Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Bare feet and unknown princesses

I was doing Paris on the cheap - and on my own. None of my friends were there but Anna offered the loan of her house in Montreuil. I needed to decide how to manage my holiday and make my money last.

Obviously, being alone, I wouldn't need to eat out. A regular morning coffee and the occasional pression - Leffe, by preference - would be bound to keep me going. And in Paris you can almost always find a boulangerie when you need one. I could have a good breakfast in the mornings and make myself an excellent salad with wine when I returned home.

I decided the time had come for the kind of tourism I'd been putting off for years. A web investigation told me a 6-day museum pass would be a good investment if I was serious about sightseeing. It costs 64 euros but many of the places I wanted to visit cost between 8 and 10 euros, and I reckoned I'd probably visit two or three in a day. It has the additional advantage of letting the holder bypass the long queues for tickets.

The metro was easy too. Thanks to Gerard, I already had a navigo (the French equivalent to the London oyster card) and had been educated in how the pricing systems work. I checked the zone map on the internet. Versailles was in zone 4 so it would be sensible to go on Sunday, using a 4-zone mobilis which allows flexible travel for the day. Then I would load a 2-zone weekly carte orange on my navigo from Monday. The carte orange, which is now virtual and therefore no longer orange, always starts on a Monday. It's a bargain for anyone staying for most of a calendar week. For just over 17 euros I could travel by bus, metro, the regional RER trains (some of them double-deckers) and even a little ferry on the Seine - the voguéo. While my museum pass made me feel like a tourist, the navigo let me think of myself as a true Parisienne.

But it was hard to settle into sightseeing after the oppressive grandeur and gilding of Versailles. I thought I'd better follow the Marie Antoinette trail to the Conciergerie, where her former cell is now equipped with a TV. There were expiatory mouments too. Louis XVIII was keen that the French people and the Parisiens in particular should repent of executing a monarch and his consort. I had more sympathy for the victims of the Terror of whom nothing was known but their name. All those guilloutined - more than 2,000 of them, which was fewer than I'd thought - were listed; the Terror was conducted along carefully bureaucratic lines. Former titles and professions were written down but there were many who had nothing but a name to record that they had once been sentenced to die quickly and in public. Of course I looked for familiar names - Madame Roland, Charlotte Corday, Georges Danton, Camille Desmoulins, Philippe Egalité - but then I lingered on professions. There was an actress, a tailor, a servant. I wondered if they'd really cared for the ideals of some revolutionary or counter-revolutionary group or if they were victims of a local grudge. And how about all those people with no rank and no profession? What circumstances brought them to the tumbril, the abuse and the rough but efficient blade? They could have been anyone - rough-sleepers, immigrants, the destitute. Most regimes have their favoured victims on whom suspicion for all disruption and disorder rests. Even Robespierre had his special white plaque and many of the famous prisoners - including criminals killed slowly in pre-guillotine days - were recalled in pictures, words or sculpture. But my mind kept returning to those of whom nothing was known but their name.

After the Conciergerie, the colourful Gothic exuberance of Sante-Chapelle was a delight. But soon I'd left the Ile-de-la Cité and was in Saint-Denis, heading past the children playing football in the square to enter the church and its necropolis. (Katie had told me I shouldn't miss it.)

The first thing I noticed was the bare, marble feet. At the centre of the huge marble monument effigies of the almost naked monarch and consort lay, the soles of their feet facing tourists as they entered. At last I saw the human vulnerability of the monarchs. It was only later that I saw the fully-dressed king and queen kneeling in prayer, their children behind them, on the high top of the monument.

I wandered among the dead kings and queens. There was Marie Antoinette again, slightly larger than life and kneeling elegantly next to husband. And there were the plainer, earlier kings, from Clovis onward, looking stiff, still and much the same as one another.

Wandering among the royal monuments, I caught sight of a notice on one of the stiff mediaeval ladies: "une princesse inconnue" - an unknown princess. She may not have been a very significant princess but presumably, a long time ago, she thought herself an important person in the world. And now she was just a monument, much like all the others, and no-one even knew her name or which of the many dead princesses she was.

Beyond her lay another, smaller monument, no longer than a five-year-old but a miniaturised adult in polished white marble. I leant over to look at the notice - another "princesse inconnue."

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