Day Into Night: Greeting a New Year in Paris

Day Into Night: Greeting a New Year in Paris

After a hurried holiday breakfast and a few lingering embraces with the rest of our family, my daughter and I headed for the airport and boarded a waiting plane to Paris – traditional Christmas celebrations would have to wait until next year. I’ve always wanted to experience life in Paris during the holidays, and a plan slowly came together which captivated our daydreams for months until the sudden jarring news of the November terrorist attacks. After a brief pause amidst real concerns, we continued with our plans, an affirmation that life must continue in the face of adversity. After all, we will always need this iconic French city, and now Paris needed us back.

A strongly persistent tail wind agreed, pushing our plane forward and swiftly delivering us to our destination ahead of schedule in the pre-dawn hours to our beloved city of light. The full moon resting low in the sky guided our driver easily through the streets still twinkling with holiday decorations and deposited us curbside to a vacant Place Vendôme and a sleepy hotel desk manager. As we waited for our room, we didn’t understand that by stepping into the balmy pre-dawn night we were making an unspoken and unexpected agreement with the travel gods that we’d be up and very awake for the next 24 hours. Giddy and energized, we greeted the day with a few other travel vagabonds, and wandered the streets for hours until our dinner at the Eiffel tower and the ride to the top finale. It was the start of a week to remember, seven days between Christmas and New Year’s, a welcome return to a city we love and I think especially this time, a city that truly loved us back.

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Our week in Paris was a meandering, window shopping, café lingering, schedule-free visit of sorts, and there were days that no cameras were allowed.  A see-with-your eyes only rule was temporarily instated until a visit to lovely Montmartre. The small artist enclave once surrounded by vineyards is of course now a popular tourist destination, especially on beautiful sunny winter afternoons. This hilltop village is like being on top of the world, the vast views almost begging one to spread their wings and fly.  Once grounded, the labyrinth of crooked streets come alive with interesting street scenes begging for capture.

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The icing on my Parisian travel cake will always be the captivating Eiffel Tower, and upon reflection, it made perfect sense that on New Years Eve all roads seemed to lead to the Champs de Mars. United in purpose, the slow march from the Champs Élysée with thousands of other revelers will be forever etched in my memory. Strangers became friends, united by the pull of the great structure in our need to celebrate a night of new beginnings, an optimism normally taken for granted. The toned-down light show was more exciting than the greatest of firework displays and the exuberant cheers and happy chorus of voices is a sweet sound that I often hear in my daydreams. Cheers for happy memories, and for now, a belated Bonne Année to all.

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The Radical Design of Eiffel’s Tower

The Radical Design of Eiffel’s Tower

People are known for their resistance to change, and most find a preference for things that have been around longer, especially in the cities they call home. The Guggenheim Museum in New York was compared to a lavatory basin by Woody Allen, the Louvre Pyramid was referred to as “a scar on the face of Paris,” and a Londoner declared that the Tower Bridge, built in 1886, was “excellently situated for our ugliest public work.” Ouch! But perhaps the loudest protests over an urban construction project unfolded after the proposed centerpiece to the 1889 World’s Fair threatened the familiar horizon of Paris.

Many Parisians didn’t want to share their skyline dominated by the dome of Les Invalides and the towers of Notre Dame with the unusual skeleton-like design of the Eiffel Tower, and hoped that the “giant eyesore” would be torn down in 20 years as originally planned. They were most likely influenced by some of France’s most famous and powerful artists and intellectuals, who in a letter to the newspaper, Les Temps, protested that this “dizzily ridiculous tower dominated Paris like a black and gigantic factory chimney, crushing all beneath its barbarous mass.” French writer Guy de Maupassant was openly annoyed by the tower but still went to its restaurant every day. When asked why, he said it was because it is the only place in Paris where one cannot see the structure.

IMG_2667Happily we all know that since its completion in 1889, Gustav Eiffel and his tower won over even its most ardent critics. Paris’s beloved monument is an iconic image of modern times, an enduring symbol of Paris and a remains a great source of national pride.

Interested in the history behind the construction of the tower and the 1889 World’s Fair? Then you will love the highly praised book by Jill Jonnes, Eiffel’s Tower.

 

Also fun to read: 10 Things You May Not Know About the Eiffel Tower.

