Thursday, March 31, 2016

What we see

After our Starbucks detour, we went on to the Eiffel Tower for one last visit.The rain just kept getting worse and worse, and out in the open the accompanying wind made it even more miserable. My crappy Eddie Bauer umbrella had a minor break in one section and the resulting dip was pouring water down my neck. And the fancy water-proofing I'd done my shoes with (thanks REI) was just beginning to fail. But Churros beckoned so on we went, picking up an order and having a nice chat with the seller about the weather. We stood under the Tower, mostly out of the rain watching the tourists trying to have fun while the two army security guards stood by, wishing that they'd drawn different duty for the day. Two young women came up and asked for advice on how to buy tickets for the elevator ride to the top of the Tower. The giant yellow signs on two of the four legs said "closed" (no doubt due to the rain) and we pointed that out. They kept insisting that they wanted to buy tickets, even after I pointed out that we were taking shelter in the closed ticket kiosk. Eventually they gave up and thanked us and walked away, no doubt thinking we had no idea what we were talking about. 

Churros gone, we walked fast back home, getting wetter and wetter stopping only at the bakery for a couple of pieces of custom pizza and a pain au chocolat.

We spent our last night at Gemini, the little restaurant up the street. I had the gnocchi special, topped with a fresh red sauce, cherry tomatoes, basil, and burrata. MLW repeated with the cutlet au citron, not as good tonight as the last time but good nonetheless. We were only the second table at 7:45, when we left an hour later the place was full.

Tomorrow, we take the fast train to Barcelona.

We take a lot of photos on our trips, typically in the 1000-2000 range. Very, very few of them make it into my blog, because often they are not important to whatever story I am trying to tell in a given post. But they can be interesting in their own right, because the windows and storefronts in foreign cities are completely different than anything we see at home. So here are some of our favorites, from the time we arrived until tonight. 

Rainy day in Starbucks (mobile blog)

We took some time this morning to set the stage for tomorrow's depart. Laundry, gathering stuff, things that need to be done to meet out early pick-up. We had a late breakfast and went down into another rainy day. I'll say this, Paris has met every one of our expectations except for weather. 

We exit our building each time through the bottom of the airshaft. Today, with all the rain it was flooded. But the kindly construction workers had built a nice walkway using scraps of lumber and plywood. Talk about an upscale vacation.  Outside it was still misting, enough for an umbrella and just the right amount of wind to turn it inside out every half block. Crossing Vaneau we took a left up Varenne and passing the Rodin Museum we crossed the boulevard and wound around Invalides. Our goal - a Starbucks on Rue Ste. Dominique. Yes, I know, but the old reliable makes getting a cup of coffee easy. Besides, where else can you get a warm drink and listen to Getz and Gilberto while drinking it. 

Besides, we're in sight of La Tour Eiffel so our cultural appropriation is acceptable. 

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Another great dinner

One of the things we continue to learn is that reservations are a good idea if you want to eat dinner in Paris. We walk in, they ask, we say “non” and then they look around and shuffle their feet and find us somewhere to sit. With a tiny bit of disapproval in their voice. Last night we sat at the bar which turned out to be a fantastic choice. Tonight we were shown to a table in the back room across from a British family with two young- children. Being a parent, I am not against kids in restaurant. Being a consumer, I am against loud kids in restaurant. I hung up our coats, scanned the menu and after the little boy had yelled 4 times at his father, I decided that in no way did I want to pay for a 100€ meal while being jolted every 30 seconds by a 10-year old yelling. So I grabbed our coats from the coat rack and we headed to the door, stopping to tell the second in charge that our fellow diners were just too loud. I managed that in my best French and I expected the owner to say “au revoir” but instead she took us to another table, removed the reservation card and told us that it’s very hard these days because children often tend to be so disruptive. We sat down, she brought us some wine and we ordered. I ended up with a wonderful Tagliatelle with a spicy red sauce and big chunks of tender lamb. MLW had a cutlet with a salad of fresh greens. The wines were excellent and so were the deserts (mousse au chocolat and tiramisu.)
After the bill arrived the owner offered us a free aperitif, limoncello for MLW, Grappa for me. The evening turned out to be splendid, a real save when we just as easily could have been out on the street in the rain, looking for another restaurant. As we were putting on our coats to leave we got talking with the owner about the need for reservations. She said “it depends,” but since the attacks in November, reservations were perhaps less necessary on nights away from the weekend. She said that here in the 7th Arrondissement, on the street where the Prime Minister happens to live, with 24x7 police presence at both adjacent intersections, things continued to be peaceful and secure. And that the 7th is probably the best neighborhood in Paris. Along with the 6th. She was so pleasant and so gracious that we went away wishing we had more night available. Sometimes a business just impresses you that much.

