Parisian Signs of the Times

Parisian Signs of the Times
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Changing of the subway posters

Paris is a captivating city, particularly magical at Christmas time. Amongst the standard French city sights (mopeds zipping around narrow side streets and wide chaotic boulevards; a customer waiting for her highlights to set around midnight while a couple of hair dressers smoke cigarettes and drink champagne in the salon; a shopper crossing the street in a fur coat over her shorts and patterned stockings; newly engaged couples kissing along the Seine…), this time it was the signs that stood out at me the most.

As people flock from all over the world to join Paris’s two million or so inhabitants, there are some messages that just need to be put out there for all to read. Sometimes I couldn’t tell what was crazier – the signs or what I saw some few nutty people doing.

We started off in the Catacombs, the world’s largest collection of human remains, arranged below Paris’s sewers and Metro system:

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Don’t touch the bones?!

Beforehand we had read online that Catacomb staff check bags when visitors exit, to be sure that no bones have been smuggled out. (!!) I guess this isn’t a high enough tourist season for that now, as we fortunately didn’t have this grisly but apparently necessary experience. We did, however, hear many tourists asking questions that were all answered on the audio guide that was included with admission: Whose bones are these? (Parisians that had been originally buried in cemeteries – all labeled – prior to the late 1700s.) I wonder what bones these are exactly? (Skulls and femurs.) Why are they here? (The city was short on burial space in the late 1700s and had previously built an extensive tunnel system while quarrying out limestone. Two birds with one stone, so to speak.)

What are you doing here? I’d like to have asked.

As we continued on to the world famous Louvre Museum, as for any museum, it should go without saying not to touch the art:

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Don’t touch the art or eat (baguettes)!

Thankfully we didn’t see anyone breaking this rule here with any of the masterpieces, some of which were larger than our ever so cozy 12’x12’ Air BnB apartment. However, at the nearby Museum d’Orsay I saw a lady brushing her hand along one of the many sculptures that line the inner walkways. I guess she just had to know how it felt!

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Museum d’Orsay: Look out, free standing statues!
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Don’t step into the exhibit!

Liberty Leading the People may be one of the most famous paintings in Paris, allegorizing the French Revolution, but Panda Leading the People on this subway ad calls us to arms in the fight for the environment:

As expected, security was heightened for Midnight Mass at Notre Dame. The square before the cathedral was closed off and police officers performed a round of bag checks and metal detector swipes on visitors entering the area. Cathedral security performed a second bag search at the entrance. It was well worth the wait for organ and choir music inside the stunning Notre Dame, even standing all the way at the back.

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Midnight Mass at Notre Dame

There was a little bit of a scare at the end of communion, when a small political protest against the Vatican broke out on the altar. Difficult to see or know what was going on at the front of such a large space, many people started heading toward the exit as three protesters waved flags and shouted in French. Well prepared, police swiftly handled the disturbance in an orderly way and immediately brought the three out. Mass concluded as planned.

Here, Charlie Hebdo’s commentary on the current state of security in the wake of the recent Berlin Christmas Market terror attack:

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Celebration of Christmas: Extended 12 months

Fyi Paris’s Christmas Markets – which seem less of a French tradition than a borrowed German one – sell vin chaud (French Glühwein or hot mulled wine), as well as French delicacies like escargot, frog legs, and oysters.

We spent Christmas Day touring the Seine River on a fancy lunch cruise. Every step from meal preparation to service is, in France, carefully and elegantly carried out regardless of venue. Except maybe here:

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There were no signs on our Christmas cruise ship but maybe there should have been, because we saw an American family walking off with a glass of wine and a poinsettia table decoration after we had docked. What?!

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Christmas cruise on the Seine

Paris, I hope people treat you right in 2017! Joyeaux Noël!

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Recycle your wine bottles here!

(Love Paris? Here’s my Paris Tribute from my first trip last year.)

Pretzels + Baguettes = Alsace

Colmar

Colmar   Colmar

German shepherds walk alongside French poodles. Mugs of beer sit next to glasses of wine. Order and rules mix with a love of liberty and that ever so laissez-faire way of life.

Alsatians seem to have taken the best of both German and French cultures and mixed them into a charming region just on the border, full of half-timbered houses where artfully prepared food is served. Currently Alsace is a French region but its nationality has changed back and forth between France and Germany at least four times in the past hundred years, giving it a uniquely blended culture both tidy and elegant.

French poodle   Hearty but elegant food

Confectionery shop   Traditional dress and dancing at the Marché Couvert

Colmar   Dominican Church

Moped in Colmar   Colmar  

Over Labor Day weekend we visited the city of Colmar, about an hour south of Alsace’s largest city – Strasbourg. Colmar’s smaller size makes it all the more quaint and charming. Walking around the city itself was definitely a highlight, particularly with a visit to the Marché Couvert (covered market). For only a few euros, we even toured the canals of the Lauch River by boat.

Outside the Marché Couvert

Marché Couvert   Inside the Marché Couvert  

Pretzels   Marché Couvert at night

Colmar boat ride   Colmar canals

And while Colmar may be a relatively lesser-known French town, at least one of its former residents is certainly widely known, particularly to Americans. Among many other works, sculptor Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi designed the Statue of Liberty. We found a mini version of the famous statue in a traffic circle on the outskirts of town.

