Monday, May 25, 2015

My Personal Tour of France

The American Cemetery in Normandy

My Personal Tour of France Part 1
By Rick Olivares

There are the usual destinations and attractions to see when on tour. Here in France, it is the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Arc de Triomphe, the Bastille, Versailles, and Giverny to name a few. But here are my favourites. 

The Louvre
A mind-blowing experience in so many ways unless one has no appreciation for art. As a youngster, I loved illustration and only gave it up in high school as my interests went into another direction. However, in school up to college, we had art appreciation classes that although I found boring picked up enough to understand the significance of it all.

Now to see them up close… there’s a sense of amazement and wonder that even days after leaves me tongue tied.

While the Mona Lisa is perhaps the most famous work of art, I for one as more blown away by neo-classic painter Jaques Louis David’s The Coronation of Napoleon, the 33x20 feet tall painting that depicted the French leader seizing the Emperor’s crown from Pope Gregory (he would crown himself). The basic rules of neo-classic art are here for all to survey - how there is a line from the cross to Napoleon holding the crown to his Empress Josephine who is kneeling. Napoleon is at the centre of it all. 

The Coronation of Napoleon at the Louvre

I spent 20 minutes gazing at this massive masterpiece that took the painter two years to complete. If I didn’t have to move on then I would have stayed longer. To the left is David’s other incredible work Leonidas at Thermopylae. Another mind-boggling piece of work that depicted the Spartan king right before his death. 

My other favourites?

The Winged Assyrian Bulls, the Mollien staircase, the Winged Victory of Samothrace, the Apollo gallery, Venus de Milo, the guards of Darius, the Goddess of Sekhmet, the sarcophagus of Ramses III, and Eugene deal Croix’s Liberty leading the People… whew. There’s a lot more. As our Walking Tour of Paris guide, Alexandre, said a few days earlier, if one took one minute to gaze at every single work of art, then it would take him almost 25 days to finish the Louvre. 

At Rue de Bac
Chapelle Notre-Dame du Medaille Miraculeuse (140 Rue de Bac)
Site of where the incorrupt body of St. Catherine Laboure lies (as well as the bones of St. Louise of de Marillac are placed inside a wax body). It is one thing to read about it in a book of saints as a youngster but it is another to see the body right in front of you. More than the painting of the Coronation of Napoleon, this one had me sitting down transfixed and praying. More than anything, it reaffirms my faith.

Site of one of the most famous battles in world history. The successful beachhead changed the course of World War II. It used to be that I saw these places immortalised in films like “The Longest Day,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and the HBO mini-series supreme, “Band of Brothers.” 

It was eerie going inside those bunkers at Pointe Du Hoc with all those films running in my head. "This one got blasted,” I thought to myself. “How many people died here?”

Even the American Cemetery left me emotional. So much the price of war if only to make the world a better place.

As a child, I had this fascination and interest for all things military. At one point in my life, I even considered a career in the military. Obviously, I took another path. This trip to this hallowed land was a way of paying respects to those who paid the brutal ultimate sacrifice. 

The tomb of Richard the Lionheart at Rouen Cathedral

Another of my childhood fascinations borne out of that first book of saints given to me by my mother. Joan of Arc or Jeanne D’Arc has long held sway with me. I have watched documentaries and the films and have a few items in my personal collection about her life. The medieval town of Rouen is one of two places associated with Joan of Arc the other being Orleans where she led the French army to victory over the English and their Burgundian allies. Rouen is where she was imprisoned, tried, and later martyred. 

When I opted not to go to Mont St. Michel, I went to Rouen. 

I was excited about the opportunity to see it first hand but to see it moved me differently. Like Normandy, I felt sad. To see the tower, the last remaining piece of the old castle of Rouen, where she was imprisoned left me in tears. From the ground it looks dark and lonely. The windows are small so air must have been difficult to breathe. And it must have been claustrophobic.

Such a dark and lonely tower and that was where she was imprisoned before she was dragged to the square where she was burned on the stake. 

I was looking for a huge statue to make the place. Only there wasn’t. Simply a small sign that said that this was where she was martyred. There was a statue a few feet away and a huge cross. 

I went feeling elated but left sad and unhappy. It was a most gruesome way to die. I offered some prayers for Joan of Arc, my parents and family, and those who condemned her to death.

Pere Lachaise Cemetery
This trip was bourne out of an article I read decades ago in Rolling Stone magazine that featured the grave sites of dead rock stars. In the article feature, the picture of the grave of Jim Morrison in this cemetery was defaced and disfigured. And it left an impression on me. I was five years old when Morrison died of a drug overdose. I began to listen to the Doors in college and became a huge fan. The band has since been a staple of my turntable, compact disc, and digital music players.

The grave was cordoned off by a heavy metal barrier and had some police stationed nearby. When I asked the uniformed policewoman, she said that it is because people come over to write or draw graffiti on the grave. 

But coming within a few feet remains a powerful experience because he is a man whose music and writing has influenced me.

Other notable visits at Pere Lachaise, Heloise and Abelard, the medieval lovers who had an illicit relationship; Oscar Wilde, Marcel Proust, and Edith Piaf. 

The grave of Jim Morrison at Pere Lachaise

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