Thursday, November 09, 2006

Back Home!

Wow. Back home after 12 intensive days in France. It was a terrific trip with many highpoints, and I'm physically, intellectually and emotionally exhausted.

We saw and experienced many beautiful things (art, architecture, music, sunsets, fall foliage, dramatic landscapes). We ate well and often. We people watched. We eavesdropped. We developed new inside jokes at the expense of the French. We walked everywhere. We learned a lot of French vocabulary. We drank a lot of wine. We were reminded that everywhere you travel you will meet really lovely people and really rude, bitchy people. We learned a tremendous
amount about the history of France and central Europe (and my sense of what happened between 14,000 BC and WWII is now much less foggy). We had serious conversations about what we are doing with our lives, and how to best live up to our potential (no doubt inspired by removal from our daily routines, inspiring surroundings, and wine).

Bordeaux, our first stop, is an excellent city. Very cool, harmonious architecture--much of the city is composed of small buildings with balconies all in the same color stone. There's a pleasant, modern light rail system, and many pedestrian only zones and public squares.

We stayed at a small hotel in a residential neighborhood and spent 3 days walking everywhere. Visited a number of Gothic churches that were stops on the pilgrimage routes of the middle ages. Stumbled upon a traveling carnival that was a bit seedy. Visited a massive cemetery with towering grave monuments and stained glass fitted mausoleums. Peeked into luxurious chocolate shops. Sat at outdoor cafes drinking wine and writing post cards. Read our books (me: alternating between bio of Marie Antionette in preparation for Versailles and Perfume by Patrick Suskind; Scott: gripping Raymond Chandler novel).

And we had a lavish meal at Le Chapon Fin, a Michelin-starred, Bordeaux institution (Toulouse Lautrec used to eat there). Dinner is a blur of cholesterol and foamy sauces, but I will remember for a long time the amazing wine pairings and the tremendous cheese plate wheeled over to us prior to dessert.

Onto Perigord, an area of SW France known for fois gras, truffles, fortified medieval cities clinging to (and sometimes built into) cliffs, and prehistoric art. The unquestionable highlight of this leg of the trip was our visit to the Font-de-Gaume cave, which features cave art from 14,000 BC. It is the last cave with "polychrome" painting still open to the public. The famous caves such as nearby Lascaux and Altamira in Spain are closed in an effort to conserve them (carbon dioxide from human breath degrades the images).

I wasn't sure what to expect. My sense of cave art was that it would be touchingly primitive, perhaps like fingerpainting. Wrong! These were sophisticated, sensitive, very stylized. They used brushes! And they incorporated the contours of the rock face into the imagery, so that a curve becomes a bison's brow, another curve the belly of an ibex, in some instances rendering a 3D effect.

My absolute favorite image was of a reindeer licking the head of another reindeer. Scott's was a horse who was pawing delicately with one of its front hooves.

We spent just about an hour looking at the images, moving from one chamber of the cave to the next with a guide and 6 other visitors, one of whom was an archeologist from Australia who could not contain his delight at being there (a feeling which is contageous when you are huddled together in a dark narrow cave).

Finally, onto Paris where we again walked everywhere, climbed the Eiffel Tower at sunset, and survived on a strict diet of cafe au lait, streetvendor crepes with Nutella, and leisurely evening meals at various Italian restaurants, being overwhelmed by rich French food at that point. We went the distance at the Louvre, taking in all of the "must sees" like the mobbed Venus Demilo and Mona Lisa, as well as visiting most of the paintings we'd come to see (my targets included Anne of Cleves by Holbein; Gabriele D'Estrees and One of Her Sisters; and Ship of Fools by Heironmyous Bosch). We also made the trip out to Versailles which in hindsight I could have skipped--the audio tour isn't in-depth enough for my taste and the excess of the whole thing feels kind of yucky.

My favorite things in Paris were visiting the Cluny museum which is devoted to Medieval art, visiting the Sainte-Chapelle cathedral which has the most amazing medieval stained glass imaginable, and an organ concert at Notre Dame we attended our last night.

We sat in the darkened cathedral for over an hour listening to the organ professor from Princeton play the most moving, complex, hardcore music on a 6,000 pipe organ. It put the heaviest heavy metal to shame. It was uplifting and cathartic. The crowd was diverse--young hipsters and elderly church goers alike. All serious music fans. People sat with their eyes closed, concentrating intensely on the music. Unlike other performances where the audience can see the musician, the 400 or so attendees faced the altar, away from the organ which is at the back of the church on the second level. We didn't even see the organist until the end of the concert when he peeked over the balcony to give us a stiff but charming bow.

And my last favorite thing about Paris was when I asked a woman on the street for directions and she pulled out a map and helped us find our way. The street we were looking for was an obscure one that she didn't know and it was dark and we all struggled to find enough light to read her map. Nevermind that it took about 5 minutes to help us. She was gracious and patient, and didn't make a face at my poor French. It was like karmac payback for all the tourists I've walked to their destinations in New York City.

There are many more details from the trip, but these, at least, are my favorite highlights. I'll be posting a link to our photo album soon.

1 comment:

stephen said...

How are you liking Perfume? I remember thinking the imagery was greusome, but also beautiful. Chilling. I'm looking forward to the movie.

Pipe organs are incredible instruments, aren't they? Check out our columnist, John Marks', exploration of the pipe organ here and here. (This sounds spammy. Sorry about that.) You can try listening to the audio bits, highlighting different recording techniques, and pick which one sounds best to you. My boss told me that I was entitled to my choice, but that I was wrong. :(

This is, obviously, kinda geeky. But also kinda fun. If you're truly bored (or interested), check out the book, "All the Stops: The Glorious Pipe Organ and Its American Masters."

End spam.

And thanks so much for the postcard. I loved it.