About Me

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Alcalá de Henares, Madrid, Spain
I recently earned my Masters in History at NWMSU and am now working as a language assistant in a Spanish elementary school.

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Parisian Splendour: Part Deux

The next day I woke up early to visit the Musée d'Orsay. I first went to a boulangerie and bought some pastries for breakfast, including this chocolate éclair:
After breakfast I used the two-day metro pass I bought the night before to travel to the museum. The Musée d'Orsay houses many famous artworks from the impressionists and post-impressionists, focusing on mainly the French artists such as Renoir, Degas, Monet, Manet, Toulouse-Lautrec, Cezanne (including his painting featured at the head of my blog), and Gaugin. The museum also had a large collection of the Dutch Vincent van Gogh including many of his self-portraits. A special exhibition of the strange Belgian artist, James Ensor was also at the museum. The building of the museum itself is interesting, as it was originally a train station built in 1900:
I also crossed the Seine to take some pictures of the outside of the Musée du Louvre:
The Louvre was originally the palace of the French monarchs since its original construction in the 1100s under King Philip II. The original medieval structure is no longer present as Francis I had the palace renovated in 1546. Once Louis XIV moved his court away from the intrigues of Paris to the new palace at Versailles, the former palace became a sort of storehouse for royal art collections. In 1791, during the French Revolution, with the overthrow of the monarchy and everything that tasted of the nobility, the National Assembly opened the Louvre to public viewings in the hope it would serve as a symbol of egalitarianism. The glass pyramids outside were constructed in 1988 by the architect I.M. Pei.

Here is a picture from a bridge on the Seine, near the Louvre:
I then met up with Melissa in the area of Montmartre. We walked past the famous cabaret, the Moulin Rouge, which originated in 1889 and was where the can-can and the striptease were born:

I stopped at a street stand and bought a crêpe with egg and diced ham. The stand served several different types of crêpes, with sweet and savory varieties. We then walked to the highest hill in the city (from which Montmartre gets its name) upon which rests the beautiful Basilique Sacré-Cœur (or Basilica of the Sacred Heart):
The Byzantine-style basilica was constructed from 1875 to 1914 and was meant to be in honor of those killed in the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune uprising (both from 1870-1871). The uprising, a working-class uprising which attempted to establish a Communist system, was just one of many political revolts Paris has known since the original French Revolution.

We walked up the steps which lead to the basilica. At the top, there was a good view of the city:

We went inside the basilica which had some interesting modernist stained-glass windows. Outside, I took some close-ups of the building:
We walked through the neighborhood atop the hill of Montmartre, which are some of the most expensive in Paris. In the midst of the houses sat the last vineyard in Paris. Across from it was an old cabaret called Au Lapin Agile:

Melissa says she has walked past this at night before and heard songs carrying through the windows. We then made our way toward the Arc de Triomphe. On our way there, we saw this art deco metro station:

We took this metro line to the Arc de Triomphe:

Napoleon ordered the construction of the arch in 1806, but it was not completed until 1836, well after the Emperor's final defeat. It serves as a war memorial, particularly for the Napoleonic Wars. The walls of the interior list the names of all the places Napoleon invaded. Here is a wall listing some of those places in Spain:

The tomb of the unknown soldier (from the First World War) is also located here:

From here, the area of Paris known as La Défense is visible. The area was originally named after the defenders of the city in the Franco-Prussian War and is now a modern business district. The main feature of the district is the Grande Arche, a cubed arch built in 1989 which houses business offices and an exhibition hall:

We returned to the center of the city after this and went to Place de la Concorde, which is near the Louvre. The Eiffel Tower can be seen in the background of the second picture:
The obelisk in the pictures is a real Egyptian obelisk given to France by the Egyptian government. It stands on the exact location where the guillotine chopped off the heads of the nobility (most notably Louis XV and his queen, Marie Antoinette) during the French Revolution.

