Saturday, April 25, 2009

I can see clearly now, the rain is gone

I can see all obstacles in my way
Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind
It’s gonna be a bright, bright Sun-Shiny day.

Sun Mar 15, Day VII

On Wed, we had sun but it was quite hazy. Maybe it was lucky number seven. Or for Star Trek fans, maybe it was Gary Seven. If you want to read more about lucky seven theories:

In any case, my seventh day in Paris was the first truly clear sunny day and I wanted to take full advantage and see some great views, but with a song in my heart, a message from our sponsor:

I needed some supplies, so fairly early Sunday morning, I walked around the Marché Bastille. There were (Joni Mitchell) miles of aisles and a throng of people. Add the hawkers behind the booths and you have some kind of bombastic entertainment!

Colonne de Juillet in the center background

After dropping my treasures off at home, I hopped on the metro for two stops, exiting at Hôtel de Ville. Walking a few blocks north, I was at The Pompidou Centre, which was constructed from 1971 to 1977 and named after the past French President (1969-1974) Georges Pompidou. This unique structure is almost like a building turned inside out and has been compared to an oil refinery with its color coded pipes and ducts.

The views on the outside stairway are incredible even if you have to look through a curved Plexiglas like material.

More views

Outside, street artists perform

Inside is the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Now, just over 30 years old, this museum has blossomed with a collection representing over 60,000 pieces from more than 5,000 artists. I have seen modern and contemporary art before and had trouble comprehending a lot of it. This collection features a whole floor which I just didn’t get. Take for example, an exhibit called “Vides (voids) A retrospective” with room after room that was empty with a lengthy commentary as to why it was art. If you want the full explanation:*Categorie1bis&count=999&sessionM=2.10&L=2
Thankfully (for me) the next floor up had great paintings I loved including those from Matisse, Picasso and Braque.

Henri Matisse
Portrait of Greta Prozor
Nice, France 1916

After absorbing my museum limit for the moment, I sat outside in the glorious sunshine to reflect on what I had seen and be entertained by street performers as I periodically shut my eyes to truly bask in the sun.

Feeling complete, I began walking down toward the Seine; at Chatelet, I came across a small Brazil dancing group

who were passing in front of the Tour St-Jacques.

This ornate, imposing late Gothic structure dates from 1523 and is all that remains of an ancient Church.

I walked over the river at Pont au Change

to Ile de la Cite and the magnificent St-Chapelle

It is in the Palais de Justice, so intense security is required to enter. Sainte-Chapelle has been hailed as one of the greatest architectural masterpieces of the Western world. I visited this on my trip in 1995, but I just had to see it again. Built in 1248, it is ethereal and magical with 50 ft soaring columns of stained glass windows on three sides and a huge rose window on the fourth. One cannot help but be moved, enthralled as you are bathed in the kaleidoscope of colors.

After leaving St-Chapelle, I walked down the Quai of Ile de la Cite until Notre Dame

and then back to the mainland and down the Quai on the Left Bank filled with permanent touristy stands on the upper Quai

and I did some walking on the lower Quai.

You may remember this view of Notre Dame and the tip of Ile de la Cite from the first Paris scene in the Bourne Identity.

More Quai pics

I continued walking down to the Institut du Monde Arabe (Arab World Institute)

and took the elevator to the 9th floor observation deck.

Built from 1981 to 1987, this structure is spectacular. Its outside river façade is curved to follow the waterway while the inside has a large public square and is dominated by a metallic screen of geometric motifs.

The motifs are actually 240 motor-controlled apertures, which open and close every hour to control the light entering the building. I just had to sit and watch this for awhile.

Then it was a walk home across the Pont de Sully,

Opéra National de Paris Bastille in the background

and beside the Port de l’Arsenal (adjacent to the Pl de la Bastille), where local pleasure boats dock, and the underground entrance to Canal St-Martin.

