Thursday, 14 June 2007

New Column 14/6 I Love Paris in The Springtime!

Above sees me reflected in the odd mirrors at The louvre, below are views of The Petit palais

Well for those of you who have been reading my column for a while you will be aware already that I love Paris in the fall. So following last weeks column, where I told you about seeing “Cabaret” at the Folies Bergere, I thought I would tell you of a few more highlights from my trip. After all, I love Paris in the springtime too!

Well my hotel can hardly be considered a highlight, I really did go for the cheap as pommes frites option whilst remaining relatively central. Yes, my hotel was decidedly grotty – clean but definitely grotty! However, being located just two minutes from the metro station at Place De Clichy was a definite plus. The Place De Clichy is a very busy area too, and full of hustle and bustle well into the early hours of the morning which was fun. I was also just a couple of seconds walk from a gorgeous statued square with lots of greenery. I have always liked greenery. In fact if you were to look at my photo albums you would find pictures of inordinate numbers of trees, not to mention lots of ceilings. More of the ceilings later. I was also a stones throw from the Moulin Rouge and only ten minutes or so walk from Montmartre which was nice as this is an area of Paris I am particularly fond of. I didn’t climb the hill to the tourist trap of the Place De Tertre on this visit though, limiting myself instead to the foot of the hill.

One of the joys of Paris is how easily accessible the metro is. Unlike the tube, it’s very cheap and you rarely have to wait for more than two minutes for a train. Much like it’s London relation it is also populated by buskers galore. It seems you are lucky if you go for more than two or three journeys without hearing an accordionist. Anyway, on this visit there were two particular brushes with buskers that will stick in my memory. Firstly at St Michel metro station, in the heart of the Latin Quarter, I witnessed what must be the best ever. Nine of them in total, all Russian, with everything from a guitar and accordion to a cello and double bass. All playing, all singing beautiful rousing harmonies in Russian, the acoustics of the labyrinthine tunnels of the metro station making them sound absolutely stunning. Sadly, however, not all Parisian buskers are quite so accomplished. On a metro train later on the same day I was witness to possibly the worst ever. Basically they played loud dance music on a ghetto blaster, accompanying it with a few rather odd jerky dance moves. As they danced people grimaced at the loud music and tried not to laugh at their dancing, then when they came round with a cup almost everyone averted their gaze.

Of course buskers are just part of what Paris has to offer. If you have any interest in the arts then there are so many things to enjoy, and the wealth of museums and galleries provide much to feast your senses on, so I always try to visit at least a couple when I am there.

On my last visit I had made an unsuccessful attempt to visit Musee de la Mode at Costume Palais Galleria , the fashion museum. As Paris is often considered the worlds fashion capital I had thought it would be fascinating to see their collection. This time I was more successful – it was open at least! Sadly the entire exhibit – other than one small room with old military costumes and suits of armour – was made up of the work of one designer – Jean Charley de Castelbajac. This really was fashion at its least accessible. Clothes that you may see on the catwalk but never in the real world. I have to admit that some of the outfits were quite inventive however and I did chuckle a little at a faux fur coat made entirely out of teddy bears But all in all I gave the museum nil points!

Similarly I was disappointed with the Musee d’Art Naif Max Fourny, which normally houses a collection of naïve art, instead the entire museum was given over to some Indian batik wall hangings and some rather odd statues. However as its located at the foot of Sacre Couer, a hundred yards or so from the carousel, it was a good excuse to enjoy some time in this particularly pretty area of the city.

However, on the museum front, all was not lost. I had previously visited the vast collection of the Louvre in 1992 and been distinctly unimpressed. Generally speaking the periods of art that it contained held little appeal for me. As far as paintings go I tend to prefer the impressionists and later, whilst not particularly enjoying the renaissance and the religious iconography which seems to be the subject of so much of the preceding years’ ouevre. However, about five years ago, I visited the stunning Musee Rodin, and was mesmerised by the sculptures. Although the interior of the museum is relatively plain, the gardens are stunning and to see works such as the Burghers of Calais, the Gates Of Hell, and The Thinker in such a natural setting (greenery again!) was a wonderful experience. Because of my visit to the Rodin, I thought that it was time to re-explore the Louvre and take in their collection of French and Italian sculptures. I planned a visit based on the areas of their collection that held the most appeal and set off! It was indubitably the first part of the collection I saw that provided the highlight for me. The beauty of the French sculptures was breathtaking, and covered over a thousand years of history. The light streamed, multi levelled, gallery provided a particularly beguiling setting for the works which showed them off to great advantage. The craftsmanship it must have taken to accomplish these works is astonishing – how skilled must the sculptors have been to create such great art with only a block of stone and a chisel? Currently the museum is doing another exhibit alongside the regular exhibition called contrapoint which places contemporary art alongside the more antiquated pieces. Sometimes this can jar, but at others it is really provocative in making you perceive the art in a different way. It was particularly effective in a gallery containing Islamic murals. They had placed an enormous arced mirror in this gallery – and I really do mean enormous – which reflected and distorted the murals, along with the people looking at them of course. I was absolutely fascinated by this, particularly because as you walked towards it there was a certain point where it just flipped your reflection upside down – very odd! After spending a good hour or so enjoying the French sculptures I took the opportunity to have a fruit juice and pain aux raisin at the Louvre’s terrace café, which was a lovely way to enjoy the warm spring morning and absorb what I had just seen. Anyway, after feeling sufficiently refreshed I did think I should at least give the paintings a go, the Mona Lisa was as unimpressive as I remembered it and, along with the Venus De Milo, surrounded by crowds who just had to see it! Even though the majority of the Louvre’s paintings don’t necessarily appeal to me I couldn’t fail but be impressed by the scale and drama of Velasquez’s The Raft Of The Medusa, and particularly liked Jeune Homme Nu Assis Au Bord De La Mer –Etude (1836) by Hippolyte Flandrin. The last part of my visit was the Italian sculptures which, although very beautiful, didn’t really match the French sculptures for me. By the time I had seen these the crowds were beginning to feel a little oppressive so, after my fifth experience of being physically pushed out of the way by a tour guide, I decided it was time to move on………….. To truly appreciate art a little calm definitely helps more than a crowd!

