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Queensland, Australia
I'm an Australian author of Contemporary Romance, Romantic Action/Adventure, and Historical fiction. I live in Queensland, Australia. www.noelleclark.net

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 6

I wake later than usual. It is hard work being a tourist, and the very full week that Matt and I have had here in Paris is finally catching up with me. But I wander down for breakfast and I feel a little ball of excitement within me as I realise that I am on my own in Paris now. As I eat my croissant, I plan my day.

Ever since reading an article about Pére Lachaise cemetery a while ago, I have wanted to go there. Today, Tuesday, is the perfect day to do that. I also plan to visit the Musee D’Orsay to view the wonderful impressionist art. Other than that, I am not sure what I will see today.

I catch the Metro from Place de Clichy to Pére Lachaise station and find the cemetery without much difficulty. I buy a guide map from a man at the entrance to the cemetery as I’ve been told the place is very large – several acres – and I want to make sure I don’t miss anything that is on my list. The entrance is marked by large gates and as soon as I enter, it is like leaving the hustle and bustle of the big city behind. It is quiet, leafy with lots of large, old and gnarled trees – and lots of headstones and crypts (they call them sepulchres).

Père Lachaise is one of the most famous cemeteries in the world and is reputed to be the world's most-visited cemetery, attracting hundreds of thousands of visitors annually to the graves of those who have enhanced French life over the past 200 years. It is also the site of three World War I memorials. It is named after a Jesuit priest who lived in a house on the site. Over time, it has become the cemetery of choice for the rich and famous.

My mission today is to see the graves of Jim Morrison (legendary lead singer of The Doors who died back in 1971); and to see the grave of Edith Piaf. I recently saw the movie called “La Vie En Rose” (over here it is called La Môme which was the nick name they called her meaning “little one” – she started busking as a child and singing with her father in the streets), and although not an easily likeable character, one has to admire her talent and her ability to overcome the adversities of life to become the icon that she was. She is highly revered here in France. Anyway, these are the two main things I want to do here in this famous cemetery, and I hope to stumble upon some surprises as well. It may sound odd that in this city of so many wonderful sights, I am drawn here. But it is truly peaceful and lovely.

Pére Lachaise Cemetery is hilly, with narrow rough cobblestone paths winding every which way very steeply. It seems to be set on one of the few hills in Paris. The 2 Euros I paid for my map brings some unexpected rewards, as other pilgrims in this place notice me holding it and I am several times stopped by people to let them look. It is easy to get lost in the maze of pathways and each turn looks so much like the last, even with a map. I mean, it’s not like you can knock on a crypt and ask directions. Ha ha. Most people who stop me – all are French – are looking for “Piaf”. That’s all they say – “Piaf”. They must know I am not a local.

I do not realize that there are two entrances so I am finding it hard to navigate my way. I head off for Jim Morrison’s grave first. After quite a while I round a bend and see a small cluster of people gathered round a very nondescript grave (compared to some of the very elaborate and rich looking crypts in the place). Here lies Jim Morrison. His grave is covered with masses of flowers. Not daggy dried, old ones. Fresh ones. Big bouquets, small posies, some obviously from a home garden. I had read that people do pilgrimages to the graves in here. Jim Morrison lived for many years here in Paris (and died here). He was only 28 years old when he died of a drug overdose in 197

"Riders on the storm
Into this house we're born
Into this world we're thrown
Like a dog without a bone
An actor out alone
Riders on the storm"

After a while I set off up the hill to find the resting place of the famous Polish composer, Frederick Chopin. He died in Paris in 1849 at only 39 years of age. Chopin lived and worked (composed and taught piano) in Paris for many years and called it home. Again, wreaths from pilgrims surround the famous man’s grave.

This beautiful, sunny morning spent in Pére Lachaise is like being in a park. I set off again and about 20 minutes later I spot another cluster of people gathered around a small, plain grave with masses of fresh flowers….Edith Piaf. People are crying and obviously moved. One lady is quite overcome as she kneels to lay a bunch of flowers. Edith Piaf was an icon to the French and they are very patriotic, passionate people. She died in 1963 at the age of 48. Piaf had a tragic childhood, being abandoned by her mother and raised by her paternal grandmother. As a little girl she sang on street corners while her father did acrobatic tricks. He noticed more money was thrown in the hat when his daughter sang than when he did his tricks. When Edith was 15, whilst singing in the streets, she was discovered by a nightclub owner, and, because she was tiny and very shy, was given the name by her growing fans of La Môme Piaf (The Little Sparrow). Her popularity came at a time when France was going through a horrendous time in the Second World War, and the poignant songs she wrote, coupled with her nostalgic voice, endeared her to the French people. Non Je Ne Regrette Rien!

