One City, Many Worlds: Notre-Dame de Paris et La Conciergerie

In the eastern half of the Île de la Cité in the fourth arrondissement of Paris stands one of the finest examples of French Gothic architecture, and possibly the most well-known holy architecture in the world: Notre-Dame de Paris. Notable is the cathedral’s treasury for containing some of Catholicism’s most important relics, including the Crown of Thorns, a fragment of the True Cross, and one of the Holy Nails.

Unfortunately, Notre-Dame suffered much desecration during the radical and sweeping violence of the French Revolution in the 1790s, as much religious imagery was sought after to be destroyed. Thankfully, restoration lead by Eugène Viollet-le-Duc began in the mid-1840s. Still, the cathedral benefitted from further maintenance in the 1990s.

An outstanding experimentation in Gothic architecture, Notre-Dame de Paris was among the first buildings in the world to use arched exterior supports called flying buttresses, although this was done rather haphazardly in order to alleviate stress fractures that began to occur as the thin Gothic walls stretched to higher heights.

I strain my imagination to recreate an image of Our Lady’s youth in the mid-1300s, most of her exterior and each individually crafted statue and gargoyle and chimera vividly painted to create a magnificent temple in the name of the Holy Father.  The Notre-Dame truly is today as Jean de Jandun described it many years ago: “That most terrible church of the most glorious Virgin Mary, mother of God, deservedly shines out, like the sun among stars…”

The interior of Notre Dame was absolutely stunning.  In walking around the church, it becomes apparent that, as with many cathedrals, the interior is fashioned into the shape of a cross; the entrance to the altar is the vertical segment while the horizontal segment is between the two areas that have the large, circular stained glass windows.  The vaulted ceilings and the stained glass windows throughout the cathedral help to create an atmosphere of quiet awe that makes it such a suitable place for worship. While we were visiting, a children’s choir was rehearsing songs for what we were guessing was Sunday mass, adding a sense of community and inspiration for future generations to be in an ever present connection with the past.  Witnessing their performance was an amazing experience.

We also benefited in our cultural activity by visiting the La Conciergerie, a former royal palace and prison located on the west of the Île de la Cité. It is part of the larger complex known as the Palais de Justice, which is still used today for judicial purposes.

La Conciergerie was a significant structure during the short-lived, but devastating Reign of Terror that ran from September 1793 to July 1794. The radical movement sent 40,000 people to death in the forms of execution and imprisonment, beginning with the Law of Suspects placed on the 17th of September, 1793. The law declared that any person that was considered counterrevolutionary was rendered an enemy of the Republic and guilty of treason. This person would then be condemned to death.

The Revolutionary Tribunal, Dr. Guillotine’s machine, was set up in the Palace of Justice. There were two fates for those sent before the tribunal: acquittal, or death, with no possibility of appeal. Antoine Quentin Fouquier-Tinville, a radical, was named public prosecutor. The Tribunal sat in the Great Hall between 2 April 1793 and 31 May 1795, and sent nearly 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine.

As we wandered through the mighty gothic structure, I imagined the vast number of human beings held, without any expectation to escape, to meet their death. I imagined the political prisoners and the hopelessly destitute and the very king and queen of France. The diversity of the population that once rested within the structure walls truly illuminated the goal that France once worked so hard to uphold: privilege for no man, equal treatment for all, even in bloody, gruesome death.

Our tour guide helped to make our visit their one of the most enjoyable cultural activities.  Her enthusiasm made her a great story teller and more than capable of holding our attention while she told us about the history of the Palais du Justice and the ancient prison.  She was effective in transforming Marie Antoinette from an ignorant and selfish monarch into a sympathetic character in history, describing her lack of power in restructuring policy in a competitive political battle between Louis XVI and the Parlement.

The experience was overwhelming in contrast: a temple of spirituality and eternal life in the east sharing turf with a prison of certain suffering and death in the west. In all that is Paris, France, history abounds, and time has turned these landmarks into examples, learning experiences, if you will, that will stand starkly in vivid memory of those who have placed their hearts and souls into what they truly saw best for the future of their marvelous and beautiful country: France.





