Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Flâneur in Paris

Springlike weather arrived in Paris last weekend and with it came the urge to imitate Baudelaire's flâneur, strolling idly around Paris, watching people and admiring the city. Since this flâneur loves company, I invited JR to join me in my wanderings.

We cheated a bit by beginning our day not on foot, but on Line 1 of the metro. The city's first line, it opened in 1900 to take passengers to the various sites of the Exposition Universelle, the world's fair that was held that year in Paris. The line's present-day, 16.4 km length connects the 14th-century Chateau des Vincennes at its eastern end with the ultra-modern skyscrapers of La Defense at the western end. From our stop in the center of town, we took the line about half its distance to the Les Sablons stop, just outside the Bois de Boulogne. A former hunting ground for the kings of France, the Bois de Boulogne is now a wooded public park with miles of hiking, equestrian and bike trails. There are lakes, playing fields, picnic areas, children's playgrounds and the famous Autueil and Longchamp horse racing tracks.

The park's newest attraction is the Fondation Louis Vuitton, a private museum and cultural center that opened in 2014. Built by the luxury-goods company LVMH, it is one of only a handful of private museums in France. The building was designed by the architect Frank Gehry, whose works include among many others, the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao and the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. Covered with 112 soaring, curved glass panels, the structure resembles an enormous, dreamlike sailboat. Its location at the extreme edge of Paris might seem an odd choice but, in fact, the company also owns the concessions of the nearby Jardin d'Acclimation, a children's amusement park.  The garden, a modern masterpiece in its own time, was opened in the Bois de Boulogne in 1860 by the Emperor Napoleon III. A blending of the modernization of Paris by Baron Georges Eugene Haussmann and a growing public interest in zoology, it housed a large zoo among its other attractions.

By 11 a.m., the line to enter the museum was already long. Even with its beautiful, light-filled spaces, it was too nice a day to be inside so we decided to leave the interior visit for another time. Instead, we walked around the outside of the building to see it from different angles. Because of the many surrounding trees, it's difficult to get a view of the entire building from afar. As we strolled along one of the park's many paths, the gleaming manmade structure disappeared from view, giving way to the beauty of the forest.

From the park, we headed east into the high-rent, residential neighborhood of the 16th arrondissement. Originally made up of the rural villages of Auteuil and Passy, the area only became part of Paris in 1860 under the modernization project of the city by Napoleon III and Baron Haussmann. Since it was lunchtime, I consulted my downloaded version of the Paris guidebook, Les bonnes tables à petits prix. The guide, which was recommended to me by a friend, lists good, reasonably-priced restaurants all over Paris. It is published by the same group that produces the weekly journal L'Itinérant, which is sold on the streets of Paris by 700 venders, most of whom come from the City's homeless population. The same venders sell the restaurant guide, which is also available online. Among the 22 restaurants listed for the 16th, we chose Del Pappa on the avenue Malakoff. Not long afterward, we were seated at a lovely table by the window digging into a delicious pizza.

After lunch, we decided to walk down the Avenue de la Grande Armée until we were tired and then we could take the metro home. But who ever tires of Paris? The Avenue de la Grande Armée was created under the reign of Louis XV in 1668 to give the king a better view from his palace in the Tuileries. The only obstruction was a hill on the site of today's Place Charles deGaulle-Etoile.  When you are king, however, all problems can be solved. The hill was removed and the king got a lovely 15-kilometer view into the surrounding countryside. Today that long view leads to the Grande Arche, with the modern skyscrapers of La Defense rising like Oz behind it. Fittingly, the avenue that once led to the wide open spaces is today lined with the headquarters of automobile and bicycle companies.

