DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 19 - Musée d'Orsay

Wednesday, 16 May, 2012

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We are resting for a bit and preparing to go out to meet my acquaintance Kristyn and her partner, who live in Paris. I met her at the Electronic Imaging conference in San Francisco in 2011 because she works for Océ, which had recently been acquired by Canon, so we were part of a team of people from Canon at the conference who all got together for a dinner one night. I told her M. and I were planning a trip to Paris in 2012 and she'd invited us to visit.

Our day started with breakfast of Weetabix, then we emerged into the streets of Paris. M. led us to a cafe across the street from Cafe Des Initiés for a cappuccino. We sat while I typed up some diary, but when the coffee arrived M. declared it so bad it was almost undrinkable. She left half of it and we went walking to our major target for the day, the Musée d'Orsay.

This museum sits in a former railway station on the left bank of the Seine, across and west a bit of the Louvre. To get there, we walked up the side of the Louvre for the first time, finding there was an open pedestrian passage through the building about halfway down. This led us into the interior courtyard, walled on three sides by the great museum and centred around the modern glass pyramid that serves as the main entrance. Although this wasn't our goal for the day, we stopped to take some photos before heading on through another passage in the south side of the building, this one large enough to have a road through it. We followed the traffic through and across the bridge on the Seine, then walked down the left bank until we reached the Musée d'Orsay.

Lady in Red
Courtyard of the Louvre (not our main destination today)

In the courtyard at the front of the museum were large bronze sculptures of animals, a rhino, an elephant, and so on. We didn't stop to look much as we'd woken up late and wanted to make sure we had enough time in the museum before leaving around 16:00 to have time to get ready for our dinner appointment. The queue was almost nonexistent, only a handful of people, so we rushed over to get tickets and enter. Guards searched our bags and we had to walk through metal detectors before even reaching the ticket counters. After buying tickets, we checked our jackets and my camera bag. I left my camera in the bag since there were signs indicating no photography at all inside the museum. (I took a few snaps of things other than the artwork with M.'s compact camera.) Then we entered.

The first thing we did was find some toilets by going down to the lower level. This level consisted of a large open gallery of sculptures, sloping up gently back to the ground level at the far end of the old railway hall. The building itself was spectacular, with wrought iron and glass forming a great semi-cylindrical roof over a vast, open interior space. On the wall over the entrance was an enormous old fashioned railway clock, which added to the amazing feel of the place.

We walked up the sculpture gallery, which consisted mostly of 19th century works that were done in a classical style. They looked like many of the classical Roman sculptures we've seen on this trip, only new and intact. The subjects and themes were often mythological. At the far end, having climbed up the ramp to the ground level, we walked around the periphery of the gallery, which consisted of a series of linked rooms displaying paintings. One of the main themes on this floor was Symbolism, one of the formative art styles leading to Impressionism. The paintings were from the mid to late 19th century and although most were quite realistic depictions, they displayed exploratory use of brighter colours than older art styles, capturing plays of light on objects. You could see the development towards a more impressionistic style.

Musée d'Orsay
Main sculpture gallery at Musée d'Orsay

After looking at all of this floor, we headed straight up to level 5, which was where the Impressionist collection was. This is possibly the best single collection of Impressionist art in the world. It began with the foundations of the style, a room containing works by many of the great names: Monet, Degas, Manet, Sisley, and others, showing early paintings which were essentially the Symbolism style. In some of them a distinct Japanese influence was evident, which was interesting because we knew about the link between imported Japanese prints and the development of Impressionism.

The style developed through the next couple of rooms until we reached the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, where things really took off. Here was the full blown Impressionist style, with dozens of works that we knew. It was amazing walking through this part of the museum, into room after room, seeing one painting and thinking, "Ooh, that famous painting", and then seeing what was on the wall next to it and thinking, "Oh, and that one! And that one! And that one!" The following rooms were similar, showing the development of the style over the succeeding years.

Towards the end we were getting hungry, so decided to skip the last couple of rooms on the floor and head to the cafe for lunch. It was right after the last room of paintings and was in a space dominated by another huge railway clock facing out of the building, with a glass face so that you could see through it. There had been a matching clock at the entrance to the fifth floor where the Impressionist collection had begun, and dozens of people stood admiring either the clock itself, the view through the glass face, or the view further back of the people silhouetted against the reversed clock face.

Musée d'Orsay clock
Old railway clock in Musée d'Orsay

There was a small queue for seating in the cafe, so we had to wait a few minutes for a table. We were lucky to be after the lunch rush, I think. While waiting, M. spied the giant eclairs in a display, with icing in three colours, light and dark brown, and bright (Kermit the Frog) green. These turned out to be coffee, chocolate, and pistachio flavours of what the menu called "eclair MAXI". M. ordered one of the coffee ones and a cappuccino, while I ordered the salade gourmande with sliced duck breast, green beans, cos lettuce, and a poached egg. It came with a tangy, mustardy dressing and was very good, although the waiter first delivered a Caesar salad instead and pulled it away just as I was starting to go at it with a fork (since I didn't pay too much attention to what it looked like before digging in). This wasn't the last error either, as M.'s cappuccino failed to arrive and she ordered it again, thinking it must have been missed in our attempt at ordering in French. One arrived, but then at the end of the meal there were two cappuccinos on our bill! We had to ask for one to be take off, and the waiter vanished with the bill, only to not return for several minutes until we asked for the bill again. Despite this, the food was good and refreshed us for a second pass at the paintings.

