Tag Archives: Paris

Make Your Own List

On my list, this ranks a lot higher than a hot dog stand.  (Photo by Sally Reeder)

On my list, this ranks a lot higher than a hot dog stand.
(Photo by Sally Reeder)

There are lots of reasons to make lists, but I’m going to resist the impulse to list them.  Well, maybe I could just mention a couple, OK?

First, jotting down the things one needs to accomplish on a given day or week helps organize the allotted time.  The second reason is that it’s just so darn satisfying to draw a line through each task when it’s completed:  “snake the drains” — check!

As much as I like lists, I’m not enthusiastic about having other people make them for me.  Travel magazines do that regularly, with headlines like “The Fifty Hottest New Destinations” or “Where to Go Next”.  There’s a best-selling book called 1,000 Places to See Before You Die.

As the title grimly states, it’s a bucket list; things to do before you  kick the bucket.  I’ve thumbed through my copy, and it’s pretty clear to me that I’m not going to make it.  I’ve been to a lot of places in the world, but I’ve only seen, oh, maybe a quarter of the places that author Patricia Schultz thinks I need to see to make my life complete.

But I’m OK with that.  I’ll probably never make it to the hot dog joint in Chicago that she raves about, but I have been to Paris.  And by the way, why should a diner and the City of Light each count as one of the thousand on her list?  There are at least a dozen things in Paris that I would personally rank above any ’dawg.

Maybe you wouldn’t, though.  For all I know, you’d much rather have the Everything-On-It than visit the Louvre.  That’s what’s tricky about these “oh, you must” lists.  Everybody has different ideas of what constitutes a satisfying travel experience.

Several of us went to Colonial Williamsburg together (it’s in the book — check!)  Some in our group were fascinated by the demonstrations of life in the 17th century by people in period costume:  “Most of our clothing is made of wool, which is spun on wheels like this one.”  On the other hand, some of us were less enthusiastic.  After about forty minutes of lectures from faux colonists, one friend muttered, “I get it.  Let’s go play golf.”

The truth is, he’d rather play golf than almost anything, so his wish list might be a lot different than yours.  And if your idea of a dream vacation is non-stop shopping, your list would look very different than mine.

My wife has a novel approach to travel lists.  Instead of a bucket list, she has compiled hers after the fact, when she’s had experiences associated with the places she’s been.  For example, she noted that she ate Maine lobster in Maine, drank Scotch in Scotland, had French fries in France.

Many of her entries seem to be food-and-drink related:  ate Black Forest cake in the Black Forest, had a Coors beer at Coors Field (Denver).  Several are more observational:  saw African violets blooming in Africa, was in St. Patrick’s Cathedral (NYC) on St. Patrick’s Day.

The thing I like about Sally’s travel list is that it emphasizes fulfillment, not falling short.  She may not make it to 1,000 “must-sees”, but she’s having fun along the way.  And maybe I should put Hershey, Pennsylvania, on my list so that someday it will make it onto hers.

Street Scenes

Uh, guys, you’re missing the Eiffel Tower. No, really, you’re practically in its shadow.

Across Paternoster Square from St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is a public “lav”.  That’s where I happened to be when an elegantly dressed British businessman bustled in and approached the restroom attendant.  “Could you clean me off, mate?  A pigeon has gone and mucked all over me.”

Apparently pigeon droppings on men’s suits were not an uncommon occurrence here; the attendant responded, “Twenty pence.”  The businessman impatiently agreed to the price for emergency cleaning, saying “Yeah, yeah.  Filthy beasts.”

One can plan a visit to a major attraction like St. Paul’s, or the Tower of Pisa, or Zion National Park, but you can’t make advance arrangements for moments like that.  They just happen, and those chance encounters are bonuses that enrich the fund of memories, as in “We’ll always have Paris — and that funny waiter.”  Here’s that story…

Our friend Chris Plutte was living in Paris; he took Sally and me to a restaurant called Le Gamin.  The waiter had a dry sense of humor; he enjoyed acting the part of a stereotypically rude Parisian.  We’d ask for something, like more water, and he’d huff “non”… and then would smile and get it for us. 

