Posts Tagged ‘France’

Montmartre has always had a romantic kind of appeal given its association with famous artists such as Van Gogh, Picasso etc. and because of its association with events like Paris Commune. I had not been able to visit Montmartre during any of my previous visits to Paris and this time, when the opportunity presented itself, I grabbed it and set off with my camera. The first sight that greets one as we get out of the metro is the famous Moulin Rouge. This iconic nightclub, which has even made it into celluloid, has been around for more than a hundred years and is often a prime destination for the partying crowd.

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A short walk takes one to the Montmartre Cemetery. As odd as it may sound, I find it kind of peaceful to visit cemeteries, especially the old ones. One gets a strange feeling when looking at the resting places of the famous and the powerful, the dead. As Spring had not yet started in Paris, there were no leaves on the trees and that added to the ambience with the shadows and bare lines.

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Montmartre Cemetery is quite large and was started in 1825 when Paris started running out of space to bury their dead. The government banned burying of corpses within the city limits and Montmartre, which was outside the city limits and also had abandoned quarries, proved to be the right setting for a cemetery. It has now become a place to visit in the map of Montmartre because of the numerous celebrities buried there like Emile Zola, Alexandre Dumas, Edgar Degas, Adolphe Sax etc. There was a detailed map available in the cemetery which showed the tombs of the famous people buried there but it was a bit confusing and I could not locate Degas.

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The next stop on my agenda was the Dali Museum though I was not very sure of how it might turn out to be as I suspected that there was an overtly commercial angle to it. The day was quite sunny and Montmartre presented interesting sights as one passed by.

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Vincent Van Gogh lived in this house in Rue Lepic with his brother Theo from 1886 to 1888. Theo owned this house and continued living here even after Vincent moved on.

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Montmartre once had thirty two functional windmills, of which only two have survived. These can be found at “Moulin de la Galette” and this was a popular subject for many artists like Van Gogh, Renoir, Corot etc.

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The Dali Museum, though small, turned out to be quite a treasure trove. There were many sketches done by Dali, sculptures etc. “The Persistence of Memory” inspired sculptures were quite fantastic. Dali had done many sketches based on Alice in Wonderland and also a famous comic strip.

This work “Retrospective Bust of a Woman” was presented in Paris in 1933 with an actual baguette (which was then eaten by Picasso’s dog!) and it evoked mixed reactions as such objects as bread and corn had never appeared in art works before. Ants are an oft-used motif in Dali’s work, signifying decay.

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The Space Elephant is a sculpture motivated by Dali’s work “The Temptation of Saint Anthony” and the “Cosmic Rhinocerous” represents Dali’s fascination with objects that have a hard exterior and a soft interior.

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Alice in Wonderland was another favourite subject for Dali and here are a series of sketches that he did based on Lewis Carrolls’ book. In the sculpture, Alice is shown as a young woman, which kind of contrasts with the innocence that Carroll accorded to Alice, in his story.

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There were many works based on The Persistence of Memory and I liked these the best.

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Next was a work that showed Dali’s interest in Anamorphosis. On one hand, it is the painting of an insect done in great detail but the work becomes complete when one looks at the cylindrical mirror where one can see the self-portrait of Dali, shown as a clown.

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These are some sketches that Dali made for a Parisian publisher in 1971 based on some old engravings. These have been modified into Dali’s own style with grotesque figures.

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This is a work in a classic style but replete with Dalinian symbols like a watch, an egg, two ants and the divided torso.

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In 1942, Dali produced a backdrop “The Ship Aground” which was inspired by Shakespear’s Romeo and Juliet and its tory of impossible love. Dali tries to show a world torn between love and hate in the colours blue and red, emphasising the duality of passion.

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Roman poet Ovid, wrote a series of three books titled “The Art of Love” in the year 2 CE. This was supposed to be a series of instructions to men on how to attract women. Supposedly, this work so enraged Emperor Augustus that he exiled Ovid (censorship and moral policing seems to have been active even then). In any case, the work excited Dali and he produced these etchings based on it.

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“Woman Aflame” is famous work by Dali and I quote this interpretation from what was pasted alongside the work: “This work combines two of Dali’s obsessions: fire and a feminine figure with drawers. The flames coming from her back represent the hidden intensity of subconscious desire, while the drawers express the mystery of hidden secrets. Open drawers point to the private, subconscious of the human being. The flames are supported by crutches “generally used to support fragile soft structures” according to Dali. This faceless woman devoured by flames is the symbol of the mystery of femininity.”

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Next on my list was a visit to the Sacré-Coeur Basilica in the heart of Montmartre. Construction of this church started in 1875 (soon after the Paris Commune was crushed) and finished in 1914. It was consecrated in 1919 after the First World War finished. To many of the free spirited inhabitants of Montmartre, this church represented the last nail in the coffin of their freedom and they viewed this as an imposition of the will of the state.

En route to the church, I passed through the famous Place du Tertre, which was a haunt of artists in the heydays of Montmartre. Even today, one can see some artists with their tripods and easels offering to make portraits of tourists and selling their work.

