May 2015
More photos here

Monday 11th May
Having decided that a trip was needed because of a couple of tempting exhibitions there now seem to be five of them worth seeing. I also want to attempt to visit the Louvre when the Flemish 'primitives' and Dutch Golden Age rooms are open and have a look at the church of St Denis. Quite a lot to fit into three days! I think I'm going to have to prioritise and prune. The exhibitions are Velazquez at the Grand Palais, The Baroque Underworld, Vice and Poverty in Rome at the Petit Palais, as is Claude Gellée, un Lorrain à Rome, From Giotto to Caravaggio, the passions of Roberto Longhi at the Musée Jacquemart-André, and Napoléon et Paris at the Musée Carnavalet. I might ditch Velazquez as it'll be busy and queue-infested and I'm going to Madrid next month anyway. On my last trip I interpreted the signs on their doors in the Louvre as telling me that the rooms devoted to the art of Flanders and Holland were only open on Thursdays, but the Louvre website says that Thursday is the day when these rooms are closed. Which doesn't explain why they were closed (to me) on a Monday. Can I go wrong planning to visit on a Wednesday in that case?

I understand that there are some people who book seats on aeroplanes and trains that don't automatically have noisy and kicky children sitting behind them. It's as well to have goals, and this child's seems to be to embody the word "tantrum". All else has been without snags, except that the bakers by the Eurostar terminal that did superior Chelsea buns and fig rolls has disappeared. So as the green pleasantness of Kent has now given way, post-tunnel, to a more French greenness, and mid-day is long passed, a Pret tuna mayo baguette and a blueberry muffin from Pain Quotodien are about to get scoffed.

They were, the child went quiet, mainly due to it being taken somewhere else, and two blokes started talking in loud voices about their jobs in the financial sector, with one of them actually telling the other 'I work for blah one of the major blah blah in the world ...' Then the child returned and the mother decided it needed to sleep which meant the window blind needed to come down regardless of the man sharing said window reading quietly in the seat in front and his need not to have his arm leaning on the window ledge  lacerated by the metal handle of said blind suddenly coming down.  I exaggerate the laceration, but not the tendency of the needs of quiet grumpy grownups being seen as entirely secondary to those of whingy children.

Paris is warm and sunny, though, and as I know where I'm going, having stayed around here a few times before, I get to the Mercure near the Sorbonne in no time, am in my room and opening my window onto a very Parisian, but very sky-filled courtyard (see right) - it seems like ages since I've had a hotel room where you don't always need to turn a light on.

Out for an evening stroll and shop, I made for the local Fnac to get  my Louvre ticket for Wednesday, but what was once a Fnac is now an H&M - not useful. I found my way to the big branch at Les Halles and found that the reason I was bemoaning the shop's not selling music CDs like it used to is because the Les Halles megastore goes down three floors, and I'd not ventured that far down. The ticket shop is down there too, and it's confusingly called Fnac Spectacles, sounding like an opticians. Buying my Louvre-queue-beating advance ticket I also learned that you don't even need to book a particular day anymore. After wintery London it's so warm here my thoughts naturally turned to gelato. I found the Grom and went for strawberry and coconut in the tub, and a confusing mixture of French, Italian and English in the languages used to order the stuff.

Tuesday 12th May
Quiet room, a good night's sleep, and the breakfast features good orange juice and coffee, tasty muesli, and fresh pastries and bread. The wifi in the basement breakfast room is so slow as to be pointless though, which is annoying as I've got into the hotel habit of checking emails etc. over breakfast. And generally I am suffering again from The Rome Difficulty. This is not a Robert Ludlum novel, it's the phenomenon of a hotel's wifi blocking the upload of stuff, to one's websites for example.

From the ratp website I had gathered that it was possible to load what we used to call a carnet onto a plastic card. But such gathering was erroneous. After purchasing a good old cardboard carnet of ten tickets (which is cheaper than ten separate) I made for Miromesnil and the Musée Jacquemart-André, noticing on the way that the same route would suit for my planned trip to St Denis on Thursday, so preventing the need for tedious research. Spiff!

