Travelogue for France, 2015

Valensole Plateau, France - 2015

“Paris is always a good idea.”

— Audrey Hepburn

To see my pictures from last year’s trip to France, including scenes from Bastille Day in Paris, the châteaux of the Loire Valley, the Festival d’Avignon, and the lavender fields of Provence, click here.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

This morning I am sitting at Café Delmas, watching the world go by. Soon, I’ll be heading to Bayeux for a two night stay, in part to squeeze in a tour of the D-Day sites before the 65th anniversary attracts larger crowds—as well as President Obama and his entourage—later this week. But for now, I feel lazy and content with my pain au chocolat and café crème.

The train to Normandy leaves at 12:10 PM from Gare Saint-Lazare, the station made famous in a series of impressionist paintings done by Claude Monet in the 1870s. To my eyes, its vaulted ceiling of iron and glass looks much the same, and the continuity across the intervening century impresses me.

By 2:15, I’m resting comfortably in the back seat of a cab heading for the Hotel Churchill. With a jovial smile, Daniel greets me at the front desk and hands me the key to room 200, which is (at least for me) unnecessarily large and expensive. It is testimony to the popularity of the hotel, or perhaps to the importance of the week, that it was—even seven months ago—the only room left.

I pause for a moment to enjoy the view out the window, which looks out across a sea of gray rooftops, from which the spires of Bayeux Cathedral rise in the distance. I decide to make that my first destination.

From Place de Québec, behind the hotel, I take a short walk down Rue Larcher before turning onto Rue de Nesmond towards the cathedral. It’s an impressive structure dating to the 11th century, both Norman and Romanesque. Made of a honey colored stone, the façade is ornamented with gargoyles and grotesques. The contorted faces are meant to ward off evil sprits, or so I’m told. I’ve seen these fantastical beasts clinging to the sides of churches all over Europe, and I usually find them more charming than frightening. But here their wildness is enhanced by the occasional tufts of vine and grass growing from cracks in the ancient mortar.

When I reach the heavy wooden doors at the entrance to the cathedral, I pause for a moment to appreciate the tiny figure carved into the tympanum above the south portal. I’m certainly no expert, but last year’s trip to Italy taught me something. It’s easy to spot a depiction of the “Last Judgment,” and there he is, the Devil, guarding the gates to Hell.

Inside is another matter entirely. This is pure Heaven. So quiet and serene, in fact, that for a while as I wander from one side chapel to the next, I forget that this is the place where Harold swore allegiance to William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, the man named by Edward the Confessor, King of England, as his heir. It was this oath that Harold broke, leading to the Norman invasion and William’s victory at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, which later through the charms of history gave him the far superior name of William the Conqueror.

Today, the cathedral owes its preservation to the speedy success of another invasion eight centuries later. Bayeux was liberated by the Allies soon after D-Day in 1944, which spared the structure—and its medieval stained glass windows—from the bombardment that flattened nearby Caen. I am grateful for that as I watch colored light spill out through the cobwebs that have collected in the window frames, like some manifestation of the Holy Spirit. It’s a peaceful space and I would stay longer if it weren’t for my gnawing hunger.

In search of something to hold me off before dinner, I make a loop through the town, along Rue de Cuisiniers and its half-timber frame buildings, then down Rue Saint-Martin, to the riot of shops that line Rue Saint-Jean. For an unbelievably cheap €1.60, I buy a luscious pear and almond tarte from a pâtisserie called La Reine Mathilde and munch happily as I make my way to the Tapestry Museum.

The famous Bayeux Tapestry is really not a tapestry at all, but rather a long piece of embroidered cloth, said to have been commissioned by William the Conqueror’s half-brother shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Measuring nearly 230 feet, it depicts in consecutive scenes the events leading up the Norman Conquest of England. For centuries, it was displayed once in a year in the cathedral for the Feast of the Relics, but since 1983 it’s been hanging behind glass in a darkened room in the city’s former Seminary.

With the museum’s audio guide planted firmly on my head, the experience is a feast for the senses. It’s all here. Edward the Confessor sending Harold to France, Harold shipwrecked and held for random along the way, Harold’s oath of loyalty to William, and the bloody aftermath of his defiance following Edward’s death. There is a Latin inscription along the way, but the message is overwhelmingly visual. There are soldiers in chain mail riding horses into battle, a hailstorm of arrows, and decapitated bodies littering the ground.

Afterwards, in the museum gift shop, I overhear a conversation between an American husband and wife. The wife, it seems, missed the crucial scene at the end where Harold is killed by an arrow in the eye. In a deep southern drawl, tinged with disappointment, the man says: “But that’s the best part!”

