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Published: September 26th 2006
The bustling rue Cler
Looking down Rue Cler from in front of our hotel: Rue Cler is a cobblestone street right out of a picturebook, located smack in the middle of the proudly bourgeois Rue Cler market, which is in the richest arrondissement in Paris. Here live the bulk of senior civil servants, captains of industry, and many diplomats. It provides an excellent classroom to learn the fine art of living Parisian-style.
PARIS, FRANCE August 1-8, 2006
Tuesday, August 1, 2006
After spending the first part of our vacation in Dubai, the hotel’s Lexus cab took us to the Dubai airport for our noon flight to Paris on Air France. We arrived around 5 p.m. and took a cab to our hotel, the charming Grand Hotel Leveque, in the heart of Rue Cler on the Left Bank.
Rue Cler is a pedestrian, cobblestone market-street right out of a picturebook. What a great hotel...superb location, immaculate, friendly, pleasant, on a bustling and colorful pedestrian street. The street is full of bakeries, wine shops, tart shops, colorful outdoor produce stalls, cheeseries, and fish vendors, and it's within easy walking distance of the Eiffel, the Seine, and the Orsay.
After checking into our pastel-colored room facing the street, the first thing we did was to walk to the Eiffel Tower and share a picnic dinner under some trees at its base. Next, we ambled over to the Seine River and took a leisurely sunset cruise, enjoying a unique, illuminated view of many of Paris’ world-famous monuments and bridges from a typically Parisian riverboat.
Wednesday, August 2, 2006
Day 2, after a
breakfast in the hotel’s bistro-style cafe (free with Rick Steves’ book), we took a 3 1/2 hour guided tour of the city in a minibus to get our bearings. During this tour we learned about the history of Paris and admired the major attractions of the Capital City including Les Invalides, Champs-Elysses, Arc de Triomphe, Eiffel Tower, Trocadero, Opera Garnier, Concorde Square, Notre-Dame, Vendome Square, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, Louvre, and Madeleine Church. We had intended this tour just to be an overview to get our bearings and determine to which sights we wanted to return. However, we made such nice, lengthy stops at Montmartre, Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart), and Notre Dame that we didn’t feel the need to return later, so I’ll mention them here: The Sacré-Coeur Catholic basilica was built at the end of the 19th century at the top of the Montmartre hill, the highest point in Paris. Its famous white architecture dominates the city, and its location offers a magnificent view. Notre Dame, "Our Lady," was built between 1163 and 1345 by the faithful of the medieval community, whose arduous manual labor created the massive church. The bell towers are 200 feet tall, and the statues lined
horizontally below the central rose window are the 28 kings of Judea. The central portal depicts the Last Judgment.
After our morning tour of the city, we took the Metro to the Arc d'Triomphe, the 165-foot high arch that was begun in 1809 to honor Napoleon's soldiers and to celebrate Napoleon as emperor. From there, we began our stroll down the Champs Elysees, Paris' most famous thoroughfare. Les Champs is lined with cafes, shops, and almost every luxury-car dealership imaginable, and the bustle makes for great people-watching. After coffee at a sidewalk cafe, we Metro-ed to the Opera Garnier (Paris' National Opera House), a symbol of the opulence of the nineteenth century. The building is huge but seats only 2,000. Reason: The stage is large enough to accommodate 450 artists and there had to be enough backstage area to support the massive productions, which often included dozens of live animals. However, the real "show" occurred before and after each performance, as the elite of Paris--out to see and be seen--strutted their elegant stuff in the extravagant lobbies. In fact, the most expensive boxes in the house had obstructed views of the stage but were the ones where the patrons could
be best seen by others.
We then walked across the street to view an entertaining multimedia film called The Paris Story. An overview of the city’s turbulent and brilliant past, covering 2,000 years in 45 minutes, the theater’s wide-screen projection and cushy chairs provided an ideal break and a good introduction to Paris. The photography was spectacular, and the “narration by Victor Hugo” was simultaneously translated into fourteen different languages via headset.
