Saturday, December 19, 2015

A Parisian Stroll

The French have a word for it: flaner.  Loosely translated, it means to stroll from here to there, unless we decide to detour to somewhere else, and it really doesn't matter if we ever get there, nor how long it takes.  And that's what we did today.  If you're results-driven, the result of four hours of effort was breakfast, two cups of hot chocolate, and four sore feet.  And oh, let's not forget a copy of Volume 1 of The Adventures of TinTin.  And dinner at the home of an amazing friend.

Our first stop was breakfast at Paul's, of which there seem to be about 500 in Paris.  It's a convenient place for a coffee, pastry, or, in our case, a simple ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette.  It was next door to guess what--a bookstore--also of which there seem to be about 500 in Paris.  I had recently acquired my first Asterix & Obelix, and I'd been itching for a TinTin.  This shop had a bookshelf of them going all the way back to a recent reprint of the 1930 Volume 1.  So I carried my prize around with me the rest of the day.

Our next planned stop was Odette's.  It's a tiny little pastry shop just off Rue St. Jacque, on the Left Bank near Notre Dame.  We had stumbled upon it quite by accident on a previous trip, and then were astonished to find it in the Carnavale Museum.  The museum has a collection of scale models of Paris showing several of its neighborhoods around the turn of the 20th century.  In one of them I spotted Odette's when it was still a bakery.  Today you can either get a nice gift box of pastries, or eat them sur place, as we did.

Strolling on, we finally ran into a Christmas market.  Because of the events of last month, they're getting a late start.  This on, also in the shadow of Notre Dame, was very upscale.  We passed on a nice little ring for "only" $1500.

Anita's ankle has been bothering her, so I recommended interrupting our stroll with a bus ride to our next stop, but she would not be deterred, so we crossed the river, checked out the Christmas display at City Hall,

and headed up Rue de Rivoli to Angelina's.  In the words of my favourite choral director, let me stop just long enough to say that if you've never had a cup of L'Africain at Angelina's and you come to Paris without having one, I wash my hands of responsibility for your decision; you are informed.  It's almost as if you melted a chocolate bar and drank that.  Almost.  Of course, you can't just have chocolate, so I had a chocolate-covered chocolate mousse, and Anita had a chocolate fudge on a bed of meringue.  But remember--we walked there.

We ended the evening with dinner at the home of our dear friend, Jean-Marcel.  He is the brother of Catherine, our first French teacher at Alliance Française.  He is a retired lawyer and emerging author.  I read his first book last year, Coups de Feu à Montmartre, and am eagerly anticipating his next one due out soon, a full-length suspense novel placed in Africa in the 1970s.

And I believe that's a wrap.  We have another day or so, but fitting in the time to do the blog will be too much a challenge.  I hope you've enjoyed reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it.  A bientot!

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Louvre and the Music

Dec. 17

The first time we visited the Louvre, we had one of those great tickets--all the museums you could squeeze into three days in the middle of high tourist season.  It really is a great deal for the first-time visitor.  But for us, one of the results was having about an hour or so at the Louvre in July.  Analogies are hard to come by here, but that's kind of like getting just one of those little taster spoons and saying you have a good idea of what Baskin & Robbins has to offer.  Yesterday we took a different approach--four hours on the first floor of the Richelieu wing.  No, we still haven't seen the whole Louvre, but we have a better idea.  First, the building itself is fantastic, not only in size but also in detail.  Rooms like this make me just want to find a clear space on the floor and lie on my back with my mouth wide open.  But that would be uncool.

The collection itself is immense.  Only a small fraction of it is on display, but the beauty of that small fraction is breath-taking.  This piece, for instance, standing about four feet tall, just exudes energy.  It also tells a story.  I couldn't find it written down anywhere, but I'm pretty sure the guy is saying "I lifted you over this horse and now you want to go over THERE?"

