Sunday, January 29, 2012

Paris Day 5 - Leonardo and William

So today is the day we visit a landmark that isn't just synonymous with Paris but is also perhaps the first name people come up with when they think art and museums - Musée du Louvre. The Louvre is about 60,000+ square metres large and while it actually is possible to walk through it in a day, it's impossible to see everything. I was very clear that I wasn't even going to try! I planned on hanging around with the Greeks, Romans and a few Renaissance artists. Unfortunately, the rest will have to be put off until a later trip.

After the wait at Musée d'Orsay, we decided to get to the Louvre earlier than we initially planned to. We got there a little after 9 am and there were no huge crowds to deal with. There are three entrances to Musée du Louvre - the main entrance directly through the glass Pyramid, one from the Carrousel du Louvre (the shopping mall underneath the Louvre that houses a McDonald's...yes, the one that you just cringed at!) and from Porte des Lions (which was shut when we got there because of some work that was happening). If the crowds aren't too intimidating, walk in through the Pyramid. I've heard many Parisians can't stand it but I personally thought it's a nice contrast to everything that surrounds it.

Musée du Louvre is huge and comprises 3 wings - Richelieu on the left, Sully in the centre and Denon on the right. Richelieu houses the Oriental Antiquities, Sully the French and Greek and Denon is Italian and French. Remember to check in stuff - if it's winter and you're wearing jackets, check them in near the Richelieu Wing, or you have heavy baggage, check them in under the Pyramid to the right of the Denon Wing (if you can, stuff your jackets into your bag and check everything here). There's quite a bit of walking to be done and you don't need anything heavy on you (it's also warm inside, so don't worry about wearing jackets).

There were a few pieces we were sure we wanted to spend time with (surprisingly, the Mona Lisa wasn't one of them!). As we walked through the Roman and Greek sections, we caught a glimpse of The Winged Victory of Samothrace at the Daru staircase but we were going to catch it later, so we continued on until we reached Venus de Milo. Ok, time for a little truth. It's a beautiful piece but I just can't honestly say it's the best. Not even as compared to others from the same era. There, I've said it! But before I get slayed, let me quickly add that this is just the opinion of one who isn't an art or history aficionado. This is just my regular everyday Joe (or Some Charlie) take on Venus. I did give Venus her time, though. I stood around trying to genuinely understand why it's such a talked about piece. From the slightly twisted stance, to the angle of the shoulders, to the view from the right...I just didn't get it, pardon my ignorance. I kept wondering what would happen if Venus was replaced by one of the other pieces from the exhibit, would people still gush over it? What if there were decades of praise surrounding that piece instead of Venus? Would they appreciate that one more and leave Venus behind along with one of the other pieces in a corner? I guess we'll never know. But I'm going to give Venus another chance on my next Paris trip. I'm sure the millions who adore her do so for a reason.

The next 'big ticket' item was The Winged Victory of Samothrace. I can't think of a better place than the Daru staircase for this piece. At first sight, I felt how I did when I first saw Venus de Milo. But this one grows on you. As you walk around you begin seeing more...the wind blowing against the contours of her body, the stance, the angle at which she leans forward, the detail on the wings. It seems like she might just flap those wings and take a little flight around the Museum for a while.

The Daru staircase

Next, da Vinci. Yes, I did see that famous one of the woman with the 'enigmatic' smile but there were two other pieces that I really loved. John the Baptist and Bachus. There's something eerie about them. The slightly manic expressions, that weird smile, the finger. With the million da Vinci conspiracy theories going around, you're tempted to look deeper and search for symbolism. I did that too for a while until I figured it's pointless wasting time that's much better spent enjoying the work.

From here, we finally walked into the room housing the Mona Lisa, possibly the most crowded room in the entire Museum. I was actually more interested in the gigantic Wedding Feast at Cana that hangs directly opposite the Mona Lisa. I didn't imagine it would be so big. So as I kept walking backwards to see it from a distance, I encountered a bunch of Japanese tourists. They were a little intrigued why I was looking away from the Mona Lisa instead of at it. So a couple of them looked in my direction for a second, possibly told themselves I was mad and turned back, cameras held overhead, to Mona Lisa.

Somewhere out there, she's there.

