Paris: Embracing Life and Art
Hi I’m Rick Steves, back with more of the
best of Europe. This time we’re in a city that puts the sparkle in life like none other…it’s
Paris. Thanks for joining us! Few cities have such a rich cultural, artistic,
and historic heritage. And few cites are so confident in their expertise in good living.
Paris is understandably a magnet for people determined to live life to its fullest-and
as travelers, we get to share in that uniquely Parisian “joix de vivre.” Returning for another look at this great city,
we’ll discover a side of Paris few travelers experience: ride a unicorn into the Middle
Ages, take a midnight Parisian joyride, immerse ourselves in Monet’s garden, bask in heavenly
light through extraordinary stained glass, go on a tombstone pilgrimage, and savor the
Parisian cafe scene. Grand as the city is, as we’ll see, it’s still
a collection of smaller communities each with a charming and uniquely French way of embracing
life. Every neighborhood has a time-honored gathering
place. Petanque, also known as boules, offers the perfect escape for friends. This competitive,
yet convivial game, where friends toss metal balls with the same precision their fathers
did, provides the ideal antidote to the pressures of modern life. Ahh, the Riviera — on the banks of the River
Seine. Each summer the Paris city government closes an express way and brings a colorful
urban beach to its people. They truck in potted palm trees, hammocks, lounge chairs, and 2,000
tons of sand to create this popular fun zone. It’s a perfect chance to see Paris at play…
and play with Paris. Away from the river, parks provide another
peaceful oasis — great for enjoying the moment with friends and family. And Sundays, a happy horde of roller-bladers glide
through town with a police escort. Young, old, fast, or slow, it’s another way this
city has become a playground for its citizens. And Paris is now enthusiastically bike friendly.
Bike lanes are commonplace and bikers are welcome to use bus lanes. The city’s innovative
loaner bike program — with hundreds of these efficient bike racks — lets Parisians make quick
one way bike trips rather than bother with cars or buses. The cost: almost free. Having all this fun, it’s easy to forget that
six centuries ago, Paris was a cultural leader as Europe was awakening from a long medieval
slumber. Just a couple blocks off the river, the Cluny
Museum-filling a medieval mansion, takes us back to Paris in the late Middle Ages. In
the 1400s trade was begining to boom and the Renaissance was moving in like a warm front
from Italy. The Cluny Museum is an under-appreciated treasure.
Its rich collection of medieval art offers a rare peek into that mysterious age. The
sumptuous ivory pieces; vibrant enamel work; and gorgeous statues reflect a surprisingly
refined — and far from “dark”-society. Its centerpiece is a 15th century series of
tapestries called “The Lady and the Unicorn.” In medieval lore, unicorns were solitary creatures
that could only be tamed by a virgin. In secular society, they symbolized how a man was drawn
to his lady love. In religion, the unicorn was a symbol of Christ. These exquisite tapestries were inspired by
both secular and religous traditions. They give us a look at life-sensual life-from a
time when the people of Paris were just stepping out of medieval darkness. It’s a celebration
of all the senses: Taste. A woman takes candy from a servant’s
dish to feed it to her parakeet…. while the little dog licks his lovingly woven chops. Hearing. The elegant woman plays sweetly on
an organ, calming an audience of wild beasts. In this fanciful world, humans and their fellow
creatures live in harmony in an enchanted garden. Sight. The unicorn cuddles up and looks at
himself in the lady’s mirror, pleased with what he sees. The lion turns away and snickers.
