Friday, January 31, 2014

Day Two: The Middle Ages and a nice dinner

We got up a bit late and made it out the door around 11. I guess one of the benefits of vacation is truly vacating your life. As in no horse chores at 7:30 in the morning. The weather was still dreary - cold and gray but at least it wasn't raining. Our target for this day was the Musée National du Moyen Age, otherwise known as the Cluny Museum which holds one of the finest collections of Medieval art. We took a roundabout way of getting there, passing first through the Luxembourg Gardens and past their noted palace and the up and down the hills of the Latin Quarter, past the Sorbonne. The Cluny is housed in a former cloister (started in the 14th century) that became a mansion (14th-15th century) that at another time was the observatory of George Messier, the noted astronomer. Today it's considered the finest extant medieval building in Paris.

 On this day it was loaded with school children which made appreciating the somber nature of the religious art a bit challenging. But we managed by timing our visits to galleries minus the kids. I will say they were pretty well behaved, it was more a problem with the volume than the noise. 

First off was an excellent small collection of stained glass panels from the 12th and 13th century. Next was a collection of carved stone head, taken from the Cathedral du Notre-Dame during the French Revolution. Meant to represent the Kings of Judah they were mistakenly considered the Kings of France and so taken down and destroyed by an angry mob. Thrown in a mass grave, they lay undisturbed until accidentally found during an excavation in 1977.

The museum building sits on much older foundations, the Thermes de Cluny, a 2nd century Roman bath. Incorporated into the museum, the former frigidarium  or cold water room is quite impressive. I have a real thing for Roman ruins and these were quite nice.

The highlight of the museum is the collection of tapestries known as "The Lady and the Unicorn." Six panels describing the six senses (sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing and desire), they were woven in Flanders in the late 15th century on commission from a powerful nobleman in the court of King Charles II. In each panel, the Lady is introducing the particular sense to a delighted Unicorn. They fell into obscurity until re-discovered in an an out of the way castle in 1841, restored and brought to the Cluny in 1882. They were simultaneously subtle and striking with incredible detail and artistry in their execution.

  On the way home we stopped at Starbucks where I learned how to say "coffee to go" (a emporter.) It's always nice to stop by our little American space if only for a single cup and some people watching.

After a break at home, we went back out in search of dinner. Based on our Spain experiences, we knew that dinner would have to be late. Heading back down Rue de Vaneau, we went in search of a couple of restaurants we'd seen on our walk back from the Musée D'Orsay on Wednesday. We found them, and here it was closing on 8PM but they were empty and clearly not ready for business. We decided to kill some time by walking on and returning a bit later we found their staffs having dinner. Still no guests though. So more walking until perhaps 8:20 when we returned and found the restaurants quite busy. I went inside our first choice and asked for a table and was told "we're full" even though there were empty tables. Apparently they operate on reservation only and the owner gave me a card before sending us on our way.

Heading back to the apartment, we finally settled on a cafe a few doors down. The Lutetia, quintessentially French with stained glass, polished brass, wood paneling and waiters in suits. We both had magret de canard, our old favorite duck breast served with pommes frites, thinly sliced fried potatoes. The waiter was very kind and quite funny, at one point telling me that a French lesson was not included as part of the price of the meal. After all the walking about and the consternation, it was nice to have an enjoyable dinner in an agreeable place.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Day One: Our apartment and our first foray along with a French restaurant lacking croissants

We barely made it to 8:30 on the night of our arrival; being awake for 35 hours just isn't as easy as I remember it. The apartment slowly warmed up as the night wore on, moving from "tomb-like" to "root cellar" over the course of the 11 hours we were conked out. This was a noticeable improvement over the cold that drove us to bed so early last night. The sound of rain was nice to fall asleep to but portended a cold and wet day. And once out in the street that portent was confirmed.

But first a few words about our apartment. It seems to be tacked on to a much older building and judging from the stone walls, used to perhaps be a carriage house or garage. It's very spacious, much more than what we normally rent and is comprised of 1-1/2 baths, a bedroom, kitchen "fireplace room" and grand salon that even includes a grand piano. Off to one side of the big room is a nook with a pull-out bed and a wonderful old chest that is filled with someone's grandparents treasures. French military medals, a cavalry sword, tiny Chinese statues and several old journals. Very interesting things, and a surprise to me that the owners are trusting enough to leave them here. In terms of details, the place is a bit shop worn but not so much as to be unpleasant. And quite importantly, the kitchen features a Nespresso machine. It's not perfect, but it's pretty nice.

We only made it to the first interior courtyard before going back in for the second umbrella. It was raining that hard. Cold and damp are bad enough, but adding rain just makes you want to go back to bed and read all day. But given our limited time that was not an option so we made our way off to the Hôtel des Invalides. Founded in 1670 by Louis XIV as a home for the veterans of his wars, it opened in 1674. At the end of the 17th century, it housed more than 4000 residents. The on-site chapel, Saint Louis des Invalides was converted to a military pantheon by Napoleon the Consulate and the 1st French Empire. In 1840, Louis-Philippe ordered the Emperor's remains removed from St. Helena and entombed under the dome and the project was completed in 1861. Today his remains reside in a massive brown marble sarcophagus at the center of a circle surrounded by statues commemorating his military victories. He is joined in his final rest by Marshals Foch and Lyautey, Napoleon II, brothers Joseph Jérôme and assorted generals. The grounds also house the Grand Musée de Armée as well as continuing housing for retired and convalescing soldiers. 

