Saturday, September 24, 2011

Paris Highlights

Seine cruise

We glided under many storied bridges on a Bateaux Parisiens cruise on the Seine River. Depending on who’s counting, Paris bridges number 32 or 37. Either way, that’s a lot. The most elegantly ornate is Pont Alexandre III (1900), famous for Art Nouveau lamps and sculptures of cherubs and winged horses. 

Not sure why, but Pont Marie (1635) is considered the most romantic bridge. The guide urged us each to make a wish as we slid under its arches. The oldest bridge is Pont Neuf (1607), whose name means “new bridge.” Through the 18th century, Pont Neuf was home to many merchants’ booths and clowns and other entertainment. The bridge’s 381 mascarons (sculptures of grotesque figures to chase away evil spirits) were apparently not too effective, because Pont Neuf’s commerce attracted pickpockets, murderers, and gangs of criminals. 

We learned the city of Paris began on what is now Ile de la Cite, where the Notre Dame cathedral is. Our guide said Notre Dame’s gargoyles are actually sculpted gutters, and all its bells have names. Another interesting tidbit is that Parisians use a statue of a zouave (infantryman from the Crimean War) beside an arch of Pont d’Alma to measure the water level of the Seine. Often his gaiters and pants are under water; in the flood of 1910, the water level reached his beard!  I liked seeing classes of students sitting cross-legged on the quais to sketch the bridges.
Saint Germain des Prés neighborhood, 6th arrondissement

The original structure of Église St-Germain-des-Prés dates to 542 but excepting the 11th century bell tower, what we saw was a restoration from the 19th century.

Across the street is Café Les Deux Magots, which Françoise insisted we visit. We sat at an outdoor table, of course, for obligatory people, dog, bicycle, and traffic watching. Our harried tuxedoed waiter did not have time to answer our question about what “magots” are, so we discussed this weighty issue as though we were Jean-Paul Sartre or Simone de Beauvoir, André Gide or André Malraux, who all frequented this café. Our conclusion: A magot is hidden treasure, a figurine, or a Chinese merchant—or none of the above, just an obsolete word. So there you have it. Les Deux Magots began in 1813 as a fashion shop, evolved into a warehouse, then became a wine merchant’s shop before becoming the place to see and be seen by Pablo Picasso, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde, and many others. I savored a cup of silken, hot, dark chocolate.
Second largest church in Paris, Église Saint-Sulpice was under construction from 1645 to 1780, with a 1680–1720 interruption for lack of money. Even today the south tower remains unfinished. In one of the interior side chapels, Chapel of Holy Angels, are several murals by Eugène Delacroix, the most famous being an 1860s painting of Jacob wrestling with the angel. In front of the church is an 1848 fountain to honor four particularly eloquent religious leaders, Bossuet, Fénelon, Fléchier, and Massillon, but I liked the expressive lions best. 

Not far south of Saint-Sulpice is Jardin du Luxembourg in which we rested our feet and sunned among ponds, potted palms, and many colorful flowers and other tourists.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

La Musique

France was alive with music. In many-centuries-old churches, basilicas, and cathedrals we visited, often music played. If we happened to visit during a mass, we might hear organ and choral music, but even in just normal “open” times, a backdrop of soft music sometimes accompanied tourists’ heels clicking on stone floors and whispers of “Look at that painting.”

Street musicians played guitars, violins, and accordions in open squares, near sidewalk cafes, in Métro subway stations, and even in Métro train cars. Here’s a short video of musicians playing less traditional instruments near the Saturday Pézenas market.

In Colombiers, a band played traditional French songs from atop a barge on the Canal du Midi. You can’t really tell in this short clip, but most onlookers sang along to the songs, much as people here know all the lyrics to most Beatles tunes.

In Paris’ Sainte Chapelle, (which dates to the 1200s under Louis IX), we heard Vivaldi’s Les Quatres Saisons and Pachelbel’s Canon played by Classik Ensemble … a sublime concert, considering the pieces and setting.

Shakespeare and Company bookstore on Paris’ Left Bank is patterned after the shop where literary luminaries such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, and James Joyce gathered in the 1920s. I wonder if the nickname “the lost generation” referred to how lost a person could get inside this quirky (an understatement) little shop (haha). One of its many charms is a piano that any customer can play. A surprise concert by the talented young customer in this clip delighted me.

Monet's Garden at Giverny

The last time I sat in Monet’s garden at Giverny in hopes of being inspired to write poetry or at least creative descriptions of the lovely floral landscape Claude Monet had created to paint, I was so awestruck by the beauty, I couldn’t find a single word. This visit, I didn’t even try. After walking the perimeter and touring the house, I sat on a bench to simply soak in the colors. I took only a few photos. 

In the background of this photo, note the open window of the house. As I sat on my bench, which was almost below that window, tourist after tourist leaned out to view the expansive garden. As they did, they were framed by bright green shutters on both sides, by espaliered roses just below the open window, and by ivy along the eaves above.

Below are some photos I took in the studio used by many artists who came to paint with Monet. This studio is a back room of the Hotel Baudy, where they stayed when they visited Giverny. It’s across and down the street from Monet’s home. Behind Hotel Baudy is a relatively wild terraced garden, where this rusty old bike rests against a tree.


Sunday, September 18, 2011

Pont du Gard and Carcassonne

A reader’s digest version of the last week is the best I can do with limited Internet and battery time. Here are a few pre-Paris highlights.

