|Travelogue: Paris 1999||
Rick Steves' Mona Winks
Michelin Paris Hotel & Restaurant (RED) Guide
Irving Stone, The Agony and the Ecstasy
Today I fly from Madrid to Paris via Frankfurt on Lufthansa.
The waiting area in the Madrid airport terminal is furnished with chic, stylish, and fiendishly uncomfortable seats (should I say "torture devices") worthy of the best efforts of Calvin Klein de Sade. The plane is delayed... I wonder if I will make my tight connection.
I've just been chatting with an English businessman sitting next to me in Business Class on this flight. I am again on a creaky old Airbus A321-100. He tells me that it is neither Lufthansa, nor Airbus that makes Business Class so lame. It is the case with all intra-Europe flights. The seats in business class are identical to those of coach, except that there is a 1/2 seat down the middle that means you aren't brushing shoulders with the person sitting next to you. The Business Class section is very odd. The right aisle is 3 seats across, and the left aisle is 2 seats across with the funky 1/2 seat in the middle. There is no additional legroom in Business Class, and if you happened to be seated in Coach with no one next to you, you would actually have more room than in Business class! I suppose maybe the drinks are free. I dunno. Suffice it to say that intra-European Business class is not worth it.
The captain has just announced that we will not be allowed to take off for an additional 25 minutes. I figure that's it for my connection to Paris, but the man sitting next to me assures me that it will be delayed too. Somehow we have cured airline delays as a "fact of life" in the USA, but they are still de rigeur here. [Postscript: I have subsequently learned that much of the problems with delayed flights are due to military flights related to the war in Cosovo. All commercial flights are restricted to small flight channels and time windows to make room for the military planes.]
I landed safely in Frankfurt and ran to my connecting flight. When I got to the gate the attendant looked at me and said "Paris". When I said "yes" she got a panicked expression on her face, grabbed my arm and rushed me down to a waiting bus, which took me and about 10 other passengers to the plane. But it was a case of hurry up and wait, because just after I got seated the pilot announced that we would not be taking off for 20 minutes because the co-pilot was late. Maybe my bags will make it after all.
I must admit that when I took my seat I was in a really bad mood. The experience with the coffee at the hotel in Madrid, discovery of my missing CD- ROMs, and then the close call on the connection with the prospect of lost luggage looming had removed all of my good graces. However, half way through the flight the German fellow next to me started up a really pleasant conversation. I think it was the first friendly gesture I have experienced in a week! I can't tell you how much better that made me feel.
Well, no such luck with the luggage. They got me onto the plane, but my bags won't be here until late tonight. Hi ho. Filled out all the appropriate paper work with the friendly and efficient Lufthansa representative, then headed out to customs. The customs officer asked "Votre baggage?" I reply "mes valises sont perdue." Somehow I'm almost cheerful about it. I'm in Paris! Who cares where my bags are!
When I was in Florida my friend Bob showed me a set of classified ads in the back of Harvard magazine for apartments around the world. I've arranged for a three-week rental of a flat in the 7th Arrondisement, right in the heart of Paris. With only a slight bit of confusion I was able to get the cabby to the right place, and empty-handed ascended the three-floor walkup to my new temporary abode. It is a very nice place and I am looking forward to being out of hotels for a while.
After getting settled in the apartment, I called my friends Clif and Nelda who are living in Paris to play jazz. Turns out they have a gig tonight, but I need to be here to receive my luggage. Ultimately I decided to buzz over to where Clif and Nelda were playing, see them, grab some dinner, and then head back. They are playing at a little club/bar in the 5th arrondisement called Caveau des Oubliettes. Music is played in the basement, which appears to have been an old dungeon. Carved into the wall is an inscription that reads (in Latin) "They will hang me", and a date of 1462. I wonder if it is authentic.
After sound-check is complete, we grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby café, and then I rushed back to await my bags. They came pretty quickly, so I decided to head back to the club to catch the set. A good time was had by all.
I spent the day at the apartment relaxing, doing laundry, and recovering from Madrid and the late night last night.
Yesterday as I was leaving the hotel I discovered that my CD case full of CD- ROMs was missing. I suspect that the maids in Madrid rifled my suitcase and stole it. But, it's possible it fell out of my carry-on bag somewhere along the way. I called the American Express Platinum Concierge and asked them to call the airlines and check with the Lufthansa lounges and the Madrid hotel for me. Have I mentioned how much I love the American Express Platinum Card Concierge service?
That taken care of I had lunch at Café de Varenne: omelet de campagne (potatoes, onions and smoked meat,) coffee and salad. Yum. Even a simple meal at a random café in Paris beats the hell out a fine restaurant in Madrid. A brief walk took me to Le Bon Marché where I bought some necessities for the apartment. It took me hours though since I was so captivated by all the beautiful food. I spent a lot of time grinning.
On the way home I stopped in at a specialty food shop and bought some Rambutans. Boy am I looking forward to eating great fruit in Thailand again. I took a really long walk over to Avenue Monsieur le Prince for dinner at a place called Polidor. It seemed that I was seated at a spot that neither of the two waitress was willing to claim. They fought over who would serve me. The food was good, not great, but was cheap. I followed the meal with a bit of wandering around the area, in and out of some bars. Finally took the Metro home.
This morning I farted around for quite a while, then went back to Café Varenne for another yummy omelet: Ham and cheese (Emmenthaler) this time. Then walked to Musee D'Orsay where I spent the whole day. I took the Metro over to L'Arc De Triomphe, farted around on Champs Elysees. Dinner tonight was at a place called Café Indigo. It was very good and I had a really nice waiter who was happy to help me with my French.