After the film, around 6 p.m., we took the Metro back to rue Cler, where we had a delightful dinner at a sidewalk café called Tribeca, located only a few yards from our hotel. We quickly made friends with our waitress Dede, who recommended a fabulous salad of greens topped with marinated tomatoes, mozzarella, and basil. It was scrumptious! Bill had the gazpacho soup, which was also tasty. French wine, of course, completed the meal.
Thursday, August 3, 2006
Our day began with the friendly and delightful Stephan, who rolled out his crepe machine every morning across from our hotel and served the most delicious crepes imaginable. We had the Nutella (chocolate) and banana crepe…oooooh, so yummy…to begin our day.
With our 3-day museum pass in hand, we
The rear view of Notre Dame, with its flying buttresses, each with a span of 50 feet.
began at the granddaddy of all museums, the Louvre. Built as a fortress in the 13th century and later used as a royal residence, it is the world’s largest museum. Touring the Louvre is overwhelming, so we were selective and focused on the South Wing, which houses many of the "superstars” of art, including the Big 3: Venus de Milo (c. 2nd century B.C.), Winged Victory of Samothrace (c. 190 B.C.), and Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. One section that we particularly enjoyed was the exhibition of 30 masterworks of American painters who studied at the Louvre at some time in their lives. However, the hoardes of tourists, the areas closed for remodeling, and confusing signs all contributed to our early, jaded departure. We both felt that the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the superior art museum in almost all respects.
We lunched in a café in the Louvre before exiting through the controversial, futuristic, steel-and-glass Pyramide. We walked past the Arc du Carrousel and through part of the Tuilleries Gardens before crossing the Seine to visit one of our favorite museums, the Orsay. En route, Bill purchased two paintings from a sidewalk artist. The Musee d'Orsay was converted
Winged Victory of Samothrace
Bill stands in front of one of the "Big Three" of the Louvre, "Winged Victory of Samothrace" (c. 190 B.C.). This woman with wings, poised on the prow of a ship, once stood on a hilltop to commemorate a naval victory. It was unearthed in 1850 in Turkey.
from a train station destined for the wrecking ball when the French realized it would be a great place to house the enormous collections of 19th-century art scattered throughout the city. It picks up in time where the Louvre leaves off, specifically 1848 to 1914, or more meaningful to me, Impressionism. Some of the masters whose works we viewed during our 3 hours there were Cabanel, Millet, Manet, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, van Gogh, Cezanne, Rousseau, Gaugin, Toulouse-Latrec, and more.
Sainte Chapelle, which ranks as one of the finest achievements of French High Gothic with its exquisite interior of almost entirely stained-glass walls, was our next stop. It was built by Louis IX in 1242 to house Christ’s crown of thorns, which he had purchased for several times more than it cost to build the church. There are 1,113 magnificent stained-glass panels depicting virtually the entire story of the Bible.
Near Sainte-Chapelle is the Conciergerie, the gloomy prison famous as the last stop for the 2,780 victims of the guillotine, including Marie-Antoinette. Nearing the end of a very tiring and full day, Bill decided to sit and read while I walked around the prisoners’ gallery, re-created cells, walkway of the
Interior of the Musee d'Orsay
The Main Gallery pictured here displays early 19th-century statues.
executioner, and the museum.
We tunneled by Metro back to rue Cler, enjoyed another fine dinner at Tribeca, and returned to the hotel to get ready for our much-anticipated evening in the “Sin Center of Paris,” the netherworld of Pigalle! A mini-bus picked us up, and we were driven to the base of Montmartre for a fabulous show at one of the world’s most famous cabarets, the sexy Moulin Rouge. The show was incredible, as we enjoyed a bottle of Champagne while watching their new show “Feerie.” The show used a troupe of 60 Doriss girls (the legendary Moulin Rouge beauties/dancers) and 1,000 costumes of sequins, feathers, rhinestones, leather, and other fabrics. The extensive sets included moving staircases, a gigantic aquarium that rose from under the stage, live pythons and horses, lifts that swung women from the ceiling, acrobats, jugglers, and comedy skits...very, very entertaining! We were back at our hotel around midnight.
