Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Paris: Rive Gauche

Sunday 5 June 2011

The oppressive backsweaty heat had vanished overnight and left grey Parisian skies in its wake. That didn't prevent me from admiring the view out my hotel window as soon as I awoke:

I headed downstairs to the hotel dining room for breakfast, feeling oh-so-very-continental.

Dining room, Hotel Rive Gauche. Photo by Lisa Williams Adair

I was fortunate to meet up with fellow traveler Paula, and we got along from the start, a harbinger of things to come! None of us knew what to expect from this tour given that we were people from many different places brought together by our shared love of history and enjoyment of Sharon Kay Penman's story-telling. We didn't know what else (if anything) we'd have in common, but we needn't have worried. This was an amazing group of travelers who would soon discover many things to share with one another!

I had an ambitious list of things that I wanted to see today and was afraid that would put Paula off. But she graciously agreed to accompany me, so we set off after breakfast.  My goal for this part of the trip was to continue visiting key points in medieval Paris.

We walked Rue de Vaugirard along the Jardins du Luxembourg, passing Luxembourg Palace (now the home of the French Senate, one of the two houses of the bicameral Parliament of France under the Fifth Republic; the other is the French National Assembly). I have to admit that we were so busy talking that I took very few photos, but here's a quick street-view of the north front of the palace.

Built for Marie de Médicis around 1612 on the site of a hotel belonging to the Duke of Piney-Luxembourg, the building and gardens retain his name. Marie was the widow of Henri IV (whose skull I mentioned yesterday) and the mother of Louis XIII. A line of descent from Les Bourbons to the Capétians of Eleanor's era can be traced, but we don't need that tangent right now! The accompanying garden is the largest pub­lic park in France, and very beautiful.

Photo from Wikipedia Commons
We turned right down Rue Bonaparte, window shopping along the way. My intended destination was the second largest church in Paris, Église Saint-Sulpice, dedicated to Mérovingien bishop Sulpitious the Pious. Granted, I knew nothing about Sulpitious. And this church had nothing to do with Eleanor's time, for even its Romanesque predecessor was originally constructed during the 13th century. But it was on my list to visit because of the famous 1862 Clicquot/Cavaillé-Coll organ, which I'd hoped to hear being played. Unfortunately the scantily-attended Mass that morning merited only the choir organ, so a recital will require a return visit. Paula was kind to humor me as I wandered around the nave admiring the Great Organ and sneaked a peak at the marble gnomon built in 1720's. A gnomon is a measurement device that casts a shadow on the ground to determine the position of the sun in the sky, which in turn helps determine the equinoxes and church holy days such as Easter. This gnomon was made famous in Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code and has brought hordes of tourists to the church. It's tucked off to the side and rather lost in the cavernous church, certainly not appearing to have the kinds of sinister associations popularized in the book (Full disclosure: never read Brown's book myself).

Porch tower, Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés
My next must-see did date from Eleanor's era and even earlier: the site of the 6th century Benedictine Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The medieval city of Paris was prone to Seine flooding on the Left Bank (actually, Paris is still prone to floods) and this abbey was thus safely situated some distance from the banks in a meadow, or prés in French. While much of the abbey itself was destroyed during the French Revolution, the church remains as Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

In the nineteenth century extensive repairs were carried out but there remain some elements that Eleanor would have recognized from her time in Paris as Louis' wife, such as the marble columns in the triforium from the early 6th century church; the Romanesque portions of the early 11th century nave; and the porch tower that dates to the 10-11th centuries, one of the oldest bell towers in Paris.

For sure Eleanor would not have recognized the iconic cafes in the adjacent square! Les Deux Magots, Café de Flore, and Brasserie Lipp were just starting to come alive on this lazy Sunday morning. Paula and I continued our stroll along Rue Bonaparte, with a brief detour into Ladurée Bonaparte where I squee'd at all the pretties like a shameless American girly-girl tourist. We next crossed Pont du Carrousel, sometimes called the Pont du Louvre, from which we could see the Pont des Arts next bridge over and the towers of Notre-Dame in the distance.

We continued our walk through the Louvre courtyard, gaping in wonder at the enormous lines queueing for entry and feeling grateful to be part of a tour tomorrow. My ultimate destination on the Île de la Cité was Sainte-Chapelle, one of the few surviving remnants of a royal palace associated with the Capétians.  

This was the site of the Palais de la Cité, built during Philippe Auguste's era (Phillippe being the longed-for son of Eleanor's first husband Louis by his third that?). That palace was cosntructed on the site of the original Roman prefect residence and the later Merovingian Palace, which Eleanor lived in during her time in Paris. What we see today of the Palais de la Cité is known as the Conciergerie. The Palais de la Cité served as a residence of the kings of France until Charles V abandoned it in 1358, moving across the river to the Louvre. Shown below in an illustration from a guidebook, the complex was much altered by subsequent royal residents before being largely destroyed by fire in 1776. Sainte-Chapelle can be seen in the center:

Visiting Sainte-Chapelle was important to me because of its connection with Eleanor's descendants, and the fact that she'd resided in the Merovingian era royal palace that formerly occupied this site. But also the building itself is such a treasure, a true must-see when visiting Paris! 

