Thursday, February 16, 2012

Holiday Travels, Part 8: Paris, Round 2

My scenic train ride from Prague to Berlin cheered me up a little after the disappointment of that morning. It really was very beautiful, though it got dark before we reached Berlin, so I hope the last part wasn't supposed to be the prettiest. Berlin has an epic, multi-level central train station, and although it still wasn't super exciting, it was a vast improvement over Wuppertal. My trip on the night train was also a vast improvement--there was only one other person in my compartment when I got on (for the record, it was a middle-aged man reading Twilight...), and it never did get full. I don't remember whether I slept or not, but either way it was a far less crappy night than the trip to Prague. I arrived back in Paris on the morning of the 28th, bought an enormous pain au chocolat, and went to meet my friend Thalia, who promptly whisked me off on the RER to the town where she lives on the outer rim of Paris's suburbs.

Étampe is cute, if small. The center has a small-village feel to it, and it has a charming little canal. The major downside to staying there was the fact that the town center is at the bottom of a monstrous hill, while the newer neighborhoods, including the one where Thalia's school is, are at the top. This proved especially challenging on the morning of the second day I was there, when I went out to find patches of ice everywhere. On the positive side, Étampe actually has old buildings, which continues to be a novelty for me. The highlights include several old churches, a half-timbered tavern building, a really interesting old stuccoed building with a courtyard that's now the public library, and, up on the hill overlooking the center, the remains of a rather oddly-shaped castle. It's almost clover-shaped, four round towers stuck together around a central point. I've never seen anything like it. Unfortunately, in December when I was there, it was "decorated" with "holiday" lights, and not even a little bit tastefully. (Among other issues, it was continually changing colors.)

After Thalia showed me around Étampe a bit, we headed back into the city to meet a friend of hers for dinner at what may well be the only taqueria in Paris, followed by drinks at a surprisingly inexpensive (read: prices comparable to anywhere outside of Paris) café, and then a wander that eventually took us to Notre Dame. I think that was the first time I'd seen the cathedral at night, and it's every bit as amazing as it is in photos. But then, I just never get tired of hanging around Notre Dame.

The next morning I got up early and went back into Paris by myself to go to the Musée National du Moyen Âge (formerly known as the Musée du Cluny). It was my first stop because I was super excited about it; it was one of the places I'd been dreaming of going since last summer when I first started seriously thinking about the fact that I was about to spend eight months of my life in France. Sadly, it turned out to be somewhat disappointing. Not that there weren't some really cool things there. The special exhibit at the time had a lot of illuminated manuscripts, for one thing. There was a scattering of nice tapestries and decorative art pieces. You can go into part of the ruined Roman baths below the museum, which was awesome, and some parts of the mansion the museum is housed in are more or less original. And of course, I got to see the famous Dame à la licorne tapestry series, which was probably the highlight of that day. They're hanging by themselves in a specially lit room, and I just sat there for a long time studying them. But everything else in the museum, which was a lot, was a bit of a letdown after all my excitement. It's a lot, a LOT of religious art and paraphernalia, and I'd really been expecting/hoping for more secular, everyday sorts of things. That's what I get for being an archaeologist instead of an art historian, I guess. But even so, the Art Museum of Philadelphia (yes, Philadelphia! on the other side of the Atlantic!) has a better collection of arms and armor. Just saying.

Thalia arrived around the time I was finishing up, and we got crêpes and then went to the Crypte Archéologique de Notre Dame. Don't be fooled by the name--it's not like a tomb. No bodies or bones. What it is is a jumble of ruins, with bits and pieces visible of all the layers that make up the heart of the city, from Roman walls to medieval streets to baroque gardens to a nineteenth-century orphanage. It's confusing, of course, and you can only walk around the excavated area, not through it or over it, so much of it is hard to see. There are models and diagrams every few feet to help you try to sort it out, and I still had to puzzle over some of it for a while. But it's fascinating, and it's all surrounded by too much historical exposition to read it all without spending hours there below Notre Dame. (I made it about halfway and then skimmed the rest. Thalia gave up before I did, or was spending less time than I was on trying to figure out the ruins; either way, she was waiting near the exit before I was done.) It was awesome.

Afterwards, we went to get in line to see the famous stained glass window at Saint-Chapelle. However, the line was absurd and I decided there were better things to do. Thalia and I split up, and I headed for Montparnasse and the entrance to the catacombs... but no dice. It was late afternoon by then, and I got there just fifteen minutes before the last entry of the day. The line was short, so I waited hopefully, but didn't make the cut. I retreated one metro stop to regroup with Thalia (at a chocolate shop) and we took a leisurely walk in the direction of the Musée d'Orsay, which stays open late on Thursday evenings. Thalia's route took us past Saint-Sulpice, which I hadn't seen before, so we stopped in for a look. Since it was getting close to dusk, it was quite dark inside, too dark to really appreciate some of the decoration, but it's still a neat church. And it has a plaque on the wall reminding visitors, in multiple languages, that The Da Vinci Code is a work of fiction and much of what it says about Saint-Sulpice is pure speculation, if not just blatantly untrue. I'll admit that at this point it's been so long since I read The Da Vinci Code that I don't really remember the significance of Saint-Sulpice to the plot, but I still got a kick out of that.