I have just enough time to change clothes back at the hotel before making my 7:30 PM reservation for dinner at Le Pommier. It’s an expensive meal, but a well-earned treat. I order a glass of wine and three courses from the Norman cuisine menu—a salad with warm goat’s cheese to start, followed by medallions of pork in a Neufchatel cheese and cream sauce, ending with an apple pie served with cider caramel and vanilla ice cream.

At the table next to mine, a middle-aged couple is dining with two teenagers, a boy and a girl. The girl is acting moody, pulling her fists deep inside her navy hooded sweatshirt. She doesn’t know what to order, but more than that, she doesn’t much want to be here, and from where I sit I’m not quite sure if her complaint is associated with this restaurant in particular, or France in general. When she looks over at my entrée, I show her the pork, which I can heartily recommend, but when she sees my bread plate a genuine smile grows across her face. “Oh, you have butter,” she says, animated at last. “H-o-o-o-w did you get butter”?

Ah, the French. They may be well known for their rich sauces, but it is true that they rarely serve butter with their bread. Nonetheless, here it is, unprompted and nearly overlooked, in a miniature crock on my table. The simple gesture brings pleasure to us both, something familiar far from home, and we both grin.

On my way back to the Churchill, I use my cell phone to call my nephew to wish him a happy 18th birthday, and then I linger to take some pictures of the cathedral, floodlit against a fading blue sky. I can see it still from my hotel window, until I pull close the drapes, turn out the lights, and fall into bed.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

It’s 8:30 AM and I’m standing in Place de Québec waiting for a driver to arrive to take me on a full-day Battlebus tour of “American Highlights.” Like the Hotel Churchill, this too I reserved long ago in anticipation of the crowds that come to Normandy each year to mark the anniversary of D-Day. I was lucky enough to snag a place in their final group of the week. After this, they’ll be closed for several days to allow their guides to join in the events.

I had been promised a small tour on a minivan with no more than eight people, so as I wait in the cool morning air, I’m surprised to see a gaggle nearly double that in size. When two vans pull up in the square, it becomes clear that the company has added a second to satisfy the demand for tickets. There is a French driver, but just one guide, a cheerful Brit named Dale Booth, who is quick to explain that he will drive as well, and rotate between vans from one stop to another to give everyone a chance to ask questions. I would be disappointed in this ad hoc arrangement, and even a bit upset, if I wasn’t so immediately impressed by Dale’s knowledge and enthusiasm. From the start, I trust him completely.

He begins by laying out the day’s itinerary. The swell of visitors to the region has complicated things, so too have the preparations for President Obama’s visit to the American cemetery in Coleville later this week. To avoid the madding crowds and the U.S. Secret Service, Dale suggests doing the day’s typical itinerary in reverse. We will stop at the cemetery early in the day—the one made famous in the opening and closing scenes of the movie “Saving Private Ryan.” Then, we’ll head to Omaha Beach and Pointe du Hoc, break for lunch, and continue on to Utah Beach and Saint-Mere-Eglise. The first stop, however, is along a quiet country road, where Dale takes a moment to explain the bocage terrain in Normandy and the enormous obstacles its hedgerows imposed on Allied troops.

When we arrive at the American cemetery at 10:00 AM it is, as Dale had hoped, quiet and serene, nearly devoid of visitors, save for a group from Luxembourg who have come to lay a wreath at the foot of the bronze statue in the colonnade, and a company of U.S. soldiers in army fatigues. We have 45 minutes here and I spend the time slowly, starting at the memorial, then walking along the path overlooking Omaha Beach, down through the pines to the chapel and back, along a neatly trimmed lawn with rows of white crosses that arch toward to the sea.

I have several uncles who served in World War II, but none who crossed the English Channel that day to land on the beaches below. Still, I find myself moved to tears by the beauty of the place and the horror that it comforts. In my hand, I hold a map showing the location of some of the more famous graves—Theodore Roosevelt, Jr., the son of a president, and the Niland brothers, whose deaths a day apart inspired the movie “Saving Private Ryan”—but try as I might I notice the uniformity of the stones more than the names, and I am struck by the overwhelming sense of anonymity it creates. Not the kind that is disrespectful of sacrifice, but rather the kind that elevates grief and attributes it to a common cause.

Before we go, I look out at the tents and metal bleachers being constructed for the week’s events. The reflecting pool has been covered to create a makeshift stage on which President Obama, Britain’s Prince Charles and Prime Minister Gordon Brown, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and French President Nicholas Sarkozy, will stand just days from now. There will be journalists and camera crews and military bands, and every year a dwindling number of veterans will come, until one day soon they will come no more.

