Saturday, June 22, 2013

Paris day 5: The Orsay and seriously good food... again

Bonjour from Paris day five! Seriously, how has it been 5 days already? We are more than halfway done with our first Paris stay and I still feel like we just got here!  It was a bit hard to sleep last night owing to the fact that it was trash pick up day and apparently in Paris it's mandatory to take the trash to the bin in the shared courtyard between midnight and 2AM and then you MUST slam the lid. No exceptions. We needed a pick me up so we stopped on our way to the Orsay to grab some coffee.

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You can't really get a cup of brewed "coffee" here.  It's all espresso, but I'm not complaining.  I don't think I'm even going to drink another cup of coffee ever again - I'm so enjoying sipping my solo from my demitasse cup and saucer. C'est magnifique! And, in another edition of "News That Shocks No One," I ordered a goat cheese crepe and it was fab.  This country is seriously feeding my cheese addiction.  Afterward, we headed out to the Orsay, which for those of you who don't know (this group included me until the start of our audio guide), it picks up where the Louvre leaves off in terms of the historical timeline. It shows art only from the 18th and 19th centuries and it's almost entirely French art, but hey, it's their country.
The building used to be a train station, and was slated for demolition until the public demanded it be used as a gallery (presumably by setting up a strike - a little poking fun at the French here). You can still see the vestiges of the station in the photo below.  The long gallery used to be filled with platforms and commuters, now it's filled with statues and oil paintings.  Good trade off. Check out the original station clock in the main gallery...

The views from the top floors are incredible. This is really the geographic center of Paris, and you can see everything.  Below is the hill on which the Montmarte neighborhood is situated. The white-domed church you see in the distance is called Sacre Coeur. The blog will take you there on Sunday. =)

And out the windows on the other side you have a fantastic view of the Eiffel.  If only they served dinners under 35 euro in their restaurant - alas, they don't.

And while I have a moment, let me again sing the praises of the Museum Pass.  See the line below?  Yeah, that snakes into the street, and down the block.  And you can't see that they have a Disneyland-style (though not nearly as efficiently run) rope line to wind through before they get to ANOTHER line for tickets.  All in all, the wait was into the 3 hour window.  Guess how long we waited? Four minutes - I timed it (the things I do for you blog readers ;)). Yeah! Museum Pass for the win!

The clocks on the exterior of the building are see-through and make a superb silhouette.

So... Some of these photos are less than great, owing to the fact that photo-taking wasn't allowed and every attempt made me feel like I was Jason Bourne (not really, but I can dream). I  absolutely promise you that I do not remember any titles of the art or their associated artists, so let's just get that out of the way, ok? Ok. Eric and I both loved this painting of a famous Chemist whose name escapes me.  check out the detail in all his little beakers and pipettes! (<- That is a seriously fun word to say. I highly recommend you saying it 5 times fast when you're having a bad day.  It promises to induce giggling.)

So, I have sad news for you. Despite the fact that The Orsay holds the largest impressionist collection in the world, you're not going to see any. *cue sad music* The photo-police to museum attendee ratio was basically 137 to one in those rooms, so no-can-do with the Monets and Manets.  But it's ok because I took this picture of a Lobster for you instead.

You're welcome. I did manage to slyly grab a shot of a Cezanne (I think?) who was of the Pointilist School (think bajillions of tiny dots), so there's that...

In all seriousness, he only used four colors to make "The Circus," and it looks incredible.  Color me impressed.

The "Far East" room was the shocker for the day. We expected to be wowed by the impressionists, but we didn't see these guys coming.  We both fell in love with the North African scene of camels crossing Algeria (don't ask how Algeria counts as Far East because I don't have an answer).

And this elephant bathing scene totally captured us.  I think these were so unexpected and refreshing amidst all the sun-dappled Parisian parks and seascapes of the impressionists that they really spoke to us.

There was also a whole room of vases that were REDICULOUS. Seriously they were basically 12 feet tall and had gold sculptures coming out of the top.  This is not a fantastic picture (picture me, dodging museum workers like Jason Bourne), but it really looked like Wedgewood china.  It wasn't, but it looked amazingly similar.

