We'll always have Paris...

Trip Start Jul 25, 2008
Trip End Jul 29, 2008

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Tuesday, July 29, 2008

One last day in Paris... This is my third visit to the City of Lights, and every time, the thought of leaving Paris breaks my heart. How is it that human beings all over the world were not inspired to build cities and communities all as beautiful as this one... I know, I wax poetic - or rather melodramatic - but I can't help it. There's something about Paris that makes me happy just walking around in its neighbourhoods.

Where to go and how to fill this one last day? There are so many possibilities: go up the Eiffel Tower, visit the Louvre (unfortunately, my favourite, the Musee d'Orsay, is closed on Mondays), go to the Cimetiere du Pere Lachaise, spend time in the Quartier Latin, visit Notre-Dame and the Sainte-Chapelle once more, go back to Montmartre, shop in St-Germain or at Le Printemps and Les Galeries Lafayette, take a tour of the Opera, visit the Pantheon, les Invalides, hang out in les Jardins du Luxembourg, walk around the Jardins des Tuileries, visit le Musee de l'Orangerie once again... I mean - the possibilities are endless.

The weather was absolutely beautiful and the day promised to be sunny and hot. After writing a bit in the morning, with the window wide open and the sun shining in, I realized with horror that it was already 9:30. I hurriedly got ready and left around 10. I jumped on the subway, line 12 at Notre-Dame de Lorette (right near the hotel), and headed to station Sevres-Babylone, in the heart of St-Germain des Prés.

I had never been to this neighbourhood on the Left Bank, half-way between the Tour Montparnasse and the Quartier Latin and Jardins du Luxembourg. Home to venerable landmarks such as Café les Deux Magots - where Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre used to discuss existentialism over espressos, and one of the city's most famous department store, Au Bon Marché, which was featured in Honoré Balzac's novel "Au Bonheur des Dames", St-Germain is a beautiful area, filled with grand residential buildings, wide tree-lined boulevards, and elegant boutiques. It was also the area that Hemingway, Fitzgerald and countless other authors, artists, jazz musicians and philosophers of the last century frequented, leading edge contributors to the art and philosophy of the twentieth century.

I didn't have any such lofty ambitions on Monday morning, but I was hungry when I peeked out of Sevres-Babylone station. I spotted a nice little café on the wide corner sidewalk, and sat at a table, on a ubiquitous wicker and cane chair, and ordered "le petit déjeuner complet", which was a glass of "orange" juice, a quarter of a fresh baguette, a croissant, some butter and jam, and a double espresso. If I were asked what one of my "simple pleasures" were, I'd have to include "having a French petit déjeuner, sitting outside at a cafe, on a sunny morning in Paris".

I had decided to go explore Au Bon Marché, and I set off... in the opposite direction, a little too hastily. No problem, as I window-shopped along the beautiful Rue de Sevres, and eventually made my way to Place St-Germain, Les Deux Magots, and Le Café Flore. More beautiful streets, buildings and elegance... I headed back towards the store, making a short detour through Eglise St-Sulpice, the oldest church in Paris, and featured in Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code". After centuries of not being finished and of always requiring repairs and renovations, it's currently (or still?) partially clad in scaffolding and under renovation - of course. I took a quick peek inside, and it did feel like the oldest church in Paris. Dark and a bit gloomy. Back outside, the temperatures were climbing, and I was sweating as I was walking and reached Au Bon Marché, via Rue Bonaparte. Ah, good old Nappy - that's not a big street named for you, there. But then again, you built yourself an entire Arc de Triomphe and a few notable monuments, so the fact that this street is somewhat smallish, no big deal.

Au Bon Marché is a venerable institution itself, the first (I believe) large-scale department store anywhere. Very upscale, very chic, and of course, very expensive. After walking through the ground floor perfume and cosmetic counters (pretty standard...), I headed up to the Ladies' Fashions area. All the big name Grands Couturiers and designers are represented here. July is the month of sales in all stores in Paris, and there were some bargain prices posted. I decided to go visit the shoe department. Ooooh, shoes! After looking all over - these heels are too high, these shoes are too funky, these shoes are too frumpy-looking, those shoes are too expensive - I came across the shoes that were just right, the Goldilock shoes. I tried them on and paid for them within minutes. I really like them, to me they look French, except that they are Clarks, sold in many many stores near my home in Toronto... Though I haven't seen this style yet in Toronto...

