Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Paris, France: Sightsensing

This post is a bit long in text and images, so hopefully you will make it to the end.  This blog includes what I most want to share with my mother, so I dedicate this one to her so she can get a sense of Paris through us.

More than a few of you reading this have been to France. And if you have been to France, you likely have been to Paris. And now we have been, too.  For us the city was a bit overwhelming for all the senses. So accompanying the photos below is a summary of our impressions grouped by touch, sight, sound, smell and taste.

We spent four days in the city and one day in Versailles. We camped in a suburb approximately 40 kilometers south of Paris and purchased a multi-day transit pass that allowed unlimited use of buses, regional trains into the city and metro lines within the city. So by 8:00am we were queued up on the train platform with the other commuters. By the time we transfered to the metro it was peak time, and we were elbow to elbow with Parisians, jostling through the dark subway tubes. Standing was often the only option, squeezed in like sardines. But the French people are polite, we weren’t pushed or shoved. Standing on a moving metro car is an act of balance, and I gripped onto the poles and overhead rails without hesitation, but John avoided those germ magnets and stayed upright in the subway cars like a surfer on a wave.

Riding the metro was nothing compared to visiting Versailles. We took our bikes onto the regional train, and cycled a short distance to fabulous gilded gate. We knew it would be crowded, but we were not prepared for the masses of people lined up in the huge cobblestoned courtyard. One of the entrance attendants told us where we could lock our bikes, and said the crowds are less in the afternoon. So we spent the morning circling the wilderness of Versailles -- the expansive forest and canal and dirt trails that criss-cross the grounds. The interior of the château and the formal gardens have an admittance fee, but everywhere else is a public park. It was a Saturday and French citizens were out having a picnic on a beautiful sunny day, just like us.

The Palace of Versailles-- a people magnet.
It looked less crowded when we finally bought our tickets and stepped into the entrance. The rooms in the place are immense, but we were soon merged into the crowd that shuffled from room to room like a river current. But we learned to slip through when an opening appeared and get a good view of all that opulence. And after everyone got into the Hall of Mirrors the throngs dissipated a bit and we could breathe again. In the beginning I was wondering if it was worth being squeezed into the clammy soft flesh of our fellow tourists, but we were glad we persevered and saw up close the beautiful designs and craftsmanship and to occupy the space where the excess of power and wealth met its end.
The wilderness of Versailles.  Just ride your bike a couple of kilometers down the canal and you have it practically to yourself. 

The French picnicking on a fine June day.  It resembles this painting just a bit, don't you think?

The formal gardens of Versailles.

Elaborate decoration everywhere you look.

The Hall of Mirrors.

Us reflecting in the Hall of Mirrors.  I think we were the only people in biking clothes.

I don't think I could fall asleep in this bed with all that gilding reflecting about.
Since our mode of travel through France is mostly outdoors, the soundscape we experience has persistent elements:  the high-low sirens of the police and ambulance, weed whackers, distant church bells marking the hour, the whine of a train when it passes, and the cooing of pigeons (which are EVERYWHERE, often leaving souvenirs on our tent). And Paris has all of these, but add to the list the sound of people talking English.  It seemed like at all the big sights we were surrounded by Americans.

A pleasant surprise were the buskers (street musicians) in the subways.  The passageways often are like a maze, but the tiled walls would reflect the music from a distance and the acoustics made it sound like a concert hall.  They were not all that numerous -- it seems they need to get permission to perform -- but they were highly skilled, even selling their recordings on the side.  We saw folk singers, violinists, cellists, and one woman playing very unusual ancient lyre.  Our last day we visited the Palais Garnier (opera house), and like all good attractions the exit is through the gift store.  And there was a DVD playing an orchestra performance with soloists.  And I swear the same woman with the lyre was one of them!
The famous glass pyramid in the center of the Louvre.
Our first day in Paris we spent in the Musée du Louvre.  It was one long day.  The museum is immense and we didn’t want to miss a thing, so we walked through every room.  And the day was even longer because we got confused on how to make the connection to the regional train back to our suburban camp, but thanks to a generous French soul who called across the tracks to ask where we were going and how to get there, we made it back before the sun set (10pm this time of year!)  As we were walking towards the campground we heard the distant thump-thump of a live band.  And when we got back to our tent it was even louder, in fact just on the other side of the fence in the park.  It was a Saturday and this was the town’s summer festival.  We crawled into our tent and inserted the ear plugs and hoped we could fall asleep, even though we could still hear the deep bass beat.  And that is when the fireworks started.  Right over our heads.  We just had to roll on our side to see the light show.  I commented to John that the music was not that bad after all, and the first chuckle of the evening.  But it was the finale, and we were off in dreamland shortly after.
The Louvre's collection includes the ancient, like this room of roman antiquities.

