Want to know why my satchel is so big? That’s because “it’s FULL OF SECRETS” (i.e. many clothes and an iPad)
I left the planning of the first day in Paris down to the resident Parisian – Florence is a classy miss with a passion for culture and beautiful things so I knew that I was in good hands. We bid farewell to Claire, who had a lot of essays to work on, and were off on the metro to the Palais du Louvre to spend a leisurely Sunday morning sauntering around the shops in the Carrousel du Louvre. We started off with a coffee break in Starbucks ( The irony of going on a cultural trip and ending up at Starbucks within the first five minutes has been pointed out to me. There is both a Starbucks AND a McDonalds under the Louvre which is frankly a bit surreal. We were hoping to use their wifi. There was none. I clearly hadn’t adjusted to the parisian cold yet and thought that a frappucino would be a wise idea… wrong). Starbucks was followed by a taste test of the herbal teas on offer in L’Occitane en Provence, and scent smelling in Fragonard before we were suddenly inspired by the great masters and decided to give some of the art themed products from the Carrousel shops a test drive – there were quite a few cool gadgets, such as this ‘Bhudda slate’ that allows you to draw a design with water before slowly absorbing and erasing your
After purchasing a few postcards, it was time to get down to business – we headed up the escalators to visit the famous Musée du Louvre, which is one of Paris’ top tourist attractions. The Louvre is one of the largest museums in the world, famous for its stunning architecture, art collections, glass pyramids and for paying host to Leonardo di Vincis’ famous ‘Mona Lisa’ (‘La Joconde’ in French), the mysterious portrait of a woman with a winsome smile… or smirk, depending on how you view it. Whenever I’ve walked past the Louvre in the past, it has been absolutely heaving with people, however we were lucky enough to visit on a relatively calm day. If you want to visit the Louvre at peak holiday times, then in order to make the most of your day I would advise arriving early to avoid queues and planning the sections that you want to visit well in advance. An audio guide in English (and many other languages) can be downloaded as an app for android phone and nintendo 3DS XL (I found the nintendo 3DS XL partnership quite intriguing) using the Louvre’s wifi network.
To our delight, we were able to get in for free, as free entry is offered to any citizen of the EU (with a valid id card) under the age of 26. This excellent initiative is also available in other Parisian museums and I really believe that it is a great way to promote the preservation of art and culture to young people. We picked up some plans of the museum, flashed our identity cards and started our visit on the lower floor. Here we were greeted by formidible giant busts (including the bronze bust of Emperor Napoleon below on the left… and this gentleman with rather impressive sideburns on the right) and the medieval foundations (and moats) of the palace building. The ground floor foundations are all that remains of the Louvre’s first incarnation as a medieval fortress.
Leaving medieval France behind us, we climbed up some stairs and embarked on a journey through Ancient Egypt. After viewing tools, trades and jewellery (Florence was particularly taken with the scarab amulets), we arrived at the section devoted to Egyptian mummies and burial customs. The devotion to respecting the dead through ornate handiwork, elaborate coffins and the practice of complicated preservation techniques such as individual embalming and burial of organs is both fascinating and bewildering to contemplate.
I found the collection of mummified cats particularly intriguing – in Ancient Egypt cats were worshipped and the death of a cat would be treated with great reverence and ceremony. Upon death, cats often received the same mummifying treatment as pharaohs – as you can see below.
At first glance this motley crew of cats looked like a collection of long lost bedraggled stuffed toys – it was only on closer inspection that we realised that the seemingly cute painted gauze or plaster faces were in actual fact concealing some rather grisly remains underneath. The bodies are tightly bound with intricately patterned bandages brushed with resin. The organs would originally have been removed for individual embalming – in order to retain their shape, the bodies would have been stuffed with sand or earth before bandaging. Embalming the remains of a dead body ensured that the spirit that once resided in the body would be able to progress on into the afterlife. Occasionally pets were even sacrificed and mummified upon the death of their owner, so that their remains would be able to be placed side by side in the tomb, ensuring that the owner would have a companion with which to cross over into the next life with. Cheerful thoughts!
After a substantial amount of time contemplating Mummies, we headed onwards through the Louvre… gazing upwards in awe at the palatial gold lacquered ceilings.
