A Travellerspoint blog

France

day 11: churches! museums! music! all you can eat!

in which your author gorges himself on the things that make europe europe

sunny 40 °F

My second morning in Toulouse begins by waking at 5am, meditating in a grassy field in the full lotus position in front of the cresting Toulouse sunrise. Actually, no, I slept in again, made a breakfast of toasted baguette and hopped on a bike outside Marie’s apartment. I ride the opposite way as yesterday, reaching the River Garonne, which I’m told flows into the Atlantic.

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I drop off the bike – this bikeshare thing is getting addicting – and stop for a slice of pizza before walking around the neighborhood of L’Eglise Saint Pierre des Chartreuse, a Baroque church built in 1602, currently undergoing restoration. The side chapels are in somewhat rough shape, but the ceiling of this church is stunning and in good shape. (So not Baroque? Sorry.)

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I walk past the sign saying "don't walk here" on the scaffolding around the altar and there’s a long ceremonial room with a large organ (here's some video of it on YouTube!), dark wooden seats on the sides and adorned with enormous, stately paintings hung high on the walls; this is a room which seems fit for a coronation, and I’m the only one in it. I shoot a bit of video which I'm certain in no way captures the ambiance of being there.

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As I’m walking around, an organist is practicing in the center of the church where a smaller organ resides. Standing there amidst all that art and historical air, the melancholy, perfect counterpoint in the background makes for a poignant experience. When the organist finishes, I say “Bach?” and he says “Oui.” We manage a 75% English, 25% French conversation, and I guess correctly that he’s a local student. The music was beautiful so I take a picture to find a recording later, and I take a few seconds to play the first few bars of the melody on the organ myself, though he tells me I’ve played it too fast.

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I leave the church and continue walking around, with no real plan in place, passing through some brick archways in the area of the University of Toulouse, where Marie chairs the English Department.

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The face of Matt Damon and a Red Bull car seem, I don’t know, anachronistic, in this neighborhood, no?

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I stop into a friendly-looking café and sit for un café, then decide to stay and indulge in some afternoon wine and cheese. (The wine is a local red, Fronton, which I would later purchase a bottle of for home, and the cheese was cow’s milk, though at first I hear the bartender say “coal’s milk.”) I’m able to get a wifi signal here, so I spend a bit of time updating my Facebook status, which admittedly is a fairly exciting thing to do when one is sipping wine in a French café.

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I keep walking and pass by St. Sernin, knowing there was a bike rack (two, actually) behind it, and I pick up a new bike and come upon a square with a merry-go-round and a traffic circle packed with lots of people strolling about.

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Riding down Rue D’Alsace Lorraine, I pass by hundreds of busy shoppers, and come out on a main avenue, where I find a bike stand and saddle down, with the mind of walking back toward a wine shop I had passed. On the corner, however, is the Musee des Augustins, one of the places Marie had circled on her map, and it’s still open, so I pay the meager 3 Euro entry fee and walk in. The museum is arranged around a square-shaped, outdoor monastery plot with a medieval garden in the middle, and I’m immediately struck by the uncanny resemblance to The Cloisters in upper Manhattan, always one of my favorite hidden gems in New York City.

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Walking through the Gothic section there are hundreds of religious sculptures and paintings dating to the 14th century and prior; the collection seems quite impressive and I’m already glad I stopped in.

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There’s a heavy door at the entry to the chapel, and entering I walk into a large space which obviously once was a fairly large church which has been converted into museum space. There are a number of interesting paintings and sculptures here, mostly Spanish, Italian, and French Renaissance and pre-Renaissance, with a few 19th century works as well.

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I take a particular fancy to a work by 17th century Spanish painter Bartolomeo Esteban Murillo, called San Diego de Alcala de Henares en extase devant la Croix, which shows an ordinary medieval garden containing a priest seemingly levitating off the ground in ecstasy while the churchmen bicker amongst themselves. (For some reason they had no postcard for this in the store?!) After looking this painter up online I recognize one of his other works, Two Women at a Window, as one of my favorites from the collection in the National Gallery in DC.

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Marie calls and we agree to meet at the museum, after grabbing a quick bite to eat we will come back to the museum chapel for an organ recital at 8:00. I explore a few more wings until she arrives.

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We walk with the goal of finding some food and exploring the town; she’s a terrific tour guide, pointing out 16th century apartments along the way.

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When I mention I’m interested in buying some wine we head off to her favorite wine store, which is packed with local selections. I buy a nice 2006 Fronton, which I’ve already had twice in Toulouse, and I splurge on some 15 year Armagnac, which I hope will stand for a while as a nice memento of this region. (I find it strangely synchronicitous that a day after I bought this bottle, the Washington Post published this feature article on the intrigue of Armagnac!)

