Sainte Chapelle: The Parisian Jewel in the Crown

Sainte Chapelle: The Parisian Jewel in the Crown

In a beautiful city such as Paris, you know that something has to be really special to be listed among its most beautiful buildings.

My favourite church in Paris, Saint Chapelle, is tiny in comparison to other Parisian monuments but it is like stepping into a jewel box.  This church has the largest collection of 13th century stained glass in the world that is still located on-site.

The History of Ste Chapelle

Saint Chapelle is a 13th century Gothic chapel created for King Louis IX of France for his collection of royal relics.  Louis IX took his Catholicism seriously, went on a couple of Crusades, and eventually was sainted for his efforts.  Louis IX also wanted a chapel where he could worship without leaving his palace. Besides, the chapel would also solidify his position in the Christian world as its pre-eminent king.

Icon on the wall of lower level of royal palatine chapel, Sainte

Louis’ collection of impressive relics, purchased from the Emperor of Constantinople,  was very important to medieval Christians.  The collection included the Crown of Thorns and parts of the True Cross.  In fact, these relics and the cases built to house them cost a lot more than the building of Saint Chappelle itself!

The Paris 3D website has a very cool 3D artist’s digital reconstruction video of how Saint Chapelle would have looked in the 14th Century.

The Inside of Ste Chapelle

From the outside Saint Chapelle looks fairly ordinary. It’s a completely different matter though when you go inside.  Louis IX wanted bling and he got it! The inside is covered in stained glass, paint and gilt.  Built to house the relics, the inside was grandly decorated to resemble the inside of a reliquary itself.

Interior view of the Sainte Chapelle, Paris, France.

There are 15 huge stained glass windows that are 50 feet high and show scenes from the bible.  At one end of the chapel there is a giant rose window.  The chapel contains almost 8000 square feet of stained glass!

sainte chapelle rose window

It’s very clear that the stonework is there simply to show off the stained glass windows.  The stone columns appear very minimal and fade into the background.

stained glass window saint chapelle

Saint Chapelle is located on the Isle de la Cite in Paris next to the Conciergerie.  The chapel just about survived the French Revolution but had to be reconstructed.  Many of the relics and reliquaries got dispersed or melted for their gold.  Some of the relics got sent over to the Notre Dame Cathedral, including the crown of thorns and true cross.  During World War II, Hitler visited Saint Chapelle during his one and only visit to Paris.

The Restoration of Ste Chapelle

The restoration of Sainte Chapelle has taken 40 years. Restorers wanted the chapel finished in time for the 800th anniversary of the birth of Louis IX in 2014.  Each of the stained glass windows was carefully dismantled and laser cleaned.  Although most of the chapel has been restored, much of what you see is still the original chapel.

Sainte Chapelle interior

Here’s a clip of the statue of the Archangel Michael being replaced on top of the chapel in 2013 as part of the ongoing restoration.

Visiting Ste Chapelle:

Sainte Chapelle is located close to the metro stop, Cite.  It is open every day from either 9-5 (winter) or 9-6 (summer).  Adults pay €8.50 a ticket and children under 18 enter for free.  It is included in the Paris Museum Pass if you have one (children under 18 and EU residents under 26 qualify for a free Paris Museum Pass).

A visit to Sainte Chapelle won’t take very long but it shows that great things come in little packages.  If you can only take your children to one Parisian church before they start a mutiny, I think Saint Chapelle is your best bet.

You can also visit the Concergerie next door which has some parts of the old medieval palace remaining.  Older children may be interested in seeing the cells where prisoners from the Terror, including Marie Antoinette, were kept prior to their date with the guillotine.   If your children are anything like mine, they are fascinated with ghoulish things.

Born Wild on the French Ski Slopes

Born Wild on the French Ski Slopes

Richard Orlinski is one of France’s most famous contemporary artists.  I had not heard of him before I saw his works at the Val d’Isere ski resort in the French Alps.

Orlinski mostly works with contemporary materials like resin and aluminium.  He is known for creating works that are Pop Art influenced in industrial materials.  His works reflect the theme of “Born Wild” – looking at concepts of savagery and civilisation.  Born in 1966, he has been a sculptor since 2004.  His pieces are very much marked as “price on application” – if you have to ask, you can’t afford it.  We were told the Val d’Isere pieces run about €150,000.

