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Paris Impressions fugitives - 12 days in Paris, April 2004


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By Doru from Canada, Spring 2004. Impressions, some passing and some lasting, from a recent return to one of our favorite cities.

“This city, before Julius Caesar’s time, had been little more than a flood-prone fishing village clinging to a marshy island in the middle of the Seine and inhabited by the now vanished tribe of the Parisii (from “Gods and Legions by Michael Curtis Ford)

“J’aime flâner sur les grands boulevards, Y’a tant de choses, tant de choses, Tant de choses à voir… (Yves Montand, two thousand years later…)

Impressions fugitives

Paris was empty. During our previous visit, practically over the same period of time in April 2001, the arcades of Rue de Rivoli, the museums, the streets of the Cartier Latin and Les Marais, Les Grand Boulevards, Fragonard, Cityrama, American Express, Printemps and Les Galeries Lafayette were teeming with tourists. This time there was more than enough elbow room everywhere.

This year there were few Americans to be counted, no Japanese and the buses filled with Russians have disappeared. Where have they all gone?

The first beneficiaries of this suddenly available space were the French children, now prominently visible in large groups visiting museums, a time-honoured French tradition that other people would do well to imitate.

And the streets were much cleaner, probably cleaner than we can ever remember them, most likely thanks to the fact that there weren’t so many visitors to leave behind them ice cream wrappings, and empty bottles, and empty food bags and other manners of containers.

But the dog blessings were still, reassuringly, ever present, so that we knew that this is Paris, not some alien version of it. Even the dog who deposes conscientiously its production right in front of the Comédie Française gift shop, relentlessly continues to do its duty as the careless passers-by turn back to check what did they just step into, and move on mumbling a five-letter word under their offended breath.

The Métro. The greatest public transportation system on earth. Quick and neat service, clean though old, it looked better than in any other previous trip to Paris. Instead of our ubiquitous enormous blue boxes, the French discretely place small cardboard boxes in strategic places along the tortuous corridors or against the walls in stations, thus the containers with discarded newspapers are just as recyclable as their contents.

Paris April weather. April in Paris = rain. Axiomatic. Not so during this séjour, in which we enjoyed 10 wonderfully sunny days, bracketed by a quick but powerful shower on the evening of our arrival, and a nagging, wouldn’t go away kind of rain in the last evening of the trip. The flowers, in rich bloom everywhere, reminded us that we will live two springs this year, the one in Paris and the other, about a month and a half later, back home in Toronto. But nothing equals the Paris spring.

Où sont les clochards? Where are they? The beggars too seem to be mostly gone, although I was once startled out my wits by a sudden appearance of one such from the shadows of the immense doors when entering Église Saint-Eustache. And the threatening gangs of kids and teenagers generically branded “the gypsies” were nowhere to be seen.

Buying tea in Paris. We have been fans of Mariages Frères for many years, and always considered a visit to the famous tea house one of the highlights of “shoppìng parisien,” but our last visit there, in April, was a big disappointment from the point of view of the service. We arrived relatively early and there were four of their "colonial" dressed clerks at hand, who kept on going with their animated conversation, completely ignoring us for long minutes. There were no other customers. When one of the store clerks finally decided to turn to us, he kept talking with his colleagues, never really looking at us. When the assortment of packages we bought was ready on top of the tall counter, he went on ignoring us until he finally extended to us a hand with a note for the cashier. We asked for a few bags and he just threw on the counter a bunch of their nice paper bags in which the tea is being packaged. When we drew his attention, he bent, picked up a bunch of carrying bags of all sizes, pounded them on the counter and left. Now, we are not pampered people, but going to Mariages Frères was always a bit of an event for us, what with the attraction of Les Marais and all, and this attitude was disgraceful. Next trip to Paris, we will rather pay a visit to their Faubourg Saint-Honoré shop. Or better yet, for a sweet revenge, will go to their rivals, Maison Verlet, at 256 Rue Saint Honoré, which is quite close to the apartment we usually take in Paris. Passed by it tens of times and never stepped in. I guess now we will.

French are remote and unfriendly? As a counterpoint to the Mariage Frères experience, here is the following: One of the dual action spring temples of Josette’s reading glasses broke. Disaster. We go to Avenue de l’Opéra, where I remember having seen an optical store. Unfortunately, it turns out this is a rather small store and they can’t help. The girl at our hotel’s front desk suggests we try an optical store on Boulevard des Capucines, which we find easily. We are greeted pleasantly by a young woman in a white long coat, the glasses are examined promptly, we are told they may have a similar type of temple, but it will be of a slightly different colour, and could we be back in an hour. We ask how much it will cost and we are waived politely off and told to return in an hour. We go to Marmottan Museum (see further, under Museums) and return a few hours later. We are recognised immediately, the young woman asks us to wait and returns after a few moments with the glasses perfectly fixed, the colour of the new temple hardly distinguishable from the original. We ask how much it costs and we are told “Mais rien, Madame, car je vous ai dit que c’est une offerte”. It turns out “offerte” means in this sense “gratis”. Two months later, back at home, the second temple will break and our optician, who has had our business for many years, and that of many friends we referred to him, will charge us 40 dollars to replace the two temples. So much for French being unfriendly, aloof and tight with the euro. By the way, the store is called Grand Optical, at 6, Boulevard des Capucines and the company has about ten branches across Paris.

