Archives for May 2013

A Visit to the Louvre

Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa

Lately it’s been rainy and cold here, so we had this great idea – let’s go to the Louvre. We signed up for a guided tour offered by Paris Walks and saw a lot in two and a half hours, plus we hung around for another couple hours after the tour to expand our horizons. Just the work to write this article confirms that we missed a lot and will need to go back. The Louvre is one of the world’s largest museums with over 35,000 objects of art – we’ll show maybe 35 in our slide show below – and is the world’s most visited museum. The Louvre web site in English is a great resource for the many details we don’t cover here. Also you can get a great overview with Wikipedia – The Louvre.

So first the history of the Musée du Louvre – in a paragraph. The Louvre started out as a fortress built by King Philippe Augustus in 1190. The name comes from a villa called Luvra left to an abbey in the area in the 7th century. The fortress was the entry to the walled city of Paris. You can see what the old fortress looked like in our slide show-note that in the basement of the Louvre there are still visible portions of the old fortress. Since the 14th century there have been many modifications and enlargements of the original structure, which above ground are long gone. In the mid 1500s the Louvre was razed and reconstructed in the French Renaissance style. Francis I also acquired some of the most famous pieces, including the Mona Lisa, during this period. After Louis XIV moved to the Palace at Versailles in 1682, the Louvre primarily was used to hold pieces from the Royal collection and as a residence for artists. During the reigns of Louis the XV and XVI, the kingdom continued to collect many pieces of art, and the idea that the Louvre become the royal museum became more popular. Although Louis XVI approved of the conversion, it never came about before the French Revolution in 1789. In 1792 the King was imprisoned and the Royal Collection became public. The palace was converted to a museum to hold the public art and opened in 1793. Even after the Revolution the museum was modified and enlarged extensively, first by Napoleon I as part of the French empire, then as the 2nd Republic, then by Napoleon III as part of the 2nd French Empire, and then as the 3rd Republic, which lasted from 1870 until World War II, when most of the collection was moved from the Louvre to safer locations until after the war. In the 1980’s French President François Mitterrand, as part of a series of sweeping public works projects, proposed a large renovation and relocation of the French Finance Ministry so that the entire building could be used by the museum. Architect I.M. Pei was awarded the project, which resulted in the pyramidal entry that is so famous today.

Our tour could hardly begin to see all of the 35,000 works of art. Paris Walks guide Mary Ellen Manny took us efficiently through the museum to see a surprising number of the most famous works of art, some of which you can see in our slide show linked below. We met at the Statue of Louis XIV outside, then proceeded into the Pyramid entry and quickly into the museum to see 2 large covered courtyards, Cour Puget and Cour Marly, which house originals of many outdoor sculptures that were previously displayed at the Tuileries Garden and at Versailles. We then went through several rooms of royal crypts and funerary art, then to several rooms housing famous furniture, such as Napoleon I’s throne when he became emperor, as well as 2 crowns that are all that is left of the crown jewels. Napoleon III used the Louvre as an apartment, and the furnishings have been marvelously preserved. Entry to the apartment was from a spectacular circular drive way that his young son used as a track for riding his pony, and the living room and dining room – see the slide show – are to die for.

The tour went through some spaces with artwork and royal pieces in cases. One notable piece was a madonna and child carved from a single elephant tusk. Mary Ellen liked a tapestry showing the king and queen in romantic love. In our slideshow is also an ivory alter piece with finely detailed ivory carvings. Then we plunged into the basement to view the foundation of the old fortress, then over to the Egyptian section to view the largest sphinx outside of Egypt. It weighs 26 tons and couldn’t be lifted by any crane in those days, so they made a hole in the wall and pushed it into the building – don’t count on it moving soon.

We headed to the classical Greek sculpture area, where we saw many many sculptures, including the pictured Athena. We stopped at the statue of Venus de Milo, which was distinct because the sculptor had introduced the appearance of movement into the art. We ended up at the very famous and extrordinary Winged Victory of Samothrace, which was recovered in many pieces from the Aegean Sea and assembled in 1863. After traversing the striking Gallery of Apollo, part of the restorations started by Louis XIV, we focused on Italian and French art, starting with some older paintings by Fra Angelico and then into a grand hall with paintings and sculptures of many masters, including Leonardo Da Vinci, Raphael, and Caravaggio. Mona Lisa is ensconced in a large room with many other famous paintings. We first spent time with The Wedding Feast at Cana by Veronese. It’s larger than our apartment (60 square meters) and is the largest painting in the Louvre. Then we saw Mona Lisa, which was surrounded by such a crowd you can’t really get near it. We spent some time discussing the Raft of the Medusa by Theodore Gericåult, based on a true story of a ship wreck and the abandoned crew who floated adrift for a nightmarish 12 days before being recovered. Art had with that work entered a new era of realism. In our slide show you can see a few other famous paintings besides those I’ve mentioned here.

We finished with a stroll through several rooms of sculpture, including Michelangelo’s unfinished work called Slaves, as well as the incredible Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss by Antonio Canova – carved from a single piece of marble. See the slide show for additional details.

Overall, our trip to the world’s greatest museum was quite remarkable.

The Canal du Midi!

 Approaching lock on Canal du Midi trip

Approaching one of the sixty some locks on our Canal du Midi trip

Last week we had the pleasure of joining friends from Poulsbo, Karl and Kelly Hadley, Jim and Sharon Moore and the former Rotary exchange student Flora Midiou and her boyfriend Julien Plubel on a wonderful barge trip on the Canal du Midi in Southern France. Now I better understand the song from Camelot, “It’s May, the lusty month of May!”