He has a sculpture reflecting his theme of Born Wild.  This piece shows clearly his love of Pop Art and is an homage to American artist, Robert Indiana, famous for his sculptures of the world “love”.  Indiana had the letter “O” in his love statues tilted to show that love could never be perfect.  I wonder what the tilted O and backward N and D in this piece means.

Born wild

image: Richard Orlinski

There are several works of Orlinski at Val d’Isere that we saw – Wild Kong, Panther and Superman.  Two works, Wild Kong and Panther, are in the mountains.

Our ski instructor told us that he’d seen Panther go up in a ski lift to where it would eventually be placed.  The Panther is sculpted similar to a diamond and the light bounces off the different facets of the carving.  I think the faceting highlights the sleek power of the panther’s muscles really effectively.

Richard Orlinski panther

Wild Kong is, of course, based on the iconic character of King Kong. It’s pretty effective in conveying the born wild concept of the Orlinski – the beast that is capable of love and destruction. My son couldn’t resist mugging with Wild Kong.

Richard Orlinski Wild Kong

I didn’t actually get a photograph of Superman even though I passed it every day.  The sculpture is right at the bottom of the slopes where the ski school classes meet.  Every day I thought I must get a photo and, of course, never got around to it.  Superman was set pointing to the apres ski crowd in the village.  I think he would have been more effective in the mountains like the others.

superman statue

image: Le Dauhine

Orlinski modelled the Superman on Bolshevik art and asks the question what if Superman had landed in the USSR instead of the USA?  The “S” symbol on Superman’s chest is replaced by the Communist symbols of a hammer and sickle.

Say what??!  It might all be a little high-brow for me because frankly Superman is a fictional character.  Superman is also a very American character – friendly, farm boy who goes to the big city and fights for good causes.  There’s not nearly enough angst, family dysfunction, repressed sexuality, hopeless causes and death for it to be Russian.  My husband says this attitude is the American in me speaking.

Orlinski’s works are also on exhibit also at the nearby ski resort of Courcheval, such as this bear.

Orlinski bear

Image from Instagram @RichardOrlinski

Cool isn’t it?

I think it is a fabulous idea bringing art to the French Alps.  I find it amusing thought that both French resorts chosen (Val d’Isere and Courcheval) are known to have well-heeled clients. Art for the masses is good, but art that brings in wealthy clients for the artist is even better.

Les Bon Bons To Keep The Kids Sweet

Les Bon Bons To Keep The Kids Sweet

After a hard day’s skiing, I felt my kids and their friends deserved to sample some French candy.  It also gave me an excuse to go to the Monday market at the French Alpine resort of Val d’Isere to check out the stands.  There were a handful of stands doing French candies, nougats, chocolate and assorted other bon bons. When you are at a small town ski resort, a local market would have to pass for cultural exploration.

I thought these strawberry shaped marshmallows covered in red sugar were really pretty but they were huge!  We could easily split one strawberry between 3 kids.  In fact, we found them a little too big to eat.  After all, you really want sweets that are small enough to pop in your mouth when no one is looking.

strawberry marshmallows

These ever-popular little bears called petit oursons are a French childhood tradition.  They are chocolate-covered marshmallows and completely yummy. I am definitely a fan.

petit oursons

I found these hard French candies which the vendor told me was a Savoy specialty.  They are hard candies infused with a variety of random flavours – genepy (a liquor made from wormwood), pine sap, aniseed, eucalyptus etc.  I bought some for the adults in our group but everyone preferred the kiddy candy instead.

hard French candy

There was also the usual gummy snacks and caramels.  We bypassed those types of French candy because they didn’t look that new or different.

french market with bonbons

The French really like their nougat. In fact, the word nougat comes from French.   I didn’t know there were so many different types of nougat which vary in composition and chewiness.  Real nougat is supposed to be made from sugar but the nougat we Americans know from our candy bars (e.g., Snickers) is made from fructose and corn syrup.

French nougat

After the market,  we also had time to check out the local supermarket.  How pretty are these flower-shaped hard candies?

flower candy

The orange flavoured version of the candies are shaped like little slices of fruit.

orange candy

I had to get these chocolate covered biscuit ball-shaped candy called Crottes de Marmotte because they would really amuse the children.  Marmots are large squirrels that live in the mountains and Crottes de Marmotte translates into Marmot droppings. They taste a bit like Maltesers but the biscuit bit inside is crunchier.

marmot droppings

Carambars are another favourite of French children.  Our children didn’t like them as much as the marshmallow bears.  They are the hard, chewy, sticky-teeth type of caramel candy that dentists abhor.

french candy carambars

I also discovered chocolate-covered blueberries which were more popular with the adults than the random Savoy hard candy I had bought earlier.

chocolate covered blueberries

Our venture into exploring French culture through sampling French candy was on the whole successful.  As the kids would say in their fairly limited French, Les bon bons were tres bons.

