Ah, fair Paris, in only a weekend it seduced us so. We caught the metro to the Place de la Republique Sunday morning and checked into Hotel de Nevers with a pokey yet stylish room and three resident cats called Misty, Lea, and Jo. We wandered down to Place de la Bastille for lunch at an amazing Italian restaurant.
We then proceeded to walk from noon until nine pm from the east to the west of Paris. We saw the beautiful old apartment blocks, which have an amazing classical effect when the entire boulevard is matches height and is flush with the street, but with each house having its own theme. The uniform precision of Paris apartments dates back to Louis XIV, who made laws stating that private houses had to be built of stone no more than 8 toises (15.6 metres) high, flush with the street. The town planner Baron Haussmann in the Second Empire (1852-1871) increased the maximum height to 20 metres, created wider boulevards and enforced the building code throughout the city, giving all of residential Paris a charming classical theme.
After lunch we wandered down to the Seine and across the many bridges to the delightful islands of Ile St-Louis and Ile de la Cite. The quiet streets of Ile St-Louis contrasted with the grandeur of Notre Dame at Ile de la Cite. Note Dame was started in 1163, but has been continually rebuilt and remodelled since, creating a hodge-podge of ages and architectural styles.
The outside of Notre Dame is in a gorgeous gothic style. Lines of gargoyles and grotesques line the building, although oddly they seem to be more comedic in a Buffy way than serious gothic art. We would have thought that more people would think they are cute, rather than a serious threat of the consequences of not believing in the Catholic God. The building also has flying buttresses, the reasons for which the various guides seem to be divided. Some state that they are to support the walls of the cathedral (the normal reason for having flying buttresses), while others contend that they were actually added as gutters, citing the latter addition as an indication that they are not structurally required. Adrian thinks it is more likely that they are structural, and that the later addition coincided with the modifications increasing the height of the cathedral or decreasing the wall strength (such as the additions of stain glass windows). It just seems peculiar for an architectural style renowned for its elaborate attempts to appear to defy gravity to add buttresses simply to drain water away, when additional gargoyles could have served the same function.
Our guide told us that the cathedral was designed in the shape of a cross to venerate Jesus, but actually it is a direct consequence of the inverse square law of light diffusion, since an analysis of church design over time showed that originally all churches were built as rectangles and kept down to a smaller size. The upper limit of size was determined by lighting, as the volume increases more rapidly than the surface area (window area) with building size, reaching a point where it becomes impossible to counter the diffusion of light with candles. Only after the breakthrough in design of a cross (increasing the surface area for the same volume) came did Churches become any larger, and this design was still kept only for the large churches. The light issue was also reflected in the fascination the Church had for stain glass, the massive rose windows in Notre Dame contain some of the oldest stain-glass in the world, dating back to the 13thcentury. Adrian teased Lydia that her favourite colour of purple apparently symbolised waiting for the rapture.
The interior of Notre Dame was less impressive than the exterior, having decayed after the Catholic Church lost its iron grip on France in the 1789 Revolution. It required Victor Hugo’s publication of Notre Dame de Paris in 1831 (The Hunchback of Notre Dame) to get it restored, but it is still not as ornate as Westminster.
Outside Notre Dame we visited Point Zero, the centre of Paris, then had ice-cream in Place du Pont Neuf.
From Place du Pont Neuf we crossed over to the Louvre and Cour Napoleon. The Louvre was magnificent – tall stately mansions surrounding courtyards. It was first built in the 13thcentury, rebuilt in the 16th and extensively remodelled throughout, with the latest addition being the pyramids in 1989.
From the Louvre we walked along Jardin des Tuileries, the gardens landscaped by Andre Le Notre in 1664 and still closely following his design. We found the hedge garden, with little nooks designed for hidden kisses, and a fountain where children sent sail boats across the pool by angling their sail just right. Eiffel Tower replicas were everywhere, but this made for surprisingly beautiful souvenir displays – dozens of tiny towers in elegant rows. The Egyptian Obelisk at the Place de la Concorde looked quite incongruous amongst all the fountains of Louis XV’s square. Adrian notes that its twin back in Thebes is quite lovely. There were beautiful statues and arches right up to Au des Champs-Élysées, which we followed up to Arc de Triomphe.