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Stopping first at another of her favorite restaurants to make a reservation for after the concert, we pass by the river, and end up at a cute café where Marie treats me to local red wine (keep it coming!) and local spiced cheese with jam.

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The concert at the museum, played by a young organist on the large pipe organ in the same chapel space described above, is so soothing that I admit to drifting off at times; it’s an almost mystical feeling being semi-conscious while listening to Bach fugues!

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As we leave through the gift shop area I find out that the most famous work the museum owns (a Gothic Madonna and Child called Nostre Dame de Grasse) is actually on its way to Paris and Chicago! So I take a photo of the poster. ☺

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Dinner at Le May is fulfilling, and again I’m basking in the ambiance of the way the French eat. For dessert I have some sort of upside-down apple tort which Marie describes as being named after two sisters.

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The night is still young, so we head to La Tireuse, a beer bar with many Belgians on tap, which given my craft beer obsession, Marie is justifiably excited to show off. Over a few fine Belgian beers, some which I hadn’t tried before (e.g. the sweet Belgian stout Leroy), we discuss great books (I demand of her a list of her Top 5, Desert Island novels) and art and again it's great to feel an intellectual connection with an academic in a different discipline.

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On the walk back to the apartment, I’m kicking myself when I realize that one thing I missed seeing was the church where the relics of St. Thomas Aquinas are kept, and as we walk by the outdoor of Les Jacobins I resolve to see this another time. I head to bed having spent a full, enriching day in Toulouse, and I’m so happy I came here. I look forward to coming again – who knows when? – not to mention meeting Roberto (who was in the US at the time) at some point. (Something tells me he'll be a better conversationalist than Oedi the cat.) Thanks to Marie for being the best local host anyone could ask for!

Posted by coolmcjazz 11:40 Archived in France Comments (0)

day 10: toulouse is not too loose pour moi

in which your author has no excuse for that terrible play on words

sunny 45 °F

My first morning waking up in France (since July, at least) is spent catching up on sleep. I’ve found that’s sort of “how I roll” as a solo traveler – stay out at night and interact with people and places, then forego being an early morning tourist. There are disadvantages to traveling alone, but dictating one’s own schedule unapologetically is not one of them. After an unsuccessful joust with Marie’s stovetop coffee maker, I find a café in her neighborhood and manage to order un café (a strong French espresso, of course!) without much trouble, and I set out a map of Toulouse on the table to come up with a loose plan for the day.

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I make my way through brick-lined, colorful French side streets to Basilique St. Sernin, the major church of Toulouse. A large number of French students line the plazas surrounding the church, most of them smoking and happily chatting, and I see at least two bike drops close by.

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I stop into a crepe place Marie recommended (with a old piano at the entrance), and order a crepe dufort, with luscious, nutty emmental cheese and fromage de chevre, and a rich chocolate drink with vanilla cream. There's an old piano with a copy of the Beethoven Pathetique Sonata on it by the door. I must be in Europe!

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Passing through the 14th century gate, I enter the Basilica, a famous pilgrimage spot built in the shape of a Latin cross, and begin to explore its dark and ancient exterior. Allow me to pause briefly and note that one runs out of adjectives to describe the interior of these medieval churches; they all feel and smell “old” and storied, with ceilings stretching to the sky which make you wonder how the heck anyone got up there in the first place 600 years ago, never mind create incredibly ornate art. I sense a distinct lack of anything that’s comparable to them in the US. I also wonder whether if my students (or Americans in general) could hear music or even just set foot in these places, maybe the vapidity of much of American pop culture might lose some of its allure? (Soapbox now demounted.)

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In the rear of the church, I stop and touch the cement “feet” of St. Anthony, patron saint of travelers; this is one of the many stops along the legendary route of the Camino walk to Compostela de Santiago, and I think of my 70-something friend Dan, who has walked the 500 mile trip on numerous years, as well as Peter and Natasha of Greystones, who must have stopped here along their journeys as well? Incidentally, I'm very much looking forward to finding their book about the trip, which will be published in Ireland in March!

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In the other side of the rear, there’s an open space with statuary recalling the church’s history, reliquaries holding the remains of a number of Catholic saints, and what appear to be 14th century frescoes painted on the walls.

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I pay the 2 Euro entry fee to the crypt, and follow a curved path; from this angle, I can see the magnificent altarpiece of the church looming above. Steps leads down into a downstairs grotto containing more relic-holding shrines.

