An artist’s paradise

I have always dreamed of going to France and walking in the footsteps of the Impressionists and post-Impressionists – Monet, Cézanne, Renoir, Van Gogh – to absorb the scenery that inspired them; to see where they ate, lived, breathed, created their art and savoured life. This dream was realized when I had the experience of a lifetime – an opportunity to see the streets of Paris as well as the hills and valleys of Provence.

Béatrice, my tour guide introduced me to Paris on foot. I was still jet-lagged but fuelled on adrenaline, water and a few pretzels. I didn’t want to waste a second. She took me first to the Opera House, designed by Charles Garnier in 1862 and gilded in copper and gold. With its underground lake, you can understand the inspiration for The Phantom of the Opera. We strolled through Place Vendôme and past the Ritz Carlton, then down the posh shopping district on rue de Rivoli. As we turned the corner, it was as if a curtain had parted: Paris in all its glory with the Tuileries Gardens leading up to the Louvre, the Arc de Carousel, the famous Champs Élysées, Arc de Triomphe, Place Concorde where oyalty was executed and, last but not least, the Eiffel Tower. We strolled along the Champs Élysées, stopping at a café to people-watch. Ahead was the Arc de Triomphe, built to commemorate Napoleon’s victory of the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805.

The following morning, we headed to Montmartre, a must on my agenda. Montmartre, the village of the martyrs, was home to artists such as Picasso and Van Gogh as well as the “little sparrow,” the chanteuse Edith Piaf. Montmartre also has one of the best views of Paris, and the walk up to Sacré Coeur is well worth it. The basilica, built as a memorial to 58,000 French soldiers killed during the Franco-Prussian war, took 46 years to build. Priests here pray for their souls 24 hours a day. Montmartre is also home to the Moulin Rouge where the infamous cancan dance originated and where Toulouse-Lautrec painted his famous paintings of the dancer Jane Avril.

I only had one day for the Louvre, but a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to see all the treasures it contains. The largest museum in the world covers every period back to 5000 BC and houses more than 350,000 art objects. The building itself is a jewel. Originally built as a fortress by King Philippe Auguste in 1190, Charles V was the first king to make it his home. In the 16th century, François I replaced it with a Renaissance-style palace and founded the royal art collection with 12 paintings looted from Italy. Revolutionaries opened the collection to the public in 1793 and, shortly afterward, Napoleon opened the Louvre as a museum. The must-see treasure is, of course, the “Mona Lisa,” created by Leonardo da Vinci in 1504. Apparently, the “Mona Lisa” was da Vinci’s favourite painting. I found myself captivated by this fine example of chiaroscuro, a technique using contrast of lights and darks, as well as the composition and personality of the painting.

My next stop was Vermeer’s “Lace Maker,” a tiny portrait illustrating everyday life and the highlight of the Louvre’s Dutch collection. On to see the “Venus de Milo” in all of its feminine strength and glory waiting at the end of a long hallway. The detail is phenomenal and to think it survived from the 2nd century BC and was found in Greece in only 1820. I couldn’t miss Michelangelo’s work of art – the sculpture of the slaves. Michelangelo purposely left parts unfinished to symbolize figures emerging from a prison of stone. They were originally sculptured for the tomb of Pope Julius II.

I strolled through the Jardin des Tuileries in front of the Louvre. Sitting in the very gardens Catherine de Medici sat in was a perfect rest before the next adventure. I strolled through the garden with its beautiful foliage, fragrant flowers and walkways lined with chestnut trees. At the entrance and at one end of the Champs Élysées stands the Arc du Carousel erected by Napoleon in 1808. At the other end of the famed roadway stands the Arc de Triomphe, sheltering France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Dinner that evening was in the Eiffel Tower, a landmark surprisingly bigger than I expected. Originally built for the Paris Exposition in 1889, the Eiffel Tower currently lights up like a giant Christmas tree each night. Then off for a nighttime cruise of Paris. Evening adds a new dimension to the city, with people dancing or rollerblading along the banks of the Seine. Along the route, we saw Notre Dame, the Musée d’Orsay and the Louvre – a lovely way to end the day.

