As part of our program to enjoy Paris in a leisurely fashion, not to mention Paris in the spring, we opted to spend time outdoors enjoying the parks and other plein-air spots in which to relax and to observe other people doing the same. Walks along the boulevards were often interrupted by an inviting bench. We sought relief from the heat of the afternoon in the shade of sculptured lime trees. And we took advantage of both to observe the way that Parisians enjoy their city. The little snapshot at the head of this post captures one of those serendipitous moments when we stopped to rest on our way to the Musée nationale du Moyen Âge. I’m sitting on the edge of a tiny triangle of greenery. Behind me is the Boulevard St. Germain, and a quintessential Parisian café. If only the little fountain had been full and bubbling, it would have been perfect, but it was pretty darn good nonetheless.
A few blocks away from here, in the opposite direction from the Cluny Museum, is the Institut du Monde Arabe, designed by the architect Jean Nouvel, who also created the Musée du quay Branly, which is located farther east along the Seine near the Eiffel Tower.
This is a picture of the facade in the Institut’s courtyard. It is an enormous expanse of metal and glass, and the debt to Arabic architectural decoration is immediately obvious, if greatly transformed into a modernist idiom. What is particularly fascinating about this facade can be glimpsed by a close look at a couple of discernible differences among the repeated elements. The size of the apertures at the center of each square varies in this shot. In the bottom row, at third from the right, and in the row above at second from the right, the opening is considerably smaller than in the others.
The design is actually composed of hundreds of mechanical openings that act like the shutter on a camera. They are sensitive to light, and open and close to varying degrees depending on the amount of sunlight striking them. As the day was heavily overcast, with only intermittent solar rays slicing through the clouds, the effect is somewhat erratic, but it does demonstrate the capacity of the building to react to the external environment. It’s a neat trick that echoes designs in building in the Arab world, which often strive to filter light and reduce the amount of heat that builds up inside structures. The use of perforated metal as the building material recalls Nouvel’s fascination with the decorated tin ceilings found in many nineteenth-century Parisian boulevard apartments, and which was an inspiration for part of his design of the Musée du quay Branly.
From the terrace on the ninth floor of the Institut, outside the small café located there, panoramic views of Paris to the north can be had. The most dramatic aspect is certainly this view of Notre-Dame-de-Paris. In the foreground is the Pont de la Tournelle, which connects the Île-St-Louis with the Left Bank. The tall pylon in the foreground supports a statue of Paris’s patron, St. Geneviève. In the middle distance, at the tip of the Île de la Cité, stands the flat-topped greenery of the Square Jean XXIII.
This is a shot of the southern edge of that Square, which became a favorite lingering place on our evening wanders through our neighborhood. During our days in Paris, I grew quite fond of the odd topiary of these lime trees. On our way to visit the Orangerie, we dawdled a while under a similar allée of them outside the Jeu de Paumes.
I took this photograph of Notre Dame’s towers passing by in a boat on a cruise we took from the Eiffel Tower up past our island neighborhood. The outlines of the cathedral are so familiar that being up close to them again was surprising: the sense of seeing some things for the first time. What impressed me here was the sense of delicacy, almost fragility in the decorative arches that span the facade. And the contrast they provide to the blocky weight of the towers themselves. The solidity and unshakeability of faith brought into harmony with an aspiration to transcend all this heavy mortality for an ethereal eternity? I wished for time, and tranquility, to think more about the stone and glass before me.
Again, the complexity of the ornament at eye-level, or near to it, was confronting. H asked “what was going on” in the riot of figures carved in the doorways, and I could decipher the story of the Last Judgement in this central arch. But I was clueless about so much of the iconography, for example, about the identity of the saints who line the sides of the portal. There are twelve of them, and a few attributes suggested they were the Apostles, but mostly I was impressed by my own lack of knowledge about what I was seeing. And the throngs of people armed, like me, with cameras, unlike me with guidebooks that were probably unsatisfactory, didn’t help.
At least we had learned a few days earlier that the long row of statues standing above the doorways representing the kings of Judah, the forebears of Christ. There was a healthy does of irony to that lesson, for it came out of ignorance itself. During the time of the French Revolution, the mobs assumed that the statues represented the kings of France. In their anti-monarchical frenzy, the mob beheaded many of the statues, and the results of their despoliation are now on display in one of the rooms at the Musée de Cluny.