Le rhume. Sunday, April the 25th at 10:00 a.m. we line up dutifully in front of the Théâtre du Châtelet to purchase tickets for the piano recital of Evgheni Koroliov. These Sunday morning concerts are a great Parisian tradition in which we partake every time we are in town. This time the musical event itself is not at the expected level, but we have a somewhat funny story to take with us. The seats at these concerts are on a first come, first taken basis. Next to us somebody, who obviously arrived ahead of us, left a coat, scarf and programme as tokens of having reserved the seat, and went away for whatever reason. Somewhat later, another lady asks whether the seat is ours. We answer “Non,” but explain that another lady left her things there. Expressing strong displeasure, the newcomer says “Mais s’est impossible, ça!”, takes the other person’s stuff, moves it to a seat in the back, and appropriates the disputed seat. For some reason, soon after, Josette starts sneezing. When she gets going, this usually goes on for a while. Indignant, the lady now sitting next to Josette turns to her and says: “Ah! Mais c’est le rhume, ça!” “Mais non, Madame,” replies Josette, “ceux sont des allergies!” Josette’s neighbour turns slightly to a side and away from her. Now, the person who initially reserved the seat arrives only to find her things moved elsewhere. A pretty nasty argument ensues, claws all-out, teeth gnashing, nothing like the polite WASP-type arguments to which we are used at home. We cynically enjoy the scene. Enormously. Finally, the initial owner of the seat retreats defeated, mumbling away. No sooner has Josette’s neighbour resettles in the seat now definitely hers, and somebody right behind her explodes in the biggest, potentially most saliva-spreading sneeze I have ever heard. I turn to Josette’s neighbour and murmur: “ Voilà, madame, ça c’est vraiment le rhume.” She gets up and goes. The initial “owner” reclaims the seat next to Josette triumphantly. This sideshow will turn out to be the highlight of the concert. This, and remembering the inimitable way in which Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouzot used to pronounce the English word “room” like the French word “rhume”.

Marché Richard Lenoir. After the piano recital, on this wonderful sunny day, we walk along Rue de Rivoli and Rue Saint-Antoine, towards Place de la Bastille. The aim is Marché Richard Lenoir, a two hundred meter long open-air market. It is worth seeing: a riot of colours, voices and aromas, offering everything one can dream of, from stalls groaning with seafoods of all shapes and colours, to spices, fois gras, cheeses of all denominations, preserves, vegetables and fruits, clothes old and new, trinkets. Just walking through it all, end to end, makes one high, and I figure that if one wants to really get “high”, this would be available too, judging by the sweetish smell coming from some stalls.

We load on spices and find some cute things for our two granddaughters. Josette derives great satisfaction from finding on a vendor’s table summer blankets, absolutely identical in any respects to ours. She asks the price, and is told 200 Euro per blanket. She looks at me, and smiles gleefully: in Toronto, she paid about 60 Canadian dollars (about 35 Euro) for the very same products. We move on, take some pictures and later alight to a café in Place de la Bastille for some coffee and desserts.
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Museums, museums

Museum passes. We thought museum passes would be a must after our April 2001 experience, when we had to forgo the usual stop at Musée d'Orsay because the line-ups were literally around the blocks (plural intended) both for those with tickets and for those in groups or with passes, while at the Louvre we got in only thanks to Josette’s ingenuity: she dragged me through the Passage Richelieu where the entrance for the groups is located, and pulled me down the stairs under the temporarily benevolent glance of a guard who was on some strike or another together with the rest of the museum staff. I do not advocate that museum passes are useless, and indeed they also save some entrance fees, but this time, as means of avoiding the line-ups, they were quite unnecessary because there were no line-ups to speak of, not at the Louvre, where we went straight in the pyramid, and not at the d’Orsay where there were about 20 people with museum passes in a “privileged” queue and maybe 100 in the “popular” queue. In ten minutes we were all in regardless of museum pass creed. Another problem with the museum passes from our point of view is that they cramp time: one can see only so many museums within the allotted days or else. I found this annoying. The only place where we did find some advantage from having the pass was at Sainte Chapelle; without them we would have been engulfed there in a sea of students.

Museums. How on earth, in so many previous trips, could we miss Sainte Chapelle, the Musée Marmottan and the Musée Jaquemart-André?

Well, for Sainte Chapelle there is an explanation, though not an excuse: the line-ups were usually too much to even consider by one carrying his body on two bad hips. In the last three or four years, the new, surgically-enhanced hips started being more apt for the task. Plus, this time we had the museum pass. Sainte Chapelle is a wonder of times long passed, an incredible marvel of stained glass lace, the lower structure mostly a preparation for the other wonder above it. It left us breathless. We arrived in the late afternoon, with the sun at low angle to the western windows, creating a halo of light around them. When looking up, toward the windows and the ceiling, one can almost feel alone despite the presence of other visitors, since it all happens at a level high above the human stature, literally and figuratively. Unforgettable beauty.

We returned that same evening at Sainte Chapelle, after a light dinner on Boulevard Saint Gérmain, for a concert by the Quator de Chartres, reinforced by a flutist. The sun was down by then, sinking slowly into the Seine. The light was different from that we enjoyed a few hours earlier, more subdued. Haydn’s music rose beautifully toward the chapel ceiling, and then reached and spent itself against sublime windows and delicate columns.

