Comment | You’re Doing City Breaks All Wrong. Here's Why...
The Mona Lisa isn't shit, you just don't like art that much
I’m standing in front of the Mona Lisa. Or to be more precise, I’m standing behind a guy with a camera, who is standing behind a guy with a camera phone, who is standing in front of the Mona Lisa.
The Louvre is the most visited museum in the world. Roughly 10 million people pass through the doors of the glass triangle and into the maze each year. It’s a staple on the Paris tourist trail.
But as I’m standing in front of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait, I can’t help but feel like I’m in some sort of Black Mirror-esque parody of modern culture.
Tourists of all shapes and sizes are falling over one another trying to take a picture of the half-metre frame behind the bulletproof glass. Many probably leave having only actually seen the painting through their monitors.
Now the Mona Lisa is a work of art, in both the metaphorical and (obviously) the literal sense, but much of the intrigue comes in its history. It’s one of few paintings that can be attributed to Leonardo da Vinci and its previous owners include an array of French kings and emperors. My favourite fact about the painting is that Pablo Picasso was once questioned over the theft of it after it went missing for two years between 1911-1913.
Let's face it, very few of us are art experts. So without the history, for most of us the painting would just be a well-painted piece of art that often rears its head in mainstream culture. Paolo Veronese’s enormous ‘Wedding at Cana’ directly opposite Mona is far more obviously eye-catching than the famous sitter from the eyes of a non-expert like myself at least.
This made me wonder how many of the people taking pictures of The Mona Lisa knew the history of the painting, and how many actually gave a fuck about it at all?
Are a significant number of tourists going to the Louvre, and to Mona, just because they’re expected to do so while in Paris? And so that they can say that they’ve been?
In 2014, after 9.3 million people visited the Louvre, former director Henri Loyrette reckoned that "80 percent of the people only [came] to see the Mona Lisa". Being asked where Mona was by a man with a selfie-stick on arrival at the museum was one of the more surreal moments of my time in Paris. Why this chap thought I knew my way around the 60,600 sqm palace is quite beyond me.
If 80 percent of people did come just to see da Vinci's painting, turn up, snap the photo and leave without exploring any further, you really have to question whether it was worth taking up their entire afternoon (which from the queues and navigation, I can almost guarantee it would). And yet for some reason this is quite a common thing to do.
If it wasn’t so famous, would I myself have had the Louvre at the top of my list of galleries to visit when in fact the Musée de l’Orangerie and Musée national Picasso-Paris turned out to be more pleasant experiences, largely due to the lacks of such crowds?
This got me thinking about the way we handle city breaks in general. Short, three or four day city breaks are how so many of us are managing to see the world while maintaining 9-5 work lives now, and that’s brilliant, and it works – but just because you’re only going somewhere for three days doesn’t mean you have to rush around all the famous attractions while you’re there.
I was lucky enough to have a lot more than just the weekend in Paris, and I left thinking it must be one of the best cities in the world. But one of the things I also thought was that had I only been there for the weekend, and had I spent that weekend purely on the tourist trail, my opinion of the place would have been far different – and far worse.
Trekking around the tourist trail can be exhausting, and it can mean you spend a lot of time in parts of the city which other than the obvious, don't have an awful lot to offer, surrounded by tourist tat and overpriced, underwhelming food and drink.
The view from the Arc de Triumph is undoubtedly worth a visit and Notre Dame Cathedral is stunning but I wouldn’t trade my time getting lost in the city streets, in the street art of the 13th or 11th or 19th arrondissements, in the bars and cafes of Oberkampf or Bastille for a moment more at the sites.
The talks at the bookshops in Belleville, the Monday night poetry in the basement bars of Oberkampf, the chats with locals, the good food and even the shit attempt at cooking Ratatouille in my studio Air BnB near Père Lachaise were what made Paris for me – the modern culture, the history of the area, the local influence and experience were far more important in how I viewed the city at the end of the stay than climbing the Eiffel Tower, which let's not lie, I was far, far too hungover to do.
It would have been great to do that and to see more of the museums and galleries on my to-do list, but if I had to cram my highlights from Paris into a three day getaway, there’d barely be a tourist attraction in sight.
The greatest city breaks you’ll ever have are the ones where you immerse yourself in the atmosphere and pick out what truly interests you – not just what’s most famous.
If you don’t like fine art then sure, still go to the Louvre when you’re in Paris, there’s so much to see, but don’t only visit the ‘Fine Art’ section. Sounds stupid when it’s written down, right?
How many times have you heard people say the Mona Lisa is ‘overrated’ or not that impressive? I’m no authority on fine art but I’m pretty sure you would never get a genuine enthusiast saying such a thing. I imagine the people who are saying so, with exceptions, just don’t like fine art that much, and probably rarely visit art galleries near their home. Now that's absolutely fine, but then why go see Mona rather than doing something you'll actually enjoy?
My favourite thing about Paris is the passion of the people, the basement bars and the literature. My favourite thing about Venice is the silent side streets. My favourite thing about Amsterdam is the sunset over the canals in back alleys. My favourite thing about Krakow is a tiny little vodka bar we ended up at until whatever am. My favourite thing about Rome, on the other hand, is undoubtedly the Colosseum.
Tourist attractions are very, very often worth a visit (especially if they’re a 1937 year old arena where guys used to fight bears). But think about it first. Don’t just go because Trip Advisor told you to – remember those reviews are written by a wide range of people with different interests and different tastes. And if you tell me that you don’t like fine art that much, and that you think the Mona Lisa was overrated but you went and got the photo anyway, I’m going to tell you that you’re doing travel wrong.