We traveled to Paris on the Eurostar, a high-speed train that took us from London to Paris and back again in what seemed like no time at all. We chose the Marais neighborhood (one of the most historic areas of Paris) and stayed in a small and charming old hotel, the Hotel Castex, that felt very Parisian to us, complete with wrought iron headboards and a French casement window that opened onto Rue Castex, a narrow side street with charming cafes, shops and picturesque street lamps—another plus, the Hotel Castex takes the security of its guests very seriously.
The Arc De Triomphe
The Arc de Triomphe is looming and immense—and absolutely resplendent. I’d seen pictures, and still, I was awestruck by the towering magnitude of it. It was early when we arrived and the sky was cloudy with a damp feel in the breeze, but already, a daunting queue was forming for tickets to climb the stairs to the top of the Arc. We presented our Paris Museum Pass (for the first time) and it sent us right to the head of the line and inside to a steep and seemingly never ending spiral of stairs— steps and steps—and more steps. (Oh, how I wished I’d remembered to bring my pedometer.) At the top, I was gasping for breath and the muscles in my legs felt like they were on fire but wow, the views of Paris shining white (even on a day with scarce sunshine), with its avenues radiating away from the Arc like the spokes of a giant wheel made the climb up worth every scintilla of effort. We took our time exploring the historical exhibits reading the commentary on the construction of the Arc (it was begun by Napoleon and took 30 years to complete) and now also serves as The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier with Europe’s first “eternal flame” burning at the base of the monument. We were dazzled by the monument itself with its exquisite relief work, the views of the city, and the gravity of its history.
A stroll down the Champs Elysees
We left the Arc to stroll down the Champs Elysees, getting a sense of the city and stopping along the way at the Arcades des Champs Elysees for very expensive Starbucks lattes (coffee for me and chai for Chris, and yes, we have a Starbucks addiction). We continued our stroll, cups in hand, gaping at the French boutiques and bakeries—and the Gap and Banana Republic and McDonalds’ McCafé Restaurants, the same storefronts I see in every mall in Oregon and California and Maine and New York, all those franchises (choking out the unique and local, a kind of economic invasive species taking root where they shouldn’t belong). I sipped my Starbucks latte and felt a stab of guilt.
The Museum Orsay
The Museum Orsay, a stunning 19th century marvel, was originally built as a railway station. The building is ornate, lavish, and expansive, and a perfect home for an extensive and priceless collection of art. We used our Paris Museum pass, and (again) it sent us right to the front of a very long queue. Inside, we gawked and got our bearings. The museum was crowded, and everywhere, people had their cell phones or cameras in front of their faces taking photographs—pictures of pictures, and, to be honest, I might have looked more through my camera lens but I wasn’t sure I knew how to keep the flash from firing. Anyway, with any eye—but especially the naked appreciative eye—the Orsay’s collection of impressionist work is world class. I’m a huge fan of Impressionism and there were so many–by Mary Cassette, Cézanne, Degas, van Gogh, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Monet (to name a few) that I had never seen, even in illustrations. One painting, The Magpie by Claude Monet (all light and cool blue shadow on freshly fallen snow) was so perfectly rendered, I could almost feel the chill and sense the silence. We wandered the museum until the posted closing time. My feet were tired, but I was sorry to leave.
The Place de Vosges
The Place de Vosges was a short walk from our hotel in the Marias section of the city. We got our first sight of it through picturesque brick and stone arches at the end of a narrow cobbled street—a rigidly landscaped, perfectly square, city park planted with blocks of trees and hedges, really a huge courtyard crowded with people obviously enjoying themselves. The park is surrounded by royal apartments built by King Henry IV in 1605. The apartments are an elegant amalgam of stone and brick topped with a steeply pitched slate roof made interesting with clever dormers and tall chimneys. Supporting arches at ground level create a covered promenade that fronts specialty shops and restaurants. Many of them were closed or just opening that morning and we were unnerved by a very visible and unexpected military presence (10 or 15 soldiers in uniform were loitering the promenade poised with rifles). Whatever was going on felt so ominous and out of place that we hurried to find Victor Hugo’s House/Museum in one of the apartments of the Place de Vosges and ducked inside.
The Victor Hugo Museum
The first floor of the Victor Hugo House/Museum that comprised the gallery was open, but Victor Hugo’s living quarters up a broad ornate staircase was closed for renovation but we paid our money anyway. The galleries on the first floor were hung with drawings, sketches and paintings done by Victor Hugo. I had read Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame and I have always admired him as a writer, but to learn that Victor Hugo was an artist was a revelation to me—and what an artist! His ink washes, sketches and paintings are evocative, distinctive, often eerie, and in my opinion, comparable to those of the revered artists of the impressionist era. We spent time pondering the gallery, looking, and looking again, at his sketches, ink washes and even the “doodles” at the edges of his journals. We might have stayed longer but this was our last full day in Paris and we had a list—Picasso was next.
