Saturday, May 31, 2014

Musique dans le jardin: Away to Visit Paris part 8

Luxembourg Palace was built for Maria de Médici
and modeled after her childhood home in
Florence, Italy. Today, the French Senate meets here.
We are in store for a surprise on our visit to Luxembourg Garden, and it isn't related to the Generale de la Securite Exterieure (France's secret service), which is headquartered beneath our feet.

Monument aux Ètudiants Résistanants,

by Gaston Watkin
Fontaine de Medicis, built in 1630,
was designed by Tomasso Francini.

Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the restoration of the
Fontaine de Medicis, which had fallen into ruins.
The task was undertaken by Jean Chalgrin, the
Arc de Triumph's architect.
Fontaine de Medicis
Somewhat disappointed by the overcast skies (the splendid 60-acre garden would be even more magnificent with some soleil), we are curious when we spy some activity at the bandstand. A small crowd is gathering, and in the bandstand a group of about 30 young musicians are warming up. An insignia on their bright red shirts doesn't help us in detecting where these kids are from. The beautiful blonde band director leads Ken to speculate they're from Sweden, and he's nearly right. The donation basket, into which we toss a few euros, solves the mystery: These talented music students are from Norway.

The Norwegian band warms up.

Saxophone players are cute all over the world.
I have a definite soft spot for talented young musicians.
In addition to enjoying the concert, we bask in the memory of all those dozens of youth band concerts we've enjoyed through the years. I still am especially devoted to the Reno Youth Jazz Orchestra, and I can't help thinking how incredible it would be to help arrange a RYJO European tour someday. What do you say, Vern and Karen Scarbrough: You in?

Marius dans les ruines de Carthage, by Nicolas-Victor Vilain
Oh this little place? It's just our summer cottage!

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Eiffel in Love: Away to Visit Paris part 7

Tour Eiffel, photographed from its base
I don't remember the Eiffel Tower as being so omnipresent on my first trip to Paris three years ago. Now, maybe because our apartment is nearby Place du Trocadéro, with its unsurpassed view of the Paris landmark, it seems that every day offers a new Eiffel photo op.

Tour Eiffel, photographed from Place du Trocadéro

Tour Eiffel, photographed from Parc du
Champ de Mars
 Three things about the Tour Eiffel you probably already know:
  1. The tower was built in honor of the centennial of the French Revolution for the 1889 Exposition Universelle.
  2. The tower was meant to be temporary.
  3. It was the tallest building in the world until 1930 when the Chrysler Building was completed in NYC. Then a 24-meter antenna was installed at the top of of Eiffel so it could be taller. A year later, the Empire State Building took top honors.
Tour Eiffel, photographed from Place
du Trocadéro

One thing you may not already know about the Tour Eiffel:
  1. In 1912, a Parisian tailor named Reichelt attempted to fly from the tower. It was clear he was trying to fly and not die, because he was wearing wings (actually a cape). He didn't fly. He did die.
In addition to its great view of the Tour Eiffel, Place du Trocadéro contains the Palais de Chaillot, which, in turn, contains three museums, a theater, and a 250-acre garden. Also, bronze sculptures, ornamental pools and fountains. Of course, tour buses import a constant stream of tourists throughout the day, but the most popular time is at night for the Eiffel's snazzy, hourly light show.

An colorful group of tourists, beauty queens
perhaps (they had an entourage), whip out
their camera phones to photograph Tour
Eiffel from Place du Trocadéro.
 I find a less-crowded Eiffel viewing spot on the Pont de Bir Hakeim, one of 37 Paris bridges across the Seine. I also come across two wedding photo sessions as well as a small dance troupe.

A wedding photo session on Pont de Bir Hakeim

Another wedding photo session on Pont de Bir Hakeim

A dancer warms up on Pont de Bir Hakeim.

Tour Eiffel, photographed from Pont
de Bir Hakeim

Oh, and here's something else I recently discovered about the Tour Eiffel (courtesy

When Thomas Edison visited the tower in 1889, he wrote this in its guest book:
"Monsier Eiffel, engineer, builder of great brave and extraordinary creations of modern engineering from someone who is respected and admired by all engineers, including the Great Engineer of the Lord God. Thomas Edison." 
The website, has a slightly different version:
"To Eiffel the Engineer the brave builder of so gigantic and original specimen of modern Engineering from one who has the greatest respect and admiration for all Engineers including the Great Engineer the Bon Dieu, Thomas Edison."
Whichever quotation is correct, I assume Tom would have given the Eiffel Tower a favorable review on TripAdvisor.
Ken on Pont de Bir Hakeim

Me too.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

The House Garnier Built: Away to Visit Paris part 6

My first visit to Paris was too short to include a visit to Palais Garnier Opera House, and my sister insists I need to take a tour on my next trip. Three years later, I am finally back in the City of Light, and I have cajoled Ken and our friends into a guided tour the magnificent house that Charles Garnier built.

Wanting to retain at least a bit of spontaneity, I have reserved only a couple of guided tours in advance of our trip. The tour offered by Cultival appears to be a bargain: only €4.50 more than the €10 general admission ticket, and we plan our day around the 11:30 a.m. tour.