The Marmottan was another revelation, with its dedication to Monet, tempered by the unexpected impression produced by Berthe Morisot’s aquarelles and pastels, protected as they are in a dedicated, low-light room, and by a temporary exhibition of old photographs assembled by the Institut de France, a collection of great historical interest. Among them, late 19th century panoramic photographs of the Mecca Hadj procession, with the Ka’ba Stone curiously lonely, surrounded by anaemic black and white crowds. Try comparing these pictures with the images we see in our times in TV screenings of the same ritual.

Here we find a rich collection of Monet’s paintings, from “Impression Soleil Levant”, remarkable not only for its diffuse melancholy but also because it caused a French critic of the time to use its name as a generic dismissal of “impressionisme,” through to “Cathédrale de Rouen,” “Éffets du soleil, fin du journée,” to the graceful, fragile, temporary, exquisite beauty of the “Iris” which lifts its head, an essence of iris, Japanese in its austerity and floating grace. Elsewhere in the museum, richly endowed with works by other painters, such as Degas, Manet, Pissaro, Sisley, Rodin, we find the portraits of the Monet family painted by Renoir and the amazing “Bouquet de fleurs” by Gaugain, with its red flowers, their colour like burning drops of blood.

And to our surprise, among the splendid variety, we encounter a painter from “the old country”, “Portrait de Georges de Bellio” by Nicolas Jan Grigoresco, (sic!) the great Romanian 19th century painter whom we know by his real name of Nicolae Ion Grigorescu.

Musée d’Orsay. Regardless how often we would be in Paris, we will always want to refresh our sight with the works of the great masters of Impressionism. Each visit may yield different, well, impressions, and some of the “classics” would always push to the fore. This time we were particularly taken by Manet’s “Le déjeuner sur l’herbe” of the Salon des Refusés fame, “Les Repasseuses” by Degas, Renoir’s “Bal du Moulin de la Galette,” Monet’s many studies of light (“éffets de lumière”), Van Gogh’s amazingly alive “Fritillaires dans une vase de cuivre,” Renoir’s “Jeunes filles au piano” which Josette has all over her studio in copies of different sizes and chromatic hues (another one was bought dutifully here), “Cirque” by Seurat, Signac’s “La bouée rouge” and we discovered Odilon Redon, by whose work we passed previous times without paying much attention and from whose winged men and flying horses maybe Chagall has sprung.

Louvre. Two hours fly like a dream. The Delacroix collection is depleted because many canvasses were taken for a “Dante and Virgil in Hell” exhibition. Mona Lisa is besieged by sparser crowds than expected. It seems smaller than usual. The digital camera allows taking a couple of pictures, which will come out quite well. Later, back in Toronto, we would read that the wood on which Mona Lisa is painted has started to warp. This Leonardo, what a guy: The Last Supper crumbling, Mona Lisa warping; he didn’t choose his materials very well, did he? The revelation of this visit is Giovanni Paolo Pannini, the “Canaletto of Rome” (Romaletto?) with his oversized “Galeries de vues de la Rome moderne” and “Fête Musicale,” montages of views of Roman life in the middle years of the 18th century. These gigantic paintings are quite extraordinary, if one manages to go beyond the apparent clutter of detail; they are albums saturated with images of the Rome of Pannini’s time, some still easily recognisable today.

We later spend a good part of our time at the museum with the Spanish collection, which refreshes our desire to go back to Madrid sometime sooner rather than later.

The Panthéon. The neo-classical building atop Colline Sainte Geneviève appears somewhat forlorn in the center of a huge piazza without a defined character. This first impression makes the Panthéon apparently smaller than it really is. The monumental structure itself is well defined, though cold, an appropriate mausoleum for many grand figures of French history and culture. Lack of windows causes the light to be dimmer, a touch of mystery, just enough to see the greyish paintings, mostly dedicated to the life of Sainte Geneviève, the patron Saint of Paris, and to legendary heroes of French history. These are not frescoes, as the first impression tends to suggest, but enormous paintings on canvass, which were applicated directly onto the walls. Many of these paintings are in need of repairs. The immensity of the nave and of the massive dome somehow is not transmitted to the viewer but the wonderful play of the high arches combine into an infinity of cubistic shapes and are great to photograph. In the midst of the gloom, Foucault’s Pendulum is hanging from the center of the Panthéon’s dome to which it was temporarily returned, at first sight motionless. But look more carefully and you will find that it oscillates after all, tracing the trajectory of the Panthéon as it rotates around the pendulum, and the rest of Earth with it.

Below the massive structure is the crypt housing the remains of many great figures of France’s past: Jean-Jacques Rousseau; Voltaire; appropriately sharing the same vault Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo and Émile Zola; Marie Curie and Pierre Curie reunited in death; heroes of wars long past, heroes of the Revolution, heroes of La Résistance.

We return to a cool afternoon with some relief and adjourn for coffee at a nearby café, where I try the macro feature of my Olympus C750 UZ on freshly cut branches of lilac. Beats taking photos of funeral monuments.

Musée de la Musique. On a wonderful spring Saturday, we decide to go to Cité de la Musique and visit the museum of the same name. This takes us for the first time in this part of Paris and we find a pleasant, mostly residential area, few people on the streets, mostly families. We start with much needed coffee after the long métro ride and sit in an open doors café, surrounded by young people sipping… beer, at about 10:30 in the morning! Across from the café is a huge park and similarly sized pavilions which seem to be dedicated to children and youth activities. All quite empty, few people to be seen anywhere; it is probably too early to be out on a Saturday.

