Saturday, June 6, 2009

Rain, rain, rain.

I had planned to head to Le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen this morning, a flea market on the northern edge of Paris, but the weather seems to be calling for some artful rearrangement of my itinerary. I think, why not go shopping?

I’ve been to Paris before, but never to the Galeries Lafayette. It’s a famous department store whose posters blanket the tile walls of every metro station in the city. My favorite is one that depicts a woman with an Eiffel Tower strapped to her head with a criss-crossing ribbon of red, white, and blue. The absurdity of it appeals to me somehow.

What seemed like a good idea back in my apartment strikes me as a terribly unimaginative one once I walk through the front doors. Every other tourist in town seems to have had the same burst of inspiration. The place is packed with sweaty bodies and dripping umbrellas.

I soon discover that the Galeries Lafayette sell what appear to be the exact same clothes as every other department store in the world, so it’s something of a disappointment. But the glass dome overhead, and the surrounding balconies that look as though they once rested in the Palais Garnier, are impressive and the city views from the rooftop terrace are lovely, too, even on a gray and dreary day. On the other hand, it amuses me to see that the shelves of the international food hall are well stocked with Oreos and Pepperidge Farm cookies. I suppose that to the French these are exotic international foods, but it baffles me why would anyone want to eat them when Gérard Mulot’s pastry shop is just a short walk across the Seine.

Still, here I am committing the same culinary sin. With little planning or forethought, I’ve just bought a sandwich to go, a bag of chips, and a bottle of water, with which I head back out into the rain.

When finding a dry place to eat turns into a monumental challenge, I end up sitting under the Pont de la Tournelle. Using the bridge for shelter, I open my poulet aux legumes croquants. It’s just a chicken sandwich with fresh vegetables on whole wheat bread, but the French label, along with the view of Notre Dame Cathedral, makes my pre-packaged lunch feel almost elegant.

For dessert I head to La Maison Berthillon on the nearby Île Saint-Louis for an expensive and shockingly small cone of peach and pear sorbet. I wander in and out of the shops the run the length of the island and buy what for me is the quintessential Parisian souvenir—a silk scarf in brilliant teal from Diwali, where racks upon racks of bright colors provide a welcome contrast to the gray outside.

Determined to stay indoors for now, I pull out my Paris Museum Pass, wade through the security line at the Palais de Justice, and make a repeat visit to Sainte-Chapelle. When I first visited in the summer of 2007, scaffolding filled the apse, blocking the windows entirely. Now the space is blessedly free of construction and it’s stunning—absolutely stunning, especially since I have a long lens on my Nikon D40 that allows me to zoom in for detail.

By the time I leave, the rain is coming to a reluctant stop. I hop on the metro at Cité and keep my fingers crossed all the way to Varenne because I would very much like to see the Rodin Museum and most of the sculptures are scattered about outside in various gardens, including those that are most famous: “The Thinker,” “The Gates of Hell,” and the “Burghers of Calais.”

Thankfully, the weather stays at bay as I take a pleasant, if somewhat sodden, turn through the grounds, although I am a bit miffed to be shunted aside while looking at the statue of “Ugolino and his Children” in the ornamental pool behind the Hôtel Biron. A squadron of professional photographers has descended with a young model in tow, dressed in a bright plaid dress, and they want everyone else out of the way. They say I can come back later to complete my visit, but the golden dome of Les Invalides, rising behind the hedge to my left, has already caught my eye and it’s only 3 o’clock, so I decide to head there instead.

In the 17th century, the Hôtel des Invalides was intended as a home and hospital for old soldiers, but it’s best known today for the tomb of Napoleon Bonaparte, which rests grandly inside of not one, but six coffins, which are further housed in a stone sarcophagus directly under the chapel dome. On the marble floor, an inlaid wreath of laurel circles the base of the tomb, and the names of Napoleon’s greatest victories are incised in gold: Austerlitz, Rivoli, Pyramides, and more. The names are familiar to me, even though I know little of French military history. Today, Gare d’Austerlitz is a train station in Paris; I once stood on the Rue de Rivoli to watch the final laps of the Tour de France; and Pyramides is the name of a metro station not far from the Louvre. Napoleon lives on, bigger than life, although here in Les Invalides, the overall effect is so enormous that the Frommer’s guidebook can’t resist noting that it is “almost lampooning the smallness of the man.”

It’s late afternoon and by now I’ve had my fill of museums for the day. I rest for a bit on a bench and then take a slow stroll through an antiques market on Rue Cler and down through the tree-lined streets that radiate out from Les Invalides. In doing so, I’m reminded of the final pages of Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s the scene where Newland Archer and his son Dallas come to visit Madame Olenska. Wharton, who knew Paris well, describes it this way:

“The day was fading into a soft sun-shot haze, pricked here and there by a yellow electric light, and passers were rare in the little square into which they had turned… It was a modern building, without distinctive character, but many-windowed, and pleasantly balconied up its wide cream-coloured front. On one of the upper balconies, which hung well above the rounded tops of the horse-chestnuts in the square, the awnings were still lowered, as though the sun had just left it.”