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Maybe because I had an impression of Sacré-Coeur as a symbol of oppression, the first image I captured of the church was this – more like a picture from the sets of a horror film!

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The Basilica is quite impressive and it also offered some interesting views of Paris as it stands on a hilltop. Photography was not allowed inside the church and so I couldn’t capture any images there. It looked pretty much like other European Catholic churches with plush interiors. Entrance to the bell tower was closed and that was a pity as that would have offered some more interesting views of Paris.

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After you get down from hill, a few minutes’ walk takes you to the “I Love You” wall. This is set up in a small garden and has an area of about 430 sq. ft. The phrase “I Love You” is written all over the wall in about 250 languages. I could spot Malayalam, Tamil, Kannada, Hindi etc. on the wall. This seemed to be a must visit spot for the romantically inclined as I could find many people expressing their love in front of the wall.

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When you wander through Montmartre, you see plenty of buildings that were associated with artists – like this one which claims to have been frequented by Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet etc.

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One of the quaint little delights in Montmartre is the Le Clos Montmartre a tiny vineyard bang in the centre of town spread across an area of about 16,000 sq. ft. The produce from this vine yard (about 1000 bottles of wine) is auctioned off during the annual harvest festival and the proceeds used for development projects in the area. Supposedly, this vineyard was started in 1933 to stop real estate developers from grabbing the space – I wish we had similar projects in Bangalore.

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Just across the street from the vineyard is the oldest cabaret in Montmartre – “Au Lapin Agile”. It was started in 1860 under the name “Au rendez-vous des voleurs”. In 1875, artist Andre Gill painted the image of a rabbit jumping out of a saucepan and people started calling the place “Le Lapin à Gill”, meaning “Gill’s rabbit”, which later on evolved to the present name. This was also a popular haunt for artists, anarchists, students, writers etc. Picasso even made a painting titled “Au Lapin Agile”.

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My last visit was Musee de Montmartre, which was the oldest house in Montmartre, having been constructed in the middle of the 17th century. Many artists lived here, including Suzanne Valadon and Renoir had painted in the gardens of the house. There were many works of art in the museum with many works from Valadon.

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Montmartre still retains a bit of its former anarchist spirit with graffiti to be seen in many areas.

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Although I had spent a good many hours around Montmartre, I hadn’t covered all the sights. However, I could sense the spirit of Montmartre, that still lingers there – a heady mixture of art and anarchy. One could only wonder how it would have been in the twentieth century when Montmartre had its day in the sun. Just roaming around the place was great fun and I am sure I will be back here one day. For now, dusk had sent into Montmartre.

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3 June 2012

As my business tour extended over a couple of weekends, I was searching for ideas on places to go near Geneva, when a colleague suggested Chamonix and a close look at the Mont Blanc peak in French Alps. I looked it up on the web and found the place interesting as there was the easy option available of seeing the Alps at close range! So, off I set off on a coach from Geneva to Chamonix on a Sunday morning, a journey of about 90 minutes. Within 20 minutes of setting off from the bus station, we crossed into France. I was thinking that this border must have seen a lot of action during World War II with prisoners escaping from France and other countries trying to get into neutral Switzerland. With the SCHENGEN visa norms, the bus did not even stop at the border crossing.

The road itself was quite scenic and we passed some nice looking farms and soon started getting glimpses of the mountains.

The plan was to get to Chamonix and then take a cable car upto the top of a peak called the Aiguille du Midi, which is at a height of 3842 metres. The cable car was built in 1955 and at that time, was the highest cable car (or Téléphérique as the French call it) in the world. The ride is completed in two sections – first to an interim point and then on to Aiguille du Midi; the second section has no support pillars in between.

There were good many tourists that day and we were a bit squeezed in the cable car. As soon as we left the ground, fantastic views started opening up and cameras were clicking away regardless of the fact that most of us only got reflections of the flash from the glass walls of the cable car!

As we approached the summit, we saw two climbers starting off on a trek. It was an awesome sight to see two lonely figures on the vast expanse of snow.

At the summit of Aiguille du Midi, there is a cafeteria and various viewing decks. It was very windy and the weather was not very good. Mont Blanc itself was shrouded in clouds and so we could not get a view of that but still the views all around were just fantastic. I moved out to a platform all by myself and as I stood there taking the views, I spied the two trekkers down below – two specs on a snow shelf.

I had never understood what made people want to climb mountains and trek across them; someone in the cable car had called them as “adrenaline junkies”. However, as I stood there in the Alps with all its majesty, I also wanted to go on such a trek, camp out and lose myself in this beauty; and I am no adrenaline junky. I could sense the excitement and fun and challenge of the climb; there is a sheer exhilaration in this. These mountains are such a draw!

Vallee Blanche is a famous ski route in Chamonix and many trekkers start their journey to Valle Blanche from Aiguille du Midi. There is a short tunnel dug out of ice that leads onto a ridge on the face of the peak and the trek starts from there.

When I went through the tunnel and on to the ridge, I met two climbers who were about to set off on a trek to Vallee Blanche. I wanted to have a chat with them to understand how they would figure out the route, where they would stay the night, how they would locate crevasses and steer clear etc. Unfortunately, I found out that all my English was of no use in this remote corner of France. I understood that they were going to Vallee Blanche and planning to stay the night in a tent. They seemed very enthusiastic and were quite friendly. I waved them off on their trek and went back through the tunnel.

