Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Italy: Spring 2011: May 19: Impressions of Paris [May 11-18]

While we were in Paris, we went to see Woody Allen's very enjoyable new movie "Midnight in Paris".   The film presents several fantasy verson of Paris....both contemporary and historical.  The fantasy images of contemporary Paris  (empty museums, people-less streets and fast movie-magic movements to different parts of the city) were in sharp contrast  to the Paris that we visited and I think had a lot to do with our feelings about our week there.  We realize that Paris is a very big city (more like New York than I could have ever imagined) and that reality clashed with the Paris of our mind's eye or of the movies.    It's not that we don't like big cities (we actually do) but I guess we weren't expecting Paris to be quite so huge, so bustling, so crowded and so difficult.

As I wrote, Paris didn't steal our hearts.   Partly, we found a lot of it to be challenging and frustrating and some of that can be attributed to it being my first visit (Diana had been there for a few days when she was sixteen) meaning we had to learn the ropes in a place where we didn't have the language.  But I am sure that this was also true when we made our first visit to Rome in 1993 and Rome did steal our hearts.

The geographic size of the city was challenging....things are very far apart and what looked like a short distance on  a map turned out to be a much longer trek.   And having to try and learn the bus system on the fly was daunting.  The train part of the system worked pretty well but the long passages to make connections and the prevalence of stairs were complicating factors.  We ended up taking taxis frequently which worked well for the most part.

Probably the most significant thing that frustrated us was the crowds....we have somehow been able to avoid them for much of the time in Italy.  We haven't been to the Vatican Museums in the daytime for years and have avoided Florence for the last few years.  We were unprepared for the long lines (we did have a museum pass that let us avoid the ticket lines) but the lines to pass through security were the killers.  And once inside the Louvre and the Musee' d'Orsay, the sheer number of people in the galleries competing for views of the art wore us down quickly.  I admit that we are spoiled....we had just come from Genoa where we were just about the only people in the two top art museums of the city...but the experience was just very frustrating.

We were also struck by the crowds in our neighborhood.....the streets near our hotel are filled with bars and cafes (like the very famous Le Deux Magots and Cafe de Flore) but on a nice Spring day, they were jammed.  Even if you could find a table, you would be cheek by jowl with your neighbors....which seemed very unpleasant to us even though the people in the cafes seemed to be enjoying themselves.

So here's what we liked.....in no particular order.

1.   A walking tour of "our neighborhood" Saint-Germain-des-Pres, with Paris Walks.  It was an informative and enjoyable tour which included some history, some architecture and some anecdotes about the famous people who had lived in the area.  In retrospect, we should have done more of this kind of tour.

2.  The Rodin Museum....Rodin's sculpture, much of which is so well known to us, is incredibly striking and to see many of his other works in the place he lived was stunning (and some were quite sexy).  The English audio tour was excellent. The gardens are lovely and we went on a bright sunny day which added to the charm.

3. Our hotel--the Millesime on Rue Jacob in the 6th--was terrific...comfortable and friendly with great breakfasts.

4. A walk on our last morning in the quieter streets south of Boulevard St. Germain (between St. Sulpice Church and the Jardin du Luxembourg)....stylish shops, small hotels, a row of Italian restaurants.  Our destination was Poilane, one of the top French boulangeries, where we bought some great rolls and croissants for our lunch at the airport.

5.  The bread and croissants in Paris were fantastic....every bit as good as their reputation.  And I could happily eat those ubiquitous baguette sandwiches for lunch every day. 

6. The stained glass windows at Sainte-Chappelle lived up to their billing.....absolutely stunning with the late afternoon light streaming though. 

7. Our short visit to Galeries Lafayette, one of the "grand magasins" (department stores) on Boulevard Haussman in the center of Paris....the colored glass domed roof that covers the open five story atrium is worth the price of admission (of course it's free) and the range of goods that are sold is astonishing.  We had a pleasant lunch in the seventh floor self-service restaurant that appeared to be as big as a football field, had good food and a dynamite view over Paris.

8. The Monet "Water Lilies" installation at Musee L'Orangerie is both delicate and overwhelming and the collection of impressionist paintings in the basement gallery has some stunning paintings...we especially liked the Cezannes and the paintings of an artist we didn't know at all, Andre Derain.

9. Sitting in the Jardin du Luxembourg on a warm sunny afternoon watching Parisians rest, talk, jog, etc. in an elegantly manicured garden setting....so much of a contrast to similar public spaces in Italy which are usually much less organized or well kept.

10. The small Musee' Nissim de Comando--the art-filled mansion of a Jewish family of bankers who collected pieces from all over the world--that has been beautifully restored to recreate the look and feel of the house in its heyday--the late 19th century.  There was a very well done audio tour that really gave life to what is on display.
11. A very good tour of Notre Dame Cathedral given by a volunteer who knows the cathedral and was able to give a refreshing and non-doctrinaire explanation of the history and architecture of Notre Dame.

12.  A walk on the Champs-Elysee (which is not the Champs-Elysee of former years--lots of tourist places and fast food restaurants mixed in with Cartier and Louis Vuitton) and a visit to the Arc de Triomphe (I walked to the top for a great view of Paris).

13.  Diana liked looking at the Parisians (their style, clothes and shoes), the windows of the galleries, antique shops and upholstery shops in "our" neighborhood, and the beautiful, varied wrought iron balconies.  She liked seeing the Eiffel Tower from the boat ride on the Seine.

14.  She loved reading Alice Kaplan's memoir French Lessons and highly recommends it.

15.  We had nice visits with an American friend of ours--Lee Orloff--who lives in Paris.

16.  Walks in the Marais and Montmartre neighborhoods.....The Marais contains the old Jewish quarter and there is still a Jewish presence (delicatessens, Jewish bakeries, falafel shops) as well the very elegant Place des Vosges, which seems to be one of the few places that Parisians can sit on the grass.  In Montmartre, we walked down the back side of the hill from Sacre-Coeur after checking out the view from the front of the church.  This allowed us to escape the crowds and stroll down the hilly, winding lanes with beautiful houses, the first arts workshop of Picasso and the only remaining vineyard in Paris.

17.  Did I mention how fantastic the bread is?

In retrospect, we may not have stayed in the most optimum location (despite the excellence of the hotel).  The immediate neighborhood was more touristy than we prefer and we might have been happier in a quieter neighborhood.   We realize that Paris is a very big city (more like New York than I could have ever imagined) and that reality clashed with the Paris of our mind's eye or of the movies.  It's not that we don't like big cities (we actually do) but I guess we weren't expecting Paris to be quite so huge, so bustling, so crowded and so difficult.

In terms of the food, although some of our eating out experiences were disappointing, for the most part we ate reasonably well.   But we did find the whole process a struggle--from finding appropriate and affordable restaurants in our neighborhood (we like to walk to and from dinner most of the time) to deciphering menus with unfamiliar or in some cases many unappealing options, to being packed like sardines in most of the bistros, to being shocked at the price of wine.  But the tight quarters did lead to a couple of pleasant interactions with the people at the next table....the Canadian woman in one place welcomed us to her table and we had a nice evening talking to the two Italian engineers who replaced her.

Part of our reaction is undoubtedly a kind of culture shock which had a great impact on our feelings about Paris.    We faced the same "shock of the new" on our first visit to Rome when we were equally unprepared, language-challenged and green but, for some reason, we were able to work through the shock and embrace Rome.

Anyway, we are back in Italy now and feeling a lot more relaxed.....and looking forward to being in Rome next week. 

Jim and Diana

PS If you want pictures of Paris, I commend the Woody Allen movie to you. 

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