That is, until I visited Paris two summers ago. I was traveling across Europe with a tour group from my school, the kind that does group activities but prides itself on giving students freedom to pursue their interests. These tours are always limiting, no matter what they claim, but I had had a blast thus far. We had seen the London Eye, shopped in Piccadilly Circus, visited the Eiffel Tower, and ridden a boat on the Seine. Everything was exciting and overwhelming and new.
I was ecstatic when I learned that we had three hours to explore the Louvre. I have always adored art, so visiting this museum was a dream come true. After receiving tickets, I dragged my friend through the line and up the stairs. We probably looked comical, like something out of a cartoon.
We either couldn’t find maps, or didn’t really try. Instead, we allowed ourselves to be swept towards the artwork upstairs with a tidal wave of strangers. This wave deposited us at the museum’s pride and joy, its proverbial diamond: The Mona Lisa.
I knew that the painting was small, so I did not find its size disappointing. What was disappointing were the hundreds of tourists crowded before it, taking pictures without really looking. They were loud, rude, and in the way of those who wanted to do more than just take snapshots to brag about to their friends.
After briefly paying homage to the familiar handiwork of Leonardo, my friend and I left the gallery, disgusted. We had seen the prominent attraction; still mapless, we were now free, instead, to wander.
We traded the densely populated corridors for quieter ones and found ourselves at a wing labeled “Statues” in French. We opened a door, stumbled across the marble floor, and arrived upon one of the loveliest courtyards I have ever seen.
The area was a stark contrast to the hallways we had just left behind. Intrigued, we climbed the set of stairs to the balcony and discovered a half-hidden wooden door. It was ancient and heavy – but open.
We had accidentally found the apartment of Napoleon III.
Inside was eerily quiet; my friend and I and the ghosts of monarchies past were the only ones present. The furniture whispered to us as we passed our enchanted faces in mirrors. The chandeliers were unlit, but they were unneeded, for every heavily draped window was uncovered. Darkness could have eaten the space, but Light reigned.
We spent about an hour exploring these hidden places, these paths less traveled, before reluctantly descending the stairs and returning, breathless, to the uniformly tacky tour bus waiting for us in the bunker-like parking deck beneath the museum.
When I think back to my time spent in the world’s largest museum, the Mona Lisa is never the first thing that comes to mind. There were so many other things to see, things like rooms and statues, that seem simple in retrospect. Visiting the Louvre taught me that sometimes it pays to diverge from the crowd, to look elsewhere, and to find one’s own path. Even if this path is aimless and meandering, it may lead to a special and unexpected joy.
Sometimes, just because you see a diamond, like The Mona Lisa, doesn’t mean you should overlook the gems.