Christmas Serenity in Notre Dame in Paris

Christmas Serenity in Notre Dame in Paris

For the past few years we have gone to Paris in December because the Eurostar makes it so easy to get there from London.  As Audrey Hepburn is reputed to have said, Paris is always a good idea.  One of my favourite things to do in Paris at Christmas is visit the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

notre dame gate

You wouldn’t think Notre Dame is a particularly tranquil at Christmas would you?  It’s a busy working church, the cathedral for the Archdiocese of Paris and a major spot on the tourist trail of Paris.  Every year 2 million visitors are expected to visit its Nativity which changes every year.  The nativity below is from our Christmas visit to Paris in 2014.

notre dame nativity

Yet, I find it oddly tranquil (once you get past the lines getting into the Church).  The subdued lighting and the vaulted ceilings contribute to a feeling of serenity. There’s only so much lights, baubles and consumerism I can take before I need a breather.

notre dame paris candle

Most of the gaggle of visitors hang out in the same spots.  If you head towards the back of the Church or the side chapels, you will find yourself generally alone.  I’m not sure why tourists insist on hanging out by the front entrance to the church.  There really isn’t anything creepy in the back and you will not run into Quasimodo come down from the tower to stretch his legs.

notre dame carving

The children and I always light candles in whichever church we find ourselves to remember our loved ones.  One of the downsides of being an expat family is that we have friends and family scattered around the world.  We don’t see any of our friends or family for a particularly lengthy time.  On the plus side, we don’t have the time to get sick of them either.

notre dame paris candles

Have you ever been to Paris at Christmas?  Paris is the perfect destination from London to go just for a day trip and to see the Parisian Christmas decor.

Stepping Back In Time In Bayeux

Stepping Back In Time In Bayeux

Bayeux is a beautiful town in Normandy which we visited during our recent road trip around the Battle of Normandy sites.  It is famous for the Bayeux Tapestry which depicts the Norman conquest of England.  Having escaped relatively unscathed from World War II, the town is full of medieval buildings.  The River Aure flows through the centre of Bayeux and adds to its charm.

River Aure

Although the Bayeux Tapestry was supposedly woven by William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda and her ladies-in-waiting at the end of 11th century, in all likelihood the needlework was done by monks in England.  William the Conqueror’s half-brother, Bishop Odo, commissioned it for the Gothic cathedral of Notre-Dame de Bayeux which dominates the centre of town.

The Bayeux Tapestry would originally have been displayed in the town’s cathedral but now is in a museum in the centre of town.  Listed as a UNESCO world heritage item, the Bayeux tapestry is 70 meters long and 50 centimetres high with 58 separate scenes.  Its depictions of the battle scenes are understandably favourable towards the Normans.  It was almost destroyed during the French Revolution when it was used as a wagon cover!

I thought the tapestry was amazing.  The amount of detail is astounding.  It’s easy to tell that war in any century was a gruesome event.  The colours, moreover, are still vibrant, especially for embroidery that is over 900 years old.  You are given an audio guide which explains the scenes of the tapestry very well.  You are rushed through the visit, however, because the commentary is fairly speedy and there is no pause button on the audio guide.  Presumably, they need to keep people moving in periods of heavy visitor numbers.

bayeux tapestry copy

Consecrated in 1077, the Bayeux cathedral was meant as a place of worship for religious people, such as the priests and monks.  As such, the cathedral has very few stained glass windows.  In the Middle Ages, stained glass was used as a teaching mechanism for the masses to understand the teachings of the Catholic Church.  The religious, however, should presumably know their catechism and, therefore, stained glass was not needed.

This giant bell, named Therese-Benedict, was on display in the nave of the Bayeux Cathedral when I visited last month.  Being installed on the 70th anniversary of the Battle of Normandy, this bell has special significance because it has been 156 years since a bell has been replaced.  It will be run for the first time on the 14th of June during the height of the 70th anniversary celebrations.

bayeux bell

The town of Bayeux is very pretty with cobblestone streets, half-timbered houses and mellowed stone buildings. Its buildings survived the carnage inflicted on other towns during World War II because it was the first big town to be liberated by the Allied Forces on the morning of the 7th June 1944.  Bayeux served as the provisional capital of France in 1944.

