Pewter skies overhead, low clouds embracing the regular, squared off lines of central Paris. I am not sure that this sort of weather is particularly newsworthy. It is November in northern France after all. Nevertheless, after months of sweating in the sun, I still find it a bit surprising.
We continue to pluck possibilities for our adventures from the guidebook Mary has discovered in the flat. Today we have decided to head northeast to one of the great Parisian destinations, the Palais Garnier, or as it is better known in the English-speaking world, the Paris Opera House. I am interested in the building because it was used as a setting for Gaston Leroux's Phantom of the Opera. Does the Phantom still haunt the Opera House, lamenting his lost Christine? Will he drop a chandelier on us should we dare to visit box number five? Something to investigate.
Upon approach the Opera House is magnificent. Great gold statues cluster on the roof, and at the peak, Apollo clasps a golden lyre in his hand. The lyre is reproduced throughout the building: evidently Garnier wanted the symbol to recur so that if the Opera House was destroyed in a cataclysm, archaeologists would be able to identify the ruins by the prevalence of this symbol.
When we reach the Opera House, we learn that a guided tour is beginning in thirty minutes. Now longtime readers will already know how I feel about tours, but in this case, according to the guidebook, it is the only way to visit the lower, subterranean (including the lake) layers of the house. We sign up for the tour, and then trip across the street to one of Paris' famous department stores, the Lafayette Galleries, while we wait. The girls busy themselves buying toe socks, while I dash to the top floor of the building, where a viewing deck gives a glimpse of the rooftops of Paris vanishing into the fog. The Eiffel Tower is barely visible, a great serrated sword sheathed in grey.
Our tour of the Opera House begins. We start in the entryway once used by France's nobility. The great unwashed of Paris were brought in through the front doors, and assigned seats in the uppermost boxes. The wealthy, famous, and titled came in through the rear of the Opera House and processed through a series of rooms that Garnier designed to suggest a crescendo in stone. The lowest rooms are unadorned stone. This is followed by the Grand Staircase, made of marble and onyx, the sun and moon rooms, and finally, a great, gold-leaf gilded hall where one could see and be seen.
In fact, before the days of television, the elite might attend shows at the Opera House three or four evenings a week. The architecture is a sumptuous frame designed to highlight a shifting tableau of jewelry, clothing, and the occasional peek of an ankle from beneath the crinoline that was the order of the day.
We are led onto the main floor of the Opera House itself, filled with rows of plush, red velvet chairs. When the Opera House first opened in 1875 women were not allowed to sit in these seats; the iron hoops beneath their dresses would not allow them to thread between the rows. Garnier claimed that the female was like a flower and should be displayed in the boxes that line the sides and rear of the House. Women also were not allowed backstage—this was the domain of men, a place where they could mingle with their favorite dancers. Evidently the line between prostitute and opera singer/dancer was not thick in nineteenth century France. The Opera House even had some backstage rooms designed to facilitate dalliances.
The Opera House holds around 2,000 people and its immense stage can accommodate 450 cast members. Overhead the controversial painting by Mark Chagall (which replaced the original) encircles the famous chandelier. According to our guide, the chandelier, which weighs six tons, never fell as a single unit. One night a piece of it broke off and killed a woman who was attending the opera for the very first (and last) time. Ah, but how did “a piece” suddenly work loose and fall? I suspect the Phantom's hand behind this.
The only disappointing aspect to our tour was that we were not allowed to visit the famous lake beneath the opera house. Contrary to the claims of our guidebook, visitors are not allowed in the subterranean levels of the House, and, in fact, there is not much to see in any event.
We enjoyed our tour immensely and learned a great deal about this magnificent building. After a short lunch, we wandered back to the flat and mentally girded our loins for our evening's activity, a dash through the Louvre.
The Louvre is the largest museum in the world. Every time we have visited Paris it has either been closed or its workers engaged in wildcat strikes. After years of frustration I am not entirely optimistic that we will be admitted this evening (the Louvre is open until 9:30 on Wednesday nights, unless they run out of toilet paper in the Lady's WC near the information desk, in which case they evacuate the building and close with no warning for a week). Nevertheless tonight all goes according to plan, and incredibly, we are allowed to enter these hallowed halls.
The best thing about an evening visit is that the crowds are much smaller. We are mostly alone as we walk through the long halls of the Louvre. The drawback of an evening visit is that we only have a couple of hours to experience the treasures of this great museum, and that clearly is not an adequate amount of time.
We opt to limit ourselves to one thin area, Renaissance art. Even this is too much material to cover, and as we dash past objects that deserve our attention, I cannot help but feel that I would like a week's (or a month's) pass to the exhibitions.
Another fringe benefit of the late hour is that Leonardo's famous painting, the Mona Lisa, is not awash in visitors. The painting is larger than I had been led to believe; I'd always heard that most visitors were disappointed that it was so small. We are able to approach quite closely to it, but then, so what? I have never been able to work out why this piece is so famous. I am sure that many learned books have been written about why it is such a masterpiece, but it really does nothing for me. If the Louvre was burning, I would leave Mona to the flames and grab something else. I am sure that in this, as in many things, I hold a minority view.
As closing time nears, I realize that we haven't seen anything by my favorite artist, Mr Rembrandt. Consulting a guard we determine where we ought to go, and then thread our way through the labyrinth. The Louvre doesn't have much from the master, but it does have a painting of an angel whispering in Saint Matthew's ear, which I find very pleasing.
After the obligatory run through the gift shop, we are ready to depart. I leave with mixed feelings: happy to have finally had a taste of the Louvre, but, of course, wishing I had time to see a little more.
A common lament of the Euro2008 expedition.