Friday, November 14, 2014

Nice, France

Photos of the monastery garden and the Franciscan Church, up the hill from Nice in Cimiez.  The church's exterior is beautiful and inside there are three works by painter Ludovico Brea (1450-1523), who was born in Nice and whose paintings may also be found in various towns along the coast from Nice to Genoa. 

In my first year of college, I took a British Literature course, and part of this course delved into the works of the poets who lived in the Lake District of England and who were also part of the Romantic movement (Wordsworth and Coleridge are the two best known).  On one particularly gray and blustery day, the professor asked us if we thought the Romantic poets would have preferred an overcast day or a sunny day.  I was among the majority in choosing a sunny day, but the professor said that it would have been far more in keeping with the poets' personalities and devotion to the subject to prefer an overcast day.  When I thought about it this seemed to make sense:  a gray day gives you the opportunity to pine for a sunny day, and you can probably even describe the pleasures of that sunny day much better than if the sun were high in the sky.

I recall this as an introduction to my report on Nice and the Côte d'Azur.  Here in the New York City area, the colder side of Fall has officialy arrived, quite a contrast to the hot and brilliantly sunny time I spent in southern France in June.  So even though this is five months later, it seems apropos to take a look back.  Besides, the city of Nice (France's 5th largest city) enjoys a unique microclimate, and it is not uncommon to sit at an outdoor cafe in the winter months wearing a T-shirt or light sweater.  So if you are planning an off-season visit, you have a very good chance for lots of sunshine and mild temperatures.   

The day I left Paris it was a bit chilly and overcast, but I was meeting my friends Amy and Denise at the Gare de Lyon's Big Ben Bar in Le Train Bleu, where it always feels sunny due to the fanciful frescoes depicting southern France and Italian destinations (Paris train stations are named for the destinations they serve, and the Gare de Lyon trains head south).  Readers of my Paris book know that Le Train Bleu is one of my favorite restaurants, and I have long wanted to rendez-vous there and walk downstairs to the tracks and board a train.  Finally, a dream satisfied!

After a change in Marseille, we were in Nice about six hours later.  Lou Souleou, a small B&B at No. 26 rue des Ponchettes, was our home for four days.  For those of you who know Nice, the rue des Ponchettes runs parallel to the Quai des Etats Unis (the eastern continuation of the Promenade des Anglais) and is a short distance from the steps that lead up to the Tour Bellanda.  So yes, you can hear the street noise when you are sitting outside on the terrace that the Zen and Swazi rooms share (we had these two rooms plus the Nimis single upstairs, which faced the rue des Ponchettes) but when you close the glass doors and turn on the ceiling fans or a/c the street sounds are quite muffled.  Maxime and his staff at Lou Souleou are extremely helpful, kind, resourceful, and patient (I had a few unusual requests!).  Rates are approximately 50 to 130 euros and the breakfast is especially nice with good coffee, fresh baguettes and other breads, a selection of great jams, yogurt, cereals, fruit, and specials like crepes or muffins.  Lou Souleou is also just across from Castel Plage, one of the beach clubs on the shore, right at the point where the road curves around toward the port of Nice.  Rates for a full day are 18 euros and 15 for a half-day, which is quite reasonable as you have your own sun chair, an umbrella, a table, towel, and access to the bathroom facilities.  There is also a restaurant, making it really easy to stay all day long. If you haven't been to Nice yet, you might not think a chair on the beach is anything special; but much of the coastline on the Côte d'Azur is rocky, so a chair is actually valuable if not essential.  Not that I haven't enjoyed arranging those rocks just so, to accommodate me and my towel -- I spent two weeks in Nice on spring break the year I lived in Paris, and I was at the rocky beach every day -- and believe it or not I was fairly comfortable.  The rocks are approximately five inches in diameter and are flat, not sharp, which is why it's possible to achieve a level of comfort.  I am looking at one of these rocks as I type this because years ago I brought a rock home as a souvenir and a friend painted a pretty scene on one side of it.

