Your Friend in Paris

A friend away from home,
helping you explore the City of Lights

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Riding On the Métro

Getting around Paris is not as hard as a lot of people think, especially those who are unaccustomed to light rail systems or don't speak french. The Paris Metro goes basically everywhere; within Paris proper, stations are never farther than 500 meters of where you are or where you want to go, and all one needs to navigate is the ability to read and to follow directional arrows. :)

But first, let's do a little history. :)

Though plans for the Paris Metropolitain, or Metro, were first conceived in 1845, construction on the Métro de Paris did not begin until 1896, under the supervision of civil engineer Fulgence Bienvenüe, for whom a major transport station was named in 1933, Montparnasse-Bienvenüe. The first line (ligne) of the new railway opened in July of 1900, and was, appropriately enough, designated Line 1. Called Maillot-Vincennes for its terminal points, its wooden cars ran from Porte Maillot, in the northwestern corner of the city, to Porte de Vincennes, in the east-southeast. To avoid running into any of the city's numerous cellars, the new line was laid directly under the Champs-Élysées. And like the next few lines that followed, it was excavated and laid entirely by hand. It has since been extended, and now terminates at La Defense, in the northwestern corner of the city, and Chateau de Vincennes, in the east-southeast.

Like Line 1, the earliest, manually-excavated lines follow the surface streets they lie beneath; due to poorly developed methods of construction, workers encountered cellars and foundations when they veered away from main thoroughfares. This is also why some stations have platforms set apart from each other, rather than directly facing each other. The streets above them were too narrow to accommodate wide stations. Commerce, on Line 8, is one such example.

While Bienvenüe supervised what went on underground, architect Hector Guimard was responsible for designing the entrances. One of the premier artists/architects of the Art Nouveau movement, Guimard studied at the Ecole Nationale des Beaux-Arts National School of the Beaux-Arts) in Paris and held a professorial position at the École des Arts Décoratifs (School of Deocrative Arts) until he began work on the Metro, where his station entrances are but one of a long list of accomplishments.

In order of interest, Guimard's Metro designs can still be seen at the entrances to Porte Dauphine, a terminus for Line 2 and the only surviving enclosed entrance out of what used to be five, at the avenue Foch entrance; at the corner of rue des Lavandières-Sainte-Opportune and rue de Rivoli at Châtelet on Lines 1, 4, 7, 11 and 14; Abbesses on Line 12 at la place de l'Hôtel de Ville; boulevard Saint Michel and place Saint André des Arts entrances at Saint-Michel on Line 4; at rue Chardon Lagache, Chardon Lagache Line 10; avenue du général Leclerc entrance to Mouton-Duvernet on Line 4; rue de Rivoli entrance at Tuileries on Line 1; avenue Kléber entrance to Boissière on Line 6; Denfert-Rochereau on Lines 4, 6 and RER Line B; and Port-Royal on RER Line B. Of those, the most elaborate are at Porte Dauphine, Châtelet, and Abbesses.

All in all, the Paris Metro is comprised of 15 lines (not counting the RER) covering 124 miles (199 km) of track and dotted with 368 stations, of which 87 are correspondances (transfer stations). As well, the Funiculaire at Montmartre is considered part of the Metro system, though it sits above ground and merely takes you up to the top of La Butte. Its roughly 3,500 cars carry 6 million Parisians and tourists every single day and are kept moving by approximately 15,000 RATP employees. That's a lot of track, so you can pick up maps of the Metro for free at most Metro stations, in both full and pocket sizes. Individual tickets are 1.40 euros, or you can buy a carnet or "book" of 10 tickets for roughly 11 euros. If you're going to be in Paris an entire week or more, you might consider investing in a Carte d'Orange for zones 1 and 2. For one week (Coupon Hebdomadaire) of unlimited riding running from Monday thru Sunday, the cost is around 16 euros. For one month, from the first to the last day of the month (Coupon Mensuel) it's around 52. If you walk more than ride or are only in Paris a short time, carnets are the way to go. A single Metro ticket will generally get you all the way across Paris, though if you go through an RER station, you will need to use another ticket. In general, trains run from 05:30 (5:30AM) to 00:30 (12:30AM). If you plan to be somewhere late at night, you should plan on taking a taxi home or plan your route carefully, paying attention to when the last train leaves your starting and transfer stations. Then be early, because the Metro tends to run on time or ahead of schedule.

