Monday, July 29, 2013

Midnight in Paris

As our farewell treat to ourselves, we hired a taxi for a two-hour after-dark tour of the most memorable spots in Paris.  Since we have little left to do here, it will be our farewell entry on this little travelogue we've been doing.  In truth, this blogging exercise has been mostly for ourselves, capturing the moments we most want to remember in a way that might be enjoyed by someone looking over our shoulders.  So join us on this little drive through the streets of Paris, slightly altered from the sequence we took.   Say "bon soir" to Ali, our cab driver extraordinaire.  Not only did he speak adequate English, but he also knew just what we wanted and how to sequence things for the best experience possible.  On top of that, he knew how to handle a camera (see final photo below).

The Arc de Triomphe was closest to our apartment, so we started and ended there:

It's really a massive structure, and this look at it from the middle of the Champs-Elysees gives a sense of scale to the biggest retail center in the city:

A few blocks away is the Garnier Opera (I'm sure the Phantom still lives there):

We had to stop and pay our respects to "Our Lady", Notre Dame:

To be honest, the pyramids that I. M. Pei installed at the Louvre never quite resonated with me until I saw them at night.

And, of course, Paris's logo, Le Tour Eiffel.  And to think that when this was built it was intended to be torn down after ten years!

Every night at the stroke of each hour, for five minutes the tower twinkles.  This 11-second video clip captures just that moment.

So that's our "Midnight in Paris" experience.  We hope you enjoyed sharing our month here.  A big part of our fun was sharing it with you.  From the City of Light, Au Revoir!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Pipe Organs

Paris is like a candy store to pipe organ afficionados.  Not only are some of the world's finest instruments here, but some of the biggest names in organ music composition, organ construction, and organ playing have established themselves here.   I took a quick count today and we've managed to hear six different organs in our brief stay here without exerting too much of an effort; next time we'll do better.  We heard the instrument at the American Church in Paris on our first Sunday here, and when we visited the cathedral at Reims a few days ago we were lucky to be there when the organist decided to get in a little practice session.  And today we heard four.  Not bad for a day's effort.

We started at St. Sulpice.  (Sorry about the perspective--they just don't give us poor photographers enough room for a good shot.)

The month of July is perhaps not the best month for full-on concerts and recitals, but St. Sulpice has a strong tradition of a weekly brief recital between the 10:30 and 12:00 masses on Sunday.  So if you go to mass and wrap it with the recital, you get to hear quite a bit of good organ.  We got there early enough to hear the choir organ in the 9:00 mass as well as the grand organ for the 10:30 mass and the inter-mass recital.  A little Bach, Brahms, Mendelssohn, and Schumann is always good for my soul, especially if it originates from a box like this:

And on the subject of souls, please indulge me in a little aside.  I spent many years in a church tradition that did not use a recited creed, so the term "communion of the saints" never meant much to me until Anita and I changed traditions.  I will tell you this: an excellent way to get a grasp on the meaning of that term is to attend a worship service in a land that is foreign to you and in a manner of worship that is foreign to you.  St. Sulpice is a thriving Catholic community, with perhaps 300 or so at the 10:30 mass, to say nothing of the 9:00, noon, and other masses.  It felt good to be there, even when the organist was keeping his silence, and even when the singing was done without my participation, and when the homily (sermon to us Protestants) was given in a language I don't quite have down cold yet.  (A big thank-you to all my music directors for all the Latin masses and requiems that helped me through that part of the service!)

But our day wasn't over.  At the behest of our own organist in Albuquerque, we trekked over to the church with a long name but generally known as "La Madeleine".  It looks a lot like the Parthenon in Athens:

Here we heard a violin-organ recital by the Gough (pronounced Goff) Duo from England.  The violinist stood before this altar, giving a visual backdrop that added to the event.  Note the console to the right.  This is the console for the "choir organ", used for half of the concert.  The grand organ (sorry--no photo) was used for the second half.  A solo violin and a grand organ seemed like an odd combination before the recital began, but I got over that pretty quick.

Those of you who were fortunate enough to hear the inaugural Quintessence Summer Choral Festival today might be interested to know that Gabriel Fauré was organist at La Madeleine for ten years.  So I kind of felt like I was there with you.  Kind of.

Tomorrow--Midnight in Paris.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Montmartre, Reprise

If it feels to you like things are slowing down for us here, there's good reason.  Today we had a leisurely revisit of "the butte", the hill that gives Montmartre half of its name.  But this time we skipped the basilica and had a closer look at some places we skipped over the first time.  First on the list was the question of how does one actually get to the basilica?  If you approach from the north, as we did the first time, you walk through the neighborhood or ride one of two buses.  But if you come from the south, you either climb the stairs (on the left), especially if you have an over-energized 12-year-old calling the shots, or you take the "funicular" (on the right).  Guess which category we found ourselves in?

