OUR FAVOURITE MUSEUM IN THE WORLD
Continuing our explorations around Paris we decided to focus on the geographical heart of the city today – around the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th arrindossments. Here, where the Medieval city of Paris was born, lie some of city’s most historical sights. It was an action-packed day as we went from the mighty Catedrale de Notre Dame de Paris, to the romantic Pont Neuf, and, finally, to the most amazing museum in the world: Le Musée du Louvre.
At the heart of Paris, linked to the banks of the Seine by a series of bridges, are two small islands: Ile St Louis and Ile de la Cité. This is where the earliest settlement in Paris began, and where we started our day.
Surrounded by the waters of the Seine both islands are charming in their own way, though Ile St Louis was more so, mainly thanks to the lack of tourists. Once it was just the malodorous bastion of fishermen, but today the narrow streets of this tiny island are today lined with fancy apartments, boutique hotels, cozy restaurants, and expensive specialty shops.
The larger Ile de la Cité is the historical and geographical epicentre of Paris. Here, some 2,500 years ago, a muddy town was established along the banks of a muddy river; that village grew to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
No vestige of that early settlement remains; today Ile de la Cité is a busy hub that’s traversed by millions of people on their way between banks of the Seine. It’s also home to one of Paris’s most famous churches: Notre Dame Cathedral. Building of the cathedral began in the 12th century and took 300 years to complete. As the building took shape, changes to the original design were made; the end result is a mixture of architectural styles that is quite unique, and fascinating.
Over its vast history the cathedral suffered considerable damage, not least during the French Revolution in 1786. For many years it lay virtually in ruins until Victor Hugo published his famous book “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”, which inspired the restoration of the church.
These days Notre dame attracts millions of visitors, keen to experience its beauty for themselves. Unfortunately the queue to get into the church was already stupidly long by the time we got there so we forwent a tour of the interior and enjoyed what we could of the building’s exterior (taking care to avoid the groups of Roma women and children, and other shady looking characters loitering around which seem to be an unescapable feature of every major tourist site around Paris).
Also on Ile de la Cité is the Conciergerie, a majestic building that was once part of the royal palace and then became a prison. During the French Revolution hundreds of prisoners were kept there before being taken to be executed by guillotining. An ignominious history for such a grand building!
After exploring Paris’s river islands we crossed Pont Neuf and headed across to the North bank of the Seine. Paradoxically Pont Neuf (i.e. New Bridge) is the oldest bridge left standing in Paris (it was built in 1607). From Pon Neuf we could see across to Pont D’Artes, the bridge more commonly known as the “Love Locks Bridge” – it’s here that lovers from all over the world come to attach padlocks (with their names engrave don them) to the railing, throwing the key into the Seine as a testament to their eternal commitment to each other. There were a million padlocks attached to Pont D’Artes before it became a hazard and most of the locks were removed. Wonder how many of those lovers have managed to make the commitment last?
Across the river we passed by the Palais Garnier, Paris’s incredible 2,000-seat opera house, which was built in 1875. It was originally called the Salle des Capucines, because of its location on the Boulevard des Capucines. Its opulence, however, garnered it the title of “palace”, and in honour of its architect, Charles Garnier, it became colloquially known as “Palais Garnier”.
Our primary goal for the afternoon, however, was the famous Louvre Museum, so we did not linger and continued past to the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel* to the museum.
*Like the OTHER Arc de Triomphe, the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel was built to celebrate war victories. This time it was to commemorate Napoleon’s victory of 1805 at the Battle of Austerlitz, also known as the Battle of the Three Emperors.
