Tuesday, March 11, 2014

At long last! My first visit to Paris

The icon of Paris, early evening
Somehow... somehow... despite my love of fine food and good wine, despite my appreciation for classic architecture and design, and despite my great affection for traveling, I had never been to the world's most-visited city until 2014. I'm not quite sure how that all happened, but I'm awfully glad to have rectified it. Paris, even in the dead of winter, was a delight. And I learned a few things I didn't know about, either.

Indeed, strolling along the Seine, and taking in the wide boulevards, tree-lined parks, neighborhood cafés, and fashionable streets bounded on either side by buildings of similar style, structure, and height, it may seem as though this archetypal Parisian scene has long been enshrined in the city’s historical legacy. In actual fact, however, the Paris of today is relatively new when viewed in context with the French capital’s lengthy history, something of which I wasn't even remotely aware until this visit (and an especially enlightening walking tour I took one fine day). Prior to the middle of the 19th century, Paris was indeed not a particularly pleasant place to live or visit, a medieval city of confusingly interweaving streets and alleyways, cramped buildings, and desperately poor sanitation and hygiene standards.

All that changed dramatically under the reign of Napoleon III, who in 1853 launched a massive public works undertaking on a scale that even today defies belief. Together with his appointed prefect of the Seine, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, Napoleon III effectively tore down and rebuilt Paris, increasing the size of the city in the process via annexation. It was a colossal citywide renovation program that brought clean water, sanitation, improved passageways, and a large number of open spaces to a city that had, in the five decades prior, become increasingly important on the global stage, cementing itself as not only the center of power, finance, and culture in post-Revolution France, but as a leading city of the Enlightenment that swept across Western Europe – hence Paris being known even still today as the "City of Light." (Nope, doesn't have anything to do with lamps. Ha ha.)

Wrought-iron balconies, dormer windows, and garret rooms lend their
forms to the quintessentially Parisian architectural landscape

Uniformity of height
and appearance
So in just 17 years’ time, the French emperor and his prefect utterly transformed the French capital into a stunning city of art and culture, very much laying the foundation for the Paris of today. Haussmann dictated strict codes and standards for the new Parisian buildings fronting the wide boulevards: they had to be the same height, follow the same basic design, and be faced in the same cream-colored stone. Standards also required owners to clean and refresh their building’s façade every 10 years. These building standards created in central Paris a distinctive unified urban landscape, an appearance it still maintains today. Lower floors had higher ceilings as those dwellings were occupied by the city's elite. With each successively higher group of floors, the ceiling height diminished, until the sixth or seventh floors – the height mandated under the new plan – was oftentimes little more than an attic space with garret rooms and dormer windows (perhaps for servants). Very little was left to chance, and the buildings became part of the street, forming a relatively uniform "wall" along each side, typifying what would become the defining "idea" of Paris. Well, that plus that big iron broadcast and observation tower that Parisians initially despised.

Napoleon III also wanted the city to offer its residents plenty of green spaces for relaxation and recreation and ordered that large parks be placed at the four primary compass points in the city and where major boulevards intersected, with numerous smaller parks complementing them throughout the newly enlarged city, with the idea that no neighborhood should be more than a 10-minute walk from a park. The changes wrought by the vision of Haussmann and the French emperor have profoundly impacted the daily lives of Parisians and tourists to the city even to this day.

So there's a very brief snippet of Paris's lengthy history, and this tiny parcel of knowledge made wandering around the city (well, mostly in the First and Seventh Arrondisements) all the more enjoyable as I was able to appreciate all that had been done under Haussmann's grand vision.

