Our first full-day in Paris, we woke to frost on the windows, but were cozy in our apartment. While eating multi-grain bread and jam, hard-boiled eggs, and coffee, we studied the metro map, but based on our conversation with the American couple the night’s before, we realized we could easily walk to the Louvre. Bundled up in heavy clothing, with map in hand, we step out onto the street.
Looking right, then left, we noticed police barricades blocking off the street. Our apartment was across from the Sorbonne so I initially thought a diplomat was visiting the school. However, a female officer directed us to scamper up the street, past the police tape. Rich asked what was happening and she said “A packet. Bomba-boom.”
We shrugged, and continued walking. Five minutes later, we heard an explosion. I couldn’t find anything on the Internet about the occurrence so perhaps the police found a suspicious package, maybe a backpack, and blew it up.
Outside of this non-incident, we encountered nothing more serious in Paris than watching police cars, sirens screeching, blue lights flashing, zooming down the streets, and making sharp turns to respond to calls.
The moment you step onto a Parisian street, it’s hard not to be in awe of the magnificent buildings. Fifteenth and sixteenth century, multi-story apartments line every street, each with ornate balconies and wrought iron, plasterwork, and elegant woodwork. Taking up full-blocks are baroque municipal and administrative buildings, along with museums and palaces. At street-level are cafes, pastry shops, boulangeries (bakeries), neighborhood grocery stores, coffee shops, boutiques, and florists. Every type of food you can imagine – from traditional French to Middle Eastern – is within walking distance, with many having sidewalk seating with small round tables, and dainty chairs.
Some of these dining areas are under awnings or in clear-plastic canopies with freestanding heaters, making sidewalk dining pleasant (or at least tolerable) during incremental weather. It was surprising to see how many people where eating outside, even though it barely 30-degrees the entire time we were in Paris.
Even more surprising is how many restaurateurs leave their tables and chairs on the sidewalk with no security! We’d start our day early in the morning, and were astonished to see how many cafes cleaned up from the night before, and left everything in place, including salt and pepper shakers, and other condiments on the tables. Most of the outdoor furniture was very nice wicker or metal chairs and marble-or tile-topped bistro tables.
In-between the buildings are magnificent statues, fountains, and gardens. One of my favorites was Fontaine Saint-Michel, a few-minute walk from our apartment. Also mixed in with the buildings were historical churches, usually with a cobblestone plaza and seating areas for outdoor events.
The streets are filled with residents shopping, going for a walk or catching the metro, workers with knapsacks and brief cases, baby strollers being pushed by young mothers, dogs on leashes, youngsters dashing to school, university students, deliverymen pushing carts of foods, and tourists. There’s a glorious synergy that adds to the beauty and historical significance of the surroundings. And with it being the holiday season, there were decorations on balconies, strung across streets, and in storefronts.
Early in the morning, Paris streets are quiet with a couple of cars and buses. The pace picks up as the morning progresses. Unlike many American cities, rush hour doesn’t start until around 9 a.m. when people descend onto the streets. By mid-day, the streets are packed with small, economy cars, handful of full-sized cars, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, small delivery trucks, buses, and economy-sized police cars, usually with bright blue lights flashing on top.
Among the pedestrians are police, usually in groups of four. In the metro stations and at major tourist sites, such as Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower, Luxembourg Palace, and the Louvre, were heavily armed soldiers with automatic weapons held tightly against their chests. They walk somberly in fours, making no eye contact, yet keenly aware of their surroundings. It was intimidating and reassuring at the same time!
Knowing Paris has a very low crime rate, as compared to America, we never felt insecure.
To reach the Louvre, we needed to cross the Seine River. We walked along the bank by the houseboats, most screened by pots of bamboo and tall bushes. Many had flat patios with outdoor furniture. Several had sculptures and other artwork.