There are many other famous writers, artists, composers and actors that I visit (or rather their graves): the Irish writer Oscar Wilde, actors Sarah Bernhardt and Yves Montand, opera singer Maria Callas, writers Colette, Gertrude Stein and the famous dramatist Molière. Certainly a ‘Who’s Who’ of dead people.

I have been in the cemetery for several hours by now so decide to leave and head into town to visit the Musee d’Orsay. I leave the cemetery by the rear gate and find myself in a little square of which I know not the name, but found a Metro station called Gambetta, so caught a train into town. I have enjoyed my walk through Pére Lachaise Cemetery on yet another glorious morning walking in Paris – warm and sunny.

I alight from the Metro into the Quatre Setembre station (would have gone to Opera station but it is closed today). Sometimes I get just a little disorientated when I come up from the Metro and this time I walk for a block in the wrong direction before discovering it. These little excursions are not an annoyance, as I often discover beautiful parts of Paris that I would otherwise not have. Once I come to Rue d’Italienne I realize I have been heading North, not south, so I backtrack and head down towards the Seine.

By now it is about 1.30, and I am hot and thirsty from my walking so drop into our favourite little café on the footpath opposite the Joan of Arc statue and diagonally opposite the Louvre. Matt and I ate here several times and it is such a lovely view, and a nice restaurant. I order a crepe with ham, cheese and mushrooms. Delicious.

Refreshed, I cross one of the nine bridges in Paris and walk the twenty minutes or so to the Musee d’Orsay. This museum is housed in what used to be a major railway station (Gare d’Orsay) which is plain to see from the two very large clocks on its exterior. Story is that it fell into disuse and for many years was not used for anything. In the 1970s, President Pompidou decided to do something and the result is simply stunning. It is a very large building (as all seem to be in Paris) right on the banks of the Seine. A gorgeous spot.

When I arrive at the entrance, I see the long queue but still want to go in. I line up for an hour in the hot sun, pay my 9 Euros and eventually (after bag searches etc) am allowed in. Took my breath away. The long, hot wait has been worth it. The Musee D’Orsay has a large open chamber with a glass ceiling which is five stories high. Therefore, all works (except the pastels) are in natural light. I read that it has been described as the most beautiful museum in the world and I can believe it. The central hall on ground level is all sculptures, with the side wings containing all sorts of works in all sorts of media. The Musee d’Orsay is dedicated solely to the Impressionist works (say from 1850 to 1914), which forms the perfect link between the Louvre which displays Ancient art and the Pompidou Gallery of Modern Art.

I am very lucky as currently there is a visiting exhibition called the “Cezanne/Picasso – Chefs-d’oevre de la galerie Vollard”.I begin my exploration on the ground floor in the sculptures, then wind my way up and through and around and in and out. I am able to take photos except of works in the visiting Vollard exhibition (which is a shame as I saw the original of Rembrandt’s ‘La Nuit etoilee’ - ‘the Night Star’ – a print of which I happen to have hanging in my house and I love it). But I simply drool over my favourite Monet works, am stunned by the colour of the Van Gogh’s, see works by Degas, Gaugin, Picasso, Matisse, Cezanne, Renoir, Rousseau….a very impressive list of artists as anyone would agree… discover that I like the paintings of Pierre Bonnard. I take HEAPS of photos. I love the place and recommend it to anyone. The Musee d’Orsay is large enough to be impressive, but small enough to do properly whereas I found the Louvre is just too immense unless you have plenty of time.

I am amazed that the museum lets us take photos. So long as there is no flash, they were happy with us all taking photos and movie, just not in the visiting exhibition.

When I eventually leave the Orsay, my feet are killing me and my blisters are making squelching noises so I decide to head back to the Hotel Cabourg and rest for a while before going out again for dinner later on. I leave the Orsay at about 6pm and walk back over the Seine and along the Right Bank for about twenty minutes until I get to the Louvre, walk up the Tuileries Jardin and catch the Metro train from Tuileries to Champs Elysee Clemenceau where I change lines, and then get my train up to Place de Clichy.

I rest for a while, then wearily walk up the road at about 8.30pm and find something to eat. Weary but happy is how I end my solo day in Paris – which in reality is my last day even though I don’t leave until 2pm tomorrow. Once you are dragging a suitcase around, you just want to get where you are going.

Another wonderful day. Au revoir.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

A Week in Paris - Day 5

Weariness is setting in. Yesterday was an unbelievably long day. But so much to see and do and so little time. Sadly, Matt has to leave Paris on an afternoon flight as he is due back at his office in London tomorrow, so we need to rise early again.