Later on, I mentioned this incident to the colleague who had referred this site to me and he narrated an incident of how he had gone on this very same climb sometime ago and how they had a narrow escape after one of them fell into a crevasse. That was scary stuff indeed and I toned down my climbing ambitions to a more gentle trek – maybe I can do that one day!

I went to another of the viewing terraces to try and have a look at Mont Blanc but it was still clouded over. I kept clicking away but was once again reminded of my acute lack of photographic skills as I looked at the results.

On the way back, I stopped at the midway point and walked around. As I sat on a rock looking at the Aiguille du Midi, I thought how it might have been when the first climb was done in 1818. What hardships and challenges must they have gone through! The mountain was very imposing and even looked a bit ominous; it somehow reminded me of a strong beast. The cable car was coming down and it so tiny against the backdrop of the massive mountain and was, in a way, a reminder of how puny we are when pitted against nature.

Chamonix is in a valley with mountains on both sides and we had a good view of it as we came down in the cable car.

The village itself is fairly small and is nice and cozy. It has quite a long history and the first mention of the valley dates back to 1091. Early settlers were some Benedictine monks but the living conditions were so harsh that the valley was very sparsely populated. In the 1700s, interest picked up in Alpine climbing and with that Chamonix started to grow. In 1760, a Swiss aristocrat named Horace-Benedict de Saussure offered a reward to the first person to scale Mont Blanc and he himself made an unsuccessful attempt in 1785. In 1786, two Chamonix men, Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat achieved the climb and Chamonix was established firmly on the Alpine map. Winter Olympics was conducted at Chamonix in 1924.

In the square in the town, there is a monument to Horace-Benedict de Saussure, with Jacques Balmat next to him, pointing to Mont Blanc.

There is a river called Arve that passes through Chamonix. This fast flowing river receives it water mostly from Alpine glaciers like the Mer de Glace (which was the next item in my itinerary) and flows right onto Geneva. In my mind, I had thought that rivers and streams that are fed by melting snow would be pristine and clear and I was surprised to learn that the water is generally very muddy when the snow melts and true enough, the water looked anything but clear.

We had planned to have lunch in the village and I found myself looking forward to it. A Hungarian lady from our group was seated next to me. Her name was Catalin and we fell to talking about Hungary and I used the opportunity to ask her about life during the Communist regime and now. She was about 35 when the regime fell and she remembered that time very well. Her view was that they are better off now, even if they are exposed to the perils of globalization and the attendant issues like unemployment, depression etc. When I asked her what the main difference is, she said it is the freedom they enjoy now, which was never the case earlier. I was reminded of a very similar comment made by a taxi driver in Bucharest when I asked him a similar question.

Right near Chamonix is the biggest glacier in France, called Mer de Glace. This glacier can be viewed from a place called Montenvers, which is at a height of 1,000m from Chamonix. The glacier has a surface area of 40 square kilometres and a length of 7 km. A rack and pinion train takes you upto Montenvers and the distance is covered in 20 minutes. The rack runs between the tracks and this helps the train to make the steep climb.

The train moves up the mountainside through pine trees and tunnels carved out of rock. It was conceived in 1892 and became a reality when the first train steamed into the station at Montenvers, in 1909. A slight drizzle had started by the time we got to Montenvers and so, I did not get much time to look at the glacier. Here again, I was surprised as I was expecting an expanse of sheer white but was greeted by something that looked more grey than white.

There is an ice cave that leads into the innards of the glacier but that was closed for some maintenance. Here also I met a few people who had just come after trekking the glacier. They were part of a group that was going to scale a peak and this trek on the glacier was a kind of training in preparation for that climb.

The glacier has a thickness of 120m at its centre but has been reducing in thickness by about 3 to 4m every year since 1988. The glacier is advancing at a pace of 120m every year but shrinking by 125m each year as well. So, it is shrinking faster than it is growing. It was sad to think that this glacier might be gone in the near future; such are the effects of global warming. There is a photo at the station which shows the position of the glacier in 1909 and one can easily make out the difference in height between then and now.

With that somber thought, we trained down and got on to the coach to get back to Geneva.

23 May 2008

We rented out a car today and after some minor escapades with French roads and the GPS – which I was using for the first time – we started on our journey to the country side. The plan is to spend the first two nights in a chateau a few miles off the town called Tours in the Loire Valley. It took us about four hours to get to our hotel but all of us forgot about the drive when we saw the hotel. It is a chateau – the Chateau des Sept Tours – that dates back to the fifteenth century but well maintained and renovated. Its grounds stretch to seventy eight acres and there is a full, eighteen-hole golf course accommodated in it. The whole ambience was fantastic and we drove around a bit and walked the grounds taking in the majestic views. The hotel has two restaurants and by mistake, we ended up at the French “gastronomic” restaurant. The chefs here were experimenting with new types of French cuisine – I found the result to be palatable but I think I was a significant minority in expressing that view. Sandhya and Bharath were not impressed at all.

