This summer, marked 50 years since my husband, George, and I, then two immigrant nine-year-olds from opposite sides of the globe, met in the hallway of an Outremont apartment building. To celebrate our 34th year as a married couple, we went to Paris.
Our window of opportunity was two weeks at the height of the tourist season. We rented a studio apartment through Airbnb in the Latin Quarter, in the heart of the city.
We had been warned of long snaking lineups in the heat, and gruff Parisians, but the people we met were polite and helpful. It took us only 20 minutes to enter the legendary Louvre, our first destination.
The former palace of the kings of France, the Louvre opened its doors to the public in 1789, in the wake of the French Revolution. Its renowned collections encompass ancient civilizations, Islamic and Western art from the Medieval era to the mid-19th century. Like the Musée d’Orsay, which dates from 1986 and showcases 19th- and 20th-century art, it is a world unto itself. Although we knew we would not see everything, we were sure to come face to face with a painting we’d only admired as a miniature on the printed page. There is tremendous excitement and joy in standing before a painting you know well but have never seen. It’s akin to hearing music you have only heard recorded, finally being played live. Standing before Jan Vermeer’s The Lace Maker at the Louvre and Jean François Millet’s l’Angélus at the d’Orsay were, for me, such experiences.
In contrast to the grandeur and majesty of these two institutions, the atmosphere at the Musée National du Moyen-Age is intimate and magical, evoking childhood memories of fairy tales. Surrounded by gardens created in the medieval style, the Hotel de Cluny was built at the end of the 15th century and houses medieval objects of Byzantine, Coptic and European origin including illuminated manuscripts and Books of Hours. Its most famous exhibit includes the six beautiful, larger-than-life tapestries known as La Dame à la Licorne.
George’s lifelong interest in military history led us to the Musée de l’Armée, which displays weapons, uniforms, insignia and paintings from the late Middle Ages up to the Second World War. Again it was a case of imagination meeting reality, as we faced armies of ghosts wearing chainmail and armour and admired the intricate metalwork on the handles of swords that were as beautiful as they were deadly.
Our favourite museum is one we came upon by accident. Also known as the Paris History Museum, the Musée Carnavalet is housed in two mansions, or “hôtels particuliers,” one built in 1548 and the other in the late 17th century. Inside, re-created interiors chart the history of Paris from the Gallo-Roman period to the 20th century. Zola’s watch, Robespierre’s shaving dish, Marcel Proust’s full bedroom, street signs and countless other artifacts from various periods allow the visitor to travel through time.
These objects were salvaged from buildings destroyed when Paris was undergoing a major reconstruction starting in 1853, when Georges-Eugène Haussmann was given the mandate by Napoleon III to “bring air and light” into the city. Before then, the centre of Paris had changed little from its medieval beginnings. Its narrow, dark and dangerous streets could not accommodate the burgeoning population. Overcrowding and an antiquated sewer system spread disease, and Paris, as depicted by Victor Hugo and Balzac, was ravaged by two cholera epidemics in 1832 and 1848.
We owe Haussmann the beauty we associate with modern Paris with its wide boulevards — the first being the Boulevard Rivoli where the Louvre is situated, and its many squares, fountains, public gardens and green spaces.
We did take one 45-minute train trip outside of the city that was, for us, a pilgrimage. It was from Gare St. Lazare to Giverny, where Claude Monet created his famous gardens, which he considered his “greatest masterpiece.”
Acres of flowers in various stages of arrival and departure greeted us, left to grow wild but contained in neat symmetrical beds, lovely and familiar. After traversing a dank underpass, we emerged in an overwhelmingly beautiful world. Here is where Monet painted his last and most famous images: the Japanese bridge, the bamboo forest, the willow tree, the green canoe and the pond with its reflections.
Without having planned it, the next day we found ourselves in the Musée Marmottan Monet, which houses the world’s largest collection of Monet’s works, including the ones based on his beloved garden. Briefly, as the wooden clip-clop footsteps of another visitor died away, we were alone in the circular room where the water-lilies series was displayed. We both agree that those were the moments we will most remember.
It is possible to avoid lineups by buying museum tickets online at each museum’s website.