It’s a short walk home from there, but not without entertainment. A man approached with an absolutely robotic dog - a terrier -  pig-eyed and white, off the leash but clearly capable of being untethered. Another guy with a Rat Terrier approached from behind us. We heard snarling and turned to see the Rat Dog going after the Robot Dog, who didn’t flinch. Rat Dog owner threw an embarrassed smile our way and continued on, finally dragging the little monster into doorway up the street. We walked on, stopping to take a photo of the inside courtyard of the Italian Embassy - the front façade of the main building was gaily lit in the hues of the tricolor – green, white and red. 

Musée d'Orsay

Last night we had dinner at a chic little place down the street. Only 3 items on the daily menu, all decorated in black and modern, and with not having a reservation we sat at the bar. It was a very nice evening for a complete ad-lib. I had rare slices of beef with a spicy mustard sauce, MLW had a slice of halibut served on eggplants cooked in curry. We both had French wines that would never make it all the way over to the US. Our server was wonderful, treating us like welcomed guests instead of the last minute interlopers that we were. She even took the time to explain the tipping logic. In spite of no expectations, I took care of her.
Recall that yesterday morning we’d planned on going to the Musée d'Orsay but the lines were so long that we called it off and went grave hunting instead. I’d taken the time to check the museum web site and found a graphic that showed that Tuesday was indeed the worst day to go based on crowds. Wednesday was reportedly the best. And that the only option for cutting the line entirely was to pre-order and pre-print tickets at home, something I could not do for want of a printer. Well this morning we came out of Rue Vaneau and headed towards the stairs and saw, much to our delight, that there were no more than a few dozen people ahead of us. It would seem that today’s rainy weather had put a damper on the enthusiasm of the prospective visitors. At leastwith today’s early morning visitors because as our 3-hour visit wore on, the place got pretty crowded. Suffice it to say that we were pretty pleased to have arrived early and avoid the lines. We paid and went in.
The museum is by far one of our world-wide favorites. It and its site have a long and colorful history starting out as the main lane in the royal garden of Henry IV’s queen, Marguerite of Valois. On her death in 1615, the grounds were sold off in parcels and purchased by wealthy nobles desiring spots for mansions that were close to the power center of the city. The construction of the Quai d’Orsay (a small port for the handling of lumber and cargo) was begun in 1708 and completed during the reign of Napoleon I. During the first half of the 19th century, the site held the Palais d’Orsay and a cavalry barracks, the former being at first the home to the department of state and later the department of accounts. The entire site was burned to the ground during the Paris Commune uprising of 1871 and sat in ruins for about the next 30 years.
In 1897, the French government gave the land to the Orleans Railroad Company for the construction of a railway station. The architects chosen for the project were challenged by the requirement that the new station fit properly into the nature of the area, with the Louvre just across the Seine and the Palais Légion d’Honneur directly adjacent to the property. The station was completed in 2 years and opened as part of the 1900 World’s Fair. The all-metal and glass construction was quite extraordinary for the time, and accordingly, the station was considered one of the most beautiful in all of Paris. It served as the hub for the southwestern railroad network from 1901 to 1939 when the station could no longer accommodate the increasing length of the modern long-haul trains. From then until the beginning of WWII, it served only trains to the suburbs.
During the war, it was used as a postal depot for packages being sent to French prisoners of war. At the end of hostilities it served as a film set for Orson Welle’s adaptation of Kafka’s The Trial and as a site for public events that demanded a flashy background, including DeGaulle’s famous announcement that he was returning to power. In 1973, it closed its doors for the final time.
In 1978 it was declared a national historic treasure and for the next 8 years it underwent a conversion to its current use. It was officially inaugurated by President Francois Mitterand in December, 1986.
Today, its collection spans the years 1848 to 1914 hosting more than 3,000,000 visitors per year.
The interior is a feast for the eyes, between the details of the construction, the glass, metal and plasterwork as well as the sheer volume of the interior. Our favorite part of their collection is a handful of Van Gogh works, none of them monumental but each nice in its own way. Part of our affection for the place stems from its use in our absolutely favorite Doctor Who episode "The Doctor and Vincent" in which the Doctor and Amy Pond visit Van Gogh in Arles and help him solve a problem with a lost and violent alien. The episode ends with Van Gogh being brought to the Orsay in 2010 to see how popular he was destined to become, featuring a short description by Bill Nighy (portraying an art docent) describing his personal view that Van Gogh was the greatest artist of all time.
I won’t spend a lot of time describing our visit - instead I’ll share some of our favorite paintings and a couple of photos of the interior.

