Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Au Revior Paris - Our last two days

Thursday evening found us on the gliding down the Seine on the Bateaux Parisiens dinner cruise. The clear, cold night was lit up not only by Paris' many landmarks, but the stars and moon decided to join in the light show.

In my research for the trip, I found everyone has an opinion on Seine River cruises. Day time cruises, private yacht cruises and the traditional dinner/lunch cruises are all available at the different boat companies located just beneath the Eiffel Tower on the Seine. You'll need to choose which one based on your personal preference (I wanted to see the city lit up at night), but make sure you do add a cruise into your schedule. It's a relaxing two hours, with both the Left Bank, Right Bank and Ile de Cite showing off for your viewing pleasure.

Friday morning, Paris was in another funk (hey, that's ok, with all due respect to the many many handsome Parisian men I saw, Paris is definitely a girl, and a girl has a right to be moody from time to time). The day dawned cloudy and by noon the gentle Paris mist we'd experienced earlier was now 'chiens et chattes' as we walked down the Champs Elysees towards the Arc de Triomphe. The avenue of French history (Napoleon, Nazis, Allies, etc.) is impressive with its width, high end shops and restaraunts. Its also crowded, busy and commercial. Its definitely a must see, but be prepared, in my opinion it does lack some charm, with one jewel box of an exception, La Duree.

From the LaDuree website, "Ernest Ladurée’s wife, Jeanne Souchard, daughter of a well-known hotelier in Rouen, had the idea of mixing styles: the Parisian café and pastry shop gave birth to one of the first tea salons in town." With locations all over Paris, and 17 other countries, The Champs Elysees is the flagship store for the brand and was recently underwent a year renovations and was recently reopened October 17, 2012 to its 1862 Belle Epoque glory. We arrived early for our reservations to the warm, cozy, salon de the and were lead to our table overlooking the Champs Elyees below. Lunch was simply the prelimary to the Laduree patisseries and world famous macaroons. (The biggest issue, which one to choose? LaDuree boasts over 19 flavors!)

On a sugar high, we decided the afternoon should end with some culture. We quickly entered the dry Metro and disembarked at Les Tuileres. Normally, I would have loved the walk across Catherine Medici's Tuscan inspired gardens, but even I hurried along the gardens paths to its former 'L' Orangerie', the building used to shelter the orange trees of the Tuileres, now housing a different type of plant 'Monet's Lilies'From the L'Orangerie website, "On April 12, 1922 Claude Monet signed a contract donating the Nymphéas series of decorative panels painted on canvas to the French government, to be housed in redesigned, oval rooms at the Orangerie.[3] With input from Monet, the head architect at the Louvre, Camille Lefèvre, drafted new plans and elevations in 1922 to house Monet's large Nymphéas canvases, incorporating natural light, plain walls, and sparse interior decoration". Viewing the 'Lilies' in the way Monet meant them to be seen, is like a virtual trip to his home in Giverny. If you take the time to visit just one museum, for pure wow factor the L'Orangerie and the Nymphéas would be top of my list!

Our last morning in Paris began with a stroll and ended with a sprint. We were back in the Marais, where we started our visit 7 days prior. We finally scored reservations for the restaraunt Bon Appetite and many other food magazines named 2012's 'best value' Le Breizh Cafe. We left the hotel at 10am for our 11:30am appointment a mere 15 minutes away. But, we didn't count on the Marais' weekend flea market, a combinaton of garage sale and high end antique auction. I succumbed to its siren's call and went home with two small French linens embroidered in 'moi' and 'toi' to add to my 'his' and 'her's linen collection. We peeked in the charming alleyways and the Place de Voges (the oldest square in Paris) and found ourselves almost running to make our reservation at the creperie. At 1130 the bistro was packed and the droves without appointments were sent away. It's Le Breizh's signature buckwheat crepes that keep its clientele coming back.

