But We Have So Many Other Tales to Tell
(However, if you don’t want to hear tales about our afternoon pastries and our quirky “Top Ten,” slide over to Great Gardens in the sidebar and click on four Paris gardens. Or follow these links: Giverny, Luxembourg Gardens, Promenade Plantee, Musee Rodin. Our trip was such a ‘Top Ten,’ I had to write about more than gardens.)
Originally, Susan and I planned to see half of France in a week. When we realized that wouldn’t be practical, we narrowed our thinking and settled for Paris in a week. Of course, even a week was not enough time, but what a memorable week! That was back in 2010.
Frank Sinatra had lulled us into believing that April in Paris would be wreathed in bloom and saturated in sun. Surely, May would be even more ineffable. As you’ll see in the pictures, May was not Sinatra’s April in Paris.
Cloudy, cold and rainy did not stop us from walking the city every day, umbrellas at-the-ready, dressed in basic black. We looked Tres Parisienne, well, missing the high heels and fashionista flair. Still, an elegant upgrade from our quotidienne garden couture.
The Tres Parisienne camouflage worked exceedingly well. Five minutes out on the street the first day a courier (a courier, mind you!) asked us for directions. Sorry, we can’t help you, we said in perfect English. From there on, giving directions became a daily ritual. We met all sorts of people, and after a while, we actually knew what we were talking about.
Lunches were usually on the run: that ineffable French staple, a baguette with butter, thin-sliced ham and emmenthaler. (Did we share a baguette? I can’t remember, but I hope not.). For late-afternoon pick-me-ups we stopped in cafes for another ineffable staple: French pastry and coffee. In fact, the day we walked to L’Eglise Madeleine, we just had to side-step into nearby Fauchon, the quintessential Parisian pastry chefs.
We were staying in a lovely pension near the Latin Quarter, La Demeure, now a Best Western Plus. No frills, welcoming, old-worldish, inexpensive, and with lavish breakfast. So maybe we did split those baguettes at lunchtime.
Occasionally we’d skip the speedo-baguette routine and enjoy a sit-down lunch. The large ornate baroque dining room at the Musee d’Orsay was elegant, efficient, with good food and conducive to people-watching. (The museum not so orderly, in rehab, and we never did find the second floor.)
Sunday brunch near the Promenade Plantee became a most memorable meal for us. Oh, and Flams for a quick supper. We found this chain-eatery, noisy and jolly, by following the mouth-watering scent of French pizza.
You might think we did more eating than sightseeing, but we needed the calories to stay on top of all those directions we were giving out.
Later, I’ll get to snatches of gardens, but just so you know we didn’t spend all our time testing pastry, I am listing our personal “Top Ten.” Doesn’t every city call out a “Top Ten?” Ours are based more on memories and impressions than grandeur or beauty.
The “Top Ten”
1. We saw a couple hundred renaissance paintings, combing the Louvre before we found her. There she was. Mona Lisa, mysterious as ever, diminutive in frame, locked behind glass, and bathed in strobe lights.
Yes, strobes from hundreds of flash bulbs flaring. Were there other paintings in the room? Can’t remember. We jockeyed for position behind the ropes, along with a lot of people reverently gazing, or fawning, depending on your viewpoint. (All this, after we fortified ourselves at the café downstairs with mediocre pastry.)
2. We climbed the Arch of Triumph and saw l’etoile of avenues and I bought a ten-ton coffee-table book about the engineering of the Eiffel Tower for Bob, forgetting that I would have to lug it for the rest of the day.
3. Which is ironic, because we never actually climbed the Eiffel Tower. But we could see it from our room and late one evening we had a delicious crockpot-simmered stew of fish, veggies and penne on a bateau in the Seine. We were right there at 10 pm when the Eiffel lights winked on. So I would say all this counts.
4. From the boat-dinner we walked to the Trocadero, which is pretty lively at night, may be the best time to visit. An inline skating contest, music and emcee going full blast in the arena.
Around midnight, traffic cleared, police and ambulances arrived and hundreds of skaters suddenly appeared, flowing around us in sinuous formations to queue up for The Race. At midnight? Hey, we didn’t make the rules. This was more fun than a daytime visit would have been: dry fountain, waterless pond and gardens that looked challenged – at night!