Eclair MAXI
Eclair MAXI at Musée d'Orsay cafe

Returning to the Impressionist gallery, we ended with the late works of the period, which included many of the more famous pieces by Monet: haystacks, his Japanese bridge, water lilies. Overall it was a stunning collection of art. And we weren't done yet. Levels four and three were small intermediate floors containing some Art Nouveau works of furniture design and ornaments mostly, with a few paintings thrown in. Level two was another large floor, with another sculpture gallery containing some Rodins amongst others, but also containing works of Post-Impressionism. These included several works by van Gogh including one of his famous self portraits, and this gallery was even more crowded with people than the Impressionist galleries upstairs.

It was approaching 16:00 by now, so we skipped the second half of level two so we had enough time to walk home, shower, and prepare for dinner. Cryptically, the museum had no level one at all that we could determine. We'd seen all of the most interesting stuff to us, so overall it was a great visit, and a really fantastic museum. We walked home across the bridge and through the Louvre courtyard again, making it in right around 17:00. We showered and changed, then headed out to catch the Metro to Bastille.

We emerged on a street which was bustling with evening activity, people rushing to and fro, and numerous shops and restaurants doing business in what seemed a vibrant neighbourhood in which lots of different ethnicities mingled. As we walked up towards Rue Sainte-Sabin, we passed a Lebanese, Thai, Italian, Chinese, and Mexican restaurant in one small stretch of street. We passed into a quieter residential street and found Kristyn's entry door and went in with the door code. The courtyard inside was long and straight, heading inwards from the street. Their place was towards the back and they saw us approach through their panoramic window.

Kristyn introduced us to her partner Steve, and I introduced M. Then we left to take a walk through the neighbourhood and grab a drink before dinner. The plan had originally been to have a drink outside on their patio, but the weather was still nastily cold, so they elected for an indoor option instead. We walked for some time, with Steve leading the way. Since I didn't have to keep track of where we were, I quickly became lost, but I think we were heading generally north or north-westish. Steve found a place where he negotiated with a waiter for us to have a table for half an hour. Kristyn said one weird thing about Paris is that it's hard to tell what places were restaurants and what were wine bars and what were cafes, and they all had different rules for what you were allowed to do in terms of having a table for a drink or ordering a meal or getting beer versus wine or whatever. For example, this place looked like a wine bar, and she was surprised to find they had beer as well.

Steve chose a glass of white wine, Kristyn grabbed a cider, which sounded appealing to me as well so I also got one. M. wanted a light fruity red, and Steve asked the waiter to recommend something. The waiter replied in French but I recognised the words "Pinot noir", and Steve translated the rest as "I have just the thing." It turned out to be a wine not even on the wine list, but simply grabbed from a selection sitting on a shelf near the back. M. said it was nice. The cider was interesting: not very sweet, dry and acidic, and with a bit of a dusty, earthy aftertaste. We chatted about all sorts of things, our trip so far, how we were enjoying Paris, how strange France was, the new French President being sworn in, what we all do on our holidays.

Grand mezze, Soya
Grand mezze plate at Soya restaurant

After the drinks, we walked a bit further and arrived at Soya restaurant right on our reservation time of 20:30. This was a vegetarian place which they recommended highly. The menu was interesting, with many of the dishes simply things like "plat du jour" or "entree du jour" or "soup du jour". We looked for a blackboard with the daily specials, but found none. The waiter had to come over and describe all of the numerous specials to us, which took several minutes. Steve had the soup and a plat du jour, which was something with tempura carrots and several other things. Kristyn ordered two entrees, having one for her main meal. I ordered hoummos for M. and me to share as an entree, then a "grand mezze" for my main, which included more hoummos, beetroot dip, tahini, tabouli, some green salad, eggplant, zucchini, and some slices of a mild feta-like cheese, while M. got a quinoa couscous which came with fried crumbed tofu, raisin confit, and a small bowl of what looked like a vegetable stew. To accompany this we chose a bottle of rosé wine from Provence, on Steve's recommendation. It was all really good. We were so full we declined to have any desserts and had to walk off the meal instead.

Evening Stroll along Canal St-Martin
Walking along Canal Saint-Martin at night

Kristyn and Steve walked with us, taking us back to the Seine via the grassy boulevarde which covered the subterranean part of Canal Saint-Martin, then along the exposed part of the canal. We turned right to walk west along the Seine and then they left us at the first bridge across to Île Saint Louis, saying we should walk back home via the islands as they were more picturesque. They turned inland to a Metro stop, while we continued walking, crossing to Île Saint Louis, then to Île de la Cité. We arrived close to midnight and saw Notre Dame all lit up. I took a few photos of the rear of the cathedral, but when we walked to the front we saw all of the lights go off! A check of the time showed they must switch the floodlights off right on midnight. A few minutes more walking brought us home, where we crashed into bed.

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