Springtime in Paris

March 2011

Apartment Building

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Paris in the Springtime

Paris France
16-31 March 2011

Paris is for walking tours; Paris is for Art and Architecture appreciation; Paris is for dining; and for us Paris is for visiting family. This year March in Paris was a welcome end for our travels to East Africa.

Spring comes earlier to Paris than it does in Ottawa. There is no snow, tourist crowds are minimal, the temperature is moderate, spring flowers are in full bloom and leaves are popping out on the trees. Yes, we need a warm jacket but it is great walking weather.

Most days for me started with a croissant run to one of several boulangeries (bakeries)near the apartment. After that I liked to walk our two grandsons, Atticus and Roman, to their school. After Erica and Andrew had left for their jobs, it was time for Ray and I to consult the guide books that Erica and Andrew have accumulated during their 3 ½ years in Paris and plot our route for the day. We sometimes walked straight from the apartment and other times took the Metro to explore new areas of the city as well as rediscover old favourites.

Of course the best routes included a good lunch spot. If it was a sunny day, a sandwich and soft drink bought at a boulangerie eaten in one of the many parks was just right. Other days we looked for a restaurant with a special two-course lunch menu. Restaurants are found on every street corner and are very popular with Parisians. There is lots of choice. We looked for the “good value” restaurants away from the touristy area. We had to make sure to choose a restaurant early in the lunch hour to ensure a seat. The food was invariably delicious and beautifully presented.

Erica started a new job in early January as Librarian for the University of London In Paris, located in the British Council Building, right next door to the Canadian Cultural Center, overlooking the Esplanade des Invalides. Ray and I accompanied Erica one morning to the library and were very impressed. She is very pleased with her job change.

We babysat the two boys the first weekend while Erica and Andrew flew to Lisbon for a short getaway on their own. We had a good time with the boys, playing their favourite card game, Solo, going to the park and swimming in the Montparnasse public pool on Sunday afternoon. Erica returned Sunday evening, leaving Andrew in the airport to catch a flight to Botswana where he had meetings all week.

One of our excursions took us to Père Lachaise Cemetery in the 20th arrondisement. The cemetery was started by Napoleon in 1804 to replace a cemetery, next to Les Halles, the city market. The cemetery had been closed in 1786 for health reasons. Père Lachaise is full of notable Parisians, including artists, writers, musicians and Napoleonic military elite. The cemetery is huge, spreading up over a hill. We got a map showing the location of famous people’s graves. Everybody else visiting has the same idea. Streets throughout are well sign posted, as are the divisions within the cemetery. The graves are all above ground style, with either a raised slab with an inscription or a family crypt. Most are quite elaborate. The map was quite good but still required searches to find the exact spot because the graves are so closely packed together.

The first grave on our list was for American Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the popular Doors group, who died in Paris in 1971 of a drug overdose. Fans still visit his grave, leaving bouquets of flowers and other mementos. We had to wait our turn to take photos of the grave.

We walked to the northeast corner to find the grave of Edith Piaf, stopping on the way to see other notable monuments. A large statue, reminiscent of Rodin’s the Thinker had the name E Bulgatti inscribed on it but no dates. All the info I found on the web said Bulgatti, the inventor of the famous racing car prior to WWII was buried near the Bulgatti plant in Germany. The statue was impressive anyway.

Edit Piaf’s grave was hard to find. A group led by one of the guides offering his services in the cemetery alerted the rest of us who had been fruitlessly searching. Nearby we finally located the grave of Modigliani, the Italian painter. He died of alcohol and drug abuse in abject poverty in Paris at age 35. He left a 22 year old pregnant common law wife, Jeanne Hébuterne, and a 15 month old daughter. Jeanne returned to her parents but was so distraught she jumped from her family’s fifth floor apartment killing herself and her unborn child three days after Mogdiliani’s death. She is buried next to her lover.

We finished by finding the graves of Moliere and La Fontaine, who were moved to their present site with great fanfare to publicize the new cemetery. We also found Chopin’s grave and Mano Solo, an artist who died in 2010 of AIDS.

