Well, my podcast this week has been delayed because of a trip. It was my first international trip of the school year, and it was great. My brother and I went to Kraków, Poland—a lovely city, with a well-preserved historical center. Relatively nearby are two major tourist attractions: Auschwitz (very depressing) and the Wieliczka salt mines (very impressive). But maybe the best part of the trip was the food. Every dish was heavy, plentiful, and delicious. Even the coffee and the beer was good. And I was reminded how generally pleasant European travel can be. Arguably, it’s the best part of living here.
Admittedly, it seems like an awkward time to be writing a podcast about traveling, because of the coronavirus outbreak. Just last week, I had a brief layover in Milan, and now Milan is under quarantine, with the rest of Northern Italy. And I just received notice that Madrid will be shutting down schools for the next two weeks. Two weeks! What will I do with myself? Next thing I know, we’ll be under quarantine, too. So I guess it’s not the best time to talk about European travel, now that everyone is cancelling their vacations. However, this crisis will pass, and Europe will once again open its doors to travelers. So here I go!
The major difference between traveling in Europe and in the United States is that Europe is packed with variety. Traveling to another country is like traveling to another state—cheap, easy, and quick. You can get on a plane and, in an hour or two, get out in a place where the people speak an entirely different language, eat different food, where the architecture, music, art, and even the landscape itself is totally different. The whole continent of Europe isn’t bigger than the US. And when you consider that most people travel to Western Europe, you’re talking about an area of land about the size of one American coast.
The main reason why so much cultural variety is packed into such a comparatively small space is, simply, the amount of history that has gone by. America is one big country, and a young country, too; so a lot of the country can seem extremely homogeneous, since it is the result of rapid expansion. And a lot of this expansion happens when means of transport and communication were relatively rapid. Meanwhile, Europe grew out of ancient populations, and virtually every little town and city was relatively isolated for long periods of time. Cultural differences grow and accumulate during all this time; and this is why, in Europe, every region has its own traditional dishes, traditional dances, traditional music, and so on. This is true both within countries and between countries: there is an awful lot of regional variation packed into a relatively small space.
This naturally makes traveling in Europe quite endlessly fascinating. Poland, for example, is not too far away from Spain, but it is absolutely unmistakably distinct. And this goes far deeper than surface features like food and architecture. The two countries have been shaped by quite different historical forces, and so even their cultures have notable contrasts, such as their concepts of personal space and their senses of humor. But I don’t want to overstate my case and argue that they have nothing in common, either. Both Poland and Spain have been heavily influenced by capitalism, for example, and they have both gone through periods of totalitarian rule and repression in the twentieth century.
So the really fascinating thing, then, is seeing Europe as a kind of variation on a theme. Every country has churches, basilicas, and cathedrals, but they all build them somewhat differently. Every country has art museums and monuments to historical events, and these are all intimately interconnected. To give just one example, the beautiful gothic altar in Krakow’s St. Mary’s Basilica was sculpted by a German from Nuremberg, another city that was previously a part of the Habsburg Empire. (The Habsburgs controlled Spain for a while, too, to give you another example of their historical parallels.)
So national borders are real markers of difference, but they’re also fluid. Perhaps the most famous Pole in history, Nicholas Copernicus, studied for a time in Italy, and published his book with the help of German Protestants. Frederic Chopin, born in Poland, spent most of his professional life in French, as did the Spaniard Picasso and the Dutchman Van Gogh. The more you travel around Europe, then, the more you see a rich, interconnected story unfolding across this varied landscape. In short, it’s very cool.
Anyways, even if you don’t care much about history or art, there’s another factor that makes European travel so appealing: it’s cheap. Part of the reason for this cheapness are the low-cost flights. Sometimes you can find good deals are more traditional airlines, like Iberia; and that may be the best option. But often travelers looking to save money fly with EasyJet or Ryanair. I have a lot of experience with Ryanair. I used them for my outbound and inbound flights to Poland. They are far from being my favorite airline, but their prices are pretty irresistible. My flight to Poland, for example, cost me less than 20 euros. And that’s for a three-and-a-half hour flight!
Of course, you get what you pay for. There are no amenities on Ryanair. The seats are uncomfortable, there are no screens to watch movies, no plug to charge your phone, and of course food is not included. Besides this, you need to pay extra if you want to choose your seat or even if you want to take a bag for the overhead compartment. Since I bought the cheapest ticket, I had to fit all of my stuff under the seat in front of me. Worst of all may be the advertising. On every Ryanair flight the airstewarts give long, uninspired, rambling advertisements of various products—food, perfume, lottery tickets, and even model planes —over the plane’s crackling PA system. And they do this in two or three languages, so it takes a long time. I’ve never seen anyone buy any of this junk, so in a way it feels like punishment for paying cheap prices.
As much as I like to rag on Ryanair, the truth is that I wouldn’t have been able to travel so much if it weren’t for this infamous company. There are a couple other companies and services that also help in my eternal quest to save money. A basic one is Skyscanner, a website that reliably tells you the cheapest flights. I also have used Blablacar a lot, which is a ride sharing service. Basically, let’s say I’m planning on driving from Seville to Madrid. I can put up an announcement on Blablacar and charge riders to accompany on this trip. The driver can charge whatever they want, but typically the prices are quite a bit lower than, say, paying for a high-speed train. Of course, I felt a little hesitant at first about the prospect of getting into a car with a stranger. But the website is quite well regulated and I haven’t had any truly bad experiences. It’s also a good way to find people to chat with, if you’re trying to improve your language skills.
There is one more service I use that, I admit, makes me feel a bit guilty: Airbnb. The reason that I have some scruples about Airbnb is that it can have a potentially bad effect on the housing market of wherever you’re visiting. It’s often more profitable for landlords to rent their flats short-term to visitors than long-term to locals, and this limits the supply of available residences and drives prices up. In areas with heavy tourism, this can make it almost unliveably expensive. So there is that downside. On the other hand, hotels and even youth hostels can be much, much more expensive than Airbnbs—prohibitively so, for me. In any case, I hope I am reducing the corrosive effect of Airbnbs by normally renting individual rooms (which couldn’t be rented to locals anyway) rather than whole apartments. In Prague, for example, I stayed in a little room in the apartment of a family, far outside the center. This is not only better for the city, but also in my experience more fun, since the idea is to be with locals anyways.
Well, those are my tips. If you do some searching, you can find ways to travel around Europe on an incredibly short budget. And you get a lot for money, since there are so many things to see and do, all over the place. If you’re young—younger than 26, in most cases—then you can get added discounts on museums and monuments. Added to all this, there is also the convenience of the European Union. Now that I’m being paid in Euros, I don’t have to worry about conversion rates if I go to Italy, Germany, or Ireland. There is also something that’s called the Schengen Zone: a zone of countries where no visa or even passport is needed at the border. Flying from Spain to Italy, then, is legally the same as taking a domestic flight. You just walk right into the country.
Europe’s open borders are something that they should be very proud of, I think. It is a level of international trust and cooperation that is unique in history, I believe. And as a result of this, it is quite common for Europeans to have international experience. Though there is at least one case in which all this may backfire: during an pandemic. Now the virus is in every major European country, with over a thousand cases in Spain. And I’ve just heard that all of Italy is on lock-down. I really hope they don’t lock down Spain…
Anyways, I’m getting a bit off topic. My major point is that Europe is great for travel. There is a lot to see and do, it’s easy and cheap to get around, and borders are almost non-existent. And Europeans themselves take advantage of this. Blessed with lots of vacation time (unlike the United States, where vacation is entirely unregulated), Europeans in general take lots of trips: both within their countries and to neighboring lands. Indeed, one of the big reasons that so many people want to learn English is because of the travel industry. In a continent of so many different nations and languages, English is the only Lengua Franca available.
Now, does all this traveling help to make Europeans wiser, more tolerant, more cosmopolitan? The answer is not immediately clear to me. It’s certainly possible to travel and not learn anything. Go to any touristy area, and you’ll see what I mean. All the food is junk food (a lot of it from America), and everything for sale is junk, too. Many people travel, take a selfie with a famous landmark, stay in a hotel, and then go home. There’s nothing wrong with that, necessarily. It’s fun. But does it lead to anything more? I think it does, or at least I hope it does. Otherwise, what on earth am I doing? Just having fun?
“Wake me up when it’s time to go,” GF said. “And don’t bother me until then.”
She bundled up her jacket and her scarf, and laid down on the plastic airport seats to sleep. I was sitting nearby, reading my kindle. It was very early. Horribly early. We had a flight at 8:30; our boarding call was at 8:00, but we had already gotten through security by 6:20. We had a lot of time to kill.
Our destination was Mallorca. We weren’t going because either of us particularly wanted to go. Indeed, neither of us knew anything at all about Mallorca beforehand. We had booked the flights because they were cheap on Ryanair: €15 each way. With airfare that low, you’re crazy not to go, wherever it is. But the catch was that both flights, there and back, were so early in the morning that it was impossible to get to the airport with public transportation. Think about this next time you book a flight.
The long, early-morning hours between our arrival and our flight passed slowly and uneventfully, except for the loud, angry outburst of a passenger who was told that he bag was too big to carry-on, and he would have to pay to check it. Ryanair’s flight are cheap; but their fines and extra charges can be murderous.
Finally it was time for us to board. The plane was of medium size, big enough for 100 passengers. As befitting a budget airline, everything was bare and functional. The seats were plain rubber. There was no pouch on the seatbacks, there was no monitor to play a safety video, no nothing. But when you’re paying €15 a flight you can’t complain.
The plain taxied and took off right on time. Lucky for me, I had a window seat. It was a clear and sunny day, and the view of Madrid was incredible.
The last time I had seen this view, I was arriving here for the first time. I remember getting off the plane, feeling lost and confused. “What are we doing here?” we said to each other as we walked through the airport, jet-lagged and overwhelmed. Everything was so foreign then, so absolutely new and frightening
Now, far from foreign, the city and the landscape felt comfortingly familiar. It is amazing how fast we get used to things. Only a few months had sufficed to transform a mysterious place into a second home.
