Paris: From Monet to the Michelin Man

In an ongoing series on short breaks from Nice, Nancy Heslin visited the nation’s capital for a dose of culture

ParisThe City of Light has always been known for three things: a “mauvaise image” when it comes to welcoming tourists, extravagant prices and an abundance of dog shit in the streets. This has not deterred visitors however: in 2006, France remained the number one tourist destination worldwide with 79 million visitors (more than the population of France), an increase of 4 per cent from the previous year and well ahead of the second ranked country Spain. But for those of us living in the South of France with low-cost airlines seducing us to fly to Spain, Italy, Germany, Ireland and even Morocco, that trip to Paris seems to be continuously put off. I felt it was high time to return and feed my cultural soul a feast of museums over three days.

“There’s always something to do in Paris,” Véronique Potelet-Anty of the Paris Tourism Office on rue Pyramides told me. “Whether it’s your first visit or fiftieth, whether you’re a family or a couple, every day there are 300 events and every day fifteen museums offer free admission to permanent collections. Even the classic attractions have added new tours like ‘Backstage at the Eiffel Tower’.” And that disconcerting warmth Parisians extend to visitors? “We’ve really cleaned up our ‘image d’accueil’. You’ll notice a difference.”

Army and art

Day 1: With 141 museums to choose from, the first stop on my circuit was Le Petit Palais, built in the 8th arrondissement opposite Le Grand Palais for the Paris Exhibition in 1900. As the city’s Fine Arts Museum since 1902, this classical building houses a collection of paintings, sculptures and objets d’art from antiquity to 1918. The versatile selection of works includes Monet’s Soleil couchant sur la Seine à Lavacourt, effet d’hiver (1840) and Paul Cezanne’s Les trois baigneuses (1879-1882).

Close by in the 7th arrondissement is the Musée d’ Orsay. Originally a train station that resembled “a fine arts palace” (circa 1900), its train service ceased in 1979. Plans to demolish the building were overturned and it became a listed building, transformed into three main levels displaying all forms of Western art from 1848 to 1914 – under the watchful eye of a massive station clock. Also in the 7th arrondissement: Les Invalides. Napoleon’s tomb lies here under the famous dome (decorated with 12 kg of gold), and you’ll find the Musée de l’Ordre et de la Liberation. The most prestigious award in France from WWII, the Order of the Liberation was initiated by Charles de Gaulle in 1940 and given to only 1038 men and women, 5 towns and 18 fighting units. The museum’s three galleries and six rooms pay tribute to the Free French Forces, the Resistance and deportees. Around the corner, Le Musée de l’Armée hosts temporary exhibits like Amours, Guerres et Sexualité 1914-1945. Captivating war memorabilia like posters (above) shouting “Don’t Just Kiss ’em Goodbye, Work to Bring ’em Back” or “My Girl’s a Wow”.

Advertising and fashion

ParisDay 2: Musée des égouts (sewer). Need I say more? Well I can’t because it was closed due to rainy weather. Exploring the 2100km of pipes and 26,000 manhole covers across the city did intrigue me, though. I didn’t take the Backstage Tour, but I did make a quick dash to the Eiffel Tower and played the happy tourist alongside fellow sightseers braving the rain.

In the 1st arrondissement near the Louvre, the Advertising Museum (Musée de la publicité) exhibits 100,000 posters and 20,000 commercials from the 18th century to contemporary times. Very amusing (and noisy) covering everything from cigarettes to La Vache qui rit to Michelin tires. Next door, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile presents – amongst other fascinations like 18th-century corsets – Christian Lacroix. Twenty years of the couturier’s work is on display until April 2008. These are brainless visits after you’ve hit the hard stuff, like the Louvre. While I may be the only anti-Dan Brown campaigner alive, the Louvre seems to have fully embraced the popularity of “that book” by offering tours for fanatics. Perhaps it’s for this reason that it saw a record 8.3 million visitors in 2006. Still you can’t go wrong roaming the classics for hours. The real controversy here is, of course, the $1.3 billion deal to open a Louvre in Abu Dhabi in 2012.

My most amusing Paris moment (other than literally bumping into Johnny Halliday) was taking the lift in the Louvre. Looking around the packed elevator, it struck me as funny that every person was stereotypically dressed head-to-toe in black. As I’ve never been able to pass up an opportunity for commentary, I cracked a joke in French which did not lead to an encore. On the whole, though, I found Parisians softer, more pleasant to deal with than on previous visits.

History and photography

Day 3: Heading over to one of the city’s oldest areas in the 3rd and 4th arrondissements, the funky Marais district is full of trendy shops and eateries amongst 17th- century homes. The airy Picasso Museum was created in 1973 after the artists’ death when his work became the property of the French state. Cézanne and Matisse are also on display here. Musée Carnavalet, around the corner is entirely devoted to the history of Paris, prehistoric to present, housed in two adjoining mansions. In Place des Vosges, Victor Hugo’s residence from 1832-1848 was turned into a museum in 1902. Rooms remain decorated as by Hugo himself (check out the size of his bed) and drawings, photographs and pieces of furniture by the Les Mis writer line the walls. Maison Européenne de la Photographie was one my favourites. Located at the hôtel Hénault de Cantobre (1706) with its café in an 18th century vault, the museum shows temporary collections of contemporary photographs: Larry Clark: Tulsa 1963-1971; Books of nudes: an anthology, The Alessandro Bertolotti Collection; and Martine Barrat’s Harlem in My Heart.

Now for something completely different

On a less culturally-correct note, I did an impromptu Princess Di tour: stopped at the Ritz for a drink on Saturday night, exited out the back and took a taxi through the Pont de l’Alma tunnel ... I know, I know.

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