Sunday, 27 February 2011

Palace of Versailles, Part 1

I'm sure you've been all desperately wondering what I've been up to since I last posted about my weekend in Reims two weekends ago, so apologies for not filling you all in sooner.  I've actually been back to England for a while.  I stayed with my girlfriend, spent some time at home and visited my university town of Bristol for the first time since last June. 

I'm now back in France and this post continues the theme of visits to fine French historical buildings with a trip to the Palace of Versailles.

I don't suppose the palace needs a whole lot of introduction, but just in case it became the main residence of the French monarchy during the reign of Louis XIV.  Louis decided to build himself a magnificent palace on the site of an old hunting lodge at Versailles, conveniently close to Paris but distant enough for Louis to stamp his own mark on the royal court. 

The palace reached its peak of grandeur and importance during Louis XIV's reign, and was the home of the French royal family until 1789, when the events of the Revolution forced Louis and his family to relocate to the Tuileries Palace. 

Since then, it has changed hands several times during France's immensely confusing post-Revolution history, in which France has been a republic (several times), an empire, a partly-occupied territory and a monarchy.  Now that France is a settled republic, the chateau and its grounds are now a gigantic museum.  

The Hall of Mirrors
You can only look around a small part of the palace following a set route.  I guess this is because the palace is so huge that visitors would get lost if they were allowed to wander through the seven hundred rooms as they wished.  The route you take gives you its first "wow" moment with the palace's most famous room: the Hall of Mirrors.  Louis XIV used this room to entertain courtiers and guests, and it's easy to see why.  The entire room is a monument to Louis's power and wealth - the central painting on the ceiling is entitled le roi gouverne par lui-même (the king governs by himself). 

Peeking behind the royal covers
This next picture is of Louis's XIV royal bed.  The king was woken up by an attendant at around 7:30 a.m. and was washed and dressed.  Incredibly, he was watched through all this by a few close friends and courtiers.  No lie-ins for His Majesty.  The rest of the royal day was planned with equal care.  Louis XV and Louis XVI unsurprisingly hated the suffocating precision of the royal day, and the Levee became less frequent.

This is the Queen's bedroom.  Note the little door to the left of the bed: Marie Antoinette escaped through this door during the Revolution, when a mob of Versailles women stormed the palace demanding bread to eat.

The rear facade of the palace
I could go on with more pictures, but I think that's about enough on the palace.  Next up is the Grand Trianon, the Petit Trianon, the gardens and Marie Antoinette's model village, which will come soon.  Bye for now.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Weekend in Reims

Notre-Dame de Reims
Last weekend I went to visit my friend Samir.  He's an assistant who lives in Reims in the Champagne-Ardennes region of France.  He has a blog which you can read here

Reims is the largest town in the Champagne-Ardennes region in eastern France.  Many champagne houses have their headquarters in and around the city.  It's famous for its magnificent cathedral which was where many French kings were crowned from the Middle Ages onwards.  It also has a long history of confusing English speakers with the peculiar pronounciation of its name: in English it's pronounced "Reems" but in French it's something like "Rinz".

I got up far too early to catch the train from Gare de l'Est.  Bizarrely the cheapest fare for that train when I booked it was in first class, so I enjoyed the comfier chair and extra leg-room that brought as the TGV made its way through the countryside. 

After meeting Samir and two other friends we went to look around the cathedral.  It was almost deserted as it was early last Saturday.  A few dozen people were wandering around while recorded organ music played gently.  It was all very peaceful.
Looking towards the altar
After that, we made our way to the Pommery champagne house for a tour.  We went down into the cellars where there are thousands of dusty bottles being left to age.  The guide explained to us the painstaking process of making the wine while we walked through various cellars marked "Manchester", "Hanover" and even "Bristol" - a "hangover" from the days when they tailor-made their blends to suit the customers in a particular city. 

I wonder how much all that's worth?
I asked the tour guide what he thought of Formula One drivers and FA Cup winners spraying champagne around.  He told me that often they cheat and use bottles that haven't matured properly so they can't actually be drunk. 

"They can waste their champagne, we drink ours," he said, cheerfully pouring a glass for the taster session at the end.

After that we went to a party, jointly hosted by Samir and a friend of his, which was a lot of fun.

Finally, another early start to catch a slower train back to Paris. 

Well done if you're still reading by this point, as this is probably the longest blog post I've ever done and it's completely off-topic.  That's all though, until next time.  Ciao.

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Nouvel an chinois

The main parade on Avenue de Choisy

Last Sunday two friends and I went along to the Chinese New Year celebrations in the 13th arrondissement as it becomes the Year of the Rabbit.  Starting in the afternoon, there were parades, dances and general noise-making around Place d'Italie, Avenue de Choisy and the other streets that make up one of Paris's Asian districts.

At Place d'Italie you knew straight away that you were in the right place: there were decorations hanging from the streetlights and the appetising smell of Chinese food was in the air.  There were so many people lining the streets that it took a while to meet up with my friends.