As the Renaissance dawns, vanity is a less-than-deadly sin. Touch. That’s the most basic and dangerous
of the senses. Here, the lady “strokes the unicorn’s horn,” and the lion looks out at
us to be sure we get the double entendre. Medieval Europeans were celebrating the wonders
of love and the pleasures of sex. The words on our lady’s tent read: To My Sole
Desire. What is her only desire? Is it jewelry? Or is she putting the necklace away and renouncing
material things? Is it God? Love? The unicorn and lion open the tent. Is she stepping out…
or going in to meet the object of her desire? Human sensuality is awakening, a dark age
is ending, and the Renaissance is emerging. Another reminder of the sophisticastion of
the Middle Ages was the art of stained glass. To see the best 13th century glass in its
glorious original setting, visit the nearby church of Ste-Chapelle. Embeded in a historic complex of governmental
buildings, the church’s muscular Gothic buttresses support the stone roof. The walls are essentially
window holders for the church’s stained glass. Stepping inside, you’re overwhemled by the
most dazzling Gothic interior anywhere. In the Bible, it’s clear: light is divine. Let
there be light. In a Gothic church, light pours through stained glass like God’s grace
shining down on earth. Gothic architects used their new technology to turn dark stone buildings
into lanterns of light. In the 13th century King Louis IX obtained
the supposed Crown of Thorns. He needed an appropriate place to house this precious relic.
So they scrambled and built this church in just six years. Because it was built so quickly-with
one architect and one set of plans…almost unheard of in Gothic times, the architecture
is unusually harmonious. The altar was raised up high to better display
the Crown of Thorns. Filling the walls on all four sides, the 15
story-telling panels illustrate Bible passages from Creation in Genesis to the story of Christ.
Remarkably, most of the stained glass here is original. What you’re looking at is exactly
what visitors have marvelled at for eight centuries. For a stark contrast in glass, head out to
to La Defense- a forest of skyscrapers nicknamed Paris’s petite Manhattan. So often we travelers only hang out in the
historic old quarters of Europe’s great cities. To see the contemporary side of Paris-a celebration
of modern commerce-hop on the metro and visit La Defense. With its striking architecture and 150,000
people a day commuting here to work and even more to shop and play, it’s the engine of
a modern-day economic power. Stroll the Esplanade. The glassy buildings-which house shopping
malls with hundreds of stores, convention centers, and towering corporate headquarters-playfully
compete for your attention. With the social ethic embraced by French society,
getting a building permit often comes with a requirement to fund public art. That’s why
the Le Defense Esplanade is like an open-air modern art gallery, sporting pieces that make
going to work just a little more fun. La Grande Arche, inaugurated in 1989 on the
200th anniversary of the French Revolution, is the centerpiece of this ambitious complex.
The arch is big-Notre-Dame Cathedral could fit under it. Thousands of people work in
its 35 stories. And as everywhere here, the architecture is people-friendly. Back in the old center, it’s time for a little
shopping. Paris is a leader in the fashion world, famous for its high end design. My
Parisian friend, Delphine Prigent, is showing me how even window shopping some of Paris’s
many fine boutiques can be a cultural experience. Rick: These windows, they put so much energy
into their windows. Delphine: Yes, they have to because, you know,
like, shopping is, like, a national sport in France and we call it lèche-vitrine. So
lèche-vitrine means window licking. Rick: Window licking.
Delphine: See all these different details that they put on the window-it’s very bright,
very colorful. Rick: Very appetizing, you could say.
Delphine: Yes. It has to be very appetizing, yes.
Rick: There are a lot of sales. Delphine: Yes. This is a typical period in
July to get sales in Paris. But the trap is that when you go inside you always finish
by buying the new collection because they put the new collection just beside. You always
buy something from the new collection at full price. This is my-
Rick: So the sale catches you inside. And then you buy the new collection.
Delphine: Yes, it catches…yes Department stores were invented in Paris.
These venerable institutions-beautiful monuments to fine living-offer a chance to check out
what’s in vogue. The Galeries Lafayette is a classic example.
