A Parisian Double Feature: Museums by Day, Magic by Night

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Le Sacre Coeur

Greetings friends! My goal when I left the USA exactly one week ago was to post once per day unless it became physically impossible to do so, and yesterday I hit a wall–not because I was too exhausted from my day around the city, but simply because I literally did not have the time to post. the internet in my hostel decided to go on strike. I do admit to taking a three hour nap late in the afternoon, but this was essential because as the title of this post suggests, I went back out into the night just so I could experience Paris from a darker–and more beautiful–perspective. 

Wednesday started off somewhat disappointingly, in that I thought I was going to the Louvre until I showed up and saw the line waiting to get in. Standing in the hot sun for an hour next to a bunch of grumpy tourists? No thanks, I’ll pass. I decided instead to visit the equally awesome but not quite as crowded Musee d’Orsay (I still had to wait in line, but only for about 10 minutes, and it was in the shade). I’m a big fan of Impressionist (Monet and Cezanne in their earlier years), and Post-Impressionist (van Gogh, Cezanne in his later years) work, but I saw a lot of work from different periods or from artists that one would normally not associate with a certain style.

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Ever heard of Piet Mondrian? He is most famous for the paintings with a few lines and blocks of color, but before he did that he tried his hand at Post-Impressionism. A lot of people don’t realize that many artists who are well known for their abstract works are still grounded in classical painting and sculpture. Think of it this way: before you can run, you must learn to walk. Jackson Pollock didn’t all of a sudden create those drip paintings; he knew of the movements that came before him and had a context for going in the direction he did. Whether you think line paintings by Mondrian or drip paintings by Pollock count as masterpieces of art is completely your choice 🙂

Of course, as brilliant as the earlier works were, I came to hang out with Vincent, so I headed upstairs past a sculpture terrace filled with works by Rodin and others and saw, among other things, this.

I hate to sound like an art snob, but after visiting the Musee d’Orsay I think that both the Art Institute of Chicago and the Metropolitan Museum in New York both have better collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art. I’m still very glad I stopped by, because looking at beautiful paintings made me hungry (I think just about everything does though) and I took a break to devour a really good caprese panini before heading north to Sacre Coeur.

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Overlooking the city, the one thing missing from the view at the top of the Butte Montmartre (the steep hill you have to climb to enjoy the panorama) is the Eiffel Tower! You would think they would have a sign telling all the soon-to-be-weary climbers not to get their hopes up–but I jest. It is a brilliant view of Paris, free of charge unlike the Eiffel Tower itself, or the top of Notre Dame, and before returning to the bottom of the hill I stopped in the Sacre Coeur itself. For Paris, it’s pretty much brand new–there are probably centenarians walking the streets that were in diapers when it was finally completed. But despite the lack of history oozing through its stony pores, the church is still beautiful and its central plan affords a magnificent focal point on the dome that crowns the space below.

After wandering for another hour or so through Montmartre I returned to my hostel and slept of a few hours; when I awoke I took a bike from the local Velib station and departed with no real destination in mind. By far this was the best thing I’ve done so far in Paris. The cliche is true: Paris is truly at its mysterious, beautiful best at night, and the streets are serpentine guides that draw you further into the city’s heart.

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I biked down toward the Louvre, then crossed the Seine and stumbled into (quite literally–I nearly tripped on a rogue cobblestone) St. Germain-des-Pres, one of the oldest churches in the city.

I also found a great little cafe on a street not too far from the church, where I stopped just long enough to sip some espresso and listen to staccatos of French and the occasional bellow of laughter. The narrow, cobblestoned streets are natural echo chambers, and from somewhere down the road came the sound of two people shouting at each other, a door slamming shut, and a motorcycle speeding off. I can’t be sure, but I think I was an unknowing witness to a lovers’ quarrel-it doesn’t get any more Parisian than that!

Finally, I headed back to my hostel for some well-needed rest. As for today, I finally made it to the Louvre. There are a couple alternatives to the main entrance, and I chose one near two lion statues. Once inside, I managed to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa behind a massive wall of bystanders, and also saw a string of works by masters such as Giotto, Botticelli, Michelangelo, Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, Delacroix, and Ingres.

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Sadly, my camera died not soon after I took this picture, but I think you all know what the Eiffel tower looks like without my help. After seeing the tower–and the huge crowd of people lined up to enter it–I decided to escape the tourists and took the metro all the way to the northern outskirts of the city to visit St. Denis, the first cathedral to implement what we know today as the Gothic style.

St Denis

Because I arrived so late, I got what I wanted and avoided the crush of tourists who usually visit the cathedral, which holds the graves of the kings and queens of France–all of them. I walked in on mass and listened to the murmurs of Latin and French ring softly and echo off the vaults, then settle like fine ash into silence. After the mass ended and the congregants exited the church, I stayed and watched the waning rays of sunlight stain the walls in color. In Paris, the night is truly when the magic happens.

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