The Wedding Feast at Cana

After walking through the rest of the Denon Wing, we decided to stop and head out of the Museum. We were getting what we call museum syndrome...there's only so much you can absorb and after a while, you're just looking at stuff without actually seeing it. We walked out through the Richelieu Wing, stopping only briefly to see a few displays. That was all we could take of the seriously overwhelming Musée du Louvre. We will be back to visit the Louvre on our next trip...primarily for the Richelieu Wing that's also of special interest to me. But to try and cram it all in one visit just isn't worth it.

Under the Pyramid

We weren't really tired, just a little numb from seeing so much. And Paris has a perfect antidote to numbness - walking. We took a walk along the river to Shakespeare and Company on the Left Bank. Sylvia Beach's bookstore was a haven for a few literary greats I've read. This was the birthplace of Ulysses. We lost ourselves for a while inside the bookstore, while a young girl practiced piano next to us.

The fountain outside the bookstore

That was the end of a packed day. This first trip to Paris is increasingly beginning to feel like a little wine tasting expedition. We're just sampling a bit of what Paris has to offer, so we can come back for long leisurely glasses of what we like in the many visits that will surely follow.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Paris Day 4 - Looking for Quasimodo

There's one place in Paris that's really special to me. A place I first heard about as a child, reading about a certain hunchback and the towers. Over the years, as I continued seeing pictures of it and reading up on its history, the fascination grew. But nothing, absolutely nothing, prepared me for the first time I set my sights on it. It was as if the illustrations from that old Victor Hugo book from my childhood suddenly came alive.

Every time I walked past the Notre Dame for the rest of my trip, I stopped and gazed longingly, much to Rave's growing worry that I might just decide to spend a few years at its footsteps! Given the chance, I'd gladly do it!

We began the day much like the others that would follow, grabbing breakfast from the bakery downstairs and eating it while we walked to the RER Port-Royal. It was a particularly cold morning and that walk from RER Saint-Michel - Notre Dame to the cathedral was pretty swift! Thankfully, there weren't too many visitors around when we got there.

I could stand here all day.

As you approach the Notre-Dame, one of the first things you encounter is Point Zero, considered the official centre of Paris. Except us, it didn't seem like a big deal to the rest of the people around.

The detailing on the entrance is really intricate. There's so much to see and I wished I had my long lens fitted on my camera so I could get a closer look at the work. The Kings of Judah were there, as was the devil weighing souls on judgement day and the unmistakable St. Denis holding his own head.

St. Denis holding his head.
The weighing of souls.
Inside, it was gothic architecture all through. I will never forget the first view as I stepped in. You don't really get a sense of how big it is when you're standing at the entrance. It was magical...the ceiling that seemed like it was impossibly tall, the blue light coming through the windows, the music that seemed to be coming from some faraway place (or was that just the sound in my head?).

Not a patch on the real thing.
I hate doing this but everything was perfect for this shot.
There's no photograph that can catch these beautiful windows.

It was so quiet when we were there, we could hear our footsteps as we walked. Although I was raised a Catholic, I'm not religious and do not believe in the concept of god. But there's something about Notre Dame that tells you there possibly is something more to it than stone and glass.

Although I could have easily stayed inside longer, we had to head out because we were planning on climbing up the towers. And boy, was it cold! We waited for close to an hour in line and it was really windy! We actually braved it out to the very end and began the long climb up. It's 400-odd steps on a winding staircase that never seems to end. If you have climbing disabilities, my advise would be to avoid the climb. There are people behind you on the narrow staircase and it's almost impossible to stop and catch your breath. There are also very few alcoves where you can stop and rest and most of them can just about fit one person. So if there's someone already resting there, you have no option but to walk on. But for those who can make it, it's worth every step on that staircase! For now, I'll let the pictures do the talking.

Quasi, get here right now!
How does everyone look so stylish down there?
Sacré Coeur in the distance.
Hello beautiful!
So this is where the music was coming from.
If I lived in Paris, I would visit the Notre Dame every day. I really mean it! And without a doubt, I'm sure I will feel exactly how I did when I first saw it. 

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Paris Day 3 - A day with Vincent

People who know me will vouch for the fact that I'm pretty vocal (and stubborn) about my views on art, what the world considers artistic and what art should stand for. So it can get a little dangerous for people to hang around with me in a place like Musée d'Orsay in the likely event that I might get a little too vocal!