Our plan is to catch the train out to the Palace of Versailles, see as much as we can, then back into Paris to see the colourful area of Montmartre, and especially the magical looking Sacre Coeur cathedral.

The 20 klm train trip out to Versailles allows us to see the suburbs of Paris. I guess like any city, train lines allow travellers to see into the most unattractive areas of a city, peering into people’s back yards, then blocked in by high walls covered with colourful but ugly graffiti, and a view that only a mother (or daughter?) could love. Now in the glorious sunshine and rattling through the outer suburbs, I find it intriguing being a voyeur, spying into the lives of every day Parisians through their back doors. Mostly apartment buildings at first, then houses with back gardens, then trees that are getting taller with each mile we travel.

About 40 minutes south-west of Paris, the train stops at Versailles-Rive Gauche station where we get off. Matt needs a coffee and so our first port of call is a small café in the town before we walk the 15 or 20 minutes along the treed avenue that leads to the spectacular gilded gates outside Versailles, one of France’s most well-known palaces.

Versailles is famous for many things – for it’s imposing architecture, for it’s unbelievable, highly manicured espaliered and sculptured gardens, for being the place where the papers were signed to signal peace after World War I – the Treaty of Versailles - and for being the home of the ill-fated King Louis XVI and his Austrian wife, Marie Antoinette.

I had visited Versailles on my previous visit to Paris 30 years ago, but this was Matt’s first visit. We are both a bit overwhelmed with the size of the building and the whole estate. Time is our enemy today and we are torn between doing the tour inside the building, or taking a mini-train ride around the estate and visiting Marie Antoinette’s retreat where she spent increasingly more time, relishing in her time away from her husband, and becoming more and more eccentric and odd in her quest to stave off the feelings of loneliness and rejection from the French people.

It is a tough decision – but we decide to do the outside tour. Matt decides that, as he is living a mere stone’s throw across the creek in London, this will not be his last visit to Paris and he will come back here to Versailles and spend a whole day exploring the lavish and rich interior of the palace, trying to absorb the opulence and meet up with the ghost of Marie Antoinette.

We buy our tickets for the little kiddie’s train that is pulled by a tractor and head off on a very bumpy ride along the dirt and gravel roads around the huge estate. We pass groves of beautiful trees, lots of parks with families out in the sunshine, walking, kicking soccer balls, riding bicycles. Our first stop (it is a hop on hop off train and you can get off at many points along the trip, explore, then catch the next train that comes along), is Le Petit Trianon - the summer retreat of Marie Antoinette. Marie – the tragic queen who was brought from her home, her family, to be married to Louis. She was made to reject her language, her family, her heritage, and embrace everything French. She was only 14 years old when she was forced to marry Louis XVI, and in 1774, when her husband ascended the throne, she became Dauphine de France, the Queen, at only 19. She was a square peg in a round hole right from the start and the pressure on her to conceive a child for France was enormous. For anyone reading this who has seen the movie with Kirsten Dunst in the role of Marie, they will be able to envisage the girl who came here to Versailles and the rough time she had. But she apparently hardened up over the years, retreating into a world of eccentricity. As the political climate in France hotted up, the royal family were increasingly seen as useless and irrelevant, and Marie’s infamous throwaway line – “Let them eat cake” – when told of her constituents who were starving because they had run out of bread, will live forever as the epitome of carelessness and irresponsibility.

As everyone knows, poor old Marie and Louis were beheaded in Paris during the French Revolution in 1793. She was 38 and had given birth to four children.

But, on this glorious, sunny, warm, Monday morning, my vision of Marie Antoinette is that of a pretty, blonde Kirsten Dunst, who deserves my sympathy. Probably a very rosy view of her, but it suits me whilst in this peaceful and beautiful place.

Le Petit Trianon was Marie’s retreat. Here she played with her ladies in waiting, partied, and had a good old time.

It is not a big, opulent place, but rather looks to me like a very nice country house. It is surrounded by beautiful fields as far as the eye can see, groves of trees, a very pastoral place. The Petit Trianon was Marie Antoinette's treasured hideaway where she could escape stifling court protocol and her royal responsibilities. No-one, not even, it was said, the king himself, was allowed to enter without the queen's permission. A serious girl zone.

Back on the little train and the next stop is the lake where, looking to the left, we can see the huge palace up on the hill, whilst around us are little hire boats, flowers, gardens, and a lovely little café called ‘la Flottille’ with an outdoor pergola covered in flowering vines and wisteria, where we cannot resist stopping for lunch.

But the clock is ticking, so we reluctantly move from this idyllic and old fashioned lakeside heaven and once again board the train back up to the main palace. We hurry back to the train station so that we can catch the next train back to Paris where we are heading for the bohemian area of Montmartre.