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Outside the basilica there’s a teenager bouncing a rugby ball, then kicking it high in the air to a mate; the accuracy of the kicking is impressive.

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Walking around the church, I find my way back to Rue de Taur, so named for the bull on which St. Sernin (aka Saturnin) was allegedly strapped to in the 3rd century; the bull ran the 1/3 of a mile along this street to the place where the basilica now stands. The street is busy with walking locals, and seems a center for shopping and eating, rife with bookstores (many displaying Camino maps), restaurants, bakeries, and even that grand French patisserie of yore, Subway. But thankfully, no holy men strapped to angry bulls.

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I spot another old church to explore, this one Notre Dame du Taur, which was the burial spot of St. Sernin. This is a good example of the constant renovation these churches must undergo; workers are up on ladders repairing some part of the altar, and most of the paintings and walls are in dire need of restoring. A beautiful 19th-century mosaic telling the story of St. Sernin and the bull decorates the area above the altar, and along the wall there’s a recently discovered, 14th century fresco giving the genealogy of Jacob.

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I stop into a bakery and order just one (just one?) pâté of chocolate and almonds, and come out into the large square surrounding the Capitolium, the large civic center of Toulouse.

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I pass through the archway and walk into the building, walking up a winding stairway around which colorful tapestries and paintings seem to cover every square inch of space.

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Inside the Capitoleum are what appear to be function rooms, all lined with paintings and ornate design. The workers setting up and breaking down ordinary plastic tables (probably for a wedding reception, as Marie says they have many here) seems a stark contrast to the opulent surroundings.

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Walking outside, I’m in a high traffic shopping area, and I stop into a Virgin Records, purchasing a few tough-to-find classical and jazz CDs in the clearance rack.

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At this point, I decide to try out Marie’s bike suggestion; she was kind enough to set up me up in the system with an account the night before. After some trouble with the all-French instructions (and some assistance from a stranger) I manage to get the bike out and I pedal back to her neighborhood, where I fix myself some soup and baguette and settle in for a nap.

I sleep way too long – I’m still in catchup mode after a physical rehearsal week – but luckily, France is a country that seems to open at 9pm!

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Marie and I venture out into a rustic neighborhood to visit one of her favorite local haunts L’Esquinade, and it’s the absolute picture of a stereotypical French restaurant, people wedged into chairs at tables practically butting into each other, everyone speaking French (imagine!) in animated tones. The menu changes depending on what they have in stock; I order white fish with vegetables, which is delectable. It’s tres difficult eating exclusively vegetarian (never mind vegan, God forbid!) in this country, as almost everything is cooked with some of meat, and the only meatless options on any menu seem to be cheese-based! They offer two house selections for wine, and we drink a good amount of the locally-produced Gros Manseng white, left at the table in jug form. The desserts are amazing: chocolate tiramisu, and flan encased in a caramel waffle, and after I pay the check (leaving an American-sized tip to make up for any previous rude, non-French speaking Americans… tres falulach!), we’re left with two shot-sized jam jars containing the house cocktail, strong, fruity, and gingery, though they won’t tell Marie exactly what’s inside!

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We walk a short distance over to Brueghel L’Ancien, another local bar with excellent Belgian beers on tap, where we befriend a cool local guy named David. We sit with him and his friend whose English is equivalent of my French (Marie translates), then retire to the outside area where most of the French people are now forced to do their smoking. I'm finding Marie's words true; everyone in Toulouse seems approachable and friendly, much more so than in Paris! A man with a dog stops by, then a few musicians getting out from a gig; one of them starts playing the Louis Armstrong classic St. James Infirmary on the guitar, but when a saxophonist joins in the bar manager comes out and asks them to stop. I’ve always heard how important jazz is to French culture, but it’s pretty amazing to see it in action; I can’t imagine jazz musicians picking up their horns for in impromptu session outside a bar in, say, Adams Morgan. Here's some video of this.

It’s been a nice, relaxing first full day in Toulouse, and I have another day to explore. C’est magnifique!

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Posted by coolmcjazz 03:15 Archived in France Comments (2)

day 9: carcassonne, s'il vous plaît!

in which your author explores an out-of-the-way destination

sunny 40 °F

On Saturday morning I successfully make it to the airport and am pleased that my underpacking has paid off – no extra fees on RyanAir, who I’d been warned is infamous for making their money this way. I catch up with sleep on the 2 hour flight to Carcassonne, and after landing take a shuttle bus to the train station, close to where I’m told there will be a hotel where I can leave my bags for a few hours. I’ve chosen to fly to Carcassonne (a town I had actually never heard of!) because it’s the closest RyanAir stop to Toulouse, where I will meet Marie, girlfriend of my mother’s college friend’s son. (Which in terms of Americans traveling in Europe makes us practically brother and sister?) Although I made it to Paris on my trip last summer, I opted to explore mostly Northern Europe, and didn’t make it down to the south of France, so it’s lucky and thrilling I’m able to tack on a trip at the end of the development week in Ireland.