La Conciergerie et le Palais de Justice




Kathleen McLean and Brie Johnson

Don’t Worry… They’re Just a Host Family

Yeah living with strangers may be the scariest thing when you first think about it. Let’s be honest we were all nervous to live in a home with people we don’t know, especially if they may not speak your language. Mentally preparing yourself is the best you can do but it feels like it’s just not enough. The first few moments are the hardest. You are going up the elevator repeating your lines for your big introduction, making sure your accent is perfect and that they have enough room for your luggage. You are trying to control your shaky hands while knocking but the mix of nerves and jet lag are getting to you. Then with the opening of the front door comes a whole new sudden wave of stress. You look around hoping to see signs of normalcy, as questions wiz through your head. Where is my room? Who else do I have to meet? When do I give them their gift? What do I say? Don’t lie; these are all questions we ask ourselves, questions that seem completely unreasonable once you look around to admire your surroundings. They have a couch, they have a coffee table, a television, and you know, normal home goods, almost obvious things to be in a home. Jeez what were you even worried about?

You are doing great you are in the middle of your greetings and you’re reciting your glorious lines when all of a sudden your hands get clammy. They start leaning in, do you offer your hand, give them a hug. Luckily you quickly remember, oh right the nerve racking cheek kisses, known to the French as “les bises.” Now that you have knocked those out of the way life couldn’t be any easier. This is what you have spent weeks stressing about, wow that was not that bad.

You begin to get comfortable in your room; you settle in and really make it be your little place. Every night you eat dinner with your family and they become more human to you. They seem less of a scary thing in your future, and more of nice people to talk to. Once all the stress is gone it is usually all smooth sailing. After you learn how to use the shower, where to put the dishes, how to function in their house everything gets easier. You develop a routine and then when you have to leave it’s sad. These people that you were so concerned about meeting are now people that you are going to miss.

No, not everyone had the same living situations, some people were living with a family, others with just one adult, but that doesn’t mean they had any worse of an experience. The host family life is what you make of it. If you decide to eat dinner with them (highly recommended they make really great food), then of course they are going to try to talk to you. Take it as a learning experience. Doing your best and being polite is all they really expect from you. So don’t sweat the small stuff, they are a host family for a reason. 


Centre Pompidou

When looking for modern 20th century art in Paris the best place to go is the Centre Pompidou. It is home to around 60,000 pieces of art, including those by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse, and Kandinsky. There are installations everywhere, made out of all types of materials from copper cables to padded walls. These are usually in rooms that make you question your own sanity once you walk in; they are disorienting, but equally as enjoyable in the strangest of ways. Not only are there full room installations, there are also rather common sized art pieces made by the many important voices of the 20th century modern art movement.

One of my favorite installations was the Rainbow Room on the fourth floor. It was an interesting mix of pixelated rainbows spreading across three walls and the ceiling, all made out of aluminum panels. These sharp aluminum panels were partnered with on a softer carpeted surface on the floor, still with the same color scheme. This made the whole room a jumble of organized color. In the center of the room was a sculpture made out of a round shiny sphere with a large triangle like item on top. This sphere reflected the whole room in a distorted fish eye lens way, while also allowing you to see your own reflection.  When I first saw this room it was rather confusing and gave me a bit of a headache, but after I heard its meaning it made more sense.  Apparently the room represents the light of the day, in the morning (left side) there are less colors and as the day goes on the sky gets more colorful and then by the evening (right side) there are more colors and they are all dark. It is a rather representative piece of art, and it gives a sort of geometric perspective to the light of a day.  

I very much enjoyed the Centre Pompidou; it had a little bit of everything for every different type of modern art fan, and even those who don’t usually prefer modern art. I definitely recommend it and I can’t wait to go back to see new installations and exhibitions there on my next journey to Paris!

The history of the building and the museum itself is also very interesting. It was designed by the architects Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers in the 1970’s and was inaugurated in 1977. Their use of glass and steel give it an uniquely technical facade and a distinct feeling of modern industrial growth. This amazing design was inspired by Paxton’s Crystal Palace, along with other futuristic buildings, such as the architectural utopias from the 1960’s. Its exterior was created with the idea of using free open spaces to design a fully flexible building that had the capability to have its uses adapt and change.