Friday, August 4, 2006
Another fabulous crepe, this time bacon, egg, and cheese, prepared by Stephan began our day before walking to Les Invalides, a masterpiece of French architecture and one of Paris’ most prominent landmarks. The massive complex includes a remarkable 17th century set of buildings
"The Dance Class" by Degas
Enter 1870's and the Impressionists, who rejected camera-like detail for a quick style more suited to capturing the passing moment. This is Edgar Degas' "The Dance Class," in which bored, tired dancers scratch their backs restlessly at the end of a long rehearsal. The bright green bow is a perfect example of the Impressionistic style...Degas slopped green paint onto her dress, and voila, a bow!
commissioned by Louis XIV to provide care for wounded soldiers and serve as the royal arsenal. Today, the gilded Dome Church serves as a mausoleum for Napoleon’s monumental tomb, while the Army Museum occupies the remaining buildings. One of the world’s foremost military museums, the Musee de l’Armee has a vast collection of thousands of weapons, armor, uniforms, banners, and military pictures down through the ages. The stories of the two World Wars are brilliantly commemorated with authentic recordings of speeches and archival film footage in room after room. Both of us were mesmerized, and we spent over 4 hours here.
After lunch in the Army Museum’s cafeteria (even the cafeterias in Paris have delicious gourmet food!), we walked across the street to the Rodin Museum. The museum’s setting is elegant, a beautiful 18th-century mansion which the sculptor leased from the State in return for the gift of all his work upon his death. The lush gardens surrounding the mansion contain bronze casts of several of Rodin’s major works, and things get even better inside with The Thinker, The Kiss, The Hand of God, Walking Man, The Bronze Age, The Man with the Broken Nose, and more.
Another Metro trip
Inside Sainte-Chappelle: There are 15 separate panels of stained glass, with more than 1,100 different Bible scenes. This altar contained the Crown of Thorns.
took us to the charming Marais District and the Picasso Museum, which walks you through the evolution of the 20th century's greatest artist's many styles. The collection was started by works the French State received in payment of death duties after Picasso passed away in 1973, then again in 1990, after the death of his widow. Housed in a grand Marais mansion that once served as an embassy, the collection contains works from all periods of his long and prolific career, including the arresting sculptures he created from recycled household objects.
Continuing our stroll through Marais, we paused at the courtyard of the Carnavalet Museum, which recounts the history of Paris, to admire the beautifully manicured French gardens. Because it was nearly 5 p.m., and we wanted to visit Victor Hugo’s home, which closed at 5, we were unfortunately unable to tour this grand museum of 140 rooms. Next time!
As we hurried along the picturesque, narrow streets of Marais, one of Paris’ oldest districts, we admired the restored buildings and the fascinating cafes and shops that now make this a sought-after residential district. We arrived at the beautiful Place des Vosges, the oldest monumental square in Paris, which has
Rodin's "The Thinker"
Rodin's most celebrated work, "The Thinker" (Le Penseur), was originally conceived by the artist as Dante Alighieri, contemplating his Inferno.
kept its Renaissance charm intact. The elegant Place des Vosges is lined with arcaded seventeenth-century brick-and-stone mansions and has an attractive and popular garden in the center. Among the many celebrities and well-heeled Parisians who made their homes in this aristocratic elegance was Victor Hugo. His home, # 6, is now a museum, which we entered at one minute until five, just in time for a tour.
