How many times can I promise myself that I will find the time for a museum before I simply drop everything and go? When a chunk of time opened for me on Thanksgiving Day, I decided the moment had arrived. I would trek to Écouen to see the Museum of the Renaissance for myself!
There’s no denying that it’s a bit of a journey to get up to Écouen; it’s just as far north as Charles de Gaulle Airport, so one cannot simply take the subway a few stops. My journey up there required me to reach Gare du Nord (notable in our household for being across the street from the best masala dosa in town). From there I could take the RER H line north, much as I used the RER A to reach Saint-Germain-en-Laye on the west side of the city. The fare is currently under five Euros each way
I was less sure about the next part. Google directed me to take a bus around to the museum, but walking routes in the Forest of Écouen seemed to lead a more direct route to the museum. The sky was grey and a bit sprinkly, but I decided I would try the adventure on foot anyway. I am glad I did. The trees had dropped enough leaf litter that the path was sometimes buried, but I don’t think I could possibly have gotten lost in daylight. I like the old-school wood signs pointing the way to the museum at each junction. In a few places, the trees to either side of the path formed an arched roof, giving the place a “fairy tunnel” look.
After twenty minutes or so had passed, I reached a gate in the type of finished stone wall that one might expect of a lordly manor. I couldn’t help but notice that much of my traversal of the forest had been uphill most of the distance away from the train station. When I reached the main route heading directly west from the castle, I realized that the hill I had slowly been climbing reached its apex at the castle itself. It’s a nice piece of natural drama to make the place stand out all the more. I suspected the entrance of the castle was on the eastern side, but I found that the platform of the castle wouldn’t allow access via the southern side, so I had to circle the castle to reach the entrance. It was still worth it to see the town shrouded in mist on the slope below the castle. The view extends for miles to the north; the castle was sited on the most likely invasion route from that direction!
I can think of quite a few highlights that made Écouen special to me, and I can name one aspect that was a disappointment. I will stick with that ordering, I think! Let’s start with Château d’Écouen itself. The building is the prime exhibit. Having been constructed in the mid-sixteenth century, the Château d’Écouen fits neatly in the latter half of the French Renaissance. Although it is not a royal palace per se, the Grand Constable who built it designed spaces explicitly to host the King of France (first Francois I and later Henri II). All these chambers are exquisite, with painted fireplaces and sometimes ceilings, and the museum has arranged period furniture in these rooms.
One of the first chambers a visitor will see is the chateau Chapel. I am sure that most tourists will fix their attention on the early sixteenth century Italian copy of The Last Supper on the wall. The glorious painted vaults of the ceiling caught mine, though!
People who read my blog frequently will know that I’m a sucker for stained glass, and Château d’Écouen has some special treats in place. I particularly liked the Francois I memorial window that was originally housed at the Sainte Chapelle at Vincennes Castle; it seems much more reflective and meditative than the callow youth who appears in the painting housed at the Louvre. I was also glad to see some of the original Renaissance glass from the Cathedral of Rouen. These panes have definitely logged some miles over the years!
It may not be a royal castle, but Écouen frequently offered a place for the king to rest his head on his travels around France. The bedroom of Henry II has been preserved beautifully, with a painted ceiling (albeit faded), painted fireplace, majestic tapestries, and a canopy bed. It is a rich environment.
Before coming to France, I didn’t know the word “faience” (but Natasha certainly did)! It’s a special type of pottery with tin oxide glazing. The technique was first invented in Iran during the ninth century C.E., but it became very popular in France during the sixteenth century. Ceramic flooring was crafted for Écouen in the city of Rouen, and I loved its palette of blues, greens, and yellows. The museum also houses some other examples of Renaissance ceramics, with floor tiles from other locations and an array of other objects besides. It’s hard to imagine walking on such art!
I do not think of the Renaissance as a golden age of engineering, but one of the clockwork mechanisms on display at Écouen is really special. It is a three-masted galleon, with a figure of Emperor Charles V surrounded by eight elector princes on deck. The clockwork plays a little music, the ship sails forward, the musicians play, and the emperor salutes a circulating ring of electors. The piece is thought to have been created by a German clockwork artist, probably no later than 1626 C.E. There’s a perfectly charming video of the mechanism in operation on the page linked in the photo caption above (albeit with some music added to put on in the proper state of mind).
The Museum of the Renaissance also offers plenty of gorgeous woodwork and furniture. I was glad that I entered the ground floor galleries at the back of the courtyard; it wasn’t apparent how to enter those spaces from elsewhere in the museum.
If you cannot read French, you might find the museum a bit challenging. Frequently the English descriptions are rather brief, or the information may be offered only in French. The museum had even posted a few QR codes in some rooms rather than providing printed descriptions. I haven’t even installed a QR reader on my phone, so I didn’t generally pay much attention to those.
I was very confused by some of the items on display, feeling sure that they must be modern rather than Renaissance. The silver, gold, and coral statuette of Daphne above is an example. It is intended as an interpretation of the myth of Daphne, who fled before Apollo’s advances. She cried out to the gods, and Gaia transformed her into a laurel tree. This piece was crafted in the late 16th century, around the time that Saint Augustine (the earliest city in what is now the USA) was founded!
I said I would mention one negative of the museum, and it has to do with the remodeling closure of the Cluny Museum of the Medieval World. We had read online that some of the exhibits had been moved to the Museum of the Renaissance during the construction work. Unfortunately, it appears that none of it is on display there. I had hoped to get a proper taste of the Medieval to accompany the savor of the Renaissance. Unfortunately, that’s a “No.”
That said, Chateau d’Écouen is a beautiful museum, and it doesn’t require that one read every caption. It’s a perfectly lovely place to stroll around and absorb the whiff of new life that the Renaissance represented. If someone has grown weary of every day Paris, taking the train a few stops north will offer considerable respite.
Natasha knows how much I love visiting old churches, and she saved a special one for my birthday. The Sainte-Chapelle was crafted by Saint Louis to be the royal chapel inside the Palais de la Cité, constructed between 1239 and 1248. King Louis IX purchased the Crown of Thorns, pieces of the Cross, and other sacred relics from the Latin Emperor of Constantinople (these claimed artifacts had been gathered in 326 C.E. by Saint Helena, the mother of Emperor Constantine). Louis IX was making a clear statement by raising a special chapel to hold these relics in his royal palace on the Île de la Cité: Paris was stating its claim to be the center of Christendom.
On some of our walks in early days through the area, it had seemed that tourism was at a standstill due to the pandemic, but by November 20th, plenty of people were touring Paris. We had some difficulty determining which of the two lines was intended for people who already had tickets in hand, since they both seemed to be moving at a glacial pace. We spent thirty minutes in line before we could pass through the metal detectors and body scanners (much like boarding a plane!).
When you make it through the perimeter into the courtyard, you’re standing quite close to the chapel, with its spire seemingly ascending to the heavens (in reality, the roof is 42.5 meters above ground level, almost the same as the building’s length). The photo above was composited from three photographs on a prime lens; I don’t know that a wide-angle lens would be enough to get it all in one shot. In the 14th century, the church would have been inside the Cour de Mai, and a small treasury building in similar Gothic style was next door. Today the Sainte-Chapelle sits in a parking lot; the accompanying treasury was torn down during 19th century renovation. The soaring spire of the Sainte-Chapelle has evolved considerably over time, with four different models during the royal period for France. The Revolution, naturally, tore away the spire altogether in 1793, and it remained uncrowned until Viollet Le-Duc‘s restoration (perhaps one should say reimagination) of the chapel in 1844.
Inside the Sainte-Chapelle
Because of its height, the Sainte-Chapelle is able to accommodate sacred spaces on two different levels. The lower level depends heavily on artificial lighting, but the gorgeously painted ceiling vaults add a lot of drama since it is not so high above the visitor. I couldn’t get over the rich colors all around. It is clear that the facility needs to control how many people can be inside at once, since there’s still a respiratory virus on the loose. I am sure that the gift shop was happy to have plenty of visitors on our day.
Meredith Cohen made this chapel come to life in her 2015 book. In section 4.3, “Setting the Stage: the Lower and Upper Chapels,” she explains that at first, the lower chapel contained just one altar to the Virgin Mary. By the 14th century, however, the lower altars and chaplains had grown substantially, and the upper chapel became more and more exclusive in who could attend services there. A sculpture of “Saint” Louis the IX now stands at the southeast end of the lower chapel; I had expected to see him at Basilica Saint-Denis. His statue still shows faded colors of painted fleurs-des-lis on his tunic, but I don’t know how much of the pigment is original and how much comes from efforts to restore the original appearance. Natasha pointed to an odd smirk on his face. If this statue is the one from Mainneville, it belonged to the main minister of Saint Louis’ grandson, King Philippe IV le Bel. The Sainte-Chapelle is definitely a place where his image belongs.