After the meal, Chris wanted coffee, and told the waiter to bring the “special coffee” for madame.  He returned a couple of minutes later with a cup and saucer; as the waiter started to place it in front of Sally, he pretended to stumble.  The cup and saucer clattered, and for a split second it looked like she would get showered with hot coffee… but the cup was empty.  We all laughed, and the waiter was pleased that his little joke had worked again, for what must have been the thousandth time he had pulled it on someone.

Here’s another travel experience that had nothing to do with the scenery:  While waiting for a ferry boat on Ambergris Caye in Belize, a guy in a ragged T-shirt and swimming trunks struck up a conversation.  Well, it was more of a monologue, really — he went on at length about how great it was to live in Belize with its natural beauty, fantastic dive spots, friendly people, etc.

He told us that he had sold all his belongings back in the States but had no regrets, because he was loving the life he’d made here in Belize.  I asked him how long he’d been living here.  “A week,” he said.

Several hours later we were in the vicinity of that same ferry dock in San Pedro Town again.  As we were wandering by a beach bar ironically called Amigos del Mar, we heard two guys snarling at each other:  “Go away.”  “No, you go away.”  “Yeah?  Let’s see you make me.”  It went on in that vein; as we passed, we noticed that one of the combatants was the guy who had moved here from the U.S. a week ago.

Every trip seems to have memorable street scenes like that, but for now I’ll conclude with an experience in New York City that had figurative and literal resonance for me.

In the massive subway station under Times Square I heard what was, for me, an unmistakable sound:  A guy was playing a saw with a violin bow.  My dad had played the saw, although not nearly as well as this old black man in the subway.  I put some cash in the street musician’s tip container, partly in appreciation for bringing back a memory of my childhood, even though I was many miles (and many years) away from home.

Celebrity Cemetery

There's someone interesting just around this bend...

“How many more tombs of famous dead guys do we have to see?”

That was asked by one of my kids when I made my family linger at some London memorial while I read yet another inscription.  It was a fair question; not everyone — especially teenagers — shares my fascination with the final resting places of historical figures.

A lot of people do seem drawn to such sites, though; one in Paris, called Cimetière du Père Lachaise, has hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.  It is believed to be the most-visited cemetery in the world (although I’m not sure who is actually keeping track of attendance figures at cemeteries).

Its location in the 20th arrondissement — northeastern Paris — might seem inconvenient, but there are two or three Métro stations within easy walking distance of Père Lachaise.  Well, it’s not as easy a walk as, say, from the living room to the kitchen, but the stations are within a few hundred yards of an entrance to the cemetery.

It’s probably a coincidence that there are flower shops near each entrance.  Most of them sell maps of the cemetery for a few euros, but as I recall, there was one spot just inside the main gate that supplied free maps, which come in handy. 

The tree-lined cobblestone paths go off in many directions, leading you past concrete and marble memorials for many individuals whose names you’d recognize from your school days.  Here is a sampling of some of the famous people who are interred at Père Lachaise:

Artists:   Delacroix, Modigliani, Jacques-Louis David, Seurat, Rosa Bonheur, Géricault, Ingres, René Lalique (the glass designer), Corot, Max Ernst, Pissarro.

Writers and Poets:  Molière, Marcel Proust, Richard Wright (Native Son), Collette,  Balzac.

Performers:  Sarah Bernhardt, Marcel Marceau, Edith Piaf, Maria Callas, Isadora Duncan, Yves Montand, Simone Signoret.

Composers:  Georges Bizet, Paul Dukas, Francis Poulenc, Rossini (he has actually been relocated to Florence, but his crypt is still here).

Of special interest at Père Lachaise are:  The remains of star-crossed lovers Abelard and Heloise, which were transferred here in 1817, several hundred years after they died.  Frederic Chopin‘s tomb stands out because of the many floral tributes and candles left by his legion of admirers.  The great composer’s body is here, but his heart was taken to his native Poland.