As for travelling on the Metro, be prepared to walk and follow directions. Directions are given by the terminus points of each line, so if you're travelling on Line 1, your stop is either in the direction of La Défense or Chateau de Vincennes. There are signs posted at the entrance hall to each platform with the terminus point at the top and the stations at which the train stops listed beneath it. If you see your station on the list, that's the direction you want to go in. If you don't, that's not the right train. Each platform bears signs hanging from the ceiling which tell you the line number and direction, and each train also has the direction it's headed for marked on the front, usually in a lit panel.

To travel across the city, all you have to know is the Metro station you're starting from and the station where you want to descend, or de-train. Once you have that information, find those two stations on your Metro map. For example, I live in the 15e arrondissement, and my Metro stop is Boucicaut, on Line 8. If I want to have lunch with Marie-Pierre, I have to descend at Bérault, near the end of Line 1. Since I'm dealing with 2 separate lines, I need to find a station where they intersect, which they do at Concorde. So I get on Line 8 at Boucicaut and ride it to Concorde, where I descend. Once I step off the train, I have to find the signs that tell me where to go to change trains. Sometimes it's a single sign at the end of the platform labelled "Correspondances," and once I get up the steps, there are different hallways marked with white signs with blue lettering that have numbers with circles around them, followed by a name - the line number and terminus point. Sometimes those signs greet you as soon as you get off the train. The lines are also color-coded, so more and more of the plain blue and white signs are being replaced with color-coded signs. It's sort of a potluck, and sometimes I have to retrace my steps, but if you stay calm and read the signs, it's fairly straightforward. At Concorde, I find the sign that tells me which way to go for line 1, and then when that divides, I follow the signs for Line 1 Chateau de Vincennes, because Bérault lies in that direction. Once I reach the platform for Line 1 Chateau de Vincennes, all I have to do is get on the next train that comes along and get off at Berault. If I'm not sure I'm on the right platform, I can look overhead for the signs that say Line 1 Chateau de Vincennes and read the front of the arriving train, which says Vincennes, to double-check.

The more lines running through a station, the more confusing that station can be, but with a little patience, you'll do fine. Just don't walk down any steps or hallway marked "Passage Interdit," which is the french literary equivalent of "Do Not Enter"! Just stay calm, read the signs and follow the arrows, and soon you'll be riding the Metro like a Parisian - who sometimes get confused by their own transportation system, so don't feel badly if you don't get the hang of it right away.

Bonne chance!

Monday, March 20, 2006

Les Carrières de Paris - "Les Catacombes"

Should you find yourself in Paris during a heatwave, I can heartily recommend spending the afternoon 200' below-ground, in the Empire of the Dead - the Paris catacombs.

these mossy, jawless skulls are the first to greet you as you enter l'empire de la mortThe catacombs began as an extensive network of quarries located beneath what has since become the streets of Paris. Much of Paris is situated on a limestone shelf, and when the ancient Romans first established the legionnaire settlement of Lutetia (Lutece), a great deal of building stone for the temples, baths, forums and arenas that superceded the current city was excavated from below. As Paris grew from the original Roman settlement over the next 18-1900 years, the city builders continued to use stone from the original quarries to build the city and streets above them. The maze of caverns grew to over 200 miles until finally in the 18th century, a lack of uniform mining methods began to result in numerous cave-ins and frequent deaths.

By 1777, burial in Paris had also become a problem. The city cemeteries dated back to medieval times and were horribly overcrowded; in some cases, the ground level in church burial grounds had risen as much as 10-20' from the sheer volume of remains interred in them. Poor burial conditions and mass graves had resulted in contamination and sickness. In the Les Halles district, conditions were especially bad. The stench of death hung like a pall over the entire district. Sanitation had become a serious health issue, and the entire neighborhood had been contaminated. Residents were unable to keep milk, wine spoiled in the cellars, and sickness was rampant. In the largest church yard, that of the Cimetière des Innocents (Cemetery of the Innocents), the ground had risen 8', and in 1780, a wall collapsed, trapping and suffocating many of the living beneath the weight of the bones.

Something had to be done, and quickly. City officials banned all subsequent construction of burial grounds within city limits. 350 quarry rooms were connected and given the designation ossuarium, and the decision was made to empty the cemeteries of Paris as discretely as possible and move the bones to a new mass tomb in the catacombs. On April 7, 1786, the Vicar General of the the Archbishop of Paris consecrated the new burial ground, and relocation of the Cimetière des Innocents began that evening. Every night for the next two years, three million bodies - the remains of at least 400 years worth of death - were quietly disinterred and transported through the streets of Paris to the hill at Denfert-Rochereau, to be re-interred in the labrynth beneath the city.

