Paris, City of Dreams and Cathedrals

Paris is the city of cream and dreams, topped with a little chocolate. Jim and I took the Eurostar from London to Paris. I have to admit, I wondered if Paris would live up to its reputation for beauty and cuisine. Why yes. Yes it does. It truly is a city of dreams. The buildings in much of Paris are made from local stone which is cream color, topped with dark gray slate rooftops giving them the appearance of cream and sugar topped with chocolate. I fell in love with Paris just looking out of our hotel window in the Gare de Leon district. The city becomes even more breathtaking if you take a boat ride down the Seine, the river that flows through the Paris. The Seine is a well kept river with clean, neat river banks, and the cream and sugar buildings which rise above it.

At the heart of Paris, in the middle of the Seine, the Cathedral of Notre Dame stands majestic. She stands with flying buttresses and arching rib vault stonework regal and timeless as the guardian of Paris. She dominates the Seine and the city. Here in the States, we simply have nothing comparable. To think that such a majestic building was begun in 1160 is hard for me to understand. How builders were able to build such magnificence so long ago without modern tools and technology is almost incomprehensible. Notre Dame stands through the ages as a testament to human engineering and ingenuity. She stands as a testament to humanity’s belief in God, and a higher purpose. She burned in April 15, 2019 for 15 hours, but her medieval stonework stood. Without Notre Dame, an indelible part of the French spirit would have been lost. I admit I shed some tears as we watched her from the river, and later walked around her.

Notre Dame Cathedral stands proud over the Seine even as she is covered with scaffolding following the fire of April 2019. This view of her is from a boat on the Seine.
Notre Dame Cathedral at sunset. Jim and I had dinner on the other side of the street so we could watch the cathedral as her colors changed and sparkled in the setting sun.

In addition to Notre Dame, Jim and I were able to visit Sainte Chapelle and the Concierge, which are in close walking distance to Notre Dame. Sainte Chapelle was completed in 1248 for the king, who at the time, lived in what is now the Concierge. It is much lesser known than Notre Dame, however, it is a jewel of Gothic architecture. It was severely damaged during the French Revolution, but later restored. The intricate painting of the bottom floor is beautiful, but the real magic of the place is when when you go up a spiral staircase to see the upstairs. Jim went first holding my hand up the staircase. When we got to the top, he suddenly put his hand over my eyes and whispered, “Now look”. When he took his hand from my eyes, I was dazzled. Colors burst into a kaleidoscope and I felt as if I was floating in air for a moment. No less than fifteen long slender stained glass windows in all shades of blue let in the shinning sun, and the ceiling is painted in blue and white to match. The sight of the blues bursting from the stained glass took my breath away.

The sparkling stained glass of Sainte Chapelle, Paris
Saint Chapelle with it’s dazzling gold and blue kaleidoscope of stained glass and statuary.

We stopped next at the Concierge which was next door. I love history, but I admit to not knowing as much about French history as I do about English history. The concierge was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about French history. It was originally built as a palace known as the Palais de la Cite’ for the Merovingian Kings with Sainte Chapelle as the king’s own chapel. When the kings moved from the Concierge to the palace which now houses the Louvre, the Concierge was given to the people to use as a court. No, you really wouldn’t want to be locked up there! During the French Revolution, it was used extensively as a prison. Marie Antoinette, Louis XVI’s queen, and her children were housed there before they were executed by guillotine. There is a memorial to her in the rooms where she is believed to have stayed during her imprisonment. Even today, the concierge is still used as a court.

In addition to Notre Dame and Sainte Chapelle, we took the Metro to the Monmartre district to see Sacre Cour and Saint Phillipe and the local artists. Sacre’ Cour sits at the top of the highest point in Paris in the Monmartre district. Sacre’ Cour is far newer than either Notre Dame or Sainte Chapelle. It was finished in 1914. Although, it is of new construction, it is built much in the old traditions and uses Romano-Byzantine architecture. If you don’t know the basilica’s history, it could fool you. It feels old. It feels as old as Sainte Chapelle. In reality, after the French Revolution, France went through nearly 100 years of upheaval. Napoleon didn’t exactly work out as the people expected. He was supposed to be a liberator, but later crowned himself emperor. According to legend, the composer Beethoven originally dedicated his Eroica symphony to Napoleon, but later angrily scratched out dedication after Napoleon’s infamous coronation. There was a brief restoration of the monarchy, but that didn’t work out either as the new kings and the people never agreed upon the how the new monarchy should be run. After one hundred years of turmoil, Sacre Cour was built as a penance because the bishop at the time thought that France had turned away from her Catholic values and morals. Today, she stands at the pinnacle of Monmartre, watching over the city.

Behind Sacre Cour, and before the much smaller Sainte Phillipe, there is an area where the local artists show their wares, and there are many tempting cafes to try. I recommend going to Sacre Cour and Sainte Phillipe, then taking some time to browse through the art, and have a croissant or something equally delicious in a cafe.

the outside of Sacre Cour in the Monmartre district.
The altar inside Sacre Cour

The cathedrals of Paris are well worth visiting. We simply don’t have buildings that old and timeless here in the United States. Even though I am no architect, I appreciate the sheer beauty of the cathedrals. As a Catholic, I appreciate the faith that it must have taken to build them.

