Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe & beyond...join me!

Friday, May 22, 2015

paris...from gardens to gargoyles

Paris in the springtime is a melody, a dream, a well-worn photo - as romantic as you can imagine even if you’re just going with one of your oldest girlfriends. A couple of weeks ago, said friend and I went for a 3-day jaunt to Paris, and it was lovely. We did all the best things to do in Paris if you only have three days!

It was my friend’s first time in Paris, and her first time in Europe, and since her husband said he’d love to go if only for the people and the food, she decided I would do! So, here are my favourite things to do in Paris whether  it’s your first time or your eighth. And my best tip (if anyone should ask) is wander, wander, wander – you don’t want to miss a thing.

"To the delight of visitors and the dismay of the locals, Paris is an open-air museum. Each street is steeped in history; each cobblestone carries the weight of tradition. The ghosts of our Parisian ancestors...look down from the gargoyles above..." - sophis mas, et al., How to be Parisian Wherever You Are

Jardin du Luxembourg
Jardin Tuileries, Jardin Luxembourg – the Parisian gardens evoke a renaissance feeling, as if you’ve fallen back in time to when courted maidens strolled, twirling their parasols, up and down lanes of immaculately pruned boxwood shrubs. Grand statues, seated lions, gurgling fountains, and incredible former palaces bookend many of Paris’s best gardens – enticing your eyes and spirit in every direction.

Jardin du Luxemboug
Jardin des Tuileries
Jardin des Tuileries
When spring arrives and the clouds migrate south, Parisians flock to these oases in the middle of the city to soak up sun, meet friends, play games or to just be. Easy to walk to if you’re in central Paris, make sure to take some time to just stop and rest and watch, in any of these belle Jardins.
Jardin des Tuileries
On our first morning, we headed out of our perfectly located, teeny tiny apartment in St. Germain, picked up a coffee and an oh so delicate macaron at Ladurée. It's not the most economical breakfast, but it's definitely the most elegant (and super tasty).

St. Germain has old-school Parisian class oozing out of every brick and mortar, so wandering  through this gentrified, but gorgeous neighbourhood should definitely be on your things to do list. We wandered and gawked and kept our eyes peeled for Victoria Beckham.
Ladurée - 21 rue Bonaparte
Michel Aragon - 21 rue Jacob
There is also some unique, high-end shopping to be done here, whether you're window shopping or a Beckham. Pick up a parapluie at Alexander Sojfer, a designer umbrella store - for a rainy day or just because they are so darn pretty. This romantic umbrella boutique (who knew those existed) is a showcase unto its own. But these are not umbrellas you want to be leaving behind anywhere!
Alexander Sojfer - 218 bd St-Germain
Then just keep wandering towards the original le Bon Marché department store. This art nouveau building is as cool as Catherine Deneuve with just about the same spiky edges. 

le Bon Marché - 24 Rue de Sèvres
Take a tour upstairs to the writing utensil boutique and look up – the ceilings were and still are so cool that no young, up-and-comer even comes close to its style and charm.

Speaking of shopping, I would be remiss to not include my favourite department store and a Parisian classic, Galeries Lafayette. The original, on Blvd Haussmann could have been an opera house in its previous life it’s so gorgeous inside.

Galeries Lafayette - 40 Boulevard Haussmann
As faithful readers know, I love viewing a city from its oldest landmark, the river that runs through it. And well, I would argue that the Seine is the star of this show and not the supporting actress to Ms. Tour Eiffel - it just has so much character. 

Step onto a river boat at the Musée du Louvre, cruise past the Tour Eiffel and back past the Ile de la Cité and Notre Dame. Along with hearing the dark tales of the various bridges throughout the middle ages (is there a tale from the middle ages which isn’t shrouded in a heavy veil of death and ghoul) you will see up close and personal the great works of art that these bridges are. With every great river come great bridges, and Paris does them justice. 

A film set each unto its own, such as the Pont des Arts with its hazardously heavy love lock problem or the one I seem to traverse the most, the Pont Neuf. 

On our last night in Paris, we met two genuinely nice French Africans guys while I was taking some night shots of the city. Listening to their impressions of living in a city as vast as Paris was not surprising – it is riddled with far more have-nots jostled among the few haves; although these two through studying and sports scholarships were part of the latter group. They lived in inner Paris while most of their entire families and community lived far out in the suburbs – among 10.6 % unemployment rate, frustration, discrimination and inequality. Oh the blessing of that precious moment when someone tells you their story.