I could not get enough of the view. From the air, you get a real sense of how empty most of Spain is. The cities are all crowded together, leaving miles and miles of countryside totally empty, except for a few roads. This is partly why Spain is so picturesque: for a modern, industrialized country, it has retained much of its rural charm.
Another source of Spain’s natural beauty are its mountains. In minutes the plane was passing over the Madrid Sierra. This was the first time in my life that I was able to look down on the snow-covered peaks of a whole mountain range. I’d only ever seen such a thing in movies. I tried to read my book—James Michener’s excellent travelogue of Spain, Iberia—but the view kept pulling me back. I spent nearly the ride glued to the glass.
The flight would have been worth the money only for this experience, had not the constant crackling of the intercom been added to the mix. I suppose Ryanair has to make money somehow. They do it by barraging you with advertisements, for food, perfume, and lottery tickets, clumsily delivered from a script through the low-quality intercom system. The stewards on these flights are not stewards at all, but salespeople. Not five minutes passed without another sales pitch, in Spanish and mediocre English. I tried to block it out, but it was very distracting. Just when I began to feel very annoyed, however, we left the mainland and were flying over the sparkling aquamarine Mediterranean. A few minutes later we had landed in Palma de Mallorca.
Mallorca (or Majorca, in English) is the largest of the four main Balearic Islands, along with Menorca, Ibiza, and Formentera. Its name comes from Latin, meaning “larger island” (Menorca is the smaller one). With a population of 401,270, Palma is both the largest city on the islands and the capital of the whole autonomous region. As its Latin name suggests, these islands were long ago the stomping ground of Romans; and the city of Palma owes its origin to that ancient civilization.
By a lucky coincidence our Airbnb host’s wife was arriving at the airport at almost the same time as us, so he offered to give us a ride back to the apartment. We only had to wait half an hour. We walked through the sleek, commercial airport—one of the biggest in Spain—to sit on the benches in the sun outside.
As we passed through, I noticed that many of the signs were in another language, not Spanish and not French. This was Mallorquín, which is not really its own language but a dialect of Catalan. Or to be more politically correct, Catalan, Valenciana, and Mallorquín are all dialects of one another.
Languages have a political dimension here in Europe that is hard for an American to appreciate. By the time I was born, most of the native languages of North America had been ruthlessly marginalized or crushed. But in Europe the languages stretch back centuries and they are symbols of identity. The results of this are a lot of squabbles about what constitutes a proper language or only a dialect, with serious implications for the cultural autonomy of the area in question. Thus people from Valencia call their language Valenciana, people from Catalonia call it Catalan, and people from Mallorca call it Mallorquín, even though they differe only by few words and an accent.
Another advertisement caught my attention. It said something like: “There are lots of cold Norwegians looking to buy a home. Sell with us!” This was a service specifically geared to helping native Spaniards sell their property to Scandinavians. This is another distinct thing about Mallorca: it is like the Florida of Europe. Legions of northern Europeans—Germans and Brits, mainly—sick of their cold climates, move down here once they get old, in order to soak up some sun in their sunset years.
Palma de Mallorca is simply crawling with Germans—in the airport, on the streets, on the train, in the restaurants. (Germans have a joke that Mallorca is the seventeenth state of Germany. “We should just annex it,” one German said to me. “Well, actually it’s kind of a good deal for us. Spain pays for the infrastructure, and we get to live there.”)
Soon we had dropped off our bags and were out on the street. As is our habit, we wanted to see the cathedral first, but we took a detour to walk along the seaside to get there.
It was a marvelously sunny day. The great ocean was a shimmering pool of light. A solitary sailboat swayed in the distance; and if I squinted the scene could have been a painting by Sorolla. A bike path ran along the sidewalk, and every so often a couple of German cyclists would go by—all with white hair—chatting amongst themselves. I could well understand why the Germans moved here.
We picked an excellent angle from which to approach the cathedral. This one of the classic views of Mallorca. As you walk in from the shore you pass through the Parc de la Mar, a lovely park with large pools of crystalline water and fountains spraying aquamarine jets into the air. The sandy-shaded surface of the cathedral seems to rise out of the water, more like a tropical cliff than a medieval church.
An audioguide was included in our visit to the cathedral, and it was one of the best I’ve used. It had a big screen so that it could display a photo of your next destination. This removes some of the confusion of other audioguides.
The cathedral itself is known, or so I’m told, as the “Cathedral of Light” and the “Cathedral of Space.” These appellations are well-deserved. Unusually, there are rose windows on both sides of the building; and the bigger of these is the largest gothic rose window in the world (13 meters in diameter, and thus about 100 square meters in area). The result is a lot of light.
The cathedral is also voluminous. Among the tallest gothic cathedrals ever built (with the eighth tallest nave in the world, at 44 meters), it stands taller than the massive Cathedral of Seville, and contains 160,000 cubic meters within its walls. And because the cathedral has no central choir (Antoni Gaudí decided to remove it while he was working on the cathedral), the interior feels far more expansive than most gothic cathedrals.
Gaudí was also responsible for the baldachin, which bears the stamp of his originality. A heptagonal ring hangs from the ceiling; on top are wheat and grape plants (I don’t know how they were made), symbolizing the body and blood of Christ. Gaudí may have been planning something more elaborate, but he quit midway through the project (an embarassing fact that I believe the audioguide neglected to mention).
To the right of the main altar is a really daring piece of modern art done by Miquel Barceló. It is a giant clay sculpture that wraps around a semi-circular space. On the surface, molded into the clay, are representations of Jesus, the fish, the loaves, skulls, and other episodes from the Gospels. The style is both gruesome and abstract. It is hard for me to imagine anyone praying at a chapel like this, since the tone is so dark and brooding and the style so idiosyncratic. But judged on its own merits I thought it was an excellent work, if a bit excessive.
Our next stop was far off: the Bellver Castle (in Mallorquín, the Castell de Bellver). The castle sitting on a big hill overlooking the whole city, about a mile from the center. In this respect the castle is like the Gibralfaro Castle in Málaga.
After some mucking about (a friendly British resident of the island helped us out), we arrived in the park that led up to the castle. We were faced with stairs. Lots of stairs. We took it slow, not wanting to tire ourselves out—we are two unfit Americans, you understand—but even so, we had to stop and rest. Every time we turned a corner we were faced with yet another stairwell.
The Bellver Castle was built in the 14th century by James II of Mallorca. It is one of the few circular castles in Europe. Seen from above, the castle looks like four concentric circles: the outer wall, the moat, the inner wall, and the central courtyard. Apparently, the castle successfully withstood two sieges, in 1343 and 1391, but was captured in 1521.
When we arrived the place was swarming with people. There is a road that leads straight up the hill to the castle, which allows travel companies to dump busload after busload of tourists into the castle for guided tours. Nearly all of them were Spaniards over 50, which I found interesting. Where were all the Germans and Brits?
The castle itself was lovely—though, like all defensive structures, it was not especially beautiful. If it were only us two, I don’t think it would have taken more than half an hour to explore everything. But every time we wanted to ascend a stairwell, turn a corner, or enter a room, we inevitably had to wait for a parade of tourists to shuffle out, single-file, their coats hanging from their arms, brochures gripped in their hands, chatting happily amongst themselves.
The castle has two floors and a roof. Every room in the place opens up on the central, circular courtyard. These rooms are crammed with artifacts in display cases. This is the Museum of the City of Palma. Unfortunately, all of the information was written in Mallorquín, so I couldn’t understand anything. I’m sure it was interesting; many of the artifacts looked quite old, indeed ancient.
The best part of the visit was the view from the roof. From here you can see the whole city stretched out before you, and then the ocean beyond; and behind, you can see the green mountains of Tramontana. There is nothing like standing on a castle on a hill, looking out for miles on the surroundings. If you’re imaginative enough, and my imagination is typically overactive, you can easily feel like a king.
We left and found a bus to the city center. By now, we were pooped. After eating in a surprisingly good Chinese restaurant, we went back to the apartment and went to sleep.
We only had one thing planned for the following day: the Ferrocarril de Sóller, or the Sóller Railway. This is an old train line that runs between Palma, the capital of Mallorca, and Sóller, a small tourist town on the other side of the island.
The train between the two places is not only a mode of transportation, but an attraction in itself. The history of the railway goes back to 1911 and the original wooden train cars are still in use. Not only that, but the hour-long ride allows you to see some of Mallorca’s natural beauty.
We got a quick breakfast and walked to the station. Once there we found out that round-trip tickets are €21 and that you have to pay in cash. There was also an option to buy a combined ticket, for €30, that included a round-trip ride on the tram to the port. But we were trying to be as cheap as possible, so we only bought the train tickets. As you will see, this was a big mistake.
Soon we were on board and the old thing was creaking into motion. The train moved at a leisurely pace out of the city. The tracks underneath made that satisfying double clacking as we slowly accelerated.
We passed buildings covered in graffiti, overgrown fields and broken-down factories. We went under an overpass, the tracks running parallel to a highway. Cars zipped by, going much faster then we were, and two bicyclists in bright colors traveled alongside us. Then we passed a gas station and turned right into a field of olive trees.
Now the ride became really scenic. We were out of the city and away from the roads, surrounded on all sides by green countryside. The squat, twisted forms of olive trees, arranged into neat rows, filled a flat valley. Nearby were the farm houses, with their roofs of red tile. Beyond, the mountains, stony and jagged.
We went through a tunnel, the clack-clacking of the train echoing into a frightful jumble of noise. On other other side we saw a huge valley surrounded by mountains. In the middle of this valley was a little town, its white buildings and tile roofs shinning in the sunlight, its church spire looking tiny in the gaping space. This was Sóller.
By the time we arrived we were ravenous, so we found a place to eat in the main square. The menu was in four languages, English, German, French, and Spanish. It was a sunny day, so we sat outside, which also gave us the chance to enjoy the town. Sóller is quite a pretty place, though most people seem to pass through on their way to the port.
