Wednesday, March 23, 2011

the 2e arrondissement—la bouse

The name of the second arrondissement was slightly forboding—La Bouse. The stock exchange. For me, this conjured images of stone facades, of corruption, of steel and glass and stoney-faced men in expensive suits. Perhaps that is why I held off on the exploration #2 for so very, very long.

When I sat down to write my commentary, I had to restrain myself from using a certain word in every one of my sentences. However, this word was not “pretentious”, nor was it “austere” nor “postmodern”. It it was “charming”. Contrary to my expectations, the second arrondissement was overwhelmingly charming. Granted, my experience may have been skewed by my early morning start, the bright blue sky, or my delectable purchase at Regis Colin. Nevertheless, I was completely taken with the neighborhood and many of the sites won venerable positions on the list of places to revisit.

When I emerged from the metro station Etienne Marcel, the early morning air tinged with birdsongs and the sweet smell of baking bread. Mondays are similar to Sundays in Paris; many stores are still closed which leaves the streets quiet and tranquil. Upon reflection, I never really asked myself why this is the case—I have learned to never truly count on stores being open. Businesses seem to be impulsive, entitled, bound to no rules. This makes hours of operation are a very fluid concept.
In any case, the streets were vacant except for a few shopkeepers unlocking doors and a smattering of customers lounging outside cafes, sipping espresso and soaking in the first rays of sunlight. I rounded in the corner and stepped into the first of many passages of the day.

It is important, first, to know a bit about the history of passages in Paris. As we learned in our Paris by Site course, the passages were created beginning at the end of the 1700s and beginning of the 1800s and used to be the mansions of the aristocracy. For one reason or another, these mansions were turned into covered aracades connecting one road to another. Storefronts in theses passages were desirable because there were no taxes, and the covered passage allowed people to step out of the crowds and the dirtiness of the street and enjoy the new, leisurely activity of shopping for pleasure.

The 2nd arrondissement is absolutely teeming with of passages. As I scanned my map of Paris before starting off this morning, I slowly began to realize that the majority of roads I had planned to follow were not, in fact, roads, but covered passages. On foot, this was more of a curiosity than an issue, but if you travel Paris by vehicle, attention aux passages. But honestly, when driving in Paris, I suppose this would be the least of your worries.

The first passage I wandered through was le Passage du Grand Cerf. It was only vaguely interesting, but I couldn't tell if shops were boarded up permanently or due to the case of the M. Perhaps it merits another visit on a busier day. Moving down Rue Tiquetonne, I came upon two fantastic epiceries. The first was called l'Epicerie de Bruno and was at 30 Rue Tiquetonne. It sold a fascinating variety of spices and teas, both of which made me nostalgic for the herb-filled mason jars at Lester House. Its a great place to go for cooking inspiration, or just for enjoying the delicate and exotic smells.
The second store was just a bit farther down the same street and is called G. Detou. It sells wonderful, high quality ingrediants for baking along with a interesting variety of fine foods. Of particlar interest were the enormous bags of Valrona chocolate chips (!!!) of varying intensities, a selection of delicious-looking dried friuts, and bizarre oils such as avocado oil, pistachio oil, and infused white truffle grapeseed oil. Just in case you need them. According to a salesperson, the shop opened in the 60s particularly to sell ingrediants for baking things from scratch. It is a fantastic store. Go check it out. On a side-note, next-door is a cool clothing store called Espace Kiliwatch. It was closed for an inventory day, but it seemed to have a lot of great stuff and crazily patterned scarves

Next, I made my way to a bakery called Regis Colin. Tiny and unassuming, it is squished between two bigger shopfronts and easy to miss. However, it is imperative that this bakery is not missed. I knew beforehand that Regis Colin has won multiple noteworthy prizes for its pastries and that the boulangerie's croissant is considered by many as the best croissant in Paris. Therefore, I went right ahead and ordered a croissant, but not without glancing at the other beautiful pastries first. They all look fantastic, and I was surprised to note that they were pretty fantastically priced as well. After receiving the croissant and a very cheery “bonne journée” from the baker, I settled down on the steps of Notre Dame des Victoires to enjoy. Words fail to do justice to the light, buttery flakiness of this masterpiece. It was way too delicious, and as I slowly pulled off piece after piece, the bells of the chuch burst into song to celebrate the moment. I don't know what else to say about it, but please go try one.

Notre Dame des Victoires is a very different and curious church. It was a stational bascilica along the pilgrimage route to Compostela, which resulted in over 37,000 ex voto offerings to be left behind. These are offerings to a saint or divinity in the form of plaques, silver and gold hearts, or decorations. The countless adornments made the overall effect a bit overwhelming, but that may have also be because of the pastry daze I was still recovering from.