The Musée National Picasso is also in the Marais, and an easy walk from the Place de Vosges and the Victor Hugo House. It’s located in a beautiful mansion repurposed to house a collection of over 400 original paintings, sculptures and sketches of his work. Picasso was infinitely creative and unbelievably prolific! Chris and I both came away disturbed and haunted by the same powerful and devastating painting, Picasso’s Massacre in Corée (1951)—a cubist oil painting depicting a group of naked pregnant women and children who stand in the foreground of a mass grave bracing for death in the gun sights of a pitiless military firing squad (the soldiers’ bodies are naked except for warped medieval-looking helmets and hodgepodge pieces of armor). The painting is palpable with the children’s fear and the women’s anguish and resignation. The soldiers face them down with a malicious yet almost automaton intent. The effect is chilling.
The Centre Pompidou
The Centre Pompidou is a vast exoskeleton of metal struts, pipes and industrial-looking tubes fronted by stepped concrete with barely a tree or plant in sight—a stunning contrast to the Place de Vosges and the organic and historic city of Paris. Our Museum pass got us into the museum but the Corbusier exhibit we had in mind was expensive and it was already past 2:00 so we decided to find lunch inside, and then check out the Centre itself with its permanent collection. We found a place to buy lunch. I don’t know if the museum has a real café, this eating area had more in common with a food kiosk at a mall or airport and offered a refrigerated case filled with a small selection of salads and sandwiches packaged in plastic. After we ate, we wandered the museum hoping to see modern abstract art—a celebration of textures, line, and color—by the likes of Jackson Pollack, Wassily Kandinsky, Helen Frankenthaler, Piet Mondrian, Paul Klee. I’m a fan, but those exhibits were closed and we were left with mostly Readymades, Found Art and Shock Art, many works dependent on external commentary to render them comprehensible. So much of this modern collection could be called “snark art”, sometimes profound, but more often just a clever one-off or a swipe at something taboo with one dazzling exception—an exhibition focused on style with a looped video in the background that featured the astonishingly powerful and beautiful supermodel, Grace Jones. It was mesmerizing and we watched it over and over.
As we left the Centre Pompidou, people had gathered to see a street performer doing acrobatics on the vast concrete “community” space fronting the entrance to the building. While we watched, he accomplished flips and spins and coaxed two and then three people from the audience to act as props and foils for his quips and jokes. He finished his routine, took a bow and solicited tips from the audience.
We wandered around to the Pompidou Courtyard to get a look at the Stravinsky fountain and the giant mural called Chuuutt!. The fountain is a delightful whimsy of metal and brightly painted sculptures ( among them: huge scarlet lips, a woman’s head and torso with bulls eye painted breasts that gush streams of water, and spinning vertical spirals of steel)—and overlooking it all, Chuuutt!, a mural featuring the huge profile of an iconic French mime-faced man playfully shushing us with a finger to his lips—and there were trees and shade and welcoming spaces for people to congregate—some “new” modern art I could feel good about!
The Musée de l’Orangerie
We arrived at l”Orangerie right after the doors opened. It was a Monday morning and there were only a few visitors—a huge gift because we were able to take our time, to study and move through the exhibits at our own pace. Monet’s Water Lilies (Les Nymphéas) are floor to ceiling murals that cover the walls of two large elliptical rooms especially constructed to display these impressionistic studies of light and shadow. We let ourselves experience this vision of Monet’s gardens at Giverny for a long time and then, as more and more people began to appear, we moved on to see the museum’s other offerings. The Guillaume collection includes works by Renoir, Sisley, Cezanne and a host of other luminaries of the period. It is extensive but not overwhelming. The selections, the way they are curated, and the fact that the museum was not crowded that morning, gave the experience a sense of space and intimacy. The l’Orangerie, and especially my memories of my time there pondering the paintings of Monet, Sisley and Renoir almost shimmer.
• Finding gluten-free food in Paris was certainly possible but not always easy, and sometimes stressful. I was glad I researched the options in advance.
• The Paris Museum Pass and Visite (a very tiny subway pass) were great values. We used them constantly. They were like keys to the city.
• Paris air quality was a problem for me but Chris didn’t notice it. There was the constant taint of exhaust in the air (and sometimes a visible pall) and though we walked and used the subway everywhere we went, traffic congestion was noticeable and constant.
• We never felt unsafe but we avoided the Eiffel Tour because of public warning announcements on the Batobus (the city riverboat system) that pickpockets were a special problem there on the days we were in Paris.
You can see more photos in an album on my Facebook page.