This is what the famous tram is for. The tram is one of the only first-generation trams in Spain still in use. Like the train, it is an cute, old, wooden thing that crawls along at the pace of a leisurely bike-ride. We watched it go by as we ate, and it was so picturesque that both of us regretted not buying tram tickets.
But when we paid for lunch, I asked the man at the bar if it was possible to walk to the coast, and he said yes, it isn’t a bad walk at all. We decided to try. We only had two hours until the last train from Sóller would go back to Palma, and according to our phones the walk to the port was one hour. This meant we would have to turn around as soon as we got there. But we didn’t have anything else to do, so what the heck?
Soon we were outside Sóller walking along a highway. Though it was February, the hot Mediterranean sun made it warm enough for t-shirts. Behind us we could see the craggy cliffs of Mallorca forming giant a semicircle around us. To our right and left were fields of lemon and orange trees. Every color was intensified in the intense sunlight.
We walked and walked, and I felt good to be using my legs on such a lovely day. And just as I began to forget about where we were going or how far we had gone, we arrived.
The whole landscape opened up and revealed a bay full of bright blue water. It was a natural port: two long peninsulas enclosing a circular area of water, with only a narrow opening to the ocean. On either side of the port’s mouth stood a white lighthouse. The place was a German tourist’s dream, filled with restaurant after restaurant, each with outdoor seats that faced the water. It reminded me of Robert Hughe’s comment on Mediterranean tourism, that it has been reduced to “endless kitsch, infinitely prolonged.” Though, to be fair, it was exceedingly delightful kitsch.
With the time we had, there wasn’t anything to do except enjoy the view. We walked along the port, passing restaurant after restaurant, going nowhere in particular.
My mind wandered until I chanced to see a small white cat. It was standing right in the middle of the sidewalk. As I got closer the cat tensed its body and began to climb the railing that separated the sidewalk from the beach. I always forget what amazing acrobats cats are. With nothing but smooth, slippery metal bars to hold onto, the cat climbed to the top of the railing and balanced there like a gymnast on a balance beam. Then, it coiled its body and sprang five feet through the air to a boat that was sitting on the sand nearby. With its claws it gripped the canvas covering, steadied itself, it carefully climbed underneath into the boat. I wonder how many cats make their home this way in boats during the off season.
Shaking myself from this reverie, I checked the time. We had to go. Actually we were already late. We had to get back to Sóller as fast as possible or we would miss the last train back to Palma. Now the slog began.
We turned around and began power walking back to the town. No more enjoying the scenery, no more relaxing; just footsteps on concrete sidewalks and worried conversations about taking wrong turns. I did my best not to think about what would happen if we missed the train; but I couldn’t help it. Would we have to take a cab to Palma? How much would that cost? Would we miss our flight back the next morning?
After a distressingly long stretch of highway we made it back to the town; and from there it was only a few minutes to the train station. We made good time. We still had five minutes to spare. Tired but elated, we got onto the train and slumped into the seats. The train creaked into motion, and once again we were treated to the Mallorcan countryside.
If you take the train to Sóller, do yourself a favor and buy the tram ticket, too.
We were totally wiped out by the time we got back. We only had energy to eat dinner and sleep. Our flight was even earlier this time around: 6:20 in the morning, which meant we had to wake up at 4:00.
The next morning, disoriented, bleary, but full of nervous energy, I was once again sitting in the plastic waiting chars of our flight gate, with GF asleep nearby. Once again, I was reading Michener’s travel book about Spain; and once again, I was thinking about how great this country is. And you know something is great when it gives you warm fuzzy feelings at 5 o’clock in the morning.
I’ve fallen far behind in my travel posts, and now I find myself in the embarrassing position of writing about a trip I took over a year ago. It also seems that, no matter how hard I try to be brief, I end up writing more and more. Well, enough prefatory remarks; on to business.
For an American, there is something religious about visiting London for the first time. We have been hearing about the place all our lives. Dry humor, pints of beer, red phone booths, black taxis, fish and chips, bad teeth, good tea, bad weather, good tikka masala, the British Invasion, the British Parliament, the British Empire, Queen Elizabeth, Queen Victoria, Shakespeare, Dickens, the Beatles, Monty Python, Dr. Who, Harry Potter—London is the focal point of all our stereotypes, good and bad, of England and the English.
This is important for us Americans, since England is the only other country whose media we regularly consume. English media is so important for us because of our shared language. Unlike in Spain—where English-language songs often play on the radio (and people sing these songs without understanding the lyrics), and where American shows, overdubbed in Spanish, are extremely popular—in the United States we don’t listen to music in a foreign language if we can help it, and we only watch television that was originally made in English (overdubbing looks silly). This provincial preference for English media limits our options of foreign media mainly to England and Australia, and England has been the clear favorite.
A consequence of this popularity of English media is that Americans have internalized a highly partial picture of the English character. We associate the English with sophistication, elegance, wit, good manner, royalty, and the historical past.
This is almost the polar opposite of the English reputation in Spain. You see, Spain is an excellent travel destination for English holidaymakers—cheap, close, and sunny—and as a result, lots of English tourists come to Spain looking for a good time. A “good time” entails drinking, of course, and thus there are lots of drunken English people stumbling around city centers on any given night. As a result, Spaniards think of the English, not as genteel aristocrats, but as tipplers.
(Parenthetically, the English also have very different alcohol consumption habits than the Spanish. On a Friday or Saturday night, people in Spain begin drinking in earnest after dinner—which means 11 pm at the earliest. They often don’t even leave their apartment to go to bars and clubs until 2 in the morning, and don’t return home until dawn the next day. In London, on the other hand, drinking begins as soon as people leave work, at 5 pm. This is due, in part, to an old law in London that required pubs to close down at 11. So the English stop drinking when the Spanish barely start.
(This difference in schedule is supplemented by a difference in speed and volume. Spaniards are rarely visibly drunk. I have seen very few Spanish people stumbling from alcohol; instead, they focus on maintaining a level of comfortable tipsiness for a long period of time. Compared with Brits, Spaniards sip their drinks, and eat a lot while they drink. English people, by contrast, get properly drunk, and fast, much like many Americans do. As a consequence, Brits can be very loud drinkers—in my experience, at least. This is an especially interesting contrast, I think, since in every other circumstance Brits tend to be mucher more quiet than Spaniards.)
Of course, both the American and the Spanish stereotype is an over-generalization; they are based on very partial exposures to the English character. Partial and false as they may be, however, these stereotypes did succeed in endowing England with a certain contradictory mystique—a place full of witty drunkards, elegant and boisterous, cultured and slovenly? I needed to go see London for myself, to catch a glimpse of the reality behind the reputation.
My problem was that, at the time, I was particularly low on funds. And however distorted all the other stereotypes may be about London, this one is true: London is expensive. Well, it’s expensive if you enjoy eating, sleeping indoors, using transportation, and doing any activity besides walking and sitting outside. This was a few months before the Brexit referendum, and the pound was still strong.
As a result, my short trip to London—barely 48 hours—became a frantic exercise in traveling cheaply. I didn’t buy an oyster card, and I didn’t use the Tube or the buses. I ate “meal deals”—pre-packed sandwiches at Tesco supermarkets, not terribly delicious—instead of paying for dinner in a restaurant. And I focused on visiting museums, which are free in London, instead of other popular sites.
Arrival & First Impressions
As usual, I traveled with Ryanair. My plane arrived in Stansted, the smallest of London’s airports, where I had to fill out a form and wait in a long queue to enter the country. The English, it seems, are almost as paranoid about their borders as we are in the United States. From Stansted, I took the so-called Stansted Express to London’s central Liverpool Station. The ride took about an hour, and was not cheap. This is a typical Ryanair experience: the flight is inexpensive, but uncomfortable; and you land in an unpopular airport far outside the city. I am a loyal customer.
I sat in the train—dazed from lack of sleep, filled with nervous energy, physically miserable but mentally awake—and stared out the window in disbelief. Was I really here? Was this England, the land of dry humor and wet weather? I gazed out at fleeting patches of green countryside as the train sped by, and savored the delightful names of the train stations between Stansted and London. (Of course I can’t remember any of the names now; but as I look on Google maps, I find such gems as Matching Tye, Hartfield Heath, Hastingwood, Theydon Bois.)
English novels—from Austen, to Dickens, to Rowling—have powerfully shaped the American imagination of the past; and thus, by association, English place-names strike many Americans as irresistibly charming. Each name seems to be the title of another great novel, filled with irony and romance, and written with quaint wit. Likewise, the English countryside—a neatly trimmed park, whose rolling hills are covered in a grey mist—is featured in so many films that even the snatches of green I saw out the train window filled me with delight.
These feelings of romance and fantasy are, I suspect, nearly universal for Americans visiting England, and specifically London, for the first time. England is the only foreign country we regularly see in television and movies. This gives the experience of visiting England the effect of stepping into a movie set—everything is familiar, and yet unreal. The same thing happens, I believe, to many who visit New York for the first time. Many people have independently told me that it felt like they were in a movie, since so many landmarks and features were familiar to them from films.
The train arrived, and I got out to go find my Airbnb. I was on edge. The combination of sleep deprivation (the flight was terribly early) with the usual stress of navigating a foreign city (my phone didn’t have service), plus the feeling of unreality that comes from actually being in a place which I’d been hearing about all my life—all this combined to make me edgy and oversensitive. The double-decker red buses, the black taxis, the cars driving on the wrong side of the road, the eccentric road signs (including the delightfully existential “Change Priorities Ahead”), pubs with absurd names (“Ye Old Cheshire Cheese,” on Fleet Street), the red phone booths scattered seemingly at random (apparently, the city had once sold all these phone booths, only to regret the decision and then repurchase as many as they could)—my first impressions of London did contain many of ye quaint olde stereotypes that I expected.
But one thing that, as a New Yorker, always surprises me when I visit a new city is the lack of skyscrapers. Madrid has only four buildings which can reasonably be called skyscrapers, and they’re located in the north of the city, far outside the center. London has its own share of skyscrapers, to be sure. But walking around in London has nothing of that vertiginous feeling that New York produces, the feeling of being crushed by steel and glass, the feeling of constantly craning one’s neck. I had always thought of London as being a huge and imposing place, so this lack of skyscrapers did disconcert me somewhat.
