It was the best of times. It was the worst of times . . . just kidding. This is the tale of one city, the city of lights, Paris, France, and its sacred spaces. We arrived in Paris via an overnight from Barcelona. We stepped off the train into the brisk Paris morning and momentarily regretted sending our sweat shirts home. I later bought a very European pashmina, a versatile shawl/scarf accessory that is readily available on Paris’ streets, to remedy the problem.
Paris, like Barcelona, isn’t up at the crack of dawn, so we walked the streets until we saw a sign of life—some shopkeepers putting out cafe tables—and promptly imposed ourselves as the first customers of the day. After a long, leisurely, expensive (3.50 Euro for coffee? Are you kidding me?) breakfast, we started the trek up the steep staircases of Montmarte to reach the Basillica of Sacre Coeur, Sacred Heart.
The vantage of the city from the steps of the church is one of the best in the city, but your first few moments inside Sacre Coeur, after your eyes adjust to the light, are something even more magical. A huge mosaic of Christ and his sacred heart extends above the altar overhead. The flickering of hundreds of prayer candles along the side altars produces soft, ambient light. If you go to Sacre Coeur as a tourist only (which we were mistaken for at first), you are marched around the central pews along the sides of the church, down behind the altar and up the opposite side in one big circle that ends in a gift shop. We broke ranks and skipped into the rows of pews to wait for 11:00 a.m. mass to start. To experience Sacre Coeur as a worshipper is the only way to truly experience Sacre Coeur. The mass was long—it was a high mass complete with the bishop, 4 priests, a choir of habited nuns, and 4 catechumens who were getting confirmed (we think), so it lasted for an hour and 1/2. Even though the mass was in French and we could really only celebrate the liturgy of the Eucharist, Sacre Coeur is such a powerful, sacred space that we did not find it hard to be prayerful the entire time.
After refreshing ourselves with hot showers (if you do not think of your bathroom as a sacred space, try sharing one for 3 days with a whole hostel and an entire Spanish family that speaks no English), we were ready to continue our traipsings, and traipse we did to our next sacred space, the medieval cathedral of Notre Dame (Sorry, no hunchback sightings).
Before I visited Paris the first time, one of my mentors, Mrs. Thomas, told me to go to Notre Dame and find the brass plate in the pavement in front. She said to stand on the plate and pray that I’ll get to come back to Notre Dame. So, I drug my troop of girlfriends out to the front, found the plate, and prayed. Two years later I had gotten to come back, and you can bet that I was standing right back on that plate again and praying some more. Due to limited time and a line that stretched across the front square, Brett and I declined to go inside Notre Dame and just snapped up some fantastic pictures of gargoyles, and made our way to the Musee D’orsay.
We were on a time crunch. The museum closed in exactly 2 hours and wasn’t open the next day. We had to go straight there. And . . . Brett got the directions wrong. Not just wrong, but in-the-direct-opposite-way-of-right wrong. We had just wasted 20 minutes. Repentant, Brett consented to us running back across town.
Breathless, we made it to the D’orsay with an hour to spare. Cashless, we were praying they took cards. Helpless, we watched them close the ticket counters with only 2 people ahead of us in line. Then . . . they opened the doors and herded us past the ticket collectors and into the museum . . . for free! We had free reign for the last hour of operation of everything except the special exhibition space.
We headed straight for the D’orsay’s most prized collection—the Impressionists. We saw works by Degas and Van Gogh and Renoir, all with tender, soft lines and muted pastel colors. The Impressionist pieces were not permitted into the sacred space Louvre, and like pilgrims forced into exile, they formed their own little colony here in the D’orsay and are well worth a visit. It’s a whole new world.
After our exhausting outing and not eating all day, we settled in at a little Parisian creperie. You can eat crepes in Paris for any meal of the day and all snacks, and all are delicious, and that is my recommendation. I got a 10 Euro meal that came with a bowl of cider (and they did serve it in a literal bowl) that is the perfect companion to any crepe, a shrimp salad, a ham, cheese, and mushroom crepe for dinner, and a chocolate crepe for dessert. Scrumptious. Let’s just say that there was no space, sacred or otherwise, left in my belly after that meal.
The next day found us at one of Dr. Ramsey’s must-do’s whilst in Paris–Sant Chappelle. It is well-worth the wait (ours was an hour) to see this space filled with colored sunlight filtering in through panels upon panels of stained glass windows dating from the 1300’s. Two-thirds of the windows are still the original glass that was crafted under King Louis’ direction. He had the chapel built as a grand-scale reliquary to house his treasured relics and most prized possessions—Christ’s crown of thorns, a portion of the true cross, and “reminders” of both the old and the new testaments. The entire story of sacred scripture is spelled out in the bold blues and reds. It is probably the world’s most exquisite display of stained glass.
Our next venture was the Musee Cluny, the museum of the Moyen, or middle, Ages. Housed in an ancient church grounds, room after room of the Cluny unfolds precious artifacts dating from the 500’s—1600’s. There were many period pieces used to create sacred spaces, from ornate monstrances to transportable altars, from Jewish wedding ceremony rings, to crowns and intricate tapestries. My favorite parts were the medieval tapestries. The Cluny’s most-prized holding is the six piece Lady and the Unicorn tapestry series. The first five panels feature the Lady and the Unicorn being tempted with one of the five senses. The final and grandest tapestry shows her throwing away a pearl necklace to listen to her sixth sense, “my soul’s desire,” the spiritual sense. Each piece is nearly wall-sized and I just can’t imagine the patience and artistry that goes into stitching something that masterful by hand.
The rest of the day was full of wandering about the city . . .
–Somebody had put suds in St. Michel’s fountain and we got caught in a suds storm when the wind kicked up.
–I had a Nutella crepe (love those crepes! . . . No, but really, you must try these kinds).
–I hit up the internet cafe and some gourmet hot chocolate from our hotel.
Our last morning in Paris was spent trying to get out, like so many Dauphines and Dauphinesses had done, into the countryside to the grand palace of Versailles. Guess what? It was under construction and the line was stretched all the way across the expansive front courtyard nearly to the road. Brett and I opted instead to see the retreat from the retreat—Marie Antoinette’s Le Petit Trianon Palace and her hameau, a quaint, quiet, countryside hamlet in the far end of Versailles’ impressive gardens. It was intriguing to see where the French royalty would come when they needed their own personal space and solitude. If we’d had more time, it would have been a perfect place to picnic.
Then we rented bicycles and whizzed around Versailles’ gardens, the Grand Canal, the footpaths and the fields, and the tree-lined walkways like we were kids again. You forget how freeing and how much fun it is to ride a bicycle! I even tried the no-hands trick (And much to Brett’s chagrin, I did not bust my tail). After several big cities in a row, it was wonderful to be pedaling through gardens and trees and enjoying nature and God’s sky, feeling alive and maybe even a little sacred.