Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Daydreamer in Paris: Day 3

Museums and not quite Midnight in Paris

When I woke up early on Sunday morning, a gray haze had descended upon Paris, a light, misty rain falling softly. I could only think of two things: Gil's line in Woody Allens' film Midnight in Paris, “Isn't Paris beautiful in the rain?” and to myself, “What a perfect day for a museum!”

I checked out of the hotel and made my way to the second which was luckily on the same Metro line. I had booked this hotel online for its price and ratings. Even though everything had checked out on the internet, I couldn't help silently hoping that the place wasn't a dump.

The neighborhood that arose as I exited the Metro station was charming enough and just a block up, nestled in all of its classic, old Parisian glory was the Hotel Innova. It all looked nice from the outside, but as it was too early to check in and opening time for the museum was fast approaching, I dropped off my suitcase and set off on my way.

Before getting back on the Metro, I stopped by a small bakery across from the hotel, ordering an apple turnover and what I thought was a coffee. But when the girl behind the counter presented me with the turnover and a baguette, I realized I needed to speak more clearly. I corrected my mistake and with breakfast in hand (costing only €2,40!), I set off for the Musee d'Orsay.

Some may wonder why the Louvre wasn't my first choice for museums. The Musee d'Orsay is home to such artists as Van Gough, Monet, Lautrec, and Degas. All of which interested me considerably more than seeing the Mona Lisa. As most museums are free the first Sunday of the month, people were already lined up as I got there. Already 30 minutes before the museum even opened! Still, I took my place in line and waited, taking in the various people and languages around me. Most interestingly, a rather nerdy looking French boy trying out his rather impressive japanese with a tall, pretty, and fashionable Japanese girl. Also amusing were an old couple from New Zealand who screamed Tourist louder than the Korean family in front of me, as they loudly misunderstood everything security attempted to say to them in keeping the line in order.

The rain, which had held up during the time we were in line, began again as we were let inside. As I entered, I noticed with amusement how long the line had become.

Breezing past the ticket counters (such a wonderful thing, this Sunday rule!) I got myself a map and paid the 5€ for the audio guide. Where to go first? I began on the first floor, admiring the sculptures and making my way to the section on Toulouse-Lautrec and could also cover the works of Monet and the ballerinas of Degas. The paintings of the Moulin Rouge were fascinating, but in my wanderings on this floor, two paintings stood out to me:

Fernand Khnopff's L'Encens, for the enigmatic expression on the model's face, and Lucien Lévy-Dhurmer's La Sorciére for the strange and mystical feel to it.

Ascending to the second floor, I made my way slowly, finding all sorts of treasures:
Le rêve by Edouard Detaille depicting sleeping soldiers dreaming of the battle ahead.

La Muse d'André-Chenier by Denys Puech, the sculpure of a young woman cradling the head of her beloved in her long hair.

The interesting drawings and paintings of architect Garas, constructing stunning, fantastical temples, some plans even with lines of music accompanying them like the one dedicated to Beethoven. (Unfortunately, we weren't allowed to take pictures and I couldn't find a copy of that particular drawing online.)

Of course Van Gough's La nuit etoilée in its less tumultuous version.

And two interesting sculptures: La main aux algues et aux coquillages by Emila Gallé and a great polar bear sculpted by François Pompon who apparently had a special relationship with his subject, circling each other and the bear eventually posing for the artist, a light smile on the animal's lips.

(Please don't sue me, Musee d'Orsay!)

But the most stunning exhibit for me was the temporary Misia exhibit on the fifth floor. Misia was a society woman during that golden time in Paris. She new Cocteau, Ravel, Poulenc, Coco Chanel, just to name a few. Ravel had written a piece for her, in the exhibit, the score presented and on earphones, the piece played with Poulenc on the piano. Next to it, a note from Poulenc to Misia, and her notes back. The moment nearly brought tears to my eyes. Further, photos and letters of and about Stravinsky, Nijinski, and the Ballet Russes. Picasso's costumes for Poulenc's ballet Les Biches. The combination of all these artists who held such meaning for me, brought to life with these artifacts was truly something and I was extremely moved. I want to read up mor eon Misia and her experiences. All she saw and all she knew.