If you saw the movie Amelie, released in the U.S. in 2001, you might recognize this little place, just a block or so away from Place Tertre, where the artists are ready to capture your likeness for a mere 20 or 30 euros.

Or if you're an art lover, and know the work of Maurice Utrillo, this one might look familiar (La Maison Rose, The Pink House):

Utrillo was one of several artists who used what is now known as the Montmartre Museum, where you can see the oldest house in Montmartre

and visit the Gardens of Renoir, where he painted La Balançoir, one of his many famous pieces.  The garden swing that figures in the painting is still there.

Tomorrow, our goals are to hear two of the grandest organs of Paris and to find out why they call it the City of Light.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Beaches and More

I know.  Some of you who are keeping up with this little travelogue thought yesterday that I'd taken leave of my senses when I mentioned the beaches of Paris.  And yet here we are.  It's summer, and if you can't go to the beach, the city of Paris will bring the beach to you.

Since 2002, a few weeks in July and August have seen the city truck in 2,000 tons of sand to construct the biggest sandbox you ever saw, complete with palm trees,

places to build sand castles,

and "salt-water" fishing.  I've pretty much decided that I've had my last meal of fish on this trip.

There are other activities up and down the Seine and within a couple of blocks: petanque (think the Italian game "bocce"), and beach volleyball, coming next week.

Since I didn't pack my Speedo, I soon left the beach behind and headed over to the Pantheon.  The building was originally commissioned by Louis XV as a church in honor of Ste. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris.  But soon, as part of the Revolution, it was deconsecrated and established as a secular center of recognition of the "great men of the fatherland".   (Sorry about that crane--it'll be there until my photo editing skills improve, or the year 2020, whichever comes first.)

Here are buried the remains of many of the people whose names you would recognize.  I was particularly in search of the crypt of Victor Hugo.  At his funeral procession from the Arc de Triomphe to the Pantheon, it is estimated that two million people lined the street to pay respects for what he had done to ease the plight of the poor of France with novels like Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris (known to the English-speaking world as The Hunchback of Notre Dame), other novels, and a large collection of poetry.

Today he shares a little room with Alexandre Dumas (The Man in the Iron Mask, The Three Musketeers) and Emile Zola (J'Accuse, among a whole plethora of other works).  Hugo on the left, Zola on the right, and Dumas with the window (for reading light?).  Can you imagine the chats these guys have late in the night when the place is closed and all the tourists have left?

Tomorrow we're going to revisit our local art colony at the top of the butte, and then we'll have only three full days left.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Shopping, Reprise

Sometimes we amateur golfers have the opportunity to play in an event called a "pro-am", in which amateur golfers play alongside professionals.  In most cases, the overwhelming sensation on the part of the amateur is something along the lines of "Wow, he sure does that differently from the way I do it."  Today I felt like I was the amateur shopper in the company of two professionals.

I mentioned a few days ago meeting Guylaine (pronounced ghee-LANN) at our local hangout.  She was attracted by Anita's hat, and when we struck up a conversation, she recommended a guided shopping tour, which happened today.  These two ladies are cut out of the same cloth.  They have similar tastes, similar budgets, and the ability to spot beauty tucked into a corner of drab normality.  Before our seven-hour excursion had ended, they were like this:

I mentioned a couple of other famous department stores earlier.  Today we started with Bon Marché, which is also big; but instead of attracting the tourist crowd, it attracts wealthy locals.  Consequently, it was not nearly so crowded.  Part of the business, but operating under its own name, La Grand Epicierie (The Big Grocery) was the best grocery store ever.  Before I learned that photos were not welcome, I snagged this look at their wine cellar.  After an hour walking around the department store we returned to the epicerie, picked up some cheese, bread, cherries, yogurt, and "tarama".  The tarama revealed how similar the three of us are.  Guylaine pointed at some hummus and said, "Have you had this?".  I said "Yes."  She then pointed at some tzatziki (for greek salads) and we repeated the exchange.  Finally she pointed at the tarama and asked the same question.  I said "No" and she picked that up and put it in the basket.  Not even a  "Would you like to try it?".  I think she knew that we were both up for something new and different.  And for those of you who haven't had it, tarama is a paté whose main ingredient is salmon roe.  Try it sometime and let me know what you think.

After enjoying our little picnic at a nearby park that she frequented, we went off to some of the less-traveled streets in the St. Germaine district, making our way to Les Deux Magots (The Two Figurines, named after a couple of statuettes that figure in its history) where we had coffee and pretended to hang out with the likes of Hemingway, Sartre, Picasso, Joyce, and Camus, who used to be regulars.  (We confess--neither Anita nor I were particularly thrilled with Woody Allen's recent Midnight in Paris, but we've decided to see it again and see if it resonates better this time).

