Wednesday, June 29, 2011

We will always have Paris [and Le Marais] (Europe '11 - Part 4)

Rue des Rosiers, le Marais

When you travel to France as we do every year, you often get shopping requests from friends. Occasionally, these requests send you to special stores or neighborhoods you have not visited for a while. This week, honoring such a request, I traveled to my favorite Right Bank neighborhood, Le Marais (the marsh.) A long time ago, that area, flat as a pancake like most of Paris, used to get flooded by the Seine river. These days are long gone, thankfully.

Le Marais is easy to get to. A mere 15-minute walk from le Louvres, It is flanked on one side by La Bastille neighborhood, and on the other side by les Halles (the former food market, and the location of the Modern Art museum, Le Pompidou Center a.k.a. Beaubourg.)

Le Marais has it all; quaint medieval streets left untouched by the great Paris remodel undertaken by Napoleon III and his wingman Baron Haussmann in the mid 1860s; more boutiques and restaurants than one will ever need; world-class museums; trendy art galleries; gorgeous architecture; excellent people-watching. Le Marais, in a nutshell, is Paris at its best. 

I fell in love with le quartier (the neighborhood) a long time ago, while I was a college student in Paris. I will get back to this part of the story later on. For now, I have to take you out of the St. Paul Metro station, off of bustling Rue de Rivoli, and to the heart of the Jewish neighborhood, la rue des Rosiers (street of the rosebushes.) Fleeing persecutions, thousands of Eastern European Jews flocked to this area from the late 19th to the mid 20th century. It was known as "The Pletzl" (the small square.) They settled down and many specialized in the clothing industry. Le Marais became a thriving commercial area. During World War II, le Pletzl and its population were targeted by the Nazis. Many died in concentration camps. 

Today, la rue des Rosiers is still the heart of the Jewish community in Paris. It is a lively street, neighbors chatting with neighbors, shopkeepers standing outside their door on a sunny afternoon, tourists, and a French Girl from Seattle...

I told you I was sent on a special errand by a friend. We will name her "Madame M." She asked me if I could bring back a special fragrance that can only be found at the Paris boutique of Miller & Bertaux, a business created in the mid-1980s. When I looked up the address, I was delighted to find the shop in Le Marais. What a fun visit I had in the small, but elegant boutique! I was treated to an informative lesson in perfume-making as Julie, the friendly salesperson, introduced me to Miller & Bertaux's exclusive fragrances. Not only will "Madame M." get a supply of her favorite perfume, but I also found one pour moi

Miller & Bertaux's fragrances

A seasonal selection of comfortable but trendy clothes
Since I was in Le Marais, I decided to make the most of the afternoon, and took a stroll in the neighborhing streets. Everywhere I looked, there were boutiques with their doors open, enticing customers with "Soldes" (sale) signs. Ever since the Middle Ages, sales have been regulated by the French government. Shopkeepers are allowed to run sales twice a year (do you hear that, Macy's?). When the time comes for the summer sale in late June, customers flock to local stores! I was tempted often, but was very good, and only made one purchase at a favorite boutique (my Besties will understand why I had to get it when they see it.)

J'adore le Comptoir des Cotonniers!

Les soldes! Les soldes!
Finally, I arrived at the heart of Le Marais, la Place des Vosges (the Vosges square), the oldest square in Paris. This is the French capital at its most elegant. A long time ago, le Marais was an aristocratic district of Paris where French nobility lived in beautiful mansions, complete with private gardens, les hôtels particuliers. Many became museums where [it is common in Paris] art collections compete with the buildings for the visitors' attention. 

Hôtel Salé (built 1656-1659) hosts the Picasso museum

A favorite: Hôtel Carnavalet, and the Paris historical museum

The Picasso museum is undergoing major renovations and is closed for another year. I went to the Carnavalet museum last December. There was another option: French novelist Victor Hugo's house on la Place des Vosges. In the USA, he is best known for writing Les Misérables. In France he is famous as a playwright, poet, novelist, and a man of strong political convictions.

Victor Hugo lived at the Hôtel de Rohan-Guéménée from 1832-1848.