One of the walking tours in Paris Access guide book sounded good. We had been to the Place des Voges, suggested as the start of the walk, but we hadn’t been to the places at the end of the walk. We took the Metro to the Louvre and made our way to the Place des Victoires at the confluence of six streets. An equestrian monument in the center of the square honors King Louis XIV celebrating the Treaties of Nijmegen, concluded in 1678-79. The original statue was destroyed in 1792 during the revolution. In 1828, the restored Bourbon king, Charles X, commissioned the current equestrian statue of Louis XIV, dressed as a Roman emperor.

The guide book highlighted Lucien Legrand wine store, in business since 1850, near the Place des Victoires. We found it in the lovely Gallerie Vivienne, one of several upscale malls covered with a glass roof, built over one of the narrow Parisien streets. The store was supposed to have a ceiling covered with wine corks but it was not visible from the outside. A notice on the door advertised rather expensive wine tasting and food to accompany the wines. Ray spotted a bottle of wine in the window from 1916. We wondered if it was still drinkable. A flower store in the mall caught our eye with a moss covered bicycle decorating the doorway.

There are two interesting arches in the area, both constructed on the destroyed medieval walls of the city. The Roman-style Porte de St Denis was built by Louis XIV to celebrate his victories in Flanders. Porte de St Martin was added two years later to announce the grandeur of Paris to visitors arriving from the north at the very time that Louis XIV was moving the court to Versailles. Nearby was the elaborate facade of the Renaissance Theatre, constructed in 1872.

On the way to Les Halles, we took a side trip to visit the Bourse de Commerce (1887), one of the few buildings to escape demolition of Les Halles. On the site of an ancient wheat hall, brokers dealt in wheat, sugar and other commodities. Today it houses the Chamber of Commerce. The dome is all that remains of the old wheat hall, rebuilt in metal after a fire in 1802 destroyed the original wooden dome. The interior of the dome is covered with murals depicting Paris as the defender of commerce and industry. Next to the Bourse is a 28 m (101-ft) column topped with a metal cage. The tower was originally attached to Catherine de Medici’s mansion. She built the Horoscope Tower in 1767 so that she and her astrologer could climb closer to the heavens and predict the future.

Les Halles (pronounced Lay Alle), was the traditional Paris market place. Père Lachaise cemetery replaced an older cemetery next to Les Halles. Demolished in 1971, the market was replaced by gardens covering an underground sports complex, shopping mall and RER train hub. Much of the complex is under reconstruction, scheduled to be completed at the end of the year. We walked through the garden area that included a children’s playground that Atticus and Roman would enjoy.

The courtyard of Ste Eustache Church, next to Les Halles, was filled with people enjoying a picnic lunch in the sun. L'écoute (the listener) sculpture by Henry Miller, sits outside the church. People crowded restaurants nearby and a small market with vendors selling take-out meals filled a side street. We found a booth with good falafel sandwiches, which we bought and ate sitting in the sun.

After lunch we followed the suggested route to the Defender of Time clock in an alley way leading to an apartment complex. It was built in 1975, modeled on the Rathaus clock in Munich. The oxidized brass sculpture originally heralded each hour of the day by sending a sword-brandishing warrior to battle against a bird, a crab and a dragon, representing the 3 elements: air, water and earth at. The faces of the clock have stopped at two different times, leaving just the figures for us to admire.

The esplanade of the Georges Pompidou Center, near the Clock, was awash with student groups and buskers. I spied an didgeridoo player sitting on the concrete playing very well. When asked, she admitted she was French, not Aussie. I left a tip because it is a difficult instrument to play and she played very well. A juggler had a large English speaking school group watch him try to catch a spoon in a cup balanced on his head. He finally succeeded after several tries. Another man created giant soap bubbles between two lengths of rope. One man, sitting peacefully eating a nutritious meal of fruit and veggies, had a huge pile of junk, his art work, balanced precariously on a shopping cart beside him. I took his photo and tried to give him a tip, but he didn’t have a hat or cup ready to accept money.