Opposite the Richilieu wing is the Denon wing.  Of course, the only way to get there on the first floor is to walk all the way around.  So why would you want to?  Because of this lady:

The first time we were here, getting such a picture was out of the question due to the crowd packed in front of her.  This time (off-season, reduced tourism) it was much easier.

After the Louvre, we headed over to the evening's entertainment, passing this metro entrance along the way.  I mean, it's eye-catching and all that, but I'm afraid that if I worked nearby I'd take the bus rather than have to walk into that thing every day!

The evening's entertainment was at Ste. Chappelle, the chapel built by Louis IX to house the Crown of thorns, which he had bought for a sum that excedeed the cost of the chapel that took thirteen years to build.  If you attended St. John's UMC on the first Sunday of advent, you may recognize this panoramic view of its vault:

We were there at night, so we couldn't get a good picture of the stained glass.  But in a darkened chapel, with soft lighting of the front of the room, Les Soloistes Français had a lovely place to perform.  Opening with the Pachelbel Canon, and using Albonioni's Adagio as a segue, the centrepiece of the program was Vivaldi's Four Seasons.  I never realized six stringed instruments could produce such power.  It was a magnificent ending to a very nice day.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Paris, casually

Dec. 16

One nice thing about traveling independently from a tour group, and returning to a place that we're familiar with, is that we can move at an unhurried pace.  And so it was today, our first full day back to Paris after our excursion to Alsace.  We awoke to an inviting view:

To get such a view, either book well in advance, or arrive at a time when the hotels are experiencing a 30% cancellation rate, and get lucky with an upgrade, all of which fell into place for us.  There are red geraniums all over the place, including our hotel room's window.  Temperatures in the 50s (warmer than Albuquerque) make strolling around the city very comfortable.

We slept late, and after a leisurely stroll, we found the next place on our "must-dine-at" list, Au Vieux Paris.  The owners, Georges and Odette, claim it to be the oldest restaurant in Paris.  Still on my to-do list is to identify all the restaurants making that claim.  In the summer, the wisteria are in full bloom, almost hiding the entrance.

Anita chose the vegetarian omelet, served on a nice crystal plate, and I had good old reliable duck a l'orange "with many vegetables."  I guess "four" equals "many."

The maitre d' here, Frederico, seems to be quite a celebrity.  He greeted us in French, heard my accent and switched to English to ask where we were from, missed the "New" in New Mexico and then switched to Spanish before we finally agreed on English.  He was most helpful and insisted that we see the Creche at Notre Dame, about a block away.  So, after becoming warm and well fed, off we went.

You've seen creches.  But this one.  This one should be seen.  It's from Krakow, Poland, where there is a tradition of creche-building.  Each year there is a city-wide competition, and this is the 2010 winner.  It's the tallest ever submitted to the competition at sixteen feet high and required 10,000 man-hours of labor to complete.  Each window represents one of Krakow's sixteen churches.  The central frame is the actual manger scene, with a rocking crib.  It's really an incredible piece of work.

And seeing such a scene reminds you that you skipped desert at lunch, and it's now time to settle that issue.  Anita's foot was bothering her, so we opted for a nice pedicab ride to the other island, Ile St. Louis, which is home to the most famous ice cream shop in Paris, Berthillon.

Berthillon has a little walk-up counter (the open door on the right) for those who want to keep moving while the slurp their cones.  We opted for the tea room on the left.  I mean, if you have time, why wouldn't you soak up this ambience?

We opted for double-dippers, Anita choosing chocolate while I went for cherry and raspberry.  After my first bite, she reminded me of my photographic duties.

Tomorrow, the Louvre and a concert at Ste. Chappelle.