(please click on photo for enlargement)

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Cimitière Père-Lachaise

Last night was dedicated to a wonderful dinner hosted by an old friend of MLW’s, one not seen in decades. Lots of wine, great conversation spanning world events and family minutiae all set in a garret apartment situated in a 17th century building, ½ block from the Seine. We walked in silent rain-slicked cobblestone streets largely devoid of people, save a few youngsters stumbling out of closing bars. The life to be found was the police contingent that guards the Rue de Varenne, the cross-street that leads to our apartment. I always find it so pleasant to wander around a big city at night. Assuming of course that it’s safe. We didn’t feel any qualms about this hike.
The sky above our airshaft was a shiny, beautiful blue this morning so we decided to take the short walk up the street to the Musée d’Orsay. When we’d been by on Easter Sunday, the queue was huge and we figured that today, being a Tuesday, it wouldn’t be. We were wrong- the tail end of the line was at the “30 minutes from this point” point so we turned around and walked home, stopping for just a second to listen to a faux Gypsy jazz quartet playing by the museum stairs. The decision was easy since I’d forgotten my wallet and we would have been reduced to charging our tickets. And now that we were outside and saw that the blue sky extended for some distance in all directions, the thought was that it might be better to use the day for something outside. Museums are always open on rainy days.

So back home and money collected and our first load of clothes moved from the washer to the dryer and we were back out on our way to somewhere else. We took a different route to Rue de Sèvres, planning to stop along the way and collect the International New York Times at the kiosk outside La Grande Epicerie. It was there, the seller gave me the price in rapid-fire French, I gave him what I assumed it cost which was wrong, he repeated himself in English, I repeated his English in French (now that I got it), he laughed and I gave him another .20 cents. I tucked it in my bag and we went off down the street, planning our destination as we went. The Luxembourg Gardens were high on our list, it being spring and their location being in front of us.
But before that, “let’s go find our old Starbucks” sounded like something to do on the way and so that’s the direction we took. Problem was we weren’t entirely sure where it was, and there was so much construction going on that it was hard to recognize the environment relative to our 2-year old memories. But we were more or less sure we were heading in the right direction.
MLW was packing some post cards and we had a standing order to try and find a post office. When one propitiously presented itself on the far side of the street we braved the traffic and went over. Once inside, the options were unclear (to say the least) so we picked a likely line and stood in it until the general action of the place sank in. We moved to another and it turned out to be the right one. Using my very best self-taught French I said, “Je veux les envoyer aux États-Unis” and the clerk didn’t respond with a look of bemused shock. Instead she mumbled the price, handed me two stamps and returned the change on my just tendered 10€ note. One tip for intrepid travelers- don’t worry about the offered price. If it’s small just pay with a 10.
So back out on the street and lo, our Starbucks appeared after only a few more blocks of walking. We had some coffee and a muffin and discussed our plan for the day. The weather was still good, so we decided to put Luxembourg on hold and instead take a grand adventure to the Cimitière Père-Lachaise, the final resting place of a host of historical figures, names that factored large in both the history of France as well as the world.
Père-Lachaise is the both the largest cemetery and largest park in Paris, covering a bit more than 110 acres. Originally the site was home to a 17th century Jesuit hospice, and named for the Father Confessor to King Louis XIV, Père Francois de la Chaise. In 1764, the Jesuits were expelled from France, for a variety of political reasons, and the property was seized. Napoleon reacquired the property in 1804 and it was then named as Cimitière de l’Est, serving its present function from that time. Today the cemetery still accepts burials, despite the fact that the current roster of occupants is estimated between 300,000 and 1,000,000.
There is a long, long list of notable people interred within its leafy bounds, ranging from military heroes to politicians to composers, painters, philosophers, musicians and writers. Somehow over the last 2 centuries it became the best place to spend eternity, for the French and many of the expatriates welcomed here by a more liberal French society. The historical interest factor alone meant we really had no choice but to go. And it was another opportunity to do one of my favorite things – ride the subway.
Having downed our coffee and experienced the wonder of the upstairs Starbucks rest room (two doors, cramped space, long list of tourists filing in and out to use it without spending a dime,) I did a quick route plan on my iPhone Paris Metro app and we left, suffering down the stairs at the Odeon station, conveniently located just across the street. One thing about the Metro – it’s old so it has none of those long modern escalators that descend gracefully under the streets in places like Beijing and Madrid. So while you save a lot of energy riding it (compared to walking,) the benefit does come at some cost. Between the dodgy weather and the distance though, the price seemed reasonable.
Thirty minutes later, we emerged into gray skies – our clear day was apparently coming to an end. But it was not yet raining as we walked down the street in the direction of the main gates. A young woman just outside the entrance sold us a map and in we went. From that moment on, the treasure hunt began.

