I realize that my previous post was excessive; it was so long even I didn’t want to wade through it. So, in this post I will endeavor the capture and harness the unicorn of my writing wonderland: succinctness. Pray for me.
That said, I present to you the first full day of my Paris adventure – with headings!
After picking up a croissant at the corner bakery for breakfast around 8:30, I took the metro to the stop closest to the Orsay, so far as I could determine. I emerged from underground just outside of what turned out to be the Jardin des Tuileries – a massive swath of impeccably manicured lawns, beds of tulips, and tree-lined avenues that extends beyond the imposing façade of the Louvre. At that hour of the morning, only a few people were about, reading newspapers with their feet propped up on the plentiful chairs clustered around one of the fountains or having their morning smoke under a blooming, gnarled cherry tree. I crossed the width of the gardens, my feet ever-quick steps making what seemed like all too much noise on the dusty white gravel. The garden’s opposite side ran the length of the Seine river, and I found a footbridge to cross. In stereotypical Parisian style, its fencing was covered in padlocks inscribed with initials and dates in various scripts and languages. Just across the bridge and to the left, I spotted the Musée d’Orsay, with its life-size rhinoceros sculpture outside and – darn it – a line of people snaking around the building. I joined the crowds and, for the remaining 15 minutes before the museum opened at 9:30, attempted – rather successfully, I believe – to guess people’s nationalities based on their shoes. After the requisite metal detector passage and another free entrance (heehee!), I rented and audio guide and started in.
The Orsay does not permit photo taking, so the solitary image I have for you is one of the inside of the building itself, which seemed to be (or at least I interpreted it to be) excluded from the mandate. What the museum is most famous for is its top-floor gallery of impressionist art, mostly Monet. And it was there that I decisively concluded that I do not like Monet’s art; it’s all too blurry and pale for my taste. However, that negative realization was balanced by my discovery of my adoration for neo-impressionist pointillism, the vibrant colors and unique perspectives of which left me actually wishing to for a print to adorn one notoriously bare walls of my Spartan room. Somewhere along the way of my three- and a half-hour visit, it became my goal to browse every single room in the museum. So I did. I even walked through some rooms of incredibly average-looking but apparently history-making 20th century furniture. It was fun. And, don’t worry, I even enjoyed that Monet gallery; the view of the river and the Louvre was great from up there! Perhaps the most interesting of all to me, was my realization that I tend to appreciate the non-famous works of art most. While there was a certain thrill in seeing that Millet painting I studied in 11th grade, the neo-impressionist painting of a girl brushing her hair was more fascinating; a snowy hunting scene more striking; two Arabian lovers embracing on a moonlit night more moving.
It was lunchtime when I stepped out of the Orsay, and I was determined, as always, to avoid eating someplace touristy at all cost. All cost turned out to be four or five long blocks down and behind the museum to a bakery with a short but constant line of customers, who appeared to be of the local variety. I hopped in line and requested what most everyone else had: a “tradition” baguette for somewhere around €1.50. Duly pleased with my impossibly cheap lunch, I vowed not to eat the entire baguette and then circled the block, searching for the metro entrance my map told me should be nearby. Well, it took me a good 30 minutes of walking in a giant circle to find the metro, and I did devour the entire baguette. But let me tell you: it was the best baguette and maybe the best bread I’ve ever eaten in my life. Its crust was firm but not thick – almost for of a shell than a crust. When I bit into it, the baguette first smooshed into itself, then crunched slightly, and then pulled apart slowly, not unlike taffy – the gluten was so perfectly developed. The soft, soft inside bread was smooth but chewy, and the crust crackled just slightly against my teeth. No sharp shards of crust pierced my gums; no dry bits of bread stuck in my throat. It was flawless.
After my heavenly baguette experience, I’d have to say the Catacombs of Paris were a bit of a let-down. For one, I stood in line for an hour and a half before entering their damp depths. Granted, the weather was lovely – as it was the entire trip, I should note – and I had Kindle books to read on my phone, but still, I was a bit bored. And underground itself? I was ready to leave after five minutes. It wasn’t that I was necessarily repulsed by the neat stacks of bones or the murky lighting, but there just wasn’t a whole lot to see. The first 15 minutes after descending the dizzying, 10-story circular staircase are spent trudging long, empty tunnels, punctuated by the occasional, uninteresting plaque providing geological information or descriptions of the architecture of the space. Then come the rooms of bones. But to call them “rooms” is an overstatement. They’re just enlarged, humid tunnels full of dusty (molding?) bones. That’s it. The piles weren’t as tall and the low caverns weren’t as large as I had expected from pictures I had seen over the years. I crunched my way through the gravel – and bone fragments, presumably – as quickly as I could, but I kept getting stuck behind couples intent on contemplating their mortality at a snail’s pace. Or maybe they were just slow walkers. Regardless, it took me at least 20 minutes to at last reach the daylight again. My hair was frizzier and my post-waiting-in-line mood certainly hadn’t improved, but I was thankful that the presentation of all of those human remains had at least been more respectful than the awful, decorative displays I’d witnessed in a former monastery in Rome.