All of this had made me work up an appetite and I settled on lunch in the fifth floor cafe in one of the enormous clock towers.

To my great pride, I succeeded in ordering a great Croque Monsieur and a wonderful glass of rosé from Provence all in French.

After lunch, I walked out onto the terrace which overlooked the city of Paris settled under some slowly sun filled skies.

To my disappointment, the other floors of the museum appeared to be closed, but after hearing a bit about Monet and his lilies from the audioguide and on recommendation from a friend, I made my way to the other side of the Seine to the l'Orangerie Museum. As I crossed the bridge filled with the padlocks of lovers wanting to make their bond eternal, everything from the museum, to the sun, to the river, to probably the wine, made me full to bursting with a happiness so strong, I felt it eminating from every fibre of my being. As I passed an old couple, I heard the man turn to his wife and say “Well, I've never looked that happy.”

A short walk through the Tuleries Garden, and I placed myself into the rapidly moving line into the l'Orangerie. As it turned out, this museum was also free on the first Sunday of the month.

I first headed to Monet's lily rooms. Two large rooms, perfectly round, with enormous murals of lilies surrounding the viewer in the center. It really was as the audio guide had said. Monet wanted the viewer to feel surrounded by them. Monet's style had always impressed me. The way upclose, the canvas seemed full of unorderly, swirling blots of color, but as one moved away, the pond, the lilies, the trees, the shadows, all start to take shape. I took a moment to admire the parts where I particularly enjoyed the color schemes and then went downstairs to the additional galleries below.

It was an interesting collection. All from one man. How wonderful to fill one's home with beautiful (and original) works of art! A couple paintings stood out in particular and I bought postcards of both.

L'Etreinte by Picasso
Gabrielle et Jean by Renoir

I left the l'Orangerie and decided to have a look at the tree lined Champs-Elyseés. The stairs leading down in its direction lead out onto the vast, enormous roundabout of the Concorde.

The sheer intricacy of the ornaments on every lamp post, fountain, and the obelisk in the middle were simply stunning. I nearly burst out laughing for joy. Near one of the fountains, an asian girl started to run around the circle, arms outstretched like the wings of a bird. I shared her sentiment and would have followed suit if I didn't think she'd probably feel more embarrassed than I would.

Then, spotting the lines of trees, I went over to confirm my suspicions. There at the very end of the treelined road was the Arc d'Triomphe. Certain things, even when you're certain you're seeing them, still don't register as real.

Elation seeming to have given my exhausted legs their second wind, I decided that walking back to the hotel wouldn't be such a bad idea. I crossed the Pont de la Concorde and continued along the path to the vast Hôtel des Invalides.

The way my map showed it, I need simply to follow the grassy Avenue de Breteuill to the end, follow the street a bit further, and would end up at the hotel in no time. Well, I did want to see the neighborhood and not just a grassy park, so I followed what I thought was a parallel street, noting where I would have to turn. For awhile, I enjoyed the sun on my face, taking in the neighborhood, the shops and cafes, and the grand cathedrals that really seemed to pop out of nowhere.

But soon it seemed that I had been walking an awfully long time and still nothing I recognized from the morning. Upon consulting both my map, the maps at the bus stations, and the compass on my phone, I realized that I had made a wrong turn somewhere and had ended up in the complete other direction! After much more map and compass consultation, as well as being convinced my legs would fall off with my body still moving forward, I made it back to the hotel. Again, I prayed that my room was not a dump. But as I opened the door to my fifth floor room, I was pleasantly surprised by a small, simple room that smelled normal, perhaps had been around for some time, but was charming in its simplicity. The crowning jewel of it being the genuine black metal twisted balcony that I had been longing after. Just a pair of rickety wood shutters and I would have declared it the perfect hotel. Inspiried, I dragged the desk chair and ottoman from the room out onto the balcony, propped my feet up, and planned my next move in the cooling afternoon air.

