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Sampling a Museum Buffet

If the Louvre seems like too much to tackle, drop in on the city's more intimate collections.

March 04, 2001|SUSAN JAMES | Susan James is a writer specializing in history and art who lives in La Canada Flintridge

PARIS — 'This is like Disneyland on a weekend," the woman shepherding two teens said as they joined the line to buy tickets to the Louvre. At least they were indoors on this frigid January morning. The line stretched almost to the platform of the Louvre-Rivoli Metro (subway) station, one of several entrances to the vast museum. I breezed past the line and flashed the "museum card" I'd bought on my first day in Paris.

Why don't more tourists know about this card, which lets the holder bypass ticket lines? And why do so many first-time visitors to Paris think they have to spend a day on the Louvre? Its collection is wonderful, but also overwhelming-thousands of works of art spread over four floors and a couple of miles of corridors. And ranks of bobbing heads usually crowd in front of the celebrated "Mona Lisa" and Venus de Milo.

I've made many trips to Paris, and I'll share a tip: To get closer to the arts that define France, visit some of the dozens of small museums in the city. Most of them are in tourist-familiar neighborhoods, near Metro stops and surrounded by cafes, bistros, shops and, in many cases, lovely parks for resting one's feet.

The Museums and Monuments Card, issued by the Association InterMusees, admits you to most of them for one price-85 francs, or about $13-per day, without a wait in line. The card is good at more than 70 museums and monuments, including the Louvre ($6.50 regular admission) and the hugely popular (also ever-crowded) Musee d'Orsay ($5.50) as well as the Eiffel Tower ($3 to $9) and such curiosities as an apartment Lenin lived in and museums celebrating the postal service, the hunt and hand-held fans.

Here are a couple of my old and new favorites.

Cluny Museum

The Cluny-officially, Musee National du Moyen Age-Thermes et Hotel de Cluny-is a secret treasure in plain view. Its rear wall runs along the frenetic Boulevard St. Germain in the Latin Quarter, a neighborhood thick with centuries-old schools such as the Sorbonne and their ultra-moderne student populations.

A Gothic residence, the Cluny looks a bit forbidding, especially on a gray winter day. But inside is "the Lady and the Unicorn," a brilliantly colored set of large 15th century tapestries. In each, the lady is in a garden, accompanied by a mythical unicorn, symbol of purity, and a lion, symbol of virility. Five of the panels depict the five senses, and the lady's sensual enjoyment is evident.

The sixth panel is ambiguous in meaning, showing the lady and a motto that translates "to my sole desire."

Beyond the gallery dedicated to the tapestries lie rooms and corridors displaying treasures from the Middle Ages.

In the basement, the Cluny gives way to the Thermes, the Roman baths on which the medieval mansion was built.

Outside, I took a break in the tiny park in front of the museum, where a man and a woman who looked like volunteers were pruning rosebushes. I sat on a bench to watch and to devour my favorite Parisian snack, a coffee eclair, from a bakery on the Boulevard St. Germain.

The Marmottan

For us devotees of Impressionism, Musee Marmottan-Claude Monet is ground zero, home to some of the very best works of the man whose painting "Impression Sunrise" gave the 19th century revolution in art its name. (The Marmottan does not honor the museum card; admission is $5)

More than 100 Monets are in this collection, but on my visit the exhibit was limited to a series from the artist's garden in Giverny, expansive works that shimmer across the walls in lavender, mauve, fuchsia and all shades of blue and green.

The Marmottan collection includes a generous sampling of a dozen Impressionists, a fine overview if you don't have time or patience for the hundreds of other Impressionist masterpieces in the Musee d'Orsay.

The Marmottan was built as a private home in the early 1800s in the still-elegant 16th arrondissement, in western Paris. Like the Cluny on the opposite side of the city, it has two personalities.

Monet and his friends are in bright, unadorned rooms upstairs. On the ground floor is a collection of furniture and decorative arts from the First Empire of Napoleon Bonaparte. Here a marble bust of Madame Mere, Napoleon's formidable mother, presides over silk-clad walls and parquet floors, furniture decorated with motifs inspired by her son's conquest of Egypt and Italy, and portraits of her children reigning as kings and queens. The atmosphere is stiff, formal. I had the feeling that any moment Madame Mere might hiss disapprovingly at me for wearing jeans and tennis shoes.

It was time for fresh air-and lunch. I crossed the pretty Ranelagh park to Chaussee de la Muette, a street close to the Metro. There, La Rotonde, a typical brasserie, was serving a fine, simple lunch of salad and quiche for about $12.

City Museum of Modern Art

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