Paris is full of fountains that were recently turned on for the spring season. Another day we returned to the Pompidou Center with Atticus. He was fascinated with The Stravinsky fountain, next to the Pompidou Center. Colourful figures, inspired by Stravinsky’s music, twirl and spout water, making it a child magnet. In a square next to Stravinsky is the Fountain of the Innocents, a large sculpture built between 1546 and 1549. It was named after the adjacent Innocents Church, named after the innocent children killed in Judea by Herodes.

Another walk found us at Musée des Arts et Metiers, the oldest Science and Technology museum in Europe. It was founded in 1794 as a depository for the preservation of scientific instruments and inventions and housed since its inception in the deserted priory of St Martin des Champs. We will have to visit the museum another time. We just went into the inner courtyard and then around to the garden of the museum where a copy of the Statue of Liberty stands. The statue was the plaster cast of the eventual full sized Statue of Liberty. After the sculptor died, the cast was finished and donated to the museum by his widow.

The 19th C Theatre Gaiete, where comedies and dramas are still performed, sits across the street from the Museum courtyard. A pleasant park with a pretty fountain, it is popular with locals enjoying the spring sunshine.
Erica had suggested we go to Marche des Enfants Rouge for lunch. Flower and vegetable stalls share space with several restaurants serving take-out meals. We each chose a plate of tagine; one with lamb and the other with chicken, which we ate sitting at the tables in the sun.

Andrew came home Friday morning from his meetings in Botswana. We gave him a break by decamping to Chenonceaux in the Loire Valley for the weekend. See the separate blog for details.

We usually visit at least one museum. I chose the L’Orangerie, an art gallery on the Place de la Concorde, full of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings, most from the collection of art patron Paul Guillaume. The upper floor contains Monet’s tableau of Les Nymphaes (Waterlillies), inspired by his gardens in Giverny. Monet produced the canvases during WWI. He envisioned the canvases arrayed in a circle to create an area of calm as an antidote to the horrors of war. Monday afternoon there is a guided tour in English. Ray and I would have benefited more with the English audio guide. Our guide, an art historian, spoke little English. Ray and I were joined by two British girls for the 1 ½ hour tour. Ray lasted 20 minutes before excusing himself and doing his own tour. I did learn a lot from the guide but it required a lot of patience. I ended up as unofficial translator for the struggling guide.
Paris is also a city of tourist scams. Beware. We left the L’ Orangerie to walk through the adjoining Tuilleries garden, where we spied a woman trying the infamous gold ring scam on unsuspecting tourists. We had fallen prey to this scam two years ago. Erica had told us that we were lucky to have escaped by just paying €2 for the worthless “gold” ring. Often there is a pick pocket working with the Gold Ring person. When I saw the tourists being approached, I called out “it is a scam”. The tourists quickly left and we were followed and soundly berated in a language I did not understand for a short distance by the woman and her partner. They felt cheated of their expected payment. I was glad to stop the fleecing of tourists.

The next day Ray went for a walk to the Eiffel Tower. The area is always full of tourists, souvenir salesmen and con men enticing tourists to bet under which shell the stone has been placed. He walked home along the Seine but was stopped on the sidewalk by two scruffy looking men who claimed they were police. Ray demanded identification. One showed him an arm band which could have been counterfeit. The other man quickly flashed a badge but Ray was not satisfied. They spoke only French and Ray’s French is limited. A couple with a young child was alerted to Ray’s problem and came to his assistance. It turned out they were genuine police and wanted to see identification. Apparently this is permitted in France. The woman who stopped explained to the plains clothed police that this was not the case in North America. The problem was resolved but be cautioned. Carrying some sort of photo identification with you in Europe. You could be asked to produce it.

We ended our visit to Paris the last evening with a delicious dinner with Erica at an Italian restaurant near her work place. We will be back exploring more of the city and of course sampling more of the cuisine.

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