Lights Out

June 6th marked the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the day on which Allied forces invaded northern France via beach landings in Normandy. In commemoration of this day I joined a new Context Tour, Lights Out, Paris Under the Occupation, accompanied by my Italian and a few friends. Following are several of the relevant spots, including bullet holes I had never noticed, along our 3 hour walk, led by a well-schooled historian. These images and the stories behind them will stay with me forever.

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To learn more about Paris history, art, food… join a Context tour. You might even find me there.

THATRue launch!

Last Sunday my Italian and I took to the streets of Paris for a treasure hunt unlike any other, joined by over 30 friends and Paris bloggers. We were searching for the likes of Montaigne and Rimbaud, among other hidden gems. This hunt amidst historic Paris being THATRue, the latest creation by Daisy de Plume, mastermind behind THATLou. You can read about my THATLou adventures here.

THATRue

Being a great fan of Daisy’s endeavors at cleverly educating while entertaining the masses on French culture and history, I was honored to be one of the co-hosts along with Forest of 52 Martinis and The Chamber. I designed a THATRue bag for the occasion, to be won & worn by the winning team.

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IMG_8158Our team included Erica of HiP Paris Blog, and though we did not win, we had a blast discovering corners of the left bank none of us had known, and my Italian even sang for us, to earn extra points of course! Though he seemed to enjoy it. As quoted in the latest feature in The Huffington Post, “This new Paris scavenger hunt is the perfect way to see the city.” I could not agree more.

fit for a king

A few weeks ago a dear family friend was in town. Since she’s already seen much of Paris, I planned a day of historic elegance in a landscape not too far away. We boarded a bus on an overcast morning, and soon arrived to the legendary, and now private estate, Château de Vaux le Vicomte.

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Here began our adventure into the life of Nicolas Fouquet, who created this 17th century castle.

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This majestic masterpiece was a collaboration between architect Louis Le Vau, the painter Charles Le Brun and the landscape gardener André Le Nôtre. A ‘home and garden’ to be admired by all.

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Yet the story behind Monsieur Fouquet and his château is a unique and tragic one.

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In brief, after throwing a lavish party in his new home, Fouquet was arrested by Louis XIV (who had plotted against him out of jealousy), and spent his remaining days behind bars, unlawfully so.

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In the famous words of Voltaire, “On 17 August at 6 in the evening, Fouquet was King of France; at 2 in the morning, he was nobody”.

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As we wandered the château and landscape, the gray sky set a sobering mood. At once in awe and aghast at the history lesson upon us. Certainly a castle fit for a king, perhaps even too much so.

Château de Chantilly

During my mom’s recent visit to Paris, we decided to take her for a day trip. Where else but to a château? Less than 30 minutes by train lies the town of Chantilly, home to a spectacular château spanning the 14th to 19th centuries, not to mention chantilly cream, which in itself is worth the trip!

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Our first stop was the Grand Stables. Yes, horses do still live within this admirable structure!

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At first sight the Château de Chantilly exhibits an air of serene magnificence.

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The Musée Condé boasts the grandest collection of paintings in France, after the Louvre of course.

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I could not stop admiring (and photographing) the château from every angle, both near and far.

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Chantilly

A idyllically regal day spent beneath blue skies and the historic charm of France.

open air history

During my recent trip to Sanok, the town where my mother grew up and where I spent many childhood summers, we took a trip to one of the largest open air museums. Skansen museum, established in 1958, recreates 19th and early 20th century life in this region of Poland. You begin to understand the simplicity and often the hardship of life so many years ago. Along with our tour guide, and my mom who herself studied ethnography, we explored this long forgotten world.

The tour begins with a replica of a Galician town square from the second half of the 19th century.

A historic tailor shop and pharmacy…

Even a horologist, with quite a sense of humor.

Each section features an ethnic group who lived in the region prior to the post-WWII resettlements.

As I walked in and around these dwellings, I imagined the lives that once inhabited them.

Amidst the homes and churches we discovered elaborately sculpted bee urns.

