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Trip Report Paris Trip Report - Monet, Mittens and Mulled Wine

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Where we went Paris

Why we went I think I was back from Russia maybe a month before I was already craving another trip. And darn IcelandAir, that was about the same time they sent an email with $500 fares out of Boston for the winter. I wasn't particularly picky about the destination, but remembered the massive Monet exhibition that would be on through January, and I do love Monet. I was planning to just jet over and back on my own, but my Dear Sister is writing her thesis on large scale art exhibitions and managed to make the Monet exhibit a case study. So off we went for, literally, a long weekend (leave Thurs, return Mon)

Where we stayed
Hotel Odeon St. Germain, 13 rue St. Sulpice. I picked this for the location primarily, and the price secondarily. We got executive twin rooms for 180-200 euro per night, which is down considerably from the 375-400 they quote in high season. The hotel is excellently located; the Odeon Metro stop is about 2 minutes on foot and there are several restaurants nearby, including Le Comptoir and those I liked on our last trip there on rue Christine. The twin room was large by French standards. We had room to walk and move, a large closet, a desk and very good sized bathroom. The shower was set into the wall and a good two foot step up which is tough when you're nearly blind without your glasses. But I was happy with our choice; the hotel was very clean, very quiet and well run. The staff spoke excellent English and were helpful with directions suggestions. We did have the 14 euro breakfast each day, which was very well-stocked and convenient and the staff was very pleasant that early in the day. I like to take my time eating and going back to the room for my things and whatnot before we head out for the day.

How we got around
We bought two carnets of metro tickets, which lasted the weekend. We were going to try taking the RER in from the airport, but the line to buy tickets without a credit card (no chip and pin for me) was about 35 people long. With only a weekend to spend here, we didn't waste our time and took a taxi, which at 12:30 on a Friday took just over a half hour. Otherwise we walked everywhere. I imagine if we were to map out where we walked and quantify it, it would be utterly insane the miles we covered.

What We Did
Voyage en Capital: Louis Vuitton at the Musee Carnavalet
DS loves Louis Vuitton, so it was fortuitous for her that his was on while we were there. I found the exhibit to be very informative; I learned quite a lot about the family business and how it got started. But the vintage trunks and luggage (the subject was travel bags, not purses) on display were amazing. They were in excellent condition and really beautiful.

David Hockney: Fresh Flowers at the Pierre Berge Yves St. Laurent Foundation
I tend not to appreciate contemporary art much, but I will proudly shout from the mountain-tops, this show blew me away. Hockney was messing around with his iPhone one morning and started drawing the sunrise he saw out his window. Then he started drawing the fresh flowers delivered to his room every day. Then he got an iPad and well, you get the picture. On display were 20 iPhones and 20 iPads, all cycling through a series of images Hockney had done on the same device hundreds of miles away and emailed to the foundation to display. Some were "complete" and others were recorded files of him doing the work, so you can see how the images evolved. Perhaps because I am a systems analyst (geek) as my day job, this really impressed me. The colors are gorgeous and the medium is just so cool. It led to some pretty interesting discussions about how he'd get paid for this, how to prevent images from being forwarded (you can't!) and how to stop museum visitors from playing with the devices and effectively stopping the show (which happened, the poor guy running the place had to keep starting them up again). My sister spotted Pierre Berge himself showing friends around. This is also where we bumped into Warren Buffett and his wife. So in case you were wondering what he does right before Christmas, he goes to Paris and follows my sister and me around! :-)

