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Missing Mona Lisa

It’s a perfectly stereotypical French tale involving an August holiday, a famous artist, a renowned investigator and an ill-advised cigarette break. But before you cue Henry Mancini’s “Pink Panther Theme,” here’s the real story about how Mona Lisa was removed from the Louvre in Paris and how she remained missing for over two years.

On August 22, 1911, the French painter, Louis Béroud, made his way to the Louvre and arrived at the site where Mona Lisa should have been, in order to begin an artistic representation of the viewing area. Reportedly, his goal was to paint a different sort of portrait; he was after a reflection of one of Mona Lisa’s admirers in the glass that protected her from the public. In an ironic twist, when Béroud arrived at the spot, the protective glass remained, but the iconic painting was nowhere to be found.

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Béroud reported the disappearance to Louvre guards in the area, many of whom had noticed Mona Lisa’s absence already. In fact, one guard noted that she was out of place on the previous day. However, he simply assumed she had been removed to be photographed, a relatively common occurrence at the museum. However, with the Louvre’s director on vacation, the museum’s on goings were a bit muddled. Upon a bit of investigation, it was found that there was no photography scheduled and that Mona Lisa was, indeed, missing.

Immediate action was taken. The Louvre was closed to visitors, France’s borders were sealed and a distinguished fingerprint expert, Alphonse Bertillon, was called to the scene to investigate what was beginning to look like the biggest art heist of the 20th century.

After a team of over 60 detectives completed a week’s worth of investigation, very little was known about Mona Lisa’s whereabouts, but Numerous details about how the painting was stolen were placed together. Apparently, the guard who generally oversaw Mona Lisa was at home with a sick child. His replacement, in the midst of his shift, left the painting unattended when he stepped out for a cigarette. It was determined that the painting must have been taken, very quickly, in the ten to fifteen minutes that the guard had left his post unmanned.

Travel Paris, Louvre, Paris Vacation, French Vacation

In the absence of a proper suspect, false accusations flew through France quicker than the Mistral. In fact, even Pablo Picasso was questioned in the disappearance. While it was found that Picasso might have had some minor, shady dealings with known art thieves, he knew absolutely nothing about Mona Lisa’s disappearance.

Eventually, the dust settled and the world moved on as Mona Lisa seemed to have been permanently lost. That is until December of 1913, when Vincenzo Peruggia, an Italian carpenter who had lived in France, emerged in Florence in possession of Mona Lisa. Reportedly, Peruggia’s grand plan was not motivated – at least not entirely – by the prospect of financial gain. Though he did request a substantial sum in exchange for the portrait, Peruggia claimed to have wanted da Vinci’s masterpiece returned to Italy, where, in his opinion, it belonged.

Upon getting in touch with Uffizi curators in an effort to place the portrait on display within the Italian museum, Peruggia was promptly arrested. Part of his plan did come to fruition, however, as Mona Lisa was chauffeured all around Italy before her return to the Louvre.

In the aftermath of Peruggia’s arrest, little more about the robbery was definitively determined. But the story goes that Peruggia had done carpentry work at the Louvre prior to the evening of August 21, when he pilfered Mona Lisa. He was a familiar face around the museum, and gained access without causing any suspicion. When he noted that the painting was left unattended, he seized the opportunity to grab the portrait and hide it under his painter’s smock before casually fleeing the scene. As for the painting’s whereabouts over the next two years: it remained in Peruggia’s apartment, collecting dust in a closet.

Mona Lisa, da Vinci, Paris, louvre

There you have it. No elaborate scheme. No grand heist; simply an Italian national who took advantage of a perfect storm of happenstance to remove one of the most famous works of art from one of the most iconic museums in the world. Thankfully, Mona Lisa has since resided safely in her home at the Louvre, playfully smirking at us all, perhaps because only she knows all of the details surrounding her infamous disappearance.

See what’s behind the smile for yourself and visit Mona Lisa on a Paris extension on any one of VBT’s French vacations.

Two Days in Paris

Paris is one of the world’s most acclaimed cities, with very good reason. Boasting over 100 museums, more than 30 parks and gardens, 20 Arrondissements, two contrasting banks and one legendary river, the City of Light certainly has no shortage of sights to see. In fact, even for a seasoned traveler, sightseeing in Paris can be a daunting endeavor. But there’s no need to stress; it’s a vacation, not a marathon. Besides, most Parisians haven’t even seen all the sights. There’s no need (and no way!) to fit them all in on one trip. See what you can, and the good news is, Paris will still be there when you can come back to see more.

Eiffel Tower, Paris, France, Tour France

Day One:

Stop into the closest brasserie for le petit-déjeuner complet, the French equivalent to a hearty breakfast. You won’t see eggs, bacon or pancakes on your plate, but for 10-12 € you’ll get a slice of baguette with butter, one croissant with a little jam on the side, orange juice and coffee: your choice of café crème (latte) or a rich, smoky espresso. Charged from the espresso, and filled with flaky, French bread, you’re ready to set off for one of the world’s most famous museums, Musée du Louvre.

As you might imagine, you’re not the only person in Paris that would like to tour the museum. You may have to wait to get inside, but if you show up before the Louvre opens at 9 a.m., chances are your wait won’t be long. And if you do find yourself in a line, take the time to appreciate the grand palace around you, as well as the stark contrast between the historic architecture and the modern glass pyramids.

Remember that the Louvre houses over 30,000 works of art, including the illustrious Mona Lisa and Venus de Milo. Your best bet is to do your research before you get to Paris. Find out what’s there, and decide what’s important to you. Then, take a few hours to appreciate the art you came to see, and leave the rest for visits in years to come.