The Metro station at Montmartre has the old fashioned signage which is so, well, Frrrrench!

On the way, we cannot resist stopping to touch and feel the wonderful 19th century Pont Alexandre III , the most beautiful and most decorated bridge over the River Seine in Paris. Part of the construction effort for the 1900 Expo when the Eiffel Tower was created, the Pont Alexandre III has beautifully constructed lamp posts, granite and gilded cherubs and nymphs displayed on it. As the name suggests, the bridge was a joint project between the French and the Russians and was a symbol of the friendship between the two nations.
The basilica of Sacre Coeur is a most imposing, snow white building reminiscent of the Taj Mahal at Agra. It has smooth walls and minarets, and sits atop a very steep and high hill overlooking Paris. It does not look at all French, it is so exotic, yet it is one of the most well known icons of Paris. From the alleys and lanes in the artistic and ‘hippy’ areas of Montmartre, the hill rises sharply, with a very wide, very high staircase leading up to Sacre Coeur. There is also a funicular (cable railway) to take people to the top, but the queue snakes through the milling crowds and Matt and I both know that there is no way Matt will get to visit Sacre Coeur today and still get out to Charles de Gaulle Airport and his flight back to London.

It is hard, but Matt decides to go back to the Cabourg, get his bag, and head out to the airport. It is the most sensible idea, but I suddenly feel sad that this magic time with him in Paris is over. Matt is a wonderful travel companion and we have a synergy which means we are very compatible and like to do the same things, mostly.

Matt is getting harassed by some African men. Paris is full of beggars and pedlars, but these men are scary. They seem to react badly to our normal responses to beggars and street people who can be very full on, and so I agree with Matt that it is best that he goes now. There is also nothing worse than having the pressure of wondering if you will make your plane in time. He has to walk at least half and hour back to the Cabourg Hotel, then back to the Metro, catch trains to the airport with at least 3 line changes along the way. Matt’s French is non-existent and neither of us have any idea how long it will take to actually get right out to the airport which is a long way out of Paris. We say goodbye (me being a sook as usual), and wish each other bon voyage.

I suddenly feel very alone. I am not scared nor nervous. I just suddenly feel alone. I decide to join the queue for the funicular. Once at the top, I am absolutely stunned by the spectre of the snow white building. I have to go and actually touch it, so surreal is it. I spend a long time exploring it from every angle, including inside, but the view from outside is something I just don’t expect. The view over Paris is – well – I am lost for words. I find myself looking for and finding the major landmarks – the Eiffel Tower, les Invalides, Notre Dame…and more. The Seine river, snaking through the city, looks like a silver serpent in the late afternoon sunlight. What a place.

I look downwards, and at my feet is the start of the huge white stair case. Hundreds of people are sitting on the steps, just taking in the view and enjoying the warm sunshine. A young man is playing the guitar and singing a Cat Stevens song. I too sit down and just enjoy the atmosphere and the view. After about half an hour (I don’t really know how long), I start descending the stairs, dodging the people relaxing on the stairs. I have this quirk where I count stairs (think of The Count in Sesame Street). So, as I descend, I silently count the stairs. Who wants to know how many? Okay, I counted 225 steps.

Once at the bottom I turn around and look back up the steep stairs to the stunning Sacre Coeur, unbelievably bright against the deep azure blue sky. My camera is almost on melt down, so important is it to capture the sights of this place. How am I ever going to leave Paris?

It is hard to leave this area, and I begin wandering through the lanes and narrow streets filled with alternative shops, selling everything from tourist kitsch to original art work to cute, skimpy clothing that would be good for my daughter Robyn. It is vibrant and noisy, with lots of little hole-in-the-wall cafes, each with a table or two outside where you can get a coffee and sit and just watch. The sun is setting more quickly now, and I am very, very tired. I begin the long walk back to Place de Clichy, feeling like I know the streets quite well now and I eventually arrive at the Cabourg Hotel where I throw myself on the bed and turn on the TV, not really to watch it, but just for some company. A very familiar tune draws my attention, and I am amazed to see ‘McLeod’s Daughters’. But wait! The vocals have been over-dubbed in Spanish. I laugh out loud at the absurdity. I need a little rest before I venture out to get a bite to eat from the supermarket.

Eventually I walk across the Boulevard Batignolles to the little supermarket, buy some cheese, grapes, crackers, strawberries, and have an early night. It is quiet now without Matt but I have grand plans for tomorrow – visiting Pere Lachaise Cemetery, and I want to go and see the Impressionists at Musee D’Orsay. Bring it on!! Bon Nuit all!