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Paris Vacations: Part 3 - Day Two: Musee du Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris and La Conciergerie
Tags: conciergerie europe louvre museums notre-dame paris Posted: Sept. 2, 2007 by Javatina
Day Two: Musée du Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris and La Conciergerie
As planned, the second day was devoted entirely to museums. The first on the list was Louvre - one of the oldest and largest art galleries and museums. Actually, I believe there are only two museums like this in the world, one is The Louvre Museum in Paris and the second is the State Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, Russia. And, of course, being in Paris without visiting Louvre was just not possible.
One practical advice - buy a museum pass (called Paris Museum Pass) if you plan to visit several museums in Paris. Not only it will save you some money, but also will allow avoiding in many places long lines. You can skip lines in Louvre, Panthéon, Arc de Triomphe, Musée d'Orsay, Centre Pompidou and some other places. But do not count on this every time: if the museum entrance is close to ticket windows this trick most likely will not work. You can also by the so-called Paris Pass which includes Paris Museum Pass and in addition an unlimited use of Paris public transport within zones 1-3 (there are some other very attractive offers and discounts, for example, One-Day Open Top Bus Tour). Paris Pass costs roughly two times as much as museums pass, but if you are really serious about exploring Paris and its museums, it may save you a lot of money.
By the way, such passes are issued for two or four or six consecutive days (once you start using it, you cannot skip days). If you want more details on the Paris Pass, visit its Web site. There are many places where you can buy passes in advance (including now many Web sites). In our case, when we approached a concierge in our hotel with this question, he, with the gesture of a magician, immediately produced two passes at their official price.
Our second advice regarding Louvre specifically - start early and be among the first visitors. The deal here is not only escape the lines at its entrance (which with a museum pass is more or less guaranteed), but also to be among the first to approach some very popular exhibits like Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or Alexandros of Antioch's Venus de Milo. Believe me, it may not be as easy as you think. This is one of disappointments we experienced at Louvre. Keep in mind, Mona Lisa is a small painting (exactly 30" × 21"); however, in the museum not only it's covered with a thick glass, but there is also kind of curved railing (about 9-10 feet from the wall) separating crowds from the painting.
These are wise precautions since this masterpiece is literally priceless (and was actually stolen once from Louvre - not recently though), but they severely limit public's ability to enjoy the painting. And this is, well, disappointing. The net result is that later you can be proud of yourself and be able to say yes, I've seen it! But in reality, a good reproduction will probably give you more of Mona Lisa than the original in the museum. Same is true with some other exhibits like Venus de Milo which is located in a relatively small room. Of course, when I say small, it's small relative to its intended purpose to accept crowds of avid visitors. As a result, it may be not easy not only to approach the statue, but even to enter the premises.
But with some patience and persistent pressure into the direction of the center of the room (where Venus is located) exercised against other human bodies, we were able to force our way through the crowd to the statue and behold the masterpiece. If you want to take pictures, be warned - there is enough light even to dream to take any picture unless you use flash or use higher ISO or increase exposure time (which under the circumstances even if are going to help, will most likely leave you with a blurred reminiscence of Venus de Milo). And there is no way to use a tripod (or monopod).
By the way, talking about taking photos - in Louvre, in most places, it's prohibited now to use cameras. This is clearly communicated to visitors with signs scattered here and there. However, we also found that this rule is effectively not enforced, and many tourists flash their bigger and smaller digital cameras. Following crowds, we also used our small Canon, and one of my pictures of Venus, although severely underexposed, turned out to be salvageable. At least my hands were stable enough and with some little help of Photoshop it turned out quite acceptable to show it on the Web - see above. Read this tutorial if you want to know more about the technique I used to post-process it.
Among things we recommend to visit at Louvre is the so-called Galerie d'Apollon. It's truly an amazing creation of French architects and painters including Eugene Delacroix and now is a place where large collection of jewelry, paintings, and decorations are exhibited. Few rooms in the world's museums can challenge the Galerie d'Apollon for its artistic and historical importance. This Galerie was started in 1661 and the work continued for hundreds of years.
. When you are in the gallery, do not rush and take your time to look around to appreciate this jewel of human creativity. Look at the rhythm and harmony of themes that at times have almost magic effect. Think how beautifully they reflect the passage of time and space, and convey that feeling of eternity giving at the same time a tribute to human creativity. No doubt, one of the central ideas behind metaphoric imagery and iconography (with the admiration of Apollon playing an essential role) was to glorify the virtues and the immortality of Louis XIV. However, with new forms and ways of expressing ideas (where painting technique also play important role, for example, offsetting windows' light to create a unified composition), the creators of the Galerie managed to do much more than just using allegorizes to praise the Sun King. Good news for visitors is that the gallery after several years of complete and meticulous restoration can be viewed now in its original splendor with its more than forty paintings, 118 sculptures and about thirty tapestries. And, of course, collections of jewelry (including French crown jewels or what remains of them after their breakup and sale at times of the Third French Republic) and other objects of art that occupy the central part of the gallery's floor.