Even after the sumptuousness of the lower chapel, the upper chapel will certainly knock the tourist back on her or his heels. All that light! All that color! It’s like a sudden immersion in royal splendor as you exit the spiral staircase. This chapel is Rayonnant Gothic at its finest.
As we had seen at Saint-Germain-en-Laye, the emphasis in royal chapels built during Louis IX’s reign was on a single open, unencumbered space (for example, there’s no metal screen separating the metal reliquary structure from the rest of the chapel). The walls of the upper chapel average 0.86 meters, frequently using iron to reinforce the stone, while the walls of the lower chapel average 1.31 meters; this reflects the fact that all the weight of the upper chapel must be borne by the lower. The “tribune” or baldachin is a metal frame at the eastern end of the chapel. Originally, the reliquaries holding the relics would have been here. The Crown of Thorns was moved around the time of the French Revolution to Notre Dame Cathedral, but it has recently been moved to the Louvre instead.
THE WINDOWS! The royal space of Saint Chapelle is a essentially a stone and iron skeleton to maximize the space for stained glass. As you might expect, the windows feature key moments from the life of Christ, particularly the Passion. I appreciated that a window features the story of how St. Helene rediscovered the relics. It’s worth noting that the artistry below those windows is also worth examination. Almost all the four-lobed paintings have been scratched to oblivion, but I liked the example I show above.
I took a moment on the entry porch of the upper chapel, and I am glad I did. The post standing between the double doors was sculpted with a charming rendition of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The Sainte-Chapelle was definitely worth the wait. We descended to the lower chapel and found the exit.
Rather than exit to the street, Natasha and I sought the entrance to the Conciergerie, the museum part of the former Palais de la Cite (the contemporary Palais du Justice). Our ticket for the Sainte Chapelle also gave us entry to that museum. We walked across the former Court du Mai to the side of what was once the Grand’Chambre. A policeman with a carbine was guarding an entrance, but he began talking with another tourist seeking information. I turned around to spot a really lovely view of the skyline of the Chapelle. Natasha and I exited to head north on the street and then enter the Conciergerie; for this entrance there was no line at all!
I had to pause on the stairs leading down from that entrance. The Salle des Gens d’Armes is a vast subterannean forest of columns and vaults. Artificial lights keep it brightly lit today, but I imagine it must have been quite smokey with torches in medieval times! We showed our tickets and COVID-19 vaccination status and were allowed to walk freely through the museum.
I would subdivide the public space of the Conciergerie in two parts, one dating from the Ancien Regime (royal France) and another relating to the Revolution. The Ancien Regime shows us the Salle des Gens d’Armes, the Salle des Guards, and the kitchens. I would have loved to see the Grand’Chambre, which was crafted to be an even grander royal hall than Westminster (though I believe its space has been divvied up to different purposes). I would also have loved to see the meeting room of the Parlement, the legislature of nobility that supported the king’s efforts. These spaces were upstairs of the Salle des Gens d’Armes and adjoining Salle des Guards, respectively; you can see some photos on a history page from the French Justice ministry. Both of them, however, have been extensively remodeled in the years of Republican France to serve the judicial management of the nation. Today we get to see the basements.
As one walks down La Rue de Paris (today essentially a gift shop extneding south from the Salle des Guards), one approaches the Revolutionary part of the Conciergerie. The name “Rue de Paris,” in fact, is a reference to “Monsieur Paris,” the customary title of the head executioner of France!
The Revolutionary space of the Conciergerie reveals the dramatic change that came to the Palais de la Cite as the Revolution transformed France. The site became known as a final prison for people condemned to death. The most famous inmate to be housed there spent just 76 days in the cells, having been transferred from the tower of the Temple, where she had been housed with her family. Marie Antoinette was given a special cell adjoining the prison chapel, and today an altar funded by her brother fills that space. The chapel itself is worth a look, too; the balcony is enclosed by bars to secure inmates hearing what might be their last appeal from the church!
When I was a high schooler, I thought the name “Robespierre” was synonymous with “if you make a mess, prepared to be caught up in it yourself.” It was a little surprising, then, to see exhibits extolling his virtues, including a statue from the 1790s. Fouquier-Tinville, who prosecuted many defendants during this period, was also extolled in his own exhibits. Because this room had many people in it, Natasha and I scuttled away quickly, but I wonder if I might benefit from a reappraisal of these two hated and loved persons.
Birthday lunch and cake!
Natasha and I don’t often visit the city center, and this visit gave us he opportunity to visit some restaurants that practice good allergen controls. We walked down Rue St. Jacques to reach Blvd. Saint-Germain. Very close to the intersection we found Loulou, our lunch spot, just across from the Hotel de Cluny (the temporarily closed Museum of the Medieval). It was already 2 o’clock, and we were hungry! I really enjoyed my fish and chips (their locally-made fries were particularly tasty). Natasha was very grateful that Loulou gets their gluten-free bread from Chambelland Bakery, a place we have visited on a couple of occasions. She enjoyed a club sandwich in perfect saftey.
After lunch, we strolled west on Blvd. Saint-Germain. We paused in the little park next to the abbey, and Natasha appreciated the Art Deco memorial to the Sevres company. We walked to the park on the opposite side of the abbey, where I spent a few moments with the fragments remaining of the Lady Chapel, destroyed in the Revolution. The Lady Chapel might have been considered a close contemporary of the Sainte Chapelle we had visited early; perhaps the two even shared a master builder! I wish we could visit both as they were in their primes.
We continued west on the boulevard to reach its merger with Rue Raspail. We headed just a bit south to Rue de Grenelle for a quick visit to NoGlu, a patisserie that makes gluten-free products. I acquired a couple frosted cinnamon rolls, and Natasha found some mini pecan pies.
By that time we were feeling a bit worn from our day, and I returned us to the Rue du Bac Metro station back at the merger of Saint-Germain and Raspail. We boarded the first train south, and something I hadn’t experienced before happened. The subway train stalled, and the lights went out, before we had reached even the first station! Natasha and I surreptitiously took a seat and waited. Within five minutes, we were back on our way south.
Our alarm erupted at 6:30, and in moments Natasha and I were in motion for our day-trip to Bayeux. At long last we would see the fabled “Bayeux Tapestry!” I had purchased the return train tickets for Bayeux immediately after we returned to Paris from Denmark, but Natasha and I both suffered from colds for much of the intervening time. It was not a sure thing that we would both take the trip.
Reaching Gare Saint-Lazare is not too bad from southwestern Paris; we’re about six km, from door to door. As usual, our trip started on line 8, and we switched to line 13 for the last couple kilometers. We allotted ourselves an hour for all of it, but we even had enough time to print our tickets from the machine (yeah, I’m old-fashioned). We used a long-range train on the Nomad network, so we had assigned seats rather than the first-come-first-served of local trains.
Our 2h20m run to Bayeux was pretty pleasant. The fall sun was rising above the horizon, but Natasha still managed some shut-eye. I read a book through sleepy eyes for the first two hours until we reached Caen, the city William the Conqueror made his first capital. After that I tried to pay better attention since Bayeux is only twenty minutes further. Natasha and I hurried off the train, since it was continuing to Cherbourg.
The tourism folks for Bayeux have really applied themselves to make the city’s sites accessible to tourists. Frequent, visible signs pointed the path to the tapestry museum, the cathedral (next door to the arts and history museum), and the battle of Normandy museum. Even better, a little walking path guided our wandering feet directly to the tapestry museum, the closest of those sites to the train station. The traffic circle even featured a couple mounted knights to get us in the medieval mood! As we crossed the last few meters through Parc Michel Ornano, Natasha pointed out the specially-shaped trees that formed a square around a little courtyard, and a waterwheel turned happily nearby in the Aure River.
The three museums of Bayeux have developed a strategy to ease purchase of tickets for two or three of the sites at any of the locations. Natasha and I were only in town for the day, so we opted for a single ticket to both the Bayeux Tapestry Museum and the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. I think we would have enjoyed the Baron Gérard Museum of Art and History, too, but we wanted to reduce the pressure on the schedule since it was already lunchtime!
Bayeux Tapestry Museum
While the Bayeux Tapestry Museum is about the artifact itself, it is more than just a room with the tapestry in it. The museum occupies the former Grande Séminaire de Bayeux, a training center for priests from the late 17th century to the late 20th. While the tapestry has occasionally been exhibited at Paris during its long life, its home was Bayeux Cathedral for the longest time, and its display at the current museum only started in 1983.
