Sunday, September 28, 2014

Catacombs, Graves, Taxidermy...You Know, the Usual (France, Part Three)

Hello again!

Well, I've finally got another moment to sit down and catch my breath this week, so I figured the natural thing to do would be to gather together some of the spooky portions of our trip to France into one, suitable-for-almost-Halloween post. Guys! I saw some seriously spine-tingling (and spectacular!) things  when I wasn't stuffing my face with French food or trying to take the wrong metro. I'd earmarked three ghoulish spots as must-sees, and that's what we're talking about here at The Bird. Warning: skulls ahead.

To ease you into it, here are our non-skullified heads waiting outside the Catacombs.
One of those things that pop up a lot on reddit's /creepy feed or other similar click candy sites I unabashedly spend too much time on is les catacombes de Paris, an underground "city of the dead" that was Paris's solution to the overcrowding of city cemeteries in the early 19th century. The horror appeal of the place is such that they're making a movie just called Catacombs, posters of which we saw several times in the subway. I was super excited to see the mile of legbones, neckbones, hipbones, all unconnected to each other and stacked up in neat piles-- so excited, that I was unconcerned with the serious line that was already queued literally around the block as we exited the Denfert-Rochereau metro stop. "How long could it take? I think it'll be fine," I optimistically opined. Turns out, it takes three hours. THREE HOURS. Which would have been bad on its own, but was considerably worse for the fact that the most New Yorker cartoonish bourgeois father and son from the states were in front of us. I wish I had written down some of the exchanges they had, but just know that it bordered on self-parody, and you couldn't drown them out for love or money. FOR THREE HOURS. Oh, and a busker with a guitar, amp and a cd of lite rock 70's and 80's classics he may or may not have ever heard before, judging from his performance, was also playing the entire time we were in line. YES, FOR THREE HOURS. Somehow, I didn't die of pique (I think it was mainly in view of how completely chill Matthew was to wait in line for three hours for something I wanted to see), and we arrived at the front of the line around 1 PM. The front of the line looks like this, btw:  

And this looks like sweet, sweet victory. And Matthew.
When you come in, you pay your twelve euros (I think it was an extra euro or two for the audio tour, which was decent), and begin a loooooong descent down a series of spiral concrete stairs. Down, down, down, down...until you reach a little alcove that tells you the history of the catacombs, which, thanks to the website, is essentially this:
The Catacombs, which form a veritable labyrinth beneath the very heart of Paris, were created in the galleries of the former quarries whose stone was used to build the capital.
Situated twenty metres below ground, the ossuary contains the remains of approximately six million Parisians, transferred there gradually between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries as graveyards were being closed because of the risk they posed to public health. The first of these was the cimetière des Innocents graveyard in 1786 in what is now the district of Les Halle.
Obviously, I took a photo of this 1860 engraving reproduced on a placard on the wall, because, well, look at it:

"No, I know, this place is seriously metal, right?" says well dressed 1860's Frenchman 1 to well dressed 1860's Frenchman 2. How much more terrifying would this visit have been conducted ONLY by torch light? Conservatively, about 1,000,000 x.
 You then walk through a lot of non-bones, quarry wall, subterranean passages like this. If there is one thing I have learned about Paris, it is that you are always walking and never stopping:

This is a model of a French fortress called Port-Mahon that was carved out of quarry rocks by a former quarry inspector who (wait for it) died in the quarry trying to get more materials for a followup masterpiece. Or...something like that. The audio tour was definitely geared towards scaring you more than you already would be naturally 20 meters underground surrounded by skeletons, soooo....thanks, audio tour.

Finally, you get to series of passages that lead to the ossuary, starting out after you cross this threshold, which helpfully warns you in French, "Stop! This is the city of the dead." Did we stop? We did, but just to take a picture. Then we went the frank on into that mess.

And saw this. LOTS, and LOTS of this:

As much as I understood that there would be miles and miles of bones down there, it's not until you SEE a stack of bones and skulls like this, in real life, that the enormity of it hits you. We're talking SOLID walls of bones that used to be all connected to one another in their individual units, and walked around the above ground France of the 1600's.  I started to feel weird about taking pictures, but as everyone and their mom was getting a selfie, I figured, when in Rome...

This is me having a "I do believe in spooks, I do believe in spooks, I do I do I do believe in spooks," moment from The Wizard of Oz. Do you see skulls with holes in them? Also, think about the fact that these remains have been around for aaaabooout four hundred years, and have yet to from-dust-to-dust themselves. Isn't that amazing?

Matthew makes the best reaction faces, and continues to impress here:

"Skullford?! Is that you?!"

