We wake to sunny skies and fine weather in Paris. It is likely to be the only fine day, as the weather boffins have lodged a soggy forecast for the rest of the week. I spend the early morning hours stalking the Eiffel Tower, then return home to our flat.
Mary has found a guidebook that gives Parisian recommendations for adults traveling with children. She has often lamented the paucity of titles of this type, and so spent the previous evening in deep study of this welcome volume. By the time I returned from my morning walk, she had conceived a plan.
Our mission will be to search out traces of legendary alchemist Nicolas Flamel. After years of obscurity, Flamel burst back into popular imagination through the Harry Potter series, in which he is mentioned as the creator of the famous “Philosopher's Stone.” This magical stone is able to transmute base metals into gold and silver as well as confer immortality on its holder. Many people may not know that Flamel was an historical figure, living in Paris from 1330-1418. He was a bookseller by trade, and according to legend, came into possession of a book which taught him how to create the Philosopher's Stone.
Nicolas Flamel was buried in 1410 under a tombstone he designed himself, engraved with arcane alchemical symbols. This stone was placed in the floor of the Saint-Jacques-la-Boucherie Church. According to popular legend, several years after his death a grave robber dug up Flamel's grave, hoping to find gold buried with him. Much to his surprise, he found no corpse at all, giving rise to the view that Flamel had faked his own death and was living a quiet life somewhere else in the world (aided by the Philosopher's Stone).
In fact, Flamel seems to have been a very charitable man and a devout Catholic. Paris still bears signs of his philanthropy, including a house for the poor which he had established with his wife.
Our tour begins with the Musee des Arts et Metiers, which, although it did not exist during Flamel's day, certainly would have fascinated the alchemist. The museum is devoted to inventions and technology. It is housed in the priory of Saint Martin des Champs, a former Augustinian foundation that was abandoned after the French revolution. I think it is safe to say that we seriously underestimated the size of this museum. We thought we might just pop in for forty minutes or so before pressing on after Nicolas, but in fact we were there for a couple of hours, sifting through the astonishingly large range of exhibitions. The museum's website claims 80,000 different objects and I believe it. Exhibits range from the original Foucault's pendulum to a Mars rover. Grouped into themes such as buildings, communications, and textiles, the collections cover the range of humanity's technological evolution.
We emerge from the museum parched and hungry. I have been waiting for several years to return to the Jewish quarter in the Marais district (where we stayed the very first time we came to Paris) to once again enjoy the best Falafel that I have ever eaten. It takes us more time than I'd anticipated before we reach our destination, and when we do, the restaurant we choose is packed: another short wait for a table. I'd hoped that Annie might especially appreciate the kebabs, stuffed in pita bread, but in fact, Grace and I are the only two who unreservedly enjoy our meals. Grace has ordered a big bowl of French Fries and I, Falafel. Mary and Annie can't deal with the vegetable extras (mostly cabbage and grilled aubergine) in their pitas, and don't share our enthusiasm.
At this point we are well past 2:00 and opt to abandon the alchemy trail for a time, pushing across the bridge to Notre Dame. Mary and the girls want to climb to the roof, while I am keen to snap a few pictures at ground level while the light holds. None of us are entirely successful. The haze is thickening into clouds in the south, dimming the late afternoon sun. The line for the climb to the roof is so long and slow moving that the girls decide to throw in the towel. We may try to return later in the week for another attempt.
Back across the Seine to Saint Jacques tower. This bell tower, 53 meters high, is all that remains of the church of Saint Jacques la Boucherie. The church, where Flamel once worshiped, was torn down in 1797 and today only the tower remains. The tower once marked one of the starting points of the Santiago de Compostela pilgrimage route, and thus has scallop shells woven into its decorations. As noted above, Flamel had been buried beneath the floor of the now vanished church. A statue of Blaise Pascal sits beneath the tower, and at the top, meteorological instruments track Paris' weather.
From here we head a little farther north, and stumble (after a few missed turns) on Rue Nicolas Flamel. As far as I can see, this little side street has no connection with the bookseller. His house is now a restaurant located on Rue de Montmorency (and reputed to be the oldest house in Paris). Nevertheless, we can still feel that we have made a connection with the great man.
Our return trip swings us by the Pompidou center, the museum of modern art. Grace was keen to ride the escalators, which ascend in glass tubes on the outside of the building. Alas, the center was closed by the time we arrived, so we had to content ourselves with a consolation prize: watching a blindfolded street artist paint a picture. It was quite amazing to see him whip a long-handled brush, loaded with black paint around his canvas. Only slightly disappointing was the fact that the result was a likeness of Che Guevara, the people's favorite revolutionary.
And thus ended both our first day in Paris and the Flamel tour.