First off, perhaps I would like to start off with some impressions of Paris, and France in general. This was my twelfth trip to Europe, but my first to France. Many people were surprised that I had never been, and that was a major reason I chose to finally go. As I remarked to someone, I had over thirty years of places I needed to visit, so it was jammed back with museums and churches to explore. Overall, I had a very favorable experience. Here are some random impressions, in no particular order.
First of all, the French people were incredibly friendly, and I had a wonderful time interacting with them. On the train to Chartres, I even just about fainted when the conductors came around to check tickets, smiling and chatting with passengers. I remember thinking, “Where am I? Definitely not Germany.”
The food is amazing, of course, and I am still missing the pastries in particular. You can get a good idea of what they’re like here in St. Louis at Patisserie Chouquette in McRee Town. But you miss out on so much if you don’t sample all of the amazing opportunities to try international food while in Paris. One of the most memorable meals I had was Kurdish food on Rue Morgantueil.
The weather is weird in Paris, at least in September. I carefully studied the climate reports for Paris, and determined that September is one of the driest months of the year. But yet, almost every day, a storm would blow in off the Atlantic–remember, Paris is only a short distance from the ocean. So you’ll notice that sometimes during my visit to a single historic site or palace the sky will be sunny, then stormy, and then even sometimes back to sunny. I wasn’t expecting that, to say the least.
I also learned that sometimes major attractions can be hyped too much. I was totally underwhelmed by the Chateau of Versailles. Only a small portion of the palace is open, and visitors are squeezed through a narrow path of state rooms hung with a bunch of portraits of guys in big white wigs that no one has ever heard of before. Then you get to the Hall of Mirrors, which is cool (but really a rip off of the Farnese Gallery) and then you’re forced through a giant propaganda hall before you’re in the gift shop. Then you have to pay again to see the gardens, unless you find a loophole where you can get in for free (cough, cough). We ended up having way more fun at the far more interesting and far less crowded Trianon, which opens later and requires a separate ticket. There you can see the more intimate Grand Trianon palace and the model farm with real animals. It was far more rewarding than the overcrowded main palace at Versailles and its gardens, most of which were closed to the public, and whose fountains were turned off–you have to pay extra to come on a day when they’re turned on!
But as we learned on the first full day we explored Paris, some tourist traps are deserving of their reputations and the exhausting preparations it took getting timed tickets months ahead of time. Sainte Chapelle, the chapel constructed by our city’s namesake, St. Louis, for the now largely vanished royal palace, was worth every bit of the hype. Buy the Paris Museum Pass and then register for the timed ticket at the second website. It is worth it.
Objects in person are smaller than in pictures. I will never forget visiting some of the most famous architectural monuments that appear in all the art history books, but unlike in Italy and some other countries I’ve visited, many of the cathedrals I visited in France are much smaller in real life. Chartres is not that big! There are some churches in St. Louis that rival it in size, to be honest. But it is still pretty amazing. Those lenses on cameras do weird things.
Always turn around and look at the paintings on the wall on the other side of the room from the super famous ones. The silly thing about the Mona Lisa is that it is hanging on the wall in the Venetian Sixteenth Century gallery, despite Leonardo being Florentine. They did this because it is a such a huge gallery, needed to hold the gigantic Veronese painting above and the crowds wanting to see the Mona Lisa–the rest of the Leonardo da Vinci paintings are in another room. There are actually a bunch of really famous paintings, such as Titian’s Pastoral Concert, that are in many ways more important than the Mona Lisa hanging in the gallery that art historians would want to look at longer. The cattle corrals that funnel people through the lines to see a painting that is behind bulletproof glass–and that next to no actual artists during the Renaissance would have actually seen–are a distraction from seeing the other critical masterpieces in room.
Ironically, I spent much of the time in the Louvre looking at masterpieces all by myself as 70% of the visitors packed themselves into 30% of the galleries on the other side of the museum. I got to enjoy some of the best Rembrandt paintings in Europe outside of the Netherlands and the entire Peter Paul Rubens Marie de Medici Cycle with no more than a dozen people around. This on a day when museum attendance was high. In all seriousness, away from the popular galleries the Louvre was no more crowded than the Saint Louis Art Museum on an average Saturday. It rocked.
Perhaps that is a common theme: there are the places in Paris, and in any city, that people think they’re supposed to go to, and the places that are rewarding to go to. They sometimes overlap, but frequently do not.