Rohan, the first visit

13 FEB 2017

Exiting the tram at Place Broglie at quarter to ten, I can see the morning sun’s rays spill over the rooftops of Rue du Dôme. Its abundance is present in the wave of yellow that forces the shadows and the cold to retreat into the small corners of the street. The cathédrale just beyond the light appears as in an overexposed photograph, brightly faded. Everything here in the morning seems surreal. The passerby walking with purpose, heading to work or the bakery for their morning baguette, the bicyclists speeding and weaving through the few pedestrians here, the pigeons trailing and expecting bread, and here I am making my way to Rohan Palace.

The passage from the tram stop to Notre-Dame de Strasbourg is mostly shops. Turn the corner at the church, and there are a couple cafes and more shops. Wrap around to the front side where the rose window watches over all, and there are more shops and restaurants. One more turn, and I am at the southeast side of the church facing Rohan Palace. The square here is open and wide. There are places to sit and rest, there are places to lock up one’s bike, and plenty of room for the large markets that sometimes visit this place. This morning, though, there are few people present.

The sun rises just above the palace from my perspective. It gives the whole square that overexposed photograph appearance, making it all seem surreal. One of the fifteen-foot-tall doors is open. There is a sign advertising the three museums housed within. Passing over the threshold of the courtyard entrance transports me to another time altogether. This (relatively) small palace was once home to the prince-bishops and cardinals of the House of Rohan, King Louis XV and Marie Antoinette, and Emperor Napoleon himself.

I have been to Fontainebleau and Versailles, and I must say the Palais Rohan does not disappoint. Granted, Fontainebleau and Versailles are much, much larger, I have to say that Rohan is just as grand, extravagant, opulent. After getting my ticket to see all three museums (the Museum of Decorative Arts, the Museum of Fine Arts, and the Archeology Museum) for free thanks to my Carte Culture, I head toward the Musée des Arts Décoratifs on the ground floor. I turn the small handle, walk through, and shut the door behind me. I was not prepared for how seemingly so quickly I could be yet again transported to another world altogether. The very first room is a flood of white: white marble floor, white ceiling, and the walls are the same pale-blue-gray-ivory white like in the Grand Salon at Château de Pourtalès. But the gold! The gold filigree trimming was everywhere. Around paintings, sculptures, busts, windows, and doorways. It traveled all the way from the flooring to the ceiling twenty feet up.

The largeness of it all makes me feel small. The history of it all makes me feel distant. But it is all so close and present at the same time. I am here and yet it does not quite feel real. I touch a cold marble column to make sure it is real. The sunlight spilling through the curtains feels warm. I must be somewhere, and yet I am unsure, displaced. There are hardly any words to label my dilemma, but “ungrounded” might be a close fit. I leave the marble room and begin my tour of the smaller rooms. Here, the floors are interlaced wood tiles, again like back at the château. At the end of the hall I find the library.

All of the walls are lined with shelves and old leather bound books shielded from visitors’ prying hands by what appears to be some sort of chicken wire. Sunlight exposes the dust floating in the air, moving so slowly it seems to be still in my vision. Busts of men from history line a long shelf. A rectangular table, surrounded by mahogany, red-cushioned chairs, anchors the center of the space. No detail is left unaccounted for, down to the chair cushions which are stitched with vines and leaves and a large bloom on the seat back. This was a magic place. The weight of what has transpired here, and by what was destroyed in the war, weighs heavy on the creaky wooden floors. Its near-perfection of fantastical, historical setting is made real by the cracks in the walls and ceiling here and there. Even in so grand a place, time is quick to follow.

I explore the other rooms in a half-daze. Each new space leads to me continually ask, “there’s more?” rhetorically. I am stunned by the abundance of opulence. The furnished rooms, the china porcelain plates, the clocks, the statues and figurines, the marble busts, paintings, tapestries of mythological wars all make up the Museum of Decorative Arts. And this is all just the ground floor. Back out of the same small door through which I first entered, I ascend the stone staircase to the first floor. Here resides the Museum of Fine Arts. Paintings, mostly of a religious nature, line the walls and date from the early 1600s to the mid-1850s. I may be mistaken there, and the dates reach further forward and back in time. I think what will always surprise me is how vibrant these centuries-old colors are still. From portraits to landscapes, the paint feels fresh, as if done just yesterday.

The Archeology Museum is in the basement. That seems appropriate in a way since most of what is stored in the museum are all things that have had to be excavated from underground. It is a veritable treasure trove, indeed, of history’s unwritten stories. Literally digging through the past to discover our ancestors, archaeologists share with us what they find and learn. I believe archeology may be humankind’s most tedious and rewarding puzzle. I see bones and tools. There are weapons and carts. Dig sites are mapped out and thoroughly, carefully, inspected.

Passing back over the courtyard threshold, I am leaving Rohan Palace and the three museums. There are more people in the square now. The sun is past noon in the sky and now the light is pierced by the cathédrale spire. I am trying to soak it all in, all I had just seen. I am trying to solidify it in my mind and memory. One of the benches nearby offers a warm seat in the sun. I sit there and pass the time, letting the memories settle.

I will return, soon.

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