The museum itself, a modernistic building with interesting geometrical lines, calls for some photographs. Alas, these are the last photographs to be taken here since photography is not permitted in the museum, where hundreds of musical instruments, of historical or anthropological interest, are exposed on seven or eight levels linked by a ramp pointing gently upwards. On the last level we hear live music being played and we find a small theatre, with a little stage, on which a singer from an African country, in national costume, sings softly what sounds like a ballad, accompanying himself at a very large, multiple-strings, bass-like instrument. The music is haunting, repetitive, addictive. Visitors to the museum end up here, and just take one of the many available chairs, and listen. I’d like to know more about the man, and the country, and the music, but he just goes on and, finally, we leave.

Musée Rodin. This is a pilgrimage. We come here every time we are in Paris, we see always the same works, and we never tire of them, and still manage to find a good justification for coming back again and again. For me, it is the fascination with “Le Baiser.” I could stand and look at it forever, walk around and around it, discover new angles, never-before observed touches. For Josette it is Camille Claudel. For both, the garden, and Balzac, and Le Penseur, and Le Monument au bourgeois de Calais and, mostly for me, La Porte de l’Enfer. The new objects of fascination at this visit are the two studies of hands: “Le Secret” and “La Cathédrale.”

Musée Jacquemart-André. A wonderful 19th century town home whose name invokes money and art, felicitously united, and married. Edouard André and Nélie Jacquemart dedicated much of their fortune and life to the collecting of beautiful art, and then left their collection to the state. The owners of this magnificent home were tireless collectors, who traveled and acquired and placed their treasures in a wonderfully eclectic setting, of grandeur typical of their time.

If one looks for a specific penchant of this museum, than it must be the Italian Renaissance, represented here by a wide range of works, paintings, sculptures and frescoes, from the Florentine to the Venetian Galleries, housing great pieces by Botticelli, Donatello, Uccello, Mantegna, Tizian, Tiepolo, Tintoretto. Stunning is a Tiepolo fresco, “Reception of Henry III in Venice,” which greets visitors at the top of the sumptuous double staircase. But there is much more: the Old masters, Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Ruysdael, French 18th century painters such as Fragonard, David and Boucher, Limoges enamels, ceramics, tapestries, furniture. We bought here a needlepoint piece representing musical instruments, which we framed back in Toronto. The frame cost about six times more than the needlepoint, encouragement to the Canadian enterprise, I guess.

L’Atelier Brancusi. Again, a place to which we return after discovering it during our last trip in Paris. Born and educated in Romania, Brancusi worked and created in Paris throughout his life. The museum, because this is what L’Atelier is, is a faithful reconstruction of Brancusi’s studio and it sets out to recreate his world and his art, which was dedicated to the understanding and representation of matter, shape and space and of the mobility of one into the confinement, or the infinity, of the other. One can see here originals and copies of some of his best known works, in a seemingly haphazard assembly of sculptures, completed or casts, grouped according to Brancusi’s view of their spatial relationship. Unique is also the collection of hundreds of sculptor’s tools; all Brancusi’s ovens, forge, carving, cutting and soldering equipment, saws, hammers, hoists with pulleys, sanders and polishing machines, are preserved and give an idea of the hard work and world of the sculptor. The work of Brancusi is modern and yet classical in its love of proportion and fluidity of form and it is quite sad that the museum is not better known, because it presents and represents a totally unique experience.
The tale of two great restaurants

We ate well in Paris, and we had an apartment, which allowed for many meals to be taken “at home.” For rushed lunches or quick dinners we happened upon a couple of bistrots that didn’t leave an everlasting impression.

But, we returned to “L”Astrance” and discovered “Histoire Gourmande” and here are our impressions on these two restaurants.

L’Astrance. The elegance of simplicity or the simplicity of elegance; gastronomy with a touch of lightness.

If one googles these days “L’Astrance,” there will be tens of entries popping up on the screen, detailing reviews by the “Who and Who” of celebrity dining.

Three years ago, when we went to “L’Astrance” for the first time, the restaurant had been open for less than a full year. Although food critics in Paris recognized the potential represented by the young owners Pascal Barbot (Chef de cuisine) and Cristophe Rohat (Manager), both transfers from the famed L’Arpège, doubts were raised by its location, on a quiet side street between Métro Passy and the Trocadéro, where two other restaurants had failed in quick succession. But we loved our 2001 anniversary lunch there, food, presentation and atmosphere, and vowed to return.

Preparing for this April 2004 trip, a pleasant surprise was waiting for us on pages 294-295 of the DK Eyewitness Guide for Paris, edition 2003, under “Paris’s Best: Restaurants,” the first entry and photograph from the left, there was that of “L’Astrance,” in the august company of L’Arpège, Le Tour d’Argent, Taillevent, etc. Surprising but also intriguing: what would have been the compromises “L’Astrance” would have had to accept, in order to become “accepted?”

I booked the table by telephone from Toronto (circa a month for dinner or weekend lunches, somewhat easier for weekday lunches, but reservations highly recommended) in March, for an April 20 lunch. A few days later I remembered that Josette might have some concerns over the matter of her lactose intolerance; I called the restaurant again and I was assured this will be noted and we shouldn’t worry about it.

And, voilà, on the day of our 46th anniversary, still jet-lagged, we take the métro to Passy and walk towards the little street, Rue Beethoven, where tight among massive gates to apartment buildings, barely protruding from the façade line, is the home of “L’Astrance.” We expect to be the first patrons, a long-running problem of my obsession with punctuality, but a few tables are already occupied.