Entre: Tagliatelle with Langostineos
Desert: Fruit pastry
Finally I took the Metro home to crash. Exhausted, feel like I'm catching a cold. God knows how many miles I walked today.
Well, I seem to have caught a cold. Ugh. And it is a beautiful day outside, sunny, clear, and warmer than it has been. I really want to go out there and bask in a sunny Paris Saturday. However, nipping this cold in the bud has to be my first priority. The weather report on the Web still says that it will rain today and tomorrow, but I'm not sure I believe it any more. I don't believe the weathermen in the USA, why should I believe them here?
In the afternoon, I went out and bought some food. A baguette, some sausage, a tangerine, pastries, cheese and more paté. I had a wonderful time doing it too. I feel so good here, I don't know why. Why do people say that Parisians aren't friendly? It is so untrue! During my perambulations I found a fruit store that was selling mangosteens! Imagine that! I bought half a kilo for only twice what they would have cost in Thailand. Um, um, good.
While I was out I also bought some fancy orange scented soap at a specialty shop. I don't know why, but for some reason I feel like living in Paris I should have some fancy soap. Go figure.
Well, I'm no better today than I was yesterday, and it is raining, so I guess it's another day in bed. I had hoped to go to some weekend markets this weekend and watch Parisians enjoy their days off, but, oh well.
I just noticed that the mango jam I bought is Y2K compliant: the expiration date has 4 digits. Who says the world isn't ready for Y2K?
Got up in the afternoon and headed out in search of more food. Wandering the streets I feel that I would rather be sick on a rainy day in Paris than well on a sunny day in Madrid. Why? Because I feel so much more connected here. I still understand less than half of what is said to me, but at least here people talk! People look and make eye contact and even smile. Two women on the street asked me (in French) if I knew where there was an open tobacconist. Imagine that! I was sitting in the Café St. Germain having a Croque Special (a Croque Monsieur with tomato and egg), when a huge procession of roller-bladers went by. The couple sitting next to me exchanged glances with me that said, "what the heck is that about" without exchanging a word. I feel like that would never have happened in Madrid.
Still feeling unwell this morning, but getting better. I got a really late start of it though. I seem to be running out of English books, so I decided to head out to Shakespeare & Company, a very old English-language bookstore located near the Sarbonne. I managed to find two books that I wouldn't mind reading. For some reason I had a major hankering for Chinese food, so when I walked by a place named Xin Xin on Rue Dante and went on in. It was excellent. Is it possible to have a bad meal in this city? Hot and sour soup (which they called Soupe Pekinoise Picante) and a dish of chicken sautéed in a lemon sauce. Yummy! I couldn't finish it all, but I did manage to figure out in French how to say that I wanted to take the rest to go. Good for me.
I wandered out into the street again, and realized that I wasn't too excited about carrying around the leftovers all day, but they would be just the ticket for dinner that night. I wandered around in general then headed back into the Metro where I decided (for no reason) to go to the Centre Pompidou. There I had a good old look around and stopped to admire some really cool mechanical sculptural art in a pool behind the center. It was neat. The pool is surrounded by a metal bench, so I had a nice long sit-down (all this running around while unwell was getting to me.) I managed to forget my doggie -bag when I got up to leave. After about 15 paces I realized and headed back to retrieve it. Thankfully it was still there. But just as I was approaching it a little boy walking on the metal bench noticed it, ran forward, and jumped up and down on it. Gee thanks! I called the little brat an "asshole" in English, took the remains of my meal and threw them in the trash. So much for carrying around my leftovers all day.
I just have to take a moment to say how ugly I think the Centre Pompidou is. Is that the point of this building? It screams, "Look how ugly I am! Ain't I grand?"
Later that evening I was in the Metro again and realized I was hungry when my eyes lighted on the stop for Bastille. That was where I had had such a super meal last September. So, off I went. I had no trouble re-finding Relais du Massif Central at 16, Rue Daval. I ordered a prix fixe meal of Pate de Canard, a duck entrée, and chocolate moose for desert. It was good, but somehow not as good as last time. The place was almost empty this time, so maybe it was missing the energy of my last visit, or maybe it was the regular chef's night off. In any case, it was good, but you can never step in the same stream twice, can you?
Got home and crashed in a big way. I think I overdid it.
I definitely think I pushed too hard yesterday. I hate the way a cold might give you a day of respite, and then bash you over the head for it the next day. The real pisser about a cold is that it lasts 7 days. If you really take care of yourself you might be OK in 6, and if you don't rest up it might last 8, but that is basically it. And then you get to look forward to an indefinite period of sniffles, or a cough that just wont go away, or whatever random symptom decides to hang around long after the cold is really gone. What is that, anyway?
So I dragged my ass out this afternoon to get something to eat. Sitting around the apartment eating baguettes and pate and cheese and fruit all day is fine, but after a while I just gotta look at something else. Went to a local café and had a nice hamburger with an egg on top. Mmmm, mmm. All the fat and cholesterol too! It's a good thing I'm walking a zillion miles a day because if I didn't I'd leave this city as big as a house.