We have a ton more pictures of different alcoves and sober pronouncements carved into the walls (very "one day you too shall be as we!", as if you needed to be more igged out than you already were in a world of bones). But we have more creeptacular places to survey!

Up next, Père Lachaise cemetery:

One of the most famous cemeteries in the world and the largest in the city of Paris, Père Lachaise has its own metro stop directly across the street from the grounds themselves, and talk about a lot to see. We popped in a restaurant next to the metro stop, ate a croque monsieur apiece, then started our journey through the cobblestoned walkways between monuments. And OH, the monuments we saw. 

Lots of luminaries, French and not, are buried in Père Lachaise, but even the graves of the myriad of anonymous-to-us inhabitants were memorialized with SUCH style. Museum-grade statuaries seemed to be around every corner.

It was overcast the morning we visited the cemetery, with a wind rustling some prematurely felled leaves along the cobblestones. Oh, and did I mention ravens just live there, in the cemetery? A French person I was telling about this later joked "Oh, yes, we have those flown in for ambiance", but seriously, atmospheric as ALL GET OUT, as these ravens walk along the crypts. Here are two  I caught as they alighted onto a memorial, sure, business as usual:

"What're you lookin' at, Bub? Nothin' to see here...." PS the inscription does in fact read "rest in peace" in French.

You could buy a map of the layout of the cemetery outside for two euros, but I saved the scratch by instead photographing the map at the entrance and referring to it instead. That's a mini bottle of Chardonnay we can have instead! :) As usual, I took about five wrong turns on the way to some famous graves, but along the way, saw some gorgeous memorials:

One of my big things about going on vacation is TAKING PICTURES WITH US IN THEM, as I always get home with 1,000 pictures of things and places, and none of us, which is what I'll want to show our kids some day! So here's another of me among the tombs, right before I advised a French family on where Edith Piaf's grave could be found (in French no less! I don't know if I've ever been so proud):

And Matthew looking particularly pensive and handsome (he's probably thinking about food):

Several of the crypts had these interesting little "come inside"...grave parlors? I don't know how to describe them. You would possibly go inside and sit in them, and think about your loved one? The spooky part was definitely that some of the crypts hadn't been maintained in recent years. You think about how many times at estate sales you see stacks of old sepia tone photographs for sale because "no one knows who they are or how they're related to us" anymore, and apply that to a grave, and I guess this is what you get. One was complete with an upholstered Victorian chair that was broken down from rot and exposure, just....sitting in the tomb. This one, however, has withstood the weather and ravages of time pretty well, and isn't it gorgeous:

Of course, we did have to hit some of the highlights. Here's Oscar Wilde's grave, covered in lipstick kisses in spite of a sign, in French and English, that says "Please do not deface this tomb, the family is responsible for the upkeep and cleaning of it." All I did was stand in front of it, so I'm in the clear. How Art Deco is this, by the way? Seemingly years before its time, too (I think it dates to 1909. when Wilde was re-interred here from another cemetery?).

I have gone to the mattresses I don't know how many times on people who talk trash about the Doors-- about 100% of them have never listened to a Doors record beginning to end, or else they would have a healthier opinion of one of the most exciting bands of the sixties'. Mythos aside, I am hugely into Jim Morrison, so of course I had to swerve to pay respects to the Lizard King (bleh, I hate that title! But I typed it anyway!). I did think about, though, on the way, how many business men and city officials and otherwise important and good people who spent a lifetime building up a family, a career, what have you, only to have a memorial that is pretty much tripped over or whizzed by so that someone can stick a piece of gum on an American rock singers grave, a couple crypts down, must feel- wouldn't that tick you off if you were a spirit in the material world? I guess that's kind of the point that it doesn't matter any more, but still. I pressed through a throng of fellow tourists to snap a few pictures from where the cordoned off area would allow you to snap pictures.

La môme herself, Edith Piaf, was buried in this nondescript place along with I think two other family members. I took special care to tell the French family, "Not the row next to the road, but two rows off the road," because I really would have missed it if two Japanese tourists weren't snapping photos on top of it as I walked by. That cemetery map is seriously confusing! Still, it was nice to see it so well kept. Do you notice the little round placard there at the foot of the grave? There were those everywhere in the cemetery-- they seem more popular than wreathes for decorating a loved one's final resting place.

And of course, Sarah Bernhardt, France's most famous theatrical export around the turn of the century. At this point, we ran into what I guess you would call a "grave hustler"? A gregarious Frenchman rushed up to a group of Australian tourists and began giving them the bum's rush off the main drag and towards Bernhardt's grave (which, again, was in a somewhat hard-to-find spot). "Ici, you zee, de grave of the PLUS FAMEUSE artiste of de stage, Sah-rah Beuuurnhart! She is de most known actress of the Père Lachaise!" "What about Simone Signore?" asked one of the Australians. Listening to these accents coming one up against the other was pretty amazing. "You want to see Simone Signoret, voilá, Madame Signoret. Et ici, Yves Montand!" he said, gesturing at Matthew and me. "Je prendrai le compliment!" I said, and beat a path for the road as I heard one of the Australian women whisper harshly to the other "He's not expecting us to pay him, is he?" as their non-consensual tour guide exhorted them to follow him to the next celebrity grave.

Last but not least, on the same day as the cemetery we hit the world renowned house of taxidermy, Deyrolles. I've wanted to go to this place ever since I read Still Life by Melissa Milgrom, which I think devoted a chapter to the almost 200 year old business. Outside of the Smithsonian Natural Museum of History, this is the most impressive taxidermy you will see in your life. All my pictures are kind of foggy as I was afraid someone would tell me you couldn't take pictures and I snapped them all as surrepitiously as possible...but I hope they'll give you an idea of how cool the place was. Oh, and EVERYTHING you see is for sale. Remind me to come back here some day with like Elton John's bankroll, I could really use, um, all of these things in my home.

I was too worried I wouldn't be able to bring them back through customs into America, but I really would have loved to at least grab a mayfly or some huge, gorgeous moth to take back home. The work on these specimens were so exquisite you waited for something to breathe on you or flutter off.

Look at how realistic this bull is. And then look at the butterfly viewpanel. Juxtaposition much? It was so gorgeous and strange to be in this old building, with such a small space crammed with every species you could think of. I felt a little bit like I was in a Roald Dahl story-- a cross between his children's work and his creepy crime thrillers.

All right! I think I've probably eeked you out enough for one day, but I still have some more sights and sounds of Paris to share with you as time permits. Two more posts and then I promise not to talk so much about going to France AT LEAST until the next time I get over there. :)

Are you into creepy sights when you go sightseeing on vacation? What kinds of places to do mark as must-sees? What kind of tourist attraction has little appeal to you (right answer in my case: NO TOURIST ATTRACTION IS TOO UNAPPEALING). What do you think of the spots we saw in this post? Let's talk!

I gotta get on with my Sunday, but I will see you again! Have a great week, and we'll talk soon. Til then!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Le Louvre (France, Part Two)

Good evening!

Thanks for all your warm comments about the last blog post! I feel like I've been away from my daily posting ritual for a lifetime, and it's only been a little over a month. At any rate, back in the swing of things with a second missive about our week long, years overdue trip to the city of light. La France, vous me manquez!

I took this picture out of a window on the third floor-- again, do you see how ridiculously gorgeous everything is over there?
Preamble: when we put together the package at AAA, there were a myriad of packages and features you could add on to your trip, from bus tours of the city to guided walks to day trips to different regional attractions. I  was leery of getting an "americanized" version of the French experience, so we veto'd any extra "travel packages" outside of a day trip to the beaches at Normandy, and essentially told our travel agent how much money we wanted to spend for the two of us to fly to CDG, stay seven days, six nights in a clean, safe hotel, close to the metro and be able to get around town to whatever we wanted to see. One of the items I requested was a five day metro pass and a museum pass, the latter of which gives you two days from the time it's initially used to see as many museums as you can cram in. We really only used our pass for one day, but it was a MASSIVE DAY of dragging ourselves through the two main museums I wanted to see, the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay. But, for the present, let's talk Louvre.

The Louvre was about a hundred times bigger than I thought it was going to be. I know, it was on the cover of my 10th grade French textbook, it's a huge palace...but the wings and additions and floors of this palace go on for seemingly forever in sculpture after sculpture, painting after painting, cultural treasure after cultural treasure. Upstairs, downstairs, over stairs, down one wing, down another-- we spent I think actually a full six hours just walking. I found myself gawking and hissing, "Look, look!" at Matthew as each collection unfolded. Overall verdict? One of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. No joke, you could stay here for a year and not see everything. Oh, and the outside's not bad looking, either.

No photoshop, it really is just that gorgeous over there, everywhere you go.
While we were in hour five of our nine hour flight, somewhere over the Atlantic, I broke down halfway through the wretched in-flight screening of The Tourist (how was that movie made? WHY was that movie made?) and started reading the Rick Steves' guide to Paris I'd downloaded on my phone earlier in the week (thanks, Nashville Public Library Overdrive). I tried to internalize some of the big names so I'd be sure not miss anything stupid-amazing, but the trick to the Louvre is (and the thought continues to boggle my mind)-- everything is stupid-amazing. There are some jewels in the crown of the collection, but you know how if you were visiting a museum in the US (other than say the Art Institute in Chicago, or the Moma, or the Whitney, or the Smithsonian), there's ONE world class thing you need to make sure and see, and everything else is good-to-fair? At the Louvre, everything you laid eyes on would be that one amazing thing in an American museum. Their worst display beats some museum's entire collections. I know that sounds so naive, but it was my honest reaction.

Also, the physical building of the Louvre is a work of art unto itself. If you could catch your breath from looking down and around, you would look up, and see something like this in EVERY. ROOM. Louis XIV abandoned the Louvre as a royal residence in the late 17th century in favor of Versailles, but seriously? Seriously:

I'm not too grand to admit that Matthew and I were both impressed and left a little tittering about the number of nude male statues in the Roman division. I don't know if it was sleep deprivation or my baser natures taking over, but I had to go into a stairwell to try to stop laughing like a middle schooler about Bub's bon mots about the proliferation of genitalia on display (we're trying to keep this a family blog, but ask me in person sometime the things he said, they're still funny to me now). He's not wrong:

"And then Claudius was all...and I was all...and then HE was alllll..." Plus ça change...

Do you see the Romulus and Remus representation here, or are you too distracted by Lord Nude-i-tude?

He was like, "Take a closeup! Come on, I will never ask you for anything ever again." I demurred and we settled on this vacation snap. Ah, to show it to our kids some day.
On a more serious note, this gorgeous  statue was in its own alcove at the top of a stair. I'd seen Winged Victory before in some coffee table art survey book, but it was truly magnificent in real life. Why did I have to do a weird zoomy thing with my cell phone? You can tell the very important pieces of art because they are literally swarmed, from the time the place opens until it closes, by gaggles of tourists taking multiple pictures, videos, etc on their own phones. Even at six feet tall, this was the best vantage I could take from the ten deep crowd around the base of the sculpture. It sounds dumb, but I love this more for not having its head... the woman to which those wings belong could be anyone. More on how different a museum experience can be where photography is banned later.

Matthew continues to take the Louvre very seriously:

The Renaissance wing was much more my speed. I remember thinking ruefully as I took the picture below that however well the picture turned out, it wouldn't hold a candle to seeing an illuminated painting like this in real life. I thought about how I hate all those Michaels-y prints you see from time to time of "famous Renaissance works" because there's something so tired and flat to them, and whatever breath-of-life a truly great artist brings to the picture has been snuffed out. Everything I saw in this wing was just proof positive that that assumption was 100% correct. MAN ALIVE the gorgeous things there.

Lots of photos from this portion of the exhibition hall, I was a bit of a shutterbug:

There was a story in the little accompanying placard about this scorpion, but I can't remember what it was. Side note: it is metal as all get out to hang out with your ladies of the court and your pet scorpion. This is the story I am hoping is happening in this tableau. 
Baby Jesus in a proto-"boop"...the gilded crown on his head and Mary's lit up in the light like they were electric...
More of the stunning architecture inside and above. I couldn't stop craning my neck to see

This was part of a longer, rectangular portrait I think of four people...the black background made the images so stark it looked like they were looking back from behind a plate glass window.

Baby's first Boticelli...I kept having to remind myself that yes THE BOTTICELLI painted this, with his hands, hundreds and hundreds of years ago.

The head of John the Baptist, who is look surprisingly chill.
 And, of course, what you come to the Louvre to see. Voilà Lisa, devant le Mona Lisa

Because of a crush of people in line ahead of me, I didn't get to look eye-to-eye to La Giaconde, but I was impressed even at a distance at how mysterious the coloring makes the picture feel.

Another major league part of the collection was the impossibly (no, seriously, impossibly) long-lined Ingres nude, La Grande Odalisque. Another fabulous moment of "I know that picture!", which happened again and again in the museum.

