Today was an amazing day—a day of art. First Chris decided to soldier on even though her ankles and shins were starting to look like shining veins. We decided that today we would not be stupid. We already did that. No reason to repeat. We had signed up for a city tour of Paris. Such tours are usually whirlwind and unsatisfactory, but they are one way to see a lot of a city in one day when time was limited. A much better way to see a city was the way Chris and I did Florence in 2004. We spent 3 glorious weeks in Florence and never for one minute got tired of it. We did Florence well. Today, we did not do Paris so well, but it was still wonderful.
More than any other city in the world, Paris is the city of art. Parisians carry art in their blood. Parisians are not just passionate about art—Parisians are fused with art. To Parisians art is not just religion—it is much more important than that. Art is life.
In Paris they take to heart the admonition of Karl Kraus “in the presence of art reality is only an optical illusion.” Art is reality; the rest a pale pretence. I think the people of France would endorse fully what Nietzsche said, “we have art so we won’t perish of the truth.” We need art just like we need air, food or water.
Today we got to see art in Paris as we visited 2 of the greatest galleries of art in the world. Art makes the spiritual accessible, even for those who don’t believe in the spiritual in the ordinary sense of the word at least. Picasso knew this. He said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” This is why we need art. Parisians understand this better than citizens from any other city. Today we experienced that.
At breakfast I remarked that we had not yet encountered one snobby French person. How could that be? Were there no self-respecting Frenchmen left? To our surprise we did not meet one in our 3 days in Paris.
Our tour of Paris included the typical city tour by coach. Our first stop was at the Eiffel Tower (Tour Eiffel). When it was first built in 1889 Parisians did not like it. In fact many hated it. Many of them thought it did not fit into the City of Light. In fact to this day some call it the Awful Tower
It was the tallest building in the world after it was built until the Chrysler Building was built in 1930. Even though the building looks delicate—like lacework—it is built of solid iron and steel. It weighs 10,100 metric tonnes. The design is so solid that it never sways more than 9 cm. (3.5 in.) in strong winds. It is held together by a complex system of iron girders held together by 2.5 million rivets.
Near by we also saw and photographed the Tour St. Jacques. This is late Gothic tower that was built in 1523. The tower is all that is left of the old church of St. Jacques that at one time was the largest medieval church in Paris.
After that we drove through the Latin Quarter. I was thrilled to see Café de Flore. This was one of the famous cafés enjoyed by the existentialists that I got to love during my undergraduate years studying philosophy. These cafés were the places where existentialism was born and then vigorously debated by the philosophers as if philosophy was vitally important as I thought it was.
Café de Flore was a hang-out for artists and intellectuals including the brilliant Albert Camus and Jean-Paul Sartre. I would have loved to sit and watch them and listen to them argue about existentialism. Sartre’s partner Simone de Beauvoir often came with Sartre and it was in this café that they “more or less set-up house.”
We also drove by Café Magots that rivaled Café Flore in fame. Artists and philosopher who drank and dined here included Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and Andre Bréton. Picasso met his muse, Dora Maar here.
We saw the Palais de Justice. This is an enormous building that now house the French law courts. The judiciary in France dates back to Roman times. That is why so much French law is still based on Roman law. The current building though was a royal palace until the 14th century when Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor, moved the court to Marais. During the French Revolution thousands were condemned to be executed from the Premier Chambre Civile, reputed to be the bedroom of Louis IX.
After that we saw the glorious Notre-Dame Cathedral. Some have called this building “the heart of the country.” In many ways that is exactly what it is both geographically and spiritually. The foundation stone was laid on the site of an ancient Celtic altar by Pope Alexander III in 1163. An army of craftsmen toiled on the building for 170 years.
The church is considered one of the masterpieces of Gothic art. It was almost destroyed in the French Revolution but was restored from 1841 to 1864 under the guidance of the architect Viollet-le-Duc. He added the awesome spire that is 96 m. (315 ft.) high.
Gothic churches above all represent the interplay of height and light in glorious display. It is incredible to look at the 3 great rose windows on the west, east, and south facades.
Only the north window still has the 14th century windows with their stained glass. “Hymns to the Divine Light” as Kenneth Clark called them. I might have thought they were even more splendid than the stained glass in Strasbourg Cathedral, but it seemed pedestrian to compare them.
