I don’t make any secret that one of the principal attractions of my current job was the ability to travel in Europe easily, and it looks like we will be able to take two (or maybe three) large trips during my year here. Before we came, I asked Jeonghee what she wanted to do or see in Europe, and she told me Paris, Belgian beer, and Prague. The first two we crossed off the list on this trip.
Our first, middle, and last stop was Paris, the most logical hub for our trip through central and northern France and Belgium. I visited Paris back in university while studying abroad in Spain, so much of my pleasure was showing Jeonghee famous sites like the Arc de Triomphe, Notre Dame Cathedral, Montmartre and Sacre Coeur, the Seine, the Louvre, Place de Concorde with its Egyptian obelisk, and, of course, the Eiffel Tower for the first time.
We unfortunately caught France at the tail end of their summer vacation, so it was packed wiht tourists and vacationers, but even with that in mind Paris seemed more bustling and multicultural than I remembered from… wow, eight years ago. Outside of the city center, vibrant graffiti is everywhere, even inside the metro tunnels, and practically every culture on Earth seems to be swirling around you. After our delicious first menu du jour of filet mignon of pork, pate, prosciutto-wrapped rice balls, a mound of fish and veggies in oil and cilantro, and an incredible apple crumble dessert, we ate amazing Moroccan (couscous, chicken, and savory Moroccan sausage) and Chinese (dim sum and noodles), and I believe you can find just about anything else here.
Besides the standard monuments you’ve seen and heard so much about, and which do a grand job of meeting but not exceeding expectations, Paris was a museum city for us. Besides the overcrowded Louvre, both with people and with a perhaps unparalleled number of masterpieces, we saw the Musee D’Orsay, Les Invalides, and the Centre Pompidou. Starting with the Louvre, one piece of advice I’d give is to head straight underneath the pyramid and buy your tickets from the automatic machines to avoid an easy hour’s worth of lines. Had for the Mona Lisa, other Da Vinci works, and Davids early, because that part gets stupid crowded, and the famous dame herself is so small, the less crowds the better.
Otherwise, the other collections from every corner of the globe can be visited more leisurely. The Musee D’Orsay cropped up when the Louvre originally passed on the Impressionists, so its collection of the 19th century works by everyone from Renoir to Van Gogh (my favorite- the texture of his paintings alone is incredible) is as good as anywhere in the world, and you can discover other interesting related movements and artists like Les Nabis and Henri B. Cross as well.
Les Invalides houses Napoleon’s tomb and a military museum, I’d always thought the former was a relatively less ostentatious affair in the old military hospital, but I thought wrong, and Napoleon resides in a secular cathedral devoted to his and France’s military glory.
The museum is quite good, though, particularly its collection of medieval arms and armor, but it includes weaponry up through the modern age. After that, it was time for more art- modern this time at the Pompidou. The building itself is an architectural marvel of glass, tubes, and pipes, and inside you’ll find a dazzling array of paintings and installations across a variety of media. Particularly interesting to me were works by Picasso and Jackson Pollock that showed the true breadth of their talents. They may be famous for abstract shapes and splashes of paint, but they were every bit as talented in more formal pieces when they chose to be.
Our final day in Paris I had to take a test in the morning for a teacher’s certificate, but whipped through it in time (don’t worry, I passed with flying colors) to see one more sight I’d missed last time- the famed Pere Lachaise Cemetary. Everybody associates it with Jim Morrison’s grave, and that’s the one people are certainly drawn to with cameras, flowers, and judging by the scent wafting through the suddenly autumn-like air, other budding plants, but many more famous names are buried there, from the medieval lovers Abelard and Heloise to Chopin, Delacroix, Asturias, and even Oscar Wilde. We saw all but Wilde’s (even though I was reading The Picture of Dorian Gray at the time), which was at the far end of the cemetary, and, to attempt a Wilde bon mot, the mind was willing, but the body was not, and neither, frankly, was the mind. Instead we hunted down a more interesting name to me- George Melies, one of the forefathers of cinema and special effects. Fittingly, his grave was a less ostentatious affair, which made the small tributes people left on it all the more affecting.