Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Paris March 21-28, 2008

Easter Week we were in Paris as Maeve had day-care vacation. It’s been several weeks since we were there, so this blog is a bit impressionistic. In our usual travel mode, we rented a 1 BR apartment near the Reamur Sebastopol metro stop in the 3rd district, 10 minutes walking from the Pompidou and 20 from the Louvre. A great location. A somewhat seedy apartment – especially the smoke that seeped through the floor from the restaurant below was unpleasant. And getting locked in our first evening was less than perfect. We’d gotten in the apartment and Mike locked the door from the inside, as is only safe. An hour later, Maeve was down for the evening and I was ready to head out to the grocery store for milk and staples. And we couldn’t get the door open. The key just was spinning in the lock. I called the rental agency, which was closed for the holiday weekend so just a message. I emailed them, no reply. Half an hour later, we were considering skinnying down to the ground floor (we were one floor up) on a sheet, calling the police etc. Mike was looking out the window and saw a neighbor coming in the building, and asked him to let us out. Our (barred) bathroom window opened into the stairwell, we’d briefly considered going out the window but in no way could fit. So as the neighbor came up, we handed him out the keys out the bathroom window and he let us out. Big, big relief and a scary way to start the Paris vacation. Luckily, that was the low point of the week.

Paris is only 1 hour 50 minutes from Saarbruecken on the TGV, so the trip was easy. Near the boarder, the train isn’t so fast, but once we were in France we were often going over 300 kilometers an hour. We had a bit of trouble getting our 10-ride metro passes when we got there. The Paris metro invariably has very long lines at the customer service counters and often shorter lines at the metro vending machines. We had trouble understanding the machines, finally figuring out how to change the display to English and using our Germany ATM cards. The 10-metro ride passes are great – the machine just spits out 10 metro tickets and you use them up and buy 10 more. There are also several day passes, but we walked a fair amount and aren’t on the go the whole time because of Maeve’s nap schedules, so figured getting the 10-pack was cheaper. Our Germany ATM cards were valid pretty much all over Paris, but often took a very long time to be validated.

Easter was early, so the weather was not quite yet the proverbial Paris in the spring. It was chilly (40’s) and overcast and rainy most days. Not really anything was blooming yet, and the trees weren’t green, just a faint tinge of getting ready to open. But nonetheless a great city. Our first day, March 22, we went to the tourist information station and then took the bus to see the Eiffel Tower. The lines to go up were enormous and there was no way we were waiting for an hour or more in a line with Maeve in the drizzle and cold. Lines in general were very long all week, but after all, it was Easter week. So we took lots of pictures and ate a snack in the park between the tower and the Champs de Mars, and headed back into the Metro to warm up a cranky and cold little girl. From there we headed out for lunch at a very nice vegetarian restaurant on the left bank near Notre Dame, called Le Grenadier de Notre Dame, in the 5th district. It’s a rare treat to find a veggie restaurant that is fine-dining oriented and the food was very very good. I got peasant food that was a baked-bean like dish and Maeve very much enjoyed the beans. After lunch, the sun briefly came out and Mike got a couple of good pictures of the outside of Notre Dame. We walked home in 25 minutes, down rue Beaubourg past the Centre Pompidou.

For dinner we walked down to a section of town we’d read about that had good falafel joints, on Rue des Rosiers in the 4th district. When we got there, we realized Rue Rosiers was the Jewish area of town and everything was closed for the Sabbath. Outside of the falafel and other stores on Rue des Rosiers, it was a totally happening area of town, with tons of people sitting outside at cafes under the heat lamps trying to fight off the chill. So we wandered around until we found another veggie-oriented café nearby and had dinner before heading home to get Maeve down for a very late evening.

On Sunday March 23rd we spent the day in the Louvre, walked there from our apartment through the park at Chatelet les Halles and past a small farmers market. Later in the day we stopped there for some bread and saw several groups of older men playing boule in the park.