Many visitors don't round the corner past Castel Plage, which I think is a shame because the road winds past a beautiful war memorial (pictured below) and on to the Place Île de Beauté (also pictured below), appropriately named as it faces the the boats departing for Corsica, often referred to as the Île de Beauté

 Lou Souleou is a few minutes' walk from the Cours Saleya, a large pedestrian area that is parallel to the Quai des Etats Unis and bordered by rue Saint-Francois-de-Paule at one end and rue Louis Gassin at the other.  Most of the pretty buildings that are on the Cours date from the early 18th century, and it was only in the 1980s (when it was repaved over an underground parking garage) that it became a pedestrian zone.  It is still home to one of the best outdoor marchés in France.  On several visits several years apart, my husband and I were regulars at the stall of Thérésa, who made socca, a thin sort of crepe (but crisp, not soft) made of chickpea flour, salt, water, and olive oil (cumin also appears in some recipes I've seen).  Actually, Theresa didn't really have a stall - it was more like a large steel drum with a flat griddle on top -- and she was set up at the edge of the market proper.  She would scrape pieces into a paper cone and we would devour the hot pieces of yumminess as we walked around the market.  Then we would go back for more, though we always had to wait on line as she had many devotees.  Readers of my book on Provence, the Côte d'Azur, and Monaco (2001) may recall the piece I included about socca written by Cara De Silva ('The Chickpea's Shining Moment').  She, too, is a big fan of socca, especially Thérésa's.  De Silva bought a postcard in Nice that featured a photograph taken about a century ago of a socca seller standing in almost exactly the same spot where Thérésa had set up shop.  I thought about this in June when I looked for Thérésa and didn't see her in her usual spot.  Happily, there is now an actual market stall selling Thérésa's socca.  I could be wrong, but I don't believe Thérésa herself is still at the stall, or at least, she wasn't on the days I visited in June.  I have tried to find out if she is still around, but an Internet search didn't turn up any clues.  No matter, I suppose: the socca is still delicious, and still popular with both tourists and locals.  As a restaurateur told Cara De Silva, "People from Nice eat socca all the time."

Other culinary highlights for traditional Niçoise specialties are Restaurant Acchiardo (38 rue Droite, Vieux Nice,; no website, closed Saturday and Sunday) and La Merenda (4 rue Raoul Bosio, also closed Saturday and Sunday).  Reservations at both restaurants are hard to secure, though confirming a table at Acchiardo is infinitely easier than at La Merenda, which does not have a telephone and has a "reservation sur place" policy.  There are also seats for only about 30 people.  If you want to eat at La Merenda (which means "a delicious morsel" in Nicois dialect), you must walk to the restaurant and reserve in person.  There will be a line of other people there doing the same thing.  I recommend going early on in your visit to Nice because there is a good chance your first choice will be fully booked, and you'll have to reserve for another day.  The chef at La Merenda is Dominique Le Stanc, who trained with a handful of noteworthy chefs and later earned 2 Michelin stars at the Chantecler restaurant in Nice's Hotel Negresco.  Le Stanc bought the restaurant from Jean Giusti, who'd had quite a successful run with it for a number of years, and he has stated that working in gastronomic establishments requires "more a gift for logistics than for cooking.  Here, in my tiny authentic restaurant, I can once again devote myself to what I care most about, the essence of cuisine: simple dishes made from fresh produce bought daily at the local markets."  La Voglia (at No. 2 rue Saint Francois de Paule, just steps from the Cours Saleya) is a reliably good and popular Italian restaurant with antipasti, pizza, and pasta dishes and a lively atmosphere.

Among the great treasures of the Côte d'Azur are its small museums, and in the hills above Nice are both the Musée National Marc Chagall and the Musée Matisse.  I'm happy to say that the Chagall museum is still the special gem it has been since it opened, and I do still love the Matisse Museum even though the collection isn't that strong -- other museums around the world have many more works than this one.  But the building itself is beautiful and the location is lovely, and there is also the red-and-ivory-striped chair!  Even those with a cursory knowledge of Matisse's paintings will recognize this chair.  It used to be located on one of the upper floors of the museum, very casually situated in a corner, but now it has a special place of honor near the museum exit, which it so deserves!

