Thursday, February 14, 2013

Place des Vosges

The Grand Parade in the Place Royale, April 1612, Musee Carnavelet, Paris, Anonymous.

Butter, cream, foie gras, pastry, cheese - it's hard to say no to all those things in France since food is one of the country's great treasures. So, exercise it is.  There are tons of gyms in Paris, but who wants to labor on a treadmill, when the whole beautiful city is just a walk away.  

A few days ago, on a rare sunny winter day, I decided that the nearby Place des Vosges was perfect for a brisk morning walk. Originally called La Place Royale, it is one of the oldest and most beautiful squares in Paris. It was built between 1605 and 1612 by the king, Henry IV. It was Henry himself who imposed by royal edict the elegant symmetry of the 36 pavilions and four arcades that surround the square. All of them are of the same material, style and height - except, of course, for the Pavilion of the King and the Pavilion of the Queen, which are taller and more ornate. 

The square itself is 127 by 140 meters, big enough for the king to stage huge ceremonies and festivals. In an hour, I can walk 12 times around the square, which  adds up to four miles -  and a whole lot of history. 

Long before the elegant Place des Vosges, the square was the site of La Maison Royale des Tournelles - a vast and beautiful house whose gardens were surrounded by a high wall adorned with a large number of small towers. For almost two hundred years, several kings and would-be-kings lived and died here ending with Henry II in 1559. His queen was Catherine de Medici and his mistress was Diane de Poitiers. Twenty years his senior, Diane was also the king's trusted advisor.

At the age of 40, Henry was killed, not in battle, but in a jousting tournament, in which he carried the colors of Diane de Poitiers instead of those of the queen. The perpetrator was the head of Henry's Scottish Guards, Gabriel Montgomery, who obviously didn't know that you should always let the king win. It took ten days for the king to die and during that time, he is reported to have called out repeatedly for Diane, but the Queen banned her from the King's chambers. After his death, Montgomery wisely left Paris; Diane was banished to her chateau on the Loire; and Catherine, horrified by the event, moved with her eight children to the Louvre Palace. Four years later, she ordered the entire beautiful Maison Royale torn down. So effective was the demolition that today absolutely nothing remains of this massive edifice.

This cleared the way, so to speak, for the construction by King Henry IV of the Place Royale, today's Place des Vosges. Henry also built the Grand Gallery of the Louvre and the Pont Neuf bridge.  Along with his faithful right-hand man, the Duke of Sully, Henry began to put State finances in order; preserved forest land, built tree-lined roads; erected bridges; and promoted education.  Sully, in fact, had a beautiful mansion next to the Place des Vosges.  

Under the buildings of the square are arcades, and after six turns around the garden, I decided to walk there. The arcades are lined with art galleries, exclusive stores and cafes. In the southeast corner is the Maison de Victor Hugo, where the author once lived and where there is an interesting museum devoted to his life and work. In the southwest corner is a door that leads to the gardens and the mansion of the Hotel de Sully. The Duke, who in his later years was quite a dandy, built the opening so he could easily promenade on the fashionable Place Royale. Decked out in diamonds and the insignia of his former power, he strolled among the other dukes, counts and countesses, who, according to a history of the time, "amused themselves at his expense."

Sully fell from power when Henry IV was assassinated in 1610, two years before the inauguration of the Place Royale. Instead, Henry's son King Louis XIII presided over the spectacle in honor of his engagement to Anne of Austria. The king was only eight at the time, so the marriage was postponed until he was 14.  

Over the next century, the Place Royale remained a fashionable address, a site for parades and tournaments and a perfect dueling spot. It then began a slow decline and during the French Revolution, its name was changed several times. It sported such catchy monikers as Artillery Park Square, Arms' Makers Square, and Indivisibility Square. It got its present name in 1800 in honor of the French region of the Vosges, the first département to promptly pay Napoleon's war taxes. 

Since the restoration of the Marais district in the 1960s, (click here to read Travel Oyster's Paris Past) the Place des Vosges has returned to its former glory. It is one of the most sought after addresses in Paris and is home to the modern-day monarchs of industry, government and the arts  - and my very own exercise track. 

(Apartments on the Place des Vosges rarely come on the public market, but if you would like to live like a king or queen during your stay in Paris, you might want to check out the beautiful Palace des Vosges, a luxurious apartment right on the square with a quiet, secluded courtyard. It's a fractional ownership so if you are in the market, they have just three shares left. Until they are sold, however, they are available for short-term rental.)  

To see more photos, click here.