Years have passed since their parting and Archer tries to imagine the life she has lived here without him. It is all fiction, I know, and yet standing here at the same time of day, looking up at the same streets, I find myself imagining it, too.

The light is fading fast by the time I make my way back on the metro to my temporary home near the Place de la Contrascarpe. I dine on coq au vin at Chez Robert on the tiny Rue du Pot de Fer, and then head to bed early, with Wharton’s melancholy vision of Paris still ringing in my ears.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

My inadvertent tour of Paris train stations continues this morning with a trip to Gare de l‘Est. I’m heading off to Colmar, a small town in the Alsace region of France, near Strasbourg and the German border. It’s a long way away and a TGV high speed train is the only thing that makes covering such a distance possible as a day trip, but it also requires booking well in advance. Now that I’m here, I’m a bit skeptical of my original plans given the menacing sky overhead.

Colmar is a small city with some first rate art, including the Isenheim altarpiece at the Musée d’Unterlinden, and a sublime painting of the Virgin Mary in a rose bower by Martin Schongauer at the Dominican church. However, the prime attraction is really Colmar itself, billed as something of a storybook village with streets of colorful, half-timbered houses, the kind of place where Hansel and Gretel might feel at home. I think about all of this on the journey east and wonder what will happen if it rains. I suppose it will like a page out of Grimm’s fairy tales, which always were—let’s face it—pretty grim.

It’s just after 11 AM when the train pulls into Colmar station. From here, it’s about a 15 minute walk down Avenue de la République to the historic center of town, past a lovely park called the Place du Champs de Mars. I veer off to the right by an old-fashioned carousel to take a closer look at a statue at the center of an impressive fountain and find that it honors A.J. Bruat (which, quite frankly, means nothing to me), but it was crafted by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, the famous French sculptor who was born in Colmar and who is best known for having designed the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor.

I walk a bit further, past where Avenue de la République becomes Rue Kleber and come to a small shaded square in front of the Musée d’Unterlinden. I’m looking forward to my visit there, but I’d rather stay outdoors for as long as I can before the rain comes, as surely it will.

I have a tourist map of the city with the route between major attractions highlighted in pink, so I follow it a short distance and stop in front of La Maison des Têtes. Built in 1609 for a local merchant, the fanciful façade is ornamented with more than a hundred disembodied heads. Some have menacing expressions, but most are humorous, including an ogre that looks remarkably like Shrek, and a court jester with the kind of floppy hat and jingle bells one might see at a Renaissance Fair.

The path dictated by the map takes me further along Rue des Boulangers, to the Dominican Church, where I stop to admire Schongauer’s Mary, painted in 1473. Holding the baby Jesus to her shoulder, she is surrounded by a trellis of red roses in which a variety of songbirds sit among the thorns—a robin, a sparrow, a warbler, a goldfinch. Two angels dressed in blue hover overhead with a crown of gold. The pamphlet I purchased in the gift shop says that it combines stylistically the best of Germanic and Flemish art into a work of “great force, strange charm, and intense emotion.” I’ve seen a quite a few medieval altarpieces through the years, nearly to the point of boredom when the same iconography is repeated time and time again, and yet here I stand utterly transfixed.

The route on my map continues, past the Collegiate church of Saint-Martin and the spectacular Maison Pfister, to the tanner’s district near Place de l’Ancienne Douane, and finally to a colorful cluster of houses on the river Lauch known as “La Petite Venise.” Colmar is indeed a charming place of gingerbread houses and wrought iron trade signs, like something lifted out the pages of a fairy tale, but the walk has brought into sharp relief a problem that I had not fully appreciated in all my months of planning. It’s a Sunday and nearly every shop is closed, including many restaurants.

I take a quick survey of my depleted options and decide to break for lunch at La Krutenau, where like everyone around me, I order the tarte flambée—an Alsatian dish made from a thin circle of bread dough covered by crème fraîche, bacon, and onions. It’s warm and tasty, the perfect antidote for a chilly day.

Afterwards, I retrace my steps in the spitting rain and spend the next two hours wandering the halls of the Musée d’Unterlinden, which is housed in a 13th century Dominican convent. Aside from the beauty of the architecture itself, which includes a lovely Gothic cloister, the museum has an impressive collection of medieval paintings and sculptures that represent the best of the Upper Rhine.

Their most famous work—the towering Isenheim Altarpiece by Matthias Grünewald—takes pride of place at one end of the convent’s chapel. It was painted in the early 16th century for the nearby monastery and hospital of St. Anthony, where monks treated the victims of skin disorders. To demonstrate God’s sympathy, Grünewald depicts Christ himself (in the lower panel) as suffering from the effects of ergotism, known in the Middle Ages as “St. Anthony’s Fire,” a painful disease caused by the growth of fungus on wet grain.

