Getting Medieval in Paris: Notre Dame, Unicorns, Chocolat

Place de la République, with a statue commemorating the French Revolution.

Our first stop when we arrived in Paris was our hotel for the remainder of the trip, the Hotel du Vieux Saule, in the Marais neighborhood. Of all the hotels we stayed at, this is one I would say I settled on, after shifting the budget to accommodate the palace-adjacent properties we stayed in earlier in the trip. When I think back, while I can’t say it with 100% certainty, this place springs to mind as the most likely candidate responsible for our brush with bedbugs and the deep cleaning frenzy* that ensued afterward.

Why do I point the finger in their direction? Given that I had many bites on different parts of my body, I have to assume that there wouldn’t have been enough time for it to take place on public transit (Through my winter coat? Not likely.), or really even any place where I was staying only one night. The only other hotel we stayed in more than one night was in Nantes, and just statistically based on population, it’s more likely that the Parisian hotel had bedbugs than the one in Nantes. Also, when we checked in, there was a half-consumed beverage and garbage in the minibar and some pubes in the shower that said cleaning might not be their top priority. That’s basically it. And I’m still salty that the one time we allowed staff to come in to make the bed (implying they cleaned would be a violation of my journalistic integrity), some things went missing, things with no value–souvenir ticket stubs and the like. Why? If you can’t throw away actual trash, why take it upon yourself to konmari my possessions while I’m still renting the room? Argh.

But we didn’t know about the bedbugs just yet so we commenced walking around Paris. 

Hôtel de Ville, the town hall

Science, Jules Blanchard, c. 1882

Before its closure, more than thirteen million people passed through the enormous wood and wrought iron doors at Notre Dame every year. People looking for absolution, people looking for peace, people looking for architecture, people looking for a medallion with the face of the Pope. It was the most visited monument in Paris by far, one of the most heavily toured monuments in Europe**.

This Gothic icon, built in the twelfth century, is so beloved now that it’s hard to believe that after the Napoleonic wars, it was almost demolished because it was in such a terrible state. Victor Hugo published Notre-Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831, which raised public awareness of its decay so that thirteen years later, “citizen-king” Louis Philippe I ordered that it be restored. (The same time period during which Les Miserables is set.)

Notre Dame took over twelve million francs to restore over twenty years. That restoration involved low quality stone and cement and even before the fire in April 2019, those restorations were starting to crumble, gargoyles cleaving from the structure to fall to the ground below, replaced with pvc pipe to drain water, the Catholic church (which permanently rents the building from the government of France, for free), not contributing nearly enough to its upkeep. Now, in the wake of the fire, it struggles more as people and businesses who vowed to donate to its restoration struggle to find their checkbooks as they already reaped the benefits of the public accolades and the news cycle has moved on. There are other practical concerns as well: how do you replace a roof made from an entire forest of trees when logging has all but eliminated the old-growth trees that would be large enough for such a project? 

That teeny tiny little speck on top of the cross on the spire is a rooster as big as an average adult human torso, filled with religious relics. 

The gargoyles/grotesques were added in the 19th century, some 600 years after the cathedral was finished.

Most of these biblical kings were beheaded during the French Revolution in a frenzy of king beheading after Louis XVI only had but one to give his country and the crowd remained unsatisfied.

Big Witch Energy

One of the rose windows, dates back to the 13th century; these survived the fire in April.

No word on whether these important relics were saved.

The doorknocker of Notre Dame; the 13th century wrought iron on these doors is so fine that a rumor began to spread that the blacksmith, Biscornet, had sold his soul to the devil for the ability to create them, because no one ever gets to be really talented at something without the credit going to someone above or way below.

Charlemagne et ses Leudes / Charlemagne and his Guards. Charlemagne laid the first stone at Notre Dame and almost assuredly no others.

Our route took us down Rue Dante, a street with many shops of general nerd interest: toy stores, comic book shops, purveyors of pulp fiction, and a creperie with intergalactic decor named Odyssey that advertised in its window its right to refuse service to Jar Jar Binks. Our destination? The Musée de Cluny, Paris’ medieval history museum, constructed on the remnants of Gallo-Roman baths, rebuilt in 1510, and currently open to the public while undergoing a major renovation.

