Wednesday, 2 January 2008

Lucky Vogel grabs a weekend in Paris: III

Sunday, 25 November 2007

I checked out early: the hotel's timings are actually amazingly generous but I wouldn't be back later anyway, so thank you and goodbye.

After breakfast we all went off to the Oratoire du Louvre, the venue for this afternoon's concert at 4.00. We dumped stuff there - including my bag - and crossed the road to visit the Louvre itself. As its name implies, the church is pretty much as close to the Louvre as you can get without actually being inside it. The organist there is a splendid, elderly lady who's an old friend of Ibrahim's family and has thus known Ibrahim since he was tiny.

Having reached the impressive courtyards inside the Louvre we paused for group photos before going to see the galleries. I've never been before and was completely knocked out, both by the art and by the grandeur of its surroundings. I saw so many paintings that I feel I know quite well, and so many that I felt I should.

I also loved the pyramids: it's hard to believe that they were once contentious when they now seem to be pretty much viewed as a design classic in their own right, and an almost-integral, and certainly important, part of the experience of seeing the whole Louvre. They do work exceedingly well, and you can only guess at how it would be there now, with these swarms of visitors, had they adopted some less imaginative solution.

I was a bit shocked at the rudeness of the ticket sales man, who shooed Ibrahim away from where he was standing by the counter, ever-conscientious, ready to help any of the group with language or money. Ibrahim, bless 'im, just laughed it off as an example of French bureaucratic behaviour at its finest, which was noble of him but I really did wonder how the guy could flip out and be so threatened by such a small thing. I suspect he didn't get his croissant nicely curved or his beans thoroughly ground that morning. Or maybe he's just a miserable espece de whatever. Tsk.

Like a zillion other people I also felt I should go and see the Mona Lisa. I'm glad that I've seen it: I even quite liked it, I think, but it wasn't, in general, a great experience. Let me try to share it with you a little:

Although FLASH!! they have FLASH!! clearly stated FLASH!! policies (no flash anywhere FLASH!! , no photography FLASH!! in the galleries FLASH!! FLASH!! of the most important paintings FLASH!! ), the useless, demoralized-looking FLASH!! FLASH!! FLASH!! staff in the FLASH!! room with the FLASH!! FLASH!! FLASH!! FLASH!! Mona FLASH!! FLASH!! Lisa were doing nothing, but nothing FLASH!! FLASH!! to enforce policy, so FLASH!! FLASH!! a complete FLASH!! free-for-all FLASH!! FLASH!! was taking place. Pressing down on FLASH!! the barrier, a massive, FLASH!! FLASH!! near-hysterical FLASH!! crush of FLASH!! FLASH!! FLASH!! people was busily FLASH!! engaged upon taking photos FLASH!! FLASH!! of itself, FLASH!! with the FLASH!! FLASH!! Mona FLASH!! Lisa in the background. FLASH!! FLASH!! FLASH!! FLASH!! Rugger scrum. FLASH!! Cattle market. FLASH!! FLASH!! Oh dear.

I hope, with all due respect, that you found that paragraph quite irritating to read. Now multiply that irritation by some number or other - I don't know, 6, 37 maybe, or 5442, who knows? - and you're starting to see what a profoundly dreadful experience this was. We're all there for the same reason or variants thereof, I assume, but the way in which many of the visitors seem to want (need?) to enjoy it is guaranteed to interfere, perhaps fatally, with my enjoyment of it. I like to think that I'm a nice democratic, open-minded sort of chap (considering my aristocratic background) but there's really something terribly wrong here. It was like the morning after the revolution: the state is overthrown, the palaces and galleries forcibly opened to the will of the people: here, you may do as you please. You couldn't get any more democratic without giving out chinagraph pencils and letting people scribble moustaches and funny messages on her armoured glass. I cannot even imagine how I'd try to fix it, but I do know that the Louvre, in letting this painting become so thorough a victim of her own success, is failing horribly in its duty. On that morning they were simply bowing to a form of bullying: please tell me that something better than this is possible.

