26 March, 2012

Yesterday was my last day in Paris.  It seemed like it was going to just be another day of ordinary sightseeing.  I got off to a pretty slow start as I wanted to check in for my flight and begin to pack.  I decided to see one last bit of the city in the neighborhood of Marais.  This area was built on a marsh as the Seine had a slightly different route years ago.  I walked across the Ile de la Cite and over to the Hotel de Ville.  I was going to catch another bus from there but started walking.

I followed the signs to the Place de Voges which is the oldest planned square in the city.  Walking through the arches you suddenly come upon a large park.  Families were strewn about the grounds, picnicking or resting or watching their children play.  One thing is clearly true, children are the same all over the world.  “Maman, Maman, regardez!!”   in French equals “Mom, Mom.  Look!” in English. 

After a few peaceful minutes on a bench (where I quite enjoyed the various flavors of some macaroons)  it was time to be off.

I continued walking down towards the Bastille.  Nothing survives of the prison, but there is this column in the center of the square to commemorate citizens who died, not in storming the Bastille, but…  Across the square is the new opera house.  Apparently the acoustics are amazing.  Something would have to be as I think it looks a bit out of place here.  But it was built in the 80’s to make the opera more accessible to the public. 

Then on the bus I went.  Not too much more to share on this tour, just more modern parts of the city.  Including this sports arena.  Pretty cool design and they can host pretty much any sport here.

Then back in the area of my hotel it was time for some souvenir shopping.  There are dozens of stores in the area, but they pretty much all carry the same thing.  You would think there would be some variety to draw people to one store over another, but no.  After that and a little nap it was time to head out to dinner.

I may have mentioned to some of you that I discovered a man named Jim Hayes who runs a Sunday night dinner out of his home every week.  He began it about 40 years ago as a way for tourists to meet each other and talk.  I was a little skeptical about going to some random dude’s house in the middle of Paris.  But, I cannot stress this enough, it was the best night I had in Paris all week.  After taking the metro and walking for about 10 minutes into the neighborhood, you approach a green gate and enter a code.  I saw several normal people entering so I joined.  Outside the gate I met Melissa, a fellow American from Pennsylvania.  She was traveling with two friends, but both chickened out of joining the dinner, so Melissa braved it alone.

The gate opens up onto a long garden with a row of apartments to the right.  Immediately we were greeted by other guests and directed to Jim.  After signing in and meeting Jim for the first time, we were instructed to put our coats and bags away and grab a drink.  Throughout the whole dinner, Jim holds court on a stool next to the kitchen.  He’s friendly and funny and has created this amazingly warm safe atmosphere for strangers to become friends.  The ages ranged from Jim’s 84 (or 85, he can’t remember) to early 20s.  Everyone speaks English or is trying very hard to speak English and every conversation begins with, “Hi, I’m…… tell me your name.”  Seamus was the cook on this particular Sunday and we began with the most amazing soup.  Couldn’t even tell you what was in it other than onions and some peppers and tomatoes.  Served with sour cream on the side, it was delicious.  You simply grab a bowl and head out into the garden.  People swirl around from group to group meeting new people.  You hang out with someone for a bit, part and the find them again later in the evening if you enjoyed their company.  I met several Americans, quite a few Brits and one or two Parisians.   Dinner was salmon with some kind of stuffing and maybe couscous and a carrot salad.  (I’m told by one frequent diner, that it wasn’t even the best meal he’d had there)  But I enjoyed it.  (maybe it was all the beer)  By the end of the night I was fast friends with Melissa and another woman named Brita.  (Brita is from Seattle by way of Arizona)  We also made friends with Brad, a 60 something American gentleman who had just moved to Paris two months ago.  He retired and said what the heck.  He now lives in a tiny apartment and has a 27 year old girlfriend.  (Melissa gave Brad no end of grief about that)  I also met Pascal, a lovely Frenchman who makes films by day and works in a pharmacy by night.  (I’ll have photos of him once Brita returns home)  I also met Laura, an aspiring filmmaker from London who was on a mini break to Paris with her friend Amy.  So many other lovely people, an older couple Eugene and (I can’t for the life of me remember her name) who only have been together for four years and will be getting married this year, but seem like they’ve been together forever.  Such an amazing experience and one that is a must for anyone going to Paris.  Just email Jim and get on the list ahead of time as there is a waiting list for others who want to join.  Don’t be nervous, if I could do it, you can!