The entrance to the Musée de Cluny was not designed with modern security in mind but a conveyer belt x-ray machine and metal detector are wedged in there regardless. Personal belongings are funneled into an alcove with a narrow entrance, passable by one person. When it was my turn, I went in to grab my things, and an impatient older woman crammed in right behind me–she couldn’t get at her belongings, and I couldn’t get out. There was literally nowhere for me to go and she’s trying to reach around me with freaking zombie arms and I’d had just about enough of being physically forced around by other human beings all week and that’s the story of how I ended up snapping “MOVE” at an old lady because “pardon” and “excusez-moi” weren’t getting through. Because honestly? Have some spatial awareness. Consider the fact that other people exist. Good grief. 

We were at the Musée de Cluny for their Magical Unicorns exhibit, along with what appeared to be every schoolchild in greater Paris. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, having just returned from Sydney, were the centerpiece, a set of six enormous red weavings whose meaning yet remains a subject of debate; the most likely theory in my estimation is the one that posits that the series of six tapestries is the five senses, plus one to grow on. In addition to the tapestries were some seventy other pieces related to the licorne from the museum’s collection, a common subject in medieval art, when it was believed to be a real animal.

What the unicorn tapestries look like to people with undiagnosed myopia. 

Unicorn water vessel

Wild Woman with Unicorn, a chairback cover from about 1500, her dress is not made of skink tongues but hair.

Sight, The Lady with the Unicorn

Touch, The Lady with the Unicorn

A Mon Seul Desir, the final tapestry in the Lady with the Unicorn series

The only thought that went through my brain upon glancing at this display of ivory is “Look how many elephants had to die so we could collectively gaze upon more awful monk haircuts.”

Some of the original heads of the biblical kings of Notre Dame that had been removed, discovered in 1977.

This spectacular chocolate death mask of  Tutankhamun lured me into Maison Georges Larnicol though I didn’t end up buying any actual chocolate, leaving with an array of “kouignettes” and an obscene amount of tender, buttery salted caramels, both in assorted flavors . These mini kouign amann up the ante for richness. It’s the kougin amann equivalent of eating the center out of a cinnamon roll: the densest, softest part, with the highest ratio of filling to dough, except instead of cinnamon sugar, it’s a sticky-crunchy caramel swirled with raspberry, Grand Marnier, pistachio, or chocolate ganache. Given the abundance of butter, their petite size is just right. Their caramels are the best caramels I’ve ever eaten, with flavors like apple crumble, mirabelle plum, and sesame. 

Fontaine Saint-Michel, 1860

The Seine at sunset

The French term for “window shopping” is léche-vitrine, or window-licker.

The Louvre after dark

I’m not the biggest fan of the metro but I do love these swooping art nouveau entrances.

To The Smoking Dog

Amorino Gelato, mango gelato with a mango Santa macaron

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city and snacking: croque monsieurs and frites, gelato, paprika chips…mmm, paprika chips.

 

* It was definitely a brush with bedbugs: I had six bites in a line from my upper arm to my elbow, and another four in a line on my opposite hip. The itch was so deep I could always feel the desire to scratch, over everything else. Since I never saw a physical bug and didn’t know until after I got home that I was bitten, this meant that I had to assume that my entire home was contaminated. Our luggage was garbage bagged and exiled. Our mattress was encased in plastic. Every single textile was laundered on super hot regardless of the care instructions and then quarantined in garbage bags until the entire job was finished. We vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed. I canceled social engagements in case there was a chance I could spread them. I warned people before they attempted to hug me. (That part was the hardest, feeling like the kind of dirty that can’t be cleaned with the people whom I most enjoy having that kind of closeness, which makes sense because it’s not like you’re often given the opportunity to hug an enemy or even a frenemy to infest them, like a Kiss of Death except it just psychologically tortures them for weeks.) The pest control guy could not find any evidence of bedbugs in our home (see: all the cleaning) but set some traps with bedbug lures which have never caught a single bedbug. I haven’t had any bites appear since and I have to conclude that I was bitten and either didn’t carry any home with me or that my quarantine and extermination efforts did the trick. Do I still feel uneasy any time I feel the faintest tickle on my body in the night? Damn right I do.

