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Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Being a Tourist in Paris, Part Un

Photo by B.C Matthews

You're in Paris—freaking Paris—and you want to see all those great things you've heard about and seen on TV. All the things people insist that you see before you die, some great and powerful bucket list that insists that you—and millions of strangers—view all the things that make Paris great. But what are those? And is it worth it?

I'd say that depends on what moves you. I'd heard from several of my friends that the Louvre was downright boring. I tended to believe them, relying on my knowledge of some of the artists from my often slept-through Art History class, where I'd usually have to wipe off the drool from my chin and would surreptitiously look around to see if I'd been snoring.

1. The Musée de Louvre (The Louvre): The Louvre is huge. Really huge. Mind bogglingly resplendent and an architect's wet dream. I had been walking down by the Seine my first day in Paris, wondering what the heck the several-blocks-long building was that never seemed to end. Soon enough while walking, I started to ignore it until one member of my party pointed out the epitaph over one of the many gold-filigree doors that said "Musée de Louvre." It's so large that I couldn't help but finally understand why French peasants rose up in revolt and revolution.

I almost didn't want to go to the Louvre. WHAT?! you say. It's true. But still, I didn't want to respond to people's incredulous stares when I told them I'd skipped the most famous museum in the entire world. So I went. And I tried to avoid all of the most famous paintings, which ravenous throngs of foreigners camped around with dozens of cameras going off at the speed of light. But alas I had to see the Mona Lisa and her smile.

The Lady and her smirky-ness isn't worth it. Why? 1) She's behind bullet proof glass. 2.) You're fifteen feet away. 3.) You have to rather rudely elbow your way through the tourists to get anywhere near her. 4.) All of your photos of her will suck. 5.) She's not even da Vinci's most interesting painting. 6.) If you freak out and tend to have panic attacks in crowds (like me), you might get angry stares from a French mother cursing at you because you shoved aside her precocious and annoying 10-year-old son who wouldn't move when you kept saying "PARDON!"

Ahem. But what made the entrance fee worth it were the Greek and Roman statues, and the thousands-of-years old Egyptian artifacts. For the second time in my life I was stunned by just how close non-Americans let you get to things in museums (barring the Mona Lisa and Venus di Milo). I could get my nose mere inches away from any lovingly carved marble statue older than anyone alive could realistically conceive. The intense urge to reach out and touch these priceless artifacts nearly overcame my good sense and righteous outrage at desecrating irreplaceable art. Muscles, veins, cheekbones were so well carved that several times had the inescapable feeling that they would move when I looked away, that only if I could touch them I would feel real flesh rather than stone. Still, whenever I saw some stupid idiot reaching out to touch them I raged inside. How dare they touch the stone? Don't they know they're destroying the very thing they're so intrigued by? Why aren't these statues walled off?


Photo pervertedly taken by B.C. Matthews
Why go? The Louvre is huge (see aforementioned hugeness). Chances are even if you're not thrilled with Medieval art mostly about Jesus, Jesus, aaaand something else Jesus related, you'll find something interesting from Asian art, to African art, Egyptian artifacts, and wondrous sculptures. Also, either shell out the €uro for the audio tour, or seriously brush up on your French because all of the art descriptions are solely in French.

2. Notre Dame Cathedral: I will admit that I did no research on Paris before I got there. So, I'll also admit to being absolutely gobsmacked to learn that Notre Dame is still a working church. When we arrived near noon at Notre Dame, a few matronly women were shushing various tourists as Mass started. Being a non-religious type, I always feel like I'm rudely intruding when I'm present at these types of events. But even as a non-religiousy person, I still felt the sheer weight and might of Notre Dame in all of her omnipresent glory. Like understanding why French peasants cried out "Vive le révolution!" when I went to the Louvre, I suddenly understood why people felt the might of their God inside the Notre Dame.

The stained glass windows are so intricate and massive that you could stare at them for hours and still not see or understand them all. The friezes of various passages in the Bible were so careworn that you could feel the centuries weighing on them, settled like the trails of ancient dust obvious on them. The grand organ's pipes sat like fingers reaching into the vaulted ceilings, shiny and beautiful.

The best part of it is that this part of Notre Dame is free. However, if you want to: 1.) Light a prayer candle there is a suggested donation of 2€.
2.) Go to the Treasury (which I later found out houses important Holy Relics) there is an entrance fee.
3.) Walk up the steps to the top of the cathedral for the largest fee. (14€?)

Walking to the top is hard work. The steps are narrow, and so worn from centuries of foot traffic that there are some serious depressions in the stone roughly the size of a small person's foot. Again, marching up these steps it's hard not to feel the weight of history, or to imagine some young penitent centuries in the past making this very same trip, wearing the same impression into the stone with their own feet.

The view from the top, with its myriad of completely different gargoyles is totally worth the money. And the pain. And panting.

Stay tuned for the next installment of What the Hell Did I Do as a Tourist in Paris?

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