The Courtyard Less Traveled

The Courtyard Less Traveled

Beyond the Louvre Pyramid lies a courtyard that few people notice during their stay in Paris. It’s just steps away from the crowds lining I.M. Pei’s modern glass entrance, but the Cour Carrée sits nearly empty even during the peak tourist seasons. This section of the museum called the “Old Louvre,” is the original site of a 12th century fortress, and later, a larger royal residence. The handsome buildings surrounding this courtyard were built between the 16th and 17th century, replacing the last external remnants from medieval times.

It’s the perfect place to enjoy the architectural history of the Louvre, especially at night, when the lights enhance the majestic Renaissance structure and interesting sculptures. Take a stroll one evening and study the details, or bring a camera and photograph the nighttime moment. If you’re lucky, you may be serenaded by a roaming musician or two. Luckier still, a night bicycle tour may glide through your photo shoot with their helmets aglow and surprise you with a laser-like light show through your photograph, adding another enchanting memory to your memory book  (above).

Related: Six Things You May Not Know About the Louvre

Lingering Over Lunch in Paris

Lingering Over Lunch in Paris

It was the French crêpe recipe I noticed in my kitchen file that brought me back to the terraced street in Paris, the rows of cobblestones drenched in sunlight and the busy café we selected for lunch. The restaurant L’Ebouillanté was busy in a mellow late Autumn sort of way, lingering made easier in the European sun. I clearly remember the day last November, wandering for hours around le Marais district of the city, known for its boutiques and art galleries, block after block of charm, until we collapsed happily on the inviting chairs arranged haphazardly in the shade. It was an exquisite moment, the back of the lovely gothic church Saint-Gervais et Saint-Protais towering over the scene and the sparkling Seine just across the way.

It’s why we have the urge to roam, I think, to fill ourselves with unfamiliar cultures until we’re exhausted and ready to re-fuel with the local food and drink, energized for another adventure. I can still taste the crêpes prepared how I love them, crispy and not too sweet, more like a meal than a dessert. Busy schedules tend to make our meal times upside-down these days, and crêpes are perfect for any time of day.  You can dream a little dream of Paris with my favorite crêpe recipe, below, and if you don’t feel like cooking? Take a break, and just dream.

Combine 3/4 cup of sifted flour, 3/4 cup of water, 2/3 cup of milk, 3 eggs, 2 Tb. melted butter, and 3/4 tsp. of salt in a blender and blend for 5 seconds. Stop machine, scrape sides with a spatula, and blend for 20 seconds longer. Transfer batter to a mixing bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let stand for 1 hour.  Heat a 7 inch iron crêpe pan until moderately hot, brush pan lightly with oil, and heat until oil is very hot, remove pan from the heat. Stir batter, half-fill a 1/4 cup with batter, and pour into pan. Rotate the pan quickly so batter covers bottom in a thin layer, return to heat, loosen crêpe with a spatula, and cook until the underside is golden. Turn crêpe, brown other side, and transfer to a plate. Continue until the batter is gone. Adding 3 tablespoons of orange liqueur to the batter is a nice touch. L’Ebouillanté is located at 6 rue des Barres, Paris France, Marias, 4ème

The Drama Queen

The Drama Queen

Chenonceau was the icing on our travel cake, the multi-arched trophy for completing a meandering two-hour bike ride through the breathtaking French countryside.  No amount of reading or research prepared me for the beauty of the site, the stunning architecture, its delicate design. And at first glance, it didn’t surprise me that the château, also known as the “Château of the Ladies,” or in French “Châteaux des Dames,” for the succession of powerful French noblewomen who each made an impact on the castle.  The original owner, Thomas Bohier, disappeared on the king’s business so often that his wife, Katherine Briçonnet, made most of the (stunning) design decisions, during construction of the main château.  In 1547, King Henry II gave the château to his mistress, Diane de Poitiers, and after he died in a jousting tournament in Paris, his wife Catherine de Médicis, unceremoniously forced Diane out of the château and into another as a sort of consolation prize. Catherine, as regent of France would continue to spend a fortune on the château turning it into a spectacular party destination for the local aristocracy, and with a bang hosted the first fireworks display in France in honor of the ascension to the throne of her son Francis II.  Another notable and quick thinking female resident, Louise Dupin, saved her family and the château from destruction during the French Revolution.  She negotiated with the revolutionaries, convincing them that the castle was the only way to cross the river Cher, and offered that the bridge be open to everyone.  If there was an 1700’s equivalent of “you go, girl,” it might have been quietly whispered among her entire staff that evening.