A bientôt,


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Up and Out in Paris and London

Even seasoned Parisians would agree that the weather in Paris has been pretty triste.  Day after day of sad grey drizzly days.  So when a friend visiting from Italy suggested that I go with her to London to visit her daughter for two or three days, it seemed like a great idea. And lo and behold, when we stepped out of the train in London's St. Pancras International Station, the sun was shining and the sky was a clear, crystal blue.

With the ten-year old train tunnel under the English Channel or La Manche as it is known in France, travel time between the two cities is just two hours and ten minutes. We bought our Eurostar tickets online and printed them out at home. The morning of our departure, we took the metro to the Gare du Nord station and arrived with an hour to spare. Time enough to walk across the street for a morning coffee.  It was warm in the cafe and the conversation was good so before we knew it, there were only 15 minutes left to departure.  If you decide to go, leave more time than that. Check-in includes clearing customs and my British custom's guy had lots of questions for me.  In the end, we wound up running for the train, and hopped abroad just as the doors were ready to close. 

We glided out of the station and after several miles, the graffiti-lined walls and buildings gave way to the snow-covered French countryside. Our entry into the tunnel was without fanfare. Nonetheless, the tunnel is a modern-day wonder - at 50.5 kilometers (31.4 miles) it the world's longest undersea tunnel. At its lowest point, it is 75 meters (250 feet) below sea level.  

The idea of the tunnel is not new. It was first proposed in 1802 by a Frenchman named Albert Mathieu. Over the years, there were many other proposals, but for various reasons - including Britain's fear that a tunnel would compromise their national security or even worse, that hordes of unruly tourists would descend on the country - construction on a tunnel did not begin until 1988.  It opened in 1994 and ridership has been steadily increasing. In 2011, 17.5 million people crossed through the tunnel. Statistics do not show, however, how many of them were unruly.  

As we stepped out of St. Pancras Station into the bright sunlight, the differences between Paris and London were immediately apparent. Gone were the wrought-iron railings of the windows of Paris, the  balconies, the curved street lights and the distinctive blue street signs. They were replaced by London's neat, trim brownstones each with their own front stoop, double-decker buses and the well-known red telephone booths (with actual working telephones).  

Since the weather was so good, we walked to a nearby park (in London you are never far from a park), bought a coffee (no, not tea) from a parkside vendor and sat soaking up the warm sunshine. Afterward, we walked about town and then went to the British Museum. Since 2000, all British national museums have free admittance. During that time, attendance, which is now about 50 million visitors a year, has increased 51 percent. Without big entry fees, it's easy to drop in for an hour, see the Rosetta Stone and the Elgin Marbles from the Parthenon and a few Egyptian marvels and then leave.  That's just what we did. Afterward, we walked down the block to the London Review Bookshop Cafe for a tasty lunch in lovely surroundings. On my only visit to London more than 30 years ago, the entire national menu seemed to be fish and chips, but now London is a food-lover's dream with good restaurants around every corner.  

The sun left us then, but we continued walking, stopping at Convent Garden Market; passing through Soho and then down the Mall to Westminster Castle.  Along the way, we stopped for an hour at the National Gallery to view a couple of rooms of painting masterpieces.  

We had dinner at my friend's daughter's apartment - six Italian women and me, which was better and more fun than any restaurant. 

We awoke the next day to a snow-covered London. Since no one in London seems to own a snow shovel, we gave up on our idea of a walk along the Thames. Instead, we spent the day in the Tate Gallery and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

The next morning, we took the Underground to Hampstead Village, one of the toniest parts of London, with more millionaires per square foot than any other area of the United Kingdom. The town is also known for Hampstead Heath, London's largest ancient parkland. There was still a lot of snow on the ground so instead of walking in the park, we strolled up the High Street. It was so English - the High Street, the Close, the Heath. 

Anyway, we strolled up the High Street, did a little shopping and then stopped for brunch. There were the usual trendy breakfast items, but tucked in at the bottom of the menu was "bubble and squeak," a dish I've seen mentioned in English novels. A Victorian chef of the 1890s, Theodore Garrett, described bubble and squeak as "a favorite domestic réchaufee of cold meats and vegetables variously compounded, according to what materials are at hand, or to fancy." In other words, leftovers, mixed together and fried.  "It's not very healthy," said my server, "but it's very good and very British."  So bubble and squeak it was.  It turned out to be two fried eggs, tomato confit, portobello mushrooms and two very large fried vegetable and potato pancakes that resembled latkes.  I ate it all.

By late afternoon, we were back on the Eurostar. It was dark when we walked out of the metro station and into the Paris night. The London snow had made its way across the channel faster than our speeding train  and Paris was beautiful in its mantle of white.

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,