Pastel violet masses of wisteria climbed the walls of many of the “ecluse” or lock buildings lining the canal. Bright orange poppies, yellow and periwinkle grinning iris faces, balloon clusters of creamy Queen Anne’s Lace bloomed along the grassy banks. Giant chestnut trees bursting with white chocolate frosted strawberry ice cream cone flowers dominated the walkways of the ancient villages. Pink with lemon tinged roses and cherry red peonies filled garden beds. Carefully ordered vegetable gardens sprouted onioins, cabbages, spinach, radishes.

Since 1996 the Canal du Midi has been classified in the list of World Heritage sites. The canal connects the Garonne river (at the Atlantic side ) to the Mediterranean Sea. Originally built between 1666 to 1681 to facilitate the wheat business, it is the oldest European Canal still in operation.

We began our tour in the village of Argens-Minervois after taking an approximately 4 hour train ride from Paris to Narbonne, spending the night there and the next morning taking another but very short train ride to the village of Lézignan-Corbières then taxiing to Argens. Our trip on the boat lasted a week. Captains Karl and Hugh navigated the waters and the rest of us learned to handle the ropes in the locks, drink much wine, sample the excellent local cheeses, ride bicycles along the canal. In the evenings we walked into the villages, ate delicious local dishes-a favorite of the group was a crepery, La Blé Noir in Carcassone, the walled city. Hugh and I were fortunate to be guided by Jim and Sharon Moore on a night walk through this 5th century village and through the magnificent castle atop. The Castle which reminds me of The magical Disneyland Palace was restored in the mid 1800 ‘s. It is filled with shops and restaurants, even hotels.

We left our boat behind in the town of Negra and took a taxi to Toulouse. In Toulouse our French guides Flora and Julien led us through the city.

We loved spending time with our friends and enjoying the Canal and the countryside of southern France. We did happily discover that after a week on the barge, our 450 sq. ft. Paris apartment seems very much larger!!! We like the shower too!

Here’s a link to a slideshow showing selected scenes from the trip:


Le 6 Paul Bert-Hugh’s Birthday Dinner!

I subscribe to a blog written by David Lebovitz, chef and author of The Sweet Life in Paris. Because of David’s review of a new Paris restaurant, Le 6 Paul Bert, Hugh and I celebrated Hugh’s 62nd birthday there. Owner, Bertrand Auboyneau also owns another bistro, also called Le Paul Bert and a fish house, Ecallier de Bistro.

We had a wonderful evening! What we liked best about this small galley shaped restaurant is that our table was at the end right next to the stainless steel kitchen where we could watch Canadian chef, Louis-Phillipe and his assistant prepare the small “plats” of over 30 different savory dishes from which we chose. It was exciting to watch and seemed effortless-though we know that a great deal of labor went into the delectable creations. For 38€ (euros) each, we could chose 3 of the plats and have dessert. Wine of course was extra. Our waiter was very patient with our rudimentary (but improving!) French and kindly recommended just the right wine to accompany the superb meal. I love that the portions are small and that there are so many choices. Not many Parisian restaurants are like this.

Another highlight of the evening was watching the glow on the face of the kitchen helper when chef Louis-Phillipe ran over and high fived him. Mr. Hugh had a most indelible birthday. His choice of the chocolate ganache dessert with the additional crumbles of crunchy darker chocolate and dollops of a piquant creamy strawberry sauce created his look of diverted wonder.

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May Day – Labor Day in France

May Day - Labor Day in France

Flower stand selling lilly of the valley and other May Day flowers

This morning we are on our way to our usual mid week visit to the gym when – they are closed! Why would that be? They’re selling some kind of flowers on every street corner – what are they and why? After I went for a compensatory run along the Seine, I came home to investigate. I knew it was Labor Day in France, but didn’t think that would have much impact on commercial enterprises. Turns out that it does, and that May Day – Labor Day in France are closely linked together. La Fête du Muguet, La Fête du Travail.

I found an article that explains the tradition. Lillies of the valley were first presented to King Charles IX in 1561 and, liking this gift, he started presenting lilies of the valley to the ladies of his court on May 1st. By about 1900, it was common for men to present lilies of the valley on May 1st as a sign of their affection, and in modern times flowers are more commonly presented to family and friends. The government permits the sale of these flowers (and dog rose flowers) by individuals and organizations on May 1st without need to pay tax or conform to retail sales rules. People will respond to economic incentives, so you see flowers being sold in many places along the street.

In 1919, the government legalized the 8 hour work day and made May 1st the official Labor Day holiday for France. It also turns out to be Labor Day for most of the rest of the World, except in the US. From the linked article:

Trade unions and other organizations organize parades and demonstrations to campaign for workers rights on May 1. People may also use these events to campaign for human rights in general, to demonstrate against racism or highlight current social issues.

This year’s Labor Day activities follow close on the heels of a report that Eurozone unemployment has risen to a record 12.1% overall, and the French government recently reported record numbers of unemployed. Unemployment in Spain and Greece is at levels above 27%, more than in the US during the Great Depression. Labor Day should have some interesting commentary.

So we think that Labor Day is different in France than in the US, where mostly it seems we get ready to shop the Labor Day sales and many businesses do not close. Then I read today’s Seattle Times – the police are hoping they will be better prepared for potential protests during this year’s 13th annual May Day march for worker and immigrant rights in Seattle. Ten thousand are expected to participate. Living in France is helping us to better know our local community at home.