While Victor Hugo lived in le Marais, in this dark mansion overlooking la Place des Vosges, or as it was known then, la Place Royale (the Royal Square) he enjoyed amazing views from his windows:

La Place Royale was built between 1605 and 1612

The gardens in the middle of the square were added in 1682

Four fountains, one in each corner of the gardens

Louis XIII: La Place Royale was completed during his reign

Under the arcades, antique shops, galleries, and cafés

I mentioned earlier that I had a special reason to love le Marais neighborhood. 

In 1985, after I returned from Atlanta, GA where I completed part of my college education, I completed my Master's Degree at the Charles V Institute of English and American Studies. The Institute belonged to a major Parisian university. The building was located a few streets away from la Place des Vosges, in le Marais. My friends and I were lucky enough to study (and cram for finals) in this amazing neighborhood. Studying under the watchful eye of King Louis XIII in the beautiful gardens must have helped us focus!

A trip down memory lane for this French girl

Charles V Institute of English and American Studies
As I walked the old streets, I was happy to find some of my favorite landmarks... The American grocery store where I (and local expatriates) could satisfy our cravings for Cheerios, cream cheese, or  pumpkin-based products. 

A legendary American grocery store on the Right Bank
The old café where some of the Institute students would meet for drinks and lively conversation.

Le Temps des Cerises

It was time to go and meet Le Husband near la Bastille a short walk away. We had tickets to a fun show - delivered entirely in English - "How To Become a Parisian in One Hour."  I found out about it in the New York Times, of all places! 

Let's save this story for another day. We will be leaving Paris on Friday morning. This has been a successful visit on all accounts, and I am bringing enough memories and photos to fuel many more Paris stories when we go back to Seattle in July. 

Thank you for taking a stroll in le Marais with me today. I have enjoyed our walk through the old streets and I hope you have too.

Le Marais 
Au revoir, Paris!

I love Paris in the springtime,
I love Paris in the fall.
I love Paris in the winter when it drizzles,
I love Paris in the summer when it sizzles.
-- Cole Porter, Can-Can (1960)

Monday, June 27, 2011

Weekend en famille (Europe '11 - #3)

On Sunday after the boys had a sleepover, we all met again in another Parisian park on the other side of town. After Le Bois de Boulogne (and le Jardin d'Acclimatation) that both lie in the Western sections of Paris, we chose the other great "lung" of the French capital: Le Bois de Vincennes.

An old hunting preserve for the French kings, Le Bois de Vincennes, named after the eponymous town sitting to the East of downtown Paris, was made into a public park by Napoleon III in the mid-19th century. More than three times the size of New York's Central Park, Le Bois de Vincennes boasts a medieval castle (one of the largest and best preserved in Europe,) a horse-racing track, a velodrome, an arboretum, four lakes, and miles and miles of trails.

Château de Vincennes, moat and dungeon

The dungeon (1337-1373) is Europe's highest fortified medieval building
Les Boys and Jules on the drawbridge

While I was a college student in Paris (my family lived in Vincennes then,) I was lucky to walk past this beautiful building every morning on my way to the subway. Being surrounded by history (monuments, statues, street names) is one of my favorite things about living in France.

The castle was not our final destination on Sunday. We headed for a popular part of the Bois de Vincennes (Vincennes forest): Le Parc Floral de Paris - Paris' Botanical Garden.

I must mention now that over the last two days, the weather has warmed up dramatically in Paris, and peaked at 98 F on Monday afternoon. This means that following a long, cold and wet winter, these Seattleites have skipped spring altogether and jumped into tropical weather. What to do, then, in this big congested city? The answer is: Head for parks and gardens and look for shade!

Hot, hot, hot!

When we arrived at the Parc Floral, we realized many Parisians (and a few tourists) had been similarly inspired. 

Caution: French line!
Inside, parched families were laying around in the Botanical Garden's grassy areas. This peaceful, relaxing scene was only interrupted by the laughter of little children.

