Monday, September 7, 2009
A Visit to Paris
We spent most of last week in Paris. I've heard it said that the best time to visit Paris is in August, because most of the Parisians have gone on vacation. I don't agree, of course, since I'm rather fond of Parisians and would rather have Parisians on the street when I visit, than the swarms of tourists who descend on the city in August. I think September is one of the best times to visit France and especially Paris. When Parisians come back from their month-long summer break and take up their work again and when children begin the new school year, there is a real feeling of excitement in the air. New movies are out, museums and theaters launch new seasons. The weather has cooled down, the crowds have thinned out and there's a definite change in the light. The French have a word for this time, it's called la rentrée, the reentry. Not just back to school, since almost the whole country takes the month of August off, it's back to work for everyone and it is a special time of the year. If you're planning to visit Paris this fall, and you've already seen the Eiffel Tower, and waited in the endless line to catch the view, if you've visited the Louvre and paid respects to the Mona Lisa, seen Seurat, Degas and Van Gogh at the Musée D'Orsay, enjoyed Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, why not visit a few much less well-known but stunningly beautiful places? There are two I'd like to recommend. You probably won't find these in the Paris guide books. One doesn't usually think of a library or a bank as a "must-see" site in Paris. The fact that these two buildings are open to the public and used by the population for mundane daily-life activities makes them all the more special. One of my favorite places in Paris is the middle of the pedestrian bridge, le Pont des Arts. You have a wonderful view of l'Ile de la Cité. At the right bank of the river you have the Louvre, and on the left bank, the Académie Française. It's in this beautiful building that you will find the Bibliothèque Mazarine. This is not a museum, but the oldest public library in Paris. Cardinal Mazarin (1602-1661) was the guardian of Louis XIV before he reached his majority. Mazarin was a scholar and amassed an enormous number of volumes. He left his library to the State and it has been open to the public ever since. It is an absolutely spectacular space and provides a wonderful place to read and study. Diane Johnson, who has a house a few steps away from Bibliothèque Mazarine, writes in her delightful memoir Into a Paris Quartier that she went there almost everyday to work on her novel L'Affaire. To visit the library, one enters a door on the left front of the Institute building. A small sign points the way. It is well worth the effort to seek out this exquisite interior space. You'll be among a very few tourists to have found it. Another "ordinary" building is the headquarters of the bank, Société Générale, located between the Paris Opera and the Galleries Lafayette. from the outside there is no indication that within is one of the finest examples of art nouveau interior design in the city. Opened in 1912, this space is richly decorated with art nouveau motifs. The floors are exquisite The enormous glass dome filters light into the space. A round desk for the tellers is placed in the middle of the space. One is surrounded by glass and richly decorated surfaces. The bank is also opened to the public, one needs only open the door and enter. You will be very glad you did.