Paris is a city of art: the past is part of the present in a perfect, harmonious union that celebrates the richness of the city’s culture. From the architecture to the people, this blend of history and contemporary is a very big part of life here.
Palaces, medieval hotels, 13th century towers—you name it, have all been integrated into everyday city life. The Louvre was a royal palace until Louis XIV built Versailles and moved the royal court out of the city. The Tuileries, now public gardens and a hot spot for picnics, was also a palace until it was demolished in 1871, leaving only the Arc de Triumph de l’Etoile.
The Palais Saint-Louis is long gone, but the beautiful old church of Saint-Chappelle with its enormous windows remains, and though Louis XIII has been dead for several hundred years, his extravagant square of royal apartments, called the Place des Vosges, was rented out as individual units to the likes on Victor Hugo before it became a prime gathering place in fair weather.
Students take lunches to the steps of the Seine outside Notre Dame, couples cuddle up on benches in the courtyards of a medieval castle—the Hôtel de Sens—and children play next to the 13th century guard towers that make up a border their elementary school playground. Some districts have even kept the original storefronts despite a change of vender. All over the city this phenomenon continues to astound me, the absolute nonchalance with which Parisians live next to buildings four times older than the US.
Film is considered the seventh art in France, but other art forms are also still alive and well. The French spend a good deal of time in their art museums, looking at and sketching the art. Whether you’re touring 17th century portraits at the Louvre or the Parisian Haute Couture exhibit at the Hotel de Ville, you can be sure to find someone in a sling stool sketching away. It’s such a common practice; many museums provide complimentary folding chairs at the beginning of an exhibit.
There are so many museums here and the mélange of classical art and sculpture with modern and that of many different cultures is impressive. There is a museum of Arabic art and culture, Natural History, modern art at the Centre Pompidou, then of course there’s the Louvre, the Musée d’Orsay, Pinacotheque I and II, Musée Marmottan with the largest collection of Monet paintings, an erotic museum near the Moulin Rouge, a museum devoted entirely to fashion, and so, so much more.
The opera and theater continue to be extremely popular with the best venues selling out almost as soon as big name touring bands. The Palais Garnier and the Opera Bastille are the largest venues for ballet, opera and symphony concerts and the Comédie Française enjoys a prominent place in the theater world. Parents bring their young children to three hour long Moliere plays, and while I catch the jokes a beat too late, the elementary school-aged girls next to me are the first ones splitting their sides.
On the Metro
There are two free newspapers in metro stations every day and morning commuters love them—emptying the barrels by mid-day. But the biggest past time for metro riders is reading books. It seems like everyone totes a novel in their bag, and it’s not easy, trashy novels, it’s great literature, classic French works. They balance without holding onto a rail, fully engrossed and still managing to get off at the right stop.
Art surrounds us so much in Paris that adopting it as a lifestyle feels very natural. Spending a rainy day in a world-renowned museum is second nature and stumbling on monuments known round the world quite literally happens every day. In a city with this much history and grandeur, the only existence there is, is an art-full one.