It hadn’t been a great night for us – the air conditioner in our room, which hadn’t been great to start with, packed it in completely around 1 o’clock in the morning and the room became very stuffy. Eventually we were forced to open the window, and although it faced onto a quiet street, in Paris you’re never too far from a noisy grand boulevard, and that’s bad news in a city that never sleeps. Then, at about 4:00 am, a refrigerated delivery truck rolled up on the street below us and the driver spent the best part of an hour unloading his wares.
The final straw came at around 6:30 am; we had just managed to get a little bit of fitful rest and I was readying myself for a swim in the pool to try and freshen up, when the hotel’s evacuation system went off and we were forced out on the street in our dressing gowns. Apparently a couple in one of the rooms had decided to smoke from their window (despite signing an agreement that it was forbidden and subject to a €500 cleaning charge) and they had set off the smoke detectors. When Vanessa said to the concierge “I hope you’re going to evict them”, he shrugged his shoulders, but several other guests muttered “hear, hear” before trudging back to the stairs and up to their rooms.
So after breakfast (which the hotel provided at no charge to compensate guests for their inconvenience) we set off towards the River Seine, buffeted by strong winds that were driving dust devils through the streets and across the open plazas. It was still hot and humid, but there were a few showers around and the wind did have a slight cooling effect, though how long that would last was anyone’s guess.
Many of our plans for the two Paris legs of our trip had already fallen through thanks to two things – the incredible heatwave that had been delivering record temperatures across France, and the sheer weight of numbers at some of the more popular destinations we had hoped to see. Already we had read report after report on social media of people who, like us, had purchased a two-day Paris Pass with museum entry, and had then queued for over an hour in blistering heat, only to be told that the venue had already accepted its quota of Paris Pass holders for that day and that they would need to return another day.
We had heard of this happening at Versailles, The Louvre, the Eiffel Tower and the Musée d’Orsay, so we decided that we would leave the first three for another time, preferably in Spring when it is cooler and quieter, and focus our attention for today on getting to the Musée d’Orsay early in the morning
Steering a course between the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries, we crossed the river at the Pont Royal, where we had a great view across to our destination. The Musée d’Orsay is an old railway station, built at a time when rail was king and railway stations were buildings of great stature and grandeur. In 1978 plans began to turn it into a museum that would bridge the gap between the collections of the Louvre and the National Museum of Modern Art at the George Pompidou Centre.
Before you even start to look at the artwork on the walls of the building, you have to take in the beauty of the building itself. A vast, cavernous hall filled with sculptures and beautifully lit through hundreds of leadlight windows. There are also a couple of magnificent clocks designed by one of the building’s architects, Victor Laloux – the first this magnificent piece that dominates the far wall of the main hall.
The second is on the fifth level (where most of the major works of the Impressionists are displayed). This clock is amazing not as much for the clock face itself (which is still very beautiful), but for the fact that looking through it offers an amazing view across Paris to Montmartre. In fact, you can even step outside onto a very spacious balcony to enjoy some of the best views of Paris going.
18 months ago when we visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, despite a collection of thousands of paintings, the one that everyone wanted to see was The Nightwatch by Rembrandt. Ditto at the Louvre, where the Mona Lisa attracts hundreds of onlookers at a time. Here at the Musée d’Orsay, there are plenty of famous works, but no one individual work that seems to be the standout “must see”, so once you reach the Impressionists hall on the fifth floor, it’s easy to find yourself with a couple of moments alone in front of a Renoir, Gaugin, Monet, Degas, Manet, Pissarro, Cezanne or even a van Gogh.
One artist I was not overly familiar with but whose works wowed me the most at Musée d’Orsay was Camille Pissarro. Considered the father figure of Impressionism, the vast body of his works on display at the museum show what an incredible talent he had for capturing the light and mood in otherwise ordinary scenes.
Of course, the museum holds more than just the impressionists works – there are a huge amount of other works spanning another four levels – too much to see in one morning. We wandered around a few more exhibits, including the van Gogh section (too dark and crowded for good photos) and a special exhibition of works by Berthe Morisot, a female impressionist painter of great renown. Her 1881 painting “After Lunch” is her most famous, and it was auctioned off in 2013 for an impressive $10.9 million, at the time the most expensive work by a woman ever sold.
One of the most moving pieces for me was Le Rêve (“The Dream”) by Édouard Detaille, which measures a staggering 4 metres X 3 metres and is exhibited on the ground floor in an area set aside for paintings on a grand scale. In it, an encampment of sleeping French soldiers, young conscripts of the French Third Republic are dreaming of the glory of their predecessors, and of exacting revenge following their country’s defeat in the Franco-Prussian War. French soldiers from previous battles are depicted in the sky above.
There are also hundreds of sculptures around each floor – one of the most impressive being La Nature se dévoilant à la Science (Nature Unveiling Herself Before Science) by Louis-Ernest Barrias. The figure is made of marble, with the gown made of Algerian onyx, and the scarab of malachite.
After making our way through the gift shop and picking up a few Monet prints that we’ll get framed and hung at home, we left the museum and headed back across the river, taking some time to explore the gardens of Tuileries before heading off towards a completely different kind of museum – Musée Jacquemart-Andre on Boulevard Haussmann.