The tomb of rock singer Jim Morrison (The Doors) attracts many offerings from his fans, too, but a lot of it looks like debris:  scrawled notes, ticket stubs, photos, articles of clothing and other random items are strewn there.  Gertrude Stein and her partner Alice B. Toklas share the same tombstone; Stein’s name is on the front and Toklas’s is on the back.

The Art Deco monument to Oscar Wilde was regularly “vandalized” with lipstick kisses put on it by visitors, but cemetery officials recently gave it a thorough cleaning and blocked it from potential smoochers with a glass barrier.

Scientists and politicians and philosophers and engineers are buried in Père Lachaise as well, and of course some eminent composers and artists are buried elsewhere in Paris.  If your time in the City of Light is limited, though, Père Lachaise is the best place to go if, like me, you feel compelled to see the tombs of famous dead guys.

Let’s Go Back

Big Sur, California

Depending where you choose to go, travel can offer the thrill of someplace new, or the contentment of someplace familiar.  My friend David much preferred the latter:  He did a lot of traveling, but most of it was to either Venice or London.

Occasionally he could be cajoled into going elsewhere, but he always wanted to get back to his favorites.  He once told us that he’d stopped counting how many times he had been to Venice after his 27th visit.  So far, I’m still stuck on one.

Unlike David, my inclination is to go somewhere I haven’t been before, since there are so many wonderful places to see.  On the other hand, I’ve been fortunate to have seen many wonderful places already, and I’d love to see some of them again — you, too? 

Unfortunately, most of us don’t have unlimited time and money, so when an opportunity to travel does come along and we ask ourselves “where shall we go?”, we have to pick either a new adventure or an old favorite.  Which, I acknowledge, is a nice problem to have.

Places like Copenhagen and Angkor and the Amazon River remain on my wish list of future adventures, but my wish list for return visits includes…

     •  Paris embraces me; its boulevards and museums and sidewalk cafés reach out affectionately.  Not everyone feels that way about the City of Light, I know, but when I daydream about traveling, this is usually where my mind takes me.

     •  Yellowstone National Park has awe-inspiring sights around almost every bend in the road or trail.  At certain times of the year there are hordes of other tourists around every bend, too, but a well-timed visit can make you sigh deeply at Yellowstone’s majestic beauty.

•  Moorea is not as well-known as its neighbors Tahiti and Bora Bora, but offers  similarly gorgeous beaches and abundant tropical fish.  It’s a great place to kayak or dive or hike… or just sprawl out and do nothing.

•  Shanghai impressed me with its contrasts:  Parts of the city are ancient, but nearby there are skyscrapers.  Buildings along the Bund evoke 19th-century Europe, but directly across the river is a business district that, after dark, is lit up like Las Vegas.  I have had just a taste of Shanghai, and it made me want more.

•  Florence, the birthplace of the Renaissance, is an old but elegant city.  As Sally observed when we were there:  “In Rome you wake up to car horns; in Florence you wake up to church bells.”

•  The California Coastline is where I live, so forgive me if this sounds like boosterism. The Pacific coast’s natural beauty stretches for hundreds of miles (and in fairness, to Oregon and Washington, too).  As much as I like going elsewhere, it’s great to come back here.

So… what about you?  Is there some special place you look forward to seeing again?

The Other Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty, formally known as “Liberty Enlightening the World”, is located at the New York-New York Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada.  A much larger version of the statue can be found in New York Harbor, and my research indicates that the east coast version actually predates the one in Vegas.

In fact, the statue off the southern tip of Manhattan was dedicated on October 28, 1886.  It was a gift from France, commemorating the friendship between that country and the United States.  The sculptor was Frederic Bartholdi; his creation, which is 151 feet tall, is made of copper sheets that were hammered into shape by hand.  The sheets were then attached to a framework designed by Alexandre-Gustave Eiffel.  As you may have guessed, he is the same man who dreamed up the Eiffel Tower, the main attraction at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino.