24 May 2008

It was a bit of a rainy day today but we were not too badly affected. The Loire Valley is dotted with chateaus all around as it was quite a fashion in the Renaissance period for the Parisian rich to build a chateau in the Loire Valley. These chateaus were built more for comfort than for any military purpose. The first difficulty was in narrowing down which ones to visit as we did not want to have a hectic day and so we selected two – one which was supposed to be the best in the region and one in which Leonardo da Vinci spent his last days. The Chateau de Chambord is supposed to be the best Chateau in Loire Valley and may be rightfully so. The views of the chateau from the outside are stunning and it looks almost like a picture postcard with intricate architecture. The original part of the chateau is laid out like a cross with a double-helix staircase that takes up the centre portion. The two staircases wind around the central axis but never meet. This is rumoured to have been conceived by Leonardo da Vinci and that is quite possible as he was good friends with King Francois I who built the chateau.

Next on the agenda was the house in which Leonardo da Vinci spent his last years – Le Clos Luce. The drive from Chambord to Amboise (where the house is located) brought out the full majesty of the Loire Valley scenery with some stunning views. We passed three or four very beautiful looking chateaus on the way. French countryside is very beautiful indeed and I am sure we will be treated to some very good views in the coming days. It is so green and lush. Da Vinci came over to France at the age of sixty four on the invitation of King Francois I. It is rumoured that he only brought three paintings with him – two unfinished works and the Mona Lisa. He lived for three years at Le Clos Luce before he passed away. The house has been maintained as a museum to his memory. While standing in his bed chamber, looking at the bed in which he breathed his last, I was struck by the relative simplicity of the room. Here died a man who had given so many beautiful things to the world and yet his room was very simple with only the odd painting or two. We saw his many drawings and models in the museum and it was really astonishing to see the range and versatility of the multi-faceted genius that was da Vinci – he was well versed in botany and human physiology in addition to his fantastic artistic and engineering abilities. He seemed to have dreamed up a lot of fantastic machines which became reality only a few centuries after he died; that he had detailed drawings of these bear testimony to his genius. There is a nice, large garden around the house and it seems the garden was a source of inspiration for da Vinci. He was very friendly with King Francois I and we also saw a tunnel that led right into a royal palace nearby. I was very happy that we had made this visit and not missed it by mistake – that would have been a loss indeed.

25 May 2008

Another long drive took us to Beaune in Burgundy. Burgundy is an important wine region in France, in addition to Bordeaux and Champagne. I can personally vouch for that as I sit here drinking a glass of very fine red wine (the name escapes me). Wine regions generally have very good views and we hope to take in some of that tomorrow. I hope the weather will not be too much of a damper as they are calling for rain tomorrow. It was around four by the time we got to our hotel. This is also a nice, delightful old building right in the heart of town. Beaune is a very small town with a population of 22,000 or so. The main attraction in the town is an old hospital cum poor home – Hotel Dieu which was built in 1443. This was founded by the Chancellor and his wife to help the people who were stricken with famine and poverty after the Hundred Years’ War. The whole concept was quite appealing and the building is very elegant though simple and austere.

After that, we spent some time wandering around town and ended up in a Chinese restaurant for dinner. Sandhya and Bharath enjoyed themselves to the full in this oasis.

26 May 2008

It was a cloudy day today and not sunny as I had hoped for but as in the previous days, the rain did not cause any discomfort to us. We spent most of the day driving around in the wine route, which is a stretch of road about 50 km long. The views were charming and the villages were absolutely fantastic with stone buildings, cobble stone roads and narrow winding roads.

Most villages look devoid of population even though there are people living there – life moves at a leisurely crawl, I presume. I often wonder how it would be to live in such small villages; in a small world. For me, it may well be a matter of grass being greener on the other side. We had great fun trying to locate some vineyards that would have a tour (like the one we had in Yerring) but could not find any such place. We learnt later that the land is held in small packets by vineyards and these packets are not contiguous – they are distributed across many villages and so there is no big central vineyard. They all have their cellars and that is where wine tasting is held. We dropped in at a winery in a town called Nuits St. Georges and visited their cellar. The vineyard was called Moillard and the cellar is about 200 years old. There was a charming girl in there who explained to us about the distributed land holding. Most French people we have come across have been quite friendly, contrary to what I had heard. She gave us a wine to taste and it was pretty goo. Sandhya declined; Bharath did taste it but was surprised that wine was actually sour tasting – he was expecting something sweet. Earlier we had stopped at a shop and picked up a couple of bottles and so did not buy anything from Moillard.

From there we moved on to a place called Meursault and visited the Chateau there, which is also a famous vineyard. Their cellars date back to the fourteenth century and are a grand sight. Here we learnt that the grapes that are planted in the Burgundy region are the Pinot Noir and the Chardonnay – the former for red wine and the later for white wine. At the end of the tour of the cellars, there was an extended wine tasting session and the person there explained that the quality and taste of the wine differed based on time of the year the grape is plucked, the soil etc. He gave me two wines of the same vintage and same maturity but from different places (they call it cru) and they tasted very different. I was introduced to some fine wines here and I could not resist buying three bottles from them. After we returned to Beaune, I used my new found knowledge to purchase a half-bottle of fine red wine and am now sipping it as I write about this day dedicated to wine.