Continuing to browse this fascinating district, we walked about 30 minutes to a Metro stop and rode westward to visit the Modern Art Museum in the Centre Georges Pompidou, which is in the area Parisians call Beauborg. This building is itself an icon of modern Paris and one of its more radical buildings with its snakes-and-ladder appearance. It holds an unrivalled collection covering all of the principal art movements of the 20th century. We were hungry, so we paused in the museum’s café for a quick dinner before our evening in the dense and efficiently-organized exhibits of Fauvism, Cubism, abstract art, Surrealism, and contemporary art. We have now completed our three-museum tour of art through time, beginning in the fourth millennium B.C. in the Louvre through Impressionism in the Orsay and finally, to
the present time in the Pompidou.
Saturday, August 5, 2006
Today we visited the Palace of Versailles, France’s symbol of pre-Revolutionary royal decadence and the third most visited monument in the country. We hopped onto an RER suburban train to travel the 15 miles west of Paris, where we had intended to do a self-guided tour of the palace and gardens. When we got off the train, we decided instead to take a tour with a local company, and are we ever glad we did! The lines of people outside the entrance were about 100 yards long, with a wait of hours. With a tour guide, however, we entered at the front of the line; plus, we received valuable insight into the chateau, the gardens, the royal occupants, and French history.
First on our itinerary were the chateau’s magnificent gardens and park, which you could spend a whole day exploring. A principal feature in the park is the Grand Canal, an artificial ornamental stretch of water that covers an area of 105 acres (the size of my entire farm!), surrounded by pathways, fountains, and painstakingly sculpted trees and bushes.
We were then escorted into the main palace and toured the
two-story Royal Chapel. Every morning at 10 a.m., Louis XIV and his family walked through huge golden doors and entered the chapel to music played by dozens of musicians. While the king sat on the upper level and looked down on the golden altar, the lowly nobles below knelt with their backs to the altar and looked up—worshipping Louis worshipping God.
Louis XIV had godlike status, and he built Versailles both as a temple to himself and to represent the power and richness of France, which was at its pinnacle at the time. One of the best representations of this arrogance was the Hall of Mirrors through which the king walked every day on his way to the chapel. No one had ever seen anything like it when it was opened. Mirrors were a great luxury at the time, and the number and size of these monsters were and still are astounding. The hall is 250 feet long with 17 arched mirrors, matched by 17 windows reflecting the breathtaking view of the gardens. Ceiling decorations chronicling Louis’ military accomplishments, marble busts and statues, and gilded candelabras holding thousands of candles completed the epic scale of this hall.
Next were the
King’s and Queen’s State Apartments, where they were publicly watched by hundreds of doting subjects nearly 24 hours a day. Interestingly, all of the queen’s childbirths had to be observed by the public to verify chain of succession—no privacy whatsoever, which of course led to Bill’s question to the tour guide, “If they were constantly being observed by the public, when and how did they have sex?’ The tour guide blushingly replied that the king only pretended to go to sleep in his chamber, and as soon as the people left, he sneaked out and went to a private area where he met the queen or one of his mistresses. She also said that Louis XVI had trouble conceiving a child, and that probably led to his queen, Marie Antoinette’s reputed infidelities. Bill asked the guide if Louis had had “E.D.” She seemed puzzled, so he clarified, “erectile dysfunction.” After the entire group finished laughing, she replied that whatever it was had been repaired surgically and he subsequently had four sons with Marie. I kept my hand over Bill’s mouth after that so he couldn’t ask any more questions, but he managed to tell the tour guide as we were
leaving, “You were a great tour guide…you sure knew a lot about sex.”
A complete tour of the chateau would take days, but we had had enough after about 5 hours and walked into the village for a late lunch before returning to the city. We had burgers and real “French” fries at a McDonald’s near the train station. It was late afternoon when we returned to Rue Cler, so we joined the locals to shop for the ultimate French picnic. We assembled it in no fewer than five shops, collecting such treats as fresh fruit and cheeses, French bread, pickled asparagus, sandwiches, chocolate mousse, and wine.