Learning from our Louvre experience with queues, we had a quick breakfast and headed to the RER Station at Port-Royal, so we can get to the Museum before everyone else does. We quickly hopped to Saint-Michel  - Notre Dame on the RER B and then to Musée d'Orsay on the RER C. All through the Paris trip, I've smiled so much whenever I used the Navigo Découverte. It really is most convenient while traveling around don't even need to take it out of your bag. Just wave your bag over the purple scanner and beep yourself through.

I'd say we were at Musée d'Orsay pretty early. The people who were already there wouldn't say the same. We hoped our Museum Pass will help beat the queue but almost everyone in front of us had the pass as well. But this was one queue we didn't complain about, thanks to the wonderful quartet of musicians playing right outside the museum. About 30 minutes later, we were inside.

And we thought we were early!

Queues aren't so bad if you have your personal Quartet for company.

One of the famous Space Invaders mosaics. This is the one outside Musée d'Orsay.

The Musée d'Orsay is housed in the former Gare d'Orsay, a former railway station that's way too beautiful to be used for something as common as commuting. I decided to put my camera away because I really wanted to focus on the Impressionists (and post-Impressionists) and nothing else. They were all here...Cézanne, Monet, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin and the one artist I've followed all my life but whose work I've never had the privilege of seeing in person - Vincent Van Gogh. I'm no great art critic, so I'm not going to get into detailed explanations of the pieces here. But Van Gogh really stands apart. There's something there that isn't anywhere else. And I don't mean style or's an obvious observation that every artist in there does have her/his own unique style. But there's just something about Van Gogh.

We spent the entire day at Musée d'Orsay. My back was bad from sleeping two nights on a mattress I'm not used to (it had nothing to do with the mattress, I just take a while to adjust!). But I kept walking on, focussing on specific sections. After a while, there's only so much your mind, like a sponge, can absorb. After saturation point, you're just walking around and looking at pieces numbed. So we decided to not do that and stepped down to the lower level and people-watched. Young students sketching away in their art books, old couples in serious, hushed discussion and the occasional annoying flash-wielding photographer that I never fail to glare at!

By the time we got out, it had begun raining and was getting dark. With nothing else to do that evening, we decided to walk down Boulevard Saint-Germain.

I'll have that, that, that and...oh yeah, that one too, s'il vous plait.

Paris has this funny habit of creeping up and surprising you when you least expect it. And Église de Saint-Germain des Prés did just that. Although I'd heard so much about the Église de Saint-Germain des Prés, we hadn't put it down on the list for today. Much of the inside was covered but the little we could see was ethereal. There was a service going on, so out of respect, we didn't want to walk around too much. But we promised to come back here, maybe on this trip but definitely on the next.

We continued walking on down Blvd Saint-Germain to get to RER Saint-Michel - Notre Dame. Along the way, we made a fantastic discovery that we'd re-visit often during our trip - Rue de la Huchette. The 'food street' as we'd often refer to it. There's almost every kind of cuisine out there. We decided on something absolutely French tonight and had our first taste of Escargot. We loved it! I could eat this everyday and not complain at all! Along with the escargot came oysters. And after that enough food and wine for a small army!

With stomachs full and glasses empty, we finally left Rue de la Huchette as Michelle crooned that her baby just cares about her.

"My baby just cares for me..."

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Paris Day 2 - Mozart, Claude and Louis

There were a few things that needed to be done before we set off on our second day to Musée de l'Orangerie, Champs-Elysees and Arc de Triomphe. We needed to stop at the Tourist Information Office first and get maps and literature to help with the rest of our trip. We also needed to get pre-paid phone SIM cards to call people back home in India.

After a wonderful breakfast at home, thanks to the wonderful boulangerie downstairs with the equally wonderful lady who managed it, we set off to Pyramides.

The freshest breakfast ever!

The Tourist Information Office is right across the Pyramides Metro exit. The office is a destination to visit in itself! Shelves packed with literature in at least 4 languages, neatly divided in sections, all for free. The folks at the desk were equally helpful and quite fluent with English (although Rave's French helped make conversations far more friendlier). Once we were done, they also pointed us out to the closest mobile outlet for our pre-paid SIMs. We walked down to the SFR store down the road and picked up our SIMs quite easily.

