PARIS: Back to Normal – and Back to NEW!
When I told friends and family that I was going to Europe they were perplexed and the general reaction was,
(Photo Captions L to R: Musee Hotel de la Marine, Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection, Musee Carnavalet, Samaritaine)
“Why go to Europe in the middle of Pandemic?” – and added, “Besides, aren’t many of the museums closed?” My reply? “Believe it or not, all of Paris’ famous museums are open.” In fact, Paris isn’t just any city – during the Pandemic – there’s even more of Paris to see!” During the pandemic, Paris — unlike other cities — bravely opened two extraordinary new museums, reopened an old favorite, and even created an entirely new urban center on the Seine – right in the middle of Paris.
And here’s the biggest surprise – I felt safer in Paris than I do in Manhattan. To get indoors in museums, stores, and restaurants – you have to show a “Passe Sanitaire” – the French proof of vaccine pass. Before leaving for Paris I wondered if I could get the French “Passe Sanitaire” in advance. Good news – my CDC Proof of Vaccination opened doors everywhere in Paris. And there’s even more good news – the French fully – and gracefully — oblige to their health regulations – even in the Metro.
Now that you know it’s safe to open new doors in Paris and enter – let’s open new doors to Paris’ newest fantastic sites. And you don’t have to look far to find them.
Until this year if you wanted to see furnished 18th-century rooms, you had to journey to Versailles. And those rooms weren’t even fully furnished since Versailles’ main palace was ransacked during the French Revolution. At around the same time in the late 18th century – the French Navy moved into new headquarters at the Place de la Revolution into a relatively new building designed by Jacques-Ange Gabriel. Today that building is still in the same place – but its square has a new name — the Place de la Concorde. And the former vacated Ministry of the Navy has been meticulously turned into a magnificent new museum — the sensational Musee Hotel de la Marine – which matches its twin building across the street — the bastion of elegance — the Hotel de Crillon.
In 1989, during the Bicentennial of the French Revolution, the Louvre’s overly lavish intact 19th-century rooms of Napoleon III first opened to the public when the Ministry of Finance moved out of the Louvre. In 2021, during the Covid Pandemic, the intact, completely furnished, elegant 18th-century rooms first opened to the public after a painstaking restoration after the Ministry of the Navy moved out of the Hotel de la Marine – after more than 230 years – leaving its furnished rooms almost intact.
A walk through the enfilade rooms of the Hotel de la Marine is like taking a walk through the 18th century – as a King or Queen. (Speaking of Queens, Marie Antionette’s death warrant was signed in a room overlooking the Place de la Concorde where she was executed.) The only thing that made me feel as if I was out of place was my wearing pants instead culottes.
One of the unique features of the magnificent palaces in around St, Petersburg, Russia, is the intarsia floors of rare wood forming intricate patterns that one rarely finds elsewhere in Europe (Vienna’s Schoenbrunn Palace and Rome’s Quirinale Palace are the exceptions that come to mind). The Musee Hotel de la Marine’s first furnished room has an intarsia patterned floor fit for a Bourbon– as well as a Romanov. While the Romanov’s Catherine Palace lost its unique Mirrored Room (with walls of mirrors) — amazingly I found one in the Hotel de la Marine with something even more unique and somewhat frightening – my reflection on every wall. And if you really like rooms with mirrors – again no need to travel to Versailles. The Musee de la Marine has its very own “Hall of Mirrors” (which in this uncrowded museum – you can actually see your reflection without any intruders.)
Highly recommended is the audio tour which is the best I’ve ever taken. As you leave from one room and enter another — it automatically switches to describe the room into which you just stepped – creating a seamless journey back into a sumptuous, luxurious history. I’m glad I toured the Hotel de la Marine after breakfast. One room has a wall with historical portraits that talk – with the portraits’ lips actually moving! Had I toured the museum after lunch — after drinking – I would have had sworn I had at least one too many.
When it comes to eating and drinking you came to the right museum. I thoroughly apologize for leaving out the Musee de la Marine in my previous travel column on Museum Dining. In fact, the Musee Hotel de la Marine has not one — but two haute cuisine restaurants – Laperouse – a branch of the esteemed Left Bank restaurant founded in the apropos 18th century and Mimosa with a Michelin-starred chef,
Before you leave the Courtyard of the Musee Hotel de la Marine – prepare for yet another surprise, The sun had already set by the time I was finished with an early dinner at the museum’s stunning Laperouse located in the courtyard which — in the dark of night — displays on-and-off flashing lights on its dark pavement. Since it was late November – I presumed it was a very classy display of Christmas lights until I discovered those lights flash all year round.
Speaking of “round” – the other sensational new museum is the Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection created in the magnificent gigantic round, abandoned 18th-19th century Bourse de Commerce with its overpowering dome. As a museum, it was redesigned by the great “Starchitect” – Tadao Ando. (Pinault is a master at bringing neglected, abandoned landmarks back to life as vibrant museums of Modern Art – as he did in Venice’s Punta della Dogana Museum — the old empty and neglected 17th-century customs building – also the work of Tadao Ando — at the end of the Grand Canal (opposite the Doge’s Palace) turning it into a marvelous museum of Modern Art,)
In Manhattan, Frank Lloyd Wright designed the Guggenheim Museum where the actual building overwhelms its art. Paris has Tadao Ando’s Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection in which, once again, the building overwhelms the art – this time even making the Guggenheim jealous!
And like the Musee Hotel de la Marine – the new incarnation of the Bourse Commerce (the original building dating from the 18th century as a Wheat Exchange and renovated in the late 19th century as a stock exchange) is also in a prime location – near the Pompidou Center.