Before the building was even being built, a contest was held. With 681 architects all over the world competing  to come up with and present a design for the building. The original winners consisted of Jean Prouvé (engineer), Renzo Piano, Gianfranco Franchini, and Richard Rogers. Only Piano and Rogers actually acquired the commision for the building. The building is now considered by most to be one of the most iconic buildings of the twentieth century.

The brilliance of this multicultural place came from the first minister of cultural affairs, André Malraux. The idea consisted of wanting to create a center for French art and culture that brought in all the various breeds of expression, all it needed was a space to be put. In 1968 it was decided, by President Charles deGaulle, that Beaubourg was the perfect place.  However, initially parisians wanted to either just move the Musée d’Art Moderne to Beaubourg, or build a very large, free, general-purpose library. In 1969, the new president took over the whole project and debate. With a solution for both wants of the people, he created both a new library and a center for the contemporary arts.

The museum was officially inaugurated on January 31, 1977 and opened to the public on February 2, 1977. The Centre Pompidou was immediately a huge success and continues to be an extreme success with approximately 16,000 visitors each day.

-Camille and Maddy

Street art in Paris

My favorite thing about walking around Paris was the amount of street art (or as some would call graffiti). It was amazing to find them in the most random but impressive places. My favorite was a piece I found directly behind the apartment building I was staying in. It reads “Open your eyes, you are my high”. The exact detail in the stencil gives the image a very clean, yet hand made, effect. The intricate design behind the stenciled image not only fascinated me but kept me looking at it for a decent amount of time. The eye and lips made me look at first, but what really made me appreciate it was the words and the background. It made me think and in my opinion that is the point of art in general, street artists just have a bit more opportunity to place their work in a much more public viewing area. Just like my favorite, they are generally designed to catch the eye, like a piece I found one night as I walked around a metro stop. This image took up a whole wall. Unlike the first piece, this artist used loose and free flowing lines for a majority of the piece. It created a very whimsical feel of the subject matter, which is a girl blowing away birds. Just like the first, this image truly made me stop to look at it and marvel at the skill. Other street art, however, is in much “sneaker” places, like one I came across by accident. It was in a very high up corner and if I hadn’t been looking for street art i would have never found it. It was a face, protruding from the wall and hidden above were most people would see. It was missing the lower part of its face from, what I believe to be, weathering. After finding the blue face with stars, I kept my eyes looking higher on walls to see what other little secret pieces are there. As I continued to walk though the streets of Paris, I found a total of about 8 more faces hidden in random places along with countless other street art pieces made out of numerous materials, such as, spray paint, marker, clay, and even tile. They were all so amazing. I wish I could have had more time so I could find them all.

-Maddy Schley




Weekend In Chamonix

During our free weekend, Ciera, Victoria and I decided to explore a part of France that is a bit more adapted to winter weather. The Chamonix Valley, part of the French Alps, is located on the borders of Switzerland and Italy. William Windham and Richard Pocock, both young English aristocrats, founded the small town in 1741, but it didn’t become a real tourist attraction until around 1790, when mountaineers flocked there in the pursuit of conquering Mont Blanc. The Romantic Movement also helped encourage exploration of the area; writers and philosophers were beginning to desire a deeper understanding of nature, and the glaciers and mountains in the Alps represented something completely preserved. In 1924, the first Winter Olympic games were located in Chamonix.

During our stay, we rented an apartment in the town center, which was within walking distance to the ski slopes, cafes and bars, and had a breathtaking 360-degree view of jagged, sublime mountains. On Friday, while relaxing and exploring the town, we found lots of patisseries and chocolate shops, much like the ones in Paris but all with their own twist. On Saturday, Ciera and I experienced what may have been some of the best skiing (and views) in all of Europe.