Still, the overall effect provides more fright than comfort. The crucifixion scene is positively brutal, showing thorns that protrude from the flesh on Christ’s torso. In agony, his fingers stretch and arch in vain towards Heaven. As if those searing images were not enough to keep believers on the straight and narrow, a side panel titled “The Temptation of St. Anthony” shows a hoard of imaginary beasts—similar in whimsy to, but more far malicious than, those in Where the Wild Things Are—dragging the old saint by his white hair into the farthest reaches of Hell. It’s all a bit too much, really: “Too much Good Friday, not enough Easter Sunday,” as a priest and friend of Martin Scorsese once said of the director’s early films.

I’m relieved to end my visit on a more cheerful note, by walking through a gallery devoted to folk art. There are cradles and painted blanket chests, harmless paper dolls of Napoleonic soldiers, wood-carved characters in the setting of a jovial Alsatian inn, and a set of romantic 19th century oil paintings of Colmar that show the city streets looking much the same as today.

On my way out, I return to the front desk to retrieve the coat and umbrella I checked upon entering. When a woman hands them back to me, a security guard overhears me say “Merci, Madame” and he says “good French”! Surprised, I rock my hand back in forth in a 50/50 sign, giving myself more generous credit than I deserve. Then, moments later, when I buy a guidebook of the museum’s collections, the clerk behind the desk asks to make sure I want the English version. Given the sorry state of my high school French, this amuses me. Through my slim knowledge of European history, I know that the Alsace has been traded back and forth between France and Germany through the centuries, so perhaps the modern residents of Colmar have inherited a kind of linguistic confusion. They must have, if they think I speak French well!

Soon after I step back out onto the street, the skies let loose with the fury of Almighty God. Between the ferocious wind and the pounding rain, it really does feel biblical in an Old Testament, punishing kind of way. It’s the kind of weather Grünewald might have appreciated. The little train in the square in front of the museum has been abandoned by its conductor and a tall metal sign advertising the route nearly falls on top of me as I go skidding by in search of some dry haven. Alas, the tourist information office closed at 1 o’clock, so all I can do is flatten myself into a narrow doorway and hope for the best. I have a small travel umbrella with me, but its puny plastic skeleton would never survive a storm such as this.

As I wait for the worst of the rain to pass, I pull out my camera and use the screen on back to flip through the pictures I’ve taken so far. It’s been a gray and dreary day, and while I’ve fiddled with the white balance to compensate for the clouds, the results are not exactly what I’d hoped for. I begin to think about how I might creatively “enhance” them using Photoshop, wondering how hard it would be to fake a blue sky here and there—nothing too dramatic or dishonest, just a little artistic embellishment.

When the weather breaks at last, leaving puddles behind in the cobblestone streets, I look for a quick snack and settle on another regional specialty—a small kougelhopf, which is a raised cake made with almonds and raisins.  I notice a poster taped to the store window advertising a free concert at the Dominican church at 5:00 PM. Given the sodden weather and some time left before the TGV train back to Paris, it seems like an inviting idea.

The performers are from a boy’s choir called “Les Petits Chanteurs de Saint-André de Colmar,” or the little singers of St. Andrew’s. Their voices range along the musical scale in proportion to their age—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—and blend well together in a program devoted to sacred hymns. Seeing them here in front of Schongauer’s altarpiece—his perfectly incandescent Virgin Mary surrounded by roses—has been an unexpected delight on a day that has been, until now, underwhelming.

A further surprise awaits me when I’m forced to slip out early to catch my train—a nearly cloudless blue sky for as far as the eye can see. Hallelujah, hallelujah!

Nervously, I check my watch and decide to make one last, mad dash through town, trying to improve upon the pictures I took earlier. By the time I make it all the way back to the station to catch the 6:42 train back to Paris, I’m exhausted and it’s pouring rain again. By the time we reach Strasbourg a half hour later, the sun is shining. It’s been a very strange day.

It’s nearly dark when my train pulls into Gare de l’Est. On the metro back to Place Monge, there’s a street singer making rounds through the cars, inexplicably singing Sinatra’s “My Way” in English. I toss him a Euro and think of all my years of solo travel, which have been filled with great joy, but also moments of genuine frustration.

Maybe I should make it my theme song:

I’ve lived a life that’s full
I traveled each and every highway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

Regrets I’ve had a few
But then again too few to mention
I did what I had to do
And saw it through without exemption.

I planned each charted course
Each careful step along the byway
And more, much more than this
I did it my way.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ah, the solace one finds in food, particularly chocolate.

Mother Nature teased me cruelly this morning. The sun was shining in a clear blue sky when I awoke at 7:30 AM. By the time I left my apartment on Rue Rollin an hour later, it was raining miserably. Again.