Next stop was the Arc de Triomphecommissioned by the Emperor Napoleon in 1808 following his great victory at Austerlitz. Our route was the same one Napoleon took in 1810 when he entered Paris in triumph with his bride Marie Louise of Austria at his side. At that time, only the foundation had been built so Napoleon and Marie Louise passed under a wooden model that had been specially constructed for the occasion. Napoleon would never see the finished monument. He died in exile in 1821, 19 years before the Arc de Triomphe was completed. Today, the monument honors those who fought for France, especially in the Napoleonic wars. It also contains the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier from World War I, a war that killed approximately 1,350,000 French soldiers.

From the Daily Overview
Of the 12 streets that radiate out from the Arc de Triomphe, the Champs Elysées is by far the most famous. In contrast to today's imposing wide boulevard, the street began life as a swampy, uninhabited area. Well into the 1700s, it was considered a dangerous neighborhood with mediocre bars full of ruffians, prostitutes and thieves. Gentrification did not begin in earnest until about 1790 when fancy cafes began to replace the dingy bars. Sumptuous residences were built and the gardens expanded. By the 1900s, the luxury stores had moved in. It's these stores as much as the fame of the area that draw millions of people to the Champs Elysées each year. In my role as a flaneur, I looked about and saw a seemingly fair representation of all the nationalities on earth. In the outside world, they may have their differences, but here on the Champs Elysées, clutching their elegant shopping bags, they all seemed united in a happy state of consumerism.

Borne along on this tidal wave of good cheer, we passed by the metro station at the Place de la Concorde and continued into the Jardin des Tuileries. The gardens were commissioned by Queen Catherine de Medici in 1559, and were used by royalty for several centuries before becoming public gardens at the time of the French Revolution.  As we walked into the gardens, we saw that they had been taken over by another group of French royals - fashion models.  Strolling about the gardens in impossibly high stilettos, the models, clad in the latest creations of the great fashion houses, were followed by hordes of photographers and spectators.  We strolled in their wake, unobserved, which is just what a good flaneur should be.

By this time, we were only a mile or two from our apartment.  Ahead of us lay the Louvre, Notre Dame and the Isle St. Louis.  It was our last weekend in Paris for this year so we walked on, trying to savor it all.

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Grenoble - Capital of the Alps

Mountains around Grenoble

We left Paris on a rare bright sunny day, bound for Grenoble in Southeast France. Just three hours from Paris by TGV, Grenoble sits on a vast plain at the confluence of the Isère and Drac rivers. Only 214 meters (702 ft.) above sea level, Grenoble is the flatest city in France. That might sound like a dubious distinction, but in the case of Grenoble, it provides a perfect viewing site for the majestic peaks of the French Alps which surround the city. The writer Stendahl, talking about his hometown, said that at the end of every street in Grenoble, there is a mountain.  It was already dark when we arrived so that view would have to wait. 

A short walk from the train station took us to the Royal Hotel. The rooms there are small and minimally appointed, but that fact was offset by the cleanliness of the hotel and the genuine friendliness of the staff. The next morning, after a good breakfast in the hotel dining room, JR went off to the university and I set out to explore Grenoble. I began with a walk through the old town, planning to wend my way toward the river. Grenoble, in spite of the surrounding mountains, does not get much snow, but today was an exception The snow was falling fast and the sky was grey and low. Stendahl’s mountains at the end of every street were nowhere to be seen. Signs posted along the main streets reminded citizens that “snow removal is the responsibility of all.”  That collective all did not seem to translate, however,  into the individual I. Not a snow shovel was to be seen and the sidewalks became increasingly slippery and snow-filled. This was not a day for a walk. It was, on the other hand,  a perfect day for a museum, and Grenoble happens to have one of the best.

The Grenoble Museum of Art was founded in 1798, but it is housed in a modern, light-filled building that was constructed 20 years ago.  There was so much to see that I spent the entire day there. I began with a great temporary exhibit of modern sculpture by the Italian artist Giuseppe Penone and then wandered slowly through the ages beginning with Egyptian antiquities and ending with the museum's renowned collection of 20th-century art. In between, I took time out for lunch at the museum's restaurant, Le 5. The restaurant was completely booked, but I was able to get a seat at a big communal table.  The food was great and my lunch companions were friendly and talkative.

