Wednesday, July 14, 2010

These are a Few of My Favorite Things

Julie Andrews may like raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens, but after living in Paris for nearly two years, I have come up with a list of my own favorite things that I like about the City of Light that may or may not be in a guidebook somewhere.

Places to see...

To start off with, there are two opposing points of view with regards to Sacre Coeur.  People either love it or they hate it.  I admit that I fell into the latter category when I arrived, but this church dedicated to the heart of Jesus, began to capture my own heart's attention as time went on.  For you see, this imposing edifice sits on the highest natural point in the city and can be seen from just about everywhere.  So, it's no wonder it grew on me.  I saw it every day! Plus, when I am atop its hill, I can survey most of Paris while wandering around this charming, and yes, touristy part of town where local artists gather selling their creations. 

My favorite place to gaze upon Sacre Coeur's splendor is not actually on Montmartre (translation: Martyr Mountain) where it is located, but where Blvd. des Courcelles meets Blvd. des Batignolles. Keep in mind that as you approach Place de Clichy, you won't be able to see it anymore, but WOW, what a view while it lasts!

Now, I think it is most important to share a well-guarded secret.  I like to take advantage of admiring Notre Dame while standing on the Quai St. Michel on the side where the fountain is located. If you look around at the other pedestrians, you will likely observe that everyone else is so lost in thought that they do not even notice their beautiful cathedral, but that doesn't mean I have to miss outand neither do you. Just don't tell anyone. If you do, we may have to sell tickets because everyone will want to get in on the act.

If there is a clear blue sky in August, go to Notre Dame around 8pm. The light from the sun shines on the facade in such a way that the statues practically come alive. Afterwards, head over to l'Hotel de Ville and check out its facade too. Incroyable!

Meditation is a part of my daily practice and while most people may not consider going to a church service as the appropriate place to meditate, I couldn't help myself.  Notre Dame is one of the most awe-inspiring structures for me and meditating during vespers allows for a deep state of tranquility. I feel the music in my heart.  Once during a session, I realized how grateful I am to be a part of my favorite cathedral's history. Who cares that I am the only one meditating during mass and who cares that I am not even Catholicor even a Christian for that matter. To me, every place is sacred and I am certainly not bothering anyone else by connecting with the Divine within me.

Notre Dame isn't just about meditating for me.  I have a weakness for listening to the sound of bells of any kind tolling, particularly Notre Dame at noon as well as somewhere between 5:30 and 6pm. Not only do my ears enjoy the sweetness of the sound, but with each reverberation, I feel my entire body connecting with the various tones being created.  It's simply music to my ears!

For a great place to listen to the bells, walk across the street to Shakespeare and Company. This bookstore caters to the English-speaking population as only English is spoken here and every book is in our Native tongue. Head upstairs to the famous book store's "library" where you can 
open up the window and let the music from Notre Dame's bells flow in. 

Afterwards, take advantage of the library by relaxing on a chair with one of the many old books in this room waiting to be read.  Also, if you happen to be in town on a Monday evening, make certain to attend the free readings offered either inside the store or when the weather is accommodating, outside in front of the shop. Various authors read from their own novels or books of poetry. Additionally, you can have a glass of wine and meet the author afterwards during the book signing.

This list would not be complete if I did not include the Eiffel Tower.  Built for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, the most famous structure in the world was actually meant to be torn down shortly thereafter. Thankfully, it still graces the cityscape more than a century later.  It can be seen in so many parts of the city, but particularly while walking along the Seine from the Chatelet area, most especially at night when the Tower sparkles with its glittering lights. Monsieur Eiffel had no idea his "temporary" structure would have such a permanent effect on the world.

Part of the Parisian charm is about the things that are a little closer to eye level.  Window shopping, or leche-vitrine, literally translates as window licking.  The succulent displays of color and style from all the shops' windows are simply marveilleux!