With all my obsessive attention to the weather, I’m beginning to feel quite British, which means that I’m also starting to embrace their “characteristic pessimism.”  That’s not good.

In an effort to pull myself out of a glum mood, it occurs to me that the ideal remedy for a damp and chilly day in Paris is a long breakfast at Angelina’s tea rooms on the Rue de Rivoli. I splurge on the whole deal—eggs, fruit, croissants, juice, and of course, their signature Chocolat l’Africain with Chantilly cream. It’s all outrageously expensive, but well worth it considering that it’s the most divine hot chocolate I have ever tasted. I tell the waiter this and he nods politely, although he seems thoroughly bored and unimpressed by my enthusiasm. He must hear this all the time.

I resolve to spend the better part of the day warm and dry inside the Musée du Louvre. I visited the museum twice during my first trip to Paris in the summer of 2007, but saw little more than the highlights, including “Winged Victory” and Da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa.” The Louvre houses more than 35,000 works of art, displayed in over 600,000 square feet of gallery space. Surely, there is a bit more to see!

I enter down through I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid, flash my Paris Museum Pass at the gate, and rent one of the new multimedia guides to the collection. Since I’m heading to Amsterdam later this week, I decide to start with the Dutch and Flemish paintings on the second floor. Today, there are artists and their easels scattered about through the rooms. They’re there to copy the Old Masters, as others have done for centuries. Some are quite talented, and brave too, to raise a brush in salute before the work of Peter Paul Rubens, not to mention the curious eyes of passers-by.

I explore miles of galleries devoted to tapestries, medieval decorative arts, and the Italian Renaissance—and even a special exhibit on the sculpture of early altarpieces—before revisiting the mob that gathers, as always, in front of the “Mona Lisa.” It’s a curious magnet, even in a museum this large and this diverse. That the art itself is small and rather bland matters little when the image is so familiar. Digital cameras in hand, a couple sporting matching tie dyed shirts with yellow smiley faces press into position. Nearby are a husband and wife wearing pink polo shirts, black fleece vests, and the same gray cropped pants. I find the unexpected (and androgynous) symmetry rather comical, and think of what Miss Lavish says to Lucy in E.M. Forster’s A Room with a View: “Look at their figures! They walk through my Italy like a pair of cows. It’s very naughty to me, but I would like to set an examination paper at Dover, and turn back every tourist who couldn’t pass it.” Naughty indeed, as I’m no great fashion plate or credentialed connoisseur of the arts myself.

By late afternoon, I stumble out of the Louvre a bit dazed and overwhelmed by the experience, and head for the open air of Trocadéro. From here, looking east, there’s an unrivaled view of the Eiffel Tower, with the École Militaire framed between its massive iron legs. It’s a sprawling view, but the sky overhead is making me grasp once again for some as-yet-unused synonym for the words “gray” and “dreary.” Nothing comes to mind. Still, tourists are gathered snapping pictures, several holding up their hands, a gesture that seems intended either to catch the rain or to shrug it off with a good-natured c’est la vie.

For a while, I stand back and watch, challenging myself to compose as many pictures as I can of people with their umbrellas, hoping in vain for a spash of color as visually striking as in the movie “The Red Balloon,” but the parade of black and white bumbershoots before me looks as monochromatic as the landscape. Really, I’m beginning to lose patience with that whole cliché that says “when life hands you lemons, make lemonade.”

I ride the metro back to my apartment on the Left Bank, but with a detour through the Marais for an early dinner at L’As du Fallafel on Rue des Rosiers. I’m hungry and back to thinking about the solace of food. It’s a small hole-in-the-wall kind of place, with more grit than charm, but the falafels are every bit as good as I’d heard.

And the homemade lemonade?  Well, that’s just say it’s sweetly ironic!

I spend the evening quietly, doing some laundry and posting pictures to Flickr, but later I make a short walk around the corner to the Rue Mouffetard for a dish of gelato from Amorino’s. It’s chocolate, of course, the perfect bookend to the day.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

With this morning’s mist, the streets of Paris have the soft focus of a Camille Pissarro painting, which I suppose is apt since I plan to visit the Musée d’Orsay later in the day, a museum best known for its collection of 19th century Impressionist art. But for now my priority is an antiques fair that’s currently underway in the elegant neighborhood of Saint-German-des-Prés. When a quick look at a street map shows me that it’s just a few blocks west of Gérard Mulot’s decadent pâtisserie, I add that to my list as well. Tomorrow I leave for Belgium, and I’ve awakened with a renewed commitment to make the most of the time I have left in the city, whether the weather cooperates or not.

On a bench in front the church of Saint-Sulpice, I begin an impromptu picnic with a buttery croque monsieur aux courgettes, which is a sandwich on grilled toast made with ham, cheese and paper thin slices of zucchini, and end with a Palerme pastry, a moist pistachio cake ringed by triangles of dark chocolate. I really will miss Mr. Mulot.

