Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Sunday in the Left Bank

Early Sunday morning while M was still catching up on her beauty sleep, I was up to walk the near empty Parisienne streets with my camera, sharing it with dog walkers, homeless people sleeping in door and church entrances, waiters cleaning tables and preparing for the morning's coffee and croissant hunters. I ended up with not many pictures; I just enjoyed the quietness of the streets and the emptiness of the city. The morning was crispy, only 10 degrees Celsius, but from time to time bright sunlight would sneak through a patchy cloud cover. The rain would come later. I purposefully steered away from any major roads where possible and I quickly got myself totally lost walking along narrow side streets, crooked and curved alleys and sleepy passages until I eventually found myself on Boulevard Saint-Germain where a bank’s automatic teller machine was also still asleep and refused to give me any cash.
 A relative empty Paris on a early morning walkabout
Further along I discover the dirty Saint Sulpice church with its unusual twin towers and beautiful fountain and walked until I got to the boundary of the Luxembourg gardens on Rue de Vaugirard. There I turned around, met a bronze lady, tired of waiting on someone or something, sitting in front of the Institut Hongrois, a cultural center to promote Franco-Hungarian dialogue and sat down next to her to take a short rest and enjoy a cigarette before I walked back towards the Seine along Rue Bonaparte, boutique alley, passing Maxmara, Swarovski France, Louis Vuitton de Paris, and many more well-known, high prized fashion stores.
 Early morning and a rising sun behind the church of Saint Sulpice
I stood at the Seine’s banks for a while; Early morning runners made full use of the sparsely trafficked upper promenade and lower level walkway, a barge silently drifted down westwards to make a delivery somewhere, an old couple walking slowly, arm in arm, supporting one another over the cobblestones. There were no tourist boats yet only house boats moored motionless, occupants still in doors. Most great cities have a natural or central point of reference, a positioning beacon. The Seine is Paris’s beacon. Not a life giving artery like Venice’s Grand Canal, but with its many bridges, a constant compass to tell you where you are, much like Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa or the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy.
Although photography was strictly forbidden inside the D'Orsay I did sneaked a few here and there. Here is another view of the ground floor.
 Facing south and with no visible reflection of the still rising sun on the river I solemnly watched the river’s water flow westward to its delta at Le Havre and the English Channel. In front of me was the Louvre, still passive at that moment, but only until the tourists arrived, and to my left the Tuileries Garden stretched greenish eastward to the Place de la Concorde and beyond. A river can be so alike a fire. It has the ability to quickly put a person in a meditative state. I eventually turned away, reluctantly, and to some degree sadly, breaking that moment of meditation, and made my way back to our hotel in a circular fashion via Rue De Seine. Time for the day to start in earnest, time for breakfast. Time for more exploration, to discover something new that Paris has to offer.     
 The D'Orsay Museum
The famous European guidebook author and tour operator, Rick Steves, suggests that if you have limited time in Paris, spend only an hour or two at the Louvre and then head for the D’Orsay. The D’Orsay Museum, housed in an old train station, is an art bridge between the Louvre Museum (anything and everything old) and the Centre Georges Pompidou, the modern art museum in the Marais, the 3rd arrondissement. The D’Orsay houses mainly art, statues, furniture, etc. dating from 1848 to 1915 and of course the most impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-impressionist masterpieces in the world. The Impressionist period is one of my personal favorite art periods.
 Below the Pantheon is its crypt where the heroes and heroines are buried. On the right, a statue of the writer Voltaire.
I will disagree with Mr. Steves. The Louvre is exceptional and I would also say if you go to the D’Orsay, skip the first four floors of minor art and go straight to the fifth floor to be totally blown away by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Van Gogh and many more. The Camille Pisarrio paintings of landscapes and everyday life and the Edgar Degas ballerinas as well as his bronze statue, Small Dancer Aged 14 were some of the best on view. The most impressive and a new discovery for me and M was the painting The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte.       

Inside the Pantheon's colossal nave
Upon our exiting the D’Orsay museum Paris was suddenly cold and rainy. Out came the umbrellas again as we made our way south towards the Luxembourg gardens and the Pantheon, one of the place we missed on a previous visit.
A four piece mural depicting the life of one of France's greatest heroines, Joan of Arc
The Pantheon was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, but after many changes brought on by history in general, a change in royalty and the French Revolution it ended up being a burial place for exceptional Frenchmen or Frenchwomen; Authors, philosophers, scientists, resistance fighters, inventors, etc.

Sculptures in the Pantheon.

Its façade is modeled on Rome’s Pantheon and from the top of the front steps one gets quite a view of Paris. The inside is visually stunning. The murals, wall sculptures and mosaic floors are exceptional within the bareness of the building, which is totally devoid of any form of furniture. This bareness amidst great art and the quiet footfall and whispered talk of visitors greatly contributes to the solemnness and respect to the honored buried here. The Pantheon is truly a must-see when in Paris.
Around the corner from the Pantheon we made a wonderful discovery, the beautiful church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which contains the shrine of St. Geneviève. This Catholic cathedral, built between 1492 and 1626, with its 17th century stained glass windows is a mixture of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture. With its intricate cut-stone, lace-like arch crossing the middle of the nave, separating the rear of the church (where the common people used to sit) from the front of the church (reserved for the nobility) it is from a personal perspective one of Paris’s most beautiful churches. Elegant arches flanking the nave, a twin circular stairways flanking the arch, an exquisitely carved wooden pulpit and colorful stained glass windows make this a true jewel. By the way, this is the church made “famous” by the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (Owen Wilson began his nocturnal time travel adventures on the front steps of this church.) Of course the cathedral has been famous in church circles for centuries and two Popes have celebrated mass here, the last being John Paul II in 1997.
 Intricate cut-stone, lace-like arch crossing the middle of the nave of the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont Church
We walked back to the Luxembourg gardens, found ourselves an open bench and sat there for quite a while watching moms pushing babies around in strollers, kids and their fathers playing with remote-controlled boats on the palace’s pond, the inevitable runners in search for fitness, and Paris folk, in general, just out for a stroll and fresh air, escaping apartment living, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Luxembourg Palace and gardens.  Since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate.
An early dinner at Le Pre aux Clercs on the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue Jacob was a disappointment, but the éclairs au chocolat across the street at the Laduree, a well-known Paris confiserie since 1826 was absolutely divine, heaven on earth. A perfect ending to a quiet, but certainly not lazy Sunday in the Left bank. We needed such a scaled-back-in-activities-day. Tomorrow will be a long travel day south into wine country. 
Inside Saint-Étienne-du-Mont Church, a jewel of a discovery.

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