**Let’s be real, though: Notre Dame is smack in the middle of Paris, on an island in the Seine which splits the city in two, so it is in the primest of locations for foot traffic. If every time we walked by was a “visit”, Jason and I visited Notre Dame about twelve times.  

The Domaine de Chantilly, Jewel in the French Countryside

Situated on the edge of Sylvie Pond, the Domaine de Chantilly appears to float upon the water, like something out of a fairy tale. This château was constructed in the early 1800s; the original 12th century building and home to the Condés was destroyed during the French Revolution. So while this is the historical home of Louis II de Bourbon, this is not his house.

The reconstruction and embellishment of this home was the single grand vision of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, who needed somewhere to display his vast art collection. As his would-be heirs predeceased him, Henri deeded it to the Institut de France along with the Great Stables, provided that they not be altered, and that none of the art should ever leave, on loan or otherwise. It now houses the Musee Condé, displaying all the intact treasure of a 19th century prince. 

(click for the full panorama and to play a game of “Where’s Melissa?”)

The grounds at Chantilly are extensive; motorized carts and horses are available to rent so that visitors can more easily traverse the 115 hectares (just over 284 acres), a large portion of which remains wooded with accents here and there. A temple dedicated to Venus. A life size game of snakes and ladders. In the center of the grounds is a more structured French 17th century style garden with symmetrical reflecting pools and manicured greenery embracing them, fountains and bright white statuary. 

It took me entirely too long to realize that wasn’t a tank top.

We spent some time admiring the exterior of the château and the grounds near the entryway. The Duke was clearly fond of statuary and ornamentation with a Grecian and Egyptian influence. Stone sphinxes placidly allow visitors to pass. Life size statues of men writhe on either side of the main entrance, their flesh realistically bound by stone wrappings.  Other details stand out: the roof tiles of the château are overlapping scales. Iron winds into curving, pointed shapes that suggest both the natural world and a threat simultaneously. I spent some time imagining how fabulous it would be to sweep through these columned archways en route to a masquerade ball, because thinking about expensive, impractical parties is one of my favorite hobbies.

Ornate does not even begin to describe the interior of the château. It is encrusted with riches the way a ship’s bottom gathers barnacles: more upon more. Gilding on top of decorative moulding on top of paintings to fit the little space above doors. Large fireplaces with unique decorative firedogs, gifts and acquisitions from foreign lands, statues and gold and art by masters and so much fine furniture for looking at. The château was criticized by Boni de Castellane as “one of the saddest specimens of the architecture of our era” because the layout is such that one enters on the second floor and descends to the salons. I don’t really understand this criticism in terms of how it affects the home’s functionality, but I do think I would enjoy spending time snarkily browsing real estate listings with Boni because he is going to have some thoughts on McMansions and I am here for them.

I know I’ve already admired the Prince of Condé for his outstanding pirate fashion sensibilities, but in these statues, I’m getting more of a hot vampire vibe. 

This was in a room of very large murals, subdivided into smaller paintings by these painted gold frames. I love the whimsical lion faces. 

And then there’s The Grand Monkey room, an entire room devoted to depicting monkeys engaging in the arts, the sciences, and lighthearted weapon-wielding. This was obviously my favorite room. Dress an animal in people clothes (especially with a wide array of fantastic hats) and you have my attention. Make them specialist academics and experts in arms and your room theme catapults from “cute” to “top ten of all time”. 

 

The Duke bought this fireplace screen painted by Christophe Huet at an estate sale to go in the monkey room, where no doubt he felt that whole body thrill you get when you find something that could’ve been made for you.

The library at Chantilly contains almost 19,000 items, including 300 medieval manuscripts, a small portion of which are on display to the public in glass cases. I wonder who gets to read from this library, if anyone. 