We are greeted with hushed “bonjours,” helped with coats and umbrella; used to the prevailing North-American indifference to patron comfort, there is some fumbling of coats and scarves, as we try to hang them ourselves, but all is well once we agree to leave them in the capable hands of the staff. With discretion, I am asked: “C’est Madame qui est allergique aux produit laitiers?” I confirm.

Seated, we note no changes in the simple, modern and attractive décor. Menus are handed to us. We remember Josette being somewhat upset three years ago that my menu had prices on it while hers did not; what she felt was then a patronising view of women. Since then, “L’Astrance” has become more liberal and Josette has now the privilege of seeing prices as well.

“L’Astrance” offerings include simple menus fixes, as well as menus dégustation and menus surprise. If prices, which reach above 100 Euro for a “menu surprise” at lunch (I don’t have prices for dinner but I would assume doubling the numbers would not be far) put fear in your heart, do what we do: go at lunch. Choose the 45 Euro menu and let yourself be surprised and pampered by an inventive and artful chef and by the best service one can ask for anywhere.

We choose identical menus, and some preparation care was put into making sure Josette’s meal will have no traces of butter or other dairy products.

We start with an airy mille-feuille made with paper-thin slices of apples and mushrooms, sprinkled with a citrus sauce and covered with a crackling, lightly grilled crust. The portion is respectable, but I could have stayed a bit longer and kept having some more. And more…

There follows a merlan (whiting?) de Bretagne, with seasonal greens and for me lightly grilled Tomme d’Auvergne, a regional cheese, is added.

For an intermezzo, we are then served a refreshingly spiced sorbet, which literally puts to work all sensory areas of the mouth. This is followed by a serving of strawberries drenched in a strawberry-based sorbet and a fruit plate with more fresh strawberries, pineapple and grapes.

Throughout the meal we enjoyed the discreet, relaxed and relaxing table service, performed with grace, attentive and effacing at the same time, here giving a hushed explanation of what is being served, there adding a needed piece of silver, clearing some crumbs, refilling the wine glass, all so natural, it becomes an art, a culinary dance. And we were never asked “Is all OK, honey?” or “Would there be anything else,” because Cristophe Rohat and his staff have mastered their art to perfection, don’t suffer from any inferiority complexes from providing a service and know that from Pascal Barbot’s kitchen only superlative meals will emerge.

My glass of wine, the only one I have really ordered, was refilled with discretion at least twice (no charge), and when I expressed my appreciation of the wonderful double espresso with which I closed the meal, a coffee with the creamiest texture and body and smoothest taste, I received promptly the explanation that is an Ethiopian Mocha and then, another double espresso appeared magically in front of me (no charge).

Excluding the extravagance of anniversary Kir Royale, the cost of the entire meal, for two, including wine, coffees, bread/cover, service and taxes, amounted to 111 Euro.

“Histoire Gourmande…:” A gastronomic and restaurant experience that shouldn’t be missed.

We found “Histoire Gourmande…” while researching the restaurant-rich area defined by Rue de Richelieu, Place des Victoires, Rue du Louvre and Rue Saint-Honoré. At 46, Rue du Croix des Petits Champs, there used to be “Le Boutillier”, now gone together with its colleague, “Chez Fabrice,” defunct and boarded at no. 38, further down on that same street.

One wonders about the turnover in restaurants on this quiet and pleasant street, whose opposite side is occupied mostly by the imposing building of Banque de France. Does it mean that my “confrères” from Banque de France don’t work late hours, and local restaurants can base their business only on lunches?

Anyway, the name “Histoire Gourmande…” appeared initially to me somewhat over-reaching but, lucky that we are, we stopped to read the posted menu. What we discovered was a varied and attractive menu, and extremely reasonable prices, particularly reasonable if the quality were to be up to the interesting offerings.

The “Histoire Gourmande…” menu includes 6 each of entrées (appetizers), plats (main courses) and desserts, with the full 3-course choice priced, service included, at 29 Euro, with any choice of two at 25 Euro. Individually, appetizers, main courses and desserts are priced at, respectively, 12, 15 and 8.50 Euro. For some of the choices a supplement of 2-5 Euro is charged and this is well highlighted on the menu, so there are no surprises. All very simple and intriguing. There are also daily specials for lunch, usually scripted on a board just outside the restaurant, again with very reasonable prices, surely excellent value for the banking and fashion people working in that neighbourhood.

It was too early for dinner that evening but we made a reservation for the next day. Arriving at the restaurant at 7:30 sharp we were, as usual, the first patrons and were greeted and seated with much courtesy.

That evening we both went for the 3-course menu, Josette ordering grosses ravioles de fois gras frais du canard, noisettes de thon and arlette caramélisée en mille feuille de fraise. The ravioli were deliciously bathed in a cappuccino mousse, the three (very) large cuts of tuna rolled in sesame seeds were perfectly done and served with small patties of sweet and sour radish and shoots of arugula, and the dessert was a sensory swirl of delicate aromas of strawberry, vanilla and spiced mint. For Josette the portions were much too large, good for me, as I could taste them all!