In many other respects, however, London can be easily compared with New York: the bustling streets, the flashy billboards and ever-present advertisements, the endless shopping, the infinite variety of chain restaurants, the ethnic diversity, the smell and the grime. London even has the same phony Buddhist monks trying to scam tourists into giving them money. (You can find a great story about them here; and in case you’re wondering, if someone is aggressively asking you for money, you can safely assume that they’re not a Buddhist monk.)
As I discovered when I got to my Airbnb, one way that London is incompatibly different from both my country and Spain is the style of its outlets. I had to buy a power-adaptor there; and like everything in London, it wasn’t cheap. Be wise and buy one ahead of time.
These were my first impressions, hazy and distorted, as I walked from the station to my Airbnb. Already I was running short of time. It was midday Friday, and my flight home would leave early on Sunday. So I set out to the first place on my list, the National Gallery.
A Note on Cuisine and Language
I should preface my trip to the National Gallery with a mention of a small restaurant, the Breadline, which can be found nearby. I decided to eat there because it had fish and chips—I know it’s silly, but I couldn’t leave London without eating that iconic meal—and because its prices were eminently reasonable. The food was plain and basic, but nonetheless, for me, extremely satisfying. I even returned the next day to try an English breakfast, which I quite liked.
English food has a poor reputation, and I understand why; it is hardly a cuisine designed to have universal appeal. Nevertheless, if those two meals can be trusted to give a fair representation (an open question), I can say that I am a fan. There is something about greasy fried potatoes and fried fish, covered in white vinegar, that just feels right to me. And sausage and beans for breakfast is brilliant.
While I was eating, a young British man came in and said “A small white coffee to take away.” This is an excellent example of the differences between British and American English. This sentence, uttered in New York, would produce only bafflement. You would have to translate it to “A small coffee with milk to go,” if you wanted to be understood. I run into these differences constantly as I teach English. Before coming to Spain, I thought the differences between British and American English were minor and negligible, besides the accent; but I was wrong. Working with British textbooks and materials can be extremely frustrating, since often I don’t know what certain expressions or words mean—which is embarrassing when my students ask. Not only that, but there are a few subtle grammatical differences between the dialects, such as in the use of the perfect tense. But this is a digression of a digression; now to the museum.
The National Gallery
It is immensely satisfying to simply walk into a museum, without fees or lines, like it’s your own home. The experience is even better when the museum is one of the best in the world. The National Gallery is only behind the Louvre, the British Museum, and the Metropolitan in visitors per year; and this is especially impressive considering the museum’s collection is comparatively small, easily viewable in three hours or so. But for those with any sensitivity to art, these three hours will be among the most rewarding of your aesthetic life; for the National Gallery’s collection is remarkable both for its breadth and its excellence. The only museums I’ve visited that compare in the average quality of the paintings on display are the Prado in Madrid and the Musée d’Orsay in Paris. Every room in the gallery contains a masterpiece, often many.
Indeed, there are so many wonderful paintings—paintings I had seen and loved in art history books—that I cannot even hope to mention all of them in this post, much less describe the impression each one made on me. Nevertheless, I can’t resist the temptation to dwell on some of these exquisite works of the human imagination.
The first painting which attracted my attention was the portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger. This is an extraordinary demonstration of the portraitist’s art; instead of a photographic image, capturing the physical surface of the famous writer, we get a glimpse of the writer’s mind. As in any excellent portrait, the inner is made manifest in the outer without compromising the realism of the portrait. His sharply angular face bespeaks cleverness; his gaunt features reveals a life dedicated to the mind and not the body; his half-closed eyes and serene expression show calm intelligence and a wisdom that sees beyond earthly troubles. We also catch a hint of Erasmus’s self-complacent vanity: he looks a little too comfortable in his fine fur robe, and his hands rest a little too easily upon a volume of his own writings. Is there a more convincing portrait of the scholar?
Holbein has an even more famous work on display at the museum: The Ambassadors. This is a portrait of two aristocratic ambassadors (their identity was long debated), in a room which includes an exquisitely-rendered still-life of several objects—a lute, several globes, a psalm-book, and various instruments of navigation. But the most memorable, and bizarre, feature of this painting is the giant anamorphic skull in the center. Anamorphic means that it is purposefully distorted when viewed head-on, and must be seen from a specific perspective to be seen properly. When viewed from the front, the skull is just a strange grey diagonal shape; but when you walk to the painting’s left, the skull comes into focus. I can only imagine the technical virtuosity required of a painter to pull off this trick with such consummate perfection; when seen properly, the skull is finely detailed, beautifully shaded, and anatomically accurate. Holbein painted this tour de force in 1533.
The National Gallery also possesses what is probably the most famous papal portrait in history: Raphael’s portrait of Pope Julius II. Julius was the most important of the high renaissance popes; he is responsible for the beginning of the Vatican museum, Michelangelo’s commission to paint the Sistine Chapel, and Raphael’s commission to paint the Vatican Library. Not only that, Julius originated the idea of tearing down the original St. Peter’s and building a new one. Such a man must have had enormous energy and a deep sensitivity to art. And yet in Raphael’s portrait we see him weary, worn-out, and melancholic. He is gently gripping a handkerchief in one hand and his chair in the other; his eyes are hollow, and the wrinkled skin of his face droops loosely from his skull. He seems to be just feebly holding on to the last chords of life, staring at his own end with resignation. Such terrible realism was entirely new in papal portraiture.
Before going to the National Gallery, I didn’t look up any of the famous pictures that could be found there; so I was surprised and delighted when I found myself face to face with one of my favorite pictures, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. I remember first seeing this portrait in Ernst Gombrich’s Story of Art, and being stunned. In the context of its time, 1434, the portrait is startling for its realism and its domestic subject: a marriage contract taking place in a bedroom. To a modern eye, perhaps the portrait no longer seems terribly realistic; the husband, with his pale expressionless face and his oversized clothes, always looks like he belongs in a Tim Burton film to me; but this only adds to its charm. The little toy-sized dog in the foreground—as adorable as ever—and the mirror in the background—showing us the whole scene from reverse in a distorted perspective—add to the painting’s undeniable power.
There are dozens more paintings—of equal importance and beauty—that I could devote an unworthy paragraph to describing; but this would only swell this post to unartistic dimensions. Yet I cannot move on without mentioning the National Gallery’s collection of Italian Renaissance art. This includes Piero del Pollaiolo’s masterpiece, The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, a landmark in the realistic use of perspective, with the saint enricled by crossbowmen.
Even more important is one of the two versions of Leonardo da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks. The other one is in the Louvre, and is usually considered the original; but I think the Gallery’s version, with its deeper shades and more dramatic chiaroscuro, is lovelier. Apart from its beauty, this painting is notable for its setting. Leonardo, as is typical of him, creates a carefully naturalistic background for this traditional Biblical scene. In previous eras, the background of paintings was almost entirely neglected; monochrome gold foil set off the human figures. But in Leonardo’s masterpiece, the background—a cave, which was an unprecedented choice—swallows up its subject. Such careful attention to rendering nature was something new in history.
I also cannot move on without mention of Rembrandt. The National Gallery has several of Rembrandt’s most highly regarded works, including two of his self-portraits. Looking into the eyes of a famous artist, as he stares back at you from a self-portrait, is an unnerving experience; suddenly the gap in space and time that separates your lives vanishes; the artist has transcended death, and even transcended life; his focused gaze, dry pigment on a canvas, will outlast even your own living flesh. On a less dramatic note, the Gallery also has one of Velazquez’s most famous works: The Rockeby Venus, famous for being one of the few female nudes in Spanish art (one other being Goya’s La Maja Desnuda).
I will muster my self-control and mention only two more works.
By common consent, the greatest painter in English history is Joseph Mallord William Turner; and several of his finest works can be seen at the Gallery. Of these, my favorite is Rain, Steam, and Speed—The Great Western Railway. A locomotive emerges from a tempest, a black tube bursting through grey fog. Every line and color is blurred as if seen from an out-of-focus camera. All we can see in the background are hints of blue sky, a bridge, and a lake where some people are rowing in a little boat.
In this paintings, Turner seems to have both anticipated and surpassed the impressionists in rendering momentary flashes of life. The swirl of indistinct color is absolutely hypnotic; yet the painting is not merely pretty, as are many impressionistic paintings, but a convincing symbol of the relationship between human technology and natural power. The train punches through the mist, in a confident gesture of industrial might; and yet the stormy clouds that swirl all around menace the lonely black locomotive. Both the train and its surrounding are impressive, even sublime, but also inhumanly vast and cold; and the two slight figures in the rowboat below reveal our true vulnerability in the face of these forces.
The last painting I’ll mention before forcing myself away—even remembering the Gallery is a pleasure—is Bathers at Asnières, by Georges Seurat. This painting was completed in 1884; but it was not until many years after Seurat’s death that it was recognized as a masterpiece. It depicts several middle-class Parisians relaxing by the Seine on a hot summer day. The technique Seurat used is almost pointillistic in its precise use of strokes and colors, relying mainly on bright horizontal daubs. The combination of statuesque modeling and poses—the bathers’ heavy bodies and horizontal orientation remind me of an Egyptian frieze—with Seurat’s delicate treatment of brushstrokes, makes the painting look crystal-clear from a afar and blurred from up close. The treatment really captures the feeling of heat: how everything can seem perfectly clear in the summer sun, and yet distant objects are blurred.
Complementing this tension between form and vagueness, is an emotional tension between fun and desolation. At first glance the bathers are having a wonderful day. They are at leisure, enjoying the sunshine, the smooth grass, and the cool water. But then you notice how isolated is each one of the figures. They are all in their own world; many seem lost in thought. Their expressions are emotionless; their hunching posture bespeaks weariness. The factory spewing smoke in the background adds another hint of gloom.