Shopping for groceries is an integral part of daily life here. Parisians shop almost daily for three good reasons: refrigerators & kitchens are small, produce must be fresh, and it's an important social event. The ritual thrives on Rue Cler, which is in the heart of one of Paris’ wealthiest districts.
Our picnic dinner was magical as we sat on the grassy field of Champ de Mars in front of the Eiffel Tower waiting for dark and the awesome lights that engorge the tower. The sight becomes even more spectacular at each
hour, when the lights twinkle brilliantly for ten minutes. It was a perfect evening with temps around 72-75 degrees F. A leisurely stroll brought us back to the hotel around 11 p.m.
Sunday, August 6, 2006
Attending 10:30 a.m. Sunday mass at St. Sulpice Church (of DaVinci Code fame) was our first agenda item today. When we arrived at Place St. Sulpice via Metro with an hour to spare, we decided to enjoy breakfast at the square’s trendy outdoor Café de la Mairie, where Catherine Deneuve and Albert Camus, among other celebrities, have been spotted. After leisurely coffee and people-watching in the absolutely-perfect weather, we crossed the street to the “Cathedral of the Left Bank,” the enormous 17th-century St. Sulpice, which is only slightly smaller than Notre Dame.
Most of the participants in the mass were tourists with sadly only a dozen or so locals in attendance. Although DaVinci Code has made this grand church a trendy stop, the real reason to visit is to see and hear its intimately accessible organ. One of Europe’s great musical treats, the Grand Orgue has a rich history going back 300 years. After the 10:30 service, the loft was opened
The nave of St. Sulpice
After the 10:30 Mass, the loft is opened so visitors can observe the five keyboards and 7,000 pipes. The Grand Organ at St. Sulpice has had a succession of 12 world-class organists over the past 300 years.
to visitors, and we got a chance to see the amazing 6,588-pipe organ with five keyboards. We circled the church’s interior to admire the amazing Delacroix murals, the Mary and Child Chapel, and of course the Egyptian-style obelisk used as a gnomon, or sundial, as depicted in DaVinci Code.
Turning left out of the church, we continued south on rue Ferou to Paris’ most beautiful, interesting, and enjoyable garden/park. The 60-acre private Luxembourg Garden, with its immaculate lawns dotted with fountains and statues, was a great place to watch Parisians at rest and play on a Sunday afternoon. The brilliant flower beds are changed three times a year and are absolutely gorgeous. The Luxembourg Palace on the north side of the Garden is where the French Senate meets.
After spending some time in the Luxembourg Garden, we set out walking toward the Pantheon. We stopped at an outdoor café near the Sorbonne called Le Soufflot for a light lunch. In full view of the café was the imposing dome of the Pantheon, originally built as a church but now a mausoleum for the tombs of France’s great historical figures, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie Curie, and Victor Hugo.
It is also home to Foucault’s Pendulum, which demonstrates the rotation of the earth. The interior was well worth a visit for its oddly secular frescoes and sculptures and its monumental design.
From the main portico of the Pantheon, we headed north toward the Seine. In the Heart of the Latin Quarter was a quite enjoyable museum, formerly known at the Cluny Museum (after the original owner, the Abbot of Cluny of 1330), now known as the Museum of the Middle Ages. Aside from the solemn religious art, there is some lively stuff here. This two-level museum is a treasure house of medieval art and tapestries. Too numerous to mention them all, I’ll just talk about my favorite, the 21 thirteenth-century heads of the Biblical Kings of Judea, decapitated from the front of Notre Dame during the Revolution because the revolutionaries mistook them for the kings of France. They were gathered up, buried, and only recently discovered, in 1977, during an excavation near the Opera Garnier. Today’s heads on the Notre Dame statues are reconstructions.
