Tuesday, June 22, 2010

On the road (Europe 2010): Paris (continued)

On the 21st we visited La Sainte Chapelle, which is part of the complex of buildings remaining from the earliest development of Paris, on the Ile de la Cité. Sainte Chapelle, as the name suggests is a chapel, but it is perhaps unique in that it's two chapels built one on top of the other. The lower level was for parish services. The upper level was reserved for kings, queens, and other nobles and their guests. The construction dates to the 13th century, but there has been restoration, particularly in the 19th century. The upper level is considerably more sumptious than the lower, but even the lower level is ornate.

Both rooms are built to a simple plan—just a nave and apse. Although even the most delicate parts of the room on the lower level (the ribbed vaults and the pillars that support them) are made of stone, the entire interior is painted in blue, gold, green, and red, which creates a very different effect from a typical stone church interior. I have never seen anything quite like it. Are there other churches like this? I know that many old buildings we think of as being plain stone (such as the Acropolis at Athens) were once polychromed, but I don’t think I’ve ever read about a European Christian church decorated in this way. Come to think of it, some of the Greek churches of the Meteora are painted inside, but I don’t remember any of those being quite so sumptuous. Hmmmmm… A little research is in order.

I nearly missed it. There was a very long line. The delay to get in turned out to be almost entirely due to security—which was tighter than at any airport I’ve ever been to, with multiple bag checks as well as x-ray machines and armed guards. It was worth the wait, however. The upper chapel is entirely of stained glass from just above eye level to the top of the high walls that have very little apparent support. Exterior flying buttresses appear to hold it all up, but I’m no engineer.

There are at least 15 double stained glass panels around the chapel. Fourteen of these tell stories from the old and new testaments. The last one tells the story of the relics  that were originally enshrined here (now kept at Notre Dame)—supposedly a piece of the cross from the crucifixion and Christ's crown of thorns. Between each of the double panels is a statue of one of the 12 apostles. The altar and the back of the nave were obscured by scaffolding (more of those seemingly inescapable restoration works) but the room is magnificent nevertheless. Like the lower chapel, virtually every surface not glass is painted in blue and red and green or gilded. The floor is inlaid with greenery and animals in quadrefoil frames, although according to a friendly guard, the original chapel had a plain white marble floor. The floor now in place dates from restoration work done in the 19th century to repair destruction during the revolutionary period. The guard said that most of the decoration below the glass dates from this period, as does the bottom third of the glass panels. The remainder of the glass and several of the statues of the apostles date from the 13th century, making these the oldest stained glass windows in Paris.

Much as I enjoyed seeing La Sainte Chapelle, the long wait to get in cut into time allotted to seeing the Louvre again, which was a shame. Still, I got to see some of my favourite pieces in the place, particularly some of the collection of northern renaissance painting—the work of Holbein, Roger Van der Weyden, Memling and others—although some of these are a bit too early to be called Renaissance. Among the older French paintings (which on the whole bore me) I do like the Clouet portrait of Francois 1er and his queen, Élisabeth of Austria. I used to keep a postcard of her on my desk at work during my days as a securities analyst to remind me of things that seemed more substantial than facilitating the buying and selling of stocks. Among the Italian paintings, I concentrated on the Botticellis. There are a couple of wonderful Madonna and Child panels in the Louvre, among many other things. It’s funny that you can tell a Botticelli anywhere—always the same big eyes and pointed chin. Unlike the Orsay, the Louvre does allow photography (without flash), which makes it easy to remember interesting things by unfamiliar painters, such as this portrait of a woman by Jacob Claesz (known as Jacob of Utrecht).

The early evening was occupied with a walk through the streets around the church of St. Germain des Pres—the area I have always stayed in in Paris in the past. It hasn’t changed much. Streets like Rue de Buci, Rue Bonaparte, Rue de Seine, Rue Jacob, and others are still lined with art galleries, specialty shops, and a variety of fancy food shops. Like any big city, Paris has many faces, but this is Paris to me. I remembered the place in detail, down to the location of a plaque on Rue Jacob marking the spot where Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, and John Jay signed the treaty with England that ended the Revolutionary War. I happened again across the little square where there is a museum in what was once a studio used by Delacroix. There was a music festival going on. Almost every corner had a group performing in the street. In the Church was an odd group made up of saxophone, flute, violin and several singers with ethereal voices.

Finally, had a very disappointing meal at Le Petit Zinc. This restaurant, with its beautiful art nouveau interior, used to be wonderful. It offered good food and excellent service, and it wasn’t especially expensive. We ate here often. This was meant to be our one night out in Paris at a good restaurant, having made our meals at home (lunch breakfast and dinner) at the apartment throughout the visit until this point, but, sadly, the food we made ourselves was better than the restaurant food.

The highlight was the wine, which, of course, would have been good at any restaurant—a Grand Cru Riesling from Alsace. The waiter originally brought a lesser wine by the same maker (the wine on the list was clearly marked Grand Cru). I suspect he thought I wouldn’t know the difference. When I pointed out that he had brought the wrong wine, he said “Oh, you want a Grand Cru?” as if he was surprised that I’d prefer the Grand Cru to the wine he had brought, as if I were somehow perverse for wanting the wine promised on the wine list. As for the food, it was served almost cold and it was indifferently prepared. The waitress was clumsy, and one of my oysters was spoiled. I spat it out (quietly, of course) but it left a bad taste in my mouth, as did the entire meal.

A real shame. I can no longer recommend Le Petit Zinc. Before leaving, I at least had the satisfaction of telling them what I thought. I hope it has some effect, for the sake of future diners—not that one comment is likely to make much of a difference. Well, another day, another dinner.

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