We are a lá carte travelers. We enjoy creating our own trips, day by day — from starting with months of research to arranging airfare to booking hotels to renting cars and especially to planning a flexible itinerary. This past September we returned to Paris for two weeks and re-discovered this magnificent City of Lights. Our schedule included places we missed on our first visit in May, 2012. This time, in addition to revisiting some of our favorite places, we explored Paris’s rich history of churches and cathedrals. Since we had been to the famed Notre Dame Cathedral several times, we targeted other well-known sites.
We began with a metro ride to Montmartre, one of Paris’s oldest neighborhoods and the location of a thriving artist colony and the Basilica of Sacré Coeur. While we walked from the metro stop to Montmartre, the last leg of the trip was a choice of walking up a some very steep stairs or taking the funicular, an electric tram. Tough choice…we took the funicular. However, that meant waiting in a long line but it went quickly.
Once we reached the top, the sight of Sacré Coeur was impressive (see photo above). Throngs of people were seated on the steps that overlooked the city of Paris. After climbing these steps, we stood in a short line and passed through a security check in order to enter the church. (Security checks were at all public sites in Paris, churches were no exception.) We viewed the interior and admired a dramatic statue of St. Michael, lit a candle as we did in each church we visited and then rejoined the throng outside. Since Montmartre is the highest point in Paris, the broad steps of the basilica are popular with tourists for their panoramic view of the city.
We walked up the small, winding streets, had lunch at a small café and then roamed through nearby Place du Tertre, where artists set up stalls in the famous outdoor square. We purchased a small original watercolor from an elderly French artist as a permanent reminder of this iconic Parisian neighborhood.
The next day was Sunday, the day we traveled to Chartres, a small town 50 miles outside of Paris and this called for a train ride. (We found train travel in France to be clean, safe, reliable and reasonably priced — round-trip Paris to Chartres cost €64 for two.) So here we were at Gare Montparnasse to catch the 10:06 train for the 90-minute ride to Chartres. The train was only half full and we enjoyed seeing the French countryside — lots of agriculture and cows, some shabby houses, some nice ones.
We knew when we were getting close to the town of Chartres because the cathedral, aka Our Lady of Chartres, could be seen from a distance, soaring in its gothic glory high above everything. A spectacular introduction to this medieval town.
Since we were here for the day, our plan was to explore the cathedral and the nearby town on our own, have lunch and then take a one-hour guided tour of the cathedral. The cathedral is surrounded by restaurants and small shops but, being Sunday, all the shops and most of the restaurants were closed. Sunday closings seemed to be the case throughout France.
After lunch, we met Elizabeth, our guide, who began the tour outside the church explaining the history of the cathedral as well as its gothic architecture. This was followed by a descent into the dark and deep Crypt, the remains of the old church. The tour finished with a walk through the cathedral and details describing the extraordinary stained glass windows.
As we returned to the train station, we looked back one last time at this magnificent Gothic cathedral with its tall pointed steeples, towering stained glass, grand rose windows, gargoyles, flying buttresses, hundreds of statues, and a compelling history.
Next on our list was St. Chapelle which is located in the shadows of Notre Dame Cathedral on the Ile de la Cité in the heart of Paris. We arrived at noon on a Tuesday and expected a long queue but found a short one instead. We bypassed the line anyway with our Museum Pass and entered into the lower chapel where we rented audio guides, a must to fully understand the history and contents of the church. (A Museum Pass doesn’t save much money but allowed us to bypass the line at many venues.)
St. Chapelle was built in the gothic style in the 13th century by King Louis IX and has the most extraordinary collection of stained glass anywhere in the world. The church is divided into two chapels, the upper or royal chapel was for the king and the lower was for everyone else. The walls of the upper chapel consists of 15 towering gothic stain glass windows stretching 3/4 of the way up the wall, each a jaw-dropping 49 feet high, with a glorious rose window at one end. Each window has 90 or more panels and relates a biblical story or depicts an old testament scene. St Chapelle is much smaller than Notre Dame and only takes an hour, two at the most, to visit.
If it weren’t for the Da Vinci Code movie, we may never have known about St. Sulpice Cathedral, one of the largest cathedrals in Paris, second only to Notre Dame. After Notre Dame, St. Chapelle, and Chartes, the architecture of St. Sulpice is subdued, lacking dramatic stained glass windows and big crowds. What it did have, however, was a gnomon and an extraordinary pipe organ. It also provided the dramatic setting for a scene in the Da Vinci Code — which was actually filmed on a duplicate stage elsewhere.
The gnomon, once used in the calculation of Easter, is a brass meridian on the floor that leads to a white marble obelisk. A ray of sunlight passes at noon through an opening in a window opposite the obelisk and rests on the meridian at various points throughout the year.
As luck would have it, we were in Paris on the autumnal equinox and went to St. Sulpice at mid-day along with a small crowd of visitors there for the same reason. We all saw the oval sunray cross the meridian on time at just the right spot. This was an unexpected bonus on the trip.
We returned to St. Sulpice the following Sunday to attend Mass, a little surprised to find the Cathedral only three-quarters full, and stayed for the organ concert afterwards. The 45-minute concert is presented each Sunday after the 11 o’clock Mass with a combination of ecclesiastical and classical compositions. The great organ with 5588 pipes is a remarkable instrument dating back to the eighteenth century. The sound was amazing, easily filling every nook and crevice of the enormous cathedral. Afterwards, we took our time strolling back to the hotel through Luxemburg Gardens to start packing for the trip home.
This trip was special and we talk about it all the time. The great benefit of being a lá carte travelers is the blend of spontaneous events, chance meetings with locals and other travelers, and serendipitous happenings that occur while we are out and about in a far-away place that would not happen on a more structured trip.