Exploring the city of lights
28.03.2012 - 04.04.2012
Paris is all about looking good. The Parisiens take pride in their appearance, and their city is no exception. Parks are beautifully manicured, streets are lined with neatly groomed trees, and buildings appear clean and tidy. Paris is a beauty to be admired. We arrived into Paris by train, pulling into Gare Staint Lazare in the early afternoon. After negotiating the metro (it's no London Underground, but it still works!), we arrived in the 7th arrondissement of Paris at the door of our rented apartment. Over time the French have perfected the “studio apartment”, and it seemed only fitting that we experienced Paris with some traditional French accommodation. After a quick run-down by the landlord, we were handed the keys and our Paris adventure could begin. As with London, we hit the jackpot with location, only 10 minutes walk from the Eiffel Tower and across the road from Les Invalides. Paris was ours for the taking.
You can't really visit Paris without seeing at least one museum or art gallery, they're inescapable. Our first couple of days really paid homage to this fact. The first item crossed of our list was Les Invalides and Napolean's Tomb. Napolean Bonaparte has had one of the greatest impacts on modern France. In fact the school system, military order and many of it's architectural wonders are legacies of his rule. It's hard to visit France without hearing something about Napolean, so it was only appropriate that we paid him a visit. His tomb, constructed posthumously, is nothing short of spectacular, with a huge domed ceiling and gigantic quartzite tomb. It's interesting to consider that, despite all his achievements, he was basically a military dictator (if a fairly benevolent one). Not yet tired, we followed up our first museum with a full day of museum-y goodness. Starting at Musee Rodin, a beautiful garden haven within the bustle of Paris, we continued on to the Musee D'Orsay. The building housing the Musee D'Orsay is almost as impressive as the collection itself. Built as a train station for the 1901 World Fair (along with the Eiffel Tower), the huge curved roof of the museum is still amazing to this day. The collection itself is nothing short of immense, with Monet to Van Gough and everyone in between. I would be lying if I said we saw everything. We finished our day with probably the least assuming, but by far the most beautiful of Paris' museums, Musee de L'orangerie. The museum houses Claude Monet's massive waterlily paintings (the canvases are so large they cover a whole wall each). Walking into the museum with the waterlillies on every side, it feels like you are entering a tranquil garden. Monet designed the museum, and donated the paintings, following the First World War to provide a site for reflection and calm within the city. The pervasive silence that fills the two painting galleries is testament to his success. We arrived back home happy, but exhausted. We had certainly been museumed out.
The following day we continued through our list of Paris sights. We started with churches, and although you would probably assume Notre Dame tops the lot, our favourite church was Sainte Chapelle. Located on Ile de la Cite and only a few minutes walk from Notre Dame, Sainte Chapelle has managed to escape the hoards which descend upon Paris' best known cathedral each day. But Sainte Chapelle is no less impressive. The tiny, intimate chapel is home to a whopping 60m2 of stained glass windows, making for an amazing sight, and, I think, topping anything you can see in Notre Dame. Ironically, our second favourite church was a church to science (though what can you expect from two biologists?!). The Pantheon was originally constructed by Louis XIV to commemorate St. Genivive (and out class Rome's St. Peter's Basilica whilst it was at it!), but following the French Revolution, and the official seperation of church and state, the church was converted into a shrine for great thinkers of the enlightenment. Despite a few changes over the years, the Pantheon today still serves its original purpose, housing the bodies of visionaries including Voltaire, Rousseau, Alexander Dumas and Marie and Pierre Curie. The use of a religious building for such a secular and irreligious purpose speaks volumes to influence that French Revolutionary ideals have had on modern France.
Of course a visit to Paris would not be complete without an obligatory visit to the Eiffel Tower. The view from the top is impressive, and really gives you a glimpse into the fine, ordered nature of central Paris, though the awe was tapered slightly by the chilly weather! We took advantage of the nice clear skies and also fitted in a visit to Monte Martre (massive tourist trap, but still beautiful), and the Arc de Triomphe (great view if you're okay with stairs!) to round off a day of Paris panoramas. The next day, with our museum tolerance recharged we headed to Musee Louvre. There's not much you can say about the Louvre that would do it justice. Like the British Museum, it houses a piece from just about every location and time period concievable. Navigating through the collection is akin to navigating a maze, but one where each turn sends you spiraling to another point in time. The Egyptian section and Hammurabi's Code of Laws were highlights, whilst the Mona Lisa, and the unwavering swarm of people 3 feet deep around her, could easily have been skipped. To escape from the tourist rush for a bit, we spent the rest of the day wandering Pere Lachaise cemetery. The cemetery has been operating since 1804, and has grown to be one of the more exclusive in Paris. Restrictions ensure that those interred there must have lived or died in the French capital, but this hasn't prevented a number of famous non-Parisiens from ending up among the cemeteries many streets, including Oscar Wilde, Chopin and Jim Morrison. With beautiful old trees, and crumbling old tombs, Pere Lachaise has a beauty about it that many austere modern cemeteries lack. It is a place for quiet reflection on life.
We left Paris feeling very cultured, but ready to take a break from museums! Although art musuems are fantastic collections of human expression through the ages, sometimes I can't help but feel that I'm missing something. Some people seem to be able to stand in front of a work of art, gesturing, discussing and postulating animatedly, for many minutes. I sometimes feel as though I'm looking at one of those magic eye pictures, where the real image is hidden until you look at it just right. Of course the paintings are beautiful, and the skill required to render such impressive works is truly astonishing, but I can't really find enough in them to have an animated discussion. Maybe I'm just not looking at them the right way. Perhaps when I've recharged my museum batteries I'll be able to find out!
Some observations from Paris:
1. Every second Parisien owns a dog.
2. You're dog may go anywhere you do, and you're under no obligation to clean up after it!
3. No attraction is too sacred to be exempt from a gift shop and souvenier coin machine (or two).
4. Whereever you go in downtown Paris, you'll probably still be able to see the Eiffel Tower.