It’s been a dreary winter in Paris, a fitting backdrop as I’ve trudged through the Middle Ages. I thought I’d be finished in one rainy afternoon. After all, didn’t we learn in school that it was also called the Dark Ages because nothing ever happened?
They were wrong; I was wrong.
A thousand years of history: The fall of Rome. The emergence of a monarchy. A goal-line stance against Attila the Hun. A patron saint. A litany of crusades. A collection of budget-busting relics. Cathedrals to hold them. The rise of Templar Knights. And their gruesome fall. A Papal schism. Wars. Plague. Kings. One indomitable duchess.
A tour guide asserted that while most architectures evolved, Gothic burst onto the scene in one big bang–at Saint Denis–the resting place of the kings and queens of France. I went there three years ago, and now it’s my last site to visit before the Middle Ages can end.
I’ve read history books, novels, historical fiction and visited the relevant sites: Château Vincennes, The Cluny Museum, Saint Étienne du Mont, Notre Dame, the Archeological Crypt, Saint Sulpice, Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre, Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Saint-Germain-l’Auxerrois, The Châtelet, Les Halles, Sainte Chapelle (twice), The Conciergerie. I walked around the original foundation of the Louvre fortress. In all my visits to the Louvre Museum, I’d never done this–and I wondered why I hadn’t.
This feels like the endless list of people who are thanked in those interminable Academy Award acceptance speeches. And yes, I know I’m forgetting someone.
One day I circled the Tour Saint Jacques and afterwards stopped to buy la créniale (the camino de Santiago passport) at the Notre Dame office. It’s an overwhelming distance to hike. From Paris to Spain. Yet in the last three months, I feel as though I’ve walked enough to be halfway there.
I’ve sought out the handful of half-timber houses, read the love letters of Heloise and Abelard, and strolled past their tomb in Pere Lachaise. I stopped at Victor Hugo’s home and bought the Hunchback of Notre Dame. I explored the site where the Templar Knights were burned alive on the tip of Ile de la Cité, had a lovely lunch (which fell under the category of bistro research), and afterwards went to Temple Park where the Templar fortress once stood. I attended the Veneration of the Crown of Thorns ceremony at Notre Dame, smelled the incense and watched the faithful kiss the glass enclosed thorny crown.
I kissed it too.
Soon, we will venture further afield: The Loire to visit Fontevraud Abbey where Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried alongside her second husband, King Henry the Second of England and her son King Richard the Lionhearted. Rouen to see the site where Joann of Arc was killed. Beaune to taste at the famous Burgundy cellars, including the Medieval Hospices.
In the fall, we will head south to the Dordogne, where I’m told the Hundred Years War is most evident: English manors across the river from French Chateaux. We’ll spend a day in Carcassonne.
All of this is part of my “Pilgrimage to Paris.” My brain, I’ve learned, best pieces facts together when consumed chronologically, integrating a historical framework with the people and places that constitute it.
It’s been exhilarating. Exhausting.
I’m ready for the rain to stop. For color to return to Paris. For the Renaissance to arrive.
Yet it hasn’t all been drudgery. Parallel to the historical dive into Paris, I’ve begun studying cheese and wine: an evening wine tasting course in January, a trek to Bordeaux in February, an obsessed binge through every I’ll Drink to That podcast that involved an interview with a titan of French winemaking. I’ve cried, literally cried, as they espoused their love of the land and the grape and their French traditions. Fathers. Grandfathers. Ten generations of wine makers.
I’ve dabbled in Brillat-Savarin. And I’ve loved it.
For Easter, Mark and Mary (our neighbors–and inventors of the annual theme concept) will come over for dinner–which somehow implies I’m cooking, but I’m not. Mark will carry the lamb three feet from his door to ours. My role is the wine. And the cheese. A Grand Cru Chablis partnered with cheeses from the exact same region—my first foray into an exclusively regional-oriented wine and cheese pairing.
With help from my wine man, I’ve selected a Bordeaux that he sold me months ago to drink with the lamb. It’s a wine that has been patiently awaiting a special occasion. Voilà.
At times it feels extravagant, until I convince myself it’s research. A Paris-based life. A place where history is alive. Where mealtime tends to be a symphony, and food and wine play first chair.
In January we applied to renew our residency for one more year. So yes, we’re here for a bit longer. Today’s sunny morning has lapsed into showery afternoon. That’s fine. I needed to write this blog, finish the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Joan of Arc.
But soon, the sun does need to shine. The Dark Ages need to end. Because there’s still so much to do.
Categories: Life in Paris