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I stop into the tourist office where a friendly rep gives me directions to a hotel where I can drop off my bags for a few hours, and advises me to see the medieval city. I lug my bags through busy commercial streets to the small hotel, which is locked and seemingly unoccupied; I ring the bell and a man answers, who charges me 3 Euro to leave two bags. Walking around the “low” part of Carcassonne, it seems like most other cosmopolitan Europeans cities, rife with shopping, teenagers. Many of the residential buildings, however, seem to date from the 17th century or earlier; with multi-colored shutters and wrought iron balconies adorning their windows, it's easy to see the history of a place like this.

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I stop at a tea house, hoping to find un crèpe au fromage, but no luck, and the bargirl and I are having a comically good time trying to understand each other. Not wanting to be rude, I order an Earl Grey tea and sit for a few. I return to my walking and notice an open exhibit in the Museum of Fine Arts, where I take a few photos of sculptures.

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After walking for about 25 minutes and turning the corner onto a bridge, under which some men are laying a game which looks like bocce, my jaw drops when I see the medieval fortress city lying off to my right. UNESCO recently named the medieval city of Carcassonne as a World Heritage Site and I immediately see why.

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I walk up to the castle walls and wander up the windy paths, entering a city within the walls, with restaurants, cafes and hotels dotting the neighborhoods inside. Due to the off-season timing, the streets are mainly empty, which lends an almost ghost-town quality to the medieval architecture. I come upon the fortified castle, open for another hour, pay the admission fee and walk across the moat into the area which once hosted brutal battles. Prior to touring the castle I stop into the gift shop and find an impossible-to-find-in-the-US, 6-CD box set of the French early music ensemble A Sei Voci singing Josquin, on discount. (In hindsight there were two sets and I should’ve bought them both. The individual recordings are wicked rare, some of them +$100 each rare! Ah well, less to pack.) I walk around the ancient, restored castle, which even more than the town I have almost completely to myself, and take lots of photographs. It’s fairly clear out and from the distance, one can see the enormous Pyrenees; apparently this region has been on the cusp of French and Spanish control for thousands of years.

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After leaving I stop into the “Museum of Medieval Torture,” a bit of a gimmicky tourist-trap, but the Wikipedia article on Carcassonne mentions it, so I figure it must be legit. It’s gory stuff, and contains many original instruments used in the Inquisition led by the medieval Catholic Church. (Though I don’t imagine the plastic mannequins date to that period.)

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I’ve agreed to meet the hotel proprietor at 6:30 to get my bags, so I start heading back to the low town. The setting sun looks gorgeous from the descent from the castle; I’ve found this a really unique and unforgettable place which I wouldn’t have thought to visit had my travel plans not enabled its accessibility.

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The streets are now dark, and the hotel guy isn’t there at 6:30, causing a bit of temporary worry, as the neighborhood seems a bit unsteady and I have to catch a train. A few minutes later he comes to open the door (phew!) and I walk up to the train station, where the employees give me somewhat confusing directions about a bus to Toulouse, which appears to be late; they point vaguely to another area where the bus picks up; I don’t see it, and resign myself to waiting until the later train arrives.

On the train I sit across from two delightful French women (mother and daughter, I assume) who give me tips on Toulouse. (Thanks again, Pauline and Martine, if you ever see this, and I very much enjoyed San Augustin!)

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Marie comes to the platform to pick me up, and I’m surprised that rather than being out in the country, Toulouse is actually a major metropolitan city and also that Marie is my age! (Because she’s the head of the English department at the University of Toulouse, I guess I was expecting someone older?) Marie recommends that we bike to her apartment, and kindly sets me up with a weekly ticket to use the Toulouse bikeshare system, which I would find extremely convenient over the next few days. (Do we have this in DC yet?) We pile my bags into the bike baskets and whirr through the streets to where she lives about 2 miles away. Marie whips up a French favorite, baked camembert cheese with slices of warm and crusty whole grain baguette, and we down a bottle of excellent local red wine.