I passed the national library but didn't go inside. It is currently under renovation, but they do currently have an exhibition going on called “Visions of Egypt” that seems to be worth a visit. I also strolled down Rue Montorgueil which is a trendy street open only to pedestrian traffic. It features great specialized food stores like fromageries and olive oil shops.

Finally, I walked up through more passages to the Grands Boulevards area, paused by an interesting bar called Cafe Noir which was full of colorful decorations and hipster students smoking on the terrace, and made my way to the Passage des Panoramas. We visited this passage earlier as it was built in 1799 and was the first real trial of gas lighting. What drew me today, however, was a place called Gocce Cafe which is known for its great Italian espresso. This is where I finished my morning, curled up with a book and a macchiato in the strange covered sidewalk in Paris.

In summary: The second arrondissement equals great food shopping, great clothing shopping, winding streets and passages to explore, and the king of all croissants. It really isn't just the stock exchange, so make sure to pay it a visit!

Bisous, et à bientôt

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

rue des restos

I took a wrong turn at dusk and found myself on an empty street.

As I picked my way over the cobblestones, the restless sounds of crowds moving along the quais of the Seine faded behind me and a soft, gentle stillness sighed down onto the avenue. Quiet. The limestone facades of the buildings crept in towards each other until the iron spirals of third-story terraces seemed to entwine, leaving a crooked sliver of velvet sky splattered with stars. Leafy vines spilled down from these terraces and from one window wandered the long, melancholy notes of a violin. I slowed my pace and let myself slide into the pocket of unexpected peace like one might slip into a steaming bath.

There is a fascinating variability between neighboring roads in Paris. People often chose a route and stick to it—laying trails and following them like streams of ants. I knew for a fact that a few roads over, throngs of tourists were clamoring in and out of kitschy boutiques in search of keychains and crêpes and scarves adorned with patterns of the Eiffel Tower. But here, on this shy and enticing street, it was a whole different city.

Ahead of me, someone in a white jacket popped out of a door, scurried up the street, and ducked into the shadows of an alley. I continued making my way along, starting to realize that despite its tranquility, the street had a certain, humming energy. It was expectant, alert, biding its time. It was waiting for something. The sky darkened steadily, and I paused for a moment outside a softly lit window. There was a small group of people gathered around a table. They were dressed in stark white that melded into the spotless tablecloth, and leaned toward each other genially over glittering wine glasses and carefully-arranged flatware. I noted something tiny, beautiful, and enticing on each of their places. Every so often, someone would take a dainty bite, close their eyes, then engage in an animated conversation with a neighbor.

My eyes fell on a sheet of paper tacked to the door with a hand-written menu of no more than five items. And then it struck me—they were trying out the meal for the night. They were the waiters. The cooks too? Testing what the tiny, intimate restaurant would offer that evening, trying the wine, evaluating the pairings. Getting ready for the night. Thrilled, I kept walking and there was another window with the same scene. And then another, and another. Soon the waiters and cooks were whisking away the dishes and disappearing from the windows. Maître d's stepped out into the street, eying the stars as smoke curled from the glowing ends of their cigarettes.

I broke back out into a bustling boulevard and fell into the flow of people heading towards my arrondissement. Parisians and tourists alike passed gnawing on crêpes and paninis, and this breathed a different kind of life into the street. Not necessarily a better or worse sort of life, but as I approached my apartment I smiled, glad to recall the tiny, quiet street of restaurants. A street where the cook could be an artist who takes pride in his or her own work. Where each night was something to prepare for. A street where dining is an experience, something to be shared.

This city has more amazing food than anyone in the world can imagine. Let's eat, but eat slowly. Eat slowly and savor.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

the 1e arrondissement—le louvre

Disclaimer: This post goes completely against all that is good and relaxed and the laissez-faire method of discovering of Paris. It is the beginning of a 20 post series in which I will try to carry out a methodical exploration of each of the arrondissements. This, my friends, is no flânarie, but hopefully might be helpful to those interested in the more typical attractions of the city.Herreeee we go!

If a single word could sum up the first, it would have to be "wealthy". This quartier is wealthy in every aspect: rich in history, rich in architecture, rich in art, rich in glitzy stores filled with rich customers. For those of you unfamilliar with the layout of Paris, this map shows how the arrondissements begin at the center and sprial outwards like the shell of a giant escargot

And there is the first, smack dab in the center. It's area is less than a square mile, but it is the home to so many fascinating things that it is honestly impossible to see them all in one day. It is even more impossible when said day features torrential rain. However, this is what we did manage to enjoy:

I started the day at St. Chapelle with Lucy and Josh. St. Chapelle is located on the Isle de la Cité and was built my Louis IX in the 13th century to house relics of the Passion. From the outside, it is a gorgeous example of vaulting Gothic architecture, but the real gem lies on the inside in the upper chapel. You enter through the bottom chapel, with a low ceiling adorned with lovely frescoes featuring blue and gold patterns of fleurs de lis. The bottom floor beautiful, but it is nothing compared to what lies just above the fleurs de lis.

