Another installment from my April 2011 travelogue.
In which we see the smiling lady, tsk at Huguenots, and buy a book.
07: The Big Cahuna
Friday, for the first time, we woke up when we woke up. My wife was actually up first, an event that happens maybe once every three months. Needless to say, we were tired, and needed sleep. We needed it because today was The Day, the day we went to the Big Cahuna, the day we went to the Louvre.
Our heretical notions of avoiding all art had only half-survived. We’d gone to the Rodin already, so we’d already seen some art, but how much is enough? What balance should we attempt to strike? The big problem we had was the fact that the Musee d’Orsay was under major reconstruction and a lot of its works were either on loan or in the back room. The d’Orsay is also an attraction as a work of architecture, being a repurposed elegant old train station that uses light like no other gallery in Paris. And, the d’Orsay is the home to the Impressionists, my wife’s favorite genre. In short, the d’Orsay would be a disappointment but, since we’d definitely decided that despite our original expectations, we loved Paris and would definitely be back, we put the d’Orsay on the “Next Time” list. But what about l’Orangerie? It was also an Impressionist hang-out (pun intended). Should we go there? Or not?
In the end, we decided that since we were enjoying the neighborhoods so much, the art would take a back seat. All of the Impressionists were on the Next Time list, the Rodin had been done before we’d really thought about it, so we only had the Louvre to consider. And we both decided that we could not leave Paris without going to the Louvre.
A note about planning your trip to the Louvre: Get yourself a book about the Louvre, go through the pieces and mark down (as a group) the four works of art you must see. Then list four more works you’d really like to see. Then four works you merely want to see. Now throw out the last four. The point of this exercise is to get your brain around the fact that you won’t see everything. You won’t see half. In fact, you’ll be lucky to see a quarter. It’s that big. To be honest, you’re not going to want to see everything in the Louvre; everyone has their favorites and everyone doesn’t like something.
Another suggestion: Sculpture trumps paintings. If you’re trying to decide between “La Joconde” and “Cupid and Psyche,” see the latter. Paintings, in person, are always worse than they are in books, but sculpture is always better. It has something to do with the three-dimensional aspect, the play of light on—and through—the stone. Paintings in books always have the best light, the best angle, and you never get that in a gallery.
So with our game plan in hand, we taped up our feet like gladiators entering battle and headed out to Palais Royale.
The Louvre is probably the best bang-for-buck you’re going to get in Paris. At €10, it’s a positive steal. You’ll pay more for a sandwich, chips, and a soda in the café. As I stated yesterday, the first rule of visiting the Louvre is: go early or go late. Early means around 10AM. Late means after 4, on Wednesday or Friday, when the museum is open until 10PM. If you go between noon and 4, it’ll be packed (it might be anyway but it surely will be then), and you’ll have to wait in line for everything.
We got there at 10AM, zipped in under the [ick] Pyramid and down into the greenhouse/solarium below it. Once again, museums in France are not climate-controlled (a fact I found appalling, considering what the heat and humidity must be doing to these works of art). The line for tickets was non-existent, we grabbed a copy of the Louvre map (English version), and headed for the Denon wing.
I won’t bore you with a description of our every art encounter. I’ll just say that our top-four list comprised the Mona Lisa (la Joconde), the Nike of Samothrace, The Wedding Feast at Cana, and the Captive Slaves. We saw many other pieces, too, including Greek/Roman sculpture, Vermeer, Botticelli, Titian, Rafael, and David. We spent five hours there, and we completely missed the Goya, the El Greco, the Holbeins, and everything Assyrian, all of which we would have liked to see.
First, it’s a good place to be; everyone who is there, no matter their age, no matter how tired they are, everyone there is happy to be there. For many, it’s a once in a lifetime trip, and they’re seeing things that will literally make them weep (for me it was the Nike). So the energy in the place is decidedly uplifting.
Second—and bless the French for this—you can take as many pictures as you want (provided you don’t use a flash) which means you can capture that painting or the light on that sculpture or, as I did several times, that view out the palace window, and not worry about it. This is extraordinary, and is unheard of in most American and British museums. France is a very photographer-friendly city, so always bring your camera, everywhere.
