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This a fantastic free museum in Paris - and after visiting a few of the more famous ones, the prices there meant that a free museum was a great relief for my purse. Not only are there amazing objects from the history of the city, including an incredible collection on the French Revolution, but it also an opportunity to see the interior décor of Paris' aristocracy.
Whereas Versailles can be incredibly crowded not really allowing you to take anything in properly, the much quieter Musee Carnavalet gives you the space and time to examine each exquisite object in detail. So unless it is the fact that they belonged to the Bourbon monarchy that attracts you to Versailles decoration, I would recommend skipping the pricey inside entry to Versailles and go to the Musee Carnavalet instead. I enjoyed the few hours there a great deal more.
One of the reasons it might be quieter is it is not as close to the most famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, although it is still really central. The nearest famous landmark is the Place des Vosges, which is about a five minute walk away. It is in the Marais district which is a lovely area to walk around, full of historic buildings, pretty wee streets and interesting shops. Even though it isn't in 'tourist central', it is easy to get to from the centre - I stayed near the Pompidou Centre and it took about 10-15 minutes to walk there.
But this isn't just a history of the aristocracy, it is a history of the entire city. The place is practically a maze inside, which lets you lose yourself in the past. Although that can have its disadvantages - when I realised I had got so absorbed that I had lost track of time and was in danger of being late for my train, it took me a while to find my way out!
The Musee Carnavalet is one of the most beautiful of the many stunning tourist attractions in Paris. One of the lesser known museums, it chronicles the history of Paris from its origins to the present day, and is a tranquil and beautiful respite from the bustling streets that surround it.
The Museum is located in the Marais, the Jewish quarter that has become a busy tourist area filled with stylish shops and renaissance architecture.
The Museum was named after the Hotel Carnavalet, built in 1548 and once the home of the notorious gossip and socialite Madame de Sévigné. It occupies two neighbouring buildings: the Hôtel Carnavalet and the former Hôtel Le Peletier de Saint Fargeau; these two mansions are now linked by a gallery which creates a large museum both intriguing and difficult to navigate, with long corridors, odd-shaped rooms, unexpected staircases and hidden galleries.
Walking through the main entrance away from the thronging crowds, you enter directly into a beautiful courtyard containing ornamental gardens designed in the classic 18th century French style. A statue of Louis XLV -the only copy to have survived the Revolution, sits in the centre. It is tempting to sit in the sunshine of these manicured gardens, but the fierce curator will bear down on you with her walkie talkie if you dare to get out any food or drink!
The interior of the museum has original 16th century interiors preserved with its original structure intact. Walls have not been moved as a concession to the mansion's new role, and this makes wandering through the maze of corridors and staircases a real delight. As you reach the very top floors, the views out of the windows look out onto the roofs of Paris.
The museum is divided up into floors and sections that represent each era of French history and the 140 rooms contain a chronological and eclectic mix of archaeology, sculptures, paintings, photographs, furniture, and signs.
The museum has around 2,600 paintings, 20,000 drawings, 300,000 engravings, 150,000 photographs, and 2,000 sculptures, portraying everything from everyday life across the ages, to the revolutions and the bloodshed which beleaguered the country. It also contains furniture, ceramics, a variety of decorations, models and reliefs, signs and thousands of coins, .
Many of the rooms recreate a particular moment in time, or the life of a famous person. I was personally fascinated by paintings recording the raising of the Obelisk of Luxor in 1833, and the storming of the Bastille during the Revolution. To think that these were painted from first hand experience! It was like a window through history.
Small and fascinating pieces attract attention as you walk round; the chessmen Louis XVI used to distract himself while waiting to go to the guillotine; a gold watch that belonged to Emile Zola; Napoleon's favorite case of toiletries. The variety of the collections is amazing, and really brings history to life.
It is impossible to describe the collection in detail, so I will just point out some areas that I feel are really special.
~La Bijouterie Fouquet~
As a lover of everything Art Deco, I always rush straight to the very far recesses of the first floor to visit the magnificent bijouterie Fouquet. This astonishing little jewellery store was designed in 1900 by Alphonse Mucha, the world acclaimed Czech artist who had by this time become so famous that many Parisians referred to Art Nouveau itself simply as the "Mucha style."
The shop was owned by Georges Fouquet, a jeweller based in Paris who was linked with both the Art Nouveau and Art Deco movements. Originally in the Rue Royale, the shop was dismantled, painstakingly moved and reassembled in its entirety after Fouquet donated it to the museum.
This must rank as one of the most beautiful shops in the world. An Art Nouveau theme runs throughout, with a polychrome peacock roundel standing guard over the store from high upon a wall above the main jewellery case overflowing with bronze peacocks. The gleaming wooden façade with stained glass panels depicting Mucha's traditional and beautiful flowing haired ladies, leads into a shop that is a mass of stained glass, intricate tiles, mosaics and beautifully carved curving wood.
~The French Revolution~
Many of the rooms bring history to life through the unusual artefacts on display, but the rooms that had the biggest historical impact for me were the two rooms devoted to the French Revolution. Patriotic striped fabric hangs on the walls, surrounding furniture that depicts the spirit of the time. Exhibits on the Revolution include scale models of guillotines, a replica of the Bastille prison carved from one of its stones, even a cast-iron stove in the shape of the Bastille. Many of the illustrations provide an almost photographic record of the many dramatic moments of the Revolution, capturing the excitement of such events as the taking of the Bastille; the women's march to Versailles; Louis XVI's executioner holding his head up to the crowd.
A special display case is devoted to the imprisonment of the royal family and includes a portrait of the little Dauphin, who died in prison at the age of ten, along with a tiny pair of his trousers and a jacket. There is also his game of dominoes and his toy soldiers, the keys of the Bastille, a ring-shaped coffin containing the hair of King Louis XVI. One of Marie-Antoinette's slippers is also on show.
Two other exhibits that have to get a mention are the medieval room and Proust's bedroom. The first room in the museum is a depiction of medieval Paris. Huge wrought iron shop signs adorn the walls, depicting their trade; a miniature model of the streets of Paris shows you how they would have hung over the narrow lanes; stained glass from the era leans against the window frames. I have never seen this type of street furniture in a museum before, and found it entrancing.
The other room that particularly caught my interest was the cork lined bedroom of Marcel Proust, with original furniture and the bed where he spent 12 years writing his masterpiece. It was lovely to imagine Proust propped inside this tiny bed with its blue bedspread.
The museum is too extensive to describe in one review, and even though I have visited three times now, the Musee Carnavalet is really a gem of a museum and I feel that there is much more that I have yet to see.
Entry to the museum is free of charge.
Nearly all of the signage is in French, so I would recommed buying an English guide on the way in to make the most of your visit.
A very helpful multi-lingual assistant sits on the first floor to help and advise.
Opening hours are 10am to 6pm - the museum is closed on Mondays.
The nearest metro station is Saint-Paul
23, Rue de Sévigné