Pont du Gard

Now we know why guidebooks don’t mention the Roman aqueduct ruin of Pont du Gard as an excursion from Montpellier. It’s easy to get to from Avignon and Nimes but next to impossible to get to—without a car—from Montpellier. Debby and I did it though! After a train to Nimes and bus connection to Remoulins, we walked 4.5K to a canoe rental place, then canoed 6K down the Gardon River and under Pont du Gard, then walked 10 minutes or so to the Pont du Gard, then across it, then hiked up about 50 feet above it for a panoramic view, then hiked back down, back to canoe rental place, then another 4.5K back to Remoulins, where we waited half an hour in the hot sun for the bus back to Nimes. Never mind I had heat exhaustion—I’m pleased this middle-aged jalopy survived and thrived. One note on our treks—we were fascinated to see clumps of bamboo growing everywhere along the roads.
Our canoeing adventure was worth our trouble. Whether we sluiced or bumped through, the many whitewater rapids were fun. Whee! The Pont du Gard is as magnificent from below as it is from above.


One of my favorite parts of the museum was the aerial film from Uzes to Nimes, the path the water took when the Roman aqueduct was whole and functioning, over all the remaining ruins of the Pont du Gard. We also saw an olive tree that had been growing near the aqueduct since 908.

Finally getting to boat on the Canal du Midi was a highlight for me, though the “countryside” here had industrial, nonpicturesque aspects. Some sections were lined with plane trees though, and we went through two locks.
La Cite, built over a Roman fortress, was a theater of the Crusades in the 13th century. Carcassonne is spectacular if you ignore the shops selling plastic swords. We toured the chateau inside the fortress and enjoyed spectacular views, even to the Pyrenees.

And we certainly learned more about medieval war defense than we ever thought possible. Q: If the enemy gets past your barbacane, what do you do? A: Hoist concrete balls (gigantic ones!) up with pulleys to drop on the invaders. Also, we learned the moat did not contain water; rather, it was a grassy area for jousting matches, and today for horse-drawn caleche rides for tourists.
On our last night after supper in our little apartment, Debby and I walked back to see the floodlit walls of La Cite. Daytime bustle had hushed. When we turned around to walk home, the full moon rising above hundreds of stone crosses in a cemetery was even more quieting.

Sunday, September 11, 2011


Outside our Colombiers B&B window, chickens cluck in a neighboring yard. Beyond our pool and summer house, where breakfast is served and rugby matches watched, boats chug slowly by on the Canal du Midi. Cyclists spin silently by on the Canal's towpath. Above the Canal, giant treetops rustle in the refreshing wind, their leaves bobbing and swinging as though the trees were rotating their necks. The pines closer in sway in the breeze, and palm fronds shake like pompoms above the red-tiled roof of the summer house. From somewhere in the trees, palombes (wood pigeons) call to each other with a whip-poor-will sound. 

Colombiers is lovely. We have bicycled along the Canal du Midi, climbed up a high hill to see ruins of an ancient village, and viewed the Malpas Tunnel, which is famous as an engineering marvel from the 1600s and 1800s with Roman road on top layer, then below the Canal du Midi, and beneath that a railroad tunnel, and beneath that, a pipe to transport water. Photo of museum model below.

Francoise and her mother invited us for dinner one night, and this afternoon, we'll go to "downtown" Colombiers, which is about six shops and three restaurants, for a local festival and exposition of locally produced products.

Last Wednesday's canoeing adventure under the Pont du Gard and yesterday's lively market in Pezenas are stories to tell, but I'll have to do it when I have a better connection. A bientot.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011


If it's Tuesday, this must be ... Montpellier. Debby and I are slowly emerging from jet lag, or maybe we're still in it, hard to say. We're "out of it" enough to wonder what day it is but "with it" enough to enjoy our adventure. Despite having traveled 24+ hours, we grabbed for the gusto in today. Montpellier is bright and vibrant, and both modern and quaint.

This morning we opened our hotel room windows to see the bustling organic produce market just outside under les arceaux.  We bought juicy dried (not an oxymoron in this case) fruits and nuts, some apricot nectar, chevre, and fresh pears. Vendors were extremely friendly and helpful. After sitting for coffee for Debby and tea for me outside a cafe booth in the market, we ran up our two flights of stairs to our room to enjoy some of our purchases for breakfast. They will also serve as dinner tonight and breakfast Wednesday.

Then we hoofed it back into the historic district to meet Francoise. We followed les arceaux east to the promenade de Peyrou, which is a long, tree-lined path, to an arc de triomphe, and then further east along Rue de la Loge, a main street lined with shops. Every few shops, cobblestone alleys branch off to the sides. Some have other tiny shops, some cafe tables, some not much at all. Most wind around and eventually open onto a place, an open area with cafe tables and sometimes musicians. This morning, however, we headed straight for Place de la Comedie, where we met Francoise near the steps of the Opera. First order of business: relax at Cafe Le Riche (dating to the 1890s)  for an iced tea.
After a frustrating you-can't-get-there-from-here session at the tourist office where Francoise determined it's highly questionable whether we'll be able to canoe tomorrow, we explored more of the Montpellier maze and had a delightful lunch outside Toast' Tea Cafe in the shadow of Eglise St. Roch, which had a lovely rosette window. We went in some book stores and dress shops. And we hit Ortholan ~ twice. It's a guess what? Pastry shop that sells macarons and breads, including Debby's croissant and praline macaron for tomorrow's breakfast and my mint and apricot macarons for who knows when ~ maybe dessert after my canned tuna tonight. I liked this photo in Ortholan.