Our only full day in Paris was mostly wonderful and a bit frustrating.
We started the day with a small breakfast in a cafe, as we like to do in Europe, as opposed to eating at the hotel. Watching local people come and go, I remembered how locals always stand at the bar for their little morning coffee, and how we did that every morning when we were in Italy. Later in the morning, after breakfast, I do the same, as one little breakfast coffee is not enough for my caffeine addiction! After breakfast, we stopped at a local store for water and fruit - another routine we want to get into - and then walked to the D'Orsay Museum. The streets were quiet and the city looked beautiful.
We arrived at the Musee D'Orsay just as the very long line to get in started to move. The D'Orsay is a converted train station, and the main hall is breathtaking - literally, one of those spaces that, when I first enter it, makes me gasp. We wandered through the sculptures along the main hall, then did a quick view of the galleries on the sides, stopping for a more thorough view of some favourites, like Van Gogh. I always find his work so moving and so sad, and the D'Orsay has several great Van Goghs. The galleries are striking, with the walls painted in rich, dark colours, paintings arranged thematically, and flooded with light. I also looked at the Art Nouveau collection, which includes furniture and other applied arts, and which has the bonus of sweeping views of the Seine.
The D'Orsay's main Impressionism collection is now housed in a new portion of the museum, behind and above the grand hall. You take a special elevator to the fifth floor, and exit into a large room with a giant clock window: you are behind the huge working clock from when the building was a train station. Through the clock window you see the Seine below, the city in front of you, Sacré-Coeur, the white basilica on the hill, in the distance. It is spectacular.
The Impressionism collection is impressive, and the galleries themselves are beautiful. I am very fortunate to have grown up seeing the Metropolitan Museum of Art's extensive Impressionist collection on a regular basis, with my mom. I was a big fan when I was much younger, but my tastes have changed. I still like some - Cezanne's still lifes, Monet's poplars and haystacks, some of Renoir's women - but this is no longer my go-to art. And thank goodness, as the D'Orsay's galleries were way too crowded to be enjoyable. Standing in a crush of people really detracts from my experience of art. I'm unable to block out the crowd and inhabit the experience. The rooms were so crowded, we could barely stand in them at all. Famous paintings like Manet's Le dejeuner sur l'herbe were mobbed.
If you're interested in how the D'Orsay galleries were renovated and some of the controversial changes that were made, there are many good descriptions online, such as this blog.
We left the D'Orsay with our feet aching, which I see is destined to be an ongoing issue on this trip. Allan has always had problems with his feet, and I do as well in recent years. We're both determined to deal with it and not let it become a major obstacle, but... I'm a bit concerned how this will play out.
We walked quite a ways away from the vicinity of the museum to find a non-touristy bistro for lunch. We shared more escargot, sizzling in their little compartments of garlic butter. Allan had another croque madame, and I had a cobb salad, very ordinary food, but here, unlike any salad I have ever eaten - giant strips of creamy, intense Roquefort cheese, giant slabs of smoky bacon, meltingly sweet cold chicken breast, the crispest, softest bib lettuce and obviously freshly made dijon vinaigrette. And of course with our twice-daily vin rouge.
This is what we both find so amazing and wonderful about France: the simplest of food, prepared with such attention and care, with such quality ingredients, so that a simple meal becomes a food experience. By contrast, so much food in North America is nearly tasteless. And if it seems like I spend too much time writing about food, all I can say is that my travel journals are for myself, my record of our trip, and food is an essential part of our travel.
Once we leave Paris, we won't have lunch and dinner at restaurants every day. Most likely, we'll buy provisions for lunch from local stores and snack outside, then go out for dinner. But we decided that while in Paris, we should make every meal count.
After lunch, we walked around more, in a decidedly upscale part of town, mostly looking in shop windows and at the wonderful traditional Paris architecture. We wandered through the food hall of the venerable department store Le Bon Marche, called La Grand Epicerie de Paris, a kind of foodie's heaven. We saw fuzzy, newly hatched ducklings in a little parkette, old men feeding them bread, trying to shoo away the pigeons. The ducklings' parents were unconcerned, and the little fuzzy guys were giving the pigeons what-for.
We considered going to the Rodin Museum, which is in roughly the same neighbourhood of the D'Orsay, but our feet were hurting and we decided to leave it for the next day... which turned out to be a mistake. I mis-remembered the time of our flight to Barcelona, it's earlier than I thought, and we really don't have time for Rodin. I've been to the Rodin Museums, both in Paris and in Philadelphia, several times, so I can't complain. But I do love sculpture in general and Rodin especially, so it's a bit disappointing.
We walked quite a bit, despite foot pain, then rested in the room, and set out for a restaurant Allan had picked out for dinner. From the description in Time Out, it sounded exactly like our kind of neighbourhood bistro. A quick ride on the metro with one correspondance from our hotel... and the place was closed. A handwritten sign said the brasserie is open for lunch, and the bar closes at 7:00 pm. So, our second night in Paris, and our second metro ride to not find a restaurant! Fortunately this journey was much shorter than our failed expedition to find the ghost of Au Gigot Fin the night before. And fortunately the Metro makes it as easy as possible.
The Paris Metro is absolutely amazing. Trains run so frequently that people complain if they wait more than three minutes. Like the London tube, the signboards announce the minutes until the next two trains. The trains are fast and quiet, and the system is incredibly extensive. Unlike the London Underground, which is pay-per-distance, the Paris Metro is pay-per-ride (like New York), a more democratic system.
Visiting London and Paris again, however briefly, has been such a treat. Although I live in suburbia now, and may never live in a really big city again, I am such an urban person at my core. Being in a huge city charged with energy and possibility makes me feel so alive.
After our second round-trip metro ride for nothing, we returned to the neighbourhood of our hotel, and had dinner at one of the many local brasseries. We shared two rounds of appetizers: smoked salmon, escargot, pate, frites, tomate et mozzarelle. The smoked salmon was wonderful; we ended up ordering it encore. All those small plates called for two rounds of bourdeaux, and we also stopped at our neighbourhood bistro from the day before for coffee and dessert.
My French was a little better today. I lost some of my shyness and recalled more vocabulary - just in time for Spain. The crazy thing is I'm guaranteed to speak French on my first few days in Barcelona. Luckily, I'm not shy about speaking Spanish. I enjoy it and will get much more comfortable as the trip progresses.
Some photos from Paris are here.