In search of Vermeer

The next morning we went to take a look at Montmartre and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica which we could hardly miss when they were so close to our apartment. The basilica was impressive and the view of Paris from the hilltop was pretty but it was insanely crowded. I was also a bit thrown when we passed through a group of guys who wanted to give us bracelets “for Africa” and physically grabbed us as we tried to go past. I’m sure Andy was wondering why I had brought us to such a busy, touristy spot.

Sacre Coeur + tourists

Once we wandered over the other side of the hill, however, we were able to appreciate why Montmartre is such a famous part of the city. The buildings were all very old and pretty, you could see views in the opposite direction and there was even a small vineyard. We happened to be able to eavesdrop on a guided tour group and learnt that they do indeed make wine there but apparently it is very expensive and doesn’t actually taste that good. It seemed like people buy it more as a collector’s item than anything. Each to their own.

After a lunch of Japanese ramen to satisfy Andy’s ramen cravings we took the afternoon off, relaxing in our tiny apartment. Then it was back into town to attempt to visit the Louvre. Last time I visited Paris was in August which is obviously peak season, if the queues for the museum were anything like I had seen in the past there was no way we were going in.

For once we had actually planned ahead when we decided to visit the Louvre. It was a day that the museum opened late and we figured 5:30pm was probably an unlikely time for people to start their visits. The theory seemed to work and we waltzed straight in. Straight away we were really impressed at the building itself and the view of the underside of the pyramid. It would totally be worth going inside the atrium for a look (doesn’t require a ticket) even if you don’t want to see any of the art.

Inside the Louvre, Andy really liked the ceiling

After faffing about buying tickets and checking our bag we picked up a Nintendo DS audioguide and started trying to work out what to visit. Actually Andy just cracked a series of jokes about how he was just going to spend the whole time playing Zelda on the DS. Or Super Mario. Or Pokémon. The same joke just kept giving.

Recently on our friend Tim’s recommendation we had watched the film ‘Tim’s Vermeer‘ (not the same Tim). This guy had studied Vermeer’s work and decided that he had used lens technology as well as a cunning mirror trick to paint his images since the effect of light in Vermeer’s paintings is super realistic. To prove his theory, he reconstructed this theoretical setup and tried to make a copy of one of the paintings. It was a fascinating film, highly recommended.

Another Louvre shot

Having watched this we were of course much more interested in Vermeer and were sure that the Louvre must have some of his paintings. So we headed to the 17th century Dutch area and started taking a look. We did look at some of the art but we also combed each room checking all the artists’ names. We walked almost the entire way through the section and were starting to reach the end of the Dutch artists. I sat down for some googling. Thanks to a surprisingly thorough website about Vermeer I found the room number as well as the names of the two pieces the Louvre holds. It was one that we had already passed so we raced back through.

Scouring the room we still couldn’t see the two artworks. Then we finally spotted a small sign. They were both on loan to an exhibition in Ireland. One of the only artists that we knew anything about and his work wasn’t even on display. It was pretty disappointing. But we rallied and decided we should visit a bit more of the museum.

The sign that crushed all of our (Vermeer related) hopes and dreams

We wandered a bit vaguely and ended up in the section of the Louvre that is focussed on the history of the Louvre itself. It was pretty cool actually, there were lots of models and images showing the original fort on the city wall and how it had been progressively expanded until it formed the Louvre and the Jardin des Tuileries that you see today. You could also walk around in a section of restored moat and see some of the original towers.

From there we thought we might as well see the famous artwork, the Mona Lisa herself. Following the signs and the streams of tourists we found the room where the Mona Lisa is mounted on its own separate wall with extra staff and barriers keeping back the hordes. Lots of people talk about how small the painting is so of course I expected it to be tiny and found it was actually larger than expected. It was OK. There were just so many people and no way you could really get close enough to look properly though.

The crowd in front of the Mona Lisa

Opposite the Mona Lisa was a huge artwork and one of the few that we actually listened to the audioguide information for. It had a super interesting backstory. Probably every painting in the Louvre has an interesting history and if I had more patience when it came to looking at art and actually listened to the audioguide frequently I would find art galleries much more interesting.

But as it is we were getting Louvred-out. We made one last detour to visit the Venus de Milo, which we only know about because of the Simpsons episode featuring the ‘Gummy de Milo’, and then made our exit.

Well, we tried to make our exit. At first I was impressed at the refined and subtle way that the Louvre made you exit through the gift shop. You don’t get forced through the store, you just walk down a corridor with ’boutiques’ on either side of you. But everything it went downhill from there.

I think because it was so late one of the normal exits was shut so we had to weave our way through what appeared to be a shopping mall. Against all expectations the Louvre is actually home to, among others, a McDonalds and an Apple Store. I was slightly outraged, it seemed like such crass commercialism in such a fancy museum. Andy showed great restraint by not buying anything from McDonalds and eventually we managed to get back to surface level and the outside.

At night, the Eiffel Tower lights up on the hour, every hour, for five minutes. It was a nice evening so we took a stroll along the Seine and sat down to watch where we had a view of the majority of the tower. I was hugely disappointed. I was expecting some sort of choreographed lights display, not as impressive as somewhere like Hong Kong but along the same lines. But all it does is light up with white lights. There’s no flashing or movement or anything. It was pretty boring actually. We headed home.

Street art in Paris

By our second and final full day in Paris we were kind of running out of ideas for things we wanted to visit. Instead we decided to try and sort out our sleeping mat situation. During our night of camping on the TMB a second baffle had popped and it was now super uncomfortable. An email to Exped had established that it couldn’t be fixed and they wouldn’t replace it because it was out of its two-year warranty period. After much research and several debates we had decided to buy a Thermarest Z-Lite Sol which is a closed-cell foam mat that concertinas instead of being rolled up. It’s not a super comfortable mat but it’s bulletproof (probably literally) and pretty cheap. Even if we decided to get something else at a later date it would still be a decent mat to own and there might be certain situations where it was a better option than an inflating mat.

We looked up the address of the correct Au Vieux Campeur store for mats (out of the 30 Au Vieux Campeur stores in Paris) and decided to run there. I think this was a sign that we had recovered from all of our tramping. We couldn’t run the whole way, our route ran through a popular shopping area full of pedestrians, but we tried to run most of it. This was my first run in 10 months and I was struggling a bit. As a bonus we briefly visited the Place Vendôme and Notre Dame along the way.

A Paris opera house we ran past

We found the store easily enough and it turned out to be tiny and almost solely dedicated to sleeping mats, sleeping bags and camping chairs. Unfortunately we couldn’t see the mat we wanted. We asked them and they confirmed that they were out of stock. They weren’t able to suggest any other stores that might sell it either.

In our excitement over going for a run we had only brought the bare minimum with us so we didn’t even have a phone to look online for other outdoors stores to try. We probably could have found our way the Decathlon that we knew was in Paris by asking people but Decathlon only stocks the older version of the mat which was a lower R value for insulation. In the end we just gave up and went home.

Once we were back in our mini apartment we tried to find another store that might sell the mat. We literally couldn’t find anywhere in Paris that might have it in stock. We came full circle back to attempting to continue our trip with the bung mat and hoping that it would last us to London. At least we got some exercise by running, it was a fun way to see the city.

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