Its belle époque dome dates to 1912. And shoppers are welcome to catch their breath-or
perhaps have it taken away-on the store’s rooftop where a grand city view awaits. You can enjoy another delightful dimension
of Paris in its parks. There’s always a garden or park nearby offering a fine place to stroll
and simply enjoy a quiet moment in the middle of the city. One of the biggest city parks
originated as the king’s back yard, the Tuilleries Gardens. The King’s yard included an indoor garden
called the Orangerie. While the Orangerie no longer contains plants, today it’s filled
with a garden of Impressionist and early 20th century paintings-select works by Renoir…
Cezanne… Gaugin…and others. And its main attraction is Monet’s Water Lilies,
floating dreamily in the oval rooms the artist himself designed to showcase his masterpiece.
This series of expansive, curved panels is the epitome of Impressionism. It immerses
you in Monet’s garden at Giverny-his home and studio outside of Paris. Like an aging Beethoven who composed his most
dramatic works while loosing his hearing, the nearly blind Claude Monet spent his final
years painitng these symphonies of color on a similarly monumental scale. We’re looking into his pond-dotted with water
lilies and dappled by the reflections of the sky, clouds, and trees on the surface. Monet
mingles the pond’s many elements and then lets us sort it out. The true subject of these works is not the
pond itself. It’s the play of the light reflecting off the water. Monet would work on several
canvases at the same time-each one catching the light of a particular time of day. Get close and see how Monet worked. Starting
from a blank canvas, he’d lay down thick, big brushstrokes of a single color, horizontal
and vertical to create a dense mesh of foliage. Over this, he’d add more color for the dramatic
highlights, until he got a dense paste of piled-up paint. Up close, it’s messy-but back
up, and the colors resolve into a luminous scene…just pure reflected color. Working, he’d move with the sun from one canvas
to the next. Panning slowly around this hall, you see the pond turn from pre-dawn darkness
to clear morning light to lavender late afternoon to glorious sunset. Sublime and tranquil,
Monet intended this to be a place of reflection. Back when Monet was painting, Paris was busy
with artists. Capturing the light, that was their passion and wandering these elegant
streets and inviting parks, it’s easy to imagine them gaining inspiration here in Paris, nicknamed
the “City of Light.” A short walk takes us to the palatial mansion,
studio and garden of another great impressionist… Auguste Rodin. Rodin was a modern Michelangelo,
sculpting human figures with powerful insight, revealing through the body their deepest emotions.
Now a museum, this historic mansion presents the full range of Rodin’s work. His early works match the belle époque style
of the late 19th century-noble busts of bourgeois citizens and pretty portraits of their daughters. But Rodin had working-class roots and because
of his populist sentiments, the art establishment snubbed him. That’s no wonder. Look at the
intensity of this symbol of France as she screams libertié, egalitié, fraternitié. With his ground-breaking Bronze Man, Rodin
came into his own and was recognized as an artistic force. From this point on, he left
convention behind and blazed his own artistic trail. Here, his Hand of God shapes Adam and Eve
from the mud of the earth to which they will return. Unlike Michelangelo, who selected a piece
of marble and then carved a single work of art, Rodin created models which could then
be reproduced and sold as authorized versions. In The Kiss, a passionate woman twines around
a solid man for their first, spontaneous kiss. We can almost read the emotions that led up
to this meeting of the lips. The Kiss was the first Rodin work the public loved.
Rodin enjoyed his garden as do visitors today who find it a place for peaceful meditation
a century after the artist last planted a statue here.
He sculpted the famous Thinker in 1906. Leaning slightly forward, tense and compact, every
muscle working toward producing that one great thought, Man contemplates his fate. Said Rodin:
“It is a statue of myself.” Speaking of contemplation, I punctuate my
museum going with a little cafe sitting. This makes particularly good sense in Paris: home
of so much beautiful art-and the ultimate cafe culture. With over 12,000 cafes, there’s
always one nearby. Cafes are where friends rendezvous…and we’re
meeting up with Steve Smith, co-author of my France guidebook and a consummate cafe
sitter. Rick: You know café, that’s a tip in itself
isn’t it? Just café in Paris. Steve: It’s a good tip. It’s a place to order
what you want, when you want, on your own terms, in your own time really. You could
be indoors at a restaurant watching the person next to you eat or out here watching the conveyor
belt of Parisians go by. And you’re living with Parisians. In fact it’s their living
room. You know most Parisians’ apartments are a little bit bigger than your hotel room.