I walked over to the Musee Rodin, but it was raining pretty hard by this point and there was a huge line to get in. Since I have plenty of time I decided against a very long wait in the rain. The Louvre is closed on Tuesdays, so I image that puts a lot of pressure on the other museums. Instead I went to the Hotel des Invalids. The Hotel des Invalids has three noteworthy aspects: the building itself, the military museum, and the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte. The building is quite impressive, as are most Parisian institutions. There is a grand courtyard with a wonderful collection of amazingly ornate cannons arrayed around the edge. The military museum is suitably impressive, full of magnificent suits of armor, swords, cannons, helmets, and on and on. If you are a war or armaments buff, this place is a must-see; for the rest of us it is still pretty cool. The crypt containing Napoleon's tomb is worth checking out, but the tomb itself is mostly noteworthy for being Napoleon - the giant chunk of granite in which he is entombed is huge, but is somehow very unexciting. I couldn't help feeling that it was enormous, but nothing else.
I had passed by several interesting looking restaurants in my neighborhood earlier in the day and decided to just wander out and find one for dinner. Unfortunately, 1/2 way through my perambulations it started raining and blowing hard. I sought refuge in a place called Les Glenan, at 54 Rue de Bourgogne. My meal started with a really wonderful appetizer of a terrine of salmon with fresh butter lettuce and a wonderful light sauce of oil and balsamico, then a weird main course of some kind of fish covered with crispy deep fried something (onions? Scallions? Leeks? Dunno.) It didn't quite work. The many flavors were fighting with each other and I didn't really like the texture of whatever the fish was. Finally I had a cold apple-crème brulee thingy. It tasted good, but I think it would have been better hot. Overall the meal was just good, leaving me somewhat disappointed.
This cold has moved into my chest. I always forget just how much it sucks to be sick. The first day or two I feel bad, but I think "oh, it's just a cold, no big deal." But by day 4 or 5 it is just such a drag.
I slept in and got up and out really late. I finally decided to go over to the Louvre, ending up getting there about 2:30. Since I hadn't really eaten yet and the ticket price goes down at 3pm, I decided to eat at the café under the pyramid first. Bad idea, for two reasons. First, the café under the pyramid is just about the only place in Paris to get bad food. The second reason is that at 3pm the ticket lines instantly grow to epic proportions, especially on Wednesdays when the museum is open late. So I had a really bad sandwich, and then waited in a really long line. After the huge line I had to wait around at the baggage check because it was all full up. All to save about $3.00 vs. entering before 3pm. Definitely not worth it.
Travelers Tip: There is good food to be had at the Louvre in the café on the 2nd story of the Richelieu wing. Not only is the food good, it is a really pleasant room. Superior in all regards to the café under the pyramid. Also, without being admitted to the museum there is a café under the arches of the Richelieu wing called Café Marly that has excellent people-watching potential and draws a nice stein of Heineken. However, the prices are suitably inflated.
Once inside the Louvre I immediately made a bee-line for Canova's "Cupid Reviving Psyche with a Kiss"; my favorite object in all of Paris. Forgive me, but I am a sucker for beauty. I sat, stood, and wandered around the Canova statue for at least 1/2 hour, possibly more, and finally wrenched myself away to go and enjoy Michealangelo's Slaves which are in the same room. Having read The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone, I am now even more excited about Michaelangelo. I then spent some more hours studying the other Italian sculptures, which is a wonderful way to spend time.
It is somewhat frustrating spending time around the sculptures at the Louvre. It is wonderful that they are displayed with no barriers, no ropes, nothing to interrupt your gaze. I find myself desperately wanting to touch them, but of course I do not. However, there is a constant stream of people who feel no such compunctions. I stare aghast as an Italian tourist leans on a piece over here, a German youth reaches up to "high-5" the Borghese Gladiator over there, and children run along idly brushing their fingers over sarcophagi. I find myself yelling out "Ne touche pas!" and wondering where the museum guards are. I wonder how long it will still be possible to get near these pieces.
After a lengthy visit with the Italian sculptures, I made a return visit to the Leonardo da Vinci's (not Mona Lisa) and was somewhat pleased to see that people seem to be paying more attention to them now. I continue to find it weird that Mona Lisa is the most celebrated painting in the Western world. It is a lovely painting, but hey, give me a break. I also spent some enjoyable minutes with the Raphael Madonna just down the road from the da Vinci's.
Finally, it was time to move on to the Flemish and Dutch Masters. The Louvre's collection of Flemish, Dutch and German paintings is fantastic. Somehow I managed to miss Vermeer's The Astronomer when I was here the last time - it is a stunner. There is also another very nice Durer self-portrait. It was really fun going to see this Durer after having spent time studying another of his self-portraits at the Prado in Madrid just last week. I feel like a real world-traveler comparing and contrasting paintings at the world's great museums. Perhaps I should be careful not to get too smug.
I'm finally starting to feel pretty good again, but I'm coughing like crazy. I hate that.
Today is finally the day to check out the Musee Rodin; it is just down the road, after all. And a lovely spot it is too. In fact, I think the garden at the Musee Rodin is the best thing about it! The world is full of people, and each of those people have somewhat different tastes. That includes me, and my tastes don't seem to extend favorably towards Rodin. I looked at the pieces and tried to embrace their primitive qualities, their rawness, and so on. Alas, no luck. I just don't like Rodin. The Thinker is interesting in that it has become such an icon, the same can be said for The Kiss. But other than that... On the other hand, I continue to really like the work of Camille Claudel, Rodin's apprentice and lover. There is a room at the museum devoted to her work, which I highly recommend. I was again taken by L'Age Mure, a copy of which is also in the Musee D'Orsay.
