Paris, Day Two

On our second day in Paris, we woke up refreshed and ready for another day of culture. Our only plan was to visit the Musee d’Orsay, which we were both incredibly excited about. This beautiful museum has been created inside the stunning building of the old Gare d’Orsay, which sits on the Left Bank of the Seine, opposite the Tuilieries Gardens. At night its two huge clocks cast an almost fantastical glow across the skyline, which reminded me very much of the wonderful film Hugo, which you should watch if you haven’t already! The museum’s major collections consist of Impressionist and Post Impressionist masterpieces, many of which are the world famous variety that I’ve only ever seen on postcards, so the thought of seeing so many of my favourite paintings in one day was absolutely thrilling! Not so thrilling that I was willing to miss breakfast, however; we sauntered down to the Rue de Rivoli first, where we gorged ourselves on pastries and another delectable hot chocolate at Cafe Angelina, before strolling across the Tuileries Gardens to the museum entrance.

A word of warning; book your tickets in advance, as the queue to get in is long. Thankfully we already had passes, so we walked right on through and into the main room, which maintains the dimensions of the original station. I gasped when I saw it; delicate wrought iron  encasing thousands of panes of glass soared above me, forming a cavernous, light filled space that instantly sent my imagination back to the golden age of steam. Perched at one end of the hall is the elaborately gilded station clock, reminding us all of the building’s original purpose. The galleries have been cleverly designed to allow this hall to retain its dimensions and its grandeur, which is marvellous. The building is certainly just as much an exhibit as the collections.

Our first port of call was the Impressionism and Fashion exhibition, which displayed a range of ladies and menswear fashions of the Impressionist period alongside a series of breathtaking Impressionist portraits, demonstrating the importance clothing and fashion had to these painters. I had never seen many of these beautiful works before, and nor had I ever been prompted to think about fashion in Impressionist terms. I am so used to considering the Impressionists to be landscape painters that this exhibition really took me by surprise, and totally changed my conception of this period of art. I was particularly enchanted by the discovery of the work of James Tissot, whose portraits are magnificent. I’d never heard of him before, though I’d certainly seen at least one of his pictures elsewhere. My favourite was this delicious one of a girl in a black dress walking through Autumnal leaves; I made sure to purchase that postcard from the gift shop!

Back in the main museum, we were enchanted by many lovely Renoirs and Monets, but my personal favourite exhibits were in the Art Nouveau furniture galleries. The mere sight of the sinuously carved furniture of this period makes me weak at the knees, and I was in raptures at the magnificent beds, tables and sofas that were on display. I have never seen such a fine collection of Art Nouveau carpentry, and I will consider myself successful at life if I one day have a bed that is half way as impressive as the ones I saw in the museum!

As we worked our way up to the top of the museum, we began to get overwhelmed by art and decided to look at the fabric of the building. Walking through the cafe, we were enchanted by the view that is available through the back of one of the big clocks that are visible on the outside of the museum, but the best was yet to come; a large viewing gallery runs along the top floor which offers a panoramic view across Paris. It really is such a gorgeous building with so much to explore and discover; if you only have time for just one museum in Paris, forget the Louvre and come here instead. You won’t regret it!

After a late lunch, we headed off to explore the St Germain area further, which is a lovely neighbourhood filled with beautiful old architecture, narrow lanes and lots of traditional Parisian charm. We did get a bit lost, but eventually we emerged back onto the river front, and as it was getting late, we decided to pop into Notre Dame for a look around. I love this cathedral so much; I am a huge lover of stained glass, and the quality of it in Paris is second to none. The rose windows in Notre Dame never fail to take my breath away, and the whole atmosphere is one of restful reverence. Happily we were there as a service started, and more for the need to sit down than anything else, we decided to join in. I haven’t been at a Mass since my days as a Catholic Brownie, and I’ve certainly never listened to one in French, so it was quite the experience. It was a lovely opportunity to understand how the cathedral functions as a place of worship, and it was also pleasant to have some time to sit and reflect, lulled into a place of peace and contentment by the beautiful singing and the flickering of the many candles around us. It really brought the cathedral alive for me.

It was dark as we left Notre Dame, but I remembered one last place I wanted to fit into our itinerary; Shakespeare and Company. This legendary English book shop on the Left Bank has been in situ for donkey’s years, a mecca for literary types throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. I was so upset to not have visited last time I was in Paris, so my excitement levels were high as we rounded the corner and saw its shop front glowing softly in the evening lamplight. My enthusiasm quickly waned however when I walked into an incredibly cramped space filled with uninspiring books (perhaps I have been spoiled by London’s range of excellent independent shops?) and far too many tourists. There was barely room to turn around, let alone browse the shelves. Feeling claustrophobic and spotting shelves of dusty old hardbacks on the upper storey, I made a beeline for the rickety staircase and went on up to what I presumed was the second hand book section. I was wrong; the upstairs rooms are filled with hundreds of fascinating books that are NOT FOR SALE. They form part of the shop’s own library, which you can’t borrow from. While in theory I think this is lovely, at the same time, a shop that has a whole floor of books people can’t buy seems a little bit of an odd and rather frustrating concept to me. All in all I was not impressed, and left the shop feeling disappointed and empty handed. After all the things I have heard, I was expecting magic. It just didn’t live up to the hype for me! Thankfully, our delicious three course dinner in the lovely Bistrot Vivienne, situated within one of the beautiful Passages Couvertes in our neighbourhood, made up for my disappointment, and stuffed with steak frites, my head filled with images of Impressionism and my legs ready to crumble beneath me, I crawled into bed that night exhausted. What would our last day in Paris hold?