The guillotine was a French invention which did away with the problem of an axeman (who was not always accurate and would sometimes only cut the head off partially or hack the condemned in the back). The guillotine was meant to be a more humane method of beheading in which the razor-sharp blade, dropped down a track, cut the head off in one fast motion. (Scientists later discovered that the head remains conscious for a few seconds after such a swift decapitation). The guillotine became a symbol of the period which directly followed the French Revolution, known as the Reign of Terror, during which the Committee of Public Safety (under the control of Maximilien Robespierre) executed thousands whom they claimed had monarchist sympathies. Estimates range from 16,000 to 40,000 beheaded during this period in which paranoia ran so high that no one was safe from the "national razor," including Robespierre himself who went under the blade in 1794. The guillotine remained a viable method of execution in France until 1981. The last public execution by this device was in 1939, and the last actual execution with it was 1977.

With that gory bit of history out of the way, here is a great view of the Eiffel Tower from the Place de la Concorde:
After this I walked along the Seine and came across this statue of my fellow countryman:

Many of the American "Founding Fathers" like Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, who served as diplomats to France before and after the American Revolution, were popular among the French. They were inspired in their formation of the US government by the ideology of the French Enlightenment, that intellectual movement espoused by such philosophers as Rousseau and Voltaire, which stressed the use of reason over blind faith (faith in the authority of the noble classes as well as religious faith). The French Revolution took Enlightenment idealism too far and did away with anything that reflected the concept of a nobility or any form of religion (for example condemning the church and changing the names of the month because they were named for Roman gods and festivals, which is "just not reasonable.").

From this statue, I walked to the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris. This massive cathedral, whose height is supported by a series of flying buttresses, was constructed from 1163 to the mid-1240s. It is, of course, the setting for the French writer, Victor Hugo's 1831 novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame:
Here are some of the cathedral's famous gargoyles:

Several interpretations of gargoyles exist. Some believe they were evil-spirit-deterring relics of pagan religions from the lands Christianity came in contact with; others that they were meant to frighten the commoners of the Middle Ages into repentance as a reminder of evil and eternal damnation; and still others believe they symbolized the fact that evil existed outside the church, but could not penetrate its walls.

In front of the cathedral stands this statue of Charlemagne, or Charles the Great, king of the Franks in the late 700s, early 800s who was crowned Emperor by the Pope and founded what was known as the Holy Roman Empire (which confusingly did not exist in Rome, but France, Germany, and parts of Eastern Europe). The Holy Roman Empire lasted until the 1830s, although by then it was a weak political entity and the title of Holy Roman Emperor meant nothing. Its lands too had diminished at the time to cover only the area of Austria and Hungary.

Charlemagne is also considered the first of the French kings (as Charles I). Many heroic legends were later written about him and his knights, similar to the legends of King Arthur in England.

I then retraced my footsteps along the Seine and walked by the Conciergerie:

The Conciergerie was originally a royal palace built in the 900s and heavily remodeled by successive kings until 1358. Today it is part of the Palais de Justice. It is most famous, however, as a prison. It became a prison in 1391. During the Renaissance it served as a prison for those awaiting the guillotine.
More to come soon!

Parisian Splendour: Part Un

Last weekend I flew to Paris and met up with my friend Michelle and her husband, Nicolas, who live in the city. I worked with Michelle at the Dari-B some years ago. Nicolas was born not far outside Paris and met Michelle on a vacation in Florida. They showed me around the city and I had a great time, learning and finding things I wouldn't have had they not been my guides. When my plane arrived on Friday afternoon at Charles de Gaulle Airport, I took a train into the center of the city. The price was quite a shock, as a typical one-way train ticket into Madrid costs a little over two euros. Here, it was around €8.50. This is just an example of Paris' role as one of the most expensive cities in Europe.