While wandering around the gardens at the Musee Rodin I ended up in several peoples vacation photographs. I had the funny realization that with all the time I've spent in museums and hanging around statuary, I will soon be able to take my place among the untended list of the most inadvertently photographed people in the world.
Next up on the tour of Parisian museums, the Centre Pompidou. What a fantastically ugly building! Wow! It just sucks from every angle. The architect is screaming out "Look how clever I am! I'm putting the pipes and ductwork on the outside where it becomes a decorative element! Top that!" Oh yeah? Blech. Just because you can do something doesn't mean you should do it. Most of the Centre Pompidou is closed right now for renovations, so there was only one gallery area that I could go into. They were running a show of the work of David Hockney, which a friend had recommended. I'm afraid it just didn't do anything for me.
As I was finishing up at the Centre Pompidou the rain began to fall anew. So I popped into a café across the street where I had the largest club sandwich I have ever seen. Or rather, I had about half of the largest club sandwich I have ever seen. It was so big that when the waiter put it down in front of me a couple of women across the aisle from me started laughing. Perhaps the café owners were trying in some weird way to respond to the Pompidou: "If you can build the ugliest damned building on the face of the planet, then god damn it, we can building the biggest club sandwich."
After the rain slowed down I walked over to Les Halles for a look around. Les Halles is basically a big mall in an interesting underground architectural contruction that caused quite a stir when it was first built. I spent some time in FNAC and bought a couple of records that I had been wanting but couldn 't find in the US.
Outside of Les Halles I walked through the park to Place Cassin, where there is a really striking brick plaza with a huge and fascinating sculpture of a head resting in a hand. It was fun watching all of the tourists taking the required photo sitting on the hand.
Finally, behind Place Cassin I found myself at the Bourse du Commerce on rue de Viarmes. It is a really neat circular building with a frescoed dome. Worth a look, and definitely off the beaten path.
By this time my energy was waning, so it was time to go home to crash.
Enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of baguette, pate and brie at the apartment this morning, and then finally made it out around lunchtime. Had a pretty respectable crepe at one of those innumerable places around the latin quarter, then walked over to Ile de la Cite to take in the Cathedral Sainte-Chapelle. Sainte-Chapelle is lovely, certainly ranking among Paris' must-see attractions. Though not unknown by any means, apparently it doesn't hit the radar screens of many visitors - I had failed to make it there on two prior occasions myself. It is a relatively small chapel, but the stained glass windows are beautiful. I sat in the chapel for quite a long time (half an hour? more?) enjoying the views and the sense of space. I was really happy to have brought along my binoculars, as they allowed me to get a really good look at some of the windows. Unfortunately, without a really wide-angle lens the place is basically unphotographable. I tried, but I failed.
It is a short and pleasant walk from Sainte-Chappelle to Notre Dame, which unfortunately had its towers closed for renovation. Notre Dame is still an amazing experience. It is a beautiful, lofty building, and really feels like God lives there. It is an interesting contrast to go from the rather intimate confines of Sainte-Chappelle to the airy interior of Notre Dame. I also spent some time exploring the catacombs and excavations under Notre Dame. Certainly worth a look for archeology buffs, but it didn't do much to excite me.
A spot that is missed by virtually all tourists lies just behind Notre Dame (big kudos to Rick Steves for pointing this one out.) The Memorial de la Deportation is a really moving memorial to the French men and women who were deported from France to concentration camps in Germany during World War II. It is really striking. Down a narrow staircase lies a stark, open courtyard of granite. There is virtually no adornment, and it is somewhat confusing in its austerity. From the courtyard leads another uninviting staircase down into darkness. Here is the true memorial. One enters into a room with antechambers on each side and a long hallway behind bars leading off in front. Each of the antechambers has the names of concentration camps carved in them with quotations engraved in the walls. The hallway at the back of the main room contains the Tomb of the Unknown Deportee and 200,000 crystals each lit with a light and representing the 200,000 French "deportees." Carved into a plaque on the floor is engraved the rather chilling statement (in French) "They went to another part of the earth, and they didn't come back." One thing I found a little surprising is that there was no mention anywhere in the memorial of Jews. Everywhere it refers on to "deportees." Granted that the Germans executed homosexuals, enemies of the German state, and other groups as well as Jews, the Jewish people did make up the lions share of the "deportees", so it is a bit surprising to see that aspect of the deportation left out. To be honest, I was feeling a bit glum when I went into the memorial and I found it so moving that I had to spend some time just sitting and thinking before I could go on. A light rain started falling so I took my gloom and headed home.
Later in the evening I headed off to Barfly, a trendy restaurant at 49 Ave. Georges V, just off the Champs Elysees. I arrived right on time for my reservation. The incredibly attractive maitre d' escorted me to a back corner of the restaurant behind a pillar. I made attempts to object as she walked away. 30 seconds later I decided I wasn't having any of this, went back up to the front desk and insisted that they put me in a spot where I could enjoy watching the people in the rest of the restaurant. After all, what is the point of going to Barfly if not for the people watching.
That night I wandered the city looking for the happening thing on a Friday night, ending up doing some late night dancing at Rex Club, 5 Blvd Poissonniere, a hot, sweaty, ravey, house-musicy place filled with kids who didn't know the meaning of the word "late."
