City of Light, part 4
Posted by G.A. Matiasz on October 19, 2013
A note. I’m not following a day-by-day plan here in recounting our experiences in Paris this last vacation. Rather, I’m doing it by Arrondissement, starting with the 14th and combining Arrondissements when appropriate, as well as somewhat thematically, so as to provide a slightly different structure to our experiences.
The French do parks and gardens quite differently from, say, the English or the Americans. I’m not going to do a comparison, just a description, starting with the Jardin du Luxembourg in the 6th Arrondissement. We visited the Luxembourg Gardens and did what one is intended to do in a French garden; stroll, relax, catch some rays or shade, and enjoy a balmy late French afternoon in late September. Everything is orderly and geometrical. There’s no grass, that is, no grass to walk on, just walking paths, stone, sand and gravel, mostly under rows of mature chestnut trees. Other plants and flowers are in specific beds. Designated areas are set aside for tennis, basketball, stables for ponies used for kiddie rides, a carousel, a puppet theatre and such. Several sculptures are also scattered about. A raised reflecting pool and fountain to the south of the Palais de Luxembourg is the focus for the various garden paths, as well as the main congregating area for most of those relaxing. My wife and I appropriated several chairs where we read our e-readers and newspapers while watching people as the sun edged toward evening.
We walked a couple of the neighborhoods around the Luxembourg Gardens, and had sweet treats at Bread and Roses (7 rue de Fleurus) and chocolat chaud at Angelina right next to the Musée du Luxembourg. In each of these establishments, it’s possible to add a pound or two simply by breathing in the atmosphere. Both Bread and Roses and Angelina have two locations in Paris. My wife had conceived of a walking and eating regimen for Paris in which she and I walked all day and everywhere, eating whatever we wanted, with the idea that we wouldn’t gain any weight. This diet worked for the two of us both previous times we’d vacationed in Paris. It worked for my wife this time around too, but unfortunately for me, it seems that my metabolism has sufficiently changed in the last few years that I did manage to gain a couple of pounds despite all my walking.
The neighborhood immediately above the Gardens, and to the east, is a bit hilly, sliced up with small streets, and crammed with shops of all description. On our way to it, we passed the Sénat building, where a minor police operation was in progress. As a small group of gendarmerie opened the gates and prepared for whatever was to go down, and as my wife and I walked by across the street, we passed an individual slouching against the building, a lesson in studied, low key casualness who kept an eye on us through surreptitious glances. Undercover cop, we whispered to each other, from our individual backgrounds in lefty politics. Sure enough his walkie-talkie squawked as we turned the corner. The neighborhood we entered is gay friendly, apparent from the gay and lesbian couples openly holding hands on the street and the posters in shop windows advertising gay events. In addition to the San Francisco Book Company, there is this stylish Euro-chain MUJI at 27 & 30 Rue St. Sulpice, and the aggregate of shops in Marché Saint-Germain-des-Près (14, rue Lobineau). The Odéon-Théâtre de l’Europe is also located in this neighborhood (2 Rue Corneille), where we found a gaggle of artists occupying the stairs sketching their surroundings.
The main part of Saint-Germain-des-Près, where Hemingway and the Lost Generation hung out, is along the Boulevard and centered around the church of the same name. Alas, the Village Voice Bookstore is no more, but the Taschen Bookstore (2, rue de Buci) is prospering. The jumpy young sales clerk was busy keeping watch over all the pervy old men who were pawing and drooling over the publishing company’s softcore porn, but he did have time to talk to us about the efforts Taschen is making to promote Sebastião Salgado‘s new exhibition Genesis, including a massive book nearly as tall as my wife. More about Salgado later. Saint-Germain-des-Près is also home to Les Deux Magots (6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés) and Café de Flore (172 Boulevard Saint-Germain), two of the more famous cafes frequented by members of the Lost Generation. Café de Flore is where we met Terrance Gelenter at the beginning of our stay in Paris, and where he holds regular office hours on Sundays. The streets to the northeast of this main drag, up to the Seine, are full of galleries selling artwork. Every time my wife and I lingered to view a particular gallery, we were approached by freelancers trying to interest us in “really good art, not this crap,” each time a different scam artist.
Speaking of scam artists, after we walked past the bouguinistes on Quai de Conti and turned onto the Pont des Arts on one occasion to admire the locks placed along the bridge’s length to symbolize the love of so many couples, we encountered a version of three card monte in progress by individuals attempting to bilk passers-by out of their money. After warning my wife not to get roped into this scam, I suddenly felt as if I’d figured out their tricks and just as suddenly jumped into the game. The result: I lost €50 on one bet and momentarily, my pride. Fortunately, I have no gambling addictions and quickly backed away.
Onward to the 1st Arrondissement. A stroll along the rue de Rivoli which, when it runs across from the Louvre as a covered sidewalk, is an incredible pain in the ass. The shops along the street are way overpriced, the crowds of mainly tourists are a zoo to walk through, and the whole experience is like an obstacle course or a contact sport. The French have this unnerving habit of walking straight at you, bumping into you hard or nearly pushing you into the street. Now imagine mobs of who-knows-what jammed onto narrow sidewalks, all jostling to get past. Fucking crazy. We had visited the Louvre the two times previously we were in Paris and we weren’t going this time. The tourist madness on rue de Rivoli was most discouraging. Not so the concert at Sainte-Chapelle (4 Boulevard du Palais). This Gothic cathedral hosts classical music events that draw more tourists, but fortunately the numbers are limited and the events are under tight control. We enjoyed nine or so versions of Ave Maria, performed by a string quartet and sung by a mezzo soprano at the 7:30 concert. The main hall was being restored, so half of it was covered with scaffolding. The day outside was overcast, so the extraordinarily beautiful stained glass windows were subdued, not featured to their greatest glory. Yet the music was ethereal and, dare I say it, heavenly.
My final story covers our experience with L’Open Tour. This is the Hop-on, Hop-off Tour Bus that, in Paris, offers four different routes. Originally, we’d intended to take all four routes, and found the Paris Grand Tour the most extensive, and the most serene given that we started at 10 in the morning, after packing a couple of baguette sandwiches. But by the second route, the Montparnasse-Saint Germain tour, we were tired, the day was hot and humid, the bus was crowded, and the passengers were pushy and annoying. We cut the whole experience after the second route and retired to a cafe for some Orangina and a light meal. Halfway through our L’Open Tour day, and three-quarters through the Paris Grand Tour, we got off at the Jardin des Tuileries at Place de la Concorde next to the Louvre. The Tuileries has the same features as other classic French gardens, although we didn’t venture very deep into this garden. Instead, we lounged in the shade next to the reflecting Bassin Octogonal and devoured our lunch. There is nothing like a French baguette. And a baguette sandwich made of sweet butter, hard-boiled eggs, cheese, ham and/or tomatoes? Sublime. This was perhaps our most satisfying meal of our whole vacation.