The flower shops in town certainly deserve their own section on this list too. What can I say, the French do flowers with unmistakable panache. Every window encourages the viewer to bring a little natural beauty into their homes. If Monsieur Monet were still alive, I am sure he would set up his easel in front of each and every florist's store front.


There are a few things Paris is known for and one of them is her museums. This city is not lacking for art, that is for certain. If you are on a budget, it is good to know that many museums are free on the first Sunday of the month. Please note, you will need to get there early to avoid the seemingly never-ending lines on these days.  Also, there are quite a few smaller museums that are free all the time. Here is a link to the places that are free every single day: Paris Museums. Sorry mes amies, this site is all in French, but you can at least get the names of the museums and then check your guidebook for more information.

The most famous museum is, of course, the Louvre.  I have been there several times myself and it would behoove you to visit during the week when it is less crowded (note the key word here is "less." It is still crowded). Your guidebook will list the most famous pieces owned by the museum, but there are a host of other things to sink your eyes into.  

My favorite rooms are as follows: the Louis-Napolean apartments; what I call the red room with all the large David's among others; the room where the crown jewelry, the China and the crystal from the Rennaisance are located; and let's not forget the ancient Iranian section.  For a special favorite, while everyone clusters around to see the Mona Lisa, I, instead turn around and face the largest painting in the museum.  It's called The Marriage of Cana by Veronese. The colors are spectacular, the size is enormous and it has a bacchanalian flavor. Who would want to miss that?!

On one visit, I skipped looking at most of the art and focused on the architecture, both inside and out. With all the crown molding, columns, art on some of the ceilings, and so on, it is a wonder that the building itself isn't known as a great work of art
it is, after all. 

Keep in mind that the size of the Louvre can be a little overwhelming and it certainly cannot be seen all in one day. When I called my mom after seeing it for the first time, I explained it was about the size of nine shopping malls.  So, you get the idea.  Either plan for 3-4 different visits, or pick out the most important rooms to see on a map provided at the entranceor even better forget the map all together and just wander. It's all good!

If sculpture is your thing, then meander through the garden at Musée Rodin. The main museum is too crowded for my liking, but for only a couple of euros you can spend time in the garden where his most famous works can be found. The Thinker and The Kiss among others are just waiting for your visit. Simply superb!

When I need a dose of the 19th century, my favorite spots are the Musée d'Orsay, L'Orangerie and for my Monet fix I take a trip to the Musée Marmottan. Oh, his Waterlillies never looked as good on the calendars I had at home as they do in person!

Take a stroll...

I like walking during springtime. Firstly, you can walk off all the calories from all the decadent food you have been eating; and secondly, you just never know who or what you will run into when you walk. You might even get to see some pretty amazing street performers. From fire throwers to classical violinists, it is all here. A new Parisian adventure is just waiting to be had!

Springtime isn't the only time to walk. Just because winter cycles through the city, doesn't mean that I have to give up my daily exercise. Ambling on the Champs Elysées during the holidays is a feast for the eyes. Stroll from l'Arc de Triomphe to Place de Concorde and understand why Paris is known as the City of Light. Christmas lights are strung absolutely everywhere.  You can also do a lot of holiday shopping while you are in town.  From the main shops to the temporary booths that are set up towards Concorde, everything is here. But don't forget to stay warm by wearing a scarf, gloves, hat and a warm winter coat. It is winter after all.

Walking down rue Mouffetard on a weekend morning is pure Heaven. One can go to the cheese shop for the cheese, the wine shop for the wine and the butcher for fresh salami. Traditionally, the French always shopped at specialty shops on a daily basis to get the best of everything. Unfortunately, this beautiful ritual is being replaced by supermarkets and McDonald's, but the quaint Mouffetard gives us a little bit of historynot to mention, it is a fun way of buying a picnic lunch.