Today was a day for some of Paris' secondary sights. I went over to the Pantheon, which was modestly interesting, and then walked over to the Sarbonne, which turned out to be a longer walk than I expected. There is a nice little garden in the area of the Sarbonne where I passed a few pleasant moments, and then headed off to the Jardin du Luxembourg for some more wide- open spaces. As soon as I got nicely situated on a couple of chairs by the fountain at the Jardin it started to drizzle. Fortunately, the rain was light and didn't last long, so I was able to continue on. I did a repeat visit to the Institut du Monde Arabe, a really interesting piece of technological architecture. It really is an intriguing building (see my previous France travelogue for details.)
Since I was in the neighborhood of Ile Saint Louis, I decided to check out an ice cream maker called Bertillion that had been recommended to me. Bertillion (31 Rue St. Louise-en-L'Ile) provides fine ice creams and sorbets to many cafes in Paris, as well as some of the finest restaurants. In addition they have their own parlor smack dab in the middle of Ile St. Louis. Unfortunately, Bertillion itself was closed for a one-week vacation, but there were two cafes just steps away that specialized in selling Bertillion ice cream. Lest there be any suspense, I had a cup of three balls of sorbet which were unbelievable. The pear sorbet was more like pears than pears themselves, the green apple was great, and the wild strawberry ("fraise du bois") was among the best things I have ever tasted. Fantastic. Beyond words. Bertillion is a mandatory stop for all but the most cursory visits to Paris.
Sated on spectacular sorbet, I hopped a metro to the Palais Royal. Located near the Louvre, this palace was given to Louis XIII by Cardinal Richelieu, and is now the home of the French Ministry of Culture. Though the Ministry of Culture has not seen fit to open the buildings to the public, the courtyard there is a nice oasis in this bustling part of the city. The far end of the courtyard is a large, pleasant park with a great fountain. The near end contains one of Paris' odder sculpture gardens. The whole section of the courtyard is filled with rows of strange black and white columns, varying in height from a few inches to several feet. The juxtaposition between this act of modern art and the 1630 palace is at least as jarring as the I.M. Pei glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre courtyard.
I spent the evening seeing what there is to see on a Saturday night around the Bastille area. Tons of people, restaurants galore, bars. It's a fun scene. Unfortunately, though I caught the last metro out of Bastille, it brought me in to Concorde too late to catch the final metro out to Rue du Bac. Bummer. This is when you realize that finding a taxi on a Saturday night in Paris is out of the question, and distances in Paris are really big. It was a lengthy walk home. Lesson learned - don't miss the last metro.
I went out to see the Grande Arche de La Defense today - the final arch in the great row of arches stretching from the Arc de Napoleon to La Defense. The Grande Arche de La Defense is really amazing. It is enormous. I don't know the exact dimensions, but I don't really need to know them to say with great authority that this is one big structure. It's really cool too. The complex of La Defense is filled with interesting modern architecture that nicely echoes and compliments the Grande Arche. Going up the arch is something of a letdown. For a rather dramatic price you ride up the elevator to the top floor of the arch. However, they only allow you to look out from one side of the arch (towards town), and only about 1/2 of that was open when I was there. The view is good but doesn't really justify the very steep entry fee. Furthermore, don't even think of going up if the weather isn't good! There is absolutely no indoors observation area - the only place to get a view is from a completely unsheltered area on top of the arch. Rain or wind would make this a misery.
After the arch I walked out a long boardwalk and then around some of the buildings that make up the area collectively called La Defense. Pretty neat. There is a great photo-op from the boardwalk looking back at the Grande Arche, and I took advantage of it. Eventually I realized I was starving. I really didn't want to take the kind of time that lunch in Paris usually takes, and I really did want food soon. I hadn't realized how hungry I was getting as I walked around. With some embarrassment I realized that I was standing in front of a McDonalds. I had never intended to eat at a McDonalds in Paris. Really. I am not one of those tourists who has to eat in McDonalds when they are in foreign cities. Nonetheless, I girded up my loins and gritted my teeth and ordered a Big Mac. It tasted just like at home.
For desert I went to a little stand selling Haribo candies and bought a big bag of licorices, jellybeans, gumdrops, and on and on. Wow, were they good. By the time I got on and then off the Metro I had eaten half the bag and had a really good sugar buzz going. Highly recommended!
With the weather looking nice, I headed by Metro to the Montmartre area and the church of Sacre-Coeur. Even though the guidebooks had warned me that this was really a modern church with very little charm, I was still let down. The views from Sacre-Coeur are great, but otherwise, this can totally be skipped.
Next stop was a sojourn in the always-pleasant Jardin des Plantes, where I spent a while lightly snoozing on a bench in the now fading sun.
I had dinner tonight at a mediocre fondue and raclette place on Rue Huchette. I don't recall its name, which is too bad, because it is really worth avoiding. In addition to the food being ignorable, the service wasn't very good. The big problem was that there was a huge group of tourists there. As I was sitting there choking down my raclette I realized that I had seen this place before. It is in every tour's travel brochure as the place where you have your fun and exciting end-of-the-tour dinner.
I rented a weird little Mercedes diesel mini-van from Hertz and drove to Chartres, a medieval town southwest of Paris. Chartres is the home of the Cathedral de Notre Dame de Chartres, which possesses the best preserved medieval stained glass windows in France. In medieval Europe, where almost everyone was illiterate, stained glass windows, frescoes and carvings were the method that people used to transmit learning. In this case the learning was the moral stories of the bible. As such, a place like the cathedral in Chartres was the medieval equivalent of a library, and it is one of the few such "libraries" that remain today. In addition to being fascinating, the windows, and the Cathedral itself, are quite beautiful.
