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More Than a Museum

Champagne by the window of the
Musée d'Orsay's restaurant
My first bateaux-mouches ride on the Seine in Paris left me bouche bée (flabbergasted, literally "open-mouthed"). Though the boats were cliché even in 1983, we passed some of the most jaw-dropping sights in Paris: la tour Eiffel, le Grand Palais, les Invalides, la Place de la Concorde. As we headed east towards the cathedral of Notre Dame and the islands, le Louvre meditated peacefully on our left. And on our right was, well, a decrepit turn-of-the-century building with broken windows and a forlorn countenance. Still, the grand structure had a presence and charisma that just called out for a makeover.

My wish came true. In late 1986, this once-bustling train station, or Gare d'Orsay, was given new life as the Musée d'Orsay.* Showcasing art from 1848 to 1914, the museum became home most notably to the spectacular Impressionist works that used to inhabit the Jeu de Paume on the other side of the river by the Tuileries gardens.

The renovated building is worth a visit in itself. But for those wanting to go straight for artistic dessert, I recommend heading to Niveau 5 (Level 5) of the museum. Galleries 29 through 36 are a confection of Impressionist delights with some of the best chefs-d'oeuvre (masterpieces) by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cézanne, Sisley, and Pissarro on display.

Pierre-Auguste Renoir: Bal du Moulin
de la Galette. 1876
A Ballerina by Degas

More of the building's beautiful structure is visible as you move through the nearby Post-Impressionist galleries. This vertical corridor leads to Galleries 42 to 46, small rooms of peintures (paintings) by Gauguin, Matisse, Seurat, Signac, Rousseau, and Redon.

  Paul Gauguin: Arearea. Joyeusetés. 1892

If you can tear yourself away from this visual candy store, more treasures await on Niveau 2 or the Niveau médian (middle level). As the west end of the museum used to be a hotel, there are several public rooms that have been restored to their belle époque glory. There is the Salle des Fêtes (ballroom) with its garlands of lights and glittering chandeliers. You can imagine the parties this room has seen.

And just a few steps away is the museum's restaurant also ablaze with crystal chandeliers and gilt ceilings. Lunch as well as afternoon tea are served. While the décor surpasses the cuisine, le restaurant is worth a detour. On Thursday evenings when the museum is open late, you can also reserve a table for the weekly dîner gastronomique (ultra gourmet dinner). It is the perfect place to celebrate just being in Paris.

At this museum, I have a host of favorite spots I return to again and again-sitting on benches in front of favorite paintings, looking through the large clocks on the museum's façade out onto Paris below, standing in the middle of the great hall and taking in the soaring ceiling above. But a few weeks ago, I think I discovered my new coin préféré (favorite corner) of this phenomenal space.

In my book, particularly in my Paris book, le Champagne is a raison d'être. In other words, Champagne to me is great anytime, anywhere. So when I passed by the restaurant just as lunch was being set up, I was stopped in my tracks by a beautiful coin Champagne (Champagne corner). A large ice bucket with several bottles of bubbly was chilling at the base of the luminous window [see top photo]. Though I didn't have a glass then, I know I'll be back to my new favorite Orsay spot. You've got to love a place of trains, paintings, parties, and ahem, Champagne.

* Le Musée d'Orsay is located at 62, rue de Lille in the seventh arrondissement. It is open daily from 9:30am to 6pm except Mondays. It is open late Thursday evenings until 9:45pm.

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