I’m deeply into these reading and writing chairs.

Medieval book, entirely hand lettered, illustrated, and illuminated. My mind boggles contemplating the amount of human labor that is bound into this book.

Presumably the last thing you see before you are brained with a lamp by your deadeyed lover.

Chapelle des Coeurs des Condé / Chapel of the Hearts of Condé, where the hearts of the family remain in a communal urn.

Staircase into The Stag Gallery

The Stag Gallery. Jason thinks that a table this size would be perfect for miniature wargaming but based on my experience with their catalog, if the Duke had been into Warhammer on this scale, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to construct the château. It would have just been the table, a tent, and 50 million francs worth of plastic figures on top of the rubble of the old château.

I found the most important part of the tapestry for you to look at. 

When I entered the Domaine, I was entirely unprepared for its art collection, including Raphael’s Les Trois Graces. I took a photo of a painting of a horse (because horse) and then realized that it was painted by French master Théodore Géricault. There’s so much art everywhere, stacked up the walls in 19th century style as many as three deep in thick, golden frames, room after room filled with master works, an entire museum of art in one wing.

One of the ways the paintings are protected is through constant, vigilant security. On the day I visited, the young man on the job strode purposefully from room to room, his shoes squeaking vigorously with every step. Those squeaks stalked me throughout the château, the volume belying his position at all times. The energetic squeaks grew near, then far, then near again. It seems like knowing roughly how much time you have before the guard squeaks past your location would almost embolden a thief…but I suppose that’s when the other guard with silent shoes they never noticed gets them.

The Gallery of Painting, at the far end of the room, the rotunda.

François-Hubert Drouais, Marie Antoinette, 1773

Piero di Cosimo, Ritratto di Simonetta Vespucci come Cleopatra ; I love this painting and I was thrilled to see it in person. 

The ceiling of the rotunda. I’m not familiar with this particular escapade of Hermes but that muralbombing cherub seems pretty dismayed.

A painting about friendship and fond feelings about apples.

There was an entire wall of sepia-toned stained glass depicting scenes of…I don’t know, let’s take a look.

…so here it appears we have a crowd gathered by torchlight to watch a baby get a Prince Albert.

Correction: a very creepy baby.

I was particularly fond of the artistic flourishes used around text. 

I love the sassy expressions on these satyrs. 

This looks like Jesus got pretty great seats for his friends for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Pottery produced in Chantilly featuring an animal that I’m certain everyone recognizes and immediately pictures whenever someone occasions to say something is “leopard print”.  Long scaly fingers tipped with claws, jagged tusks for teeth, wide human eyes and that unmistakable polka dot coat: that’s a leopard, all right.

Life goals.

THIS STAIRCASE. Look at that curving, swirling gorgeousness. No one is allowed to touch it but my desire to touch it was so high. Check that little lizard tail poking out! This staircase is so fabulous that everyone who gazes upon it walks with an extra sway in their step for the next fifty yards. 

The Palace of Versailles used this painting by Vernet of King Louis-Philippe at Versailles as the cover for their visitor guide for their limited time exhibition on Louis-Phillipe, the king who transformed the palace into a national monument.

Eventually the nonstop squeaking drove us outdoors for another stroll through a portion of the gardens. The sky blustered on and off and a cold wind bit through our jackets so neither of us harbored dreams of walking OR riding the entire estate. We mainly walked around the back of the castle and through one section of the woods, finding a cave that I’m a thousand percent certain is the mossy home of a magical critter that Jason went into and I declined, fearing magical rabies. 

The side of our hotel, the Auberge du Jeu de Paume.

Our time out in the gardens of Chantilly chilled me to the bone, and so we each spent some time luxuriating in a hot bath. I remembered how going out to dinner early in Paris had made us cross paths with closed restaurants and rude waiters, so in Chantilly, we started our search for our first meal of the day a little later, around 7, and that’s when I learned that in Chantilly, they roll up the red carpet around 5pm. We bought the dregs of a boulangerie that we caught just before they, too, closed up shop for the day, went back to the hotel room, and ordered five star room service while watching movies on youtube. Their restaurant has a Michelin star, there’s a small chance that room service comes out of the same kitchen. It may not have been fine dining, but it was delicious and would’ve been so even if we both weren’t ravenous.

