Sunday, January 15, 2017

I Love Paris In The...Winter?

Rich and I just returned from a wonderfully rejuvenating 5 days in Paris.  We planned this trip last minute, booking on Christmas as our gift to each other, and flying out right after the new year.  We've visited Paris several times but there were things that we had missed on past trips, and our goal was to visit these spots, as well as have a culinary experience and a day trip.

We booked a hotel in the 5th Arrondisement, just a few minutes walk to Notre Dame and Saint Chapelle, which was the very first must-do on our list.  This beautiful gothic church is steps away from Notre Dame but had been closed on prior visits.  We are so glad this was our first stop!  One enters the church at ground level, but then walks up a winding staircase with 35 steps, to enter a space surrounded by intricate, soaring, spectacular stained glass panels. It's truly breathtaking!  These photos can't possibly convey the magnificence of this spot.

From the chapel, we headed for lunch to a little brasserie Balzar located very close to our hotel.  I had my first (not last!) foie gras of the trip.  

This painting was hanging over our seats in the Brasserie; the interior still looks exactly like this.

Later that afternoon, I set out for a walk to the St. Germaine area which was also very close to our hotel, to do some essential shopping - perfume, and french canned goods requested by my son.  European cities are so beautiful around Christmas time; the narrow streets lined with old buildings are the perfect backdrop to string small twinkling strings of light. 



Next morning we had an early wake up call, to meet at a Boulangerie for a class in Baguettes and puff pastry.  We got there early enough to have a coffee at the shop next door; the name on the cup was a harbinger of the good day in store:

Our baker, Didier, greeted us at the door next to the bakery's entrance and led us through an open courtyard to the back of the bake shop, where we washed our hands and donned aprons, before heading down a narrow stair to the lower level where the baguettes are produced.  It was a very narrow room dominated by a huge oven at one end, with a contraption sort of like an ironing board in front of the the oven doors.  There were two huge mixers and a couple of counters for rolling and shaping the dough.  Didier explained through our translator, Jason, that C'est IMPOSSIBLE to reproduce authentic French baguettes in the US because we can't get the flour necessary, but he's developed a wheat/rye flour mix to approximate the French product.  We saw how the dough is produced, rolled, shaped, scarred, and then slid into the oven (via the ironing-board contraption) onto a heated stone.  As soon as the oven door is closed, a burst of steam is released, critical to forming the crust.  (this can be reproduced in home ovens)  We all had a turn shaping and scarring the dough, and Didier demonstrated how to cut the shaped baguette with scissors to form a loaf which looks like leaves on a branch. 

Here I am, using scissors to cut a baguette into "leaf" shapes

Didier's second-in-command loading baked baguettes in a basket to carry up the narrow stairs to the shop

After the baking class, we headed back to our hotel to et ready for our big night at The Moulin Rouge which is described as a Paris Cabaret.  It was originally opened in the 1880s (or the Belle Epoque) and was depicted in several paintings by Toulouse Lautrec.  We had not SEEN the famed Red Neon Windmill (Moulin) - never having ventured into this part of Paris.  We booked a package including dinner and premium seating.  I tend to be skeptical of food included in a package like this, but we the food completely exceeded our expectations.  Don't get me wrong - it's not cheap, and it is very touristy - but it's a one of a kind event which can be experienced only in Paris.  

The show was high energy and the costumes were spectacular (if scanty - lots of bare female breasts.)  The loudest cheer of the night was for six mini-ponies who were led out by young ladies in scanty jockey-type outfits.  In between the highly coreographed dance numbers were acrobats, contortionists, balance artists and a very funny and skilled ventriloquist.  I'm dating myself, but these acts reminded me of watching Ed Sullivan with my grandparents, back in the day.

We had an early wake up call the next morning for our day trip out of Paris.  On previous visits we've been to Versailles, Giverny and the Normandy Beaches and museums.  This time we were headed to the Loire Valley.  It was a long drive, nearly 3 hours, to get to our first stop, Chateau D'Amboise in the lovely river town of Amboise.  Bonus:  Leonardo da Vinci had been recruited from Italy to France at the behest of King Francis I of France, and spent the last three years of his life in Amboise.  Leonardo is buried in a beautiful chapel on the grounds of the Chateau.  I was very moved to stand alone in this chapel at his tomb. The Chateau is beautifully situated on a hilltop overlooking the Loire River and Valley and the grounds are gorgeous with beautiful formal gardens.  Must be something in the summer!

From the chateau we headed for lunch in a cave...for real.  The caves have been used for generations for storage of wine; one of these has been converted to a restaurant by the family of the vintners.  Once again the food was delicious and completely exceeded expectations, and the cheese cart was absolutely spectacular.

