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The perfect Paris vacation planner: Pictures, trains and dreamy visions

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Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris
You’re slowly waking from a reverie, standing in the Luxembourg Gardens on an idyllic spring day in Paris. Photo by Leslie Loddeke
Seurat, The Veil, circa 1883
On view at Musee de l’Orangerie as part of the exhibit, Archives of the Dream, is Seurat's The Veil, circa 1883. ArtHistory.About.com
Vincent Van Gogh, Le Jardin de l’hopital Saint-Paul 1889
Le Jardin de l’hopital Saint-Paul, (1889), from the musee d'Orsay exhibition, Van Gogh/Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society. WordPresscom
Henri Gervex Un soir de grand prix au pavillon d'Armenonville 1905 part of Paris 1900 exhibition
Henri Gervex's Un soir de grand prix au pavillon d'Armenonville, 1905, just part of he enormous, dazzling Paris 1900, City of Entertainment exhibition. Photo by Roger-Viollet/Musée Carnavalet
Orient Express train dining room
The Orient Express cars display the exquisite, floral-designed Lalique glass paneling and gleaming, rich wood. ILoveCuriosity.com
Jardin du Luxembourg in Paris
Seurat, The Veil, circa 1883
Vincent Van Gogh, Le Jardin de l’hopital Saint-Paul 1889
Henri Gervex Un soir de grand prix au pavillon d'Armenonville 1905 part of Paris 1900 exhibition
Orient Express train dining room

Picture this: You’re admiring a painting depicting a dreamy scene on a beautiful day in the elegant Jardin du Luxembourg. Angelic-looking children are peacefully wielding long wooden poles as they propel sailboats across the basin of a fountain on the statue-studded grounds near the regal Palais du Luxembourg.

In the background, throngs of Parisians are showing what joie de vivre is all about as they enjoy Le Week-End, being in the moment, basking in the sunshine. Above, majestic trees fan out against a baby-blue sky. You can almost feel the light breeze that’s rippling the water in the bassin. You realize Vivaldi must have been inspired by a scene like this when he composed his joyous “Spring” concerto in “The Four Seasons.”

 Real love creeps in when you begin to see the pictures all around, wherever you walk in the city, away from the top-billed attractions, outside as well as inside the museums.  

The longer you look at this picture, the more you fall in love with it. But you don’t want to own it. You want to be IN it.

Suddenly, you realize you are. You’re slowly waking from a reverie, standing in the Luxembourg Gardens on an idyllic spring day in Paris. You’re watching real people serenely pursuing picturesque activities or just lounging, comfortable as cats, in metal chairs on the manicured grounds of an artfully designed, well-cared-for historic setting.

The scene strikes you as strangely quiet until you remember that Parisians discreetly inhale their words as they speak to one another, so they don’t bother anyone else, a pleasant legacy probably left over from the days of the Resistance.

Now you’re getting the picture of why so many people fall in love with Paris, once they get past the understandable compulsion to take endless selfies at the Eiffel Tower and Arc de Triomphe. Those signature monuments are truly smashing spectacles that practically club you over the head, and I adore them, too.

But real love creeps in when you begin to see the pictures all around, wherever you walk in the city, away from the top-billed attractions, outside as well as inside the museums. For the whole city is so artistically designed and presented, at some point you can’t help noticing its deeper, silent charms, and appreciating all the efforts that contributed to what you’re seeing.

Plethora of pictures
You may well be considering a trip to Paris this summer, as it’s among the world’s top tourist destinations. Before you go, it’s a good idea to set up a short list of museum exhibitions you’d like to see in order to acclimate yourself to the plethora of pictures, framed and unframed, throughout Paris.

I recently returned from a week of luxuriating in such pictures, and thought I’d offer a few ideas on how others might start their own collections under the title “Dream Archives.” That was inspired by an exhibition I saw at the Musee de l’Orangerie:  “Archives of the Dream, Drawings from the Musee d’Orsay: carte blanche for Werner Spies.”