One of the most interesting aspects of our trip was the extreme difference in culture between Chamonix and Paris. Perhaps it’s because Chamonix was founded as a tourist’s city, or because the landscape is so spectacular that all of the permanent residences want to show it off, but Chamonix’s citizens were much more eager to accept foreigners. Also, it was amazing to meet all of the other people, because everyone seemed to be from somewhere different. We met people from Australia, Germany, Switzerland, France, and the US, all in 2 days. Overall, the trip helped me understand the diversity of France, both geographically and socially. 

Paris Critique for the Future Traveler

                I came to Paris three days before the group did, and stayed in a backpacker’s hostel near the Gare du Nord metro station. I spent that time traveling with my fellow hostel mates, but also spent some time traversing the journey myself. Sometimes after our cultural activity, I would explore parts of the big city either on my own or with a relatively small group of people. It was during these particular times that I learned about the back side of Paris that tourists don’t read about in the Frommer’s Paris 2014 edition guidebook. For the future Paris adventurer, I share with you what I’ve learned:

                To start off, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think about French pastries is not a croissant or even a macaron. At a relatively large patisserie called Dominique Saibron right off the Alesia stop on the south side, one can purchase the magnificent Tournicotti. I was recommended this flaky pastry by a friend who had studied abroad in Paris previously. I asked the waitress for a pistachio Tournicotti, which when it came out looked almost like an extremely flaky cinnamon roll without the icing on top. I had my first bite and proceeded to inhale the entire thing on second contact. Words cannot explain the magic that it produces on your tongue once you put it in your mouth. All I can say is to go to Dominique Saibron before noon and get either a Pistachio or Rose Tournicotti.

                Do not go to le Sacre-Coeur at night. If you do, don’t go alone. I was walking up the hill to Montmartre and had to pass by the front of le Sacre-Coeur to get there. I was with three of my hostel mates, but three of us had no idea of what the men were doing who were wooing us while trying to tie a string around our index finger. It wasn’t until my one friend grabbed our arms and pulled us away from them when the men started yelling at us and demanding that we each pay 10 euros. This happened on two other separate occasions on our ascent up to Montmartre, but we knew better those times. My friend explained to us that these men, even surrounded by witnesses, will attempt to tie a string around your finger. If they succeed, they will demand that you pay 10 euros. If you don’t, they travel in groups and will not hesitate to manhandle you. Safe to say, just don’t go to le Sacre-Coeur at night.

                Usually I wouldn’t imagine a supermarket as an attraction, but there is no better definition that can be used to label le Grand Epicerie near Bon Marche. It’s huge. This supermarche was so well organized, that there were several stations for each category of food or drink. There were more brands and styles of bottled water than I could count with my fingers and toes, and the section of teas and coffees (my favorite section) were so impressively stocked that I stayed admiring the smells and choosing a tea for nearly 20 minutes. Not to mention that the wine section was HUGE and they sold the largest bottle of wine I had ever seen in my life for a whopping 350 euros. Believe me when I say that a visit to le Grand Epicerie will make your trip to Paris.

                Everyone will advertise the Sacre-Coeur and Notre Dame when mentioning must-see places of worship in Paris. Although both of these churches are amazingly ornate, visit le Mosquee de Paris off of the Place Monge metro stop. The mosque does not even come close to the size of either Notre Dame or Sacre-Coeur, but the symmetry and atmosphere of the mosque hits your heart in a uniquely different way. Upon entering the mosque, you run straight into a garden of colored tiles and green plants. There is an amazing library a couple hallways down, along with the most peaceful prayer room I have ever experienced in my life. The ambient light coming through the windows brightens up the room, showing all the intricate details that went into the paintings.

                Don’t forget that with wherever you go in Paris, be open to what surrounds you. The city is so big that there is always something off the beaten path that awaits a traveler to stumble upon.