5. Finally, after one, two, three tries, we got to Musee de L’Orangerie, where huge panels of Monet’s Waterlilies are installed. First try, visiting dignitaries pre-empted us. (We were too rain-bedraggled to fake being dignified.)
Second try we were told that actual closing time was about 45 minutes before published closing time.
Third try, last day of our trip, was a winner. Or was it? After seeing Monet’s garden at Giverny and so many other vibrant Monets, the battleship-gray panels with splotches of color and wrinkled seams and missing sunlight took some time to get used to. We thoroughly enjoyed the modern art downstairs.
6. Ah, MontMartre. We saw the seamy, the kitschy, and the quiet lanes with kids tended by moms or au pairs on up the hill.
We took the funicular to reach SacreCoeur for some outstanding views of the city under the clouds. Quite a party outside the church: break dancing, juggling, and music. Inside, old women were praying to icons directly across from vending machines.
7. The Palace of Versailles was so crowded we had to knock it off our top ten. So here’s a great substitution if you are looking for opulence and elegance and wonderful artwork: the Musee Jacquemart-Andre.
A husband-wife team with a passion for art built the mansion and spent years building this fine collection. We spent a lot of time viewing their temporary exhibit of Spanish painting, From Greco to Dali.
7a. But the trip to Versailles was memorable. Crazy soccer fans, all ages, hundreds of them, on their way to a meet, wearing orange costumes and make-up, tooting horns, waving flags, marching through the train station.
And a crazy wedding party cruising town, guys cheering, hanging out the limo bouffant with yards of tulle. (In Paris they choose tulle; in America we choose rolls of crepe paper, or toilet paper.)
Aside: Thirty years prior, visiting Versailles on a bright September day with Ellen, palace and gardens were serene and sun-washed, even lonely.
8. We missed Napoleon’s tomb at L’Hotel des Invalides. The chapel was closed. Instead, we watched a first-class military commissioning in the courtyard until we got distracted by a smoky column rising in the distance, a waste-fire, we learned from a young girl we chatted up whose boyfriend happened to be tending the fire.
9. How could we forget walking in a pouring rain along Quai du Louvre. Doesn’t that sound romantic? No singing or dancing, through the puddles, though. (Kinda disappointing to find out the Louvre was closed after all that slogging. Almost equal to Sinatra’s April in Paris.)
10. And finally, maneuvering through traffic near Place de la Concorde — and coming out alive.
There’s an 11th Top Ten. The people we met.
The motorman we never saw who stopped the train just for us. He’d seen us tearing through the lonely station, then slumping in despair as the train began to move out. I hope we waved a thank you.
The manager of The Paris Story movie (a well done slice of history) who graciously delayed its start when we needed a few extra minutes to settle in. We’d been held up trying to give directions to…
. . .the ageless Vietnamese gentleman who had laid out his documents, including holy pictures, and asked us for help. Sadly, he needed more than we could give. (We wonder where he is today).
The delightful woman riding first car on the Metro – all of us crammed in, our previous train having broken down with too many riders.
Amused by mother’s persistent urging unwilling daughter to photograph the tracks, she finally said, authoritatively, “Take the picture,” which segued into a conversation of curiosities: “Yes, I know, America, but where in America?” As we stepped out of the car, she turned to us and waved goodbye. “Enjoy our fine city!” she said. And we did.
Jardin des Plantes
This is the main botanical garden in all of France, and it was just around the corner from our hotel, so how could we not stop here.
Founded in 1635 it’s part of the Museum National l’Histoire Naturelle network. Buildings that house exhibits on evolution, minerals, paleontology and botany were closed on a chilly Sunday morning, but we were free to roam the grounds.
What a treat to find plants growing here that we grow back home – and every plant was labeled. Oh my! If only I could remember all I learned that day. The slide show reminds us of how much we forgot.
There are green spaces everywhere in Paris, pocket gardens around public buildings, palaces and churches. Here are some that we found.
And one last nostalgic glimpse of the Seine. . .