This blog is about my travels. At home in New Zealand, in other parts of Oceania, North, Central and South America and in Europe.
My stay in Belgium was very brief, just a stop over, but while I was there my friend and I went for an evening stroll of the city centre, and did get to glimpse some of it's lovely architecture.
In the Tuileries garden there is a small museum called the Musée de l'Orangerie. The art works range from impressionist and post impressionist to modernist.
One of it's highlights is a collection of Monet's water lilies. They are in an oval room, so when you wander around you are surrounded by colour.
Downstairs there are art works from Monet, Renoir, Cezanne, Picasso, Modigliani and many other important painters. The paintings range from impressionist to cubist. They capture a world that was rapidly changing through technological innovation, the world wars and social change.
I went on a guided tour of Montmartre, the famous suburb perched on a hill in Paris. Montmartre has been known as an artistic hangout for a long time. It used to be the bohemian place for struggling artists with it's cheap rent and many dives for entertainment. It was also previously on the outskirts of Paris, but the city has grown since then. Our guide was great, he grew up in Montmartre and knew all the history - even pointing out which bakery sold the best baguettes in all of Paris - I got one, and they were indeed tasty baguettes.
We wandered past the Moulin rouge, where Henri Toulouse-Lautrec would paint the can-can dancers and celebrities of the day. Then up a winding staircase to a little narrow building, it was a former laundromat with a tiny artists garrett in the top building. This was where Picasso painted one of his most famous paintings - Les Demoiselles d'Avignon in 1907. It is still available as artists studios today.
We also wandered past the restaurant (with a beer garden out the back) that Renoir painted some of his famous paintings in.
We kept wandering up towards the top of Montmartre hill. One of the statues was based on a surrealist novel called Le Passe-Muraille about a man who could walk through walls.
At the top of the hill is the Scare Coeur cathedral. It is built on the site of an ancient pagan temple (I don't know if anything remains in the foundations of the building). There is a great view from the top of the hill, you can see all the way across Paris.
Just past the Sacre Coeur is the Salvador Dali museum. It is a small gallery but was packed full of Dali's art, including his famous melting clocks.
The Père Lachaise Cemetery is the most visited cemetery in the world, and has some very famous people in it. Due to the quiet residents it is a peaceful place, and many Parisians like to sit and read the paper under the leafy trees.
While I was there I visited Oscar Wilde's grave. So many people had kissed it (with lipstick on) that the lipstick had started to corrode the grave. So now it is surrounded by glass and people kiss that instead.
I also visited the grave of Victor Schoelcher, an anti-slavery campaigner who helped to bring an end to slavery in the French colonies in 1848.
As you walk out of the main entrance of the cemetery, there is a huge memorial to the French people that died in World War One. The names are in quite small lettering, and even so, it takes several minutes to walk from one end to the other. It is a sad but important reminder of the war, and I'm glad that we live in more peaceful times these days.
I visited the Musée d'Orsay, the museum containing modern art. There were quite a few post modern paintings. I went for a beeline for the Van Gogh paintings.
I had watched a film about his life a few weeks earlier. His paintings are so amazing, but almost equally amazing is the way he battled against so many hardships to create them. Despite mental illness, isolation, criticism and discouragement, he stayed true to his vision and his commitment to his art. His brother Theo and his sister in law Joanna constantly encouraged him and supported him financially, despite not being particularly well off themselves.
There were many art works from the time of the mid 19th century to the early 20th century. It was a time of technological and social change and the paintings reflect this. The introduction of things like the steam train meant that French painters could more easily paint further afield, from the countryside or even in other countries. The invention of photography and film meant that painters didn't need to just paint realistically anymore, and so they now started to experiment with finding other ways to express themselves, using colours to express emotions rather than literally, distorting forms to express meaning and using symbolism.
The Musée de Cluny is a medieval museum located on the site of an old roman bath house. In Medieval times it was owned by the monks of Cluny who kept it as a hotel.