Right, gripe over. That was a few gruesome minutes' worth and yet I was there for hours, and we must not let the tail wag the dog: I loved every other square metre of the Louvre and now I've seen the Mona Lisa once, I won't be needing to hurry back, not under the current arrangements anyway.

Even in that same room, all you need to do is turn through 180° and there's the Wedding Feast at Cana, massive and wonderful, being looked at by maybe a tenth of the people in there.

Similar joys were round every corner: some humongous epics on massive scale, some little pieces meant for a drawing room. When I suddenly saw Théodore Géricault’s The Raft of the Medusa for the first time I actually had to sit down – no kidding - I was so shocked by the size and impact. I previously knew it as a colour plate in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters where I was much taken with Julian Barnes’s account of it, but to see it erupt from a little paperback-sized thing into the effortless domination of an entire wall: that was really something else. And the thing is, the Louvre just goes on and on: I can't imagine how many visits it would take for me to feel I'd got even slightly to grips with this place.

After some time I really didn't feel I could walk any further or see any more paintings so, leaving the Mortensons to press on, I took a break in a very pleasant café on a landing, with nice views inside the Louvre and down galleries, and outside it, over to the west so you can see the Tuilleries gardens and other delights. Refreshed by all this I set off again for the last forty-five minutes before the rendezvous, going down through fantastic displays of Etruscan pottery, till I eventually hit the "medieval Louvre" which I'd seen intriguingly signposted. I only had time for the quickest of looks but it confirmed that I wanted to see more.

The whole group met back in the courtyard and walked along past the church and the metro to find lunch in a pleasant café (Massena I think) which seemed to specialize in the croque monsieur and its myriad variants. Mine, a "Super Croque Madame au Pain de Campagne”, was very nice. The waiter was also quite nice, right up to the moment when Ibrahim made sure that we knew the price of the drinks, at which point the waiter suddenly became a lot less cheerful. Strangely, these prices were not clearly visible in the menu or anywhere you could see from the table - it's almost as if they wanted you to accidentally order a coke that costs double the price of your meal! Surely not. Ah well.

It by now being twoish it was also rehearsalish, so the KSU group went back to the church and I went back to the Louvre, the ticket being, splendidly, of the use-all-day variety. This time I started with French painting, which was wonderful. I did get slightly bored with heroic hussars. What I didn't get at all bored with is those wonderful paintings of moments from Classical or Biblical stories with tiny figures set in magnificent, vast city- or harbour- or whatever-scapes. I wish I knew enough to describe this better. Years ago Muswell Hill School did a project based on a painting of the Queen of Sheba arriving ... er, somewhere or other. It was that sort of thing, an incredibly detailed painting of the harbour and ships and everything. Like that. I could look at this stuff all day: in fact I nearly did.

My next stop was the English paintings room. It didn't take too long. There were quite remarkably few of them, none on a very large scale, and what there was hung in the shade of the massive French paintings which completely dominated the upper parts of the walls. The lighting was oddly unhelpful and the whole room felt like a bit of an afterthought. I wondered which if any of the following might be true or applicable:

  • They think our paintings are rubbish;
  • Our paintings are rubbish;
  • Napoleon never invaded Britain, hence missing out on some great art-plundering opportunities;
  • There's some complex art-management or cultural or financial or diplomatic reason which I am probably too dim to grasp, and/or
  • There's a gentleman's agreement between the Louvre and the London galleries and museums, and there's a similar shortage of French art in London;
  • They just hate us!

Having said all that I really rather loved the very sweet Sand Quarries on Hampstead Heath by John Linell. OK it's partly because I know the place - indeed, I've orienteered there! - but even so it was rather gorgeous. I was also rather taken with John Martin’s Pandemonium, a highly dramatic rivers-of-lava job, illustrating a bit of Paradise Lost, which looks straight out of the climactic moments of the latest Christmas blockbuster. I do realize that comparing paintings to film, with little knowledge of either, probably brands me as the biggest philistine on the planet. Oh well, if the cap fits, an ting. In any case I bet all those famous nineteenth century painters liked the cinema too. Ahem. Yeah!

