PARIS: Just as captivating the second time around

After getting our fill of the glorious sun in Provence (hooray sunburns!), we set off for our next destination. We were trading the relative peace of the south for France's bustling capital city, Paris.

As mentioned in the last entry, I had already visited Paris three years ago during my study abroad. As such, I had fairly minimal expectations for this trip -- there were few things I felt like I had to see this go 'round; I was content to go with the flow and wherever the rest of the family wanted to go.

Because of the cavalier attitude I went into the trip with, I feel like Paris caught me by surprise. Which is to say, I found myself thoroughly enjoying my time there -- far more than I expected. And when it was time to depart after 4 1/2 days there, I had the distinct feeling that I would definitely be visiting once more.

There is something so undeniably, inexplicably captivating about Paris. I think part of it is just its size coupled with its highly efficient public transportation system (well, when the workers aren't on strike). The two of those factors, combined with Paris' rich history, give you the feeling that this is a city that deserves to be explored thoroughly and completely, and that such an exploration is entirely within your powers. All you need is the time to do it. And that, I think, is where my desire to return comes from. I feel like there is still so much to see and experience in Paris despite having seen effectively all of the major tourist sites. It's the same way I feel about New York City, have now been there several times. Once you knock off the touristy stuff, you have time to begin to explore what the city is really like. 

With this post, I don't want to trawl through everything we saw and did, because you already know what that would contain -- complaining about crowds around the Mona Lisa in the Louvre, how annoying the people trying to sell you cheap keychains outside the Eiffel Tower are, being mesmerized by both the inside and outside of Notre Dame, etc. Instead, I thought I would highlight some of the pleasant surprises and disappointments from this trip.

Pleasant Surprises

Centre Pompidou: This is the top modern art museum in Paris, but in a city famed for its museums depicting the tried-and-true classics, it seems to get a lot less love, at least from the tourist circuit. The museum is located in a thoroughly modern looking building, featuring lots of escalators and walkways through clear tunnels surrounded by deliberately exposed pipes, wirings, etc. It features some excellent views of Paris from its top floor.

One of the walkways in the Centre Pompidou. You can get an idea of what the view is like -- that's Sacre Coeur off to the left. 

We decided to go here on a bit of a whim -- it was our last day in Paris, the weather wasn't very good, and nobody was feeling up to a big adventure. So, we decided to try the Centre Pompidou. It just so happened that admission was free that day (as it usually is the first Sunday of the month), so we weren't sure if that would mean crowds would be terrible. We decided to just go scope it out and if the crowds seemed too much, we'd figure something else out.

The museum opened at 11 and we got there around noon. Much to our surprise, we were able to walk right up and clear the security checkpoint at the entrance in a matter of minutes. No waiting, no hassle. We dropped off bags and got an audio guide and then entered the museum itself (the museum entrance is not the same as the building's entrance). Again, no hassle getting in; we just walked right past the ticket checkers (who on this day mostly seemed to be serving as crowd control since no one had tickets to be checked).

We started all the way at the top and from there worked our way down. There were a few special exhibitions that weren't free and so we weren't able to see them, but as we soon found out the permanent collections were more than enough for us. We also noticed shortly after we reached the top that we could see a considerable queue forming to enter the building. It appeared that somehow, unwittingly, we had timed our visit perfectly, since we would have been waiting in the rain with everyone else if we had arrived 30 minutes later.

An installation in the 1960s - present part of the museum. 

The museum itself was not the best modern art museum I've seen (The MoMA in New York definitely wins that prize in my book), but, for having not paid anything to enter, all of us were quite pleased with what we got out of the visit. One thing I really appreciated was that extended painting descriptions were in English as well as French, something I hadn't seen much of at the other French art museums. That helped make the experience much richer. Additionally, as previously mentioned, the permanent collections should be more than enough to satisfy the casual museum-goer. They feature two floors, one dating up to the 1950s and the other covering from the 1960s to the modern era. We ended up breezing through the later period because we were pretty tired, but there was a TON to see and experience in that area, particularly because the exhibits tended to require a little more thought to figure out what the artist's intent was. I would love to return at some point in time and give that floor its proper due.

We spent about three hours in total at the museum, and upon leaving not only was the queue to get in the building impressively long, but they were now also stopping people from entering the museum itself in an effort to thin the crowds out. So, if you ever want to visit the Centre Pompidou on a free Sunday, heed my advice: get there by noon!

We decided against Notre Dame this day -- didn't feel like baking in the hot sun waiting to get in!