Not that I needed the supplement! I chose the brochette de noix de St. Jacques which came in a sauce of caramelised cumin, with zucchini fritters flavoured with saffron, then the confit de souris d’agneau aux abricots et citron vert presented with al dente seasonal vegetables, and I closed sinfully with an assiette tout chocolat. The scallops were perfect and the lamb was divine, and anything else I would add would only detract from the great pleasure we had from that meal. Add to this the attention of the chef, Stéphane Oulevey, who came personally to discuss the choices with us, the obvious strangers, and the excellent service by Letitia, the very pleasant waitress who also recommended the St. Chinian house red which went very well with the meal. We also had the pleasure of striking up a conversation with a Parisian middle-aged couple at the adjacent table, who somehow were curious whether we were indeed from Bulgaria (no, we were speaking Romanian), which then opened a whole array of subjects on Latin vs. Slavic languages and on travel. I spared them my “pièce de résistance” for such occasions by not getting into Dracula territory; this would have kept us there for very long hours.

The two menus, plus a few Euro in supplements, one fillette of St. Chinian (50 cl. or approximately 4 glasses-Note: In some parts of France a fillette, when we talk wine, is the equivalent of just less than half a bottle, but in other places they seem to be thinking bigger when it comes to wine, and good for them), a fragrant fruit cocktail drink for Josette, and a coffee, resulted in a total bill of 88 Euro, to which we added a tip without hesitation, although the service was already included.

We enjoyed dining at “Histoire Gourmande…” so much that we decided to return a few days later and further explore the tempting menu. The second time we were already greeted like family: we were seated at the same table as the previous time after being asked if we liked it there, then we received a return visit from the chef, this time just to say “bonsoir et merçi,” comforting smiles from Letitia. What more can one ask?

This evening Josette chose to skip dessert, so, remembering the splendid scallops I had a few evening earlier, she chose the brochette de noix de St. Jacques (I didn’t get any of hers this time!), followed by the suprême de volaille fermière on a base of vegetables and olive reduction, while myself, acutely aware that this exploration will be the last for the current trip, went again for a 3-course menu: poèlée d’escargots petit-gris, the little snails tender and flavoured with aniseed, lotte rôtie meunière on a bed of risotto with thyme and marjoram, and closing with the beautifully named défilé de crème brûlée - a little parade of four glass jars filled with crème brûlée in four different flavours: roses, mint, lemon and violet.

Again, an experience of delights, accompanied by another non-alcoholic fruit cocktail for Josette and a filette (“j’aime le fillettes… de vin!”) of traminer from Ardois in the Jura region, a kir cassis and a coffee, all totaling 85,50 Euro, all included, plus a well deserved farewell tip.

All I can add is that “Histoire Gourmande” was “une riche trouvaille,” a most felicitous discovery for us and I would encourage every visitor to Paris, whether staying in the general area of the restaurant’s location or anywhere across town, to have a meal there: this is a really excellent restaurant, with an imaginative cuisine based on fresh seasonal ingredients and daring flavour combinations and coming in generous servings; all this will satisfy the most demanding and make anyone comfortable and content.

The motto of the restaurant “Histoire Gourmande…” is: “il était une fois, une table et quatre saisons…” I suspect Chef Oulevey is not only a wizard in the kitchen, but also a poet; this reflects in his menu and in his preparations.
Opéra, opéra: two evenings at Opéra Bastille

Il Trovatore. An evening at Opéra Bastille, or the art of keeping things complicated

Our plane had left Toronto the previous night with a delay of two hours, thus we arrived in Paris at about 11 a.m. A busy day ahead:

- Check-in for our apartment at Citadines-Louvre; - Unpack, if the apartment is available; - Walk to the Monoprix on Avenue de l’Opéra to do some initial shopping at their well-supplied basement supermarket (shock on the way to the Monoprix as we discover that our favourite boulanger is away on vacation and we’ll have to use the one up Rue de Richelieu, who is not quite as sympathique); - Quick lunch, or whatever; - Rest a bit, if we can; -Leave early for Opéra Bastille to pick up our tickets for tonight’s show: the 2004 première of Il Trovatore, with Marina Mescheriakova and Salvatore Licitra.

How we came to buy the ticket is a story in itself. Usually, we buy such tickets through the Internet, well, well in advance. However, this trip was fraught with uncertainties and question marks for a variety of reasons, and all arrangements were made so that we would be able to cancel flight tickets and apartment reservation practically until departure time.

Thus, we initially showed unusual restraint and didn’t buy any tickets in advance. However, from time to time I would check the availability of tickets at our usual haunts: the Opéras, Théâtre du Châtelet, Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Salle Pleyel, Salle Gaveau, etc. The only availabilities were at the Opéra, but we stayed with our decision, “showed character,” and … waited.

About four days prior to departure, I checked again the ticket availability at the Opéra and saw with alarm that there were not many tickets left for sale. In the evening, I called Josette upstairs and we reconsidered since for the period of our stay in Paris the only tickets left were for Il Trovatore on the evening of our arrival, and for Manon the very next day. Everything else was gone, sold out. Tough decisions, because the tickets were very expensive, and there was no refund option should we have to cancel the trip altogether.

Finally, on that late evening, our resolve broke down, and in the following 10-15 minutes we first bought 2 of the last tickets for Il Trovatore (Euro 114 apiece!) and then saw, literally as we were ordering for Manon, the last two tickets side by side for this representation disappear and had to settle for one ticket in the orchestra and the other at the first balcony (EURO 114 and 95, respectively. I checked next day, just for my interest, and the two representations were by then sold out! Close, and expensive, call.)