There too was an exhibition of long lost Jewish treasures, some of the few that remain.

Within the stillness of Skansen, I better understood the history of this part of the world.

tour du chocolat

One of my great loves is chocolate. As a child I would eat nestle crunch bars by the dozen and have since moved on to more sophisticated international chocolates (ie. jars of nutella). Thankfully I have been blessed with a fast metabolism. Though I must admit that I consume chocolate in small (daily) doses, and indulge in mostly dark varieties, having rationalized those as the most healthy.

When a friend proposed a chocolate tour I was initially reluctant. Could I not eat my way through Paris’ chocolatiers without a guide? Surely! But my curiosity kicked in and I thought a tour could be fun, especially one involving friends and lots of French chocolate. I might even learn a thing of two. 

The Chocolate Walk began at the Louvre, once home to Louis XIII. It was there that liquid chocolate was first given as a gift to King Louis in 1615 from Anne of Austria. That began the French love affair with chocolate. The first chocolate shop was strategically located around the corner, at what is now a restaurant on rue de l’Arbre Sec.

In addition to being enlightened on the many scandals that took place behind royal doors, I learned that hot chocolate was a delicacy, drunk only by the royalty. In the beginning of the 18th century the chocolate was mixed with milk (rather than water and spices), and there were questions raised as to its purpose. Food, drink, medicine or love potion? (The latter, bien sûr!)

We continued along the right bank, stopping in select chocolatiers. I promised my tour guide I would not give away all of her dark secrets, but will share my two favorite chocolate shops and the crème de la crème of chocolates from each.

There are three Côte de France in Paris. This one was on 25 Avenue de l’Opera, and yes, I did feel like I had entered the royal hall of chocolate. Surrounded by the look and smell, I could barely pay attention to the explanations of the many chocolate varieties. I was ready and eager to taste!

Before the tasting begins, a quick lesson in French chocolate. There are two distinguished types: praliné, which consists of roasted nuts (most commonly almonds), and ganache, chocolate mixed with cream, originally called ‘Idiots chocolate’ as it was made by accident. Imagine?

Here we tried one of the signature chocolates, praliné mixed with small pieced of crushed cookie. Strong, dark and rich. Does is get much better?

Michel Cluizel, on 201 rue Saint Honoré, is another must in the gourmet world of French chocolate. 

It was the praliné des aïeux, a mixture of grilled almonds and hazelnuts covered in dark chocolate, that left me wondering if this is what heaven might taste like. Pure decadence!

For those gourmands equally as enamored with chocolate, this week (Oct 28-Nov 1) marks the annual Salon du Chocolat. I will soon find out just how many hours can be spent tasting chocolate…

If you crave more sweet stories, check out friend and fellow chocoholic Amy, aka Sweet Freak.

history vs modernity

While the Italians were in town we took them to Versailles. Just in case they weren’t thoroughly impressed from day one in Paris.

As excited as they were to visit this 17th Century Château, I was equally excited to view the current Murakami exhibit, a source of controversy since its inception in mid-September. I was determined to find all 22 works by Takashi Murakami, including the 11 created specifically for the show, and to discover what all the hype was about. All this while enjoying the splendor of Versailles, which I had previously visited as a student, back in the days when art was confined to museums and galleries.

My first impression was disdain as I felt too distracted by the art to pay much attention to the grandeur of the architecture. That quickly turned to child-like curiosity, as I entered each ornately decorated room, eager to discover which brightly-coloured creatures lurked behind the corner.

It was the unique contrast in the Baroque setting and the art that held my interest.

During this tour, I wondered to myself what exactly was the motivation for France to curate such a show? Setting the precedent with Jeff Koons’ exhibit in 2008, were they attempting to position themselves as provocateurs in the art world? Or perhaps this is all a political ploy to strengthen relations between France and Japan. Whatever the reason, I was throughly entertained and enjoyed it more than not. The Italians thought it amusing but lacked my enthusiasm. The French tourists, upon over-hearing several conversations, were deeply dismayed. (Right-wingers no doubt.)