Monday, December 14, 2015


Dec. 14

Eguisheim (pronounced, to our surprise, Eggis Hime), is a quintissentially small Alsation town toward the southern end of the sliver of France that is Alsace.  To refresh your history and geography, the Vosges mountains run somewhat parallel to and west of the Rhine river.  The French like to think of the Rhine as the border between France and Germany and the Germans prefer to think of the mountains as the border.  Consequently, depending on who won the latest war, the region is either French or German; since WW2 it's been French, and with all the luv in the European Community, it looks like it'll be French for a long time.  But on the streets, expect to hear more German than English; most of the street signs are in big French letters and smaller German letters, and sauerkraut is to the region like green chile is to New Mexico.

The town is easy to explore and impossible to be lost in for more than about five minutes.  The homes are very colorful, and, of course, ready for Christmas.

The one must-have snapshot of the town is the pigeon loft.  It's only a few feet wide, and sits at the fork in the road between the inner and outer "rampart" roads that circle the town and date from the original construction of the town eight or nine centuries ago.  It's called the pigeon loft because that's where their culinary pigeons were raised.  Now for someone who just a few days ago voluntarily ate something called "calf's head", I'm saying that pigeon sounds a lot better if you call it squab.

The other bird strongly associated with this region is the stork.  They nest high, and if you stay alert, you can see nests atop buildings and towers.  These two are of the religious variety, having chosen the bishop's house on the left and the chapel on the right.  By my estimate, the one on the left is about six feet in diameter.  They can weigh hundreds of pounds and be dangerous when they fall.  Some homeowners have addressed that problem by installing metallic frames to provide a solid structure for the birds to nest in.

The chapel was built to honor Eguisheim's most successful hometown boy made good, Pope Leo IX, born in 1002.

The stroll around the city was pleasant, partly because it was a Monday, and the tourist headcount was minimal.  Here is a typical street view, with the farmers' homes on the left and their barns on the right.  I strongly suspect that if you peeked inside the barns you'd see more Peugeots than John Deeres.

The doorframes carried inscriptions, usually bearing the initials of the original owner and date of construction.  In these inscriptions, the leading 1 was more ornate than today's, so this house appears to date to 1620.  We saw several from the 16th century.

Some, such as this cooper's workshop turned modern home, bore the symbol marking the owner's trade.  If the symbol included crossed swords, it marked the owner as a master craftsman, and thus authorized to carry a sword.

And thus endeth our visit to Alsace.  We're headed back to Paris for more Christmas markets, more Christmas music, and maybe a light snack or two.  Come along with us.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Weekend in Alsace

Dec. 11-13:

Wow, time flies when you're having fun!  Between getting up early and staying up late, it seems I have let my blogging slip.  I'm going to try to get us all caught up in one fell swoop today.

Dec. 11:

The dominating feature of Strasbourg is, of course, its thousand-year-old cathedral.  It's hard to get a good photo of it, since the neighboring buildings are so close.  But our hotel has a scale model.  The142 meters of height are scaled down to 2.82 meters for this display.

Strasbourg loves to decorate for Christmas.  Some of the shops choose a whimsical theme, like these bakers.

Others like a theme associated with their business, like this clock shop.

And still others just choose simple elegance.

All in all, you get the feeling of walking around under a huge Christmas tree.

Dec. 12:

Today we took the train down to Colmar, described to us by our Parisian friends as having an even better Christmas market than Strasbourg, mainly because all the wares are local.  Indeed, we noticed a total absence of the "imported" disclaimers we had noticed in Strasbourg.  Colmar is a very picturesque city in a way that doesn't depend on Christmas.  The old part of the city of about 70,000, where the Christmas market is, is just chock full of colorful, half-timbered houses, many of which grew sideways as they grew vertically.

An oddity of Colmar is the House of Heads.  A previous owner put 106 gargoyle-like masks on the facade of the building.  This sort of thing makes me appreciate people with a normal sense of humor.

Dec. 13:

Today we treated ourselves to a sleepin, something our parents would have called "backsliding".  But we made up for that with a glorious concert at the Church of St. Paul, described as a "Gothic Revival" church.  It has almost the look and feel of a traditional Gothic cathedral, except for two interesting architectural features, both related to its original purpose.  Built after the Prussian (German) defeat of France in 1870 and the annexation of the Alsace region by Prussia, it was built to accomodate the military garrison, including nineteen doors and an unusually broad nave, so the soldiers could enter and exit quickly in proper military fashion.  Tonight it had gotten into the Christmas season with dancing snowflakes projected onto its rose window.

