DM and MM's Italy/France 2012 Diary

Day 21 - Louvre

Friday, 18 May, 2012

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We are sitting in Casa Festa, which is a pizza and pasta place right next door to where we're staying. We are having an easy and hopefully quick dinner so we can get an early night tonight before getting up early tomorrow for our train trip to Giverny. M. has ordered a Margherita pizza and I am going to try a Christiano, which has goat cheese, ham, olives, onions, and egg. Almost half the pizzas on the menu here have egg on them. I think the owners are Italian, but it's not entirely clear.

We rose very late this morning and spent the rest of the morning doing a load of laundry in the machines in the hallway outside our apartment. I haven't described the place we're staying in yet. From the street there is a big green wooden door with access via a numerical keypad. Inside is a courtyard with 36 mailboxes. There are three sets of stairs leading off the courtyard. Up staircase B on the first floor is a door, labelled number one. This is the main door to which we have a key. Inside this door is a small hallway with four doors leading off it. One is ours, for which we have another key, and behind it is our kitchen, lounge, bedroom, and bathroom. A second door is we think a second apartment which is rented out to visitors like ours. A third is the apartment of the guy who owns the place. The fourth door opens to a tiny laundry with just a washing machine and dryer inside. We think the guy has converted one very large apartment into a smaller one for himself and two even smaller ones for renting out.

Across the street from our place, next door to Chez Katy, is a book store which I went into one morning while M. was getting a coffee from Claus. It turned out to be for esoteric books, with topics like mysticism, alchemy, the Tarot, Atlantis, and so on. One book I picked up was a guide to the Voynich Manuscript, complete with coloured pages reproducing that mysterious book, but the text was alas in French. I found one book in English in the shop, a very old leather bound edition of Robert Boyle's The Sceptical Chemyst. I was almost going to buy it until I saw the price was €190.

La Couleur des Blés
Picking up baguettes from La Couleur des Blés

By the time our laundry was done, it was almost 13:00. We left and picked up some portable lunch from the boulangerie just down the street, La Couleur des Blés. M. got a "tradition", a sort of short baguette, while I got a sandwich with ham, cheese, salad, and slices of egg on it. It was excellent. M. had half her bread and put the rest in a bag for later. We ate them as we walked to the Louvre, but we are so close to the museum that we stopped to look around a small artisan market set up in a square across Rue de Rivoli. It appeared to be a special short term market, not a regular thing. The stalls were quite interesting, with lots of hand made things, stuff like jewellery, leather work, soaps and incense, bags, scarves, sandals, fingernail artists, temporary tattoos, and also food stalls like a sausage maker, dried fruit, pastries and doughnuts, nougat in giant rounds like enormous cheeses, and a Spanish/Mexican place cooking up an enormous paella and making tacos.

Dried fruit
Dried fruit in the market

After finishing or lunch here, we walked up to the Carrousel du Louvre, an underground shopping mall with an entrance on the side of the Louvre palace itself. Kristyn's partner Steve had told us the secret to entering the Louvre was to go past the Apple store here and use the underground entrance, which few people know about. We did this, but found even here a significant queue of people waiting to get into the great museum. It was moving rapidly though, and we quickly realised it was only a security check, which let us into a long corridor connecting the shopping mall to the entry area underneath the glass pyramid, where we had to queue again with everyone else to buy tickets. Steve had said there were three secret ticket machines near the Apple store that nobody ever used, but they must have been so secret that we didn't manage to find them.

Louvre Lobby
Entrance lobby of the Louvre

So we queued to buy tickets at a machine, which took about ten minutes, then checked our jackets into one of the multiple cloakrooms. When the woman patted the pockets of my jacket she asked if any of the lumps in them was a wallet. I pulled out my French phrasebook, which was fine, and M.'s small umbrella, which the woman insisted on removing and checking in separately to an umbrella slot on the wall. The coathanger racks were motorised ones like you see in some dry cleaners, and they were handling a lot of stuff. A woman in the line before us was having a mild sort of argument with one of the cloakroom ladies, saying that a coat she'd been given back wasn't hers and complaining about not getting her own coat.

Feeling lighter after leaving our stuff, we entered the Richelieu wing of the museum, determined to see the ancient Assyrian and Babylonian stuff first. To get there we had to pass through one of the large sculpture courts (Cour Puget), which distracted us with the amazing marble sculptures. These were by French sculptors of the 18th or 19th centuries, but mostly of classical subjects or at least in the classical style. From there we went into the Mesopotamian section, where one of the first things we saw was the Code of Hammurabi. The actual stone on which is carved the oldest known set of laws, dating from almost 4000 years ago. And unlike the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum, this is far from the biggest attraction in the Louvre, so there was hardly anyone looking at it. In fact, the entire Middle Eastern antiquities section was relatively empty and so for the first part of our visit the Louvre didn't feel much different to any other museum in terms of visitor numbers.