Many famous visitors have seen Notre Dame. Joan of Arc was perhaps the first really famous person to see it. She saw it during her lifetime, but more importantly, perhaps, she saw it after her death, because a posthumous trial was held for her 24 years after she had been burned at the stake for apostasy. At the later trial her conviction was overturned, but of course, it was too late to do her any good. Napoleon was crowned Emperor here, effectively ending the French Revolution.
We walked through this cathedral as church was in service. This felt disrespectful, but our guide reminded us that the church needed our fees to keep its maintenance schedules. I captured a large number of images of the stained glass, particularly the rose windows. I love stained glass.
We drove by the site of the publishing of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, that features cartoons, jokes, polemics and satire. It is deeply irreverent and non-conformist. In other words, it is my kind of magazine. It often attacks the church and the far right and has not shied away from attacking Islam. That is what got the magazine into trouble as it became the subject of terrorist attacks in 2011 and 2015. Both were presumed to be in response to a number of controversial cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad that it published. In the second of the attacks 12 people were killed including the publisher.
The people of Paris have rallied around the magazine ever since the attacks, as the French are vigorously defensive of their freedoms that have been hard won. They don’t want to give up these freedoms to any religion. Not even Islam, the most militant of the current religions.
I love the French for their defence of freedom of religion and freedom from religion. Vivre la France, libre. They refuse to buckle under to terrorism. Parisians celebrate dissent. They refuse to give up any of their freedoms. Unlike Americans, who talk about freedom but are quick to give it up in favor of security, the French realize that freedom is part of their essence. If they give up freedom they give up everything. To me that is the spirit of France—the spirit of the Revolution.
We drove along the most famous street in Paris, if not the world, the Champ-Elysées and the quarter that lies around radiating wealth, power, and privilege. This is home for the President of France, embassies, and haute couture fashion houses. There were 5-star hotels and restaurants none of which we could afford. Peasants know their places. Some of us at least.
At the end of this magnificent street we saw the fantastic Arc de Triomphe. To me the triumph is hollow but to the French it still signifies glory. It marks Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805. Work was started on this magnificent monument to military glory in 1806 before the sheen of victory had not worn thin, but it was only completed in 1836 as a result of his all too swift fall from power and grace. His victory lasted about as long as most military victories. Not long in other words. The only good thing about it—perhaps there is one—is that it is a magnificent structure in the middle of the Champs-Elysées. It made for some good photos. I guess that was one more good thing. It certainly did not reflect glory or triumph.
Our next stop was our longest one of the day. This was at the largest and probably most spectacular museum in the world—the Musée du Louvre. It contains 35,000 works of art—many of them priceless. It is an immense treasure.
The Louvre was built by King Philippe-August as a fortress in 1190, but Charles V the Holy Roman Emperor made it his home from 1364 to 1380. In the 16th century Frances I replaced it with a Renaissance-style palace and started the royal art collection with 12 paintings. All of them were from Italy. In those days Italy, not France, was the centre of the art world.
In 1793 the revolutionaries opened up the collection for the masses. When Napoleon took over, soon after that, he converted the palace into a museum. For the people of course. Napoleon knew how to suck up.
We had a short but marvellous tour of the Louvre. This was our hour or two of art—great art. What a pity that we did not have more time. That is one of the problems with tours. They decide what you will see and for how long. We were accompanied by the guide from our city tour, who turned out to be very good. We enjoyed her commentary a lot.
I have written in much greater detail (no doubt too much detail) on the art of the Louvre and have placed it in the blog under Fat Opinions/Art/A Morning at the Louvre.
We started with Egyptian and then moved quickly to Greek art. It was wonderful to see the amazing development from the solidity and stiffness of the Egyptian art to the Greeks sculptures that seemed to come to life. We stopped to admire the transformation of the ideal into flesh and blood beauty well illustrated by the truly awesome Venus de Milo (Aphrodite Melos) created in about 150-100 B.C. We also saw The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This wonderful statue consists of a statue of a winged female figure—thought to be the goddess Victory on top of a base in the shape of the prow of a ship.
From the Greek section we went to the Renaissance Art. At first in early Renaissance art the portraits showed the models all with the same face. And they were all perfect. No blemishes were shown. They thought that was how it was supposed to be. Eventually artists started to show differences. They showed people with imperfections. That was a huge development in art. That really ushered in the art of humanism. For humans are nothing if not imperfect. Perspective also became important in Renaissance art. Eventully9 they created marvels of perspective. That was something the Greeks and Romans failed to achieve.