The tomb was quite spectacular in an almost over the top sort of way and I'm glad we took the time to see it. The rest of the place was about what you'd expect from a military pantheon, reserved, dignified and respectful. We skipped the military museum as our appetite for military hardware is still well sated from our visit to the Royal Armory in Madrid two years ago. We took an alternate exit out of the place as a short cut to our next destination, the Musée Rodin which turned out to be closed for renovation although a tiny auxiliary gallery containing Roman and Greek statuary was open for full admission price. It was still raining and quite cold so we ducked into a café on the corner, figuring it was time for coffee and a pastry.

And thus we come to the title story, The French Restaurant That Lacks Croissants. The waiter liked us well enough until we ordered coffee and croissant at which moment he removed the silver ware, napkins and paper table clothing, throwing them on the table next to us. I ordered pain au chocolat and My Lovely Wife ordered a plain croissant with jam, purportedly the national food. Well, it seems that on this day, by 10:45 AM the croissants had gone to earlier customers because he quickly informed us it was deux pan au chocolat or nothing at all. MLW had coffee de creme and I had a double espresso which were handed out backwards when they arrived in spite of his asking for specific instructions. From then on, he ignored us completely until it came time to collect the money to which he was graciously attentive. This guy was our first exposure to the notoriously rude French which was surprising because so far everyone has been very nice. The place was starting to fill up with the lunch crowd so we headed back out into the drizzle and on to our next stop, the Musée de D'Orsay.

What a great place, a fantastic collection, a beautiful building, well thought out placement and enough visiting Chinese to make me feel right at home. The domed wall at one end of the main hall holds a most amazing clock, one that made me sorry that photography was banned in general (a rule ignored by many of those smartphone toting Chinese and gratefully MLW as we were getting ready to leave. Our justification - we limited our few photos to the architecture, not the art.) Many, many excellent pieces including quite a few Impressionist works I remember from Art History class. A truly great way to spend the afternoon.

Heading home we stopped at a little hole in the wall offering quiche and panini to eat in or take away sold in package deals just like a fast food emporium back home. We each had a Quiche Lorraine and a Diet Coke and I opted for a cherry and apple custard tart to top it off. And excellent lunch in a most auspicious package.

We made a quick stop at Carefour for a few more staples (more coffee) where the cashier remembered us from yesterday (probably my butchered French) and then back home for an espresso and a couple Lindt chocolates. All in all a worthy first day.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Off to France

 A few weeks ago we decided that it would be nice to spend our upcoming "big" anniversary somewhere special. We talked about Rome and we discussed London, but we decided on Paris since on the romance scale, The City of Lights is pretty much in a category of its own. Now normally we would not plan on two big trips in the first half of the year, but this one was offered at a price we could not refuse - free business class tickets - the product of all those miles racked up while I was landing those 30 entrance stamps to China. So I booked the tickets and after a lot of detective work, reserved an apartment and we put everything else in motion to make the trip a reality.

It's been more than 2 years since I last flew with my old pal United Airlines and so I had a sense of both the past and the present and we left Albuquerque yesterday morning. The flight to Dulles was uneventful and we arrive on time to a mostly empty terminal. After a quick sandwich and coffee we parked ourselves in the United Lounge and spent a few hours people watching. Not much has changed in the intervening years, the place is still full of loud talkers and hard drinkers and as the afternoon wore on, it became more and more crowded. I was glad when our departure time approached and we left, the place just becomes overbearing with each passing moment. Better of course than sitting on the concourse, but irritating in its own unique way. After quickly dealing with a gate change we lined up and got on the plane. The flight was pretty typical aside from the fact that we left 40 minutes late and arrived 30 minutes early at 6:25. An unwanted bonus in this circumstance since we really couldn't leave the airport until 8AM which would put us at our apartment at 9, the earliest official arrival time. We got a coffee - my first official restaurant order in French and sat back and waited. More people watching including a bunch of riders for the French pro cycling team, AG2R.

We left the terminal via the taxi exit passing a couple of guys who asked us if we wanted a ride to town. Now, world traveler that I am I knew that they were unofficial and so offering no price guarantee by way of a meter. As we came out the door, another guy was standing by the taxi line and waved us over. I'll admit right here that a big part of my knew it was wrong, first of all there was an official cab in the official taxi area and secondly, I've had the exact same experience in China. This time though, 20 hours of being awake and flying across the world got the better of me and we got in the car. I asked him if he was "independent" and why he lacked a meter and his answer was interesting, "Yes, I work for Taxi Blue and only the cabs in the city have meters." Even though I didn't particularly like the answer, we were stuck in traffic in the middle of nowhere and it wasn't exactly an option to get out. So I sat back and accepted that it was what it was and had a nice chat about Paris using pieces of English, Spanish and French.

The traffic was awful but he found the place and when he presented me with an eye popping invoice, I knew I'd been had. I paid up, shook his hand and sent him off. The apartment manager was waiting and I told him the story and he gasped, offering that I'd pair perhaps half-again more than I would have with a legitimate driver. Oh well.

This apartment represents the 5th time we've gone the rental route instead of using a hotel and this unit is pretty interesting - an old sort of "carriage house" at the back end of a building in St-Germain des Pres on the Left Bank. Exposed limestone blocks in the walls, a lot of old wood and much charm. Also freezing as the agent sheepishly informed us that they'd forgotten to start warming the place up a couple of days prior.

After unpacking and a short rest, we went out and started exploring, beginning with a walk to the Seine and lunch in a cool little neighborhood cafe overlooking the Notre Dame Cathedral. We stopped for groceries on the way back, unpacked them and the went back out for a walk to the Eiffel Tower. We ended up giving it short shrift because it began to rain in earnest and frankly, we were getting pretty tired of being on our feet. So back to the place and now it's just a matter of trying to stay awake until a reasonable bedtime hour.