So now I’m headed back to the states.  Finishing this up as I sit in the airport.  I’m glad to return to all of you my friends and my own bed, but I do wish we were all off somewhere else now. 

My intention is to continue the blog when I go to Barcelona in June.  Until then Au Revoir!  And safe travels!

25 March, 2012

Last night ended up being another night where I just crashed after dinner.  No will to keep writing.  I've definitely gotten to that point in the trip where I don't need to see anything else monumental, I'm just happy to wander around the city.  I decided to take another of those bus tours around the city.  The other tour company has several routes that the first one didn't.  Let me also say, Paris is obviously a weekend getaway spot.  I'm sure the beautiful weather didn't hurt either.  So to say that the crowds have pretty much tripled would not be an exaggeration. (at least not too much of one!)  So I'm glad I into all the major sights earlier in the week.  As we drove past places I'd already been, it was just a sea of people.

So you ask, what did I see that was new yesterday?  Well I made the trip out to the neighborhood of Monmartre.  This neighborhood, once the home of poor artists and the bohemian heart of the city, now bustles with tourists.  At the top of the hill, Sacre Coeur sits gleaming.  It's a long way up there.  Instead of having to climb all the steps, there is now a little funicular that allows you access to the summit.  

From the base of the hill, you can look up between the buildings and see Sacre Coeur looking down on the area below.  Which is kind of funny when you know what it sees below.

It is the area known a Pigalle.  This is the center for all things sex.  It's also the home of the Moulin Rouge.  Granted it was daytime so a little less glitz on show, but I think I'll stick to the movie for my romantic notions of life in this quarter.  Historically though, the Can Can was invented in the Moulin Rouge and it was created as a place for the rich to be able to "slum" safely.  It was made world famous by Henri Toulouse-Latrec and his paintings. 

Then it was back to the Latin Quarter and time for my second concert at Sainte Chapelle.  This one was so packed, they had chairs the entire length of the chapel.  It was a lovely concert though and I'm glad I went to two.  Last of all it was back to my new favorite restaurant and some beouf bourguignon.  Julia Child had it right, this is the best ever.  (though I tried it at another place here and it wasn't nearly as good) 

Now as I write this, it's Sunday and my last full day in Paris.  I've gotten off to a slow start keeping the blog going this morning.  But today will be another bus ride around a different part of the city and shopping!  By this time tomorrow I will already be at the airport and ready to head home. 

23 March, 2012

Today's update is brought to you by Vin Blanc... aka the full carafe of white wine I drank with dinner.  :-)  Really, today was a lifestyles of the rich and famous day.  I visited three chateaus.  Each one bigger than the last.  And if anyone is keeping count... number of photos 1094.  Aren't you glad you're reading the blog and don't have to see the rest?

The first, Chateau du Clos Luce, was the home of Leonardo da Vinci in the three years leading up to his death.  He was there on invitation of the French king Francois I.  In exchange for this cozy little place, Leonardo worked on several projects in the area including the double helix staircase we'll see later at Chambord.  Leonardo carried with him the famous painting, Mona Lisa and in France she remained after his death.
Front entrance
Leonardo's bedroom

Secret tunnel the king used to visit Leonardo

Next we handed our lives to our able driver who proceeded to whip through the narrow streets to arrive at Chateau de Chenonceau.  Now if you're looking for a nice little place on a river, this may be the one for you.  It was given by Henry II to his mistress Diane de Poitiers.  She had the chateau expanded across the river.  When Henry died, his widow Catherine de Medici kicked Diane out and made the chateau her own.  After that there were four other ladies who owned it and each left her mark on the building or lands.

Last of all came the large "hunting lodge" known as Chambord.  King Francis I had it built starting in 1519.  This place has 77 staircases, 282 fireplaces and 426 rooms.  Let's just agree that it's big.  Now, I know, it' nothing compared to Versailles yesterday, but consider that in his 32 year reign, Francis I only spent 72 days here and it wasn't even finished.    And remember, it's a HUNTING LODGE! 

So this round trip took about 11 hours.  I had a lovely time with two Australian couples as we kept each other company for the day.  I will say the mini bus tour with a small group is the way to go!