March 01, 2005
One of our reasons for returning to Ireland for the year was so that we would travel - and travel beyond Ireland. Family events – sports – and work! – have tightened up our schedule this year, but, what could we say to a 4 euro airfare to Paris? It was too tempting. Mark and I booked a flight over last Wednesday night, and we returned this past Saturday evening to Dublin.
Wednesday dawned cold, blowy and snowy, and we recalled anxiously how four years ago around Christmastime Dublin’s airport had closed after was it a one- or a two-inch snowfall? The city had slowed down, and children somehow had come up with sleds or trays and tried valiantly to slide down the hill on the other side of the river Dodder from us. Alas, the grass was deeper than the snow, and the sledding was short-lived. Fortunately for us, this year the snow only dusted Dublin.
Our hour and a quarter flight to Paris was delayed an hour – and that was because the Paris airport had closed for a while earlier in the day. By the time we arrived, airport life was back to normal.
Mark and I tromped quite a distance through the airport, as everyone must, to get to the bus which would shuttle us to the RER, the train into the city. There was a single and long line for tickets so I headed over to try out a ticket machine. This would be tricky because my French is just a touch rusty – and certainly my vocabulary had never included any tech/computer language, having studied in the dark ages. But knowing that there is always an “I quit” button somewhere, I started to respond to the French screen. I seemed to have entered a destination, number of tickets, something about plein tariff (full price, I guessed), aller-retour (must mean round trip), and then numbers popped up, what seemed to be a rather large sum of money. As I pondered whether I had erred somewhere, a man in Orthodox dress appeared behind me and asked me a question, in French, of course. I laughingly explained that I didn’t really speak French and was just trying to figure out the machine because the ticket window line was so long. He joined in, and we re-tried. He seemed amazed that I was managing the machine, and he was also somewhat startled by the sum required, apparently, to get to Paris. The two of us headed over to the information booth and found out that we were at the correct machine and had come up with the correct amount as well. So, my compatriot and I returned to tackle technology again, chatting. He described himself as a man of the world though originally from the south of France, and he found it quaint (or did he say, cute) to hear that we are living in Ireland. At the machine, he proceeded to purchase his ticket with a credit card. I, on the other hand, was less successful. I found that the machine would only take French credit cards (of which Mark and I are short these days as must many be who travel through the international airport) or coins – and we would have needed 31 euros, which, let me tell you, weigh a half a ton each. So, I rejoined Mark in the ticket window line. We were now more than half way through, and the wait did not seem so long, even though it was way past our dinner hour.
Our trip into Paris went quickly from there. We awaited the express RER, which Irish friends had told us would shorten the journey by half an hour. A seven minute wait and a half hour later we were in the metro station at St.Michel, walls tiled in colorful shards of sunlight, and then above ground heading west on St-Germain. There were few others on the street on Wednesday at 10 PM, and the menacing snowfall had only left little piles of white around the bases of lampposts and trees. Parked cars that had spent the day on the side streets had an inch or two still on their roofs. Bistros were open, store windows alit dressed in strikingly fresh and good taste, and movie theatres advertised the mostly American films on view, including Fils de Chucky. In twenty minutes we were at Hotel de Bonaparte, a familiar entry in the row of attached buildings, with its glass doors sliding open for us, the doorbell announcing our arrival and the friendly, bilingual Frenchman at the desk. We quickly dumped our luggage in our little second floor double (third, to Americans) which overlooked the street and headed out and around three corners for a late dinner. The haricots verts were as I remembered them, cooked to perfection (not squeaky and not squooshy) with a lovely Dijon dressing, the highlight of my meal. We were not only the last people in the restaurant to be starting dinner, we were also the oldest. How did it happen that so much of the world is younger than we are now?
Our first morning in Paris dawned sunny and brisk, and there were no signs of the forecasted snow. Mark started his day with a chocolat, but I could not resist café au lait to wash down my hard roll and croissant that is the French/hotel breakfast. How easy it is to return to caffeine. We hurried on out to walk in the sunlight
and worked our way along the Seine,
towards and then past Notre Dame
and its snow-covered gardens,
across Ile St-Louis (NOT stopping for ice cream at Berthillon, believe it or not) and the Seine
on into the Marais to follow a walking tour Mark had found in our guidebook.