I was probably unreasonably giddy to see the painting below of Don Quixote.  I stared at this painting on the cover of my book while I read it in high school.  And if you've ever read that thing from cover to cover, you know it look me a LONG time. It's bigger than the bible. Anybody else recognize this one from the cover??

Ok, so this one is waaaaaaaay far from the painting, but I LOVE this piece that shows the ballerina dancing (I think it's by Degas?).  There was a museum worker right there, so it was an extra special super-covert op situation.  Mission: successful.

Even the Coke-a-Cola polar bear made an appearance...

We even got a little slice of home in the furniture gallery (where I seriously could have spent DAYS, I tell you!) where we saw this chair by Frank Lloyd Wright.  Ugly chair, but nice to see the word "Phoenix" in print.

So, sorry again about the lack of photos of the good stuff, but after I look the photo of the chemist, I'm fairly certain the museum put a tail on us - no, really.  For the last 3 hours of the day, every time I turned around the same lady was right there.  Sneaky? Not so much. Effective? Definitely.

Afterwards we headed home for dinner.  We stayed at the museum for 6 hours!!  We took a two hour lunch break (look how French we are!), but our combined time at the museum was 6:30.  Woah! We have discovered that we providentially chose the best cheap apartment in Paris.  We have eaten out for every meal with the exception of our picnic, and we've eaten all over the city.  And our three best meals have been less than a 2 minute walk from our flat which is quite literally surrounded by amazing restaurants. Tonight was no exception because I could see our door from our table at the restaurant. I have been really trying to expand my palette (I tried eggs three times, mom! Still hate 'em, but I tried!), so tonight I ordered lamb (yuck), with scalloped potatoes (double yuck). Yes, I know.  Judge me, judge away. 

This gorgeousness is what arrived at my table (sorry it's sideways, I'm tired so just tilt your head). Every single bite was PHENOMENAL. Seriously! The lamb was falling off the bone - it was fork tender and sooooo flavorful! The scalloped potatoes were done to perfection and you could tell they had used really good cheese (always a god place to start).  All of this plus bread and wine for (drum roll) 16 euro.  In dollars that's about $20.  Best lamb of my life, amazing potatoes, wine, and all for $20, tip included.  What are we doing WRONG in America?! Seriously, someone work on that while I'm gone. Your mission is incredible lamb and an equally amazing side dish for under $20. Go.  Seriously though, this was just your ordinary, run-of-the-mill street café.  Wowzers. Love me some French food.  That's all I have for today, sorry there aren't any pics of us, but picture black ops had so sacrifice something and it was our faces. Which is a little sad because we both looked very Parisian today and I was proud of us.  No worries though, we packed in a carry on so we'll repeat those outfits...  many, many many times.

Check back here tomorrow (Hopefully! Blogging ops are getting less frequent.) to hear about meeting Mona and Venus, and  how we got in touch with Eric's Polish roots.  Au revoir for now!  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Paris day 4: not actually in Paris

We were in Versailles instead!  We learned our lesson from the day before, and we purchased tickets for the RER/metro to Versailles, which is ten miles from Paris and pretty isolated.  If you tried to go ten miles from the center of Phoenix you'd probably still have to pay a parking meter.  I love Europe.

As we were leaving the apartment this morning it began to sprinkle. No big deal.  We turned the corner on the main street. Hmmm, this is more like substantial rain - should I dig out my umbrella? Three seconds later, "I thought God promised never to flood the world again!!"  It was a wet morning.  I had a substantial fashion dilemma when packing (men, feel free to tune out here).  I knew the weather had been wet, and honestly, I had to ask our British roommates how to dress for the wet weather because beyond out and out rain boots, I really had no idea. In the end I rationalized bringing two sets of sandals and not "rain shoes." Reason number 1: rubberized rain shoes aren't my jam, fashion-wise. Reason 2: I packed for three weeks in a carry on and it was TIGHT. Seriously, the zipper was holding on by a prayer. I didn't have room for rain shoes and figured I'd trash a pair of sandals (the gladiator kind that have straps all over everywhere so they stay on), and that even if my feet were cold and dirty, they'd dry quickly. My theory got a serious test today.  And... SUCCESS!  I recommend this method for anyone packing light to someplace rainy in the summer.  While the leather on your sandals will be a strange ombre color, they dry SO quickly, and despite what Mother Goose may have told you, no one ever died from wet feet. Poor Eric's tennis shoes were soaking until 4PM, when it started raining again, womp womp.