Visiting the Loire Valley wasn’t on our original itinerary to Paris, but I was eager to make it happen since seeing the great châteaux in their natural setting was long on my list of places to go.  These days it’s easy to be both travel agent and client with all the necessary resources found right on our own computers. By shortening our time in Paris by a few days, and arranging for a rental car at De Gaulle, we could relax and drive at our own pace to the charming small town of Amboise, known for being a home base for the eastern section of the Loire Valley.  I found the perfect hotel with views of the Loire River and the Château d’Amboise, the Hotel Manoir les Minimes, (thank you, Trip Advisor) making our side trip itinerary complete.  I eased the worry of managing Paris traffic, and a possibly delirious jet lagged four-hour car drive by embracing the encouraging online tips from other travelers, and ignoring the advice to take the train from those absolutely terrified of the famous tangle of rush-hour on the Périphérique. It was also helpful to figure out where to find a strong cup of French java before we exited the airport terminal.  All worth it for the beautiful drive from Paris to Amboise, the chance to castle hop by bike, a road break to visit the remarkable Chartres (stained glass madness!) Cathedral on the way back to Paris, and to experience – in the most beautiful way – one of the prettiest regions of France. Recommended reading: Rick Steve’s Snapshot, Loire Valley

Out of the Blue

Out of the Blue

One of the world’s largest museums and a central landmark in Paris, the Louvre has become a modern-day crossroads of sorts. Many people intentionally pass through its vibrant concourse on their way to the streets of Paris, and on to Europe and the rest of waiting world. I was cutting through the courtyard myself on the way back to my hotel last October when I noticed a girl walking her little dog through the crowd. She stood out among the other travelers like a light on a stage, dressed from head to toe in varying shades of sapphire.  I live for these small moments; watching people move through their day, listening for laughter echoing the streets, exchanging smiles with a stranger, catching the light dancing on the water. We all have a role in this theater of life, and that afternoon in Paris the girl wearing blue became the focus in my viewfinder and played the lead to my Louvre Act I production. If I could, I would thank her for the wonderful moment, and of course, list her in the opening credits.

The Bright Side of a Dark Storm

The Bright Side of a Dark Storm

Our first 8 days in France, punctuated by late autumn sunshine and unseasonably warm temperatures, and possibly believable only to photography buffs, were almost too sunny, creating lighting challenges left better to the experts. On the 9th day it rained. The early morning gloom and mist slowly evolved into a rain storm so impressive that it might have been able to compete with the great monsoon of 2014.  And it was with a certain weird satisfaction that I knew such a dramatic weather event would take place that day, like a psychic guaranteeing the worst as I clicked “confirm payment” two months ahead of my night photography lesson at the Louvre. Miserable, cold and with the inexplicable humiliation resulting from fighting an umbrella blown inside out and fractured by the wind, I arrived at the agreed meeting place in front of the grand pyramid at the Louvre. And like a happy ending to a fairy tale gone awry, I met Nadia, my unflappable, knowledgeable and more importantly, kind, instructor from the photo tour company, Better Travel Photos.

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For over four hours we huddled in and around the arched doorways of the Louvre, teacher and student, not letting the storm compete with the subject but to enhance it, and despite the weather challenges, I learned. Among many tips, I studied the best settings for night photography, grasped how to emphasize the star-like glow of street lamps, learned that setting up a tripod isn’t that difficult even for me, and had a few mysteries of my Nikon D600 revealed.  Making room in our covered haven for other dripping wet tripod wielding photographers, my mind wandered, contrasting our current digital technology with the history of the massive building. As I tried to imagine a likeness of King Philip Augustus, who ordered the construction of a fortress at the site in 1190, 824 years ago, I glimpsed the ghost of Napoleon III shooting me a startled glance from his windowed perch from the famous Napoleon apartments, as he wondered what’s become of the place.  Could he explain La Gioconda‘s elusive smile and lay to rest all speculation?