Every visitor comes to see the tapestry, and that’s where we were guided. The 70-meter strip of fabric is a bit like a long comic strip telling the story of William the Conqueror‘s 1066 CE invasion of England after extracting a promise from Harold Godwinson of England that William would succeed Edward the Confessor as King of England. The free audioguide is smart enough to know when you have entered The Room, and it starts its long spiel to guide you through the full 70m length of the work. The audio seemed to guide all the visitors at a more or less uniform rate through the tapestry (though different translations would probably vary a bit). The lighting is such that while one can barely see the other guests to either side, the tapestry itself is very clear. Photographs are not allowed, and yet people were snapping away with cell phones and cameras. If I’d seen a camera flash, I would have assisted others to frog-march that person from the room. The tapestry is nearly a thousand years of age! In any case, the full tapestry can be viewed online.
The floor above is much more like a typical museum, explaining the nature of the work and explaining its history, including some rather large holes in our knowledge of it! Let’s start with the elephant in the room; the Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry. It’s embroidered, with wool thread on a linen sheet. Who sponsored its creation and who composed its images? I believe the contemporary consensus is that Bishop Odo of Bayeux, half-brother of William the Conqueror, sponsored the creation of this masterpiece. Odo was not an artist, but he was pretty serious about using his new-found wealth as an Earl in England to enrich his new cathedral in Bayeux, consecrated in 1077 CE. Who drew the design for the embroidery, and who implemented the stitches? Well, several names have been put forward, but I get the sense we’re uncertain whether it was embroidered in Normandy or in England. This work of art was created in the 11th century and was part of the Bayeux Cathedral treasury, displayed probably less than one week of each year and otherwise packaged into a box.
It is hard to believe, but for the first 650 years of its existence, this fabric masterwork was hardly known outside of Bayeux. In 1724 CE, however, Antoine Lancelot displayed drawings of the first 10 meters to the Academie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres. Antoine Benoit was sent to draw the entirety of the work in 1729. In 1804, the work itself was displayed at the Louvre, and popular appreciation for it grew on both sides of the English Channel. Today, of course, you can simply view every inch of its artistry in high-resolution! I came away from seeing it in person with two different realizations. The first is that the thing is just charming as heck. The artist(s?) infused tremendous personality into the drawings, and besides being genuine art, the characters they crafted are a lot of fun. The second is that the stitches are easily discerned by eye, and the layering of the threads (as in the “Bayeux Stitch”) creates a really sumptuous surface. Of course the artists did not have an unlimited palette from which to choose, and the museum enumerates ten different colors that were created by combinations of three vegetable dyes (madder, weld, and woad) in different intensities.
If I can pitch in one more comment about this amazing embroidery, I would say that it surprised me to learn that we aren’t actually sure which character represents King Harold in the famous scene where he is killed in battle (panel 57). Is it the guy taking an arrow in the face, or is it the fellow getting struck down by a sword-wielding horseman? At Natasha’s prompting, I spent a little time looking at the strips of images at top and bottom of the emrboidery. They’re mostly decoration, but occasionally they prop up the story, such as the ghostly images of ships on panel 33, when Harold has accepted the throne of England and learns a comet is burning in the sky. Certainly the lower border tells a grisly story by the time of panel 57, when dead and dismembered men are being stripped of their armor by looters. Natasha had a good giggle at the number of times nude humans appeared in the lower margin, and we need not ask whether eleventh century artists noticed that stallions have their genitals prominently on display. Natasha’s count is 93 visible protuberances for the tapestry as a whole!
Marching on our stomachs
We exited the museum around 13:30, and we realized we had only a limited amount of time to eat before most restaurants closed at 14:00 on this Sunday afternoon. We saw some indications that Le Moulin de la Galette could cater to people with food allergies, but sadly we needed a reservation. We passed northward on Rue Larcher in hopes of finding a sushi or Indian restaurant, but all were closed. We wandered on Rue Saint-Jean to the east in hopes of finding a grocery and then to the west, but we saw only places with a lot of wheat products. We despaired. Our howling bellies demanded a sacrifice.
Finally we resolved to return to the east side of town to seek out the Coccimarket, a little grocery that Google proclaimed was open. By the time we climbed the gentle hill of Avenue Georges Clemenceau, Natasha was dizzy, and I had the shakes from low blood sugar. To our delight, the market was open, and Natasha was able to buy gluten-free crackers and ham/sausage slices to accompany emmental cheese slices, a couple of Cokes, and some local red grapes. It tasted like heaven for two people as weary as we! Do not get yourself stranded in a small town on a Sunday afternoon if you have food allergies.
Convinced that we would survive our ordeal, Natasha and I returned to the old city center by way of Rue des Teinturiers. Having eaten, we were much more able to appreciate the beautiful sunlight and in many cases historical storefronts along the way. We passed down Rue des Cuisiniers and walked right by the Art and History Museum (we hadn’t bought the ticket!) to reach the Cathedral of Bayeux. I was really grateful that Natasha seemed interested in stepping inside. The cathedral is an old one, a Romanesque cathedral at this site having been consecrated in 1077 with William the Conquerer in attendance. The current structure, though, reflects alternating periods of construction in the new Gothic style (1110-1130 CE, 1165-1205 CE, and 1230-1280 CE) and fires (1077 CE, 1105 CE, 1160 CE).
Natasha noticed that the pretty flowers on the columns probably remained from a recent wedding. I loved the stained glass, of course, even though it represented quite a range of periods and styles. My favorite part of the visit, though, came when we descended into the crypt of the church. This is the part that truly dates back to the eleventh century. One of the column capitals there shows the resurrected Jesus revealing himself to Thomas the Incredulous and Peter. It was wild to be standing next to these carvings from so long ago.
We continued on our way to the area southwest from the city center. It would be a shame if we were to come all the way to Bayeux and not see the Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy. The town is just 20 km from “Omaha” Beach and home to the largest of the memorial gardens for World War II in all of Normandy. We knew we had reached our destination when we saw tanks parked next to the road.
Memorial Museum of the Battle of Normandy
While my generation heard more about World War II than we might have wanted through old movies on TV and history classes, I realize that this might be different today. Normandy was chosen as the spot for the “D-Day” invasion because the Allies knew that a head-on assault on a major port city would be met with concentrated defenses. They chose Normandy because the area offered several accessible beaches without major port cities guarding them. Once their forces made landfall at Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah Beaches, the Allies hoped that they would be able to move inland rapidly rather than being pushed back into the sea. They innovated to produce portable harbors that could be emplaced at these beaches in time to begin shipping necessities like food, fuel, and ammunition in high volumes.
The British and Canadians under Montgomery had the hardest assignments in the “Battle of Normandy.” The city of Caen was one of the largest in the area, and it was backed by several divisions of German armor. The Allies made several pushes on the area but paid dearly in taking Caen. The pounding they took made it much easier for Americans pushing across the Cotentin Peninsula to isolate Cherbourg and then take it over land rather than by amphibious assault. Because so many German tanks were fighting off Montgomery at Caen, the Americans were eventually able to break through in the west to shove into the French interior. In the end, the Allies lost 200,000 dead, wounded, or prisoners to the 400,000 lost for the Germans. This awful struggle is one that deserves to be remembered.
My biggest impressions from the museum? I was surprised at learning General Von Choltitz was instructed to destroy Paris by Hitler but ignored the directive. Would we still have Notre Dame or the Eiffel Tower except for that decision? As a kid, I enjoyed assembling plastic models of military equipment, and I certainly enjoyed the video game “Battlefield: 1942” as a graduate student. Well, the museum is loaded with vehicles and weapons from the conflict. I was wowed to see a “Sexton,” a 25-pounder field gun atop a Sherman tank hull. I looked at the intricate sighting equipment (“Aiming Circle M1”) for a 105mm howitzer and wondered if today’s computer-dependent population would be able to adjust back to such a technology. Natasha and I watched the museum’s documentary on the Battle of Normandy, and I would just observe that the music director chose to use Beethoven’s 5th symphony, Beethoven’s 9th symphony, and two movements from Mozart’s requiem mass. I believe that propriety requires that only one of those four is allowable in any short film.
It was when we stepped outside again and returned to the road that we reached the most moving part of the museum. Just to the west, we entered the British Military Cemetery of Bayeux. Almost 5000 dead from the Battle of Normandy are interred there. It seems that America repatriated essentially all the remains of fallen soldiers and marines from this area, but the Commonwealth soldiers and marines remain. It is a beautiful setting. The autumn sun was angled close to the earth, so the boundary between light and dark was very sharp. We looked through the memorial log of the burials at the site. Yes, the United Kingdom accounts for the great majority of graves, but Germany also has soldiers buried here (almost 500). For Natasha and me, the story of the single South African who died among other Commonwealth troops was a poignant one. We could only stroll through the quiet space imagining such a dark time in history.