Bringing binoculars to Chartres is absolutely key. The windows are very high up and full of detail, so binos definitely make the difference between a good experience and a great one. With binoculars you can actually see the windows far better than the people who built them could. Another thing that I highly recommend it taking the guided tour (in English.) The Englishman who gives the English language tour has been doing it for forty-four years and he is a hoot. No one who has done this tour ever forgets (or regrets) it. Not only is he a font of information about the church, but his delivery is really entertaining. He has a dry sarcasm about the French, which is hysterical, especially considering that he has condescended to live among them for so much of his life.
I hadn't quite managed to have lunch before taking the afternoon tour, so afterwards I was quite famished. In addition it was raining lightly, so I didn 't want to walk too far. I had passed several delightful looking places while driving in, but the roads were so circuitous that I knew I would never find them again. Thus, I chose one of the little restaurants near the church. They all looked dangerously touristy, but I decided to risk it. I walked into Brasserie Notre Dame, and ordered the specialty of the house - Duck a L'Orange. It was stunningly OK. I mean, I've never had anything that was more "OK" in my life. Not recommended unless you are really hungry and really short on time.
From Chartres my next destination was the town of Vernon. Since I had plenty of afternoon left, I took the scenic route through the little towns of Dreux, Anet, and Pacy-sur-Eure. At a couple of points there were nice looking little hotels and pensions, and I considered just stopping, but finally decided that the original plan of getting to Vernon would be best. The rain started and stopped throughout the afternoon and evening, but the tour was overall very nice and recommended. Just make sure you're not too squeamish about driving on tiny rural French roads.
Late that evening I got into Vernon. After finding the "Chateau & Relais" property I wanted to stay at was booked up, I found a nice room at the Hotel d'Evreux, 11 place d'Evreux. The room was pleasant and extremely cheap. My room had a very peculiar bathroom. The bathroom contained a sink, shower, and a bidet. No toilet. The toilet for the room was a shared toiled located downstairs. This struck me as really strange. I mean, if you are only going to put in one piece of plumbing, and you have a choice between a toilet with no bidet or a bidet with no toilet, who on earth would choose just the bidet. The owners of the Hotel d'Evreux, that's who.
Anyway, Vernon rolls up its sidewalks early, and it was getting late, so I decided to go ahead and have dinner at the hotel. It was absolutely lovely. Langoustines with tomato and pesto, wonderful Chicken, and a fantastic signature desert - an apple tartlet thing. The food was great, the wines were good, the price was cheap. It was a wonderful surprise.
Across the river from Vernon lies Giverny and the home of Claude Monet - my true destination. Giverny is fantastic. It was incredibly familiar too. It really does look exactly like Monet's paintings. I really felt like I had stepped into a painting, particularly at the famous lily pond. The other thing that is amazing about Monet's gardens is that even though they are absolutely overrun with tourists, it still manages to be serene and peaceful. The place absorbs all the frantic tourist energy and reflects back nothing but calm.
Travelers Tip: As you drive towards Monet's home there are quite a few signs for parking, all looking quite official. As it turns out the parking lot I entered isn't an official parking lot at all, but rather the lot for a snack bar that is still some distance from Monet's home. As a rather clever ploy the snack bar offers free parking for Monet's home in very official looking signage, in the hopes that you will then buy your snacks, film, etc., there. It's a perfectly fine idea except that you then have to walk a goodly way to the actual home, where there is plenty of official free parking. Unless the traffic is really bad, or you fancy a long walk, wait for the real parking lot.
By this point I was quite hungry, so I popped in to a small, attractive, and seriously overpriced crepe restaurant just down the road. The crepe was OK, but it was clear that this place was preying on tourists.
Next on the route was the magnificent Versailles. I had been there briefly in the early '80's and very much wanted to see it again. It was every bit as impressive as on my prior visit. I attempted to use Rick Steves Mona Winks as my guide to Versailles. Unfortunately something must have changed since my copy was published because it proved very difficult to figure out which room I was in and what corresponded to Rick's descriptions. Fortunately, Steves proved much more reliable on the grounds.
Once again I was rewarded for having brought binoculars. First and foremost the ceilings at Versailles are spectacular, but you need binoculars to see them. Secondly, bino's let me stand back behind the throngs of tour groups and still see the items of interest in the rooms.
The last time I was here I had not had time to walk even a little bit of the enormous grounds. This time I had allocated several hours to the walks, statues, fountains and plantings. Of course, they were all amazing, especially the Latona basin and Apollo basin. I also walked over to the Grand Trianon and the Petite Trianon, two of the other palaces on the grounds of Versaille. It is a long walk, but they are lovely buildings. Worth it if you have the time.
It was getting quite late by the time I left - I was one of the last guests out as they were closing the gates. Fortunately Versailles is not a long drive from Paris. However, I was surprised to discover as I drove out from the parking lot that there are no signs pointing to Paris. Somehow I imagined that there might be an arrow or something telling hapless travelers how to get to the most important city in the country. Silly me. After a few turnarounds and false starts I finally made my way back to the highway and into Paris. I returned the car to Hertz and hopped the Metro back to the apartment.
I got together with my friend Clif today for a long Parisian lunch at one of the many cafes on Montmartre, near Sacre-Coeur. It is truly a joy to be in Paris in the spring, sit at an outdoor table at a café, and eat for a long time.