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We get to discussing literature; Marie is a renowned expert on Nabokov, and she pulls out books from the shelves (including Lolita, her major focus of study, which I have to read now) to illustrate various points. Given the isolated conditions of my current college teaching jobs, it feels really nice to engage with a peer on matters of art and expression. Marie brings out some fine Armagnac, a locally-produced fine liquor comparable to Cognac, though far less commonly found in the US. Armagnac is aged for years, and we finish a bottle from 1988, which was impressive enough, but then Marie breaks out a bottle from 1976, given to her as a special gift after having defending her PhD. The aroma of this stuff is so complex and glorious I almost don’t want to sip it, but when I do it’s warming and layered with many notes. I’m also drawn to the ritual which surrounds drinking Armagnac; one must warm the liquid by cupping the glass in one’s hand, swirling it for a few minutes to release the flavors and free the alcohol. I find the idea that this liquid has been trapped in this bottle for 34 years outrageously cool.

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Marie sets me up with keys and a map of Toulouse to explore the next day, and so far am feeling very welcomed in France!

Posted by coolmcjazz 02:07 Archived in France Comments (0)

Day 12, Part I: Paris Leftovers

sunny 80 °F

It’s Thursday and I’m still in Paris – I keep pinching myself to remind myself I’ve actually made it here – but with my flight home swiftly approaching Sunday, I’m aware I've entered lame duck status. Having already been to London, Paris would be my final “new place” of the trip, and I’m wishing I had more time.

With the intentions of spending time at three possible targets (Pere Lachaise, Cite de la Musique, and the Orsay), I make my way out of Montreuil around noon, and head first to Pere Lachaise, which I’m told is the most visited cemetery in the world. In my course on American Pop Music, I always reference this place in my Doors lecture, as Jim Morrison’s grave is a pilgrimage spot for many American rock fans. (Happily, I found the rumor of graffiti arrows pointing "this way to Jim" scrawled on nearby tombstones patently untrue!) I’d feel guilty sometime next semester if I spoke of visiting Paris but not making the pilgrimage myself – although I’m certainly interested in seeing much more than Morrison’s grave. Problem is, I’m really pressed for time – one of the few events I had actually pre-researched and written down on my (extremely loose) “itinerary” was a concert given by the young British early music vocal group Stile Antico, singing at 19:30 that evening in London.

I navigate a few trains on the Paris subway (old hat by this point), and enter Pere Lachaise at a side entrance, purchasing a map for 2 Euro. I had intended to spend only about an hour here, but it’s really a massive place and I’m repeatedly looking at the map and thinking “oh, I have to go there…” I try to stay conscious while visiting old cemeteries (which, admittedly, I seem to do have a penchant for doing) that I shouldn’t disrespect the vast majority of the “non-famous” by heading straight for the famous graves, so I do walk around quite a bit and take some photos of memorials and statuary which catch my eye.

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I’ll post pictures below, but a partial list of “famous” stops would include: composers Ernest Chausson, Gioachino Rossini (though I later found out his tomb is empty, as they moved him to Florence and is buried in the same church as Michelangelo and Galileo), Anton Reicha, Francis Poulenc, and Frédéric Chopin, musician Jim Morrison, jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani (buried very close to Chopin), famous 12 century lovers Heloise & Abelard, Sarah Bernhardt ('the most famous actress the world has ever known'), singer Edith Piaf, artist Amedeo Modigliani (tragically, buried with his pregnant girlfriend Jeanne Hébuterne, who leaped to her death five days after his), writers Guillaume Apollinaire, Marcel Proust, and Honoré de Balzac, playwright Moliere, and painter Eugene Delacroix.

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I spent the most amount of time at the graves of Oscar Wilde, Proust, and Chopin. Wilde’s grave is really a trip, as not only is it well attended, but its absolutely slathered in lipstick marks from people (women, presumably, though for a spontaneous goof I did the same) kissing it. All kinds of notes and poems and Wilde quotes adorn the grave, despite the sign explicitly asking people not to deface the memorial. Something tells me Oscar wouldn’t have minded.

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At the grave of Marcel Proust, I have my photo taken by a guy who tells me he was an English professor in America, who is making “the pilgrimage” to the grave of Jim Morrison. He asks me what I enjoy about Proust’s work and I relate the story of being half asleep on the train to Amsterdam, reading the section of In Search of Lost Time where Proust is describing the sensation of being half asleep!

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Chopin’s grave was moving to be at (though his heart is in Poland), especially given my recent memory of having seen this incredibly inspiring video (thanks Sisarina!) and playing it for my music classes. It’s interesting that Chopin’s grave gets far more “traffic” then does Mahler’s, due to the comparatively out-of-the-way setting of Mahler’s grave in Vienna. (And I suppose more people are familiar with Chopin?) At one point, an older man walks around Chopin’s grave, sprinkling what appears to be salt! As I’m leaving I give directions to a lost group looking for Chopin’s grave, and even sing a few bars of the E minor prelude to set the mood for them.