To my mind, a visit to Nice is not complete with a stop at Maison Auer (7 rue St.-Francois-de-Paule), a family business founded in 1820 and specializing in bursting-with-flavor pâte de fruits (the translation is something like 'fruit jellies' but these are nothing like the those awful jelly rings) and fruits confits (crystallized fruit).  Also found in Auer's beautiful boutique are confitures, olives, chocolates and chocolate covered nuts, etc., and everything is packaged perfectly for gifts.  I particularly love the crystallized grapefruit and orange peels.  Alziari, another family business at no. 14 rue St.-Francois de-Paule, is also an old favorite of mine -- founded in 1868, Alziari offers its own (good quality) olive oil, olive products, wines, spirits, vinegar, etc.  I didn't stop in on this visit -- Alziari oil is found in several New York stores, so it's less unique to me now -- but over the years I have bought many items here.   A store that that was new to me on this visit was Alexia Cenac (29 rue Benoit Bunico; no website). Great for home decor, gifts, and jewelry.

One of the images of Nice I carry around in my head is that of its colorful buildings.  I love how the colors of buildings in France changes from north to south -- when you are in the far north the colors of most buildings is slate and dark brown; when you are in Paris and the center of the country a lot of buildings are limestone or gray; when you reach Lyon the palette is pastel; and by the time you reach Nice you are surrounded by an explosion of bright, intense colors.

One episode did put a damper on this visit, and I share it here so that it doesn't happen to you: if you take a bus within Nice, do not ever forget to stamp your ticket in the validation machine.  This little machine is located in the vicinity of the driver's seat, usually a few steps away, further down the center aisle of the bus.  Stamping tickets for public transportation is a common custom in France and elsewhere in Europe.  Though I am well aware of this, I am also aware that plenty of (local) riders do not even bother to purchase a ticket, preferring to take their chances that there won't be a random check.  Spot checks are not unheard of, but neither are they common.  So, when my friends and I boarded the bus to go to the Chagall museum, we were chatting and not entirely paying close attention and we paid for our tickets at the front of the bus and walked to the back, where there was some standing room.  At the next few stops, a number of locals boarded at the back of the bus and stood next to us.  Just before we reached the museum, two officials (who I would describe as being the equivalent of traffic cops) boarded the bus and were checking tickets, and all the people standing beside us quickly hopped off the bus.  I assumed the officials were checking to make sure everyone had bought a ticket, but it turns out they were checking to see if everyone had stamped their tickets.  A group of us were forced off the bus, and it was quickly clear that everyone in our group of about a dozen people were foreigners. Still, I believed that all we had to do was explain that we were visitors, all would be forgiven, and we would be on our way.  I couldn't have been more wrong.  One official asked us for our passports, and yet again I (stupidly) believed that the passports would prove our case, and all would be well. With passports in hand, the officials then told us we owed 35 euros each for the crime of not stamping our bus tickets.  Much arguing and pleading ensued, to no avail.  In retrospect, I believe when we were asked for our passports we should have turned and walked away because I don't think the officials had the authority to arrest us.  The bottom line is that this is a scam aimed at tourists, and we saw it played out in other parts of the city.  Though the law may be somewhat valid, it truly is absurd that it's enforced, and only on tourists, and the behavior of the officers is despicable, and the bus drivers should remind tourists to stamp their tickets.  Most of all, the government officials of Nice should be ashamed that this is allowed to continue.       

Lastly, some great changes are afoot in Nice: a pedestrian zone is being created to include an avenue from the National Theater and the Nice Acropolis Convention Center all the way to the sea, with strips of lawn and stone and all lined with water mirrors.  Additionally, Nice Stadium is being constructed and will have 35,000 seats and will be multipurpose: besides football and rugby, it will be home to seminars, concerts, large-scale events, and the National Sports Museum, and will be one of the world's very first Eco-Stadiums.  And city officials are considering reopening the Ponchettes roof terraces between Vieux Nice and the Mediterranean.  'Ponchettes' refers to the row of buildings between the Cours Saleya and the sea (the Lou Souleou B&B is located here), and the Terrasses des Ponchettes used to be a famous strolling area in the 19th century.  Two of the buildings in the Ponchettes are 19th century vaulted halls, which have been used as art galleries for contemporary art.  City officials now want the roof terrace to once again be used by the public, and this would allow unrestricted balcony views of the Baie des Anges.  A splendid idea, I say!