Ambling along the cobblestone riverfront, we passed under several historical bridges with ornate plasterwork. We cross to the Right Bank of the Seine, using the Pont des Arts Bridge, which is known for lovers leaving padlocks on the bridge’s iron grillwork, and then dropping the keys into the river to signify their everlasting love. In June 2015, an estimated 45 tons of locks were removed because the weight was compromising the integrity of the bridge.
There are still quite a few padlocks on the lamp posts and other structures in the area, but nothing like the mass of locks a few years ago.
The Louvre can be summed up in a few words, “Breathtaking. Surreal. Glorious. Essence of mankind.”
Breathtaking. The Louvre would take up several New York City-sized blocks. It’s been expanded several times, and is considered the world’s largest museum, 782,910 square feet with nearly 35,000 objects from prehistory to the 21st century. There are several exhibits, spanning three large buildings with a courtyard in the middle. Check out this map.
If you were to remove all of the art, it would still be impressive, with ornately decorated rooms – when it was the residence of French royalty in the 1500’s – dramatic, sky-lit galleries, and courtyards with marble Doric columns, mosaic floors, and grand staircases.
The outside, which is a bit grimy from Paris pollution, disguises what’s inside. You enter the Louvre by descending down an escalator in a large glass pyramid in the center of the complex. While there are hordes of people, it doesn’t feel claustrophobic.
Having arrived at the museum when it opened, we had no problem securing a locker (which are free), and stashing our heavy coats and other items we didn’t need for the day.
We’d purchased our tickets in advance, and also got the audio guide. It took a little while to figure out how to use the tablet, which has an interactive map, and follows you from gallery-to-gallery. We finally resorted to looking for the icons, which indicated a piece of art had an associated commentary, and then typing the number into the tablet.
Because of the size of the Louvre, and galleries, which branch-off in all directions, we kinda’ wandered, and probably only saw 60% of the museum in the seven hours we were there. In that time, we didn’t eat or stop to pee even once… we were fascinated by each room, and didn’t want to waste time on extraneous activities!
Surreal. The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese is the largest painting in the Louvre. It’s over 22 feet high by nearly 33 feet wide, and was commission on June 6 1562 to decorate the new refectory of the Benedictine Basilica of San Giorgio Maggiore in Venice. Veronese received 324 ducats, personal and domestic maintenance, and a barrel of wine in payment for 15 months of work.
The painting, which depicts the wedding banquet in which Jesus converts water to wine, is just one of dozens of gigantic paintings at the Louvre. You could spend several minutes studying and absorbing the many details in these paintings. And then after listening to the commentary, further contemplate what’s portrayed, and how the artist worked in such large scale, the amount of paint required, and the logistics of producing something so large by natural and candle light.
These large paintings are a soupcon when it came to the vast number of remarkable paintings of every size, style, subject, and technique in the Louvre. The museum is filled with hundreds of famous masterpieces. I’d walk a few steps or turn a corner, and immediately recognize a painting such An Old Man and his Grandson by Domenico Ghirlandaio, La Grande Odalisque by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, and Whistler’s Mother by James McNeill Whistler.
Or reading the description, I’d realize I was standing in front of a Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt, Delacroix, Rubens, Vermeer, Botticelli, or other notable painter.
While the Mona Lisa attracted a large crowd, it wasn’t particularly noteworthy (sorry). One of my favorite paintings was of man and a child, holding a candle. The painting perfectly captured the light of the candle shining through the child’s hand. I also “geeked-out” over Eugene Delacroix’s paintings. Every canvas, by this French artist, was full of emotion, painted in confident strokes in bright colors. Here’s Liberty Leading the People.
Equally surreal was the breadth of sculptures, statues, sarcophagus, pottery, ceramics, glass, engravings, prints, and other artifacts from around the world. Once again, many of the pieces I recognized, such as the carved Venus de Milo and Winged Victory of Samothrace
Because of the size of the Louvre, they can display large objects that wouldn’t fit in most museums, such as a Phoenician cistern built on the acropolis of Amathus. It was 1.9 meters (6.2 feet) high by 3.2 meters (10.5 feet) deep, and was used for holding huge amounts of water necessary for rituals held in the temples.