One of the famous artworks in the Cluny museum are the unicorn tapestries. They are shrouded in mystery, but are believed to have been created around 1500. Five of the tapestries represent the five senses. For the Harry Potter fans - replicas of these tapestries appear in the Hogwarts common room in the Harry Potter films.
Most of the other art works were religious, gilded altarpieces or bejeweled bibles owned by monasteries. Some of the art works were for the nobility and these are the ones that contain scenes of courtly romances.
Down a flight of stairs to the lower floor are the remains of the roman baths. It was built in around 300AD, and the 1,700 year old ruins are of a massive underground complex. They had hot, warm and cold water baths, and an attached gym.
It was obviously a popular spot, one of the roman emperors, Julian the Apostate is believed to have been crowned here in 380AD.
Being in Paris I just had to go to the Louvre, the biggest art gallery in the world. Located in a former royal palace, the building itself is stunning. The entrance is through the glass pyramid you can see in the photo. The pyramid was built in 1989 and mighty controversial at the time!
One of the first things I saw was a series of famous French historical paintings. My favourite was the famous 'Liberty leading the People' by Eugene Delacroix - painted to commemorate the French Revolution. Despite being 190 years old, this painting is still controversial with some monarchists! My other favourites included the 2,200 year old masterpiece 'Winged Victory of Samothrace', the sculpture was originally from the Island of Samothrace in the Aegean ocean, and was devoted to the goddess Nike. The sculpture was originally created to commemorate a battle at sea, and was placed in a temple where the winds came off the sea. It was sculpted in marble to capture the effect of the wind on the folds of the goddesses gown. The neoclassical sculpture 'Psyche revived by Cupid's kiss' is also super beautiful.
Any trip to the Louvre would not be complete without seeing the Mona Lisa of course. There were little signs pointing the way there. The sight of the crowds of people looking at/taking photos of/getting selfies with the Mona Lisa is just as noteworthy as the painting itself! It has it's own room, it's own special guards, bullet proof glass. Sure, its a nice painting, and an early example of atmospheric perspective (where the hills in the background grow bluer as they recede into the distance), but there are plenty of other great paintings nearby that don't get a tenth of the attention. Such is fame I suppose!
The history of art is a pretty clear depiction of who was powerful at the time. Artworks from the middle ages are nearly all religious due to the wealth of the church, Kings and Queens were also depicted, but later on so were wealthy merchants. Some of my favourites were the paintings of actual people. I would love to be able to time travel, but as that is impossible, the next best thing is history, and these paintings are a way at peeping back at the past.
If you get a chance, visit the Louvre. There is room after room of incredible art works from all parts of the world. Just be sure to wear comfortable shoes!
From Paris, I took the train out to Versailles to see the famous palace. I wasn't the only one headed there either! It sure it mighty popular, and even with a pre-booked ticket, there is a long queue to get in. But get in I (eventually) did. I once read a book about the life of Marie Antoinette, the most famous resident of the palace. She was born in Austria and married to Louis XVI of France when she was only a young teenager.
Life at the court was accompanied by countless rituals and protocol. It was wildly extravagant. Marie Antoinette was under pressure to produce an heir, something that took seven years to achieve. In the meantime there were countless entertainments to be had at the Court. Marie Antoinette was a patron of the arts (particularly music), she was also patron to female painters, (including Elisabeth Louise Vigee-Brun), she started lots of fashion trends and even had a replica peasant village built in the gardens of Versailles (so the court could dress up as peasants for fun). Meanwhile, thunderclouds were brewing on the horizon. Most of the population lived in terrible poverty. Taxes kept rising, and the wild spending of the court was well publicized in the popular press. The French coffers were under further strain when the King decided to support the war of Independence in America.