...and don't forget to come back to Mouffetard in the evening too. At the the beginning of the street at Place de la Contrescarpe, you can sit and have a drink, a cup of coffee or a full meal and enjoy people watching, as well as catch a few traveling performers; including the guy with the safari costume. I can't really explain what he does, but he has had his act for years and you will inevitably want to pull out a euro or two for this guy.

Between the walking and the excellent public transportation in town, one doesn't need to drive.  I like that you do not need a car here. And the planet certainly likes it too!

It's the little things in life...

Whoever said that rainy days aren't fun?  The summer rains don't last long, but they certainly cool everything down.  Plus, the rain gives nature a much needed drink.  Not to mention, the most spectacular light shows are performed across the sky while the rain is is tapping on the old buildings and cobblestone. The sounds compete with the finest symphonies. What a show!

Hot summer days also lend to all the windows of the apartments across the town to open up. This may seem like a strange thing to like, but I once lived in a neighborhood where a professional opera singer sang and a professional violinist played.  For me it was like going to a show for free.  In my last neighborhood, a new neighbor shared different types of music out his window during lunch time. Sometimes it was Broadway, sometimes it was disco, sometimes it was opera...I either tapped my toes, swayed in my seat or I got up to do a full on dance. Needless to say, I looked forward to lunchtime.

For a more professional show, the concerts at Sainte Chappelle at night are not to be missed. The classical music combined with the best preserved stained glass in Europe, along with the throne where many Kings baring the name Louis have sat, is the best and most G-rated "menage à trois" one could have without going into a bedroom. It is certainly worth every centime.
I like the old cobblestone roads left from a bygone era.  My high-heels and I do not agree on this point, but I am the one typing, so I win out.

To go along with the cobblestone are the spectacular buildings that Paris has produced. From the apartment buildings to the great edifices, the architecture here is like no other place on Earth. When I turn on a French film, I can immediately tell if they are in Paris, whether or not I have been on a particular street or not.  It just has its own style.  The various architects, in particular Baron Haussmann, must have been inspired by romance. My eyes are just filled with romantic imaginings as I gaze upon, well, everything!

The trees, the trees, the trees...did I mention the trees? I am grateful for the numerous trees that align the streets. It gives me some semblance of nature while in a large city as their various shades of green paint the streets with vibrant color. Additionally, I appreciate that they cool me down during the heatwave of summer and they are also host to many birds who sing their symphony of sounds above me. I cannot help but smile.

...and speaking of nature, the French like their parks. Just walk around and you will find one near wherever you are located. My personal favorite in Paris proper is the Butte de Chaumont. Waterfalls, flowers, wildlife, lots of grass and even more trees...Hallelujah, a little bit of serenity in a metropolitan area!

Le Cuisine...

Part of the Parisian experience is its food. I mean, what's not to like? There is no doubt about the fact that the French can cook. Chefs take their Michelin stars seriously and for good reason. The art of cooking and presentation is très important here.

By the way, Paris is not just about fine dining either. Who can resist all the delectibles at a boulangerie or pattisserie. MMM, delicieux! My favorite sweets (thus far, anyway) are eclairs chocolates, Paris best, croissant aux amandes, opéras, tartes des fraises, religieuses chocolates, Amarino ice cream, nutella/banana crepes (but ask them to put extra nutella in it...we Americans like our chocolate), meringues, macarons, and probably a plethora of other things I am not thinking of at this moment.  

Try the places that have a lot of French people in them.  If the locals go there then it is sure to be good. However, do yourself a favor and make sure to take at least one trip to one of the Ladurees in town.  I assure you, you will be glad you did.

If you are in the mood for going to a supermarket, do yourself a favor and visit La Grande Epicerie de Paris. It's like Disneyland for adults!  Each section of this grocery store will make your mouth water. It might be a bit more expensive than the local grocery stores, but believe me, it's worth every centime! 

And for those who want to get their health food groove on, try the supermarket chain Naturalia. Thankfully, there are a few of them in town.

French Culture...