We decided to keep walking a little further down the road to take a peek at the Palais Garnier. Our first view of it and we knew Musée de l'Orangerie had to be moved to another day...we were going to the Opera! I stood so long ogling at the Mozart bust at the entrance, I almost had to be dragged away. Oddly, the first thing I set my eyes on was the ceiling (my fascination for them would only grow through the trip).  Everything seemed so grand...the curtains, the gold painted decor, the furniture, the chandeliers and, of course, the ceilings!


My affair with ceilings.

My affair with ceilings. Again.

More ceiling.

Unfortunately, there was a rehearsal on when we visited so we weren't allowed inside. But just as we were done and ready to leave, we noticed an open door! I've seen videos of the insides of an Opera but nothing prepared me for this. The stage was still being cleared, people from the production were still walking around, the sound engineers were still at work...and I stood in silence, both ecstatic with my first view of the inside of a theatre and horrified at the opulence that seemed to cover every square inch.

The next time, we'll be sitting here.

Well worth the money!

Still spellbound, we left for a nice long lunch and began walking to Musée de l'Orangerie. Our hungry eyes wouldn't let us pass on the Monet's after all! It's not too far from Palais Garnier (about 1.5 km on foot). You walk down the Metro Opera stop, via Place Vendome and through the Tuilleries...the perfect walk after a heavy lunch. Over the years, I've seen so many pictures of the famous Monet pieces here but I was a little disappointed when I first saw them. But the disappointment didn't last too long. You need to sit and drink the pieces in. Slowly, I began seeing what Monet would have years ago. The reflections were slowly coming to life. The light felt like it was passing through the leaves. The trees felt like they were slowly changing colour. Keep staring long enough and it felt like you were actually there in that garden and everything around was real. At some point, they stopped becoming paintings.

The size of Monet's canvases were almost unreal. Imagine painting them in sections, at different times and then stitching all those individual pieces's fantastic if you can pull back and, quite literally, see the big picture.

Unfortunately, photography wasn't allowed, so I respected that and refrained from using my camera, although a lot of people were quite trigger happy. I wasn't keen on actually shooting any of the Monet pieces individually but I did want to shoot a few panoramas. Well, for now I'll make do with the beautiful panoramas on the Internet. There's lots of other pieces to see here as well...Cézanne, Matisse, Picasso, Utrillo, Renoir...but there were two artists in particular that I fell in love with - Modigliani and Soutine. I've seen some of the work in books or online but they're quite captivating in when seen for real. The two were actually friends and there's connection between their individual works. Soutine went into depression after Modigliani's death and continued to paint in depression that's evident in his work. He has that remarkable ability to make you cringe at his pain and still stand there, enjoy it and sadistically ask for more. The Musée de l'Orangerie is definitely time well spent and my advice would be to not leave after seeing the Monet's. Give Soutine a shoulder to cry on too.

After watching the sunset from Tuilleries it was time to move on to Champs-Elysees. It was a destination that I was morbidly afraid of walking into primarily because I was worried about you-know-who and the designer stores! Thankfully, she was more excited about the Christmas Markets that line up Champs-Elysees at this time of the year. The markets are fun and there's everything from chocolate to clothing to food to jewellery to rides for kids. We kicked off our walk with some wonderful Vin Chaud and let the crowds just carry us on. Everything was so festive and we we were glad we decided to brave the cold and pick this time of the year to visit Paris.

The Ferris wheel at Champs-Elysees.

I was too old to ride this. Damn!
The dancers on Champs-Elysees. We caught them thrice!

Champs-Elysees was one big festive party! There were sales everywhere, the store windows looked spectacular (especially Louis Vuitton) and there was celebration on the streets. This was just Day 2 and Paris had already shown us so much!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Paris Day 1 - When plans change

It was a Sunday...the first Sunday of the month and our very first Sunday in Paris! To say we were excited is a gross understatement. It was cold, possibly the coldest I've ever felt (coming from Mumbai, India, that's hardly surprising).