To me, the painting is a devastating portrait of the isolation and meaninglessness of contemporary life. We imagine the figures working 9 to 5 jobs in offices during the week, performing mechanical tasks that mean nothing to them. Then they go to their usual restaurant for a bite to eat and then to their apartment to sleep. When with their friends, they drink and talk of trivialities. On a holiday, they come here, and stare into space, unable to articulate to themselves or anyone else the strange sense of emptiness that engulfs them whenever they have a free moment. It is a comfortable world that conceives of nothing beyond wealth and luxury; and its members, when released from their usual routine, can think of nothing to do. Convention dictates that they come here to ‘relax’. The painting is the perfect complement and illustration of Albert Camus’s The Stranger: it is a painting of a world of strangers, to one another and to themselves.
The next day, I headed to one of the other great museums in London: the British Museum. Originally I planned to include my account of that great institution in this post; but I ended up writing so much that I decided that the British Museum deserved its own separate essay, which you can find here.
Brief Snatches of London Life
When I wasn’t visiting museums, I had a few spare hours to wander around the city. This allowed me to glimpse, all too briefly, most of the major sights in London—the places that must be given a mention and a respectful nod in any post about that old city.
The first landmark I insisted on seeing was Big Ben. A trip to London without seeing that venerable clocktower would be like a trip to Pisa without its leaning campanile. I was so ignorant when I visited London (and remain, despite strenuous efforts) that I didn’t even know that Big Ben was attached to the British parliament building, the Palace of Westminster. It was a delightful surprise to find these two landmarks joined together.
Although it looks gothic, the palace is of fairly recent construction. The old Westminster palace burned down in 1834 (Turner witnesses the fire, and painted several pictures of it). The new building was designed by Charles Barry, who used a Gothic revival style in his plan. I doubt there is any parliament buildings in the world so elegant, so imposing, and so charming. Few experiences in London, if any, can do a better job of creating that Hollywood sensation of being in a movie than standing on the Westminster bridge, seeing that palace and the clocktower, and hearing the ringing bells of Big Ben chime out the hour.
From there I walked away from the bridge, pausing to examine the statue of Winston Churchill (covered in pigeon droppings) in the nearby plaza, and went to Westminster Abbey. In my very limited experience, this is easily the most beautiful church building in London. I can’t say much about it, because I didn’t go inside—it was closed by the time I arrived, and in any case I didn’t want to pay the steep entry fee—but I can say that its façade is exquisite, especially the north entrance. Funnily enough, Westminster Abbey is not an abbey—at least, not anymore. Originally it was an abbey of the Benedictine monks, but after the Protestant Reformation, and after a brief stint as a cathedral, the abbey was designated a church. For the last 1,000 years it has been the site of coronations and royal weddings.
The walk from Westminster Abbey to Buckingham Palace is about 15 minutes—slightly longer if, like me, you walk through St. James’s Park. I highly recommend this, since the park is absolutely lovely.
Architecturally, Buckingham Palace isn’t much to look at; it presents itself as a cheerless, square, grey block. The building was not originally designed as a royal residence; it only became the seat of the monarchy in 1837, during the reign of Queen Victoria. The palace takes its name from the Duke of Buckingham, who originally had it built. It sits at the end of the Mall—a major road often used for processions—in a roundabout in which stands the golden Victoria Memorial, which commemorates that famous queen.
Even so, neither the monument nor the palace would attract a great deal of attention, I suspect, were it not for the Queen’s Guard. Equipping guards with antique weapons and dressing them in bright red outfits with fluffy tall hats seems to be one of those conspicuously impractical things that wealthy and powerful people do to showcase their wealth and power. Your average rich entrepreneur or politician could not afford to keep a corps of totally inefficient guards performing ceremonial movements all day (which are, naturally, supplemented by other guards using modern weapons, keeping careful watch, and wearing less conspicuous clothes). Here is an incident that demonstrates the guards’ mainly ceremonial role: in 1982 a man managed to evade the palace guard and make his way to the Queen’s bedroom, where he was apprehended by the city police.
I spent some time watching the guards march back and forth, their limbs as stiff as a wooden nutcracker. Purely as athletic performers, the soldiers are undeniably impressive: the timing, the coordination, the posture, the endurance—it must require excellent physical condition and serious training to keep up the routine, especially considering that they wear those clothes even in hot weather. The guards now mainly function as a tourist attraction and an amusing symbol of British culture; but to be fair, the Queen’s Guard aren’t the only soldiers to wear funny clothes (think of the Swiss Guard in the Vatican) or to engage in elaborate ceremony purely for show (think of the tomb of the unknown soldier in Washington D.C.).
By the time I left the British Museum the next day, I only had about 6 hours left before I’d have to go to sleep and say goodbye to London. The best way to get the most out of this time, I figured, was a free walking tour. The guide was excellent, and the tour just what I wanted. Unfortunately I don’t remember the name of the company or of our guide; he introduced himself as the only American tour guide in London—so he shouldn’t be too hard to find. (But apparently this isn’t true; a Google search reveals an American woman named Amber who also gives tours.)
The tour focused on the City of London. You may not know—I certainly didn’t—that the “City of London” refers to the original part of the metropolis, founded by the Romans way back when. This original City of London is now only a tiny fraction of the greater metropolitan area; indeed, it is quite a small place, having an area of only one square mile. This city is far older than England; it has enjoyed special privileges (or, to use the phrase of the Magna Carta, “ancient liberties”) since the Norman Conquest; and even now it retains the privilege to create many of its own regulations, independent of the greater metropolitan area or of England herself. The city has laxer building codes, which explains why so many of London’s skyscrapers are found there, and also looser financial regulations, which explains why it remains the center of London’s economic life. The City of London is home to the Bank of London, the London Stock Exchange, and Lloyd’s of London (the insurance market).
The tour began at Temple Station. Our guide took us along the river and then down Fleet Street, giving us bits of details about London’s past and present. We walked by Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, one of the oldest and best known pubs in London, famous both for its silly name and its dark, windowless interior; and this prompted our guide to embark on a long, impassioned explanation of London pub culture. Though an American, he was clearly a convert to the pub way of life; he had strong opinions about what made a pub good or bad; and he had pub recommendations for nearly any area of the city. (I was so inspired that, after the tour, I went into a pub to get a drink; but the beer was so expensive and so mediocre that my disappointment was even more bitter than the beer.)
Soon we reached St. Paul’s Cathedral. The tour didn’t pause for us to go inside; and, in any case, the entrance fee is formidable enough to discourage penurious travelers like me. Among other things, St. Paul’s is famous for having one of the tallest domes in the world. But the present St. Paul’s replaced an older, even taller cathedral (well, it was taller before its spire was destroyed by lightning), which was badly damaged in the Great Fire of London in 1666. The present building was designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and completed in his lifetime. Wren was, if not the greatest, at least the most prolific architect in England’s history. He designed and oversaw the construction of no less than 52 churches after the Great Fire. The architect himself is buried in the crypt of the cathedral, in a modest grave that says “Reader, if you seek his monument—look around you.”
From there we moved on to the Monument to the Great Fire, also designed by, you guessed it, Sir Christopher Wren. As our guide pointed out, the monument—a tall doric column that originally rose far above its surroundings—is now hemmed in by neighboring buildings and dwarfed by modern architecture. The guide used this as an example of the tendency of Londoners to be more interested in the future than the past.
To emphasize this point, he directed our attention to the skyscraper at 20 Fenchurch Street, a bizarre, top-heavy construction, completed in 2014, whose shape quickly earned it the nickname ‘The Walkie Talkie’. This building won—and earned—an award for ugliness. (It was also discovered that the building’s concave shape focused the sun’s rays strongly enough to damage cars, ignite doormats, and fry eggs; a screen has since been installed to prevent this from happening.) But the Walkie Talkie is only one of the many skyscrapers that have sprung up in the City of London in recent memory, despite concerns that these tall monstrosities will dwarf and obstruct historic buildings.
From the cathedral, we went down towards the river and ended up under London Bridge. Many people, including me, assume from the nursery rhyme that London Bridge is a tourist attraction; indeed, the justly famous Tower Bridge, which spans the Thames nearby (see below), is often mistakenly called the London Bridge. Sad to say, the current London Bridge is a brutalist piece of concrete and steel, a minimalistic slab of stone that stretches across the Thames, without charm, beauty, or really any distinguishing quality.
The nursery rhyme dates from a time when a different London Bridge spanned the Thames. The ‘Old’ London Bridge, built in 1209 and demolished in 1831, rested on stone arches and was covered in wooden buildings (which proved to be a fire hazard). It was famous for being the site where the severed heads of those executed for treason, dipped in tar and impaled on pikes, were displayed for passersby to take heed. William Wallace’s head was the first to play this role.
In 1831, the ‘New’ London Bridge was built to replace the crumbling medieval construction; this bridge also rested on arches, but it was taller and so allowed bigger ships to pass underneath. In the 1960s it was discovered that London Bridge was falling down (sinking into the riverbed) and had to be replaced. In true English entrepreneurial spirit, the bridge was sold; an American oil tycoon, Robert McCulloch, bought the bridge, disassembled it, shipped it to the United States, and then reassembled it in Lake Havasu City, Arizona—a little piece of English history in the American south. The current behemoth was finished in 1972.
The tour came to an end front of the Tower of London. Once again, I didn’t go inside that old castle—I am really exposing myself as a pathetic traveler, I know—but contented myself with walking around the perimeter. From the outside, the Tower of London doesn’t seem to merit the name “tower”; the White Tower, the central citadel which sits at the center of the castle complex, is less than 100 feet tall—almost invisible in the context of London. The castle is quite venerable; it was first constructed by the Normans in the 11th century, and was expanded in the preceding two centuries. At present the Tower of London is a large complex with two concentric layers of stone walls surrounding the central keep, and some additional buildings such as a chapel and a barracks. The outer wall is surrounded by a moat, now left dry. Besides the castle itself, visitors can see several historical objects on display, such as Henry VIII’s armor and—most notably—the Crown Jewels of England.
