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.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

This morning I am determined to try again for the bell tower of Notre Dame. It opens at 9:30 AM and I am there a full half hour early. When the gate unlocks I am among the first to climb slowly up the 387 stairs to the top. In the novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831), Victor Hugo tells the story of the deformed Quasimodo who is deafened by the sound of these bells. It is here, far above the streets of Paris, that he lived his life among the gargoyles. With my own eyes I see the 13-ton bell in the South Tower, known as “Emmanuel,” which survived the pillagers of the French Revolution, and the great stone beasts that ornament the façade. Some are intended simply to ward off evil spirits, while others have the more practical purpose of directing water off the roof into drainpipes. I think again of Hugo and of the melding of fact and fiction, of past and present.

The view of the city in all directions is grand. I spot the neo-Gothic spire of Saint-Chapelle and the ovoid dome of the basilica of Sacré-Coeur high on the hill in Montmartre. To the west, Gustave Eiffel’s iron creation towers over a tangled mass of rooftops, challenged only by Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides and the ancient Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Back down in the square in front of the cathedral I rest for while on a bench and watch a little girl chasing pigeons. She runs toward them, her arms extended, and laughs as they scatter in all directions.

By midday I am heading west along the Seine to the Musée d’Orsay. The St-Michel station on the RER line B is closed for renovations, so I walk instead along the quai. The distance is longer than I had expected and my feet are tired by the time I arrive.

The Orsay derives its name from the old train station it inhabits. Today, it holds one of the finest collections of Impressionist paintings in the world. For this reason, it does not surprise me that the line to get in is coiled tight and far out the door. I slip past it and use my Paris Museum Pass to enter off the Rue de Lille instead. Already on the second day I feel justified in the price that I paid.

My first stop is not the Monets on the top floor, but the museum’s restaurant instead. For lunch I order medallions of pork with tomatoes and gnocchi on the side in a room that is itself a work of art. I sit at a small table facing the Seine under a ceiling framed in gold leaf. There is a mural painted by Gabriel Ferrier in 1900 depicting the “Four Seasons,” from which a dozen crystal chandeliers hang. The food is fine, but somehow the view and the art make everything taste even better.

Before coming on my trip, I listened to the audiobook version of Ross King’s The Judgment of Paris, which is about the birth of the French impressionist movement. In it he contrasts the lives and careers of Edouard Manet and Jean-Louis-Ernest Meissonier. In a reversal of their reputations at the time, Manet is well known to us today, while Meissonier’s work lingers in obscurity. With my energy recharged, I am excited to set out and find Manet’s most controversial worksLe Déjeuner sur l’herbe” and “Olympiaand to see Meissonier’s meticulous “Campagne de France” as well.

The first two canvasses are prominent and easy to locate. I listen to the commentary on the museum’s audioguide, and from there I find myself wandering from room to room, pressing numbers into the keypad. After a lazy afternoon spent with Monet, Degas, Cezanne and Renoir, I head out into the sun. I am well down the Boulevard Saint-Germain when I realize I never did see Meissonier. It feels ironic and sad, but it’s too late to go back.

I stop walking to appreciate two literary icons, the Café Flore and Les Deux Magots, before heading inside the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Dark and mysterious, lit almost entirely by candles used for worship, it’s a peaceful retreat from the traffic outside.

I am heading back to the hotel now and find it both convenient and pleasant to cut through the Luxembourg Gardens along the way. I come to the battered old carousel Adam Gopnik writes about in Paris to the Moon, the one where children use wooden batons to catch rings as they spin around on the backs of horses, camels and giraffes.

On this late mid-summer afternoon, the pond in front of the Palace is alive with miniature sail boats, rented from a nearby vendor. Sunbathers recline on lawn chairs next to potted palm trees, and a woman wearing what I can only imagine is a frog costume strides by without a hint of self-consciousness. I trust Ella Fitzgerald when she sings about “April in Paris” and the charm of spring, but the city in July is perfectly wonderful, too.

I pick up a caprese sandwich from “Pomme de Pain” along the Rue Soufflot and relax in my hotel room for a few hours before heading out into the “City of Lights.” This time of year it does not get properly dark in Paris until after 10 PM, an inconvenience that has me bordering on exhaustion. I put up my feet and flip on the TV. Before long I feel rested enough to venture out into the night.

I pick up the Batobus in front of Notre Dame and take it up beyond the islands. It loops around and follows the Right Bank past Hôtel de Ville to the Louvre. I take pictures of the museum with I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid in front, the light leaking gently through the triangular panes of glass. Back on the Batobus, I hop off again at the Eiffel Tower, just in time to capture the light show that sparkles for ten minutes at the top of every hour.

The Batobus has closed for the night. I will have to take the metro back and face the long uphill walk from the Maubert-Mutualité station to the Panthéon. But for now, the view in front of me is all that matters.


Monday, July 30, 2007

I’m up early, heading by metro to the Tour Eiffel. This is my last full day in Paris and I hope to go all the way to the top. It’s a lovely morning and the temperature is cool, but when I arrive, I am disappointed to see that the tower is shrouded in fog. Hopeful that it will burn off soon in the summer sun, I join the queue.