The decadent opulence of the palace is almost overwhelming, as well as disturbing considering it was paid for out of taxation and the level of terrible poverty that most of the French population lived in at the time. At the time the church and the nobility (who owned most of the property) were not taxed at all, it was all the other people, the workers who were taxed. The aristocracy were certainly very out of touch, palace life was all the King and Queen had ever known. And yet they did encounter poverty, at least on occasion, for instance, the King and Queen did participate in an ancient ritual of washing the feet of beggars. Although the King had the majority of the political power, the Austrian born Queen became the focus of the general anger towards the aristocracy, and one tax increase after another (which flowed up to the richest). The King and Queen were in many ways clueless about the wider state of things in France, and not really suited to rule. They lived in a bubble, and were not sufficiently engaged in the welfare of their subjects to either rule well or see the danger they were themselves in. Whether or not Marie Antoinette did make the famous statement 'let them eat cake' when told that the people were starving, is not really clear. But the outrage of the general population at the extravagance of the aristocracy eventually boiled over and it ended in violence. On the 5th of October 1789, an angry horde made it's way to Versailles, the royal family were imprisoned and later executed by guillotine.
I went to Sainte-Chapelle, just a sort distance from Notre Dame. This chapel was built in 1248 to house King Saint- Louis' collection of relics. The stained glass is some of the most beautiful in the world. Outside the chapel is covered in gargoles to keep evil spirits at bay. To get in to the chapel you first have to go to a lower chapel and then up a winding set of steps to the upper chapel. You pop out into the amazing upper chapel, where you are surrounded by the coloured stained glass windows. It really is absolutely beautiful!
Off I headed for the day to one of the landmarks of Paris, the famous Gothic Notre Dame Cathedral. Built in 1163, this cathedral has withstood countless events in history (revolutions, the bombings in world wars) for the most part of 1,000 years. So many legends surround it. Saint Denis, the patron saint of Paris is said to have been decapitated by pagans at the top of Montmartre. He walked with his head to the site of Notre Dame where he finally collapsed. The spot (just in front of the Cathedral steps) is considered to be the heart of Paris. It took a long time to queue to get in! But I was glad I did, it was full of ancient artworks, and the soaring gothic beams and the beautiful rose glass windows were so atmospheric. To top it off it was Palm Sunday so there was incense floating through the air and the swirls of it were catching in the coloured beams of light coming through the windows. My only regret was that I couldn't go up to the towers (because it was palm Sunday). I decided to go up them another day.
The next day I did head back to Notre Dame, I had planned to go up to the top of the towers that day, but the queue was long, and instead I took some photos of the gargoyles on the outside of the building. It was a hot and sunny day, so I decided to head to the Sainte-Chapelle nearby, so that I could see the famous stained glass windows there when they looked their best. I went to see some more sights in the afternoon. I got back to my accommodation in the evening, and found out the shocking news that a fire had broken out in the tower at Notre Dame! It's pretty scary to think that a building you had been in just the day before (and walked around on the same day) was on fire, but even worse when it's such a beautiful and historic one!!! It was all very sad, and even a bit scary. If I had of gone in and gone up the towers, maybe the fire had started even then(?). It had been a hot day, so I could see how a small spark could have set it off.
The day after I had booked a ticket to see Versailles, but the day after that, the fire had been put out and I went to see what had happened to the Cathedral. There were crowds of people craning to see what had happened. The whole area on the Island was fenced off by the police. I saw some sleek black limousines get waved through the barricade, maybe they were the people offering to donate large amounts of money for the Cathedral's repair?! There were news crews everywhere broadcasting the news about the fire in the famous Cathedral. The good news was that the stone part of the building was okay, and that also a lot of the treasures that are usually kept inside had been put elsewhere so they were safe. So despite all the damage, beautiful Notre Dame cathedral will be able to be repaired to it's former glory! It sounds like it will take a while though, so I feel very lucky that I was able to see it when I did!
I am a traveller from New Zealand. My blog is to inform friends and family about my adventures. I hope you enjoy it!