Paris Metro

          The diversity of smells, pleasant and not-so, the sound of the tracks and doorbell, the often mosh-pit like sea of people, and ring of French conversations have become routine and normal to me. They will forever be associated with Paris, as they are the elements of the metro, which has brought me everywhere and is the basis of all adventures. All of Paris is accessible and at our fingertips with the metro, and I love it. I’ve taken so many different lines, in all different directions and have seen quite the diversity of people and personalities. The metro is a great way to experience Parisian life and culture because it is such a common and frequently used form of transportation in this city. I think big cities in the United States should use Paris’s metro as a primary example of how to design their public transportation, go green, and efficiently give people full access to the city. This would benefit businesses and the economy. There are few places in the States I can think of that would be experienced like Paris because of the lack of public transportation.

            I used my time on the metro to observe multiple elements of Parisian culture. One being fashion, which is very fascinating to me. One of the biggest differences in fashion from the United States was the fact that everyone, and I mean everyone, was dressed nicely all the time. Everyone, at the minimum, had a very nice winter coat. In America, as we very well know, this isn’t the case. Fashion, style, and constant elegance is not engrained into our society like it is in Paris. I really liked this aspect of their culture as I like to dress as Parisians do. I believe this is because of their roots of grandeur. They are a culture of style and fanciness, and it truly shows on a daily basis riding the metro and public transportation in Paris.


Les Catacombes de Paris

           Located just off of the metro stop Donfert-Rochereau lies the entrance to a system of underground tunnels; Les Catacombes de Paris. The catacombs were originally created as a stone mine dating as far back as the 12th century. The stone from the mines can be found all over the city. The mining techniques used during this time were developed for speedy mining and not for structural integrity of the tunnels, this meant that mining was very dangerous for the workers and tunnel collapses were common. When originally created the mines were outside of the city, but as Paris grew it eventually covered the areas above the tunnels. In the 17th century cave-ins started to become a problem. The tunnels had never been officially mapped and after a particularly bad collapse on the rue d’Enfer, King Louis XVI created L’inspection Générale des Carriéres in order to chart the mines and make them more structurally sound.


           In the 1780’s the city of Paris decided that after ten centuries the Innocents cemetery was to be moved after numerous complaints. The old mines were chosen as the new location to house the ancient remains. The bones have been decoratively and methodically stacked, and placed along the tunnels spanning almost a mile on both sides of the walkway! Quickly after their completion they began to attract visitors, most notably Comte d’Artois (Charles X), and the emperor of Austria.

           Now imagine for a second how far down underground you have to descend to get into the Catacombes. It exists fairly far beneath the Paris Metro and one has to descend approximately 64 feet to get to the entrance. After heading down the long winding staircase, you finally exit into the first room. The first room contains history of the catacombs and talks about the geology of the area. Next you continue on through narrow, dimly lit tunnels until eventually you find two miniature buildings sculpted directly into the stone. These buildings were created by a worker who spent his breaks sculpting instead of returning to the surface. After completing his miniature buildings, he decided to create a staircase from the surface directly to his works in order to show them off to the public. In the process of creating the staircase, the worker was crushed and died in a cave in. Following these sculptures and even on until the end of the Catacombes, one can see a thick, hand-drawn black line that runs continuously on the ceiling. When the catacombes were opened for tourists, the black line was used to symbolize the safe path that visitors could take in order to not get lost off the main path. To be honest, it was a relief to see the guideline because even though the minor side paths have been blocked off by metal bars, it would be frightening to get lost with all these bones back in the day.


           Continuing on through a few more passages, you eventually come into a room with a large doorway and a plaque that reads “ARRETE! C’EST ICI L’EMPIRE DE LA MORTE”; Stop! Here is the empire of the dead. Moving forward you finally enter the ossuary where you can find the bones of 6 million people. If you can overcome the stereotypically spooky feel of these tunnels (damp, dark, and full of bones), there is also an oddly peaceful allure. The silence reminds oneself that these people are now at peace. Along with the bones are numerous quotes (in French and Latin) which really solidify the tone of the entire experience. Walking through I found myself thinking about the lives of each of these individuals, the time they lived in, and their current rest. I also find it really symbolic that the strict placement of these human bones all throughout the Catacombes represent that death is not meant to represent chaos, but rather harmony with a morbid event in one’s life.