Code of Hammurabi
Code of Hammurabi, inscribed on a stela

We worked our way through most if not all of the rooms of the Mesopotamian, Assyrian, and Sumerian antiquities. At one point we turned a corner and I was stunned to see a tiled relief sculpture of a lion rampant, painted in blue and yellow. This was one of the animals from the Ishtar Gate. As part of the same art project in school for which I studied Brâncuși's Bird in Space, I also did a section on this very sculpture! The blow-away stuff, however, was enormous stone sculptures of lammasu, winged lions with human faces. The first giant lions we saw were already impressively big, but then we turned into another room and were staggered by sculptures about four metres tall.

Ishtar Lion detail
Lion from the Ishtar Gate

Another impossibly immense thing was utterly jaw-dropping when we entered the room; it was a massive pillar with carved scrolls as decorations, topped about three metres off the floor by two enormous lions, between which was a hugely thick beam of wood, about a metre and a half square in cross section, above which was a second such beam at right angles, laid across it and the top of the two giant lions. And then we looked at the explanatory sign which said this was just the capital which sat on top of a stone column, one of roughly a hundred identical columns and capitals which made up the Apadana Palace of Darius I, king of the Achaemenid Empire, at Persepolis. The thought of hundreds of these massive things up on columns supporting the roof of a vast palace was simply staggering.

Capital from Apadana Palace
Column capital from Apadana Palace

The Middle Eastern section done, we moved on to the Egyptian antiquities. This is the section of the Louvre started by Jean-François Champollion himself, the guy who decoded Egyptian hieroglyphics. To get there we had to traverse through part of the Greek antiquities, which was mostly ceramics: vases, urns, pots, plates, and so on. The start of the Egyptian section was marked by two sphinxes guarding the doorway to the first room. The collection spanned two floors of the Sully wing of the museum and included enormous numbers of statues, figurines, ushabti, sarcophagi, wood carvings, and so on. There were mummies of various animals: cats, falcons, baboons, and even a crocodile. There was a mummy of a human, which was so crowded around with people that it was actually impossible to get closer than about three people deep away from it.

Horus, Osiris, Isis
Gold statuettes of Horus, Osiris, and Isis

The Egyptian section was generally much more crowded than the Middle Eastern antiquities, which I guess says something about the relative popularity of these ancient civilisations. The prize find here was an actual Book of the Dead, almost complete and rolled out spanning about 20 metres of corridor. At first I didn't know what it was, but I identified it successfully after seeing an illustration of Anubis weighing someone's heart on a balance, with a giant crocodile ready nearby to eat the soul of the departed if judged unworthy of moving on to the afterlife.

Weighing of the heart
Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead

After finishing the extensive Egyptian collection, the time was about 16:30 and we needed a break. We exited via the shortest route, which happened to take us through the medieval foundation part of the Louvre palace. The Louvre was built on the site of a medieval castle, and part of it has been excavated underneath the current building. You can walk around the exposed donjon of the castle and past the old moat, the original stonework now all underground.

We emerged from the museum, leaving our jackets checked in to the cloakroom to avoid the queues both in getting them back and then checking them in again. Besides, the weather outside was pleasant and mild, so we didn't miss them. We decided to go look for a cafe that M.'s dad had recommended to us for the amazing hot chocolate he'd had there. We were thinking it might possibly be more like the incredibly thick and dark one M. had in Venice than the weak milky ones we've been getting here. The address was 201 Rue St Honoré, on the street parallel to Rue de Rivoli. We walked across to the right street and then looked around until we found the right number. As we approached the number 201, I spotted a Michel Cluizel chocolate shop there, and figured that must be it, it must have a cafe and of course the hot chocolate there would be good. We went in and didn't see any sign of a cafe, it just looked like a shop with display counters of chocolates, but there was a staircase up the back. Guessing there might be tables upstairs, M. asked if we could go upstairs. A lady answered with a puzzled look that no, it was just the shop's office upstairs. Then, figuring they must do take-away hot chocolates, M. asked for one. The lady answered again with a puzzled look that no, they didn't make hot chocolates, it was just a chocolate shop.

So we left the shop and walked back up Rue de Rivoli until we came across an actual cafe, called Cafe Verlet. The ground floor looked full, but there was an upstairs room, which had only a handful of people in it monopolising the window tables overlooking the street. We picked a table further back and ordered a chocolat chaud for me and cappuccino for M. She tasted my hot chocolate and declared it amazing, as it wasn't sweet with sugar. It was milky and somewhat bitter and in fact to my taste it needed a bit of sugar added, which I proceeded to do after M. had taken a few more sips.

Chocolat chaud
Coffee and hot chocolate at Cafe Verlet

By the time we headed back to the Louvre it was almost 17:30. I checked my Louvre map to see where we should go and noticed the opening hours were until 18:00 most days, and 22:00 Wednesdays and Fridays—which is what we were counting on—except public holidays! And Kristyn was telling us that since yesterday was a public holiday, the Friday before the weekend is also taken as a holiday, called the "pont", or bridge. And when the Louvre closes at 18:00, they don't let anyone in the entrance after 17:45, which meant that if we were cut off we couldn't pick up our jackets from the cloakroom! And even if they kept them overnight, we couldn't pick them up in the morning because we were leaving early tomorrow for the train to Giverny, and we might not be able to pick them up tomorrow evening either because we didn't know how late we'd be getting home from our trip. So we rushed a bit to get to the Louvre, but when we arrived it was after 17:45, but thankfully they were still letting people in and selling tickets, so we concluded that the pont must not count as an actual public holiday for the purposes of restricting the late opening hours. The good thing about the late opening is that most tourists are out to dinner and not crowding the museum.