Up next: St.-Paul-de-Vence, St. Tropez, and Marseilles!



Sunday, October 19, 2014

Italy's Best Cooking Schools

Finalement, I'm back!  Sorry for the absence but I've been really working hard on two special issues of Dream of Italy that are devoted to cooking classes in Italy (that's a photo, above, from the August issue).  If you are an Italophile and don't already know about DOI, you should!

More about this below, but I first want to note that I was remiss, in my last post about Paris, in not mentioning XL Airways, the airline I chose for my trip.  XL is nearly 20 years old but is not that well known in North America -- in reading about the airline I learned it's been sold and acquired five times, most recently in 2012, when it was sold to X-Air Aviation, a subsidiary of Swiss-US investment group BeachSide Capital LLC.  Whatever its history, I had good experiences on both flights from New York to Paris and back.  I appreciated that I received an e-mail message and a telephone call two days before my departure, informing me that the flight time had changed.  (I also really appreciated being bumped up to the airline's Galaxy Class on the flight from New York to Paris, but even if this had not happened I would still be a fan of the airline.)  HQ for XL is Charles de Gaulle Airport, and it currently offers seasonal flights on Airbus 300 planes to Paris from the U.S. cities of New York, Miami, Las Vegas, and San Francisco.  Flights are also available from four other French airports -- Lyon, Bordeaux, Nantes, and Toulouse -- to other destinations, and there are flights from Paris also to Guadeloupe, Martinique, Cancun, and the Dominican Republic.  When I was comparing prices in the spring, XL fares kept turning up as the most affordable -- the airline's slogan is 'l'avion plus malin' (the smarter aircraft, or sharp fares, smart you) -- and I just noticed the airline is offering some fares from $944 for some December dates and from $832.50 for dates in May 2015.  I highly recommend giving XL a try, and the in-flight meals were a cut above most others, believe it or not!

Now, back to Dream of Italy:  I'm enthusiastically endorsing the newsletter not because I've been writing for quite a number of issues over the years (though I am proud of my contributions, especially interviews with Faith Willinger and Frances Mayes and special reports on the Amalfi Coast and Florence) but because each issue is packed with useful information and subscribers have access to the entire DOI community.  The newsletter is by subscription only -- it's not found on newsstands --and it's published 10 times a year.   Currently a digital subscription is being offered for $62 and a print subscription is $72.  Travel expert Peter Greenberg says, "As I've traveled the world I've come to know -- and depend -- on local knowledge. It makes the difference between being a tourist blindly following a brochure and a streetwise traveler who benefits from great experiences. Dream of Italy and editor Kathy McCabe are great resources -- this is a must-carry item for me whenever I want cutting edge information about one of my favorite countries - Italy!"

Kathy McCabe was in Italy recently, and she posted the following note and photo on the Dream of Italy blog on the 4th of October:

Pizza School in Naples Italy

Even *I* learn something from the pages of Dream of Italy! Though many of the story ideas and articles are conceived and written by me, I also hire the best travel experts to help uncover more Italian gems.  

I first read about master pizzaiolo Enzo Coccia and his Naples pizza school when guest editor Barrie Kerper handed in the first draft of the her list of best cooking schools in Italy. I had a trip to Napoli coming up and bingo, last week I had a once-in-a-lifetime lesson with Enzo (with the red scarf below) and his team!

As Kathy also noted, subscribers will receive immediate access to these special issues -- with the classes and schools listed alphabetically by region -- as well as 115 terrific back issues.  And, we're working on expanding these issues into an electronic book with even more culinary details...stay tuned!

And coming soon: my post-Paris, Côte d'Azur report, and the Canadian Rockies, and Milano and Lago di Como (these last two destinations I am also covering for Dream of Italy). 


Thursday, August 21, 2014

Paris Favorites

A final round-up of my Paris trip -- these notes are in no particular order; I am literally going through a pile of business cards, notes, brochures, and other paper ephemera stacked on my desk and writing as I pick each one up.  Sorry for the delay, but I've been working on a terrific (but time consuming) project on cooking classes in Italy for the wonderful Dream of Italy newsletter -- look for part one in the next issue! 