The last afternoon was dedicated to Paris' second favorite sport after eating, shopping. We returned to the Place de la Concorde in front of the L'Orangerie, but culture was not on our minds this time, retail therapy was the final destination of our Paris sorjourn. The Christmas Market located on the Champs Elyees had recently opened and most of of group opted to explore the many food and craft vendors. My husband the foodie had different ideas, so we headed to the Place de la Madelaine, where Paris' high end food shops are located. We stopped at the local LaDuree and found macaroons purchased that day would not be edible upon our return, so we continued across the square until we ran into Maille Moutard, home of gourmet French mustards since 1747. The mustard menu was amazing, mustards infused with: Chablis, truffles, fine herbes, and even bleu cheese. The choices were overwhelming, and we finally decided to buy several sample packs to enjoy at home.

Sunday we returned to Charles de Gaulle for our homeward journey. As we split a final macaroon, David and I agreed the French are definitely a highly envolved people. I reflected on my pre Paris jitters and realized it defintely was not my Waterloo. And like Napoleon, who was dug up from Elba 34 years after his death and installed at the Invilades for eternity, I knew I too would return to Paris.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Paris in the Rain, from the Royal to the Sublime

“I love to walk in Paris, especially in the rain, don’t you”? Owen Wilson as Gil Pender in Midnight in Paris says, “Christ, why does it always have to be in the rain? No, Gil I don’t want to walk in Paris in the rain”, Rachel McAdams as Inez.

I think we’d all like to have Gil.s attitude. And I will happily admit, after one week, I’ve started a romance with this most glamorous and sophisticated city; finding myself smiling as I walk along the Seine or when I see the Eiffel Tower in the distance or as I bite into one of La Duree’s famous macaroons. But, if I am being completely honest, in temperament I am more like Inez.

It was raining and gloomy the first day we arrived in Paris. But, the next two days Paris showed us her sunny happy side. Wednesday, Paris was back in a crabby mood as we crawled at a snails pace out of town towards Versailles. She was full on pissed off when we arrived at the palace of Louis XIV. The ‘Sun King’s’ home was sunny in name only that day. It was a great relief once our appointment time came and we could tour the former home of French royalty. The home back then was built to impress nobility and peasants alike; the kings private and public areas are decorated and dedicated to the Greek gods and planets they represent (Mars, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Mercury and Diana ) with Louis himself the sun and these rooms representing the planets that revolve around him. I was excited to end the kings apartments to arrive at the Hall of Mirrors, I knew I would be able to see what I came here for the gardens.

Shortly after leaving the Hall of Mirrors, I put up my umbrella and waded through the courtyard to see the gardens. They were everything I had hoped the would be and more. I love Italian gardens, their angles and shapes taking priority over flowers. Precision and geometry are the tools these gardeners use, the craftsmanship evident as I walked along oblivious the downpour. In my opinion Louis has a nice house but one hell of a garden! That afternoon we spent in

Louis XVI’s dad’s place, the Louvre home of Parisian kings through Louis XIII. This was my second visit to the literal 12 miles of exhibit space and over 35,000 permanent collections. And like last time I saw the four main pieces: Winged Victory, Napoleon’s Coronation, Venus di Milo and the Mona Lisa. Of course I saw others as I wound my way through the corridors, stair cases, and cavernous rooms of the Denon Wing, but they are all really a blur as you try to see the major treasures of the Louvre. Here’s my shocking confession, I don’t see myself going back. Paris has too many fantastic jewel boxes of museums to spend too much time in the Louvre. Here’s a comparison, your favorite local store where they know you by name and a ‘big box ‘retailer. You may save $0.50 on toilet paper, but who cares. On great thing I did do at the Louvre is buy the Paris Museum pass. It is so cool, you get admission to most of Paris’ museums and attractions. But what is even better, when you sashay past a huge line of people waiting in the rain to enter a museum. A little Parisian rain may dampen my spirits, but VIP access perks them right up.

Wednesday we spent hobnobbing with French royalty. Thursday was spent with artists mostly French but one very special American (to me). The day dawned without rain, but very foggy, (unfortunately this was the day we had planned to visit the Eiffel Tower) . We arrived just after the tower opened at 9:30am, between buying tickets and the line for the elevator our wait was approximately 15 minutes. (I can’t stress this enough, if you don’t want to wait for hours and aren’t thrilled by crowds, go as early or late in the day as possible, also around lunch time can be less crowded. The tower is open 9:30am until 11pm). There are three levels with the second level providing the most intimate views of the city. Half of our group chose to go to the top, while the rest, myself included chose the second.

