I'd like to refer to this day in Paris as our "day of culture," not to suggest that the other days weren't incredible cultural experiences, but this particular day was packed with incredible, priceless artistic adventures. Let's get started!
Our first stop was the Musée d'Orsay, which opens daily from 9:30 am to 6 pm (9:45 pm on Thursdays), and is closed on Mondays. We arrived close to 10 am because we had some delays on the Metro and had to change course because of a temporarily closed line on the weekend. We still lucked out with a relatively short security line which expanded exponentially by the time we left the museum around 2:30 pm.
The building was originally Gare d’Orsay Station, constructed in only 2 years for the 1900 Exposition Universelle. It was designed by three famous architects: Lucien Magne, Émile Bénard and Victor Laloux. It served as the end of the line for the railways of southwestern France until 1939, and then became a mail center during World War II. Later, in the 70's it was on the chopping block for demolition. Fast forward to 1986, when it transformed into the beloved museum it is today.
The collection occupies three levels. On the ground floor, there are works from the mid to late 19th century. The middle level features Art Nouveau decorative art and a range of paintings and sculptures from the second half of the 19th century to the early 20th century (including the original plaster of Rodin's Gates of Hell--remember we saw one of the original bronze casts yesterday!), as well as Neo-Impressionist art. The upper level has arguably the world's best collection of Impressionist art.
Our plan was to start from the top and work down, but we checked out a few of the galleries on the ground floor on our way to the back where the escalators are located. I enjoyed many of the massive paintings and a particular sculpture by Ernest Barrias of Mozart as a child tuning his violin.
The collection of Impressionist and Neo-Impressionist art was mind-blowing. I didn't study art history, and I'm certainly not an expert in anything art-related, but I was seriously moved by the phenomenal artwork in this collection. These are truly priceless works of art not only in their worth but in the soul-encompassing quality they possess.
I had heard nothing but rave reviews of Musée d'Orsay prior to my visit, but was even more impressed than I expected. I also knew nothing about Neo-Impressionist art before, and loved seeing the carefully choreographed use of dots and dashes in the paintings. They were remarkable.
We decided to enjoy lunch at Café Campana within the museum, beneath one of the famous giant clocks. There are other cafés and a more formal restaurant at the museum as well, but the timing of our arrival at this café after wrapping up our visit to the top floor filled with Impressionist art coincided with our hunger.
Overall we had a great experience dining here despite the closely packed tables and bustling service. Our server was literally running around and yet managed to be super pleasant and cordial. The food was also delicious.
Mom enjoyed fork tender chicken thighs in a flavorful Basque-style sauce, while I had a well-executed quiche Lorraine with lightly dressed salad to balance it out. We followed it up with a couple cappuccinos for a much needed energy boost to conquer the rest of our day.
Even though the Impressionist artwork is the most sought-after experience at the museum, there are many other notable works on the lower levels, so don't pass over them even if you're on an Impressionist mission.
We particularly loved the Salle des Fêtes and the Van Gogh gallery which includes one of his incredible self portraits.
We spent about 4 ½ hours at the museum, including our lunch break, and still didn't manage to see it all, but had an incredible experience with plans to revisit if a future opportunity arises.
Our day of culture continues at perhaps the world's most famous museum, the Musée du Louvre. Formerly a royal palace, and now the location of some of the world's most priceless art including the Venus de Milo, The Winged Victory of Samothrace, and the Mona Lisa, the Louvre is open daily from 9 am to 6 pm, open late until 9:45 pm on Wednesdays and Fridays, and is closed Tuesdays.
We breezed through security thanks to our Museum Pass. Meanwhile the regular line was long and slow-moving. We visited from 3 pm to 5:30 pm, spending only 2 ½ hours here, but had planned our day well in advance, and knew which galleries we planned to explore. It was also our second trip to the Louvre so we had a good idea of what to expect. This was plenty of time to still see a lot of artwork, even though we barely skimmed the surface of the world's most visited museum and its over 380,000 objects and 35,000 works of art.
Two of the galleries we wanted to visit were actually closed for renovations, so that bought us back some time as well. We spent a solid 20 minutes packed like a can of sardines slowly moving our way up to the front to see the Mona Lisa up close. It's actually a small painting on a huge wall behind bulletproof glass. It may not resonate with many people as much as other works of art do, and yet it's arguably the most famous painting in the world. Part of the reason is not only the painting itself but the history of the painting, including the mystery of the woman's true identity, and the theft of the painting in 1911.
Although I definitely have no regrets waiting to see the painting up close (when in Paris...) I was super annoyed by many of the disrespectful visitors in the crowd who stood up front taking countless selfies. A few of us in the crowd joked about it, but it's really no joking matter. Some of these people were up there for probably 5 or 10 minutes just taking selfies, when there was a HUGE crowd of people waiting for their turn. As we approached the front we encountered a particular self-absorbed woman who was up there probably for at least 10 minutes before we pushed our way up front, and was still snapping selfies when we exited. I took exactly 3 photos of the painting with different levels of zoom when I got to the front, and my mom snapped exactly 3 pictures of me in front of the painting. That is all. We looked at the painting, absorbed the experience of being so close to this infamous piece of art, and then moved on so others could also appreciate it.
