As a US native, it’s always an interesting experience to step out of the country and into the Old World. Europe. Asia. The Middle East. Even in straying as near as Central America you’re surrounded by history far older than the United States. Modern structures mingling with ancient ruins. Of the days when Church was a significant authority and royalty reigned unconditionally under the delusion of divine appointment (in French, it’s called Ancien Régime).
In the world’s former major powers, you find enormity. Ridiculously ornate, ego-stroking enormity. The Monument to Vittorio Emanuele II in Rome is so big, you have to walk back several blocks to fit the entire thing in a camera’s viewfinder. Louis XIV moved his family and government outside of Paris to the massive Palace of Versailles, because by doing so, the people wouldn’t notice this giant thing built on the backs of the poor. And, by isolating his government there, he hoped to quash any revolts. Obviously, that didn’t work out as planned.
My favorite part in all of this was how the aristocracy liked to represent themselves. As larger-than-life national heroes. In the Louvre, for example, there is one full room of floor-to-ceiling sized paintings commissioned by Maria Medici, wife of King Henry IV. They were the work of Flemish master, Peter Paul Rubens, and his apprentice, David, but done with instructions about how to portray their subjects. Medici appears in a number of them, sometimes coddled by glowing cherubs, and other times, atop a white horse as though leading her country to victory. That’s stretching artistic license about as far as it will go, but even the artist and his apprentice got to play along. And in the Palace of Versailles, there are several paintings of Louis XIV being blessed by angels and a few sculptures in which he is made to resemble Julius Caesar. What fat ass dandies they must have been in real life.
Maria Medici’s love letter to herself.
Nonetheless, given the tremendous scale of all of these things, there aren’t many places where you could say, clear it in an hour, and then fatten up on crepes waiting for the rest of the tour group to show up.
Well, you could… but why would come all this way for that?!
Fist bumping was around before you were even born! (Actual fist not shown).
Paris is an expensive city to visit, and will be so long as the Euro outpaces the dollar (although there’s been internal squabbling in the EU regarding that). Of course, as in most European cities, there are ways to maximize the bang you’ll get for your buck. One is the multi-day pass to the city’s best sites, which usually includes the public transportation to get you there. In Paris, it’s called the Paris Museum Pass, and in addition to discounts on sites and transit, it also helps cut down some of the wait time, which is great when you’re on a tight schedule and trying to get around a city that boasts a whopping 42 million tourists ever year. That’s on top of the 11 plus million people who already reside in the area. And even if it a generous estimate, that’s still a lot of people to maneuver around at all times. So go when school is out of session, so at least there aren’t groups of kids to contend with on top of everything else.
On the right, you can see some of the skyscrapers of modern Paris.
And what should you see when you’re in Paris? The Eiffel Tower is probably on most everyone’s sightseeing checklist. And it really is something to see close up, beyond some reproduced image at least once, lest the whole journey feel incomplete.
The Eiffel Tower is one more of those massive constructions, but at least it’s massive all in one direction: straight up. The Tower is named for its architect, Gustave Eiffel, who planned it as a pretty impressive entrance to the 1889 World’s Fair. Since then, they’ve found other uses for it, such as testing radio communications and meteorological technology. For a while, it was also the tallest structure in the world, but lost out to America in the ongoing Height Wars when the Chrysler Building went up in New York City in 1930. It’s still the largest structure in Paris, though, but only by about a few hundred feet, competing with an office building designed by some ballsy assholes in 2011.
The Tower’s height makes it a constant on the Parisian horizon. For a couple of Euros, you can ride the lift or hoof it up to the middle or top levels of the Tower and look out over one of the World’s oldest cities. It’s not the only place to get an impressive view of Paris. The lookout at the Basilica of Sacred Hearts in Montmarte and the 5-story escalator at the Pompidou Centre are two others that come to mind.
The light life in Paris.