Third, it is full of surprises. For us, it happened when we were on our way to the Vermeers (Richelieu wing, third floor). Climbing up from the 1st floor, we hit the 2nd floor and were suddenly surrounded by Imperial opulence. This was the private apartments of Napoleon III, and it is just Oh My God! gorgeous. Each room was filled with furniture and decorative art from the period—from Nappy3’s rooms, in fact. It was all stunningly beautiful, almost unbelievably so. A favorite moment came when we saw the crown jewels of the Empress Eugenie. Two tiaras—one of emeralds, one of pearls—are set up in a case just at about head height. Couples stop and girlfriends pose in just the right spot so that, when you snap the photo, she’s wearing one of the tiaras. It’s whimsical, and it’s on purpose, and it’s just another way that the French have made their national treasures accessible and fun.
We left the Louvre happy at what we’d seen, sad at what we’d missed, but satisfied nonetheless. We headed home for lunch, with no idea of what we might do next. It all depended on how our feet were feeling after a rest.
It just isn’t a day in Paris for us unless we go out and see a church and, believe me, you could see a half-dozen every day and still have plenty left at the end of a week. Visiting churches is like listening to Bach playing Variations on a Theme: each one is similar, each one is unique. Each one has a history, an individual tale to tell about why it was built, what it’s seen over the years, and what it’s trying to do now.
For our evening jaunt, we headed up to Cluny and the Sorbonne. The Sorbonne is one of those buildings that you walk around, walk near, but really don’t see, mostly because it’s not remarkable in itself but more by what it does to the neighborhood. It is as if the entire neighborhood is a university. The average age drops dramatically, and the ratio of English to French rises, both because of the foreign students in the streets around the school, and because the French students are practicing their English, too. The waiters are cockier here, more clownish, competing with each other for foreigners with money to spend. The brasseries have all settled on three prices for their formulae (three-course meals): €10, €15, and €18 (not including drinks or the required gratuity). It’s not a bad price, by Parisian standards, and while the food may not be adventurous, it’s always good. Hell, even the pre-wrapped sandwiches here are miles better than any you’d find in the US or UK.
Leaving the Sorbonne, we walked up the diagonal of rue de la Harpe, sniffing at the aromas from the brasseries that line the street, turned onto rue de St Severin and found, tucked in between the Mansard rooflines, the Church of St Severin. This church has seen its share of woes: the Terror, fire, neglect. Its windows tell the history. Many were destroyed by Huguenots, and now they’re a hotch-potch of 15th century storytelling, 19th century patronage art, and 20th century non-representational work. The baptismal font resides at the back of the ambulatory—not the usual spot—because there’s a hole in the floor there, glassed-over now, that goes down to an ancient well used to fill the font. The ambulatory also has one column amid the forest of columns that is unique: it’s twisted, looking more like the trunk of a tree, watered by the well a few feet away. This motif is expressed throughout the church, in the scrollwork of the wood panels, and in the branches affixed to the cross on the altar.
Across the street from St Severin, is St Pierre la Pauvre. St Pierre is very small, especially by Parisian church standards, and surprised us first because it is Eastern Orthodox—the basilica lined with gold-leafed icons and the high alter separated from the faithful by a screen—and second because, despite its small size, it has a cloister (something usually only found in larger churches), a chestnut-shaded garden where the priests still grow herbs and medicinals, and which is nearly the size of the church itself.
From St Pierre, it’s only a half-block to rue de la Huchette, a cobbled pedestrian row from which you can see across the Seine to Notre Dame, and on which rests the long-famous Shakespeare and Company bookstore. Walk inside and you might as well be somewhere in Berkeley or Greenwich Village. Here, the French are the visitors. It’s a ramshackle old place, spavined and knock-kneed, where books are stacked higgledy-piggledy according to a near-indecipherable code. Nothing matches. Nothing is ordered. And yet, if you want something, the staff knows precisely where it is. New books: ground floor; go upstairs to the 1st floor for used hardbacks dating from the 1980s back to the 1800s. The rooms are tiny, dark, secret. One room has a small daybed if you want to lie back while you test-drive a book. I found one student tucked into a book-lined cubbyhole under a counter, reading Sartre. From the upstairs window, we looked out through the cherry-blossoms festooning the 100-year old tree and saw Notre Dame. One expects Anaïs Nin and Henry Miller to walk in at any moment.
We ended our day after that, going back to the Cluny Metro station to zip home. Dinner at a brasserie just did not appeal, so we stayed in and enjoyed the sounds from the park and the Arena. We heard squeals from an impromptu water fight played with obscure rules that only the young girls knew. We heard children counting in unison, from 1 to 20, in preparation of a game that combined hide-and-seek and tag. We heard roars of the crowd up at the arena watching a local game of football. We heard the wood pigeons coo as they picked buds off the hawthorn tree.
We had one day left. We were going to miss this place.