Another must exhibition to visit at Louvre is Napoleon III State Apartments located in what is know now as the Richelieu wing of the Musee. The Louis XIV style was adopted for the decorations and it's difficult to imagine a more opulent residence. In an extremely ornate and luxurious style, these rooms express the power and wealth of the French state at that time. These rooms where opened to public after long and expensive restorations and exhibit many original pieces of furniture and decorations.
My final advice regarding Louvre - be aware that the museum management can close for public quite extensive areas and exhibitions (as far as I understand mostly due to Louvre staff shortages). In our case, the whole section of 18th and 19th century European paintings we wanted to see was close. Although disappointment, this actually helped us save some vital energy for visiting later same day the Notre Dame de Paris and La Conciergerie.
I am not going to write here about the cathedral - there is plenty of information about it published on the Web (as well as many books). In fact, there is a entire Web site Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris dedicated to this historic monument (fragments of the site in English can be accessed here). But I would certainly like to dwell a bit on La Conciergerie.
This place is certainly one of the tourist destinations and historic monuments in Paris. It origins go back to 9th and 10th century where the area currently occupied by La Conciergerie (which is actually a part of a larger complex known in history as Palais de la Cité and currently the home of French governement's Palais de Justice) become the place of residence of a number of kings. Palais de la Cite was significantly expanded by Robert II ( the Piles), king of Frank from 996 to 1031 and later on by Philippe IV of France (Philippe the Beautiful), King de France and of Navarre from 1285 to 1314. Charles V of France (Charles the Wise), king de France from 1364 to 1380, was the first king who decided to abandon Palais de la Cité and move across the river to the Louvre.
This actually never stopped the expansion of Palais de la Cité, but parts of premises used as kings' palaces became in 1391 the residence of Le Concierge (hence the name La Conciergerie), an important officer of the crown whose responsibilities included maintaining order, managing the police and registering prisoners who also transformed a part of the building into a prison. Officially, it was decommissioned only in 1914 and since then has been open to public and become a national historical monument and tourist attraction. No doubt, La Conciergerie notoriety is due to its particular role as a waiting place for the guillotine executions during the "The Terror," the bloodiest period in French Revolution. The most famous prisoner was probably Marie Antoinette. Her cell where she spent 76 days before execution has been converted into a chapel dedicated to her memory. Another prisoner, Robespierre, also spent his last few hours in this prision.
As a place, La Conciergerie is not that large - visitors enter the Conciergerie at the Hall of Men-at-Arms, a massive Gothic hall and remarkable 209 feet long, 90 feet wide and 28 feet high architectural structure. But mostly, La Conciergerie with its recreation of actual prison cells and other facilities remains a grim reminder of the darkest days in France's history - something to think about since what happened then happened many times in other places and perhaps happening even now.
Arrests and in most cases executions took place under the law known as "Law of the Suspects" (Loi des suspects). Here is a definition of "suspects" as the law spelled it out in its Article 2 (not official translation): "Those which, either by their actions or by their relationship, or by their remarks or their writings, are in favor of tyranny or the federalism and enemies of freedom... Those without certificates of good citizenship... Government servants suspended or relieved of their functions by national Convention or its representatives... Nobility, the husbands, women, fathers, mothers, sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, who failed to express their connection with the Revolution..." In the best revolutionary traditions the enforcement of this law was delegated to the inspection committees and not to the legal authorities. The law caused the imprisonment of approximately 300 000 people.
La Conciergerie is not the only place in Paris directly or indirectly associated with events of French Revolution and its destructive forces. In fact, it would be fair to say that almost all famous landmarks we visited during our brief stay once you start digging into their history tuned out to be influenced by the sweeping and devastating nature of the Revolution. Same Notre Dame Cathedral with its statues of biblical characters destroyed by revolutionary fanatics who mistook them for French kings (statues were beheaded and replaced by replicas in 19th century) is just one of many illustrations of what I am talking about.
But if the human history is supposed to teach us important lessons we should really try to understand how the ideals of French Revolution with its proclamation of universal human rights spelled out in the "Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen" could coexist and result in mass-murdering and lawlessness of that time. Indeed the 1819 caricature "The Radical's Arms" conveys nicely the reality and radicalism of the Revolution with "No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution!" written in the republican banner above the image of the guillotine.
That day in Paris turned out to be a very memorable one for us. Already exhausted by the whole day on feet, we decided to make a desperate attempt to visit The Sainte-Chapelle ("Holy Chapel"), located very close to La Conciergerie in the same the Palais de Justice complex. This is an astonishing example of the gothic architecture with stained glass windows that go beyond any imagination. Suffice to say, we failed - despite late afternoon, there was still a huge line with fellow tourists eager to experience the chapel's beauty. We just gave up and decided to visit it when we are next time in Paris.
To follow strictly chronological events of our staying in Paris, this page should have had the account of our dinner at Le Bristol restaurant where we had a reservation (if you want to go there you will need one). But I think I save this for the moment until another page where I will try to summarize our encounters with French food and Paris restaurants.
Part I - Coming to Paris
Part 2 - Our Hotel: First Steps
Part 3 - Day Two: Musée du Louvre, Notre Dame de Paris and La Conciergerie
Part 4 - Day Three: Versailles and Musée d'Orsay
Part 5 - Day Four: City of Paris - Right Bank
Part 6 - Day Five: City of Paris - Left Bank
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