Musée d'Orsay - 1 Rue de la Légion d'Honneur
One incredible building you’ll see from water level is the Musee d’Orsay, but trust me, this building also needs to be experienced from the inside.

Musée d'Orsay
Of course Paris has some of the most prestigious museums in the world; Louvre and Pompidou to name a couple you might have heard of.  But not to take away from the masterpieces on display, the Musee d’Orsay is a masterpiece all on its own. In its former life it was the railway station, Gare d'Orsay - metamorphosing into its current grandeur in 1898. It lies on the left bank of the Seine across from Jardin Tuileries and hosts Picasso, Manet, Monet, and Gauguin to name a few of the true impressionist masters. Go on the first Sunday of the month and it’s free!

You could really spend three days in only one of Paris’s eclectic neighbourhoods. Montmartre, the Latin Quarter or the ultra trendy SoPi (South of Pigalle). They each have very distinct energies, their own unique joie de vivre. Like different breeds of pure-breed dogs – all are pretty, but as different as a Greyhound is from a Bichon Frise.

And one of the most interesting is the Marais - the Portuguese Water Dog of the bunch. Situated just north of the Seine, the Marais's down-to-earth, interesting vibe combines a rich cultural backstory with quaint vintage boutiques (Village St. Paul – rue de Rivoli), antique dealers, and food. There is a secret in Marais which only the truly determined visitor will find….even if he or she has directions. It’s a true local haunt, a neighbourhood diamond in the rough – well, it also has some rough edges of its own - and an experience in great local food.  Le Marché des Enfants Rouges. If you’re not paying very close attention you will miss it. The entrance to this expanse of a covered market, with stalls and stalls of every fresh edible thing you can imagine, along with hot scrumptious food galore, is a bit like the door to Neverland.

There is no better day than the one where I can explore a city while stopping whenever I feel the whimsical need, to café – in Paris it’s a verb. Just as crépe-ing is a verb. My brother and I, on our first trip to France, coined this very useful term. It’s minimal, explicit and when used more than once a day, very handy. We créped our way through France from north to south on one of my all-time favourite holidays, with a guy who is brilliant, funny, low maintenance and just oh so nice.
Odette - 77 rue Galande
Parisian cafés are their own time-travel machines: Café de Flore (172 bd. St. Germain) or Café le deux Magots right next door. The creative greats created here surrounded by the cool and clever of the day: Hemingway, Camus, Sartre, Beauvoir, Picasso, Joyce. I feel more intellectual with each name I type!

To truly appreciate Paris you need to go high. And I don’t mean climbing le Tour Eiffel high. I mean really high. And for the all-encompasing, million dollar view of said tower and Paris’s living river, then you need to go up the towers of Notre Dame. While up there you’ll get up close and personal with some of the coolest critters I’ve ever had the pleasure of photographing. Le gargouille.

Did you know that gargoyles were originally designed as rain spouts from high buildings, and therefore have the name that comes from 'gullet' or 'gurgling' - like the sound of water trickling down down the side of brick and stone? 

And for the darker side of Paris, head down down down, into the catacombs. Or wander the sewage canals which thankfully my friend heard about just as we needed to head for the train.

This ossuary is the resting place for the remains of over six million people. Apparently, this was the way to handle so many bones back in the day when there wasn't enough room to store them properly. Once I got past the creepy feeling of being so far underground, I began to feel an overwhelming sense of sadness - so many people. Not everyone of course feels this way; watching people snap selfies with a skull kind of made me want to throw up a little.

Keep in mind that if you want to visit the catacombs you will be standing in line for a good hour or so before descending into the coffin of millions. It is an experience.

One thing that the French do well, and I'm not talking about kissing (how would I know that?) is food. I would suggest eating like the locals do, for when in Rome... So, order a charcuterie platter with cheeses and baguette, eat escargot or my favourite Bouillabaisse, along with a terrific French wine.

Or venture out and ask some locals where they go to eat and you’ll find great bistros just around the corner, packed full of return customers. Just such a place my friend and I found for our last dining experience. AG Brasserie in St. Germain - trés incroyable! And definitely a dining experience I will repeat the next time I’m lucky enough to visit Paris.

