Category Masticating With Mellzah

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.

Sugar and Spice in Nantes

There was a delight around every corner in Nantes. A tram hums outside a castle. Gothic revival churches peek over rooftops. A dragon stalks through a playground, its tongue of flame a slide. An elephant patrols the former shipyard. I was charmed immediately.

We stayed at the Hôtel Voltaire Opéra in Nantes’ Graslin district, the district named after 18th century financier Jean-Jacques Graslin. It was fitting that after checking in, our first priority was finding an ATM, and our second priority was finding another one after the first’s minimum withdrawal was a thousand euros, which was a good nine hundred euros more than I’d planned on withdrawing or was interested in fumbling with in public or even had to withdraw, let’s be honest.

Cours Cambronne

Théâtre Graslin

These black posts in Graslin Place can lower into the ground so vehicles can pass through, creating a sense of absolute power in the driver. THE STREETS RESHAPE THEMSELVES TO MY WILL. Ahem.

The awning on the left belongs to La Cigale, a brasserie full of art nouveau goodness and a historic monument since 1964 that we were totally going to get hot chocolate at but ran out of time.

Passage Pommeraye, an 1840s shopping mall.

Basilique Saint-Nicolas

Aire de Jeux de Kinya Maruyama, a playground by Japanese architect Kinya Maruyama

Nantes was originally settled in the Bronze Age. Conquered by the Romans in the first century BC, Nantes remained allied with the empire until its demise in the fifth century. Shortly thereafter, it was taken by the Visigoths, then the Franks, then the Bretons, and Brittany began its integration into France with the marriage of Anne of Brittany to the King of France, Charles VIII. 

Like many little fantasy nerds, I grew up with an acute case of Castle Fever™, and so I’m always stoked to see a castle, whether it’s for royalty or made of sand or contains an inordinate amount of cheese or something in between. I was definitely interested in crossing the moat to see the inside of the Castle of the Dukes of Brittany (Château des ducs de Bretagne). The original structure was built in the 13th century and was demolished in the 15th century to make way for this building, a beauty with brilliant white tufa façades, jutting gargoyles, and golden accents.  After Brittany was integrated into France, this castle became the residence of the king (100 years before Versailles even dreamed of being a hunting lodge) when he was in town.  During WWII, it was occupied by Germany. Today, it houses the Nantes history museum.

Château des ducs de Bretagne

No doubt this is a historical ducal waterslide.

Reliquary containing the heart of Anne of Brittany, Duchess of Brittany and  two time Queen Consort of France in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Fact: Her second royal husband, Louis XII, was so eager to divorce his wife for Anne that he claimed he had never been able to consummate the marriage due to being “inhibited by witchcraft” because I guess that was the best lie he could come up with.

Nantes’ economic history was as a shipping port involved in what was known as “triangular trade”. Nantais goods were shipped to Africa and exchanged for slaves, who were transported to the Americas, and those ships’ hulls returned full of goods valuable to Europeans: sugar, tobacco, coffee, chocolate. The slave trade via Nantes persisted until 1793 when there was a decree for the abolition of slavery. Nine years later, Napoléon Bonaparte re-established it for another fifteen years. All told, they are responsible for more than half a million slaves, some two hundred thousand more people than the current population of Nantes. The wealth of Nantes was built through slavery, turning textiles into men into sugar, and then processing and selling that sugar directly and in the form of manufactured biscuits. Nantes’ business was so brisk that they needed to open additional textile factories to keep pace with the ships.

Half a million slaves.

A book I read about John Bartholemew “Black Bart” Roberts opened with a description of life aboard a (British) slave ship in the 18th century working the same circuit. Conditions were, to put it mildly, horrific. Water and food were both in short supply (they cut into profits and storage space, so, more profits), with a ship’s surgeon describing a sailor rising at dawn to lick the dew from the roof of the chicken coop. Slaves were tortured into eating, their teeth broken in order to force food down the throats of those unwilling to eat. Those they could not brutalize into drawing breath the length of the trip were mutilated after death, desecrating their bodies to horrify the living who believed that only a whole body could return home. Later studies showed that as many as one in eight slaves died en route. Some sixty-two thousand. A stadium of people, dead from the torments of being dragged from their home across the ocean to put money in someone else’s pocket, sweetness in someone else’s mouth. 

Along the Loire, glass tiles are scattered into the sidewalks, representing each of the slave ships that made the journey, to acknowledge that this city was built on the backs of slaves, that even today we build our wealth and live our lives comfortably walking on the backs of slaves. Slavery may be outlawed in the United States, but slavery is not a relic of the past.  Slaves peel shrimp in ‘ghost ships’ that are integral to the worldwide supply chain. Child slaves climb trees with machetes to pick the cacao seeds that make the vast majority of the world’s chocolate. Slaves make fast fashion. Slavery makes manufacturing cell phones possible. Slaves are involved at the root of many mining, harvesting, and manufacturing supply chains. And it’s not just something that happens in other countries: Labor by trafficked individuals in nail salons in NYC was recently uncovered. 

Also part of this memorial along the quai is a concrete area with glass walls with article 4 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights translated into many languages. “No one shall be held in slavery or servitude; slavery and the slave trade shall be prohibited in all their forms.” When we passed by, two British tourists were sitting inside, drinking bottles of beer and loudly debating what it was and whether or not they could take a piss there.  