At the tail end of our visit, we returned to one of our favorite gallery rooms, room 700 on the 1st level of the Denon wing featuring French paintings, and sat on a bench in front of The Raft of the Medusa by Théodore Géricault to take a short break before heading out.
We overheard a guide discussing it, and were so intrigued by the real life story of the event, and the story of the painting itself. Géricault was just 27 when he painted this masterpiece. It depicts the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse in 1816. The rich on board took the life boats, while the poor had to build a raft from the wreckage. The rich took all the food, leaving none for the poor, many of whom starved to death. It was fifteen days before French boats arrived to rescue them, but by then many had perished.
The massive painting shows death in the foreground and hope up top with a man waving a flag to attract the rescue boat. The painting was considered too graphic for the time. Géricault actually painted over a rotting hand in the lower left corner to cover up some of the gruesome realism, but you can still see the outline of the original hand. Géricault also studied corpses in the morgue to get the right coloring for the flesh of the dead bodies. Color us impressed.
I had planned dinner nearby at a restaurant called Louise, however was confused by their hours of operation on their website which stated they are open Saturday nights, but when we arrived were told by the owner it was only the bar that was open and not the kitchen. We would not be able to dine there that evening as planned. Directly next door we stumbled upon Café Blanc, and decided to give it a shot.
I'm so glad we did! We snagged a corner booth in the nearly empty dining room (the tables outside were quite packed with smokers!). Service was genuine, friendly, and warm, and the food was excellent! We partook in the café's happy hour, which offers large Saint Omer draught beers and mojitos for €6.
Our food arrived quickly. I opted for the traditional steak tartare, which was outstanding, and had a beautiful texture, great flavor, and sharp acidity. The salad on top added freshness, and the fries provided great texture as well as some starch, the perfect accompaniments to the tartare.
Mom selected the yellow chicken supreme with rosemary juice and ratatouille. The statler chicken breast (also known as a frenched breast, a skin-on breast with the first wing joint attached) was incredibly tender, flavorful, and comforting. The ratatouille was also a nice touch.
In lieu of dessert, we finished our meal with camembert cheese with truffles served with black cherry jam, mixed salad, and toast. OMG, this was such a perfect ending to a really great meal. So many great flavors from the gooey camembert laced with black truffle flavor, to the sweet and tart cherry jam. I would happily enjoy this over dessert any day. The provided toast wasn't enough for the generous portion of cheese, so we also used slices of baguette provided with our meal. This meal was unplanned, but truly enjoyable. I would happily return.
Our day of culture continues! One of my favorite discoveries when I was researching our trip to Paris was the plethora of classical music performances at churches throughout the city. Many different churches host these events throughout the year, so I searched to see what performances were happening during our visit. When I saw Mozart's Requiem would be performed at Église Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, directly behind the Louvre, I knew I had found the one.
Even though we pre-booked our tickets, admission is also sold at the venue assuming there are seats available, as there were for our performance. Seats are unassigned, and are first come first serve based on ticket type purchased. The number of rows/seats per ticket designation can vary depending on the church itself.
At Saint-Germain l'Auxerrois, VIP was the first 7 rows, Prestige was the following 3 rows, and standard tickets were the last 8 rows. We arrived around 7:30 pm with our VIP tickets and scored seats right on the aisle of the 4th row. The performance started 15 minutes late at 8:15 pm and ended around 9:45 pm. Not only did the orchestra perform the top billing of the night, Mozart's Requiem, but prior to that they performed Mozart's Symphonie Concertante K. 364, as well as a short encore performance, though I didn't catch what it was called, and it was unfamiliar to me.
I'm speechless. It was magnificent. The acoustics in the church were unreal, and the performances were outstanding. The conductor was also fantastic and very enthusiastic! I seriously cannot put into words how much my mom and I enjoyed this concert. We are huge Mozart fans and have always loved his Requiem. This was a magical experience in an epic setting that was made to host a performance of this dramatic piece. I would highly recommend anyone who is visiting Paris and who loves classical music to look into these church concerts throughout the city. I would 100% plan to do another one during future visits to Paris.
Paris - May 2019
- Day 1 - Latin Quarter & Notre Dame
- Day 2 - Eiffel Tower, Musée Rodin, Les Invalides
- Day 3 - Musée d'Orsay & Musée du Louvre
- Day 4 - Sainte-Chapelle, Conciergerie, La Marais, Musée Picasso, Luxembourg Gardens
- Day 5 - Panthéon, Arc de Triomphe, Musée de l'Orangerie, Afternoon Tea at Le Bristol
- Day 6 - Père Lachaise Cemetery, Montmartre, Sacré-Cœur
- Day 7 - Saint-Germain-des-Prés & Final Thoughts