I am beyond glad that the room service did not arrive during the “outrageous French accent” scene.

When we checked in, the clerk emphasized that we could have breakfast served in our room or we could have it at their restaurant. The website even says that breakfast is served in the room so that you can enjoy the view from the window “immediately upon waking”. “What a lovely amenity to offer,” I thought. “And they’re so proud of their high level of service that they want to make certain everyone partakes of the most important meal of the day.” Since we had a train to catch back to Paris, I chose to eat in the restaurant, not taking much but delighted by the selection of beautiful French pastries, eggs made to order, rows of cups of vanilla infused creme Chantilly

And then I got my bill printout and saw that breakfast was an extra 35 euros apiece and I wished that I had stuffed my backpack full of chocolate croissants instead of just eating one and drinking a cup of tea like a sucker.

The next few days would be Paris alone, and while I would miss this swanky hotel and its flattering mirrors, I was glad to be going to a home base of sorts. I didn’t need to worry about which train seats corresponded with my fare on my ride back to Paris: the train was so full everyone’s seat was “face in stranger’s armpit”. A human scent-ipede.

Chantilly: Watch me whip, watch me neigh-neigh

I bought a regular fare train ticket from Gare du Nord, and it wasn’t really evident upon boarding which seat section corresponded with that fare. I selected a row and then reconsidered, moving up a section past a minor partition, not wanting to be so near the bathroom, and hoping its proximity wasn’t what defined the fare structure. What I should have hoped for was one or two of my fellow passengers to oversleep and miss the train so they wouldn’t end up getting into a shouting, high-pitched and then muffled screaming fistfight in the row I’d vacated earlier. My seatback was to it so I mostly heard rather than saw the fight. It was surprisingly quiet on the train afterward. No one around me seemed inclined to offer up their take on current events, so I have no definitives and only wild guesses.  

Some questions that I’d never bothered to consider before now: What if I hadn’t moved? Would the fight still have occurred? Was it about who had the worst seat versus the second worst seat? Alternate universe Melissa who did stay would almost certainly have been snitty about toilet smells but she wouldn’t know exactly how long a train could be held up at a station after two pugilists were dragged off by French police.

It’s a long time. 

Our destination was Chantilly, a French commune 35 miles north of Paris on the border of the Chantilly forest with a population of eleven thousand, historically admired for their whipped cream and very fine black silk lace. Although I did hope to partake of some crème Chantilly during my visit, I was going there for horses. In addition to their famous hippodrome which hosts the prestigious Prix du Jockey Club (the French Derby), Chantilly is also home to the Museum of the Horse, located inside the Great Stables. 

The Great Stables are the largest stables in Europe, with the capacity for over 200 horses.  200 horses in 2019 is a huge number of horses, and on days that I feed and turn in at my stable, I’m glad there’s never more than 17 (especially if the weather has ’em feeling snappy), but for historical perspective, in 1775, the Grand Equerry (the highest office for all matters relating to the royal horses), Charles Eugène of Lorraine and Prince of Lambesc was accused of misappropriating 120 of the king’s horses for his personal use. He took horses from work the way some people take pens. And still, those embezzled equines represented a mere 6% of the king’s total stock. A stable that holds 200 horses would barely accommodate Louis XVI’s benchwarmers.

Located on the outskirts of the Domaine de Chantilly and across the street from the Great Stables was our hotel, the Auberge de Jeu de Paume, the little splurge of the trip. Our room looked out onto the gardens of the Domaine, less manicured and more forest-like than the term “garden” would lead one to believe, particularly in the royal French countryside.  

