He was impressive, young and aggressive
Saving the world on his own.
But the warm summer breezes
The French wines and cheeses
Put his ambitions at bay.
Summers and winters
Scattered like splinters
And four or five years slipped away.
(He Went to Paris, Jimmy Buffett)
The young idealist in Jimmy Buffett’s song abandoned his lofty ambitions in favour of warm summer breezes, French wines and cheeses. But we’re neither young nor idealists, and our ambitions were pretty much based around warm summer breezes, French wines and cheeses. So no conflict for us.
In five weeks, you can see a lot of Paris, and we did. The headline tourist attractions are well known, so we thought instead we’d just record some of the less mainstream ones that people may not know too much about.
Atelier des Lumieres
It’s really hard to describe this place. Essentially, it’s an 18th century warehouse which has been stripped inside and painted black. Completely black. Floor, walls, support columns and ceilings.
You stand inside the space and digitally produced images are projected onto the walls all around you, over the floor and even around the supporting columns and other surfaces like the stairs to a mezzanine viewing area. The projections are accompanied by music and the whole thing is called an ‘immersive art experience’.
The headline exhibition at the moment is a Gustav Klimt experience. Images taken from Klimt’s paintings, from the tiniest detail to the whole of his signature painting ‘The Kiss’ are digitally projected, unfurling over the walls and floor, synchronised to segments of Beethoven’s 9th symphony, Mahler and other classical pieces at top volume. It’s effectively a 360 degree audio-visual experience that you feel like you are inside.
The second exhibition uses the art of Viennese painter and architect, Freidensreich Hundertwasser. Herr Hundertwasser is renowned for his use of irregular shapes and lines, asserting that ‘the straight line is a man-made danger because it is completely alien to mankind, to life, to all creation’. And we thought it was just the shortest distance between two points. Anyway, his art made for some amazing designs when they curled and uncurled all around and over you.
The third was a black and white creation which was, we think, supposed to evoke DNA strands or computer algorithms. It felt a bit like being stuck in the Matrix movies.
The venue has only been open since April 2018. The programs change periodically. Klimt and Hundertwasser will run until January 2019. Well worth a visit.
All that beautiful limestone used to build Paris’ grand buildings from the 12th to the 14th centuries had to come from somewhere. And that ‘somewhere’ was underneath what is now Paris’ Left Bank. Shafts were dug, the veins of limestone were quarried out horizontally, and then the shafts were abandoned. Often done illegally, the shafts were rarely mapped and were long since forgotten by the time the city of Paris spread over the area.
Meanwhile, over the river on the Right Bank, the city’s principal cemetery was filling up fast. By the end of the 12th century, the church had resorted to exhuming long-dead residents and packing the bones into the walls and roofs of galleries built inside the cemetery walls. This can’t go on forever, and despite additional cemeteries being dedicated, the problem of overflowing cemeteries had become so acute by the 18th century that ineffectively buried bodies were causing diseases in nearby communities in epidemic proportions.
Back on the Left Bank, the forgotten limestone mines had suddenly became front of mind in the late 1770s when mine collapses began to cause havoc. In one incident, a 300 metre section of a major street collapsed overnight. A program of works was begun to map and stabilise the mine tunnels.
Soooo, big underground holes in the Left Bank and millions of bones without a home on the Right Bank – the solution was obvious. For more than two years, a nightly procession of wagons covered in black cloth and accompanied by priests singing the service of the dead, carried the bones of more than 2 million Parisiennes across the river to be packed into the old mine shafts.
After this, bones from other cemeteries continued to be transferred to the site for another 16 years. In total, the bones of more than 4 million people were deposited here. Some call it the world’s largest cemetery, although technically it’s an ossuary not a cemetery.
At first, the bones were deposited haphazardly, but later the deposits were structured with visitors in mind. The mine inspector responsible for the works installed several archways with cryptic messages above them, like this one at the entrance which reads ‘Stop: Here is the empire of the dead’.
He also arranged for the bones to be placed in decorative patterns, with plaques identifying the original resting place of the bones.
The ossuary became a fashionable night out for the wealthy but only in the 1900s was it opened for general visitors.
Due to the fragile nature of the environment, only 200 visitors are permitted at any given time, which puts quite a pressure on getting tickets. You can book online for a designated time, usually a couple of days ahead. Or you can take your luck by turning up and waiting. We booked ahead and when we arrived the queue for those without booked tickets was two hours plus. We heard a young guy whingeing to his friend that the pre-booked ticket cost five euros more than a wait-in-line ticket. Hey buddy, how much is two hours of your life worth? Money well spent, we thought.