Our first day in Grenoble ended with a wonderful dinner at the home of a mathematician friend who at one time thought of becoming a chef. He chose mathematics, he says, because it was easier!

The next morning, I set out early to explore the city in earnest.  Most people begin a tour of Grenoble with a cable car ride up to the Bastille, a medieval fortress built above the city. The cars are bubble shaped and on a clear day provide a great view of the river, the town and the surrounding mountains. As I gazed up at the Bastille from below, its ramparts were just visible below the clouds. I decided to leave the the cable car ride for another visit.

The old town is located where 2,000 years ago Grenoble came into existence as the Gallic village of Cularo. Remnants of these early settlers can be found in the town's archeology museum. In today's old town, there are remnants of the town walls and small cobblestone streets lined with medieval and renaissance dwellings. More modern 19th-century buildings are grouped around airy squares and parks. The parks were all in winter repose, but having just walked through Grenoble's covered market, where colorful fruits and vegetables were heaped high, it was not difficult to imagine the gardens filled with similarly bright flowers on a sunny summer day. 

The history of Grenoble is told through a series of exhibits at the Musée de l'ancien évêché. Housed in the splendid rooms of the old palace of the local bishop, the museum traces the history of the region from paleolithic times to the present day. While there, a museum guard  also gave me a good tip for a restaurant for lunch, La tavola calda, a nearby family owned restaurant.  Eating Italian in the home of fondues and gratins may seem odd, but, in fact, Grenoble has a large Italian population and dozens of Italian restaurants. La tavola calda turned out to be a place where no one, except me, entered without kissing and being kissed by the pizza chef, who was installed in front of his wood-burning oven in the middle of the restaurant. On the advice of two regulars sitting next to me, I ordered pasta and was not disappointed.  Contact established, my seat mates and I talked about everything from architecture, to Fox New's Paris "No-Go Zones," to the rebirth of Detroit.  At the end of the meal, they introduced me to the chef, the waitress and the woman whose father started the restaurant. I'm pretty sure if I went back again, I would be welcomed with kisses.

Big department stores line the main streets, but the old town is full of small artisan shops.  During the 18th and 19th centuries, Grenoble was famous for its high-end leather gloves which were sold the world over. Less-expensive imports signaled the decline of the industry, but there are still one or two luxury glove makers in Grenoble. The glove store was closed when I went by, but I did buy a hat at a small shop nearby. (A new company, FST Handwear, is trying to revive the glove industry in Grenoble by giving a new look to classic Grenoble gloves. Their products are available online.)

On Saturday with the sky over Grenoble still grey and heavy, we decided that if the sun would not come to us, we would go to the sun. With borrowed snowshoes, we piled into a friend's car and headed toward the ski resort of Chamrousse, one of many ski resorts near Grenoble. As we twisted and turned up the mountainous road, the snow became heavy on the trees and the fog became denser. Hope began to wane, but then, like magic, we drove through the clouds into an enchanted world of crystal blue skies, brilliant sunshine and and new, pure-white snow sparkling like diamonds. 

We parked the car, put on our snowshoes and started up the trail at a place called Bachat Bouloud at 1,735 meters of altitude (6,000 ft.). Jackets, sweaters, hats and gloves came off as we climbed to our destination, 400 meters (1,300 ft.) up the mountain. The trail begins in a pine forest that eventually gives way to open slopes with, on most days, a bird's eye view of Grenoble in the valley below.  Today, however, Grenoble was lost under a lake of snow-white clouds, which, rather than diminishing the view, only added to its mystical quality. We climbed to a pass where we could see two mountain ranges; spread our coats on the snow; and dined on fresh baguette, comté cheese and fruit.  After a little nap in the sun, we headed back down and ended the day with a beer on the terrace of a mountain cafe.

After a great four-day visit, we left the next day on a morning where the sun did make some brief appearances. Finally I was lucky enough to get Stendhal's view of the mountains from Grenoble. 