Glorious. Religion is a common theme in art because spiritual institutions were integral to most early societies. The support and funding for depicting religious icons, stories, and practices therefore came from political and religious leaders, government entities, and wealthy patrons.
In addition, if a society wanted to advocate specific religious worship and practices, along with the history or perhaps mythology behind these rituals then creating works of art to indoctrinate the populace was a reasonable approach.
The earliest art was cave drawings, created around 35,000 years ago, during the last stage of Paleolithic. In the “History of Art” by H.W. Janson, it’s hypothesized the cave drawings at Lascaux, France were produced as a part of a magic ritual. The drawings, located deep within the cave, and only accessible by crawling on ones hands and knees, show animals superimposed on each other. What’s portrayed is believed to be the animals and its spirit upon death.
Advancing thousands of years to prehistoric Catal Huyuk in Anatolia, Turkey. Excavations found plaster-covered walls with paintings of animal hunts with the male deity – a stag or bull – ritually scarified, and animals associated with female deities displayed in a more rigid manner, implying fertility.
Also found in Catal Huyuk, near what is believed to be shrines, were female figurines, carved and molded from marble, blue and brown limestone, schist, calcite, basalt, alabaster, and clay, which represent a female deity. Some of these figurines were found in grain bins, which suggests they were put there to help ensure a good harvest or protect the food supply.
Highly developed Egyptian art, between 3000 and 5000 B.C., focused on the Pharaoh, not only as a king, but god whose dynasty was honored by the building of tombs, and the furtherance of the belief life on earth was merely a path to death. This preoccupation of death lead to funerary customs and art.
As we wandered through the galleries, much of what we saw had a religious, spiritual or mythical significance. Greek statues were of gods. Steles, hieroglyphics, and tomb provided an insight into Near East, Egyptian, Greek, and Roman practices. European paintings, stained glass, wooden carvings, and metal work focused on Christianity. And archaeological findings showcased how ancient civilizations worshiped.
I wondered why there are so many artifacts and paintings in the Louvre were associated with Christianity. Initially, the museum was a fortress built in the late 12th century to protect the city from possible Viking attacks. In the 14th century, Charles V converted the building into a residence and in 1546, Francis I renovated the site in French Renaissance style, and began acquiring notable works of art, including Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa.
After Louis XIV chose Versailles as his residence in 1682, the Louvre was occupied by artists who haphazardly hung pictures, frame-to-frame, and ceiling-to-floor. The Gallery of the Louvre by Samuel Morse, show how it might have appeared. By the time the museum opened to the public – for three days per week — in August 1793, the paintings by unknown (or undistinguished) painters were removed. The collection, at the time, included 537 paintings and 184 objective of art, three quarters of which were from the royal collections, and the remainder confiscated emigres and Church property.
Essence of mankind. Nature produces extraordinary beauty from a chubby bumblebee gathering pollen from a flaxen sunflower to an azure Mediterranean bay and the turning leaves in a gentle breeze. For the most part, man has little control over the realization of these marvels.
Art, however, is purposeful. It’s the essence of mankind.
To create a painting requires not just the talent of the artist, but harvesting and weaving linen to make a canvas; milling and shaping wood to produce the frame on which to stretch the linen; whittling to create the paintbrush handle, and later decorative picture frame; collecting hair from a boar, horse, ox, or other animal to make the brush, and fabricating paint from eggs (tempera) or natural oils (linseed, walnut, poppy seed) and ground pigments. To gather these supplies wasn’t as easy as zipping to the local hobby store. There were artisans who specialized in producing canvases, brushes, paints, and frames.
The sculptor starts with a block of marble or other material, which is quarried. He must use his imagination, skill, and tools to create the final piece. The glassblower must use fire in a made-made oven, along with hardened steel tool to turn sand (silica) into beautiful glass pieces. Even a woodwork must source and carefully dry thick tree branches and trunks, and then use tools to produce ornate woodwork, furniture, chests, and musical instruments.
