Posts Tagged ‘Paris’

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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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.