The Tower of London has played an important and often a nefarious role in English history. For a long time it served as the British version of the Bastille, as a prison for traitors and other political pests. Anne Boleyn, unfortunate wife of Henry VIII, is the most famous prisoner ever to be held and executed in the tower; legend has it that her ghost still travels through the old castle, her severed head under her arm. But as I stood there looking at that stone pile, I thought only of Thomas More, the British intellectual who dreamed of a utopia with freedom of religion, and who was imprisoned in the tower and then executed for being true to his Catholic faith (also by Henry VIII). More’s head was eventually covered in tar and displayed on a pike on the old London Bridge.
The tour guide ended with a short speech, which I will try to reproduce here:
“In this tour, we’ve seen many different types of power. We have the political and military power of the Tower of London, the religious power of St. Paul’s cathedral and the Church of England, and the economic power of the London Stock Exchange. And this, ultimately, is what the City of London has always been about: the use of power to control its own destiny. It’s a place oriented towards the future, constantly striving to master whatever is the next form of social power in order to maintain its dominance in the world’s affairs.”
And this strikes me as perfectly true.
From the Tower of London I made a quick walk to the nearby Tower Bridge. This is the iconic bridge often mistakenly called the London Bridge. It’s a pretty sight, with two neo-Gothic towers supporting two platforms, one higher and one lower. Built in the 1890s, its design, by Sir Joseph Bazalgette, was innovative: a combined suspension bridge and drawbridge. The idea (according to the tour guide) was to allow pedestrians to keep using the bridge even when the drawbridge was drawn up to allow ships to pass.
Pedestrians soon learned, however, that walking up the stairs in one of the towers, crossing the upper platform, and then walking down the stairs in the other platform, took even more time than just waiting for the drawbridge to close again. Accordingly, pedestrians hardly ever used the upper platform, which came to be frequented mainly by criminals and prostitutes; it was closed in 1910. Nowadays, you need to pay an entrance fee to go up to the upper walkway. This is just another example of a brilliant idea that doesn’t take into account basic human realities: an innovative plan for a bridge that ignores the time and effort needed to climb several flights of stairs. It is certainly pretty, though.
As my last stop I made my way to Shoreditch, a neighborhood which had been recommended to me by a Londoner in my Spanish class. Shoreditch is London’s Williamsburg: a previously working class neighborhood that has been gentrified, and is now home to trendy restaurants and technology companies. The area even looks like Williamsburg, with narrower streets and older, shorter buildings, full of colorful shops and cafes. The population, too, is almost indistinguishable from its New York counterpart: men with large mustaches, plaid shirts, and suspenders; women with half their heads shaven, nose rings, and small, tasteful tattoos—in a word, hipsters. I felt right at home. The gentrification is so extreme as to be beyond parody; there is, for example, a cafe, the Cereal Killer Cafe, that serves only breakfast cereal.
To illustrate my own complicity in the world of hipsterdom, I went to a cafe famous for its rainbow-colored bagels, the Brick Lane Beigel Bake. This little cafe is open 24 hours a day, it is cheap, and it is excellent. I didn’t order a rainbow bagel, but instead a ‘hot salt beef’ on a roll. The beef comes with pickles and strong, superb mustard. I had two (for a very reasonable price) and I was stuffed. Another positive mark for English cuisine.
My time was up. My flight was leaving at seven the following morning, which meant I had to wake up at four to give myself enough time to walk to the train station and take the train to the airport.
All told, I spent less than 48 hours in London. I was constantly tired, hungry, and physically exhausted. I ate little, I slept less, and I walked almost constantly—more than 10 hours each day. I spent as little money as I could, and still the trip was expensive. I learned as much as I could, but left the vast majority of the city unseen and unknown. The trip was a physical ordeal and a financial hardship. But in return for all this trouble, I encountered, however briefly, one of the great cities of the world.
A Spanish woman was saying this to her friend as we passed by.
GF and I both laughed.
“I guess Paris has the same reputation everywhere,” GF said.
Indeed it does. It is amazing to me how many Spaniards have recited the same line to me: “The only problem with Paris is the Parisians.”
I would expect this kind of stereotype to be prevalent among tourists; but two Spaniards who lived in Paris for a long time, and who spoke French fluently, told me the same thing. Why is this image so persistent? Even now we see this stereotype reenacted in movies, television shows, and books. Bill Bryson, in his jejune travelogue of Europe, dwells on this image of the Parisians at length: the snobby, miserable, rude, pretentious Parisian.
Perhaps the person who explained it most memorably was a Blablacar driver from Barcelona who spent three years living there. He said:
“People from Madrid are cocky. But they’re at least happy. People from Paris think they’re better than everyone else, and they’re still miserable.”
In short, the Parisians have an image problem.
Paris, however, does not. Every person I’ve spoken to has praised Paris to the skies. What a strange reputation for a city to have: beautiful and full of assholes. Needless to say I was curious to see for myself.
Not that I needed any additional encouragement to visit Paris. The city’s history speaks for itself. Voltaire, the French Revolution, World War II; the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Versailles; the impressionists, the modernists, the existentialists; Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein; the art of French cooking, the art of French life—the city has been the center of so much activity that, whatever interest you may have, whether it be painting, cooking, writing, history, philosophy, or just eating, odds are you will be led to Paris.
And I was finally going.
Unfortunately I wouldn’t be there for long. I had to squeeze my trip into a weekend. We would arrive early Friday morning, have all of Saturday to explore, and leave early Sunday.
When I say early, I mean early in the most brutal and cruel sense. In order to book the cheapest flights, GF and I fly when other people don’t. When you’re booking a flight several months in advance, it may sound reasonable to fly at 7 in the morning. But when the date of departure nears, and you realize to make it to the airport, get through security, and be on time for boarding, you have to wake up at 4, this decision may feel somewhat less sensible than it appeared at first. This decision may be especially regretted if, like me, you spend most of the week without sleeping enough, because you teach classes both in the early morning and late at night. And if you’re built like me—tall, leggy, and delicate—you will not be able to catch a wink of sleep when sitting in a cramped seat several thousand feet in the air.
Thus I arrived in Paris with red eyes, a sore neck, and that mixture of panic and mental inactivity that comes with sleep-deprivation. It was in this state that I shuffled down the line to get through customs. (I thought that people coming from Madrid didn’t have to go through customs, since it’s in the Schengen zone, but with the terrorist activity I understand border control has been tightened.)
In my best accent, I said Bonjour to the woman behind the class, as I handed her my passport. She flipped through the passport to the page with my photo and personal information. Then, she flipped to the page before that.
Immediately I felt nervous. Several years ago, on a flight to Kenya, I managed to get toothpaste on my passport (the tube exploded). Unfortunately, the stains are still visible; but fortunately, only the irrelevant first page was affected. Sure, it doesn’t look great, but it’s hardly worth the hassle and expense to get a new one.
These considerations were apparently lost on the customs official who, after turning to the afflicted page, looked up to give me the most unforgettable look. She jerked her neck back, pursed her lips into a duck-billed sneer, and raised her eyebrows with alarm. Then she stamped my passport and rolled her eyes and she handed it back to me. This hasn’t happened to me anywhere else.
I was in France.
More specifically, I was in the Beauvais-Tillé Airport. This is a small and shabby airport, handling only about 4,000,000 people annually. (For comparison, the Charles de Gaulle Airport handles about 66 million people annually.) It is marketed by Ryanair as the Beauvais-Paris airport, but this is simply a lie. The airport is 85 km away from Paris. The only way to get to Paris is by bus; the bus costs 17€ per trip, and the ride takes over an hour. Bear this in mind the next time you want to fly Ryanair to Paris.
A long line had already formed in front of the ticket machines for the bus. Apparently, the only way to get a ticket was to use one of these machines; and since everybody needed a ticket, everyone was waiting. The line moved slowly. We waited, shuffled a feet steps forward, and waited.
“I’m gonna go look at what’s going on,” GF said.
She left her bag and went to the front.
“There’s only one working machine,” she said as she returned.
There must have been at least fifty people in line. So here’s another tip: if you plan on saving money by taking an early flight on Ryanair to Paris, and justify this decision with the thought that it gives you extra time in Paris, consider that you will have to wait in line to buy tickets for a bus, and then take a bus ride that lasts 70 minutes and costs 17€. But I was too tired to be feeling regrets.
Finally an employee came out and began working on the broken machines. He pulled them apart, tinkering with the inside, and then rebooted them. As one of them started up, I noticed the operating system: Windows 97. No wonder they weren’t working.
But when the machines sprung back to life, we were able to buy our tickets and go out to the buses. And what do you know? Outside was a ticket booth with real people selling tickets, and a pretty reasonable line. Keep all this in mind for your next trip to Paris.
GF slept the whole busride. I listened to an audiobook and looked out the window. The ride from the Beauvais-Tillé Airport to Paris is at least quite nice. It was a lovely, sunny day, and the French countryside rolled past—fields of green farmland with hardly a house in sight. The ride was so different from any I’d seen in Spain. For one, the landscape was flat, while Spain is persistently mountainous. What is more, the lush, glowing green of everything contrasted sharply with the dry, sandy soil near Madrid. And I didn’t even see one castle!
I was just about to drift off when we entered the city. Suddenly, I was filled with excitement. Out the window I could see several skyscrapers. And then, in the distance, I saw that famous form, so iconic and unmistakable—the silhouette of the Eiffel Tower in the distance.
Now only was I in France, but in Paris.
The first thing you will notice about Paris is that it looks like Paris.
Nothing is out of place. You can stroll along the Seine, its dirty, dark green waters flowing merrily while ferry after ferry go by. Along the river, people are selling used books, Japanese prints, and pornographic posters from shabby wooden shacks. Cafés are inescapable and immaculate. There are no gaudy plastic signs, there is no tasteless decoration. The menus are displayed in glass cases; the color scheme is a subdued mix of blacks, greys, and dark reds. The waiters are well dressed; the tables and chairs are of finished wood; the silverware, the plates, the glasses are polished and stylish. Tree-shaded boulevards lead to roundabouts with monuments in the middle. Everything looks antique and lovingly preserved. The city is elegance itself.
