the other relics of civilizations dating back 2700 years, was an artefact which is known as the code of Hammurabi. It is a large piece of rock on which are scripted a set of laws as enforced by the Babylonian king Hammurabi. They are the most comprehensive set of laws known to mankind from the ancient era circa 1750 BC.  To be sure, they are not the oldest. We have evidence of other laws formulated a 1000 years before that time. But the uniqueness of these laws lies in their comprehensiveness; the wide range of subjects and scenarios they anticipate. They look laughably primitive to our “civilized” eyes, but it’s fascinating when you consider that this is one of the earliest examples of codified rules to be followed by the subjects – a primitive version of constitution.

I was completely spent after spending six hours in the Louvre. But I had to summon the strength to visit one more sight in Paris. In fact, some would say it is the most defining one.

The Eiffel tower.

Unexpectedly stumbled on this view of the tower.

Unexpectedly stumbled on this view of the tower.

The view of the tower at dusk is out of this world.

The view of the tower at dusk is out of this world.

The lawns around the Eiffel tower are the perfect place to laze around after a tiresome day. I wasn’t planning to climb the tower. Some things are better enjoyed from a distance. Besides, and more importantly, I was practically broke.

The last night in Paris was spent taking a lengthy midnight walk along the bank of the Seine. It was filled with groups of people sitting together, drinking and chatting. The whole city had the vibe of an open-air MBA college party. I couldn’t help but envy the fortune of people who inhabit this city, who get to walk among these streets, for whom the Louvre is a weekend visit and the Eiffel tower is a place for an evening stroll.

As for me, it was, sadly, time to pack my bags and move on. The good news was, I was going to another great city which changed the course of European history.

(To be continued…)

2 thoughts on “Romancing History – A Travelogue Of Paris

  1. Pingback: Romancing History – Florence | Pittagoda

Please post your comments below!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s