The location – Beaubourg – was left with a gaping hole (figurately and literally) when Baltard’s illustrious and unique 19t-century iron and glass Les Halles market was demolished in the 1970s and replaced by a non-descript underground shopping mall which was just redeemed a few years ago by a ginormous brass and glass “Canopy.” Now literally rounding off the total revitalization of the area is Tadao Ando’s latest architectural wonder.
(FYI: The demolishing of the old Les Halles Market had one positive result – it sparked an historical monument movement that helped to save the old Gare d’Orsay to become the Musee d’Orsay – similar to the affect the demolition of New York City’s old Penn Station had in the US.)
The moment when you step foot into the new Bourse’s soaring rotunda – from the squat entrance hall – it’s like stepping into another world – almost like visiting a museum set in a gigantic planetarium in which the sky – in this case – the dome — envelopes the spectator. Larger than lifesize sculptures at ground level under the dome emphasize the humongous overpowering scale. Ando created the museum’s new rooms in a concrete cylinder lining the first three floors of the base of the dome.
To say that the building is the main draw of the new Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection is not a slight. In fact, it’s a compliment to Pinault and his architect, Tadao Ando. Upon your first visit to Paris – let’s face it — the first site you must see — and up close — is the Eiffel Tower and that’s because it’s the fricking “Eiffel Tower!!!!” (The Eiffel Tower is just that – a dazzling structure without a museum or any compelling exhibits.) I compare it to another must-see recent Paris landmark – the Vuitton Foundation by Frank Gehry – while many visit for its changing exhibitions – the Vuitton Foundation itself is a major must-see Paris site. So be it with the Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection.
Unlike any other museum in Paris – the Bourse de Commerce Pinault Collection must be visited TWICE. Once during the day – and again during the evening when the dome and all the round walls are spectacularly highlighted by its impressive, dazzling artificial lighting.
[And unlike visiting New York’s Guggenheim, I did not get the recurring nightmare of – while on roller-skates — visiting the exhibits lining the Guggenheim’s ramp — while climbing UP the ramp.]
One entire museum category too often overlooked is the city museum — which highlights and brings to life the history of a city. And considering Paris is one of the greatest cities on the planet – a visit to its city museum – the Musee Carnavalet – is also one of the greatest – if not greatest — city museum of them all. And with the Musee Carnavalet’s recent four-year extensive renovation – it just got even better.
The Musee Carnavalet is a major contributor to Historic Preservation – not just by recycling the museum’s buildings (two exquisite Renaissance mansions) but by recycling its historic and artistically noteworthy exhibition rooms – many of which were saved when their actual buildings were being demolished in Haussmann’s 19th-century replanning of Paris. If you enjoy visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Wrightsman Rooms – imagine a museum in which most of its period rooms are also preserved in their entirely: furniture, decoration, lighting fixtures, frescos, wallpaper. There’s a even room with the last furniture Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette used in prison before their end, There’s Marcel Proust’s room and even furniture used by Votlaire, Gertrude Stein and the cradle of the son of Napoleon III (which was definitely not used by Gertrude Stein who never evecame close to having children).
Why tune into the Travel Channel’s insipid haunted everything when you can visit real-life, death exhibits that give you the creeps?
The Musee Carnavalet has an entire floor devoted the French Revolution where you can see Dr, Guillotine’s portrait and put a face on the man whose instrument detached faces from their bodies. Even Ripley wouldn’t believe some of the exhibits. There’s Marie Antoinette’s shoe which she allegedly dropped on the way to guillotine and guillotine earrings that Marie Antoinette wouldn’t be caught dead wearing,
Very apropos to our time is a public service poster from the 19th century advocating “VACCINATIONS!” I wish they sold reprints in English in their expanded bookstore. Makes a great souvenir.
Ever since I was a child, I felt that a visit to the Musee Carnavalet was a getting to know Paris even better – and better is what its current renovation has achieved.
Adding stairs improves circulation in people — and in museums – which is just what the renovation’s architects did. The new modern twisting staircases are a work of art unto themselves. Everything is arranged chronologically — and since the renovation even chronology has been changed – expanded to include Ancient Roman and Medieval Paris in new rooms in the basement through 1977 (the year of the opening of the Pompidou Center) in new rooms upstairs).
Since Paris is also a great shopping destination – even that’s better than before. Yes, I also shop when I travel – at museum bookstores –and thanks to the two new museums – there are two new museum bookstores also carrying books and great one-of-a-kind souvenirs.
Paris goes against a 21st-century American trend – closing department stores. In fact, an Art Nouveau department store which – for more than a century — was also a Paris landmark just reopened after a lengthy restoration and beatification – Samaritaine. – perfectly situated on the Seine at the end of the famous Pont Neuf.
Besides the exquisitely restored, imposing and towering seven-floor dual staircase with artistic Art Nouveau railings – one of the largest Art Nouveau paintings – on the top level – “The Peacock” – has been expertly restored. (Sorry, NBC – Samaritaine’s peacock has yours beat.)
Many US department stores have additions which look as if they’re added on as second thoughts – such as Manhattan’s Bloomingdale’s. Being Paris, Samaritaine’s addition (facing the Rue St. Honore) is a work of art unto itself – it’s a 21st-centiury beautiful glass façade which – from a distance – almost looks quilted.
And for tourists who like to shop until you drop – really drop — the new Samaritiaine even has something new for you – its attached stunning 5-star hotel Le Cheval Blanc.