One of the masters of Renaissance art was of course, Leonardo Da Vinci. Leonardo was a rebel—like so many artists before and after him. He was gay, left-handed, handsome, and athletic. He was one of the greatest artists in history. He has been called “the most curious person in history.”
He was a genius of both science and art. No one achieved such lofty status in both disciplines. It was astoundingly implausible. He used his knowledge of science to improve his art and his art to improve his science. Instead we got to see the Mona Lisa. Some art critics have focused on her mysterious smile or what Nat King Cole called “her mystic smile” in his well-known song.
We also saw a painting from another great Renaissance artist that Chris and I got to appreciate from our 3 weeks in Florence. This was Tiziano Vecellio or Titian as we call him in English. Gardner says of him that “He is among the very greatest painters of the Western world, a supreme colorist and, in a broad sense, the father of the modern mode of painting.”
One of the first works of art we stopped to appreciate was one by Eugéne Delacroix—one of the supreme artists of France. Delacroix, who lived from 1798 to 1863, once wrote, in his dairy “I dislike reasonable painting.” The work of art we saw was one of his greatest namely Death of Sardanapalus that he painted in 1826. Another work of art by Delacroix that we enjoyed a lot was his Liberty Leading the People, which he painted in 1830, long after the revolution and long after he was aware that liberty had died in the Revolution. The painting is “an allegory of revolution itself”. Liberty, a partly nude, majestic woman, whose beautiful features wear an expression of noble dignity, waves the people forward to the barricades. The familiar revolutionary apparatus of Paris streets. She carries the banner of the republic, the tricolor, and a musket with bayonet and wear the cap of Liberty. The path of her advance is over the dead and dying of both parties. Revolution climbing over the dead bodies. Is this not exactly how revolutions work?
Nearby in the museum we also gazed at a painting by Théodore Géricault (1791-1824) called Raft of Medusa. This painting had a very modern theme for it showed the French ship Medusa laden heavy with Algerian immigrants trying to cross the Mediterranean. The actual incident like many we have heard about in Europe in the last few years was a tragedy of mismanagement or exploitation and abuse. It caused a scandal in its day. Much more so than many such disasters trigger these days. These days such misery is old hat. It raises not a stir. It only raises cries for bigger and stronger walls. We spent a lot of time admiring a masterpiece Jacques-Louis David The Coronation of Napoleon in Notre Dame.
After our tour of the Louvre, we walked through a small part of wonderful garden that I explored more fully the next day– Jardin du Carrousel. After that we wanted was lunch. And we wanted it in a French sidewalk café. Of course we did. We sat outside watching the world pass us by as we dined on a tuna sandwich and a lovely Sauvignon Blanc and a French bier that I did not like. It turned out to be a blueberry beer. In my opinion blueberry in beer is equivalent to a dollop of human excrement on a hardwood floor. Unfortunately I forgot the name of the café. It was across the river from the Louvre beside the Seine and near to the Musée d’Orsay. So we enjoyed our meal while we engaged in people gazing. At one time thousands of roller-bladers came by accompanied by raucous music. It was all gentle and fun loving. I love Paris.
I was actually surprised by how much I loved Paris. The people were kind. That was a big shock. I expected rude. They were never rude. They were considerate and reasonable. They loved fun, food, wine, and art. And on top of that they loved freedom. They refused to be crushed by the truck terrorists of the world. Life went on, as it should. Yes, I love Paris.
I was so in love with Paris that I walked into the Women’s Washroom. I am sure glad I was not in the southern U.S. I might have been shot on the spot by a terrified woman packing heat to protect her from perverts. I did not notice I was in the wrong facility until I left and noticed a line up of curious women who wondered what I was doing there. I didn’t tell them.
As we were dining I noticed we were right beside Restaurant Voltaire. Had I known I would have tried to eat there. Actually, later I did try but it was closed. Voltaire was shut down. That was a crime.
After a very leisurely lunch (the best kind), we strolled to the nearby Musée d’Orsay one of the finest art museums in the world. A friend of ours suggested it was even better than the Louvre. I am not sure that was true, but it was wonderful. Though it has art from other schools, the Musée d’Orsay contains probably the finest collection of Impressionist art in the world. It was stunning to walk through its Impressionist collection. This took a couple of hours. It has other galleries but we figured we had time only for one. That was pity. Just like it was a pity that we did not have a month to see all the galleries at the Louvre. You never have time to do it all. So we chose the Impressionist Gallery. That was a wonderful choice. Once again by the time we were done we were very tired.