Literary England: Warwick Castle, Stratford and Oxford

For us, as Americans, England is a many faceted place of fairie tales, age old stories, castles and dreams. In many ways, England, and the British Isles are our mother country. Our legal system, our culture, even some of our cuisine are all rooted in Britain. We may have rebelled in 1776 for good reason, however, it could be argued that we never stopped loving our mother country. Consider our current fascination with Britain’s Royal Family if you doubt our love for all things British.

If you love literature, as I do, England is a place of enchanted castles and timeless tales of heroes. For a lover of literature, there is no better place than England. Jim and I stayed in London for a week, and because we don’t have children, we were able to explore the museums, the castles and the pubs where history happened. We were fortunate to take a side trip out through the Cotswolds to Warwickshire, Warwick Castle, Oxford and Stratford.

While we walked through Warwick Castle, we could see the different periods in English history as it was first commissioned by William the Conqueror in 1068 and underwent several renovations over time. The great hall had been left as it had been during medieval times, but the upstairs was refurbished in the 1800s. We continued to the man made mound at the end of the castle which is belieed to have been commissioned by Aethelflead at the end of the 800s. It is certainly the remains of an old baily. I had read Bernard Cornwall’s series, The Saxon Tales, with my father, in which Aethelflead and her father, Alfred, play a large role. It was a surreal experience to stand on a mound perhaps created by a formidable woman who lived so long ago during the Anglo Saxon Period. I found myself texting my father that I felt like I just stepped into a Bernard Cornwall novel. From the mound, we had a breathtaking view of the surrounding countryside. For me, standing on Aethelflead’s Mound, as it is still called, was a real life connection to the Anglo Saxon period and Aethelflead, the Lady of Mercia as well as the Bernard Cornwall books.

Next, we went on the Stratford to tour Shakespeare’s house. Yes, the house of the Bard himself still survives. I found out that it was to have been demolished in the 1800s, but for the efforts of Charles Dickens and his friends who worked to see that it was preserved. Walking through the house where the Bard was born and raised made him seem that much more real. At one point, I touched a door frame with my fingertips and whispered to Jim, “He was here. Shakespeare was here.” I almost couldn’t breathe as I walked the same steps he had walked so long ago. I had hoped to also see the first folio, which is often on display in the house, however it was not on display while we were there. It was still more than gratifying to walk the steps that Shakespeare walked. Much of the rest of Stratford is touristy, and there is a large outdoor market with all sorts of trinkets to buy. We bought handheld pastries with bacon, leeks and cheese and walked through the market with them. Delicious! Stratford is also where the Royal Shakespeare Theater is housed. Sir Patrick Stewart (Captain Picard, Star Trek the Next Generation) Sir Ian McKellan (Gandalf in Lord of the Rings) and Dame Judi Dench (M in several Bond movies) were all well regarded members of the Royal Shakespeare Theater long before they became famous in Hollywood. If you are there when a play is happening, it’s a definite must. After all, the play is the thing.

We then went to Oxford and toured the parts of the campuses open to the public. We couldn’t go in, but we saw Exeter, the school where J. R. R. Tolkien taught. The medieval architecture of Oxford is stunning, and exactly what we Americans envision it to be, maybe even more beautiful. Oxford has an incredibly old library, but we chose to go into the local bookstore instead. Oxford is, of course, the home of the Oxford Press which published most of the books I read for my college courses, so the bookstore was extensive. Then we had to hunt down the pub where J. R. R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis met their friends, the Inklings, to talk about their literary ideas, the Eagle and the Child, or the Bird and the Baby, as locals call it. We drank a pint in honor of Tolkien and Lewis. I had to investigate the entire place, and told Jim that I couldn’t believe we were drinking where Tolkien and Lewis drank. I think I pinched myself to make sure I wasn’t dreaming.

You don’t have to love literature to love Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle, but I felt as if my love of literature and history gave me a deeper appreciation of the places. I felt the literature I loved come alive as I walked the steps that my favorite authors walked long ago. For me, Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle were not just touristy places for photo ops. These were the places where my favorite authors lived, wrote, and history happened. Go to Oxford, Stratford and Warwick Castle for the history, the architechture, the literature, and of course, the pubs. Have a hand held bacon, leek and cheese pastry while you are there.

In this picture, I am standing on Aethelflead’s Mound at the end of Warwick Castle. This mound is believed to have been commissioned by Aethelflead, the Lady of Mercia and the daughter of Alfred the Great at the end of the 800s. Read Bernard Cornwall’s books, The Saxon Tales.
This is Shakespeare’s childhood home in Stratford Upon Avon. Here is where his father made gloves for people in the village. The Bard’s home was almost demolished but for the efforts of Charles Dickens and his friends who fought to preserve it.
Warwick Castle from the vantage point of Aethelflead’s Mound. This castle was commissioned by William the Conqueror and believed to have been finished around 1200. It has been in use ever since and has undergone many renovations.
The town of Oxford with all the affiliated colleges which are a part of Oxford University. The oldest pub in the village lies just beyond the small lovers’ bridge.