The 21 hours from Lisbon to Paris were very comfortable. The Sud Express runs from Lisbon to Hendaye in Southern France and links up with the TGV Atlantic that runs to Paris. I splurged and stayed in a cabin on the Sud Express as I had become accustomed to the comfort of these trains in Spain and didn’t relish the idea of trying to sleep in a seat. The splurge was well worth it as Portuguese Railways was just as comfortable as the Spanish train and even provided a small bottle of Port to help me enter the dream world.
I spent 4 nights in the Latin Quarter of Paris not too far from Notre Dame Cathedral, Sorbonne University and the museums. I had been warned repeatedly not to expect too much in Paris and so was prepared for a mediocre experience. However, Paris, while not as welcoming or as friendly as Lisbon turned out to be much better than I had anticipated (no strikes or snooty waiters), and so I really enjoyed my time there.
My first morning there I hit the pavement and did the Historic Paris Walk a la Rick Steves’ guidebook. I visited Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the finest examples of Gothic architecture anywhere, the Latin Quarter’s artsy area near the Seine, Sorbonne, the Cluny Museum and a few other areas on the Ile de Cite island in the middle of the Seine. Next stop the Louvre Museum and Mona Lisa.
The Louvre and contents are world famous. This results in huge crowds all year coming to see Venus De Milo and Mona Lisa. I was able to get inside quickly using the Museum Pass (don’t leave your hotel without it!), but this did not diminish the crowds inside. A quick tour through Ancient Egypt and Greece, pass the Winged Victory of Samothrace brings you the first sea of heads below the armless Venus De Milo. This Goddess of Love dates from 100 BC and is one of the only truly Greek Statues that has been uncovered. A click of the camera, a U turn, up the stairs to the Italian Renaissance Floor. This floor has more of the same type of art work that I had seen through Italy and at the Prado in Madrid. The real prize is Mona Lisa at the end of the hall.
I continue, the anticipation builds, a rope is placed down the middle of the hall in order to quickly channel the crowds pass Mona Lisa. I turn right and there she is! Hmm, is this it! I had been warned that it is not as impressive as one would think. Actually, it is an impressive painting, but the problem is that it is not displayed as it should be. The painting is rather small and would be much more suitable for display in my living room than in a huge glass case with a metal railing 4 feet in front of it. Added to this poor arrangement is the fact that there doesn’t seem to be any restrictions on using a flash to take pictures of Mona Lisa. This results in cameras and flashes going off every few seconds which seriously detract from the enjoyment of the painting. Of course, the only thing sadder than the melancholic smile on Mona Lisa is the look on the people’s faces when they see that their photograph of Mona Lisa has a nice large white spot right in the middle of her face.
There are of course lots of excellent art and sculptures in the Louvre, and the building itself, a former palace, is definitely worth visiting. I found the exhibits of Persian tile mosaics, that were a few thousand years old, and the crown jewels of the French Royalty to be extremely impressive. The Louvre also has a large collection of works by French Painters up to the mid 18th century that are also worth looking at, and provide the background for the progression of art from the Renaissance to the Impressionists that would follow. More information on the Louvre can be found here.
The next stop on the art history tour is the Orsay Museum. This holds the finest collection of Impressionist and Post Impressionist work by Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Degas etc. This was also the most relaxed museum I had been in, and was the sort of place you could hang out in all day. The museum was opened in 1986 and is in an old converted train station. I knew very little about the Impressionists and so this museum provided a great education in this type of art and the progression from the Renaissance 3D realism to Impressionism which uses fewer colors, broader, thicker strokes to quickly form an image of an impression that the artist saw. This style was initially ridiculed as being childlike by the “Academy”, but was soon accepted by the public. This lead to acceptance by the establishment, and today they have their own world class museum. Click here for more information on this museum.
The final stop on the art history tour was on the other side of the Seine at the Pompidou museum. This museum features 20th century art and design. While this is an excellent building, a lot of the art work requires interpretation skills that a novice like me does not possess. Here we find the collections of what looks like paint thrown on the canvas, as well as monochromatic paintings, or my favourite, a purple square on a green background. These three museums quite clearly demonstrate that western art has progressed from the camera like realism of Mona Lisa through the Impressionist thick stroke of Van Goghs’ self-portrait to Picasso’s cubism to purple square on a green background. Each progression in genre requiring the viewer to have more sophisticated skills of interpretation – guess I am not too sophisticated!
But Paris is much more than art museums. The wide boulevards, cafes and monuments create an incredibly well planned urban environment. I complemented the visits to museums by walking the streets of Paris, stopping at the Arc d’Triomphe, Napoleon’s Crypt in the Palace d’Invalides, the Rodin museum, the Sainte Chapelle Cathedral as well as a few creperies along the way. A good but hazy view of Paris was offered from the Eiffel Tower. From there, the handy work of Baron Hausmann, appointed by Napoleon to redesign and modernize the layout of the Paris, is clearly visible. Haussman had carte blanche to destroy neighbourhoods and then rebuild the city with wide boulevards, 5 storey apartment blocks, modern sewer systems, and more bridges across the Seine. All of this he accomplished within 17 years during the middle nineteenth century. The Paris of today is largely the result of this man’s autocratic planning 150 years ago.
I completed my Palace tour with a trip to Versailles, the former home of French kings and Napoleon. This is a huge complex, worthy of kings, and noted for its hall of mirrors between the King and Queen’s wings, and which was a revolutionary room at the time it was built, since no one had ever seen so many large mirrors assembled in one location before. More information on Versailles is available here.
No visit to Paris would be complete without visiting a night club or cabaret. For the final night of the trip, I went on a tour of the city at night, followed by the new show Féerie at Moulin Rouge. This was an incredible show with 100 performers, doing the can-can, acrobatics, and even a dance routine in an aquarium with snakes! This was something to see, and compares very favourably with the shows produced by Cirque du Soleil.
What a finish to an incredible 60 days in Europe.