From Giotto to Caravaggio, the passions of Roberto Longhi begins with a room of Caravaggio, who Longhi championed, then a room of Caravaggisti, then the Giotto. These are two panels (Sts Lawrence and John the B) which you wouldn't guess where by the man himself, look to be by two different hands, and supposedly flanked a Madonna and Child now in the National Gallery in Washington and which were painted for a chapel in Santa Croce. Room 4 is special, containing a small panel each by Masolino and Masaccio, one from the Vatican and the other from the Uffizi. Both gorgeous. A somewhat Ferrarese room next, with a typically weird Tura and a panel depicting Peter Martyr trying to look casual whilst reading with an axe embedded in his head. Two more rooms of Caravaggisti follow, making you appreciate the man himself more, but with an impressive trio of paintings of saints by de Ribera. The exhibition mixes stuff from the Longhi collection in Florence with loans which were, on the whole, the better works. Worth a trip though. As is the permanent collection, with an especially special Venetian room, containing a fine and architectural big Bellini, and some superior works by Mantenga, Crivelli (all three panels being typically fruity), Botticelli, Cima and Carpaccio. Elsewhere you'll find good stuff by Guardi, Canaletto and Chardin and typical stuff by Boucher. A sweet Vigee-Lebrun too and an atmospheric little Supper at Emmaus by Rembrandt. I have a  soft spot for the architectural ruins of Hubert Robert, and there's a good one here, with cows. And a Panini (the painter not the sandwich). The Giambattista Tiepolo ceilings and his frescoes from the Villa Contarini up the Winter Garden staircase deserve a mention too. In the bookshop the catalogue of the exhibition turned out not to be available in English, and there was no postcard of the Masolino I fell for (or a fridge magnet or even a spectacles cleaning cloth) but there was a bookmark. 

But enough of these semi-interesting aides to my memoire. It's been a while since I've walked wide boulevards in short sleeves, so upon quitting the JA I was happy to be doing so, and down the one named after Haussmann himself, no less. And, after passing the Madeleine (the church not the cake) I got me a mozzarella and tomato baguette and a San Pellegrino lemonade and consumed them whilst basking in warm sunshine in the Tuilleries. On my way back to my hotel I also picked up a slice of apple and poppy-seed flan, which turned out, upon eating, to have a considerable poppy-seed kick to it.

Wednesday 13th May
The wifi in my hotel here really is the worst ever. Even in my room last night it was all waiting and no action. Which is a shame because I'm loving my sun-filled, stylish and handy-sized room otherwise. I'm not paying €3.50 for a bottle on mineral water from the minibar though.

At the Louvre my advance ticket lets me bypass the long and snaking Pyramid queue. I head for the Flemish primitives in the Richelieu wing, but the second floor is closed, and will open in half an hour. Back to the beginning, then, and around to Sully and the appeal of the word 'medieval' but this turned out to be merely the medieval foundations of the Louvre building. So around to Denon, as usual, with the Mona Lisa hoards. But I did discover that, facing Samothrace, if you go sharp right and backwards you get direct to early Italian, for some simple and reviving works by Lorenzo Monaco and Gentile da Fabriano. I braved the swarming hoards to stand my ground in front of some prime Fra Angelico, Ghirlandaio, Carpaccio and Mantegna, before heading back to the relative calm of Richelieu and, after wandering through some lesser and later stuff, eventually finding the room (no.5) of the four Memlings and Van Eyck 's Madonna and Child and Chancellor Rolin, looking less than clean and much smaller than anticipated. Also two by Rogier van der Weyden - a 'studio of' Annunciation and a fine small triptych that could only be. After three hours I was feeling a bit droopy so made for the bookshop, which is currently two shops on the way out to the inverted pyramid, picking up a tasteful and tempting little book on Corot before putting distance between myself and the exhausting crowds.

Today's al fresco lunch was a cream cheese, onion and pickled cucumber multi-seed bagel with salt and black pepper crisps and a lemonade called Pulco, eaten in the Luxembourg Gardens. On the way back an apple and cinnamon muffin was bought from Columbus. In the evening I wandered around a bit and was asked directions by a French person for the third time in two days - do I look so like I know where I'm going? And French? I ended up in a local Italian called Il Pescatore, discovered when I was staying in the hotel opposite a couple of trips back. I considered the asparagus risotto, but gamba are prawns, of course. Wondering why I sort of knew this I remembered - cat food sachets! Went for the old-fave Bufala pizza, but here it's a blanche pizza, which I'd resisted so far, reasoning that a pizza without tomato sauce isn't really a pizza. It was fine, but I don't think preferable.

