It’s Tuesday and there is the acrid smell of stale urine in the air so it must be Paris. Despite the abolition of the pissoir, that distinctive smell has not gone, just changed its location slightly. Here on the banks of the Seine it lurks by the bridges.
Outside the Musee d’Orsay an enormous queue snakes away from the entrance. We stop to look at the bronzes outside. The rhinoceros is striking. ‘J’s’ eye is drawn to a man in a large sombrero. He is holding up a rectangle of black paper and a pair of scissors and rapidly, with great dexterity, cutting out the silhouette of an Asian girl. It’s a ‘snip’ at three euros so ‘J’ is his next customer. When he finds she is English he explains that though the silhouette is a French invention it really took off on Victorian Britain before returning to France. A bit like that overrated tipple Champagne.
Over the other side of the river we make our way past the Louvre and along the plage by the river, passing sunbathers, rock climbers, water gardens that literally soak you, and stop for Ice cream.
Beyond the plage we cross a lock and there under the shelter of a road overpass is an encampment. Rows of tents designate bedrooms and old armchairs, supermarket trolleys and a table, the living room. Over the other side of the river, along a small strip of garden are many more tents, plastic tables and chairs. Has the French obsession with ‘Le Camping’ got out of control? We enquire of our Parisian companion. She explains that the tents were donated to the homeless during the winter but have since served to make the problem worse and also to give it an air of permanence, like the beginnings of a shanty town in a third world city. We pass a group playing boules beside a roaring fire in an oil drum.
The garden expands a bit now and the tents disappear, to be replaced by sculpture in stone, concrete, cast and sheet metal. For a while we stare at a particularly nice kinetic piece. It is made of rectangular sheets of polished steel with a slight bend in each one. They are pivoted in the middle and the frames that hold them also pivot and move with the slightest breeze. The sculpture rotates and moves, seemingly randomly and the rectangles reflect constantly changing images, mostly of the blue sky above and the scudding Constable clouds.
On Wednesday we go to the Musee du Quay Branly, Jacque Chirac’s answer to the Pompidou centre, a museum of ethnic art from around the world. The building is quite interesting from the outside especially one façade which, apart from the windows, is covered in a vertical garden. Inside I’m not so impressed. The colour scheme is black and brown and the lighting dim for the most part. I am not quite sure why as most of the exhibits do not seem to be the kind that require low lighting to conserve them.
The exhibitions are divided into regions and we start with Oceania, work through Asia, Africa and finish with the Americas. Although there are some old pieces, much of the collection dates from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There is lots of astounding stuff, far too much to absorb properly in one visit, let alone describe here. I tune into faces and masks and the great variety of ways different cultures depict them. The gap between them and the imagery of much modern art seems very small, although that may be down to the fact that they are on exhibition rather than in use.
After about four hours we stagger out into the daylight and head for the café, which instead of being situated in the gallery, a logical place to give one the chance of a break from all that cultural input, is just about as far away as they could get it whilst still on site. A tea is an astronomical five euros and I am too appalled (and tight) to have one. My companions have two coffees, which for nine euros is, as I point out, one euro more than the book I have just bought with eighty fine photos of masterpieces in the collection, together with some very interesting snippets of background info on the objects pictured.
On Thursday J and I give our French friend, what I am sure, is a welcome morning rest from her role as tour guide and visit a local park at Sceaux. The avenue leading up to it is stunningly lined with clipped Lime trees, which teams of men are in the process of trimming. As the trees are thirty or so feet tall and there are four rows of them up a road that must be half a kilometre long, this is no mean feat. The main tool is a circular saw, mounted on the side of a cherry picker that is slowly slicing its way down a row.
At the top of the avenue we reach the chateau and pass it into the formal gardens beyond. Here are lawns, clipped yew cones and low hedges containing herbaceous borders. The planting is interesting; the flowers are limited to red, white and the occasional purple with much of the variety coming from variegated and purple foliage.
To the left of this area and below stretches a large rectangular lake. We make our way down to it and it becomes apparent, as we walk round that there are two large circular pools connected either side of it, halfway down its length. We circumnavigate it anticlockwise and coming to the second pool, which is made more secluded by surrounding trees, find a powerful single fountain jet in its centre, a solitary angler, two beautiful sculptures of groups of larger than life deer and a stairway of water that feeds the lake, descending from the gardens we had left above.
