30 April 2015

Musée de l'Orangerie

It was a windy day as we walked along the Jardin des Tuileries on our way to the Musée de l'Orangerie. In fact, the morning had the distinct feel of a cold prairie wind. Saskatchewan came to mind, though this place isn't anything like that Canadian prairie province.

Tuileries Garden was created by Catherine de Medicis in 1564 as the garden for her palace. Eventually, one hundred years later, it was opened to the public, and became a public park after the Revolution. Through the 19th and 20th centuries, it has been a place where citizens celebrated, met, promenaded and relaxed, its wide open space inviting to all.

There are many statues along the way including The Kiss by Rodin and another depicting the shame and embarrassment of going out in public without any pants.

The Orangerie is an art gallery of impressionist and post-impressionist paintings located in the old orangery of the Tuileries Palace. It was built in 1852 to shelter the orange trees for the royalty of the day. Through history it has also been a place of lodging for soldiers, and a warehouse of some description.

The gallery is most famous as the permanent home for eight murals by Claude Monet. The Water Lilies, or Les Nymphéases, is monumental and quite intimate. The paintings are housed in two elliptical rooms and encourage the viewer to simply gaze. After what he saw as the horror of the First World War, Monet wanted his work to take on a more poetic dimension and become a haven for tranquil meditation.

While the gallery can be busy, there was a sense of tranquility here, especially in the two rooms showing the Water Lilies.

The gallery also contains works by Paul Cézanne, Henri Matisse, Chaim Soutine, Marie Laurencin, Maurice Utrillo and others. There are even a few works by Pablo Picasso.

This is a wonderful place to visit and get lost in the times of the artists. The time spent here will go by quickly. Being a relatively small gallery, and not overwhelming in the sense of others in Paris, a visit to the Orangerie is a delight in every sense. A minor tip should you visit: get the audio device; it is well worth the 5 euro charge.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

Charlie Hebdo and the HyperCacher

Going to the scenes of terrorist attacks is not a tourist-thing to do. Yet, where were these places that figured so prominently in our news of only a few months ago?

We know the story about Charlie Hebdo. 

At 11:30 on Wednesday morning, 7 January 2015, a black Citroen drove up to the building housing the offices of  Charlie Hebdo in rue Nicolas-Appert. Two masked gunmen, dressed in black and armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles got out and approached the offices.

They burst into number 6, Rue Nicolas-Appert, before realising they had the wrong address. The two then moved down the street to number 10 where Charlie Hebdo is located on the second floor.

The gunmen killed 11 people and injured 11 others in the building. After leaving, they killed a French National Police officer outside the building. Several related attacks followed outside Paris, where another 5 people were killed and 11 wounded.

It was easy to come to the neighbourhood by Metro, and the area appears to be an extension of China Town with new clothing stores and the Mandarin language heard more often than anywhere else I've been in Paris. It's also on the limits of the Marais, with its fashionable merchants, cool coffee shops and artsy bistros. The church yard near the Metro appeared to be filled with homeless people. It's an interesting neighbourhood.

Rue Nicolas-Appert appears on maps, and it seems simple enough to navigate, but it's a short little back street of sorts, and found only by meandering through another dead-end street to a lane-way, that finally leads to Nicolas-Appert.  Or so it appeared to me... it took a while to find.

At the address, there is little to identify the building in any way with the magazine, though there are now several prints on the concrete walls, and heavily armed National Police patrolling the street every day and all day. They are not keen on photos being taken of the building nor of themselves. There are barricades on both sides of the narrow street.

While I lingered at Charlie Hebdo a man appeared with a little boy. The man held the hand of his son and when they came to the front of number 10 rue Nicolas-Appert the man acknowledged me by nodding and asking what I think was "Is this the place?" I answered softly. The man knelt down and talked quietly to his son about what had happened and why it was important to have come today. Then, the two joined hands and walked away, both looking back with tears in their eyes as they turned the corner.

The HyperCacher story is well known too. HyperCacher is a small supermarket chain that features Kosher products. The chain operates in France and Italy.

On Friday, 9 January 2015, a man, armed with a submachine gun, an assault rifle, and two handguns, entered the HyperCacher supermarket at Porte de Vincennes in the 20e arrondisement of Paris. He killed 4 people, all Jews, then took several hostages. A day earlier the same man had killed a Municipal Police officer.