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45 comments

  1. Musee D”Orsay is perhaps my favorite musee in Paris. I like to say coming around a corner in MOMA at about the age of 12 and seeing Starry Night for the first time changed my life and, fortunately, that painting is here in New York. But, oh, I have no words to describe that room of Van Goghs in the Musee D’Orsay. I sat in a wicker chair in that room for about an hour while my husband explored other areas of the museum. Bliss.

    1. oh yes…the Van Gogh room was so special. I’m not even a huge fan of Van Gogh, but that room was enough to enchant me! I’m so glad you enjoyed the Musee d’Orsay!

  2. Wonderful descriptions Rachel. I love the Marmottan too because it’s small, but you have to leave something for next time don’t you?! Really sorry about Shakespeare and Company. The bookshops (only they’re both from films!) I’ve always longed to visit in reality are two I presume fictional ones in NYC – the children’s one from You’ve Got Mail and the literary one from Crossing Delancey.

    1. I had to prioritise, Donna – but I did clock the Marmottan and I will be visiting when I go back again! I WISH the shop in You’ve Got Mail was real – sadly it’s not but Books of Wonder on – I think – 17th street downtown is its inspiration and it’s wonderful!

      1. I have to second the recommendation for the Marmottan. It was small, but not crowded, which meant you could look at a painting both up close and across the room. It was interesting to have that dual perspective and be amazed by how the painter could paint up close and yet give the viewer two experiences depending on how close they were to the painting. I’ve been meaning to go back to Paris for a long time. Sounds wonderful.

  3. I felt exactly the same when I went to Shakespeare and Company! I was pleased to see it from the outside, because of its iconic-ness but inside I had the same reactions as you did: hard to get around and definitely uninspiring. Even though I knew it was an English language bookshop, I hadn’t anticipated it would be full of the exact same editions you can find anywhere here. But luckily Paris has many other sights and I wasn’t disappointed for long!

    1. I’m glad I’m not the only one who didn’t find it magical – I thought it was just me! Exactly – there was nothing particularly ‘unique’ about it in my opinion – and being crammed into a tiny room with loads of tourists isn’t my idea of fun! Exactly – Paris has so much else to offer!

  4. I had the same reaction to Shakespeare and Company when I visited Paris for the first time in November 2010. But I didn’t leave empty-handed I’m happy to say — found a lovely old hardback copy of PG Wodehouse’s Doctor Sally … and for less than 10 euro a charming poster from the 2010 “Festival & Co” — cost me probably three to four times its cost to mount and frame but it has been a daily source of pleasure in my home ever since.

    I was recently in London and absolutely wallowed in the wonderful bookstores. Lovely people too,

    1. Glad it wasn’t just me AJ – and that you got to leave with something! The poster sounds fabulous!

      Yes we are lucky on that front – and I’m pleased you met with a good bunch of people on your trip!

  5. You are giving me so much inspiration for my own trip the weekend after next! Thanks for the heads up about Shakespeare and Co. Boyfriend is not a reader, and will not appreciate being dragged to a disappointing bookshop!

    1. Oh how exciting! I hope you’ll have a wonderful time. Definitely give Shakespeare & Co a miss with the boyfriend, though you could skip by for a photo outside as it is literally a 2 minute walk from Notre Dame!

  6. I love Tissot. Did you know he lived in St John’s Wood? I’ve always meant to make an expedition to find the house but never got round to it, though I think his lovely garden is long gone.
    So glad to hear you liked the exhibition … queue jumping arrangements have been made!

  7. Your first picture immediately reminded me of Hugo as well, which is a bit odd since I haven’t even seen it! The Musee d’Orsay looks fantastic. If I ever have the opportunity, I may indeed forego the Louvre in favor of it.

    1. It’s a pretty iconic image, isn’t it – and you should see Hugo as soon as you can!

      Oh definitely – the Musee d’Orsay is so much better than the Louvre in my opinion – too much to look at and too much walking required. Musee d’Orsay is far more specialised and the building is amazing!

  8. You know, of course, that the Shakespeare & Co you visited is not the Shakespeare & Co of Sylvia Beach, Hemingway, Pound, Joyce fame; that shop was in a different location and closed during WWII. The recently deceased owner of the current shop, George Whitman, was given the rights to the name in Beach’s will along with her extensive private library (those are the “not for sale” items). Go back at night for a poetry reading or on Sunday for tea and you will have a much better experience.

    1. Oh yes, Charles – but only because I looked it up afterwards! ;) I didn’t realise the books were the original founder’s – that IS a nice touch. I just wish they’d had more interesting stuff for sale. I can imagine the atmosphere of a poetry reading would be lovely – it is a very cosy space. Just not the magical world of wonderment I had expected!