bones re-interred on nov. 7, 1804For the next 14 years, from 1786 through 1860, six million dead were transported from the medieval burial grounds of Paris to the mass tomb. They came mostly from the large cemeteries of des Innocents and St. Nicolas des Champs, but bodies from the revolutionary massacres of Place de Greve, Hotel de Brienne, and Rue Meslee were also deposited there August 28 and 29, 1788, as well as from other cemeteries around Paris. By the final interrments of 1860, the original ossuary of Denfert-Rochereau had been filled, and other chambers were approved around the city, including those beneath the cemeteries at Montparnasse and Montrouge, on the outskirts of Paris.

skull and cross bonesDespite the rather gruesome nature of their contents, the catacombs have, from their inception, drawn a large number of visitors. The tomb was first officially opened to the public in 1810 or 1814, and immediately became a target of graffitti and clandestine activities. Victor Hugo utilized the tunnels in his novel Les Misérables. His friend and contemporary, Honoré de Balzac, is rumored to have given his creditors the slip in their dark maze. Prostitutes driven from the streets above used them to ply their trade, and groups of poor families sometimes made their homes in the caverns' dank embrace. In addition, both German soldiers and the French Resistance movement used them during World War II. The catacombs seem from the start to have been something of a fascination for the living, and underground parties have been held there since the 19th century. In one of the most famous, 45 members of the Paris orchestra performed there in secret - and full tuxedo - for 100 guests on the night of April 1, 1897. In September of 2004, police discovered an underground cinema, restaurant and bar, complete with fullsize movie screen, projector, electricity and 3 functioning phone lines, in closed section of the quarry. They returned to trace the power and phone lines, only to discover them severed, with a note lying on the floor in the center of the room: "Do not try to find us."

In 1830, the catacombs were declared off-limits and closed. At that time, the tomb had not yet been isolated from the vast network of caverns, and many visitors had gotten lost in the dark. Vandalism had also become a problem, and the Paris prefect declared them obscene and indecent as a tourist attraction. They remained closed to the public until Napoléon Bonaparte reopened them, having been closed only once since then, in 1995, for installation of a ventilation system. Once upon a time, one needed a flashlight to tour the tomb system, but it has since been outfitted with electric light, however dim and creepy it may still be!

broken skulls and other smaller bones top a wall of femurs in an alcoveAs you might imagine, six million people break down into quite a few bones. It's really pretty amazing to wind your way through room after room lined with 30 feet of bone. The passageways are mostly of stone wall, though some are also of bone, and alcoves abound, stacked floor to ceiling with the bones of the dead. The method of stacking is interesting as well; you may find yourself wondering what happened to the smaller bones, like fingers and toes. Or vertabrae. Here and there, iron gates lock off side passages from the main path, and I recommend a flashlight so that you can peer down them. It's also helpful for pictures, as flash photography is not allowed.

The entrance to the catacombs, or Denfert-Rochereau Ossuary, is in the front of a rather severe and depressingly bureaucratic building, through a non-descript black door marked simply "Entrée des Catacombes", and down a rather steep steel spiral staircase consisting of 85 steps not so much for the infirm or feint of heart. Winding your way through the mile-long course will take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours, depending on your fascination with the dead and your determination to climb yet another set of Parisian stairs. It's definitely damp down there, so wear comfortable shoes with good souls* and closed toes, and take your jacket, because the catacombs are a chilly 52F, which feels great at first, but gets pretty darn cold by tour end. I wouldn't recommend it for those with claustrophobia or who have problems with caves, since the concept of being 200' below the city is a little unnerving, especially if you spend much time dwelling on the cave-in troubles that led to the quarry's current life as a tomb...or if you live in a city prone to earthquakes, where the amount of time you spend under things that can crush you is something you generally think about anyway. I'm claustrophobic enough that MRI machines cause me to panic, but I did okay in the catacombs; the ceilings are generally between 7.5 - 8' high. I'd have freaked out if the power had gone out though; I have a vivid imagination, and being surrounded by all those bones would pretty much do me in, in the dark!

this high support arch on the way out welcomes you back to the land of the livingLes Carrières de Paris - the quarries of Paris, are open Tuesday - Sunday from 10 to 5. (Closed Mondays and banking holidays). Admission is 5€ The Metro exit is Denfert-Rochereau (lines 4 & 6), and the entrance is directly across the street from the Metro entrance, at 1, place Denfert-Rochereau. Phone: 33(0)1 43 22 47 63

And if looking at all those bones gets your hunger up, when you exit the catacombs, turn right at the top of the stairs, and at the main street at the top of the street you'll be turning onto, there's a McDonald's. I think to your left, but I could be wrong, having eaten there exactly once. It's called McDo in France (say mac-doe), and is distinctly different from American McDonald's and worth a try once, just so you can lord it over your friends back home. Once. :)

*that was a typo...I meant soles, but I like the freudian slip enough that I'm not going to correct it :)

Le Passe-Muraille

Paris is full of whimsical surprises; it's one of the things I love about the city. One of these is located in Montmartre, and is based on a 1943 short story by one of France's most beloved storytellers, Marcel Aymé.