Foie Gras?  Don't mind if I do!

From the La Cave Restaurant, we had one final stop - at the Chinon Vineyard and Winery in Chinon au Touraine for a quick tour and tasting.  We were greeted by the winery's dog, a friendly boxer named Ychem. The wines were excellent and we are looking forward to receiving the case we bought (shipping rates were incredibly reasonable.)  And then it was time to settle in for the long drive back to Paris. 

Next day was a stick-close to home kind of day.  We had a leisurely start before heading to the delightful Musee D'Orsay which is housed in a beautifully re-purposed railway station (Gare D'Orsay.)  This is one of those museums in which all the visitors are smiling, because the art is stunningly beautiful and, in my opinion, very accessible.  It's got a great collection of French Impressionist paintings.  MY advice: if you have time for the Louvre or D'Orsay, choose D'Orsay.  After a couple of hours, we headed over to L'Orangerie which is situated in the Tuileries Gardens right next to the Place du Concorde (home of the big Ferris Wheel and the Egyptian Obelisk.)  This was one of those Paris experiences that was a priority for us, and seeing the huge Monet panels in their oval, naturally lit rooms was absolutely breathtaking.  Coincidentally their featured exhibit was of American Art from the 1930s, and the featured piece was Grant Wood's American Gothic - an old neighbor of mine from the Art Institute of Chicago.  The L'Orangerie also features the magnificent Guillaume-Walter collection.  Paul Guillaume owned a studio representing many of the impressionists and early cubists, at the time that they were literally starving artists.  After his untimely death, his wife remarried a man (Jean Walter) with the financial resources to continue to add to the collection.  The museum is not to be missed for the Monets alone, but the Guillaume-Walter collection is a must-see. 

From this museum we headed back to our hotel and enjoyed a wonderful lunch at a Chinese restaurant across the street.  Really excellent!  From there, I headed out solo to the Pantheon which was a 5-minutes walk from our hotel. Built on the site of an 11th Century church honoring St. Genevieve, the Pantheon was conceived as a place to honor French notables from the time of the Revolution forward.  The main floor is a beautiful space with some religious overtones combined with murals depicting French history.  The downstairs crypt is the final resting place for many of France's most important and prominent citizens.  I liked the narration in my recorded tour which noted that this is not an ossuary (e.g, a boneyard,) but rather a garden of minds. My bonus from this point was upon departing, at sunset, and SEEING that the Pantheon is situated in a direct line to the Tour Eiffel with a stunning view. On my walk back I stumbled across a charming artist's supply shop - I was drawn by the old fashioned artist's smock hanging in the window, and finally a shop specializing in umbrellas, or "parapluie" in French.

Last day in Paris (sigh) - during a prior trip we had visited Sacre Coeur at the top of Montmartre, and while driving away I had glimpsed a lively square with lots of street artists (kind of like St. Louis Square in New Orleans,) and I wanted to check this out. We got to Sacre Coeur and it was FREEZING!  The wind was howling, and it was damp which made the cold all the more bone chilling.  So we retired to the sanctuary of Sacre Coeur to warm up.  It's a beautiful space; I lit a special novena for my late madre, Lili,  in front of the shrine to Mary.  After thawing out, we headed for the Place du Tertre which was the square I had glimpsed previously.  Once there we were ready for a warm up, so we stopped for a quick Choclat Chaud (Hot Chocolate) in the Au Clairon du Chausseurs Cafe, dating to the Belle Epoque.  This area is also very touristy - but tourist spots are popular for a reason, non? 


We headed back to our hotel and returned to the local Chinese restaurant - Chinese food is so good when it's cold out!  And then I was off for another adventure, to be the subject of an on-location photo shoot with an honest-to-goodness fashion photographer, courtesy of a great startup called Flytographer.  I met my photographer, Goncalo, and his friend, Ricardo, in a little square called Place Louis Aragon, directly across from Notre Dame, and the three of us set out for a frozen two-hour quest in search of photo opportunities.  It was a fun experience and when I received the photos earlier this week, I was totally blown away by the quality of the photos.  I am honestly the LEAST photogenic person IN THE WORLD...  

 But - we still had ONE MORE EXPERIENCE - whenever we travel, Rich loves to engage the local residents and learn about their life, their experiences, and their world view.  We found a program which matches visitors with a local host for "Dinner with The French."  We were paired with a lovely retired teacher, Mme. D, who lived in a pre-war apartment in the 18th.  It was the perfect way to end our lovely visit to Paris.  Au Revoir Paris, until we meet again!

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