As with this, Jacques-Louis David's depiction of the coronation of Napoleon and Josephine. Are you seeing how IMMENSELY LARGE this painting is. I mentioned in the last post my college trip to NYC-- while there, I was able to see Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avingnon and Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night, two super-star famous works of art that most people could do a dummy sketch of for you from memory, because goodness, they're that famous. The only thing being-- seeing these pictures in an art book or reproduced on someone's tote bag or in a poster bin at a college poster sale, doesn't communicate to the viewer the context of the SIZE of these pieces. Picasso's great work was as high as a billboard...Starry Night could fit in a shopper tote, with room for groceries. Similarly, this piece was like...."WAIT, WHAT.'s ALWAYS been that big?!" Sounds silly, but it's true. I think of how daunting that empty canvas must have appeared to him, and how amazing it would be to step back from it what would seem an interminable time later and know it's "done". Fun fact: David painted himself into the crowd in one of the viewing boxes, I think-- I wish I'd known that when I was there so I could have gotten a snap.

The artist himself, in a self portrait that was startling for how realistic it looked in real life.

More of the architecture:

A quick selfie ("Wanna take a selfie?" because Matthew's late-to-the-party catchphrase of this trip) :

Oh, right, recognize this? My dad, when looking over my travel snaps, related to me the story of his 1966 Christmas gift from his admittedly kooky/wonderful uncle George. "Oh yeah! The Venus di Milo! I used to have one of those, on my desk when I was kid." "Bit racy for a kid, right?" "Yep, and there was a David that went with it, too, about ten inches high, plastic. My uncle George gave them to me for Christmas!" "How old were you?!" " like that." "Isn't that kind of weird?!" Dad ((after some thought)): "Yeah, I guess it was kind of weird!" An early dose of culture or a strange tchochke for a grade schooler to be waking up to next to his school books in the LBJ adminstration? You be the judge. I was flabbergasted by how large the statue is, and, again, like Winged Victory, at the careless, shortsightedness of the sacking and bombing that went on during whatever sacking and bombing lost Venus her arms was. Can you imagine? "Ah, those filthy Romans can just sculpt another one when they rebuild their city...haha, like NEVER...!" To the victors the spoils of war, though...

Me: "Look, ma...ARMS!"
I asked three separate tour guides, in French, how to find this last treasure, and after the eighth windy turn and twelfth staircase and second reorienteering of the exhibit map, we finally found it-- the Cooooode of Hammmmuuuuraaaabi:

That's right, one of the earliest known "deciphered writings of significant length in the world". My ninth grade history textbook has some pretty hardcore excerpts from this in a little infographic box that still seems of interest to me, lo, these many years later. Lots of death and dismemberment, including the very famous:
Ex. Law #196. "If a man destroy the eye of another man, they shall destroy his eye. If one break a man's bone, they shall break his bone. If one destroy the eye of a freeman or break the bone of a freeman he shall pay one mana of silver. If one destroy the eye of a man's slave or break a bone of a man's slave he shall pay one-half his price."
Dude, eyes and bones flyin. People and Babylon weren't messing around. Honestly, though, seeing the little tiny inscriptions was extremely cool. Also, thinking about ancient Mesopotamians walking up to this thing and squinting, going "NO, SERIOUSLY, YOU OWE ME LIKE THREE COWS. CHECK IT OUT. RIGHT HERE."

After hours, and hours, and hours, of art and walking, walking and art, we finally broke down and asked one of museum docents where the cafeteria was (still in French! I was going to use as much French as possible during this trip!). He said he was actually about to go get something to eat, so he'd be happy to walk us over the the restaurant and cafeteria, and chatted amiably to us about the exhibits and the different foods at the restaurant until we parted company. "Enjoy your visit!" he essayed in English with a genuine smile and wave....because I told you! EVERYONE WAS SO NICE.

At the cafeteria, though there were tempting hot dishes of every kind, we just grabbed an Orangina, a Coke Zero, and a Chanrdonnay to quell our considerable thirst. Item one: the Cokes in France also have the same marketing as the ones in America, except in French. This label invites me to "Partagez un Coca-Cola avec Loïc", the French equivalent of "Share a Coke with Luke". So here's to you, Loïc. Also, the Coke was aaaabooout as expensive as the Chardonnay (I think 2 euros?). Think about that for a minute.

And last but not least, here's a photo of the "McDo's" (That's right, McDonalds IN Paris) in the mini shopping center attached to the Louvre. Can you see a Royal with cheese? I was way too tired to find out if it was listed, but here's a blurry picture of it anyway:

Anyway, there's part two of our Parisian adventures! What did you think? Do you have any bucket list art items to see in real life? Have you been to the Louvre? What's the last piece of art that really knocked your socks off? Do you tend more towards museums or more towards leisure or more towards oddities when you travel? I feel like our trip hit all three!

Next blog, I'll have to tell you about the catacombs, Père Lachaise cemetery, and the world class taxidermy museum/shop we visited (almost in time for Halloween, right?). Thanks again for reading! I'll check back in soon. Til then, à bientôt!


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