Monks and Knights Templar settled in the Marais in the 13th century, and the religious street names, as in the rue Temple, reflect that era. A medieval wall has been incorporated into the wall of the Lycee Charlemagne that edges its football pitch on one side and the street on the other. In the 17th century the aristocracy followed Henry IV into the Marais as he built what is now the place des Vosges,
along with its arcade,
and they constructed lovely creamy colored mansions. Some of these hotels particuliers now house government departments or museums. The Hotel de Sully currently has an exhibit of a former colleague of Mark’s from Bard, the photographer, Stephen Shore.
The pink brick Hotel de Chevry seems to be a library now. Caddy corner from the hotel particulier where the government handles internal disputes in the civil service (helas!) is a 17th century relief of a winemaker, perhaps suggesting a source of solace after the resolutions of said disputes.
A little passageway leads to the side entrance of the Eglise St-Louis-St-Paul, a Jesuit church from the 17th century. Aside from a couple of street people bringing their belongings in from the cold, Mark and I were the only people there. Paris, all in all, was still while we were there. It was a peaceful and quiet time to explore.
The Marais later became the Jewish quarter and in the 1960’s into the early 1970’s became gentrified (again, when you think about it), now drawing a significant gay population. Wandering through this historic area affords excellent eating and fun shopping.
During our travels we located wedding dresses for Kate
and options for Danny the groom as well. These items are all in raw silk and, we were drawn to the festive three-piece set with the longer jacket – but are they your colors, Danny?
After (salty) mussels and (salty) onion soup and (fabulous, thankfully) draft beer alongside the place des Vosges,we footed our way over to the Musee des Arts and Metiers. As with many Parisian museums, this was much more than we could take in thoroughly in an afternoon. However, we enjoyed looking at and trying to read about applied technology from astrolabes and sets of stacking brass weights to jacquard looms, tunnels, bridges the French had built in their colonies, velocipedes and the TGV. There was a particularly wonderful airplane with very large feathers for propellers, about which we could find no information about how much time it actually spent in the air.
The model trains were gorgeous, and we thought of you, Jesse. That night we had dinner at a favorite, Bistrot Aux Charpentiers, which felt like the right place after our afternoon. It has carpenters’ models of roof frames and old photographs of the carpenters themselves – and it was in our hotel’s neighborhood, in deference to our tired feet.
Day two also started out sunny, and after the previous day’s shift to snow in the afternoon, we knew we should at least start out outdoors in the good weather. We had hoped to walk through the Luxembourg gardens, but it was locked up.
Instead we made our way across the street to rue de Fleurus to locate Gertrude Stein’s flat. Having read both The Book of Salt and The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas this fall, I had the urge to see her neighborhood, which is still a residential area and quite nice.
While our destination for the day was really the Louvre, we went by way of Le Bon Marche, opened originally in the mid 19th century. Though “good market” can mean bargain, that is not the case here. This is an amazing department store full of a vast range of excellent quality everything. I wanted to look at the colorful jacquard table linens, and, on our way to check about tax back, we wandered through many other departments. Had there been readily available salespeople, I know I would have returned with fanciful buttons, dyed faux fur ribbons, embroidered dragonfly patches, and knitting yarns in addition to fabrics. We were tempted by the zotty (but very pricey) stockings and socks. Mark was amazingly patient as I poked my way around these specialized departments. And, guess what? We hadn’t in the end spent enough money to qualify for tax back!
We walked north to the Seine. From the river the big, blocky Louvre, first a fortress, then a palace, now a museum for the past 200 and some years, is all you can see, far too large to photograph. Up close you see the textured surfaces.
We entered through the Portes des Lions, the cats still edged in snow.
Once in the courtyard, it is I. M. Pei’s pyramid that draws your eye. Mark and I talked about how it relates/doesn’t relate to the original Louvre as we regarded it from the gate, in the courtyard, from within and through gallery windows.
It is most certainly a highly functional entry and gathering space, and the daylight inside is wonderful.
While Parisian streets seemed sparsely peopled, the Louvre seemed full by comparison. Nonetheless, it wasn’t crowded, and we could choose to visit whatever part we wanted. We even thought we could take a peek at the Mona Lisa, and, though we could actually get somewhat close to the glass covered painting, the crowd itself was more intriguing.
