The Cluny Museum
On a rainy, autumnal day I left the streets of Paris and walked into the Middle Ages. A soft light filled the courtyard of the Cluny Museum, as rain dripped from the eaves and echoed in a stone well.
The Boulevard St-Michel runs outside; almost opposite stands that bastion of education and liberty, La Sorbonne. A few streets away is The Pantheon, while an equal distance the other way the Pont St-Michel leads across the Seine to the Notre Dame. Every Parisian arrondissement has its own history and charm, but in the 5th arrondissement the Cluny Museum (now known as Le Musée National du Moyen Age) lives on its own world.
The museum is most famous for its tapestries, especially the allegorical Lady of The Unicorn series. These are in the millefleur style, where an abundance of colourful plants, flowers, animals and people form a busy but harmonious flow around a central figure. Woven in the southern Netherlands in the late 15th century, the tapestries remain evocative despite their age. The first five are allegories of the senses, whilst the last is now believed to represent free will. Yet despite—or because of—this complexity and ambiguity, the works retain a remarkable freshness and naivety whilst presenting as impressively modern.
Origins of the Cluny Museum
The ruins began life as Galloroman baths, built between the first and second centuries CE then sacked some 100 years later with the arrival of the barbarians. The Frigidarium—or cold-bath room—was the largest of its kind in France. The ruins were bought in 1330 by Pierre de Chalus, Abbot of Cluny, who then built the medieval mansion and surrounding gardens.
Aside from the Romoan-Gallo ruins, the Cluny Museum is one of the world's foremost collection of medieval art. Amongst it collection are two 15th century Book of Hours, as well as the famous Golden Rose of Basel, cast by the goldsmiths of Sienna in 1330. It is the earliest surviving work of its kind. There is also an extensive range of jewellery, metalwork and coins dating from Gallo-Roma times to the medieval period.
The museum has an extensive display of glass work, including windows from the ethereal Sainte Chapelle and St Denis. In the Gallery of Kings are many stone heads and figures, originally from Notre Dame, as well as pieces from as far afield as Catalonia. There are also rooms of woodwork and altar pieces. Yet much of the museum's charm lies in its ambience. Compared to more popular attractions it is uncrowded and quiet, with the displays easy to see and not ruined by noise. The ruins themselves, the house, the courtyard, the gardens, even the colour of the stones; all meld together to keep a medieval world alive in the heart Paris' Left Bank.
Les Égouts—The Sewers
Victor Hugo wrote vividly of the sewers—les égouts—in Les Miserables. He described them as a "dread sink-hole which bears the traces of the revolutions of the globe as of the revolutions of man, and where are to be found vestiges of all cataclysms from the shells of the Deluge to the rag of Marat".
During the Second Empire, when Baron Hausmann reinvented the streets of Paris, he also turned his attention to what flowed beneath them. To combat both disease and revolution, and spurred on by streets crumbling into the old vaults below, the Parisian sewers were modernised, and opened for public tours in 1867. Society ladies could be seen floating by in luxury sluice carts, steered by white-clad sewer men.
Depending upon the time of year and the season, the odour ranges from what could be termed interesting to decidedly pungent. (A bout of heavy rain is enough for the place to be closed to the public.) Tours are now on foot, beginning in the Place de la Résistance, near the Quai d'Orsay. The main thoroughfare of the tour is a walkway suspended above a major sewer, the walls covered with a display of photographs, tools, and some of the more interesting flotsam and jetsam discovered in this subterranean world.
The Luxembourg Gardens
Although not far from St-Germain-des-Près, the Luxembourg Gardens are often missed. A pity, really, when whole days could pass simply wandering the various outdoor rooms of this 60 acre oasis. Many a Parisian comes here for a picnic—or a lovers’ tryst.
Indeed, the Luxembourg area remains an oasis in the heart of Paris, a place of quiet, tree-lined streets, grand old houses, expensive boutiques, musty bookstalls interspersed with cafés perfect for people-watching. Once owned by the future Louis XVIII, at the centre of the gardens lies the enormous octagonal pond, or Grand Bassin, forever filled with toy sailing boats. As the children play the adults watch on from the luxury of deck chairs, while others take the opportunity to sun-bake. From this heart broad avenues lead to formal terraces, all dotted with statues, (many of the various queens of France, as well as St Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris). In the movie Charade Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant watched the marionettes at play. There is even a bee-keeping school.
Now the home of the French Senate, the Palais du Luxembourg was built for Marie de Medici, widow of Henri IV, to remind her of the Palazzo Pitti of her native Florence. She had, unfortunately, been banished by the time of its completion; after remaining a royal residence until the French revolution, it was occupied by the Luftwaffe during WWII. The east gallery houses the Musée du Luxembourg, originally built to hang the Queen's Rubens collection, and now home to temporary art exhibitions.
Away from the crowds of tourists and pony-rides, there is many a quiet path for an evocative wander. Near the Palais is the Fontaine Médicis, built in 1624 in the style of an Italian grotto. Hemingway claimed he fed himself during his impoverished Paris days by shooting pigeons here (the place was known for 'the classiness of its pigeons'—as well as being frequented by artistic types, from Watteau to Gertrude Stein).
The western, wooded end of the park is usually the quietest. It includes an orchard of espaliered pear trees - the fruit ends up on the Senate dining tables in the Palais (with any surplus given to the homeless). In September the Expo-Automne makes use of the Orangerie for displays made from the flowers and fruits grown in the gardens. Exotics, such as bitter oranges and pomegranates, are grown in large pots so they might be moved with the seasons, finding shelter inside the Orangerie during winter. Some specimens are over 200 years old.
Shakespeare & Co—An Iconic Bookshop
Still on the Left Bank, Shakespeare and Company is a must for any bibliophile. Just up from the Square R Vivani on the Rue de la Bûcherie, this English language bookshop remains an historic icon. The original store (in St-Germain) was established by the Sylvia Beach, publisher of James Joyce's Ulysses. Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald were frequent visitors. Moving to its current site in 1951, Shakespeare and Company became the darling of The Beat Generation, and the shop has played host to the literati ever since. Would-be authors litter the place, manning the tills and working in the shop for free accommodation and access to the incredible range of literature which stocks the shelves. Even in this modern age, the sound of typewriters comes from hidden corners, and readings of works in progress are a regular event.
As a bonus, the nearby square is home to a tiny but delectable fresh food market. The range of cheeses alone was astounding, the smell intoxicating.
The nearby Square R-Vivani offers a beautiful view of Notre-Dame. The place is a small patch of green in the crowded maze of streets here. (Nearby is the Rue du Chat-qui-Pêche, which claims to be the narrowest street not only in Paris but in the world.) The old tree supported by concrete pillars was brought to Paris from Guyana in 1670—it is reputedly the city's oldest tree.
The run-down church behind it may be the same age as Notre Dame, but is obviously not nearly as well cared for; the St-Julien-Le-Pauvre hosted university assemblies until a more lively meeting saw students tear the church apart in 1524. During the Revolution it served asa barn. By the entrance are stone slabs, remnants of the Roman road that is now the nearby Rue St-Jacques.
Paris will always be a city for walking. There is so much to discover on the Left Bank simply by wandering. But why not end with a stroll through the heart of Paris, the Île de la Cité. After admiring Notre Dame—and the delightful playground behind it—wander over the Pont St-Louis to the Île St Louis, a place of chestnut-lined streets which, like so many parts of Paris, still floats in its own time.
© 2016 Anne Harrison