Thursday, February 11, 2010

Chenonceau & Paris

So, procrastinating on something else I have to do is good news for the blog, so here I am!

To my best recollection, I was up to my day at Chenonceau, a chateau of the Loire Valley 30 minutes from Tours. I have wanted to visit the Loire Valley for ages, so I'm glad to have had an excuse, although I guess ideally I would be doing it floating down the river on a glorious sunny day and waltzing into mysteriously tourist-free castles, rather than the bleak and freezing cold scenario life actually had in store for me. Weren't that many tourists on the plus side, though. Consulting my brochure: Chenonceau was built in the 16th century in the Renaissance style (or the 'modern style' as I assume they referred to it back then), not by the royals but by some dude and his wife.

I think it's known as the Chateau of the Ladies or something (don't *think* I'm making that up) because it has strong connections to the women of the French court. Henri II's mistress, Diane de Poitiers, inherited it from him, but then ceded it to Henri's wife, Catherine de Medici. One fun fact is that the intertwined H and Cs (for Henri and Catherine) that decorate Diane's bedroom can also be read as D for Diane (picture to follow). I read this a couple of years back in a book about Catherine de Medici, so it was fun to see it in real life. Mary Queen of Scots also lived here back before she was Queen of Scots and was the Dauphine/Queen of France.

The best thing about Chenonceau is that it is actually built over the river, as in a bridge with a castle on it, which is pretty damn cool. Sadly, I couldn't figure out how to get to the other side of the river to take photos :( There were people over the other side, but maybe they started over there... There was a lot of scaffolding and so forth happening, so all along the waterfront on my side seemed to be roped off as far as I could see. But anyway, impressive. Also, the interiors were nice and the gardens were bleak and freezing, and that's probably about it for my impressions of Chenonceau.

So, on to Paris on Monday, just for an overnight stay. After a 2 1/2 hour trip on the slow (cheapish) train and depositing my bags (btw, worst directions in the world stupid hostel), I finally made it to the Musée de Cluny aka the National Museum of the Middle Ages. Not that I've attempted to go in the past, I just find it strange that I've been to Paris 3 times before and never gone, considering I am quite the fan of the Middle Ages. It did not disappoint, either. Absolutely crammed with treasures, the highlights being the tapestries, which were the best I've ever seen, soooo well-preserved it's amazing. The most famous are the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, which deserve their reputation: (sorry I'm having issues getting that to work as a proper link... time to take 'basic HTML coding' off my CV muhaha).

I sent that link to my Mum, who commented on their bright colours. The lower portion of the tapestries were actually restored at some point (19th century?), which included redying and tightening up the weave. I assume this is because the lower parts were in reach of grubby hands for 500 years. So now there is a very noticeable colour difference between the restored and unrestored sections - you can see it in the photos. The ironic thing, of course, is that it is the UPPER, unrestored parts, that retain their vivid colours, whereas the restored strip at the bottom has badly faded. Take that, modern technology!

Anyway, I won't blather on too much about the museum, except to say that you should go if you're in Paris. It always makes me sad that there's so much ignorance and negativity about the Middle Ages. Okay, the millionth drippy Madonna with wisened Benjamin Button-esque baby Jesus clutching at her anatomically incorrect bosom does get a bit boring, I'll admit, but the Middle Ages were surprisingly full of colour and humour and life along with the dirt and sermons and craziness (and by the way, the peak years for witch trials were in the Renaissance, not the Middle Ages). I'm not saying I'd want to live back then, or that it's without its flaws, but between wholesale dismissal and romanticised notions of lords and ladies, there must be room for people to appreciate the real Middle Ages as a vibrant and interesting period. Okay, rant over.

The next day, I fit in Sacre Coeur for the first time - it was only 2 minutes' or so walk straight up the hill behind my hostel, and is a very elegant space I must say. Which sounds like an odd decription, damning with faint praise perhaps, but the elegance and fine proportions were what most struck me with Sacre Coeur. Everything seemed to be perfectly thought out as to what would appear framed by which arch if you stood at such-and-such a vantage point...

After that, I went to Sainte Chappelle, which was partly scaffolded, but still filled to the brim with gorgeous stained-glass windows, far more glass than anything else in the upper chapel - 6,458 square feet of it, which is just an astounding figure. I'm bad at visualising numbers like that, but if I imagine it in comparison to the size, say, of a Parisian apartment... huge! I joined a guided tour in French, led by an enthusiastic PhD student from the Sorbonne, and I think I understood most of what he had to say, even though it was rather rapid-fire. Salient points include that two-thirds of the upper windows are original (i.e. 13th century - some of them are now in the Musée Cluny for some reason btw), none of the windows in the lower chapel are, owing to a flood, there is the oldest wall fresco in Paris (or maybe France, I forget) on one wall, which was covered up and thus survived the flood, and that it was built by King Louis, who later became Saint Louis (and the French seem pretty proud to have had a King who became a Saint, despite being secular and anti-monarchist...).

I visited the Conciergerie as well, since you could get a joint ticket with Sainte Chappelle, which started out as the first palace for the French kings and wound up as a prison under the Ancien Regime and in the Revolutionary period. Poor old Marie-Antoinette was imprisoned there for a couple of months, as was Charlotte Corday, and Robespierre died there. Apparently it was a pretty grim place back in the day. One room had lists of all the victims of the Terror on the walls, with their occupations, which was illuminating. Many were listed as 'ex-nobles' or 'ex-priests', although a couple were just 'nobles', which seems weird - surely the idea is that the Revolution stripped them of their nobility? Anyway, that makes sense, but many of the others were functionaries or just normal people like servants, wig-makers or shop-keepers - maybe a little bit too chummy with the aristocrats they provisioned, but who knows really... All this sort of thing makes me think I should brush up on my French history. I did a whole paper on the French Revolution at uni, but I must admit to being decidedly hazy on the details now... Anyway, the Conciergerie was only of moderate interest, but worth throwing in if you're going to Sainte Chappelle anyway.

After that, it was time for lunch, mostly because it was just freezing cold, colder than England at Christmas, due to the biting wind (oh and it snowed! yay!) so I didn't fancy strolling about or anything and didn't have time for more tourist activities. So I had a nice 3 course set menu meal at an Italian place (I forgot to say, but had a great lunch in Tours, featuring duck confit mmmm although they insist on calling it 'preserved duck' on English menus, which kind of gives me the creeps and makes me not want to know in what manner it is preserved. But so damn tasty!) And then it was time to pick up my bags from the hostel and make my way to Charles de Gaulle, thankfully unimpeded either by strikes on the RER or snow issues.

PS it snowed today in Nice - excited photos to follow. PPS Sorry my posts are tooooo long I know


  1. What a middle-ages fan! Very interesting, ta.... (sorry, it's only me, though....

  2. Bossy obviously thinks that anything about the middle ages might include her!!


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