L’heure bleue, or the blue hour, is a French concept. It’s that magical time between the sun setting and nightfall, when the angle of the sun below the horizon line bathes everything in a suffused, bluish light, creating a dreamlike quality. It’s more specific than “evening” because it refers to the quality of light, not just the time of day. This magical time can last until well after 10:00 p.m. in the summer. It’s a surreal interval, suspended between night and day, when we notice more, our senses heightened. L’heure bleue is the fraternal twin of Rome’s golden hour, when Rome’s ocher buildings glow in the golden, saturated light of the setting sun.
On my first trip to Paris in June of 2002, I ventured out for dinner at a small bistro near my hotel near Les Invalides. Although it felt a bit chilly, I tightened the scarf around my neck and sat on the terrace. Looking around, I became spellbound by the blue hour, without knowing there was a term for it. I noticed blackened trees silhouetted against a deep blue sky, the luminous diffused light that allowed me to see, but not too clearly. It seemed as though I could walk through the dim light, like water. It was as if the world and my dream life fused into one; in my dreams it is never daylight, nor is it truly night, it is eternally l’heure bleue.
That night reminded me of the paradoxical paintings by Surrealist artist René Magritte, in particular The Empire of Light, 1954. The bottom half of the painting is dark: trees silhouetted, street lamp illuminated, lights turned on in upstairs windows as though the occupants had retired to their bedrooms, light reflected in a pool of water. While the sky, depicted in daylight, is a brilliant blue with white, puffy clouds. Though not a literal representation of l’heure bleue, the painting captures the spirit of suspension between two realms. Magritte made many versions of this painting, it’s one of my favorites of his themes.
I felt as though I’d stepped into a movie. Long enamored with French cinema’s predominantly blue tones and quality of light, I couldn’t truly understand why until I experienced it for myself. I sat on the terrace for a long time, eating my simple dinner of a cheese omelet and sipping wine poured from a little brown earthenware jug, savoring the experience.
Since that night, I’ve been lucky to savor many such hours in Paris: on a bench under the trees in the Place des Vosges listening to the leaves rustle in the breeze, dining on a terrace while a man played Bach on his cello on the street corner, waiting on church steps before a classical a concert, and walking hand in hand over bridges with my dear husband. How wonderful it would be to travel full-time and chase the light. However, I believe l’heur bleue can also be a state of mind and that we can experience a similar effect on our psyche anywhere. We can embrace the spirit of l’heur bleue by being fully present and noticing our surroundings, seeing the world in a new light, opening our creative selves to possibilities – wherever we happen to be.
Have you been surprised or captivated by something while traveling?