Wandering Ile de la Cite on 0 Hours of Sleep

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Yesterday, as I waited in line for about 30 minutes to enter St. Chapelle, it finally happened: as the cool breeze kissed the back of my neck and a cloud passed over the warm sun, I closed my eyes and fell asleep standing up. Of course, that episode only lasted a couple of seconds when I started to sway and the lady behind me gave me a nudge, as if to make sure if I was going to fall I do it on someone else. Why was I so sleepy, you ask? Because I spent my night commuting from London to Paris by boat, then by ferry, and then by boat again, and I couldn’t sleep a wink.

It’s not every day that an American finds himself in Paris with nothing but the pavement at his feet, so after dropping off my pack I traipsed off into the city in search of something cool to do. Paris obliged as only Paris could: with class, grace, and a whole lot of beautiful Gothic architecture.

Notre Dame from the South

The first place I visited yesterday was Notre Dame, right on the Ile de la Cite. The moment I exited the metro station, it was clearly visible, anchored to the Seine like an ancient stone ship. After waiting in line for only a few minutes, I was inside the church, and it was more magnificent inside than it was outside. The construction on Notre Dame’s East End started in 1163 and took about 15 years to complete, but the rest of the building caught up over the course of the century and into the first part of the next one. Apart from the soaring vertical thrusts of the nave, which immediately draw your eyes upward, my favorite element of the cathedral is the stained glass.

South Transept.

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What people don’t often realize is that these great medieval churches were painted bright colors on the inside, so between the filtered light of the stained glass and the polychrome walls, walking into a church in the Middle Ages was supposed to look something like St. Chapelle, which was my next stop:

The incredible Rayonnant West end of St. Chapelle

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St. Chapelle is also about 50-100 years older than Notre Dame, and even to the untrained eye certain noticeable changes have taken place. Among them, the Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture had evolved from the Early Gothic which Notre Dame embodies in its heavy, thick walls, engaged, massive piers, and slightly more stylized sculpture. What defines St. Chapelle is its translucence: light floods into this building to the point that artificial lighting (which I think ruins any great church, regardless of how dark it may be without it) is especially inconsequential here. The result is a sensory overload of colors on all ends of the spectrum. Over the past 4 years, the French government has undertaken a massive project to clean out the stained glass windows and in doing so has breathed new life into beautiful St. Chapelle.

My final stop before heading back to my hostel and collapsing into bed was really an accident; I wandered over to Pompidou, hoping to get in, but was turned away because they are closed on Tuesdays. As I trudged back toward the Metro station I noticed St. Mary’s, a parish church nestled into the corner of a courtyard, and decided to wander in.

If Notre Dame and St. Chapelle are the noble and wizened grandparents of Gothic, then St. Mary’s must be their malcontent stepchild. Inside, the nave is starkly Gothic until the crossing, where the choir all of a sudden goes into rogue Baroque mode, with red marble covering the walls, gilded, decorated archways, and a main alterpiece that looks like something Bernini crafted hundreds of years after Notre Dame first stood. But St. Mary’s has turned its side aisles and chapels into impromptu gallery spaces, and I saw some very interesting contemporary art that made it well worth my time to stop by:

A bizarre juxtaposition -- inside a chapel at St. Mary's Parish church near Pompidou

A cool little exhibition I found inside the church.

And finally, because no day in Paris would be complete without one, I stopped by a small creperie and enjoyed a Nutella and banana crepe, all to myself. The great cathedrals and art of Paris fulfill the very highest needs in Maslow’s hierarchy, but there’s something to be said for satisfying our most basic ones, and it provided a very satisfying ending for my first day here in Paris.

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