I wasn’t the only one in the neighborhood seeking tranquility, as this photograph of the Pont de Sully and the eastern tip of the Île Saint Louis shows. A small group, two couples, had descended to the concrete banks of the Seine below the greenery of Square Barye, gaining a little respite from the bustle of the city. As the photograph below shows, it’s not always solitude that people seek. This photograph, taken a few days later at the opposite end of Île Saint Louis shows off the island as a metropolitan beach, a shore line for enjoying the warmth of the spring sun at the end of the day. I was surprised at how often, from the banks of the river, I noticed people down at the water’s edge, often by themselves. There are a surprising number of places to escape on one’s own in Paris. And it seems to be a popular diversion.
We made one major excursion in search of parkland outside the city center. West-northwest lies the suburb of St Germain en Laye, which is home to the Musée d’Archéologie national. This museum is housed in a palace built by François I, whom I remember from high school world history class as the king who brought the Renaissance to France in the early 1500s. The museum, however, highlights much earlier stages of French civilization, with stunning collections of Neolithic and Bronze Age artifacts—and much more.
Sadly, we weren’t in much of a mood to appreciate the collections. It had taken us nearly three hours to arrive at the Museum: there was trouble on the RER line that goes out to St Germain en Laye, and we spent 90 minutes shuttling through the metro, mostly on foot, before taking a break at the Place de l’Etoile, where we found another bench from which to watch the procession of Paris. The cars weaving in and out of the massive traffic whirlpool that surrounds the Arc de Triomphe is dazzling to watch. Almost as dazzling was the dexterity of the Roma (I think) who kept passing by our bench. At least four different individuals walked past us; they’d stoop suddenly and come up holding a “gold” ring that they had supposedly seen and picked up from the ground in front of where we were sitting. They’d hold the ring out to us, as if asking if it were ours. I can’t quite imagine how the scam would have worked if we’d responded to it with something other than laughter. But I have to say, they were masters of the deception.
So we arrived at François’ palace hot and tired and late. We took a quick look around the chapel, where the Byzantine Emperor Beaudoin II is said to have presented St. Louis with Christ’s Crown of Thorns in 1238. (This makes me reconsider the Roma and their golden rings.)
But we’d really come to see the grounds of the palace more than the museum itself, and so, after slaking our thirst with drinks purchased from the Turkish fast food joint across the square from the entrance to the palace grounds, we went to look for the prospect that was promised to provide a grand panorama of Paris.
We arrived at the spot from which I took this photograph, after wandering through more allées of lime tress and passing the installation of large, modern statuary for an upcoming public art exhibit. I have to say I was transfixed, and we stood there, breathing slowly, for quite some time. The vista captures so much of Paris that one hardly ever sees by being a tourist in the city center. The Seine flows by under the bridge in the middle distance; a church spire protrudes from the trees farther away. In the foreground are some of the outlying buildings from François’ palace; in the distance are some of the largest, tallest, and most modern buildings in Paris. And of to the right on the horizon, a tiny streak stabs the sky from behind a hill: it’s the Eiffel Tower.
The tall buildings are the major business district in Paris, La Défense. Geographically they form the western end of an axis that runs through the Place de l’Étoile all the way to the Louvre. Just to the left of center in the cluster of building on the horizon is the Grand Arche. It looks like three sides of a large square, or a flat-topped building that’s been hollowed out. You could draw a straight line through that hollow, pass through the Arc de Triomphe, and wind up under the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel at the end of the Tuileries and at the entrance to the Louvre. (You’d have to dodge the great obelisk on your way through the Place de la Concorde.)
Amazingly, stupidly, I don’t have any photos to share of the gardens that we went to see. But rest assured, they were lovely and worth the trek. There are formal French gardens, where everything (mostly lime trees) is neatly shaven and aligned. Beyond those are English gardens, where paths are allowed to wander erratically amongst greenery that appears as if it might have been planted at random. And beyond those is the forêt, which extended to a distance I wasn’t prepared to cover, but just might have been truly wild.
Although we spent a fair amount of our time in museums—it’s hard to resist the temptation when you’re there—we concentrated on places that were new to us: Cluny, St Germain, the IMA. We skipped the Louvre and the Orsay and the Pompidou. But we got to see corners of Paris that we’d missed in the past, and we paid a little more attention to corners we might have rushed by. The city is now a lot more to me than a cultural capital, the home of world-class attractions. I got a feel for how the city breathes, how one part connects to another. I found, by accident, the neighborhood in the Marais where the city’s sellers of paper, pens, and the other accoutrements of writing cluster. I am a master of the Métro. Paris was exhilarating and exhausting. What more can you ask?