Our first stop was the Sainte-Chapelle. I wanted to go there, because I still have a vivid memory of seeing pictures of the Sainte-Chapelle in my art history course. We were covering the gothic, and the professor was explaining how the gothic architects managed to make buildings with ever-large windows—a very difficult feat in a stone building. The apotheosis of this tendency was the Sainte-Chapelle, a building made completely of stained glass—or at least it seems.
The Sainte-Chapelle (Holy Chapel) was completed in 1248, under the auspices of Louis IX. He had acquired some important relics from the Venetians (including the Crown of Thorns) and wanted a place to put them. Damaged during the Revolution and restored afterwards, nowadays the building is primarily a tourist attraction.
Except for the tall, gothic spire, you cannot see the building from the street. It is now entirely surrounded by another edifice, that wraps around the outside. This building serves as a security checkpoint, through which you must pass in order to reach the inside. This means standing on a line as person by person shuffles through a metal detector. The French are not taking any risks nowadays. Once you get through security, you’ll see burly men with assault riffles strolling around the complex, looking tough and serious. They walk by, looking both reassuring or menacing, depending on your mood, as you wait in the next line to actually purchase your ticket. You can enjoy the exterior of the building as you wait; but unfortunately you cannot see the facade very well, since the restricted area prevents you from getting far enough away.
When we finally bought our tickets, went inside, and then ascended the stairs to the upper chapel, we gasped in unison. The place is stunning. The room seems to be suspended through sorcery; how can such delicate mullions support a stone roof? This illusion is created, as in many gothic structures, by moving the main support outside and out of view, in the form of flying buttresses. But the illusion is perfect.
Light pours in from every direction, turned into a rainbow of colors by the stained glass. The more you examine the glass, the more entranced you become, for the glass is covered with scenes from the Bible. On one side is the Old Testament, and on the other side the New. The ceiling has been painted to look like the night sky; wooden sculptures of saints adorn the interior; and on the wall above the doorway, below the magnificent rose window, is a fresco of Christ enthroned, surrounded by angels. For me, the only thing that the Sainte-Chapelle lacked was the sense of spiritual power and religious awe that I often get from gothic buildings. The final effect is rather purely aesthetic—a sweet, delicious prettiness.
Our next stop was the Louvre. By now we were tired and hungry. We had been awake for a long time, hadn’t slept or ate much, and had been on our feet for much of the day. But I was determined to go. Even before I had any interest in history, art, or Paris, I had heard of the Louvre. Everyone has. It is one of the few art museums with a world-wide reputation, a name respected by connoisseurs and philistines. I knew I had to go.
Originally, the Louvre was a fortress, built under Philip II in the 12th century, right in the center of Paris on the right bank of the Seine. (You can still see the castle foundations in the Louvre basement.) Many years later, in the 16th century, the building was transformed into a Renaissance palace by Francis I; the Louvre thus bears no trace of the French Gothic style, and is instead a classical construction of straight lines and clean forms. Monarchs stayed in the palace for a while, until Louis XIV decided that he preferred to live in Versailles. Then the building was given to various academies. Finally, during the French Revolution, people had the truly revolutionary idea of transforming it into a public museum to display the Royal Collection. It opened in 1793.
The Louvre is large. It contains multitudes. Its collection spans from the beginnings of Egypt to the present day. You would need several days of persistent, diligent walking to see everything, and perhaps a lifetime to properly appreciate and understand the many thousands of paintings and artifacts. We didn’t have a lifetime or several days; we had a few hours before the museum closed. Thus I only experienced a taste of the collection, and I can only offer you an echo of a taste.
Of course, there’s the Mona Lisa. The painting hangs in the center of the Louvre’s vast collection of Renaissance art. A museum employee stands on either side; a barrier prevents anyone from getting too close; and a thick plate of glass ensures that the painting would survive even if the museum went up in flames. Probably at any time of the day, there is a big crowd around the painting. When GF and I went, it was around dinner time (the Louvre is open late on Fridays), so the crowd was not terrible.
We slowly elbowed our way through the crowd, as the elusive image came into view. It is a very strange experience, seeing a famous painting with your own eyes. The Mono Lisa is perhaps the most iconic image in the world (maybe second to McDonald’s golden arches) so you’d think seeing the original would be akin to a religious experience. But many have told me that they found the painting disappointing.
The most common complaint I hear is that the painting is small. At first glance, this is an odd thing to complain about; the Mona Lisa is a portrait, and has the usual dimensions of that genre. But upon further reflection, this complaint is revealing of the way we experience art in the modern world.
Unlike people living as recently as the 19th century, you have already seen high quality images of the Mona Lisa a thousand times—on television, in movies, on billboards, advertisements, and commercials. This reproduction of the image has turned it into an icon. What makes something iconic is that it stands for more than itself. Originally, the word icon meant a devotional image, of a saint, Jesus, or the Virgin, used in prayer and religious ritual. In theory, the icon is not meant to be the object of religious worship, but merely an aid; the image allows the worshipper to focus his feelings and thoughts on the next world. Thus an icon is not meant to draw attention to itself, but help you think of something else.
The Mona Lisa performs a similar function in our own world, serving as a visual cue for all sorts of diverse associations—Leonardo, the Renaissance, Italy, the Louvre, culture, sophistication, mystery, even painting itself. This use of the image has gradually ruined our ability to really see it; we stop paying attention to the details, just as we stop paying attention to a font when we begin to read a story. Like a word in a book, we glance at the image instead of carefully scanning it. The Mona Lisa has ceased to be a thing in itself, and has become a symbol for other things. And when this is the case, the only difference between seeing a copy and seeing the original can be superficial things, like size.
It would take much patient work to be able to see the painting as it would appear to you for the first time, as a fresh work of art. And when you are standing in a crowd of people, crushed on all sides, surrounded by cameras and iPhones, separating by at least ten feet from the painting itself, it is all but impossible to give the painting justice. I stood there and did my very best; but it wasn’t long before somebody nearby asked me to take a photo of him standing in front of the painting.
“Alright,” I said, as he handed me his camera.
He smiled and then unfurled a sign that read:
“YOU SHOULD BE HERE!”
It would take a library of books to do justice to the Louvre’s collection, so I will only mention a few more famous works. A floor below the Mona Lisa is a sculpture by Michelangelo, the Dying Slave. Originally sculpted for the uncompleted tomb of Pope Julius II, the work depicts the moment of death of a supine and nearly naked man. This seems potentially spiritual and tragic, but to me the sculpture looks inescapably sexual; the figure’s pose and even his face strike me as strangely feminine. Am I alone in this?
The Louvre boasts two Greek sculptures of high repute, the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus de Milo. Both of these works, made before the common era, were discovered in the 19th century. The first is an image of the goddess of victory, Nike, perhaps built to commemorate a naval victory. She seems to be standing on the brow of a ship, her silky garments flowing in the breeze. Unfortunately, the statue’s head and arms have been lost to time; she is now a winged torso on two strong legs. Despite this, the work manages to be supremely expressive, perhaps the most convincing image of triumph I know. The Venus de Milo is a sculpture of Venus, her arms missing, her chest bare, her legs wrapped in a loose robe, leaning on one leg with an arched torso.
The last work I’ll mention is the Seated Scribe. This is a small sculpture of painted limestone, depicting a man sitting cross legged, writing on a piece of papyrus that rests on his lap. Compared to a Greek sculpture, there is nothing remarkable about this work. But when you consider that it was made around 2,500 BCE in Ancient Egypt, you will be able to appreciate just how special it is. The Seated Scribe is unlike any other piece of Egyptian art I’ve seen. First, the very fact that the work depicts a scribe is significant, for Egyptian art typically portrays gods, pharaohs, or perhaps servants and soldiers. What is more, while most art from this period is highly idealized, this sculpture is quite realistic; the scribe has an individualized face and even a paunch. Instead of seeing an image of power, we are seeing a single man, imperfect, frail, and hard at work.
By the time we left, we were both utterly exhausted. We hadn’t slept more than four hours, we hadn’t eaten in about eight hours, and we had been on our feet for about ten hours. My body was a patchwork of pains: my legs were aching, my feet were blistered, my clothes were soaked with sweat, my stomach was grumbling, my eyes were bloodshot, and my head was pounding. GF wasn’t doing much better. And in that state, we dragged ourselves to eat some cheap Chinese food and go to bed. We had another long day ahead.
We awoke early, threw on our clothes, and skipped breakfast. We wanted to get to Notre-Dame right as it was opening, to avoid the extremely long line we had seen the previous day.
This was only partly successful. A line had already formed, though it was only about half as long as the line from yesterday. We dutifully got on and waited. This at least gave me a chance to observe the cathedral’s wonderful façade.
The demeanor of the great building is immediately recognizable and familiar, even to people who do not consider themselves interested in this sort of thing. To me, the cathedral, although undeniably gothic, has a certain classical elegance not found in, say, Toledo. Everything is perfectly symmetrical and harmonious. There is no jumbling of styles or mixture of motifs you so often find in other cathedrals. Although the building took almost 200 years to build, it seems to bear a unified design. (I suspect, however, that a more knowledgeable eye would detect significant differences in style that escaped me.)
Perhaps because the cathedral was recently given a cleaning, nowadays it looks fresh and even youthful. This freshness was accentuated by the beautiful sunny day, to the extent that the spiritual power I normally feel in the presence of gothic cathedrals was somehow lacking. Notre-Dame looked rather cheerful and even inviting. This might be because the building is not so angular as other cathedrals; instead of spires, such as are found in Burgos and Chartres, the towers of Notre-Dame have flat tops.
The line was moving quickly. As I approached, I was able to better see the friezes that adorned the front portals. These are perhaps the most impressive part of the cathedral; for gothic sculptures, they are remarkably naturalistic, while remaining powerfully religious. My favorite was of a man calmly holding his own decapitated head in his hands. This is St. Denis of Paris. Back in Roman times, in the third century, he was the Bishop Paris, and had the good fortune to be decapitated during a persecution of the Christians. Unperturbed by this, the good bishop calmly picked up his head and walked ten kilometers, preaching all the way. People had more pluck back then.
