Monthly Archives: April 2016

Paris – Day 7 – Orsay

Day 7 – Saturday

Really? It’s Saturday. We’ve been in Paris for a whole week, and we are starting feel at home. At least as home as you can feel in a tiny hotel room with only one chair and a shower you cannot turn around in – and your ability to speak French is exceeded only slightly by your ability to name all of the stars in the sky. In other words, we’ve gotten comfortable with the Metro and the RER trains, and can find all of the major tourist spots, and have eaten French food every meal save one. Today the weather was again cold and rainy. The brief bit of sun we’ve had the past couple of days decided to leave us while we were at Versailles. So it was a good day to spend at the Museé d’Orsay. It is in an old railway station, which does not begin to describe what a beautiful building it is. It was one of those stations that were cathedrals to the modern engines of transportation and commerce. I liked the building almost (but not quite) as much as the art. I am particularly fond of the clocks, especially the large exterior clock that you can stand behind. There is just something fascinating about the effort to mark the minutes and hours of the day, knowing that nothing can stop the progress of time.

Orsay Interior

The art is wonderful. It is the largest collection of Impressionist and post-impressionist art in the world. People whose works I’ve admired for years, like Monet and Manet, and some I hardly knew like Sisley. I wish I could remember all the things I see in these museums. It is so wonderful just to wander through or better still to wonder through them. There was a special exhibition of Rousseau, and it was fascinating to watch his progression as an artist. I liked most of the pieces, even the earlier “amateur” ones, but the late “jungle” pieces are astonishing in person. Of course, we had to visit the Van Gogh room. There aren’t that many pieces, but they are beautiful. The self-portrait is so much more beautiful in person. I don’t know why he moves me more than any other painter. It is in part the paintings and in part the fact that he never lived to know that he was great. To do so much, so beautifully without having anyone other than Theo affirm him and support him is so profound. Many years ago I saw Don Mclean on some talk show, probably Dinah Shore, singing Starry Night with images of Van Gogh’s artwork. “And on that starry starry night you took your life, as lovers often do, but I could have told you Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.” But it was. It is we who destroy the beauty and those who long for it. This week I have looked at face after face of people who sat for artists, hoping that the artist would give them a bit of immortality in exchange for a fee, and yet we remember the artists and not the patrons. We remember the creators of what is beautiful. And perhaps that is as it should be. That we remember the Creator of all that is beautiful as we marvel at what has been created.

2016-04-30 16.28.55

After the Orsay, Julie and I parted ways. She went to do some shopping for people we care about back home, and I took the Metro up to St Denis to see the Basilica. It is built on the site that legend says was the burial place of the first bishop of Paris, St Denis or Dionysius, whom legend confuses with other Christians named Denis or Dionysius. The Merovingian kings built the first Benedictine monastery and abbey church on the hill where he was buried. I saw a foundation stone of one of the pillars that was laid when Charlemagne was a young warrior and not yet King of the Franks. It was at St Denis that the Carolingians were crowned and where most of the kings of France were buried through the centuries. St. Louis had effigies carved of all of his predecessors, and his successors had their own carved. The kings are no longer there. The Revolutionaries opened the crypt and threw their bones into a common grave, hoping to end the monarchy forever. But the church survived. I went to see it because of Abbott Suger. He was Abbott in the days of Peter Abelard and Eleanor of Aquitaine, and he was deeply interested in the theology of Dionysius, a sixth century mystic who was mistakenly identified with the Christian martyr whose bones lie under the abbey. Dionysius wrote movingly about Light as the first creation and the best image of God in the world. Light helps us see the truth and it gives life, but we can never see the light itself. So it is with God. Suger hoped to build a church that was based on light instead of stone and earth. So he, with the help of some brilliant 12th century engineers and architects, invented a way to create tall thin walls supported by a forest of pillars and exterior buttresses. This allowed him to have walls that were almost entirely windows, which he then filled with stained glass. He said that the cobalt blue windows cost more than the stone of the basilica. It was Suger who in essence created the Gothic style of church architecture that became the defining style of public buildings for the next five hundred years. I can almost forgive him for evicting Heloise and her nuns from their convent. Almost. I think my Christian Tradition students are going to be seeing a lot of pictures of St Denis!

When I got back to the room, Julie had bought wine, pâté, cheese, and baguette for our supper from the local market. It cost less than our usual breakfast croissants, and was very good. Tomorrow is our last day in Paris, and it is a holiday (May 1). We are hopeful that the weather will be dry and warm. We are planning to end on the boat-bus to see all the usual tourist sites: Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, etc.