Throughout many museums and even most of the Louvre, people are allowed to take photographs. The museum map asks people not to use flash, but we never witnessed anyone of the many guards restrict a visitor’s use of flash. In fact, at the Mona Lisa, the flashes were constant. I had seldom traveled through a museum before with a camera, but I had our digital with us and decided to capture a few myself. The 18th century painting of the Grande Galerie du Louvre, jam-packed from floor to ceiling, did not look all that different from today in fact.
I was also intrigued by the rather grotesque 16th century four seasons paintings by Arcimboldo and snapped spring...
And having lived with an eel in the classroom with Mary Ellen, this fish market caught my eye.
Mark and I spent much of our time with the Italian paintings. There is no way a camera will capture the subtlety and richness of those colors and textures. Museum-itis struck, as it always does and especially so in a museum as vast as the Louvre. So, after a lunch break and a tour of painting from the Netherlands and Flanders, we hit the streets again.
Mark had found another walking tour in our guide that looked like fun. Back when Paris had no sidewalks or sewers, shopping wasn’t particularly pleasant. During the peace and prosperity of the 19th century, 150 passages couvertes were built, covered shopping arcades. There are 18 of them still around these days, some recently renovated and handsome, some fairly grungy. As the sky turned grey again, we took on some serious window shopping in the arcades and passages just north of the Louvre. It turned into a curious museum experience itself walking by art galleries with antiquities or contemporary work, toy stores with wind-ups, tea shops, Internet cafes, classrooms, shops selling war medals, books, music boxes, lead soldiers, discount shoes, Asian fast food, musical instruments, antique dolls, vintage clothing, designer fashions, or antique clothing - all specialty businesses. Exhausted, Mark took us into a creperie where we rekindled ourselves with a sweet, something we figured we will actually attempt to recreate at home. We pulled ourselves back together and headed south towards our hotel. When we walked back through a Louvre courtyard at the end of the day, the sunlit stone block was gorgeous.
The Seine softened in the late afternoon light as well.
We had our last dinner in our neighborhood once again as there are many choices just around a few corners. Though tempted by the name L'Enfance de Lard, its menu was less interesting than that of Boucherie Rouliere . We had a dining experience that incorporated all the basic elements of our Parisian meals - freshly baked, dense and tasty bread, lovely and affordable wine, and interesting sauces. Although smoking is banned in public places and theoretically limited to smoking areas in restaurants, there was no evidence that the French pay any attention to those parameters. Smokers sat either side of us this evening, and one took care to exhale behind herself rather than into our faces in the tightly packed space. Tiny dogs accompany their owners off-leash into restaurants and usually are quite well-behaved. Tonight's chien felt the urge to issue a bark every two or three minutes, and his mistress would respond each time with an ineffectual shhhh! We could only laugh - and then walk home carefully, with our eyes peeled, avoiding the inevitable droppings that Parisian dogs leave everywhere.
Saturday was our third and last day, and there was no snow in the forecast. We packed up, checked out, left our suitcases for a later return and made our way over to the Institut du Monde Arabe. On our way we saw, and then heard, recycling in action.
A crane lifts up the large green cylinder, holds it over the truck’s container and the glass contents cascade from the base with an extended, enormous crash, only sounding like breaking glass as the last few bottles drop. Quite a startling experience.
At that same spot on the rue des Ecoles, Anne and Anne-Lise, we were interested to see how Paris deals with insufficient classroom space.
However, the most interesting structure on our walk was the Institut itself, built of metal and glass with mouche-arabies. These photo-sensitive openings regulate the light and heat that enters the building – and are reminiscent of traditional lattice work in the Arab world.
While most people were lining up for an exhibit on Ancient Egypt, Mark and I headed for Le Ciel Dans un Tapis, a gorgeous exhibition of woven rugs primarily from the 16th and 17th centuries. The earlier rugs tended to have simpler geometric designs and fewer colors. The later were more intricate, often with floral elements, with more shading and quite intriguing to investigate close up. The lighting was subdued, and people whispered as they looked. This was one time I wished my French was stronger so that I could have understood accompanying text more fully.
As we emerged from the low lit, quiet exhibition, we were struck by the brightness of the winter day. We hurried along to keep warm and crossed the Seine to Ile St-Louis’s more residential area, under the arch,
and we came up to a lovely lace curtain.
