Back when I was in high school, French was the most commonly-offered foreign language, and I took it for six years from middle school all the way through high school. My French teachers filled the classroom walls with posters of French landmarks, mostly from Paris. Images of the Notre Dame and Louvre were etched in my mind for many, many years. So, when I took this trip on a cold January weekend, I was really excited when the bus arrived and the first image I saw through my bleary just-woke-up eyes was the world famous cathedral, shown in the first photograph. I was equally thrilled to get to spend two full hours in the Louvre, not only getting to see the Mona Lisa but a whole lot more.
This first chapter in the Paris travelogue covers these locations along with other highlights of Parisian art and culture. These were my favorite spots on the trip, not least of which most of them were inside, where it was warmer.
Why the Notre Dame was so fascinating to my French teachers was not hard to see. She was one of Paris' oldest structures, and was famous for its 'flying buttress' design, an architectural masterpiece for its time. The first photograph doesn't show them well, but the flying buttresses were the arches enamating from the front and sides to hold the walls up. Numerous other churches since copied this idea, and in many ways did it better. The Notre Dame was undergoing a significant restoration effort that made it look brand new. From the front, the Cathedral is similar in appearance (though not in size) to the great Dom in Köln, Germany.
The interior of Notre Dame was fairly plain, without the flambouyant artwork seen in most German Cathedrals. It is dominated by large stone-gray columns with limited color save for the occasional massive stained glass, such as the huge and beautiful Rose Window in the western facade (the opposite end of the church from the first photo's viewpoint). Instead, Notre Dame's interior decor included statues of its country's heroes, like Jean d'Arc (Joan of Arc) who had an entire chapel dedicated to her. Her statue, shown in the second photograph, was one of the most photographed sights in the Notre Dame.
After the Notre Dame, we took a bus ride through several blocks in the eastern part of the city. We passed by the Hotel Ritz, sitting on a huge plaza surrounded by other equally posh hotels. We got off somewhere near a shopping mall that was in the middle of a whole bunch of museums, galleries, and bibliothèques scattered about at regular intervals. Given about an hour to explore, I took several photos of major landmarks, such as the Opéra Garnier shown in the third photograph. I had just a few moments to peek inside, and found it so filled with gorgeous artwork and decor that it was practically a museum itself! (I was frankly surprised that we are allowed in, ordinarily it was closed when performances weren't taking place.)
But speaking of museums, there were none that compared to the Louvre -- one of the biggest, most diverse, and most impressive museums I have ever seen. Art-wise, you name it, the Louvre had it -- French, Italian, Dutch art; medieval, Renaissance, modern; paintings, sculpture, archaeological works, palace renditions. ... Palace Renditions? Yes, indeed. While the majority of the people concentrated in the displays of masterpiece art, I spent a large chunk of our two allocated hours at the far opposite end of the building, walking through a full recreation of one of Napoleon's apartments. This display covered most of a wing on one floor and included fully furnished rooms and examples of art rendering historic events of France. A couple of rooms were dedicated just to the urns that Napoleon collected, and some were bigger than barrels.
But of course, I also had to go see the Mona Lisa. But I was disappointed, perhaps because the expectations were naturally too great. The Mona Lisa was a beautiful painting, but it was small, not much larger than a regular family portrait one might put on a living room wall. Also, it was behind a very thick chunk of glass and in the doorway of a huge thick steel vault that was closed at night, whereas all the other works of art were in the open and more 'accessible'.
The Louvre was not the only art museum. Its exhibits were mostly classical art, whereas the Orsay Museum directly across the Seine River was the place to go for the Impressionists. Quite a number on my bus trip went there instead of the Louvre, in fact. As far as the fifth photograph went, this was taken in the opposite direction from the fourth, toward a large park containing another triumphal arch -- so the famous big Arc de Triomphe was not the only arch in town. Way off in the distance was a ferris wheel that is barely discernable in the photo. That was located at a winter festival located on the Place de la Concorde, which is described in the chapter titled Paris-Ouest, and gives you an idea of just where all these places in the city were in relation to each other.
The 'eastern' part of Paris was wonderful, but especially the Louvre. I was so glad to visit these locations that I could only dream about in French class so many years ago. Now, some day I have to meet this Astérix fellow...
Trip taken 12-13 January 2001 -- Page Last Updated 29 September 2006 -- (C) 2002 Tom Galvin