Oct. 6: We sit in our 500 square foot mansion, more than a tad tired. It has been a long day, one that was full of awe and art and spontaneity and two excellent meals.
Our day started bright and early and this afforded us the pleasure of watching the sunrise out the bedroom window. Paris has some classically romantic looking rooftops and the orange sunshine beckoned a great day ahead.
In reality, I could have used a few more hours of sleep but we were headed to the Louvre and it’s best to get there before the crowds do. The Louvre is the largest art museum in the world and some sources say it would take nine months to look at all of the artwork there. I guess that could be stretched out even longer, depending on how long is spent contemplating each piece of art.
The Art Is So Vast It Spans the Ceiling, Walls, and Floor.
The Building Houses Art and IS Art
Even considering going for one day was overwhelming. We had not attempted it the last two years, for this reason alone. Back in the States, we had decided to allocate three to four hours to our visit and not rush through attempting to see everything, which would have been impossible anyway. I did some online and book research about “how to do the Louvre”. In the end, I found Rick Steve’s Paris guide to be the most useful. He outlines an interesting and thoughtful tour. He provides good explanations of background and history and seasons it liberally with his humor. And it is fairly digestible, although you could certainly take your time and spend a day doing it.
We were unabashedly interested in seeing some of the star attractions and trying to get to them before the crowds so one of our first stops was Venus de Milo. Although neither Dan nor I is an art expert, we could see immediately how Venus’ beautiful and well-proportioned body captures the ideals of the classical Greeks. Far from being a rigid piece of stone (or two pieces as Steves points out) Venus is a body in motion. Her twisting pose gives her body an S-curve that we especially noticed from the rear. Apparently the Greeks and people for thousands of years found this particularly beautiful. And we can certainly add our agreement.
And speaking of the star attractions the Mona Lisa was most definitely on our radar. Unfortunately we did not beat the crowds! We probably should have headed to her right after Venus, but we more or less followed Steves’ tour and she was somewhere in the middle of his trajectory. So we shared her with the mass of her admirers.
The painting is actually relatively small and well protected behind glass so she is a little hard to appreciate with the jostling crowd. However it was definitely worth it to see the actual painting. It has been noted many times over, but her enigmatic smile is something to behold. We also found her back story interesting. In his old age Leonardo da Vinci moved to France and brought her as a gift to François I. François fell in love with her and made her the center piece of his collection which would eventually become the Louvre Museum.
Jacques-Louis David’s painting of the coronation of Emperor Napoléon merited a pause for more study during our tour. It is a grand work that resonates with French history. The common born son of immigrants is about to be crowned emperor of a new empire that encompasses most of Europe. Napoléon is at the center of the painting, crowning himself, as the only person worthy of doing so. The setting of the painting is the Notre-Dame Cathedral, where the gothic interior of Notre-Dame has been redecorated to reflect the grandeur of Rome, which Napoléon thought was more appropriate. You would never know about this redecoration just viewing the painting unless you had Rick Steves or someone to tell you.
And that reminds me to mention audio guides. We usually find the guides very useful to supplement our self-guided tours. So I recommend them. Unfortunately to get guides at the Louvre you have to stand in the ticket line, which totally defeats the purpose of buying tickets in advance.
We saw so many awesome works of art that it is next to impossible to decide what to share, so I will describe a couple more stops and then encourage you to make the tour yourself when you have the opportunity. I think that it is fitting to mention Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres’ La Grande Odalisque, particularly since I started my sharing with Venus de Milo. Eighteen or so centuries later Ingres took the classical S-shape that we saw in the standing Venus and laid her on a couch. Like Venus, the Odalisque has beautiful, idealized features.
Our last room was Michelangelo’s statues, The Sleeping Slave and the Rebellious Slave. The Rebellious Slave is trying to free himself from ropes that tie his hands behind his back. He is contorting his torso and twisting his head and he seemed to be moving toward me. In contrast the Sleeping Slave really does seem to be sinking into a deep sleep. He is internalized to another place.
In 2002, I went to Italy and had the great privilege of seeing Michelangelo’s David in Florence. I recall looking at it and his other sculptures and having the sense that there was a living being in the stone that he had freed. Then I read that he felt this same way about his work. And these two marvelous sculptures once again showed me the same life force. There is a reason that Michelangelo is considered the greatest sculptor of all time. His work evokes strong feelings and the same feelings I had in Italy years ago came back to me this morning.
Having had an enriching and right-sized visit we looked at each other and decided it was time to depart. We had managed to navigate the maze of the Louvre successfully all morning. But now that we were ready to go, we couldn’t leave, or at least not easily. We could not find the exit! We followed signs saying Sortie, but to no avail. They pointed us one way and next time we looked, they pointed us back to where we came from. We whizzed through parts of the exhibits that we hadn’t planned to see, but catching a glimpse striding by, gave us fodder for what to visit next time. After 20 minutes of going in convoluted circles, we asked a guard and he directed us and firmly informed us that that was the only way out.
As a general theme for this trip, we left lunches flexible. Although we did have today set and that was at Alain Ducasse’s buchon, Aux Lyonnais. The reasons we chose this restaurant were twofold. We are continually intrigued by Ducasse’s wide variety of culinary ventures. We have been sampling his culinary offerings each year in Paris as well as on my trip to NY about a year ago. Some of his restaurants like the Plaza Athénée that we visited last year are more of a spectacle than we wanted to commit to. Or more accurately, we wanted to experience what other renowned chefs have to offer and didn’t want to use up a dinner on Ducasse. He does however have a fair number of more casual restaurants spread throughout the city.