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Travel styles are personal. Some prefer to wander, there are thrill seekers, and history buffs who prefer an educational tour, the list makers, and relaxation specialists, and then there are those who attract a Chevy Chase Vacation kind of chaos.  Our family is guilty of all the above, but the vacations where we participated more, immersed ourselves in a culture or activity (which typically involves sweating and muscle aches) were the most memorable.  The instructional photography tour was both personally rewarding and fun, and I would sign-up again, rain or shine.

Check out the Better Travel Photos blog for photography tips, advice and news here:  Better Travel Photos

City of Sunlight

Spending a day and a half in Paris without your family to share in the adventure, can be, well….lonely.  On the other hand, it can also be a soulful time to enjoy a place that you love on your own terms, to wander with no agenda except to enjoy.  That is exactly what I did last winter on a quick stop  on my way home from visiting my sister and her husband in London.  Alone and wearing my running shoes, I covered a lot of territory, circling the entire historic heart in one afternoon.

Paris was nicknamed the “City of Light” (not City of Lights) originally because it was a vast center of education and ideas during the Age of Enlightenment. In 1828, Paris began lighting the Champs-Elysées with gas lamps. It was the first city in Europe to do so, and so earned the nickname “La VilleLumière” or The City of Light.   For me, Paris became the “City of Sunlight” after spending those 36 hours on an unseasonably warm brilliantly sunny day.  Hundreds of other people must have agreed with me because there were people everywhere enjoying the day.

A pretty side view of the Hotel de Ville (above) houses the city’s administration and has been the location of the municipality of Paris for over 600 years.

Oh those flying buttresses! The lovely Notre Dame was a quick stop on my trek to the famous Berthillon ice cream shop for a slice of devilishly delicious chocolate cake with a scoop of vanilla on the side (gateau au chocolate avec glace a la vanille!)  Lucky for me, no long lines in February.

I laughed when I looked at this picture of a dog’s eye view of the world – all legs and feet!  I don’t blame these two for playing doggie stare down – way more fun!

I spy a tiny acrobat…

I love the earth tone colors and warm woods of the work boats against the deep blue of the Seine.

The Louvre looks so beautiful reflected on the Seine that I can’t think of the right words to do it justice.

I had never been to the Rodin Museum so a stop there was the only item on my to do list.  I enjoyed the lovely setting, and spent most of my time outside in the sculpture garden.  The building that houses the museum was the former Hotel Biron which Rodin used as his workshop.   He donated his entire collection of sculptures (along with paintings by Vincent van Gogh and Pierre-Auguste Renoir that he had acquired) to the French State on the condition that they turn the building into a museum dedicated to his works.

In case you were wondering why the Thinker is naked…. Rodin wanted a heroic figure in the tradition of Michelangelo to represent Thinking as well as Poetry.

“The Thinker has a story. In the days long gone by I conceived the idea of the Gates of Hell. Before the door, seated on the rock, Dante thinking of the plan of the poem behind him… all the characters from the Divine Comedy. This project was not realized. Thin ascetic Dante in his straight robe separated from all the rest would have been without meaning. Guided by my first inspiration I conceived another thinker, a naked man, seated on a rock, his fist against his teeth, he dreams. The fertile thought slowly elaborates itself within his brain. He is no longer a dreamer, he is a creator.” ~Auguste Rodin

Pretty sun-splashed buildings across the street from the Rodin Museum.

If I had been gutsier, I would have thrown down my things, run over and started kicking the ball to see the reaction.  The French version of being punked!

I always thought the addition of the ferris wheel looked out of place on the historic Place de la Concorde, but the evening light was a great equalizer.

The sunset was amazing!  It’s rays bounced right off the Seine directly into the façade of the Hotel de Crillon (below)

A former palace and now one of the oldest luxury hotels in the world.

One last picture before turning in for the night.  I love staying at the Hotel Mansart, which is located at the far end of the Place Vendome (above.)  It’s a small, reasonably priced hotel with friendly service.  It’s location is fun because you have to walk past the opulent Ritz to get there, and you can usually count on some glamorous comings and goings every time you go by.

“Two chairs for the Rulands, Please.”  The next morning I made an imaginary reservation for a couple of chairs in the Tuileries for my husband and I on a future visit!

My last stop before heading to the airport, the amazing Louvre Museum.  Someday I am going to slowly wander and absorb instead of always racing around like a crazy lady on a game show.  And of course one more peek at the Mona Lisa for good luck, and a bittersweet goodbye to Paris.