Aaaaaand we're back to regularly scheduled non-footwear programming.  The rain abated (SAT word alert!) upon our arrival to Versailles and this was the view we were met with...

Wowzer! Look at all of that gold! This is only part of the chateau, I wasn't ever able to get the whole thing in one shot.  You know you're house is BIG when it can't fit in a camera angle. I'm resisting the urge to give you a history lesson on the chateau, mostly because that's a throw back to Mr. Bergez's 8th grade history class and I can't remember where my socks are, much less any interesting details.  however, I can tell you it was built by Louis XIV and expanded by the two Louis that followed. It cost roughly 50% of France's GDP that year to build the first phase (and they wondered why the peasants were mad???), and it was a pretty brilliant political move by the monarch to keep the aristocracy that was troubling so many other European kings under his thumb by forcing them to party constantly at his country house.  The property is 8 miles long and 3 miles wide, most f which are the gardens which are spectacular.  Versailles was home to thee three Louis, each successor less adept at controlling the country than the previous, until Louis XVI and his wife Marie Antoinette were finally captured by peasants and made a foot shorter at the top. Then Napoleon took over and lived here as emperor. Bad luck for peasants everywhere.  There's your mini-history lesson, even though I said I wouldn't.  Look what you made me do.

This is the ceiling in the chapel where Louis XIV would worship God and the aristocracy would worship Louis. No, really.  Louis was the only one facing the golden altar.  The nobles had their backs to the altar and were to worship Louis.  Weird that his empire went down in flames? Not so much.

I think our queen size bed could fit comfortably in this fireplace. HUGE!

Hall of Mirrors!  Apparently, mirrors were a luxury of the time, and having a whole hall of them said to your guests, "I am King, hear me and my pocketbook roar. Now stare at yourself and don't get in the way of me running the country." But in all seriousness, it was sobering to be in a room where so much has happened. Wars were ended here, and depending on how you feel about The Treaty of Versailles, some would say that wars were begun here. 

Each of the arched mirrors has a window opposite it to match.  They reflect the expansive grounds.

The coronation of Napoleon (original hangs in the Louvre).  And in typical Napoleon style, he doesn't need a pope to give him a crown, he does it himself, thankyouverymuch.

Some cute guy on the front porch of the chateau. ;)

Just one eeenie-weenie section of the garden.  Louis was proud of his ability to grow oranges in a climate where no one else could.  Each of his 1000 orange trees was potted in a silver planter, and when the weather turned dicey, they were wheeled into a giant nursery. Then, they were wheeled out every afternoon for his enjoyment. Sheesh!

Me and my hero sandals!

This looks straight out the eight miles of parks and lakes on the grounds.  The lake you see is one mile long in and of itself and you can rent little rowboats and paddle around.  I think a marathon should be run here. I'd sign up. Who wants to come cheer me on?? ;) Sadly, many of the fountains were under construction, but the rest of the grounds were so spectacular we didn't feel like we missed out.

If you can see that gold spiky business on the left, you'll see that they have added modern art to the neo-classical statues already present. No bueno.  Given, modern art isn't my thing, but seriously, it obstructs the views and makes ZERO sense. *Steps down off soap box*

The main and smallest wing of the chateau from 3/4 mile away.  See? Huge.

This is one of the less formal (yes, you read that right) bedrooms in one of the later additions to the chateau.  The railing is to keep the courtiers who are invited to watch you get up, dress, pray, eat, use the facilities (no lie!) and pretty much everything else, at a safe distance.  Um, no thanks.


A table gifted to the royal family. It's carved from one solid hunk of wood ladies and gents. Wow.

I tried to sneak into the unopened rooms and Eric caught me! Just kidding... maybe.