The second reason was that this bouchon had an attractive menu and it would provide us with a lovely way for us to relive some of our rustic meals from last year in Lyon. The rabbit fricassee and quenelle were both well executed. And the impossibly runny Saint-Marcellin brought back fond memories of the Rhone Valley. To top it all off, the décor was very charming as well.
On our walk to Aux Lyonnais, we had noted a few things that we wanted to visit on the way back. And so our walk back was in a very leisurely manner, enjoying peering into stores and boutiques. The Marché Bourse, flea market at the Bourse (Wall Street equivalent), was lively. The French’s love for the books was evident, by the many book dealers on a wide variety of subjects. This trade is rapidly disappearing in the States but seems still alive and well in France.
After the flea market, we slipped into a random pocket park. It was only about 75 feet each way, but provided a quiet oasis from the urban hubbub all around us. The centerpiece was a delightful fountain. There are just countless hidden gems like this in Paris. It seems like one never has to walk for more than five minutes before spotting some sweet spot hidden amongst the crowded streets.
We ended up at the Tuileries Gardens, which are the gardens that adjoin the Louvre. The sun was out, and so were the Parisians. Sitting on the lawn is not allowed, which is a bit of a strange concept for Americans, who would be sprawled out on a blanket. However, there were an abundance of chairs, some of them reclining, and hey, you won’t hear me complaining. I ended up falling asleep for over an hour, basking in the sun.
This area is steeped in history that goes back through the centuries. The gardens were originally created by Catherine de Medici in the 1500’s to adjoin the Royal Tuileries Palace. The Palace was occupied by French royalty for years until it was intentionally burnt down in 1871 during the Paris Commune by the Communards who briefly ruled Paris after the collapse of Napoleon III. Today the scene was more tranquil, the fountains were flowing and a mood of gaiety permeated the gardens.
After my nap, we headed back home to decompress before dinner. We were both very much looking forward to eating at Alain Passard’s Arpege. He has been awarded three Michelin stars every year for 20 years. We were familiar with it from our readings in the past. Also last year we ate at Kei and we stayed after to talk with the waiter. He mentioned that Arpege was one of his favorite restaurants in Paris. We took note of this and it weighed heavily when deciding where to eat this year.
A couple of interesting things happened on the way to Arpege. We were supposed to get off at the Metro Station Varenne, but the Metro didn’t stop there and they made an announcement about it being closed for security. With the recent terrorist attacks we felt a tremor of concern, but none of our fellow passengers seemed bothered. And when we passed through Varenne it was totally empty and quiet so we never knew exactly what was going on.
In any case we got off at the next stop and back tracked. A very nice Asian young women asked me how to get to the Eiffel Tower. I pointed her in the right direction (she was all turned around) and also explained to her how the beacons of light that flashed in the sky above us came from the Eiffel Tower. I basically told her to follow the beacons and they would lead her to the tower. She continued to sound very nervous and kept asking me how to get there. I believe she was seeking some very explicit instructions, with which specific streets to follow and where exactly to turn and was not at all comfortable with my urban trail blazing instructions.
We did arrive at Arpege and were courteously welcomed and seated. The meal was stupendous and well executed on many levels, with only a couple minor flaws. What makes Passard unique is his focus on vegetables, with which the meal was almost entirely composed. He has three farms that grow for Arpege. And these farms also offer something like a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) for those who want to have weekly baskets of veggies delivered to their homes.
Passard truly does wonderful things with vegetables. They are definitely not second class citizens at his haute cuisine table. For example, he offers delectable vegetable sushis, pastas, and tartares. The vegetable sushi featured a tomato that delighted our palates and set our brains spinning wondering how he processed it for such delicious results.
Then there was a celeriac tagliatelle with chestnuts and served in a light chestnut broth. The idea of a celiariac tagliatelle probably sounds implausible. But it made us wonder why, if they had the choice, any one would ever choose traditional tagliatelle with meat sauce!
Another transformation from the meat-oriented world was the purple vegetable tartare made with beets. It was served with delicate mustard greens like baby mizuna and was a wonderful alternative to a traditional beef tartare. As I have described, traditional dishes provide models in terms of presentation and structure. Then Passard gives them their vegetable soul.
There was only one bump in the menu for us. Amidst the procession of delicious vegetable dishes, a plate sized lobster appeared. Although it was tender and well prepared, in the context of the delectable small plates that preceded it, it felt overwhelming. The sprinkling of lobster caviar was a nice touch, but we felt that a different, modest sized dish should have been built around the lobster. In fact, we had such a lobster dish last night at l’Étoile. So we did ding Arpege for that, but the service and ambiance were remarkable. Passard has taken risks with his turn to vegetables, but he has our enthusiastic support for the transformations he has made.
A nice touch is that he emerges from his kitchen at some point in the evening and says hello to all his guests. Actually he does more than just say hello. He is willing to take his time and ask and answer questions and yuk it up a bit with English and French speaking patrons alike. In addition to small talk, we inquired how he composed his vegetable sushi. The taste was so unique that we were still guessing by the end of the meal when he came by our table. He answered with a twinkle in his eye that the secret was using vinegar or some kind of acid to process the vegetables, but he clearly was not ready to give away any state secrets.
Based on the fact that vegetables vary so much through the seasons, compared with meats that are available year round, Arpege would be worth going back to should I ever visit Paris at a different time of year.
We took the Metro to get to Arpege, since we were pressed for time. But with no time constraint on the back end, we decided to walk home and of course it is the best way to assimilate a grand meal. We passed by Musée Rodin and this sparked some conversation that maybe we could visit it next year in Paris.
Can you tell that Paris is the type of place that as soon as you cross off one thing on the-to do list, that another two things get added. Meaning that one always has reason to spend more time in Paris!
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