When the statue was completed in 1885, it was disassembled and shipped to New York.  The U.S. had been trying to figure out where to put it — when you get a gift that weighs 225 tons, you can’t just stuff it in the hall closet.  There was space for it on what was then known as Bedloe’s Island, and money was raised to build an appropriate pedestal.  Once that was finished, the Statue of Liberty was reassembled at its present site.

In 1982 it was discovered that the arm holding the torch had not been properly attached, causing it to sway in strong winds, potentially risking… uh, disarmament.  It was also noted during Lady Liberty’s physical exam that the head had been installed a couple of feet off center.  Movement in the wind caused one of the rays of her crown to scrape against that same arm.  These signs of wear and tear were corrected in time for the statue’s centennial in 1986.

The headline on this piece is a little misleading, since it implies that there are only two Statues of Liberty.  The truth is, there are hundreds of replicas of Bartholdi’s creation in places like Norway, Japan, and Australia.  There’s one in Duluth, in Birmingham, in Fargo.  Harrisburg (PA) used to have one made of venetian blinds, and I read about a large one made of Lego “bricks”.  For all I know, your neighbor may have a Statue of Liberty bird feeder.

The “other” one I was thinking about, though, is in Paris, France.  Paris actually has three of them, but there’s one in particular I wanted to mention:  It’s on a man-made island in the middle of the Seine (see photo).  My wife and I discovered it more or less by accident — we spotted it from the Eiffel Tower (the one in Paris, not Vegas).  It was apparently given to the French by expatriate Americans a few years after the real one settled in New York Harbor.

Sally and I studied our map and figured out how to get to this statue on the Île des Cygnes (Swan Island).  It’s only a one-fifth scale replica, but — at least on the day we were there — had the virtue of drawing only a handful of visitors.   Lady Liberty stands serene and beautiful,  facing west toward her big sister in New York.  We enjoyed our visit to this unpublicized attraction, and didn’t mind one bit that there wasn’t a craps table or slot machine nearby.

Impressed by Impressionists

Musee d'Orsay

Musee d'Orsay, Paris

You know the problem:  you’ve accumulated a lot of stuff, and you’ve run out of places to keep it all.  Some of it has sentimental or monetary value, so you don’t want to give it away or throw it away — what do you do with it?  You could have a garage sale, or you could do what the French government did.  Open a museum.

They already had plenty of museums, of course, including one of the world’s largest, the Louvre.  Over the centuries, though, kings named Louis and emperors named Napoleon had acquired tons of artwork, to the point that paintings and sculptures by more recent artists like Monet and Rodin were relegated to storage bins.  The Louvre sent some of its “clutter” to other museums, which were already overflowing with donated artwork.

Meanwhile, the Gare d’Orsay, a railroad station in Paris on the left bank of the Seine across from the Tuileries Gardens, was about to be torn down and replaced with a complex of commercial buildings.  In 1977, French officials had a bright idea that solved two problems:  they decided to turn the train station into an art museum.  As the old saying goes, “When life gives you lemons, make meringue au citron.” 

The train tracks and platforms were transformed into exhibition spaces; the Musée d’Orsay opened in 1986.  It is one of my favorite art museums in the world.

Among its charms is that, unlike the Louvre, it does not try to have representative works from the dawn of time until yesterday afternoon.  The Orsay focuses on art work of the 19th Century, which they arbitrarily define as the period from 1848, when revolutions swept across Europe, to 1914, when World War I began.

As a result, a tour of the Orsay begins with what we might call traditional art — realism — exemplified by Ingres and Delacroix.  It then displays the transitional work of Manet and Daumier and Degas, to the Impressionists (Monet, Renoir), and on to Post-Impressionism (Van Gogh, Cézanne) and beyond.