It fascinates me that at practically any time during the week I can see many elementary school children on field trips at any given museum. Watching six-year-olds as they stare at paintings and listen in awe to their teacher is quite a treat. The French do not have to wait for adulthood to appreciate cultural activities. They are brought up learning about them from early on.

Kids here also experience different cultures from the time they are in elementary school. From day trips to week long trips, the school hosts excursions to Italy, England and so on. For those whose parents cannot afford it the State will fund the bulk of the trip. Everyone gets a chance to see life from a different perspective.
I like that whether you have insurance or not, you can still visit a doctor and the usual fee is only 22€, even if you are a foreigner! Americans should take note of this more compassionate way of dealing with health care.

It never ceases to amaze me how French women get dressed up for everything. Whether they are going to dinner, a club, to a child's birthday party or if they are simply hanging out with girlfriend at home; expect them to be donning something fabuleaux.

I like all the kissing around here. Making out is done on a crowded Metro train, in the park, after dropping off the kids at school.  Actually, it is done practically anywhere. C'est normal!

While going to the movies at home isn't done quite as much anymore, going out to the theater in France is still the norm. While there are a few video stores around, the French prefer going out to see a film. I know this, because there seems to be a theater on every street. One can easily find several theaters next to each other in certain parts of town. Furthermore, they actually fill up with people—for every show—no matter what time of day

Oh, and in case you forget to buy your candy or drink before you sit down, there is no need to worry.  A concession girl will come to your junk food rescue before the movie starts. The concessions sold here are the good stuff too.  Whew, after living in France, I can't watch a movie without my Haagen Dazs! And for those of you that do not speak French fluently, that is ok. Just look for English speaking films listed as V.O. (version originale, which if you haven't already guessed means 'original version'). 
It's not all fun and games in France.  People have their chores to do just like the rest of us.  I like that everyone hangs their laundry here. I had never even seen a clothing rack for drying before I arrived in Europe. Where once I was annoyed by the inconvenience, now I appreciate the laundry hanging meditation I have while hanging the clothes. It also helps save the environment and that is a big plus too.

I mustn't forget the day trips...

I like visiting Versailles. I can't get enough of the King Louis' that lived there. What a life! It is not nearly as exciting if you do not know the history. So, pay a little extra for one or more of the tours.  It's well worth the extra euros.  Also note, that besides the main chateau, you can walk the gardens and visit the two smaller estates: Le Trianon and Marie Antoinette's Estate.

Fountainebleau is another destination to add to your list. Yes, it is another chateau, but who can resist that castle that made the king so jealous he copied the ideas here to create Versailles. This is the original! For more information, visit Fontainebleau. It is only in French, but if you go to Google and find it there you can use Google Translator to create an English page.

One mustn't miss Chartres.  With its oddly mismatched towers created in different centuries, the Gothic cathedral at Chartres is the town's heart and soul. On Fridays you can walk the labyrinth. On almost any day, Malcolm Miller, the resident expert, gives tours in English twice a day. He has been there for over fifty years and he really knows his stuff. He always asks if someone has taken his tour before and inevitably a few people raise their hands. I have taken this sojourn three times myself and each time I am thrilled to have done so. He is probably the best tour guide I have ever had and they are always different. For more information on Malcolm, please visit Go Europe.

My favorite place on earth are the extraordinary gardens at Giverny. Monet created some of his finest works at his home in this village, using his own backyard as his model. And what a backyard it is! While most people walk through it in a half an hour, I suggest really noticing your surroundings. Meditate, bring a book and check out everything from a different perspective. On my last visit I spent five hours in the gardens alone. I have read in the guidebooks that the first week of June is the best time to visit, which is when I have gone both times.  However, I have seen photographs on Facebook from my friends trips who have gone at various times during the year.  The flowers constantly change and it is simply magnifique!  Visit Giverny for more information.

So, these are a few of my favorite things in Paris. How about you? What is on your list?

Thank you for reading and bonne journée!