The HyperCacher was much easier to find than Charlie Hebdo. In fact it's down the street from a Metro stop. It's a bit on the outside of central Paris and the buildings are slightly newer, and generally less iconic than what we see in other parts of the city. The grocery store is found just on the other side of the Boulevard Périphérique, a major highway that literally rings the city. One of the busiest roads in Europe, the Périphérique is often considered the boundary between the city of Paris proper and its suburbs.

Like the street at Charlie Hebdo, this is a depressing place. The barricades are here too, and must be a deterrent to business. There are many candles littering the sidewalk in front of the store, and many more bunches of dried up and rotting flowers left long ago, and I wonder why the mess hasn't been cleared.

The police presence is slightly more subdued here than at Charlie Hebdo. Instead of machine guns toted by National Police, the two officers here are from a municipal force and they carry only side arms. They watch me as I walk back and forth in front of the store, but we acknowledge each other politely when I walk past them to enter the HyperCacher.

Inside, the store is subdued. There isn't the usual supermarket music playing and there aren't many staff and certainly not many customers. Perhaps it gets busier at other times though I assume the attack has not been good for business. I wander the aisles of the smallish store, and linger for some time in the wine department. There are many wines from Israel, France and Italy, and I am impressed to see a number of recognisable-even-to-me French wines that are Kosher. I didn't know.

As I walked through the store I imagined the horrific events of that day in January. And I thought about the route to the basement of the store, to the cold locker, where an employee of the supermarket, and a Muslim, Lassana Bathily, helped hide 15 hostages. He then managed to escape in an attempt to get help for the people in the basement, whereupon he was immediately arrested and only released after ninety minutes. Perhaps he is working here today.

Staff at the store paid me no interest, except to say hello. Several customers, both older citizens, were wary of my presence and uncomfortable. I am an outsider.

The two places are not on any tourist agenda, nor should they be. What happened here in January and how it shook this modern European state, will always be important to remember. Today in Paris armed police or military can be seen at virtually all synagogues and Jewish memorials. They are seen patrolling the streets around the Grande Mosquée de Paris and at Sacré-Cœur. Something terrible happened here in January, and no one is going to forget anytime soon.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

29 April 2015

The Eiffel Tower ~ midnight in Paris

It was a wonderful spring evening in Paris, crisp and clear. The weather has been unsettled lately, as it can be in late April, but tonight was grand.

We finished an evening meal in our apartment and took a bus to the city centre. Our intention had been to walk along the avenue des Champs-Élysées, the beautiful boulevard in the 8e arrondissement of Paris: almost 2000 metres in length and 70 metres wide, with its theatres, cafés and luxury shops. Possibly distracted by the views from the bus, we missed our stop.

Getting out, somewhere, we walked along several narrow streets until we turned a corner, looked up and saw la tour Eiffel.

There is something wonderful, almost magical, about all-at-once seeing the tower along a narrow Paris street. There is a time-shifting quality to the experience as one looks along a quiet street and views the very thing that defines our image of Paris. Looking at it, we could only say, "Ahhh..."

We continued walking until we ended up in line to buy tickets to the top of the tower, and on a night such as this one, why not? We're here.

The Eiffel Tower is an iron lattice tower named after Alexandre Gustave Eiffel, whose company designed and built the tower. Erected in 1889 to serve as the entrance arch to the 1889 World's Fair, it has become a cultural icon of France and is one of the most recognised structures in the world. Over 7 million people paid to ascend the tower last year. The queues can be long, but not this night.

On a clear night such as this one, the views were incredible.

Shortly after midnight we departed the area, found a bus to take us home to Montmartre, and while we didn't walk the Champs-Élysées tonight, we did see it from the top of la tour Eiffel. We'll walk the grand avenue another time.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

28 April 2015

Montmartre Cemetery

A dull, rainy day in Paris and a perfect day to visit a cemetery. This one, Montmartre Cemetery, or la Cimetière de Montmartre, was built in the early 19th century as part of a drive to improve living conditions within Paris. Older cemeteries were causing all kinds of health problems for nearby residents and the local government ordered the construction of three new cemeteries to be located outside the then existing city limits of the city.

This cemetery is located in a unique location, an abandoned gypsum quarry. The quarry had been used during the French Revolution as a mass grave. It was built below the street level, in the hollow of the quarry. Still the case today, the entrance was constructed on avenue Rachel under rue Caulaincourt, which is somewhat apparent in the photo below.

Not the most famous cemetery in Paris, it is still a popular tourist destination as the resting place for famous artists and writers, many of whom lived and worked in Montmartre. A bonus to visiting the cemetery, apart from its tranquil setting, is listening to the sounds of hundreds of birds, a sound not often heard in the more lively parts of Paris.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.