In the evening, we spent some time wandering around on the streets of Beaune, looking up their church, some shops etc. Beaune is a very nice small town with medieval looks, which are so appealing. There is a central walled area surrounded by a moat. That must have been the old town centre and that is visible even today. We say good bye to wine country tomorrow and our next destination is Champagne.

27 May 2008

We drove from Beanue to Reims today. In between we dropped in at an entertainment park but that was closed, much to Bharath’s disappointment. It was drizzling for almost all the way and that set us all into a slightly gloomy mood. The hotel was also not very comfortable and so our first impression of Reims was not very favourable! Soon the sun came out and we found the town nice enough to wander through. We visited a church – called Notre Dame Cathedral – which was within walking distance of the hotel. This church was built in the 1200s and has a striking resemblance to the Notre Dame church in Paris. I found this point an interesting one – I think this church was built earlier and may be the one in Paris was set in the style of this one. (I saw that some other towns have also got churches named Notre Dame and when I looked up the meaning of “Notre Dame”, I found that it means “our Lady”). French kings used to have their coronation here and the last one was Charles VII who was crowned in the presence of Joan of Arc. There is also a statue of her in the church.

We then wandered about looking at some other buildings and soon our opinion of Reims improved – the discovery and subsequent visit to an Indian restaurant helping matters no end! Tomorrow, we intend to check out the Champagne route.

28 May 2008

We started the day with a visit to the Mercier champagne house in Epernay. Epernayis at the centre of the champagne trade and has more than 100 km of cellars under its streets! The Mercier cellar is one of the most impressive and they have the largest cellar in the region.Champagneis produced by blending the juice from three varieties of grape that grow in the region – Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. Mericer was started in 1858 by an enterprising young man called Eugene Mercier who was 20 at that time. He seems to have been quite a marketer with an eye for what would sell. In those days, champagne was made in regular sized oak barrels. The taste of champagne would differ from barrel to barrel because of the qualities of the wood. Mercier wanted to sell champagne that would taste the same and so he built one huge oak barrel with a capacity of 213,000 bottles. It took 20 years to build and weighed 23 tonnes when empty. It was finished in 1889 and Mercier took it to Paris to exhibit it in the World Exhibition in 1900. Getting the barrel to Paris was a Herculean task and it took eight days of toil with a team of 24 oxen assisted by 24 horses. It seems they had to buy and demolish some houses on the way for the barrel to pass. Any way, the effort seems to have been worth it as the Mercier barrel won the second price in the show, being upstaged only by the Eiffel Tower. This and similar other moves seem to have won Mercier a special place in the champagne business and success too. He must have been a bold and clever businessman – the investment in the huge barrel brings that out clearly.

We then drove along the champagne route with no clear destination. The views were amazing and it was a perfect sunny day as well. So, our intention was to make the most of the beautiful scenery around. We also went to Hautvillers, which is a small village where a priest called Dom Perignon perfected the art of champagne making a couple of hundred years ago. Another interesting thing that we came across was a travelling circus. They had posters stuck in many of the small towns on the way. It was very similar to the posters we have in India and somehow, I found that amusing. A travelling circus, in a developed country like France, in this day and age of all sorts of modern entertainment was not something I had expected.

We got back to Reims in the evening and packed up. Needless to say, the Indian restaurant came in handy again!

29 May 2008

We have couple more hours of sight seeing left and that is it for this tour. The first stop was Musee de la Reddition or the Surrender Museum in Reims. General Eisenhower had his war room in this building (it was a schoolhouse in those days) and it is here that Germany signed its unconditional surrender in the Second World War on May 7, 1945.  It was signed by General Alfred Jodl on behalf of the Germans. The full text of the document is available for view and is typical of field originated documents that do not get to lawyers, it is short, crisp and to the point. One can only imagine the feelings that must have gone through the minds of all concerned when such a horrible war came to an end. Unfortunately, our memories seem short and we move on from conflict to the other. There were some newspaper clippings as well – from the papers that were published the next day. Interestingly, another surrender document was signed in Berlin after two days, on Stalin’s insistence.

The last stop of the tour was Musee des Beaux-Arts, once again in Reims. There were several nice paintings here, especially by a painter called Camille Corot, who seemed to specialise in landscapes. He must have been a reasonably famous painter. There was also another painting that is supposed to be famous, “Death of Marat” by a painter called Jacques-Louis David; again the inability to recognise the piece and the artist must have to do with my ignorance on these matters. We left soon thereafter to Paris – another nice holiday comes to an end! My impressions of France underwent a change because of this trip. People were quite friendly and were as friendly as you see anywhere else in the world;Paris is a great, beautiful city, the art is fantastic and the French countryside is very scenic – these are the memories I will carry with me.