My other mission, while at Au Bon Marché, was to visit its legendary Epicerie, or grocery store. Wow... Acres (it seemed) of every delicacy and fancy food item that anyone could want, from all over the world, presented in ways that make the eyes grow wide and the mouth water. I could tell that several stores I had seen in Tokyo (Omotesando area, if I remember correctly), had been influenced by this Epicerie. I didn't know there could be so many kinds of sugars, and so many lovely ways of presenting sugar. The chocolate displays offer every brand and kind of chocolate known to mankind; the "American chocolates" -- candy bars, Hershey and the like -- are of course in a completely different area, labeled "Barres Chocolatées", which does not have the same cachet as the simple but honest "Chocolat".

The bread counter smelled divine, and the fish counter at the back was the host of several beautiful fresh pieces of salmon, tuna and sole, to name but a few. The meat counter was replete with roasts, fillets, brochettes, sirloins and other beautiful and appetizing cuts of beef.

One could easily get lost in the Epicerie, but it would be a nice kind of lost: smelling (and eating, if one got lost long enough to get hungry) all these beautiful foods, a feast for the eyes as well as the other senses.

I bought some coffee from Cameroon, and two peaches (no chocolate, I swear!), and headed back outside. My idea was to walk up Rue du Bac, which leads directly to the Pont Royal and the Seine. Walking on unassuming, unpretentious, and yet beautiful little Rue du Bac, I saw another pair of "must have" shoes in a window. These were a bargain ("final discount!"), so I walked in, tried them on, and bought them. I know, I know, how many pairs of shoes can a woman really need...? The answer? Not as many as Carrie Bradshaw or Imelda Marcos, but apparently more than I already had in my closet.

It was really hot by then - not one cloud in the sky, not one puff of wind... It was lunch time, but I wasn't really hungry. I couldn't resist a nice "glace aux agrumes" however, as the tart citrus sorbet proved to be a good refreshment in the heat, and I sat in a little park with a statue and pretty flowers, and a children's playground at the back, as I relaxed and ate my "glace". Before nodding off on the bench, I decided to keep walking towards the Seine.

The Rue du Bac opened up on the river just next to the Musée d'Orsay, and led directly unto the Pont Royal. Half-way across the bridge, I stopped to take a picture, and a friendly lady offered, in broken English, to take a picture of me. She was with her boyfriend/husband. I answered in French, thinking she was local, and realized she didn't speak French. They were from Puerto Alegre in Brazil. Very friendly, we chatted for a few minutes, took pictures of each other, and then went on our respective way.

I headed across the Jardin des Tuileries to the Rue de Rivoli. I was thirsty, and a bit peckish, by then, not to mention hot and tired (I've been going on about 3-4 hours of sleep a night for the last 5 days), so I stopped at the Brasserie on the corner of Rivoli and the Place something-or-other when the gleaming golden statue of Ste-Jeanne--d'Arc stands in full glory. Sitting on the sidewalk (again - definitely theme on this trip), I had a croque-madame and an Edelweiss beer, while I wrote about the Tour de France (see previous entry). It was a busy busy corner -- lots of tourists in this area, lots of Parisians going to and fro, lots of action while the waiter was navigating between pedestrians and tables to serve his clients.

After lunch, I headed towards the Louvre. My last visit there was eight years ago, and I thought... why not? It'll be a respite from the sun and the heat, and well, it's the Louvre! I walked in through Les Galeries du Louvre, a modern mall of shops and restaurants leading to the underground entrance to the museum under the pyramid. I bought my ticket, and plunged head-first into the throngs of people still making their way in this late in the afternoon. Oh boy... I realized then that I would have little patience for full-fledged museum appreciation, and opted for the tourist tour: the Venus of Milo and the Mona Lisa. Anything else I'd see between the two would be a bonus. How awful, really, to be at the Louvre, and only want to see two pieces of art, simply because they're famous...!