One of the most interesting aspects of museums is of course learning the stories behind artefacts on display. The Louvre has an astonishing number of artefacts, which are all of an extremely high value…. but if you forget the value of the objects just for a second, I’d like you to imagine yourself going back in time. You are a noble at a birthday party, and you receive a charming gift of home-ware…
A jug with your own face and fancy dragons sculpted onto it …”Oh thanks darling, you shouldn’t have…”
ANYWAY, we were gazing up at golden ceilings and heading onwards through the Louvre towards the most valued painting in the world – the ‘Mona Lisa’. As we followed the numerous arrows pointing the way to her, we noticed that the number of people in our vicinity increasing at a fast rate. By the time we actually entered the room where the painting was displayed, we were faced with a real hullabaloo. The ‘Mona Lisa’ is actually surprisingly underwhelming – compared to other works in the room, it’s quite a small painting, cased under thick bulletproof glass (to protect the grand dame of the museum from attack) and surrounded by a cord barrier. It’s not the kind of painting that you can stand in front of and gaze at for ages as to get a glimpse up close you have to weave through the crowd (the ideal manoeuvre to get to the front is kind of a cross between a slithery eel and a slalom skier) whilst avoiding elbows and camera phones to the face. The real challenge is trying to get a photo of the ‘Mona Lisa’ without any other tourists in the frame….
Florence accepted the photography challenge. As you can imagine from my eel/slalom skier description before, this feat required some quite skilled choreography – however she managed to get a couple of photos of me that almost look as if we had the room all to ourselves for a private view (LIES).
We soon escaped the throng to have a look at other paintings in the room – our favourite was the immense and colourful crowd scene ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’ painted by Veronese in 1563. This is the largest painting in the Louvre’s collection and it covers the entire wall opposite the Mona Lisa. It’s quite interesting to observe how such a vast theatrical painting remains largely ignored, living in the shadow of ‘Mona Lisa’ and her many admirers. The fact that the painting is a crowd scene ironically reflects la foule in front of the ‘Mona Lisa’. After having earlier spent quite a bit of time with the cats of Ancient Egypt, we especially enjoyed spotting the cat that appears in the bottom of ‘The Wedding Feast at Cana’. If you make a trip to the Louvre, see if you can spot it!
We viewed a few more paintings (including ‘The Coronation of Napoleon’ by Jacques Louis David which was breathtaking) before deciding to replenish our oxygen levels by going outside to admire the architecture of the Louvre alfresco. En route, I took a few photos of portraits that particularly caught my eye – ‘The Empress Josephine’ by Pierre Paul Prud’hon (1805) and “The Young Martyr” by Paul Delaroche (1855). Josephine de Beauharnais was the first wife of Napoleon – her former residence the Château de Malmaison is considered a Napoleonic national museum and is located in Reuil-Malmaison, just a few RER stops outside Paris.
Below you can see one of the iconic glass pyramids situated in the courtyard of the Louvre. Although they were quite a controversial concept when first installed, they have since become beloved Parisian landmarks. The large pyramid was completed in 1989, it’s just that little bit older than me!
The Louvre has its own ‘Arc de Triomphe’ – the ‘Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel’ is a miniature version of the larger ‘Arc de Triomphe de l’Étoile’ (situated on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées). The baby arch is made out of rose marble and although both structures were planned at the same time, the miniature was actually completed 28 years before its larger counterpart. After going around in circles for a while, admiring the ins and outs of the courtyard, we decided to head head back inside to the first floor of the Richelieu wing to see the state apartments of Napoleon III.
Victor Hugo famously referred to Napoleon III as “Napoleon le petit” (Napoleon the little), implying that Napoleon III was diminutive in both stature and grandeur. The grandeur that Napoleon III was lacking in character (according to Hugo) was clearly hiding in the interior décor of his state apartments.If you’re planning a visit to the Louvre, this section is not to be missed – the sheer opulence and decadence has to be seen to be believed.
The tiara that you can see above was originally part of the French Crown Jewels collection – after having been sold many years ago (1887 to be precise) to a private collector in DURHAM it was acquired by the Louvre in 2002 (I was excited by this connection, as you can tell by my apparent need to take a photograph of a sign… all that pomp and sparkle and I thought it imperative to take a photograph of a sign… honestly)
After perusing the apartments and indulging in one last photo opportunity (I just loved the joyous stag, it reminded me our Collingwood stag statue back in Durham), it was back down to the carrousel in an attempt to source food and an internet connection so that I could send off some articles – I ended up leaning against a plinth in the apple store. We then parted ways as Florence had a busy evening of studying ahead of her, whilst I was off to meet my mum, who coincidentally had just arrived in Paris for a course on French tax, in Villiers.
Food was to be found at Casa Belucci, a cute Italian restaurant in Avenue de Villiers (http://www.lacasabelucci.com) We were enticed in by the chic red lip sofas (reminiscent of the italian siren of the silver screen Sophia Loren and Paris’ classic ‘Crazy Horse’ cabaret show). We were presented with free shots of mushroom soup, before sharing the’Romana’ pizza and ‘La Riviera’ salad. Dessert was a raspberry sorbet and pistachio icecream coupe topped with cherries and pistachioscalled ‘L’Amarena en Folie’. All in all, it was an excellent way to conclude the day! Many thanks to Flo for joining me in being a culture vulture tourist for the day!