Monet: His Museum at the Musee Marmottan Claude Monet
I would have gone to this anyway, but my sister went as a comparison for the larger exhibition for her paper. I'd been to Marmottan at least four times before and truly thought I'd seen it all. Well, they must have emptied out the basement, attic and any storage closets they had left. And the effect was quite different than the larger exhibition. I walked away from the Marmottan feeling like they'd made Monet human. The displays covered the period in his life when he was doing caricatures for money, barely earning a living. There were sketchbooks, handwritten letters and paintings half-started. It displays two of his pallettes, with the paint still on them, alongside the yellow-tinted, thick-lensed glasses he wore after his cataract surgery (which left him with such an exaggerated sense of color, he needed the yellow to tame it). There was a room of others' paintings of him and Camille, a room of a few of his "travels" paintings (Holland, London). The hallway was devoted to his "series" paintings, and showed one each of the haystacks, poplars. They have moved Impression: Sunrise into a dark room off the hallway and made it the showpiece, clearly. The transition to the massive downstairs room of waterlillies was an archway of a photograph over the doorway of Giverny. The downstairs room has been transformed a bit and reorganized to make "series" where there weren't before: flowers, the rose arbor at Giverny, weeping willows, Japanese bridge and of course, water lillies. For me, you can't beat the overwhelming intensity of that room. Remember that, I'll come back to that point in a bit. If you are on your way to Paris and have the time, I'd spend it here at the Marmottan for sure. As one who thought she'd seen it all, there were still things that were new to me. My one nit was that while the placards explaining each main "section" of the exhibit were in both French and English, the labels on the art were only in French, which was sort of a bummer if I was seeing something new and wanted to know more about it there rather than wait to read the catalog at home. But otherwise, this was really a well done exhibit. No lines, no waiting when we got there at the open, but by noontime it was getting really tight in the smaller rooms upstairs. What was impressive to DS was that this exhibition was pulled together solely from the Marmottan's own collection. No loans here. That, she says, is the wave of the future, what with the economy and loan insurance rates what they are.

Monet 2010 at the Grand Palais
We showed up a half-hour early for our 5:00 admission on Sunday and they let us in at about 4:40. There were maybe 30 people in the "no tickets" line and they let 15 of them in with us. I have no idea how long they had been waiting but they were getting in, so there's hope if you don't have a ticket.

Before I go into insane amounts of detail (and feel free to skip it), let me just say now that it's over, it was completely, entirely, absolutely worth it, schlepping over to Paris for 3 days for this. As one who loves Monet like I do, I cannot imagine NOT seeing this. I am smitten all over again.

The premise of the show was to make the French appreciate Monet again, instead of dismissing him as too ordinary or pedestrian. I'm not sure if it worked. We interviewed a few French people as part of DS's thesis research and they already loved Monet. So would this win over the haters? We're not sure.

The exhibition was organized mostly thematically and a bit chronologically. The first couple of rooms covered his very early paintings. The subjects were things I never even knew about, like harbor scenes, and it was before he adopted the slightly out-of-focus, abstract eye that he is known for now. He did portraits? Still lives? Who knew?

I think what was most striking for me were the series works. It is one thing to say that Monet was known for his studies of light and shadow. To see one of his Rouen Cathedrals in a museum somewhere and say "oh, that's the effect of morning light" is one thing, but to see five hanging side by side, each done at different times of day and realize the different light just by your own power of observation, is quite another. Do that with the haystacks, the poplars, the waterlillies, Venetian scenes, British Parliament, Antibes oceanfronts. Honestly, seeing them in volume hung together, like they haven't been since he painted them, is just incredible. And it made me realize just how good he really was at what he did. One of the discussions on the audio guide said that on his first day in Antibes, he had started forty canvases. Forty. Catching all the light as it changed. He painted over 2000 paintings in his life. To do just one that is worthy of this acclaim would be enough. To do 2000 is incomprehensible. To be able to see nearly 200 in one place at one time like we did today is a blessing. Truly a blessing.

In the end, over 40 museums from all over the world loaned works to this exhibition. We were keeping track for a while but it got overwhelming. DS said the volume of loans behind this exhibition was stunning in this day and age. The MFA in Boston loaned 5. The Met, three. It seemed like the now-closed-for-renovations Orsay in Paris emptied their attic and basement for this, because I've been to the Orsay four times and there were dozens from the Orsay I'd never seen before. What was ironic is that I got to see both of the paintings from Russia that I saw the "we're sorry, this work is on loan" cards for at the Hermitage and Pushkin back in September!

I will stop gushing long enough to admit it was not perfect. First, the crowds in the first four rooms or so were insane. At one point I was 10 people deep in front of a painting. But I found the longer that I was patient, the more people dropped out. It was like the Monet marathon. Everyone had the best of intentions as they started, looking at every painting, reading every label, listening to every soundbite. But by halfway, the galleries were half empty and I was able to view Monet the way I do: first from a distance of about 15 feet out, then up close to see the brush strokes, then back up again. The crowds would not allow for that sort of viewing, but thankfully by the best of the series paintings, I could. And second, I have to admit that the big culmination of the show sort of fell flat for me. They worked the series paintings up to the big finish: the waterlillies. Unfortunately in this situation, the Marmottan has the best collection, so these sort of felt like also-rans to me after that downstairs room at the Marmottan the day before. It was just a bit of an anticlimax. That said, it was still an amazing exhibition and an experience I already relish. I have a 300 page catalog at home (hard-cover, I had it sent home to me before we came over!) waiting to be cracked open and devoured, and I can hardly wait.