The Louvre is amazing and worth more than one day. We spent the AM there, did lunch and another 45 minutes, left to take a nap, and then back for 90 minutes in the evening. We were beat at the end of the day and didn’t nearly see all the collection – not even all we wanted to see, including a history of the building in the basement that was really appealing but we didn’t have time for. Next time. We first did the highlights – Venus de Milo, Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa. Venus de Milo we both liked, she’s a great statue. Winged Victory and the Mona Lisa were less impressive. Winged Victory is up on her boat on a pedestal in a huge stairway – a very impressive setting, but I felt that after the very human scale of Venus de Milo, she was just too monumental. The Mona Lisa was a riot – it’s not a very big picture, and it is cordoned off at a 10 foot distance, so you can’t get close enough to even begin to see detail. And it’s very dark, so without being close enough to get out of the glare, you can’t make out anything. And it’s surrounded by hoards of people, so even getting to the rope through the people all holding up their cameras and taking pictures over the crowd is difficult. I basically don’t have too much to say about the actual picture. But we did enjoy some of Leonardo’s other pictures – I particularly liked St. Anne and some of his portraits.

The Louvre itself is a beautiful building. Maeve at this point knows to admire the ceilings. Many of them are stuccoed and painted with mythological or royal scenes. Just to remind you that the Louvre used to be a royal residence before it was a museum. The numerous courtyards are also monumental – huge arches and wide expanses of building. The Louvre is shaped more or less like a flat-topped A – 2 side wings, and a top and a middle connecting wing. The IM Pei pyramid in the open courtyard at the “bottom” of the A doesn’t seem out of place in the midst of the fountains. And the Louvre clearly needed the extra entrance/bathroom/restaurant/facility space that opened up with the pyramid. Maeve especially liked the ducks swimming in the fountains around the pyramid. We didn’t actually enter through the pyramid in the morning, we got there at opening time and there was a huge line. We walked around the side and entered through the underground mall that also feeds into the main entrance. We bought tickets from a ticket machine and got through security quickly. Definitely the way to go. In the afternoon we went back to the main entrance and entered there – there was a line but it went quickly through security and once underground, entering any of the three wings was easy.

We wandered through the European painting section of the Louvre after hitting the highlights. In the afternoon we saw the Michelangelo gallery and I think my favorite statues of the day. He had two statues which were of escaping slaves, and the slave’s beautiful bodies were struggling to escape their bonds as well as escape from the block of marble. There was so much tension and movement emerging from the stone.

On the way back home, we stopped at a street near the apartment (Rue au Marie) that had lots of Chinese restaurants. We went in the busiest one and got yummy food although they didn’t have scallion pancakes even though they were on the menu. Maeve loved the tofu in the soup and drank all her soymilk.

On Monday, we took a walking tour of Ile de la Cite with Paris Walks. The tour was great and we would recommend this company – although 2 hours was enough for Maeve to be outside in the cold. We learned about Ste Chapelle and the Conciergerie, which used to be the royal palace, then the jail around the time of the revolution, and is still the courthouse. There are still 5 medieval towers fronting the Seine in the palace construction. We weren’t able to go in St. Chapelle, but decided to come back another day to do the interior and inside Notre Dame. We learned that many of the statues on the front portal of Notre Dame were defaced during the revolution. The statues were of Biblical kings, but by the time of the Revolution, everyone thought they were French kings, so they were vandalized. Sometime in the 20th century, they found the head of the kings when they were doing some rebuilding in a townhouse that had belonged to a staunch royalist during the time of the revolution. These heads are now in a museum and replicas are on the façade. Anyway, the first theory about the heads was that the owner of the townhouse was a royalist so he somehow got the heads and buried them as it would not have been politically expedient to have them in his possession. A later theory suggested that this guy just happened to be expanding his stables and needed rubble to fill in the foundation and the heads just happened to be in the cheap rubble he bought. Go figure – but regardless a great story.

I particularly liked the spire of Notre Dame, which sits atop the crossing, not on the bell towers. It seems kind of out of place to have the spire and flat bell towers, but I liked it. The spire apparently had been hit several times by lightening and is now grounded. I also liked the clock that was on the back side of the wing pointing towards the left bank. Just a nice everyday (large) clock over the buttresses. The buttresses on the side of the church seemed heavy but those around the back really flew.

