Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Paris: Louvre, Champs Elysees and the Arc De Triomphe

Obviously (for reasons given before :-) ) the day began fairly late. The apartment was fairly close to a host of Parisian attractions. The Seine river, the Louvre, the Notre Dame were all within walking distance. For anybody who came visiting, this apartment was a godsend. Our IIMC guys who lived there, didn’t have it quite so good though (we felt). Rawal, Chiru, Paritosh and Harsh had to travel about 1.5 hours one way every day to reach their college and spent 100 euro a month on traveling. In addition they also paid the monstrous rent of 1300 euro for a fairly small space. Maybe it looked small when Rawal and Chiru were both inside :-) But as I said, it was a great place for us to stay! And the six of spent some fun times there - chatting, cooking, eating and drinking :-)

We planned to cover 2-3 places that day itself. We had done a bit of homework before coming and we knew what places we wanted to see. A guide book and instructions from Celia (a Parisian from our class – the same one who told us about Reaumur Sebastopol) formed the basis of our iternary. The Louvre, Notredame, Arc De Triomphe, the Eiffel Tower were most certainly on the list. We also wanted to see a couple of other famous Parisian areas which were otherwise glossed over by Indian visitors. The Montmartre area (pronounced as mu-makhth, no kidding), a bustling beehive of artists, street performers and tourists was one of them. The elegant church of Sacre Coeur could also be found in Montmartre. Another charming area was the Quartiere Latin, a warren of old structures and small picturesque lanes. Since the apartment was so central, we could walk it up today. Little did we know that we would end up covering half of Paris on foot!!

The corner of Rue Reaumur and Rue Sebastopole. This is where our walking tour started

We decided to cover the Louvre first and then go to the Notredame. It was a cold, windy and gloomy day. The Louvre we knew would take us a while and that too if we really really curtailed our explorations. People take weeks and months to cover the Louvre. We of course didn’t have that kind of luxury. But I really wish we could have spent at least one whole day to ‘do’ the Louvre.

We reached a bit late, since we managed to get lost on the way. But once we reached it, the long façade of the majestic former royal palace was unmistakable. Also unmistakable was the controversial tall glass pyramid that graces the centre of the vast main courtyard. I still haven’t made up my mind about this pyramid. It looks fairly good when you see it in isolation, even spectacular when you see it against the backdrop of the Louvre courtyard, especially at night. Nevertheless I don’t know whether it fits into the whole image of the Louvre. Of course who gives a damn what I think.

The Louvre main courtyard with the glass pyramid. The entrance is through the pyramid.

The outer courtyard with the long snaking queue clearly visible. Thousands come everyday to visit the largest and most famous museum in the world, and that day entry was free!!

Another thing that we couldn’t have possibly missed was the long serpentine queue inching its way forward. It was then that we realized that the day (1st Sunday of the month) had free entry to the Louvre. The entrance to the museum is under the glass pyramid, via a vast underground hall. Since the Mona Lisa is in the Denon wing (Richelieu and Sully being the other two), we made our way there. We also knew that some other famous artistic treasures were in the vicinity. Other than the Mona Lisa the two most famous works in the Louvre are the Winged Victory of Samothrace and the Venus De Milo.

The 'Winged Victory of Samothrace' or the 'Nike of Samothrace' depicting the Greek goddess of victory, spreading her arms (missing, along with her head) with the sea wind and spray whipping her garments across her body

Your first reaction on seeing all three of them could well be just a ‘Hmmm’. Not to say that they don’t look good (actually in the case of the Mona Lisa even that is not true) but you wonder if you would have looked at them again had you not known that they were famous. In order to get a better perspective you need to know that the two sculptures in question were made over 2000 years ago. Against that back drop they are indeed big accomplishments. I remember seeing the Winged Victory of Samothrace or the Nike of Samothrace (honestly we couldnt miss it as it stood at the top of the massive staircase) The sculpture does have that amazing quality of being alive. The same delicate features and stationary yet moving form we would again see in the Pieta by Michelangelo. Enough has already been said about the Mona Lisa and all I can say is that it is small and can't be clearly seen through the thick glass and the thicker crowd around it!

We followed the directions given in the museum and using the free layout map we made our way to the Italian masters paintings section. As we made our way across the never ending hallway it was but natural to be overwhelmed. Partly because there is so much to see and partly because we felt grossly under equipped to appreciate anything! Our sense for art was rustic to the hilt.

The Italian masters section or the 'salle de something' :-) Overwhelming to say the least!

We used Tirthankar’s Louvre guide book to find some of the famous paintings. Some of them were fabulous and probably we would have spotted them without the guide book to help us. Many others left us with mixed feelings of our own deficiencies regarding art or bewilderment as to how such a work could ever become famous. But nevertheless we could still make out a gradual evolution in the style of the paintings and their subjects. Most of the earlier paintings had only one theme – Jesus Christ. And more often than not the subject would be crucifixion. Moreover the paintings seemed amateurish, with block like figures and 2-D scenes. Paintings which did not depict Christ, would be about the royalty. The latter era paintings also borrowed heavily on themes from the Bible but the paintings were increasingly sophisticated. There were some paintings depicting scenes from common everyday life, or uncommon moments of common people. One superb painting (‘Raft of the Medusa’) shows a raft full of shipwrecked sailors at the moment when they have sighted a saviour ship. Another amazing painting is the ‘Wedding Feast at Cana’ which occupies one whole wall of a room. The amount of detail put into it makes it truly spectacular. The event is that of Jesus’s first miracle when he turned water into wine.