At the end of some war (it was a long day people, my details are fuzzy), the losing side gave France this present of a baptismal font carved from Serbian (? Maybe Slovokian? Started with an "S") malachite.  Isn't that crazy looking?  There were about 15 malachite pieces in the room, another of which you can see in the background.

Most of the lawns are neatly manicured. We even saw someone trimming topiaries with a wooden guide, ah perfectionism. But the parts near Marie Antoinette's private farm were my favorite, I think.  They're more wild and mysterious. What can I say? I prefer meandering (English) gardens to manicured (French) ones. 

The farm still functions and local school children manage the plots.  They even grow grapes for pressing into wine as you can see above.  Well, actually there were no grapes, but the vines were there so you get the idea.
And about an hour after we took this photo we were back in Paris. Just as we were arriving home, we got caught in another downpour and dodged into a café for dinner to avoid the torrential rain.  One bely full of Risotto, and another full of Cote de Boeuf later we headed home and collapsed. Again.  This seems to be a theme!
Tomorrow you'll hear about how I'll never drink another cup of coffee again (maybe), how we almost got booted from a major museum (not really, but my guilty conscience was working overtime!). But, au revoir for now!

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Paris Day 3: The life of the fabulous, and why bike shares ruined our feet.

On our Tuesday in Paris, we did manage to get out of bed at a decent hour and set about our scheduled activities.  We decided to purchase a museum pass because we are giant museum nerds, and it's quite the bang for your buck in terms of money and time.  With a pass, we get unlimited entrances to almost every museum in Paris (except the dome climb at Sacre Cour, the Eiffel Tower, and a few other small museums) for six days! *insert angels singing here* Plus, just like the Eiffel Tower, we get to skip to the fronts of the lines.  Boom! We grabbed some coffee and a croissant (yum!) on our way to our first stop: The Pantheon.  Here, we toured the former church, seeing its art...

(One of my favorites of Joan of Arc)
...and its sculptures...
 (A plaster of a scene from the French Revolution.  Can you hear the people sing?)
...and the crypt!
(Isn't it the sweetest thing that Louis Braille is the only one whose name is stained from people touching it?  I thought it was very moving.)
The crypt was truly the most interesting part of the museum whose other claim to fame, Focault's Pendulum (and my MAIN REASON for wanting to go), was not on display. Boo! The tomb is home to many famous Frenchmen including Voltaire, Rousseau, Marie Curie and many other I've forgotten already.  Plus, the space is just really neat - it reminded me of an old monastery with it's stone walls, and low vaulted ceilings. Apparently it also has a wonderful dome that you can climb, but it was closed for renovations.  Sad. We purchased our museum passes at the Pantheon, so for the next 6 days of blogging you're going to see a lot of priceless art.  You're welcome.  ;) 
This is me in front of the Pantheon.  Do you like how my eyes are open? Me too ;)
We decided to head off to the museum that we missed the day prior ( because we were ZZzzzzz....), the Jaquemart Andre.  This is a lesser known museum, but it was seriously worth what turned out to be a 5 mile walk to get there.  Oh, and on the way we walked through a street market, which was a nice mix of amazing food and touristy kitch.  Balance is everything, right?  I thought I might die of happiness when I saw this...

Too bad I'd just had a croissant, somehow olives didn't seem to jive with that, but on any other day...

We also happened to walk past the residence of the French President Francois Hollande.  We saw someone doing photo ops on the steps, but no one can be sure who it was.  But maybe it was the French pres?  Not that I would know what he looks like. I'm just proud of myself for knowing his name. Thanks, NPR!

We also passed a few flower shops - how lovely are these?  Lavender is coming into bloom!


OK, back to our impending museum visit...  The Jaquemart-Andre Museum is basically a throwback to 1800's French opulence with some amazing art thrown in.  The building was the home of Nellie Jaquemart and (insert obviously unmemorable husband's name here) Andre.  The couple never had any children, but they definitely had the nicest home on the block.  Some of the features include paintings that they eventually requested by the Louvre, frescos from Venetian villas (disassembled and brought back to France - how?!), and walls that sank into the floor so they could throw parties for guests numbering in the thousands.  Basically once a month everyone in Paris who wasn't in the cast of Les Miserables would be driven here in their coach for a party. They were visited by royalty many times and their home is incredible.