Walking into the Pavillion Denon, it got worse: it was about 35 degrees C (90+ F) in there, with no air conditioning, and the noise of a crowd walking somewhat aimlessly while looking up at paintings on the wall. People would walk and stop, or change directions unexpectedly. Pictures are allowed, so imagine dozens of people trying to take pictures, or have their picture taken, with famous backgrounds, while a crowd is milling about. It was a succession of frustrated picture-takers grimacing in annoyance at the lack of thoughtfulness of people walking in front of their camera. The problem was, if I had paused for everyone taking a picture, or carefully navigated around every one of them, I would still be there!

I eventually made a bee-line for the Mona Lisa, following the infrequent signs. Entering Salon 6, its new home since 2006, I spotted La Joconda across the room, and she spotted me. No, it's true: as you move around the room looking at her, it looks like her eyes follow you. I've heard that said many times, and I've experienced it myself twice. Leonardo was a master... With about 500 people between me and the painting, and just as many taking pictures of it (none of which will turn out very well...), I didn't stay long. "OK, one down, one to go..." was my approach by then. I walked through the gallery of great French paintings, and was agreeably surprised to be re-acquainted with the huge painting of Napoléon's Coronation (by Jacques-Louis David). I'd just recently read about the coronation itself and the painting in a novel, and it was fun to see it again, having learned more about it.

I kept walking following the Venus de Milo signs, and entered a gallery where, lo and behold!, there was air conditioning! People seemed instantly more relaxed in that wing of the museum, oddly enough. The Venus was surrounded by a crowd, but much smaller than at the Mona Lisa. Here's my theory to explain the smaller crowd visiting Venus: there is, on the way up to the galleries in the Denon wing of the Louvre, a huge statue called "Victory at Anthrace" -- it's a female figure with no arms or head, and angel wings on her back.She's standing on a pedestal or ship (can't remember the exact story...). It is a striking piece of art - no doubt about it. I believe, however, that most people visiting the museum who don't know anything about the Venus de Milo other than it's a statue of a woman with no arms, see Victory on the stairs, and believe that it's the Venus. Everyone stops, takes pictures from below the stairs, from half-way up the stairs, right next to it, blocking traffic to and from the galleries. Meanwhile, near the Venus de Milo in the ground-floor gallery, calm reigns, and she resides in peace.

Having checked both Mona Lisa and Venus off my list, and added Napoléon and Joséphine as a bonus, I considered my visit to the Louvre complete for the day. I couldn't wait to get back outside. Out in the courtyard near the pyramid, hundreds of people were lounging about, immobile in the heat of the late afternoon. At 5:30pm, it was still about 30 deg. Celsius, and the sun was still high in the sky.

I started walking towards the Place de la Concorde, through the Jardins des Tuileries. It was lovely and calm. Lots of people around, but everyone just relaxing on the grass, or walking slowly admiring the statues that guard the pathway. Close to the Concorde, I found a chair, sat in the shade, and contemplated the view stretching out in front of me: Place de la Concorde, with its obelisk and dizzy traffic going in circles, beyond it, the stretch of Champs Elysées culminating in the Arc de Triomphe behind which the buildings of La Défense were barely visible. To the right of the Concorde, the Hotel Crillon and Naval Institute. To the left, in the distance, the Eiffel Tower rising above the treetops. Still further to left, the French Parliament building. Every single building and structure a piece of art, every single item designed for elegance and grace and function. Ahhh Paris...

Truly tired after walking another few miles in the heat - compounding the miles of Friday night, the whole day in Brussels Saturday, and the standing about for 6 hours on Sunday, I took the subway back to the hotel. After a nap and a shower, I set off with the intent to go to the Latin Quarter for a nice dinner and a visit to a cool jazz club I had found in my little Paris guidebook. I stepped outside around 9pm, and the sky was so dark, I knew it was about to burst. Change of plan! I headed back up the street, and 30 seconds later entered Les Coulisses (the restaurant from 2 nights ago), just as it started raining cats and dogs. Phew!

I capped off my trip with another lovely dinner of Gaspacho and Magret de Canard, but sadly had to forget about jazz-clubbing. Back to the hotel, for a night of writing, working, emailing, napping, packing.

Post-script: I returned back to Toronto on Tuesday: uneventful flight, other than the gratuitous and unexpected upgrade to Business class. Whoo-hoo!

All in all, what a great trip this has been! Very sweet, but sadly very short... Intense the way I like it, with lots of places seen, people met, and experiences lived.

I'm starting to think this might become an annual event... Weekend in Paris....Hummmmm....
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