A modern day fairytale and social commentary, Le passe-muraille is the story of a man who discovers, quite by accident, that he can walk through walls. He uses his new power to avenge himself and for petty theft, eventually falling in love with a beautiful woman who lives in a tower. He uses his talent to woo and win her heart, but as all fairytales of this sort go, one day tragedy befalls him, leaving him trapped inside a wall.

Aymé died in October 1967 and is interred in the Cimetière Saint-Vincent, in Montmartre. The Place Marcel-Aymé, where this monument stands, is located at the corner of Allée des Brouillards and Rue Norvins, in Aymé's beloved Montmartre, where he lived most of his life. The sculpture is by the multi-talented French actor Jean Marais, and was erected in Frbruary of 1982. As the story goes, if one is in the square at night and very quiet, music can be heard playing to soothe the spirits of the man lodged in the wall. I seem to remember that to touch his fingers is also to bring good luck and grant wishes, but I could be remembering that incorrectly; I'll have to ask my friend Marie-Pierre to tell me the story again. :)

statue of Marcel-Aymé, entitled Le Passe-Muraille

Metro line 12, exit Abbesses, and ask the way to the Place Marcel-Aymé.

Sunday, March 12, 2006

la Maison de Victor Hugo

In a quiet corner of the Place des Vosges stands the Hôtel de Roham Guéménée, a grand residence constructed by the King's counsellor and Administrator of Finances, Isaac Arnauld, in 1605. In 1832, Victor Hugo - author of Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre-Dame (Notre-Dame de Paris) - , rented an apartment on the second floor of the building, which he and his family occupied for the next 16 years, until 1848. The home is now a museum housing collections of Hugo's drawings, his original manuscripts and other documents, artwork, furniture, and other objects of life tracing a history of the writer's life.

A prolific writer and workaholic, Hugo took up residence in the apartment at the age of 30, the year after he finished Hunchback, during rehearsals of his play Le roi s'amuse (The King Amuses Himself), which was banned after only one performance, for mocking the french nobility. A great many of Hugo's subsequent works, both literary and theatrical, as well as some volumes of poetry, were written in the home over the next 16 years. He also wrote a great deal of Les Misérables while living there.

The house became a salon during the time the Hugos lived there, often frequented by the best and brightest of French society, politicians, and artists from every discipline. Madame Hugo was a great hostess, and the Hugos counted among their many visitors Charles Dickens, Honoré de Balzac, François-René de Chateaubriand, Gioacchino Rossini, Niccolò Paganini, and the young Duke and Duchess of Orléans, Ferdinand-Philippe and Helene Louise.

The home was designated an offical museum in March, 1902, for the 100th anniversary of the writer's birth. In addition to Hugo's own drawings and documents, the house also contains the writer's inkwell, some of his furniture, family portraits, and artwork from the time, including a painting of Hugo's funeral procession at the Arc de Triomphe in 1885. I find the drawings most interesting and notable, as Hugo did not share them with the public during his lifetime, fearing they would draw attention he preferred go to his literary work.

La Maison de Victor Hugo is located at 6, place des Vosges, in the 4th arrondissement, 75004. Admission to the permanent collection is free*, and the ground floor giftshop contains quite a lot of Hugo memorabilia, in both French and English. The museum is open to the public from 10 - 6 every day except Mondays and banking holidays. Metro stops are Bastille (lines 1, 5 and 8), Saint-Paul (1), or Chemin-Vert (8).

*Temporary exhibits generally require a small admissions fee.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Chez Janou

My favorite restaurant in Paris, and hands down the best lunch I've ever had, is a rather small little bistro in the Marais, called Chez Janou. Set on a corner very close to the Place des Vosges, Chez Janou is very much like a neighborhood restaurant, with a homey, lived in feel, complete with mismatched tables and Toulouse-Lautrec posters on the walls. Dining is inside or out. I recommend sitting inside, where the ambiance is just wonderful, but if you prefer an al fresco dining experience, by all means, go for the small sidewalk terrace; it can not be faulted so long as the day isn't too hot.