The Orsay also has some stuff on display that will make you say “huh?”, or even sneer.  As the museum’s first director, Françoise Cachin acknowledged, “Certainly we have bad paintings.  (But) We have only the greatest bad paintings.”  Of course, they have some of the greatest good paintings, too.  The collection includes works that have been widely reproduced:  you’ve seen them on calendars, cocktail napkins, and hanging on the walls of insurance offices worldwide.

Among the Orsay’s highlights are:

     •  Luncheon on the Grass, by Edouard Manet

     •  The Glass of Absinthe, by Edgar Degas

     •  Dance at the Moulin de la Galette, by Pierre-Auguste Renoir

     •  various scenes from Giverny, by Claude Monet

     •  Self-Portrait, by Vincent Van Gogh

     •  Portrait of the Artist’s Mother, by James A. M. Whistler

(Personally, I don’t include Whistler’s Mother in the category of great art, but it’s still a bit of a thrill to turn a corner in the Orsay and see the original after having seen so many reproductions of it elsewhere.)

Because it’s not massive — no bigger than a train station — it’s possible to see the Orsay in a few hours.  At the end of your visit, you’ll still have some feeling left in your legs.  And you’ll be impressed with the ingenuity the French applied to their fine-art storage problem.


From This Point, Your Wait Will Be…

An April morning in the Louvre

An April morning in the Louvre

A British publication called the Art Newspaper annually publishes rankings of the world’s most visited museums, based on attendance figures.  Publicizing the throngs of visitors is a little like someone telling a first date that he’s broke and has a violent temper.  Why publicize your least attractive trait?  I seriously doubt that anyone chooses to go to an art museum based on the likelihood of getting jostled by German tourists.

The figures are also a little misleading because the list only includes art museums; attractions like the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., with its five million annual visitors, are excluded.  For what it’s worth, here are the world’s most visited (art) museums for 2008, with a few comments of my own…

1) The Louvre, Paris     8.5 million visitors

Once the palace of Louis XIV, it became a museum in 1793.  This massive building displays over 35,000 works of art and houses many, many more.  In addition to European paintings, there are Near Eastern antiquities, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities — well, a lot of just about anything that is considered art.  It is not only the most visited, it is arguably the most famous museum in the world — if not necessarily the best.

Visitor Info:  Closed Tuesdays.  Admission is €9 for the permanent collections; €13 for permanent collections and temporary exhibitions.  In the past, admission has been free on Bastille Day (July 14), but I’m not sure that’s still the case.

Star Attractions:  Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, Winged Victory of Samothrace, Michelangelo’s Slaves.

2) The British Museum, London     5.93 million

Masterpieces of painting are on display elsewhere in London, so this is not what we often think of as an art museum, with gallery after gallery of canvas in ornate gilt frames.  The museum opened in 1759 when the British Empire sprawled across the globe, so loot from around the world was brought here.  Some countries are trying to get their treasures back, but in the meantime — they’re in the British Museum.

Visitor Info:  Open every day.  Admission is free, except for some special exhibitions.

Star Attractions:  The Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon), the Magna Carta.

3) National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.     4.96 million

A relative newcomer among the world’s great museums, it opened in the early 1940s, thanks to the donated collection of financier Andrew Mellon and others.  The National Gallery is located on the Mall, at 4th and Constitution.  A second wing, the East Building, opened in 1978.

Visitor Info:  Open daily; admission is free.

Star Attractions:  Ginevra de Benci (Leonardo da Vinci), Woman Holding a Balance (Vermeer), Self-Portrait (Vincent Van Gogh).

4) Tate Modern, London     4.95 million

This branch of the Tate was created in 2000, residing in what was an abandoned power station on the Southwark side of the Thames.  The original Tate, now called Tate Britain, was named for its principal benefactor, Sir Henry Tate.  (He got stinking rich by patenting a method to make sugar into cubes.)  The collection outgrew the building, so Tate Britain now has only British art; Tate Modern exhibits international modern art.

Visitor Info:  Open daily; admission is free except for major exhibitions.  A ferry runs between the Tate Modern and Tate Britain — cost for the boat ride is £5.