The final room held no 17th Century distractions, merely smiley flowers to lighten the mood.

For those confused about how modernity can find a home within the walls of history (myself included), Curator Laurent Le Bon offers a little clarity, “The unique experience seeks above all to spark a reflection of the contemporary nature of our monuments and indispensable need to create out own era.”

Still confused? In this video which takes you on a tour of the exhibition, Murakami explains his reasoning behind working so diligently to create his manga universe at Versailles. What I found interesting is how he defines space in France versus Japan, two very disparate cultures. “In France you have this tradition to conquer and manage space and to represent it in three dimensions. In Japan, there is this tradition to flatten out reality to take a real three dimensional space and transform it into two dimensions.”  Another interesting note, Murakami considers his work somewhat like origami which can be manipulated in various ways. I would have to agree.

The grand finale in the exhibition is the Oval Buddha in the garden. Very grand and very gold. If you have not yet experienced the controversy, the show is up until December 12, 2010. Well worth it!

Still, I am left to wonder, should modern art find a home in history?

a shade of Chartres blue

In honor of the Christmas holiday, or simply for the sake of adventure, we took the train to Chartres, 88km southwest of Paris. This medieval town boasts an incredibly impressive 13th-century cathedral, crowned by one Gothic spire and the other Romanesque. This unique architecture is due to the Romanesque cathedral being destroyed by a fire in 1194 (along with much of the town) and being rebuilt in the Gothic style over the following 30 years. Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres is France’s best-preserved medieval basilica.

Most impressive, aside from the ‘Holy Veil’, said to have been worn by the Virgin Mary when she gave birth to Jesus, are the stained glass windows. Almost all of the 172 windows dating back to the early 13th century, and several even to the 12th century, are renowned for the depth and intensity of their blue tones, famously called ‘Chartres blue’.

After hours spent lost and frozen amidst the cobbled streets, dreaming of a gourmet candlelight dinner in this most historic and romantic town, our adventure ended at a British pub feasting on burgers. Fine dining will have to wait.

my life with Picasso

Picasso once said “I am the greatest collector of Picassos in the world.” This much revered collection of over 3,000 works ranging from sketches to finished masterpieces is exhibited upon walls located only meters away in the Musée Picasso. What is most impressive about this collection is the number of works Picasso painted after his seventieth birthday. This imposing display is complemented by Picasso’s own personal art collection of artists including Cézanne, Degas, Rousseau, Seurat, de Chirico and Matisse. On a recent morning I learned that many of Paris’ museums were closed due to workers strikes. (Ah yes, the French love to strike!) Immediately my desire to view the works of one of my most admired artists grew, as I had not been to this hôtel particulier in several years. As luck would have it, there was no strike at the museum, rather, it was closed for renovations until 2013. Surely by then I will become a weekly visitor.

joie de vivre!

A walk on the esteemed avenue of the Champs-Elysées makes me feel entirely like a tourist. I’m not exactly sure when I will give up this status and become a local, perhaps when I stop looking up at the sky and pardoning those who ask me for directions that I am lost myself. In all honestly, I hope to forever live my Parisian life as a visitor. To appreciate the grandeur within and upon each architecturally inconceivable structure. To smile at the encounter of every hidden alleyway and secret garden. To always carouse the streets with curious eyes and a mind eager to learn. It is after all the most fascinating and serendipitous encounters we find upon the streets. Here in Paris this is where art is discovered in it’s many forms.

A display of Vogue magazine covers, beauty captured through time, caught my eye amidst the golden hues of falling leaves…

A lesson in history. One day in 1616 Marie de Medicis decided to create a long tree-lined pathway within a space that held nothing but fields (Elysian fields). This quickly became a very fashionable place to walk. In years to follow (namely 1724) the avenue was extended up to Chaillot hill, now the site of the Arc de Triomphe and the Etoile. In 1828 the avenue became city property with the addition of footpaths, fountains and gas lighting. It is now a haven for tourists, filled with cinemas, cafés, and luxury shops. And for those who crave the energy such a street possesses.