The place certainly lives up to its reputation, and it must be truly beautiful when the trees are leafed out and the flowers in bloom. Built into a broad hillside, its laid out in sections which make grave finding somewhat easier. It’s also jam-packed which makes the same activity very difficult. The lanes are rough cobblestones and there are tons of steps going up from section to section.

We started with the grave of Gioachino Rossini (1792-1868), well-known Italian composer of operas and one of my favorites. His "Thieving Magpie" is a staple around our house. His grave was very easy to find, being about a hundred yards in on the main entry and right on the edge of the walk.

Across the street from Rossini lies the grave of Felix Faure (1841-1899) who was president of France from 1895 until his death. There was a couple there, and the woman made it a real point of not letting me take a photo, walking around and around it, rubbing her hands on the bronze statue. Not to be dissuaded, I waited her out.

Next up - Frederic Chopin (1810-1849) virtuoso pianist and composer of works for that instrument.

Unfortunately, one of the biggest draws is the grave of Jim Morrison, front man for the Doors who died here in 1971. Many fans believe he faked his death and lives on, somewhere. Regardless of the myth, his grave is sort of ironic. Much abused over the years with thefts, graffiti and vandalism, today it is protected by some metal crowd barriers festooned with those cheap little hippie bracelets you find in tourist shops. Everyone there paying homage was clearly born several decades after he went to his reward, so their passion is a bit humorous, at least to the two of us who were around when his band was a sensation. The grave itself was not much to look at, tucked in behind the tombs of mere mortals.

It was a long walk and a rugged climb to the grave of The Little Sparrow, chanteuse Edith Piaf (died 1963). We failed to find her neighbor the artist Amedeo Modigliani in spite of some assiduous searching, 


Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) was situated a further bit up the road, his very strange Mayan inspired tomb enclosed in glass with warning signs about vandalism. The winged guardian eternally protecting Oscar was said to be rather well-endowed before an outraged woman knocked off the offending organ with her umbrella.I was glad to find Oscar here, having sat with a bronze version of him on a bench in Galway, Ireland.

We were in the home stretch now, with only a few authors and a painter left to hunt down. Marcel Proust (1871-1922) was located on a small garden off the main avenue. His grave was very modest by comparison, simple in design and statement.

The grave of poet Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) was easy to find in spite of being well off the avenue. He survived being wounded in WWI, only to die two year later in the Spanish Flu Epidemic.

The tomb of Eugene Delacroix (1798-1863) was magnificent and powerful, all done in matte black marble and certainly befitting the father of the French Romantic School of painting. 

The final stop on our tour was the grave of Honore de Balzac (1799-1850,) renowned French author. He was easy to find as he was being visited by a small group of French senior citizens being regaled by a very animated tour guide. 

All-told, we found most of the graves we wanted to see, missing only on a couple set back from the main streets. The other misses were those we didn’t find on the map until later. On the whole, a raging success, and the weather held too, at least until we were just about back to the subway for the ride home.