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This website is about Brazilian jiu jitsu (BJJ). I'm a black belt who started in 2006, teaching and training at Artemis BJJ in Bristol, UK. All content ©Can Sönmez

18 March 2013

15th-18th March 2013 - Paris

I've been to Paris before, but it was way back in 1998, not long before I finished sixth form and was about to head to university. I can't recall much of that trip, except that it involved eating a lot of ice cream. The Channel Tunnel had been completed by that point, but I think we either flew or took the ferry. Either way, this second trip would be my first time travelling under the sea on a train.

I can still remember when the Chunnel was being built, so it's odd I've never used it until now. Eurostar trains leave from St Pancras, by Kings Cross, which is easy enough to reach on tube and overground. There isn't really a check in, you just put your ticket through the turnstile, as with any train. You're then treated to a perfunctory security check, with the usual shoving of bags into x-ray machines.

In case you're wondering, Swiss army knives are fine (I'm continually surprised by the utility of the one my brother bought for me), unlike on planes, though anything over 85cm long needs to go in the hold (I'm not sure of the process, as I only had carry-on). More in keeping with flights, you have to wait in a lounge until your train is announced. The train itself is relatively basic, a slight step up from the average Network Rail offering: roughly the standard of a comfortable coach.

In regards of what to do when in Paris, there are many good reasons why it is the number one tourist destination in the world. You're definitely not going to be short of things to do. Your wallet may feel rather lighter by the end of the trip, but it's money well spent. I'd also recommend you bring comfortable shoes, as you are going to do a lot of walking! ;)

Friday: The Louvre

For me, the Louvre is by far the biggest attraction of a trip to Paris. I went on my previous trip, but my memory doesn't extend beyond the glass pyramid entrance and attempting to peer through a horde of fellow tourists to catch a glimpse of the Mona Lisa. To enter the Louvre will set you back €11, with a further €5 for an audioguide.

That guide at first appears quite hi-tech, as they give you a Nintendo DS which must have some kind of mapping sensor, as it is able to tell you where you are in the museum. This is very useful, given the Louvre is absolutely gigantic. You can zoom in and out of the map, plan your route to other paintings and search for the fifty or so works highlighted on the guide.

Unfortunately, that cartographic element is the most impressive feature. The actual commentary on art is somewhat lacking. Vast swathes of the collection are ignored, so you can walk through several rooms without a single bit of explanation. This is a major failure, because as this is France, they don't bother with captions in anything other than French. When they do deign to cover a painting, the narration is interesting, but most of what I wanted to learn more about was left unexamined.

If you're going to the Louvre, I would make two recommendations: plan what you want to see and wear comfy footwear. The collection is enormous and would need at least a week to do it any kind of justice, so if you only have a day, you'll want to be focused. There is also the problem that many of the rooms are only open on certain days. My plan was to look at my favourite period, the Northern Renaissance, sticking with Flemish, Dutch and German painters.

Sadly the German and Flemish sections were mostly closed, but I did get to see a good chunk of Dutch Golden Age over rooms 29 to 33 on the second floor of the Richelieu wing. There is a satisfying selection of Rembrandt, stuffed with trademark self-portraits. You'll also find some Frans Hals, Bronkhurst, Vermeer and Ter Bruggen. Be aware that the sheer scale of the Louvre means that around a quarter of the rooms are closed on a rotating basis, so if like me you have specific rooms you want to see, check this page first to make sure they are open that day. You can also search the website to work out which room a particular painting or artist might be in (e.g., Rembrandt).

Along with the Northern Renaissance, another of my favourite periods is Mannerism. There is a French contribution to that movement, with the Fontainebleau school, including that infamous nipple tweaking picture. The main intention of the provocative pose is not titillation but in fact a reference to lactating. The tweakee was a mistress of the king, with whom she had a child. Some at the time suggested the two might marry, hence the ring she is holding. At this point, the audioguide revealed itself to be a visual guide as well: on the screen, it displayed another painting with which the first can be compared. That's something I would normally miss, as I unsurprisingly tend to be staring at the painting while the guide is running.

The centre of Mannerism was in Italy, the native land of a painter I've mentioned before, because he provided the backdrop for my website: Parmigianino. You'll find a couple of small pieces by him, alongside some rather more representative collections of Correggio, also a product of Parma. Bronzino is on the other side of the corridor, close to Parmigianino's inspiration, Raphael.

All of that fabulous Italian artwork lines the way to the Mona Lisa, which is where all the tourists congregate. That means that you can peruse the other works of Leonardo, Raphael, Parmigianino and others untroubled by camera flashes and chattering tour groups. Having said that, this time I was able to get a relatively uncramped view of the collection's big star, as that best known of Da Vinci paintings has been placed in a spacious room. I also made sure to go in late on Friday, when the Louvre is open until 21:45.

One last thing to keep in mind is watch where you're going, something I keep forgetting to do when in art galleries. Buried in the audioguide, I walked straight into a metal edged barrier in front of a painting, which is right at shin level. Painful.

There is still lots more for me to see in the Louvre, as I intentionally ignored large swathes of the museum. If I ever need an excuse to go back to Paris, there will always be beautiful art for me to see in the Louvre. By the time I've seen everything, I'll have forgotten what I saw before, so it all becomes new again. ;D

My girlfriend and I had a slight time mix-up, not helped by the fact my phone was not set up for roaming, but we still made it in time to meet up with my lovely cousin Ebru. She has lived in Paris for some time now: a very impressive woman, Ebru speaks five languages fluently. I haven't seen her for a number of years, so it was great to catch up with her. Unfortunately we didn't have time to check out her husband's shop and meet her two children, so that's another reason I can look forward to a future return trip to Paris.