We were actually headed on over to Sainte-Chappelle on the next island, Ile-de-la-Cite, but we had to stop for mustard purchases on our way. We passed Notre Dame on its north side and were struck by the shades of its stone - almost black, sandy or white - reflecting how recently an area had been cleaned.
We ran into our first waiting line at St Louis’s Sainte-Chappelle. Each of the museums we had been in so far had x-rayed our bags, but this was the first one to have a wait both there and at the ticket window. We figured it was worth it in order to revisit the stained glass windows in bright daylight. Unfortunately, by the time we got in, the sun was wrestling with the clouds, and the chapel was darker than we had remembered. Nonetheless, you can get some sense of the upper chapel (for the holy relics, the king and his entourage) from these photos – the colorful floors,
the richly painted fleur-de-lys lower walls and columns,
and the upper two-thirds of the walls seem to be all colored glass (most of it the original 13th century work), primarily blues and reds in the twelve windows around three walls which retell the biblical story of humankind from creation through Christ’s redemption.
The Apocalypse in the rose window in the west has more white.
In the lower chapel (for the palace staff) the low ceilings are painted like a starry sky,
and each glass window represents one of the twelve Apostles.
We spent quite some time in the upper chapel enjoying the light, but hunger eventually sent us back out into the cold.
We eventually found a restaurant still serving lunch, refueled with some incomparable cream sauces, and then headed back to our hotel to pick up our luggage and retrace our steps on the RER to the airport. Walking up a side street, we heard what sounded like a brass band – and it was, and a rather pink one.
They were energetic, had a sense of humor and played quite a range of music, classical and pop. Most strollers on St-Germain just walked on by. How could they? Pulling our suitcase along the sidewalk we also came across a pianist, whose upright rested on a four-wheeled platform. He was pounding away, playing lively tunes. A couple stopped to listen. Everyone else went about their business, whatever that is on a Saturday in the 6e arrondissement – shopping? We were on our way to the airport and home in Dublin where we, too, have buskers - but they play fiddles and accordians.
It always feels good to get home to your own bed, and we have wonderful memories of our full, three days in Paris. I have just finished breakfast and have dabbed my mouth with my new French napkin, butterflies woven in to remind me that spring is not far off. Looking forward to seeing many of you in person soon...
Posted by gretchen at March 1, 2005 04:29 PM
Thoroughly enjoyed your Parisian tour this morning with my dull American coffee sans croissant and now dreaming of a an entire dinner of haricots verts (a particular favorite of mine as well) Diane Kang
Posted by: Diane Kang at March 2, 2005 04:51 PM
Such good coverage, saving me the trouble of going there to see it for myself. You didn't mention fish in the Seine, but I believe carp can be caught there.
Posted by: George Constable at March 2, 2005 05:40 PM
Gretch, what wonderful memories of Paris your travelogue brought - especailly Sainte-Chappelle.
Posted by: Mary Ann Brueckner at March 2, 2005 10:12 PM
I am a friend of MaryAnn and Hannes Brueckner, and MaryAnn was good enough to share your lovely travel memoir with me. My husband and I lived in Paris for a while in 2002 (in the 1st, two blocks from the Louvre), and we're returning for a quick week this April. My anticipation of this trip has been heightened tremendously by your adept and witty writing. Merci beaucoup!
Posted by: leslie hayes at March 3, 2005 10:40 PM
Je viens de lire ton essai bien descriptif aux jumeaux. Tu donnes envie d'y voyager et a la fois l'impression d'avoir juste visite Paris apres avoir lu les histoires. Ca fait du plaisir! Merci!
Posted by: Anne Lytle at March 4, 2005 05:54 PM
I hope Kate appreciated the time you must have spent looking for the perfect wedding dress for her. Great photos, hope to get to Paris sometime.All well on ACK, lots of building as usual.
Enjoy and see you in June. Haydi
Posted by: Haydi at March 14, 2005 10:39 PM
I am sure Kate appreciates you finding her the perfect wedding dress in Paris! Pictures are great, hope to get to Paris sometime. All is well on ACK, lots of building as usual...see you in June.
Posted by: Haydi at March 14, 2005 10:42 PM
Whoops! Sorry about the double message! My computer messed up (not my fault of course..yah, sure) and I didn't think the message went through!
Posted by: Haydi at March 14, 2005 10:46 PM