The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums and holds more than 35,000 display items; it’s also the world’s most visited museum and the crowds are notoriously bad. Luckily we had a tip that entering via the Carousel de Louvre shopping centre was a good way to short cut the queues and so barely spent 10 minutes in queue before getting in. All the more time to go exploring across the acres of displays on offer…
The museum is housed in the Louvre Palace, originally built as a fortress in the late 12th century. The building was extended many times to form the present Louvre Palace. In 1682, Louis XIV chose the Palace of Versailles for his household, leaving the Louvre primarily as a place to store his royal collection of artworks. Things remained this way until, during the French Revolution, the Louvre was declared a museum and opened to the public. It was opened on 10 August 1793 with an exhibition of 537 paintings, the majority of the works being confiscated royal and church property.
The number of items on display at the Louvre is mind-boggling and with just an afternoon to explore we knew we couldn’t see it all. Rather than exhaust ourselves trying, we instead chose to 2 goals for the afternoon:
1. To see the “big ticket items” and decide for ourselves whether they live up to the hype.
2. To see the Napoleon Apartments, where we could admire the opulence of life as a French royal.
Our pick of the “big ticket items” would be:
• The Winged Victory of Samothrace. This beautiful marble sculpture dates back to the 2nd century BC and shows the Greek goddess Nike (Goddess of victory) with her wings outstretched. It’s incredible to see how much life can be wrought in stone!
• The Seated Scribe. Having been to Saqqara in Egypt we were intrigued by the sculpture of the Seated Scribe, which shows a figure of a seated Egyptian scribe at work. The sculpture was discovered at Saqqara in 1850 and dates back to about 2,500 BC. What made the statue so fascinating were the richness of the colours and the intensity in the scribe’s eyes.
• The Assyrian Lammasu. A lamassu is an Assyrian protective deity, often depicted as having a human’s head, the body of an ox, and bird’s wings. They were often found at the entrance of temples and palaces, protecting those within. The lamassu at the Louvre were discovered by French archaeologists in an area that is now part of Iraq and were once guarding the entrance to the Palace of Sargon.
• The Venus de Milo*. Another masterpiece of marble, this beautiful statue is more than 2,000 years old and shows Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty (Venus to the Romans), in all her beauty. Even without her arms she was so graceful and beautiful that it was easy to understand why there was a crowd at her feet.
*The statue is named after the Greek island of Milos, where it was discovered.
• Last but certainly not least, the Mona Lisa. If the Venus de Milo had a crowd of admirers, the Mona Lisa had a legion. So many people crowded around one small painting! Sure, she’s interesting, with that enigmatic smile and all, but is the painting really worth all the fuss? Not really in our opinion, but that’s just our opinion…
In getting from one gallery to the next to see these works of art we passed through gallery after gallery of paintings and sculptures. We couldn’t just walk past these and not stop, especially given how beautiful many of the artworks were.
The lofty sculpture galleries were especially enthralling, with the building itself becoming part of the art display.
There were many rooms, in fact, where we spent more time looking at the rooms themselves, rather than the displays within. The frescos on the ceiling, the decorations and detailing, and the sheer beauty of many of the galleries was incredible.
As beautiful as the interior is, the exterior is also pretty nice. The ornate detailing of the original palace is beautifully complemented by the famous glass pyramid added in 1988 as part of the museum’s renovations.
After a couple of hours of trawling through the art and sculpture galleries we had a break, fortified ourselves with a coffee, and then set off for the Napoleon Apartment. These rooms are decorated in a style exemplary of the style that would have used during the time of King Louis XIV, and were absolutely glorious in their splendour.
Not since the Hermitage in St Petersburg have we seen such luxury and magnificence. Hardly surprising that the French peasants revolted really, when you see the richness of the lives the French royals enjoyed whilst people starved in the streets! (Not to get too political here, but does anyone else see a similarity to the state of affairs in some parts of the world today, where corporate fat cats live in ridiculous luxury while the “peasants” starve in the streets below? Time for another revolution maybe…)
We emerged for the Louvre 4 hours later foot-sore and defeated. Even for hard-core nerds like us that was way too much art and history in one place. We’d need a week to see it all! Still, what an awesome museum – definitely our favourite museum EVER and one we have already put on our list of places to come back to. Wow Paris – just WOW.