Musee des Arts Forains
The Fairground Art Museum is a private museum created by a fellow with a passion for antique fairground objects. It started as a private collection and when he could not get government interest in creating a museum, opened one himself.
The collection has objects created between 1850 and 1950, including amusement rides, carousels and merry-go-rounds, fairground stalls, and sideshow attractions like magic mirrors and a fairground organ, automata and other smaller objects.
Visits must be pre-booked via the museum’s website for a specific date and time. A guide takes the group around, demonstrating a number of the attractions, which have been restored to full working order. Visitors get to ride an antique merry-go-round and a rather scary cycle-go-round which rotates at 40kph while riders cycle madly to keep pace.
Commentary is mostly in French, but the guide gave a shortened version to us in English at each point.
It’s fun, and it will bring out the little kid in all but the most hard hearted.
The museum is housed in the historic Pavilions of Bercy. These are former wine stores built in the 18th century when wine was taxed highly in Paris, but Bercy, then just outside the boundary of Paris, was a designated tax-free area for wine. The museum owner had the stores meticulously restored by reference to historic records, but maybe took a little bit of theatrical licence with his decorations.
The whole Bercy area is worth a stroll around. There’s a lot of restaurants and bars, perhaps a hangover from its days as the biggest wine market in the world. Parc de Bercy is a lovely green space with the curious Les Enfants du Monde installation – 21 sculptures of children from around the world, which seem to be made from welded steel plates, old manhole covers, utility caps and the like. And the Musee Cinémathèque has one of the largest collections of film documents and film-related objects in the world.
Most tourists to Paris visit at least one of the three famous cemeteries – Montmartre, Montparnasse and Pere Lachaise. Pere Lachaise alone gets 3.5 million visitors a year, so it’s not exactly a hidden gem.
And yes, here you can see the entire spectrum of dead celebrities’ graves, from Hector Berlioz through Edgar Degas to Edith Piaf. There’s famous composers, writers, poets, singers, dancers, sculptors, politicians, industrialists and public figures
There’s also persons of more obscure achievement, like the fellow who invented the saxaphone (believe it or not, one Andre Sax), and this guy, who invented the moped.
At Montparnasse, fans leave used metro tickets on the grave of Simone de Beauvoir and Jean Paul Sartre. No one seems to know for sure why. There is speculation it relates to Sartre’s involvement with protests against the government in the late 1960s, in particular referencing a riot in which students attempted to force their way into a closed metro station on Boulevard Voltaire.
When Julie visited Montparnasse Cemetery 25 years ago, someone had left a cabbage smoking a lit cigarette on the gravestone of Serge Gainsborough. Sadly, no such imaginative offerings for Serge these days. Just a few elderly ladies nearby sighing sadly.
In contrast, over at Pere Lachaise, the grave of Jim Morrison was, in those days, regularly defaced with graffiti from fans. Clearly persons of far less wit and elegance than Serge’s fan base. Since those days, the caretakers have fenced off his grave to deter devotees, so a practice has developed of sticking used chewing gum on a nearby tree. Why? Anyone’s guess.
Pere Lachaise is also the final resting place of Oscar Wilde. An enormous angel graces his grave, minus its private parts which were allegedly removed and used by the cemetery’s conservator as a paperweight soon after the sculpture was installed. Fans used to leave lipstick kisses over the grave, but in 2011, a glass barrier was erected to stop this. Undeterred, fans now leave lipstick kisses on the glass, and the angel looks like he is swimming in a giant fish tank.
Really, though, some of the most interesting ones are not the famous, but just ordinary people with particularly artful memorials.
Actually, you might recognise that last one if reading French-language geography text books is your idea of entertainment. He wrote a lot of them.
And lastly this very simple one which we just happened across in wandering around Montparnasse. It’s too new to have made it into the ‘famous’ lists, but hopefully that will come. A sad reminder of the times in which we live.
Cimetière des Chiens et Autre Animaux Domestique
Established in 1899, the Cemetery of Dogs and Other Domestic Animals is the oldest pet cemetery in the world. It doesn’t have the fame of the ‘people’ cemeteries, which is a shame because it deserves more attention than it gets.