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Friday, January 23, 2015

Canal St. Martin - Not a No-Go Zone

At a dinner party the other night at the Maison des polytechniciens several of our French friends were talking about the supposed "no-go zones" in Paris.  In case you haven't heard about it, after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, the American TV network Fox News, broadcast repeatedly the completely false information that Paris has zones that are so completely Muslim, and ipso facto so dangerous, that non-Muslims, not even the French police, dare enter them. Their "expert"  - with a map of Paris behind him - even described some of the zones as places that were more like Iraq or Afghanistan than Paris. After being subjected to several days of ridicule by the French satirical program Le Petit Journal and half the internet, Fox News issued a complete apology to all the people of France. Their information was wrong and they were sorry for the errors.  But, as our French friends said, damage has been done, witnessed by the fact that even after Fox's apology, the internet is still full of forums with people asking if it is safe to go to Paris. The mayor of Paris has announced that she is considering suing Fox News on behalf of the City of Paris. (Click here to see the segment on Le Petit Journal with subtitles in English.)

Several of the "dangerous" areas on Fox's Paris maps are not far from our apartment. So, in the interests of journalistic honesty and to give Travel Oyster readers a first-hand view, I decided to risk life and limb and spend the day in one of the Fox News NO-GO ZONES!

I chose the Canal St. Martin area in the 10th arrondissement, just a short walk from my apartment. It's a traditional working-class neighborhood that has become more upscale in recent years.  City Walks Paris, which perhaps Fox News would have done well to read, describes it as: "lined with hip cafés and chic shops...the picturesque and trendy Canal St. Martin area is full of bohemian delights."

My walk began at the Place de la République, the starting point for the recent solidarity walk following the terrorist attacks. The huge square, with eleven converging streets, covers almost eight and a half acres (3.4 ha.) A gathering place since the mid-1300s, the present square was recently renovated to make it more pedestrian and bike friendly.  At one end there is a glass-enclosed cafe and restaurant that's a good place to relax and take in the sights. I decided to go instead to the award-winning boulangerie Du Pain et des Idées - a most definite go zone.  This year, Le Point magazine named the bakery's Galette des Rois the best in Paris. Not a big fan of the traditional holiday galette, I had my favorite, Le chausson à la pomme fraiche.

From the bakery, I walked to the Canal St. Martin, a tranquil oasis in the middle of a bustling neighborhood. The canal was built at the behest of Napoleon Bonaparte in the 1820s, to supply Paris with fresh water. In the 20th century, canal boats plied its waters bringing food and building materials to the center of Paris.  I sat on a bench midway along the four and a half kilometers of canal that remain above ground. On Sundays the adjoining streets are closed to traffic, but as I happily ate my chausson, cars and bikes whizzed by. Trees and bushes along the waterway helped block out their sound and I sat for a while admiring the beautiful arched pedestrian bridges that traverse the canal. I walked down the canal, on the lookout for signs of danger, but saw only parents pushing baby carriages, young guys on skateboards, and older men playing boules. One of men did ask me for a cigarette, but when I told him I didn't smoke, he thanked me and went back to his game.  

My next stop was the Hôpital Saint-Louis. The hospital is just outside the official Fox no-go zone, but the short detour into a go zone is well worth it. It was built by order of King Henri IV in the early 1600s to isolate victims of the plague from the rest of the population. Classified a historic monument, the hospital's double walls enclose one of the most beautiful and least-known squares in Paris.  Designed by the king's architect Claude Chastillon in 1607, it is a forerunner to the Place des Vosgeswhich Chastillon designed in 1612. A much larger modern hospital now welcomes patients, but the square is open to all. After a walk around the practically deserted square, I wandered through several streets on my way back to the canal.  I windowed shopped and even stepped into a few stores, including Antoine et Lili with its three brightly painted storefronts.  