Our bodies were still adjusting to the time difference and even though we were tired from a long flight from home, we were up at 5 am, long before the alarm went off. We fixed our first coffees at our wonderfully stocked rental apartment and we were out on the streets at 8.30 am. Being the first Sunday of the month and we had the Louvre lined up first on our list since entry is free on first Sunday of every month. After a bit of walking around, we found our way to Metro Gobelins to take our train to Louvre-Rivoli.

The walk to our first Metro ride

Paris has a way of changing your plans. You're sometimes walking briskly to some place you have planned out and an inviting bistro or cafe stops you in your tracks and before you know it, you've spent a greater part of your day watching Paris go by from your cafe table. Sometimes, it only takes the whiff of freshly baked croissants to change your mind. For us, on this first Sunday, it was tourists. We ooh-ed and aah-ed in the short walk to the Pyramid, only to find a seemingly endless line of tourists snaking their way in endless loops, waiting to enter. We were disappointed but not worried. We'd anticipated this a bit and already planned on swapping today's plan with Day 5 on our itinerary. So Musée Cluny (or Musée du Moyen Age, to use the exact name) and Panthéon it will be today.

Before heading off to Musée Cluny, we decided to catch our first Parisian breakfast at Cafe Le Corona, just across the Louvre. Stomachs full, we decided to walk to Musée Cluny, which wasn't too far away. As a little detour, we walked down to Place Saint-Michel. We'd visit this area so often during our stay but the first time here would always be unforgettable. It was crowded but we spent a few wonderful minutes here, dividing our time people watching and staring in awe at Saint Michael. Even with the scores of tourists, pigeons, teenagers and a fantastic soap bubble hawker, it made a beautiful sight!

The Lion, the pigeon and St. Michel

Musée Cluny is old. And it was beautiful! From the wonderfully illustrated books to the rescued stained glass from Sainte-Chapelle to massive rings worn by former Popes to lots of other Christian memorabilia, this was a journey back to a time when religion was art's primary inspiration.

It felt like she'd move any second.

Most of what you found here had to do with this direction.

There's lots to see out here. My advice would be to find a section that captivates you and sit down. They seem like simple sculptures or paintings, but sit down and watch them in silence and they begin to grow into something a whole lot more.

Things once lost, are now found.

And sometimes, it also helps to stop looking around you and look up. I did that at many places we visited and caught some of the most intricate ceilings I've ever seen.

From the imposing largely religious themes at Musée Cluny, we decided to walk down to the Panthéon after a short lunch break (which was also a good excuse to rest feet that weren't accustomed to museums). It's not a very long walk, roughly about 1.5 km in a straight line across the island.

The Panthéon is imposing. From the first time you set your eyes on it, you know there's something special about it (or as I soon would discover, underneath it). The Panthéon was originally built as a church and was later converted as a mausoleum for great Frenchmen. It apparently swung back and forth from being a church and a mausoleum until they finally settled on letting it stay a meeting house for the intellectuals.

It's much bigger than it looks in pictures.

At the entrance is an inscription, AUX GRANDS HOMMES LA PATRIE RECONNAISSANTE. To the great men, the grateful homeland. And they're all down there. Voltaire, Hugo, Dumas, Zola, Braille and the Curies. Of particular interest to me was Foucault's Pendulum, the physicists famous experiment to demonstrate the rotation of the earth. It's something I'd read about as a kid when my fascination for Physics began and it gave me goosebumps to actually be standing there, watching it gently swing by under that spectacular dome. In the picture below, you can see the pendulum at a distance through the crowds.

It's very easy to feel very small inside here.

We spent an about an hour walking around and taking it all in. It seemed like we were re-living a part of history itself and I half expected to bump into Voltaire or Foucault as I turned a corner. The Panthéon can get really intimidating. And this was just our first day in Paris! After walking around and taking more pictures than I should have, I just had to slow down and breathe. And walking back to the the end, where those massive doors stay shut, and just standing in the silence seemed like a perfect way to end this visit.

Even the smaller version is just as magnificent.

I know quite a few people who passed on the Panthéon during their visit to Paris. If you have the time to spare, and that's just an hour, I would strongly recommend it. It's a homage from the fatherland to a few of its great men. If you ask me, it's the perfect place to begin making your connection to this one-of-a-kind city.