Saturday, May 31, 2008

André Breton's Surrealism Manisfesto

André Breton
circa 1924

Fans of the early 20th century surrealism movement can get their fix on the Place du Panthéon. André Breton and Philippe Soupault co-wrote surrealism's manifesto Les champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields, 1921) while residing at 17, place du Panthéon, the address of the Hôtel des Grands Hommes. Breton moved in during the summer of 1918 and makes reference to the hotel in his book, Nadja.
What this means for us is that, for the price of a night's stay, we can check in and soak up all that authentic surrealist atmosphere. The hotel has been considerably upgraded since its days as a cheap respite for impoverished writers one hundred years ago.
The hotel’s name makes reference to the “great men” interred in the massive mausoleum across the street, the Panthéon. The handsome six story 18th century hotel building is now furnished in Empire style, with decorative medallions and walls upholstered in neoclassical toile de jouy fabrics.
Many of the rooms on the fifth and sixth floors have small balconies and face directly onto the Panthéon. The hotel is now classified as a three-star property and provides good value for money. The entire establishment was refurbished in 2002.
Métro: RER B Luxembourg

Friday, May 30, 2008

Cimetière de Picpus

Mass graves holding 1,300 headless bodies of victims of the Revolution.

Nuns awaiting the guillotine.

The Picpus Cemetery in the 12th arrondissement is the final resting place of many hapless permanent Parisians, whose bodies were dumped into mass graves here in 1794. The cemetery was created during the Revolution from land seized from the convent of the Chanoinesses de St-Augustin.
Stacked high with victims of Dr. Guillotine’s invention, wagons arrived at night to deliver the more than 1,300 unfortunates put to death near the neighboring Place de la Nation during the Reign of Terror. Even nuns were not spared - they were charged with not being fervent enough in supporting the revolution's cause - and they approached the guillotine singing hymns (16 of them were beatified in 1906).
In 1797, in secret, the entire plot was acquired by Princess Amelie de Salm de Hohenzollern-Sigmaringen, whose brother was buried in one of the mass graves. This cemetery is the largest private cemetery in the city of Paris and is still used by these noble families as their private burial ground.
However, the most famous resident of this cemetery is Marie Joseph Paul Roch Yves Gilbert Motier, buried here on May 20, 1834, at the age of seventy-seven. He died in peace at a ripe old age, a hero of the American Revolution and an honorary American citizen. To this day an American flag flies above his tombstone. M. Motier was better known as the Marquis de LaFayette. He is buried next to his wife, whose sister and mother were among those beheaded and thrown into the common graves. On July 4 each year the U.S. Ambassador attends a ceremony at the grave of LaFayette.

Cemetery open Tue-Sun 2-6 pm; 35, rue de Picpus
Métro: Picpus

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Useful Travel Tips

A few fallen trees are displayed at Versailles to show the scope of the damage.

· A few days before New Years 2000, a freak cyclone battered Paris with 125 mph winds, destroying tens of thousands of trees and even damaging the famed stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle (the stained glass panels depicting Jesus stilling the storm were not adversely affected - no surprise). In the gardens of Versailles alone, more than 10,000 trees were uprooted, including a 225-year-old tulip tree from Virginia presented to Marie Antoinette. I suggest staying inside on very windy days; this would be a good time to see a movie, and a bad time to climb the Eiffel Tower.

· In August 2003 a heat wave gripped Paris and much of France, resulting in 30,000 deaths, most of them elderly citizens. Travel tip: book a room with air conditioning.

· During Good Friday religious services, 1918, a German “Big Bertha” bomb struck St-Gervais church, killing close to 100 worshipers and injuring hundreds more. Don’t forget to stop at the holy water font when entering a church, and remember to participate in prayers.

· During the extremely cold winters and resulting famines of the early 15th century, packs of starving wolves strayed into central Paris. Scores of small children went missing, and corpses were found unearthed and partially eaten. Button up your overcoat and give the poor dog a bone, or prepare to suffer the consequences.

· A fire at the Opéra-Comique in May, 1887, resulted in the death of 115 patrons. I always suggest choosing seats near an exit - but that's just me.

· This just in: today I learned that an American tourist in Rome was befriended by a stranger, who gave him cappucino laced with drugs before robbing him. The disoriented tourist stumbled onto train tracks and was killed. Tip: Be glad you are traveling to Paris and not Rome. No French person ever befriends a tourist and buys him a cup of coffee, so you'd know in an instant that anyone attempting this is surely up to foul play. This is a no-brainer.

· Buy trip insurance:

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

French Wine

A few days ago I published a post about Veuve-Clicquot champagne, but I forgot to mention this fact about wines sold in France. The French are extremely protective of their wine industry. Only 2% of all wine sold in France is not French, and most of that comes from other Mediterranean countries, such as Italy and Spain.
Although Paris has major world class attractions, I have found that sometimes even the Louvre or Notre-Dame has to take a back seat to a thirst that can only be satisfied by a glass of French wine. But that's just me, perhaps.
Also, you should consider a career as a diplomat if you are able to persuade a Frenchman to drink wine that comes from anyplace else. Honestly, you should.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Existentialism in a Nutshell

Jean-Paul Sartre in 1970. His cigarettes and pipes were constant companions.
Photo: Leon Herschtritt/Rapho

Existentialism is a philosophy that espouses that there is no purpose at the core of existence, that we are born without specific purpose, and we do not exist because of god or some abstract cause; we are not fated to behave in certain ways, or to accomplish certain things; instead, we are born free of meaning.
Finding a way to counter this, by embracing existence itself, is the fundamental theme of existentialism (and the root of the philosophy's name). Given that someone who believes in reality might be called a “realist,” and someone who believes in a deity might be called a “deist,” someone who believes fundamentally in existence and seeks to find meaning in his or her life solely by embracing existence, is an existentialist.
Nineteenth-century philosophers Søren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche were pioneers of this philosophy that reached its peak through the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus. Collectively they were the triumvirate of existentialist writers based in Paris in the 1940s and 1950s, although all three refuted that label. They wrote scholarly and fictional works that popularized existential themes such as “dread, boredom, alienation, the absurd, freedom, commitment, and nothingness.”
Sartre’s major work, Being and Nothingness, written in 1943, set out his philosophy that, because humans are free in every situation, they are also responsible for their our own “essence,” and the choices that they make.

Out with the garbage

Trivia: Paris is the only world capital with daily trash collection.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cinémathèque Francaise

Financial problems forced the American Center to sell the stunning 1994 Frank Gehry building which now houses the Cinémathèque Française, a cinema museum, and a film library. The American Center was a striking arts and culture venue, and Gehry won the prestigious Pritzker Prize for this building. However, debts and unmanageable operating costs led to its closure less than two years after its opening.
In 1998, the French government bought it from its American owners for €23.5 million and soon after decided to rent the space to the Cinémathèque Francaise, which is privately run.
Site restrictions make this building atypical of Gehry's mature work, because on two sides it looks "normal" and fits the street lines of adjacent buildings. On the sides facing the park, however, Gehry was able to create the kind of sculptural forms characteristic of his later works, such as the Disney Center in LA and the Guggenheim in Bibao, Spain.
Massive interior alterations were necessary for the conversion to the Cinémathèque Francaise, which opened here in 2005. Located in the 12th arrondissement, the 150,000-square-foot structure houses four theaters and the Bibliothèque du Film (BiFi) as well as space for both permanent and temporary exhibitions. Upon entering, visitors are struck by the sheer size of the lobby, with its lofty ceilings and wide-open spaces flooded with natural light.
The Cinémathèque, which was founded in 1936, has grown to include some 40,000 films, with more than a thousand new ones donated each year. Its collection also boasts thousands of rare and iconic objects, from a 17th-century camera obscura to vintage movie posters and costumes designed by Dior, Chanel and Poiret and worn by such film icons as Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Mary Pickford and Greta Garbo.
Visitors may wander through Passion Cinéma, a luminous space displaying the artifacts of a century of film. "We have the female robot from Metropolis, the one and only!" says Marianne de Fleury, curator of the Cinémathèque’s collections. "And we have one of Scarlett O’Hara’s dresses from Gone with the Wind, as well as the first cameras used by Méliès and the Lumière brothers. We even have the head of Norman Bates’s mother – the skull – from the end of Psycho."
There are also research facilities, a bookstore and a restaurant on the premises – one-stop shopping for all things cinematic.
Note: When in this area of Paris, be sure to walk toward the Seine to see the new footbridge, Pont Simone de Beauvoir, opened in 2006 (see related "Bridges" post from directory at right).
51, rue de Bercy; tel. 01 71 19 32 00
Métro: Bercy (12th arrondissement)

Friday, May 23, 2008

Defense de Fumer!

As of January, 2008, all restaurants, bars, and cafés in Paris are non-smoking. At eating establishments, smoking is allowed only outdoors. In fact, smoking is banned from all public spaces in France. Most Parisians, though, have adjusted to the change with an ease that has taken everyone by surprise, especially considering the longstanding French cultural tradition of protesting and flouting the rules whenever possible. Count me among those who are truly astonished that Parisians are accepting (and heeding) this new law.
So we close the door on the stereotype of the black-clad, chain-smoking French intellectual writing in a Parisian café (as I recall, Jean-Paul Sartre was rarely photographed without a cigarette).

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Eiffel Tower

Photo from France in Photos

It’s fun to admire the Eiffel Tower's new sparkle. Every night from sundown to 2 a.m., the 1,063 foot tall tower gives a special show ten minutes before the hour with dazzling blinking lights. Behind the Eiffel Tower's dazzle are 20,000 light bulbs, 40 kilometers of electrical wiring, 60 tons of metallic parts and an investment of 4.55 million euros. Workers installing the lighting had to contend with high winds, rain, sleet and snow, gawking tourists and the scary heights to have everything ready for the Dec. 31, 1999, millennium celebration. Fortunately the head of the company in charge of installing the new lighting was a professional mountaineer.

Facts & data:
Height: Originally 984 ft., 1024 ft. with flag on the top; today (with about 120 antennas), 1063 ft. Highest building in the world until 1929 (Chrysler Building, then 319 m = 1047 ft).
Weight: 10,100 tons, (7,300 tons of it iron). Actually, quite light – the pressure on the ground is not higher than for a normal building of those days.
Lights: 336 projectors of 600 watts, plus, for the current flashing/blinking lights +/- 20,000 bulbs.
Time of construction: 2 years, 2 months, 5 days.
Number of pieces: 18,000, assembled with 2,500,000 rivets.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Parc André Citroën

This park occupies 35 acres of land bordering the Seine (left bank), southwest of the Eiffel Tower. From 1915 to the 1980, a Citroën automobile manufacturing plant operated at this site. When the plant relocated, the city of Paris wisely determined that so much river front property should not be thrown open to developers, so it was decided to make half of this large expanse a public park; the Parc André Citroën opened in 1992.
However, it is one of the most unwelcoming and austere parks I have ever visited. It is decidedly geometric and modernist in design, with an overabundance of steel, glass and concrete. It boasts a canal and fountains, but about the best I can say for it is that visitors are allowed to sit on the grass, unlike other parks in Paris. There are two enormous greenhouses, and some of the gardens are sorted by color (all white flowers, all blue flowers).
All that said, this park is home to an attraction that will put a smile on your face and provide an unforgettable experience – the Ballon Air de Paris (Eutelsat), the world’s largest tethered balloon. Up to 30 people at a time can stand in the circular basket under a 100-ft. tall helium balloon and be gently lifted 450 feet into the air. Wonderful! Balloon ticket: 10€ per adult M-F, 12€ weekends; operates daily 9 am until dusk.
Métro: Javel or Balard; RER C Javel or Blvd Victor

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Joan of Arc Equestrian Statue

Photo courtesy of

Place des Pyramides is a small square inset from the Rue de Rivoli (right bank) opposite the Tuileries gardens and the north wing of the Louvre. Three sides of the square are enclosed by buildings with elegant colonnades, chief among them the wonderfully old school Hôtel Regina. The square is at the southern end of the Rue de Pyramides, whose name commemorates the 1798 victory by Napoleon in the Battle of the Pyramids in Egypt.
At the center of this rectangle sits the gilded equestrian statue of Joan of Arc carrying her standard into battle. Sculpted by Emmanuel Frémiet (1824-1910) and installed here in 1874, the original was replaced by the artist's more refined version in 1889, in which he significantly reducing the size of the horse. This statue of Joan of Arc was intended to help re-establish French confidence after the humiliating military defeat by the Prussian army in 1870.
Joan of Arc was not canonized until 1920, but France honors her with a national holiday – the second Sunday in May, the day we honor our mothers on this side of the Atlantic.
Frémiet cast identical monuments for both Philadelphia and Paris. In the U.S., the statue, placed adjacent to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, is irreverently known as “Joanie on a Pony.” Most school children know that in 1431, 19-year-old Joan was burned at the stake in Rouen after being convicted of treason by a tribunal of French clerics loyal to the English. Sculptor Fremiet chose a 15-year-old model, Valerie Laneau, for his sculpture; when Laneau was 77, she too was burned to death while trying to light her evening lamp – a tragic coincidence.
An aside: The Hôtel Regina was featured prominently in Brian de Palma’s 1976 film Obsession, starring Geneviève Bujold and Cliff Robertson. Even the score was French – nearly the entire soundtrack was taken from Fauré’s Requiem.
Métro: Tuileries

Hector Guimard: Architect of Art Nouveau

An Hector Guimard designed subway entrance, one of only 17 originals remaining, still serves one of the 300 stations that comprise the city's Métropolitain system, which began operations in 1900. The newest line is No. 14, called Météor, which opened in 1998.
At the Porte Dauphine stop, the original glass canopy is the only surviving enclosed edicule of the Paris Métro. We can see it today at the western terminus of the No. 2 line.

Saturday, May 17, 2008

La Fontaine St-Michel

This 75-ft. tall fountain is the centerpiece of Place St-Michel, a left bank bastion usually overrun by tourists and university students. The fountain, by Gabriel Davioud (1860), was designed to cover the end façade of an apartment building that spoiled the view at the end of the avenue, which accounts for its extraordinary height. The bronze statue of a winged St. Michael wrestling with Satan is by Francisque Joseph Duret, a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts. Four red marble columns, each supporting a statue, add distinction. To gild the lily, a pair of bronze griffins spout water into the basin. It is in this very basin that students often "celebrate" important occasions, and university students stake out a spot on the surrounding pavement to sell used textbooks at the end of term.
In May of 1968, a time of social upheaval all over the world, striking students battled riot police batons and tear gas, took over the square, and declared it an independent state. Factory workers followed their call to arms and went on strike (two-thirds of the entire French work force), toppling the Charles de Gaulle government and forcing change. De Gaulle fled Paris to seek safety at a German military base. It's a little calmer these days.
The original plan was to make this fountain a monument to Napoleon, but the winds of politics proved fickle.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Passerelle Léopold-Sédar-Senghor

Photo courtesy of
The only single arch bridge spanning the Seine, this 1999 footbridge connects the Tuileries Gardens and the Musée d’Orsay. At its northern end, pedestrians can reach the Jardin des Tuileries through a subterranean passage. Its innovative design earned architect Marc Mimram the "Prix de l'Équerre d'Argent" award for 1999.
However, the Passerelle Solférino was renamed Passerelle Léopold Sédar Senghor on October 9, 2006, to mark the centenary of the birth of the first Senegalese president. Senghor, a poet, politician and cultural theorist, was the first African to sit as a member of the Académie Française.
Note: Solférino refers to the 1859 Battle of Solférino (Italy), in which Napoleon III defeated Franz-Josef’s Austrian troops.
Metro: Assemblée Nationale or Solférino

The Long and Skinny Promenade Plantée

The Promenade Plantée is a 3-mile-long elevated park in the 12th arrondissement. It was constructed in 1995 on an abandoned 19th-century railway viaduct, which had ceased operations in 1969. The parkway runs eastward from the Opéra Bastille to the Bois de Vincennes, making its way through viaducts, embankments, railway tracks and small tunnels.
The arcades beneath the viaduct have been transformed into arts and crafts workshops, and this section is called the "Viaduc des Arts". The park was designed by landscape architect Jacques Vergely and architect Philippe Mathieu.
Pedestrians enjoy a garden environment for their upper-level walk, and cyclists have a route at ground level. At the 3 mile mark the routes come together at ground level and proceed on to the Bois de Vincennes. The high-level route has some enclosed sections, as when it passes between modern buildings, and some open sections with expansive views. The Promenade Plantée is currently the only elevated park in the world.
Métro: Bastille

From Place de la Bastille, walk southeast along Rue de Lyon, hugging the Opéra Bastille (ugly as all get-out – you can’t miss it). Turn left onto Ave. Daumesnil, and after a short distance you will see stairs and elevators on your left to enable you to ascend to the special elevated promenade.

Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir

Image © Feichtinger Architectes
A new bridge across the Seine in Eastern Paris is called Passerelle Simone de Beauvoir, after the feminist novelist and philosopher. This footbridge, which opened in July, 2006, is an asymmetric roller-coaster affair with no obvious means of support. It is both chaotically modern and graceful, and proudly bears the mantle of being the newest of the 37 bridges in Paris, which has more river bridges than any other city in the world.
The Pont Simone de Beauvoir is an arched bridge and a suspension bridge molded together. The two strands of steel frames with oak planking prop each other up. The center section is most unusual; the lower section arches up, and the upper section dips down to join together to form a shape similar to a human eye. The bridge links the new national library, the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand, and the entertainment complex at Bercy.
The bridge's architect, 45-year-old Dietmar Feichtinger, a Paris-based Austrian, says that the naming of the bridge after Simone de Beauvoir is appropriate. “She was a great writer, and the bridge leads to a library. She was a very modern thinker, and the bridge is very modern. She was a woman, and the bridge is very feminine.”
The intertwining decks in the center of the bridge provide a sheltered area on the lower level that can be used for fairs and exhibitions. The structure is extraordinarily wide for a footbridge, and there are no lampposts. Unique lighting comes from under the handrails. The photo belows shows the approach to the Bibliothèque François Mitterrand.

I Love Paris in the Winter...

In winter, when all its trees are without leaf,
Le Jardin du Luxembourg becomes transparent.
Both garden and palace, far from falling asleep,
Cast stark silhouettes, in bold embrace of winter.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Lady Liberty in Paris

Liberté éclairant le monde (Liberty enlightening the world) is better known as the Statue of Liberty. Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi, its sculptor, was born in 1834 as Amilcar Hasenfritz in Colmar (Alsace), into a family of German Protestants. His artistic status was elevated exponentially when the citizens of France made a gift of this statue to the people of the United States to mark the centennial of the American Revolution of 1776.
However, budget snafus and various complications delayed its installation for a full ten years, until President Grover Cleveland inaugurated it in 1886. Note: As Governor of NY, Cleveland had vetoed a bill to contribute $50,000 toward the construction of the statue’s pedestal. Oh, the irony!
Bartholdi is now a permanent Parisian, and his grave can be found in the Montparnasse cemetery.
The first model of Lady Liberty, on a small scale, was built in 1870 and can be found to this day under a tree in the Jardin du Luxembourg (photo at top left).
A larger version can be found at the western tip of the Île des Cygnes (Swan Island), an artificially created finger of land in the Seine near the Eiffel Tower. The island is barely a half mile long and extraordinarily narrow. This statue, which was inaugurated at its site in 1889 (three years after its NY counterpart), was given by the French community living in the United States to commemorate the centennial of the French Revolution of 1789. It initially faced east, toward the Eiffel Tower, but was rotated west in 1937 for the Exposition Universelle hosted by Paris that year. Its base displays a commemorative plate, and the booklet it holds in its left hand bears the inscription, “IV Juillet 1776 = XIV Juillet 1789,” recognizing the American Independence Day and Bastille Day, respectively.
Access to the island is by Metro: Bir-Hakeim or Passy.

Café in Luxembourg Gardens

Jardin du Luxembourg

Café Les Gaufres (“waffles”) is a picturesque café in the Luxembourg Gardens located amongst the trees near the park entrance from Place Edmund Rostand. Painted a dark green and adorned with gingerbread details, this pavilion is a popular oasis for park visitors. I was astonished on my first visit to observe that the café sports a shocking orange interior. Surprisingly, the waiters are dressed in formal black vests as they go about delivering drinks and light lunches. Open 9:00 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. daily. No credit cards.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Musée Jacquemart-André

The Musée Jacquemart-André is the splendid private 1875 mansion of Nélie Jacquemart and Edouard André, collectors with a passion for art. Often compared to the Frick Collection in New York, the house has retained its character as a sumptuous private residence, displaying its art among the luxuriously furnished rooms as they were lived in during the 19th century.
Edouard André was the scion of a Protestant banking family, and he devoted his considerable fortune to buying works of art. He married a well-known society painter, Nélie Jacquemart, in 1882.
158, blvd. Haussmann; tel. 01 45 62 11 59
Museum open seven days a week, 10am-6pm; café open daily 11:45am-5:30pm, Sunday brunch served 11am-3pm
Admission 10€; all visitors are provided with a free English language audio guide, allowing for a self-paced tour through the museum, which is located south of the Parc Monceau and east of the Arc de Triomphe.
Metro: Miromesnil or Saint Philippe du Roule

Monday, May 12, 2008

World’s Most Exclusive Hotel Room

The Hôtel Everland (Paris) has a grand total of one room. It is bookable 60 days in advance – no more, and when the end of December 2008 comes, it will be not be bookable at all. The Swiss Everland company installed this contemporary hotel pod suite on the roof of the Palais de Tokyo, overlooking the Seine, in October 2007. It has sweeping views of the Eiffel Tower and is one of those once-in-a-lifetime experiences. It will be removed at the end of December.
The pod room contains a bathroom, a king-size bed and a lounge area with a huge window. The mini-bar is fully stocked and included in the price, breakfast is delivered to the door and a music collection is at ones disposal.
In order to afford this unique experience to the greatest number of people, the pod suite is not bookable for multiple night stays. Pod suite price per night: 333€ (Sun., Tue., Wed.); 444€ (Thu., Fri., Sat.). Not bookable for any Monday.
From the booking web site comes this warning: “Thank you for your understanding that booking might be difficult because Hotel Everland has only one room, and many people are trying to book it.” That seems an understatement.
Photos are from the web booking site.
Access from Ave. de Président Wilson (Palais de Tokyo museum).
Metro: Place d’Iéna.

The Innovative Mayor of Paris

Bertrand Delanoë was elected in 2001 as the first Socialist mayor of Paris in recent times. Since then he has survived an assassination attempt, a failed bid to secure the 2012 Olympic Games and a declaration of a state of emergency when riots engulfed the city’s suburbs.
Born in the French colony of Tunisia in 1951, Delanoë has lived in France since his teenage years. He was first elected to the Paris City Council in 1977 and has also served in the French Senate. The Socialists’ control of the city council is significant, as it is the first time since the Paris Commune of 1871 that the city has been run by the liberal left. M. Delanoë’s popularity currently outstrips all other political figures in France.
Although strict privacy laws protect French public figures from intrusion into their private lives, M. Delanoë has never hidden his homosexuality. He is the only major French politician to be openly gay. However, an attempt was made on his life in 2002 by a would-be assassin who claimed that the mayor’s sexual orientation incited him to make the attack. The mayor was not seriously injured.
Delanoë was elected on a pledge to control car traffic and pollution. His administration reduced access on the city’s major thoroughfares to truck, bus and bicycle use, leaving only a lane or two available to private cars. After the success of last year’s launch of a system of 20,000+ short-term bicycle rentals (Vélib), the mayor is going ahead with plans to introduce Autolib', a network of 2,000 small cars available to short-term users from stands on street corners. He also intends to make the streets along both banks of the Seine free of motorized traffic in the near future.
His initiation of Paris Plage, an artificial recreational beach installed along the banks of the Seine every July and August, has been wildly successful and popular, attracting millions.
Because of his able leadership and track record of problem solving, often in innovative ways, Delanoë is now spoken of as a probable contender for the French presidency. Bertrand Delanoë was overwhelmingly re-elected mayor of Paris on March 21, 2008, and it is widely anticipated that there will be a Delanoë-Sarkozy face off in 2012. Stay tuned!

Paris Rollerbladers

Pari-Roller is the largest massed group of in-line skaters in the world. Every Friday night at 10 pm, thousands of skaters leave from the Montparnasse tower area for a three-hour joy ride through the streets of Paris. The route varies from week to week, but it is generally about 18-20 miles long (30 kilometers). Pari-Roller wannabees log into a web site to learn the route for any particular week. The only rule is that participants must be able to control their speed. Municipal policemen (on roller-blades) accompany the skaters and block off streets, as appropriate. By day, these special Paris rollerblade policemen patrol the streets, mostly issuing parking tickets.
How did this event, which sometimes attracts ten of thousands of skaters, get its start? Well, in 1995 there was a city strike by transportation workers, lasting three weeks. People still had to get to work, and flexing their creative muscle, they emptied the sports stores of their stocks of roller blades and took to the streets. After the strike was resolved, the city dwellers realized that they enjoyed their skates and didn’t want to give up this fun way to exercise and see the sights. Within a few weeks Boris Belohlavek founded what is now known as Pari-Roller, and die-hards (randoleurs) refer to this weekly outing as a Rando-Roller.
Now the concept has expanded, and daylight events take place on Sunday afternoons, departing at 2:30.
1. Ready to roll!
2. Friendly police on wheels
3. Video skating by Town Hall (Hotel de Ville)

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Those fickle Parisians

When the Eiffel Tower is under construction in 1888, all of Paris is in an uproar over the “monstrosity” being foisted upon them, severely dishonoring their beloved Beaux-Arts sensibilities. Guy de Maupassant relates that he likes to lunch at the tower, because it is the only place in the city where he doesn’t have to look at it. It quickly becomes the worldwide iconic symbol of the city and a tourism cash cow.

The Centre Georges Pompidou opens in 1977 to critical outcry and protest over its controversial inside-out industrial design. It immediately becomes the most popular tourist destination in Paris.

As the bicentennial of the fall of the Bastille is celebrated in 1989 by a new addition to the Louvre, critical protests reach near violent levels over the I. M. Pei designed pyramid placed in the historic Louvre courtyard. The dramatic glass structure results in a massive surge of tourism as visitors from all over the world rush to see it. Criticism is silenced immediately.

Vélib' City-wide Bicycle Rental

UPDATE: In the first two years of operation, about 8,000 bicycles were stolen. Beginning in January, 2012, a similar system, called Autolib', will use 3,000 all-electric automobiles, complete with charging stations located throughout the city of Paris.
On July 15, 2007, the city of Paris launched its new Vélib’ program — which stands for Vélo (Bike) and Liberté (freedom) — a self-service bike transit system offering the ability for anyone, Parisians and tourists alike, to pick up and drop off one of 20,600 bicycles distributed among 1,451 locations throughout the city. There is one rental station approximately every 900 feet. Bicycles rented at one location may be returned to any location within the system.
Each bicycle features a wire shopping basket mounted in front of the handlebars, and the rear tire is covered by a wide fender, so that parcels, briefcases, etc., may be attached using bungee cords.
This program (guaranteed by its sponsors to operate for at least 10 years) is part of the efforts by the mayor of Paris to decrease automobile traffic in the city by an aggressive percentage. In order to assure that the bicycles are not stolen, a 150€ hold is placed against the user’s credit card balance at the time of rental. There is an automated rental machine at each rental location.
The first 30 minutes is always free, and modest charges apply for time used after that (for example, a 55-minute trip is 1€; a 90-minute trip is 3€. Research has shown that converting short trips from cars to bicycles will yield the most favorable results for traffic-clogged Paris.
A one-day card sells for 1€; a weekly card for 5€; an annual card is 29€. If each use is 30 minutes or less, no other charges are incurred.
The rub? American credit cards don’t work in the rental machines. They require a credit card with an embedded chip for extra security, a feature of all European issued credit cards. Maybe soon.

Dancing by the Seine

Every evening, May through September, the riverside Tino Rossi sculpture gardens are transformed into open air venues for dancing under the stars. Free lessons are offered starting around 7 p.m. or so, but experienced dancers don't show up until 9 p.m. or later. Many of the participants really know their stuff, but all levels are represented.
Each of the semi-circular amphitheaters along the Seine features a different dance style: tango, salsa, rock or more traditional styles. The music is not live; CDs are the source. This is a spontaneous event, free to the public, but a hat is passed around for donations to help defray costs (a 2€ donation is about average).
The specific area is on the left bank of the Seine at Quai Saint-Bernard, between the Sully and Austerlitz bridges, within the Jardin Tino Rossi, named after the Corsican singer and movie star (1907-1983). This park was created in the late 1970s by architect Daniel Badani, and one of the sculptors represented is Brancusi, the famous Romanian artist whose career was made in Paris. Unlike most Paris parks, which close at sunset, this one stays open all night. Nearby sights are the Institut du Monde Arabe and the Jardins des Plantes (Botanical Gardens). From either of the metro stops listed, just head for the river.
Metro: Jussieu or Gare d'Austerlitz

Friday, May 9, 2008

Place de la Concorde

La fontaine des Mers adorns the city's largest square.

Place de la Concorde means “square of peace,” (or “harmony”), an ironic moniker, because some of the goriest events in the history of France took place here.
During the French revolution the square was named Place de la Révolution. A statue called “Liberté” (freedom) was placed here, and a guillotine was subsequently installed. 1,119 people were beheaded during a two-year time span, chief amongst them Louis XVI, Marie-Antionette, and Robespierre. After the revolution the square was renamed several times before it was given its current name in 1830.
The history of this square goes back to 1763, when a large statue of King Louis XV was erected to celebrate his recovery from a serious illness. In 1772 twenty one acres of land surrounding the statue was designed as a grand plaza by architect Jacques-Ange Gabriel. The square was then dubbed “Place Louis XV.”
The octagonal Place de la Concorde is bordered by the Champs-Élysées and the Tuileries gardens. The Obélisque de Luxor, which stands dead center in the square, and two enormous bronze fountains flanking either side of it form a north/south axis with the National Assembly and the Madeleine church.
Jacob Ignaz Hittorf redesigned the Place de la Concorde between 1833 and 1846. At each corner he placed a statue representing a French city: Bordeaux, Brest, Lille, Lyon, Marseille, Nantes, Rouen and Strasbourg. Hittorf was also responsible for the addition of the bronze fountains.
The superluxe Hôtel Crillon, still operating today, opened its doors not long after the square was completed. It was here that Marie Antoinette spent afternoons relaxing and taking piano lessons; later, the hotel served as headquarters of the occupying German army during World War II. The Hôtel Crillon is the neoclassical building shown beyond the fountain in the photo at the top of this post. Its architectural twin across Rue Royal is the French Naval Ministry.
Parisian drivers, however, know the Place de la Concorde as a traffic nightmare, second only to the Place Charles-de-Gaulle (see photographic evidence).