Again to spare those not interested I have written in greater detail about the Impressionist art elsewhere in the blog under Fat Opinions/Art/Impressionism. All I will say is that the art was outstanding. I love impressionism, in part because it abandons the hopeless search for perfect representation of reality, thus making an important step towards truly modern art.
So concluded one of our best art experiences ever. It was a day filled to the brim with art sprinkled with a little religion, flowers, and philosophy. The only days that were comparable was some of the days we had in Florence when we spent 3 weeks exploring that art-soaked city. This felt like that. I loved it, but we paid a big price.
When we got back to our hotel we realized we had been very stupid. We had overdone walking and standing. When Chris looked at her ankles they were burgundy red. Or perhaps Bordeaux red. This was not a good thing. Was that worth seeing some of the finest art in the world? Maybe. Maybe not.
We sat around our room relaxing a bit and trying to regenerate. As we did so we listened to CNN and learned that the truck terrorist of Barcelona was believed to have entered France. This was getting too close for comfort, but it was also far enough for us to ignore. Life goes on. Particularly when your life is infused by art, as ours now was. Tolstoy was absolutely right, “a work of art should make people love life more.” It did that.
I urged Chris that we should stay home, but she had none of this. She is a real trooper. We walked to the Brittany region determined to find a restaurant with the food of Brittany. Her father was born there and she wanted at least to dine at one of its restaurants, even though we were some distance away from Bretagne. So we walked slowly—very slowly. This time we extensive instructions from the concierge to the right district and a new map. This map was also less than perfect. It gave an impression of the route. I guess that was fair in the circumstances. I love impressionism for art; for maps not so much.
We only had to walk about 10 minutes (walking very slowly) so it was not onerous. At least we walk this far. On one street there were 4 restaurants all from Brittany. The concierge had said they are all good and we could pick anyone of the 4. This was the Brittany district. We wanted a Crêperie. I later realized I had no idea what a Crêperie was. I have had crepes before. They are like thin pancakes with delicious sweet sauces. They can be that, but they can be much more.
The restaurant we chose was called Crêperie Quimper which is a place in Brittany near to where Chris’ father was born. And they flew the flag of Brittany. That was good enough for us. We were extremely pleased with our selection.
First of all, we were able to dine on the sidewalk. Even though it was a little bit cool it was very comfortable. And of course it was interesting. This is one of the benefits of dining on a sidewalk. You get to see people and in very few places are people more interesting than Paris. The place was bustling with activity, but the activity was quiet. People respected tranquility. This was a civilized nation. I have found civilization and it is here.
We really enjoyed our waitress. She was young and rebellious. I would call her a saucy wench without any suggestions about her character—chaste or otherwise. She had good suggestions about what we should eat. Again like all Parisians we met on this trip she was kind and respectful. No hint of surliness.
I ordered a Loquirie crepe. Sort of like Labroquerie in French lace. This crepe contained beef, cheddar cheese and a fine sauce. No sweet stuff at all. In addition, on the strong recommendation of our waitress I had a local cider from Brittany. It was called Cidre Kerisac. She served in a pitcher. That is my way to drink cider. The food and drink were both terrific. The best part of the meal was however the dessert. A crepe with salted caramel ice cream and Chantilly. It was divine. I mean that literally. This dessert was so good it should be eaten only once a lifetime. Sadly, in my case that might actually be true. Life is hard. I also had a long coffee, though for my North American tastes it was not long enough.
We had a wonderful time. For me this was my highlight of Paris. A quiet evening on a quiet street with good company, fine food, and drink. Life was very good. It was as good as it gets. This was indeed civilization, or at least an important part of it.
Sitting in the sidewalk gave me time for quiet and sad reflection. I wondered if this would be our last trip. Chris’s health is making it difficult for her. Mine is not getting any better. I hope it is not our last trip, but I have to face the possibility. We have had a great run. No one needs to feel sorry for us (except me). We have had great travels for nearly 50 years. Our first trip was 1975. That was a road trip to St. Catharines Ontario. That was where my parents took us a number of times so without much thought it seemed natural. We travelled every year thereafter, often many times per year. Our life of travel has been great. We have been extremely lucky. Lets hope our luck continues.