Sainte-Chapelle was built by Louis IX, better known as Saint Louis, a great-grandson of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Only 12 years old when he succeeded his father, his Regency was ensured by his mother Blanche of Castille, whose own mother was Leonora Queen of Castille, second daughter of Eleanor and Henry Plantagenet.  

Louis IX amassed many relics, chief among them the Crown of Thorns worn by Christ during the Passion and a fragment of the True Cross. Louis saw the collecting of such relics as an important political act. Lucky for us, he also thought it was important to build a suitable awe-inspiring reliquary for such precious items. And so it was that the jewel box of Sainte-Chapelle was created to house his Passion Relics. The original chapel in radiant Gothic style was completed in 1248 after only two years of construction.

The photo to the left shows the western facade and exterior of the upper chapel with its tympanum on the porch representing the Last Judgment. Because it was the Royal chapel, only the royal entourage and palace staff were allowed to worship at Sainte-Chapelle; the lower chapel served as the parish church for those who lived around the Palais de la Cité. Over 6,400 square feet of stained glass are inside, two-thirds of which are originals representing the finest examples of 12th century craftsmanship.  

The chapel we see today has undergone many renovations in subsequent centuries due to the ravages of time, fire, floods, and vandalism. Seen as a symbol of royalty and religion, Sainte-Chapelle especially suffered during the Revolution when the original spire was pulled down. The current spire is a reconstruction from 1853, supervised by that handy 19th century architect Viollet-le-Duc. Following the Revolution, many stained-glass windows were removed or walled up when the building was used as an archive. The windows were restored in the 19th century. They were ever- so-carefully removed during WWII in anticipation of the German occupation, and every piece was meticulously replaced after the war.

The interior height of the main chapel is almost twice its width, making it seem even taller due to forced perspective.

Photo by Tee McNeill

After soaking up the beauty of Saint-Chapelle, we wandered into some souvenir shops and grabbed a quick lunch. Paula headed back to the hotel to greet folks arriving from our tour, while I decided to continue my walking itinerary for the day. I headed back to Place St-Michel and turned left onto Rue de la Huchette, one of the oldest streets of the Rive Gauche. I tried to squint and imagine the ancient buildings from centuries ago, but it was hard for my mind's eye to see past the hordes of tourists and Greek restaurants.

I peeked down the charmingly named Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche, supposedly the shortest and narrowest street in Paris. Dating to 1540, this street ended at the banks of the Seine, which flooded into the street and reportedly allowed Parisian kitties a chance to fish with ease.

I grabbed a few souvenirs along the way, then headed around the corner to Église St Séverin, dedicated to a hermit monk who lived and worshiped on this spot at the end of the 5th century. A church constructed over his tomb was later destroyed by the Vikings, and the current building was begun in the 11th century. Eleanor might have visited an earlier chapel on this site when living in Paris with Louis VII. 

During the Hundred Years War and under the English occupation in 1448, a massive fire destroyed 75% of the medieval church. Adding insult to injury, during the French Revolution it was closed to worship and used to store gunpowder and animal feed.

Photo by John Phillips
I wandered around the double ambulatory that surrounds the chancel and marveled at the carved columns. It was like wandering through a marble forest of palm trees!

From St Séverin, I wandered through Square René-Viviani and was treated to this great view of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris:

In the Square René Viviani is a locust tree that is reputedly the oldest in Paris, planted in 1602. It's known as the "Lucky Tree of Paris" and is thought to bring good luck to those who touch its bark. I wanted to touch it, but the poor tree looked so tired and fragile that I decided I'd rather leave it in peace and let it preserve its luck for itself.

Photo by Julia Markovitz

Right behind the Lucky Tree was Église Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre. This church was built in stages from the 12th to the 19th centuries, starting in 1165. Eleanor might have known of it but as she did not return to Paris after her divorce from Louis in 1152, she would not have visited here. The church has a long, odd history as so many do; at one low point it was even used as a salt cellar! St-Julien's was granted to the Eastern Catholic Melkite community in 1889 and remains an active house of worship.  The church was closed to visitors when I was here, but a friend later snapped a photo of the interior:
Photo by John Phillips
My tired feet decided to head back to the hotel on their own volition. As I trudged up Boulevard-St-Michel I found myself trying to imagine the medieval vineyards that once covered this hill, which Eleanor would have seen during her time in Paris. After a brief rest I chanced on Paula in the hotel lobby where she introduced me to another tour member, John, who in turn volunteered to keep me company for some more sight-

Next on my agenda for the day: The Panthéon. Our hotel was situated at the end of Rue de Vaugirard, which emptied directly onto the picturesque Place de la Sorbonne:

It was a short walk to the Panthéon atop Mont St-Geneviève, a building with an interesting history. King Louis XV vowed in 1744 that if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined church of the Abbey of Saint Geneviève that stood on this site with a building to do the patron saint of Paris proud. The painting below by Pierre-Antoine Demachy shows the ceremonial laying of the first stone for Geneviève's new church on September 1764, with Louis XV examining plans for the edifice in front of an impressive model created especially for the ceremony.