Like so many other museums, the setting is as impressive as the art.

Hey, what is everyone looking at?

Just a little portrait of a woman with an enigmatic smile.

The Louvre is a U-shaped building housed in a former palace, with the modern glass pyramid in the center.

There were several fully furnished rooms from the time of Louis XIV.

Just a few people coming over for dinner.

One of a few fully enclosed sculpture courtyards.

Some really old vessels..like 3000 years old.

Just one piece in the Islamic section.

Sarcophagi of many shapes, sizes and materials.

I sometimes worry about the collective health of the French people.  Smoking is as common as it probably was in the 50‘s in the United States.  All ages and demographics participate, and it is hard to be in any outdoor public space without smelling smoke.  Poor John -- he usually waits outside the supermarket with our bikes as I go in to do our food shopping, and he invariably encounters smokers finishing off just one more before entering.  And in Paris it was just that much worse because there are so many more people.  Our experience has been that the French are very courteous and polite. But even the glare directed at an offending smoker to let them know we don’t want to share their smoke, which works so well in California, goes unnoticed in this country.

But a wonderful smell experience was the day we bought tea.  I am a bit spoiled at home.  I buy loose-leaf tea by mail order, and I am accustomed to a good strong cup every morning.  The supermarket variety I have been drinking has no flavor.  But in Paris, a city of gourmands, we found the Palais des Thés, a boutique like you would find selling perfume.  Upon entering you are handed a cup of hot tea to sample.  And lining the shop are shelves with little dishes of tea, covered with glass jars.  So if one of the poetic tea names catch your attention, you can lift the jar and a wave of aroma comes your way.  I left that store with a half of kilo of happiness, tucked in a little paper bag with handles and the store name printed on the outside, like you would get at any fashionable boutique.

The Orsay Museum is housed in the former central rail station.

There were a couple of these clocks still in place.

The paintings in the French Impressionists section of the Orsay were magnificent.

"Little Dancer of Fourteen Years" by Degas.

Just a small portion of the plaster original of Rodin's "The Gates of Hell", parts of which he enlarged to bigger sculptures. 

It is not hard to imagine this space's original use.

Absolutely beautiful restored clock...see if you can find it in the previous photo.

A most exquisite Art Nouveau bed.
Every day of bike traveling is a sight sensation.  The scene changes constantly, and since we don’t retrace our route, it is always new.  But even this training did not prepare us for all we would see in our five days of Paris.  A long day at the Musée d'Louvre and another at the Musée d'Orsay were overwhelming -- to see so much great art and so many masterpieces up close was part of why we came to France.  When I finally got to lay down and to sleep each night, a mental slideshow of what we saw would pass by.  I don’t want to forget, but I know time will begin to erase the memories.  So I committed to myself to remember what impressed us the most -- the sarcophagi in the Louvre, the art of Degas, the sculptures of Rodin, the Art Nouveau aesthetic.  And if a day in the future I feel blue or pessimistic about humanity, I can use the internet to see it all again.

We walked and looked at so many other iconic sights -- Versailles, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame, Jardin des Tuilleries, Sacre-Couer in Montmartre, Palais Garnier.  But finding a toilet was a challenge, but this little app came in quite handy!

We walked down the Champs-Elysees, which is a big wide grand boulevard of the type Paris is known for, but it left us less than impressed.  Cafés with smokers outside and lots of high-end shops.  But at the end of this boulevard is the Arc de Triomphe, more massive than it seemed from the newsreels when Paris was liberated in WWII.  And there is a tunnel that takes you underneath what has to be the world’s largest traffic circle to take you to the other side.  We were standing there admiring the monument, and a man walks by, bends down, and then shows us a sparkling gold ring.  Wow!  He looks at it and then offers it to us.  We say, no, take it.  He refuses and gives it to us, saying in broken English, it will be good luck.  We say ok.  He starts to walk away, then turns around and comes back.  Asks for some money for lunch.  I say to John, give the man a couple of euros.  He does.  The guy asks for another euro.  We are on to the scam, but it is too late.  He keeps asking for more money, and we say no, but he won’t take the ring back and he won’t give us back our coin.  We felt so stupid.  So when a woman tried the same trick on us the next day in front of the opera house, we just laughed.  We watched her walk away and try it on three other people.  The first two just ignored her, but the last one looked like he was getting reeled in and reaching for his wallet.  John walked over and just kept shaking his head and repeating not to give her money.  The transaction was interrupted and the woman was pissed and followed us spewing curses, but John felt avenged. 