By the time we had met it had become pleasantly noisy.  There were lots of people chattering, vendors selling things, drums and the periodic boom of a loud firecracker.  As well as the main parade there were smaller groups doing their own thing, such as these guys: 

After wandering around for a bit we decided to go to Tang Frères, the biggest Chinese supermarket in town to have a look at what was on offer, which was predictably rammed with people.  We ate and by that time the parade had begun to wind down.

I took home some food from a Chinese café including a chocolate roll (which has since been devoured) and Lychee, a tasty grape-like fruit.  A plus.

Monday, 7 February 2011

A Gargoyle's Perspective

There are several places you can go to get a great view of Paris. 

The Eiffel Tower is the obvious one as the tallest and most iconic building in Paris, if you don't mind waiting patiently in a long queue for the lifts to the top, or braving the stairs.

Another popular choice is the monolithic Tour Montparnasse.  The featureless tower sticks out like a sore thumb in the skyline so it's popular partly because, to paraphrase Maupassant, it's the only place in Paris where you can't see the damn thing from.

For location though it's hard to beat Notre Dame.  Slap bang in the middle of the city on the Ile de la Cité, it offers a spectacular panorama of the entire city. 

I climbed up its 387 steps with two friends the other day, and this photo is from a gargoyle's perspective at the top balcony connecting the two bell towers, looking north towards the Sacré-Coeur.

Friday, 4 February 2011

More strikes in the education system

The magnificent facade of the administration building

French teachers are planning a strike on Thursday 10th February in protest at the planned reduction in teacher numbers as of the next school year.

The strike is planned to begin in Bobigny.  Next week, students at my school will be taking their mock exams for the baccalauréat.  

16000 posts nationwide are to go nationwide next September.  According to Le Parisien 571 of those will be in the Créteil academy.  That's despite an apparent rise in the number of pupils in the academy.  The Education minister said that "quantity is not the right response to the problems in the education system".  

Around twenty of my colleagues went on strike yesterday, protesting in front of the administration building in Créteil.  Apparently the tightening will mean classes have to merge in my school.  Considering that some of the classes already have thirty of more pupils, it's not surprising that many of my colleagues are unhappy.

It's a familiar story of having to do "more with less" as cuts bite.  They don't seem anywhere near as bad as those in England where 19% is being axed on average per department.  Still, there's not much point in telling the French that things are worse elsewhere, as any cuts that are planned with always be met with fierce hostility from the CGT.

The strike was voted by those who were in the staff room earlier in the week by a show of hands.  This appeared to me rather unfair on those who weren't there.  I spoke to one teacher on Thursday who told me he wasn't fully aware that there was a strike on.  In Britain Thatcher made pre-strike ballots part of the law.  Now you won't find too much praise for Maggie on this blog (we teachers and assistants are Left wing ideologues) but it doesn't seem fair that if you didn't happen to be in the staff room at the right time, you missed the chance to have your say (although you have a right not to strike if you don't want to).  Nor did it seem right to have a public vote - if you are in a minority of one it takes courage to contradict your colleagues.   

For me though, I'm now on holiday as I'm not needed for the mock exams and then it's half term.  I'm planning to explore France a bit more, and if I do I'll post reports, photos and what not. Ciao.

Wednesday, 2 February 2011


Sometimes I get stuck for things to write about for this blog.  I'll be sitting at my computer on Twitter or the BBC pondering what could be the subject of my musings, and nothing will jump out at me.

The solution to these writer's blocks is normally to take a walk.  I might subconciously have been following this advice from Wannabe Hacks about looking carefully in the streets for news.

At any rate, I was taking a stroll and noticed this enormous piece of graffiti (street art?) in the 11th arrondissment behind a cafe. 

This piece was truly massive, at a guess I'd say about 50 feet high on the Rue de Charonne. It refers to Cubism, a form of art that Picasso amongst others practised.

If you want more examples of street art in Paris, check out this post by Anne or UrbanmediaA plus.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

New exhibition at La Monnaie

I was browsing the Paris website at the weekend for things to do and a new exhibition caught my eyePeurs de la ville is about Paris (bien sûr) in some of its most troubled and turbulent moments.  It captures the fighting that raged during the Liberation of Paris in 1944, May 1968 and more recently the unrest in the banlieues in 2005 and 2007.  Many of the photographs are provided by Paris Match. 

That alone would make it worth a visit, but what makes this exhibition a bit different is the section, which elsewhere has been called Guerre ici by veteran war photographer Patrick Chauvel.  This photojournalist has taken images of conflict and war from war-torn places such as Afghanistan and superimposed them onto photographs of famous Parisian landmarks.

The results are highly realistic images of street battles by the Sacré-Coeur, a solitary tank in front of the Arc de Triomphe and a stricken Tour de Montparnasse.  As a fan of dystopian fiction, I found the images extremely interesting.  They are also designed to make us appreciate the peace we enjoy in the West by bringing war closer to home.  The original conflict photographs are displayed as well, allowing the viewer to compare and contrast.

There is another small section about Google Street View and its controversial attempt to photograph the world's streets, but compared with the Guerre ici section it is rather uninspiring. 
If anything, the exhibition is slightly too short; but at 6 Euros for a plein tarif, I would definitely recommend it for a thought-provoking visit.  It's on until mid-April.  A plus.