The Metro once again carried us across the city to the Montparnasse neighborhood, where once there was a warren of artist studios but
Inside the Museum of Medieval Art
In 1793, an angry mob of Revolutionaries mistook the 21 Biblical kings of Judea that decorated the front of Notre Dame for the kings of France and decapitated them.
now there are modern glass-fronted buildings and shopping areas, including the tallest building in continental Europe, the Montparnasse Tower. The 680-foot, 50-story glassy commercial complex offers a stupendous view of Paris…much better than the view from the Eiffel Tower because it has the Eiffel Tower in it! The fastest elevator in Europe took us to the top in 38 seconds, where we did a 360-degree scan of the city, looking for all the landmarks we had visited during the past week. I’m glad we did this at the end of our trip when we had a “feel for the city” and could identify all of the sights.
People-watching and dinner at our favorite sidewalk café, Tribeca, with our favorite waitress Dede leisurely ended the evening.
Monday, August 7, 2006
On our last full day in Paris, we enjoyed our final crepe of the trip (strawberry) with Stephan. Then we grabbed a window seat and settled in for a two-hour ride through some of Paris’ most interesting neighborhoods on city bus # 69, as recommended by Rick Steves, who said, “Why pay $30 to a tour company when city bus # 69 can do it for $1.50?” We boarded at
the Eiffel Tower on the eastbound route and passed these great monuments and neighborhoods:
• Ecole Militaire - Paris’ military school, with Napoleon as its most famous graduate
• rue Cler - “our” traditional Parisian neighborhood
• Les Invalides - home of Napoleon’s Tomb, Dome Church, and the Army Museums
• Alexander Bridge across the Seine with its golden statues and lamps, built to celebrate a treaty with Russia
• The Louvre with its 12 miles of galleries
• Ile de La Cite - This is where Paris began over 2,000 years ago; site of Notre Dame
• Ile St. Louis - sister island to Cite with its high-rent apartments and boutiques
• Marais - This colorful neighborhood contains more pre-Revolutionary buildings and lanes than anywhere in town.
• Bastille - The actual prison is long-gone, but the monument on the square, with its gilded statue of liberty, symbolizes France’s long struggle for democracy
• Pere Lachaise cemetery - graves of Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Gertrude Stein, and Jim Morrison
Then we rode the bus all the way back with a slightly different route, including the Church of St. Paul and St. Louis (the only Jesuit church in Paris and the
neighborhood church of Victor Hugo) and the Pompidou Center.
The remainder of the day was spent packing and doing last-minute shopping. Some friends had asked us to bring back a particular analgesic they had discovered in France last year, so we visited some pharmacies. In the evening we took our final stroll around the rue Cler area, heading in a direction we had not yet explored. We stopped at a small sidewalk café on a corner and had delicious “French” onion soup with French bread and wine, while watching the locals returning home from work. On our walk back to the hotel, we stopped at a pastry shop and indulged in some sinful sweets…after all, it’s our last day here!
Tuesday, August 8, 2006
Sadly, we must leave this beautiful and romantic city. Bill and I just can’t get over the fact that everyone here has been so nice and friendly and helpful. Not only were the people in the tourism industry friendly (they’re expected to be), but the locals on the streets seemed to go out of their way to make us feel comfortable. I don’t know how many times we would be standing on the street, map in one hand, camera in the other, with a “lost” look on our faces, only to have a local come up to us and offer to help. Sometimes they could speak English, and mostly not, but with sign language and pointing, we always managed to communicate. We were surprised by this because both of us have recollections of just the opposite being true when we were here 25 years ago. We had unpleasant remembrances of speaking German so we would get better service in restaurants and wearing Canadian-flag pins to avoid being treated rudely. I am very happy to say that we were received warmly by everyone we encountered on this trip.
The airport shuttle picked us up at 9:30 a.m., and we spent the time before our 1 p.m. flight in the Air France lounge. We very much enjoyed the luxury of Business/First Class on Continental and arrived in Houston around 5 p.m.
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