After a quick nap, I decided to find some dinner and looked up a place from my tour book. An award winning restaurant boasting reasonable prices on the Left Bank (Rive Gauche) near the Notre Dame Cathedral caught my eye, and I was off on my way again.
The restaurant was easy to find and the neighborhood was wonderfully charming. I was among the first there for dinner and took a seat outside on the terrace. My french failed with the waiter, but he started a lively conversation with me in english. On my inquiry for a wine recommendation, he brought out a bottle of Bordeaux.

“But you sell it by the glass, right?” I asked, afraid of shelling out thirty euro for a bottle of wine I'd only drink half of at most.
“No, you have to have the whole bottle.” he grinned.
“Then you'll have to help me drink it.” I answered, still unsure if it was a joke or not.
He laughed. “Maybe later!”
“Or else you'll have to carry me out of here.” I said in mock warning.
“Where are you living?” he asked.
“Montparnasse. It's kind of far from here.”
“Yes it is.”
“So you'd better only give me the glass.”
He laughed again. “Don't worry! It's just the glass!”

To accompany the wine, I ordered a filet of duck with vegetables and potatoes. Delicious.

I learned my waiter was the son of the restaurant's owner and that he originated from Provence. In turn, I told him what I did and he asked to hear an example, so I played him one of the new Estampie songs. Unfortunately after that, the place got busy, so I paid my bill and left.

On this trip, I had been meaning to find the church from Midnight in Paris where Gil was picked up and whisked away to the 20s. I knew it was in the area and after a little hunting around, I found the street. It lead me up a steep hill full of cute little bars and cafes. Finally at the top of the hill, I saw it! It really did look just like in the movie and I couldn't help taking some silly photos.

Is it time?
Is it coming?

Of course no car came to take me to the 1920s (it wasn't midnight after all) but I did see a stunning sunset over the Mairie du 5e.

Dinner digested, I went off in search of a good glass of wine. But nothing seemed to strike my fancy and I let myself wander around until I came to the Notre Dame itself.

Backtracking along the left bank, I finally settled on a corner cafe with an extensive wine list. I ordered a Côte du Rhone red which had an intense, fruity tang. I wasn't quite sure if I liked it. But then the waiter brought out a plate with slices of delicious looking salami. Pairing the two together was perfect and it brought out the subtler flavors of the wine.

Satisfied and happy, I returned to the hotel to get a good night's sleep in order to tackle the next adventure: The Louvre.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Daydreamer in Paris: Day 2

Day 2: Walking Literally to the Grave (yard)

The day dawned bright and sunny. K and I hadn't agreed on a set time for breakfast and I wasn't sure if he wanted to accompany me on the days adventures. Especially since I had decided to visit the famed cemetary Pére Lachaise. Seemingly dark business for such a sunny day, but the place was known for it's stunningly elaborate tombs and headstones, as well as for it's famous residents such as Jim Morrison and Edith Piaf. Allowing myself to sleep in until 9am, I made myself ready for the day and drew up a note for K in case he hadn't quite gotten himself over the Singapore jetlag. But after knocking on his door, he seemed game for what I had planned and we set off in search of breakfast and a leisurely walk around the neighborhood. Our wanderings took us down a few narrow alleys, revealing pleasant discoveries like the Paris Observatory and stunning views when the road sloped downwards.

We soon came upon a small bakery and I got my first delicious, sweet, flakey, buttery crunch of a real french croissant and couldn't resist trying it's rich, sinfully decadent sibling, the pain au chocolat.

After breakfast, we ventured on, heading in what we had hoped was the direction of the river. We soon stumbled upon an intersection where on the opposite corner lay the famous cafe, La Rotonde, a place frequented by the likes of Hemingway and Picasso.

After finding ourselves quite far in the opposite direction of the cemetary, having come to the Seine nearly as far west as the Musee d'Orsay, we consulted my map to make our wanderings slightly more calculated. Of course, being on the sparkling river on such a beautiful day, we had to take the photo opportunities as they came.