The antiques dealers won’t open their booths until 11 AM, so I take time to see the church first. Much of the exterior is still covered in scaffolding, as it was two years ago, but the inside is ornate, dark, and pleasantly quiet. Saint-Sulpice is best known for two features: a massive pipe organ, and an understated obelisk mounted against the wall, and from which a brass line extends, inset into the marble floor. It’s a gnomon, an astronomical device that Dan Brown erroneously refers to as a “rose line” in his novel The Da Vinci Code. The hoopla over the book and the movie seems to have passed, though, because there are few tourists milling about, and none that seem remotely interested in the Priory of Sion or the Holy Grail.

It’s raining lightly when I step back outside, but the antiques market is slowly coming to life under a temporary collection of open tents. The things I see are beautiful, but mostly well outside of my price range, including a captivating oil-on-board portrait of a woman in green that looks like a character in a Jane Austen novel. I’m determined to find something, but it takes several rounds until I do, mainly because the showers passing overhead are forcing the dealers to cover and then uncover their wares time and time again. There is a woman doing her best to push the water off the sidewalks with a broom, but it seems like a losing battle. In the end, I negotiate a discount on a trio of items with a sweet woman who doesn’t speak English, by pointing and jotting down numbers on the back of an envelope. I walk away happy with a silver pocket watch, a gold bar pin, and a stunning garnet and pearl lavalier. For the first time in days, I’ve truly enjoyed myself.

The Pierre Hermé pâtisserie is just around the corner at 72 Rue Bonaparte, so I jump at the chance to try a few unusual flavors of macarons—wasabi and grapefruit, and olive oil and vanilla—both so light and fresh they melt in my mouth.

I walk from the pastry shop north to the banks of the Seine, then turn west towards the Musée d’Orsay. I’ve been to the museum before, but a new exhibit has prompted me to return. It’s called “Voir l’Italie et Mourir,” which translates (rather morosely) into the phrase “See Italy and Die.” In the context of The Grand Tour, it displays Italian photographs, prints, and paintings from 19th century. Its effect on my mood is dispiriting and unexpected, because here I am in Paris—one of the most wonderful cities in the world—and all the while I find myself heartsick for Italy, wishing I was there basking in the sun.

Still, by the time I leave, the weather is starting to break. It’s only 4 o’clock, so I head to Montmartre for the view and a relaxing end to the day, and smile when I see a picture of Barack Obama stenciled onto the metal wall of the elevator at the Abbesses metro station. I circle by the artist’s booths in Place du Tertre and wander the back streets surrounding Sacré-Cœur until my legs tire, then ride the little tourist train down the hill to Pigalle, past an elderly couple in the street playing a lively folk tune on a violin and accordion.

To celebrate my final night in Paris, I’ve planned to attend a classical music concert at Notre Dame Cathedral, and even dress for the occasion by wearing the new silk scarf I bought on the Île Saint-Louis. There is a choir performing Monteverdi’s “Vespers to the Virgin,” but by the time they start to sing it’s after 8:30 PM and exhaustion is starting to set in. Either the music is lumbering and fuzzy, or my brain is. I’m not quite sure which, but after watching a flood of people sneak out the back midway through, I suspect it’s a little of both. Feeling guilty, I do the same, but relish the rush of cool air on my face when I reach the door.

It’s after 10 PM when I settle down to supper and order a chicken club at Le Depart Saint-Michel. I pull out a copy of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which I bought days ago at the Shakespeare & Company bookshop just around the corner. The street lights are dimmed by the red awning overhead, and the night air has chilled enough to warrant the use of an outdoor heater, but I’m in the mood to sit awhile and read.

In the 1920s, Hemingway and his wife lived for a time on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, not far from the apartment I’ve rented these last nine days, and he spent much of his time sitting at cafés such as this, likely with his chair facing out, watching the world go by. The title of his memoirs comes from this famous line: “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life, it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

In spite of that sentiment, it’s actually a deeply melancholic book, and while I read it once long ago, tonight I seem to appreciate it more, especially when he describes how “the sadness of the city came suddenly with the first cold rains of winter, and there were no more tops to the high white houses as you walked but only the wet blackness of the street.” This may be the middle of June, but my Paris has been unseasonable indeed.

I read on, skimming passages here and there, until I reach the final page: “There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received in return for whatever you brought to it.”

Hemingway is right, of course. And I will come back someday, too.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

I’m up early this morning for a final breakfast at Café Delmas. I gather up my things and pull my suitcase behind me across the cobblestones, past Hemingway’s apartment on the Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, down the Rue Mouffetard to Place Monge.

