Category Everything is Terrible

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.  

A Grey Day in Montmarte

So much of this day was just off. It was pouring for our walk to the train station in Nantes and I remained slightly soggy for hours until I was able to change at the hotel in the afternoon. Our ride to Montmarte didn’t improve my opinion of the Paris metro. The air not filled with other bodies was stuffy with body odors, and after wandering under the earth for what felt like three and three quarters miles in the seemingly endless white tiled exit tunnel, I finally emerged into an open-air market of sorts where one can purchase items that were liberated from the trash or nearby homes. This is not the Barbes/Rochechouart market but one nearby where you can buy, for instance, a remote control for a TV that is nowhere to be seen.

We stayed at Montmarte Mon Amour, a kitschy boutique hotel near the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur with a window that refused to close and where we were warned to avoid the Arc de Triomphe due to the yellow vest protests: noted.

Instead, we contemplated the number of stairs to Sacré-Cœur, the highest point in Paris, and elected to take the back road up the hill of rue du Chevalier de la Barre.

Basilique du Sacré-Cœur

I didn’t particularly care for my visit to Sacré-Cœur. It probably has a lot to do with my midwestern Protestant upbringing– indoctrinating a child with Sunday school every week plus mandatory weekly Wednesday evening confirmation class for three years plus two summers in a row of bible camp tends to make the lessons linger. It bothers me to see churches stuffed with riches while people are sleeping in those howling metro tunnels. It bothers me to see churches that charge you to light a candle or that have vending machines of medallions with the pope’s face on them (what is a graven image if not that?)  even though I do recognize that having a constant stream of visitors flowing through your church is a different sort of business from being a non-famous church. 

Around Sacré-Cœur were many aggressive street vendors selling light up Eiffel Towers and locks for a new fence for tourists to menace. We had a snack at nearby La Galette des Moulins and learned that while our train chugged out of the station in Nantes, protesters blocked the runway of the Nantes airport and tollooths throughout France. We learned about the vandalization of the Arc de Triomphe, the burning of an entire street of cars three miles away. 

They look like they’re all blopping.

Rue du Mont Cenis Stairs

We had dinner at Pink Flamingo, where Jason promptly spilled nearly his entire beer and we shared one of the worst pizzas I’ve ever eaten. I feel like it had to have been an off pie; people consistently rave about this place online but the pizza I had was overwhelmed by thick, underbaked, slippery cheese. 

It was one of those days where if I was at home, I would just call it a mediocre day and have it over with but since I was IN PARIS it feels like I have to pretend that the mediocrity was somehow meaningful, that I need to display gratitude because another in my place may have enjoyed it.  But the only thing I was grateful for that day was the knowledge that the next morning, we’d be moving on to somewhere else.

Hyde Park’s Winter Wonderland

Jason and I flew to London on yet another screaming deal from IcelandAir. The plan was to arrive hungry, ready to hit the Borough Market, but on our flight, Jason broke down and ordered the admittedly delicious-looking pizza and hummus as a snack. And while I know that jokes about the quality of airline food had their time in 1991, what the flight attendant delivered to his seat in the name of each of those foods is, if not a violation of the Geneva Convention, at the very least, a crime against humanity’s tastebuds. The hummus was dry and crumbly and I refuse to call to that odd, sweaty cheese tart “pizza”. The pizza in the photograph and the congealed food item that arrived look like they were made on different planets. It’s like it was made by someone who had only ever read about pizza in an illustrationless book but was intrigued by the concept.

Jason still ate some of it, though. And later, when we were waiting in line at Heathrow customs to see one of the two customs agents who had bothered to show up for work that day, and I was getting hungrier and hungrier…did you think I was going to say I wished I had eaten some, too? Hell no! I thought back on that hockey puck of crust and coagulated dairy patty and added IcelandAir to the list of entities who have deeply betrayed me.

We were spending the night at The Morton Hotel in Bloomsbury, just across Russell Square from The British Museum. The Russell Square tube station exit involves cramming oneself onto an elevator with a lot of other people and a staircase with a stern sign at its base. “This staircase has 175 steps (equivalent to 15 floors) Do not use except in an emergency”. Well, my emergency that day was that I didn’t want to ride in an elevator with an entire tube carriage’s worth of people, and I started heaving myself up the stairs. I made it, but paid for it with the deep, racking cough of the consummate non-runner and someone who definitely hasn’t climbed fifteen continuous flights of stairs in a good long while. That cough continued through check-in at the hotel, and I can only assume that they thought I was bringing a new plague to their doorstep but were polite enough to wait to talk about it until I was out of earshot.