Paris – Day 6 – Versailles

Day 6 – Friday

Today we went to Versailles. We were afraid that the rail strike might affect our trip, but everything went smoothly. Versailles is one of those places you read about and you pictures of, but the reality is still overwhelming. It will never be my favorite place because my tastes tend toward the natural and simple, but it is magnificent. You walk up a wide boulevard toward a gold-leaf gate. Behind it is one of the largest palaces in the world. It had been an impressive hunting lodge for the Bourbon kings, but Louis XIV spent a vast amount of the state’s treasurer turning it into the most beautiful palace in Europe. He viewed himself as Apollo re-incarnated and called himself the Sun King, and the decorations of the palace draw heavily on Greek and Roman mythology. Each room is a different vibrant color and the curtains match the wallpaper. There is so much beautiful marble of different colors that one wonders if any were left in Italy when the architect finished. The Hall of Mirrors is as magnificent as you’ve heard. It was here that the King of Prussia was declared Kaiser Wilhelm I of the German Reich after defeating the French in 1871. It was also here that the Germans signed the papers that acknowledged their defeat in World War I. We also visited the smaller palaces, one of which was built for Marie Antoinette. The Grand Triaton was worth seeing, and was a much more pleasant building than the daunting Chateau. And the gardens were lovely. We were simply too exhausted to walk down to the faux village that Marie Antoinette built so she could play dairy maid with her friends.



I honestly do not know what I think of Versailles. Parts of it are stunningly beautiful, especially the Hall of Mirrors, but some of it is almost garish. Looking at all the gold on the gates makes you understand why the Revolution happened, but it is a shame the mobs pillaged the palace and destroyed so many beautiful things. The grounds are lovely, but I much prefer the English style of gardening to the French stylistic approach. Marie Antoinette’s little personal palace was a bit disappointing, but the mobs left almost nothing there but the marble walls. We stopped at a confectionary shop and the nice woman behind the counter gave me a free macaroon to taste. I tasted and gave it to Julie who appreciates such things more than I do. And we bought a variety pack of chocolates. The chocolate eggs were beautifully decorated like bird eggs and very yummy. Versailles left us exhausted, and we had a long rest before venturing out for dinner at the Tunisian Restaurant next door. The owner was extremely friendly and the food was excellent. It was a first time thing for both of us. I was so stuffed with couscous and stewed vegies that I could barely move, but the very hot, very sweet, mint tea was the perfect digestive!

Paris – Day 5 Pere Lachaise, Catacombs

Day 5 – Thursday

Today was our Day of the Dead. We slept late and then took the Metro to the Pere Lachaise Cemetery to visit the graves of some of our favorite people and celebrities. The cemetery is an enormous walled city of tombs. There are so many different styles, from simple flat stones covering the whole grave to enormous edifices. Nearly every available space is covered in some kind of stone marker or mausoleum. It was the first day we had any sunshine, and the birds were singing, which was a welcome relief after all of the sirens on the Rue St Jacques where we are staying. I imagine that the cemetery is creepy at night with all of the different sized tombs casting shadows, but today it was beautiful. There are many newer burials. Most of the time the remains are removed after 20 years to make way for new burials. Many of the tombs were family tombs. We bought a map, which was wise, and Julie led us straight to the tomb of Heloise and Abelard. This is what I came to see. They were two of the best theologians in the history of Christianity, although only Abelard was recognized as such. I studied him in graduate school, and I always include him in my lectures in the Christian Tradition class. Such a tragic and beautiful life. The best part of his life was Heloise who loved him with intense passion even after he was emasculated by her uncle and guardian. At one point Heloise and her nuns were evicted from their cloister and Abelard gave his home to them. He ended his wandering at the Cluny Monastery where Peter the Venerable, perhaps the most humane man of the Middle Ages, gave him shelter and let him teach the young monks. When Abelard died, Peter the Venerable sent his body to Heloise. When she died, the nuns broke tradition and buried her with him. They’ve been moved a couple of times and now lie under a beautiful faux gothic chapel. After that we found the grave of my favorite 19th century illustrator, Gustave Dore, and went on a quest to find my daughter’s favorite artist Modigliani. Of course we stopped by Jim Morrison (of the Doors), Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Balzac, Bizet, and Serat. I was surprised by the monuments to victims of the holocaust that were not mentioned in the guidebook or marked on the map. Very moving. I was also surprised by how beautiful the crematorium in the center of the cemetery is.