I ride to Gare du Nord in the back seat of a cab driven by a man I quickly dub “Monsieur Lazy Pants.” He is tall and wiry with close cut hair and faded jeans and he shrugs as he explains how he likes to come to the Place Monge taxi stand because there’s usually no one there. Let’s just say he’s not France’s most enterprising driver. His English consists almost entirely of “I am sorry, but I need it,” a phrase that he applies liberally to both coffee and hand-rolled cigarettes, despite a prominent no-smoking sign on the inside window of the car. Really, it’s a miracle that I arrive on time to catch the Thalys train to Belgium.

As we pull out of the station, I take a final look back at the city, which is—at last—bathed in sunlight. It’s a shame, truly, because the weather report is calling for persistent rain in Bruges. Storm clouds are following me everywhere I go.

The journey to Brussels, and then on to Bruges, is an easy one, but most of the day is filled with minor details—departure boards and waiting rooms. Nevertheless, it gives me the chance to recharge after a hectic schedule in France, both in and out of Paris.

By 1:30 I’ve arrived at the Hotel Patritius, a small family-run place on a street named Riddersstraat, a name crowded with so many redundant letters I feel like I’m stuttering when I read it out loud for the cab driver.

Belgium has three official languages: Dutch, French, and German. As I understand it, English is also widely spoken, especially in tourist meccas like Bruges. My guidebook advises me to say goeiedag in Dutch, but I fear mispronouncing that (with good reason), so I decide to approach the woman at the front desk of the hotel with a cheery bon jour, followed by hello, hoping to cover a sufficient number of bases. The strategy doesn’t work. She bristles visibly, sighs, then explains in English that Belgians in the Flemish north do not speak French. Ever. I hang my head in shame, all the way up the stairs to my room.

It’s a nice room, with lovely tall ceilings, but it’s a bit strange, too. The bathroom has a giant picture window to the right of the tub which looks out onto the room itself. I suppose it’s there to let in natural light, and I am traveling solo after all, but still I feel oddly exposed, and opt to pull down the shade.

By the time I unpack and make my way back downstairs, the woman at the front desk has been replaced by a kinder, gentler man. He gives me a map of the city and a suggestion for lunch. It’s a large map on thin paper and it folds into so small a rectangle that opening and closely it successfully feels like a frustrating lesson in Origami. It’s also impractical to use on a rainy day while holding an umbrella. On my way to Souffleur, a gust of wet wind catches it and I struggle to fold it back into shape, but I find my destination at last and enjoy a warm bacon salad with croutons, pine nuts, goat cheese, and apple.

Afterwards, I venture out into the city proper, to the Burg and the Grote Markt and the shops in between. It’s raining steadily now and when I reach the bridge where Dijver meets Rozenhoedkaai, I snap a picture of the belfry rising from the mist with a canal boat passing underneath, filled to the brim with day trippers huddled beneath their umbrellas. It’s a sorry sight.

It’s at some point after this that I do what I hoped never to do. I resort to using the little rain bonnet stashed away in my camera bag. I’m becoming my grandmother. Can it get much worse?

Maybe it can. For a moment, I actually think it’s snowing down near Minnewater when I see the white down feathers on the ground from all the swans.

It’s time for the salvation of chocolate. I’m beginning to feel like Monsieur Lazy Pants. I’m sorry, but I need it. Preemptive research tells me that The Chocolate Line is an excellent destination, so I make haste and buy a small bag full of some truly unusual flavors, including lavender and lemongrass. The young woman behind the counter clearly thinks I look ridiculous in a rain bonnet, but I can’t say that I blame her. At least she does her best to hide a laugh.

Disconsolate, I trudge on to the Begijnhof, a convent for Benedictine nuns. It’s a quiet place, where all I can hear are the raindrops falling onto a canopy of green leaves. The trees are all slanted in one direction, as if Bruges is forced to endure this kind of weather all the time.

Quite by accident—or rather serendipity—I stumble across a small church with an open door. The nuns are preparing to sing vespers in Gregorian chant. I enter cautiously at first, not sure if I’ll be welcome, but an ancient woman with a kindly face smiles and motions for me to come forward and sit. I do, and allow the music to wash over me.

After a cozy dinner of chicken souvlaki at The Olive Tree, I grab my tripod and head out into the rain to take some night shots, intending to make the most of the wet reflections on the cobblestone streets. As I stand in the center of the Grote Markt, soaking wet, it occurs to me that one year ago today, I was in Venice sitting under the stars, sipping a Bellini in St. Mark’s Square.

I’ve been thinking a lot about Italy since that exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay in Paris and I’ve really got to stop.

I’m so distracted by both the past and the present that it doesn’t yet register that the expensive zoom lens on my camera isn’t focusing properly, but it will.

In the morning, it will.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

The rain is starting to take its toll, not just on my spirits and on my coat, which I’ve worn so often in so much foul weather that it’s starting to accumulate some serious grime, but now on my camera—my wonderful Nikon D40, which has been a trusted companion these past three years. I use a long 18-200mm lens, which allows me to shoot everything from a wide angle to a telephoto, but all of the sudden it’s not working at any focal length past about 55mm, which is roughly what can be seen with the naked eye. Even on manual, the pictures I take using the zoom are blurred beyond use. Whether the weather is to blame, or some random mechanical fault, is anyone’s guess.