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Exiting Pere Lachaise around 14:30, and pressed for time, I hop in a cab and considering the time, take the rather bold move of asking him to take me to Cite de la Musique, which two of my graduate professors had recommended I see for “all things early.” The chunnel train for London leaves at 17:13, which gets me there just in time to make that evening’s concert, so I know this will be another “drive-by” museum stop. The challenges of ambitious traveling!

I arrive at the museum, pay the entry fee, and spend about 30 minutes exploring. It really is a remarkable place, containing hundreds of authentic instruments dating as far back as lutes from Greek antiquity. On display are numerous antique keyboards, tracing the development of the harpsichord of the 17th century leading into the pianos of the 19th, and the ornate details on the instruments are stunning. Sadly, I catch just the last few notes of a solo baroque violin performance of one of the Bach solo violin sonatas; one of the draws of this museum is that it features an actual musician who stays around and answers questions about the quirky-yet-fascinating world of early music performance.

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Leaving the museum, I have about 80 minutes to get back to Montreuil, gather my things, and head to the train station to catch the chunnel, so I decide to pay for another cab and speed away. I will leave the Orsay for a return trip, scheduled for someday... though honestly, I don't think I'd choose to come back to Paris alone again. Before leaving the comfy apartment, I take some photos, grabbing one with my gracious host Lea, right in front of the Louis Armstrong poster, which was the initial element that had drawn me to her apartment listing!

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As I’ve still got a few Metro tickets remaining, and having spent enough on cabs on this particular day, I take the Metro to the train station. A few stops prior to the station, I put my odds at 60% for getting on the 17:30 train. Sadly, I arrive at the ticket counter one minute after they’ve closed off entry, and I glumly purchase a ticket for the next train which leaves one hour later. (Incidentally, this train ticket is my most expensive purchase of the trip – 245 Euros, around $300 US! Note to future traveling self: this is what happens when travelers buy same day tickets!) This extra time, however, does grant me the opportunity to grab a few minutes drinking a 1664 and finally, reading Proust (yes, I actually did that) at an outdoor café across from the train station.

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Note: Because I did so much on this day – and because admittedly I'm posting what seems like billions of photos – I'm splitting this day into two entries. To be continued, across the pond...

Posted by coolmcjazz 10:22 Archived in France Tagged photography Comments (0)

Day 11: Paris, Crammed

sunny 80 °F

Wednesday morning passes me by – I’m finding one of the benefits of traveling solo is that while companions probably wouldn’t stand for my sleeping in, I can confidently begin my adventuring later in the day, and also stay out later at night – and venture out around noon to see what I can of Paris. I pass by Lea’s outdoor patio and joke that I’m off to “do the Louvre” in an hour, which actually isn’t very far from my intentions.

Taking the Metro to the Louvre stop, I get out and feel the warmth of the midday Paris sun. (Outside of the Vienna downpour, I must say I’ve been blessed with almost exclusively sunny conditions on this trip.) Walking around the enormous buildings of the Louvre, it takes me a good while to locate an entrance, which I eventually discover is adjacent to the Pei pyramid. I had been warned by friends that a trip to the Louvre would risk wasting hours of time waiting in line, however I breeze by security, take the escalator down, and stand in line only for around 15 minutes to purchase a 9 Euro ticket. During this time, I multi-task by writing out a number of postcards; I would eventually reach my goal of completing 30+ postcards to Facebook friends who sent me their addresses… you know who you are!

Now, there’s obviously no way I could actually “do” the Louvre in an hour, given that it is, of course, the largest and most visited museum in the world. I make the decision to just explore the Denon wing, which houses the Italian Renaissance collection, which is probably my favorite stuff. (Though I may just be copying my art history-buff father on that. ☺)

I first enter a room filled with Greek and Roman statues, leading into the Daru staircase which opens up to the Winged Victory of Samothrace sculpture, ca. 2nd century BC, which I later realize is one of the most famous sculptures in the world. It’s quite large and the composition is dramatic, despite that fact that it has wings but no head! (Those crazy Greeks!)

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Continuing to the right, I’m in a room featuring some gorgeous Italian frescoes (a typical Renaissance technique where paint is applied directly to plaster walls, rather than on canvas) by masters like Fra Angelico, whose work I remember seeing quite a lot of at the monastery of San Marco in Florence.