Arc de Triomphe was stunning. The Arc was commissioned in 1806 for Napoleon’s 1805 victory of Austerlitz. The Arc is so massive (51m tall, the second largest triumphal arch since North Korea built a slight larger arch in 1982 for the 70thbirthday of Kim Il-Sung) that it needs 8m deep foundations. While the first stone was laid in August 1806, it was not finished until 1836, long after Napoleon’s exile and death, so they never knew what to put on top of it. A chariot, effigy of Napoleon, eagle, Statue of Liberty or a gigantic star were all proposed, but in the end the top was left bare. An eternal flame was lit under the arch in 1920, the oldest in Western Europe (although technically it was extinguished on June 30th1998 when a drunken football fan urinated on it). The Arc was responsible for shaping much of western Paris, with the old medieval streets being ripped up to create broad boulevards to lead to it. Napoleon was no tactical slouch, and also designed the new boulevards as military corridors for Paris uprisings. Interestingly, to escape conscription under Napoleon one used to chop off a finger, or (less painfully) knock out their front teeth – since this disbarred them from military service as they were were required to open musket cartridges.
From Arc de Triomphe we caught the metro (such a classy way to travel, with the individual Art Nouveau signs) to the Eiffel Tower, the most visited monument in the world. The Eiffel Tower was unexpectedly gorgeous. You would think that a 320 metre tall 7000 tonne lump of steal would be ugly, but Gustov Eiffel was a design genius, making it soft and elegant, with almost delicate iron filigree (actually, he said the first priority in design was wind resistance, not elegance) and engraved with the names of seventy two famous French scientists and engineers. We were both surprised at her colour – she is tan, rather than ebony, with rows of names etched into her arches. The tower was built for the 1889 World Fair as a temporary exhibit (it only had a 20 year land permit), although Eiffel had originally planned to build it in Barcelona for the Universal Exposition of 1888. It was the tallest structure in the world until the 1930 Chrysler building, and is still the tallest in Paris and fifth tallest in Europe. Eiffel was so good at metallic structures that he was also hired to built the scaffolding around which the New York Statue of Liberty is built.
Afterwards Lydia took Adrian out to a charming restaurant by the tower for dinner, before heading back to our hotel for a well deserved rest.
The next day we caught the train out to Château de Versailles. We averted near disaster by realised just in time that we were about to board a train to Versailles-C, and not Versailles-R. A gentle train ride past Le Derense brought us to the estate of Louis XIV and XV. Being a Monday, we discovered that the palace itself was closed, but the grounds – hectares of gardens, fountains and statues – were plenty enough to explore for the day.
Versailles was spectacular. Beyond spectacular it was actually disgustingly decadent (it is estimated that the upkeep of Versailles before the Revolution consumed 25% of France’s annual income). Most of it was built by the Sun King Louis XIV (which now strikes Adrian as a very odd phrase to use for someone who never actually did anything productive in their life, but was rather born into a position where they could force others to build what they wanted), and was even more decadent than you would expect from someone who, at the age of four, owned a set of silver soldiers and miniature gold cannons drawn by fleas made specifically for him by a famous goldsmith.
As we ambled around, we discovered treasures tucked away in every corner. We explored the first gardens for hours, only later noticing that they were actually on the roof-top of one of the mansions and that other gardens stretched out as far as we could see. We walked on further and further and only found more gardens, each with exquisite sculptures, and more mansions. Each statue was a piece of art in itself, but there was simply too much to take in.
We found an amphitheater with large golden chalices and wildflowers growing on the steps. We saw sculptures of cupids fighting the Kraken with arrows, cupids sitting astride sphinxes, and immense red marble columns contrasting with the yellow limestone. We were given the choice between rowing a small boat along the canal, or a picnic by the edge of the water. We decided on a picnic, with Lydia indulging in chocolate crepes and a nap on the manicured lawn.
The fountains, each with an individual story book theme, pumped the water vigorously into the sky. Ironically enough, Louis XIV’s passion for large spurts to impress his friends lead to one of the only benefits he gave the French people – he commissioned Arnold de Ville and Rennequin Sualem in 1684 to design water pumps to push the Versailles fountains even higher, significantly (and inadvertently) advancing hydraulics.
We finished our day back in Paris by walking around Palais de la Decouverte, having a secret walk through Place de I’Institut, seeing St Michel’s Fountains, and on a misguided quest to have a picnic.
We planned to have our dinner as picnic in the Luxenburg gardens. We had just purchased cheese and yogurt, and were on our way to a bread shop when it started to drizzle. By the time we had our bread it was pouring with rain, and we rad to run, breadstick in hand, to the nearest Metro station. (By far the best investment we made was our three-day €38 Paris Visite transport tickets. They seemed pricey at the time, but they soon earned our gratitude.)