Meanwhile, it seemed that many people had shared our plan to take advantage of Orsay's extended hours, and the line was exceptionally long. We decided to wait it out (there wasn't really anything better to do at that point in the evening) and got sandwiches to eat in line. I don't fully remember now, but I think it took us somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half to get in, which still left us a respectable amount of time*, long enough for both a thorough look at a special exhibit about English Romanticism during the time of Oscar Wilde and a quick pass through the crowded Impressionist gallery.

The special exhibit was great. I mean, it was art (and really interesting, sexy art, to boot) in historical and social context, and I think I've already said more than was necessary about my feelings on that particular subject. Part of what was so great, though, was that it wasn't just paintings, or even paintings and sculpture; there were also decorative arts and some photographs and even a fashion display, much to my delight. And there were Oscar Wilde quotes painted everywhere. I don't even remember now what I wanted to say about why I thought it was so well-done, but I really enjoyed it.

I also really enjoyed the Impressionist wing, though I'd like to go back another time, maybe early in the day when it's less crowded, and take more time with it. And of course, there are tons of other things in Orsay that I didn't get to see at all. For example, one of my very favorite paintings is Starry Night by Van Gogh. This is not the famous swirly Starry Night, but a darker, slightly more realistic-looking river scene--it's also called Starry Night Over The Rhone, to distinguish it from the other Starry Night. Anyway, after not seeing it at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, I had looked it up and discovered it was in the possession of the Musée d'Orsay, at which point I got really excited about the prospect of seeing it in person the following week. And when Thalia and I finished the Oscar Wilde exhibit and didn't have much time before closing, I decided that what I wanted to do was make a pass through the Impressionist gallery and then come back the following day to look for the Van Gogh.

So here's why that didn't work.

I think my first mistake, other than getting worked up about it to the point of making a special trip to a museum to see one specific work of art (not really my style), was buying a postcard. I started my art postcard collection while I was in Ireland and have made a point of buying postcards only of works of art I have actually seen, with my own eyes, in person. (It really frustrates me when museum gift shops have postcards for sale of paintings that are not currently on display, or that passed through for a special exhibit at some point but are not actually in the museum's possession. I see them and think, Oh, I really like that! but can't buy the card because I can't actually see the piece in question.) My choices are otherwise kind of arbitrary, but that's the one thing they all have in common. And I bought a stack of postcards from the Musée d'Orsay that first night that included Starry Night preemptively, since I was determined to go back the following day to see it.

The next morning Thalia and I journeyed into Paris together a bit later than I had the day before, because that morning is when she took me to see the castle up close. Once in the city, we got crêpes for brunch and tried Saint-Chapelle again, but the line was even worse than the day before, so we went straight to Orsay, only to find that that line was also even worse than before. After a moment of "Well, what the hell do we do now?" I decided that I would go to the catacombs first, since I'd also planned to try that again that day, and come back to the museum later. A) It was open later, so hopefully I'd have a better shot at doing both in that order, and B) Maybe, if we were super lucky, there would be fewer people later. So I went back to Montparnasse, and waited for something like two hours in a line that circled almost all the way around the block, and I saw the catacombs. They will get their own post after this.

Late in the afternoon, I returned to the museum and got in line--a line every bit as absurd as it had been the night before. I was actually one of the last people to join said line, because even though the museum wasn't going to close for some time, it was apparently overcrowded and they stopped letting people line up right after I got there because they weren't intending to allow anyone else in. (There was actually a moment once Thalia got there when it seemed like they weren't going to let her join me, but then the same guy who initially yelled at her for ducking under the rope to cut in came back less than five minutes later and let her in without a word. Ah, France.) I don't think we waited any longer than we had the night before, but it was for even less time--only about half an hour from the time we made it past security until the time they were going to kick everyone out. We headed straight for the Post-Impressionist gallery and moved quickly past all of the other Van Goghs and Gauguins and Seurats. We circled the rooms twice. Starry NIght wasn't there. We tried a couple of other galleries nearby. It still wasn't there. We looked at the museum plan. There was no other logical place for it to be.

We looked at some other things, including a small exhibit about the Paris Opera, complete with a fantastic model of the building and a series of models of various sets, but I was feeling pretty resentful. I was afraid maybe I'd misread whatever had led me to believe it was in Paris in the first place, but there was the postcard and all the books and bags and other stuff in the gift shop with that painting on them. I was afraid maybe it was lurking somewhere else in the museum and we'd somehow missed it, but I couldn't imagine where else it might be. Thalia suggested that perhaps it was undergoing conservation work, but I didn't believe we wouldn't have seen something about that somewhere.

We split up right before leaving, because I wanted to at least go back and take one more look at the Van Goghs that were on display, since we'd rushed through before. On my way out again, I approached the guard to finally ask about Starry Night, because I couldn't stand leaving without at least knowing if it was indeed at least supposed to be there. I hadn't even finished the question before he said, "Yeah, it's in Hong Kong."

"It's in Hong Kong?!"



So, yes, the one time in my life I make a point of spending a considerable amount of time and energy on a quest to see one specific painting... that painting is, unbeknownst to me, on the other side of the planet. I waited in line not once, but twice, to see something that wasn't even there. And, though I didn't ask, I suspect it won't be back before I leave France.

So now my postcard is a lie...

* Considering the fact that we get in for free thanks to being legal residents under the age of 25. Paying full price, it might not have been worth it.

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