A Visit to Both Sides of the Revolution

February 28, 2009 in Europe, France, Travelogue

Our last two days in Paris; we’ve walked an inch off of our combined heights. Who knew there were so many stairs in this city?! We hopped a train for the outskirts and a visit to the legendary Palace of Versailles, home to the kings of France, famous for it’s sacking during the French Revolution and as the location of the signing of the treaty of Versailles after WW1. Needless to say, it is an imposing edifice. The kids were impressed by the double layer of golden gates surrounding the courtyard and entrance to the castle. I was impressed by the stones worn smooth by the feet of untold millions of people, ghosts from the books and stories handed down through history.

The apartments of the kings and queens, the hall of mirrors, the manicured gardens all defy description in their opulence and grandeur. It is easy to imagine why the common people were irritated by the chasm of wealth that separated them from their rulers. It is also easy to imagine the fear of the queen as the crowds surged against the iron gates and she escaped through the secret door in her bedroom to hide in the passages behind the walls. As Americans we noted the room where Benjamin Franklin paid his state visit to the King of France and stood long before the painting in the Hall of Battles depicting Lafayette standing next to George Washington during the American Revolution. We ate a quiet lunch in the stone courtyard, soaking up the midday sun before turning our backs on the amazing palace and heading back to the city.

There are 284 steps up a narrow spiral staircase, cut from stone, to the top of L’Arc de Triomphe… and 284 back down as well. The monument is at the center of an enormous traffic circle called the Charles de Gaul Star and much of the center of Paris can be seen from the top. It is certainly home to the very best view in town of the Eiffel Tower.

Our last day in the city was spent burning up what was left of our museum pass: Notre Dame Cathedral, The Archeological Crypt, the Conciergerie, and one more trip to the LOuvre. Notre Dame is the church where Napoleon the First was crowned. It is the place that the reputation of Joan of Arc was restored and she was declared “back in the church” (I’m not sure what that meant for her soul, since they’d already burned her for heresy and witchcraft… does an angel knock on the door of hell in that case and say, “I’m sorry, we made a mistake, I think you have one of ours down here, can we have her back?”) It is the church of the story of the mythical Hunchback by Hugo that Disney butchered. It is very plain compared to so many we’ve seen, but it’s colored glass windows in every chapel are decoration enough.

The Archeological Crypt near Notre Dame is not well marked, but the contents are fascinating. Buried below the square in front of the cathedral are layers and layers of Parisian history, from pre-Roman times onward. Sometimes it is easy to think that what we see is all that there is and that the amazing historical sites we’ve visited constitute all of what’s left of previous times. Then, someone digs and all of a sudden we’re standing on viewing platforms peering into basements that housed peoples veggies and wine in the middle ages and at ramparts walked by Roman soldiers before that and at stair cases and little tunnels cut into walls that were walked by people long dead and gone, but on whose shoulders we now stand. It makes me feel small. The Conciergerie did not even appear in our guide book. We found it in the list of museums on our pass and wouldn’t have missed it for the world. It is the infamous palace turned prison during the French Revolution where the Revolutionary Tribunal sat and sentenced over 2700 people to death in three short years. It is the prison that housed the accused, in horrendously over crowded and unhealthy conditions, until they came before the Tribunal. It is the place where the condemned ate their last meal and spent their last night before having their heads shaved, their personal effects stolen and being loaded like turnips into a wooden cart to be carried off to the guillotine. The most famous prisoner in residence was Marie Antoinette. She spent her last 76 days there before being publicly beheaded. This was the first place that the boys finally began to gain an understanding of the Revolution, why it happened and what it was like for the people of France during the Reign of Terror. Having visited Versailles the day before, the contrast was fresh in their minds. Needless to say, there were lots of “Why?” type questions… some of which are simply without an answer.

With only hours left on our museum passes we decided to finish where we started the week: at the LOuvre. We ate another leisurely lunch below the impressive glass pyramid and explored the state apartments of Napoleon the Third, built only about 160 years ago… during the lifetime of my great grandparents. Their grandeur rivals that of Versailles.

This morning finds us on a “bullet train,” as Ezra calls the fast trains that we’ve not been allowed to ride with our bikes, heading north and east toward Stuttgart, Germany. The children are excited beyond all that is reasonable. They did not discover until this morning where we are going: to stay the long weekend with friends we made in June on our first trip through this part of the world. When we left last time there was much crying. The children did not expect to see these friends again. This morning there was hopping and screeching and laughing at the promise of another weekend of fabulous fun. What they don’t know is that this is just the tip of the iceberg… the next month will hold a series of visits with the dearest of the friends we’ve made this past year, scattered across Germany and the Czech. We can’t think of a better way to end our year.