October 25, 2006


So, that whole bit where I said it was nice to have the time in Paris to just lounge around ... that was actually a revelation I was forced into after a particularly busy day of sight-seeing.

The weather was fantastic for most of my trip, but one morning it was particularly clear. I decided I wanted to get in as much of the outdoor sights as possible, and this included the gardens at Versailles (a short train ride outside of Paris). I was also keen in taking in the view from the top of Sacre Coeur because of the hazefree skies.

I started the morning, a Sunday, by making it to the top of Sacre Coeur just as Mass was beginning. The place was understandably packed and the line for the sweet-looking funicular was way too long so I ended up hoofing it up the steps to the cathedral and then up the winding staircase to the top.

As I was ascending the steps to the top of the dome, the choir and organ were in full throat beneath me. It made the climb more visceral and more dizzying. I reached the top out of breath and blown away by how much of Paris I could see.

After descending, I fought my way back the Metro (by this time folks were streaming up the streets toward the cathedral) and went to the nearest station where I could hop a suburban rail train to Versailles.

Sunday is one of the busiest days to visit the palace and the line for tickets can be close to 2 hours long. Fortunately, I had a museum pass which allows you to skip the line and gets you into all the major tourist sites in Paris. I cannot recommend this highly enough if you're going to visit Versailles.

I decided to first check out the gardens. Honestly, I had no idea how big they were. I'd heard several first-hand reports that they were amazingly huge, but stories and photos don't really capture the scale. Also, I feel the precise symmetry compounds the effect of all the space. I spent some quality time gaping at the fountains and listening to New Order on my iPod.

Speaking of which, I think you probably get as good an idea of the palace interior from watching Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette (I dug it) as you do from going there in person. I agree with Nelson; the overwhelming opulence and over-the-topness of the palace is so ridiculous that it seems pretty grotesque after a while. It is very clear that you are looking at the residence of someone who believed himself to be a god. In other words, a crazy person. Houses of crazy people always feel weird.

So I went back to the gardens and took a long stroll down to the canal. The garishness of the palace notwithstanding, it's worth a trip to Versailles to spend an afternoon watching the boats and exploring the grounds.

Since it was only 3p, I decided not to return to Paris but instead take a train to Chartres to see the cathedral. After some surprisingly difficult linguistic negotiation at the train station (I think used the wrong word for 'return' and ended up saying 'I want to turn around in Paris.') and an hour on the train I was in front of the single-best cathedral I've ever seen.

I saw a bunch of churches on this trip - more than a dozen - but Chartres is special. First off, it's amazingly large. Inside it feels as though whole medieval villages have been swallowed up in its vastness. But it's the outside that really got me. I walked around the cathedral several times and the whole time I found myself on the verge of tears. It sounds silly, but it's one of the most tangible experiences of awe that I've had.

As I was walking away the church bells began to ring and it was the end of very busy but completely rewarding day. (Well, except for the part where I still had to get back to Paris and the trains were late so I ended up watching 24 on my iPod).

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