Square du Vert Galant
…..and my very favourite thing to do in Paris…is to picnic along the Seine. The first trip I took, with my brother, when we were young and very spontaneous (ie. unorganized, unprepared, uncool) we would stop into a corner grocery and buy a baguette, a bottle of Bordeaux, some brie and head to a river bench, boardwalk or park. I highly recommend to also cop a squat in the picturesque Square du Vert Galant off of Pont Neuf or anywhere along the Seine and enjoy France’s finest cuisine a la open air.

So, if you go: Take the train - 4 hours from Frankfurt, under 3 with the Eurostar from London, or fly in. And sure stay in a hotel if you want, there are some cute ones, or take a risk and rent a local’s apartment. It’ll be small, as are most things in Europe (super-size is so passé) but worth it. Try AirBnB or Owner's Direct, but there are many more - just be smart, as always.

And for all those folks who say that the French are unfriendly…I would say, try being nice to them first. People are people, and if you were dealing with a million tourists a day you’d get totally annoyed too. Be kind, try using the few French words you know and you’ll be surprised at how friendly people are…everywhere, not just in France.

Friday, May 8, 2015

peace like a broken bridge

Seventy years ago today, on May 8, 1945, peace came to Europe with Germany signing its unconditional surrender in Berlin.

People around the world poured into the streets to celebrate the end of bombing raids, air sirens, fog canons, bunker runs, and death.

Bingerbrück above the Rhine
It's hard to imagine that here, in my current neck of the woods, the bombing was fierce. In the months previous, waves of British and American bombers had come in swarms dropping up to 200 bombs in a single day around Bingen am Rhein. The target here was the former, very large train station - Germany's most effective transport route to France.

View from below looking up
Now, along with large craters that softly carve out pockets into the surrounding forests, and radio broadcasts every couple of months informing us of an unexploded bombs unearthed nearby, the most mammoth reminder of WWII is something that I have come to love.

It's a broken bridge.

This was the Hindenburgbrücke, a steel and concrete railway bridge, whose ruins sit stoically amidst pleasure boats and freighters. 

I ride past these gigantic chunks of the destroyed bridge many times a week on my commute home and for some reason they fill me with peace. These obvious remnants of a horrific, desperate time that I cannot imagine, but which lie not too distant in the past.

So, on this day, VE Day (Victory in Europe Day), I want to share with you something else that I love. My favourite story about the ending of WWII, courtesy of my father. This story graced one of the very first blog posts I wrote, over four years ago...crazy (that I've been here so long!). So, faithful readers, some of you might have heard it already.

Enjoy. Remember. And be grateful for peaceful relationships, communities and countries. Work to keep it that way. The price of anything else is just too high.

We have a family whistle, and by that I mean that my dad and my brother have a whistle which I, and everyone who knows them, respond to.  Yes, often I have felt like the family pet being called into the house, but mostly it's just plain handy.  In a crowd, even though we're a family of giants and very easy to spot,  our family whistle has always been a comforting, uniquely-our-own, call of home.

This afternoon, sitting across from my dad at his kitchen table, in his idyllic home in the country, with the horses grazing outside in the heat of the summer sun, he told me this story:

In 1945, the war having come to an end four months previously, my grandfather, a young, German soldier, had been making his way home from Denmark or northern Germany to Oberau-Berchtesgaden, a mountain town deep in south-eastern Germany.  His family hadn't heard from him for a very long time. 

To avoid being caught by the British or the Russians, he had walked only at night, sleeping during the days in hidden areas. On one occasion a farmer helped him, supplying him with food and civilian clothing, and presumably, directions - he was walking across the entire country at a time when roads, transport, cities were destroyed.  While he walked he tried as best he could to navigate his path down the middle between British and Russian occupational zone borders, not venturing too far into either territory.  He had slept in ditches during the days and hitched rides on midnight trains, each day getting closer and closer to home.  As he entered the American Occupation Zone he began to relax a little bit. The Americans had a fairly friendly reputation and he knew that home was near.  He began walking during the daylight. 

And on one warm,  August day in that little mountain town, my dad, a month shy of turning 6, sat in a cherry tree outside of their simple, white house.  Suddenly, he heard the whistle , our whistle, coming from down the road.  He couldn't believe it. His dad was home. 
The war was over.
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