I’m not sorry to miss the speeches, for I would rather walk in silence among the ghosts.

Back in the van, we’ve got a half hour drive down to Omaha Beach and we pass the time by getting to know one another. I’m riding with a friendly family of five. Tammy and Steve are from Atlanta and they’re nearing the end of a trip with their three teenage children: Julia, Taylor, and Tucker. Tucker makes us all laugh when he decides that Dale’s accent makes him sound a lot like Austin Powers, which is, to a ten year old, a very cool thing. Dale takes the compliment in stride, although he’s clearly more intent on getting us all to rent the “Band of Brothers” DVDs. There are no acceptable excuses. We really must fix whatever is wrong with our lives to make time to see it.

Standing on Omaha Beach, Dale takes out his walking stick and draws diagrams into the sand to help us understand just how difficult the terrain was for the troops who landed there in June 1944. He points up to the remains of German defenses, known as Widerstand Nests, and tells us how they were able to provide a line of cross-cutting fire into the masses below.  And he explains why so few wounded were able to survive the initial assault on the beaches—they either drowned as the tide came in, or were killed by soldiers in the bunkers above.

It’s a beautiful beach, and it’s hard today to imagine the tide pools filled red with blood.  A World War II airplane circles overhead, and behind us a group of re-enactors in Army fatigues stand at attention by their jeeps and raise their arms to their foreheads in salute.  The past is everywhere.  But I also look to the left and see a woman walking her dog along the edge of the water. There is a concrete pier in the distance and the people on it may well be enjoying a view of the English Channel on a fine summer’s day as much as remembering D-Day. Dale says that this is what the French tend to do. They respect history and honor it, often in touching ways—especially in Normandy—but they live with it, rather than apart.  Omaha Beach is still a beach. 

We head west and visit Pointe-du-Hoc next, where Army Rangers once scaled the cliffs using rope ladders. The landscape is scarred deeply here. There are craters, the remains of German bunkers, gun emplacements, and rusted barbed wire.

We break for lunch at a local B&B, and then head off to Utah Beach and Sainte-Mère-Église, where a parachute and mannequin hang from the steeple of the church in honor of Private John Steele and the 82nd Airborne, recording an incident made famous in the movie “The Longest Day” (1962). Inside, a stained glass window depicts the Virgin Mary in blue, holding the baby Jesus, with paratroopers on either side descending into the village below, as if sent from Heaven itself.

Before we leave, we have some free time at the airborne museum across the street and Tucker is pleased when I spot a uniform with his name on the breast pocket.

Our final stop of the day is a visit to a tiny 12th century church in the town of Angoville-au-Plain. Dale wants to show us the monument outside that honors the work of Robert E. Wright and Kenneth J. Moore, who served as medics in the 101st Airborne Division. During the Normandy campaign the men used the church as a hospital and the pews for beds. They toiled for more than seventy-two straight hours to care for soldier and civilian casualties. Inside, as in Sainte-Mère-Église, a stained glass window commemorates their efforts.

As Dale explains, some of these memorials are donated by philanthropists and veterans groups, but most are paid for and maintained by local survivors and their descendents in small towns all across Normandy in recognition of the American sacrifice here.

Later, back in Bayeux, I linger over a pleasant dinner at La Fringale. I’m dining on boeuf bourguignon tonight, but it’s the fried potatoes on my plate that have me thinking. I’m reminded of the silliness following September 11th, where in a pique of anti-French sentiment, French fries were for a time renamed “Freedom Fries” on the menu of the U.S. Capitol cafeteria, and I am ashamed for those who accuse the French of being ungrateful.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

I’m up early this morning, getting ready for a day trip to nearby Mont-St-Michel, which I’ve been told is the second most visited tourist attraction in all of France, after the Eiffel Tower, with three and a half million visitors per year. I shudder to think how many will be there today, given the beautiful weather outside the window.

I flip on the TV in my room as I’m getting dressed and tune it to the BBC. I love the BBC. Not BBC America, which I have at home in Vermont, but the genuine article. I find it comforting somehow, and unbelievably quaint. As I head out the door for breakfast, a reporter is winding up a story about local wildlife in which he invites viewers to call in and “give us your thoughts about squirrels.”

The Hotel Churchill operates a daily shuttle to Mont-St-Michel, so by 9:30 I’m resting comfortably in the front seat of an air conditioned minivan next to Sabrina, our driver, with a couple from Wichita, Kansas and a businessman from Montreal in back. At 50€ each for a round-trip fare, it’s an expensive option, but with few trains and poor connections between Bayeux, Pontorson, and the Mont, it’s wonderfully convenient.

