Close to two decades ago now, I paid my first -- and thus far, only -- visit to France. Sadly, my stay in that country was on the short side. Also, if one were to discount my few hours on the high-speed Paris-Geneva train with which I concluded my time in the French Republic, I actually didn't venture all that far or frequently out of France's fabled capital city.
However, when one considers what and how many attractions there are in Paris alone...well, let's just say that it's small wonder that I continue to have very vivid memories of my brief French sojourn and quite a surprise that I'm able to narrow down the most memorable places I visited to the following five "must see"s, especially for lovers of art, should they ever find themselves in this country:-
1) The Eiffel Tower: Predictable, I know, but how can one leave the symbol of France off any list of French "must see"s? Still the tallest structure in Paris, this iron structure which stands at 1,063 feet (or 324 meters) was famously constructed to serve as the entrance arch for the 1889 World's Fair hosted by the City of Light.
Strange as it may seem, I feel that many of the photographs of this engineering marvel don't do it justice in terms of showing how big and tall -- and, consequently, physically impressive -- it really is. At the same time, it must be said that the panoramic views of Paris that it affords its visitors may well be the most memorable part of visits to Gustave Eiffel's architectural tour de force.
2) Musee du Louvre: Known just as "the Louvre" to millions of people all over the world, this art museum that's housed in a former royal palace is Paris' most visited monument. I get the feeling though that a great many of its visitors consider their visit to this incredible institution complete after catching only a glimpse of Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa, and find this very sad indeed.
It's not just that the Louvre is home to some 35,000 works of art and has over 60,000 square meters of exhibition space. Rather, it's that the largest museum in the world also happens to possess hundreds, if not thousands, of other seriously amazing artistic pieces.
Alternatively put: In most any other museum in the world, masterpieces like Theodore Gericault's The Raft of the Medusa, Jacques-Louis David's Consecration of (the Emperor) Napoleon I and Coronation of Josephine... and Nicolas Poussin's The Rape of the Sabine Women would be centers of attraction in their own right. And so too sculptural gems like the Hellenistic Winged Victory of Samothrace and Venus (or Aphrodite) de Milo. Etc., etc., etc.
3) Musee d'Orsay: A pretty new museological establishment by French standards (one which first opened its doors to the public in 1986), this specialist institution whose focus is late 19th century Western, particularly French, art is one whose airy building's magnificence threatens to overwhelm its collections. (In case you didn't know, the spacious structure in question is a historical monument in its own right as well as was once a railway station known as the Gare d'Orsay!)
That is, if not for the fact that this museum's collections happen to include a host of Impressionist treasures -- like Claude Monet's Poppies, Near Argenteuil, Pierre-Auguste Renoir's La Danse a la Ville (Dancing in the City) and Edgar Degas' The Tub -- together with other master works like Edouard Manet's The Fife Player and even James McNeill Whistler's Arrangement in Grey and Black: The Artist's Mother (AKA Whistler's Mother)...! ;b
4) Palace of Versailles: I know, I know. And yes, it's another former French royal residence turned museum. But this is the palace of Louis XIV, "the Sun King", within which the peace treaty of World War I was signed, that we're talking about! And the depository of various works of art as well as a work of art in and of itself.
Inscribed onto the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1979, the Palace of Versailles is grandness personified. As was the case with Beijing's Forbidden City, a good portion of its artistic riches were carried off during or after the Revolution. However, the main building remains, and remains impressive. Ditto with the famous -- and beautifully restored -- "Hall of Mirrors", and also the expansive palace garden that's one of the largest formal gardens ever created.
5) Cathedrale Notre Dame de Chartres: The sixth holy structure to be erected on the same site in Chartres, a market town located some 50 miles (or 80 kilometers) southwest from Paris, Chartres Cathedral has been described by at least one writer as "perhaps the supreme monument of High Gothic art and architecture".
Built over a period which covers the late twelfth and early thirteenth century, the double-spired cathedral rises majestically above other buildings in the town and is visible from a distance. However, upon entering the building, what becomes readily apparent is that Chartres Cathedral's true glory lies in its stained glass windows.
At the risk of sounding like I'm rubbing it in: no words -- or photographs too probably -- can do justice to these medieval works of art which are at their aesthetic, blazing best when a bright afternoon sun shines through them. Instead, about all I can offer up is the fact that close to twenty years on, my memories of (beholding) them continue to burn bright and stay treasured...