I continue walking – rather briskly – along the long corridors, only stopping to examine further (and/or take a photo) if a specific image jumps out at me. The works here are stunning, and I’m feeling guilty I’ve turned this visit into such a “drive-by.” Still, I'm taking in all sorts of biblical scenes: gorgeous, pained Madonnas bathed in reds and blues, stormy battle scenes with perfectly toned figures; it’s all a wonder.

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I recognize da Vinci’s gorgeous work The Virgin of the Rocks, and recognize the face of my old friend Ellen; I’m sure she’ll won’t mind me tagging her in my Facebook photos.

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I spend time with The Fortune Tellers (La Diseuse de bonne aventure) by Caravaggio (ca. 1598) who since a 2006 trip to Rome with my father has been my favorite Italian Renaissaince painter, mostly for his vivid, modern tone, dramatic use of narrative, and mastery of contrasting lighting. (Ironically, my parents saw the companion piece to this work, The Cardsharps, at the Kimball Art Museum in Ft. Worth, TX, of all places, prior to my arriving there for the Thomas Merton performance which preceded this trip.)

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After passing through a room featuring enormous large-scale works, I come across a work which gets me, La Jeune Martyre, by early 19th century French painter Paul Delaroche. Especially in contrast to the chaos of the surrounding large canvasses, I find something in the quiet, chilled drama of this painting reminiscent of Toni Frissell’s 1947 Weeki Wachee spring, Florida photograph of a woman suspended in water. Hey, anyone seen Ophelia around?

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Having made my way past the Italian, and now Spanish sections, I cave into my touristic urges to “see the famous one” and start looking around for the Mona Lisa, which ends up being in a different location from where the Louvre map claims it to be. I walk into the room where the most famous painting in the world is kept, and can immediately tell that something is different, as dozens of gawking tourists jockey for position in front of a roped off barrier about 20 feet in front of the painting, which is encased in a special glass enclosure. I had heard that one would wait for hours just for the chance to see the Mona Lisa for one minute, so I'm pleasantly surprised that not only was the wait not long, but that no one is enforcing any Sistine Chapel-like time limits on viewers. I ask a woman to take my photo in front of the painting, and ask her why she thinks its so famous. I imagine that everyone else in the room is asking the same question; like a modern-day reality TV star, this painting seems to be famous primarily because it is famous. It’s not appreciably “better” than any of the thousands of world-class works which surround it, and its actually quite small, yet there is an unmistakable mystique which comes from standing feet away from the most famous work of art in the world. It just seems so arbitrary to me, and I ponder the unpredictability of fame. On the way out of the room, I stand and study the faces of people as they enter the room and first spot the Mona.

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I make my way out via a different route from where I entered, and spend some time with my 50mm lens in a room of Italian statuary, including L’Enfant Jesus jouant avec un clou by Paolo Bernini, a son of Giancarlo Bernini’s (whose works I remember seeing so frequently in Rome), Lorenzo Bartolini’s Dirce, Pierino da Vinci’s Jeune flueve accompagne de trios enfants, and Michelangelo’s Captif (“l’Esclave rebelled”).

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Having spent a little under ninety minutes in the exhibits, I decide to head out, checking out the museum store on the lower floor. Continuing the theme of not wanting bulky luggage, I opt out of buying anything, and exit the world’s most famous museum for the bright afternoon sun of Paris.

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Next stop on the tourism train is the “buy one attraction, get one free” area of Sacré-Cœur & Montmartre, strongly recommended to me by a member of the Suspicious Cheeselords during a recent concert at the French Embassy in DC. (Thanks Gary!) In the Metro station, I walk past an elevator, thinking that’s odd – then come to realize out why it’s there after a looooong climb up to street level.

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Outside, there’s a fun jazz band playing for people sitting on benches. Having already heard a handful of jazz musicians playing on subway trains, I’m finding it’s true that jazz is a constant presence in Paris, much more so than in the US, sadly. I ask directions from a couple passing American girls as to where Sacré-Cœur is, and am told “just keep walking up, up, and up!” Along the way are many small shops selling stereotypical images of Parisian art nouveau, which although touristy, are really quite striking in their bold, jazzy coloration. I stop at an outdoor café, enjoy a cheese & tomato crepe and a Leffe, and write out a few more postcards.

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Turning the corner into the large public square at Montmartre, mixed in amongst the outdoor cafes are portrait artists left and right, all offering to sketch for the tourists. (As I walk further in, there appear to be almost as many portrait artists as there are potential subjects!) I even spot aspiring artists sitting at tables, practicing their craft.