We had a nice Panini near the cemetery and then took the Metro to the catacombs of Paris. There has been a rail strike in Paris this week, and it just happened that the square near the catacombs was the scene of a major labor rally. At first we thought it was some kind of street fair since there were several carts serving street food (smelled great) and beverages. There was music everywhere and a festival vibe, but there were clearly angry political speeches and people with protest signs. We figured out it was connected to the strike. The good news for us is that the line was very short at the catacombs. We had tried to go on Tuesday and it was a nightmare, but today was only a ten minute wait. The catacombs are not all like those in Italy. Those catacombs were dug in the limestone for the expressed purpose of burial, and the newer graves are in the lowest sections. The catacombs of Paris were actually tunnels dug by the government in the 19th century to manage the foundations of the growing city of Paris after some buildings had collapses. There are miles and miles of carefully crafted tunnels throughout the city. But what makes them famous is that the government decided that the city’s cemeteries had become a health hazard. About 150 cemeteries and charnel houses were emptied and the bones carefully placed in the catacombs. Ancient, brown femurs stacked like cord wood with a row of skulls, and then other bones. At times both sides of the tunnel are nothing but human remains and various inscriptions from the Bible and other ancient literature reminding us to remember our own mortality. Macabre, yes, but also deeply moving as you look on the last remains of thousands of Parisians and remember that they once lived, labored, and loved just as we do. Each bone was carefully placed in these catacombs by people born generations after the owner had died, and we today walk along the paths of the dead. The stairs leading up into the land of the living were steep, narrow, and circular, which also was a reminder of how hard it is to make it through this thing called life. It was with joy that we felt the cool breeze on our faces, happy to be alive.

We took the train to the Luxembourg Gardens where Cosette and Marius fell in love in Les Miserables (when he thought her named was Ursula) and refreshed ourselves with an ice cream rosette of seven flavors. Then into the Pantheon, which was to have been the church of St Genevieve. It is a beautiful building in its own right, with a fabulous dome under which Foucault’s famous pendulum swings to prove that the world rotates. We visited the crypt where rest the bones of some other heroes – especially Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, and Madame Curie. After honoring the dead and remembering the great things they did for the human race, we wandered past the Sorbonne and enjoyed fondue. That’s just cheese and bread, my friend.

Paris – Day Four

Day 4 – Wednesday – The Louvre

Craig.Assyrian.winged horse.Louvre

Today was the Louvre. This was the only thing we pre-planned and bought tickets for, and so it was the only thing we had to make sure we set an alarm for. We had a hearty breakfast, navigated the metro, and got to the Louvre pyramid early. It was not very crowded, and we did not have to wait in line at all. Like everyone, we headed straight to the Winged Victory and Mona Lisa (La Jaconda). I really expected I would be disappointed by them, but I wasn’t. The crowds were too big to fully appreciate them, but they are lovely works of art. I’ve seen so many bad, comical, and ironic versions of Mona Lisa that it was refreshing to see the original by Leonardo. People say it is small, which is true compared to the massive paintings all around, but it is appropriate for a portrait. She really is beautiful, and I can see why people have loved her for centuries. The Louvre is a wonderful museum, and we spent much of our time in the Italian Renaissance. After we had sensory overload from beautiful (and some lesser) paintings, we made our way to the antiquities section. Somehow in my life I always wind up in Egypt and Babylon. It was fun seeing things from the palaces of Sargon II and Darius I, whom I read about in seminary. A highlight was the unrolled scroll of the Book of the Dead, but all in all, I think I enjoyed the Cluny Museum most. Nothing equals the unicorn tapestries and the Limoges enamels (blue). We were completely exhausted after several hours in the Louvre navigate all of the stairs, and so after a rest we went out for a fabulous dinner at a bistro near the hotel. We started with escargot. Yes, I can check that off the list. I like mollusks. Julie had duck and I had beef with the best au poivre.