After all this walking, it was time for lunch.  I considered a Cambodian restaurant and a small couscous joint, but in the end I went for the traditional and had lunch at the Hôtel du Nord.  Famed as the setting for a well-known French novel and an even more famous film, it was built around the same time as the canal. It was originally a workingmen's hotel, but by the 1970s it had run-down and was scheduled for demolition. In the good French tradition, citizens rallied to save it and by 1989, its facade was declared a national heritage. The restaurant has a wonderful old bistro atmosphere and a very good 13,50 euro lunch menu. I had a puff pastry stuffed with tomato and mozzarella, followed by grilled fish with eggplant caviar. I lingered a bit over coffee and then set out again still in search of what made this neighborhood "no-go."

I wandered north and there the streets got a bit dirtier and more crowded.  The stores were a bit less chic, but even more interesting with eclectic boutiques and bazaars filled with products from all over the world, appealing to the people of the diverse cultures who live there.  What the neighborhood didn't seem was threatening or dangerous or no-go.  

As the day wound down, I made by way home and arrived there safe and sound. After surviving my first expedition, I'm looking forward to exploring some of the other no-go zones in Paris. If the expert from Fox News wants to come along, I'd be happy to hold his hand and show him the sights.

To take a photo tour of my No-Go Zone walk, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor

Monday, January 12, 2015

Paris 2015 - Je Suis Charlie

The holiday lights are still twinkling in the streets of Paris, but our first four days in the city have been somber indeed. On the morning of our departure, we awoke to the news that gunmen had killed 12 people, including two police officers, in an attack on the headquarters of the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, whose offices are located not far from our apartment. The next day a policewoman was killed in a related attack and the day after that, four people were killed in a hostage-taking situation in a kosher supermarket.

There are many issues brought to the fore by these attacks: freedom of the press versus civility and respect for others; anti-semitism; backlash against immigrants; and a government's ability to protect its citizens from extremists bent on terrorism. Different people, in France and around the world, have divergent opinions on how this latter can be achieved.  

On Sunday, however, a crowd of almost 4 million people, along with 40 world leaders took to the streets of France to demonstrate the values that unite them rather than those that divide them. In Paris alone, the crowd was estimated at 1.7 million people. JR and I and a group of our friends were among them. 

As we set out for the Place de la République, the starting point of the march, we knew immediately that the turnout was huge. All the streets leading to République from every direction were blocked with people. We joined the throngs on one of the many broad boulevards that lead to the square, but could see nothing of it from our vantage point.  What we could see were thousands and thousands of people, many holding signs that read: Je suis Charlie. The slogan, "I am Charlie," has become a symbol of solidarity in France. Two women in front of us carried a sign that that seemed to speak for all.  It read: "We are Charlie; We are Police; We are Jewish; We are women; We are Muslim; We are French; We are human; We are not afraid." 

 We stood for a while without moving until some marchers near the square realized that it was blocked. From behind us like a wave came the command passed from person to person to turn around and march in the other direction. "A La Bastille, "some people cried. Smiling, the crowd turned and began moving in the most orderly fashion toward the Place de la Bastille.  There the press of people trying to make their way to the many small streets that encircle the square was almost suffocating.  But, with an orderliness that marked the whole day, there was no pushing, shoving or harsh words. 

We lost track of a couple of our friends, but eventually, we spilled into a side street and marched onward to the Place de la Nation, the ending point of the rally.  Police helicopters flew overhead and 2,200 police and military personnel were stationed on the streets and rooftops. When a group of vans loaded with Police Nationale passed by, marchers up and down the route clapped and cheered for them. Our friend Claude, a veteran of many a Paris street protest said: "This has got to be the first time in history that the cops have been applauded by the demonstrators!"

It took us almost four hours to cover just three or four kilometers, but finally we reached the Place de la Nation. As we turned to make our way home, there were still uncountable thousands marching toward the square. Night had fallen, but the lights of Paris and the courage of its people illuminated the city. 

To see more photos, click here.

A bientôt,

Photos by Geraldine Calisti Kaylor