18 May 2008

Our flight got in at 9 in the morning, an hour behind schedule. It was a cloudy morning with the sun venturing out timidly once in a while. The flight was quite comfortable and all of us could rest well. We showered and changed quickly and were soon off to some lunch and sight-seeing. We are staying very near to Champs Elysees, which is the most famous road in Paris, and are within walking distance of Arc de Triomphe and we wandered there after lunch. It was a nice walk and I quite enjoyed the weather, which was bracing. Sandhya and Bharath found it to be chilly and were soon in their jackets. We took several photos at the Arc de Triomphe and also went up the steps to its terrace. There are 284 steps to the top. Napoleon Bonaparte had started building this as memorial for his various victories but he did not finish it as he soon started losing some battles and even whole wars. It was later completed and dedicated as a memorial to an unknown soldier. It very much reminded me of India Gate, which is also dedicated to such a memory. Even the shape is a bit similar and the flame and wreaths are also there.

From the Arc, we walked to Petit Palais which is the smaller of the two palaces that stand on Champs Elysees. Petit Palais was built in 1900 and is a Municipal Museum now. There was exhibition of works by the French artist Goya who was born in the later 1700s. He seems to have been a versatile artist with lot of pencil sketches, lithographs etc. to his credit. The detail in most of his work is amazing. The exhibition did seem interesting but we did not spend too much time there as Bharath was exhausted by then.

19 May 2008

The first visit planned was Louvre and we used the metro rail system to get there. There were some initial difficulties in figuring out the French system but after it dawned on us that the error in our ways was in our persistence to use a credit card, it was smooth sailing all the way. There are not many officials around on the French subway system (may be an effort at controlling costs) and that worked in our favour when we entered another station through the wrong way and ended up boarding a train without a ticket!

The Louvre turned out to be an event that exceeded my expectations. The building is very large and hosts a huge number of paintings, sculptures, engravings etc. It seems that the museum has been open to the public for the last 200 years, since the French revolution, and that struck me as something very nice – a country that opened up art for its public such a long time ago and a public that could appreciate it. My impression has been that in those days most countries were rather elitist in their approach to art. The first part of the museum that we visited was the gallery, which is 450 feet long and is lined with portraits throughout. There is so much to see in the Louvre that I realised what a Frenchman I met on the flight to Paris had said was very true – that one needs four days for Louvre alone.

The museum is housed in a very large building enclosed within a large, beautiful compound. In the courtyard, at the entrance to the museum, is a glass pyramid constructed recently by an architect of Chinese origin. It is all glass and steel and in my opinion is an eye sore, which does not connect well with the rest of the architecture. I guess I am a bit of an oldie and cannot appreciate such fusion.

We were trying to compress as much as we could into the time available before Bharath’s patience ran out. So we focused on the paintings in the Denon wing, which housed Mona Lisa. There are three more such wings in Louvre and the Denon itself is spread over three floors, of which we only got to see one. One surprising point that I noticed was that all the explanations alongside of paintings were in French. For an international museum of Louvre’s standing, it would have been more becoming had they written the descriptions in English also. After all, English is the world language today – whether the French agree or not! Of course, we had rented out audio guides which were life savers in providing salient details about the more important works.

Some of the first paintings we saw were painted in the 1400s and were done on wood – even the Mona Lisa is painted on wood – and that was something new to me. I had kind of assumed that most of these paintings were done on canvas. We saw the largest painting in Louvre – 10 ft x 10 ft or some size like that, a huge one – depicting the first miracle that Jesus worked at the wedding feast in Cana. Thereafter we saw Mona Lisa; it is a wonderful painting indeed and it seems the greatness of this painting is in the manner in which it creates a dialogue with the viewer. Earlier portraits all had a space between the viewer and the model whereas in this, one does feel a connection with the model in the painting. Unfortunately, my picture of the Mona Lisa did not come off well as I was not using the flash (as instructed by the museum authorities) and did not adjust the ISO as needed.

Next we saw a portrait that changed the style in which portraits were drawn and this was done by a painter called Titien. It was titled Man with a Glove and it was indeed very nice and one could feel the character of the model – strong, determined face – just by looking at the painting. It seems what was different about this portrait was that it brought out the character of the model rather than the wealth and standing of the model. The focus was on the individual and not on the social circumstances of the individual.

We then saw three paintings of note, one of which was a scene depicting the coronation of Napoleon at Notre Dame. This was commissioned by Napoleon himself and the interesting point was that the artist did not truthfully reproduce the scene – a prime example being the presence of Napoleon’s mother in the picture whereas she did not attend the ceremony in protest to her son calling himself an emperor and having a coronation and also as the ceremony included the coronation of Napoleon’s wife Josephine as well. I was impressed that Napoleon’s mother thought it unbecoming of her son to call himself emperor – a sure sign of how early democratic thought had started in France and to what depth it had penetrated. This is also drawn on a huge scale.

The next painting was one that caught my fancy and admiration – The Death of the Virgin by Caravaggio. Here the artist has depicted the scene of Holy Mary’s death – she is shown lying dead surrounded by some wise looking men. The beauty of the painting is that she is shown as a very normal and common woman, shorn of all divine trappings. In fact, the artist modeled the face off the corpse of a prostitute who had died around that time. The clergy had commissioned this painting and as can be easily understood, they did not appreciate the proletarian attitude of the painter and they rejected it outright. It seems it took the artist more than a decade to get back to public favour.