Mini Statue of Liberty

I didn’t love the Bartholdi Museum in Colmar, as it was a bit old-fashioned in its gallery design. But I did enjoy seeing plans and photographs of the Statue of Liberty’s construction as well as the design process of the Lion of Belfort, a similarly famous and larger-than-life sculpture dedicated to heroes of the French Resistance against Prussia in 1870. Also of interest is that the museum is actually located in Bartholdi’s former home.

Bartholdi with the Statue of Liberty and the Lion of Belfort       Certificate of Presentation of the Statue of Liberty

Naturally, we also spent an afternoon tasting Alsatian wine. The Alsace wine route is lined with vineyards and makes up part of a pilgrimage trail to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, Spain. Most of the wine styles in Alsace have German names (many that we see in the Rhein region in Germany) and are classified as AOC according to French quality control regulations.

Alsatian wine cask

What else is there to see in Alsace? Our visit wouldn’t have been complete without a stork sighting, as this is the very symbol of this region and can be found all over building decorations and souvenirs. We spotted several and heard their clickety-clack chatter while walking around among the narrow cobblestone streets of Eguisheim, near Colmar.

Storks nesting on rooptops
Storks nesting on rooftops

Eguisheim   Eguisheim

En route home, we stopped to visit the medieval Castle Haut-Koenigsbourg, still in Alsace but at one time restored by Wilhelm II to define the western-most boundary of the German Empire. There is plenty to read about the castle’s many centuries of history along a self-guided tour. And really a visit here would be worth it for the beautiful mountainous views alone.

Castle Haut-Koenigsbourg

View from Haut-Koenigsbourg

Dining room of Haut-Koenigsbourg

A pretzel from the castle shop completed our trip to Alsace. Au Revoir & Aufwiedersehen until next time, Alsace!

Paris Tribute

"Liberty Leading the People" by Eugène Delacroix
“Liberty Leading the People” by Eugène Delacroix

It’s hard to believe that three weeks ago I was sipping wine in cafés, touring museums overflowing with masterpieces, and wandering around the streets of Paris with a group of très chics ladies that I grew up with.

Life is ever unpredictable. Yesterday a coordinated series of unspeakable terrorist attacks has turned the world’s attention on Paris like never before.

I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted to organize this post originally, and am even less sure now. In the end, I’ve decided to present Paris in pictures, captioned with some of the lyrics from “In Paris” by Elton John to celebrate the city, its culture and people. May safer times lie ahead.

Van Gogh

Degas

Listen to me, let me speak of
Wondrous works of art
That dwell within that fabled city
Its architecture fills my heart

 

Comic stand

Let me tell you I have seen
Where great ideas are born
Illuminating all the darkness
In the corners of the world

 

Louvre

…And walk in wonder through the Louvre
Across the Seine to the Sorbonne

 

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In cafés we will feed our heads
With absinthe and philosophy
Engage the students of Voltaire
And damn the aristocracy

 

Notre Dame

Notre Dame
In Paris the bells of Notre Dame ring out
In Paris we’ll trade our soft voices for shout
I’ll not rest until the ramparts of that city
Stand before us bright and clear
Penniless in Paris is better than the life we’re leading here

 

Paris subway platform

I’ve heard that there’s infernal noise
The stench and cut-throats out to rob
The hungry crowds that fill the street
Where anarchy consumes the mob…

 

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We’ll rent a room above the din
Somewhere along the Boulevard…

 

Eiffel Tower

Old World Charming: J’Adore Marseille

Vieux Port Marseille (the old port)
Vieux Port de Marseille (the old port)
Fishing nets
Fishing nets
Fish market
Fish market
View from the hotel balcony
View from the hotel balcony

Visiting Marseille on the French Riviera reminded me of why I fell in love with Mediterranean Europe many years ago: for its simple but delightful old world charm. Laundry hanging out to dry from lines on city balconies, modern businesses housed in crumbling old buildings, the smell of the fish market along the harbor, wandering narrow streets through cobblestone squares of relaxed outdoor cafés, yanking open the heavy metal door of the dingy subway car, and figuring out how to communicate everywhere without a common language. In short, it was a lovely place to spend our second anniversary.

James and I were tossed into the oldest and second largest city in France on one of its violent Mistral (“master”) winds. Known for driving away clouds and drying up rain to give this area its friendly blue skies, the wind is no joke for a flight. I’ve literally never seen so many people throw up on an airplane. Fortunately, after this treacherous entrance the rest of our long weekend was smooth sailing.

As you would imagine for a coastal city, Marseille is made up of a clearly international population as it has been throughout its history. A thriving port city since around 400 BC, it was originally founded by Phoenicians from Asia Minor (then Greece, now Turkey) who arrived there to encounter the people of Gaul (once of Northern Europe). In the Marseille History Museum, on whose site many historic artifacts were uncovered when a parking lot project for the shopping center began there, we learned about many interesting changes in the history of this city at the crossroads of the trading world.