One other neat thing we learned on the tour was about a restaurant that was on a side street near Notre Dame. The restaurant was cheerily painted red and had bars over the windows. The bars were not for security, but rather at some point in the past, the Paris government passed a law saying that taverns had to have bars on the windows so that when the police went in to cool off a fight or other problems, the patrons couldn’t jump out the window to get away from the authorities.

After the nap, we headed out to a restaurant near Montmartre that had fondue, as we wanted to visit a cheese restaurant in Paris. On the way there, we walked by the Moulin Rouge, which basically just has a bit neon windmill on the outside. The whole red-light district was a bit seedy, although plenty of families were still wandering around outside and we weren’t at all out of place with Maeve. And there were plenty of tour busses parked nearby with their passengers ensconced in one of the review for dinner and a show. We walked uphill a bit to the restaurant and found out their cook was still out so dinner would start 30 minute late. What to do on a rainy night while waiting for dinner? Walk uphill to Sacre Cour! The walk uphill wasn’t actually very far, and Sacre Cour is worth seeing. It’s a relatively new church, it was finished in the early 20th century, and the onion domes are distinctive. We walked up and the porch was full of people milling around and trying to stay dry. Inside, a service was going on and the church was full of people attending mass and a solid pack of people walking around to see the chapels. The dome over the main alter was a mosaic of an enormous Jesus, and both Mike and I rather liked it.

We walked back downhill and had cheese fondue. The dinner consisted of melted cheese and bread cubes. It was good, but not something I’d need to do again. Maeve was not terribly excited and was more than ready to go home. She even managed to break a glass – something she’d never done before.

On Tuesday we went to the Musee D’Orsay. We figured changing up between museum and walking around was good. Neither is perfect for Maeve – outdoors was too cold and museums were only as good as the benches they had to be climbing on – but she’s a trooper. The Musee D’Orsay was great. We again got there first thing in the AM, spent the morning there, ate lunch, spent another 45 minutes, went for nap, and went back in the late afternoon for another hour. We didn’t get to see everything, but did pretty well, and really liked the museum. What’s not to like about impressionism? I think my favorite was an “unfinished” painting of turkeys. I just really liked it. Another painting I really liked was one of some workmen refinishing a floor by Caillebotte. He was a new artist for me, but this painting was great.

But it was also nice to see a lot of paintings I’d seen in books. The colors of some of the clothing, like the Renoir of two people dancing – you can see all the white with rose and grey in her dress and he’s almost completely obscured. The colors of the clothing or the landscapes and they way light played over water or foliage are really amazing. I also liked the Seurat of the circus – I think the pointalist paintings gain from being seen in person, I’d never really understood the technique before. Anyway, the circus painting still had a wonderful sense of line and movement, even though most individual brush strokes were tiny. Maeve liked the horses. Dejuner sur L’Herbe is still a ridiculous composition, even in person. Why are the women naked and the men dressed? It makes no sense. I kind of liked the Gauguins, the Samoan women he paints just seem so approachable. I also really liked the Toulouse-Lautrec drawings. My favorite sculpture was Degas’ small dancer girl – she looks so weary yet patient. I really got overwhelmed with art I enjoyed looking at – this museum is a must-see.

On a logistical note, if you have a kid in tow, you can go in the group entrance, which has a much shorter line that the general entrance. This is very convenient. On another logistical note, I recommend that you not lose your claim check, as I did. If you do, your husband has to go into the cloak room and search for your bag. Then you say what the contents are before you pull them out so the attendant believes the bag is yours. Then you fill out a missing claim check log. Don’t do this, any of this.

On the 26th we headed back to Ile de la Cite to see inside Saint Chapelle and Notre Dame. St. Chapelle had a long line because the metal detector was broken, but it was so worth it. You go in and are in the lower chapel, which has a gift shop and a starry ceiling. Nice but no biggy. Then you go up the curving stairs and come out in the main chapel that is a riot of color from the stained glass, even on an overcast day. The walls tower above you with skinny columns of stone supporting and separating the stained glass windows from one another. The scenes in the windows are really too small to make sense of the Bible stories they’re telling, but the overall impression is just amazing. I think this chapel is my favorite piece of Gothic architecture ever.