The highlight of my museum visiting was to come the day before I left. I awoke to a baking hot balmy day where I had no definite plans and as I ate my continental breakfast in my grotty, little, hotel I flipped through my eye witness guide to see if anything caught my eye. Even though the guide book was not particularly inspiring about it I decided upon the Petit Palais, as it said they had a few impressionist paintings. After all I had never been so thought I would give it a shot. Situated near the rond pointe of the Champs Elysees and just round the corner from the Theatre Du Rond Pointe where I had seen “ Les Cabaret Des Hommes Perdu” (starring “Lord Of The Rings”’ Jerome Pradon) last autumn are both the Grand Palais and the Petit Palais. Built in 1900 for the Paris World Exposition these are two very impressive buildings. The Grand Palais is now a location for temporary exhibitions, whilst the Petit Palais has a permanent exhibit. It has to be said that the contents of the museum are eclectic to say the least. Art from many different periods, as well as religious iconography, some sculptures and some beautiful decorative arts such as pottery etc. It takes a novel approach in displaying the works by positioning them in complimentary arrangements rather than by period. This may mean that a gallery contains a couple of paintings, a few vases or plates and a sculpture. It really isn’t as hap hazard as it may sound however and proves to be a very effective concept. Paintings by well known artists such as Monet feature as well as names less familiar to me such as Edmond Aman-Jean and George Clavin, and some exquisite ceramics. The best thing about the museum though has to be the building itself. I think it’s possibly the most beautiful building I have ever been into. Very bright and airy with huge windows that provide perfect lighting for the exhibits on the ground floor . It also has a central courtyard containing lovely gardens, where I was able to have little walk and enjoy the sunshine, complete with ornamental ponds. The real highlight of the Petit Palais though has to be the ceilings. I have never seen such perfectly executed ceiling murals as those contained at the Palais. What makes them so stunning? Well, not really the subject matter as it’s the usual pastoral scenes and the ubiquitous cherubs familiar to most ceiling murals. However, as they were painted in 1900 – a much later period than most - they seem to have used a more impressionistic palette, and the favoured colours work beautifully. Delightfully, one vast gallery is just given over to a few judiciously angled mirrors mounted on tables so I was able to examine, at least a handful of, the murals in detail.

As usual a large part of the rest of my visit consisted of trolling round the shops, and of course wandering the city and enjoying it’s ambience! As a non tea drinker quite why I bought a tea pot shaped like a pig I don’t know, but I really do like it a lot. It’s kind of not what you expect! As is my wont I also managed to get a few DVDs of French movies that haven’t been released here (with subtitles of course) and almost accidentally picked up three titles directed by Cedric Klapisch who is best known here for “Pot Luck” and its sequel “Russian Dolls”. Two of these (“Peut Etre”, “Le Peril Jeune” ) featured actor Romain Duris currently very much on the ascendant since appearing in the acclaimed “The Beat My Heart Skipped”. Klapisch seems to be very much a director for the new millennium and has quite an off beat style which makes all of his movies interesting. I will definitely seek out more of his work in future. Whilst you may not be able to get a copy of “Peut Etre” over here I can definitely recommend the movies I mention above!

If any of you are wondering, yes I did make Joe Allen’s my regular haunt yet again. I have given up trying to find alternative restaurants. Why wander round trying to find somewhere I like the look of when I know I can go there, know what I am getting, and get looked after. It’s quite nice to return to a place and be recognized too, I was even asked this time if I wanted my table habituelle! Eating at Joe Allen’s is very much part of the Paris experience for me now so I make no apologies.

I think this was either my seventh or eighth visit to Paris and by now I have got to know the city very well. I know where the bargains are, to look out for V.O. movies at the city’s proliferate cinemas and to buy Pariscope on a Wednesday. Sadly, I still can’t navigate the maze that is Les Halles though, and frequently get lost. This apart, I always feel very at home in the city and know it won’t be long before I am there again. Of course, as I left Paris the sun was blazing and it was like a hot summer day, perfect in fact, without much humidity. As the Eurostar emerged from the channel tunnel, after speeding through the north of France, England greeted me with grey skies and rain. My holiday was well and truly over! However, maybe I will manage a second visit of the year for Christmas shopping! Bonne Idee!

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