Louvre moves: scrums, dodgy loos and the ‘Photoshop of the 19th century’
The Trip: As our guide from Cameroon expertly shows me and a group of North Americans around the world’s biggest museum, the talk is of beautiful art and terrible toilets, while Mona Lisa divides opinion
The tour guide, Catherine Ekima. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
The anatomy of Greek sculpture. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
Catherine Winder and Craig Berkey of Vancouver, with their children Sophie and Dylan in the Apollo Gallery. Photograph: Des Harris/The Picture Desk
The “Skip the line” label is the main attraction for most of the 20 North Americans in my City Wonders guided tour of the Louvre, the world’s biggest and most-visited museum.
To avoid queuing for hours outside IM Pei’s glass pyramid entry, you purchase a “skip the line” ticket on the internet for €48. Our guide, Catherine Ekima, originally from Cameroon, has a degree in art history. For three hours, she speaks with humour and erudition about French history and the treasures of the Louvre.
We congregate under the pink-columned Carrousel arch that Napoleon built to commemorate his victories. Catherine holds a flag so we can find her in the crowd. We follow her like schoolchildren, listening through earpieces. About two-thirds of us are women, which may indicate something about which gender appreciates art more. There are as many Canadians as Americans. Ages range from pre-adolescence to about 60.
Catherine begins by breaking bad news to us: Mona Lisa is on loan to a museum in Germany, so we won’t see her. Brows furrow. Faces drop. “I’m joking,” says Catherine. “She’s here. Don’t worry. But don’t expect to be alone with her. We have 10 million visitors a year.”
Catherine keeps up a steady patter to her little flock. “Napoleon Bonaparte, you know him?” she asks when explaining the alignment of the Carrousel arch with the Arc de Triomphe, several kilometres to the west.
“Our pyramid, what do you think about it? Do you like it? Really?” Catherine continues. “We hated it in 1989, and we signed petitions to have it demolished. Then Dan Brown published The Da Vinci Code, and now we love the pyramid.”
She points to the Eiffel Tower and tells us that when it was built, 100 years before the pyramid, Parisians petitioned to have it demolished.
We take an underground passage to the Louvre shopping mall. “The Louvre is about art, but it is also about money. Here you have an Apple store, Starbucks and McDonald’s. This is crucial time: bathroom time,” says Catherine. “It’s now or never. I won’t stop during the tour.”
We have skipped the ticket queue, but we can’t skip the toilet queue, which cuts more than half an hour out of our museum time. The North Americans call the smell and hygiene of the Louvre’s latrines “gross”.
Yasmin, a gastroenterologist from Atlanta, is taking the tour with Angelique, who studied with her at Georgetown University School of Medicine. “Everybody talks about the Louvre,” says Yasmin. “It’s the only museum I’ll go to.”
Catherine Winder, a producer of animated films, and her husband, Craig Berkey, a cinema sound engineer, from Vancouver, want to expose their children to art. They are just off the plane, and the Louvre is their first stop, jet lag and all. “We don’t get enough art at home,” says Catherine. “Can we go shopping tomorrow?” pleads Sophie (11).
After counting her charges to make sure we have all returned safely from the toilets, Catherine takes us through the moat of the medieval Louvre to see its foundations, which were excavated in the 1980s. Because medieval stonecutters were paid by the piece, they marked their stones. One signed with a heart. “Maybe he was in love. That’s so romantic,” says Catherine.