As fate would have it, our return to Paris was pre-empted by the unfortunate events of January 7th, in which a pair of homicidal religious fanatics attacked the offices of a satirical newspaper near République. Whatever the other consequences may have been – and they were numerous – this meant that Paris was tense, locked up tight and festooned with so many red warning signs that a nearsighted person might have thought they had put the Christmas decorations back up. Honestly, we were a little fearful about all this at first – a few people told us not to go, although the overwhelming attitude was – if you’ll excuse me – fuck those terrorists, go anyway.
And fuck the terrorists we did – figuratively speaking – after I finished work on Friday afternoon, we set off on the train. And as we spent our evening walking around that beautiful city – emptier than I’d ever seen it before – I was glad we had. Terrorists or no, Paris will always be Paris and the romantic magic of the city seems – at least so far – to be resilient to attack. We didn’t know it yet, but we’d also be back just a week later, unable to resist one last visit before Alex had to pack her bags and head home to Australia.
Paris presents an interesting contrast for visitors; on the one hand, there are just so many museums, galleries and monuments to visit that – even on my sixth visit – I don’t think I’ve even come close to doing everything I want to do there. On the other hand, one of the best ‘attractions’ is just to wander, without a plan or a map, and see where you end up. Between sights, we filled our time with eating dinners, seeing friends, drinking hot chocolates, riding ferris wheels, eating ice-cream, cruising on the Seine and walking in the gardens. It would be hard for me to say either way of enjoying the city is better – if at all possible, I will always make time to do both.
Monuments and museums are especially attractive to me now that I have a European residency permit, as well as my new status as a teacher. Even though I’m not a real professor, I enjoy many of the same privileges. This means – as a museum ticket agent once explained to me – that most of the time I’m not even obliged to wait in line, but instead can simply walk straight past security and show them my pass from the Ministry of Youth and Education. No need to wait with the rest of this scum, she seemed to say, right this way, Professor. I promise I won’t let it go to my head.
In Paris, there are a great many such national monuments, and I assure you we took full advantage. Our first stop was Paris’ museum of Modern and Contemporary Art: the Centre Pompidou, followed by the more traditional Musée d’Orsay, particularly noteworthy for its rich collection of Impressionist works.
It has been said that I’m no great lover of Modern Art, insofar as I usually simply find it baffling, rather than challenging or provocative as it’s supposed to be. I do try my best to understand, and I’ve long since accepted that this may be something irreconcilable – which is fine, since taste in art is one of life’s great subjectivities. However, that said, I actually really enjoyed the Pompidou Centre – I found plenty to like among the things I didn’t understand, and it helped me to soften my point of view towards Modern Art.
However, I must admit that one of my favourite exhibitions in the museum was centred around Robert DeLaunay who – having died in 1941 – is not particularly contemporary as artists go. His works are apparently an example of Orphism, filled with geometric shapes and bright colours. I found many of these extremely striking, as were the similar works by his wife, Sonia DeLaunay. As it happens, I like Orphism – and I was happy to discover that. The views from the top of the museum are pretty special, too.
The Musée d’Orsay makes an interesting counterpoint to Pompidou, both in terms of the contents as well as the building itself. The Orsay is housed in a decomissioned railway station from the 1890’s, and has a huge collection of art from famous and talented artists, including Van Gogh, Renoir, Monet and Cézanne, among others. It’s an extremely popular museum – taking out the top spot on Tripadvisor for attractions in Paris – so imagine our surprise when we walked straight through the front door and got tickets without even waiting in line. The fear of terrorism, combined with the early hour of the morning, gave us the museum practically to ourselves – it was superb.
The interior is a visual feast, with the baffling enormity of works on display beginning as soon as you enter, in the central gallery which houses a significant portion of the museum’s sculpture collections. We were also lucky enough to be in town during the Sade exhibition, entitled “Attack the Sun”, which dealt with the themes of sex, eroticism and perversion in art. Thematically, the exhibition was very well organised, with each room being tied together by quotes from works by Sade which were often thought-provoking and poignant, especially when paired with visual art which expressed similar ideas. Alex and I both found it thoroughly enjoyable.
It was walking around on our last afternoon that I think we finally decided to return to Paris on our last free weekend. There were simply too many cases of “I still want to” and “I really wanted to”. It’s nice that this place seems to have the same allure for both of us, although I admit it is a heinous cliché. Nevertheless, we did return, and – as I found myself thinking as we stood at the top of the Arc de Triomphe in the frosty morning fog – I doubt it will be the last time. Then the clouds started to clear, the roundabout filled with crazy traffic and the city came to life in the mid-morning rush.
Perhaps the last in the long list of monuments and museums we visited in our time in the capital was the celebrated Palais Garnier, the gilded Opera House designed by Charles Garnier which also served as the inspiration for the Opera Populaire in Gaston Leroux’s novel The Phantom of the Opera, and its subsequent adaptations on the stage and screen. We were lucky enough to arrive just in time for a guided visit – in English no less – which taught us a great deal about the building, its design process and Garnier himself. The Opera is filled with visual allusions to composers, performers, opera and theatre, as well as to Garnier’s own greatness, including a painting that depicts him among the gods of Olympus. He seems to have been rather fond of himself. There’s also a mirrored gallery that recalls the splendour of Versailles, and a glorious double staircase bedecked with statues and murals. It’s something to see.
Naturally, we also paid a visit to Box 5, the box that the Phantom demands be kept free for his personal use. The guide gave an abridged version of the story whilst we sat under the chandelier before the stage, and Alex had trouble containing her excitement.
Our visits were inevitably full of small sentimental moments as we brushed against the echoes of our first trip to Paris, back in 2012. Our long walks took us – quite unintentionally – on a sort of greatest hits tour, with lots of reminiscing and happy hand-holding. We also found time to catch up with a couple of friends of mine who happened to be variously living in or visiting Paris, which was cool too, taking us through the Tuileries Gardens, the Jardin des Plantes and even part of the Natural History Museum, before going out to dinner and a slightly tense Métro trip to catch our train home. In the end, we couldn’t really have asked for a better pair of weekends.
On one of our return trips, we also paid a visit to the city of Tours in order to do a little castling. Most of all, I was determined to show Alex the Château de Chenonceau, which is probably my favourite of the Châteaux that I’ve visited. It was rather colder this time around than my autumn visit, but the place itself doesn’t suffer for it. It is beautiful – and the crackling fires in the rooms were very welcome on the glacial day we’d chosen to go there.
After all this excitement, the time had unfortunately come for Alex to go home to Australia. Parting with her at the train station was simultaneously one of the hardest and most cliché things I’ve done in recent memory, although I resisted the urge to run alongside the train as it pulled away. It seemed to me to be a particularly good time to focus on the bright side, so here it is – we had a great time together, exploring Europe for the second time and I think we made the most of it. Only a few months left now, so I’ll try to keep that up.
To see a gallery of photos pertinent to this post, click here. If instead you would like to learn to dance the Charleston, why not watch this instructional video? I know it certainly puts me in mind of Paris.