Monday, November 8, 2010

Rain, writing and revolution

Another damp day in Pairs. As Marilyn says, Paris has worse weather than London, just better PR people. Undaunted, we began our day with café au lait et croissants, just like the locals, and then set off with a list of sights to see. First was Shakespeare & Co., Shakespeare and Company the famous old English bookshop on the left bank. In the 1920s the shop was a writers’ meeting place, with names such as Ezra Pound, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce being nurtured there. We arrived as they were opening up. There was a hand written sign in the window inviting us to a book reading tomorrow night, with a possible glimpse at the author’s work in progress, and a wine tasting afterwards. *sigh* My kind of bookshop

We walked on to Sainte Chapelle – I had insisted that Evan should see this, not describing why, because I wanted him to have the shock of surprise and amazement that must greet everyone who first sets eyes on this 13th century Gothic chapel. However, this was not to be, the shock of surprise and amazement being instead encountered at the length of the queue standing in the rain at the entrance. But this was a mere nothing compared to the queue waiting to enter the Louvre: it seems that entry is free on the first Sunday of the month, and today was the first Sunday of the month. We estimated the queue as at least half a kilometre in length, maybe more. It snaked the length of several courtyards of the massive Louvre buildings. In the rain, remember.

Thinking to return later, we looked on the bright side and set off cheerfully towards the Opera district and the Galeries Lafayette department store, for a little indoor warmth and Parisienne shopping. Alas, once again we underestimated the French. No shopping on Sundays. All was closed, and all we could do was view the rather tacky Christmas windows that the department store has installed (think Abba and dancing penguins). Now nearing a kind of squishy desperation, we descended into the Metro. You know things are bad up on top when the metro is a better alternative.

A roller in the Place des Vosges. Don't know
what is was doing there, but it looked
tres elegant.
However, turning a negative into a positive, we used our time wisely and taught ourselves show to use le metro. It was all happening down there: throngs of people (presumably all going to the Louvre); a woman busking on the train with an amplifier and American pop songs. Negotiating several changes and three different lines, we arrived in le Marais, in the 3rd arrondissement. I eventually led Evan to Place des Vosges which I assured him would be the place to be since it is (a) very beautiful, and (b) is blessed with colonnaded walkways (i.e. dry). I was shown to be correct on both counts. We squeezed into an overflowing bistro for some (rather disappointing) food and some French people-watching.

The bistro was called ‘Bistro Hugo’ and I wondered if Victor Hugo might be the reason – yes! He lived around the corner, and his house is now a museum. We toured la maison de Victor Hugo with audio guides, and learnt various disconnected factoids about the great French writer – such as that he lived in exile on Guernsey and Jersey for many years, that most of his children died before he did, that he had a long term mistress who loved the rather tasteless furniture he designed for her (Madame Hugo couldn’t stand the stuff), and that he wrote standing up. His standing-up writing desk is in the museum. The very desk on which ‘Les misérables’ may have been written!

Victor Hugo in maison de Victor Hugo
Emerging onto the streets – which remain narrow and crooked and interesting, having escaped the hand of Baron Haussmann  the civic planner who rebuilt swathes of Paris in the 19th century – we found lots of little boutiques: open for business! We also found a substitute museum without a queue, the Musee Carnavalet (entry free today too). In this pair of Marais townhouses is an historical museum that thinks at times that it is an art gallery. It houses scads of paintings and interior design articles, including whole rooms saved from buildings now vanished, arranged to give a history of Paris. “They sure have a lot of stuff here”, remarked Evan. Checking the brochure, I see that this is very true: 600,000 exhibits spread over more than 100 rooms. *phew!*

In a (somewhat futile) attempt to avoid museum-overload we concentrated on the exhibition relating to the French Revolution, and very fascinating it was too. The museum has little models of the dreaded guillotine, and paintings and artefacts about the terrible fate of small King Louis XVII, who died at ten years old after having been wrenched from the arms of his mother, Marie Antoinette, at eight years old and imprisoned. They have a lock of his hair. The displays are very extensive, and although mostly in French, Evan and I learnt a lot, from the storming of the Bastille to the Déclaration des droits de l'Homme et du Citoyen.
The storming of the Bastille 14th July 1789
La pyramide du Louvre
I am pleased to also report that we did eventually make it into the Louvre the Louvre , a couple of hours before closing. Of course we inspected the I. M. Pie pyramid, the once controversial modern entrance solution placed in the courtyard of the massive old palace (I like it). We also, like all good tourists, found Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa behind her bullet-proof glass. The crowds are kept so far away that it is not really possible to appreciate anything about the painting which could not be better appreciated from a good reproduction, but still. Then, continuing the de rigueur trail, we also found the Venus de Milo, otherwise known as the Aphrodite of Milos. She stands in a massive collection of marble people all snaffled from the ancient world. We also came across the bits of the Parthenon that the French nicked, including the head of one of the goddesses from the East Pediment whose body is in the British Museum. They are lovely things, but the thought of the 19th century colonialists squabbling over who could snaffle the best bits is, well, unedifying.

"The Mona Lisa" in her splendid isolation
The 'Venus de Milo' - Aphrodite who lost her
arms during her abduction from Milos

Thus ended our rainy day in Paris, and I must say that we were content with what we managed to achieve despite the weather gods being unhelpful. Our walk back to the left bank in the evening was rain-free and delightful, crossing the bridges across the Seine as the lights of Paris were illuminated. Très belle.

The Seine at night

Autumn in Paris
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