Is it possible that we’re running out of big things to do? It sure felt that way this morning so we took off towards the Place des Vosges which we had dropped off our itinerary yesterday, due to the heat.
But first coffee at a charming little place around the block that I had seen a couple of days ago. They had a professional-level Nespresso machine, a new experience for me.
We caught the Metro for the 20-minute ride across town and left at the Chemin Vert station. The Metro has many interesting names, some for the place they serve (Assemblée Nationale) and others for historical places (Stalingrad.) Chemin Vert translates as “green path” and designates an old foot path through the city’s market gardens. Today it’s a bustling neighborhood, nice, but perhaps a couple of clicks below the 7th where we like to stay.
The Place des Vosges is the oldest planned square in the city and it remains one of the finest. Built by Henry IV between 1605 and 1612, it is a true square, 140m by 140m and would eventually serve as the standard for all other European squares. It was unique as it was the first to be surrounded by buildings of same design, and it played a strong roll in positioning the Marais district as chief district in pre-Revolution Paris for royals. It was officially inaugurated in 1612 to celebrate the engagement of Louis XIII to Anne of Austria. Louis today rides a big bronze horse at the center, erected by Cardinal Richelieu. The area declined when the nobility began moving to the Faubourg-Saint Germain district in the late 18th century.
It is a beautiful square, well-maintained and affording a sense of what it was like 400 years ago. We wandered around, sat for while on a bench under manicured trees and listened to a man playing John Coltrane on his saxophone. A group of Chinese boys was illegally playing soccer and there were a few dads playing with their phones while their children wandered off. Quite a few tourists wandered in for photos by the dry fountain, and a film crew was shooting a program under one of the porticos. We have an ongoing discussion between us as to what constitutes the “real Paris experience,” and this place summed it up for me. While many people love the high-end shopping, and others are in it for the multicultural funk of the rest of the Marais, Vosges really said “Paris” to me, expanding the list of places I love beyond the area where we stay. Quiet, urbane, sophisticated, it was a bit of an oasis from the neighborhoods beyond its walls.
Having no particular place to go, we decided to head back in the direction of the Eiffel Tower because I was having a yen for churros. Rather than jump on the Metro again, we decided to walk south from the square towards the river and then walk back along it. Unsurprisingly, once out of the southern arch, the spell was broken. We were back on a busy boulevard, off to our left the former site of the Bastille and the tall statue commemorating the fallen of the Revolution of 1830. We took a couple of side streets and arrived at the Seine and heading west began the trek to the Louvre, Tuileries and beyond.
An interesting aspect to all these old European cities is how unusual places present themselves. You’re walking along a main thoroughfare and you see a gap in the street facing façade and discover a tiny cobbled lane leading off from your route. Or, you look up a side street and you see gargoyles peeking out from behind a building. Such as it was with our discovery of Eglise Saint-Gervais-et-Saint-Portais.
We took a hard right turn off away from the river and followed a narrow lane up to the back of an obviously old church. Cutting along its side, down a urine-smelling alley named “Passage au Gantlet” for some reason, we came out into Place Gervais and the front of this enormous stone church.
Built between 1495 and 1657, it was the finest example of French Baroque in the city. A church dedicated to the two Christian martyrs from Milan was first recorded in the 8th century. It was most commonly used by fishermen and boaters who lived in the area because of its proximity to Place de Grève, a beach that served as a commercial port for the city. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the church served the many aristocratic families who had their estates in the area, including those who lived in our last stop, the Place des Vosges. Notably, Francois and Louis Couperin, two of France’s most celebrated composers served as church organist and their original instrument remains there today. And, as it turns out, we were treated to a nice bit of organ music as we wandered around admiring the fine examples of 16th century stained glass.
It’s always a treat when we stumble into a church while the organ is being played. Last year we heard the big pipes in the Cathedral of Sevilla on Easter. This past Friday, we were lucky enough to hear them in Notre Dame. Today the music started and we couldn’t believe our luck. At first, we thought it was recorded, but looking up we could see some people surrounding the instrument high up at the end of the nave. You could even see the organist moving their head in a small mirror attached the wall at the back of the keyboard. It was magical, and a real gift as well as a stroke of luck. An unplanned stop on a side street at a church that doesn’t appear in our guidebook, when we weren’t even looking. And one that was easily as nice as many we’ve seen.
The river paths are usually busy, particularly with tourists and today was no exception. Notre Dame slowly came into view, and the sun broke through the clouds just for an instant to illuminate the twin bell towers. The weather was perfect for us, just the way we like it when traveling – 60°, mostly cloudy, a bit of a breeze. It’s amazing just how draining an extra 5-10° and a cloudless sky can be. On days like this I feel like I could walk for hours. Crossing Pont de Louis Philippe, the dome of the Pantheon could be seen high up on its hill. A little further along and we passed the Hotel de Ville, Paris’ city hall.
The original city hall was erected on this spot in 1357 by Étienne Marcel, the “provost of the merchants” or “mayor” in modern terms. Sitting on the Place de Grève (again,) the original building stood for nearly 200 years. Demolished in 1533 when King Francis I commenced construction of the current Hotel de Ville, the project was finally completed in 1628 during the reign of Louis XIII. Two wings were added in the middle of the 19thcentury. We had to do a bit of on the street research because we had no idea what the place was. It is so big, and so overly done, it’s hard to tell what function it serves given the exterior. Thus educated, we continued on.
Eventually we made it to the Louvre and crossed over into the Tuileries rather than continuing down the main street. The Louvre entrance area was packed, as were the gardens. We stopped and had lunch as the place where we’d had coffee last year. Croque Monsieur and Quiche Lorraine and a touristy tab of 34€. The Tower loomed as we went on.
Restrooms are always a challenge in cities like this so after a fail at using the .70€ pay toilette in a gift shop by the Ferris wheel, we had a brainstorm. We were 100 yards from L’Orangerie and holding tickets that were valid for 30 days. We did a quick about-face and climbed the stairs and were confronted by a long line of people waiting to buy tickets. Figuring it was still the best bet, we walked over and discovered and empty line for people who already had them. In we went ahead of the crowd and straight to the ticket checker. Being that crowded though, the rest room experience was not as quick, but it met our needs. On the way out we took another past by the Monet water lily panels, this time spending a moment appreciating them instead of taking lots of photos. I had picked up a guide brochure in French and we had some fun translating the titles of the paintings.
It was now close to 2 PM and more than 4 hours since we’d left home so we decided that the churros would wait until tomorrow.
We started the long walk back by turning on to Blvd. Saint-Germain and came almost immediately to a Metro station. 4€ later we were speeding back to our apartment.