Sainte-Denis

Sainte-Denis

Saturday, 29 January 2011

Il fai froid! Saturday in Paris.

It's cold! I went for a ramble in the 5th arrondissement today and had to stop and buy another scarf to double twice around my neck just to keep the wind out. The 5th is Les Jardines district, named after the Botanical gardens east of Notre Dame on the Left Bank. It's at the very edge of the old Roman City of Lutece, but more about that later. My main goal was the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle or National Natural History Museum. My Aunt Margaret, a seasoned and delightful traveler, recommended it to me and such a chilly day seemed like the perfect opportunity for an indoor browse.

It's a wonderful space, a late Victorian fantasy of high ceilings, balconies and wrought iron banisters that twist themselves into stems and flowers and buds so organically that you can almost see them leaning toward you as you climb the stairs. It's a long building filled with skeletons--more or less modern on the first floor and ancient on the second. Giraffes tower over musk ox, yak, lion and turtle. Elephants and rhinos with wicked tusks and horns crowd whales, including the complete skeleton of an enormous southern right whale. I stood close to it, awestruck and thinking of the time I went out on a sail boat with my friends, Joyce and Tony Maycock, in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Some curious right whales sailed right under our keel! They seemed pretty impressive at the time, their eyes rolling upward as they checked us out, but now that I can see exactly how big they were...well, I'm glad I didn't realize then that they were longer than our vessel by about 10 feet!

This was nothing to the second floor, however, with a full-sized apatosaurus. Okay, brontosaurus for those of us who grew up reading Roy Chapman Andrews' stories of his dinosaur-hunting expedition to the Gobi desert. And speaking of Andrews, who brought his own silver and china and changed for dinner after the long days' digging, I also saw a couple of Protoceratops andrewsi's eggs in a case. It was a strangely moving moment to see something I had read and been thrilled about when I was thirteen or fourteen. Until Andrews, the proported real-life model for Indiana Jones, discovered these eggs, no one had been able to prove how dinosaurs reproduced. It was a little bit of scientific and yet still quite romantic history before my very eyes.

I wandered about the district for awhile, discovering a carrousel with a carved dodo to ride on, long allees of polled trees leafless in the January cold, and the grand mosque of Paris. I had lunch at the latter in the blue-tiled courtyard, dining on a lamb tagine under a heater. The place was hopping with Parisians of all faiths and flavors, so I think I stumbled on a local secret. The tagine was terrific and the waiters were fatherly. I was seriously tempted to try the hamman or baths, as the prospect of an afternoon of steam was very appealing, but I heard the call of Roman ruins.

Now Roman ruins to me are a bit like catnip to my cat, Izzy. I just can't resist. I had read in my trusty guidebook that the remains of the old arena were not far away. Sure enough, after only two blocks, I came upon Rue de Arena, a promising development. Sadly, however, there is not much more than the footprint left. You can see where the sloping tiers of seats rose on two of the four sides of the oval floor of the arena, although only one small section still holds seats instead of a grassy slope. It is small; particularly if you have ever seen the arena at Arles or Nimes. It needs all of your imagination to visualize crowds of Romans and Franks pushing into the seats, vendors selling food and drink, and gladiators and animal handlers performing in the pit. Joggers trot through and families pushing prams take the short cut between streets. Rome and Lutece, the Roman name for Paris, seem more distant than the mammoths in the Natural History Museum.

I finished up the afternoon with a stroll down the Rue Mouffelard, ending at the 15th century church of St. Medard. Rue Mouffelard runs along the edge of what was once King Phillip Augustus' city walls. (Think Timothy Dalton as the handsome, young King of France in "The Lion in Winter." I'm sure the real Phillip looked nothing like him, but one can dream.) As it slopes toward the Seine, it becomes crowded with specialty shops selling cheese and chocolate and pastries. (I succumbed to a macaron framboise or raspberry macaroon. These are nothing like our cocoanut lumps, but consist of two outer layers of merange as light as an angel's breathe surrounding a thin, intensely tart layer of raspberry jam. Need I say more?) There was an open-air market at the bottom of the street in front of St. Medard. The church is famous for being the 18th century site of spontaneous healings preceded by strange convulsions and religious ecstacy, but today it is as quiet and restrained as a dowager wearing Chanel.

I stepped inside the late gothic church and immediately found myself in the middle of a christening. A baby boy was being initiated into the faith and not caring for it very much, snuffling and squirming in the priest's arms. Everyone was singing and the music, unpolished and beautifully authentic, filled the vaulted ceilings. Other visitors, intent on prayer or lighting candles, scuttled past and I joined them in a side chapel. I could hear the service continuing, understanding just enough French to realize that the congregation was now singing the 23rd Psalm. It was lovely to get a glimpse of Parisian life that did not involve restaurants or museums or shops--just a family coming together to celebrate the arrival of a new member.

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