The Obelisk of Luxor
in the heart of Paris
I landed at Charles de Gaulle airport and, after an initial spell of complete bamboozlement trying to sort out how to get from point A to point B – in French,no less... sacre bleu! – I took a pair of trains to my destination, the station at the Place de la Concorde. Another fun fact: I emerged from underground in the city of Paris for the first time right at the spot where the French Revolution reached its apex (or its nadir, I suppose, depending on your perspective) with the public execution of King Louis XVI. It was cloudy, lightly raining off and on, and cold; naturally, I was disoriented and unsure of the direction to go to reach my hotel, the lovely Mandarin Oriental, which was proclaimed as "only a five-minute walk from Concorde station." Never mind that the station has multiple exit points and there was no direction given. However, before heading off with my luggage in tow and getting progressively cold, wet, and lost, I snapped this photo, rather liking the strong vertical elements present in the composition. The obelisk in the center, as I later learned, is the genuine article, a staggeringly old artifact given to France by the leader of Egypt in 1829. The 3,300-year-old obelisk had previously marked the entrance to Luxor Temple, and its hieroglyphs represent the reign of Ramses II. Getting the 280-ton granite monument to Paris proved to be a significant challenge in the early 19th century, so the diagrams on the pedestal base of the obelisk recount and detail the transportation feat. After over three millennia standing sentry in Egypt, the obelisk has now presided over the Place de la Concorde for close to two hundred years. In the miserable wet cold that heralded my arrival, it felt like it took very nearly that long to finally track down my hotel. A providential nip into the nearby Westin paid handsome dividends as they kindly printed off a map and pointed me in the right direction of the Mandarin.

A top memory of my time in Paris, during which the sun remained shyly hidden behind a veil of gray clouds and the temperature hovered between 40-45°F (about 4-7°C) was – on more than one occasion – getting a fresh, warm baguette from one of several boulangeries near my hotel. It wasn't that uncommon to see people walking around in their coats and scarves, with a small baguette in hand, eating it plain. Good bread is one of life's simplest pleasures, and it's not hard to find loads of those pleasures attached to culinary pursuits while in France. When adjusted to a common currency, it's said that Paris has the most expensive bread in the world. That is likely so, but I was still able to score half-baguettes, plenty for my needs, for half a Euro or so, which is only eight times as much as a similar offering in Kuala Lumpur, but hey: It's freaking Paris, whaddya expect, right?! So, piles of outgoing cash notwithstanding, it goes without saying that the food was j'mazing. J'incredible. J'worth the trip for that alone. Get a tissue to mop up the drool: I'll group most of the food shots together here... :)

Apart from eating out, one delight was
bringing fresh bread back to the room
(along with a bottle of wine, of course)
and making a delicious sandwich

Little explosions of berries and fruit at the patisserie
just down from the hotel

Custards, cakes, crème brûlées... though I don't have
much of a serious sweet tooth, I can't deny this
was a tempting line-up!

Breakfast in the hotel... fine French cheeses,
berries, salmon, mini-baguettes, yogurt, and more:
this was a meal not to be rushed at all!

I had never seen this before... basically spiral-shaved cheese,
done by a tool called a girolle, which creates rosette-like
slices of this particular variety of cheese,
the Swiss Tête de Moine

Making crêpes in an open-air shop near the Trocadéro,
directly across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower
Of course, it was no surprise that Paris consistently delighted me with great food and wine. It's just an inseparable part of the culture of France, and it was a common sight, even in the dead of winter, to see friends sitting outside a café under a radiant quartz heater, enjoying a bottle of wine in the cool, damp air.

All French, all the time: a staggering selection of rosé,
red, and white in a small supermarket I visited
In the supermarkets, the country's bond with wine was perhaps even on greater display. Even in a small neighborhood supermarket, it was still a vast wall of wines that greeted me, stretching the entire length of an aisle and comprising nearly exclusively French wines... a few other countries would be represented, but perhaps only 5% of the total stock in the stores into which I wandered.

I saw rather a lot in my relatively short time in Paris (just four days and three nights), but among my favorite places surely must have been the Louvre. Quite apart from the priceless collection of art contained within, the palace itself – built, expanded, destroyed, and rebuilt and augmented repeatedly over a seven-century span – is a stunning treasure beyond belief. The architecture, history, and craftsmanship on display simply boggles the mind... and that's before even wandering into the vast museum, a place in which you could easily spend days and days and still not see everything.

