Half the Free Sights

photo: place vendome, olivier strebelle, argus III

On view for free in the Place Vendôme, Olivier Strebelle's
sculpture titled, 'Argus III.'

Is Better Than None

Paris:- Wednesday, 30. May 2001:- There are Wednesdays in this town when there is no free lunch. With the exception of last Wednesday, this is how most of my Wednesdays are. This means that if I am going to keep my nose in the art scene, it better be free.

This is not exactly in the spirit of keeping up a good balance of payments between myself and Paris' art industry, but it is well underwritten and I am not.

Maybe you are not either. Here it is, nearly summer. The planes are full. There's no reason to be discounting seat prices. If you are here today, you probably paid full fare. You might be on a tight budget.

You have probably already wasted some part of your budget by buying guides to cheap hotels and restaurants. I don't want to be a bad-news Charlie, but you have wasted your money. Since you decided not to have the full Paris experience - of sleeping on benches with clochards - the hotel damage is already done, and your budget is even tighter.

To fix this up a bit, flog the guides you've paid so much for, to the booksellers with the stalls on the Seine's quays. This won't get you much, but it might be worth two extra meals.

You don't need the guide books for restaurants because about 2487 of these - they are more common than corner gas stations, and a lot of them are on corners - all have the samephoto: rue st roche shop, founded 1658 thing for the same price. Steak-frites goes for about 55 francs. This isn't fancy, but it is the preferred meal of choice for 24 million French men every day.

Just off the not-so-free Rue Saint-Honoré, this antique shop - 'founded in 1658' - is antique itself.

I will assume you've done this for lunch today. I hope you left the waiter some odd change for a tip. It is hot and he will want to have a beer - a 'demi' - later. Well-fed on meat and potatoes, you are extra ready for Paris.

All the major exhibitions - the ones called 'exceptional events' in local parlance - are inside buildings - so you will have to pay to get in to see them. Entry fees vary, but the headliners cost as much as seeing a first-run movie on the Champs-Elysées - which you don't want to do either, even though cinemas are air-conditioned.

Another thing you don't want to do is return home without having seen some art. It's why you came to Paris, or at least it's the reason you told everybody. You didn't say, 'I'm flying across the ocean, or riding a train across the continent, to play video games in Paris.' Nobody ever says anything like this.

This means that when you get back, to keep people from thinking you weren't playing video games in Paris, you are going to have to tell everybody about the 'art' you've seen here. Frankly, most people's eyes will glaze over when you get into this routine - but the rules of the game say you have to do it whether you notice the 'glaze' or not.

Having had lunch, you are also feeling fit as a fiddle because you are no longer carrying two kilos of guide books. With these gone you might as well throw away your sacks or bags too - you have a no-souvenir budget so you won't be needing to carry anything.

You are now stripped down and slim enough to see free art. You see, the guide books don't mention much about the free art, and this is another reason you don't need them.

My first stop today to see free art is the Place de la Concorde. I saw the Fontaine des Mers a couple of weeks ago, so I'll skip it and the authentic but terribly huge Obélisque too. If you haven't seen these yet, they are free.

Looking at Concorde's big ferris wheel is free too, just so long as you don't get on it. But it isn't 'art' according to the Ministry of Culture, so don't even bend your neck. The horse statues are 'art' though and you can give these a free look over.

The Tuileries gardens are chock-full of freephoto: statute jeanne d'arc sculpture. The gardens also have the advantage of having free shade, and having free chairs for sitting in it. You could spend a couple of days seeing the free art in the Tuileries. The art in the Tuileries is permanent, so you can see some this year and the rest the next time you come. It is all 'exceptional.'

Paris has more art than it knows what to do with. Put another way, it has more art than will fit into places where you have to pay to see it.

Jeanne d'Arc looks across the Rue de Rivoli at the Tuileries, forever, and for free!

A current show is in the Place Vendôme. Actually, it starts a block before it at the Rue Saint-Honoré, and continues up to the Opéra. It is a 'major event' because it overflows the Place Vendôme, which is not vest-pocket sized.

The sculptor is Olivier Strebelle, and he does giant stuff. Just think - the Place Vendôme is full of it, these really big pieces, and there's still lots of elbow room and space enough for a football field besides. When Paris says 'major' it is not kidding.