The landscape around us is mainly flat, so though we are still miles away, it’s not long before we spot Mont-St-Michel in the distance, offering the profile of a ragged mountain rising out of the horizon. Sabrina pulls the van off the side of the road so that we can snap pictures.

As we drive in along the causeway, she recounts the legend of St. Michael the Archangel appearing in a dream to the local bishop in the year 708. The angel had instructed the bishop to build a chapel on a rocky island at the mouth of the river near Avranches, but the bishop ignored the command once, and then twice. On the third night the nocturnal visitor came again, this time pressing his finger to the bishops’ skull, burning a hole in the side of his head. Not surprisingly, the incident turned the man’s skepticism into profound—if terrified—belief and led him to begin work on an abbey in honor of the saint.

Today, the abbey and its cloisters, topped by a tall gothic spire, perch high on the rock, surrounded by gardens and medieval fortifications. At the base is a small village, with shops and houses dating from the 15th and 16th centuries along a narrow and winding lane optimistically titled the Grand Rue. As we pull into the car park, we can hear the sounds of military bands playing in tribute to the week’s 65th anniversary of the D-Day invasion.

It’s a painfully tight schedule, with just three hours to visit the church, the town, and the surrounding tidal basin, so together we make haste up the long, steep hill, intending to start from the top and work our way down.

The abbey church is stark and bare, constructed of honey-colored stone. The 11th century nave and transept are Romanesque, but the choir, built several centuries later, is thoroughly Gothic, with tall pointed arches and matching windows above, supported by flying buttresses on the outside. From here, the audio guide I rented takes me to the cloister, and then through a long series of stairways, corridors, and rooms, including a chapter house and refectory.

It’s a mammoth complex, and its construction over time has a higgledy-piggledy quality that reminds me of being in a maze. Indeed, when I arrive at a room with a large wooden wheel, attached to ropes and pulleys, that was once used to haul goods from the base of the Mont, I imagine a hamster wheel enlarged to comical proportions, although here I’m told that it was propelled by prisoners… very unfortunate prisoners from the appearance of it!

I’ve had a brilliant time exploring, but I am beginning to feel desperate for the exit. It’s midday and my foot is throbbing. Between the drive to Mont-St-Michel and the long journey through the abbey, I haven’t been able to take any ibuprofen. I make my way out along the ramparts and the down through the village, stopping for a bottle of water to take my pills. I decide, too, to snack on a regional specialty, the Galette Bretonne. It’s a thick and slightly sweet butter biscuit, similar to shortbread. It has a nice flavor, but it crumbles easily and makes something of a mess.

The village is thick with tourists by now and the shops along the Grand Rue provide a veritable gauntlet of overpriced souvenirs—postcards and key chains, placemats and shot glasses. For a moment, I stand outside the window of La Mère Poulard to watch them make omelets, rhythmically whipping the eggs to a froth in a giant copper bowl.  But instead of lingering further in town, I decide to make my way out through the massive King’s Gate, back to the causeway and to the beach and bay beyond. It’s low tide, so the sea has receded enough to walk safely (for now) out into the sandbanks surrounding the island. The day is cool and breezy and when 1:30 comes, I regret having to leave so soon.

Back in Bayeux, I have a few hours to spare before my train back to Paris. I rest for a bit and then take a final stroll through the town, stopping to eat and to buy a small bottle of Calvados to take home. The journey back is quiet and relaxing, alone in a private compartment with plush gray seats that reminds me of the train Harry Potter takes to Hogwarts.

By 9:00 PM, we pull into Gare Saint-Lazare, and I have only the metro ride home, with a pesky change of line at Châtelet. The Rue Mouffetard is growing dark and the bed in “My Little Home in Paris,” just around the corner, beckons.

Friday, June 5, 2009

This morning, I’ve taken the metro from Cardinal Lemoine to Odéon, where I’m standing on a street corner in the middle of rush hour traffic trying to get my bearings. I’m looking for 76 Rue de Seine, which is the Left Bank address of the famous Gérard Mulot. I have an unrivalled sweet tooth, so for me the pâtisseries of Paris are a kind of heaven, made up of pastel-colored macarons, flaky croissants, and buttery madeleines. This one comes highly recommended, mentioned appreciatively in guidebooks from Frommer’s to Lonely Planet and everywhere in between.

When I reach the white awning above the shop window, I cautiously peer in. On display are giant cones covered in a rainbow of concentric circles, with rows of lemon yellow, turquoise blue, and pistachio green. And then there are the cakes, piled high with meringue and fresh raspberries. It’s a feast for the eyes, but at the moment I’m more interested in satisfying my stomach. I settle on a pain au chocolat and a pastry filed with buttercream and carmelized hazelnuts—both wildly successful choices!