After St. Chapelle, Notre Dame was just another big cathedral. There was a service going on while we were there, so the English-language tour we’d been hoping to catch was happening later. Just the main altar was lit up, and then there were several hundred people attending the service, with many more walking around the outside of the apse and looking around. The people were dwarfed by the architecture and the priest was miniscule and isolated, like a little mouse, during the service.

Next to Notre Dame are a couple of major tourist streets with tourist cafes, street food, and junk for sale. Before entering the cathedral, I wanted to get something hot to drink, so we looked at the street food. The first vendor was selling crepes for maybe 5 Euros each, a lot of money. So we went 3 or 4 vendors down and got them for 3 Euros, still no bargain but a lot cheaper, and got some hot chocolate. This is important, because that’s where Maeve learned to say “cocoa,” her word for chocolate. It’s now become an important part of her life.

That evening we headed out to another cheese restaurant, or so I thought. We did a lot of looking for cheese restaurants. On the way there, we stopped by the Arc de Triomphe. We had planned to go up to the top of the arch, but there was a military ceremony going on and the arch was closed for 90 minutes. There were tons of police and a few protesters, and lots of old veterans marching to the arch. All the traffic in L’Etoile, the huge traffic circle going around the arch, was stopped. Once the procession got to the arch, traffic started again and 8 lanes or more were buzzing around. Bizarre. After L’Etoile we hopped back on the metro to head to the cheese “restaurant” which was part of a local chain in the 17th district. It turned out to be a cheese shop, but not a restaurant. I had info about another one of the chain, so we hopped back on the metro after a detour through a very smoky restaurant for a diaper change. Smoking isn’t allowed indoors so all the smokers are on the street-side tables, which is fine except when it’s raining and the restaurants put out awnings to keep people dry, which also funnels the smoke into the restaurant. Yuck. So we hopped on the metro to head out for the other cheese restaurant on Rue Mouffetard in the 5th district. This restaurant also turned out to be a shop, so we just bought some cheese and some bread at a nearby bakery and headed home for dinner. The area was pretty lively with lots of little shops and good street life. Apparently, this chain of cheese shops, called Androuet, does in at least one of its shops have cheese dinners, but somehow when I was researching, I didn’t realize not all the outlets had food. Oh well, we saw two new neighborhoods while searching and ended up with a very good soft goat cheese and one harder cow cheese. Apparently restaurants that serve cheese do exist in Paris, but we never found one.

Our last day in Paris we went to the Picasso museum in the AM. The collection is fabulous, but the signs are all just in French which was difficult for me and impossible for Mike. In the afternoon, we went to the Centre Pompidou to look around, and somebody leaving gave us their tickets. There were some street performers outside the building and Maeve enjoyed running around the huge open space. With the tickets, we went in with Maeve and checked out the children’s exhibit on the first floor (after first taking a lot of stairs, elevators, and escalators around the first 3 floors) where she could play with blocks and then see what she made on TV. She mostly enjoyed moving blocks around. For dinner we went to a very small restaurant near the Centre Pompidou on Rue Rambuteau, Le Potagier du Marais. The food again was excellent, my favorite was the soup/puree, but the mains were also good. Maeve particularly enjoyed looking at the sous chef through the bar and the server gave her a small bit of smoothe left over when she made one for another customer. Altogether a good dinner and it was nice to have two really nice vegetarian meals in one week.

The next morning we headed out bright and early on the metro, Mike going to Charles de Gaul and the US, and Maeve and I taking the train home to Saarbruecken.

1 comment:

Kira said...

Saint Chappelle really is gorgeous, isn't it? So glad you had a chance to enjoy it.

And I got locked in to my apartment a few months, ago, which really is much scarier than being locked out!

I'm in Boston at the moment. I think this is the first time in more than 10 years that I've visited here without seeing you...will be very happy to see you on my next trip.