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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Paris 14th April 2006 

This is the first in a series of blog entries (posted en-masse) written à Paris on my ageing laptop whilst I am sitting in our hotel room, listening to the sounds of the city and working my way through the complementary sweeties provided by the hotel. Hopefully, I will have the presence of mind to not post this and the remainder of the series of articles in one huge indigestible blob when I get home.

There will be photos. I have taken many but I will have to stuff these in a separate gallery. There are too many to sensibly add them as parts of the body of the blog. Look out for a note saying that they have been added to my galleries. It'll be a while.

My laptop, second-hand when I bought it many years ago, appears on its last legs with only the threat of me buying a newer model and hitting it in exactly the right spot keeping it going. The screen has a tendency to go a bit psychedelic without therapeutic violence. I brought it with me to Paris along with the intention to work on my novel, or rather the second set of revisions to my novel. I did indeed spend some time on the Eurostar yesterday applying the revisions to chapter one that I had recently penned. However, after this afternoon’s nap (tourism and chocolate do take it out of one don’t they?), the muse decided I should write some pithy observations on our visit to the French capital. So, here we are.

Paris is, sans doute, a very beautiful city. Even the most boring and mundane government building appears to be adorned with statuary and dripping with gold. Many hide hidden treasures, guarded by terribly macho Gendarmes, looking young, fit and exciting. I think the French police hide all of their ugly officers away in desk jobs. “Sorry, Pierre,” they must say, “your face is just not good enough to be seen on public duty.”

Today, David and I first went to Sainte-Chapelle, a church that appears almost negligently placed on the Ile de la Cité enclosed by the Palais de Justice (avec Gendarmes) and the Conciergerie. This was our first use of our Carte Musées-Monuments, a neat little thing that you can buy almost anywhere (we bought ours at Waterloo International) that gives you entrance to many museums and art galleries in Paris. The benefit of such a thing is not that you avoid paying as the card itself costs £26 for three days but that all the queues are of no consequence. There was a moderately large queue outside Sainte-Chapelle but we bypassed it rather neatly by waving our Cartes at the people manning the entrance. I’d like to say that we swept in grandly but it was more the case that I stood in the queue while I sent David (with his infinitely better French) to ask, in a typically British way, whether it was okay if we used our cards.

Sainte-Chapelle is interesting as it was constructed as a two-tier church with the lower level made available for the unwashed commoners while the king and the royal family worshipped in the upper level. The difference is astounding. We stepped into the lower chapel and found a nicely decorated room adorned with a beautiful ceiling and, strangely, a souvenir shop. Then we realised there were some steps leading upstairs and so we followed them.

I’m never very good with spiral staircases, especially stone ones that are narrow and enclosed so that it appears that you are climbing the same never-ending set of steps over and over again. I tend to very quickly get an odd mix of phobias, a fear of heights and enclosed spaces that is probably triggered by the realisation that I will not be able to get back down again very easily. This fear was just flirting briefly with the back of my mind when we emerged into the upper chapel. It was almost like emerging into heaven.

Imagine a large room, no larger than that, you’re just not trying are you? Give the room an immensely high ceiling and place stained-glass windows all around the room so that it looks like there are no walls. That is the upper level of Sainte-Chapelle. The entire upper chapel is surrounded by a set of windows that are a pictorial bible. You don’t need to know that, just marvel in the sunlight streaming through and be awed by the majesty of the windows. I was.

Afterwards, we walked along the river to the Musée D’Orsay, an art museum that used to be a train station. There were queues outside that you would not believe that we bypassed again with our miracle Cartes.

I was especially interested in seeing their collection of Impressionist paintings. The Impressionists and the Neo-Impressionists have been favourites of mine ever since school when I did a history of art O level. Their work is more down-to-earth and daring than the rather staid and formal work of earlier times. The paintings have more to do with the play of light on things rather than the things themselves and the people in the paintings are ordinary people in candid poses rather than Lord this or Lady that carefully arranged and looking dispassionately out of the painting. The people in these paintings have life.

Later work became abstract and detached from reality. Clever but a little up its own arse. I prefer the colour and vibrancy of Monet, Gaugin, Van Gogh and Seurat. I have decided that my favourite painting of the day (Art du Jour) was Monet’s La Rue Montorgueil, à Paris, Fête du 30 juin 1878 . It shows a rather grand procession with joyous crowds and many flags waving. It just captivated my sight as soon as I saw it.

We looked at many other works in the museum as well as the museum itself. They have made a feature of the building’s previous existence by setting up on the fifth floor a viewpoint over the ground floor and the exhibits arranged on what was so obviously a station. The old clocks on the outside walls are now windows from which one can peer out, past the hands and numerals, at the white shape of the Sacre Coeur in the distance.

One thing I found both amusing and infuriating was the habit of people to take photos of the paintings on display. I love art and I love photography but I feel that taking photographs of someone else’s art is crass. Photography is an art in itself. A photograph records a scene at a particular point in time, the light, the mood. A painting does the same but, more importantly, imbues the artist’s own feelings of the scene and their interpretation of what they are seeing with their own eyes. The name of the Impressionist movement gives a little hint of that. So what is to be gained by taking a photograph of a painting? There is no artistic merit in such an act, only the reduction of art to a mere souvenir and a free one at that. There are some works of art of which I would like to have a memento but I would buy a book, in that case, or, at the very least, a fridge-magnet. There’s no way I could afford a reprint let alone the real thing. Taking a photo of paintings just seems wrong.

After lunch we walked to les Petit et Grand Palais. As it was two years ago on our last visit, the Grand Palais was covered with scaffolding while the Petit Palais, freshly renovated looked lovely but had little in it and photography was not allowed inside in any case.

Photography of architecture and sculptures is allowed in my book. They are works of art but, importantly, they form part of the real world, they are altered by light, looking different in angle to another or taking on a different character at different times of the day.

We rounded off our day’s tourism by a visit to Angelina’s, a miraculous chocolatier in the Rue de Rivoli, where we had Chocolat Africain (very dark, almost bitter hot chocolate) and Chocolat Liégeois (chocolate ice-cream). Both were gorgeous and even the presence of a trio of chain-smoking Parisian youths nearby did not spoil my enjoyment. Honestly, I am sure the French are born with cigarettes in their mouths.

We had our naps then. I was wearing my pedometer and discovered I walked nearly 16,000 steps today, a full 5,000 more than a normal day in London.

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