Paris: A Week in the City of Love: Day 5 - Picasso Museum, L'Atelier des Lumières, Jardin des Plantes
Our day started with what had become our Paris norm: flaky goodness of croissants. Adding some excitement to the mix, Dustin added a ham and cheese croissant, whereas I stuck with my you-can’t-go-wrong choices of croissant au beurre and pain au chocolat. Hey, if you can’t have chocolate for breakfast on vacation, when can you? (Never is not an option!).
Our first stop of the day was Musée National Picasso-Paris, housed in the Hôtel Salé in rue de Thorigny in the historic and trendy Marais district. The building itself is beautiful and lends itself to an intimate experience of the art in spite of the sweeping nature of the grand marble staircase and many rooms, as if you are simply wandering through the home of your rich, art collector best friend. The exhibit on display during our visit was Calder-Picasso. This exhibit took up the first two (of a total of four) floors and made for a fascinating juxtaposition of their unique styles and, as the museum positioned them, as two explorers of the void in their art, of the limitations any piece of art presents.
The top two floors of the museum were much less grand, and the top floor had an attic feel to it, which I really liked. Those floors had more permanent Picasso pieces as well as artwork from other artists - such as Matisse - interspersed. One room on the top floor was off in a corner and reminded me of the stereotypical back room at video stores (for those who are old enough to remember video stores). It housed some of Picasso’s more - let’s say - graphic nudes. As I entered, a man leaving made an “oh my!” comment to his wife and was clearly not a fan. There was a sign at the beginning of the room warning people of its contents. I got a chuckle out of that because, well, it’s France and art! I suspect the sign (in English) may have been placed for their cross-ocean cousins who are descendants from puritans, but we’ll never know.
If you enjoy Picasso’s artwork, this is definitely an enjoyable stop and a good art museum option in a smaller more peaceful setting that, say, the Louvre, which we blogged about here. We spent about 90 minutes, which was ample time for us. Dustin got a audio tour to learn more about pieces of art in the Picasso-Calder exhibit.
Knowing we were nearby Place des Vosges (about a 5 minute walk), the square where had found a restaurant a few days earlier after our visit to Père Lachaise Cemetery (read that blog here), we scouted out a new restaurant to try and picked Le Sevigne. The restaurant is small with a couple of cozy rooms and a bar, and felt like a place you could hang out comfortably for hours.
At several restaurants, the four of us ended up with a combination of some French and English menus. In some cases, it was actually easier to read the French ones because the English translations were confusing. But what we saw on the menu here for the second time in two days was the word “cheval,” which means horse. Not expecting horse to be on the menu, we were alarmed and confused by this until Dustin uncovered in a Google search that the word is used in food to describe “straddling;” that is, an egg straddling a sandwich just like a rider would straddle a horse. Clearly, this is an idiom and helped us to rest easy that we weren’t going to inadvertently eat horse meat! It goes to show that even basic translation skills can leave a lot of important context and meaning out!
At Le Sevigne, Dustin had a Croque-Madame with the egg (hence the final discovery of ‘cheval’), and I had a delicious tarte dijonnaise, and we washed them down with espresso.
After lunch, we walked about 20 minutes to arrive in time for our 3:30pm tickets for L'Atelier des Lumières. Set in a warehouse-style building, there are a series of three immersive art projections that play across the entire room as a projection. One is focused on art by Van Gogh, another is Japanese art, and a third is called Verse and is a shorter experience. In total, the three last just under an hour. You can find videos online on their site that help better show what I’m trying to explain, but essentially visitors experience multiple pieces of artwork that also come alive through movement; for example, in Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows, the birds flap their wings. A soundtrack tied to the visuals plays to add an auditory element.
Overall, I think our group had somewhat mixed feelings. I think we generally agreed that the idea is a very cool one but that it wasn’t executed as well as it could be. Because of the layout in the room, you pretty much have to sit on the floor or on different benches. A lot of people then also wandered around or talked, making it hard to get a good view. One woman came and blatantly stood right in front of us for a while. Dustin, of course, stared her down with a cold, unblinking glare until she became so uncomfortable she decided to move on. Because it was dark, people also risked tripping over each other. A family near us had a toddler sprawled across the floor napping and multiple people walking almost tripped over the kid, and one even kicked the child accidentally. Overall, I am glad we went to get to have this unique experience. If you are interested in going, know that they often sell out of tickets so purchase yours in advance. We bought ours online several days in advance, and weekend showings can sell out over a week prior (possibly more in peak season).
By the time we ventured back outside, the weather had turned cold, breezy, and gray. On our way home, we wandered through the Jardin des Plantes briefly but beyond a few trees and several rows of tulips, nothing was really blooming yet and the weather made it less enjoyable. The garden looked like it would be a wonderful place to visit in full bloom and warmer weather.
The continuation of our walk home took us through the campus of Sorbonne University, founded in 1257. Sorbonne looked much like a city campus anywhere with students toting bags solo or in two- or three-somes, skateboarders flying around as if their proximity to passersby was inconsequential, and lots of large institutional buildings.
We overshot our place by a few blocks to explore the renowned (English-language) Shakespeare & Company bookstore. To the left of the main entrance is a baby version of the store that houses antique books and is packed to the gills with books in a small, square room that you enter directly into. The main entrance to the rest of the shop is a portal into a magical place for anyone who loves books and book shops. The shop is a rabbit’s warren of spaces spread over two floors with books - new, used, common, and uncommon - anywhere and everywhere. Scattered throughout and adding to the fanciful nature of the space are specimens of a home - a sink in the middle of the store, a loft with an old desk perched in it. Throughout the shop were signs asking that visitors please respect other guests and not take any photos. We respected that, so if you want to see any images of what I’m describing, you can look on their website here.
The original Shakespeare & Company opened in 1919 by American Sylvia Beach. Before it closed during German occupation of Paris during World War II, never to re-open, it was a haven for many writers in Paris, including Hemingway. In 1951, another American opened a new English-language bookshop, which he renamed Shakespeare & Company as a homage to the original shop. In addition to being a bookshop, it is also hospitable to traveling writers and has a program where they can stay and work in the shop, which is a really cool idea.
For dinner, we walked to Le Procope, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, on the recommendation of a friend. The restaurant is situated on the most quaint street and has the amazing belle epoque atmosphere for which Paris is known. Le Procope bills itself as the oldest restaurant in the city, dating to 1686. This is true if you exclude the 50 years or so it shuttered its doors before reopening in the 1920s. I’m willing to give that one to them. What is a measly 50 years out of 350? Le Procope isn’t only known for its age but for its famous diners throughout history. Known as a spot for intellectuals to gather, it was frequented by people such as Rousseau, Voltaire, visited by Americans in Paris such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. The restaurant has Napoleon’s hat on display, which they say he left to show he’d make good on a bill due. I’m not sure what it says that the restaurant still has the hat. According to the history provided in the menu by the restaurant, they assert that their wallpaper is the original from the 1830s.
This was easily our best meal in Paris. Dustin and I both ordered the sole meunière. For dessert, we split a crêpe flambé with Grand Marnier. We finished dinner after 11pm and walked through sporadically inhabited streets back home. This part of the neighborhood is a place I wish we would have taken more time to explore.
The next day would include stops at a few museums and national mausoleum, an unexpected Roman surprise, and dinner at a restaurant with the most amazing ambiance ever.