2013: Paris

The Louvre

Apr. 26


Another poor night's sleep on the hard, hard bed. But I'm still chugging along. Gasp. A breakfast of tea and a delicious croissant from the bakery downstairs, and then it's off to the Louvre for our guided tour!

The other Arc. With a chariot on top.

We were to meet our tour guide underneath the "other" Paris arch, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel just across from the Louvre entrance. Like the more famous and larger Arc de Triomphe de l'Étoile, this smaller monument was built by Napoleon. It was modeled after the Arch of Constantine in Rome; when first built, it served as a gateway to the Tuileries Palace, the Imperial residence which was destroyed in 1871.

The (ugly) glass pyramid.

A small tour group of about eight people slowly collected with us. Our guide, who showed up a little late, was a very scholarly-looking skinny fellow. To start the tour, he held us outside for a while giving a seemingly endless lecture on the history of the Louvre building. I was antsy to get going; I'd heard how crowded the museum could get and people were already streaming in the main entrance. This was not looking good.

Just as an aside, I was not impressed with the I.M.Pei-designed glass pyramid that sits in the main courtyard and serves as the Louvre entrance. I'm in agreement with those who criticize it as being in disharmony with the classical architecture around it.

At least our guide was able to get us past the ticket line. Inside is a huge lobby underneath the pyramid which leads to the three different wings of the museum, each wing containing different groupings of collections.

The Louvre started life as a fortress built in the 12th century, so we started the tour on the ground floor of the Sully Wing, where you can see some remains of the medieval stonework in the original foundations. It wasn't exactly artwork, but I was moved by the quiet, almost reverential feeling of being in this centuries-old place.

We moved upstairs to an uncrowded hall of Greek statuary, marbled and cool and serene. While the tour guide droned, I wandered away to take a couple of pictures of the impressive Diana of Versailles, the centerpiece of the hall.

The tour finally moved on; now we were in a large hall of paintings, teeming with people. The guide stopped at one especially large painting and started an endless lecture about...well, I'm not sure what. His voice was hard to hear amid the din and to be honest, I had stopped listening a while back. I was getting concerned about the crowds streaming past us and I really didn't care for the guide's style, so I pinched Mike and suggested that we ditch the tour. He was only too happy to go along. We edged away from the group as if to peruse another painting, and when we were out of view in the crowd, we ran like hell.

Now, the Louvre is enormous. Sorta like the Grand Canyon, pictures and descriptions don't do it justice; you can't really understand it until you actually experience it. Three wings, four floors, uncountable collections, miles of corridors. The brochure-sized map they provide, with its tiny graphics and type, isn't much help at guiding you. We decided that at this point, our best move would be to search out the more famous pieces, if we could find them, becuz we sure weren't going to see everything.

The museum's second most famous resident, the Venus de Milo, is housed in the Sully Wing, and somehow we managed to locate her. Her private room was busy but not so overrun that we couldn't enjoy the viewing and get a couple of worthwhile photos. One milestone down.

We wanted to find the Louvre's pièce de résistance, the Mona Lisa, before another hundred thousand people invaded the place. While heading in her direction, we passed through the Galerie d'Apollon, where every inch of the walls and ceiling is artwork. This ornate hallway connects the Sully Wing to the Richelieu Wing of the museum.

The Mona Mob. The Lady herself.

Finally we found our way to Miss Number One. We rounded a corner to see...well, I call it the Mona Mob. Hundreds of people were stacked up like camera-wielding sardines behind a double-barrier twenty feet away from the wall where she hangs.

I walked to the back of the crowd, then slithered and elbowed my way up to get a spot at the barrier. I did snap a couple of pics -- guilty -- but I also stood and just looked for a minute or so. As noted by most who see her, she's smaller than you expect; she looks rather lonely on her huge wall. But seeing her in person is different from looking at a photograph because there truly is something indefinably special and mystical about her. Unfortunately the full effect of that mystery was blunted by the distance created by the barriers, and also by the thick transparent shield covering the painting. The shield is not high-quality museum glass -- it's maybe even acrylic -- and thus causes bad reflections. The mobs, the barriers, and the shield made me sad and a little disgusted; this is NOT how great art should be displayed and enjoyed.