Having spent some time in the beautiful, airy galleries on the upper floors of the eastern part of the Louvre, I decided it was time to head back down to the basement levels and properly explore the Medieval Louvre.

This is truly amazing. It's as if you popped down to the cellar in, say, Somerset House, and found half of Windsor Castle down there. Just after you leave, heading east, the main entrance hall under the big pyramid, there's a rather good exhibition about the Louvre's history which shows you, in a succession of beautifully detailed models (first thought: "d*mn! Where are my Dinky cars?") how the site developed. In particular, you can see the medieval castle which formerly occupied the central part of the site. It's a proper French/Scottish looking castle with slopey sides, turrets and other castle-ish features: real damsel-rescuing stuff. (There's a huge model of just this castle - looking most impressive - at the entrance to the Medieval Louvre bit.)

What seems to have happened is that when they built the newer Louvre they only demolished the old castle down to ground level: everything below was just left. So now it's all been dug out and exquisitely sorted out and presented, you get to wander along ditches between these towering medieval walls. It's all massive and the size of the void you're in is incredible: the ceiling, presumably around current ground level, is way over your head.

Initially you get to walk along what would've been some sort of exterior ditch or moat, but then you rather thrillingly plunge into a modern tunnel through the masonry, and when you emerge you're in the moat right round the keep itself. You go maybe 235° round it before leaving through another exit. It's wonderfully done with walkways and lighting, and feels like a really exciting experience. It doesn't take much imagination to feel the castle still there, rising into the darkness and through the courtyard above you.

Once you've left there's a bit more historical display and some kind of nice medieval undercroft, which peters out a bit as it meets (I guess) the foundations of the present Louvre. Then you're quite suddenly back to the twenty-first century, or at least the eighteenth, and that's your Medieval Louvre visit done. A really fantastic place to see. Just amazing that on top of it is this unbelievable world treasure-house of beauty and then the old castle still lurking there underground. If there's a French equivalent of King Arthur it is perhaps here that you'd expect to find him and his knights sleeping till they're next needed.

Enough romance, mon vieux, and on with the show!

As already noted, the concert venue wasn't exactly a major trek from the Louvre so I was over there in two shakes of a lamb's tail. Well alright, several shakes of the tatty manky tail of a somewhat muttonoidal old ram with a bit of a case of the staggers. But you get the general idea, right?

The concert was great. One highlight was Ibrahim's new piece Klezmarab for solo trumpet (Ibrahim), violin (Kristin) and trumpet ensemble. This fine piece does exactly what it says on the tin and is thoroughly enjoyable with it. Ibrahim's USP is that as well as being a highly accomplished classical player (check the CV!) he does interesting Arabic folk/jazz sounds on a specially-adapted trumpet, this having four valves. This fourth valve (do stop me if I'm boring you) does quarter-tones, which you need if you are going to play authentic Arabic scales: so there you go. Basically he's pretty wonderful, is the point, and so was his piece.

There was also a good Fanfare for St Edmundsbury, a piece I especially love, and some excellent Hammerschmidt, and the concert ended with Cityscapes, an interesting and rather gorgeous piece by Erik Morales, who I think Gary said was a student of his, many years ago.

In between all these moments trompettistiques was an excellent choir. I fell slightly out of love with them while they were doing works with the organ, because they had to go up behind us into the organ loft high in the west end, and this led to a bit of a loss of communications between choir and audience. But when they were down in front of us, singing unaccompanied - just fantastic! As I write this I don't have the programme with me, but if I find it I'll back-fill some more details of this most splendid gig.

Afterwards we crossed the road and went upstairs in what I think was some kind of parish hall/house/epis for a very nice, friendly reception with drinks and nibbles. Marie-Louise Girod-Parrot, the splendid, elderly organist, made a very nice speech in which her affection and high regard for Ibrahim were movingly evident. I met Ibrahim's mum and stepdad here and thought them very nice indeed.

