A Celebration in Paris

Part II: Versailles and Musee d’Orsay

Neither of us had ever visited Versailles, so we took the RER train 45 minutes on a Friday to avoid the weekend crush of tourists to visit the renowned homage to European grandeur and opulence. A ten-minute walk from the station in the town to the outer front set of gates presented us with an eye-popping view of the sprawling estate.

The Chateaux de Versailles was the 17th century creation of Roi Louis XIV — the Sun King, who cleverly elevated himself to demigod-like status and united France under an absolute monarchy. The lavish building, its furnishings, artwork and decoration are overwhelming. We became part of the horde of visitors herded through the rooms along a specified route.

While Versailles was the pinnacle of palatial experiences for me, I have seen enough other palaces throughout Europe to be a bit jaded about the experience. The one exception was the fantastical Hall of Mirrors — enormous in size, elegance, and dazzle, with hundreds of chandeliers, gold-covered statues, and, of course, floor-to-ceiling mirrors.   For its time the Hall was ingenious and shocking, since mirrors were a recent creation of the period.

More impressive for me were the gardens of Versailles, covering 2000 acres landscaped in the French Garden style. Standing at the top of a broad flight of steps, the sight of the Grand Canal, elegant walkways of fountains and formal flower beds, and allees of beech hedges lined with sculptures was breathtaking. Pathways lead to dozens of themed gardens and structures.

Two of my favorite spaces— The Orangery with its formal structure, and Bosquet de l’Encelade, with a sculpture of Greek diety Titan climbing out of volcanic lava in the middle of a circular pool — provided exciting visual experiences.

Musee d’Orsay is one of my very favorite museums anyplace.  Situated along the left bank of the Seine in central Paris and housed in the spectacular former Beaux Arts era Orsay train station, the museum contains the world’s largest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, sculptures, and furniture.

Rooms upon rooms of Monet, Manet, Renoir, Gauguin, Serat, Degas, and any other masters of that period contain dozens of pieces we’ve all seen in print or on screen before. So much artistic brilliance in one place! One special exhibition, “The Mystical Landscape from Monet to Kandinsky,” staged in very subdued light, was a wonderland of paintings that all possessed the magical quality of having “a light from within,” as if sunlight or moonlight emanated from the canvas!

After that sensational experience, we needed to be outdoors. So we headed to the Luxembourg Garden, a 60-acre public garden spreading out from the Luxumbourg Palace, with its lawns, tree groves, promenades, and a circular water basin where children (and some adults) sail model sailboats. The garden is a popular gathering place for residents, tourists, school children, sunbathers.

We came across a performance in the bandshell by Podium, the gay men’s choir of Paris. They sang and danced for an enthusiastic crowd of all ages sitting in lawn chairs. At their break, they posed for me, waving hello in the photo that I sent back to the Philadelphia Gay Men’s Chorus.