The River Seine.

A door on the Notre Dame Cathedral.

Detail of one bridge over the River Seine.

Gratuitous tourist photo.

The letter "P" cut into these breads stands for "Poilane".
Finally, in answer to the question: “What did you eat?”.... 

We ate one lunch in the restaurant in the Musee d’Orsay, mostly because our backpack with our picnic was in the baggage check which was through the door that if we exited we could not re-enter. 

One of my favorite food bloggers recommended this place for crepes, and it was a satisfying meal.  How can you go wrong with a big buckwheat crepe filled with cheese, folded like an square envelope, topped with a hardly cooked egg yolk, and washed down with Breton cider?

The boulangerie and patisserie shops in the city were not much different or even better than what we have experienced in even the smallest country village.  But this trip to Paris was a bit of a pilgrimage for me, to find and taste what has been described as the world’s greatest bread.  I first became aware of Poilane bread from this article in Smithsonian magazine.  And I have since mastered baking my own naturally-leavened bread, so I needed to experience it.  And you can get lunch at the café next door.

The cafe served tartines, which are really toast topped with tasty toppings.  And they use only Poilane bread, cut from the middle of the boule loaf so the slice is at least 10 inches long, and then cut crosswise in six pieces, perfect for sharing with your dining partner.  The café was just a hallway with dining tables on one wall and the food preparation area on the other wall.  Diners could sit on the long bench against the wall, but the little tables had to be moved out of the way to squeeze in and sit down. It seemed to be filled with only Parisians. We were close enough to our neighboring diners to be family, but in the French way, your attention is directed only to the person at your little table sitting across from you. We enjoyed the tartines, and the glass of wine, and the salad, and the gazpacho.  But I could not help but steal a glance at the fresh strawberry tart the couple next to us was eating, so we had a slice of that, too.  It was a fine meal.

We bought a stack of sliced Poilane bread, for our picnic dinner that evening, because a full loaf was too much for even us carbohydrate addicts.  It is an excellent bread.  The crust is hard and just shy of scorched and full of flavor, what can only be achieved with a wood-fired oven.  Our last day in the city we sought out another Polaine shop, very near the tea shop, and bought a petite boule for lunch for when we would commence cycling the next day.  They put it in one of those little boutique paper bags and I carried it around protectively all day along with my little bag of tea, like a newborn baby in a basket.
A few along the famous Champs-Élysées.

Arc de Triomphe

The simplicity of a typical picnic lunch for us -- bread, cheese and tomato.  But this one is special -- made with Poilane bread!

Waiting for the morning train.

La Basilique du Sacré Cœur de Montmartre

A view of the heart of metropolitan Paris from the high point in Montmartre.

Only a few of the metro station art nouveau entrances still remain.

A space as beautiful as the music played within...the Grand-Foyer in the Palais Garnier opera house.

Staircase within the Palais Garnier.
One of our best memories of Paris happened on the last evening.  We planned to get back early to get our gear organized and be ready for cycling the next day.  But the train stopped on the tracks halfway to our station due to an electrical problem and we were stationary for nearly an hour and a half.  So when we finally got back to camp it was late and we were hungry, so we plopped down on the grass next to our tent with our tablecloth and picnic dinner.  And a bit later mother and daughter of the family staying in the mobile home at the end of our row came over with a folding picnic table and offered it to us.  The girl spoke English and invited us over.  At 10pm we were sitting on their porch drinking coffee and hot cocoa, nibbling on cookies, and talking about our travels and the best parts of France and what California is like.  They were apologetic for seeing us for the last several days and not inviting us over sooner.  And so they insisted we come over for coffee the next morning, too.  Thank you Marine, Christine, Claude, Francois, and Cassandre.  You represent the best of France.
Our adopted French family.

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