The last one was called “Raft on the Medusa” and showed a raft full of ship wrecked sailors sighting a distant sail. Here again, the artist has very skillfully brought out the sufferings and agonies of human beings in such conditions and supposedly, this was one of the first paintings that used commoners as subjects and not royals and such other important people. The theme was also unusual and the painting caused a lot of controversy when it was unveiled; fortunately wiser counsel prevailed and it is still available for viewing.

By this time, Bharath was really tired and we bid adieu to the Louvre. If I ever get back to Paris with some time on my hands, I know where to go!

We then had lunch at a nearby restaurant and set off to Notre Dame. This is one of the most famous churches in France and construction was started in 1163 AD and took 200 years to complete. The coronation of Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife, Josephine, took place here. It is a most impressive building with a majestically rising high ceiling and many beautifully worked stained glass windows. Notre Dame is considered to the “point zero” for the road system in France and all distances expressed are as measured to Notre Dame. This church is still functioning and we saw confessions taking place in a couple of booths when we went there – they were glass doored rooms and the priest was facing the person who was talking. I had understood that there will always be a partition between the priest and the one confessing. As is the case with most churches, Notre Dame also appears to be a very rich church and they also had an exhibition of the treasures of the church. Unfortunately, all explanations were in French and I could not understand anything – there were some bones and some very rich looking stuff. Once again, one is left dumbfounded at how far the “flock” has strayed after their shepherd was gone. I am sure that Jesus would have been appalled at the wealth of the church and the positively garish and ornate costumes that some of the clergy wore. It seems that Notre Dame has in its custody, the original wreath of thorns that was placed on Jesus’ head before he was crucified. This is displayed on special occasions only and so we could not see it – that was a disappointment.

The next stop was Eiffel Tower. Prior to the visit, I had been fairly dismissive of the Tower, considering it a mere piece of structural engineering, commonplace today among the sky scrapers. The majesty of the Tower struck me in full force as I stood beneath it and looked up at its full 324 metres of height. The engineering is amazing, especially as you considered that the whole thing is mostly held together by rivets and it was erected in 1889 when they had no access to computer aided designing and complex weight calculations. All of that had to be done by hand; yet the tower was completed in 2 years and 2 months by a team of 50 engineers and 5300 workmen. This was made for the World Exhibition that was held in Paris in 1900 and won the first prize in the exhibition. All this really gave me a new perspective about the Eiffel Tower.

We went up in a lift, all the way up to the top from where we could get great views of the sprawling metropolis that is Paris. We travelled back by lift to the first floor and walked down the remaining part through steps. Overall, it was a very nice experience and that was our last visit of a hectic day.

Bharath had handled the day reasonably well and we were all tired towards the end. The evening had a joyous end as we were able to locate an Indian restaurant near our hotel. It is very doubtful whether we would ever have visited the place if it were in Bangalore but scarcity is a great magnifier of perceived quality and we were in there trying to get our fill. I am sure this will be where we will have all our dinners till we leave Paris.

20 May 2008

We went to the Disneyland Park today; it is located 32 km outside of Paris. It is a very nice place with well designed rides and well maintained attractions and great landscaping. Bharath was quite thrilled with the place and we spent the entire day there. However, there is nothing special to note as this was just another amusement park. What is most impressive is Disney’s ability to market all of the old tales including fairy tales, Aladdin etc. and make money of those.

21 May 2008

We had earmarked this day for some more museums in Paris and a cruise on the river Seine. The fist stop was Musee D’Orsay. This is a museum that exhibits paintings that come after the period of the paintings exhibited in Louvre. This is housed in an old train station but it looks quite impressive all the same. There are three floors of paintings and sculptures and is another wonderful location that can easily take up a day. There were paintings by a lot of masters and the names I could recognise included Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet, Vincent Van Gogh, Paul Gauguin, Manet etc. I guess these painters come under what is termed as “impressionist” painters. The colours and the life in the paintings were quite noticeable. Van Gogh’s self portrait (one among the several he has painted) is very striking and the artist has managed to inject a lot of life into the painting. He has certainly achieved his objective of “capturing more than what a photographer can do” as he remarked to his sister once. The paintings we saw were those that Van Gogh had painted after he recovered from his mental illness. He was under the care of a friend, who was also a Doctor. It seems he painted a lot in that period, averaging more than one work a day!

I had seen some reproductions of Monet’s rendering of his garden and lilies and it was very nice to see the originals. This artist spent a significant portion of his time in his garden and his garden is his most used theme. He was trying to capture the play of light and the difference it made to the perception of the object. We saw three paintings that he drew at the same time – it was of the same church but under different weather conditions and different lighting (morning, evening etc.). It seems he had all three canvases mounted in a room opposite the church for six months and chose the one to work on depending on the weather and time of the day.

There were a lot of other paintings also but we could not do full justice as time was running out and it would have been a bit taxing on Bharath to spend more than three hours in a museum. In fact, he has already started viewing museums as places best avoided. To be fair to him, I think he has put up with these challenges rather well. Once again, I left with a feeling that one must go back sometime. I had learnt from my mistakes on the photography front at Louvre and so could get some photos of the paintings.