Our group of 20 is led by a very capable guide who shares with us the fascinating history of this opulent palace. Commissioned by Napoleon III, the "new opera house" was inaugurated in 1875. Architect Charles Garnier created a flamboyant feast of marble, gilt, and velvet.

Our tour starts at the bottom of the grand escalier, the giant double staircase. Belle Époch opera goers were primarily interested in "seeing and being seen" and secondly for the opera itself, explains our guide. Two people who nearly missed the opera house's grand opening: Monsieur and Madame Garnier, who were overlooked on the guest list and had to buy their own tickets.

Although there are rehearsals today for a ballet later this week, we are allowed  inside the auditorium, after being warned not to take any pictures of the stage. Today, Palais Garnier is the home for ballet, while operas are performed at L'Opera Bastille, an unlovely building 7.2 kilometers to the east. 

Looking up, I study the 340-light bronze and crystal chandelier with its surrounding "modern" mural painted by Marc Chagall and installed in 1964. Our guide says that the Chagall ceiling is one of those "love it or hate it" things. Especially after seeing a replica of the original ceiling, I come down squarely on the Chagall side of the debate.

I immediately notice the similarities between the opera house's grand foyer and the famed Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. So much gold! So many mirrors! Such opulence! Mon dieu!

Palais Garnier sits atop a large reservoir of water, offering peace of mind in case of fire and a training site for the city's fire fighters.(The previous opera house, the Salle Le Peletier, had been destroyed by a fire in 1873.) Meanwhile, up on the roof, which has been the setting for several films and television shows, honeybees produce honey that is sold for a small fortune in the opera house's gift shop.

Oh, and in case you're wondering, all that stuff in "Phantom of the Opera"? Pas vrai.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Canal Zone: Away to Visit Paris part 5

An unexpected treat on the Métro today: A singer and accordionist serenade us on the way to Juarés station, the launching point for today's adventure.

Yesterday's rain is over and it is turning out to be a perfect day to spend time in more residential neighborhoods of Paris, specifically along the Canal St-Martin. 

This 3-mile canal was constructed between the Canal de l'Ourcq and the Seine as part of a system to bring fresh water from the Ourcq river into Paris.

The canals also were important "highways" for food and other goods in the 1800s. No longer needed for transport, the canal was nearly filled in in the 1960s, but thankfully cooler heads prevailed.

Today, the canal area is popular for families, artists, students, and others who want to enjoy a peaceful and colorful stroll along the quays. We stick to the pathway, but can admire the funky stores and cafés on the adjacent streets. We sit on a bench and eat sandwiches from Subway.

No barges are on the canal while we're there, so we don't get to see the locks or drawbridge in action. But we stop to watch billboard artists high up in the cradle of a cherry picker paint a large mural on the side of a building. We also pass some sort of performance art in progress.

A portion of the canal has been covered, leaving space for public gardens and playgrounds.

We end our walk at the Bastille, where the Canal St-Martin meets the Seine. Time to rest and ponder what part of Paris we'll explore next.

Monday, May 19, 2014

A day away in Pau

As the most beautiful weekend of spring (so far this year) comes to a close, I recall that last year we experienced winter weather well into June. Craving sunshine, I remember the day we headed south to Pau for une petite escapade.

War memorial in Pau

Pau, described in more than one guidebook as "an elegant city," is the capital of Béarn in the Pyrénées-Altlantiques department. We drive south, through the lovely Landes forrest and are met by sudden views of the snow-capped Pyrénées, which remind me of my first trip to Tahoe. At the time, I fantasized that the Sierra were my own personal Pyrénées, since I could only dream, back then, of someday seeing the real peaks of Europe (much left living close by).

After we check in to notre hôtel, we set off in search of déjeuner. The square along the rue du Château offers plenty of options at reasonable prices. At L'etena Ristorante, I am able to mooch a slice of my husband's roma pizza in exchange for a forkful of my salade niçoise.

Fortified with food, beer and kir, we begin our sightseeing with Pau's most famous site, the Château de Pau. Despite it being the first Saturday of summer, there are only a few visitors and we have arrived just in time to join a tour. On this day, the tour is offered only in French, although we are given an English cheat sheet. Usually, we enjoy tours in French for the opportunity to practice our oral comprehension skills, but this particular tour is so packed with history and lasts so long, that our minds wander. The slow pace through the castle rooms seems more tedious than fascinating. We agree with a Texas couple on the tour that we would have preferred to wander around the château at our own pace.

Château de Pau

Château de Pau

Château de Pau holds exquisite examples of decorations and furnishings of the mid-1800s. Dozens of tapestries depict everything from mythology to the simple pleasures of the aristocracy. A welcome respite from the usual biblical scenes, I enjoy the humor and whimsy contained in the tapestries' threads.

Château de Pau

Château de Pau

We complete our sightseeing that evening with a walk through the mansion-lined pedestrian streets, through the jardins of Parc Beaumont and along the boulevard des Pyrénées, where small signs identify the various mountain peaks to the south.

Parc Beaumont in Pau

Funicular in Pau

View of the mountains from Pau

Signage along boulevard des Pyrénées in Pau