A week with Marie

“Let them eat cake.”

Did Marie Antoinette really say that? Did she mean what people think she meant? Or was she misunderstood?

I confess I don’t know a whole lot about Marie or Louis XVI, but this week we got plenty of glimpses into that endlessly fascinating period in French history. Sunday it was at the Carnavalet Museum in the Marais where I learned that the revolutionary period was far more complicated than I’d ever realized: full of political intrigues, secret alliances, conspiratorial scheming, heroic bravery and craven duplicity. The museum also features plenty of appealing art (which doesn’t seem to get as much mention as all of the historical stuff).

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“Les retardataires” (The Latecomers) by Albert Guillaume (1873-1942). I’m sure this little bauble never gets mentioned in the guidebooks, but after seeing so much important history and significant art, it’s great to get a chuckle over something like this. Or maybe it’s just that I’ve met these people before…

On Tuesday, we visited the Conciergerie, the prison right in the middle of town where Marie Antoinette spent her last days. It’s pretty bleak and barren inside, but still worthwhile for a look into that historic time. Okay, it’s not on the Paris Top Ten list, it took us six months to finally get around to visiting it, and I didn’t even take any pictures (I must be getting jaded)… but hey, it’s worth a mention. You can include a visit there as part of a combo ticket with Sainte-Chapelle, which we saw on Monday–and which does make the Paris Top Ten. (It comes in at #7 out 914 things to do in Paris, according to Trip Advisor FWIW. What’s their number one? Is it saying hello to Mona Lisa? Nope–it’s the Orsay! I have to say I agree.)

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Sainte-Chapelle. Go when the light is good! It makes all the difference.

Wednesday we took the number 13 line out to Saint-Denis to see the basilica where nearly every French king has been buried. It also can claim to be among the first truly Gothic structures ever built. I’ve visited my share of cathedrals and churches, but I’ve never been to one like this: tombs and memorials of so many kings, queens, princes, princesses, and assorted other nobles. Statues of Important Dead French people I’d never heard of, and some that I had.

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Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Seeing them here, you’d never know things ended so badly for them.

Seeing all of the tombs and monuments was another striking reminder of just how short the whole American story is in the scheme of world events. Some of these guys died in the 500s!

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I swear I saw Indiana Jones rummaging around back there somewhere…

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Great architecture, beautiful stained glass (although it’s no Sainte-Chapelle), and more historical significance than most museums could ever hope to have: a worthy trip indeed out from central Paris. (And worth braving the cold: it was maybe a degree or two above freezing, and cathedrals aren’t exactly known for their great heating systems.)

And so: that’s our week with Marie. After all we saw, it seems to me most likely that she happened to be queen at the wrong time more than she was some kind of evil conspirator worthy of death.

Her last words? “Pardon me sir, I meant not to do it.” Said after stepping on her executioner’s foot.

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