The tower is located in the 7th Arrondissemont (neighborhood), so we spent the rest of the day in that area. Musee D’Orsay was our next stop. The former train station has been lovingly transformed into in my opinion the loveliest museum in Paris. Retaining the flavor of its train station past, it picks up where the Louvre leaves off the Impressionists. Renior, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Gaugin, they are all here. Lunch and the Rodin were next on the agenda, but once we came around the Hotel de Invalides we were surprised to find most of police force of Paris there in full riot gear. (Unsettling). It turns out an Italian diplomat was in town and following our exact itinerary. Everywhere we went barricades and police vans, and police officers, ensuring this bigwig’s safety. The final straw was when we got to the Rodin Museum to find it closed (to us) and the diplomat and his entourage entering. It was a sad realization when I understood my Paris Museum Pass only made me feel like a VIP. This is how they really live.

The Tower and the D’Orsay were lovely, but my two favorite parts of the day were a lot less famous and a lot more personal to me. Early afternoon found me in a large, dark and unchanged since before the last century cooking supply shop located off a quiet street near the D’Orsay. As I walked through the ‘batterie de cuisine’ that let’s face it I didn’t know half of what it was or would ever use, I smiled. This was Julia Child’s favorite store in Paris. Unchanged since the days when she was a frequent shopper. I bought an apron from a salesman at Dehellrin and mentioned that one of my favorite books was ‘My Life in France’ by Julia Child and she wrote so warmly of the store, I had to see if for myself. The gentleman laughed and said he had waited on her many times in the ‘80s and he didn’t know who she was until she left one time and some Americans came up to him and said, ‘Do you know that was Julia Child?” He didn’t because Julia would never have mentioned it. As we left E. Dehillerin and headed towards the D’Orsay, we wound our way down Rue de la Universite, everyone in my group keeping a sharp eye out for #81. We found it just before reaching the D’Orsay. The three story building built in the late 1800s with the blue door. The top two floors rented by an American couple when he was stationed in Paris working for the American government. She a bride in her late 30s wanted to do more with her life than lunch with the ladies and shop, so she enrolled in L’Cordon Bleu to take cooking lessons. I may not be as romantic as Gil Pender, but I did get misty eyed when I stood in front of Julia Child’s Paris home.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Life in Paris and the adventures continue...

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

From the ancient to the modern - Paris Days 1 and 2

Today's Paris trivia- you are never more than 450 meters from a Metro stop anywhere in the city.

Day 1

Napoleon Sparschu Phillips along with her group of travelers left the Crown Plaza Republique 1 hour and 45 minutes early for a 20 minute Metro ride to the Ile de Cite(Napoleon was remembering the 'Wimbelton instead of Westminster Tube incident of '04'). Of course as many of my Francophile friends have told me repeatedly, the Metro is super clean,easy and quick. We arrived at our scheduled meeting place for our 9:40am tour at 8:20am. There are worse ways to spend an hour and twenty minutes than stolling the banks of the Seine and people watching on the Ile de Cite.

I had booked a walking tour of the Ile de Cite and Notre Dame with Key Tours (I really like to use this company for sightseeing and transfers, I have never had a disappointed client). Our group met up with Adam at the Ile de Cite Metro stop. On that very spot a nomadic Celtic tribe the Parisis founded Paris on the larger of two islands located in the middle of the Seine. We spent the next two hours discovering the island from 3000 BC until the Nazi Occupation of WWII. Notre Dame was our final stop with a guided tour of the history and art of the thousand year old cathedral. How amazing it was to see the past come to life. Stained glass windows destroyed during the French Revolution, Mideval and Renassaince oonstruction techniques, the place where Napoleon turned his back on the Pope and crowned Josephine and himself emporer and emperess of France. All the ghosts and memories of 1000 years swirled around us.

