Wednesday, January 19, 2011


In the summer of 1880, the Impressionist painter Pierre-Auguste Renoir was in Chatou, hard at work on a future masterpiece. He invited a friend in Paris to come for a visit. "You won't regret the trip, I assure you" Renoir wrote. "There is not a lovelier place in all the surroundings of Paris."  

Courtesy Phillips Collection
The painting that Renoir was working on was "The Luncheon of the Boating Party" (Le Dejeuner des Canotiers). In it, many of Renoir's friends, including his future wife, Aline Charigot, sit in the sparkling sunlight on the balcony of la Maison Fournaise, a guingette in Chatou. 
On a recent morning in Paris when the sun made a rare winter appearance, I decided to heed Renoir's advice and visit Chatou, which is on the banks of the Seine just seven miles west of Paris.

Courtesy Musée d'Orsay
Renoir's friend probably took the train from Paris' St. Lazare Station, a subject much painted by Claude Monet. The advent of the train line from Paris to the small towns outside the city made it easy for the young Bohemians to hone their painting skills en plein air. Painters, including Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Morisot, Pissarro and Caillebotte, flocked to the surrounding countryside along with like-minded musicians, actors and writers, including Guy de Maupassant who set many of his stories and novels in the surrounding area. Rich Parisians came as well and built the elegant villas that still line the river.  

Instead of the train, my friend Marcelle and I headed out of Paris on the more convenient RER, the regional branch of the Metro. Three stops beyond Chatou at St. Germain-en-Laye, we began the four-mile walk that would take us not only back toward Paris, but also back through time. 

The chateau of St. Germain-en-Laye, dates to 1124 and was the birthplace of King Louis XIV. We crossed the park of the chateau and headed down to the river, where the scenery in many places is still surprisingly bucolic. Glimpsed through the trees or across the shimmering water, the towns of Le Pecq, Bougival, Croissy and Chatou look very much as they did in the time of the Impressionists. 

Barges still pass as they snake their way from Paris to the sea, but the cafes, bathhouses and all but one of the famous guinguette - those raucous dance halls painted and patronized by numerous Impressionists - have disappeared.  

We walked up the river toward Croissy-sur-Seine and on to the Bougival bridge, the subject of an 1870 Monet painting. Halfway across, we descended steps to the Ile de la Chaussée. The island was also known as the Ile de la Grenouillière, in honor of a popular guinguette on the island that, in its heyday, attracted a cross-section of French society. People swam and boated during the day, and ate, drank, danced and loved away the night. A popular guide book of the time gave this succinct description: "La Grenouillière, just between us, is not exactly a recommended spot for clergymen."  

From this island, it's a short walk across a connecting dike to Ile des Impressionnistes. When we arrived at the dike, however, a locked gate barred our way. In formal administrative language, a large sign announced essentially that because of high water, the dike was unstable and we risked drowning in the Seine. Marcelle, being French, was all for defying this attack on our liberty, and urged that we go forward. What came to my mind, however, was the Great Flood of 1910  and the drowning, not far from this very spot, of Alphonse Fournaise, the son of the family that owned la Maison Fournaise and one of the young, happy people in "The Luncheon of the Boating Party." No matter how romantic, I did not want my first view of the Ile des Impressionnistes to be my last. Although still certain of her position, Marcelle agreed to turn back.

She was right, of course. From the other side of the river, we could see people (presumably French) walking the full length of the dike, high above the water. On the other hand, our detour took us past beautiful villas built in the late 1800s, small, balconied riverfront houses in Chatou and the town's beautiful Church of Saint Leonard and Saint Martin, built in the second-half of the 13th century. 

We crossed over to the Ile des Impressionnistes at Chatou and set out to find the la Maison Fournaise, the last surviving guinguette. The landscape across the river toward Paris has changed dramatically, but the Maison Fournaise looks much the same as it did more than a hundred years ago. Its exterior was aglow in the light of the setting sun, but inside all was dark. Our hopes of a warm drink on the balcony made famous by Renoir were dashed. Instead, we walked across the bridge and into an inviting, but decidedly less famous cafe, where we ordered espresso and pain au chocolate

There we sat - subjects for a modern-day artist - two good friends at a table by the window in a Paris cafe, talking and laughing and whiling away the end of a beautiful day.

To see more photos, click here.

Recommended Reading:
by Guy de Maupassant
(Chapter 2 has a lively description of la Grenouillière.)
Click here to read in English on Ebooks.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Wednesday, January 12, 2011


After death, most people's lives are shrouded in obscurity. Some individuals, however, are so exceptional they are remembered when most others are forgotten. In Paris, the tombs of many of these remarkable people can be found in Pere Lachaise Cemetery.

A friend of mine, in town for a few days in December, went to Pere Lachaise to see and photograph the tomb of Frédéric Chopin. On her first two attempts, the cemetery was closed due to snow and icy walkways. Finally, on the last afternoon of her trip, Pere Lachaise reopened, but the day had already begun to wane by the time she began her search. All too soon, the first bells announcing the closing of the cemetery began to toll. She lingered - determined to achieve her goal - until well after the last bell. Then, the very real prospect of spending a long, cold night curled up at the foot of the famous composer's tomb sent her rushing for the exit. 

And that's what brought me to Pere Lachaise - a promise to take and send her the sought-after photo. 