Managing the high season: One of our biggest fears in heading to Paris in July was that everything would be so saturated with tourists it wouldn't be any fun. This trip was the family's first time touristing in summer (previous trips were in spring and fall, and I myself had never really traveled Europe in mid-summer). Guidebooks warned us of long lines and waits, and constantly implored us to get places early to avoid the crowds. But getting up and out the door by 8 a.m. didn't seem like much of a vacation to us. So we usually rolled out the door around 10, 10:30, ready to roll the dice.

In the end, crowds really didn't affect that much of the trip (with the exception of Musée d'Orsay, see below). There were certainly lines that I didn't experience the last time I was in Paris (to get into Notre Dame, for example, or a quite impressive line to enter the Louvre). But, in general, once we got into some place, things were just fine. We had to wait maybe 10 minutes to get into Notre Dame, but once inside, there was enough space to comfortably explore. Our wait to get into the Louvre was a bit longer, probably 20-30 minutes, but the museum is so huge that once inside, separating ourselves from the masses wasn't so difficult. Of course, particularly famous pieces like the Mona Lisa are a nightmare, but the museum itself I found perfectly enjoyable to walk through. We also never had trouble getting a table at a restaurant.

Some of this may have been dumb luck (such as the Centre Pompidou), and I'm guessing things are worse the deeper into July you get. Still, I think we all went in fearing the worst and came out thinking that it really wasn't so bad.

Disappointments

Sainte-Chapelle: This church was not even on my radar the first time I visited Paris, so when I heard that there was a lovely little church near Notre Dame with an absolutely incredible collection of original, 13th-century stained glass windows, I was excited to see it and have the chance to do something I hadn't done before. Sadly, I don't know that it lived up to the hype.

Inside Sainte-Chapelle

Sainte-Chapelle is a medieval Gothic church that was completed in 1248. Today it features 15 different stained glass windows, most of whose panels are original, as well as a rose window. Much of what you read about the church describes it as a must-see, saying that the windows are the finest you'll see anywhere.

We arrived in the late morning, and I was worried about crowds, since to get into the church you must first clear a security checkpoint (because the church itself is located inside the premises for France's Supreme Court. However, getting in was relatively painless. Unlike most of France's churches, you do have to pay to enter Sainte-Chapelle. And for a church, it's not cheap -- the non-reduced price is 8,50eur for an adult. But, we figured it'd be worth it based on all the hype.

You enter the church via the lower level, which features some stained glass but nothing particularly remarkable. We didn't visit on a very sunny day, so there wasn't a lot of natural light streaming in, and that made the lower level fairly dim.

A close-up of the windows

A close-up of the windows

We climbed some precarious stairs to reach the upper chapel, where the windows were. We exited the stairway and found ourselves in a surprisingly small space surrounded by windows and joined by many other tourists (it was a bit crowded, but not too bad). Much to our dismay, however, two of the windows were covered up for renovation, as was the rose window. Moreover it just didn't feel as... grand as we expected. Maybe if the weather had been better (i.e., more sunlight) the effect would have been greater. But basically, we stood in a small chapel, looked at some pretty windows for about 15 minutes and read some of the accompanying information, and then we were on our way. We came out feeling like Sainte-Chapelle was really not worth the money -- and it wasn't cheap! If they cut the price down a few Euros, maybe. But 8,50 is absurd, especially when not all windows are visible.

Musée d'Orsay: I need to qualify this one immediately, because I'm sure many people are wondering how on earth this museum could be considered a disappointment -- let me explain.

The museum itself is fabulous. There is a ton to see, including many, many wonderful pieces from the masters of impressionism. The setting itself is also intersting, since it's located in what used to be a railway station, giving the main hall of the museum a very open, airy feel.

Looking out over the main hall

Here's what I didn't like: lines. The line to get in was impressively long, and made that much more unpleasant by the rainy weather. I realize that this isn't the museum's fault, it's high season, we should buy tickets in advance, etc. (for what it's worth we didn't have access to a printer and it wasn't clear to me if mobile tickets were really a thing). Still, museums can be quite tiring, and it's a shame to have to first wait in line for 20 minutes before you enter, meaning you're already a little fatigued starting out.

Lines didn't stop at the door, however. At the time, the museum was hosting a special exhibition on Van Gogh and societal responses to his artwork at the time he was painting ("Van Gogh / Artaud. The Man Suicided by Society"). Sounds cool enough, but of course, since it's Van Gogh, it was a very popular exhibition. After having stood in line just to enter the museum, the prospect of standing in yet another lengthy line to see an exhibit was utterly unappealing. So we took time to see other parts of the museum, but I'm quite disappointed not to have seen the Van Gogh exhibit. The museum is supposed to have an excellent permanent collection of his works, but we weren't able to see any of them since all had been moved to the temporary exhibit. Oh well. Next time, perhaps.