Textile manufactured in Nantes

Jules Verne was born in Nantes; singing sensation Barbara released a song titled after the city.

I don’t even know what this is but I like looking at it.

Elle porte en ses doigts pieux
La gerbe du printemps celtique
Et toute la race mystérieuse
Fleurit, suave, dans ses yeux
Anatole Le Braz, Breton poet

There was a school field trip in progress when we visited the castle and we were the distraction of choice whenever we landed in their collective field of vision, so for once, I thought of the children and made my way to the sentry walkway for views of the castle and of the surrounding city.

Mandatory castle selfie

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre-et-Saint-Paul

Église Sainte-Croix

La Tour LU

We ate lunch at L’Octopus, where our server was the most challenging type of person with whom to interact in a foreign language, the kind who insists he doesn’t speak your language while you are speaking his. This person in particular was so horrified at the idea of dealing with non-native French speakers that he couldn’t even figure out what it meant when I pointed at something on the menu, like my thick American finger indicated too Englishly. He literally clutched his pad to his chest with both hands, his eyes rolling back helplessly, head turning side to side to look for someone, anyone else to assist us. I am certain this man was not having a seizure, it was levels of Can’t Even so intense that he lost the ability to read. I feel sorry for the guy, if dealing with me is enough to cause this kind of a meltdown, every day must be an unceasing struggle. With the help of a different server who had familiarity with American pointing, Jason ordered a burger that he enjoyed, and I ordered a salad that I very much did not, but since I nearly killed a man placing my first order, I decided to suck it up and not to gamble with any more lives.

L’Octopus interior

Gout appreciates the direct recognition, I’m sure, especially after being shunned socially for causing the death of Louis XII.

La Loire

Nantes was the capital of Brittany but is no longer considered part of the Brittany region of France in a way that I don’t fully understand, but I am a fan of Breton pastry, and it was in search of such that I went to Ô Pétrin Divin. There, I greeted and ordered in French, so of course in polar opposition to lunch, the woman working there huffed indignantly and said “I speak English.” How was I to know?!  What I do know is that they sell a gorgeously caramelized and layered kougin amann, yeasty with a hint of saltiness in a way that is characteristic of the region’s desserts. 

We ate dinner at Imagine, a restaurant whose menu changes weekly, the commitment to quality ingredients of chef Anne-Lise Genouel inspiring her to make as much as possible in-house. The meal we had at Imagine was exceptional, the pièces de résistance definitely the five house-made sorbets and ice creams, the flavors of which were beautiful, each a surprise.

Imagine

planche mixt charcuteries & fromages

velouté du moment, cauliflower

falafel, créme oignon doux & menthe

découvertes de 5 glaces & sorbets maisons & pâtisseries

Jason had started limping and complaining about his shoes as far back as the castle and this complaining reached critical mass on Rue Crébillon. It probably doesn’t speak well about my character that my reaction to this was annoyance, but hear me out: I do all the planning for these trips. I make all the reservations. I figure out how to get to and from the airport. I’m the one who researches tipping culture and wall outlet format and orders the adapters and the backpacks you can plug your phone into directly.  I learn the language(ish) and do all the translation. Jason is responsible for packing the things that he will need, which he usually does with a list from me. That’s it. And in fact, we had gone out together several months earlier to pick out new comfortable walking shoes for the specific purpose of breaking in and bringing on this trip and these were left in the closet at home in favor of the pair that were currently rotting off of his feet in a painful manner. So yes, I was annoyed, but according to my opinion poll of one, this annoyance was wholly justified. My annoyance was two-fold: the obvious, that my input and efforts toward smoothing our path were utterly disregarded, and borrowed annoyance* at how much harder breaking in a new pair of shoes would make a trip that I knew would involve another solid week of walking. Having to spend time engaged in one of my least favorite activities, clothes shopping, was simply a bonus.

Thankfully, there was a shoe store nearby and while I stayed outside grumpily catching Pokémon, Jason managed to find a pair that not only treated him right for the duration of the trip but also come with the side benefit of being able to smugly say “Oh, I got these in France” whenever someone compliments them. 

One of the delights of our overnights in Nantes was the Christmas market, the largest in western France. Each night, the stalls would come alive, selling hot mulled wine out of giant hammered copper pots, spiced breads, sugared Liège waffles, stacks of nougat and wheels of cheese and paper cones of hot blackened roast chestnuts and churros the size of a human femur. It’s one of the many times in France I cursed my lack of stomach space and carrying capacity. But I did order a hot ham sandwich (sandwich à la chiffonnade) which just basically means “shredded meat sandwich”, but it was cooked in this enormous burbling pan of cream (?) and onions (?).  It was hot and rich and juicy with the right amount of tear to the bread and we devoured it, dripping onto the stones underfoot. I’ve since contacted the Nantes Christmas market head office to inquire after this sandwich and its vendor, and they were happy to provide me with the proper name but declined to provide me with any further information. The closest thing I can find online is this recipe for Corsican chiffonnade, which is definitely in the same vein.  Délicieux!

Je connais.

 

*You can borrow annoyance at your finer credit establishments at a rate of 10.69% additional acid indigestion per annum.