Youngsters on skateboards at the Place de la Bastille

Following my traditional late afternoon nap, I took one of my longer metro rides south to Alesia and a dinner with Jim Haynes & “friends”. This is something else I had found out about in my research and made reservations in advance. Since the mid 1970’s, Jim has been having this English speaking dinner for random people to get acquainted at his home. Well, it was packed yet everyone seemed to be in a good mood and dinner was being served buffet style as I arrived. I met quite a number of nice people and had many interesting conversations, although it felt a little strange to hear so much English being spoken. Now, parties have never been my favorite scene, so I think I tried a little too hard and wore myself out after about an hour and a half. I gave myself points for effort and headed home. Even with a longish metro ride I was able to turn in early; something I think I really needed. I had been staying out late (for me), so a good nights rest was (On a clear day, you can see forever) just what my inner doctor ordered.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Middle Ages of Rock 'n Roll

Madonna Like a Virgin
Carol King Tapestry
Linda Ronstadt and the Stone Poneys

Sat Mar 14, Day VI

My era of music seems so long ago, it’s like the middle ages (of Rock ‘n Roll, anyway). In this case, these three reminded me of the first item on the days agenda:

The Musée National du Moyen Age (National Museum of the Middle Ages). More commonly known as the Musée de Cluny, it was founded in 1843 with the collections of an art amateur fascinated by the Middle Ages, Alexandre Du Sommerard who lived in the Hôtel de Cluny. It’s collections feature (Linda Ronstadt and the) stone (poneys) Roman baths, the many paintings of Madonna (Like a Virgin) and Child and the famous series Lady with the Unicorn (Carol King) Tapestry.

So, I had a lovely 20 min) walk across the river at Pont de Sully and up Boulevard St Germain to the Musée.

This was a special place. High on my list is that the size and displays were such I felt able to see and absorb most of the collection. It is hard to describe the depth of diversity, from an entire Roman Bath, various ceremonial items made of wood, ivory, metal and stone, paintings, sculptures, tapestries, stained glass panels, intact archways and fireplaces. After awhile I was about to go through the last room and feeling I had enough. I almost made it through when I noticed what was there and I was renewed with energy as I saw many swords, chain mail, and armor. Except for paintings, this period of history was not one I spent much time seeking out, but, I sure savored my time at the Cluny.

Then it was time for an enjoyable walk up the wonderful Boulevard St Michel with the idea of eating in the Jardin du Luxembourg. I had some eating places on my list for the area, but no take out, so I headed off the main drag to seek out a sandwich shop. I found one pretty quickly, but it was closed and I settled on a little Turkish place. There I was, waiting behind one couple, asked for a curry chicken wrap to be heated. While we were waiting, the proprietor poured us some Turkish Tea from an elongated elegant metal teapot into the cutest little cups – at no charge!

Then I headed to the nearby Jardin du Luxembourg, found a seat to watch the show. Lots of people of every sort having lunch, lots of strolling, with and without dogs, even some joggers. This is one of the largest and most interesting gardens in Paris. It was created in 1612 and has large formal areas, with a fountain built in 1861.

It also has smaller, almost private areas, lots of benches and sculptures throughout.

Locals playing boule

There is even a good size playground for children. After eating and some sitting/relaxing, I ventured out to explore. It was a cool gray day anyway and then it began to rain a bit off and on. Besides just taking it all in, there was one thing to look for, a life size Statue of Liberty. I strolled around for quite awhile and then, there it was. I asked a passerby to take a picture. After several attempts to get all the torch and flame into the frame, I relented and will just have to accept what I got.

Interesting note: there were three original Statues of Liberty made by Bertholdi and this was actually the first one!

More Jardin du Luxembourg pics

After walking through the park for quite awhile, I thought I would like to sit outside at a café and have a café. I had already been on the busy St Michel side of the park and decided to search for a place on the other side which I figured would be rather quiet. I found one little café with an outside table open at the corner of Rue d’Assas and Rue Vavin. So, I had another time out to watch the world go by at a more leisurely pace.

I had read about an interesting temporary exhibit along part of the fence that surrounds the park, so when the moment was right I walked through the park again and found something marvelous. It was a series of panels for each EU county.

