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?