Sunday, October 25, 2015

Day 3: Paris in a Day

I stumbled upon Sandemans tours several years ago, and now I always look for their walking tours when in a new city. Paris has plenty of tour options, but we made sure to meet up with the Sandemans group at Place St. Michel at 11am for a walking tour of Paris.

Set on the edge of the Latin Quarter in Paris – so named because it is the university district, and scholars historically studied in Latin – the fountain celebrating St. Michael defeating Beelzebub is a favourite for pranks among the local student population. Apparently nude bathers are not uncommon in warmer months, and when France was playing Brazil for the 1998 World Cup of Soccer, the statue of St. Michael was clothed in the France jersey, and the devil in Brasil’s.

We continued down the broad avenues of Paris, and learned that in the 1800s, the narrow, dark streets of Paris were bulldozed along with the old buildings, and replaced with the broad streets and signature buildings of Paris – no more than seven storeys high, with matching balconies along the second and fifth floors. The new buildings were to reduce the unsafe and unsanitary conditions of the crowded streets with open sewers running down the middle.  The broad avenues to resist the building of barricades.  That’s right, the beautiful, wide-open promenades were made such that protestors wouldn’t be able to build a barricade spanning the whole street. Pragmatic, and beautiful.

The Conciergerie has a rather colourful past - palace, prison, and now a combination of museum and the offices for the Ministry of Justice.  My pickpocket will not have any need to visit, as the Ministry of Justice doesn't enforce laws around pick-pocketing.  I am not the least bit frustrated by that (!!!).  Nonetheless, it is a beautiful building

The tour covered a lot of the prime attractions in Paris, at least from afar. (It was a walking tour, after all, and some of those attractions are pretty spaced out.)  The Notre Dame de Paris, the Louvre, Place de la Concorde (where the Guillotine was used to "shorten" 80% of France's nobility), and the Eiffel Tower.  Inga, our German guide, presented everything with a very dramatic flair - even demonstrating the dance steps that Louis the XIV could and could not do. Incapable of scissoring his legs while leaping in the air, Louix conceived of the "royal step" (probably not the official name) which was simplified and more graceful for a king.

Louis XIV has the luxury of focusing on arts and dance because of the decisions of his forebears, dating back to the early King Henri IV.  Raised a Protestant, Henri's ascension to the French throne and corresponding conversion to Catholicism was supposed to herald the end of the religious conflict.  In a way, it did, as the French Wars of Religion concluded.  A humanist, Henri focused his attention on improving the lives of all his citizens, giving out chickens to the poorest, and installing sidewalks on his civil engineering project: Pont Neuf.

Today, Pont Neuf ("New Bridge") is the oldest bridge in Paris.  When it was built, however, it was the first bridge made of stone, and the as such was not likely to burn down or collapse as did the wooden bridges of the time. In order to pay for this new marvel, Henri imposed a tax on wine.  His tax was so successful that when the bridge was completed, there was enough left in the royal coffers to host all the local nobility for a 3-day tribute to Bacchus. After three days of drunken revelry, Henri called upon his royal artists to produce carvings of the 380+ guests, with puffy eyes and swollen lips, to adorn the Pont Neuf.  As Inga explained, it's not so different from today.  You take photos of your friends at their worst, and then post them to Facebook for all of the world to see!

Henri - the Good King- was loved by his subjects.  Rather, most of them. Although Henri's conversion had ended the Wars of Religion, not all zealots forgave him - either for being raised a Protestant,or for converting to Catholicism. All told, Henri faced over a dozen unsuccessful assassination attempts. The last attempt, however, was successful.  The story goes that someone leaped into the King's carriage and stabbed him in the stomach.  Henri was so accustomed to these attempts on his life, that he asked: "Is that all?" The assailant then withdrew the knife and stabbed the king again, this time in the heart. 

The "Equestrian Rule", as it relates to statues on horseback, tells the story of the subject of the statue:
- All four hooves on the ground: the subject died naturally.
- Single front hoof up: the subject was wounded in battle, and subsequently died.
- Both front hooves up: the subject died in battle.
- One back hoof and one front hoof up: the subject was the victim of an assassination.
In the days when most people were illiterate, this helped teach audiences about their statues.

From Pont Neuf, we walked toward the massive Louvre.  Formerly a palace, now one of the largest museums in the world.

When Napoleon Bonaparte was at war, he fell in love with the massive arches he found elsewhere, and sent word back to Paris that he wanted a similar arch built to welcome he and his victorious armies home.  The Parisians began working on the Arc de Triomphe, but the war ended too soon; Napoleon was going to be back before the arch was complete. The Parisians quickly began building a second arch at the top of the Tuileries gardens - the Arc de Triomphe de Carroussel. A much smaller but more ornate arch, it is said that Napoleon never noticed that this was a replacement as he marched his victorious armies through it.  He never saw the final Arc de Triomphe, as it was completed after his death.

 As the tour concluded, we took a final look around at the royal playground - the Tuileries.

Then we returned for a final time to the den of thieves subway station to pick up our luggage and move to our next hotel. We took a few minutes to clean up, and then headed to a comedy show: "How to Become Parisian in One Hour." Well worth the ticket price, this spoof on cultural stereotypes highlighted what we had already noticed about Paris fashion (wear a scarf), residences (they are small), and mood (don't smile).

After the show, we took a boat tour of the Seine to see the sights of Paris by night - Notre Dame, the Louvre and Musee D'Orsay, and the Eiffel Tower.

 As we were heading back to the hotel on the metro, a troop of a dozen or so soldiers in military fatigues, combat boots, and carrying automatic weapons entered the metro station.  We paused, "Is everything alright? Why are there so many soldiers?" One soldier laughed. "Everything's fine.  We're just going home." In a city that is accustomed to major strikes, and now has been hit hard by terrorism, I guess they take a few more precautions than we're used to. (Where were they when I was being pick-pocketed??")

One final stop before the hotel.  One final view of Paris by night.

Good night.

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