We left the Mona Mob behind and went on the hunt for that rarest museum item, the restroom. After a couple of false starts we found one in a dark stairwell. While trying to trace our way back to the lobby, we stumbled onto a lucky side trip: an unheralded traveling exhibit of Egyptian artifacts, small items such as papyrus fragments and heiroglypics tablets. The rooms were cool, dark, and almost deserted. Photos were rather impossible because of the low light, but I enjoyed browsing here very much.

It was lunchtime. We floundered our way back through the maze to the lobby, which connects to the Carrousel du Louvre, an underground shopping mall. Most of the restaurants were in a food court up an escalator. We chose a cafeteria-style place; the food was unmemorable. No, really. I absolutely don't remember it. Probably a good thing, that means it didn't make me sick. More memorable for Mike was his trip to the loo, where he not only had to pay for the privilege, he had to stand at a urinal in direct sight of a bevy of female employees. Europe really is different.

Despite my exhaustion, we decided to press on for a little longer. We headed to the final wing of the museum, the Denon, to view the Napoleon apartments, a set of rooms build in the mid-1850s for entertaining guests of the emperor. On our way, we passed through a beautiful indoor-outdoor garden of Roman statuary.

A long hallway led us past some small rooms. One room we saw was a study with beautiful period furniture, a gleaming crystal chandelier, and golden filigree molding everywhere. Every inch of the ceiling was painted or decorated and the walls were covered in fabric. Ahead we could see the centerpiece of the suite, the Grand Salon.

The Grand Salon is just that -- grand. A large drawing room furnished with many upholstered chairs and occasional tables, it would be the perfect spot for a party. I could almost hear the heavy swish of rich brocade skirts, the clink of crystal glasses, the music of a long-ago piano recital. The fireplace is especially noteworthy, with its filigree-covered marble, a huge mirror above the mantle, multiple cupids all around, and a magnificently ornate clock.

The enormous dining room is large enough for any state affair. Imagine the dinner conversations that took place here!

Carolyn-sized vase. Inlaid cabinet.  Strange cradle.

By the time we finished viewing the apartments, I was dead on my feet. I was sorry to leave so much unseen, but I only had so much time and stamina. On our way out, we passed through a few more rooms with exhibits of miscellaneous items.

Once outside, we took a brief walk through the Tuileries gardens; but it was gray and cold so we didn't linger. I can't exactly say I enjoyed our day at the Louvre; the disappointing tour, the sprawling, disorganized layout, and the loud pushy crowds made our time there rather unpleasant. I would have preferred a chance for more quiet appreciation of the beauty, for reflection on the history. I think only the locals, who can visit in the dead of winter when the tourists are at home, get that opportunity. But I guess at least I have minor bragging rights now. Been there, seen that. Sorta.

It was still fairly early in the afternoon and I was determined to make one more stop today. We stumbled on our numb feet to the west end of the gardens, where the Musée de l'Orangerie sits next to the Seine. This small gallery houses the famous Water Lilies murals of Claude Monet, along with other impressionist works. The museum doesn't allow photographs, but you can find plenty of them on the internet. Mike and I most enjoyed the benches where you could sit and contemplate the paintings. Or just sit, period. Which we did. For a while.

After resting up on the benches, we made our way back to the apartment and a well-deserved nap. For dinner, we tried a local hole-in-the-wall crêpe restaurant. The crêpes were very different from what American restaurants serve, folded up in more of a star shape and grilled; they reminded me of a Taco Bell Crunchwrap. They were just barely OK, disappointing for a Parisian crêpe place! Ah well, it was clearly not our best day.