Tuesday, March 1, 2011

the 1e arrondissement—le louvre

Disclaimer: This post goes completely against all that is good and relaxed and the laissez-faire method of discovering of Paris. It is the beginning of a 20 post series in which I will try to carry out a methodical exploration of each of the arrondissements. This, my friends, is no flânarie, but hopefully might be helpful to those interested in the more typical attractions of the city.Herreeee we go!

If a single word could sum up the first, it would have to be "wealthy". This quartier is wealthy in every aspect: rich in history, rich in architecture, rich in art, rich in glitzy stores filled with rich customers. For those of you unfamilliar with the layout of Paris, this map shows how the arrondissements begin at the center and sprial outwards like the shell of a giant escargot

And there is the first, smack dab in the center. It's area is less than a square mile, but it is the home to so many fascinating things that it is honestly impossible to see them all in one day. It is even more impossible when said day features torrential rain. However, this is what we did manage to enjoy:

I started the day at St. Chapelle with Lucy and Josh. St. Chapelle is located on the Isle de la Cité and was built my Louis IX in the 13th century to house relics of the Passion. From the outside, it is a gorgeous example of vaulting Gothic architecture, but the real gem lies on the inside in the upper chapel. You enter through the bottom chapel, with a low ceiling adorned with lovely frescoes featuring blue and gold patterns of fleurs de lis. The bottom floor beautiful, but it is nothing compared to what lies just above the fleurs de lis.

Even though I have seen the upper level once before, my jaw still dropped to the intricately tiled floor when I climbed the narrow, spiral staircase to the upper chapel. The upper level is, as Lucy accurately observed, an enormous kaleidoscope. The feeling of immense space and color when you enter the chapel is breath-taking, and the impossibly tall stained-glass windows shoot up to the sky to a vaulted ceiling that seems to gently float above the vast glittering mosaic. Every inch of the chapel is decorated with meticulous care, and I had to take a minute to sit down and absorb it all. The room features 15 huge windows that, in total, depict 1113 scenes from the Old and New Testament. Looking around me, I decided St. Chapelle is like the painting style pointillism, but in reverse. In pointillism, paintings are composed of tiny dots. Up close, it is impossible to see the image but as you move away, you eyes can see the whole picture. In this case however, if you move way back, the individual images blur and you are left with only awe. Do not miss this. Also, once you have gotten your fill the beauty, take a seat and watch people's faces when they emerge from the stairwell—a little comedic relief in the midst of all that splendor. 

Next we wandered up to the western tip of the island, stepping into an interesting art gallery at Place Dauphine, and made our way down to a small grassy park called Square du Vert Galant. It is peaceful, picturesque, and offers charming views of the right and left bank with old, weather-worn boats moored along the quais. Great place for reading, relaxing, or picnicking.

At this point, Lucy left us and Josh and I moved on to a romanesque chuch called St. Germain l'Auxerrois. This church used to be the parish of kings of France, and had additions over the centuries which results in the appearance of several different styles of architecture. I was very taken by a few aspects of this church:
  1. So many arches. They overlap each other again and again and when you move to look from different angles, they delicately frame the gleaming stained-glass windows in countless ways.
  2. The MASSIVE organ. I want to hear it.
  3. A interesting combination of wide-open space accompanied by a cozy, comforting smell that I can describe only as a mixture of candles and old, leather-bound books.
**The Lourve is obviously crucial to the 1st arrondissement (hence the name of the first arrondissement) but due to its overwhelming size, and the fact that we are studying there over several months, I had to sidestep it for now. Sorry Louvre, more on you later**

Next, we wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries. The sky was shifting moodily between foreboding clouds and blissful sunshine as we made our way to the Musée de l'Orangerie. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect with this museum. We started off on the bottom floor which hosts a nice collection of Renoirs and Cézannes, their soft pastel colors and airy brushstrokes standing out sharply against the austere, modern décor. Moving to the top floor, we stepped through a strange hallway into a spacious, oval room. Waterlilies. Waterlilies everywhere. Without really planning on it, we had stumbled upon two rooms specifically built to house eight of the mammoth waterlily murals painted by Monet. The ceilings of the rooms allow diffused, natural light to gleam down on the paintings as Monet had intended them to be displayed. The effect is a lovely, ghostly luminescence reminiscent of late dawn or early dusk. 

Next was the Place Vendôme in the northwestern corner of the 1st. This square is one of the richest squares in the world and was filled with sleek cars and the glittering storefronts of Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Chanel, and the Paris Ritz. Jimmy Choos clicked along the sidewalk and people flickered in and out of the doors with the rustling of golden furs and sleek black umbrellas. Everything about the place whispered for me to keep move along. As rain was now falling in thick, silvery sheets, Josh and I parted ways and I paid quick visits to le Jardin du Palais Royal, St. Eustache, and La Comedie Francaise on the way back towards the Seine. La Comedie Francaise is a celebrated theater in Paris that hosts its own troop of actors and performs only the 'classics'. For those of you in Paris, tickets are free for people under the age of 28 on the first Monday of every month. This month, we have the exciting opportunity of seeing Shakespeare performed in French. Impossible to understand? Perhaps. Worth the 0 euros? Definitely. 

A few final notes on the 1st:
  1. Whatever you do, avoid “Les Halles”. This is a sprawling, mystifying area near la Bourse that is part enormous shopping center, part bizarre sculpture park, part monstrous metro/RER hub, part underground spiderweb of tunnels that is impossible to escape. There are vast crowds, there are signs that lead you in circles, there are strange people that lurk about wearing sunglasses indoors. It is absolutely my worst nightmare, but perhaps I caught it on a bad day. If someone has a positive experience, or finds a path that goes straight through without diving into its mysterious and frighting depths, please pass it on.
  2. Despite the evil that emanated from les Halles, there were some cheap food stands and cafés on the periphery that were wafting very, very good smells.
  3. I can't vouch for this tip personally yet, but please go to Angelina Tea Room and Café on 226 Rue de Rivoli for hot chocolate and a Mont-Blanc. You may have a heart-attack afterward, but I have reason to believe that it may just be worth it. Very worth it.