When I originally booked our tickets home from Bayeux, I sought the best deal I could get, and that meant we were on a late train (boarding around 9:30 PM, if memory serves). We hoped we could scoot that forward, given the difficult food situation (though restaurants would open for dinners around 19:00). We walked along the D5 highway toward the train station, then came up the D572. To our great surprise, we were walking alongside a cow pasture, with the lovely cathedral towers visible beyond. We had to stop for a picture. We turned at the traffic circle to return to the train station. Happily, we could return on a 7:30 train rather than waiting for 9:30, but changing would increase the cost of our rail fare by 65€ ($75 USD). Well, I was teaching the next day, and Natasha was not feeling particularly well, so we went ahead with the upgrade.
While we waited for our train at the extreme west end of the station (we were in car 16 of the train), a shorter train headed west toward Cherbourg. On a silly impulse, I waved at the conductor as the train accelerated by us. Natasha and I were both nearly flattened when the conductor responded by blasting the train’s air horn. It was a delightfully silly moment to end our special time in Bayeux.
Is it possible for a church to loom in your imagination? Ever since I started learning about French Gothic churches, Saint-Denis has been right there, at the corner of my eye. It was slightly too far for me to “accidentally” take the metro there, and it wasn’t a place that I prioritized for a weekend run with Natasha. *Something* tweaked my awareness last night, though, and I impulsively bought a ticket for my visit today.
Getting to the Basilica was really easy, even if it took 45 minutes rather than 15. Our metro line 8 intersected with line 13 at Invalides, and I rode 13 to the penultimate stop. Since I was chasing a 10AM Saturday reserved time at the cathedral, the metro was not horribly busy. I was under the impression that I would emerge from the underground almost in front of the church, but I first needed to follow the brown tourist signs a couple of blocks until the church came into view. It soon became apparent why almost every modern photograph of the church looks squarely at its facade; the city hall is at right angles with the facade and far enough away that putting the two together would be quite a stretch. I didn’t see any way to get a photograph of the flank of the church, either.
Why does Saint-Denis matter? Saint-Denis was the abbey church at the tomb of France’s patron saint. In a critical era, the abbot of Saint-Denis joined forces with the King of France to enhance the prestige of the kingdom, helping to forge a national vision of France from a million competing baronies and duchies. As a result, the status of Saint-Denis was elevated above being an ordinary abbey, and it became the royal church of France. Yes, kingly coronations traditionally took place at Reims Cathedral. Saint-Denis, however, would become the final resting place for all but three of the kings. Saint-Denis was also the genesis of the Gothic architectural movement that became the prototype for building a cathedral in medieval France. Amazingly, the abbot of Saint-Denis who was responsible for linking its fate to the kingdom of France was the same person who took the bold step of rebuilding the church in Gothic style. Abbot Suger seems to have been the right person in the right place.
Today, few signs of Abbot Suger remain in the church. He appears as a small kneeling figure to the left of Jesus’ feet in the tympanum over the central portal. He appears at the feet of Mary in a 12th century stained-glass window themed on the infancy of Jesus (currently undergoing restoration). He was also added to a window during restoration by Viollet-le-Duc during the 19th century; he appears as a figure in green in the much older “Tree of Jesse” stained-glass window. In architecture, we step inside the church Abbot Suger envisioned and imagine how astonished the visitors must have been at its dedication by King Louis VII in 1144 CE. The new Gothic style caught on like wildfire, and soon the Cathedral of Sens (begun 1143), Senlis (begun 1153), and Paris (“Notre Dame,” begun 1163) cemented this design as the future of French churches.
Pope Eugene III visited the new church in 1147 CE to see the king of France accept the Oriflamme from Abbot Suger. This battle standard was used to show the endorsement of the church for going to war. The Second Crusade accomplished little of military value other than the recapture of Lisbon, but the ceremony was an excellent launch to Abbot Suger’s standing as co-regent of France during the king’s absence.
It is a mistake to think that Saint-Denis sprang fully-formed from the mind of Abbot Suger, though. The 13th century saw the culmination of the Abbey church under “Saint” Louis IX. By 1281 CE, a new Gothic nave with a fully-formed transept was constructed, likely to a design by Pierre de Montreuil. The new nave was flanked by flying buttresses, and a new spire crowned the north tower of the church. Saint Louis commissioned a number of reclining statues of former kings of France to showcase the growing royal necropolis. He himself was entombed in Saint-Denis at his death in 1270 CE, his grave marked by a simple stone slab. By 1282 CE, however, his tomb’s reputation for miracles had led to it being protected by an iron grate and later replaced by an artistic tomb of precious metal. At the start of the fifteenth century, however, Saint Louis’ tomb was gone. The cost of the Hundred Years’ War had seen the tomb of the only royal French saint as a disposable asset. Today, you can see just two markers of Saint Louis in the basilica: a bone from his corpse stands in a gold reliquary in the Chapel of the Virgin, and a nineteenth-century painting of his death appears in the northern transept (it’s not very related to the history of his death– the Saint died of dysentery in North Africa).
To walk into the church to attend a service or just look at the colored light streaming through the windows is free of charge. Quite a lot of the church, however, is given over to the royal necropolis (particularly the double ambulatory, the transepts, and the sizeable crypt). For admission to those areas, one must buy a ticket. I could hardly describe it all, so I’ll emphasize the things that struck me the most forcefully.
The archaeological crypt would be a treasure trove for any scientist seeking to understand the historical origins of this church. Its walls and vaults are a pastiche of the early churches that occupied this area since 313 CE. I wasn’t prepared to see so many sarcophagi scattered higgledy-piggledy in this space, though. Particularly the French Revolution was unkind to the dead interred in this church; almost all the tombs are empty, with recovered royal and noble and sacred bones lumped together in the ossuary (also in the crypt).
The allure of the “Sun King” for me didn’t wear off during my sun-stroke at Versailles. Louis XIV, his wife, and his brother, all have monuments down in the Bourbon chapel of the crypt. Louis’ tomb is essentially the wall of that chapel, surmounted by an angel.
I have come to admire Charles V of France (“The Wise”) for his management of the country during the early stages of the Hundred Years War (r. 1364-1380 CE). He was a builder, with a hand in the Bastille, Chateau de Vincennes, the Louvre, and St.-Germain-en-Laye. When he died, sculptor André Beauneveu produced a masterful effigy of the king for his tomb, rendering Charles V as the sculptor had known him in life. I was intrigued by the right hand of the king, seemingly passing a note to someone.
Francois I (r. 1515-1547 CE) may be popularly known as the handsome French counterpart to King Henry VIII in “The Tudors” TV series. Unsurprisingly, he had a pretty big impact on France, too! It is his Renaissance revision of the St. Germain-en-Laye palace that the heritage folks in France have decided was the right target for its restoration. Arguably, his remarkable tomb is the grandest in Saint-Denis. Up close, most visitors will get a good view of the bottom of his naked feet. If you look back at it from the higher ground of the ambulatory, though, you will see the figures of the family in prayer atop the tall structure.
As I began making my way to the exit of the church, the organist broke into a lovely fugue to prepare for a noon church service. I paused to record some of the music and pan across the lovely stained glass windows at the back of the nave. I am so grateful for my time there!
Strolling Contemporary Saint-Denis
I turned left as I exited the church and began sauntering down the Rue de la Legion d’Honneur. These schools were established by Napoleon I for the daughters, granddaughters, and great granddaughters of decorated soldiers. On this Saturday lunchtime, though, the street bogged down rather badly after I crossed Rue Pinel. A line of cars several blocks long was at a stand-still, and the occasional motorist tried to improve his lot by hooting and yellings. It took quite a while for the logjam to clear.
I turned aside to visit the “Little Burger” chain restaurant. On a whim, I decided to try their flame-grilled “Wooper” meal. I am pleased to report it resembled a similar-sounding burger from an entirely different restaurant. On the other hand, the French Fries were dusted with paprika. I tried them, and I cannot say I disliked the change.
Today many Parisiens probably think of Saint-Denis most in connection with the massive Stade de France. It can hold 80,700 people, and it is principally used for soccer (“le foot”) and rugby matches. I decided to walk down to the side of the canal for a photo. I was a little put-off by the huge number of pedestrians, bicyclists, and scooters that whizzed by me, but I got my photo. What I didn’t include is that the entirety of the concrete pier to my right (holding up a highway viaduct) was covered in a giant mass of graffiti. I only had the camera out long enough to snap my one photograph, and then I moved back into the stream of people behind me.