The painting 'Wedding feast of Cana', showing the event of a nobleman's wedding feast when Christ performed his first miracle turning water to wine. To appreciate the size see the East Asian (or chinky, to be politically incorrect) girl posing in front of the painting

True art aficionados could spend a lifetime in the Louvre. We on our part just stopped and looked at whatever appealed to us and of course made the ritual darshan of Mona Lisa. I also checked out the Madonna on the Rocks, also by Leonardo Da Vinci. Unfortunately we could hardly take any pics as it was officially not allowed. Knowing that we had to be super selective we decided to set specific things to see before we would just boot out of the place. One of them was Napoleon’s chambers. These former residences of the French dictator are worth a visit all for themselves. All that you can possibly imagine of grandeur is spread out for you to walk through. The dining room in particular typifies the royal excesses on display.

One of the rooms in Napoleon's royal residence at the Louvre

Napoleon's dining room. Mind your table manners!!

Meandering through the labyrinthine galleries of the Louvre was turning out to be very tiring. Somehow museums are very tiring. It was not as if I didn’t enjoy what I was seeing, but at that point all I wanted to do was sit. Added to that was a gnawing hunger inside the tummy, which prevented sitting. We needed to find food, and find it quick. But one of the disadvantages of a whirlwind tour is that you have to do maximum when you reach one place. So we needed to check out as much as we could of the surroundings of the Louvre. That over, we left to find some grub. That’s when we started disliking some of attitude that this city showed. All affordable eateries were closed on Sunday!! Given out meager budget we couldn’t afford to eat at any of the inviting road side cafes. In hind sight we probably should have. So we wandered around the streets of Paris, searching for food.

We finally did find it at one small bakery, where we ate a ham baguette. The setting for our meal couldn’t have been more European. We were sitting under a tree on one of the beautiful wrought iron benches that you will find lazily strewn across all of Europe. Yellow brown autumn leaves blew around in the breeze. Beside us sat an artist sketching a wrought iron gate and lamppost. On the other side a young couple was getting cozy. In front of us was a stall dishing out stuffed crepes. Next to it was a musical group playing on the sidewalk and a small crowd cheering it on. Behind the group was an old stone building covered with creepers. And light drops of rain had just started.

The musical group performing on the pavement

The creeper covered stone building, the gate of which the artist was busy sketching

Much as we wanted to sit and enjoy, getting wet on a cold October evening in Paris is not desirable. We were not sure what to do next. During our hunger struck wanderings we were supposedly very close to the Notre Dame, but we couldnt find it. So we decided to chuck the Notre Dame for the day, instead voting to check out the famous Champs Elysees and the Arc De Triomphe. The beginning of the Champs Elysees was very close to the Louvre, so we went back to the Louvre.

There we had a mini-disappointment. At the end of a small garden outside the Louvre there is a small arch built and which according to the map was Arc De Triomphe. We couldn’t quite understand how such a small insignificant thing could be the famous Arc De triomphe. Tirthankar was especially adamant that this couldn’t be the real one. Nevertheless we did click snaps with it.

The small fake Arc De Triomphe :-)

We then proceeded to the magnificent Champs Elysees, the massive road that runs through the heart of the city and which is the venue for many a popular gathering. And then it was confirmed that the arc we had seen earlier was a tiny fake arc. The real Arc De Triomphe stands proudly at the end of the Champs Elysees and cannot possiblybe missed from there!

The magnificient Champs Elysees with the Arc De Triomphe visible right at the end

The tree lined footpath on both sides of the Champs Elysees is bigger than many Indian roads. Some distance ahead their appeared fancy shops on the sides. We checked out the showroom of one French car maker, Renault or Peugeot. We took the customary shots of us sitting inside a very fancy car. Also wandered through one or two upscale departmental stores, doing loads of window shopping.

The tree lined walking area by the side of Champs Elysees

Sitting in a fancy car in a fancy car showroom (Renault or Peugeot, dont remember which one), one among the many fancy shops along the Champs Elysees

When we did reach the Arc we realized that there was no way in the world that we should have ever got confused. This arch was in the middle of a huge circular road with 12 avenues leading into it. The arch itself stands more than 150 feet in height and seems massive, which ever way you look at it. It had been a very long walk down the Champs Elysees, but it had been worth the effort.

The real Arc De Triomphe! Maybe its not clear here, but this monument is massive

We subjected our poor feet to another round of torture by climbing up the stairs to the top of the Arc, just to save a few euros. Euros nevertheless were a commodity in short supply, and if we didn’t watch out we would end up splurging like crazy.

Climbing up the long winding staircase of the Arc De Triomphe

Going to the top of the Arc De Triomphe has two benefits. One is the amazing view, second is the museum dedicated to the Arc. Well, it’s actually a Napoleon museum since the Arc is a monument dedicated to his military victory. The view as I said is amazing. You can see the different roads leading into the central circular one. On one side you can see the Eiffel Tower towering into the sky.

Two of the twelve avenues converging towards the Arc De Triomphe with the Eiffel Tower in the background

The lighted Eiffel tower sending a huge floodlight across the rain soaked gray sky

At that time the lights on the Eiffel tower were just turning on and a giant floodlight atop it was making giant arcs into the gray sky. What the view from top of the Eiffel would be, we could just imagine. The sky was turning a menacing gray now, and black clouds loomed out over the horizon. It was funny, we could actually see the clouds progressing through the sky, and more amazingly we could also see the rain as it progressed! In a short while it was extremely windy up there and it started pelting down raindrops. It was very chilly and after braving some moments of it, we quickly made our way for the warmth of the museum below. The museum was instructive, more so because it was not a unilateral dedication to the virtues of Napoleon. It highlighted his foibles and failures as well. It was an attitude we don’t often see in Indian official stands on historical figures and events. Here it is either good or bad most of the time. From there it was straight home for us, by the underground metro this time.

That basically ended our first day of sight seeing in mainland Europe. It was tiring but very very satisfying.


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