Paris – Day 3

Day 3 – Tuesday

Every long trip has one bad day. That’s why you go for week instead of two days. We meant to get up early to go to the catacombs, but did not think to get advanced tickets. And we severely overslept and my back was killing me. I tried my yoga stretches, which got me functioning, but still I was not the happiest man in Paris. A little breakfast at a local restaurant and then a long subway ride to the station near the catacombs. And then a long walk trying to find the end of the queue. In the cold. With a backache. After 45 minutes we had not even moved halfway up the queue, and so it was time to bail. Back on the subway to the hotel. How do we rescue the day? Time to go inside one of the greatest buildings in the world. Notre Dame Cathedral is so iconic that it is easy to forget how amazing it is. I still think the York Minster is just plain out more beautiful and spectacular, but I’ve never been in a more stately and magnificent house of worship. It was one of the first truly gothic cathedrals, and you can almost feel the weight of the stones soaring over your head. The windows live up to their reputation, especially the rose windows. It was disappointing that you cannot go into the upper level like you can at St Paul’s and other churches, but the main level is beautiful. An unexpected treat was finding a monument to Cardinal Noailles, the primate of France who was Zinzendorf’s friend. Yes, I can relate everything in the world to the Moravians! Unfortunately when we left Notre Dame we went to visit a very disappointing archeological dig, and there at the entrance, a young female pickpocket made off with some of our cash. Despite our diligence. Thankfully it was only cash, and not that much.

We thought we would wander around the Cite for a bit and maybe have a coffee, but suddenly the weather changed as if it to match our mood. Driving rain and sleet. Yes, sleet in April in Paris. With a crowd of tourists we dashed into a café, and thankfully there was a table available. Not coffee, this time. When the storm passed, we found Sainte Chappelle, and what had been a bad day became an extraordinary day. It was the chapel built by King Louis IX in the 13th century as a free-standing small gothic church in the middle of the palace. It is literally surrounded by the Palace of Justice today. The main floor is surrounded by the most beautiful stained glass I’ve ever seen. Hundreds of biblical scenes depicted in blue, green, and red glass. It reaches so high you cannot begin to guess what the figures are. The sun came out while were there and it was like standing in the middle of a gemstone. The rose window in the back depicts the apocalypse of John, but it is the least violent apocalypse I’ve seen. And the vaulted blue roof with fleur de lies is stunning. I know that this was built by kings who exploited the people, but they certainly had style. I’m so happy that friends strongly recommended visiting this site.



After a much needed rest, we walked up to the Pantheon, which had just closed, and had a lovely meal at the Comptoir du Pantheon. It was so nice to be in a place frequented by students and scholars. Three people had their Macs open and were drinking coffee. I felt right at home. Our waiter was the friendliest person I’ve met in France, who was very understanding of two Americans. We decided to splurge after our rough day and shared a bottle of an excellent eco-friendly Rhone wine followed by the best braised pork chops with mushrooms I’ve ever eaten. Julie had a very tender leg of lamb, and I do believe that some duck liver was consumed as well. We walked around the Latin Quarter a bit, and visited a church named St Etienne du Mont. More famous was St Genevieve who had an abbey there. She helped convert Clovis the first king of the Franks, and he built her abbey. Her body lay there as a sacred relic until the Revolution when her remains were burned and through into the river. The Pantheon was originally built in her honor, but the revolutionaries took it over and made it a monument to intellectuals.

While wandering around the Latin Quarter, I was overwhelmed by the thought of all of the great thinkers who had studied or taught at the University of Paris. Peter Abelard, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Duns Scotus, John Calvin, and the list goes on. Is there any city like Paris? Rome is older and was the great city of antiquity. I love Rome. Florence is the great Renaissance city. Venice is beautiful. London is both ancient and modern and was briefly the center of the entire world. But Paris is unique, at least in the West. It is the city of scholars and artists, architects and artisans, dreamers and doers. It is a beautiful city that set the standards for Western culture for hundreds of years. What other city has seen the birth of universities and the revolutions that defined modern politics? The city of Robespierre and Madame Curie. There has been no century since the early Middle Ages when Paris was not important. Is it any wonder that so many American writers and artists were drawn to this Mecca of culture? I’m so glad we came.

Paris – Day 2

2016-04-25 21.26.04Day 2 – Monday

Our only planned activity for the trip was tickets to the Louvre on Wednesday. Monday began with a ham and cheese crepe from a friendly creperie near us. Love the coffee here. Most museums close on Tuesday, so we spent the first part of Monday in the Cluny Museum of medieval art and culture. It is housed in a building that served as the “hotel” or townhouse of the abbots of Cluny in the 17th century on the site of an ancient Roman bathhouse. In the late 19th century it was converted into a museum, and among the treasures are the tapestries of a woman and a unicorn. They are similar to the unicorn tapestries at the Cloisters, which I love, but these are in vermillion and the artwork is astounding. 15th century weaving. Flanders, I think. There were also lots of reliquaries, including one built to hold the supposed umbilical cord of Jesus. Of course Mary would have put that away in case someone wanted to adore it centuries later! Many of the medieval statues, especially of the crucifixion were done in a very precise and naturalistic style, which makes me wonder why people claim that was invented in the Italian Renaissance. But I’m not an art historian.