Saint-Denis Art and History Museum
It was almost two o’clock in the afternoon, and I wasn’t sure when else I would have the chance, so I wandered to the City Art and History Museum. The facility is housed in a former Carmelite monastery that dates back to 1628; its cornerstone was laid by Marie de Medici. The city only purchased the complex for this museum in 1972; previously it had operated in the city hall or library. I think the complex is a rather special place for this museum on several counts:
I have seen only a few history museums incorporate gardens into the tour, and the grounds of the monastery are lovely.
Who can deny the charm of a cloister? Not me.
The ground-level galleries retain moral guidance printed in six-inch tall letters at the top of the walls!
The high dome of the chapel gives a real sense of occasion to the displays there.
The archaeology museum is notable for its displays on early stages of the Basilica, including a couple charming statues of Saint Denis holding his head in his hands (after being beheaded). I appreciated the museum’s explanations of some column capitals dating back to 1125 CE (before the Gothic basilica had begun construction). Some of the bone carvings in the area were quite cool, too, such as a bone flute from the 12th century.
The religious art in the convent did not inspire me, but I really liked some of the paintings of Saint-Denis from earlier centuries. I prefered Giuseppe Canella’s 1831 earthy painting of the basilica (see top of post) to the larger one from 1817 by Bouhot, but that may only reflect that I liked imagining livestock in the street! A cool Art Nouveau mosaic piece titled “Esperance” (Hope) was a cool complement, too.
The gallery on the Communards in the aftermath of the disasters of 1870 was hard to take in, perhaps because I entered at the end rather than the beginning. A 2006 painting by American Kevin Larmee titled “the Paris Commune 1871” commemorated the many enraged Parisians who lost their lives with their backs to a wall in the bloody aftermath when the Commune was crushed. On the other hand, Narcisse Chaillou created a charming little piece showing a young man advertising his rat-killing prowess in “le depeceur de rats” at the end of the 19th century.
My train ran off its rails as I encountered a gallery revisiting and commenting on the awful images displayed at the Colonial Exposition at Paris. I think living in Africa has made me more sensitive to the casual racism that was so common in Europe and North America a century ago. That is not to say that it has vanished in recent years. My discomfort with even a quick pass through that gallery did not leave me in a good headspace for the temporary program exhibited in several rooms of the museum: “Saison Africa2020: Un.e Air.e de famille.” The program has a very good notion at its heart: reveal the anti-colonial commitment of surrealists and other artists whose works enter into dialogue with the contemporary artistic practices of thirteen female artists from Africa and its diaspora.
My brain was slowing from five solid hours of tourism. I was determined, though, to see the interior of the high-domed chapel, standing behind a facade that one would associate with a law court instead (it even reads “Justice de Paix” on its lintel). The space was quite dark inside to make a suitable suite for large video screens, but I still collected photos of the chamber. I tried reassembling in my mind what it would have looked like for a church service, but I couldn’t really envision it. Yesterday’s church had become today’s art gallery.
I was satisfied. I marched back to the metro station and headed down the stairs. It was time to head back home!
Natasha and I were laid low by colds that we acquired flying back from Denmark. After two weeks under the weather, though, we aspired to see a museum we had both wanted to visit ever since I first ventured into the neighborhood to see the royal palace at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. At last it was a Saturday morning and we felt well enough; we could finally venture out to the National Archaeology Museum.
We chose the museum in part because it is so easy to reach from our home in the 15th Arrondissement. We trotted south to cross the Peripherique, and we boarded the T2 tram all the way to La Defense train station (this is approximately two-thirds the tram’s whole route). From La Defense, we acquired a couple inexpensive RER A train tickets to Saint-Germain-en-Laye. One really cannot miss the museum when she emerges from the underground train station as the royal palace is across the street.
Because we made our visit on a special weekend, the admission fee for the museum was waived. We had made a 10:30 AM registration to visit, but that seemed entirely unimportant. We liked the look of the bookstore for the museum, but we didn’t find it simple to return to it on our way out. Instead we walked just a few steps into the inner courtyard of the palace. It is simply stunning to emerge into that space. At first you’re looking directly at the Sainte-Chapelle of the palace; its sight is probably quite diminished from when it featured beautiful stained glass. As I spun on my heel to see the amazing surrounds, I felt my heart hammering. What a privileged space this would be, back in the 17th century! Just a few courtiers and royal servants would be free to walk around here. The odd dimensions of the courtyard also make apparent just how far from North-South-East-West the palace wings were built.
The entrance to the permanent exhibitions would be very hard to find without the prominent signs supplied by the museum; it’s a side door in one of the towers. We didn’t have full access to the museum due to restoration. We were able to see the exhibits for the most ancient materials throughout the Entresol level, from the paleolithic to the iron age. I want to specify at this point that if you do not read French, you will definitely want an audio guide. Natasha and I can mostly fake our way through written French, at this point, but someone new to archaeology might miss key words like “fouilles,” which means excavations in this context.
My attention was immediately drawn by the massive skull of a Megaceros, a “great deer” with a crown of antlers that would seem implausible if you saw it in a movie (see top of this post). Natasha was already moving from case to case, happily reciting “Acheulean hand axe, microliths, core,” and other terms from her long-ago training in archaeology. Having never napped a core, I kept having to refer back to timelines to remind myself of which variant of genus Homo the exhibit featured and how many tens of thousands of years we needed to move back in time.
I was very excited when Natasha pointed me to this skull from a Crocuta spelaea. I have been investing effort in the Crocuta crocuta, its modern relative, as we untangle the molecular biology of the spotted hyena, and I was glad to have seen a skull to accompany the molecular data that have been produced for the cave hyena.
I admit that stone tools can leave me a bit distracted, but the museum’s collection features quite a few tools that offered obvious artistic decorations. There’s something distinctively human about that, and it helped me connect to these exhibits from the Magdalenian culture (between 17,000 and 12,000 years ago). When the exhibits shifted to obvious male and female figures I felt touched by the commonalities of that time and ours.
The museum features the Dame à la Capuche (Lady with the Hood) prominently in its marketing materials, and so it can be a bit surprising to see that the carved ivory head is approximately the size of one’s thumb. Still, at 25,000 years of age, it’s obviously an artistic representation of a human form, and it took skill to create. While I was gazing at the Lady, Natasha was fixed on a tiny scrap of linen fabric that had improbably survived for thousands of years.
We soon emerged into the neolithic, the time of the agricultural revolution, where pottery comes to the fore. It seems remarkable how finely wrought some of those items were. In the next room, bronze items are in evidence. I was pretty impressed with a cuirasse and helmet that had survived the millennia. Of course, the gold items tend to steal our attention! A gold cone that was once the apex of a gold hat like one I once saw in Berlin was beautifully crafted.
All of these displays, by the way, are housed on a single level of a former royal palace. The display halls frequently show huge beams of wood that were obviously cut from old-growth forests. I don’t think trees like that still exist in Europe, and it seems that the Amazonian forests will be gone before long, as well. The most exotic aspects of the palace seem to be the brick stairwells, which offer some really eye-twisting patterning to support the ascents and descents. Of course, I’m always going to be a fan of fancy vaulting.
The displays of Gallic art (the Celts living in Iron Age France BCE, encountered by Greeks and later the Romans) were haunting; it seems like we should know more about the groups who lived in Europe before the Romans brought much of it under one roof. I was surprised to see coral combined with iron in several of the pieces. The visitor’s attention is likely to be pulled away from items like that to linger on the majestic “Cavalier Gaulois” by Emmanuel Fremiet, though it was crafted in 1864, not the Gallic period!
After a room of Roman and Gallic items illustrating the clash between these two cultures (at “year zero” or so), we descended to the courtyard once more. We did not get the chance to visit Roman Gaul, the start of the Middle Ages, or the Archaeology of Five Continents on an upper floor. We did enjoy the exhibits to which we had access, though.
I was determined to see the Sainte-Chapelle of the palace, and we found its entrance through the temporary exhibition on Gabriel de Mortillet (a nineteenth century ethnologist and archaeologist who brought some order to the stages of the paleolithic). After a lovely, twisty stairwell in brick, we entered the Sainte-Chapelle itself.
There is something very special the patterns of light and shadow in a Rayonnant Gothic church. The thirteenth-century palace chapel, created by “Saint” Louis IX, is an enlightening environment, even without all the furniture and decor of a royal church. When originally constructed, the rose window that fills the entire end-wall of the chapel would have bathed us in colors. Instead, we see only the tracery before a brick wall because Francois I decided he wanted to build a ballroom.
