I went to Paris last weekend. Why? Well, because I live in London and want to be able to say, “When I lived in London, I used to just pop over to Paris, like, all the time.”
I had actually been in Luxembourg for meetings on Thursday and Friday, so rather than flying back to London as usual, I hopped on the TGV to Paris’s Gare de l’Est and then made my way to a tiny (and somewhat austere) Airbnb flat in the Montorgeuil neighborhood. I got in late and didn’t have any plans, so I ran down to the grocery store and got toilet paper (the flat was a little too austere) and some breakfast fixings, and then lay in bed watching Netflix and reading until I fell asleep.
I got up early the next morning, decided against my own breakfast fixings, and instead found some pastries and a bench in the park next to Les Halles.
From there I wandered over to the Seine and found a bridge where I could enjoy the misty morning light and another pastry.
I got to the Musee d’Orsay just as it was opening, which meant I got in without having to wait in the famously long lines.
It had been a few years since my last visit, so I covered the collections pretty thoroughly. I realize this is heresy, but I came to the conclusion that it just isn’t my favorite museum. Definitely an extraordinary collection, but I don’t love the way the space is laid out and how the traffic flows. And my tastes and interests have shifted over the years so that I’m less drawn to the impressionists that the Orsay is so known for. Instead I lingered among the marbles on the mezzanine and thought, “well, first of all, if I were trying to pick up some snakes with a stick, I’d probably put some clothes on and find a more comfortable position; but then again, if I had a bod like that, maybe I’d be looking for opportunities to go ‘free range’, too.”
I left the Orsay with a vague notion of walking over to the Bastille area where I had heard of some design shops. Along the way I saw signs for the Musee de Cluny a.k.a. Le Musee national du Moyen Age. I hadn’t been there before and decided to have a look.
One of the foundational pieces of the collection is a series of six medieval unicorn tapestries, and the museum had a related temporary exhibition looking at the historical evolution of the legendary unicorn. Apparently it was originally a ferocious, dangerous animal rumored to live in Arabia and North Africa. Gradually it morphed into a symbol of purity and Christianity. For example, in depictions of the Annunciation, medieval artists often included a small unicorn next to Mary that represented Christ. By the time of the Renaissance, people had pretty much figured out that unicorns weren’t real (the “horns” were just narwhal tusks) and much of the religious enthusiasm evaporated. But the notion of a unicorn as something that is unusual, rare, and highly valued continues into modern times with everything from the “unicorn” in business (a start-up worth more than $1 billion) to a symbol of the LGBT movement, to the cutesy commercial kitsch for little girls.
There was also an interesting exhibit on medieval sculpture downstairs, and I left thinking that I had been educated and enriched for a reasonable price and only a short visit. Then I turned the corner and realized there was a whole medieval mansion house that I had completely missed… so I guess I’ll have to keep that on the list for another time.
The reason I couldn’t stay and visit the rest of the museum then was this: I had bought a ticket to see Les Huguenots at the Bastille Opera that night, and while I was visiting the unicorns it occurred to me to double-check the starting time. I had assumed it would be 7:30 or 8:00pm like most operas. Not so! This one started at 6pm. Which meant I had to book it across town to change, eat, and get to the opera house.
This was my first time seeing Les Huguenots, and my review is mixed. It’s a terrific operatic subject — it focuses on the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when the French Catholics basically lured the French Protestants (the Huguenots) into Paris for a supposed truce (in the form of a Catholic-Protestant royal wedding) only to then wipe them all out afterwards (historians estimate the numbers between 5,000 to 30,000 dead across the country). The music by Meyerbeer was good, in the oh-so-French Grand Opera tradition (think enormous choruses and ballet interludes–which, because this is modern France, were performed topless). And the soprano was terrific. The tenor, however, sang really poorly. And the set/direction made no sense and in some cases actively detracted from the story.
Five hours later, I emerged into the night and walked back to the flat, calling Amanda and Justin along the way to discuss.
Next morning I slept late and went to the train station early. It was the first day of the fall school holidays, so the train station was in complete chaos and the trains all delayed. But I made it home safe and sound and looking forward to the next time.