The first thing we did was head towards the Mona Lisa, since we figured we had to see it since we were here. This involved going through a room of Italian sculpture, similar to the French sculpture court in content, with post-Renaissance works in the classical style. Then we passed through some Roman and Greek antiquities, including the amazing Winged Victory of Samothrace, a statue of Nike in a very dynamic pose, her body leaning forward as if into the wind, with wings trailing behind.

Winged Victory of Samothrace
Winged Victory of Samothrace

Then we headed upstairs and into the floor of the Denon wing full of Italian paintings. It was hard to walk past so many amazing paintings quickly. We saw more works by Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese, and other artists we'd feasted on in Venice, as well as some by Botticelli, Leonardo, and dozens of lesser names. Eventually we reached the Mona Lisa room and found the famous painting surrounded by a dense crowd of people. I knew the painting was not large, but it still looked very small compared to the average size of the other works in the room and nearby rooms. It was alone in the middle of a free standing wall in the middle of the room, covered by a huge sheet of thick glass (bullet proof apparently), and roped off so nobody could come closer than about five metres, enforced by a dedicated guard on either side. Half the people crowded around it were taking photos of the painting with their phones. I was glad this was a relatively quiet time in the museum, because I could imagine how impossible this room would be at a peak visitor time of day.

My view of the Mona Lisa
Mona Lisa

As it was, the rest of the room was easily navigable away from the crowd, and it contained some other works which were frankly a lot more impressive, including Veronese's Wedding at Cana. From here we passed through a room of enormous "large format" French paintings, many of which were of Napoleon doing various heroic things, down stairs, and through another gallery of Italian sculptures before exiting the Denon wing and passing through the entry lobby to the Richelieu wing again. In this sculpture gallery we saw the amazing statue of Psyche and Cupid embracing, Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss, by Canova.

Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss
Psyche Revived by Cupid's Kiss

Here we ascended to the first floor, where the royal apartments of Napoleon III are. This series of linked rooms is maintained in the condition and with the furnishings they had during Napoleon's residence. This section was mind boggling, with fantastically rich decorations in enormous, tall-ceilinged rooms festooned with vast chandeliers. The Grand Salon in particular was amazing, with enough chairs and tables arranged casually in it to serve as a large restaurant or cafe, all plush and velvety and dark red and gold. Then there was the small dining room, which was impressive enough, then the grand dining room, with a long table set for about eighty people with dozens of huge silver centrepieces on the table.

Napoleon III Sitting Room
Sitting room in the royal apartments of Napoleon III

By the time we'd done with the Napoleon apartments, it was about 19:00 and we were tired and hungry. So we took a quick tour through some rooms that were on the way to the exit, which took in some decorative arts objects such as tableware, furniture, and so on. We emerged into the second large open sculpture court, the Cour Marly, and admired some of those works before heading out to the lobby. We picked up our jackets at the cloakroom, though we had a similar incident to the woman we'd seen earlier when the lady tried to hand M. a plain red cotton jacket. M. said it wasn't hers and the woman went back to the rack, emerging a minute later with M.'s brown leather jacket. The woman, seeing the difference between what she'd initially retrieved and the nice leather jacket, apologised profusely for bringing the wrong item.

We walked the short distance back to our apartment and after just a few minutes to freshen up we went out for dinner. We went to Casa Festa, an Italian place right next door; in fact it has the same street address as our apartment. We'd seen it several times and we felt like a simple dinner with the vege pizza options making an easy choice for M. She ordered a Margherita while I got the Christiano described at the top of today's entry. When the owner (I think it was the owner) delivered the pizzas, he placed a bottle of olive oil with chilies infused in it on the table. I planned to use it but only after eating a few slices of my pizza first. But he took the bottle away again soon after, before I could use it. I commented to M. that I thought the owner was actually Italian since I heard him speaking some Italian to other waiters. So I grabbed his attention and asked, "Vorrei il olio, per favore." He confirmed, "olio?" gesturing at the bottles of oil on the sideboard, and I said, "sì". When he delivered one I said "Grazie" and he responded without thinking with "Prego". The chili oil was very spicy and gave a good kick to the pizza. Overall it was okay, but the crust was not as nice and crispy as a good pizza from Rome. And the egg, which looked like a fresh egg simply cracked into the middle of the pizza before it was baked, was a bit odd.

Pizzas at Casa Festa
Pizzas at Casa Festa

We declined dessert since I still had plenty of sweets from Jan back at the apartment. When we left it was raining, but since we only had to dash about three metres to our own front door it wasn't so bad. We turned in early and set an alarm for 07:00 to get up for our trip to Giverny tomorrow.

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