- Hunter & Kat

Food for Thought

Throughout my stay in Paris, one of my favorite things has been the meals I’ve eaten with my host family.  Some of the dishes my host mom has made have just been incredible.  In the past few weeks I have had homemade chocolate mouse, amazing quiche, this casserole type ting half of which my host mom put tofu in just for me instead of fish since I’m vegetarian, numerous types of soup, and other vegetarian dishes. 

            Aside from the meals my host mom prepared that are amazing, I have found that the food in general tastes better here.  For example, back home while I tolerate and will begrudgingly eat tomatoes, I do not particularly like them. The tomatoes that I have eaten here in salads and other dishes both at my host family’s apartment and elsewhere I not only tolerate, but genuinely like the way they taste.  I believe this is at least in part due to fact that fewer or no chemicals are used to make food last longer and that genetically modified foods are generally not permitted in the European Union; in the United States companies are not even required to inform consumers on the label that their product has been genetically modified. 

            In my class at Alliance Française, the focus of our second week of class was ecology and environmental issues.  We talked about “les décroissants” who are people opposed to unrestrained economic growth because of the disastrous impacts it can have on the natural environment.  During class, we discussed GMOs, or “les OGMs” (oragisms génétiquement modifiés) and how the US wants the EU to allow them to be sold in Europe so that companies in the US that grow GMOs, like Monsanto, can sell their products here.

            The difference in the quality and taste of food is one of the most striking differences between Parisian and American culture.  While American food is often mass-produced, filled with sugar and frequently made to last for extended periods of time, the French seem to focus more on ensuring the quality of the food itself.imageimage



A la Marche

                Apart from opulent buildings, fantastic monuments, and ludicrous stereotypes about rudeness, Paris is famous the world over for its food. We tend to associate French cuisine with the absolute finest of fine dining, and while such a reputation is not unwarranted by the Parisian food culture, quality food is by no means a rarity in this city. Eating in Paris is a pivotal part of daily life; people appreciate the effort put into the cultivation of every ingredient, and they savor every individual flavor in each spoonful. Unlike in America, where meals may not be perceived as much more than pit stops, in Paris, it’s more like sitting down to appreciate a work of art. The quality of the components and the finesse put into a dish’s creation are fundamentally valued all across the city, from the Michelin-star restaurants requiring reservations months in advance to the small, walk-in sandwich shops that border the winding sidewalks.


          To-go isn’t very popular here, especially with drinks. Sitting down with your chair toward the street to people watch is the way to drink your café or chocolat chaud in Paris. The great part about their obsession with fresh and quality food is not only the taste, but the price as well; it’s affordable. In the United States, organic food is an expensive luxury that is just recently starting to gain popularity and value. Fresh fruits and veggies are pricey, whereas here they are inexpensive and bountiful, and there are markets everyday somewhere in the city. My host family always has multiple baskets of fruit in the kitchen, and it all gets eaten quickly and daily. Fruit is a common dessert here as well, despite the plentiful patisseries on every corner, which I very much enjoy.

                These values are held by just about every Parisian citizen, to the point where laws have been made to preserve them. Case in point, many preservatives found in American foods are illegal in France. Absolutely everything, from the bread to the meat to the fare in vending machines, is fresh and quickly perishable. It is because of this law that the stereotypical Frenchman walks around with a baguette in their hand, since it goes stale so quickly. It’s no secret that some of the U.S.’s largest food distributors- i.e., fast food- saturate their wares with chemicals to drastically prolong their shelf lives. It’s become such a part of the food industry’s infrastructure that many companies would surely collapse if such methods were banned.

                This part of the Parisian/French culture is rooted in French history. The land is diverse and is able to provide good food for its people. They have no need to look elsewhere for food and import, they are self-sufficient and like it that way. They like being able to provide for themselves and know where their food is coming from, knowing that it is fresh and grown/made/treated with care.

                Food and eating are such basic, fundamental aspects of our lives, almost to the point where we don’t give them much thought. It’s jarring, in a way, to go somewhere where it’s held in such high regard. It’s not enough for food to taste good in Paris- food must also be made well with good ingredients. One really has to go to Paris in order to truly appreciate food like the locals do.

- Mike & Ciera