At night, the Eiffel Tower looks like a grand trophy made of solid gold the way it’s lit up. Every hour, it becomes covered in bright twinkling lights as though it were enveloped in a cloud of fleeting fireworks, momentarily substituting regal gold for a Vegas-esque feeling. Young Algerian men will crowd the sidewalks around the Eiffel Tower to peddle cheap souvenirs. They seem oblivious to the basic principles of supply and demand as dozens stand in close range of one another, selling identical wares from the giant Souvenir Factory in China, and without much variation in price.
The Eiffel Tower goes into sleep mode.
The Eiffel Tower is also prime property for scam artists trying to bait tourists. They’re not pushy, so much as nervy, and some tend to be as obvious as a poorly written email to wire money to a stranger in Nigeria. The first time we visited the Eiffel Tower, a girl approached us, tapping at the words deaf-mute on a paper she held in a clipboard before looking up with the most practiced, pathetic expression. Like the way a person looks when they are just about to break into tears. Even after shaking our heads “No” to her silent gesture for money, she harassed my brother a little longer in the mistaken hope that she could persuade him to be more charitable.
A lot of cons appeared on the trains during the week, hopping on at a stop to deliver a speedy, but rehearsed plea for money in French before attempting to collect money and repeat the spiel in the another train car. If American tourists were their primary targets, they should have considered translating, since most probably wouldn’t understand more than a few words (Paris one of the few major European travel destinations with any real kind of language barrier). Still, they are only a brief nuisance.
1960’s Michael Caine searches the Louvre for a way to get back to the set of the Italian Job.
The Eiffel Tower is but one small piece in a city chock full of pieces. The Louvre is another familiar one. It’s’ the largest and most visited museum in the world. First of all museums, not even just art museums. About 8 1/2 million people passed through its doors in 2010 alone (probably some on repeat visits to see what is too large to take in and absorb all in one day). That’s well above clocked visits to the British Museum in London or the Met in New York, which are the second and third most visited museums.
Up until they made a movie out of Dan Brown’s book, Americans never knew the Louvre existed.
The Louvre originally began as a fortress. There’s a still a cold, military sense about it as you look out on the empty, stone courtyard from one of the museum’s wings. When Louis XIV moved the family and court out to Versailles, the Louvre was used to house the Royal Art collection. Later the famous painting and sculpture academies used the building for a series of salons (fancy talk for judged exhibitions). By the time the French Revolution rolled around with all its democratizing ways, the Louvre was officially established as a museum, though it had a collection of less than 600 paintings. World Conqueror Napoleon expanded it somewhat, mostly with art seized in battle. For his charity, he renamed the museum after himself. Then, he was defeated at Waterloo and the Louvre was once more, although the most everything was seized by Napoleon returned to its owners.
Where the artists practice their military drills at the Louvre.
The collection today includes more than 20,000 pieces of art, and most of that is paintings displayed in that old Wunderkammer style of jamming everything into every inch of free space on a wall. Except Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That is on a wall in the middle of a room all by itself, behind several panes of glass, and roped off to keep distance between one of the most famous works of art and the hundreds of people who crowd around it at any time trying to get a glimpse. This annoyed Tom in particular who said it took away your ability to admire the technique. Brush strokes and textures are just as much a part of the work as the subject. I was annoyed that you could hardly see it at all unless you were the lucky couple of jerks who were at the front of the crowd. It’s really a fairly small painting.
The Mona Lisa, from a mandatory 20-foot distance. Just the way Da Vinci intended.
Display may have been the primary lure, as not many people seemed to take much notice of the number of famous Dutch paintings off in another wing of the museum. Particularly Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring and Rembrandt’s Self Portrait. Although, in defense of the visitors, they either hadn’t made it that far by that time of day (we went as soon as the museum opened one morning and stayed about 6 hours before being nauseated by looking at art), or they couldn’t find the wing to begin with (seriously… the place is pretty goddamned huge!)
The face of a man who can’t get no love.
TO BE CONTINUED!