The next day we thought we would nip over to Estonia. After misdirection to a port on the wrong side of Helsinki and a ticket mistake we managed to get on the Ferry, complete with napping room, for our day trip to Tallinn. This city has plenty of skyscrapers and a sprawling metropolis, yet tucked within ancient walls is also the most intact medieval town in Europe.
Inside the old city the first thing we did was climb the spire of St Olav’s Church (right next to the former KGB headquarters with boarded-up windows). It is now only 123 metres tall, but when it was built (in 1438) it was 159 metres tall. This was enough to make it the second tallest building in the world, then the tallest in 1549 once the spiral of Lincoln Cathedral (160m) was destroyed. It didn’t seem that tall from the outside, but it took a surprisingly large number of steps to reach the top.
It is odd to think that this tower was actually the fourth major structure to hold the title of world’s tallest building (after the Red Pyramid, the Great Pyramid which held the title for 4000 years and Lincoln Cathedral). It is even stranger to consider that it held the title until 1625, when the lightning strike knocked down the spire and the reconstructed height was lower than that of Strasbourg Cathedral. So nothing was actually built taller than St Olav’s Church for 450 years until the Washington Monument just pipped it in 1884 (169m, ninth to hold the title), before the Eiffel tower rewrote the records in 1889 (300m), which lasted until 1930 Chrysler building (319m). We would have thought that the world’s tallest structure would have been held by many buildings over the eons, but actually only fourteen have held that title (five of which obtained their title when larger buildings fell down) and most of the increase in height has come in three buildings – the Great Pyramid (146m, 40% gain), the Eiffel Tower (300m, 80% gain) and Ostankino Tower (537m, 40% gain). Anyway, the view from St Olav’s spire is really good.
Back in Helsinki that evening Adrian had a conference dinner at an amazing restaurant on the island of Klippan, while listening to Finland’s best accordion player. The actual conference was quite odd, far more extravagant than a normal science conference, being a medical conference the exhibits could go beyond giving out pens. Rather it had an almost carnival feel with corny shows complete with holograms, clowns, artists doing cartoon sketches and a Photoshop booth to create fake postcards. The conference bags were designed by Finnish designer Marimekko, and Adrian was given a piece of glassware by Alvar Aalto as a speaker’s gift.
While Adrian was speaking at the conference, Lydia spent the next few days exploring Finland as an “accompanying person”. As she was driven through the countryside, her tour guide told her more about Finland. Most Finns have a hobby farm, and that the cities are deserted on the weekends. Helsinki was the birthplace of Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. When the President of Finland, Tarja Halonen, was asked about the secret to the country’s success, she said that there were three elements: 1. Education. 2. Education. 3. Education. Finland is a bilingual country according to its constitution, leading to German playwright Berthold Bercht to observe that “the Finns are silent in two languages”.
The next morning Lydia walked around Lake Toolo, appreciating the ramshakle old wooden villas nestled in amongst the trees. She passed the Olympic Stadium, which holds special pride for the Finns, as they were unable to host them in 1940 as planned, due to the war with Russia, and had to wait until 1952. She also visited the monument to the composer Jean Sibelius, a huge steel cacophony of silver pipes reminiscent of the trunks in the slender birch forests found throughout Finland. She was also just in time to witness the changing of the guard, which consisted of soldiers marching smartly around the streets of Helsinki with much fanfare, before packing up their flags and hopping on a bus.
She also visited Suomenlinna, a World Heritage listed sea fortress built on an island outside Helsinki. Worryingly, her tour guide quoted wikipedia as his main source of information about the site. The fortress was originally built by Sweden in the 18th century, surrended to Russia in the 19th century, and then became part of Finland after the Russian Revolution. The park within its walls is popular with picnickers, and is filled with plants donated by Carl Linnaeus.
Adrian and Lydia had a lot of fun at the convention’s social occasions, spending the conference dinner talking to a professors sailing crew (why not sail from Germany to Finland for a conference?). One of them was a science historian, and we were fascinated to hear that they don’t actually read any scientific articles when writing the history of science, rather they read through all the grant applications and progress reports that we throw away to work out the order that things actually happened in. It was a lot of fun to sit and talk to Germans (who were embarrassed to forget Moldova) and then go out with Nora to a very stylish Finnish bar.
A few charming Finnish sayings:
No one dies twice.
Sauna is the poor man’s drugstore.
Poverty and love are impossible to hide.
The floor serves as the child’s chair.
A few outdated Finnish sayings:
A man will marry a bad wife rather than none at all, as a starving pike will eat a frog.
Do not lend your bicycle or your wife to anyone.
Just plain odd Finnish saying:
A pig plows much ground, but it doesn’t drink beer on Christmas.