Nearly seven million people visited this monument last year, but today the wait is pleasant and surprisingly short, which leaves little time for watching the trio of military men in fatigues and black berets paroling the perimeter. The ticket booths open at 9:00 AM and by 9:45 I’m standing in the first elevator heading up.

The scene from the top is indeed hazy. Looking north and east, Sacré-Coeur is little more than a silhouette on the horizon. I can see the glass roof of the Grand Palais, but not Pei’s pyramid at the Louvre, the gold dome of Les Invalides, but not the Panthéon. When I look straight down, I’m surprised at what I can see—the unmistakable shape of a heart trampled into the grass on the Champs de Mars.

The sky is clearer in the west and the view of Trocadéro is broken only by the shadow of the Eiffel Tower itself. To the south, I spy a tiny replica of the “Statue of Liberty” on an island in the Seine next to the Pont de Grenelle, given by Americans as a gift in return for their own in 1889.

Before I leave, I buy a few cards and mail them from the post office on the first floor, assured they will receive a special cancellation stamp to prove that I was here.

My next stop is the Arc de Triomphe, built to honor France’s dead during the Napoleonic Wars. It’s an impressive site, especially after I find the tunnel underground which leads me there without the necessity of crossing a dozen lanes of traffic. Actually, as the view from the top makes clear, there are no real lanes, just chaos as cars and trucks hurl around the rotary.

By now, the fog has receded and the sky is bright. Looking out at the Paris landscape, I can appreciate what Baron Haussmann had in mind when he modernized the city in the mid-19th century—twelve grand avenues lined with trees, radiating from a single point. I snap a series of pictures from north to south, hoping to combine them later into a sweeping panorama.

For lunch I stop at the “Ladurée” tearooms on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, an elegant choice on the most famous street in the world. In the upstairs dining room, I order the Salade Concorde and a cream puff for dessert, called a “Religieuse à la violette.” There is soft music playing in the background while I eat. At first I notice the classic French song, “La Vie en Rose,” followed by a Norah Jones piece I can’t quite place, and inexplicably, “Michael Row the Boat Ashore.” I’m serious. It’s a downright strange mix. I buy a box of assorted macarons to take home to my family and then head out down the street.

I walk as far as the Egyptian obelisk in the Place de la Concorde, window shopping along the way, then take the metro to the Marais district to see the Place des Vosges. It is the oldest public square in Paris, built for Henry IV in the early 17th century. Here, Parisians and their dogs are lying on the grass, basking in the sun. I sit in the shade on a park bench instead and listen to the narration of one of Sonia Landes’ ParisWalks tours on my iPod.

Afterwards, I head south past the Paris Plage onto the Île Saint-Louis one last time, stopping for a raspberry tart from the Gabriela pâtisserie on the Rue des Deux Ponts. It is, quite possibly, the best thing I’ve tasted all week, and in a city of outstanding cuisine, that’s saying something.

Back in my room, I start to pack my bags, reluctantly. I’ll have to get an early start to the airport in the morning, but for now I’ve planned one more excursion into the City of Lights. I’ve scheduled an “Illuminations” tour on an open top bus and need to meet the group outside of the Paris Vision office on the Rue de Rivoili at 9:30 PM. I have little time to spare and stop only for a quick crêpe along the Rue Soufflot, where discover that I dislike the buckwheat version of this classic very much.

If the Rue Mouffetard felt like the genuine Paris, this is tourism at its worst. The bus is careening through the streets of the city at breakneck speed. I am grateful for the seatbelts. We pause no where, and I begin to rely on traffic lights for brief windows of opportunity in which to take pictures.

I enjoy photography and don’t mean to discourage anyone from taking the same liberty. I understand full well the memories a camera can capture. But my experience on this bus makes me wish I could give some well-intended, if somewhat sarcastic, advice to fellow travelers everywhere:

Rule #1. When taking pictures of landmarks at night, please turn off the flash. I beg you. It will not illuminate the Eiffel Tower a quarter of a mile away. Trust me, it won’t.

Rule #2. Please do not hold your camera or your cell phone at arm’s length. Yes, I know you want to see the picture on the little screen, but unless you are middle aged and you left your bifocals back at the hotel, there is no need to thrust your arm so far forward. The extra three feet you gain will not make a difference, and there is a very good chance you will whack someone else in the head if you do it while turning on a moving bus. This is especially dangerous to other passengers if you have not also followed Rule #1. A blinding flash directly in the eye is not pleasant at any time of day. Ever.

Our one stop of the night is on the Champs de Mars. By now my stomach feels queasy, perhaps from the buckwheat crêpe, but more likely from the lurching of the bus and the strobes of a hundred flash bulbs. When some in the group disappear and fail to re-board ten minutes later, part of me wishes I had done the same. But there is a bright moon over the École Militaire tonight and I can see the Tour Montparnasse rising out of the darkness behind it. It’s 11 PM and behind me the lights on the Eiffel Tower are sparkling like diamonds. I think of all the places I’ve been and what I’ve seen from those heights and know that I leave with no regrets.