  9. I desperately want to visit the Musee D’Orsay! It is at the top of my list of things to do next time I’m in Paris. I loved the Louvre and the Marmottan, which I visited last time I was there, but I’m sure the Musee D’Orsay will prove to be my favourite. And I completely agree that Shakespeare & Co. is unimpressive. It has a fabulous location but the selection of books – which is what a bookstore should be about! – is disappointing.

  10. Oh dear..isn’t it disappointing when something is not what you expect it to be. A lot of old world treasures are lost because of pandering to tourists.
    Nice description of your day…you have now awakened my interest in James Tissot and I will look out for his work on visits to art galleries

    1. Very true, Vipula!
      I’m so glad to hear that! Apparently he was very prolific and so finding a painting of his somewhere in the world shouldn’t be too difficult!

  11. How absolutely magical! I adore the Musee D’Orsay. Since I can’t jump on a plane to Paris just now, I’ll rewatch Midnight in Paris ;-)

  12. Your lovely description of your visit to Paris sure made me homesick. I left my home country in 1961 after marrying my American husband; I do get homesick and deeply enjoyed my vicarious tour with you. Thank you.

  13. Musee D’Orsay is our favourite in Paris. Our summer Eurostar tickets had an offer for two for one when showing them. It’s so lovely to sit and gaze on the benches.

  14. Oh lala! Paris and R, R and Paris.

    Yes I suppose we might expect that with such a shop. Myth, marketing, etc etc. Disappointing though, not only with the shop but with anticipated delights of a delightful report.

    I once found a lovely s/h book shop at the end of the Kings Road I think it was…long time ago…which had a platform area above the shop where they had a piano. And on a Sunday afternoon as I recall, there was a chap there tinkling away with some jazz. I also remember – at the time – I was curious about Yukio Mishima and tempted by one of his works. Never did read him, probably never will now.

    I’m not really a ‘city’ person, R, but this does get me thinking about Parisian charms and if perhaps I’d enjoy them. I do enjoy for example, the rich cultural offerings of London.

    1. Yes it was a shame, and I’m sorry to not have a more favourable report for you! I tried to love it but it just wasn’t my thing at all!
      That shop sounds amazing – I have never seen a second hand book shop on the King’s Road…I wonder if it’s still there?!
      Oh yes – Paris is a must visit – even someone who hates cities could love it for a few days!

  15. You are bringing back so many great memories of our trip there in 2004. Musee D’Orsay was my favorite museum…and Musee Rodin. This past summer I was at an art fair when I walked into this photographer’s tent and there in front of my eyes was a huge blow-up photo of the Shakespeare and Co.’s store front–as if I could have walked right in. I should have bought the larger one but I ended up with an 11 x 14 which hangs in my dining room. Love it!

      1. I just looked it up and this is what their website said:
        Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street; Rainy Day, which is usually on view in gallery 201, has been removed so that it could be included in the traveling exhibition Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity. This exhibition can be seen at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris (September 25, 2012–January 20, 2013), the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (February 26–May 27, 2013), and the Art Institute of Chicago (June 26–September 22, 2013).

        Which means I get to see the same exhibit! Good to know. (I live only 3 hours from Chicago, so this will be on our “to do” list for next year).

  16. Musée d’Orsay is my favourite museum in Paris. I had been thinking about going to the Impressionism and Fashion exhibit during the Christmas holidays. I think your pictures have just convinced me to book my ticket.

  17. Books…in a bookshop…but not for sale? What a ridiculous notion. Reading your description of the shop reminded me of being in John Sandoe Books, oh the disappointment and claustrophobia! The Musee d’Orsay sounds, and looks, absolutely wonderful though and should I ever get to Paris will be my first stop. Do your art postcards get displayed or do you keep them tucked away for admiring on rainy days? They’re just the best souvenirs aren’t they?

    1. John Sandoe books is claustrophobia EPITOMISED. The amount of times I got trapped in there when I lived nearby is ridiculous! I always wondered what treasure could have been hiding beneath the totally inaccessible piles…and also what horrors could have been lurking!! Darlene have you never been to Paris?! You MUST go – next time you come to England, book two nights in Paris and go over on the eurostar – if you book in advance it can be as little as £59 return. You’d love it. Some of my art postcards are on display on my desk but most are in a drawer. I collect them because one day I have plans of papering the wall of my hallway (if I ever get a hallway) with all of the postcards and memorabilia I have collected from my travels. It will be a memory wall!

  18. Oh good! I only wanted to see the Louvre out of a sense of obligation anyway, so I’m delighted to skip it and go to the Musee d’Orsay (on a putative future trip to France). I’ll just do a flying trip and see the Musee d’Orsay, Notre Dame, and Oscar Wilde’s grave, and then pop back out and visit you in London, my dear!

  19. Did you cross the river to see Monet’s Waterlilies in the orangerie displayed as he intended ?
    You could die happy in that room surrounded by is paintings – though I suppose the room guards wouldn’t be too happy !

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