Natasha pointed me to a gargoyle that had originally lined a roof in the castle. Today it seems to be howling or leering at the ceiling. Delightful. Ever since my first vaccine appointment in Paris had brought me to this neighborhood, I had wanted to bask inside the Sainte-Chapelle at Saint-Germain-en-Laye. Five months later, I had my wish granted.
Natasha and I strolled the castle gardens, and we took in the perspective over the side of the plateau, looking down on the twisting valley of the Seine. We decided to try for some lunch in the area. She found El Sol Azteca, a Mexican restaurant using corn flour rather than wheat flour (celiac friendly!). I at the chicken enchiladas, and soon my belly was ridiculously happy, too.
The other posts from this series appear in the index.
I don’t believe that certain places are sacred or imbued with magical power. There was something about our misty sunrise drive to Jelling, though, that made me feel that we were about to experience a world other than our own. We had decided to visit Jelling because of its interesting description on the UNESCO World Heritage site. The monuments there represent key turning points for Denmark, in many respects marking the beginning of its national history.
Our hour-long route north from Haderslev followed the E45 followed by highway 176. Once we moved to the spur roads leading to Jelling, though, it seemed that the skies became leaden, and the roads contracted. We had a magical moment as we passed through a tunnel of greenery, with tree branches meeting above us. I have taken to calling these “Fairy Tunnels,” because Natasha and I love them. Within minutes, we had arrived at Jelling.
It’s not really possible to become lost in Jelling, a town of fewer than 4000 people. We parked on Mølvangvej and walked about a block to the Jelling Mounds site itself. You can be sure we would have loved to see the Kongernes Jelling Museum (“Jelling of the Kings”), but it only opened at 10AM, and we had a wedding to attend in the afternoon!
The pagan monument (mid-10th century C.E.)
The monument at Jelling began as a royal burial. King Gorm and Queen Thyre are the first royal family for Denmark for which we have really strong historical sources. The northern mound at Jelling is believed to have been created at the time of Queen Thyre’s death. When it was excavated in the early 20th century, the mound contained a beautifully crafted silver cup that has come to define the “Jelling Style.” [The cup image at the top of this post came from the National Museum of Denmark.] The body of Queen Thyre was not there, though. It appears she was moved to a different burial chamber during the Viking Age, perhaps at the time of King Gorm’s death.
The ship and the mound are not the only parts of Queen Thyre’s memorial, though. King Gorm recorded this testament in runes upon a large stone at the site (though it was probably moved from its original location): “King Gorm made this monument in memory of Thyre, his wife, Denmark’s adornment.” It’s a beautiful inscription, but it has historical significance, too. This is the first time the name “Denmark” appears in a written document from that country! I want to take a moment, by the way, to recommend the excellent chapter on Jelling by Steen Hvass in The Lives of Prehistoric Monuments.
The Christian monument (late 10th century, C.E.)
When Gorm and Thyre’s son Harald came to the throne, Denmark was to experience profound changes. King Gorm had done quite a lot to unify Denmark under himself, but his hostility to Christianity had caused him to demolish churches in his wars, and that caused him to run afoul of the German King Henry the Fowler (no, I could not resist that pun). As king, Harald continued his father’s mission of unifying Denmark (and Norway), but he also spread his mother’s appreciation of Christianity.
King Harald Bluetooth contributed a second magnificent carved stone to the Jelling Monument, with writing on one face and lovely images on the other two. Originally, it was painted with bright colors (definitely take a look at this recent replica). This side shows a large animal locked in battle with a snake.
The second image side is remarkable for being the first image of a crucifix known from the part of the world (see the color version for better contrast). Where Gorm’s stone arranges its runic text in vertical columns, Harald changed his text to represent the left-to-right ordering of Latin text. It reads, “King Harald commanded these monuments to be made in memory of Gorm, his Father, and in memory of Thyre, his mother— that Harald who won the whole of Denmark for himself, and Norway, and made the Danes Christian” [this and the previous translation come from Steen Hvass].
Just as Ozymandias makes a proud but vacant boast in Shelley’s poem, Harald Bluetooth makes a boast at Jelling that lasted less long than he might have liked. The king was greatly distracted by a rebellion led by his son, Sven Forkbeard. His son was so successful in his revolt that Harald was driven from Denmark and died in exile.
The church at the Jelling Mounds lies directly between the two mounds. While the church site has been preserved since the late 10th century, the current limestone structure probably dates from around 1100 C.E., though with significant changes after a 17th century fire. A burial chamber beneath the church might have been the final resting place of Gorm and / or Thyre.
Sadly, Natasha and I didn’t get the chance to see the mural work within the church, just as we missed seeing the museum. We did enjoy a stroll around the site, though; the Mounds site has a nice walking trail that allows one to beat the bounds. I really appreciated that they’ve added a nice little stairway for tourists to reach the top of the southern mound. There’s another stairway off to the side that King Frederick VII used to ascend to its halfway point during the mid 19th century. Tourists don’t use that one.
Natasha and I enjoyed the atmosphere of Jelling, but we needed to get back to Haderslev to get dressed for the wedding. We walked into the Super Brugsen grocery in hopes of finding something gluten-safe to eat. Surprisingly, we found some of the best options we’d seen since leaving Copenhagen (Natasha recommends the broccoli salad)! Jelling receives two thumbs up from these tourists.
The other posts from this series appear in the index.
The greatest honour that the bride and groom can bestow on friends during their wedding week is the gift of time. Natasha and I were overjoyed that our dear friends were willing to take us on a three hour walking tour of Odense on the day before their wedding! To see their adopted home through their eyes was delightful.
The name “Odense” is very old, being a derivative of “Othæns-væ” in Old Danish. If it sounds like the name of the Scandinavian All-father, that’s because the city name originally meant “the cult site dedicated to Óðinn.” The city celebrated a millennium of history in my lifetime, counting from a 988 C.E. promise to the Bishop of Odense that the area would be exempted from taxes to the (German) Holy Roman Empire.
Our walk into the city began near the Vesterbro, to the west of the town center. The city is considerably calmer and less built-up than Copenhagen. Our afternoon there was very peaceful. We turned down Søndergade, which seemed filled with practical businesses like barbershops. Red brick was the dominant language of architecture there.
The Munke Mose was a beautiful stroll in the middle of our progression. It is a public park that dates to the first part of the 20th century. Before this time it was apparently something of a marsh, but the river has been regularized considerably, including a fish ladder with a lovely seating area (appearing at left in the photo above). I like the idea that in the past this area sometimes had ice thick enough for skating!
Our turn to the south on Hunderupvej took us near Carlsens Kvarter, one of the storied pubs of the city. We also visited Rise’s Bread in search of gluten-free breads to tide us through the next couple of days. What I wish I had observed more closely, though, was the Nonnebakken. Harald Bluetooth was the first king of Denmark to be baptised a Christian, and he is largely credited with unifying Denmark under one crown (uniting Zealand, Fyn, and upper Jutland). The Nonnebakken fortress seems to have been connected to a pre-existing settlement at Odense; it may even mark the site of the eponymous sanctuary of Odin! As is apparent in the overhead view, the hill is covered with modern development, so it can be difficult to imagine it in its Viking Age glory.
Venturing northeastward from the Nonnebakken, we entered a part of town that seems entirely devoted to the memory of author Hans Christian Andersen, who spent his first fourteen years in Odense. You might know him for his tales “The Little Mermaid,” “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” and “The Princess and the Pea.” (Fun Fact: did you realize that John, Hans, and Ivan are all the same name?) You can visit not one but two different childhood homes for him, and a lovely new museum is being opened soon there.
From this point, our group wandered through the pedestrian center of town. Odense is a pleasant place for a stroll. I could easily imagine being a college student at the University of Southern Denmark (but Odense seems more “central” than “south” to me!). We stopped for a late lunch at a cafe. They said they could prepare food safely for folks with celiac disease, but sadly we learned that was untrue.
I had read the name “Odense” countless times in graduate school and in the course of my career. The reason relates to one of the most prolific researchers in the field of proteomics, Matthias Mann. A freshly-minted Dr. Mann started his post-doctoral career at the University of Southern Denmark at Odense in 1989, and he continued there until 2007 (apart from six years in Heidelberg). Even after Mann’s departure to Germany, Odense has continued to build its reputation in proteomics, with a variety of companies and research teams developing new technologies in this space. I am sure I will return to Odense some day!
The other posts from this series appear in the index.
When I flip through photographs from travel even two or three months later, it can seem like I am reviewing a trip somebody else took. I try to record my notes on locations for each day of each trip, but for Denmark I was sufficiently worn that I let the camera do the logging. That said, I enjoyed our time in Copenhagen, and I would like to share that experience with you.