Thursday 14th May
Deciding what to do on my last full day, it narrows down to a choice of two. St Denis is medievally tempting, but it'll always be there, and the Baroque Rome exhibition won't. Having had two days of galleries tips me away from the Baroque and towards the Gothic. A leaning confirmed by the Rough Guide telling me that there's a walk back into the centre of town along canals from St Denis that reveals Paris's 'rusty underbelly'. How can I resist?

The young woman I complained to on the front desk about the hotel's WiFi yesterday follows up, and when I apologise for lapsing into Italian she tells me that they have si in French too, but it denotes contradiction. The streets are oddly empty and some shops oddly still closed as I make for the Metro after 9.00 this morning. The route to St Denis that I spotted earlier in the week turns out, geographically, to be a bit indirect, but it does avoid travel and changes in the centre, so I go for it anyway. I decide that Paris's is my favourite metro system, mostly for it's often impressively decorated platforms, and that evocative hum as the train doors close. It also has a station named after one of my favourite biscuits and another named after one of my parents' favourite singers. I haven't spotted one ebook being read though, maybe due to the famous French hatred of Amazon.

Leaving Saint-Denis Basilica station I find myself in Paris's arm-pit, it seems - very urban and grimy. And I pass a market selling some very depressing second-hand stuff. Also it feels like Sunday. And there's a service going on in the Basilica, which has its facade half covered in scaffolding and half glowing and clean. In the tourist office I find out it's a 'free day', the feast of the Assumption, and that the Basilica opens for tourist business at 12.00. So I get given a map with a walk through historic Saint-Denis. The shopping street predictably has a KFC and a (closed) MacDonalds, with shops selling sports shoes and cheap sparkly clothes, and not a Starbucks in sight, which is something.

Returning from this exploration I find the service at the church turning out. The nave is visited and a guide book bought, but the nécropole royale doesn't open until 12.00. So I go and do some of the walk, and it may be historic but it ain't pretty. Back to the Basilica again and the bells are chiming. And of course there's now a queue for the nécropole, but as you wait you can see the need for the cleaning in the grubbiness down this side. My doubts that I'd made the right choice in coming here today were laid to rest by the tombs and the crypt and the apse area generally - a treat to be in, and well worth the price of admission. But there's no denying that Saint-Denis as a district is one of real poverty. It's like having Westminster Abbey in Hackney. It makes you realise how touristic areas are usually in prosperous parts of town, usually the centre of course. So if you've ever wondered if a tourist attraction is enough in itself to make an area prosper Saint-Denis seems to suggest not.

I got off the metro at Montparnasse so as to approach the Luxembourg Gardens from a different direction and with a different lunch. Well it was a cream cheese bagel again, but it was a poppy seed (pavot) one this time and from a joint called Still Good. The spot for a sit was over by the tennis courts and chess players and it was cool and looking like rain. Which it started to do just at the top of the street to the hotel, and is now (a half hour later, and after a fire alarm going off, twice) doing with gusto

Friday 15th May
I have a couple of hours before I need to head to the Gare, so the Cluny Museum beckons. Tapestries, stained glass, statues, unicorns and ivories, yes, but some very Northern-looking altarpieces too, including most of a retable from Norfolk! The Roman baths here are a looming and favourite space too (see photo right). Back to the hotel for my case and some replying to nature. The Metro journey and check-in are swift. Twenty minutes wait in the terminal with nowhere to sit, as is usual here, but we were allowed to board five minutes early. And there are no noisy children sitting, or kicking up fusses, anywhere near me. And the man in the seat next to me goes and sits in an empty seat behind. Miracles! I finish my book, have an undersea doze, and type some more of this. Having left Paris at midday I'm home before 2.30 and soon tucking into late-lunch veggie samosas from the shop at Tooting Bec tube station, with mango chutney and attendant cats.




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