Thursday, September 25, 2014

"P" is for Palaces

Something I absolutely love about Paris: There are palaces everywhere. 
Having grown up in Ohio, palaces are not exactly a daily encounter, but in Paris, you must go out of your way to avoid one in your daily commute or stroll through the city. Most have been turned into museums of art or history, but in cases like these, the buildings are as beautiful, as inspiring, as provocative as the stories and relics they house.

It is not unusual for me to cast off some brisk fall morning on the hunt for a new cafe and find myself lost in the halls of some ancient royal house.  One such morning, I was feeling particularly ambitious and thought, I should just tour all the palaces within walk distance today! Oh, Rue...when will you learn... 

Several hours and 8+ miles later, I had toured one, yes ONE, palace of the seven I had originally planned. I can see this whole "discovering the heart of Paris" thing is going to take longer than I thought...

Behold, le Petit Palais!

Now you may be wondering why this is called the "little" palace (ahem, seems pretty spectacular and large to me!) until you consider its neighbor across the street, Le Grand Palais.

One of the luxuries of being in Paris a full year: waiting out the tourist season for the major attractions. Since lines were too long for the above, I chose to save it for later and enjoy the **free** junior version with the gorgeous gilded gates.

Just inside these fabulous doors is an expansive front hall that stretches out limbs of marble walls and painted ceilings in both directions. And again with those mosaic floors... they get me every time!

First, some historical tidbits. The Petit Palais has only been around since 1900, built to house the Universal Exhibition that year. Many other buildings and monuments (including the aforementioned Grand Palais), but the exhibition itself was a complete flop. It now is known as the city's Museum of Fine Art, spanning works from the last four centuries. I'd like to share three paintings--all of women consequently--which captured my special attention for very different reasons. All were rather immense paintings, which would easily fill a wall of your average Parisian studio. 

First, this young woman provocatively splayed across a luscious chaise lounge, fingers perched archly on a fan and a playful smile creeping on her lips. 

A girl in the prime of life, the world at her feet, her every whim met in an instant. Her eyes are lit with the unmistakeable coyness and frivolity of privileged youth. Life is a game to her, and she is (and always will be) winning.

Directly across the hall, a mother huddles with her five children on the street, the deep sorrow of poverty weathered into her brow as she nurses her youngest.

For this mother, however, life is not a game, but a battle. See how her eyes are red and tired? Perhaps she has been silently weeping while her babes sleep, wondering how she will find food for all of them when their howling stomachs awaken them at daybreak. Her skin is still young, but in her face we see an aging that comes with only with suffering. I wonder, when was the last time that mouth smiled?

Another lovely piece was of these two girls lounging on a riverbed on a warm summer day. Something I have discovered about my tastes in art is my profound appreciation for paintings of young healthy women enjoying a lazy day. I can't tell you why, there is just something beautiful about it. If you look closely, the one in the foreground is peeking at us through sleepy eyes. (Something else: double chins were like--sexy--back in the day. Who would have thought?) 

The next time I went out for a palace run, I more strategically planned only ONE palace that day to explore. Meanwhile, my over-achiever American braincells were going into hyperdrive dealing with the fact that I was not, in fact, trying to see as many sites as possible in the surrounding area and thus maximizing my ROI for the trip. I think I'm still adjusting the pace of France. 

Aside >> 
For Paris being a major world capital filled with businesses galore, nobody seems to be in a real rush around here. I may see one person per day push the limits of a listless stroll. People are not racing against deadlines, and if they are it's against the ominous gray skyline threatening a flash storm. (Don't get me started on the importance of having an umbrella at all times. Lesson learned.) <<

This time, the destination was Palais Royale. Or really just the gardens there, which I heard were quite beautiful. My lovely travel partner for the day, Lu. We share a mutual love of Paris and photography and Jesus, so we hit it off right away, natch.

And now it's time for another confession: Some of the most famous gardens in the world here are really overhyped. For starters, there is very little grass, and the grass that does exist more often than not is off limits. Instead, parks and squares are filled with a sort of dusty white dirt, which is not good for sitting or playing or lounging or napping. It makes me yearn for my mother's backyard full of flowers and friendliness. Not all gardens are this way (I have found some really incredible and understated gardens hidden away in less touristy places), but the Jardin du Palais Royale was, unfortunately, not my particular favorite. But it did give to me a few few lovely shots:

The real surprise came when we realized that that day was the one weekend a year when France partakes in the European Union's Cultural Heritage Days. On these two days of the year, doors to historical buildings are opened for public viewing. And the Palais Royale just happened to be one such building. Consequently, we walked into what I realized was one o the most beautiful hidden gems of the city. (Best viewed in full screen!)


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