Eventually Clif had to go and take care of other errands. Since I was on Montmartre anyway, I decided to stop in at Espace Salvador Dali, the insanely difficult to find Dali museum. The museum is located at 11 rue Poulbot, but just having the address isn't enough, you really have to have the will to search for this place. Unfortunately, the quest was not worth the effort. It is really a gallery, not a museum. Most of the exhibits are prints and multiple edition sculptures based on Dali's prints. I found little in the way of original paintings or unique pieces. The place attempts to create a surreal experience with its lighting and layout. I just found it uncomfortable and odd. Given the 35FF (US$5.84) admission, I could just as well have skipped it.
One thing I couldn't skip was a haircut. After weeks on the road I was looking very scruffy; walking by a nice looking hairdresser's on Montmartre, I decided to rectify the situation. The young man who cut my hair spoke no English and was very challenged by my broken French. We had a hard time communicating about what I wanted done. To make matters worse, he appeared to be absolutely terrified. On several occasions I noticed his hands were shaking; he could barely hold the scissors. I wondered if I resembled some famous Mafioso. In the end my haircut was terrible, but at least I didn't look like a shaggy dog. Something tells me that saw me come in and had the boy that washes the floors cut my hair. You never know.
A bit more wandering around the streets of Paris filled out this day, then I retired to my apartment.
A friend had emailed me, telling me about a magnificent cheese restaurant near Place Madeline called Ferme St-Hubert. I duly headed over to check it out. An odd thing happened though; when I got there, looked at the window full of cheese and read over the all-cheese menu, I found that I just wasn't in the mood for cheese. Call me goofy, but I had made a journey for no reason. However, I was still hungry. I wandered around looking in cafes, bakeries and restaurants until I found a place called "Tarte Julie". It was bright, clean, efficient looking, and full of different kinds of tarts and quiches. I had an excellent tarte while watching a wide array of office workers arrive for lunch.
Afterwards I took the opportunity to check out the Madeline Church, which was modestly interesting, then hopped the Metro to Musee Marmottan, another recommendation. Located near the Bois de Boulogne, the Musee Marmottan specializes in impressionist paintings, including 65 paintings by Claude Monet that were donated by his son Michel. Though this is a must see destination for serious Monet aficionados, I didn't find the museum very inspiring. I've seen a huge amount of Monet's work lately; the paintings here were not his finest works.
Having spent a fair bit of time in Paris now, I had covered most of the first tier sights, but in this remarkable city there are still a huge number of less popular place yet to see. Thus, I headed over to the Place du Trocadero, home to several museums including the Musee de l'Homme (museum of man), Musee de la Marine (maritime museum), Musee du Cinema Henri-Langlois, and the Musee du Monuments Francais. Despite this wealth of museums, the weather was too nice, the views and people watching too inviting. I didn't go in to any of them. Instead I took in this most excellent spot for regarding the Tour Eiffel, listened to the fountains, and let Paris go by.
I strolled down the stairs below the Trocadero across the Pont d'Lena, and over to the Tour Eiffel. The lines to ascend the tower were duly daunting, so I satisfied myself with the view from below while I ate a suitably mediocre hotdog. Beyond the Tour Eiffel, the Champ de Mars and its gardens made a pleasant walk of several blocks until it stoped at the Ecole Militare, where another excellent Tour Eiffel photo-op presented itself.
Walking back towards my apartment, I stopped at a garden near Les Invalides to read for a while, then headed back to prepare for dinner.
One of my plans for this trip was to eat at the finest restaurants of Paris. I asked around and got a number of suggestions for Paris' best restaurant (not necessarily the best known... but rather the best.) Taillevant came highly recommended, but even calling 2 months in advance I wasn't able to get a reservation for any time during this 3 week trip! The man who was renting me my apartment said that his favorite restaurant in all of Paris was Chez l'Ami Louis (3rd arrondisement, 32 rue du Vertbois). I was able to get a reservation there for tonight and had invited my friends Clif and Nelda, and Nelda's father Jack to join me for this exceptional meal.
Our first impression of the restaurant was quite surprising. It is located in a rather rundown neighborhood. It is so rundown that we all thought we were in the wrong place. Inside, the restaurant is small and dark, showing every day of its 75-year age. It turns out that Chez L'Ami Louis is a Bistro serving traditional French fare, especially of southern France. The quaint and simplistic décor was comfortable. The service was a bit brusque and overly familiar. At times I felt like the waiter was impatient with us. The food was indeed very, very good, and the company was excellent, with everyone having a good time. We all agreed that it was an interesting experience. Unfortunately, my goal had been to have the pinnacle of fine French dining, the much sought after Michelin 3-star dining experience. While Chez L'Ami Louis was very good, and could easily be someone's favorite restaurant, to call it the finest restaurant in Paris is ridiculous. Oh well, it was a fun night nonetheless.
It is really wonderful having a lot of time in one city; it allows you to slow down into the ordinary pace of a place, instead of being a tourist in a hurry. This morning I went out, got some croissants and just sat in a little garden near the apartment, reading and eating. The profusion of parks and gardens is one of the things that make this city so special to me.
Not wanting to break the slow and pleasant pace, my next stop was simply the garden in the courtyard of the Palais Royal where I lunched on ham and cheese on Baguette, with my feet up on the edge of the fountain. This is a favorite spot for local office workers to take their lunch, and a great place to take in the Parisian feel.