The subjects of the panels conveyed things from the past or present; people, places and things. Some were about how these countries are linked together; forerunners to the EU and some just about the individual nation states. The panels were in a random order and there were multiple panels for some countries. I spent quite awhile and still didn’t see them all, but it was very special.

A pic of Lech Walensa: The entrance to the Gdansk shipyards at the beginning of the massive union strikes of 1980. This was a seminal moment in the fall of Soviet Communism. Lech Walensa was awarded the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize and elected President of Poland in 1990.

Today the EU has 27 member states. Lacking in my knowledge of history, I was fascinated to learn (on one French panel) about a precursor to the EU: In 1950, the French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed a six nation Western European Alliance called the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). Learn more:

More pics of this exhibit

Next on the Agenda was the nearby Panthéon.

King Louis XV vowed in 1744 that if he recovered from an illness he would replace the ruined church of Sainte-Geneviève with an edifice worthy of the patron saint of Paris. Inspired by the Rome Pantheon, the foundation was laid in 1758 and finished in1789. While it was originally a church, it was made into a civic building in 1885. Among those buried are Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, and Marie Curie.

More Panthéon pics

Another intriguing feature: In 1851, physicist Léon Foucault demonstrated the rotation of the Earth by his experiment conducted in the Panthéon, by constructing a 67 meter Foucault pendulum beneath the central dome.

Then I made a quick turn to see St-Etienne-du-Mont; a charming church dedicated to Sainte-Geneviève and just behind the Panthéon. As you can see, the façade is marvelous and inside, stone stairs and stained glass are a sight to behold.

Without any particular plan, I strolled away from this church reflecting on what I had seen there, at the Panthéon and the EU panels – a spectacular triple play and I was out of that inning! A few minutes later I walked smack into Les Pipos (#2 Rue L’Ecole Polytechnigue), a wine bar that was on my list. Wow, this was definitely meant to be, and I stopped in. Les Pipos is quite small, oozing with old world charm. It was not very busy, so I easily found a table and settled in – after a much needed relaxing wait, I had some absolutely scrumptious mini cheese raviolis, some nice bread and a glass of Cote du Rhone. The couple next to me were speaking Russian, then a little girl (maybe 7) arrives with an escort who could be the Mom or .... Anyway, the young girl is happy to be there, greets the staff, which I assume to be the father and ….. either the mother, another family member or just the well-known woman working there. The escort has a glass of wine at the bar. In any case, it is a scene full of warmth and I feel fortunate to be there. After this refreshment of body and spirit, I begin the leisurely (30 min) walk home and my customary nap.

It has already been another utterly amazing and fulfilling day. With visions of sugar plums dancing in my head, wondering what the evening has in store for me?

I hopped on the metro, exiting the Pyrenees stop again because there are so many interesting eating venues in this area. I settled on a good size wine bar that was bustling and was shown to a table in the backroom against the wall. This place had a rustic and warm feeling, although the only table adjacent to mine was unoccupied. A few moments of trepidation at a lack of company was soon alleviated as a nice couple about my age sat down. They had a, surprise, passion for good food and we had great conversation as she spoke English very well and he spoke some. I think they were shocked when I was familiar with some of the places they recommended. M et Mme Louin-Defoose (I got a business card) were wonderful dinner companions for an hour or so until they departed as did most of the others in the room.

  • Segue to food and wine: I accepted the staff recommendation for a duck course to start and then a beef course, while I looked at the wine list. Since this was a wine bar, there were many choices by the glass and by the pitcher. I was sitting against a wall which doubled as wine storage, so I reached to my left, pulled out the closest bottle and sure enough it was available by the glass and pitcher. I’m thinking kismet, of course, this had to be the right one! I was brought a taste and to my amazement it was not what I was looking for – too lush. So, I let my intellect do the thinking and selected a Cote du Roussillon, which was delightful, lighter, vibrant with a long dry finish – perfect for food!

