Paris: The Arts & Smarts Tour Continued

His reasons were his own. He only wished he knew what they were.
- Irwin Shaw,
The Top of the Hill

Done with lunch, feet and legs rested a bit - though not enough - and spirits somewhat restored, I walked on down along the Seine and crossed the pedestrians-only Pont des Arts to the enormous complex of the Louvre - the biggest building in Paris, the biggest palace in Europe, no doubt the most famous art museum in the world. As the page said to Richard the Lionhearted, I was unprepared for the size of it.

The inner courtyard itself is big enough for a major sports stadium or a minor infantry battle. The overall effect is very well-balanced and architecturally pleasing, but has been badly damaged by the modern addition of a staggeringly inappropriate - and butt-ugly - glass pyramid, the work of one Monsieur Pei, another candidate for revival of the guillotine.... The French have, on the whole, a history of impeccable esthetic taste, and Paris in particular is arguably the most beautiful city in the world; and yet now and then they have their lapses, and when they do they lapse big-time.

I didn't go in. I love art but something about museums and galleries throws me off. Anyway, the place was obviously too big to offer any hope of seeing more than a tiny bit in one afternoon. And there were the crowds.

Anyway, if you wanted to look at art works, there were plenty of them scattered about the adjoining Jardin de Carrousel and then the Tuileries, free for the looking. True, most of them were pretty lousy - imitation-classic stuff - but what the hell. Not many signs, but you could have fun trying to figure out what they represented.

I think this one, for example, represents a guy vowing never to fly Tourist again.

As I say, the French love dogs and spoil them badly, sometimes leading to awkward situations such as this attractive young lady finds herself in. "For God's sake, you had to go, scratch scratch whine whine, couldn't even let put my damn clothes on first, now what's the holdup?"

And it was here that I finally met someone. She didn't have much to say, but I knew as soon as our eyes met that she wanted me:

"Bon jour. Do you come here often?"

The Tuileries is - are? - an utterly wonderful park, with carefully-tended flower gardens and trees and shady walks; even on a day like this the place was beautiful, and I can only guess what it must be like under a sunny sky.

Beside the pond, there was a guy with a wagonload of little sailboats that you could rent.

Here we are up at the northwest end of the Tuileries, and in the distance the Eiffel Tower can be seen dimly through the fog. It cannot be denied that the French have the biggest National Boner of any nation.

This is the Place de la Concorde, where they used to whack off heads - royalty, royalists, basically anybody who pissed the wrong people off. The obelisk is Egyptian and I assumed that Napoleon ripped it off while he was screwing around down there - just like the little bastard to heist somebody else's National Boner - but later I learned that it was a gift.

This is also the bottom end of the Champs Élysées - a big wide street of a type that can be found in any major city in the world: fancy shops selling expensive things to people with money. Park Avenue, Knightsbridge Road: the names out front are the same and so are the people.

The Place de la Concorde marked the end of my northwesterly wanderings; it was time to head back toward camp. With some trepidation I found a Metro station and bought a ticket and nervously studied the map. It didn't look very complicated, and it wasn't. I felt a great irritation with myself for having let it intimidate me.

Climbing the stairs to that little room, after all that walking, was a major ordeal, and I was certain I'd never be able to make myself go out again; but later on, after a bit of rest, I went back out to get dinner - taking my jacket, this time, though it had warmed up a little.

A short distance away, just a few blocks up the Rue de Lyon, was the Place de la Bastille - the site of the infamous old hellhole prison, totally destroyed after the Revolution and its place marked only by the Bastille monument. (The National Boner before the Eiffel Tower.) The square is a noisy, busy place surrounded by mostly dubious-looking restaurants - one claimed to offer "Tex-Mex"; I shuddered and moved on.

Surrounding the Place de la Bastille, though, spreading over much of the Third and Fourth Arrondissements, is an area called the Marais; which literally means "swamp", which is what the area was before it was drained in the 13th century. It is a very old part of Paris and nowadays a very hip one, home to a considerable Jewish community and also to a lively gay and lesbian scene; a bit like the old Village, really.

Also an excellent place to dine, and not nearly as pricey as you'd expect. In fact the only problem was in deciding among the various almost irresistible alternatives.