Quite content, I make my way next to Gare Montparnasse to catch a train to Chartres. After I composter le billet in the yellow machine by the track, I settle in for an easy hour’s ride.

The gray spires of Chartres cathedral—curiously mismatched—dominate the skyline in town, drawing tourists like a magnet to the front doors of the church. I’m no sooner inside, adjusting my eyes to the dark, than I hear a familiar group of voices calling me from behind. It’s Terry and Steve and the kids, who I met on the Battlebus tour in Normandy. We all laugh and enjoy the serendipity of the moment. I mean, really, what are the chances of running into each other quite by accident in a country of 62 million people, even if the itineraries of American tourists are much the same?

Their departure a short time later leaves me on my own in the cathedral, and I begin to circle around with my neck craned high towards the windows. I’ve been drawn to medieval stained glass ever since a visit to the Victoria & Albert museum in London in the summer of 2006. I’ve seen fine examples at York Minster, at Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, and even at the The Cloisters in New York City, but these do not disappoint. The mass of scaffolding in the center of the church does, but the windows are lovely. There are signs of the zodiac rendered in colored glass—a scorpion, bull, crab, and ram—as well as scenes depicting various tradesmen at work—masons and stone cutters, wheelwrights and furriers. All are details that reward careful inspection.

I had wanted to visit Chartres on a Friday, in particular, because of the cathedral’s famous labyrinth. On other days of the week it is covered by chairs, but on Fridays the chairs are removed to allow visitors to walk upon it, as pilgrims have done since the year 1200, either by foot or on their knees. According to the Malcolm Miller guidebook in the gift shop, it’s the oldest and best preserved of its kind from medieval France.

I’m going to walk it myself, but for now I’m watching others take their turn. An older British couple has drawn my eye, mainly because they’re moving at an unexpectedly fast pace and their voices are echoing rather loudly. In a race to the end, the man instructs his wife to go left while he goes right, but moments later he’s sure that he’s lost and retraces his steps.

I’m torn between impatience with the spectacle they’re creating and outright amusement. Someone really should take these folks by the arm and explain that it’s a L-A-B-Y-R-I-N-T-H, it’s not a maze. There are no trophies awarded to those who reach the center first, and for that matter, there is only one way in. It’s not a logistical challenge, it’s a spiritual exercise intended for contemplation, and they’ve missed the point entirely.

Hoping for a different kind of experience, I begin my own walk slowly. I navigate the serpentine path and feel the unevenness of the marble beneath my feet, a channel worn away by centuries by repetitive motion. It has a subtle, calming effect, but it’s not exactly transcendental, in part because there are distractions all around me—a crowding of bodies, the sound of voices, the flash of cameras.

Afterwards, the ascent to the top of the tower brings some welcome air into my lungs. Halfway up, I meet a little girl no more than 5 years old. She’s wearing a pink sweatshirt and a lavender beret on her adorable blond head, and she’s looking intently down at the stone supports that curve like ribs towards the belly of the cathedral. Her father asks if she knows what they’re called. “Of course,” she says, “flying buttresses.” When she looks up at the tower and at the stairs yet to be conquered, I lean in and ask her if she’s sure she can climb all the way. “Yes,” she says solemnly, because she has already climbed an even bigger tower in Geneva.

I end the afternoon by making a slow circle around the cathedral grounds, down the hill and through the town, stopping for a late lunch at Migeon. I order a chicken salad sandwich and point to a chocolate pastry in a glass case, but don’t much mind when through some act of miscommunication I end up with a steaming mug of hot chocolate instead.

Back in Paris, the night is young and I am splurging at the Opéra Garnier with a prime ticket to a ballet inspired by Marcel Proust’s novel “In Search of Lost Time.” It’s titled, Proust ou les intermittences du coeur and it consists of a series of impressionistic tableaux that trace the author’s moods at various periods in his life, from times of great happiness to deep sorrow. Through my uncultivated eyes it seems disconnected and rather avant-garde, but the human body is a thing of beauty and great wonder, and I like the show very much. But even if I had not, the chance to sit in a chair of red velvet under a ceiling painted by Chagall, to see in the Palais Garnier the remains of La Belle Époque at its finest, that would be worth the price of admission on its own.

On the way back to the apartment, I stop to take a few pictures of Notre Dame and the Seine against the clear night sky. There is time enough yet to enjoy the “City of Lights,” but in the morning there will be rain.

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.