The attraction for us, though was a concert featuring young singers from the Rhine Opera and the University of Strasbourg.  The program included Britten's Celebration of Carols and Saint-Saens' Christmas Oratorio.  The oratorio included instrumental support from strings and organ.  I guess we felt like that was a pretty good end to our Sunday.

Tomorrow, we'll try to get to one of the smaller towns of the Alsace.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Strasbourg, Day One

Dec. 10

I guess there's always the possibility of being disappointed with a city the first time you visit, but this was definitely not one of those times.  Strasbourg has a fascinating history, and it is right there on the surface for you to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel.  We came because it has a fantastic cathedral, and we came at this time of the year because it has, confirmed by international vote the last two years in a row, the best Christmas market in Europe.    Let's have a sample of each, shall we?

From the completion of its fleche (spire; literally arrow) in 1647, to 1874 when the Rouen cathedral was completed, it was the tallest structure in the world.  One of the remarkable design features is the selection of quarries for the stone.  The colors cover a wide range of reds and browns, giving almost a patchwork effect to the walls when viewed up close.

Besides the obvious allure of its external grandeur, the cathedral has another attraction inside--the famous astronomical clock.  Daily at noon, a crowd gathers to witness the parade of the apostles, the three crowings of the cock as it flaps its wings, and the blessings of the Christ admonishing the viewers to make good use of the time they have remaining.

But let's get real--hundreds of thousands of people don't come to Strasbourg to see this clock, no matter how impressive it is.  And the cathedral isn't why the city calls itself The Capital of Christmas.  This place is just crazy about Christmas.  Three hundred "chalets" pop up in various plazas around town, offering a huge variety of wares and foods.  A 100-foot tall Christmas tree, and street lights galore make this a winter wonderland par excellence.


Tomorrow, Strasbourg in the daylight.  We expect to find it to be a different place.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Window-licking (aka window-shopping)

Dec. 9

One cannot go window-licking on an empty stomach, so the first order of the day was lunch.  A little cafe (not) had been on our bucket list for a long time, since it shows up in quite a few films made at least partly in Paris.  Le Train Bleu is in the Gare de Lyon, one of the major train stations in Paris.  The entrance is not hard to find at this time of year.

Up the staircase, and safely ensconced at our table giving Anita a nice view of the neighborhood, I was not without something nice to look at, either.  Calling upon my gift of understatement, I think I can safely describe the interior as "sumptuous".  Our room constituted about half the total space, with the other half being similarly appointed.

And the food wasn't half bad; either.  Anita had leg of lamb, carved tableside in a copper steamer.  I had
duck with spears of pineapple and sweet potato.

Adequately nourished, we hopped onto the 20 bus and headed for the shopper's paradise near the Opera Garnier, where Printemps and Galeries Lafayette are almost next-door neighbors.  This being the biggest shopping season of the year, they had pulled out all the stops.  We didn't even go into Printemps, being satisfied with not only the animated sidewalk windows, but also the children's delight in watching them.

After ogling Printemps sidewalk windows for a while, it was time to check out the Christmas tree at Galeries Lafayette.  Can you say "gi-normous"?  Scale is hard to get in this picture.  Just know that the bottom was just above Chanel's ground-floor shop, and if you went up to the sixth-floor gallery, you'd still have to look up to see the top of the tree.

Finally, it was on to the Champs Elysees (see the new title page photo) and the Trocadero, hoping to see the Eiffel Tower lighted in green, in honor of COP21, the enormous climqate conference underway here.  But we missed it by one day.  Instead, the tower on a foggy night.

Tomorrow, our first day at Strasbourg, the Capital of Christmas.