Star Attractions:  Water-Lilies (Claude Monet), The Three Dancers (Pablo Picasso), The Kiss (Rodin).

5) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City     4.82 million

American tycoons got a relatively late start in acquiring art — Europeans had been at it for hundreds of years before Americans jumped into the market.  The Yanks were able to make some fine purchases, though, and a lot of them eventually wound up here.  The museum opened in 1872, but moved to its current Central Park location in 1880.

Visitor Info:  Closed Mondays, except holiday Mondays.  Admission:  $20 for adults; children under 12 free.

Star Attractions:  Aristotle With A Bust of Homer (Rembrandt), The Musicians (Caravaggio), Washington Crossing The Delaware (Emanuel Leutze), Juan de Pareja (Velázquez).

In spite of my earlier grumbles about the crowds, I encourage you to visit an art museum soon.  With luck, maybe you’ll be there on a slow day.

Pommes de Terrific

A short walk from the restaurant was this view of Notre Dame

A short walk from the restaurant was this view of Notre Dame

Paris provokes passionate feelings.  Visitors to the “City of Light” either love it or hate it; I’ve never encountered any traveler who, having been there, is indifferent to it.  I happen to be among those who love it, for lots of reasons:  abundant art and great food are just a couple of them.  And contrary to the haughty or rude Parisians that some visitors seem to have encountered, we’ve found the vast majority of French people to be charming. 

What follows is a small illustration of that; it’s a story in two parts.  The first is from my journal for April 30, 1997:

For dinner we went to Rôtisserie du Beaujolais.  It is owned by the same guy who operates the renowned Tour d’Argent, which is practically next door.  The food here was excellent; Sally’s opener was something listed on the menu as Fondue de tomat et basiliac.  It looked like stewed tomatoes, but she said it was fabulous.  We both had roasted chicken with puréed potatoes (mashed and then put under the broiler) — they were probably the best I’ve ever had.

The clientele seemed to be primarily from the neighborhood.  Two dogs and a baby were also in the restaurant.  About the only downside was that the service was verrrry slow, even by Parisian standards.  Afterward we walked across the pont to Ile St-Louis for some of the famed Berthillon ice cream, reputed to be the finest in France…

Years went by before our next visit to Paris, but in that intervening time, we never forgot those marvelous mashed potatoes.  We tried to duplicate their recipe, but they were never quite as good in California as they had been in France.  The second part of the story takes place almost a decade after our original visit, when we returned to Paris and to that little restaurant.  Here’s how I recorded it on October 18, 2006:

Punctually at 8:00 we presented ourselves at a restaurant called La Rôtisserie du Beaujolais.  In 1997 we had eaten there and had loved their mashed potatoes.  Sally mentioned that to the captain; in fact she went on quite a bit about how wonderful they were, and how we had talked about their mashed potatoes (purée de pommes de terre) ever since.  He was clearly pleased by her effusive compliments.

She had some sort of leek salad as her entrée; I had French Onion soup.  Then, when Sally’s plat arrived, the chicken was served as a side dish, and an enormous portion of mashed potatoes — at least double the usual serving — was set in front of her as though it was the main dish.  Sally exclaimed her delight, and the captain grinned broadly.

One of our servers was under the mistaken impression that we were French speakers (indeed, we were the only English speakers in the place).  He stopped by frequently to joke with us in French, so we laughed heartily, and, we hoped, appropriately.  A cat wandered through the restaurant hoping for handouts.

Somehow, after all those potatoes, we managed to eat dessert — Tarte Tatin for Sally, chocolate mousse for me — and we lingered over our remaining 2002 Chateauneuf-du-Pape and decaf espresso.  It was pelting rain outside, and we were hoping for a respite so we could dash back to our hotel, which was only a few blocks away.

Almost miraculously, the rain paused when the bill was presented.  As we crossed the bridge back to Ile Saint-Louis, we could see the 10:00 light show on the Eiffel Tower, way down the river…