Finally we got inside; and to our surprise, it was free. The place was absolutely swarming with tourists. This is why I don’t enjoy visiting the cathedrals in Madrid and in Lisbon. I enjoy cathedrals not only for the art, but because they are big, quiet places that put me in a meditative mood. But in a dense crowd, watching out for pickpockets, I didn’t feel that I could properly enjoy the ambience. This is a shame, because it’s really a lovely cathedral; the stained glass is almost as marvelous as that in the Sainte-Chapelle.
We were outside in about half an hour, both of us starving by now. We sat down to an overpriced, but quite good, breakfast in a café nearby and then began walking towards our next destination: the Musée d’Orsay.
The Musée d’Orsay is one of the world’s finest art museums. Opened as recently as 1986, the museum is housed in an erstwhile railroad station, Gare d’Orsay, completed right in time for the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris. The place still looks like a train station, with a cavernous, rounded glass ceiling. Wisely, the architects of the museum decided to leave much of the upper space open; and this, combined with the plentiful natural light, makes you feel almost as if you are outside. The layout of the museum is equally tasteful. The galleries for paintings are situated symmetrically on each side, along a central corridor; and this corridor, as well as two walkways up above, has been filled with sculptures, big and tiny.
Unlike the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay concentrates on a very specific place and time—namely, art produced in France (Paris, mostly) in the mid 19th and early 20th centuries. This may sound a bit narrow, but this was actually one of the most fertile periods in the history of art; and if you want to properly know this epoch, you’ve got to come here. The museum has paintings by Delecroix, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, van Gogh, Signac, Seurat, as well as sculptures by Gaugin and Rodin, among innumerable others. The collection has been chosen with exquisite taste. Every other painting is a masterpiece. Nothing is disappointing or out of place. And best of all, unlike the Louvre, you can see everything in three to four hours.
Walking through the Musée d’Orsay was nearly overwhelming. I have never been more entranced by a museum, nor more affected by visual art. In fact, the experience made such a deep impression on me that I will have to devote an entire post to it. Here I offer only a brief sketch.
I saw everything, drinking up each painting with desperate relish. I watched as the styles changed and evolved. First I admired the academic style of William Bourguereau, who painted mythological subjects—Greek Gods, ancient heroes, scenes from Dante—with technical mastery: carefully arranged compositions, scientific anatomy, photographic shadowing; every shape is molded, every line is deliberate, every brushstroke is concealed. The paintings are masterpieces of technique, and yet stale, because they seem to bear no relationship between the artist and the world; rather, they are monuments to a dying tradition.
In reaction to this academic style, which held sway for so long, came the impressionists. Instead of mythological scenes, the impressionists turned their eye to everyday subjects—picnics, soirées, views of the street from apartment windows. Their compositions are typically off-center and messy. Their brushstrokes are not concealed; colors and lines blur into one another. In terms of technique, it seems a step backwards from Bourguereau, but in reality the achievement is more stunning, for they had to develop their technique from scratch. The final effect is a perfect representation of that moment when, after turning your head, a new scene comes into view, all the colors still buzzing, the light playing tricks with your eyes, the forms indistinct as you try to focus. The rise of the impressionists represents a step away from the Platonic conception of knowledge—namely, a View from Nowhere, a perfect perspective that can grasp the world in its entirety—to the our more Nietzschean view of knowledge—namely, inherently subjective, bound up within a specific point of view.
But the impressionists were only the first step. After investigating the way our eyes detect light, later artists started to probe into the ways that our brains put together the data from our eyes into the world as we know it. With this came the following question: What if the way we tend reconstructed the world is completely arbitrary? Could we make sense of our sense data using a different principle, with equal legitimacy? Thus artists began tearing the world apart, sewing it back together in new or interesting ways. Some artists, like Cezánne, tried to simplify the world into more elemental shapes and colors; others, like Signac, tried using atoms of pure color; and van Gogh used curling waves, as if the world we see were only reflection in an swirling ocean of paint.
By the time I walked through the museum, I was absolutely exhausted. But we still had one more museum to see: the Musée de Rodin. This museum, opened in 1919, devoted almost solely to the French sculptor, Auguste Rodin, who was considered by none other than Kenneth Clark as the greatest sculptor since Michelangelo. The museum is situated in the former Hôtel Biron, where Rodin liked to work. When he died, he donated his sculptures and his collection of art to the French government, on the condition that they make the hotel into a museum. It was done, and is now one of the many charming places to visit in Paris.
The museum consists of an extensive garden and the old building, with Rodin’s sculptures scattered generously throughout. The garden might be the nicest part. There, you can find The Thinker thinking away, surrounded by hedges, as well as copies of almost every one of his major works.
Now, I must admit that my ability to appreciate sculpture lags far behind my ability to appreciate paintings. Even so, it is clear that Rodin was a brilliant artist. While still depicting human figures, largely with realistic anatomy, he manages to break completely from the Greco-Roman tradition. Far from representing idealized forms, Rodin’s figures are human, imperfect, and often ugly. Far from achieving a classical, timeless grace, Rodin’s figures are twisted, contorted, tortured. The Thinker is a case in point: far from a wise philosopher, calm and contemplative, the man is troubled, anguished, and brooding.
One of my favorite works was Rodin’s Gates of Hell. Originally intended to be the doorway for a Museum of Decorative Arts, until the museum was abandoned, the sculpture is now considered one of Rodin’s masterworks, perhaps his magnus opus. It is meant to be an elaborate representation of Dante’s Inferno. Many of his most famous sculptures originated as pieces of this composition, with The Thinker presiding over the entrance. Everything around the pensive man is a stew of sin and suffering, with figures emerging, half-formed, from the background, tortured, broken, their faces wracked with pain. It is a powerful and terrifying work.
But the sculpture I like best is Rodin’s Monument to Balzac. It is really an absurd statue. The writer stands, his body entirely enveloped in a robe, with his mustachioed face held high, as if snubbing the viewer. At first glance, the figure’s pose might seem totally unnatural; but the longer you look, the more you can see how the body of a paunchy man might easily look like this under a thick robe. I love the sculpture because it manages to make something so apparently unheroic into the symbol of human genius. Balzac is totally uncouth. He is ugly, fat, unshaven; his hair is messy, his robe is shabby. And yet, his inner brilliance allows him to stand completely above the world, unconcerned with conventional success, totally devoted to his personal vision. The sculpture is a monument to the outcast, eccentric, and ultimately triumphant artist.
After walking through the garden and the old hotel, enjoying not only samples of Rodin’s finished work but preparatory studies he left behind, I was done with museums. I couldn’t possibly absorb any more art. By now the day was waning; in a couple hours, the sun would set. Luckily, there was only one more thing I absolutely needed to see: the Eiffel Tower.
Luckily, it wasn’t hard to find. Standing at 1,063 ft (324 m) tall, the Eiffel Tower remains the tallest structure in Paris. Built for the World’s Fair 1889, it was criticized quite severely in its time, especially by the intelligentsia. This is amazing to me, for it is difficult to imagine how the tower could be more perfect.
For me, and perhaps many others, the Eiffel Tower represents Paris’s Golden Age. It was a time when the future could be embraced without scorning the past, when aesthetic values could be questioned without beauty being abandoned. Made of wrought iron, the structure was so daring that people thought it would be blown over by the wind. I can understand why. Even now, there seems to be so little metal per square inch that it looks like it’s made of matchsticks glued together, ready to come apart at the merest breeze.
There is something human about its shape. Looking at the tower dead on, with only two of its legs visible, the tower seems like a Colossus standing over the world. The tower is also, like Paris, elegance itself. The way that the legs gently curve together until they meet at the top has all the classic grace of the Parthenon. Or perhaps the Eiffel Tower can be better compared with the pyramids, as its creator did. This is the modern pyramid, equally useless, equally monolithic, equally iconic. For whatever reason, I find it tremendously inspiring that people built something so big and so ambitious for no practical benefit whatsoever. To me, this is the essence of being human.
We sat in the grass nearby for a few minutes, just taking in the sight. Men were walking around, trying to sell bottles of wine. I was really in the mood for some wine, but I didn’t feel confident about buying wine from these guys and drinking it in the park. Isn’t it illegal? After shooing away five of them, I decided to go. You can’t really enjoy a view when you’re constantly refusing a drink.
We had only one final stop, and not much time to see it: Montmartre. Montmartre is a famous neighborhood in Paris, with a similar reputation to the West Village in New York. Situated on a hill, in the past Montmartre was a haven for artists, where eccentric bohemians could live with cheap rents. Nowadays, it is mainly a tourist attraction, most notable for the gigantic Sacré-Cœur Basilica. Near Montmartre is the famous Moulin-Rouge, nestled amid countless sex shops. By the way, I wonder how so many sex shops manage to stay in business; you’d think they would all sell basically similar products, and so having so many would be unsustainable. But they manage to stay in business, apparently. I suppose enough horny tourists come to Paris to keep an entire town of sex shops above water.
We took our obligatory photo of the Moulin-Rouge, and then began to walk up the hill. On the way, we passed Les Deux Moulins, the café where the film Amélie was shot. (Great movie, by the way.) Soon we arrived at the top. The white cupola of Sacré-Cœur, lit up by spotlights, shone like a beacon amid the darkness. Gathered round where hundreds of people, tourists speaking dozens of languages, and immigrants speaking dozens more trying to sell stuff to the tourists. Inside the basilica, a mass was being held. Outside, people smoke and drank and laughed with one another. It was a wonderful night.
We walked down the stairs in front to the street below. Then suddenly I saw a flash of light.
“What was that?” I asked GF.
“Dunno,” she said. “Go look.”
I walked over to where some other people where standing.
In the distance, I could see the Eiffel Tower, its form lit up with yellow lights. On the top, a searchlight was slowly spinning, sending a powerful beam in all directions. Seconds later, the light turned towards us again, flashing like the sun itself as it passed. I looked on in wonder. And as I looked, I couldn’t help thinking that this image could represent all of Paris: elegant, mysterious, brilliant, illuminating all the world around.