Back to the social narrative: So, there I am, finishing up my main course and feeling a little lonely again when someone at a communal table mentions living in Los Angeles (where I lived recently for 13 years) and a conversation ensues. I am invited to join this merry band of seven. They are all locals except this one guy who is visiting from LA and trying to learn French. And here I thought I was the only non-local. The conversation drifts in and out of French and English, the wine continues to flow and a grand time was had by all. The place was closing up a little after midnight and we all said our adieu in the street. They were driving and it was perfect timing for me to catch one of the last metro runs.

Maybe it was my imagination as they drove out of sight did I hear them say, have a bon journée and to all a good night!

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Big Chill

Fri Mar 13, Day V

No ensemble cast attending the funereal of an old college friend and searching for something they lost.

I had trouble getting up cause I caught a chill on my canal walk in the cold and drizzle the day before. After doing my morning exercises and having a nice breakfast, I began to feel better and headed off on a nice 15 min walk to the Marais and the Musée Picasso. I have been a fan of Picasso since for years since seeing a comprehensive collection at the LA County Art Museum and a cubist exhibition at the Norton Simon Museum. Picasso was one of the few artists that lived long enough to become famous. My favorite at this museum is his 1937 Portrait of his lover, Dora Maar.

Detailed info on the story behind this work can be found here:

The outside of the museum has the unusual feature of a mirrored wall extending from the entrance.

I walked the short distance over to #34 rue des Rosiers to check out “L’As du Falafel” the famous falafel place. My research indicated that the quality might had slipped a bit and the falafel directly across the street was better. So I stood there in the middle of this extremely narrow street (I could almost touch both places) and let my feelings guide me to “mi-va-mi”. I stood in a short line; got my falafel and headed over the few steps to the most perfect square in Paris, the Place des Vosges. The sun came out and I had a heart-warming, relaxing time reflecting on my soul stirring visit with Picasso. I had my wonderful falafel observing others at lunch, various business people, families with small children and classes of school children.

More Place des Vosges pics

When I was able to tear myself away from the peace of the Place de Vosges, I headed back to the Place de la Bastille for a passages walk I had found on the internet. Very interesting things in Paris can be found just off the street. Some of these small passages are marked, some are not; in either case you need to find out in advance or just find one by happenstance.

A remarkable series of furniture repair shops can still be found working on items you would think could only be found in a museum. Clearly, there are people living lives with a style that is hard for most people (like me) to imagine. A few of these artsians allowed my camera to capture them; others were very adamant in their refusal.

In any case, just walking through these narrow cobblestone passages, I felt transported back in time. I found the Hôtel Mortagne, built in the 1600’s, was behind a modern apartment building

and a filled in old well was still partially visible.

There is also a feeling of regret in the various stages of gentrification that were evident. Some things that had been written about and so I had expected to find had already been lost. Still, in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable adventure and I was able to share it a little as I seemed to be following this one couple; we had a good chuckle over that.

Then it was home for a nap.

Sunset at the Pont des Arts was special and a spot I would return to for more sunsets.

Looking east at Pont Neuf and the Ile de la Cite

Looking west

Then it was on to the Louvre, which was open late on Fridays. I got a great view of the entrance pyramid under Venus (the evening star).

There was a considerable line to enter. The museum is so large it borders on overwhelming, especially when it is fairly crowded as I experienced. I decided to look only at the Italian painting section and on the way, I saw the Winged Victory.

With a little patience, I was able to get a spot in front to view the Mona Lisa, although I was not able to get as close as I did in 1995. You can see the old barrier in the foreground!

I spent sometime sitting in comfortable round sofas in the main hallway to take in some of the other great paintings. After about an hour of viewing, and feeling a little claustrophobic with so many people around and it was too warm for me as well. Leaving was easier said than done: I was at the end of this long hallway and after inquiring, I had to retrace my considerable steps and wait in another line to exit. The crisp clear night was intoxicating!

I had an area in mind with quite a few restaurants to check out for dinner. A few metro minutes later and I was at the Pyrenees stop and walking around. I scouted out several places on my list to eat, one was closed, two others seemed nice, but maybe too mellow for my mood.