Our hotel lay between City Hall and the Ørstedsparken, so we were an easy walk from many tourist highlights. The historic city center is reasonably compact, and some of the roads are designated pedestrian districts. We didn’t even require public transportation except for moving between the airport and our hotel when we arrived.
I was curious why Copenhagen serves as the capital for Denmark; it’s not the most ancient of its cities (Ribe: 8th century C.E.) or its first royal city (Roskilde: 10th century C.E.). In Danish, the city name is spelled København, meaning “merchants’ harbor.” Nearby herring fisheries in this area cemented its advantages, and by the 12th century it had its own bishop, and by the 13th it was fortified with a stone wall. The Hanseatic League perceived it as a rival. Today its metropolitan area is home to more than two million people.
The Round Tower: an eye to the skies
Denmark produced some of the finest astronomers of history, and the Round Tower in Copenhagen is the oldest preserved observatory in Europe. It was constructed by King Christian IV during 1637-1642 C.E. as part of a trio: the tower, the Trinity Church, and the university library above the church. Until 1861, the tower housed the University of Copenhagen Observatory. I liked that a bust of Tycho Brahe appears near its entrance; a student of this legendary astronomer was the first master of the observatory.
A tourist to the Round Tower is likely to notice two key aspects. The first is that the interior is largely consumed by a circular ramp from the ground to the top; it’s a steep enough pitch that you might want to take your time climbing. The university library hall is now used for exhibitions and other events. The second big feature of the site is the amazing view offered by the observation deck atop the tower. We were rewarded with clear skies and sunlight during an otherwise rainy time.
National Museum of Denmark: not bogged down
The National Museum of Denmark is a network of institutions across the country. We decided to visit the museum at the Prince’s Mansion, directly southwest of Christiansborg Palace. It has a great archaeological collection and features a fair number of Viking-era artifacts, too.
A theme that pervades the museum is the value of bogs and fens for archaeology in Denmark. If we removed every item that came from a bog from this museum, it would feel quite empty! The skeleton that appears above is an “aurochs,” a species that was hunted to extinction in 1627 C.E. It is a close relative of contemporary cattle, likely even the progenitor of them. It seems that many local cultures made ritual sacrifice of beautifully-crafted items and of living beings by breaking or killing them and depositing the remains in bogs and fens.
The Sun Chariot illustrated the value that some of these sacrificed items could hold. I do not think gold was particularly plentiful in the 14th century BCE! This item is thought to have been cast in bronze by the lost wax method. Phoebus Apollo was not the only god of the sun thought to ride across the skies…
Christianity was a relative late-comer to Denmark, with the first baptized nobles in the ninth century C.E. Remember that Norwegians began deadly raids just before this time; Lindisfarne, for example, was sacked in 793 C.E. Danes were definitely among those who decided to go Viking during the following century. Natasha and I had fun with an audiovisual museum exhibit following the adventures of a young man who opted for one of these raids. She took a picture of me with a wax man from medieval Denmark that appears at the top of this post. I will have more to say about the arrival of Christianity in Denmark when I describe our visit to Jelling Mounds. The National Museum was a special treat for both Natasha and me!
Rosenborg Castle: riches above and below
Since one ticket covered all parts of the Rosenburg Castle, Natasha and I decided it was a good bet to start our first full day in the city. We enjoyed some time wandering the surrounding Kongens Have (King’s gardens), with lovely tree-lined paths, pools and roses. When the gardens were originally purchased by the king in 1606, these lands would all have lain outside the city walls, but it is very much an urban park today.
The ground floor interior has retained original wall coverings and even some furniture, but some rooms are intended to showcase precious items from the king’s treasury. Some displays are gaudy, such as a gilded jousting figure, and others seem silly, such as a prank chair intended to temporarily imprison its victim while soaking his or her seat and playing a “toot” on a horn when they stood up. Most of the spaces are more tasteful as one would expect. I do wonder how the royal family kept the space lit; we often felt we were stumbling around in the dark due to the rainy day outside.
Since some of the spaces could feel a bit close, we were glad for the openness of the second floor. What started as a ballroom gained prominence as silver furniture and tapestries adorned it. I could imagine a royal party here! I mistakenly thought the tour was over, but Natasha noted that the royal treasury was on display in the space below the ground floor. We took the chance that it would be open, if only to avoid the rain outside!
Rosenborg really offers quite a lot to see in its various basements, from the weapons and wine barrels chamber to the Crown Jewels in the depth of the Treasury. We would have missed the most beautiful items in the castle if we had left after seeing only the above-ground bits! The amber jewelry case caught Natasha’s eye. I loved the “Romans and Africans” playing pieces, executed in gilt silver. I was interested to see a film crew setting up tracks for a smooth-gliding movement of the camera past cases of some of the regalia. These are rooms of uncommon magnificence.
Freetown Christiania: the anarchists’ dream?
In 1971, a group of squatters took up residence in an abandoned military base in a curve of land between canals in east Copenhagen. In the years since that time, approximately 900 people have come to live in this area, defying attempts to impose Danish law. The inhabitants of Christiania were determined to govern themselves, and soon a collective of artists and other experimentally-minded people had gathered in the area.
We were able to reach Christiania by simply passing the Børsen (17th century stock exchange with a spire like a narwhal) and crossing a canal on the Torvegade, then turning northeast toward the distinctive Church of Our Savior. At that point we just looked around a bit to find the main entrance another block onwards. I have relied on other photographers for the first two images because the area really requires one to ask before taking a photograph.
Perhaps it will be no surprise that recreational drug use became common in Christiania. The “Pusher Street” area, near the entrance, made drugs of many types available for sale. Denmark has encoded in law several times how it will interact with Christiania, notably in its 1989 “Christiania Law” and with some important changes in 2011 when the area was effectively sold by the government to the “Christiania Foundation.” At intervals, the Danish police have entered the area to end the sale of hard drugs, and the purchase of marijuana has generally been possible on “Pusher Street” even though it is illegal in Copenhagen. When we passed through this area, a few of the stands were open, but the fitful rain was driving away the less diligent sellers.
Natasha and I are always interested in finding original artwork to remind us of the places we’ve been lucky enough to visit. When we saw the Christiania Art Gallery, we both turned as one to enter the shop. Marios Orozco happily waved us toward the canvases that surrounded us. We were delighted by the vivid colors of the work, and we decided to buy a painting of the “Glass House,” situated on the opposite shore of the canal near the gallery.
It was an excellent way to cap off our visit to Copenhagen. The following morning, we needed to wake up early to start our drive to the Jutland Peninsula!
Since I travel frequently for work, it is a relief when I can journey for friends, instead! This post and perhaps a few more will tell the story of our adventures as we visited Denmark to attend the wedding of two dear friends of ours. Natasha and I really enjoyed our chance to see Denmark, a country neither of us had visited before.
The broad sketch of our trip looked like this:
22-Sep-2021 We fly to Copenhagen and check into the Hotel Kong Frederik.
24-Sep-2021 We drive a rental car to Odense and then continue to Haderslev.
25-Sep-2021 After a short visit at Jelling Mounds, we attend the wedding at Øsby Kirke.
26-Sep-2021 We drive back to Copenhagen for our flight home to Paris.
After more than a year of public masking for the COVID-19 pandemic, it was decidedly odd to be in a country where the mask mandate had been completely rescinded (our visit was before the Omicron outbreak). On our first walkabout in Copenhagen, Natasha and I were hissed at by a passing bicyclist for wearing our masks. I am not sure why anyone would hiss at someone being more careful than the norm, but Natasha and I decided not to put our masks back on until our return to the airport. Being able to rescind a mask mandate early was a prize Denmark won by the high degree of faith the citizens have in public health guidance; the fraction of the population that had been vaccinated dwarfed that of the United States.
I have never been the most confident car driver, and renting a car in an unfamiliar country was a bit tense for me. Our driving route would take us across the width of Denmark, crossing two monumental bridges from the island of Zealand (home of Copenhagen) to the island of Funen (home of Odense) to Jutland, part of continental Europe. Google says that drive totalled about five and a half hours, but remember that we also had to retrace our steps to return to the airport at Copenhagen. For me, the most stressful part of driving was in Copenhagen itself, since I am not accustomed to the priority of bike lanes. If you look just to the left of Jelling on the map above, you should see Billund; if we’d had enough time, we might have visited the LEGOLAND Billund Resort!