And so, here we are, in Paris, groceries safely stored in fridge and cupboards, a quick lunch behind us and now we figure that leaving the apartment at quarter to six will allow us decent time to go to Place de la Bastille with enough spare time to pick up our tickets and to take a walk in the neighbourhood. The show will start at 7:30.

As we step out of the hotel and walk around Comédie Française into Place Colette, we unexpectedly find ourselves in the midst of a huge demonstration, with thousands of people massed in front of the handsome Conseil d’État building. Slogans chanted and placards raised protest unemployment. Self-conscious for being a bit overdressed for the event, we make ourselves inconspicuous, rounding by the edge of the crowds, into the metro station at Palays Royal-Louvre.

Once downstairs we buy our first set of 10 tickets (10 Euro for the set), and walk to the platform direction Chateau de Vincennes. Lots of people waiting for trains, but we know that this line will have at a minimum one train every 1-2 minutes, so we wait. The PA system crackles an announcement. In the din of the crowd, and not yet in our “French mode,” we can’t make out what is being said. When we hear again the noise typical of the PA’s system being opened, we move towards the edge of the platform and concentrate. We both understand the same thing: that there is a disruption of the service for the metro line #1 (ours…) and there is no indication when service will resume. Where Josette and I differ (both of us have listened, obviously to the same announcement), is in the explanation provided. Josette says the cause is the “manifestation” (French for demonstration) while I distinctly heard that the cause is an accident up the line, at Châtelet! So much for our French.

With just a glance needed for agreement, no words necessary, we decide to go back onto the street. My plan is to take a taxi to Bastille, which would allow us to get there in time to pick up the tickets. As we step back into Place du Palays Royal, heavy rain greets us; in the few minutes we were underground, the skies have opened. The crowds of demonstrators don’t seem to care, their enthusiasm undiminished. We open our umbrella and look for a taxi. The tableau in front of our eyes is not a happy one: Rue de Rivoli is devoid of traffic. At the far left end of the Rivoli galleries, Rue du Louvre is blocked by two police cruisers, lights flashing. To the right, from the Place du Carrousel du Louvre (famously figuring in “The Da Vinci Code”), are pouring endless rows of marching demonstrators, going in their thousands to join those already gathered in front of the Conseil d’État.

We seem to be trapped between police on the left, marching people on the right and grounded public transportation on the street and below.

When all hope seems to vanish, and as I start thinking of getting back to the hotel, a taxi appears from Rue du Louvre, on the lane dedicated to public transportation. Miraculously, he is free!

But when he hears that we want to go to Bastille, his forehead creases. “Alors, c’est un vrai problème aujourd’hui!,” he mumbles. “Hein, bien!” and he gestures to us to get in. Thus in the taxi, we witness a taxi driver’s sleigh of hand: as he gets close to the entrance to the Louvre, by the Passage Richelieu, he veers into a “no entry” lane, manages to squeeze in between masses of people and then turns towards the left bank of the Seine. From there, on to Châtelet, back to the right bank, and before we could say “Opéra” we are right in front of it! We thank him profusely and with a tip he will remember for a long time.

The rain has stopped, the Bastille immense public circle sparkles in the light of the early evening and all is well, or so it seems.

We walk around for a short time, take some pictures, and then step into the huge lobby. I go to the wickets I remember from the last visit here, where tickets were issued to those who had Internet reservations. The windows there are closed and an usher directs us to a stall to the left, where a silver-haired gentleman in a tuxedo and black tie is in the midst of a lively conversation in French-accented English with a customer who appears to be somewhat perplexed. We hear the words “strike,” and “labour action” and “you can get a refund; there are no tickets for other dates.”

This doesn’t sound too good and we wait for our turn. The silver-haired gentlemen runs a French version of the same speech and it turns out that the stage workers of the Opéra, in solidarity with the demonstrations taking place at that hour in Paris (Hm! We do know something about THAT, don’t we?) and in support of the French proletariat in their fight against unemployment, etc., etc., have “staged” a strike, therefore the opera will be presented tonight, but as an opera in concert, instead of a full dress show. Would we still want the tickets, or do we wish a refund?

Well, in our humble and experienced opinion, operas in concert are sometimes more rewarding than those with full mise en scène, so we don’t mind it at all and yes, we want the tickets. By the way, can we also have the tickets for tomorrow’s “Manon” and will there be a strike tomorrow as well? The answer is yes to the first question and no to the second, so we pick up our tickets, thank profusely the kind gentlemen for his patience and explanations and walk towards the doors, to resume our walk around Place de la Bastille.

No sooner did we say “Merçi,” and a bunch of other people dressed in tuxedoes rush into the lobby holding papers in hand. It turns out they also had scotch tape, since they affix these papers all around, on walls and columns. We look at each other and think “What now?.” It turns our that these are announcements that Mr. Salvatore Licitra, who was scheduled to sing the role of Manrico tonight, is indisposed and, in lieu, the role will be sung by the tenor Victor Afanasenko, who was kind enough to fly in this morning from Vienna, where he was performing with the Staatsoper, and save tonight’s premiere.

We figure “What the heck?” and shrug. We further discuss whether Mr. Licitra was indeed ill, or just unhappy to sing under these conditions. A man nearby overhears us and interjects that Licitra, indeed, was already ill at the dress rehearsal and therefore it is not surprising that he can’t sing tonight.

