Friday, March 5, 2010

Les grands projets

As a tourist, you inevitably spend time visiting the grands projets that some powerful figure from the past has decided should be constructed. You know the kind of things I mean - often boldly designed public structures or buildings that aren't strictly necessary to our daily lives, that are usually hugely costly, that are often controversial, and that become much loved over time and emblematic of a city or town.

Sydney has its Opera House, but Paris has many such grands projets. Successive French presidents in the latter part of the twentieth century have added to the riches of Paris - though their undertakings were usually highly criticised at the time. I've written about our visits to the Musee Quai Branly, a grand projet of President Chirac, and to the Louvre Pyramid and the Grande Arche of La Defense - both pet projects of President Mitterand. So far on this visit I've missed President Pompidou's Centre Pompidou (though I'm hoping to squeeze it into my last day - tomorrow).

But we have visited another two of Mitterand's grands projets - the Bastille Opera House, and the Musee d'Orsay. Actually we've been passing the Opera House at the Bastille most days, as it's just along Rue Faubourg St Antoine from where we're staying.

Opera Bastille
Opera Bastille 2

The Opera House is probably the least successful of these grand public works. It's a very severe and imposing building, and Parisians haven't really come to love it as they have some of the other controversial constructions. It does little to enhance the Bastille square - though it's hard to imagine what would enhance the unplanned messiness of the Bastille space. But it works very well as an Opera House. We went to see an excellent production of Verdi's 'Don Carlo'. The stage is enormous, the orchestra pit spacious, and the acoustics are excellent.

We dithered about going to the Musee D'Orsay, knowing that it was undergoing significant renovations and that many of the impressionist and post-impressionist masterpieces were touring the world (including the ANG in Canberra) while their home is being renewed.

Musee d'Orsay entrance

We needn't have worried. There was more than enough to see before our eyes and heads were too full of images to take in any more - rooms of Monet, Pisarro and Sisley, lots of Renoir, significant representation of Gauguin and Van Gogh, and enough beautiful Cezannes to particularly satisfy me. Anyway, with the Musee d'Orsay part of the pleasure is the building - Gai Aulenti's 1980s transformation of a 1900 Art Deco style railway station into a gallery that is itself a work of art.

Musee d'Orsay interior
Musee d'Orsay interior 2

But if you're thinking of grands projets there's one that dwarfs any aspiration that any French President could ever conceive - the grand-daddy of all grands projets - Versailles

Versailles exterior 1
Versailles exterior 2

I've never before visited Versailles, and I'm very pleased we did so today, though even in wintry March it was inundated with visitors. The Chateau itself was transformed from a hunting lodge by Louis XIV in the mid-seventeenth century. It was added to over centuries, in danger of demolition after the French revolution, and rescued by Louis-Philippe in the 1830s. It is ostentatious, sumptuous and all together just too much. The Hall of Mirrors, flooded with natural light on a wonderfully sunny day, was undoubtedly the highlight.

Versailles Hall of Mirrors 1
Versailles Hall of Mirrors 2

We chugged around the vast gardens to the Grand Trianon and the Petit Trianon on a petit train - a sensible way to see everything without wilting from exhaustion. The two smaller chateaux, with their echoes of Louis XIV's children, of Marie-Antoinette playing milkmaid, and of Napoleon and Josephine are on a more human scale - though still grand and with beautiful vistas of the gardens and their delights.

Grand Trianon arches 2
Grand Trianon window
Petit Trianon
Petit Trianon pavilion

An extremely grand grand projet. But one visit to Versailles in a lifetime is quite enough grandeur for me.


missfee said...

wow - I love Versailles with that spectacular mirrored hall. I played in the small theater just next to the place when I toured there with the orchestra back in the distant past of the last century.

Musee D'Orsay is one of my favorites too - the objects as well as the paintings. And I insist you go to the Pompidou center - I remember the huge blue Matisse prints of the dancing figures - oh wow

Rose Red said...

When we had a mere afternoon of free time in Paris we went to the Musee D'Orsay, and I can see we will definitely need to go back at some stage, because I do not remember looking at the building itself very much - such a shame I didn't have time to take it in back then.

And I have not yet been to Versailles either, so there are at least 2 good reasons to go back to France! (not to mention, yarn, shoes and food!!).

Lynne said...

Ah, Versailles! Definitely un grand projet!

Anonymous said...

Oh Versailles. What a marvel. Im intrigued by the idea of it being too much - I'm sure it is - there's something uncomfortable about so much grandeur and indulgence - but what a way to live!