*Atelier Brancusi: located on the plaza in front of the Pompidou Center, to me this is even better than the entire Pompidou museum.  Sculptor Constantin Brancusi was born in Romania but came to Paris in 1904, and he occupied a studio in the Impasse Ronsin near Montparnasse in the 15th arrondissement, first at number 8 (from 1916) and then at number 11 (from 1928).  Before his death, in 1957, he bequeathed his studio and its entire contents to the French State on the condition that it reconstruct his studio exactly as it was on the day of his death. Architect Renzo Piano's reconstruction is not intended to replicate the studio in every tiny detail, but rather, to quote from the brochure, "to communicate the  unity that Brancusi created between his sculptures inside that studio space."  I hadn't been here in a long time, and remarkably, admission is still free, but I would gladly paid an entrance fee.   And I was one of only about fifteen visitors.  I didn't take any photos and it appears that those I saw online are copyrighted, so I can't share any here; but if you haven't been, add this to your list!

*Vina Villa: I stopped into this tiny wine store at 85 rue Monge every other day, first because I saw a poster inside for Corsican wine (Corsica is one of my most favorite places on earth so I am always on the lookout for anything Corsican-related) and second because the owner is friendly and chatty.  He has a small selection of chilled whites (handy when your hotel room doesn't have a mini fridge) and he has a few corkscrews (handy when you forget yours; unfortunately I couldn't figure out how to use the one I bought until my trip was almost over).

Cards with sections of Paris from the Plan de Turgot from 1730 (like the one above, featuring the

Île de la Cité) can be found at Melodies Graphiques [10 rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, 4th].  This is a lovely shop with a selection of papers, stationery, bound blank books, bookmarks, journals, cards, etc.  Very much worth a detour.    

*La Maison Ivre: readers of my Paris book may recall this shop in the 6th at 38 rue Jacob, lovingly presided over by Sylvine Nobécourt.  Fans of Rimbaud will recognize the pun on his poem "Le Bateau Ivre" (The Drunken Boat), which will also indicate that Sylvine has a wonderful sense of humor.  On this visit I stocked up on torchons (tea towels) imprinted with the store's name, and I bought a few birthday gifts for a friend: lavender wands made by a woman in Provence who is one of the few people making them at all anymore, and a sturdy Maison Ivre tote bag.  Somehow, I managed to walk out without buying any of the poterie artisanale -- there are a few pieces made in Corsica! -- but at least I left with the best gift of all: having a conversation with Sylvine.

This was mostly a budget trip, and the two hotels I stayed at were great budget choices that I highly recommend: Hôtel Maxim Latin Quarter [28 rue Censier, 5th] and the Grand Hôtel du Loiret [8 rue des Mauvais Garçons, 4th]. The staff at each was extremely helpful, friendly, and efficient, and both locations were very convenient.

Les Arènes du Lutèce [47-59 rue Monge] remains one of my most favorite places.  Positively nothing has been altered here since I last visited (not that I'm expecting anything to change), and it is a true pleasure to buy provisions for lunch in the rue Mouffetard, bring them back here, sit on one of stone steps, and watch Parisian schoolchildren on their lunch recess (and adults playing boules, reading books, and just enjoying the sunshine). 

Latitude Sud [48 boulevard Saint-Michel, 5th] is a good shop to buy items like T-shirts, tote bags, and cosmetic cases with La Vie est Belle imprinted across the front and keychains with an airplane, a globe, and a suitcase.

Willi's Wine Bar, now in its 34th year, [13 rue des Petits-Champs, 1st] feels like an old friend.  I still love sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartenders, and I always have a very good meal here (and the wine-by-the-glass selections are great).

La Tuile à Loup [35 rue Daubenton, 5th] has renovated its shop so there is more room for its innovative, high quality ceramics.

In addition to my Plan de Paris, my best companions were:

 (since I now see these are a little hard to read, the one to the left is Paris for Pleasure Seekers and the one below is It's Nice to Be Alone in Paris -- how perfect for me on this trip!  Both are fold-out booklets published by Herb Lester in London, a neat company that every traveler should know about.)