Bruges is a stunningly beautiful city, even in the rain—a UNESCO World Heritage site—so I’m genuinely relieved to discover that I can still take pictures, as long as I back the lens off and shoot everything from a distance. It’ll have to do.

From the 13th through the 15th centuries, Bruges was a city of wealth and prominence, but with the silting up of the nearby river, trade eventually moved elsewhere and it became a literal backwater that today appears frozen in time. The remnants of its medieval art and architecture are everywhere, in the stepped gables of the buildings that line the Grote Markt, and in the portraits of Hans Memling and others from the school of Flemish primitives. Some of the atmosphere is reproduced—the lacy neo-Gothic spires of the Provinciaal Hof date only to the late 19th century, for instance—but it hardly matters. Bruges is as cute and cute can be, and its place in history means that it has museums ample enough to occupy a rainy day well.

I start at the Groeninge Museum, where there’s a special exhibit entitled “Charles the Bold: The Splendour of Burgundy, 1433-1477.” Charles the Bold was the son of Philip the Good and the grandson of John the Fearless. His daughter Mary had a son known as Philip the Handsome. As I listen to the narrator on the audio guide explain the family’s history and their connection to the royal houses of Europe, somehow I can’t help but think of Joe the Plumber.

The objects on display are splendid indeed, including millefleurs tapestries, suits of armor, a man’s tunic made from scarlet silk, and a pair of tiny knights mounted on horseback, intended as jousting toys. There is also a portrait of Charles the Bold wearing a heavy chain and pendant from the Order of the Golden Fleece, an order of chivalry founded in Bruges in 1420 by Philip the Good, then Duke of Burgundy. I recognize it immediately, not because of any superior knowledge I might have of the Low Countries and their history, but because I saw a version made of candy on display in the store window of The Chocolate Line yesterday afternoon.

In the courtyard next door, I enter the Gruuthuse Museum, which features a small but fascinating collection of medieval furnishings that once belonged to a Flemish nobleman who was so wealthy that he had a private balcony installed overlooking the altar of the adjacent Church of Our Lady, then I move on to the church itself. Onze Lieve Vrouwekerk, as it’s known in Dutch, contains the tomb of Charles the Bold and his daughter Mary, but also a sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Michelangelo. Created around 1504, it’s said to be the only work by the artist to have left Italy during his lifetime.

My last major stop for now is just across the street at the Memling Museum, which is set within a hodgepodge complex of buildings that once made up the medieval hospital of St. John’s. Among Hans Memling’s works here are the Shrine of St. Ursula, a small painted box intended to house the relics of the saint, and the far larger St. John’s Altarpiece, which includes surrealistic scenes of the Apocalypse as told by St. John the Evangelist.

Over a plate of Belgian frites with mayonnaise at Brasserie Mozarthuys, I sit and leaf through some of the postcards and museum guidebooks I bought. My head is spinning, but it’s been a wonderful day. I stop by Dumon for some chocolate, and figure that between the carbohydrates and the sugar I should have enough energy to withstand the climb to the top of the belfry.

It’s a beautiful view, out across a sea of pointed gables and red roofs. I try not to look down, though, because it reminds me of a rather gory scene from the Colin Farrell movie “In Bruges” that I would rather forget.

It’s getting late, but the sky has cleared off so thoroughly and unexpectedly that I grab the opportunity to go for a canal boat ride before dinner. I sit back and relax, enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, and the fact my umbrella is now stowed away in my bag rather than propped over my head.

I have a fine meal at Bistro de Pompe—Flemish asparagus, veal with mashed potatoes, and for dessert, a bowl of fresh strawberries with mint and orange. Then I walk back to the little corner on Rozenhoedkaai that gives such a glorious view of the belfry, right at an elbow in the River Dijver. I set up my camera and tripod and wait for the sky to fade and the floodlights to come on. When the perfect pair of swans floats to the center of the frame just as I click the shutter, I think perhaps that my luck is changing at last.

Friday, June 12, 2009

It’s just after nine when I finish breakfast at the Hotel Patritius and venture cautiously outside.  Much to my surprise and relief, it’s a beautiful morning in Bruges.  The sky is blue under a canopy of white clouds, and the effect of sunshine on my mood after five consecutive days of rain is so pronounced that I can feel an actual spring in my step.  Soon, the tour buses will arrive and the crowds they bring will devour the city like a hoard of locusts, but for now there is magic in the quiet medieval streets. 