This wall with the giant marble fireplace would simply sink into the parquet wood floor when parties were given, adjoining the two rooms.  Seriously impressive.


I can't even remember the name of this painting's subject, but I think it might have been my favorite painting in the whole house.  Perhaps because she looks so dreamy and angelic?  Also her dress is blue and green, and those are the two best colors ever.  Her canvas is about 3 feet long and 4 feet high and there were about 7 of these on this wall in the...... BATHROOM.  One of them.  Seriously, these people were loaded.

How do you like the tapestry?  If you were Nellie Jaquemart on one of your semi-annual two-month stints in Italy, and you fell in love with it, you simply wrote a check and purchased it.  Oh, you don't have the right size wall to hang it on?  Simply have the whole bottom floor of the house torn up, reworked and build a new wall to fit the tapestry.  That's obviously the best choice.  ;)
It was an incredible home and I wish I had more pictures to do it justice - guess you'll have to wait for the slide show. ;) It was also really nice to hear a story about a French couple in this time period who really loved one another and remained faithful.  Since adultery was accepted, even in fashion (what?!) at this time, every museum that chronicles someone's life reads like a script from General Hospital.  This love story was refreshing, much more "Home Improvement," than, "The Bachelor."
At this point, we have walked about 6 miles and our feet were threatening their own French Revolution. We had spotted several spots around town where you can bike share and return it at another station.  We knew we had one about 50m from our front door, and we saw one right in front of the museum.  Score!  We would ride bikes home and try not to be killed by traffic - much better than walking.  So, we leave the museum and head over to the kiosk which is all automated.  We choose bikes, we choose a security code, we create a 4 digit code, we jump through 3 consecutive hoops of fire, (one of these never happened, your guess which), and when we go to pay.... REJECTED.  Try again with a different card (more hoops of fire). DOUBLE REJECTED (locals now sniggering nearby, enjoying our helplessness on their smoke break).  Turns out they only take AMEX.  Gah!  I KNEW we should have gone for that Costco AmEx ages ago! The savings on fuel and taquitos alone would have been worth it, but this cut deep.  We thought about our options:
1. Get a taxi.  Except that it's rush hour and traffic is a nightmare.  If we're going to shell out 70euro it's going to be for lobster, not a car ride.
2. Metro.  At this point we hadn't yet tried the metro (remedied that the next day), and didn't fancy being assaulted by gypsies while unable to run on our destroyed feet. In other words, we were too tired and chicken to try something new. **Notice here that this was a perfectly reasonable option.  It is now clear that foot pain has begun to inhibit our brain function**
3. Bus.  We check the maps at the nearby stop and discover that it takes us in the right direction, but only about halfway, plus it probably costs a fortune (no, it doesn't).  We decided yet again that this is more work than it's worth. **Note the increased inhibition of brain functionality. A bus costs around 1.5e, and who cares if you only go halfway, it's half you don't have to walk!**
4. Hoof it, the obvious choice.  **The WORST choice. Brain function levels reaching an all-time low**
So, we walk, and walk and walk some more.  And when we got tired we kept walking.  All in all, when we returned to the room and literally collapsed into chairs, we had walked 13 miles that day, not including the time we spent standing in museums. I'd like to say we at least felt proud of ourselves for going so far, but as soon as we grabbed some pizza (brain food!), we realized how DUMB we had been not to take the bus or the metro.  For real. Needless to say, we slept pretty well. 
Tomorrow you'll hear about the best rain shoes ever (Sarcastic or not? You'll have to wait and see!), why all the French kings are named Louis (Nope, not really. But wouldn't that be fun if I did know?), and how we learned to ride a train and took one all the way to Versailles.  100 life points to us! Au revoir for now! 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Paris Day 2: Oversleeping and the Eiffel Tower (and too much walking)

Our second morning in Paris dawned... Well, I couldn't actually tell you because we went to bed at 9 the night before and didn't wake up until NOON!  What?!  Are we in high school again? We had booked tickets for the Eiffel tower at 5:30, so we spend the morning afternoon walking around the gardens near the Seine River, including the Louvre gardens...