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Note: Musée du Louvre is closed on Tuesdays. Opening hours are Monday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Wednesday, Friday from 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.

When you feel it’s time to move on, exit the Palace and stroll through Jardin des Tuileries. You’ll see quite a few tourists and peddlers along the way, but the quieter setting among trees and fountains makes for a nice walk en route to Place de la Concorde and then Avenue des Champs-Élysées. At this point you may be hungry, but you might want to skip the brasseries in the area, as you’ll have to pay quite a bit, simply based upon the location. Instead, opt for a crepe and take it to go as you make your way to your next stop, l’Arc de Triomphe.

Once you’re on Champs-Élysées you can’t miss the giant monument at the end of the grand boulevard. Head in its direction and perhaps peek into a designer shop or two on your way. Upon arrival, peer over the partition at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and maybe get a picture of Europe’s most famous eternal flame before heading up to the top of l’Arc for a great daytime view of Paris. You can purchase tickets ahead of time, if you wish, but the wait to climb the monument’s stairs shouldn’t hold you up for too long. At the top, take in the air, the scenery, the traffic below and the magnificent architecture of Paris. Look northeast at Montmartre for an exciting glimpse of la Basilique du Sacré Coeur. You’ll get an even closer look tomorrow!

arc de triomphe, Champs elysees, Paris

Note: l’Arc is open Monday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.      

Depending on the season, you may have a couple more hours of daylight or twilight could already be upon the city. If the sun is setting, then it’s the perfect time to head toward the Eiffel Tower. It’s about a 30 minute walk from L’arc de Triomphe, but the metro will get you there even quicker.

Paris, France, Eiffel Tower, Gustav EiffelNot only does the landmark boast an outstanding view, the history of the Eiffel Tower is also very interesting. Do a little research before you get there to augment your appreciation. Once again, you might find a line, and waits for the Eiffel Tower can be tedious. If your legs are up to it, cut your wait time in half, climb to the second level by stairway and then take an elevator to the top, or simply wait for a lift to get you there. As you stand above the city, take your time, get some photos, breathe it all in and make the most of the experience. Skip the outrageously priced champagne, though. You’ve had much better and you’ll want to save your palate for wine at dinner. Finally, when you’re satisfied that you’ve seen all you can see, return to the ground floor.

Note: The Eiffel Tower elevators are open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 11:45 p.m. and stairs are open from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. or midnight, depending on the season.

With the world’s greatest art collection, and two outstanding views under your belt, you’re likely to be a bit tired and almost certainly famished. For an authentic French dining experience head to le Dix-Vins on Rue Falguière. It’s another 25 to 30 minute walk, so you may want to treat yourself to a cab or hop back on the Metro. Keep in mind that it is a popular restaurant. You can reserve ahead or wait for a while at the bar, sampling one or two of its fantastic wines. Be sure to brush up on your French before stopping in, as this is not a tourists’ restaurant. You won’t get much help in English, but if you give your French a shot, even if it’s poor, you’ll get great service.

Day Two:

Start your day with a more relaxed pace at Jardin du Luxembourg. You may have spotted Luxembourg Palace and its gardens yesterday evening atop the Eiffel Tower. Relax, unwind and take in lovely flowers as well as some great people-watching. You’re sure to see tourists here, too, but you’re likely to find more Parisians gracing its grounds.

Notre Dame, Notre Dame Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral

As the haze of the morning begins to clear, get ready for more great architecture and a reverent air on Île de la Cité, a natural island in the middle of the Seine. The site in question is, of course, Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Paris. Built in the 12th Century, the Roman Catholic Cathedral is one of the most iconic examples of Gothic Architecture. On its exterior you’ll note its famous gargoyles and its two “flying buttresses” and indoors, Notre Dame’s acoustics project bells and organs in a such a unique way that the tones will stay with you long after you’ve left.

Note: Notre Dame is opened daily from 8 a.m. to 6:45 p.m.   

Hopefully, your visit to the famous cathedral has put you in an appreciative or even pensive state of mind as our next stop is Musee d’Orsay. While the Louvre is Paris’ home for historical art, Musee D’Orsay is its modern counterpart with exhibits that feature the impressionist masters, Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Cezanne and van Gogh. Located in a former train station on the Right Bank of the Seine, Musee d’Orsay’s exterior also warrants a bit of exploration before you step inside.

Note: Musee d’Orsay is open 9.30 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, with a late night on Monday.

As the day winds down, hop on the Metro and make your way to Montmartre to explore another famous landmark, La Basilique du Sacré Coeur. Perched atop the highest point within the city, le butte Montmartre provides stunning views of the city below. Marvel at the contrast between the gothic style of Notre Dame and the Romano-byzantine basilica with its three white domes. Explore its interior to take in its grand mosaic and its intricate sculpture work. When you exit the structure, take some time to sit on the hill and look down at the city you’ve explored over the past two days. And finally, toast your trip at one of the less touristy restaurants in Montmartre, Chez Toinette on Rue Germain Pilon.

Note: Sacré Coeur is open Monday through Sunday from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Be there by 5 p.m. if you’d like to climb to the dome.

Sacre Coeru, Montmartre, Paris

As you travel, remember to have fun and enjoy exploring Paris. There are plenty of attractions to keep you busy while you’re there, and plenty more to keep you coming back. Just try to take in the sights that you find interesting, and give yourself enough time to really appreciate what you came to see.

Spend two days in Paris on an extension before or after VBT’s French Vacations.

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