Chez Valentin, daytime pic from John Talbot

  • On restaurant pics: Since I was attempting to be the only tourist at most of these restaurants, I felt it would be out of place to take pics.

Then I found myself at #64 rue Rebeval. It’s a hole in the wall, but Chez Valentin was packed to the gills with people and bursting with festive energy. I was barely able to get in the door and made my way to the rear asking to sit at the unoccupied slip of a bar, which was not being used. The gentleman who I imagined as the owner/manager and one waitress made up the entire floor staff. They clearly did not speak English, so this would be an entertaining challenge. I sat at this afterthought of a sidebar and began a broken running dialogue with this gregarious man of about 60. My impression is that a table will open up shortly if I wait and we begin to go back and forth about what I might order. The next thing I know, he is pouring me a glass of Champagne on the house and laughs abound. I had a good feeling as I sized up the place from the outside, but nothing could prepare me for the unbridled joy that exudes from everyone there. This is a Franco-Argentinean joint with basic simple homey décor and a Thai chefess. Michel is the host with the most. He acts as though this is his home and you are a welcome guest. I am shown to a table in the corner near the kitchen where I can easily shout to Michel and have a great view of everyone in the room. We had decided on the food, but now came the decision on wine and I asked for a list. I had noticed what appeared to be an inexpensive Argentinean wine making the rounds and was first offered that. I sheepishly declined, making fun of that choice, explained that I was a merchant de vin and wanted to stay with a French wine. Then it hit me, there was no carte de vin, as Michel began to make one recommendation after another off the top of his head. I settled on a Cote du Rhone and was offered a pitcher (about half) from a fresh bottle. The wine was tasty and a perfect match for the totally unpretentious yet splendid comfort food that these locals eat on a regular basis. Between my seating arrangement and the mostly larger groups, it was clear I would be mostly a watcher for the rest of the evening. There was what appeared to be a testimonial dinner and a birthday celebration which took up most of the seats. Over the next hour or so, a few heads popped in to inquire about seating and were told that there was no room. The boisterous atmosphere continued and I just happened to be there to absorb it. What a way to go!

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Big Bang Theory, Evolution or Intelligent Design

How the Universe was created and evolved or how many Museums can you visit in 6 days before resting on the seventh?

Thurs Mar 12, Day IV

It was a dark, dreary, drizzly, gray day. Clearly, that’s not how the world was created, but it was the weather when I left home after my delicious customary breakfast. (For anyone not following the first few days of breakfasts, I take a few steps down the block for a fresh croissant, then back home to make my own coffee with an orange and banana previously bought at the Marché.) I headed north to acclimate and begin my Museum trek. It seems that everything written about visiting Paris strongly suggests getting a Museum Pass. You have a choice of 2, 4 or 6 days. By far the best value per day is for 6, so I went for it. Now, I really enjoy museums, but I didn’t want to overdo it. There’s the diminishing returns aspect of any one visit and how much it can wear you out. Plus, I wanted so much to experience the life in Paris and I have been to so many great Museums in my life already, so I won’t bore you with a list. My plan was to visit two museums a day for the six days and, but not spend more than an hour or two in each.

First on my list was to get the Keys to the Cité. This was the cute title on the brochure for the immense science and technology museum: “Cité de sciences et de l’industrie”.

I had read it was interesting and has not so many tourists visiting. After wadding through a sea of school children, I purchased my pass and looked around. It is almost overwhelming in size, and most of the presentations are only in French.

I picked out my first exhibit to see: “Man and His Genes”. I was really excited to learn about this anyway, but I had also recently seen something on a related court case:

  • Tammy Kitzmiller, et al. v. Dover Area School District, et al., was the first direct challenge brought in the United States federal courts against a public school district that required the presentation of "intelligent design" as an alternative to evolution as an "explanation of the origin of life." The plaintiffs successfully argued that intelligent design is a form of creationism, and that the school board policy thus violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. The (2005) judge's decision has sparked considerable response from both supporters and critics. -Wikipedia

I had learned a bit about this subject in school, but the advances since then have been, well evolutionary. What a great presentation! Check this out for a short flash synopsis.

