Nuala McCann: Queue to see the Mona Lisa? Been there, done that, didn’t bother with the t-shirt

Standing among a sea of heads at the Louvre in Paris, I remember thinking: “What’s it all about?”

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann

Nuala McCann is an Irish News columnist and writes a weekly radio review.

The Mona Lisa in The Louvre in Paris
Da Vinci's Mona Lisa is high on some people’s bucket lists, but not mine (Martin Keene/PA)

We are approaching the age of the retirement bucket list. What’s on yours?

Sky-diving, paddling up the Orinoco, seeing Venice and dying… or is that Rome? Hold the thought.

Leonardo’s Mona Lisa is officially 520 years old. She’s high on some people’s bucket lists, but not mine – been there, done that, never bought the arm-’n-a-leg t-shirt.

Long ago, I queued with many other hot and hairy and sweaty tourists for a fair portion of my life before being guided along long, polished wooden halls to view the famous painting.

It was, shall we say, underwhelming. Like when you crack open a luxe Easter egg and there’s nothing inside: zero, zilch, nada.

The Louvre is home to masterpieces such as the Mona Lisa (AP)
She’s 30 inches by 20 inches and she smiles from behind bullet-proof glass

You get 30 seconds standing in front of da Vinci’s small masterpiece – not quite postage-stamp size, but not big. She’s 30 inches by 20 inches and she smiles from behind bullet-proof glass. She has her own post box so that you can send her love letters and flowers.

Standing among a sea of heads, I remember thinking: “What’s it all about?”

I’m not alone. The website CouponBirds looked at 18,000 reviews of the world’s most famous artworks. With 37.1% negative reviews, the Mona Lisa was crowned “the world’s most disappointing masterpiece”.

Some visitors said they had “never been so disappointed” and somebody called it “torture”.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is one of the best-known artworks in the world
Some visitors to the Louvre said they had “never been so disappointed” (Chris Radburn/PA)

Of course it is not the artwork itself that is disappointing but it is the victim of its own success, attracting huge crowds and expensive ticket prices.

It reminded me of a trip to Spain and a long trek in the hot sun to see an ancient Roman bridge that proved a bridge too far.

Judging by the beer cans and used condoms, it doubled as the local teenagers’ “area of special scientific interest” – more roaming hands than Roman architecture.

“Worth seeing; not worth going to see,” sighed my other half as we girded our loins for the hike back.

Forget bucket lists, you should never meet your heroes.

My cousin once spied a movie star hero at a football match and approached for a chat.

“What did he say?” we asked, goggle-eyed.

“He said ‘f*** off kid’,” replied my cousin with a laugh. He dined out on that for years.

It has been 40 years since the Mona Lisa first disappointed me. Roll on another 15 years, and I lived in Paris, so ma came to visit.

General view of the Eiffel Tower ahead of the 2024 Paris Olympic Games.
Forget the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower is the place to be (Adam Davy/PA)

I told her she really didn’t want to queue for hours whiffing eau de French armpit, just to see the Mona Lisa. Instead, I got her to stick her head through a hole in a large portrait mock-up and paid a street hawker a princely sum for the chance to take a photo.

I have it still. Ma has her own enigmatic smile that says: “Why did I let my daughter do this to me?”

She had a lovely time despite missing out on Mona Lisa. I saved her the disappointment.

Instead, she got a whistle-stop tour of Paris at night in the company of our Greek friend who morphed into Lewis Hamilton behind the wheel.

Our friend was not cowed by mad Parisian drivers, put her foot down, and swerved and screeched through five lanes of traffic right round the Arc de Triomphe. There was a lot of hooting of horns and shouting.

It’s the small unscripted moments that make travel exciting, not the well-worn tourist trails

I have a lovely picture of ma standing with the Eiffel Tower in the background, her face white, her hair standing straight up. She had been in the front seat.

My friend, who shared the back seat, stumbled out at the end and cried: “Fresh underwear now!”

It’s the small unscripted moments that make travel exciting, not the well-worn tourist trails.

I’ll not be posting love letters to Mona Lisa any time soon.