The jeweler had to source raw gems, which were cut, polished, and set in fine metals to produce exquisite necklaces, earrings, rings, and crowns. The metalsmith was equally skilled, understanding how to blend and melt raw materials then use his muscle to pound the molten blob into swords, challises, cups, plates, silverware, pitchers, and more.
Everything in the Louvre, from the elegant rooms to the artwork was created by man, from prehistory Greek (6500 BC) to 1900 America. The galleries are a pageantry of man’s ingenuity, creativity, determination, and innovation.
Finally, with antiquities being threatened by conflicts, such as the recent destruction of the façade of a second-century Roman amphitheater in the historic city of Palmyra, Syria by Islamic State militants, museum like the Louvre are able to preserve valuable artifacts for future generations.
During World War II, the museum removed most of the art and hid valuable pieces in various estates throughout France. The collection was preserved and returned to the Louvre following the war. To further expand their collection and bring art to the people, the Louvre has several satellite museums in Lens France and Abu Dhabi.
Onto the Arc de Triomphe
Determined to maximize our time in Paris, after seven hours at the Louvre, we journeyed outside, through the Tuileries Garden and Place de la Concorde, which is Paris’ oldest and largest public park, and also the site of public executions, including the beheading of King Louis XVI. Today, it’s filled with residents, tourists, and vendors hawking hats, purses, mini Eiffel Towers, lighted whirly-gigs, and other trinkets (and trash). There are also men pushing carts with small portal propane heaters, and large circular metal trays on top, roasting chestnuts, which are sold in paper cups.
Finding his baseball cap insufficient for the 20-degree weather, Rich purchased a fleece-lined knitted camp for 10 euros from one of the vendors. He was delighted with his warm purchase, which he wore throughout the rest of our trip!
Located in the center of Place de la Concorde is the Luxor Obelisk, a gift from the Vice King of Egypt to King Charles X of France. The 3,000 year old, 75-foot tall obelisk is decorated with gold hieroglyphs, and was originally located at the entrance to Luxor Temple in Egypt. Sixteen, full-sized baboons, used to be at the base of the obelisk, but they were deemed inappropriate for public display, and four now reside in the Egyptian section of the Louvre.
Avenue des Champs-Elysees starts at the edge of Place de la Concorde. Prior to reaching the boulevard, we had to venture through a carnival area with a large Ferris wheel, and many giggling children, their parents steps away.
At the start of Champs-Elysees was Les Marche de Noel, a large outdoor holiday market with dozens and dozens of booths on both sides of the avenue and shoulder-to-shoulder revelers. Even though we hadn’t eaten since breakfast, Rich didn’t want to stop. I was therefore forced to tuck in my tongue, and wipe the dribble cascading down my chin as we passed by booths of cheese, cured meats, breads, pastries, macarons, chocolates, candies, crepes, beignets, gyros, churros, hot chocolate scooped from vats of warm magic, gelato, and in a food court, sandwiches, sausages, snails, exotic meats, wines, beers, and other goodies.
Other booths were selling everything from Christmas ornaments to jewelry, toys, scarfs, clothing, Russian nesting dolls, and of course, tourist items.
Rich was finally lured by one booth with platters of rounded confections, about 3 inches high by 1.5 inches wide, coated in varying chocolates and sprinkles. Rich choose eight for ten euros, two each coconut, lime, chocolate, and rum. Under the blanket of chocolate was a mound of fluffy crème, not as sticky as marshmallow, but not as delicate as whipped cream either. It was amazingly decedent. It took several bites to reach the small waffle at the bottom, anchoring the mound of creamy delight.
Reasoning we should taste each flavor, Rich pulled two more out of the bag… and then decided he didn’t want to be burdened with carrying the rest… so we polished off eight, insanely rich, sugary, creamy wonderments in about ten minutes flat. Burp.