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Ascending to Montmartre hill which looks out over Paris, I enter into the tall (aren’t they all?) cathedral of Sacré-Cœur, which unfortunately (and unlike Notre-Dame) has a policy of no photography. After lighting two candles, I walk around the perimeter of the church. At one point I sit on a chair in a chapel area and contemplate the fact that although at this very moment I am sitting in this famous church in Paris, in a mere 93 hours I will be standing in front of a classroom in Arlington, VA. Hard to believe. I continue walking around, and stopping into the gift shop, I start feeling that this place is a bit on the “churchy” side for my tastes – expensive religious statues and pins and pictures of the Pope’s visit and people reverently praying. On the way out, I’m fiddling with my camera and am rather bruskly apprehended by a man demanding to know how many photographs I had taken inside. (I hadn’t taken any, although I was about to take one non-flash, discrete shot of the inside of the church as I walked out of the door.) I walk out into the sunshine and decide I’m maybe not as fond of this church as I was of Notre-Dame, which although still reverent, felt a bit more embracing. Also, the sign hanging from the front of the church proclaiming that at least one person has been praying continually within the church “for over 125 years, day and night” makes me cynically think “lot of good preventing wars, atrocities, and natural disasters that did!” ☺

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Serenaded by a folky singer covering Jeff Buckley's version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah (of course), I descend the large hill and peer out at the city of Paris which lies beneath. It’s a gorgeous view and I’m glad I followed the advice to come out here. Walking past a funky African jazz group, I make my way to the Metro to head toward my next stop.

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Coming to Paris, my old friend (and former scene partner at the wonderful T. Schreiber Studio in NYC) Yvonnick was actually the only person I knew who lived here, and he had messaged me that he was to be involved with a theater piece that evening at the Le plateau, an art gallery located at Place Hannah Arendt, which Lea’s neighbor had mentioned would be found close to the Jourdain metro stop. On the way to the space, I stop into the much more casual, yet still ancient and contemplative church of Saint-Jean Baptiste de Belleville. No one grunts at me to put my camera away here.

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Yvo had mentioned that while at the performance, I should “ask someone who speaks French what’s going on,” which brings up connotations of watching the Threepenny Opera in German a few nights previous. After waiting a while to get into the sold-out performance (yay for the popular avant-garde!), we enter a minimalistic white gallery with a different actor frozen in each room or section of a room. I sit on the floor and watch Yvo’s performance, which I later find out is themed “a collection of failures,” and revel in how he’s so deftly using the “private moment” (or “being private in public”) exercises from Mary Boyer'’s acting classes years ago. Going from room to room, I’m happy to discover there’s no (or few) actual words used in these performances, which center on pantomime, improvised choreography, and actors deeply focusing on their tasks, most of which remain mysterious to the audience. I take a large number of photographs; the lighting and dynamic physicality of the actors allows for some compelling composition, I think, and I feel I’ve made at least incremental progress in learning how to manually operate the camera as compared with the beginning of the trip.

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After about 30 minutes of the actors working solo (save for one fascinating “couple”), all of the actors congregate in a back room for a sort of contact improvisation-inspired finale, standing in a line and improvising tiny shifts in movement. Although my impression is that all is improvised, everything feels smooth and choreographed; the sense of ensemble is strong and indicates the preparation that’s been put in. A signal is given and all the actors spring out of the room, ending the performance, and the appreciative audience (are they more “used to” unconventional work like this over here?) gathers in another room and applauds vigorously. What a thrilling, unexpected show. Before leaving the gallery, I take a number of photos of pieces from the current exhibit, which has something to do with heads topped with colorful geometric shapes.

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It’s great to finally chat with Yvo and he invites me out with the group. We sit at an outdoor café down the street and it’s great fun talking about the show and life in Paris with a few of the performers and various friends. I order a vegetable couscous, which my taste buds are surprised to find out contains a large chunk of meat, but nothing a few Belgian ales can’t wash down. In addition to being a superb actor, Yvo is a terrific guy and it’s so nice to reconnect after many years. After an hour or so I depart toward the direction of Café Oz, an Australian club where I’m told English speakers will be found. I make no new friends at Oz but I do proceed to blissfully dance my face off over some familiar American hiphop beats, camera bag slung over my neck the whole time, and depart with just enough time to make the 12:30 train back to Montreuil. Oddly, in a subway tunnel, I run into the same American girls who had given me directions at Sacré-Cœur earlier. Le monde est petit. Another day packed with cultural explorations – is Paris starting to make sense to me now?

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Posted by coolmcjazz 08:01 Archived in France Tagged photography Comments (0)

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