All major cities with history and culture are situated by a river and Paris is no exception. The river Seine divides the city into what is referred to as the right bank and the left bank – that is if one stands facing west. We got into a boat that was doing a sixty minute cruise on Seine. There are two islands in Seine and it seems that Paris started out initially as just the larger island. It then expanded into the right and left banks with the building of some bridges. Notre Dame stands in this island. One can see the Grand Palais, Louvre, Notre Dame, Eiffel Tower etc. from the Seine. There is also a replica of the Statue of Liberty in one end of the smaller island. You can actually capture Eiffel Tower and this statue in one photo frame!

Our last stop was a museum that exhibits paintings starting from 1900 – National Museum of Modern Art. I was hoping to see some works of Picasso here and had skipped the Picasso Museum because of paucity of time. This museum is housed in a building called Centre Pompidou and the building itself is post-modern and is one with its “insides turned out”. I was reminded of an office building I had seen in London that had the same theme. In any case, the whole idea is revolting, if you ask me.

The exhibition itself turned out to be a serious disappointment for me and the less said about it, the better. They had only one painting of Picasso and all the paintings were “post modern”. I could not appreciate the vast majority of the paintings there and I felt that many had got in there just because the painters were famous (which begs the question as to how they got famous in the first place). The commentaries were totally ludicrous and I felt most of it was simply made up (for e.g., “the artist is exploring the perceptive subjectivity of the object”). May be these paintings are beyond me and may be these are really interesting works of art but I found myself agreeing with Bharath’s comment: “My paintings are much better than these”.

22 May 2008

We visited Versailles and Fontainebleau today. Versailles Palace is about 30 km from Paris and is the grandest and the most famous chateau in France. It was built in the 17th century by Louis XIV, who was also known as the Sun King. There was a hunting lodge on this location and when Louis XIV went there for a hunt, he was so enchanted by the place that he decided to build a palace there and move his court. This is an enormous palace and has about 800 rooms and stands in a huge park with its own forest. There are about 78 fountains here and a big canal but the sad fact is that the builders could never manage to get enough water from the river, which was five kilometres away. As a result, all the fountains were shut down and were operated by a man walking ahead whenever the King was taking a stroll. The water scarcity may not have been a matter of grave consequence to the kings as Louis XVI is rumoured to have taken only 40 baths in his lifetime! Bharath was quite taken aback by this statistic. The palace and the grounds are most impressive and the rooms themselves are large and ornate. Not all rooms are open to the public but the most important ones like the King’s Chamber and the Queen’s Chamber are. A very interesting point is that the Queens of that time used to give birth in public to establish the authenticity of the heir’s claim! That must have been quite an ordeal. Marie Antoinette was in this palace when the French Revolution happened but managed to escape from the marauding crowds through a back door.

Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI when she was in her early teens and was brought to Versailles as that was the seat of the government. It seems she never got accustomed to the palace and so she never stayed at the palace – instead she stayed at a humble building nearby. She also built a small village nearby with ten houses or so. Nobody ever stayed at those houses but Marie and her friends spent time there for fun and frolic – so it was a kind of ghost village! It is said that the Treaty of Versailles, which ended the World War I (and whose harsh covenants were rumoured to have instigated World War II) was signed in this palace but there was no mention of it anywhere – which was a bit surprising.

The next stop was Fontainebleau. This is another large palace – said to have about 1900 rooms but not as ornate as Versailles. This palace was first built-in twelfth century and then extensively remodelled in Renaissance style by Francois I. As seems to have been the style in those days, all of the walls are surrounded by wood panels, tapestries or wall papers. The most important point about this palace was the affection Napoleon Bonaparte had for the place. He used to refer to it as his home and it was here that he abdicated after he lost to the British. He bid good bye to his people from the steps of the horse-shoe staircase that leads to the entrance of the palace. Napoleon’s bed chamber was impressive but not overly ornate or decorated (compared with what used to be in style in those days) and it was a strange feeling to stand in that chamber and realise that the great Napoleon stood there once!Another interesting aspect of this palace is that the Mona Lisa (La Jaconde as the French call it) once hung here. This was also the “sorting office” for sending precious art pieces to secretive locations when war broke out in 1939. The curator at Louvre was responsible for keeping the precious art pieces, including Mona Lisa, safe throughout the years of war and he did this by secreting those away in far off chateaus.

We then moved on to a small village near the palace called Barbizon and it was an interesting place. A nice, quaint village in a very beautiful setting, it is home to some well known artists. We saw a house where Robert Louis Stevenson spent some time. I like these small villages that one comes across in Europe. I have always been fascinated by those that I have seen in England and I guess France has its fair share too. We are leaving Paris tomorrow and I am looking forward to the visit to the country – I hope it is as beautiful as the English countryside is in summer.Parisitself was a revelation to me. I had always considered London as the most beautiful city I have been to – because of the nice old buildings and the walks that one can do around the city – but I now think Paris is better. I guess what tilts the scale is the presence of so much beautiful art.