Few travelers and tourists visiting Paris, France, realize that the famous cathedral of Notre-Dame is actually situated on an island.
The Ile de la Cité is usually referred to as the epicenter of Paris, as well as the original site of the
Parisi tribes of the Sequana river, now known as the Seine. This was possibly the earliest settlement in Paris---
a muddy town on the banks of a muddy river that grew to be known as one of the most beautiful places in the world.
The official "navel" can be found on a small bronze plaque in the square in front of the cathedral.
This is just a few steps from where the early Romans set up shop in the 50's (A.D that is) This is technically
the very center of France. Don't expect to have a revelation or see a halo just because you touch this spot with
your shoe, although from the number of tourists taking frantic photographs of this hallowed point, I may be missing
something. The focal point of the island is of course the Notre-Dame Cathedral. (Church of Our lady) dedicated
to the mother of God.
While most of historic Paris speaks for the glory of rationalism, calm order, broad boulevards and civilized gardens,
the most interesting neighborhoods are the result of less controlled situations. Although the Ile de la Cité
is organized, extremely well cared for, and considered the prime Parisian real estate, it is still at the mercy
of geology. The river has shaped and defined the island's character as much as the famous edifices. The bridges
and building are forced to follow its teardrop shape and adapt to the landscape. Because of this, it is inevitably
more interesting than a bullet-straight avenue lined with 200 identical linden trees. The most beautiful time
to visit this area is in the early spring when all the flowering trees by the cathedral are in full bloom and you
realize why everybody keeps telling you are lucky to be in Paris. The city reveals itself to you in certain moments,
in certain angles of light. The aesthetic realization cannot be forced--- one day you simply realize that the ordered
and cultivated beauty of Paris has made you briefly happy. It may only last a moment, and you may long for more
primitive landscapes, but the flash of joy is recorded, and it will return to haunt you when you are back in an
ugly office or a city clogged with freeways and parking lots.
On the eastern tip of the island is the Deportation Memorial for the French victims of the Nazi concentration camps
during WWII. This is obviously an extremely upsetting sight, but one that is necessary to witness. 200,000 lit
crystals on dark walls commemorate the exterminated, as well a single flickering light for the unknown dead. The
triangles in the adjacent passages are supposed to represent the patch or badge deportees were ordered to wear.
The second most obvious landmark on the island is the Palais de Justice, essentially the modern Supreme Court built
in the 18th century. The earliest seat of government from Roman times was in the same place, as was the original
Palace from the Gothic period. The remains are to be found in the St. Chapelle Church and the Conciergerie. The
St. Chapelle sits inside the newer courtyard of the Palais de Justice. If you were wondering what a Gothic church
is doing inside the seat of government, be thankful that someone else had the sense not to tear it down. The St.
Chapelle is probably the most beautiful church in Paris (on the inside), and without a doubt, the finest stained
glass you will ever see. If you are lucky enough to enter on a sunny day, you will never forget the brilliance
of this magnificent example. The only problem is that direct sunlight tends to light only half the panels and dulls
the others. Unless you have all day to watch the sun move, a cloudy day provides even, though less interesting,
light. The enormous windows depict the entire span of Christian history from the Book of Genesis to the coming
of Christ. One of the reasons for its unified beauty is that is was designed by one architect and completed in
5 years! Most Gothic cathedrals took generations to construct, with hundreds of workers and lesser skilled architects
interfering, lack of funding and countless subtracting factors which led to bad design. Too many cooks spoiling
the soup was not an option for the St. Chapelle. It was built in the 13th century for King Louis IX who had it
built to house the Crown of Thorns he owned. (He was convinced it was the original crown placed on Christ by the
Romans) The Rose window, which is the only later addition, is a perfect example of the style termed "Flamboyant
Gothic" which was meant to represent flames.
The Conciergerie is a section of the Palais de Justice which was used as a prison in revolutionary times. There
is some grim irony in the idea that the Supreme court doled out sentences which would send people to this neighbor
or justice--- a waiting room for the guillotine. The French motto Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite (Liberty, Brotherhood,
Equality) might have been translated into--- you are all equally capable of being beheaded. This is where Marie
Antoinette was jailed for months before they chopped her head off, probably not eating cake.
The Place Dauphine is a small and quaint little residential park surrounded by some more very expensive apartments
and a few small shops and cafes. This is the perfect place to have a sandwich or a drink in one of the quiet bistros
without being subjected to the usual crowds and tourists. The place Dauphine has somehow managed to avoid being
overrun by noisy groups and visitors--- try not to disrupt it by arriving in a tour bus en masse, or with your
boombox. It is calm and beautiful, a place to visit to escape the madness of St. Michel. Because you enter the
square through a kind of gateway, there is almost no traffic on the little cobblestone street and the trees and
benches provide wonderful respite from the chaotic boulevards nearby. In the 18th century, the artists Boucher
and Chardin used the area to exhibit paintings. If you walk through the west gate you will find yourself facing
an equestrian statue of Henry IV.
You are now standing on the Pont Neuf bridge, the oldest and most historic bridge in Paris. If you find the steps
behind the statue and follow them down to the vaulted arches of the bridge, you will find yourself facing a small
green park on the western tip of the island. This tiny sanctuary is the best place to go in Paris if you don't
own a boat. By sitting on the stone embankments, surrounded by water, you can almost pretend you are sailing down
the river. For a Greek, this is like the poor man's sea, but it's better than sitting in a stuffy apartment or
a smoky café. Behind you, beneath the Northern arch, the Greek artist Nonda began the historic Pont Neuf
Exhibitions in the 1960's. Straight ahead is the distinctive metalwork of the Pont des Arts, which you should
visit at dusk, with a bottle of wine and someone good-looking.
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