In the late afternoon we go back into the centre of Paris, book advance tickets at the Musee d’Orsay for the next day and then go to the Orangerie to see Monet’s Water lilies. They have been re-sited in 2006 and are now on a purpose built floor at the top of the building so that they are once again (as they were when they were originally exhibited) illuminated by diffused daylight, coming from above, The rooms are not too crowded and there are spaces here and there on the central seats in the two rooms, to sit and contemplate. The pictures have a wonderful energy of light and movement, yet at the same time, tranquillity.
Downstairs is a collection of impressionist and post impressionist pictures. Of particular note for me, is a small Cézanne version of ‘Le Dejeuner sur la Herbe’ and three delightful Soutine portraits.
Outside we look at some Rodin Bronzes, including a version of ‘The kiss’ and a very good Henry Moore reclining woman.
Friday is Musee d’Orsay and thanks to our pre booking we waltz past the queue, which is already a pretty long snake at ten in the morning. The building is a converted railway terminus and lends itself well to its new life as an art gallery with the central hall, where the trains stopped, open to the glass-covered roof. We make our way to the fifth floor and the Impressionist and Post Impressionist collection. Although we are fairly early the first few rooms, with all the big name paintings and sculpture, are horrendous. Guided tours in various languages speed through to selected paintings, which are then monopolised while the guides deliver their spiel. These rooms pass for me, as a kind of claustrophobic blur. Some images stand out, the Degas dancers and a beautiful Monet of the Gare Saint Lazare, but despite the fact that I am surrounded by brilliant paintings, most are swept away in a cacophony of people. Fortunately it gets better; as we progress deeper in to the collection the crowds thin. Seemingly many have just come to tick certain images off, like filling in an I spy book, been there seen that. We come across some good Gauguins and a Dournier Rousseau with its magical jungle world.
We break for lunch in the level six café and re-charge our sensory batteries before descending to level two. Here it is even quieter yet there are stunning paintings by Bonnard and Vuillard amongst others, sculpture by Rodin and a superb collection of Art Nouveau furniture including reconstructions of whole rooms.
By the time we have finished this floor we are too saturated with imagery to attempt the ground floor with its Pre Impressionist collection. It must await another visit.
Saturday is the grand finale with a trip out to Versailles to see the gardens. Normally these are free which, given their huge size and the incredible amount of maintenance, is a real bargain. However on Saturdays, from April to September there are ‘Les Grandes Eaux Musicales’ when twice a day the fountains are turned on to the accompaniment of music. There are lots of spectacular water features and the event is worth ever penny of the seven euros admission.
Versailles was, of course, the palace of Louis the Fourteenth, the Sun King and the huge gardens were laid out under the direction of his minister Colbert and the architect Andre Le Notre. The main features of the garden were to be water and fountains, despite the fact that the site chosen was conspicuously lacking in this resource. Sculptors, architects, engineers and craftsmen were employed, together with a workforce of 30,000 downtrodden serfs who laboured for over twenty years to realise the project. It is a tribute to them that the original hydraulic system, gravity fed water features and fountains all still work 350 years later.The gardens are laid out in a formal and symmetrical grid and subdivided into flower gardens, fountain areas and a large number of Bosquets. These are wooded areas further divided with paths in various patterns, many of them containing fountain or water feature centrepieces. Without a map one would become hopelessly lost, as in combination they form a kind of maze. I can only imagine the lubriciously decadent affairs and intrigue that happened within them. Women in huge crinolines and piles of false hair, the heavily bewigged men, curls cascading to their waists, lacy flounces everywhere, shoes with points so long the tips had to be tied back so they could walk and both sexes heavily plastered with makeup. Peering round the corner “Now was it the Bassin de Bacchus or the bloody Bosquet des Bains de Apollon, and where exactly am I now anyway?” There is a wonderful variety of spouts, columns, jets, walls, curtains and staircases of water, both formal and informal. The gardens are big enough that, despite the huge numbers of people there, they do not seem crowded; indeed some places are quite secluded. With a well planned route all the fountains can be seen in the hour and a half they are working, yet this is just to skim the surface of the gardens, for beyond them is a huge lake and the whole is surrounded by landscaped countryside walks. There is also a large and entirely separate kitchen garden on the other side of the town, which provided the fresh fruit and vegetables for the huge palace.