Its most famous resident is Rin Tin Tin. A US serviceman, Lee Duncan rescued him, his mother and the rest of her litter, from a damaged kennel in the French village of Flirey where they were the last dogs left behind after the Germans fled. The puppies were less than a week old and the dogs were starving. Duncan found homes for most of them but took Rin Tin Tin and another puppy back to the US with him when his service ended. The second puppy died of pneumonia while in quarantine awaiting entry to the US.
Despite his successful Hollywood career, when Rin Tin Tin died in 1932, Duncan was not a wealthy man. He buried RTT in a casket in his backyard. Later he had to sell his house and despite his poor financial circumstances, he had RTT quietly repatriated to Paris and buried here at the pet cemetery.
There is also a statue honouring Barry, a Saint Bernard mountain rescue dog who saved 40 people lost or trapped in the snow. Sadly, he lost his life attempting to save a 41st. Poor Barry is not interred here, however. His stuffed body is in a museum in Bern, Switzerland.
There are some lovely memorials to dogs who were attached to military regiments, fire brigades and the like. This fellow was mascot to a light infantry brigade.
Although the name suggests the cemetery is mostly for dogs, there seem to be about as many feline inhabitants.
There are also some more unusual pets represented, including a couple of horses, a rabbit, a tortoise and a monkey.
But mostly, it’s just very moving to see how much these pets were loved. There are many graves that seem still to be tended decades after the pet’s death. It is a quiet, green place in an otherwise busy area. We even met a lady who regularly brings her very-much-alive cat here for a walk. They walk down together from their nearby apartment, the lady sits and has lunch, the cat plays, and then they walk home again. First cat we ever met that would be taken for a walk and actually obey directions. Maybe he looks around the cemetery and questions what will happen if he misbehaves…
Marche Aux Puces
Known to locals simply as Les Puces (The Fleas), the Paris flea market covers seven hectares, has 3,000 traders and receives up to 180,000 visitors each weekend. It is considered the largest fleamarket in the world.
Originally a shanty town set up just outside the city limits in 1885, the market was later rationalised into a series of walled enclaves, most the size of a few city blocks, with everything from vintage toys, cameras and bric-a-brac, vintage and reproduction furniture, books, records, kitchenware, lighting, fashion, vintage coins, stamps and other collectables.
None of it is flea-bitten, indeed some of it is seriously high-end. There are no backed-up utes full of used car parts, and no dreadlocked wanna-be rastafarians flogging trinkets from Thailand.
Sure, not all of it’s old and not all of it’s interesting, but there’s such a variety, and a sufficient volume of really imaginative and quirky stuff, that it’s definitely worth a day.
Foundation Louis Vuitton
Opened in 2014, Foundation Louis Vuitton is an art gallery and cultural centre perched on the edge of the Bois de Boulogne, Paris’ largest public park.
The land is owned by the city of Paris, and planning permission required the building to occupy no more than the square footage and two story volume of a bowling alley previously on the site. Anything higher had to be glass.
The result is a marvel of both design and engineering conceived by architect Frank Gehry. The two storey structure comprises 11 galleries and a 350 seat auditorium, housed within 3,600 glass panels each of which is unique and specifically designed by Gerhy to evoke boat sails filled with wind.
Even with this constrained footprint, it seems you can’t please all of the people all of the time. A group with a purported charter of ‘safeguarding the Bois de Boulogne’ took court action on the basis the building is too close to a tiny road deemed to be a public access way. One renowned French architect said dismissively of their efforts that ‘they want to put Paris in formalin’. The perennial tension between preservation of traditional architecture and new works, it seems.
The group won the initial court case, effectively delaying the project. Their win proved to be but a small hiccup. In response the Assemblee Nationale passed a special law approving the project as being in the national interest and ‘a major work of art for the whole world’. Problem solved.
The Foundation hosts a small permanent collection and changing temporary exhibitions, but really it’s the building we came to see. There’s also a permanent exhibition about the design and construction of the building which is really informative.
The Foundation is a not-for-profit entity funded by LMVH with a charter of promoting art and culture. With an original budget estimate of €100 million, it has been reported that the eventual total cost was €780 million. Now we know why those handbags cost so much.
So that’s a snapshot of quirky Paris. We enjoyed all this from an apartment in the quiet part of Montmartre. Yes, there is one. It’s over the hill from Sacre Coeur and virtually untouched by the tourist madness up there.
Those five weeks slipped away fast. And those warm summer breezes, French wines and cheeses? Ambition fulfilled.