Bouillabaisse painting
Bouillabaisse painting

In addition to many international cuisines, seafood is, of course, a specialty in this area. Bouillabaisse, being the most famous Marseille dish, is a seafood stew made with rockfish and, in its origins, anything else the fisherman was unable to sell at the market. We had an excellent version of this provincial dish-turned modern delicacy at a restaurant called Alcyone, in a dining room lined with glossy wooden bookcases. I have to say, true to my preconceptions, every meal we had on this trip was served with what can only be described as a flourish. Even in the most casual cafés, the correct presentation of artfully prepared food is held to a high standard.

Calanques
One of the Calanques
Dolphin sighting
Dolphin sighting

Amid the culture and general ambience of Marseille, the highlight of this trip for me was our visit to the Frioul Archipelago. We had first passed it during a boat tour of the beautiful Calanques, or rocky inlets (the French version of fjords). Our plans to take another small boat later to visit Château d’If, the castle fortress setting of Dumas’s Count of Monte Cristo, turned out to be impossible due to wind. We were able, however, to visit the nearby Frioul islands with the idea that we would hike for an hour or so and then return to the port. Instead we spent the entire day there – hiking trails that wound up and down the hilly landscape and along the turquoise sea, surrounded by warm sun and windy sea air, taking pictures of seagulls and the ridiculous sun hat I bought on one of the islands, eating ice cream, and eventually having a late dinner (normal in France is at least 8 p.m.) outside of a seaside café before taking a boat back around 10. Au revoir Marseille et bon anniversaire à nous!

Château d’If
Château d’If
Frioul Islands
Frioul Archipelago
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More from Frioul
Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Inside Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Inside Basilique Notre Dame de la Garde
Abbaye Saint VIctor
Abbaye Saint Victor
Inside the abbey
Inside the abbey
Cathedrale de la Major
Cathedrale de la Major
The funky Panier district
The funky Panier district
Panier street art in action
Panier street art in action

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Bandol vineyard
Bandol vineyard
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Another Provence vineyard

…A Few of My Favorite Things – Part 3: France?!

First glimpse of Strasbourg:  A carnival in a town square
First glimpse of Strasbourg: A carnival in a town square

A little late on writing this up, but I couldn’t leave it out… The last daytrip from a few weeks ago was to Strasbourg, France, about two hours away. After eating crêpes and drinking wine at an outdoor café, we followed a guy with a big “Free Tour” sign for a pretty decent two-hour circuit of the city. Here are the things that stood out the most to me:

Approaching the huge Old Town square (cathedral on the left):  people and bikes everywhere
Approaching the huge Old Town square (cathedral on the left): people and bikes everywhere
  • A culture of being outdoors: Unsurprisingly (only because I had seen a handful of French foreign language films in elementary school), the spacious town squares and parks were full of people enjoying the beautiful spring weather. Pedaling by on bikes, chatting at outdoor cafés, passionately arguing in the street, and lazing in the grass – I would say the people here definitely know how to live. Surprisingly, smoking was not as common compared to what I’ve seen in Germany.

    Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg
    Cathédrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg
  • Adaptable people: Some of the older Strasbourg residents have had their nationality changed four times in their lifetime. Once upon a time Strasbourg was a German city, then became French, then German again, and then ultimately French again. This, of course, necessitated many changes, including the language people were required to use. Today, the people of Strasbourg mainly speak French but, fortunately for us, many also speak German. I ordered three rolls in French (pointing, with “Trois, s’il vous plaît”) at a bakery and was then immediately lost when asked a follow-up question in French (which turned out, naturally, to be “For here or to go?”). At the epitome of the French and German cultures colliding, I saw a lady eating a pretzel and drinking a glass of wine.

    Gutenberg square
    Gutenberg square
  • Controversy over Gutenberg: Johannes Gutenberg, a native of Mainz, Germany, had lived in Strasbourg for a period of his adult life. A gap in the records of his life occurs around the time that he created his world-famous printing press. Of course, this also coincides with the time that he moved back from Strasbourg to Mainz, so both cities claim to be the birthplace of the printing press. Our tour guide pointed out, however, the fact remains that the press was invented in Germany either way, as Strasbourg was then a German city.

    Petite-France
    Petite-France
  • Charming neighborhood with an obscene history: Petite-France is a small area of Strasbourg of narrow streets winding between old wooden lattice-beamed houses alongside a canal. The delightfulness of the quiet neighborhood, once a center for tanneries, is marred only by how it received its seemingly innocent name (literally, “Little France”). In the days of Napoleon, many French soldiers returned home with syphilis, which they termed “the madness from Naples” but which the rest of the world called “the madness from France.” This area of Strasbourg was home to a hospital specializing in syphilis treatment, for which it was not-so-charmingly named Petite-France.

All in all, Strasbourg exceeded all my expectations for what I thought a French city would be like. As it turns out, I think Strasbourg is well worth visiting again, particularly now that spring seems to be here to stay.

The Covered Bridges (still called this although they have been uncovered since the 18th century)
The Covered Bridges (still called this although they have been uncovered since the 18th century)