Once the reception had run its course people were setting off to go and eat - in Montmartre again I think - so I left with them but got off at Gare du Nord, where I'm now writing this. It was sad to say goodbye to this extremely nice group of people. The metro was pretty crowded - even by London standards - so it was also quite difficult to say goodbye!

Why did I like the KSU group so much? Difficult to say exactly, but, for a kick-off, any friend of Gary's is a friend of mine, and this lot were a pretty good group who clearly value Gary highly, which is right and proper. I also liked the composition of the group as it felt like a bit of a family, with a couple of extras besides the trumpet students: I'm a touch hazy on the details but I think I'm right to say that one student was travelling with his girlfriend, nay fiancée, and that another had brought along her mum (or mom if you insist) and sister. These were all, students and family alike, thoroughly nice people: and of course it was brilliant to see all the Mortensons again. Finally, I guess I liked them because they were so kindly inclusive to me, so I really felt part of the group and not just some visiting twit from London.

Gare du Nord is the usual drag. I love this station because it's the gateway to Paris for us, but I do not at all love it for itself, as a place to be.

There's a slightly annoying conflict that feeds into the age-old debate about checking in earlier or later. If you stay "out" you have more choice of cafés and stuff but you're also pretty much in the casual-theft-capital of Europe, surrounded by skilled professionals keen to demonstrate, in a nicely understated way, their prowess. (Remember Jeremy Jackman's bag? Voosh! Gorn.) If you "go through" then I imagine you're a bit safer from the luggage-lifters but then it really is as boring as h*ll and there aren't enough seats.

Amusingly enough I did stop at the nice-looking balcony café and try for a cup of tea before checking in, but the waitress said "I'll be back" then vanished for ever, having perhaps joined a circus or the Foreign Legion. I hope she is very happy.

So I gave up on that part of the plan and checked in, which was all very quick and painless, but - at the risk of repeating myself, there aren't enough seats. Not enough. No way nohow. Like, insufficient, man. Funny that: given that they control the time of check-in, they must know the exact number of seats required but they have failed to provide them. No doubt they'd claim shortage of space but funnily enough they had plenty of space for a load of duty-free shops. So people - lots of them - are sitting around on the floor and it all looks a bit airport-ish and resigned. Very very poor show for a railway setup which is otherwise so cool and businesslike, and quite unnecessary.

Anyway after a while the train before mine left and suddenly there was room to sit: one reluctant and unrousing cheer. But I was swiftly degrouched once we were - er - entrained(?) and a pleasant waitorial person brought me a small bottle of something rather nice and rouge. Things really looked up rapidly from this point on and the rest of the journey was relaxing and generally rather lovely. Oh and delicious too (remember I'm in Upper-Middle Class - or whatever). Nowadays it seems amazingly fast: the only chunk of journey which seems even remotely significant is that from Paris to the tunnel in, what, 80 minutes or something. Then it's 20 minutes through the tunnel, then once you're on the English side it seems that you're practically in London - I think it's another 40 minutes or something but the time just flies by. All really very impressive.

By a neat coincidence Deb was arriving at Euston just twenty minutes after my train reached St Pancras, as she'd been visiting Becca in the Manchester Royal Infirmary as I mentioned in the Friday blogological occurrence. So we met and got a cab home, which was quite civilized. And, with the cruel reality of Monday morning coming up fast in the rear-view mirror, that was the end of my busy and rather excellent couple of days swanning around in Paris.


Kat said...

Yay, K-State!

Yay, the Louvre!

Yay, Montmartre!

Boo, flash photography!

Boo, you mentioned "Queen of Sheba" so now I have Handel's piece, "Arrival of...," stuck in my head.

Strawberryyog said...

Oops sorry Kat. Tell you what, try suddenly going "Zadok the Priest" quite loudly and see if that helps displace the Queen?