27 July 2009

Paris, Days Eleven + Twelve

We arrived in Paris with a museum strategy based on sage advice from several friends. We picked up a two day museum pass so we wouldn't have to wait in lines at ticket booths and we'd save some money. We chose a mix of one major museum and then one or two smaller ones for each day. We followed instructions, to the letter, about how and when to arrive at the Louvre. We carefully planned meals and other sightseeing opportunities around our museum schedule. We're never this regimented when we travel, but we wanted to squeeze a lot into four short days in Paris.

Sunday was our "lighter" day. We planned for only two museums because we wanted to leave time for the Tour de France's last stage. We started our morning with a traditional French breakfast at a café near our hotel-- coffee, juice, a croissant, and a piece of baguette with sweet butter and jam.
Then we walked to the Pantheon, which is just a few steps from our hotel's front door. Despite its imposing size, the Panthéon is an easy place to visit when you're pressed for time. The displays are pretty spectacular, but they're large and there's plenty of room to see them from all sides. On the main level, you can't miss Foucault's Pendulum.
Foucault suspended his pendulum here in 1851 to demonstrate the Earth's rotation on its axis. Down below, there are a series of tombs where France honors many of her most notable citizens. There are so many famous names here, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie and Pierre Curie, Alexandre Dumas, and Victor Hugo.

From the Panthéon, we hopped on the Metro and traveled to the Musée d'Orsay. Nothing prepared us for the throngs of people clustered outside the entrance, but our museum passes pretty much paid for themselves when we realized that all of those people were waiting to buy tickets and we could walk right through the door. Within moments, we were through security and in the spectacular lobby. The Musée d'Orsay is enormous, and we knew we didn't have time to see eveything, so we honed in on the galleries that were most important to us: the impressionist and post-impressionist art. The collection here is world class; in any city but Paris, this would be "the" museum. The Van Gogh and Matisse galleries were fabulous-- so fabulous that we could barely get through the thick crowds of eager people to see the paintings. When we found a door to an outside terrace, it was a welcome respite from all that humanity. We soaked up the view for a bit, then took a deep breath and headed toward the Post-Impressionist galleries to see the Rousseaus. Nothing was as crowded as the impressionist galleries, but the Musée d'Orsay in July felt a bit too much like the mall on December 24th. We beat a hasty retreat and crossed the Seine to get a glimpse of the Tour de France. If spectators were rooting for any particular cyclists, we couldn't tell. The crowd was a sea of bright yellow T-Shirts and flags, all with the same logo. It's a pretty unique sight! We must have walked a couple of kilometers just to loop around the end of the course and buy a couple of t-shirts of our own.

By the time we made it back to the hotel, we were absolutely exhausted. We had a 7PM dinner (very geriatric by Paris standards) at Café Soufflot, a small spot in the latin quarter that's popular with students. We chose it because it felt right-- it was nearby, simple, and cheap, but it had something wonderful that we didn't anticipate-- gruff French waiters. Our waiter wanted to dislike us, we knew he did, but we charmed the pants off him with our earnest attempts to speak French. At some point between aperitifs and the main course, he not only smiled, but met us half-way in English. We enjoyed the place so much that we returned the next morning for petit dejeuner.

People. Everywhere.

We woke up early on Monday morning, had coffee and croissants, and took the Metro to the Louvre. We expected crowds, but we took every precaution: we had our museum passes so we wouldn't have to buy tickets, and we would enter through the Metro station instead of through the palace doors.


If the Musee d'Orsay was the mall on Christmas Eve, then the Louvre was Times Square on New Year's Eve. The heat radiating from the thousands of bodies in the grand lobby was palpable. To their credit, the French have developed a pretty efficient infrastructure to deal with tens of thousands of clueless tourists every day, but still, it's a goat rodeo in there - an ant farm of tourists. People milling about in every direction, huge mobs clustered around the most famous works of art. The worst placement in the Louvre has to be on the wall opposite the Mona Lisa - in that gallery, NO ONE is there for anything but that smiling lady.

We might sound cranky about the crowds, and there's no question that mobs of tourists detract from the overall experience here - but hey, we're part of the problem, so there's no particular point in grumbling about it. We experienced similar mobs at the base of the Eiffel Tower and wandering along the Champs Elysees - fortunately, we have roughly equal tolerances for such things, and it usually doesn't take more than a shared glance for us to mutually agree it's time to bail.

One place we absolutely didn't need to escape from was the L'Orangerie, a smallish museum located not far from the Louvre at the other end of the Tuilleries Gardens. It's a simple and elegant structure, specifically remodeled to showcase Claude Monet's "Waterlilies" series. The paintings are actually a set of eight large murals and are displayed in two very plain oval rooms containing four murals each. The paintings actually curve around 360 degrees of the room (with a couple of gaps for entry/exit hallways), giving the viewer a sense of being completely surrounded by the scene. The lighting is soft and diffuse, the crowds mercifully small and quiet... all in all, a spectacularly successful exhibit. The rest of the museum downstairs is similarly spare and elegant, housing a nice collection showing the influence of Picasso on his contemporaries. We loved the low-key vibe and great collection at L'Orangerie, and would highly recommend it to anyone visiting Paris.

It was gray and cool out for a change, so we decided to skip the metro and walk 2 km from L'Orangerie to our next stop, Ste. Chappelle. Ste. Chappelle is an almost eight hundred year old Gothic chapel on the Île de la Cité, very close to Notre Dame. As we crossed the Seine, we felt few light drops. Moments after we stepped off the bridge on to the left bank, the drizzle turned into a downpour. An umbrella would have been nice (both of ours were in our luggage at the hotel) but with the rest of Paris taking refuge in cafés and under awnings, we sort of liked that we had the streets to ourselves. There were a handful of bookinistes peddling posters, tchotchkes, and assorted souvenirs, so we had some diversions on the way.

We've seen our share of churches on this trip, but nothing like Ste. Chappelle. From inside, it feels like the entire structure is made from stained glass.

From Ste. Chappelle we walked another kilometer or so back to our hotel, and then kicked up our sore, soggy feet and relaxed for a couple of hours before dinner at Willi's Wine Bar in the first arrondisement. "Willi"is Mark Williamson, an American expat who's been in Paris for decades. His wine bar is a favorite among locals and tourists alike. We expected a pretty casual meal, which it was, but the food was outrageously good and the wine list was excellent.

Tune in tomorrow for Paris pizza, the Eiffel tower, and the pigeon that fell from the sky on to a horrified tourist's croque monsieur.

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