Bercy Village [at the Cour Saint-Emilion Métro station, 12th] is today a restored area with shops and restaurants, but my friend Lorraine and I went there (for the first time) because we were interested in the history of the area: the Cour Saint-Emilion Métro station is named after the Bordeaux wine because it was built at the old Bercy railroad station where wine from the south of France arrived in Paris.  Up until 1960, the original wine warehouses -- dating from the 19th century -- formed the largest center of wine and spirits trade in the world.  The reason is because the area at the time was not technically within the city limits, and therefore not required to pay taxes.  Bercy is a really pleasant place to walk around, and the white stone warehouses are beautiful -- and they are listed as an historic monument.

The chocolates by Patrick Roger [6 locations in Paris] are off-the-charts, but I hadn't visited a boutique until this trip.  Last year a good friend brought me back the most extraordinary box of chocolate eggs -- and when I use the word 'extraordinary' it's no exaggeration -- and I made a note to make certain I stopped by the next time I was in Paris.  Wow.  I bought an assortment of delights for the train ride to Nice as well as some cocoa powder to bring home.  It's probably a good thing there isn't an outpost in New York...yet.  !

I'm off to Banff National Park in Canada - more in September!

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Paris Favorites

Another quick post of my recent Paris visit:

*as readers of my Paris book already know, I am a big fan of the fresh mustard at the Maille boutique on place de la Madeleine [at number 6].  Though Maille is now owned by mega-conglomerate Unilever, the company was founded in 1747, and Antoine Maille was named official vinaigrier-distillateur for the royal court of France in 1769.  Maille mustards and condiments are of course reliably be found throughout North America, and at the Madeleine shop there are even more mustards and a few other culinary items, some packaged quite beautifully for gifts.  The reason to come here is for the fresh mustard pumps at the central counter.  Three different varieties are offered, all of which are more potent than the Maille mustards sold in the States.  The staff fills earthenware jars (like the one pictured above; you can choose small, medium, or large jars) with the mustard of your choice (I am most fond of the moutarde de Dijon au vin blanc).  The jars are sealed with lid made of coated paper and cork and the staff are quite adept at packing the jars for airplane flights.  If your mustard is a gift, they give you a sturdy, attractive black bag with gold foil (again, pictured above) with black cord handles, folded flat.  When I first began buying the fresh mustard, it was permissible to put the jars in carry-on bags, but nowadays they must be put in checked luggage.  Not a problem -- and on this visit I bought four jars and they fit perfectly fine in my small wheelie bag.  Note that the staff does recommend you try to keep the mustard refrigerated, so it's a good idea to plan a visit to the boutique on your last day in Paris.  As I was traveling on to the Côte d’Azur, I simply asked the hosts at my b&b and hotels to keep the mustard in the fridge for me and they were happy to do so.

I saw the Place de L’Apéro plaque displayed on a shelf in a cafe one morning, and I loved it (l’apéro  refers to the slang word for apéritif, and the phrase for cocktail hour is often referred to as l'heure de
l’apéro; it's also sometimes called cinq à sept, indicating the traditional five to seven time for pre-dinner drinks, and it's also a phrase that refers to a traditional time of day when men met their mistresses).  I thought I might find the plaque at the BHV department store -- there is a selection of the classic blue-and-white Paris street signs as well as those oval-shaped, black-and-white signs on the store's street level floor (52 rue de Rivoli, 4th arrondissement).  I didn't find one there (though the store takes custom orders) but I did find one on a spinner rack of postcards and plaques in Nice.  It's now in my kitchen and it brings a smile to my face everyday.