While I was there a woman of about my age with a small child came and sat near me. Her incredibly cute child toddled around making me laugh. The woman and I exchanged smiles as she rescued the little one from falling into the fountain. After a few more smiles and deeply meaningful glances she moved a bit closer and said something reasonably lengthy to me in fast and furious Parisian French. Putting on my best accent I replied, in French, "I'm very sorry but I don't speak French very well, could you speak more slowly please?" She looked mildly horrified, gathered her things, bundled up her child and left. Oh well, I guess I failed the eligible bachelor test.
I'm sure I could spend endless days and never see everything that is in the Louvre. Today I went back to focus on sculpture, especially the sculpture gardens and early Italian works. It was nice going there with the intention of seeing a few things really well, rather than trying to see the whole place briefly. The sculpture garden in the Louvre really is fantastic; big, airy and brightly lit. I spent a lot of time sitting there reading the informational placards, learning about the craft involved and the mythology that the pieces represent. I also got another long dose of Canova's Cupid and Psyche, a work that I never grow tired of.
Later I went back to Ile St. Louis for more Bertillion sorbet. This is fast becoming an addiction.
As it happened, my father had business in Paris. Since I had a nice apartment with a pullout couch we arranged that he would stay at my place and we would do some touring of Paris together. He arrived without a hitch and dropped his impressively small suitcase off at my apartment. We then headed out for lunch, only to discover that since this is May Day (the equivalent of Labor Day in the US), almost everything was closed. Finally we found a café that was open in a touristy part of town where we were able to enjoy a lengthy lunch.
We walked along the Seine, caching up on father/son stuff, took a quick look at an outdoor sculpture exhibit, browsed the booksellers that line the river and generally had a great time. Since my father has been to Paris innumerable times and across many decades, I figured there would be little that I could show him that he hadn't seen already. To my surprise, he had never seen the Memorial de la Deportation that I had found so moving last week, so we went there. I was also able to show him the Institut du Monde Arabe and the garden at the Palais Royal.
As we were leaving the Palais Royal we ran smack into a May Day labor union parade, being put on by FO, the Syndicat Force Ouvriere. It was a very exciting march with people carrying signs and banners, bright orange flares burning, shouting and chanting. We followed them for many blocks.
Continuing with the "tour of things in Paris that my father hasn't seen" we went to Les Halles and Place Cassin. There we marveled at the amazing symmetric waves in the water feature that seem to come from nowhere. I attempted to show him the Bourse du Commerce, but it was closed up tight for May Day. Finally I took him to Bertillion on Ile St. Louis. Unfortunately there was a line around the block to get into the Bertillion shop. However, I was able to get us a table at one of the nearby ice-cream parlors (for an added fee, of course.) It was clear from my father's demeanor that he couldn't believe the effort I was going to for a bit of ice cream. His attitude changed completely after we were served and he discovered that this truly was the best sorbet on earth.
Since I had been unable to experience a 3-star restaurant the other night, I was adamant that I have at least one great dinner in Paris. I failed to get reservations as I worked my way down the Michelin Guide Rouge lists. It was Saturday, it was May Day, it was impossible. Finally I called Le Petit Bedon, a small, unrated restaurant where I had had an excellent meal on my last trip to Paris. They were able to accommodate us.
As with last time the meal was excellent. I ordered the prix fixe taster menu. I was given a lovely mousse starter. That was followed by an appetizer of Pate de Fois Gras with a glass of Sauterne. It was masterful; pure fat, it melted in my mouth. The next course was scampi with morel mushrooms - very good, served with a Chateau-neuf-du-pape, which was not to my liking. The first main was lobster over risotto - excellent, followed by steak in a sweet wine reduction with figs that were stuffed with apple - outstanding. The pre- desert was a very odd cup of "young cheese" - not to my taste, followed by a nice chocolate soufflé. My father looked on with some surprise at my ability to put away all that food. Afterwards the manager brought us over a pair of complimentary cordials. After all the wine I had consumed I was very happy not to be driving home.
This would be my last day in Paris after three weeks here, so I had a bit of cleaning up to do. I sent my dad down the street to the Musee Rodin while I packed my luggage and made travel plans.
When my father had returned from the museum and I was finished preparing for tomorrow's departure, we headed out to the Musee de la Musique. The Musee de la Musique is Paris' musical instrument museum. It is in a rather out-of-the- way spot, located in La Villette Park. It took us quite a while to get there by metro, but was worth the trip. The antique musical instruments are beautifully displayed and quite striking. It was particularly fun for me since my father is an expert on antique musical instruments, so I was able to get extra insights on what I was seeing.
Continuing the musical theme, later that night my friends Clif and Nelda were performing again with their jazz ensemble at Caveau des Oubliettes. We stayed and watched their first set before heading off to have dinner at the home of one of my father's old college friends. It was very nice having the opportunity to have a real French dinner at the home of genuine Parisians. I was able to practice my French on them as they practiced their English on me.
Today I fly to Florence via Frankfurt. Last night I called to arrange for a cab, but this morning of course there is no taxi. After the cab was 10 minutes late I called the taxi company and asked what was up. They said, "Sorry, we have no taxis available." Ooh la la. So much for a confirmed reservation. Fortunately my dad was still there, and he waited out on the street trying to hail a cab for me while I desperately tried to get another taxi reservation. This was a challenge because none of the taxi companies were answering their phones! I called American Express who attempted to help me. While I was on the phone with them my taxi did show up, and my dad snagged him for me. According to the driver there is a rail strike today, so the taxis are all in high demand. It also meant that traffic was really bad. Hi ho. That's travel!
© 1999, Andrew Sigal
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