My search for a metro entrance beyond the exit of the Catacombs lead me to something far better: French macarons. The line out the door of the pâtisserie was longer than the bakery line for my baguette had been, but the half dozen employees behind the glass cases of luscious pastries filled the requests of the people in front of me at such a rapid pace, that I found myself still hesitating over my choice when one of them asked me which of the rainbow of macarons I had pointed to I actually wished to purchase. She smiled at my agony, and my tongue stumbled drunkenly in my mouth as I butchered the French pronunciation of pistachio, chocolate passion fruit, and vanilla. Parted with far too many euros for such a feather-light purchase, I clutched my paper bag of brightly-colored sandwichlettes and scanned the area around the bakery for a picnic spot. Nothing. So, I took myself and my precious cargo down to the metro and got off at the secondary Louvre station. A short walk found me a bench in a sunny garden area behind the Louvre and in front of a beautiful church of pale stone.
My immediate thought after taking my first bite of one of the macarons was that it tasted like the perfect combination of cake and ice cream. Let me clarify: I don’t mean an ice cream cake; I don’t mean eating your cake and ice cream together. I mean, it was as if someone had taken the best qualities of both cake and ice cream and had combined them into one, splendid dessert: the cool, smooth creaminess of ice cream inside and the easy, saccharine substance and bite of cake outside. For a second, I thought it was the best thing I had ever eaten. But then I remembered all the other delicious foods I have loved and decided that I couldn’t commit to a statement as strong as that, though in the moment I could’ve shouted it from the rooftops of Paris. With the exception of vanilla, which I found surprisingly unremarkable, the flavors were true to life, if not more pure. The pistachio tasted like the purest, freshest of those green nuts. The flavor of the chocolate-filled passion fruit macaron burst forth in all the tropical glory that I have always loved in those wrinkly, purple fruits, while the chocolate was deep and sweet. Oh man, it was a wonderful experience.
I returned to the Louvre, and once inside, carefully read the descriptions of each wing until I found what I was looking for: Flemish and Dutch Renaissance paintings. Recalling that I had most enjoyed studying art from that area back in Western Cultures class in 10th grade, I eagerly climbed the stairs to the Richelieu wing. I was not disappointed. I spent the greater part of an hour sauntering the halls and galleries full of serene landscapes, realistic still lifes, and freeze-frames of everyday occurrences, pausing frequently to sit on a comfy bench and read one of the white placards some rooms offered and which provided detailed analysis and history of the paintings in the area. When I couldn’t find one in English, I tried Spanish or German. It’s at thrilling, little times like that when language learning seems most worth all the struggle. Besides the art of my friends Vermeer and Rubens, I wandered through Napoleon III’s overwhelmingly sumptuous apartments and furniture galleries, more Renaissance paintings, and various sculptures. At the end of the sculpture gallery, I came out into an enormous, glass-ceilinged atrium scattered with a few life-sized, dynamic statues and surrounded by arched windows looking into the rest of the museum, from which I had caught glimpses of the room multiple times. It was quiet and calm and the natural light from above was wonderful, so I found myself a corner bench and soaked in the peacefulness for 20 minutes, until the PA announced the museum would soon be closing. It was a lovely break.
As my last act of tourism for the day, I visited the Eiffel Tower. The sun was still very much up when I followed the crowds out of the metro and down the street. There certainly was no question as to which direction to go. I darted off into a calmer side street and came up to the towering, brown hulk from through a nice garden area, complete with ponds, ducks, flowering trees, and couples on benches. Who knew the Eiffel Tower was surrounded by beauty? Not I. They don’t tell you these things on the internet – except, I’m telling you now.
At first I stood in the line for the elevator to the top, but soon I realized it wasn’t moving at all, and by the time I got to the top, it would be totally dark. Plus, unaccustomed as I was to paying for attractions in Paris, the €12 price seemed wildly expensive. Once I switched to the line to take the stairs to the middle of the tower, I overheard that the elevator line was three hours long. Yipes. I waited no more than 40 minutes to pay my more reasonable €4 student ticket and to start taking the stairs two by two. There are two levels where you can pause to take pictures, and from the second level, you can also take the elevator to the top. The view was rather similar from both levels: a city seen from high above. Pretty, but nothing extraordinary. I suppose it might have been better from the very top, but I suspect not. I was quite content with my view and the opportunity for a brisk stair climb.
Back on the ground, I re-read the section of my guide book about the Eiffel Tower, which informed me that during the off-season, it would be illuminated for 10 minutes every hour, starting at 8:00pm. I set off at a near trot away from the tower, expecting to have 15 minutes or so to put as much distance as possible between myself and the steel monstrosity to get a decent picture. At some point I glanced over my shoulder and realized, to my surprise, that the lights were already on. And, I’ll admit, it was a bit magical, as little as I like that word. The soft yellow light of the tower danced slowly in the deep dusk; couples pushing strollers chatted happily; a small crowd milled about a crepes stand lit by a single, bare light bulb. Oh, Paris.
My pictures taken, I returned to the apartment to dine on pre-packaged tabouli from the only grocery store still opened, some odd Oriental dessert, and a banana. And I was happy.
Below is the video of the day. Also, don’t forget that you can click on the individual photos in this post to make them larger or see their entire captions.
Next in this series: Paris – day 2: Versailles, Rodin, Arches.