The Cemetery of the East, as it is officially known, is the largest in Paris. It opened on May 21, 1804 and is located on a 108-acre tract of land. Known formerly as Mont-Louis, the land was purchased by the Jesuit order of Paris in 1626. In 1675, King Louis XIV financed the building of a chateau and gardens there for his confessor, Father François d'Aix de la Chaise (Pere Lachaise). 

According to the cemetery's registry, the first person buried in Pere Lachaise was a five-year-old girl, Adélaide Paillard de Villeneuve, whose tomb has long since disappeared. In the two hundred years since, more than one million people have been buried here. Unless you have a perpetual plot, however, your tomb at Pere Lachaise is not an eternal resting place. Remains from expired or abandoned plots are regularly removed to the cemetery's ossuary

For years after its founding, however, the cemetery was sparsely populated since the predominantly Catholic population of Paris was reluctant to be buried in the unconsecrated ground of the strictly secular cemetery. Then Nicolas Frochot, the Prefect of Paris, had two very clever marketing ideas.  The first was to offer  plots in perpetuity, and the second was to move the remains of the ill-fated 12th-century lovers Héloise and Abélard, the playwright and actor Molière, and the poet La Fontaine to Pere Lachaise. Shortly after, Pere Lachaise became the chic place of repose. 

When I arrived on a Saturday morning, camera in hand, the permanent residents were, of course, their usual discreet selves. The streets of Pere Lachaise, however, were bursting with life. Hundreds of thousands of tourists visit the cemetery each year and, even on this cold winter day, there were many people wandering the cemetery's 60 miles of cobbled lanes in search of the graves of the famous. Most of the visitors were consulting maps and looking very much, themselves, like lost souls in the realm of the dead.

I found Chopin on a small, hilly street, guarded by a sorrowful Eutrepe, the muse of music and in the company of other composers and musicians. Then I wandered a bit myself, taking in the beauty of the surroundings and the distant, hillside views of Paris. Pere Lachaise is, in fact,  a microcosm of Paris itself with its old winding byways and its more modern, open avenues. There are trees, gardens, beautiful sculpture, enormous monuments, squares and quiet corners. 

The list of notables is long and international in scope (click here) since you don't need to be French to be buried in Pere Lachaise. The only requirement for non-Parisians is that you die in Paris. Take your time, though. There's a long waiting list.

For more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Like the Grinch who stole Christmas, I crept downstairs on Christmas morning and removed the holiday wreath from our front door. We planned to be in Paris for New Year's Day and the first leg of our journey was by car from Ann Arbor to the East Coast. 

We drove south through Michigan in the dark of early morning and turned east on Route 80, where for the next 500 miles there would be no major towns. In Ohio, the pale grey dawn revealed an almost deserted highway passing through seemingly endless farmland. Until the 1850s, this area was known as the Great Black Swamp, a place of endemic malaria and impenetrable marshes. By late morning, we were in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania. Four hundred million years ago, these mountains were the  highest on earth - much taller than the present-day Himalayas. Today their highest point on Route 80 is 2,250 feet (686 meters). 

We passed into New Jersey at the Delaware Water Gap on the border between Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Here, when the Appalachians were at  their highest, water that eventually would become today's Delaware River, began its inexorable task of cutting a passage through the towering mountains. The end of our trip, like the beginning, was shrouded in darkness, but an hour later, we were gathered around the family table for Christmas dinner - the beginning of a festive week with family and friends.

On New Year's Eve, we boarded a US Airways flight for Paris. At midnight Paris time, flight attendants attired in holiday hats, wished us Bonne Année a Paris and we toasted in the New Year. 

We arrived at deGaulle Airport to the good news that in honor of the New Year, all trains to Paris were free of charge. The bad news was that there was an action sociale (a strike)  in progress, which meant that trains would run only every 20 minutes;  would go only as far as Paris' northern station and not center city; and were running 15-20 minutes late. Still, it was a nice gesture. 

The weather was grey, damp and cold. A persistent fog obscured the distant views of Paris and until the train entered its underground passage, we were left to contend with the sight of graffiti-scarred railway sidings and nearby neglected buildings. 

Paris, therefore, looked all the more stunning when we stepped out of the metro an hour later. And its deserted streets seemed to be ours alone. Presumedly, Parisians had partied hard the night before and were still in bed at this early hour. We found a bakery and headed to our apartment for coffee and our first pain au chocolat. By afternoon, Paris was humming again and we walked about and bought some groceries.

Because the best way to overcome jet lag is to enter into the local rhythm, we arranged to meet a friend in the early evening to take in an extraordinary exhibit at the Grand Palais celebrating the 125th anniversary of the Italian jewelry company Bulgari. With our eyes still dazzled by rubies, emeralds and diamonds as big as the Ritz, we stepped out of the museum and on to an equally sparkling Champs-Elysées. The four hundred trees that line the avenue  were lit by a million twinkling holiday lights and a Christmas market lined the  famous street. Presiding over it all was La Grande Roue, a 200-foot-high illuminated Ferris Wheel.

The first day of our stay in Paris ended in the cozy 12th-century cave of the Equinox, a friendly neighborhood restaurant. As jazz music mixed and mingled with the melodious sound of French, we ate hot soup and boudin blanc and toasted our return to Paris. 

For more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor