Thursday, July 31, 2008

Wine Culture

It is not possible to conceive of life in France without wine. EVERYBODY in France drinks wine. Even young children visiting their grandparents on the weekend are given a sip of wine while at the dinner table. The only meal in France that is not regularly accompanied by the consumption of wine is breakfast, although champagne creeps in as a brunch staple.

Parisians stop by their favorite neighborhood café most days of the week, and nearly every visit includes drinking at least a glass of wine. Apartments in Paris are minuscule (most Americans wouldn’t even call them apartments at all, with the exception of New Yorkers), too small for entertaining friends. So most people meet up at a café after work and talk over a glass of wine. Cafés are thus the de facto living rooms of Paris.

French exchange students who study at American universities are shocked to learn that they are too young to be served alcohol. Most have been regular wine drinkers since their mid teens. There is a legal drinking age in France (16), but enforcement is non-existent, and there are no ID-checks. If young people are old enough to be out on the streets without an adult, a bartender will serve them wine. If your dinner party orders a bottle of wine, and you ask the waiter for an extra glass for the ten year old at your table, the waiter will provide one without batting an eye.

Yet almost no one in Paris appears to be drunk. Because wine is so prevalent in France, there is not the temptation to sneak off to get drunk on alcohol, as is the case with American college students. The difference between young people’s attitudes toward drinking in the U.S. and in France was summed up by one U.S. college student who had been raised in Paris. “In France,” he said, “my friends and I used to go out on Saturday night to have a good time, and occasionally somebody got drunk. Here in the U.S., everybody seems to go out to get drunk, and occasionally somebody has a good time.”

Besides, we all know by now that regular and moderate consumption of wine has enormous health benefits. Recent studies find that regular, moderate consumption of wine helps in the aging process, as well - on multiple levels of physical, psychological and social well being.

"A votre santé" never had a better ring to it!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Parc de Monceau

This park was established by Phillippe d'Orléans, the richest man in France and a cousin of King Louis XVI. He adored everything English and thus established an English-style garden in Paris; by the mid 1770s his garden had grown to 30 acres. Leading features of the park are a curved row of faux-ruin Corinthian columns and an artificial waterfall. Phillippe d'Orléans was a leading freemason, and some of the elements found in the park (a pyramid, etc.) are masonic references.

In 1797 the first silk parachute jump was made from a Montgolfier hot air balloon 3,000 feet down into the park, to the delight of a large assembly of spectators.

There are statues of Frederic Chopin, wealthy writer Guy de Maupassant (he died of syphilis, insane at 42, having written his own epitaph: "I have coveted everything and taken pleasure in nothing") and composer Charles Gounod (famous for "Funeral March for a Marionette," used as the theme to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and the religious aria "Repentir" (O, Divine Redeemer), not to mention the operas Faust and Romeo and Juliette.

At the entrance is one of the few remaining Rotundas, a remnant from the old toll walls that completely encircled central Paris in the 1780s. Taxes on salt and wine were collected at these toll gates as goods entered the city. However here, in lieu of the usual 10-ft. high toll wall, there was an enormous moat, so as not to spoil the view for Phillippe d'Orléans (the wealthy enjoyed privilege then, as now). Parisians hated these toll walls, as they felt like prisoners in their own city, completely encircled by 16 miles of masonry and 60 toll gates. Two days before we mark the beginning of the revolution, on July 12, 1789, the citizens of Paris vented their anger by attacking these toll booths, damaging some and setting fire to others. Within 48 hours the Bastille had been breached, and the population had its hands on a large supply of firearms. They rest, as they say, is history.

Phillippe d'Orléans did not survive this turmoil, and after his death by guillotine during the revolution, the city of Paris obtained the garden and opened it as a public park. The Parc de Monceau was dramatically reduced in size during the late 1800s, when half its acreage was sold as lots for building elegant homes, most of which survive to the present time.

Today this neighborhood is one of the most exclusive and desirable in all of Paris. Avenue Hoche leads from the elaborate park gates directly to the nearby Arc de Triomphe. There is a large ex-pat Russian presence in this neighborhood, as well; the Russian Orthodox Cathédrale St-Alexandre-Nevsky sits just southwest of the park.

Métro: Monceau

Pyramid - a masonic emblem ordered by Phillippe d'OrléansGuy de Maupassant statue in Parc de Monceau

The spectacularly kitschy statue of Chopin by Jacques Froment-Meurice (1864-1948). The bas-relief angel represents “music,” while “harmony” swoons at Chopin’s feet.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Notre-Dame: Square Jean XXIII

Square Jean XXIII: The neo-Gothic Fountain of the Virgin (1845)

Square Jean XXIII is located east of Notre Dame, between the Seine and the cathedral. It is a quiet place to enjoy views of the 14th century buttresses, the Seine and its bridges and the neighboring island of Île Saint-Louis to the east.

Since the 17th century this setting had been the site of the Archbishop's Palace and garden. In 1831, the palace was looted and vandalized by rioters and later demolished. In 1844, the Prefect of Paris, Rambuteau, designed and built the present-day square, named in honor of Pope John XXIII (pope 1958-1963). The centerpiece of this garden is the neo-Gothic Fountain of the Virgin (1845). There is also a bust of Carlo Goldoni, a Venetian dramatist who died in Paris in 1793. The bust was placed here in 1907, the bicentenary of his birth.

The main part of the square is shaded by lime and elm trees, and every spring there is a spectacle of blossoms from the cherry trees from Japan. The square offers a magnificent view of the flying buttresses that support the walls and roof of Notre Dame. For the comfort of tourists, there is shade, numerous benches and (best of all) toilets.

At the extreme southeast tip of the island is the Mémorial de la Déportation (1962), a crypt that honors 200,000 French citizens who perished in Nazi camps. Following Jewish tradition of placing a pebble on a grave, there is a room adorned with 200,000 quartz stones.

Dramatic illumination of 200,000 quartz pebbles.

The easternmost tip of the Île de la Cité is the location of the Mémorial de la Déportation. The blank gray square shown on the map to the right of the cathedral is the Jardin Jean XXIII. Click to enlarge.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

La Crémaillère 1900

Many eateries that ring the Place du Tertre are unabashed tourist traps. They are as about as authentic as the beret-wearing “artists” set up on the square, busy attacking tourists, begging to sketch their portraits.

A happy exception is La Crémaillère 1900, an authentic Belle-Epoque brasserie that retains most of its original look, including many Mucha-style art-nouveau paintings. You can choose from several atmospheric dining rooms, sit on a terrace facing the chestnut trees of Place du Tertre or opt for the courtyard garden with its Wallace fountain. A full menu of French classics is served throughout the day, from 9:00 am to 12:30 am. There is live piano music in the evenings, and a cabaret show is on offer. Demand has led to a series of additions, so that 370 guests can be accommodated in multiple dining rooms.

La Crémaillère 1900
15, place du Tertre

Friday, July 25, 2008

Notre-Dame: Gargoyles vs. Chimeras

A gargoyle is a carved stone architecture element that serves the function of a waterspout to carry water from a roof and away from the side of a building. They are often carved in fanciful forms. In the photograph above, the water trough running the length of the gargoyle is clearly visible.

A chimera, however, is a grotesque carving that does not serve as a waterspout and has only a decorative function. Among the world’s most famous chimeras are those added to the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in Paris during the 25-year restoration begun in 1845. Their style was influenced by the illustrations found in the original edition of Victor Hugo's Gothic novel, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (1831).

The metal spire (flèche) was added atop the nave crossing during the 1845 restoration by Parisian architect Viollet-le-Duc, who included a statue of himself (as St. Thomas) holding an architect's T-square among the apostles adorning the spire at the roof line. The popularity of Victor Hugo’s novel fueled a renewed interest in the dilapidated cathedral and led to a public campaign to raise funds for the restoration.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rue des Barres: Marais

The Rue des Barres is a cobblestone pedestrian street that leads from the rear of St-Gervais church down to the Seine, on the right bank in the Marais area, just east of the Hôtel de Ville (City Hall). It is a vestige of medieval Paris that has survived modernization, and is the best spot from which to admire the gothic roofs and gargoyles of St-Gervais, which stand in stark contrast to its neo-classical façade on the opposite end. Across from the church on this lane is L’Artisanat Monastique, which sells products from monasteries all over France; the salespeople are the monks and nuns from St-Gervais.

There is also a popular, inexpensive café, L’Ebouillanté, that offers salads, pastries and light meals, specializing in hot Tunisian crèpes called bricks, as well as traditional French fare; the outdoor tables are in high demand (pictured above with blue façade at center right).

At the end of the street toward the Seine, at the corner of rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, is the atmospheric bistro Chez Julien (photos below). Its romantic, circa 1900 period interior is a delight, and the restaurant’s outdoor tables afford views of both St-Gervais and the romantic Île Saint Louis across the Seine. Traditional French cuisine. Reserve for dinner: 01 42 78 31 64; open noon to 3:00p and 7:00p to 11:00p.

Métro: Pont Marie

Chez Julien, left & below

Upper floors of medieval buildings typically overhung the ground floor, creating a natural hazard for the spread of fire. That's why so few medieval buildings have survived to modern times. This one, at the corner of Rue des Barres and Rue Grenier sur l'Eau (hayloft on the water), is an exceptional relic of medieval Paris.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Rue Sainte-Rustique

The impossibly narrow Rue Sainte-Rustique is the oldest street in Montmartre. Mentioned in records more than 900 years ago, it has no automobile traffic and no sidewalks but retains its paving stones, complete with a medieval gutter running down the center of it. The length of it is just one long block between Rue du Mont-Cenis and Rue des Saules.

At the terminus with Rue des Saules sits the legendary restaurant La Bonne Franquette, a gathering place for the Impressionists: Cézanne, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Pisarro - as well as writer Émile Zola. It faces the square that is home to neighboring restaurant Le Consulat, immortalized in a painting by Utrillo.

La Bonne Franquette and its green façade is on the immediate left in this photo.

Religious processions often pass through here, departing from St-Pierre-de-Montmartre church, and magical views of the white domes of the Sacre-Cœur Basilica arise above the rooftops looking eastward.

Concierge & Conciergerie

The term concierge is derived from the French term Comte des Cierges (keeper of the candles). In medieval times, the concierge was an officer of the King who was charged with executing justice, with the help of bailiffs. On the Île de la Cité, not far from Notre-Dame, a building known as the Conciergerie (part of the Palais de Justice) stands on a site that has been used as royal palace, parliament building and a prison. It was the home of the Revolutionary Tribunal, which sent 2,600 prisoners to the guillotine during the Reign of Terror. The three towers with conical tops in the center-right of the photo are survivors from medieval times. Much of this structure is still used today by the law courts, although portions are open to the public. Queen Marie Antoinette was imprisoned here prior to her execution, and her holding cell may be visited.

The bridge leading from the Conciergerie to the Right Bank owes its name, Pont au Change, to the goldsmiths and money changers who installed their shops on the bridge in the 12th century. The current structure, built in 1858, is also known as Pont Napoleon III, after the imperial “N” carved between the arches, illuminated in the center of the photograph.

In modern times the term took on a different meaning. Located on the ground floor at a building’s entrance was the small apartment of the concierge, who took care of the property, distributed mail, took out the trash and monitored who went in and out. In earlier decades there was almost no Parisian building without a live-in concierge, but now they are considered too expensive and have been mostly replaced by part-time door staff.

This photo by Eric Tenin shows the entrance to a concierge apartment located on Rue des Saint-Pères in the St-Germain neighborhood.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Place Vendôme

On the site now known as Place Vendôme, just two blocks north of the Tuileries gardens, was the manor house of the 16th Duke of Vendôme. In 1626 the Duke, the legitimized son of King Henri IV and his mistress Gabrielle d'Estrées, was imprisoned for three years after participating in a plot against Cardinal Richelieu. When again accused of conspiracy some years later, he fled to England. Since this choice real estate was then up for grabs, King Louis XIV (the Sun King) commissioned a new square that would house embassies, academies and the royal library – crowned by a statue of himself in the center of it all. In 1685 Louis instructed his Versailles architect, Jules-Hardouin Mansart, to begin designing the space, to be called Place Louis le Grand (quelle surprise!).

However, with the burgeoning costs of enlarging Versailles, this in-town project became too expensive, and the square was subsequently developed as a private real estate venture. Among the first to build houses there were Mansart himself and several financiers, who completed the construction in the 1720s. Because the houses on the square were built over a short span of time, there is a remarkable architectural harmony.

The enormous octagonal space (480 by 450 feet) is surrounded by street level arcades separated by horizontally ridged stonework, each with a keystone bearing a mask (mascaron) of a different design; most of the facial expressions of the mascarons are alternately grotesque or humorous.

Above each arcade is a wrought iron balcony decorated with a gilded sunburst in homage to Louis XIV, the Sun King. Eventually the statue of Louis XIV was replaced by a tall column glorifying the military prowess of Napoleon Bonaparte at Austerlitz. Even so, the square lacks any inviting human elements. There are no trees or benches, no cafés, nothing to make a person linger.

In the course of history important people and events were linked to this spot. Madame de la Parabère, the mistress of Regent Philippe II d'Orléans (after whom the U.S. city of New Orleans is named), was installed here. Napoleon II presided over the Second Empire from this square, and the Russian Embassy was once located here. Coco Chanel lived here, and Chopin died here.

But these days the elegant octagon-shaped Place Vendôme is known as home to the most famous names in fashion, jewelry and banking, as well as the legendary Hotel Ritz (at no. 15; rooms from $1,140 US).

Retailers include Cartier, Chanel, Chaumet, Piaget, Van Cleef & Arpels, Buccelati, Guerlain, Armani, Mauboussin, Bulgari, Schiaparelli, and Boucheron. The offerings are so valuable and security so tight that customers must be buzzed in to gain entry to these exclusive domains. Casual browsing is discouraged.

Some of the particular addresses have remarkable histories. No. 1, Place Vendôme, built in 1723 for Pierre Perrin, secretary to King Louis XIV, became the Embassy of the Republic of Texas in 1842. France was the first nation to recognize the independence of the Lone Star State before it achieved statehood in 1845.



Note: The Republic of Texas also had embassies in London and Washington, DC. However, the French ambassador to (Austin) Texas complained that he was nearly killed by an arrow from a Comanche raid as it whizzed by his head as he left his Texas residence one afternoon. It is hoped that France rewarded him with hardship pay.

Later, in 1858, no. 1, Place Vendôme became a tourist hotel, which was recently purchased and renovated as the Hôtel de Vendôme by famed Lebanese jeweler Robert Mouawad, owner of the world-famous Grand-Hotel du Cap-Ferrat near Monaco. The Café de Vendôme inside has a bar with an English look, where you can enjoy that modern-day rarity – unamplified jazz piano – on most Wednesday, Thursday and Friday evenings. Stop by and toast our Lone Star State!

No. 3 and 5 are owned by the Sultan of Brunei, perhaps best remembered for donating $10 million to the Nicaraguan contras at the request of Ronald Reagan, who turned to a "friend" when the U.S. Congress constrained him from doing so (note: history has not yet made it clear what the Sultan received in return). The Sultan, who was declared the world's richest man in 1997, owns more than 4,000 luxury motorcars, including more than 500 Rolls-Royces, and a private Boeing 747. His subjects, to his credit, do not pay any taxes whatsover and enjoy free education and medical care. There is much controversy in Paris these days about the Sultan, because he has initiated renovations on his buildings on Place Vendôme that do not adhere to the architectural integrity of the neighbors . Stay tuned.

No. 12 was where the composer Frédéric Chopin died in 1849, at the ago of 39. There is a plaque noting that event. This was also the former residence of the treasurer of Louis XVI's Navy, and where Napoleon III met his future wife, Eugénie.

The bronze spiral column at the center of the square was constructed in 1810 by Napoleon Bonaparte to celebrate his army’s victory at Austerlitz five years earlier. Designed to be a copy of Trajan’s column in Rome, it is 144 feet high and forged from the metal of cannons and guns captured at the battle. Bas-reliefs show scenes from the Austrian campaign. The statue at the top is Napoleon dressed as a Roman emperor.

The column was pulled down in May, 1871, by militants of the Paris Commune, who saw it as a “symbol of brute force and false glory.” The realist painter Gustave Courbet, their leader, took the blame, was imprisoned and ordered by the courts to cover the cost to replace it. To avoid bankruptcy he fled to Switzerland upon his release. Finally he negotiated an installment plan by which he would repay the debt over 33 years (until his 91st birthday). On the very eve of the date the first installment was due, however, Courbet died. During 1873-1874, the column was reestablished at the center of Place Vendôme with a copy of the original Napoleon as Caesar statue on top. The original molds were used to duplicate the spiraling bas-reliefs. However, the inner staircase leading to the top is no longer accessible to the public.

Note: There is a bizarre tale relating to Place Vendôme neighborhood that must be recounted. After the death of fabulously wealthy Charles-Pierre de Savalette de Langes, who resided at nearby no. 350, rue St-Honoré (immediately to the south of Place Vendôme), his daughter Jenny returned to Paris complaining bitterly about her financial ruin as the result of her father’s unpaid loan to the brothers of Louis XVI. In recompense, she was given a state pension, a political post and an apartment in the palace of Versailles. She moved among the highest ranks of society and left a fortune of more than 200,000 francs when she died in 1858. Imagine the shock when it was discovered, while preparing her body for burial, that she was not only no relation to Savalette, “she” was actually a man who had conned everyone for years. No kidding.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Harry’s Bar

Harry's Bar has been known to Americans visiting Paris since it opened on Thankgiving Day, 1911. Located at 5, rue Daunou, in the Opera-Garnier area, it has the atmosphere of a pre-Prohibition drinking establishment. Its walls and bar are of mahogany (shipped here from NY), the ceiling is copper, and the principal decorations are dark wood shields and cloth pennants bearing the insignia of American colleges.

Harry's Bar opened 97 years ago when an American jockey, Todd Sloan, joined a NY saloon owner in converting a French bistro into an American style bar. They named it “New York Bar.” Sloan sold to a Scottish bartender named Harry MacElhone in 1923, and the place has been called Harry’s New York Bar ever since. To aid happy customers in finding their way back, Americans who spoke no French were advised to tell their taxi-driver to take them to “Sank Roo Doe Noo” (5, rue Daunou), as written on the front window, still visible today. Worked every time.

Harry's fame derives from a successful record of inventing specialty cocktails. Among the many born at Harry’s are the French 75 (gin, champagne, lemon juice, sugar), the White Lady (gin, cream, egg white, sugar), and the Sidecar (brandy, triple sec and lemon juice in a sugar-rimmed glass). These were all conceived between the world wars. Oh – not to forget the Bloody Mary (1921). More than 40 cocktails were invented here. Harry's also served the first hot dog in France, in 1925 at the bar. They are still a popular menu item, along with the club sandwich. And no one will look upon you with scorn for wearing jeans.

L to R: Bloody Mary and French 75

Clientele? Ernest Hemingway, Scott Fitzgerald, George Gershwin, Rita Hayworth, Jack Dempsey, Sinclair Lewis, Coco Chanel, Bill Tilden, Humphrey Bogart, Gene Kelly, Glenn Ford, Noel Coward, Knute Rockne, Thornton Wilder, Marlene Dietrich – all have passed through the swinging saloon doors at the entrance. The upright piano in the basement bar is the very one on which Gershwin first tried out themes for “An American in Paris,” exactly 80 years ago (1928).

During World War II, Mr. MacElhone shuttered the bar when the occupation began, but the Germans reopened it. Many French people who had lived in America and select German officers who had studied there drifted into Harry’s, where they enjoyed speaking English. It was the one spot in Paris where English was the language of choice.

By April, 1945, the Germans were gone and Harry was once more behind the bar. Again the bar boasted the best cocktails and the best steamed hot dogs. After Harry died in 1958, his son took over, in turn followed by his son, Duncan, a Georgetown University graduate. Harry’s Bar today enjoys a thriving business as one of the most famous bars in the world. Drinks are not cheap – a fancy cocktail will set you back about 12 Euros, but drinks made with spirits are ghastly expensive all over Paris (I sheepishly confess to paying 25 Euros for a gin and tonic at a Paris hotel bar one hot summer evening three or four years ago – when exchange rates were better; the tip-off should have been the fact that the exiled Iranian royal family occupied the hotel's entire top floor).

However, for the price of a Budweiser and a hot dog, you can soak up all the atmosphere. I recall being at Harry’s with a lady friend, whom I encouraged to order a Sidecar. “Are you kidding? That’s what my grandmother drinks!” I informed her that this drink was invented here, so the least we could do was toast her granny. My companion just rolled her eyes, but did my bidding. The next day she ran up to me and said, “You were right about Harry’s inventing the Sidecar. I checked it out on the Internet and sent my grandmother an E-mail.” It’s just too easy to score points – with a little knowledge.

A word of warning – suffering the abuse of Harry’s bar staff is part and parcel of the experience, all a part of their schtick. It’s a saloon! Unfortunately, many first-timers don’t get it and leave with a bad taste in their mouths. But I suggest you check it out for yourself. Why take my word for it? Perhaps there’s a flaw in my decades of exhaustive research at Harry’s.

Homesick for New Orleans? Harry’s Sazerac:
“Attention! Il est fouété,” advises the bar man ... (fouété = kick)

Harry’s Bar
5, rue Daunou
Métro: Opéra
Open daily, 10:30a-4:00a. Don’t ask me how I know they close at 4 am.

Make plans now to go to Paris for Thanksgiving, 2011. Harry’s will celebrate its centennial, and you’ll want to be there. Grab a travel pal and have a reunion trip.