Saturday: Opera Garnier & Notre Dame

My girlfriend is a massive fan of The Phantom of the Opera. It has therefore long been a goal of hers to go to the Opera Garnier in Paris, where Gaston Leroux set the original story. Unfortunately you can't take a tour of the flooded basement, where the Phantom lives in both the book and the musical, but the magnificent building above it is at least some compensation.

After queueing, the people there for the tour were herded into a disorganised huddle in the middle of the lobby. The guides then stuck up letters on the wall, calling out each group (I think it went from A to F: clearly a very popular tour!). We were in Group E, an English speaking tour. Something that repeatedly surprised me about Paris was just how many of the tourists were French, or at least French-speaking. Though I guess that isn't that strange: Paris is the top tourist destination in the world, after all, and there are lots of Francophones around the world.

Our tour guide had an annoying habit of going off on tangents. I would much rather he had stuck to discussing the history of the building, instead of regurgitating the plot of Faust, The Odyssey and various other literary heavyweights. Even if there were people in the group who are not familiar with those texts, it did nothing to deepen my understanding of the Opera building. That aside, it's worth going on the tour to appreciate the fabulous architecture and gloriously overblown interior.

It is a real shame that the original ceiling of the main auditorium was replaced with Marc Chagall's horrible modern art splatter in 1964. Of course, I say that as somebody who doesn't like modern art. On the other hand, it is positive that the Opera is willing to embrace change (although I suspect it was change for change's sake when it comes to the eyesore on the ceiling).

More up my street was Notre Dame, particularly the wonderful carvings covering most of the outside. Unlike some famous churches, Notre Dame is free to enter, daily until 18:45. There is a hefty chunk of tiered seating right next to the cathedral, perfect for getting in some dedicated staring. At the same time, it does make you feel like you're waiting for a papal rock concert.

Finishing off the day I had my first taste of snails, which I felt I had to eat while in France. You get a special tool for eating them, which at first I thought would be for cracking the shell open. However, it's actually just for holding them in place while you scoop out the dead snail, which was presented still in its shell buried in a pleasant mush of herbs.

Sunday: Musee d'Orsay

Most of the art I like predates the 18th century, with a few isolated pockets up to the 20th century, when I almost completely lose interest. The Impressionists don't generally grab my attention, but Goya does, so I was excited to see an exhibition involving his work advertised at the Musee d'Orsay. The topic of the exhibition, dubbed 'The Angel of the Odd', looked right up my street, concentrating on the gothic and occult. To buy a combined ticket for both the exhibition and the main gallery was €12, compared to the normal price of €9.

Although I'm not a fan of horror, I love fantasy, which has a lot of cross-over. Think werewolves, vampires and the like. Mythology something else I really enjoy, perhaps unsurprising given that Norse saga and epic poetry are some of the central sources of fantasy, as founding writers like Tolkien demonstrate. Mythic figures like Thor and the sphinx popped up in this exhibition too.

There was considerable input from one of those rare post-18th century art movements I like: the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood (probably because as the name indicates, looking back was a significant part of their mission statement). Henry Fuseli is the main member represented, including his 'Thor Batters the Midgard Serpent' from 1790.

There were lots of artists I hadn't heard of before, like Franz von Stuck (1863-1928), Jean Delville (1867–1953) and William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1825-1905). Bouguereau's striking 'Dante and Virgil in Hell' immediately catches the eye, fitting in perfectly with the gothic theme. At first it looks like a vampiric assault, though apparently it's supposed to be cannibalism. As you could guess from the title, the scene is taken from The Divine Comedy. I was also interested in the depiction of women, which shifted from helpless damsels to maleficent temptresses, like von Stuck's sphinx in a succubus pose or Delville's potent pagan icon glowering at the viewer. Unfortunately neither stereotype is positive, though the latter at least has some power, which is better than no power at all.

The ticket for the exhibition also included walking around the rest of the gallery, though I didn't leave much time for the full collection. The exhibition space is quite small, resulting in a cramped experience due to how many people were in there at once (the line to get into the gallery was also huge). However, because this is an art gallery, it formed into slow-moving queues of people shuffling from painting to painting.

In the main gallery, there is an expansive central area, with rooms off to either side. Those rooms are rather small too, though it was nowhere near as cramped when I was wandering through them later in the day. I was less interested in the main collection anyway, given that there is a focus on the Impressionists. However, there were some artists I did like, such as post-Impressionist Seurat, Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood member, Edward Burne-Jones and pre-Impressionist Delacroix. I also enjoyed the art noveau, which reminded me of my visit to the Kelvingrove in Glasgow about a year ago.

Monday: Conciergerie

Our last day was largely spent at the rather overpriced Concierge (€8.50). There is not a huge amount to see: everything can be comfortably covered in an hour. There is Marie Antoinette's cell, which has become a sort of shrine for some reason. You can also wander through some vaults, a few reconstructed rooms and various sinister locations like the 'court of the women', where people were put to death. However, if you happen to be a fan of the Scarlet Pimpernel and his numerous incarnations on TV and in literature, I can see the appeal of visiting a place like this.

After that, it was back on the train, back to the Eurostar and home to the UK. I'm sure I'll be in Paris again in the future, when I'll once again head straight for the Louvre. If we have a bit longer next time, I might even get in some jiu jitsu training, but given the short distance I imagine it will always be a long weekend kind of holiday.

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