The bridges of Denmark are quite remarkable. The longest bridge in the country connects it to Sweden, so we missed that one, but the “Great Belt Fixed Link” connecting Zealand and Funen Islands is still mammoth at nearly seven kilometers in length (more than four miles). It’s no surprise that it’s pretty recent, having opened for cars in 1998. By comparison, the New Little Belt Bridge connecting Funen Island to Jutland is tiny, just over a mile in length. It opened in 1970.
Of course, Natasha and I need to be very careful about finding food without gluten. She had advised me that Denmark was known to be a difficult place for people with celiac disease, but I had not appreciated how much more challenging it would be. We were very happy with breakfast at Landbageriet, a bakery near the botanical gardens in Copenhagen. We even bought a couple more items for our lunch! That said, other businesses that claimed to have gluten-free items were less than scrupulous in their controls. For the first time in our travels together, Natasha suffered multiple gluten reactions in a few days, badly enough that she became quite ill.
Haderslev is a small municipality of 56,000 people, but it has been home to our friend’s family for many years. It seems like a pretty area, but I am sad to report that Hotel Norden exposed Natasha to gluten again despite clear warnings about the dangers to her. Our explorations of the town were to find safe food rather than tourism.
The wedding ceremony itself took place in Øsby, a town of around 7,000 people to the east of Haderslev. The Øsby church feels significant, with much of its structure having been constructed in the early 16th century. Natasha loved the interior wall paintings. Our eyes, of course, were for the bride and groom. We were very grateful to be able to attend their wedding!
I hope to write more in coming days about our visits to Copenhagen, Odense, and Jelling…
With three-quarters of our year in Paris elapsed, I have stepped up the tempo on visiting the places that I feel I must see before we depart. This Sunday I visited the Musée d’Orsay, the one art museum that I felt sure was the best match for my artistic sense. Natasha is no fan of Impressionism, so she sat this one out.
My run to the museum required a quick Metro run to Les Invalides; from there, I walked along the Seine for a few blocks to reach the museum. The path was pretty, since it passes the French Foreign Ministry, the National Assembly, and the Legion of Honor Museum. There’s even a statue of Thomas Jefferson to help an American feel at home!
I was directed to the south entrance line because I had bought my ticket the day before, and they checked my phone to see my COVID-19 vaccination certificate as I joined that line. Within ten minutes, I was inside for my 9:30 entry time (that’s the earliest they let tourists in right now).
Having passed the entrance gates, I was at the narrow end of the principal hall, crowded with statues and sculptures on multiple levels. Right there by the entrance is another model for Bartholdi’s “Liberty Enlightening the World,” another touchstone for anyone who has taken the Staten Island ferry from Manhattan. I knew why I had come to Musée d’Orsay, though, and my first demand was “SHOW ME THE MONET!“
I apologize. My allusion to “Jerry Maguire” was uncalled for. What I swiftly learned was that I needed to ascend. The permanent exhibition for Impressionism, Neoimpressionism, and Post-Impressionism is located on the fifth floor. To see it in the proper order, you’ll want to go all the way through the length of the museum to the east corner and then take the elevator / escalators / stairs all the way to the top. I opted to take the stairs and then escaltors in the north corner instead, so I ended up at the end of Impressionism and the beginning of Post-Impressionism. As a consequence, I was seeing my artistic hero’s works in reverse order of his having painted them.
As should be apparent from my prior post about Rouen, I have a fresh appreciation for the many paintings Claude Monet produced of Rouen Cathedral, starting in 1892. The Musée d’Orsay is home to five of them. The set shows quite a lot of variation, not just in how the sunlight played across the facade of the church (facing west-northwest) but in the framing of the image and the diffusion of light in damp weather. I liked that the museum had mounted the Rouen images next to one of Monet’s renderings of the house of Parliament in London. It was my first time seeing one in person. Somehow I had missed that the term Impressionism itself comes from a critic’s sneering comment on an early painting of Monet’s: “Impression of Sunrise.”
As I moved back in time through adjoining galleries, I saw other images from his paintbrush that I had used as computer desktop images back in my college years. The image that gripped me the most, though, was new to me; I hadn’t realized that Monet had painted his wife Camille on her 1879 deathbed. The accompanying quote from the artist reflected on his self-awareness: “to catch myself in the act of mechanically observing the sequence of changing colours that death had just imposed on her rigid features.” Just nine years before, he had painted his bride during their honeymoon on the beach! This is quite a contrast with Auguste Renoir’s 1885 rendering of his partner Aline Charigot with their son Pierre.
The paintings on display from the Impressionism period do a good job of conveying how remarkable it was that these talented individuals were portraying contemporary scenes rather than historic or heroic ones. What a remarkable cohort the gallery has assembled! Degas, Seurat, Cézanne, Cassatt, Manet, Pissarro… Because of my early arrival, I had a moment of silence with Degas’ “Little Dancer, Aged Fourteen.” Given the context, I understand why his dancer caused a sensation when it was first displayed in 1881. The girl does not look happy trying to stretch away body aches, and the caption explains that the Opera of that time tolerated liaisons between dancers and their paying “protectors.” That sort of information certainly triggers a reassessment of the portrayal.
I turned the corner to visit the Post-Impressionism area. I had realized just the day before that the museum offered some Van Gogh paintings, but I was stunned to realize that 24 of his works were on display. Because Natasha and I have watched Doctor Who together, I loved seeing “Church in Auvers-sur-Oise,” featured in the fan-favorite episode “Vincent and the Doctor.” I was wowed by “Starry Night” (not the uber-famous one). The paintings that I found most arresting, though, were two of his self-portraits. His 1887 rendering is full of piss and vinegar, with riotous color combinations and a sense of frenzy about it. Just two years later, however, he portrays himself in an almost watery mien. A note he wrote to accompany it was almost a plea: “I hope you will see that my features are a lot calmer, although my expression is more unfocused than before.” To walk through two rooms of his paintings is to see a vivid slice of this tortured man’s soul.
The loft full of Impressionism and its sequelae was my happy place, and you can be sure I will follow it up with a visit to the Orangerie, the Paris City Museum for fine art. I don’t want to dismiss the rest of Musée d’Orsay, though. I saw more work by Hector Guimard that I admired in the Art Nouveau collection, and I was quite struck by a masterful triptych titled “Le Portique de la Musique” by Armand Point.
A substantial amount of the museum features statuary and sculpture, of course. The first standout to me was “Herakles the Archer” by Antoine Bourdelle, projecting a sense of great power and focus. I am not sure what occasioned his creating this work at the start of the 20th century, but I liked that it reflected modernist execution while capturing a classical story.
I would also concur with others who have singled out Auguste Rodin’s “Porte de l’Enfer” (the Gates of Hell) for praise. To view it head-on can miss the figures trying to break free of their torment, almost but not quite able to pluck themselves out of the plaster.
The museum does a good job of contrasting such exploration with the staid designs of traditional painting as taught by the academies of art in the late nineteenth century. The commission for a massive version of “Christian Martyrs Entering the Amphitheatre” by Léon Benouville illustrates quite well why some fresh blood was required to shake up the training artists of the future would receive. Just down the hallway from there, one can view the 1871 “Whistler’s Mother” (or “Arrangement in Gray and Black #1“) by American James Abbott McNeill Whistler. But why is it here at Musée d’Orsay? Does it represent a similar effort on the part of American painters to break free of the constraints placed on them by traditionalists?
Blowing off some steam
I left the museum filled with nervous energy. Rather than head straight home, I decided to take a little walk. I reached Boulevard Saint-Germain in just a couple of blocks, and I followed its familiar route. In no time, my feet had taken me to Saint-Germain-des-Prés, the first place in Paris to trigger one of my obsessive investigations for a blog post. This being Sunday, the front door was open. I walked inside to see that a small service was in progress to bless children. I took a seat near the baptistry at the rear. When the group broke up, some of the families came to the baptistry for a photo with the priest, so I just tried to stay out of the way. When the service had definitely come to an end, I took a small walkabout the interior.
It has been several months since my last walk inside this church, and I noticed more how many of the chapels in the chevet require restoration. I love the wild colors of the ceiling, and now that I have more experience of French Gothic, I noticed that the amount of painting on the ceiling of the nave was much greater than I expected. I have come to expect Romanesque churches will have a riot of frescoes, while Gothic churches will have lots of stained glass. Somehow, Saint-Germain-de-Prés fits between those two.
I continued my walk to the area northeast of the Jardin du Luxembourg. I was excited to see that the Sorbonne had its doors open for European Heritage Days (this weekend). I hadn’t made a reservation, so I think I couldn’t join the line, but I still want to see its grand court for its unparalleled view of the Sorbonne Chapel!
With that, I hopped onto the Metro for my run back to our neighborhood. It was a beautiful Sunday.