A courtyard at Auberge de Jeu de Paume

In my blog post about Versailles, I took a photo of a statue of Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, and said I didn’t know any historical tidbits about him and didn’t intend to look anything up but I thought his clothes would be appropriate for an excellent pirate. Well those words came back unexpectedly to bite me in the ass because as it turns out, the Domaine de Chantilly is Louis de Bourbon’s house and the Great Stables are his stables and a fun fact about him is that he had these amazing stables built because he believed that he was going to be reincarnated as a horse and wanted to make sure he’d be housed in facilities appropriate for a horse of his rank. I have many questions, none of which are answered by the historical record: Did Louis intend to allow himself to be ridden or did he assume he’d still be giving orders in some fashion? Did people working at the stables after his death have any guesses as to which one, if any, was the reincarnated prince? Did they geld him anyway? 

Built in 1719 by architect Jean Aubert, the Great Stables are nothing short of imposing. The stalls inside are flooded with natural light and the ceilings rise in a gentle cathedral arch. The entrance to the Museum of the Horse is located between a row of stalls containing full size horses and a row of half stalls for donkeys and miniatures, including one small shaggy shetland pony with long black hair and whiskers named Ramses le Grand.

Now, if I know anything about how reincarnation works (I don’t, nor does anyone else), you get to choose what you’re reincarnated as but due to the laws of physics you have to maintain the same relative amount of body mass, so if you’re a 150 pound man with a fondness for red squirrels, you’ll come back as 200 of them. If you’re a man with a fondness for horses…miniature horse weights range from 150-350 pounds. I’m not saying that this miniature horse with an important name, long black hair and whiskers is the reincarnation of  Louis II de Bourbon, Prince of Condé, a slim man with long black hair and whiskers, but I’m not NOT saying it.

I’m going to come back as two obese Chow dogs.

Each animal has a personal water fountain and seems very pleased about it.

The Museum of the Horse challenged my typical photo taking and posting philosophies. When deciding what to post, I’ll run down a list of loose guidelines: Does it set a scene? Does does it illustrate a story? Does it demonstrate scale? Do I find it beautiful, or meaningful, or historically interesting? Is it funny? Is it cute? Is it a horse?

Being comprised entirely of horses and horse-adjacent items, The Museum of the Horse contains over 1200 photo opportunities on a diverse range of horse subtopics: replicas of old horsemanship manuals, riding equipment from around the world, horses in art including a room of carousel horses, racing memorabilia, and more. The Domaine had been bequeathed to the Institut de France with the stipulation that it be preserved exactly as it is. The Museum of the Horse was established in 1982 after riding master Yves Bienaime, who had learned to ride at the Great Stables, noted that the building was falling into disrepair and wanted to restore its glory. And why not formally recognize humankind’s relationship with the horse? It has ploughed our fields, allowed us to hunt farther and faster and pack the kill home, carried us to war and to work and to pleasure, been an honest friend for centuries.

Photographed because large horse

Photographed because shy horse with helmet hair

Tibetan stirrups, 17th century

Chinese saddle, painted wood, Qing dynasty, 19th century. It’s so beautiful but my butt hurts just looking at it.

Chinese stirrups, Qing Dynasty, 18th century

Imagine how mad you would be if this was your cart and you got back to the parking lot from the farmer’s market and saw someone had scratched your paint.

A sculpture of HRH Queen Elizabeth riding her police horse Tommy in 1947.

Rajasthan, early 19th century

Photographed so now you’ll know that all the plants you can see around the arena are in fancy horse-centipede planters

Photographed because setting

Photographed because scale. And this is a big horse, with a tall rider. Lastly, once you see the eyes in the windows, you can’t unsee them.

Photographed because now there are two very large horses, more = better

My favorite part of The Horse Museum, however, was their magnificent outdoor arena. Set in a courtyard in the stables, two giant horse statues loom at one end, trumpeting silently at onlookers. Silently, thankfully, because speaking as the owner of the loudest horse in the barn, I think if a horse this size screamed at full volume, the sheer force of it might fling a person catching the brunt of it into space. 

And all this was just Louis de Bourbon’s stables, what he imagined to be fit for a royal horse. I couldn’t wait to get into his house.