As we made our way towards the cemetery, passing through some of the more “Americanized” neighborhoods with Starbucks, McDonalds, and KFC all accounted for, K and I talked about the past and its impact on life in the present. We barely noticed the length of our walk, well, my legs would beg to differ. Finally reaching the cemetery's border, we found along the wall leading up to the entrance a small flea market, selling everything from furniture to books, to clothes, to kitchen wares. There was even a gown that looked like it was from before the turn of the century, although Alisa would have to confirm that.

We walked through the large stone gate and I was stunned at the city like landscape of its inside. Each tombstone was like a tiny building, room for only one (although in some cases, even more). Rows and rows of them sprawled out and climbing up hills of green, shrouded by leafy green trees, the sun shining in hazy golden panes through their leaves.

A map just beyond the entrance pointed us to the two graves I was set on visiting. The first was that of the passionate medieval lovers Heloise and Abelard with their ivory white, church like structure, lying statures raised in Snow White fashion side by side underneath.

The second was of Francis Poulenc, a french composer of the 20th Century who lived and worked in Paris during that Renaissance of artists, writers, and musicians. His music had often found its way onto my recitals during my conservatory days, the first of which was the tragic song of longing, C. I admit, I felt a bit emotionally overwhelmed in the presence of his grave.

Now that our long walk had finally caught up with us, K opted to find a sunny place to sit and wait for me while I explored further. I ascended up the hill and marveled at some of the more ornate graves, especially those with exceptional sculptures.

But feeling tired and a bit hungry myself, we caught a cab back to the hotel. K decided to lay low for the rest of the day until dinner and I fancied a small picnic in the Luxembourg Garden. We made plans to meet at 7:30pm and set off on our separate ways. Changing into shorter pants and sandals, I set off in search of the gardens which appeared to be quite close by. I found my map to be a bit deceptive, though, as the walk was longer than anticipated (made more taxing from the long walk in the morning!). But I did find it, stopping quickly at a sandwich shop to get a baguette sandwich. I wanted to find a small bottle of wine, but had no luck.

The Luxembourg Gardens consisted of great fountains, beautiful arrangements of flowers, and small decorative patches of grass. While in Munich, one would have wide stretches of grass on which to lie upon, Paris provided green chairs which people would drag along the graveled ground to their preferred location, sometimes two for their feet. I followed suit and selected a sunny place near the large central fountain which offered not only an ideal place to watch the kids sailing their sailboats, but to see the Eiffel tower peeking its head above the skyline, as if to remind the park's occupants where they were. So with exhausted feet propped up, munching on my baguette, and listening to the podcasts of Coffee Break French to improve my cafe and restaurant vocabulary, I spent a lovely couple of hours.

The sun soon grew too hot and so I retreated to the shade of an outdoor cafe nestles under the trees of the gardens. Over a glass of rosé, I read a bit and enjoyed feeling quite Parisian. I then explored a bit of the garden, finding a beautiful sculpture headed pool and the stately senate building.

Upon exiting, I found out how Parisians react when a bit of grass is allowed to them...Müncheners would laugh...

I let myself get lost for a bit and delighted in the cozy, lovely apartment and the astounding buildings that could be waiting around every corner.

I arrived back at the hotel in time for a 20 minute nap before meeting K for dinner. His choices for meals seemed a bit atypical for being in France. His proximity to Italy caused him to seek out a good pizza, an expectation which unfortunately fell short the night before. But this time, the quest was for Argentinian Beef. Naturally, I was game. The beef one finds in Germany leaves much to be desired and I had heard of the quality of Argentinian cows. We were directed to a place slightly north of the Marais neighborhood. Our waitress surprised us by being quite multilingual and while K spoke English with her, I happily spoke German. She recommended an outstanding Argentinian red wine and we feasted on beautiful filet mignon with thick cut fries and delicious grilled vegetables.

All was topped off with a decadent chocolate mousse in a mango sauce. Probably one of the best meals I had in ages and aside from the potatoes, I neatly finished off every bite. When we returned to the hotel, it was time to say our goodbyes. K was continuing on to New York where he would be recording demos for the musical he has been working on, and I was to switch hotels and go the rest alone, starting bright and early to arrive as the doors opened to the Musee d'Orsay.