A courtyard within the Louvre.  The stripes were making me dizzy!

 This was after I shed the three other layers I had been wearing.  Paris weather can change on a dime (two hours after this picture it was pouring rain!), and the museums are ALWAYS cold, particularly the crypts. 

First sight of the Eiffel!  The haze is the cloudy weather moving in, not the pollution, surprisingly.  Can you tell our usual vacation spot is southern Cali? ;)

We decided that with 4 or so hours to kill that we didn't have enough time for a museum, and we wanted to save those for the days we had already booked passes (more on this later, it involves being cheap and cutting in line, get excited.). So we walked to the Champs Elysees instead.  We id a little shopping, and checked out the Arc de Triumph.  Sadly, it's hard to get a picture at any major monument without a bus in the background.  They advertise tours everywhere, "See Paris for 25euro!" And they mean exactly what they say, you will "see" all of Paris yet experience none of it.

Afterward, we cut down across the Seine to the Rue Cler neighborhood (highly recommended by Rick Steves).  This is me barely containing myself walking into a shop full of CHEESE! Glory! Hallelujah!  We grabbed some chevre (goats cheese, did you even have to guess?), a baguette, and a few apples from the grocer and headed off to our picnic on the Eiffel Tower lawn... as it started to rain.  *womp womp* But were we deterred? Not a bit!  We sat on the grass on plastic bags underneath our umbrellas and we picnicked anyway! And this was our (rainy) view...

In case you are planning your own trip to Paris, let me just tell you.  Book your Eiffel Tower tickets online and in advance.  See all those people lined up behind me like they're at Disneyland?  Yeah they waited 4 hours to ride the elevator to the top.  See that empty set of ropes?  That was the line we waited in.  Yeah! And go all the way to the top.  Totally worth the extra 2e that it costs.

They were hard at work adding banquet and conference rooms to the first level of the tower.  Can you imagine throwing a party there?  "Yes, please come to my party.  In France.  ON THE EIFFEL TOWER." That would earn you roughly 134,083,778,239 life points.

View of where we picnicked, and Montparnasse Tower, sticking out like a sore thumb...

Nice face, eh?  Have I mentioned I'm not entirely comfortable with heights?  My feet were fear-cramping the whole time.

Made it to the tippy top!  See the white-knuckled death grip on the railing?  I'm trying to remain calm and rational... trying.

280 meters in the air!  Did you know Eiffel used to live in an apartment atop the tower?  And he climbed the STAIRS to get there?  No wonder he lived so long, holy cardio!

Yep, we climbed that thing!  afterwards we felt like a nice dinner close to home... Except we were now 5 miles from home.  Oops!  Being as we didn't want our first metro experience/gypsy encounter to be at night, we decided to hoof it.  WRONG CHOICE.  We were incredibly tired and had ridiculously sore feet when we finally collapsed into a café for dinner down the street from our flat. Total walking distance for the day: 11.5 miles!  We ended up just pointing at the menu and ate what we were given, which was, of course, fabulous.  Proof:

This turned out to be a sampling of cheeses, meats, and pickled veg from a particular region.  And, surprise!  That one that looks like meatloaf? That's pate.  Checked that one off my "to try this in France" list! And do you know what?  I didn't hate it =)

We have had the most wonderful encounters with the French people so far.  And the only rude people we have met?  Wait for it...... AMERICANS.  Yep, no wonder they don't like us.  If you begin every conversation with a hearty, "Bonjour!" and attempt your best (even if butchered) French, you will meet nothing but pleasantness from the French people.  And be sure to overuse "Merci!" =)

That about wraps it up for day two in Paris.  Tomorrow you'll hear about how we ended up having room in our schedule and got to see an extra museum (yay!), and how we were foiled by a bike share program and yet AGAIN ended up walking over ten miles.  But That's for later, right now I need to go thank my feet for still being attached to my body.  Au revoir for now!