Christmas Markets
The markets are hard to explain, but many neighborhoods have them. We went to the one near Concorde on the Champs Elysees, one in St. Germain, one at St. Sulpice and the grand-daddy at Le Defense. In essence, it is a collection of vendors, crafty people and food people who set up booths with things to sell, which may or may not be Christmas-related or even Christmas gift worthy. Indeed I bought two small pendants and my sister bought nothing. The wares run from chocolates, candles, woolens, jewelry, wooden toys, fleece items...you name it. The food is everything from cotton candy to sausages to foie gras on toast to mulled wine. We got hooked early on one particular booth that had mulled wine with "supplements", meaning rum, calvados or vodka shots. Good glory...the hot wine, the heat from the alcohol, it was a dangerous combination, but one that fueled us all the way up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, on our first day with no sleep and very little food. DS asked at one point why she felt like she should be disturbed that we were walking with open Solo cups of alcohol, happily imbibing. I said I was more disturbed by the 14 year old kid who served it, but hey, vive la France. Who am I to complain? If this is wrong, I don't want to be right! I'd say if you're going, you really only need to go to one. The smaller neighborhood ones are nice, but we had fun strolling around the larger Champs Elysees one, taking in all the activity more than anything. Once you've seen the booths at one, you've seen them at all of them though; there's not much variety.

Christmas at the Grand Magasins
We hopped the Metro up to the big department stores (Printemps and Galeries Lafayette). I knew from my trip research what to expect in terms of decorations, but I neglected to factor in the utter chaos the big stores would be on the second to last weekend before Christmas. Calamity, chaos or just really big crowds, it was overwhelming and panicky. The sidewalks were shoulder-to-shoulder and ten deep off the street. We made it up to Printemps, saw a few windows, went inside a bit and cut back outside when inside was too crowded. I knew I wanted to see the 4-story Christmas tree inside Galeries Lafayette, but the sidewalk was insanely crowded and not moving very fast. We cut across the street, walked toward Lafayette and crossed back over. We made it inside, but it was bumper to bumper people again. We did get to the center, where we had a few seconds to look up, take a few photos of a gorgeous tree hanging from the main atrium of the store, then run before we got trampled. I'd wanted to go up a few levels to take pictures from different angles, but there was a line for the escalator at least 50 people long: they were doing crowd control on the upper floors, I kid you not. So we evacuated and headed back to the hotel to crash for a bit before dinner. I'm glad we saw it all, but it wasn't the relaxing holiday vibe we are both after.

Misc.
Otherwise we walked around various neighborhoods, mostly St. Germain, but also between the Arc de Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower and around the Eiffel Tower itself. Sunday ended up being really sunny with blue sky so we enjoyed being out and about. Fortunately the snow that plagued the city the day before we left was completely gone by the time we arrived. And I had packed boots and everything!

What we ate
We didn't hit many notable restaurants on this trip. We repeated a visit to Au Pied du Cochon at the request of my DS, because she'd been dreaming about their onion soup gratinee since our last visit. We had lunch one day at Les Deux Magots, one day at a cafe near the Eiffel Tower (cheesy, but the view!). Our one meal that was planned was Saturday night at Le Temps Perdu. Le Temps Perdu is near our hotel so very convenient. We decided to get the 25 euro fixed price menu, which was an appetizer, main dish and dessert. We both had onion soup, which was even better than at Au Pied du Cochon. Then we had fried steak with bernaise sauce. Mine came a bit too rare so I sent it back to get it recooked. Abby thought the meat was a bit too fatty but I enjoyed it once it was not bleeding on my plate any longer. It came with au gratin potatoes, which I liked. I had the "floating island of the house" dessert. This was a pool of vanilla cream with a large puffy meringue floating in it, all drizzled in caramel sauce. Good lord, it was delicious. We both had a kir royale and I ordered a carafe of beaujolais, which I loved. I'm finding the new beaujuolais I have had to be very light and very fruity, which I will keep in mind for Christmas! There were also a handful of miscellaneous snacks like eclairs, crepes and macarons from Laduree scattered about the weekend, but what would a trip to Paris be without them?

All in all, it was a great weekend. It went by fast but I also feel like what we did on Friday seems like a week ago. It was a terrible tease though...now I need to start planning my next fix!

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