I met Michelle in the city and we went on a walking tour before we met up with Nicolas for dinner. The first place we came across was Les Invalides, the former military hospital and chapel which now houses museums of French military history:
Les Invalides was commissioned by Louis XIV, known as the Sun King for his authoritarian rule and the manner in which his lavish court revolved around him, in 1670. The complex and the chapel were completed in 1679. The hospital was at its busiest during Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte's wars of conquest. The chapel today serves as a resting place for many members of the French military, and directly beneath the dome's spire is the tomb of Napoleon. Here is a photo looking out from the enclosure of Les Invalides onto Paris. The glass building on the left is the Grand Palais, an exhibition center built for the 1900 Paris Exhibition:

After this we walked toward the restaurant and came across a gothic church:

and this strange statue:

We then arrived at the restaurant, Polidor, where we met Nicolas. They had told me this was a traditional Parisian restaurant that was very "old Paris." When we arrived, the restaurant had not opened yet, so we went into its adjacent business, run by the same family, a wine cellar which specialized in collector's wine. Many of the bottles were old and sat high on shelves, covered in dust. When seven o' clock arrived, the restaurant opened and we went in. Michelle and Nicolas both advised we arrive early as it normally fills up fast. Here is a picture of the wine shop and the restaurant, the entrance to which is through a door on the far right:
The restaurant looked as though it had not changed its decor since the early 1900s. Mirrors in gilded frames lined the walls and the same menu they had been serving for decades was posted on one of the walls alongside the newer menu. I decided to go for the old menu which consisted of more traditional French food. For my first course I had foie gras:

It was very rich and buttery, and best spread upon the toasted bread that accompanied it. My next course was veal in a very thick and buttery (you can use that word to describe almost all French food) sauce:
For dessert I had sorbet in three flavors. The food was wonderful, served in small amounts, but very filling.

After dinner we walked along the River Seine. I took some pictures of the buildings at night:

We also saw Notre Dame de Paris from across the river:

I'll write more about the cathedral in my next post.

We then went to Shakespeare and Company, the succussor to the original English-language bookstore of the same name which was run by Sylvia Beach from 1919 until the Second World War. The original store was often frequented by writers such as Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and James Joyce. The new store was opened in the 1950s and hires young writers to work in the store. The store is crammed full of books of every genre and features and upstairs reading room which resembles a dusty attic with chairs and pillows. This is a picture I took of the shop the following night:

Monday, February 22, 2010

A Suburban Palace

I've been busy lately traveling and haven't had time to post anything for a while. Here I will talk about my trip two weekends ago to the suburb of Aranjuez in the far south of the Comunidad de Madrid. It is a forty-five minute train ride out of the city to the town which is known for its Royal Palace (Palacio Real de Aranjuez). Once I left the train station, I headed down the main street from which I could see La Montaña, the hill upon which stands several modernist-style residences. After walking a short distance down the road, I came upon the palace:

The construction of the palace began in the late 1500s during the reign of Felipe II, the same king for whom the palace at El Escorial was constructed. Some of the same elements can be seen in the two palaces, yet the one at Aranjuez has much more ornamentation. This is largely due to the fact that it was not completed until the mid-1700s under the reign of Fernando VI. The palace served as a residence for the Spanish monarchs until Isabel II (who reigned from 1833, when she was three, to 1868, when she was ousted during a military uprising).

I toured the interior of the palace which was decorated with many objects belonging to the Spanish monarchs. On display were the carriages of Fernando VI, the ornate abanicos (the famous collapsible fans) of Isabel II, the automobile of Alfonso XIII, and the wedding gown of the current princess, Letizia. The rooms were quite impressive, especially a study known as the porcelain room in which the walls were made of porcelain with Chinese-themed ornamentation.

Outside the palace were the equally impressive palace gardens which included a stream full of ducks and geese, a man-made waterfall, fountains, statues, exotic birdcages, and various garden ornaments:
I was amusued for a while, watching this duck repeatedly submerge its head beneath the flowing waters of the falls:

I'll post more soon about my trip to Paris this past weekend.