Visiting Paris has been a huge dream of mine since 1994, when I first started pretending I was in the art scene. I wore a red French beret and a black turtleneck with a music note pin on my chest pretty much every day. I imagined taking the train to Giverny to see Monet’s Gardens in person, visiting the Picasso Museum, and seeing Mona Lisa at the Louvre. Giverny was closed for the season until the weekend after I left Paris and the Musée Picasso had a limited collection while they prepared for a special exhibit, but Mona Lisa? She was there. And I was going to see her.
The Louvre is the largest art museum in the universe. I was intimidated by this and after five weeks of traveling, I knew I’d be tired of planning and, honestly, thinking. Though I’d never taken a guided tour of a museum, I thought it might be the best way to conquer this beast without wasting too much time in Paris without a macaron in my hand. As luck would have it, Walks of France, a new sector of my friends at Walks of Italy, Walks of Turkey, and Walks of New York (who I’ve taken 2 tours with – 1 & 2), was launching later in March and was hosting preview tours the week I was in Paris.
Walks of France is currently offering six tours:
- Closing Time at the Louvre, The Mona Lisa at her Most Peaceful
- Skip the Line Paris Catacombs Tour with Special Access
- Skip the Line Paris Catacombs Tour & Père Lachaise Cemetery: The Secret History of Paris
- Paris in a Day with Skip the Line Louvre Tour, Eiffel Tower, Montmartre, & Seine River Cruise
- Île de la Cité Tour with Notre Dame, Tower Climb, Sainte Chapelle, & La Conciergerie
- Welcome to Paris Walking Tour, Panorama & Macaron Tasting
While all tours looked amazing to me, I was on a mission, so I signed up for Closing Time at the Louvre. I met my small group and guide Lilia in the afternoon by the winged statue in front of the Arc du Triomphe du Carrousel. In the crowded square, it was easy to find everyone, especially since Walks of France sent a picture of the meeting spot with a large arrow telling us exactly where to be. We skipped the long lines I had seen when I walked by the Louvre at opening time earlier that day and walked in a different entrance than by the Pyramids. After a quick bathroom and water bottle purchase break, we started our tour.
We were provided with headsets so that we’d be able to hear our guide over all of the other sounds in the Louvre. This allowed me to get super close to the artwork or wander around to other pieces we weren’t talking about. I’d been to the Orangerie Museum earlier that day to see Monet’s Water Lilies and been so annoyed at other visitors taking 30 pictures in a row of the artwork with their camera sounds on their phones at full volume (without even *looking* at the paintings themselves), which detracted from the peacefulness of the space. When I was on tour at the Louvre, I was so focused on the commentary coming from my headset that I didn’t even pay attention to the other visitors.
I won’t reveal everything we saw or learned on our tour because it’s important to see it all in person and with on-the-spot commentary from Walks of France, but I’ll let you in on a few secrets we heard and some of what we saw.
The Louvre was previously a palace, first built in the 12th century to protect from Vikings. Lilia walked us through the history of the museum while physically walking us through the basement of the museum, known as the Fortress. The masons would mark the stones they completed with their personal symbols to ensure payment – the worker in the picture above chose hearts. When the former moat was excavated in the 1980s, they found treasures from back in the day including King Charles VI’s helmet from the 1400s, 600-year-old children’s shoes, and dominoes (the game, not the pizza).
Sculptures were next on our list and we saw some amazing ones, including two of Michelangelo’s Slaves – the Dying Slave and the Rebellious Slave. I’d seen a few of his other Slaves leading up to David at the Academia in Florence. Perhaps the second most-famous piece in the Louvre is the fabulous Venus de Milo, a Greek statue from around 100 B.C. She’s missing some pieces and has some scars, but she’s still gorgeous, being the goddess of love and beauty, and actually Aphrodite in Greek mythology, not Venus, as per her name.
We saw so many more pieces during our walk – including Nike, Cupid and Psyche (above), the crown jewels, a painting with a victorious Frenchwoman who may have inspired the Statue of Liberty, a painting depicting cannibalism during a journey lost at sea, and, before heading into the room with ML, other Leonardo da Vinci works.
When we walked into the room with the Mona Lisa, though we weren’t going straight there, I peeked back at her and felt a huge smile come across my face. There was a small crowd, all taking pictures of course, but it was nothing like I expected. The crowd dissipated while we stood looking at the painting across from her for a few minutes. A few minutes later, I even got one-on-one time with her without using my elbows to push others away.
The painting facing the Mona Lisa is huge and bigger than my NYC apartment was, at 720 square feet. It’s a stunning scene of Jesus turning water into wine at a 16th century modern-day wedding – The Wedding at Cana by Paolo Veronese – that Napoleon stole from Italy. There’s a lot going on with the 130 people painted in the scene and you could play “I Spy” for hours, but then you’d miss out on the pièce de résistance across the way.
Lilia explained to us that the Mona Lisa is famous because she was stolen in 1911 by a museum employee. A picture of the painting was published in every newspaper in an effort to get it back and from that, everyone knew about her and, once she was recovered in 1913, wanted to come see her. Today, she’s so popular and worth so much (almost $900 million!) that she is protected behind bulletproof glass in the safest room in Paris, a fireproof vault room whose doors can come down quickly if there’s an issue. Because of that, you can’t get very close to her like I like to with artwork I’ve gushed over since childhood. You can’t see the brushstrokes or the detail like I’ve seen in da Vinci’s work in the Uffizi in Florence, but she’s still the Mona Lisa and she’s still incredible, especially toward the end of the day when the crowds have left.
Lilia told us that if you spent 30 seconds at each piece on display at the Louvre without any breaks, it would take 3 months to walk through the museum. Nobody should spend this much time in a museum in Paris when there are almond croissants to pick apart, hundreds of book stalls along the Seine to peruse, and hidden gardens to find. For that reason, there is Walks of France to ensure you hit the highlights with enough time afterward to walk to the Eiffel Tower before the lights come on. Check them out today!
Merci beaucoup, Walks of France, for the complimentary preview tour. Opinions are always my own.