Even though I have seen the upper level once before, my jaw still dropped to the intricately tiled floor when I climbed the narrow, spiral staircase to the upper chapel. The upper level is, as Lucy accurately observed, an enormous kaleidoscope. The feeling of immense space and color when you enter the chapel is breath-taking, and the impossibly tall stained-glass windows shoot up to the sky to a vaulted ceiling that seems to gently float above the vast glittering mosaic. Every inch of the chapel is decorated with meticulous care, and I had to take a minute to sit down and absorb it all. The room features 15 huge windows that, in total, depict 1113 scenes from the Old and New Testament. Looking around me, I decided St. Chapelle is like the painting style pointillism, but in reverse. In pointillism, paintings are composed of tiny dots. Up close, it is impossible to see the image but as you move away, you eyes can see the whole picture. In this case however, if you move way back, the individual images blur and you are left with only awe. Do not miss this. Also, once you have gotten your fill the beauty, take a seat and watch people's faces when they emerge from the stairwell—a little comedic relief in the midst of all that splendor. 

Next we wandered up to the western tip of the island, stepping into an interesting art gallery at Place Dauphine, and made our way down to a small grassy park called Square du Vert Galant. It is peaceful, picturesque, and offers charming views of the right and left bank with old, weather-worn boats moored along the quais. Great place for reading, relaxing, or picnicking.

At this point, Lucy left us and Josh and I moved on to a romanesque chuch called St. Germain l'Auxerrois. This church used to be the parish of kings of France, and had additions over the centuries which results in the appearance of several different styles of architecture. I was very taken by a few aspects of this church:
  1. So many arches. They overlap each other again and again and when you move to look from different angles, they delicately frame the gleaming stained-glass windows in countless ways.
  2. The MASSIVE organ. I want to hear it.
  3. A interesting combination of wide-open space accompanied by a cozy, comforting smell that I can describe only as a mixture of candles and old, leather-bound books.
**The Lourve is obviously crucial to the 1st arrondissement (hence the name of the first arrondissement) but due to its overwhelming size, and the fact that we are studying there over several months, I had to sidestep it for now. Sorry Louvre, more on you later**

Next, we wandered through the Jardin des Tuileries. The sky was shifting moodily between foreboding clouds and blissful sunshine as we made our way to the Musée de l'Orangerie. Honestly, I had no idea what to expect with this museum. We started off on the bottom floor which hosts a nice collection of Renoirs and Cézannes, their soft pastel colors and airy brushstrokes standing out sharply against the austere, modern décor. Moving to the top floor, we stepped through a strange hallway into a spacious, oval room. Waterlilies. Waterlilies everywhere. Without really planning on it, we had stumbled upon two rooms specifically built to house eight of the mammoth waterlily murals painted by Monet. The ceilings of the rooms allow diffused, natural light to gleam down on the paintings as Monet had intended them to be displayed. The effect is a lovely, ghostly luminescence reminiscent of late dawn or early dusk. 

Next was the Place Vendôme in the northwestern corner of the 1st. This square is one of the richest squares in the world and was filled with sleek cars and the glittering storefronts of Louis Vuitton, Cartier, Chanel, and the Paris Ritz. Jimmy Choos clicked along the sidewalk and people flickered in and out of the doors with the rustling of golden furs and sleek black umbrellas. Everything about the place whispered for me to keep move along. As rain was now falling in thick, silvery sheets, Josh and I parted ways and I paid quick visits to le Jardin du Palais Royal, St. Eustache, and La Comedie Francaise on the way back towards the Seine. La Comedie Francaise is a celebrated theater in Paris that hosts its own troop of actors and performs only the 'classics'. For those of you in Paris, tickets are free for people under the age of 28 on the first Monday of every month. This month, we have the exciting opportunity of seeing Shakespeare performed in French. Impossible to understand? Perhaps. Worth the 0 euros? Definitely. 

A few final notes on the 1st:
  1. Whatever you do, avoid “Les Halles”. This is a sprawling, mystifying area near la Bourse that is part enormous shopping center, part bizarre sculpture park, part monstrous metro/RER hub, part underground spiderweb of tunnels that is impossible to escape. There are vast crowds, there are signs that lead you in circles, there are strange people that lurk about wearing sunglasses indoors. It is absolutely my worst nightmare, but perhaps I caught it on a bad day. If someone has a positive experience, or finds a path that goes straight through without diving into its mysterious and frighting depths, please pass it on.
  2. Despite the evil that emanated from les Halles, there were some cheap food stands and cafés on the periphery that were wafting very, very good smells.
  3. I can't vouch for this tip personally yet, but please go to Angelina Tea Room and Café on 226 Rue de Rivoli for hot chocolate and a Mont-Blanc. You may have a heart-attack afterward, but I have reason to believe that it may just be worth it. Very worth it.