I turn right at the end of Riddersstraat and walk past the Burg to the Markt, before heading left down Wollestraat, popping in and out of small shops along the way. When I reach Dijver, I stroll along the canal, where horses and buggies are already at work, and then zig zag past the Church of Our Lady and St. John’s Hospital to Mariastraat, where a display of colorful pashminas catches my eye fluttering in the breeze. With the help of a eager clerk at Memlinck, I try on several before choosing one that is woven in deep autumnal colors.  She frowns, disappointed, and says it makes me look sad, but all-in-all I think it suits me well.  Next, at Atelier Galerie Kasper, I buy a small ceramic plaque depicting a timeless view of Bruges—the shaded Minnewater, complete with swans, and the entrance to the Begjinhof.  By the time I wind my down through the park and out into the ring of traffic that surrounds the city to the train station, it’s past 11. I still plan on taking a day trip to Ghent, but I’m in no particular hurry to get there. 

The journey to Gent-Sint-Pieters station is an easy half an hour.  At the ticket window, I buy a day pass for the trams and then head to the Korenmarkt stop in the historic center of town.  It’s midday by the time I reach the banks of the river Lieve, which is lined on either side by the Graslei and the Korenlei, two of Ghent’s most picturesque streets, and people are basking there in the sun and chatting happily at sidewalk cafés.  In the distance, I can see the flags and stone turrets of the Gravensteen rising above the gabled buildings that surround it and since I’m not yet hungry for lunch I decide to make that my first stop. 

Gravensteen is a Dutch word that means “The Castle of the Counts.”  The current fortress and its moat date from the 12th century, although some of the remains are earlier still.  It’s a massive complex and one that is not uninteresting—but let’s be honest—it’s no Tower of London.  For me, what’s most memorable is not the structure itself, but the truly odd multimedia guide that’s thrust into my hands as I enter.  It seems to consist entirely of poorly scripted videos that act out various fictional scenes in the history of the castle.  It’s part cheesy soap opera, part low-rent episode of “The Tudors.”  Or, are those one and the same?  I’m still laughing about it later at lunch, over a bowl of tandorri chicken salad with linguini at Exki

Afterwards, I climb to the top of the Belfort en Lakenhalle for a commanding view of the city, and then head into the dim light of St. Bavo’s Cathedral.  Given how massive it looked from the top of the belfry, the interior seems oddly small and plain at first, until I realize that much of it has been cordoned off for restoration work.  Fortunately, the altarpiece that inspired my entire visit to Ghent is still on view in a crowded chapel at the rear of the church. 

I’ve come to see the beautiful and mysterious “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a polyptych completed in 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck.  Stolen at one point by French revolutionaries, it was recovered and then pawned and its panels cut lengthwise.  Following World War I, it was returned to Belgium as part of the war reparations in the Treaty of Versailles, but in 1934, one of the twenty-four scenes, known as the “Just Judges” was snatched by art thieves, held for ransom, and never recovered.  In a tale worthy of Dan Brown, some believe it was because it contained a coded message relating to the Holy Grail.  Then, less than a decade later, the rest of the work was looted by the Nazis and hidden deep in a salt mine near Salzburg, Austria, where it remained until it was recovered by U.S. troops and returned to St. Bavo’s Cathedral once more.  I stare at the work, transfixed, as its sordid history runs through my brain, and find myself amazed at its survival and at how luminous its colors remain.  It has been worth the trip to Ghent and more.

It’s after 4:00 PM by the time I catch the tram back to the station.  I check the departures board and in a rush jump onboard the wrong train.  I squint out the window and start to panic when I realize that I’m heading to Antwerp, not back to Bruges.  A kindly conductor smiles calmly and tells me to get off at the next stop, Gent-Dampoort, and retrace my steps.  “Don’t worry,” he says, “you’ll get there in the end.”  I like that sentiment.  And he’s right, too.

By the time I reach Bruges and wander up through the park, the day trippers have retreated to their tour buses and disappeared.  The streets are serene and the swans in front of the Begjinhof are lounging peacefully at the edge of the Minnewater.  The view is so sublime, and the slant of sun coming in through the trees so inviting, that I grab an outdoor table at Maximiliaan Van Oostenrijk and order a fine supper—a bowl of soup, followed by a plate of waterzooi du poulet, a creamy chicken stew which translates roughly into the phrase “watery mess.” 

Gradually, I fall into causal conversation with the couple sitting next to me, and they offer to buy me a cup of tea.  They both live and work in Bruges, and the woman owns a jewelry shop nearby, one I had admired while shopping earlier in the day.  We talk about politics, fashion, and travel, about the Belgians’ lingering resentment towards the Germans for their atrocities during the war, and their hopes for President Obama and the Americans.  We talk for a long while, while their golden retriever naps quietly at our feet, her back leg stitched and bandaged following a recent accident.  When at last we stand to leave, and they gently pick up the dog and pull her home in a small red wagon, I know that I will leave Bruges with the sweetest of memories, not all of which are about the chocolate.