In the oldest courtyard of the Louvre Palace

One of the smaller glass pyramids outside
the Louvre

In the Cour Carrée ("square courtyard")
of the Louvre

Pavillion Mollien in the "new" wing,
still some 200 years old

The last addition to the Louvre, the glass pyramids, completed in 1989

Pavillion Turgot

Pavillion Denon and barren trees contrasted by
surprisingly green grass in the dead of winter

Ohhh, the anguish!
Is he distraught because he's rather
humiliatingly being used as a perch,
or because of his wee tiny penis?

A close runner-up, though, would surely be the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, located on the southeastern quadrant of the Île de la Cité, one of the two remaining natural islands in the middle of the Seine. Construction on Notre-Dame started in 1163 and continued for nearly two centuries (though most of the building was completed by 1250), culminating in what is today widely considered one of the premier examples of French Gothic architecture to be found anywhere. The cathedral, to put it mildly, is stunning. Having undergone an extensive and delicate restoration begun in 1991 (and which may still be underway, but was definitely so as of 2010), Notre-Dame looks terrific today. I eschewed the typical wide-angle shots we've all seen a thousand times in favor of some different compositions, and frankly, the dismal weather didn't lend itself well to the sweeping images of the cathedral's eastern and southern façades, with those graceful flying buttresses, so I stayed on the western side and shot from there. Even for a non-religious person like me, Notre-Dame is a spectacular place to visit, truly one of the most important and historically rich buildings in all of Paris, which is saying something!

All the little saints, lined up in a row...

I know Notre-Dame isn't the only place to
use gargoyles as rain gutter spouts, but it
may have been among the first

On my second day in Paris, I made what was unquestionably the best purchase of the entire mini Euro-odyssey: a quality scarf and pair of "Thinsulate" gloves from a newsstand around the corner from my hotel. The gloves were good to have, I suppose, but really, it was that scarf that made the difference. I noticed that nearly all the Parisian denizens bopping about on the streets were "bescarved," so I presumed there was something to be said for the things. I've never really been much of a scarf-wearer, personally, but I found that insulating that gaping space where your neck pops out of your under- and over-garments really helps. And so it was that my €4 scarf became an indispensable part of my travel wardrobe.

I was only in the City of Light for a scant four days, and though I squeezed in quite a bit (not everything generated blog-worthy photos), the time sailed by, and soon, I found myself navigating my way through the city, with considerably less clumsiness than days prior, to the Gare de Lyon rail station to catch the high-speed TGV train to Barcelona for the second part of my holiday. A few final photo memories, though...

This was a special memory. I was in the 7th
arrondisement one evening – really just wandering –
rounded a corner, and this was what I saw. Nothing
like a big, unexpected steaming pile of Eiffel Tower
to remind you that you're in Paris, eh?

After the chance sighting, I made a more
purposeful course correction to catch the famed
tower in the last lingering vestiges of winter's
deep blue daylight

The awning, the warm neon, the 1920s
cabaret-style font in the signage... this was
too much to let my camera pass up

The sentinel of the Seine

Though I indeed stayed at the excellent
Mandarin Oriental Paris, I was not quite privileged
enough to stay in the finest suite there, though I did
get a peek... this is the view from the bathtub... :)

The entrance and clock tower of the Paris-Gare de Lyon
railway station

At Paris-Gare de Lyon, just before boarding the TGV for
the high-speed rail trip to Barcelona!

And this was another splendid memory... from my seat onboard the
train, a baguette from a French boulangerie, stuffed with salami and Dijon
mustard, a bottle of Evian, a bottle of pretty respectable Bordeaux, and
a Kindle full of reading pleasures...
And there it is, my first visit to the storied city of Paris, France. I myself can hardly believe it took well into my 40s to get there, but it didn't disappoint and certainly piqued more than enough interest and desire to merit another trip, though preferably at a warmer time of year.

Next stop... Catalonia and the historic Mediterranean city of food, fun, and a boundless zeal for life that has made it a destination beloved worldwide: Barcelona, Spain.