Monday morning dawned cool and gray, but the weather wouldn’t affect our plans for the morning, because we had reserved a tour of the Louvre. However, we hoped the skies would clear by early evening as we had dinner reservations at Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower and were looking forward to a panoramic view of Paris.
Breakfast at the Hôtel Duminy-Vendôme was on the bottom floor in a former cellar. Wine cellar, perhaps? Unlikely, since I had read the building was once a bank, and it had one of the smallest elevators I have ever been in. Our server led us to a quiet corner in the delightfully decorated room with a vaulted roof. I took in the soothing black-and-white decor while Dave perused the breakfast buffet. Mindful of the time, we ate, then left to meet our guide at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel.
As we had done in Versailles, we opted to “skip the line” in favor of a guided tour of the museum, a good decision considering the size of the Louvre and all it has to offer. Our feisty French guide was organized, personable, and knowledgeable in both art and history, so she had no trouble keeping her small group entertained and engaged for the hour-and-a-half tour. I had my list of must-sees, even though I was still suffering from a slight case of visual overload after our visit the day before to the Château de Versailles.
Approaching the museum, I immediately zeroed in on I.M. Pei’s Pyramid, a seventy-one-foot-tall, interlinked steel structure sheathed in reflective, tempered glass—a masterpiece of design. Once inside, I, of course, had to photograph Pei’s self-supporting helical staircase that curls around and down from street level to the subterranean courtyard. The stair treads are of white stone with polished metal supports and the balustrade of clear glass and stainless steel. The staircase curves around an elevator that disappears completely once it has descended. Reluctantly, I left the staircase, sorry I didn’t have the chance to see the elevator in operation, and caught up to the tour. But I’ve since watched it in operation on YouTube.
We began our tour on the lower ground floor. Many people aren’t aware that beneath the world’s most-visited museum lies the ruins of a once magnificent medieval fortress constructed in 1190 AD. During the forty-three-year reign of Philippe Auguste (1180–1223), a rampart was built around Paris, then Europe’s biggest city. To protect the capital from the Anglo-Norman threat, the king reinforced his defenses with a fortress built on the banks of the Seine. The fortification became known as the Louvre. The castle was a fortress but not a royal palace, our guide was quick to point out. At the time, the monarch’s Parisian home was the Palais de la Cité. The fortress Philippe had built was an arsenal with a moat, bastions, and defensive towers. In the center stood the massive cylindrical keep, the Grosse Tour, a fortified tower within the fortress walls, usually the last place of refuge when defending the castle. In 1527 the medieval keep was demolished to make way for a Renaissance palace. Fascinated by this bit of history, I hung back to examine more closely the ruins of the moat and the model of the original castle, which was on display.
On the ground floor, I took my time viewing the Arts of Africa exhibition, my interest springing from the years I had lived on the continent. And I spent quite some time photographing and enjoying Michelangelo’s Captive.
On the first floor, while Dave was absorbed in checking out The Winged Victory of Samothrace, I was busy photographing the Napoleon III Apartments. He approached to tell me our guide was giving a brief history of the Mona Lisa. I broke from snapping photos of Napoleon’s opulent furnishings for my first glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece. I had to wait for the hordes of tourists to clear from my viewfinder before I could take a picture.
On the second floor, Dave strolled from one painting to the next. My attention, however, was fixed on one, Self-Portrait by Albrecht Dürer, created at the age of twenty-two. Dürer was born in Nuremberg, but his parents were Hungarian. Not only was he a painter, but also an engraver, and his attention to small details was what drew me to his work. During his lifetime he produced numerous drawings in silverpoint, chalk, or charcoal. However, in his later years, he produced little as an artist and concentrated on authoring two books, one on geometry and perspective and the other on proportion and fortification. They were published in 1525 and 1528 respectively.
Two hours later, we were ready to escape the tourist crowds at the Louvre for a relaxing walk through the Tuileries Garden. We sipped hot chocolate and drank in the tantalizing scent of orange trees in bloom, the citrus plants recently set out after wintering in an orangerie.
In the late afternoon, we made one last stop to see Sainte-Chapelle, a medieval Gothic chapel opened in 1248. It is located near the Palais de la Cité. The interior is eye-catching with its high buttresses, steep, rib-vaulted ceiling, and over six thousand square feet of stained glass windows in deep reds and blues. As we left the Gothic wonder, Dave commented that we had combined tickets, which allowed us access to the Conciergerie, Paris’s oldest prison, where Marie Antoinette and later over two thousand leaders of the Revolution were held for execution. I was told that normally there are no lines, but this wasn’t the case at the security check, so we bypassed the chance to see Marie Antoinette’s cell (not her real cell anyway) and headed to our hotel to change for dinner at the Jules Verne in the Eiffel Tower.
I don’t care for heights and never have, but in the past few years while traveling to many destinations overseas, I’ve done my best to overcome this fear by concentrating on anything, but the ground below. So as we ascended in the Eiffel Tower’s private elevator, I focused on photographing the tower itself, astounded by the engineering feat of building such a massive structure. After the short ascent to the second floor, which is one flight above the highest observation deck, the elevator landed and we were shown to a window seat in the restaurant. We had a breathtaking, panoramic view as the sun set over the City of Lights. I switched off my flash, so as not to disturb the other diners, and snapped at least a dozen photos of the city and several of the Parc du Champ-de-Mars that stretched out below.
We ordered à la carte. For starters, we had lobster in a sabayon broth, and duck liver with fig jelly and brioche. Within the week, we would be eating plenty of fish, so that night we chose meat for dinner—pan-seared beef tournedos with soufflé potatoes and a Périgueux (rich brown) sauce, and saddle of lamb from the spit, artichokes, and a meat sauce. For dessert, a chocolate soufflé and savarin with an armagnac cream. Full, we walked off our meal along the banks of La Seine, then retired for the night. Next week, we board the TGV, France’s high-speed train, to Dijon, where we will rent a car and begin our tour of the Burgundy wine region.
Next week: “Europe 2013: The Burgundy Wine Region.”