At 7:20 we are in our seats in the 16th row of the orchestra, just amazing seats (last time we were at Opéra Bastille we had seats in the third balcony, from where we could hear all and see dwarfs). The stage is open, with a décor which will turn to be the one left unchanged by the striking stagehands from the dress rehearsal, specifically that of the closing scene of the opera.

At 7:30 sharp the conductor, Maurizio Benini, arrives, greeted with applause by the packed house, then the overture, and as the first scene starts, instead of the usual group of Conte de Luna’s friends and of the marching armoured soldiers, from the right of the stage enter about 40 men, all dressed in… tuxedos, as Ferrando, the Captain of the guard, in tuxedo, intones:

“All'erta, all'erta! Il Conte N'è d'uopo attender vigilando” etc.,

and the tuxedoed choir, comments:

“Gelosia le fiere Serpi gli avventa in petto!.”

And so on, the female protagonists in gorgeous evening dresses, all men in tuxedos, excellent singing, particularly by Larissa Dyadkova as Azucena, Marina Mescheriakova as Leonora and Anthony Michaels-Moore as the Count di Luna with Afanasenko’s Manrico honourably performed.

An unforgettable evening, not in the least thanks to the unusual events which framed it.

Close to midnight, returning to the apartment, the métro comes on time, Place du Palais Royal is populated only by a few virtuoso skateboarders, the funky métro entrance in Place Colette shines in bright colours.

The following evening, Massenet’s “Manon” is a much more traditional operatic affair. All stage staff is at hand, yesterday’s strike forgotten. Remarkable is the distribution, in that it is totally French, notwithstanding the fact that some of the singers have Italian names: Alexia Cousin is a young French talent and sings Manon, while Roberto Alagna is Des Grieux, seconded by Franco Ferrari as Lescaut and Alain Vernhes as the Count Des Grieux.

While excellent in all respects, maybe with the exception of Manon, where some refinement and maturity of the voice is still lacking, the most extraordinary moments of the evening belong to Alagna. One has to be in a French Opera hall on an evening when Alagna sings in order to understand the phenomenon, because Alagna has status of pop star in France and is the heart-throb of French women of all ages, from teenagers to octogenarians. The moment he makes his first entrance, which is quite late into the first act, the tension has already built to the highest pitch: Opéra Bastille erupts in applause and Bravos which go on for quite some time, until he is finally allowed intoning his first line. This continues on after each scene, and it is clear that the night is Alagna’s, and well deserved too: the warmth and rich quality of his voice are amazing (although he tends to occasionally sing on “knife’s edge”) and his figure is striking.
La Comédie Française

To be in Paris for almost two weeks and to live right across the Comédie Française, to walk a few times daily through its loggia with eyes prudently down to scan for and avoid the now familiar dog poo, to check daily for which plays there are still tickets available, and not to take the plunge?

The intimidating factor is the language, the French of the classics. When our weekend trip to Beaune has to be cancelled, the opening is made: we reason that we probably have even more trouble understanding the French “argot” (slang) of today, than the French of Molière. And we take the plunge with “Le Malade Imaginaire,” of course, by Molière…

Sunday evening and Place Colette is quite empty. We enter the theater with some of the religious respect, since this is a place carrying on a centuries-old tradition, the home of Molière, Corneille and Racine, the cradle of French theatre with which I have lost contact since the French literature university courses. These three playwrights dominated the French theatre of the 17th century and opened the way for the comedies of Beaumarchais and the tragedies of Voltaire in the 18th.

The building we enter is not the original one. The Comédie Française has had many homes before settling at this location at the end of the 18th century. Even this building has gone through many transformations and renovations and survived a great fire in 1900. Still, once stepping on the deep red carpet, and raising the sights towards the upper floor terrace, one steps in history. The theatre itself, despite numerous and relatively recent renovations, looks and feels old, and rather small, and the seats are not very comfortable. Around us, the theatre fills slowly, the public unexpectedly young.

“Le Malade Imaginaire” is not a typical comedy, because death is very much part of the plot and present at the end of each act. Symbolically, Molière himself was gravely ill when the play was staged and he indeed died a few days later. It was Molière’s last and ultimate work.

When the curtain rises, we are in Molière’s world and get absorbed by it with surprising ease. With the exception of one young actress who plays Angélique, the daughter of Argan (the tragicomic hero) and who speaks just way too fast, we discover that we understand most of the play, and where we don’t get some words or sentence, the superb acting and the context help us along. In the intermission, I go outside, on the terrace overlooking the foot of Avenue de l”Opéra and Place Colette, and take pictures of the busy intersection with Rue Saint-Honoré.

The play ends too quickly, to ovations of the public and repeated recalls of the actors. A great experience for us and an incentive to return.
Au revoir, Paris, à la prochaine!

“…the Roman fort of Lutetia, in Gaul. It was built during the Gallic Wars of Julius Caesar, and its sole purpose, situated as it was on a crucial river ford, was to keep a lid on the warlike activities of the local tribesmen, the Parisii.” (from “Clothar the Frank” by Jack Whyte)

“Le soleil qui se lève Et caresse les toits Et c'est Paris le jour La Seine qui se promène Et me guide du doigt Et c'est Paris toujours Et mon coeur qui s'arrête Sur ton coeur qui sourit Et c'est Paris bonjour Et ta main dans ma main Qui me dit déjà oui Et c'est Paris l'amour…” (Jacques Brel, two thousand years later…)

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