Then, I headed over to see “The Story of the Universe”. I have always been fascinated by every aspect of space and am a sky watcher at home. I especially loved the section “From the Big Bang to the solar system”. After spending enough time to absorb what I could from these two exhibits, I was beginning to get that saturated feeling, but I did wander through a few other areas just to take a quick look before departing.

Off I went on the Metro to Place de La Madeleine, just long enough to discover the Valadon/Utrillo exhibition (I planned to see) is not covered by my Museum Pass. Feeling like I had just paid enough to see Museums and “There’s more where that came from”. I decided to visit the Musée d’Orsay, which is open late on Thurs.; get a bite now and do the St. Martin Canal Walk. I walked a few blocks, right over to # 8 rue Capucines and “Le Petit Vendome” for some fast food to go. This was not by happenstance.

On Le Petit Vendome: Jambon-beurre. A classic fresh crunchy baguette with some special meat, butter and a dash of mustard. Put together all these ingredients of the highest caliber, and you have one great sandwich. Everyday locals line up at the takeout window. Many have called this the best in Paris.

With my Jambon-beurre safely tucked in my case, hopped on the metro towards my canal walk. Arriving at the Place de Stalingrad, I sat down in a park between the 18th century “Barrière de la Villette” (toll booth) for the canal and the Basin de la Villette, and had my sandwich. What a meal, what a view and Tom Cruise in A Few Good Men -“the hits just keep on coming”.

Barrière de la Villette

After my relaxing snack, it was my travel book, my trusty camera and another of their 90 minute walks. How charming is this, the buildings the footbridges, the locks, the small parks with new blossoms.

Here is one of the few surviving brick-and-iron industrial buildings that used to line the canal in the 19th century.

The Canal heads underground to reemerge at the southern end of the Place de la Bastille

To finish off my walk, I headed over a few blocks to the Hôspital St-Louis, whose grounds have been called by some, a duplicate to the most perfect square in Paris, the Place des Vosges (where I had several restful visits) This, I had to see, and so can you.

More Hôspital St-Louis pics

Then, it was home to nap.

Refreshed and cleaned up, I headed out to Musée d’Orsay. One of Paris’ most beautiful buildings, it was originally built as a railway station and opened on Bastille day in 1900 for the World Fair. As a railway station, it was outdated by 1939, went through a series of uses, was threatened with destruction and finally opened again as a museum in 1986. And as a great museum, its mission is to show the great diversity of art in the western world between 1848 and 1914. It probably houses the greatest collection of Impressionist paintings, which is fortunate for me as that is my favorite genre. I radiated in the glow of old friends, Monet, Pissaro, Sisley as well as Van Gogh.

Alfred Sisley, La barque pendant l'inondation, Port-Marly en 1876

More painting pics

I signal out these as they are my favorites, but I thoroughly enjoyed many other works, too numerous to mention. I left at closing as if on a cloud, sat outside in the calm night air for a little reflection by the Seine.

I planned for dinner at one of John Talbot’s recommended spots and (not surprisingly) hopped the metro for a ride to within easy walking distance. Soon I was seated at a table in La Table d’Eugene, #18 rue Eugène Sue in the 18e. This was a fairly small, lovely elegant restaurant with an original old ceiling, yet just a hint of modern flair. My assessment was that I was the only tourist. Maybe it was the subdued atmosphere, the tables were just far enough apart, the clientele for the evening, whatever the reasons, I was not able to make any human contact other than the two wait staff. Since, I was still in the afterglow of those miraculous paintings, and feeling the effects of a very busy day, it was just fine to leisurely dine on delectable dishes of pork and then some kind of beef. All the while, sipping another splendid Cote du Rhone. Of course, I had a spectacular chocolate dessert and café. This dinner was perhaps the most relaxing and the food the most pristine and refined of my entire trip. What a delightful way to spend the evening and end the day.