Finally, something very amusing about Paris (I can't say it isn't done elsewhere, but I've only seen pictures like this from Paris).  It may come as no surprise that there are Parisians with money who dislike ugliness.  Scaffolding is ugly.  When you combine those two observations, sometimes you get novel solutions to a necessary problem.  Here, the remodeling on the Opera Gallery is being conducted behind a skin that not only hides the scaffolding, but gives the passersby a preview of what the finished product will look like.  We saw two examples today, but this was easily the most compelling.  It is an example of trompe l'œil, an art technique that tries to fool the eye into seeing something that isn't there.

I think we're done with shopping.  We have five full days left, and are in the miscellaneous section of our visit.  We still have to hear the organ at St. Sulpice, see the Paris beaches, and experience Paris at night.  Wish us luck.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013


Say "France" in American English.  Now drop the F, and kind of gargle the R; that's how you pronounce Reims if you want the ticket agent to get you to what well may be the most beautiful cathedral in all of France (I haven't seen them all, so I can't speak definitively).  Notre Dame of Paris is definitely more compelling, if for no other reason than its size; but Notre Dame of Reims has a delicacy about it that makes you want to swirl it around in your mind like some of that champagne we tried last night.  In fact, its construction was started well after the Paris cathedral and some of the construction lessons learned in Paris were incorporated in Reims.

(If you notice a blur in these photographs, it's me and not you; I didn't notice the smudge on my lens until too late for these pictures.  Just use your imagination.)

Looking toward the altar choir, you see one of the traditional stained glass windows that by now you know I love so much about cathedrals.  Look very carefully and you'll see a smaller bluish window.  This was the work of Marc Chagall, who loved working in stained glass.  It is the center frame of a set of three windows that were added in 1974.

The cathedral was built on the site where Clovis, the first king of the Franks, had been baptized in 496.  Like Westminster Abby in London for English kings and queens, it has since been the site of every coronation of French kings since it was built.  One of those was Charles VII, who was crowned after some significant help from this young lass, whom we know as Joan of Arc.

The town of Reims is about 85 miles from Paris, a 45-minute train ride via this bad boy:

It is called the TGV, which is a French abbreviation for "Really Fast Train".  A similar train was clocked at 357 mph in 2007, but we came nowhere near that--the route was too short and not straight enough.  Still, being within 45 minutes station-to-station makes this trip a really nice diversion from the crowds of Paris.  For instance, there was no line queueing up to see the cathedral, and we could stroll around town and not feel like sardines.  Oh, by the way.  For lunch in Reims, we had quesadillas and enchiladas.  Both were very good, but neither Tex-Mex nor New Mexican.

Tomorrow we're meeting our new friends for a guided shopping trip.  Wish me luck!

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Wine and Cheese class

I told you yesterday it was hot.  We started today quietly, reading in our apartment until lunchtime (which for us was about 2:00 today), then moved outside where it was cooler, considering the shade and the slight stirring of air.  It chose that exact moment to start raining, a beautiful straight-down soaking rain.  After walking in it for a little while, we adjourned to Le Cepage, found a couple of chairs under the awning, and had lunch in the rain.  This was one of the uncontrollable events on our to-do list (lunch outside in the rain), and we had begun to doubt the weather would cooperate so we'd be able to pull it off.

The elderly gentleman on the left had chosen an awkward place to sit, since there was a bit of a drip there, and the waiters finally convinced him to move indoors.  The lady on the right had met a younger lady (her daughter, perhaps?) for an aperitif and dessert.  We had salads and ice cream.  One doesn't want to go to a wine and cheese class on an empty stomach!

A couple of hours later we retraced our steps to the same place where we had taken our cooking class a couple of weeks ago.  Our instructor, Preston, is a 10-year resident of Paris, an American from Minnesota, and had recently received his "diploma" in wine and cheese.  He took us through a bit of a tour through France, using wine and cheese as the vehicles; he himself was a superb guide.

At the end of the two hours we had sampled five cheeses and four wines from all over the country.  The glass on the left below is water, followed by a champagne, a white wine, a dry red, and a dessert red.  The wines tended to come from the same regions as the cheeses they were paired with.  One very interesting thing about the wines is that when you buy wine in France, there is no label on the back of the bottle, and only the name of the vineyard and year on the front.  It is assumed that knowing the vineyard tells you all you need to know, and in fact carries more information than just the type of grape that the wine came from.  The same type of grape grown in different places will produce very different wines.

The class scheduler had told us that we would not need to make dinner plans.  I was surprised to learn that a few slices of bread and cheese, accompanied by some nice wines would suffice very nicely for a comfortable, well-fed feeling.

Tomorrow we are off to champagne country.  Not so much for the champagne, but for the cathedral at Reims, which is the French equivalent of Westminster Abby in London: if you want to be king, this is where you want to be crowned.