Years ago, when Patricia Wells introduced her first edition of The Food Lover's Guide to Paris, I learned about a wonderful shop called Le Furet-Tanrade (readers of my Paris book may recall the entry for this in the Paris Miscellany).  Initially, I went to the store (then on rue de Chabrol in the 10th) in search of confiture de poire passée, a smooth, somewhat runny pear concoction that Wells recommended for mixing with plain yogurt.  Ooh-la-la was it ever delicious! Later, I discovered pêche de vigne jam, and as I noted in my book, if you think you've had better peach jam anywhere in the world than this one, you are dead wrong.  Later still, I discovered the shop's orange-flower water made from the blossoms at the orangerie at Versailles, and the chocolates, which are of quite good quality.  Tanrade has, according to Naomi Barry in Paris Personal, "enjoyed the reputation of being the first house in Paris for fine jams, jellies, and fruit syrups" for nearly 250 years (her book was published in 1963).  So I was crestfallen when I learned a few years ago that Tanrade had closed.  Before my recent visit, I learned that it had reopened, still in the 10th but on rue des Messageries at #1.  The new space is not nearly as nice and welcoming as the old one -- not that the old space was ever a gem, but still, this new one seems rather depressing -- but coming here is still vaut le détour (worth a detour).  I tried to get the explanation for the move from Alain Furet -- something about a fire, and something about the arrondissement and the city not helping out the way they should -- but I couldn't quite follow it.  I gave up and steered our conversation to the goods at hand, and I walked out with confiture mi-figue mi-raisins (half fig, half grape), abricot, and speciale NKM: noisette, kiwi, and mangue, now all firm favorites.  (Note that all the confitures here are seasonal, so I was too early for both the poire passée and pêche de vigne.) 

Anyone reading this who may be going to Paris before the 31st of August is in luck: the absolutely fabulous Il Était Une Fois l’Orient Express exhibit at the l'Institut du Monde Arabe closes on that day - do not miss it!  I'd read about the exhibit before I arrived, but somehow I didn't really grasp that the actual train cars from the original Orient Express were there (set up opposite the south facade of the museum) and that visitors walked through them.   !!  This is one of the very best shows I've ever seen and it was one of the highlights of my entire trip.  Tickets are timed as only about a dozen people are permitted in each car at a time.  I tried to buy a ticket one afternoon but the times I wanted were all sold out, so I returned the next morning about a half hour before opening time and was able to buy a ticket with no trouble.  Truly, my head practically popped off when I was walking through these cars, and fans of train travel, wanderlust, quality craftsmanship, the Near East, European history, and Agatha Christie, James Bond, Mata Hari, Graham Greene, and Josephine Baker will positively love this. 

And, in enthusing so much about this exhibit, I don't want to take anything away from the wonderful l'Institut du Monde Arabe itself, which (again) readers of my Paris book already know is one of my most favorite museums in the city.  The Institut is not only a museum but also a cultural center, library, concert hall, bookstore, restaurant, and cafe (on the 9th floor, with a great view of Notre-Dame and beyond).  I won't repeat here what I noted in my book, but I will quote from a little book (Spirit of Place) about the building found in the museum's bookstore:  "Those who designed it were able to express an Arabic style without resorting to overly simplistic Oriental stereotypes.  Here, the Orient is neither copied nor parodied, neither reinvented nor even re-examined.  Instead, it is simply and brilliantly interpreted."

Lastly, since it seems apropos, an excellent article, "A Walk Through Historic Arab Paris," may be found in the July-August 2012 issue of Saudi Aramco World magazine.   

D'accord: one more Paris post and then on to the Côte d’Azur..... 

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Cluny Museum, Paris

These photos were all taken at the

Musée de Cluny / Musee National du Moyen Age, which I had not visited in approximately 15 years.  I'd added the museum to my short list of 'Museums I Want to Visit That I Haven't Been to in a Very Long Time' and I'm so glad I did -- what a treasure it is, truly!  I loved seeing again the 16th century Retable (altarpiece) of scenes of the birth of Christ in the Grande Salle, and the statue of St. Denis holding his head (15th century), the gorgeous ceramics, the Pilier de Nautes (Pillar of the Boatmen and the oldest dated monument in Paris, from the 1st century AD), and the Gallery of Kings from Notre-Dame.  Most everyone knows that the sculpted heads were destroyed after the French Revolution because it was believed that they represented the kings of France, and in fact they are the kings of Judah, ancestors of the Virgin Mary and Christ.  But thanks to a handy laminated card at the Cluny, I learned more about these heads and the facade of the great cathedral and I took notes, which I'm sharing here as I think a number of visitors may not be aware of their interesting story:

The discovery of hundreds of sculptured fragments in 1977 at the headquarters of the Banque Française du Commerce Extérieur (now Banque Natexis) was enormous in terms of advancing our understanding of Notre-Dame de Paris.  (Banque Natexis donated all the sculptures to the Cluny.)  After the cathedral was vandalized in 1793, the sculptures were purchased by a builder named Monsieur Bertrande, who later sold them and they were used to maintain the foundation of a private mansion for a man named Jean-Baptiste Lakanal-Dupuget (I tried to find out more about these two men but an Internet search didn't turn anything up). 