You’ll be mesmerized by this selection of fantastical ideas and shadowy figures drawn by masters like Redon (“Devil carrying off a head,” 1876), Moreau (“Samson and Delilah,” 1882), Millet (“Lobster fishermen throwing their pots,” night effect,” 1857-60), and Seurat (“The Veil,” circa 1883.) This exhibition runs through June 30.

The Musee d’Orsay also is presenting a dreamy exhibition, although this one is drawn more closely along the lines of a nightmare: “Van Gogh/Artaud, The Man Suicided by Society,” which runs through July 6.

The “Man Suicided” collection is based on a 1947 book by Antonin Artaud, who argued that Van Gogh was driven to end it all by a society that was either indifferent to his work or trying to keep him from “uttering unspeakable truths,” according to the handout. With the aid of Artaud quotes offering vivid descriptions like “landscapes of strong convulsions,” the visitor gains a better understanding of this tormented artist and his work.

My favorite was a painting of “Le Jardin de l’hopital Saint-Paul” (1889), a colorful perspective of the profusely blooming garden of the artist’s hospital.

Dazzling entertainment
While that show was intellectually stimulating, I felt far more cheerful touring the enormous, dazzling “Paris 1900, City of Entertainment” exhibition. Six hundred exhibits, including paintings, sculpture, costumes, jewelry and photos, offer varying, delicious views of the formidable grandeur of the City of Lights during the fabulous Belle Epoque. “Paris 1900” is appropriately showcased at the splendid Petit Palais, which was built for the Universal Exhibition of 1900. There it will remain through August 17. 

The Guardian’s slideshow selection of “Paris 1900” exhibits will give you a good taste of this wholly delectable exhibition. Look at the Prinet painting of the gentleman kissing the hand of the lady resting during an evening gala on “Le Balcon,” and check out that elaborate Worth evening cape!

The Orient Express
And now for something completely different. How about touring the beautifully restored, handsomely outfitted old train cars in the exhibition “Once upon a time, the Orient Express” at the Arab World Institute? It will be there all summer, closing August 31.

 Peering into the train’s compartments inspires the fantasy of being able to take the Orient Express from Houston to Paris. 

In reviewing this exhibition, CNN asked a good question: “Can any train ride match the Orient Express for glamor and sheer romance?” CNN notes that France’s national rail system, SCNF, is planning on bringing back the Orient Express, and as a prelude, teamed with the Arab World Institute to present “a long lost era when time had another meaning and traveling to Istanbul took four days and three nights.”

What a grand experience that must have been! Peering into this luxe train’s private compartments inspires the wild fantasy of being able to take the Orient Express from Houston to Paris. Talk about traveling in style!

I also recommend a look at the Orient Express for a nostalgic perspective of an entirely different, exotic way of traveling. Each of the elegant carriages, which date back to the ‘20s, is lavishly decorated like a stage set, strewn with vintage pieces. There are references to Murder on the Orient Express author Agatha Christie, Stamboul Train novelist Graham Greene, and even a steamy railcar scene in a James Bond film.

However, that “once upon a time” feeling came through for me most vividly in examining the cars themselves — aspects like the exquisite, floral-designed Lalique glass paneling and the gleaming, rich wood. I loved seeing how so much concern about real quality went into the design and selection of the materials used in every part of those cars.

While in Paris, I saw other exhibitions, but these were my favorites and they were all very well-attended. If you want to see any of them, you would be well-advised to book a timed-entry reservation in advance.

One regret
I missed only one show I had wanted to see, that I would recommend. I’d read a great review in The Guardian on the Musee Marmottan Monet’s “Les Impressionistes en Prive” exhibition, which runs through July 6. It features seldom-seen Impressionist paintings from numerous private collections, and I was really looking forward to seeing it when I drew up my must-see list before I left.

However, that was the one exhibition on my list for which I couldn’t get a ticket during my week’s stay when, on the day I landed, I visited my local FNAC event ticket purveyor. While I was disappointed, the news evoked little more than a Gallic shrug from me at the time.

After all, I was in Paris. See what I mean?

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