Our afternoon was spent having lunch at a cafe on Ile St. Louis, visiting the world famous Shakespeare and Company book store and ending back on the Ile de Cite to see King Louis IX Sainte Chapelle chapel. Louis was an extremely pious man, so he had a chapel built inside his royal palace to store his relics and provide a place for easy access worship. St. Chapelle is small, but the beauty of its stained glass walls is gigantic. The chapel is currently under restoration and cleaning, the before and after is quite amazing.

Day Two

Our second full day in Paris found us on a private driving tour of the city. I chose this tour as an overview of the City of Light, a chance to see its famouns sights, museums and landscapes as an orientation to our follow up visits.

The first days of our Paris vacation were gloomy and rainy, but when our driver Celena pulled over by the Invalides the sun suddenly broke through and the Effiel Tower was bathed in a halo of gold, a picture postcard come to life.

Montmartre was our afternoon destination. Sacre Coeur Basillica was our first destination. Its white dome standing out against a turqoise blue sky follwed by lunch in a Montmartre cafe of beouf borganion and l'onion soupe. At Place Tertre David and I chose two oil paintings from one of the many artists painting and selling the wares in the square.

I am pleased to report after walking down several hundred steps from the top of Montmartre's hill and winding our way through its cobblestone streets, we not only took the Metro back to our hotel, we had to change lines at one of the stations! I am going to call it my own personal 'Arc de Triomphe'!

Up next Versailles and the Louvre!

November 19, 2012 - Like Napoleon I return to Paris

Like Napoleon, I return to Paris

I have a theory that every traveler has their own ’Waterloo’. A place that culture, history and even their fellow travelers rave about; but in their most secret psyche makes them feel overwhelmed and uneasy. I imagined myself to be like the great emperor, but instead of Wellington, I would meet the City of Light on my personal field of battle.Paris, world capital of: food, wine, art, fashion, culture and of course romance. The majestic city dating back 3000 years from the small nomadic tribe of the Pairisi who lived on a small island in the middle of the Seine to today’s greater Paris consisting of 12 million people with 2.1 million people residing in the city center. Readers let’s face it, the above list is the reason I fell in love with Europe over a decade ago. 3000 thousand years of history combined with the pinnacle of all modern culture, with one small drawback - the Parisians.I’m going to make a confession now. Prior to my current trip, I had visited Paris once before in the summer of 2002 for 8 hours. My tour consisted of a short ride around the city and 2hours at the Louvre. French culture was as foreign to me as Chinese. I was accustomed to the friendly and boisterous Italians, the fun-loving Irish , and the reserved but cheerful British. I found the Parisians to be cool and standoffish and in my limited exposure to the world, snobby. I felt like a fish out of water and thought that would be my one and only Parisian visit.Of course as I grew as a traveler and (I hope) became more sophisticated and open to other cultures I began to wonder if I wasn’t selling Paris short. Visitors since the time of Julius Cesar had fallen in love with Paris and all its wonders. For hundreds of years artists, poets, writers, scientists, foodies and of course lovers have flocked to this city, It took the personal Parisian stories of two women, who convinced me to give the French capitol another chance. Armed with my copies of Julia Child’s My Life in France and Eloisa James’ Paris in Love, I left Charles De Gaulle airport searching for my own Parisian love affair. It was the twin voices of two women who lived in Paris at the middle of the last century and within the first few years of this one who inspired this journey (like Napoleon, this wasn’t just a skirmish this was a major battle).These women may have lived at different times but their interests (writing and cooking) and how they completely embraced their adoptive city made me look at (pardon the pun) Paris in a whole new light. They made me understand what I perceived as ‘snobbery’ or disdain at my not knowing the language was a desire for language perfection. That unlike Americans who consider a restaurant or a shop as public places, the French consider these to be extensions of their private homes. I have already found a simple Bon Jour Madame along with general civilities like ‘sil vous plait and merci’ are the key to a better understanding of these formal and sophisticated people. Parisians aren’t like the average American citizen, and after all isn’t that why we travel in the first place, to learn and appreciate other cultures?Next up, my first days in Paris. I’ll share my adventures exploring ancient Paris on the Ile de Cite as well as the area around my hotel the Marais.Au Revior -Mis Amis.