26 April 2015

Drinking pastis in Paris ~ how to look as though you know what you're doing

One of the nice things about our morning coffee place, Le Brio, is that one can order a drink to go with a coffee. It seems a civilised approach to life in Paris and ... why not?

In my case, I decided to try pastis, a liqueur that continues to enjoy great popularity throughout France. When last I tried pastis, it presented itself as deserving to be in the floor-cleaners section of a supermarket. Think about Dettol and you will understand the implications of what I speak. My mother once gave Dettol to me, undiluted, as a cure for a some kind of throat infection I had as child. It cured the sore throat, and it was three weeks before my taste buds started working again.

However, notwithstanding my first brush with pastis five years ago, and the memory of Dettol, a second chance is warranted, especially in the friendly setting of Le Brio.

It's easy enough to order a pastis, and so I did, en français. So far, so good. The pastis arrived in a tall and narrow glass. A glass of ice came with it and some water on the side. This is where things became complicated, at least in my mind. "What do I do with these things?" I wondered.

For reasons beyond comprehension,  and to the horror of everyone in the café, I decided, rather abruptly, to pour my pastis into the glass of ice. The café's manager frowned disapprovingly and other patrons shook their heads in disbelief. All eyes were on me to see what "the foreigner" would do next. The café became as quiet as the first snowfall in Dawson City. This is where I should have looked to Sherry for some wisdom, but no, without warning I threw my head back and guzzled the drink down. "Mon Dieu!" and "Merde" were words I heard exclaimed in hushed whispers from my now former comrades in Le Brio. I think I even heard a plaintive "oy vey" from someone in the back. 

Well. It took a bit of effort, and a wee bit of assistance from the patrons at the café, but here is what should happen when drinking pastis.

Your pastis will arrive in a tall glass along with a glass of ice and a container of cool, but not cold, water. In a perfect world it should be spring water. Note the rich colour of the liqueur.

You will pour some water into the glass containing the pastis. About five parts water to one part pastis is considered proper, though no one will get excited if you have a personal preference that is slightly different, within accepted French protocol of course, and you will never know what that protocol might be. Notice the addition of water has changed the dark golden colour of the liqueur to a cloudy shade of white. This is normal.

Now, you can add some ice. Again, it is a personal preference, though one or two ice cubes is probably okay. No ice would be okay too. 

At this point you should use the spoon provided to gently stir the concoction. This will release all the flavours.

Finally, you are ready to drink, not guzzle, but drink gently. Like a man but with some sophistication. I know this can be difficult for a Canadian male, but we have to try.

What a difference it all makes. This drink tastes fantastique! Unbelievably refreshing and ... not like floor cleaner at all.

Pastis was introduced to France in 1932 by Paul Ricard. Over 130 million litres of pastis are sold every year in the republic, or about two litres for every living person. It is especially nice on a hot day.

And yes, I continue to order it at the café, where my comrades have forgiven me my transgression. 

Photos by Jim Murray and Sherry MacDonald. Copyright 2015.

Pont des Arts and love locks

Under the reign of Napoleon I, between 1802 and 1804 the first metal bridge in Paris was constructed for pedestrians. In 1975, the Ministry of Culture declared this bridge a national historic monument. Today Pont des Arts is considered a part of the larger UNESCO World Heritage Site that takes in much of the Paris riverfront.

Since 2008, for reasons that escape all sane people, tourists have been attaching padlocks to this bridge, and others. Usually their names or initials are written, or even engraved on the locks, which are then attached to the railing or grate on the side of the bridge. This is not a French tradition.

Since 2012 the number of locks covering the bridge has become overwhelming, with locks being attached to locks which are attached to other locks. In February 2014, Le Monde estimated that over 700,000 locks were attached to Pont des Arts. It is thought that nearly a million locks now cover the bridge, posing a structural and safety concern to authorities and an aesthetic issue to citizens. Parisians are not amused, nor is the municipal government.

In June 2014, part of the parapet on the bridge collapsed under the weight of all the locks. The government has responded by asking tourists to consider taking selfies as a gesture of unending love, rather than attaching a lock to an old bridge. As if the selfie people need any encouragement. Glass and plywood have been affixed to the bridge as a deterrent.

While we walked across the bridge one fine sunny day last week, we didn't see anyone attaching locks. We did see sidewalk vendors on the approaches to the bridge, and on the bridge itself, selling locks.

Photos by Jim Murray. Copyright 2015.