Cérémonie de la pose de la première pierre de la nouvelle église Saint-Geneviève, le 6 septembre 1764 from the Musée Carnavalet

Geneviève might have been proud of this amazing structure, but she didn't get to keep it. The Church of Saint Geneviève was completed in 1790, coinciding with the early stages of the French Revolution. You can guess what happened, right? A church no more!  

Renamed the Panthéon, this famous building is described as a nonreligious temple of knowledge. It is a necropolis of wise and famous French citizens and as such is the final resting place of such distinguished figures as Hugo, Zola, Rousseau, Voltaire, and Marie Curie. Interment here is allowed only by special parliamentary action.

The use of space and light are over-whelming and magnificent. My eyes were constantly drawn upwards.

St. Geneviève was shown in various triptychs as a beautiful virginal woman who calmed the  Parisians upon the approach of Attila (because they were seriously freaking and needed to chillax), bringing fresh supplies to Paris after the siege. Helpful woman, that Geneviève.

This was one of my favorite sculptures, a portrayal of bare-breasted Truth, Philosophy, and Nature that is part of a monument to Jean-Jacques Rousseau by Albert Bartholomé:

It was also a thrill to see where Foucalt's pendulum hung. Foucault's initial experiment took place in his basement, then moved to a public exhibition at the Meridian of the Paris Observatory. It was such a sensation that Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte asked Foucault to step it up a notch. Accordingly in 1851 a 219-foot, 61-pound version of the pendulum was suspended from the dome of the Pantheon. That pendulum was moved in the 1990s to the Musée des Arts et Métiers. In 2010 disaster struck when the cable suspending the ball snapped, leaving a permanent dent in Foucault's pendulum and in the marble floor of the museum!

This reproduction pendulum hangs in the Pantheon. It wasn't working on this day, however, due to inexplicable "technical problems." I had to wonder if that was code for "the Earth has stopped spinning."

This scale model of the Panthèon was also impressive.  

I wanted to check to see if there was a little model of the model of the model inside, ad infinitum, but we had to move along.  

After paying our respects to the notables buried in the crypts (and getting scolded by a French gentleman who felt we were doing too much chatting and not enough walking to suit him), John suggested we visit near-by Église St-Etienne-du-Mont. 

St-Etienne-du-Mont stands on the site of an abbey founded by Clovis, King of the Franks (466-511) and later dedicated to St. Geneviève. All that remains of that abbey is the thin Tour de Clovis on the left side of the church. The pre-Panthèon abbey grounds are illustrated in this drawing: 

Photo by John Phillips

Construction on this church began in 1492 but wasn't completed until 1626. Although it was named for St. Stephen, the church is still devoted to St. Geneviève. It contains the only rood screen left in Paris, which I was very excited to see. That 16th century double-stair arch separates the choir (where the monks sat) from the body of the church (where the parishioners sat). A reader would carefully mount the screen by the steps to do the readings. The dark wooden pulpit dates to the mid-1600s.

To honor and invoke her protection, which was believed to have staved off disasters like plague and floods, Parisians regularly carried the shrine and relics of Geneviève in a solemn procession from here to Notre Dame and back again. 

Revolutionaries and Communard mobs burnt her remains, scattered them in the Seine and Paris sewers, and melted her relics. 

Only Geneviève's tomb slab survived, and the reliquary here preserves portions of her remains from other locations that survived the Revolution:

Photo by John Phillips

I was profoundly moved by 1600 years of reverence for a woman whose reputed courage and compassion had sustained early Parisians. Throughout the rest of the trip I found myself drawn to images of Geneviève, like this one outside Église St-Etienne-du-Mont:



Our sight-seeing for the day had come to an end as it was time to gather for a formal group meet-up dinner at Au Bistrot de la Montagne, a restaurant at 38 rue de la Montagne Sainte Geneviève.  The restaurant looks so charming from the outside and yet...

Photo from Google Earth. 

We weren't able to get the private upper room so shared cramped quarters with two loudly enthusiastic German tour groups. The air conditioning leaked on us and the wiring taped up the wall had a sizzling aura to it. But there was the dinner music to distract us...a guitar and accordion duo who played '70s rock standards.

Author Sharon Kay Penman politely described this gentleman as 'exuberant' in her blog; he's exuberantly mugging here for his photo op and tips.

Noise, heat, and sizzling wiring notwithstanding, I enjoyed my Kir Royales, found the meal tasty, and even managed to eat Escargots de Bourgogne without inadvertently flinging snail shells across the room. The company was wonderful and it was exciting to finally meet people I'd been chatting with online up until that point. Afterwards I wandered back to the hotel with Tee, and soon gratefully collapsed into bed despite the sun not setting until 10 PM. The overcast day finally gave way to a ferocious thunderstorm that night.

Here is a link to Sharon Kay Penman's blog entry for the first day of our trip: LINK.


  1. Glad I found this, loved the history and images, esp the tiny street Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche. Thanks so much, brought back a lot of memories for my wife and I.

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, and hope you can return to Paris together someday!


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