Musée d’Orsay was a true highlight for me. Originally a train station built in 1900 and operational until 1939, it was slated for demolition in 1977 but was saved and renovated into this elegant museum with a wonderful collection of art – and the best collection of Impressionistic art in the world. The d’Orsay is so well orchestrated that each salon is devoted to a specific Impressionist artist such as Renoir, Degas, Manet, Monet, Cézanne, Pissarro, Van Gogh. One of my favourites is Manet’s “Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe,” a controversial painting that was labelled immoral at its unveiling. I love this painting for its scale, composition, colour and contrast. Another is Monet’s famous “Water Lilies.” His love of gardens and nature comes through in his art. Another painting worth seeing is Van Gogh’s bedroom in Arles with its surreal quality to it. Don’t miss the Degas sculptures along with his canvases or the Toulouse-Lautrec painting of Jane Avril dancing at the Moulin Rouge. I felt like a kid in a candy store with room after room of Impressionistic art.

After d’Orsay, we spent some time at Notre Dame on the banks of the Seine, the Gothic cathedral which inspired Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre-Dame.

The next day, we left Paris for Versailles, travelling back in time to Louis XIV. His father’s hunting lodge was transformed into one of the grandest palaces in Europe, where Marie Antoinette held court during the revolution. Versailles is stunning. The Sun King’s palace fits his name in all of its opulence and scale – not to mention the gardens with topiaries and fountains, landscaped patterns and mazes laid out in geometric perfection. Inside the palace are dazzling gold ornate bedrooms and, of course, the 233-foot long Hall of Mirrors where the king could adore his image. The Treaty of Versailles, which formally ended the First World War, was signed here.

From Versailles, our tour took us to the gardens and home of Claude Monet in Giverny, the gateway to Normandy. Monet helped spearhead the Impressionistic movement. He believed in capturing the moment in his paintings. Walking into the grounds with its profusion of colourful flowers and bushes is like walking into paradise. I fully expected Monet himself to be there. Monet said that had he not been an artist, he would have been a gardener. To think that the day before I had been in Paris’s Musée d’Orsay admiring his art and now here I was in the place where those glorious works of art were created. Past met present in a magnificent orgy of flowers and weeping willows and the oriental-inspired footbridge where one of his most famous works, “Water Lillies,” was painted. Then we reached his modest house, painted pink by the original owner from the West Indies. Monet kept the original colour as it complemented the gardens. Here was where he slept, ate, entertained fellow artists such as Cézanne, Matisse and Pissarro. Imagine all this talent gathering in the bright yellow kitchen, decorated with porcelain from Limoges. The home is quite small and rustic with French lace and antiques and Japanese prints adorning the walls. It had always been my dream to see Giverny. Mission accomplished.

Next on our agenda: a tour of Provence – Cézanne and Van Gogh country. From the train window, I could easily see what inspired these artists; even the light seemed different, brighter, cleaner somehow. The French countryside swept by with rolling hills, beautiful landscapes, the occasional farmhouse with cattle grazing nearby.

We arrived in the town of Aix-en-Provence – Cézanne country but also famous for its old fountains found in almost every corner of the town. We could hear falling water everywhere among the scent of lavender and fresh crêpes. Cours Mirabeau is a lively tree-lined street filled with cafés, boutiques and merchants’ stalls. Set in the pavement are bronze markers that direct you through Aix in the footsteps of Cézanne and marking the milestones in his life: the College Royal Bourbon where Cézanne took his baccalaureate in 1850 and met writer Émile Zola; Musée Granet, which houses examples of Cézanne’s works and where he studied drawing; 28 rue d’Olerea, where he was born; and 23 rue Boulegon, where he died at the age of 67 in 1906. At his studio, I was as emotional as I had been at Monet’s home, realizing I was standing where he created all the masterpieces I studied years ago. Everything is left exactly as it was the day he died. On a table, an unfinished still life stands. The light is so luminous in the studio it’s easily understood where those magnificent colours came from.

We journeyed on to Arles to visit Roman artifacts and also reminders of Van Gogh’s life. Although his home no longer exists, there is a Van Gogh Foundation where works of art inspired by the artist are displayed. Art exhibits now take place at the hospital where Van Gogh spent time for depression and where he continued to paint. The hospital is a cultural centre today. Arles is also where Paul Gauguin would join Van Gogh to paint together, often the same scenery, in a competitive manner. Gauguin and Van Gogh had violent arguments, lived on a meager diet, spent what remained of Van Gogh’s allowance from his brother on absinthe and tobacco, and made occasional visits to a brothel. It was in Arles Van Gogh attempted to mutilate himself by slicing off a part of his ear, which is recorded for posterity in a self-portrait.

Fulfilling my dream to walk in the footsteps of the artists I admire has inspired the artist in me.

Collette Vacations offers in-depth tours to France. Contact:
CARP Travel
To contact Parisian guide Béatrice Trefcon, fax or phone 011-33-1-53-36-04-10.