I spent the weekend of my 30th birthday in Paris with my husband. We had a phenomenal time and saw many awesome things.
All the famous works that I know are spread few and far between – I saw some of my favourite’s when I visited New York a couple of years ago – but in addition to those famous few there are many, many museums full of lesser known works. An artist produces maybe three or four pieces that achieve fame and in addition a body of work that spans a lifetime, and, in some cases, a multitude of styles.
We visited the Orangerie and saw two rooms of 360-degree Monet. (Would that be 720-degrees of Monet?) In the basement they had an assortment of works by other artists including some lively Renoirs and some wispy Laurencins. I had previously been unaware of Marie Laurencin and there’s something in the colours she uses and the way she portrays faces – skin in white shaded with grey, only touches of pink to put life in the skin, black bullet eyes – that I found compelling.
After that we moved on to the Musee d’Orsay, a building that is a stunning work of art in its own right. We wandered through galleries of sculpture, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists. My favourite room was the dimly lit room of works executed in pastel. These images seemed to succeed in appearing both soft and textured, both misty and precise.
The following day we were in Montmartre and, after dodging the attentions of the String Men and shunning (as is our custom) the Funicular in favour of marching up the stairs, we visited the Espace Dali. My familiarity with Dali comes only from his oils. This gallery concentrates on his sculptures, illustrations and engravings. It was a fascinating space to wander around and interesting to see the themes that trail through years of work.
In Paris there’s a restaurant or bistrot on every corner. We ate out every night and every lunch time. After having been on a mostly vegan January beforehand (as a resolution to knock off some pounds) it was great to just indulge in whatever food I wanted.
We were always ravenous after a day of marching around the city and wandering through its museums and in a hurry to replenish our energy. What was funny, was that no matter how hard we tried not to turn up early – pushing it another hour or half hour after the time our bellies cried out for food – we were always the first dinner customers through the door. In one case we arrived 10 minutes before the restaurant opened and had to sit in the vestibule for a while. In another case we didn’t feel so bad about our earliness when two other parties arrived within half an hour of us, until we realised they were English too. Seems like us Brits just can’t wait for our feed.
There was plenty of variation in the food that was on offer. The only restaurant chain I noticed was McDonalds. All the rest seemed to be independent businesses. For lunches we ate mostly French cuisine. In the evenings we had French, Italian and Lebanese. My favourite was the Lebanese restaurant. We opted for the set menus, comprising ten mezes to share, a main and a dessert. It all tasted awesome and we got through two bottles of red as well.
Paris is not just the city of love, but also the city of lust. And that aspect of the city can be summed up in two words: Moulin Rouge. For my birthday we went out to a show at the Moulin Rouge. We hadn’t organised it in advance and I was surprised that we could order tickets the day before. I think we got lucky with it being January, because we’d read that during the high tourist season people have to book up to three months in advance. The pricing takes advantage of the name. Evening dress was required and each ticket came with a half bottle of champagne.
We took the metro to Blanche and stepped out into the blazing neon that is Pigalle, a soiled wonderland full of cabaret clubs and sex shops overlooked by the red windmill. The show was due to start at nine, so we found a little Italian place nearby to eat. After our meal – and the caffeinated bullets that were listed on the menu as coffee – we wandered over. Had we wished to double the price we could have had our meal at the Moulin Rouge. When we arrived the diners were already seated at the tables closest to the stage, those of us who only sprung for the after dinner show were shown to tables at the back.
Then commenced two hours of dancing with no intermission – I was exhausted just watching it, so I bow down to how fit theses dancers must be to do it twice a night every night. In between the dances there were variety acts: an acrobat, a ventriloquist and a juggler. All very entertaining.
The best part of the night had to be when a giant water tank full of snakes rose from beneath the stage. A young woman – near naked of course – was ‘sacrificed’ to the snakes. She then spent a good ten minutes in underwater gyrations escaping from snakes that wanted nothing more than to escape from her. These creatures probably spend all day chilling in their nice cosy tank only to be suddenly pinioned under a spotlight and then repeatedly grabbed by the neck and yanked to the centre of the tank and forceably coiled around someone. It was pretty cool though and afterwards the tank sank away out of sight and the stage slid back into place in a smooth and impressive show of engineering.
Having been to the highest point of Paris, we thought it only fitting that we visit the lowest point of Paris. Beneath the south part of the city are miles of tunnels and caverns that were once the quarries that provided the stone to build the city. Some parts of these tunnels were, starting in the 18th century, transformed into warehouses for the bones of 6 million Parisians. These parts are open to the public as a tourist attraction. And if that sounds a little morbid, well maybe it is, but it’s not unprecedented – there was a time when a common entertainment in the city was to file past the windows of the morgue and look at the laid out bodies of those pulled from the Seine. This was intended to be for identification purposes, but drew plenty of voyeurs. I guess I could now count myself as one of that number after my visit to the Catacombs.
The entrance is in a little green hut opposite the Denfert-Rochereau metro station. The hut houses an admissions desk and the top of a spiral staircase. One hundred and forty steps down and you’re in the beginning of the catacombs. There are some displays describing the geological history of the area. Then come the tunnels. There’s a walk of about a mile, twisting and turning, before coming to anything interesting. At this point there are carvings of the views of ports done by some of the quarry inspectors and the quarryman’s footbath – a groundwater well. Then come the bones.
“Stop. Here is the Empire of the Dead.” These are the words that are carved over the portal into the ossuary. After that point it is quiet and the somewhat disconcerting. The walls of the corridor are formed entirely of stacked bones. A block of end-on leg bones topped with a layer of skulls, then another layer of end-on leg bones, more skulls, and so on. The bones that made up one human being are only in vaguest proximity to one another; the bones are at least sorted by cemetery of origin. They were transported with some respect, the burial mass was intoned by the priests accompanying the bone carts, but this stacking seems somewhat less respectful – especially when you get to the places where the workmen indulged in a little pixel art. There are hearts, arches and crosses laid out in skulls in the walls. We kept walking, and walking. After a way the sheer number of bones numbed the initial feeling of unreality.
Eighty-some stairs later and we were back in the land of the living.