If it was any place inside, I'd say you save about 45 francs by just walking into the Place Vendôme and having a free look around. Do it twice, and you'll have enough saved for another steak-frites, with maybe dessert and a glass of quality water.

This show will continue until Sunday, 15. July. Open hours are 24 a day, from Sunday at 00:00 to Saturday at midnight.

I have some vague notion that there is another free show in the garden at the Palais-Royal so I amble along the Rue Saint-Honoré past all of the fancy shops and some not so fancy ones. Where Rue des Pyramides crosses it I remember that Jeanne d'Arc's statute is a block south at Rivoli.

Today then, is the first time I actually go out of my way to see it. This I can hardly do because its gilding is so bright. I will tell you, I think fresh gilding looks fake - it is amazing just how shiny gold can be.

The Place André-Malraux has two so-so fountains, but these are free too and even if they are not too fancy their waters work good and the Comédie Française overlooks the whole place, making it altogether a pretty good spot and you can even sit for free beside the fountains.

Across the way, beside the Rue Saint-Honoré in the Place Colette, there is a new métro entry decor. It looks like tinfoil Christmas-tree stuff - but hey! - it's 'art' and it is free too. Parisians are very uncertain about whether it should even be in Paris, but 50 years or so usually flattens these discords out.

The main courtyard within the Palais-Royal is full of more controversial sculpture, in the form of concrete posts of different heights, decorated with vertical black stripes. These have aged a bit since their installation and I understand art critics are no longer having fistfights over the thing.

Looking this over is another freebie. Whatever you think about it, you should know that the Palais-Royal isphoto: new art metro entry, palais royal the headquarters of France's Ministry of Culture - so there are people in the upper stratosphere of 'art' who get to see this for 35 hours a week - or will, if they ever get the 35-hour week worked out.

The Christmas-tree métro entry looks much better now than it did in winter.

This reminds me that because the 35-hour week is not sorted out yet, this ministry's employees at the Louvre - just across the way - may let you in there free if they are 'on strike.' But this is a chancy thing, so I won't recommend it as a full-time free thing.

It is beyond the courtyard, in the Palais-Royal's gardens, where I think I will find some more free sculpture. But I am mistaken, misinformed, or late - because there is none.

Well, there is always the Palais-Royal itself, which is an official historical monument. The front part is being renovated, and the rest of it needs it badly.

The little shops under its hundreds or thousands of metres of arcades are mostly eccentric. Looking in their windows is free. The restaurants, some of which are also historical monuments, are not free - but you can look in their windows for nothing.

Paris, unlike Disneyland, does not go in much for costumed employees playing fictional animated film characters. This is a shame because the Palais-Royal had a very colorful cast of real characters at one time.

In the Palais-Royal's case, a number of them would be X-rated today - but this could draw business away from Pigalle, which isn't its former self anymore either.

Even though there is no free sculpture to see, I walk all the way around the three arcaded sides, and figure I'm getting a good show for the money all the same. As kind of a bonus, I hit the Ministry of Culture's reception office and pick up all sorts of free brochures - which contain many leads to other free stuff around the city.

Over by the Palais-Royal métrophoto: galerie colette, palais royal station, I am sort of annoyed that there doesn't seem to be any free shows, in the form of the people who endlessly pretend to be famous statues, like Ramses III or somebody.

The Galerie Colette part of the Palais-Royal is royally long.

I do note that a small horde of people are busily putting on skates and rollers. It is important to mention this, because there is so much free stuff in Paris to see, that getting around on rollers is the only way to do it if you have to do it on a budget and in three days.

If anybody counts these things, just think of how many eyes will be glazing over after this crew has rolled around all Paris and gone home to tell all about it - even if it is only three days' worth.

There you have it. You don't need guide books or sacks for carrying them. With all the money you'll save by only taking in Paris' free stuff, you will be able the have steak-frites at least three times a day. Ask for the steak well-done if you like it rare.

If I had more space here, I'd put in a list of all of Paris free drinking fountains. Maybe next time, when I put in the list of free parks, and all of the high places for looking at all of Paris all at once, for free.

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logo, metropole sml midi logo No matter how good it tastes,
there is no such thing
as a free lunch.
Waldo Bini