Only 22 of the 28 heads remain identifiable, although according to the Cluny the heads weren't intended as portraits.  They were, however, all distinct, and there was a clear intention to differentiate one from another.  The head believed to be of David shows traces of paint, and indeed all of the heads were originally painted, as was the entire facade of Notre-Dame and most other medieval facades.  The faces are very elongated and monumental but aren't delicately carved, and the sculptors "took account of the distance and the low angle from which the statues would be viewed, elongating them disproportionately as a result, but not needlessly working on details which would not be visible."

For delving further, hands-down the very best book ever written about Notre-Dame is Notre Dame of Paris: The Biography of a Cathedral by Allen Temko (Viking, 1955).  I read this book some years ago but it was a library copy, so I was particularly pleased when, after my visit to the Cluny, I walked to Shakespeare & Company and found a hardcover first edition.  I bought it not only because the book is terrific and I wanted to have my own copy, but also in memory of Temko, who passed away in 2006.  I met him when we both worked in the same building in San Francisco, and I immediately adored him because he was smart and funny and outspoken (he was also the basis for the character Roland Major in Jack Kerouac's On the Road).  Temko was architecture critic for The San Francisco Chronicle from 1961 to 1993, and he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for criticism.  He served in the Navy during World War II and when the war was over he moved to France, taught at the Sorbonne, and wrote the book on Notre Dame, his very first, which I find rather astonishing as the book is absolutely superb -- it has been referred to as the "definitive profile" of the cathedral and a "landmark book."  He later noted that France "led me to see art and architecture as expressions of great civilizations."     

The Cluny is of course also the home of the 'La Dame à la Licorne' (The Lady and the Unicorn) tapestries, six of them, and there are still many more visitors in this room than anywhere else in the museum.  Again, after so many years, these weavings remain so gorgeous -- in January of this year they were returned to the Cluny after a two-year cleaning.  I love the quotations at the entrance to the room:

Ce sont des femmes sur des îles:
une grande solitude feminine
une solitude qui a l’air enchanté.
--Yannick Haenel, À mon seul désir, 2005
(They are women on islands / A profound feminine solitude / An enchanted solitude)

Il y a des tapisseries [...]
Viens, passons lentement devant elles [...]
Comme elles sont tranquilles, n'est-ce pas?
(There are tapestries here / Come let us pass slowly before them / How peaceful they are,
are they not?)
--Rainer Maria Rilke, Les Cahiers de Malte Laurids Brigg, 1910 

Tracy Chevalier, noted author of Girl With a Pearl Earring and The Lady and the Unicorn (both available in paperbacks by Plume), wrote an interesting article about these tapestries that I've had in my files for years, and I'm sorry I can't tell you exactly when it was written or where it appeared.  Occasionally I clip pieces and forget to make sure I note the publication and date, and I'm afraid that's what happened with this one.  I think the article may have been in Town & Country but I can't be certain.  But at any rate, Chevalier's article opens with, "Sometimes a picture doesn't paint a thousand words.  Sometimes a picture is so mysterious that it takes a hundred thousand words to explain it."  She relates that for years she was so fascinated with Vermeer's 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' that she decided to make up a story about it, and thus that book was born.  Later, she was likewise captivated by 'The Lady and the Unicorn.'  At the time Chevalier was working on her manuscript for The Lady and the Unicorn, she had reproductions of all six tapestries hung up on the wall behind her computer.  "But none of this," she wrote, "can equal the impact of standing in that quiet room in Paris surrounded by serene faces, beautiful dresses, curious animals, and thousands of flowers."  It is an incomparable experience, I can attest.  (Note that seeing 'The Hunt of the Unicorn' tapestries -- dating from the same period, the 15th century -- at The Cloisters in New York, which is celebrating its 75 year anniversary, is also an amazing art viewing experience.)

Chevalier closes her piece by opining that "Perhaps the best works of art are those that don't give answers, but ask questions that hang in the air long after we have stopped looking," and on that note I shall close this post as well.