When my Spring Break plans were falling to pieces around me, my mom offered me the trip of a lifetime – 10 days in Paris! I had been there before and have since fallen completely in love with the city anytime of year. True, this was not your typical college senior’s Spring Break – instead of a sunny beach in the Caribbean, I was to be visiting Medieval churches and photography exhibits – armed with an old school camera and 5 rolls of black and white film, I figured anything I could possibly be doing would be fifty times more glamorous if I were to do it in Paris!
Having been to Paris a few times in the past, this time, the typical tourist attractions were not my draw. Instead, my mom, sister and I went to the lesser known Cathedral of St. Denis where all the kings and queens, including Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI and dating all the way back to the 6th century, are buried. This cathedral, named after Saint Denis, a martyr who is rumored to have lost his head in Montmartre, and then, posthumously picked his head up carrying it to the location of this current cathedral saying that there was where he wanted to be buried – oh those martyrs! The tomb of Marie-Antoinette and Louis the XVI is heartbreaking as their epitaph is an image of the two of them kneeling in purgatory as punishment for their sins.
Second, we took the high-speed TGV train to a very small medieval town called Le Mans. The cathedral there is absolutely stunning and the town is so lovely and even has a few small museums, including one named after Queen Berengaria widow of Richard the Lionheart, all of which are open to the public for free on Sundays. The church even puts on an amazing light show called La Nuit des Chimères, during the summer where images of angels playing instruments seem to dance over the background of the cathedral’s buttressed rear facade.
Over the next few days we got to do a number of off the beaten path things such as seeing an amazing photo exhibit called Paris inondé 1910. An extremely comprehensive exhibit that displayed pictures of Paris, looking much more like Venice, when it found itself under about 30 feet of water when the Seine was flooded for 3 weeks back in January of 1910.
We also took a tour of the famous Paris Opera House, the Palais Garnier, that has an elaborately decorated interior dating to the late 1800s and a psychedelically painted ceiling dating to 1964. We went to Versailles to see the palace and play in Marie-Antoinette’s “Epcot,” or Hamlet, created just for her as an escape from royal life where she could play house with her friends as a little Dutch milkmaid. After seeing the famed Crown of Thorns in an elaborate ceremony in Notre Dame Cathedral that takes place every Friday in Lent and the first Friday of every month, we communed with the gargoyles when we climbed to the top of Notre Dame to get a better view of Paris from about 100ft up.
Everything was so much fun, but I mean come on you can’t go to Paris and not check out the Louvre right? But how about going to the Louvre post-7pm on a Friday when it’s free for students under 26? That was something I had never done before and is actually only a recent addition to the Louvre’s normally scheduled hours of operation. Wandering around and visiting with my favorite sculptures like Antonio Canova’s Cupid and Psyche and Michelangelo’s Dying Slave and even paying a short visit to the Mona Lisa were all so much more pleasant with about 50% fewer people than normal! But what struck me the most were groups of young students wearing official Louvre t-shirts and standing in front of various paintings with close-ups of the images behind them.
Their shirts said, “Les jeunes ont la parole,” which means the youth have the floor. They were there specifically to give you background information about the painting you were looking at and answer any questions that you had. It was such a great idea because I know that I’ve had moments where I’m in a museum looking at a gorgeous painting and wishing that I could find out more about what I was looking at plenty of times in the past. Here the Louvre was helping out the visitors and giving them a more personal experience, and I was so proud that it was a large group of young adults that took on that responsibility! What a great and wonderfully intimate experience in a museum known to be one of the largest in the world.
When you travel, sometimes it pays to stay just a little bit off the beaten path!
Mary Baird CC’10