Our trip to Europe, having gotten off to a bit of a rocky start with a cancelled flight and lost baggage, quickly settled into a comfortable routine. We decided before leaving that we would relax and enjoy the cities we were visiting, and not run ourselves ragged darting from museum to museum. We had some ideas about things to see, things that were new to us for the most part. So we skipped the Louvre and the Orsay and the Grand Palais and the Invalides. I didn’t pursue any Proustian pilgrimages along the Champs-Elysées and viewed Notre-Dame only in passing.
We passed Notre-Dame rather frequently, though, since we were staying on the Ile-St-Louis. This turned out to be an ideal choice. Our hotel was on the last block on the northwest end of the island, that closest to Ile de la Cité. The central Rue Saint-Louis en l’Ile can be overwhelmed by tourists, all of whom are lined up at one of the many ice-cream shops that cover the tiny island or else wandering the paths with cone in hand. But in the evenings the crowds disperse a bit and, after a few days, we felt as though we had settled into a neighborhood.
Despite having done extensive research on restaurants across Paris that we might sample, we wound up eating all of our meals on the block where we were staying. We’d drop in at the créperie Le Sarrasin et le Froment (buckwheat and wheat) at night for some fortification, and enjoyed the service and the calm at the Italian eatery Sass’o. Most often, though, we would wind up at the Café St Régis at the very end of the block, just a shout away from the short bridge that led over to Ile de la Cité. We were there so often we got to know who the regulars at the bar were, and the waitresses looked forward to seeing us again, “à demain.” After hours of walking the streets and the metro stations, it was more than pleasant to come home, nap for a few minutes, and then stroll down the street for the comforts of a familiar menu and friendly faces.
On one of our meanders back to the hotel after dining (and it was wonderful that the sun didn’t set until almost 10 p.m. every night) we noticed a wall plastered with bills advertising concerts in the Sainte-Chapelle. I spent a fruitless hour searching the web for tickets—for ticket information, even—but the next morning the ever cheerful and helpful staff at the Hôtel de Lutèce quickly procured excellent seats at prices only a few euros above the advertised priced for the cheap seats. And so on Saturday night, the penultimate of our stay, we lined up outside the entrance to the Palais that is the heart of the judicial bureaucracy, passed through security, and joined the slow queue for admittance to the Sainte-Chapelle.
At least one of the guidebooks or websites I’d consulted had advised skipping Notre-Dame and visiting the Sainte-Chapelle instead, on a sunny day when the glories of the stained glass windows that form not only the apse but the nave of the chapel can be fully appreciated. By the time we arrived at 8 p.m. on what had been beautiful day of nearly perfect blue skies, the effect was still stunning.
The concert featured Les Solistes Français with Paul Rouger at the lead. The program began with Pachelbel’s inescapable Canon (though to the ensemble’s credit, their arrangement gave it a little new vitality) followed by an Albinoni Adagio. The main event, which seems to be also the mainstay of these concerts in the chapel, was Vivaldi’s Les Quatre Saisons (as it was advertised). For the evening, the ensemble consisted of Rouger as soloist, with two violins, viola, cello, contrabass and clavecin and the performance was spirited and joyful. The smiles that passed back and forth among the musicians made it clear that they were enjoying the evening at least as much as we were. They made clever use of the chapel’s acoustics, changing positions in the nave for the slow movements and allowing now the viola, now the first violin, to swell. The reception was enthusiastic; there were numerous other Americans in the audience and our national mania for the standing ovation presented itself at the conclusion of the Vivaldi, although the Europeans confined themselves to decorous but vigorous applause. A short piece by Poulenc served as the encore. fittingly bringing the program to a close with a work by a French composer.
We strolled back in the last light of the evening, past the crowds still gathered in front of Notre-Dame, and others posing for pictures on the Pont de l’Archevêché, the preferred site in Paris now for leaving “love-locks.” (I even saw the bridge labeled as “Lockheart Bridge” on one map that passed through my hands during the week.)
More Parisian adventures to follow.