Day 57-58 - fancy ladies and their bedrooms in Versailles, the Grand Magasins, and Fauchon
Place de la Concorde always stops me in my tracks. Perhaps it's the sudden buzz of cars after walking through the genteel Tuileries. Or maybe it's the mash of the Eiffel Tower on your left, the barrel of the Champs Elysees culminating in the Arc de Triomphe, those grand fountains, and that strange Egyptian obelisk like a giant exclamation mark. Your eye skips through all of them, trying to make sense of this schizophrenic jostling of styles and eras. Maybe, it's also because I never get past the waffle and crepe stand just outside the Tuileries gates so I'm always on the corner, chewing through my crepe with creme de marron. Hundreds of years ago, the Revolutionaries erected their guillotine and beheaded their former King and Queen at Place de la Concorde.
We press rewind and double back on the RER C to Versailles, to get a glimpse of the luxury they were surrounded with and the isolation their hectares of land afforded them. There's a procession of tourists from the Versailles Rive Gauche station. It's like a secular site of pilgrimage. There's even golden gates that you have to be admitted through; the only test being whether you have the money to buy a ticket.
Rob hurries off to rent an audio guide. I mooch around the courtyard. My first time in Versailles was a blur of brocade, clashing patterns, and the Hall of Mirrors; all seen through the prism of bobbing tourists' heads. Today, the entire population of pupils from a French school are on a field trip. If you ever want to be put off having children for life, visit Versailles when the entire school from young to teen are shrieking around the gardens like prisoners let loose, overseen by their half-hearted but well-meaning guards.
My favourite room by far is, predictably, Marie Antoinette's. I don't even mind that they've wrapped up some of the furniture in crinkly plastic, like we're in the living room of some super cheap family. I wriggle my way front and centre and stand rooted, refusing to give up my spot for anyone. Rob and I take our photos. It's easy. You basically throw the camera up in the air, click the shutter, and the photo's gorgeous.
We spend a long time contemplating David's enormous paintings, dedicated solely to the glorification of Napoleon. By contemplating, we mean people watching and taking creep shots of tourists.
After lunch inside the palace, we wander out to the gardens. None of the fountains are on; one of them is undergoing serious renovation. There's bits of priceless fountain parts strewn everywhere, like a giant 3D puzzle. It's not Versailles at its best but it's a good taster. The most impressive aspect is the breadth of landscape. Your eye is led towards the horizon in a kind of awed meditation. My first time here, I was so caught up in it that I couldn't even leave the main fountain area to explore the Trianons. The fact that the fountains aren't on and the statues that ring the gardens are literally in body bags, help to tear me away.
There's a range of ways to get around the vast complex. There's the train which is a ridiculous way for grown adults to get around. You can hire a golf cart which is all kinds of awesome until you realise they're going to charge you 32 euros for one hour. And finally, there's the bikes. For around 2 hours, renting 2 bikes cost about 30 euro. Wheeling around the fountains, through the avenues of trees with falling autumn leaves is the best. It gives us a sense of movement and liberation and freedom that we haven't necessarily had in a city since our scooters in Rome.
I go up a very slight incline on cobbles in 7th gear. Which is a stupid thing to do. Rob says, "I can see your cheeks moving from here!" He meant the ones on my face but my other cheeks suffered badly too. By the time I've worked out how to switch to the lowest gear possible, we're already at the Grand Trianon and I'm sweating and puffing. How graceful.
Once inside the Grand Trianon with its pink marbles, pretty parquet, and delicate rooms, I reference Grace Coddington in the September Issue styling a Vogue spread. Rob searches for the exact spot in the peristyle where Annie Leibovitz shot Kirsten Dunst during her turn as Marie Antoinette for Vogue. Fashion is our touchstone for this place, not its political history. The souvenir stores in Versailles know it too. Next to the dry documentaries of the revolution, there are multiple copies of Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette. There's also a mini Laduree outpust with their signature macaroons but also their stupidly cute pastel stationery and recipe books.
The next day, the camera is left in Rob's backpack until our last stop, Fauchon. I'm shooting with my camera. There's something intimidating about Paris that prevents us from pulling out our camera too much. We want to blend in and digging out our Canon marks us instantly as pesky tourists. We've spent the day around Boulevard Haussman, milling around the grand magasins, Galeries Lafayette and all its satellite stores and Printemps. During the January sales in Galeries Lafayette, I stood in line to buy me and my mother a Longchamp Le Pliage on sale. The queues are still there. Back then, the hippest tote to buy was Vanessa Bruno's sequinned linen number.
Galeries Lafayette's Christmas theme is Monster Christmas. There's an upside down Christmas tree suspended from the dome and in the windows, there's furry pink monsters spin and dance and flail. I jostle with the kids for my pictures. Printemps has a light display sponsored by Burberry. A man wearing a Burberry scarf gets hoisted into the air by a hot air balloon. You can buy a Burberry teddy bear that's all sorts of promoted cuteness.
We try to find a place to eat inside Lafayette Gourmet. So does half of Paris. We do several rounds trying to wait people out but either they're staying put for a long lunch or we're just not that lucky. I gawk for a long time at the gourmet eclair bar, L'eclair de Genie. We plunge instead into side streets behind Printemps and eat at Brulerie Caumartin. The waiter's name is Jean-Pierre and he's a jovial middle-aged guy who is very, very patient with my very, very slow French. It's probably like talking to a very stupid French child. I hoof down my pile of Nicoise salad and Rob eats a cheeseburger and a native French side dish, French fries. He orders well-done and the patty is still a weensy bit pink. These guys and their beef. Seriously.
We take a special metro trip to locate Fauchon and load up on terrines and fancy tea. Hipsters in Paris is very much against Fauchon and "anything that has been franchised overseas." I've ignored this platitude. My love for Fauchon tea is a pure, unspoilt thing. My mother meanwhile is a terrine monster. I've travelled to many countries with her where she's located a can of terrine and proceeded to buy up half the stock. She bought a whole load of them on our first trip to Paris at a Monoprix across the road from our hotel. Then, had the devastating luck of getting them confiscated by New Zealand Customs. She talks about those terrines like the soldiers she's lost in a battle of which she was a captain.
Fauchon is a soulless but delicious beast; half classic Parisian patisserie and half fancy cafeteria. All the pastries are perched on easily disposable bits of cardboard and you get a plastic tray to cart your goodies around in. Rob eats a mille feuille and declares loftily that if he lived in Paris, he would take people here "for their birthday"; a birthday being a necessary prerequisite. There are eclairs with painted, edible versions of Hokusai's the Wave on it, in honour of the Hokusai exhibition at the Grand Palais. I want one but not as much as a religieuse because I'm twee as all out and love Wes Anderson movies. We sit along a bench, staring into a picture of caviar.
The thick hot chocolate hits us hard. And by that, I mean near our pancreas. I have a friend who swears that if you've eaten a few too many baked goods and can feel the sugar rush coming to smack you in the face, all you have to do is drink a litre of water to get your pancreas attacking. Unfortunately, a bucket of water isn't nearby because no one in the European countries we've been in so far appear to understand the phrase "tap water" or the concept of giving you a glass of water as soon as you sit down. After a huge day stomping around a very busy shopping district and getting slowly demoralised by all the stuff in the grand magasins that we cannot afford, we drag ourselves back home.