There was no point in running around too much but there was one activity Junior had been dying to try: The "Accro-branche" course. Move over zip lines! Accro-branche has been gaining in popularity in France over the last few years and the Paris Botanical Garden has recently introduced a fun 3-level tree-top adventure course for kids. Accro-branche is physical and requires good coordination, observation skills, and balance. Everyone wears a harness while doing it. Junior loved it and did not mind the heat, way up there in the canopy of the old trees.

Little monkeys having fun!

One last zip-line!

Accro-branche is one activity that is as fun to do as it is to watch! We have heard of another great course in Southern France and are planning to try it on our way down to Spain. 

Late afternoon, our group enjoyed refreshing ice-creams and sodas at one of the Botanical Garden's cafés. We bid "au revoir" to Le Brother and Jules then our family headed to my mother-in-law's place where Junior will be staying for the next two days. He and Mutti get along famously and always spend quality time together during our Parisian visits.

Mutti and Junior

What this means is that Le Husband and I will be child-less in Paris for awhile. Ah, the possibilities!

We started on a high note when we had dinner on the renowned Ile de Jatte once celebrated by impressionist painters. The small island sits in the middle of the Seine river and straddles two elegant neighborhoods West of Paris. 

Georges Seurat "Summer Sunday on Island de la Grande Jatte" (1884-1886)

We stopped by the famous local restaurant "Café de la Jatte." A lifetime ago, we toasted our upcoming move to the United States there with friends. The restaurant changed ownership recently and serves delicious Italian cuisine. It was still hot outside by 7:00pm but my Insalata Italiana (Italian salad) was fresh and tasty, the ideal complement to the refined yet relaxed atmosphere on the terrace.

Bon appétit et à bientôt!

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Sunday, June 26, 2011

Weekend en famille (Europe'11 - #2)

Tired boys in a cobweb - Jardin d'Acclimatation, Paris

Belonging to a large family feels like being in the center of a giant cobweb. Every part is connected somehow. Even those on the edge of the web, away from the center, feel the shock waves of what happens there. If France is the center of our family's web, then Le Husband, Junior and I are the parts living on the outer rim (let's call it "the Pacific Rim.") Never at the center of the web. Never too far away from it. 

I thought about this over the weekend as Le Brother, his younger son, Jules, Junior and I spent the day in a wonderful Parisian park, Le Jardin d'Acclimatation. Located inside the Bois de Boulogne, near the elegant Neuilly neighborhood, le Jardin d'Acclimatation was inaugurated in 1860 during Napoleon III's reign. It was originally a zoo and exotic and farm animals can still be found there today. There is more. A 50-acre amusement park, le Jardin offers a variety of activities: a shooting range, many rides including an old-fashioned carrousel, a puppet theater, a science museum, an art museum, and pony rides to name just a few. When the Obama family visited Paris in 2009, Malia and Sasha, the president's daughters, picked this wonderful park over all the other Parisian gardens. These girls have taste!

My "little" brother and I - Jardin d'Acclimatation
Le Brother and I met there before lunch with the two boys, aged 5 and 11. Even though Junior and Jules only see each other once or twice a year, they got along famously while Le Brother and I were busy catching up. Le Brother's older son is spending the week at the beach in Brittany on a school trip, but we will catch up with him next month in Spain.

We enjoyed a leisurely picnic near the new playground while the boys ran around, came back to take a bite, ran around some more, for almost an hour. 

Goofing up...

Later on, we started exploring the park and met some of its inhabitants. Many looked rather uncomfortable in the hot summer weather.

Two European brown bears live here, Gaspard and Victorine

One of two Aurochs (European bisons), Hera and Aphrodite

There were fun rides, but the shooting arcade was a big winner with Junior, Jules and Le Brother. An accomplished marksman, he annoyed the heck out of the lady manning the arcade because he kept winning free games. The younger boys were thrilled, of course. 

Jules and Junior loved their ride on the old-fashioned carrousel.

The RC boats were also a big hit with my testosterone-fueled posse. 

Fittingly, Junior was awarded the boat sailing under American colors!

Personally, I favored La Rivière Enchantée (the Enchanted River,) a mellow but refreshing ride in the shade of old trees. 

There was more to come during our fun-filled family weekend. 

To be continued...