Rick: Half the locals here are probably living down the street.
Steve: Almost all of them who come here come on a regular basis and they’re on first name
basis with their waiter. Rick: So a lot of Americans find tipping a
little bit confusing. Steve: In France the waiter’s tip is included…15%
of our bill goes to the waiter. You’ve already paid him. Tax and tip are included.
Rick: What do you do then? Steve: If your waiter was nice to you, or
your waitress, leave a couple of Euros. That’s very polite, round up. If your bill was 18
Euros leave 20, something like that. Rick: Now a lot of Americans are frustrated
by what they call slow service. Steve: Yeah. I hear that all the time. In
France, slow service is good service. Rick: It’s good service!
Steve: Remember it’s not about how fast you eat. It’s about how well you eat. While the metro is great and probably the
quickest way to get around, there’s a lot to be said for joy riding across this exciting
city above ground. Parisian buses are plentiful, cheap, and efficient once you get the hang
of them. And bus 69 winds, as if made for tourists, past the city’s top sights. The end of the line: the Pere Lachaise cemetery.
It offers a stroll through a vast garden of permanent Parisians. The final resting place
of many of the city’s most notable citizens, its peaceful lanes and paths encourage meandering
and contemplation. Poignant statues remember victims of concentration
camps and Nazi resistance heroes. Pebbles on the Jewish tombstones represent prayers.
Many visitors pick up a map and turn the visit into a personal pilgrimage, spending a few
moments at the graveside of artists or grand personalities who touched their lives.
Oscar Wilde, a great writer, is also remembered for his daring-at-the-time homosexual lifestyle.
He’s mourned by “outcast men” as the inscription reads and, it seems, by wearers of heavy lipstick.
The famous Parisian singer, Edith Piaf, also attracts fans. Raised in her grandmother’s
bordello, as a waif-like teenager she sang in the streets for spare change.
Nicknamed “The Little Sparrow”, she became the toast of pre-WWII Paris. She lifted French
spirits during the German occupation, and then captured the joy of postwar Paris. While
she certainly had her challenges, Edith Piaf embraced life and sang about having no regrets.
Farther down the way, lies a famous American. The rock star Jim Morrison, lead singer of
the Doors, has perhaps the most visited tomb in the cemetery. A Greek inscription reads:
“To the spirit (or demon) within.” Under that, fans leave personal mementos.
Paris was to be Jim Morrison’s chance to get healthy and get serious as a writer. But he
died in his bathtub at age 27, likely from an overdose.
Another big star for music lovers is Frederic Chopin. Fresh-cut flowers on his gravestone
speak to the emotional staying power of Chopin’s music, which still connects souls across the
centuries. For a more lively way to enjoy Paris and cap
an exciting day, Steve and I have hired a car and driver for a blitz of the city’s best
nighttime views. And this isn’t just any car and driver. This company employs a fleet of
historic Deux Chaveau cars and they’re driven by local students. Driver: Different districts are like a snail,
going around the island, de la Cité. The French raise floodlighting to an art form.
And with a city as beautiful as Paris, it’s no wonder. Les Invalides with its golden dome
marking Napoleon’s tomb is magnifique. The naughty blades of the Moulin Rouge keep turning
as red lights tempt lost souls in Pigalle. Just to be out and about at this hour, the
energy of the city is palpable. Notre Dame is particularly stately after dark. Sightseeing
boats enliven the river and its sparkling bridges. The Pyramid at the Louvre glows from
within. And the Eiffel Tower provides a fitting finale for this victory lap through the City
of Light. Traveling here, I realize “I could come back
to this city for the rest of my life and never get enough of what to me is the capital of
Europe: Paris.” I’m Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Au revoir.