Check out the pictures of Marche de Noel on Yelp.
We continued down Champs-Elysees, past name-brand stores with throngs of people peaking in the windows or moseying to their next destination. Along with having to dart around families with strollers were beggars, sitting against the store, under blankets with homemade signs, sharing their circumstances. Many claimed to be Syrian refugees with women and children looking forlorn, hoping to get a few euros. Others were simply down-on-their-luck. It was heartbreaking, especially with it being in the low 20’s.
While I expected to be impressed with the stores on Champs-Elysees, they were similar to what you’d find in downtown Bellevue, Seattle or other upscale downtown area. We passed by Louis Vuitton, Banana Republic, Sephora, Levi’s, Gap, Zara, Abercrombie Fitch, H&M, Hugo Boss, Tiffany & Co, and Lacoste, along with several car dealerships, including Toyota, Citroen, and Renault. It was unexpected to peak into a window and see cars for sale. We’re so used to large suburban car lots where you can see a manufacturer’s breadth of models in every color, and accessory package.
As we made our way down the very crowded avenue, we kept a look-out for a bathroom, but public bathrooms in Paris are an oxymoron. You can pay to use a bathroom, order food at a restaurant and use theirs, or pretend you don’t have to go. We chose the latter as we trudged to the Arc de Triomphe, a monument to the soldiers who died in the Napoleonic and French Revolution Wars.
You can walk through the “feet” of the arc, which is 50 meters (164 feet) high. For a fee, you can climb the stairs to the top and see a panoramic view of Paris. With it being very cold and foggy, we opted to walk through and around the arc. I tried to take pictures, but it was dark and crazy with non-ending traffic. Plus, I was on a mission to get nourishing food.
Even though Champs-Elysees is packed with stores, there are surprisingly few places to eat. We found a quiet Italian restaurant down a side street, and were happy to warm-up. We were seated by the windows, away from the other patrons, which was fine since we needed a respite from the crowds. I ordered fresh tomato sauce with basil, and Rich chose pasta carbonara, which is typically made from eggs, bacon, and sprinkle of chili peppers, and fresh-cracked paper. What arrived was a cream sauce with chunks of ham. My pasta had a ladle of tomato sauce with a sprig of basil. Rich couldn’t stomach the cream so we traded dishes.
For the price, it was a disappointment. At least, we got a basket of bread!
We started the long trek back to our apartment, passing by the brightly lit up Musee du Petit Palais and Musee du Grand Palais. Both are magnificent buildings, and no doubt have amazing exhibits. If we return to Paris (fingers crossed), we’ll be sure to visit them.
Because Paris streets are magical, the walk back was pleasant, past busy cafes and coffee shops, bustling neighborhood grocery stores, patisseries and boulangeries (baguettes and other breads are very inexpensive and people see to purchase them on a daily basis), tall apartment with lights in the windows and people going about their lives, and pedestrians in heavy coats, scarves, hats, and gloves with shopping bags, dashing home or talking with friends.
As we got closer to our apartment, Rich decided we needed more coffee so we zipped into a Starbucks for Americanos (espresso with hot water). The condiments area, however, didn’t have any milk or half-and-half. Rich asked for some, and they handed him a carton of milk! The idea of having large cups of coffee with splashes of milk, as opposed to dainty cups of espresso, cappuccino, and coffee au lait, is evidently unusual, except at a Starbucks!
Fearing the apartment’s itty-bitty elevator, we took the staircase up to our fourth floor apartment. The entry and staircase of the five-story building is white marble. It was fun walking up the tight circular staircase on pie-slice shaped stairs. When you reach the top, you’re a bit woozy, and proud that you made it to the top before the lights go out. To conserve energy, the lights in the entry, hallways, and staircase automatically turned off after a few minutes. You need to strategically turn on the lights, otherwise you’re left in the pitch dark since there are no windows to the outside, except inside the apartments.
Having walked for miles, we slept soundly, ready for another day in Paris.