As this was a backpacking trip, I was glad of the opportunity to stop at the hotel and strip out all unnecessary items from my bag to lighten the load. In addition to my camera, I’d managed to fit everything I needed to keep myself clean and presentable-ish for a week in my travel backpack with a little room to spare, but even travel sized everything and the bare minimum of clothes and paper took on what felt like a mighty mass when carried on my shoulders, especially when said carriage involves fifteen flights of stairs for some reason. But I didn’t need spare underwear or the noise-canceling headphones I’m too spoiled to travel without for the rest of the day’s activities: the aforementioned sandwich-eating and Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park.

My sandwich at Roast Hog was perfect (again), greasy, crunchy, chewy and absolutely restorative. Here’s the photo from last time, I was too busy eating to take another.

Afterward we rode the tube to the vicinity of Hyde Park and its spectacular Winter Wonderland, host to 2.5 million visitors annually, and based on the number of prominent warning signs throughout the grounds, a fair portion of those visitors are in good standing with the Pickpockets’ Guild.

We were there primarily to meet some friends at the ice bar but since we were going to be there, I prebooked tickets for us at the Magical Ice Kingdom presents: The Secret Forest.  We were supposed to arrive 10 minutes prior to our appointed time, which was rapidly approaching, so after we got through the security line, we hustled back through nearly the entirety of the grounds so as not to be late and forfeit our sole opportunity to experience to this hotly-anticipated attraction. Their website really emphasized the importance of prebooking tickets, and particularly when I’m planning an international trip, I take website recommendations very seriously. Very seriously. So I created an account, I bought those tickets, and when I say “we hustled back” I mean that I walked so fast that I could’ve set a small fire between my thighs and Jason had no choice but to keep up.  And when I arrived, ashen-faced and distraught and two minutes late, hoping they’d still admit us, I realized the Winter Wonderland website may have oversold the public’s keen desire to view ice sculptures. And while purchasing tickets in advance may indeed be necessary during the high periods, on a Monday at 4pm, not so much. In wintry terms, the crowd was more “scattered snowflakes” than “snowpocalypse”. However, that may just be the genius of a perfectly timed ticketing system working precisely as it should. 

One enters The Secret Forest through a door underneath a sign clearly marked “Secret Forest” so…the secret’s out. The snow and ice sculptures contained therein were in turns realistic and whimsical, and they had some fun photo opportunities, including the ability to photograph yourself as half ice-faun or half ice-centaur and on a throne of ice surrounded by icy battle unicorns. The ice throne was obviously my favorite, and it’s the kind of thing where I’d be tempted to show up with a costume if not for being 4700 miles from home and constrained by what I could fit in a backpack. Speaking of the backpack, I learned that one does not slide particularly well down an ice slide while wearing one. It was day one, and my resentment against this backpack was already growing.

After hanging out in a refrigerated warehouse for a while, then scooting down a ramp of ice like a dog across carpet in front of some British teenagers offering suggestions about my technique, I was more than ready to be somewhere warm with a similarly warm beverage. We settled on the Arctic Lodge Bar, an open rectangle with a bar, a series of benches, and roaring woodfires. My wish for a warm place to drink a warm drink was granted; I thought the condition of “breathable air that doesn’t leave you with the start of a fine smoke ring” was implied, but alas. The smoke would have driven me out eventually but the only seats in the house were directly across from a couple engaged in some vigorous displays of public affection and the layout of the seats were such that there was nowhere to look to as to avoid knowing the finger points of a stranger’s kissing technique, so that got me out first because I am evidently a prudish American. 

Also because there was plenty of stuff I wanted to see before we went to the ice bar, and I am referring in particular to the giant man looming over the Bavarian village that I had noted from a distance. I spent some time watching this enormous puppet do its thing, and finally concluded that it was the dirty, independently-moving fingers that were the creepiest, and not the the little shudder of flesh under its chin when it spoke, but it was a close thing. 

This was Jason’s third hot chocolate or thereabouts and the glee is starting to kick in.

Jason and I were both drawn to Dr. Archibald, Master of Time, and his vaguely threatening steampunk owl looming over the midway. It was a combination physical and virtual reality ride, and either one of us would independently admit to this day that we would have rather kept the admittance token as a souvenir. The ride itself is fine (it’s not my favorite thing to put VR headsets over my glasses, and I like having a ride attendant jam one over them far less) but that token is spectacular and handing it back after a few steps felt wrong. 

We met our friends Sean and Colleen outside the ice bar, where we were issued parkas and (damp) gloves. This “sub zero” ice bar sounds on the edge of perilous until I remember that -10°C is equivalent to 14°F, or vastly warmer than most winter mornings I spent waiting for the school bus in a hooded sweatshirt in Wisconsin. The gimmick of the ice bar is fun for a bit but after you’ve sat on an ice chair and drink from your awkwardly thick ice cup, you’ve fairly well plumbed its depths. I did have a wonderful time catching up with them both and hearing about their adventures over the past few months, like hiking Hadrian’s Wall–the kind of action-adventure travel that probably doesn’t begin with someone hacking their lungs out after climbing fifteen flights of stairs.