The weather continued to worsen, but we had tickets for dinner on the river and were not going to miss it. We decided to head out early to see the Eifel Tower. We mastered the Metro, but took a wrong turn coming out of the station. We were happily walking along wandering why we didn’t see a large iron edifice in front of us. Being very cautious about pickpockets, salesman, and other dangers of the streets, we walked past some men telling us we had to wait for a minute. Finally we realized that they were filming a movie and needed to clear the sidewalk for a shot. So, with some embarrassment, we paused, let them film, and proceeded to stride purposefully in the wrong direction. We turned around and saw the tower, right where Gustave Eifel had put it. Too embarrassed to go back through the movie site, we crossed the road to walk along the Seine. Despite the cold and rain, it is as beautiful as the movies depict it. The line to go up the tower was so short, we took the plunge and traveled to the top. The wind was bitter and the rain cut into our faces, but the view was extraordinary. Even though the horizon was shrouded in mist, it was amazing to look down on Notre Dame the rest of Paris. The tower is a marvel. I have always loved it in pictures, but the reality is nearly impossible to describe. Tons of steel held together by rivets, and yet the whole thing looks as if it were made of lace. It did not even sway in the wind, it is so stable. I deeply admire Eifel for having had such a vision of quixotic beauty and materialize it on earth. Originally it served no real purpose and it was to be torn down, but now it is a symbol of beauty and strength for all the world to see.


We were nearly frozen when we got off the elevator and immediately sought out some cappuccino. And then we walked in the rain to find the boat Paris en Scene. It had not returned from its earlier trip and we managed to walk right past the docking place. Using Google maps and wandering too and fro, we determined where the place should be, and then we saw the boat coming down the river. While we were waiting to board, Julie saw a sign that was clearly visible from the car park, but which we could not see from the bank where we were strolling. The boat was lovely and we shared a brut of champagne to celebrate tenure. We had delicious pate with salad followed by a main course of the best salmon I’ve had in years. Desert was also nice, especially the very dark chocolate ganache. It was so nice to float down the Seine, looking out of the windows even though the rain obscured the view somewhat. We decided to buy a picture of us enjoying the evening. On the return trip the Eifel Tower lit up with a dazzling display. We made our way back to the hotel via the Metro. On the train we helped an Argentinian couple get off of the right stop. That was a comedy of three languages and much pointing! For some reason, jet lag hit us the second night and we were both awake very late. We skyped the children to make sure they were safe and tried unsuccessfully to sleep.


Paris 2016 – Day 1



My wife and I are on the trip of a lifetime. She turned 50 last week, and I wanted to give her something special. And we between us we had 120,000 frequent flyer miles on US Airways that were going to expire at the end of 2016, so last fall we committed to this trip. It part of my sabbatical from teaching. Julie will fly home on Monday and I will go on to the University of Heidelberg. Here is the day to day activities, if you are interested.

We arrived at the Orly airport about 9:30 a.m. on Sunday April 24 after a rather uncomfortable flight on British Airways. Just before boarding the plane I finally learned that the Trustees had indeed promoted me to full professor and awarded tenure. That was a huge relief, and this trip is in part celebration. We took a taxi (cheaper than expected) straight to the hotel and our room was ready in a few minutes. It was the Hotel Mercure Notre Dame-Sorbonne, just a block from the Cluny medieval museum. It was a tiny room with no dresser, so we are living out of our suitcases. There is barely room to turn around in the shower, but other than that it is clean and pleasant. We can see the top of the Pantheon from our window. We are in the heart of the Latin Quarter, which got its name because students at the University of Paris had to speak Latin in the old days. It is still a university neighborhood. We took a nap since we had almost no sleep the night before. And then we went for a walk that took us to Notre Dame Cathedral. The weather is unseasonably cold and wet. We packed raincoats, but I wish I had packed the winter lining. The two sweaters I brought are getting lots of wear. Since we are here for a week we decided to take it very easy our first day and just walk around the neighborhood. Since we had not eaten since the flight, we had an early dinner at French restaurant with an alpine theme. Beef bourguignon for me and duck orange for Julie. We both got the French onion soup which is just called onion soup here. Mine food was good, but I preferred Le Bonne Soupe in NY. The house wine was very good – Gamay. The most amusing part of the evening was looking up to see a large moose head overlooking Julie. I wasn’t sure if we were in France or Canada. Julie booked tickets for us for a dinner cruise on the Seine for Monday night. We Skyped the girls, turned in early, and slept till after eleven the next day.