This shot was taken from the table where I finally settled, while waiting for the waiter to bring my meal. The Café Les Mousquetaires is located on the Rue St.-Antoine, a busy street of shops and eateries and fine-legged women hurrying homeward and the usual insane French traffic. Directly across the street, though, straight up the little Rue de Birague, I could see the backs of seventeenth-century mansions fronting on the Place des Vosges.

Even a Sonic burger would taste pretty good in surroundings like that; but what I had was utterly superb - blanquette de veau, a kind of veal stew, with carrots and rice, with a pichet of good red Côtes de Rhône to wash it down; the best meal I'd had in France so far, and the first that really lived up to the national culinary reputation.

The waiter, however, utterly failed to measure up to image. By all the most authoritative accounts, he should have been rude, unpleasant, and insulting; but somebody must have forgotten to tell him he was supposed to be an asshole, because he was - like every other French waiter I ever encountered, with one exception - impeccably courteous, pleasant, helpful, and efficient. Even admitted to understanding my French....

Sitting there looking out over the busy street in the fading light, sipping wine and watching the people going by and feeling a fine warmth spreading from inside, I decided that this was more like it. For the first time I thought I was beginning to understand a little of why people from all over the world came to love this country and this city. On impulse I raised my wine glass to an elegantly-dressed old lady who was walking slowly past; she did a decorous double take, raised her eyebrows, and then gave me a brief blinding smile before walking on. Oh, yes, I thought, this is more like it, this is much more like it.

Inspired, I got out my little pocket notebook and composed a poem:

moveable feast
shmoveable feast
question at this point:
do I possess a moveable ass?

The Place des Vosges was established by Henri IV - who else? - in 1609, and the 36 mansions surrounding it were constructed, from brick and stone, to a strict geometric code: the height of the facade of each building is equal to its width, and the height of the roof is equal to half the height of the facade. Yet somehow the overall effect is not monotonous, but very pleasing and attractive.

Along the fronts of the buildings, at street level, run long vaulted arcades, where on a warm weekend street singers sometimes take advantage of the acoustics. A somewhat less pleasant effect is produced by the exhausts of the scooters that are parked under the arcades. Scooters are big in Paris, and throughout Europe; large, powerful scooters, of a kind not sold (as far as I know) in the US - I'm not sure why they are so popular, since they've still got the scooter's lousy handling qualities; I'd far rather have even a small motorcycle, but for whatever reason they're a common sight. You see people in nice clothes aboard the things; I think maybe they're considered more "respectable" than a real bike.

(Henri IV, however, if he were alive today, would ride a motorcycle - a Ducati, I think, or maybe a BMW; a Harley would be too slow and clumsy for his style. I bet he wouldn't be caught dead on a scooter.)

But back to the Glorious Past...this is, as I think I said, a very old part of Paris, and heavy with associations. Like so many of Henri's projects, this one was completed only after his murder, but plenty of other famous people lived on or near the Place des Vosges over the next couple of centuries: from Cardinal Richelieu to Victor Hugo, and Mozart once played here at the age of seven.

Not far away, off the Rue des Francs-Bourgeois - a narrow street lined with 17th-century buildings - is the even older Alée des Arbalétriers, scene of a medieval assassination. On November 23, 1407, Louis d'Orléans, brother to the king (Charles VI, by this time totally and permanently crazy), was on his way home when a gang of hired hit men jumped him in this alley, dragged him off his horse, and hacked and clubbed him to death. His own bodyguards hauled ass - whether from poltroonery or because somebody had made them a better offer, nobody knows - and he was left to expire in the gutter. The murder had been contracted by the Duc de Bourgogne, aka Jean the Fearless, who made to attempt to conceal his involvement but boldly proclaimed what F. Lee Bailey calls the Texas defense: "The son of a bitch had it coming." The result was three decades of internecine conflict between the Burgundians and the Orléanists, aka Armagnacs; just what France needed, something else to tear the country apart....

Today the little alley is still a creepy place, and - particularly at dusk - it is easy to imagine this as the scene of bloody murder and violent death. It is also, I am told, an excellent example of a medieval Paris street, with big paving stones and overhanging buildings; but all I could think about was its history, and I snapped a couple of photos and got the hell out of there.

Back at the hotel once again, I thought briefly of going out to check out the legendary Paris night life; but I was tired and my legs were killing me, and anyway I didn't really have the money for that sort of thing. I turned on the TV and watched a bit, trying to understand the weather forecast - it didn't look promising - and then switched the tiny set off and went to bed, thinking, one more day.

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