The Bayeux war cemetery is the largest British Commonwealth cemetery from World War II in Europe.

bayeux war cemetery

Although there was little fighting in Bayeux itself, the cemetery is the resting place of many who died in the region.  Located just outside of the town, the cemetery has had a major facelift with brand new tombstones and landscaped grounds. It is a fitting tribute to the brave men who sacrificed their lives for the greater good.

We really enjoyed our visit to Bayeux and wished we had more time to wander its cobblestone streets. You can easily combine a trip to Bayeux with visits to the D-Day landing beaches.

Most Surprising Destination:  World War II Sites in Normandy

Most Surprising Destination: World War II Sites in Normandy

This year is the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings on 6 June 1944 which started the invasion by the Allied forces of Nazi-occupied France during World War II.  The Battle of Normandy (code named Operation Overlord) started with an airborne assault of 1200+ planes and 160,000 troops deposited off the beaches of Normandy.  The Canadians landed at Juno Beach, the Americans at Utah and Omaha beaches and the British at Sword and Gold beaches.  On that first day alone, over 4000 Allied forces and 1000 Germans were killed, with many more injured.


We recently visited the D-Day beaches and the sites of the Battle of Normandy in France as part of a trans-atlantic camporee organised by the Boy Scouts of America to kick off 70th anniversary commemorative events lasting through August 2014.  I found these historic World War II sites surprising for a few reasons:

The weather is dismal.

I don’t know why I thought all of France generally had pretty good weather.  The joke was on me.  Apparently, Normandy’s weather is famous for being unlike the rest of the country.  When the Normans took over England in 1066, they probably were thrilled to be somewhere it rained less. I have even more respect for the Allied forces who battled their way through awful weather and shelling and retook France little by little over a gruelling 3 month period in 1944.

rain in normandy

The beaches, cliffs and countryside are beautiful.

I confess I’ve never been to a battlefield.  I assumed, however, that a place where so many people had died would be sombre.  Nope.  No left-over psychic anguish or doom hangs around these places.  In fact, people have built beautiful modern beach houses overlooking the main landing grounds of Omaha beach.

Omaha beach

My son playing at Omaha beach.

This photo shows Pointe du Hoc where 200 US rangers scaled 98 foot cliffs to disable a German battery. After the dust cleared only 90 men were left alive. The lumpy landscape is the aftereffect of shelling by warships.

pointe du Hoc

The cliffs at Pointe du Hoc

The remnants of war can be surprisingly pretty.

The bunkers that the Nazis created as part of the Atlantic Wall defence against invasion were rounded shapes into the earth. Some of them now have fields of wildflowers growing over them. Children love running up and down these hills.

wildflower bunker

wildflowers cover a bunker

Some of the bunkers above ground had been decorated by the Germans to look like ruined farmhouses so that spy planes overhead could not tell the difference.

painted bunker

painted bunker

The deep holes in the earth created by mortar shells create an alien landscape made pretty with flowers and shrubs.  Children love to clamber in and around these fields such as this landscape in Pointe du Hoc.

shelled landscape

alien landscape after shelling

The war cemeteries are so different yet the same.

We visited both the British Commonwealth and the American war cemeteries.  I was surprised to learn that the British did not start repatriating bodies of fallen soldiers until the first Gulf War.  After World War II, American families were given a choice of repatriating the bodies of their loved ones or burial in the nearest European cemetery.  The American cemetery at Colleville-sur-mer overlooks Omaha beach and contains approximately 10,000 of the war dead.

There are some seriously wacky memorial statues as well as dodgy mannequins.

The Chinese gave Normandy this statue entitled World Peace.  They were grateful because they believe the Allied invasion hastened the downfall of the Japanese in the Eastern hemisphere of the war.  The statue looms over the fields of the village of Grandcamp-Maisy and locals call it “the tin lady with tits”.

world peace statue

This statue is at the American cemetery and is entitled the Spirit of American Youth Rising From The Waves.

rising youth

The steel memorial on Omaha Beach itself is called Les Braves.  Clearly, very modern.

les braves

As shown below, some of the mannequins in the museums and battle sites are better than others.

crazy man

Someone’s been in the bunker too long!

Our trip to the Normandy World War II battle sites was really interesting for the whole family.  We really like history but our children (to our horror) are less enamoured.  This trip made them curious about  World War II in general.