The meals at Chez Janou are hearty, in the Provençal-style, and reasonably-priced from the Prix Fixe menu (€14, lunch), though before the bistro changed owners, they were much less expensive. It is the only place I have ever eaten in France where I had to struggle to finish my meal, and believe me, you'll want to finish your meal; the food is insanely delicious. There's a reason restaurants all over the world send their chefs to train at Chez Janou. I have never had a bad meal there, and it's next to impossible to single one out as best, because every time I go, I try to get whatever I had last time, but inevitably that item is unavailable, and I end up with something the everlasting joy of my tastebuds. But the Pavé de Rumsteak is to die for...topped with chevre and served with a hearty side of small potato wedges and mushrooms. I challenge you to finish it. Likewise, the roast pork ribs with marjoram in semi-sweet glaze are awesome, and I'm not even a big pork eater. They, too, were served with the aforementioned potatoes and mushrooms. And the green salad with vinaigrette, served on chicken and pesto with tomatoes??? Oh. My. God. :)

I hear the chocolate mousse desert is awesome, but frankly, I have never had room for desert after a meal at Chez Janou, so I'm afraid I am utterly unable to vouch for it! (I do love the little pre-meal bowls of niçoise olives they set on the table, though...can't get enough of them.) :)

I have always found the service at Chez Janou to be very pleasant, if sometimes quirky. The last time we were there, our waiter behaved in an extremely haughty fashion and steadfastly refused to speak more than a few words of english, and I wondered what we had done to offend him...until I figured out it was a huge act, at which point it became a game to see if we could make him break character and smile. I caught him just barely twitching a few times, but he never dropped the act until we were leaving, at which point he very warmly wished us goodbye and a pleasant day and said he hoped I enjoyed my time in France. The wait staff all seems to speak english (as they do in most Parisian restaurants), and service is efficient and accommodating.

From what I hear, the place is very busy at dinner, and reservations are recommended, but again, I've never had dinner there and don't know. And if you're into pastis, they are rumored to have the largest selection of the traditional anise-flavored french aperitif in all of Paris. After lunch, if you feel like working off some of your meal, stroll over to the Place des Vosges and cross it, to the upper corner on your left, where lies la Maison de Victor Hugo, the one-time home of the Les Miserables novelist. A tour of the house is free and worth the hour or so it will take you to work through it.

Chez Janou is open from noon until 3pm for lunch during the week, noon to 4 on Saturday & Sunday, and then again from 7:30 to midnight, for dinner. It is located on the corner of rue Roger Verlomme & des Tournelles, at 2, rue Roger Verlomme, Paris 75003. The nearest Metro station is Chemin Vert, but you would do well to consult a map or ask for directions. The phone number is 01-42-72-28-41.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006


So, you think you know ice cream. You've dabbled in Maggie Moo's, dawdled in Marble Slab, drooled over Cold Stone. You've even had gelato in Genoa, salivated over sorbetto in Sicily. You and ice cream are old friends, going back to the days of scraped knees and tennies, flying higher than your best friend in the swings, sitting crosslegged on the floor at jacks, kickin' butt and takin' names. It got you through tonsils, breakups, and many a late night gab session. You know ice cream.

Honey, you only think you know ice cream. Take it from me, if you haven't had the ice cream at Berthillon's, that stuff you call ice cream is merely a shadow. Essence of ice cream. Merely a hint of the confectionary wonder that ice cream was meant to be. And to get Berthillon's, you have to go to Paris, to the Île Saint-Louis, where you will stand in a long line of pilgrims, fidgeting, salivating, waiting for that one shining moment when you are finally seated and the waitress comes over to ask your choice, when you - dazed from the seemingly hundreds of flavor choices on the menu card before you (there are actually only 30something) - will garble out "pamplemousse rose et pomme verte" with no inkling of the culinary joy about to make its way to your table.

But I get ahead of myself.

Berthillon opened on the Île Saint-Louis in 1954, the brainchild of Raymond Berthillon, who clearly understood the need for insanely good ice cream. Monsieur Berthillon had just sold his bakery, and he and his wife had moved to be closer to Madame Berthillon's mother, whose husband had recently passed away. To amuse the neighborhood children, Mr. Berthillon churned ice cream in the small ice cream maker he'd kept as a reminder of his former bakery. A stickler for quality, he eschewed additives and artificial ingredients in favor of 100% natural ingredients he brought fresh from the market: milk, cream, eggs, cocoa, fruit, vanilla - and called his treats the sorbet of the sultans. (There are no preservatives or sweeteners in Berthillon's frozen treats, either.) In 1962, two food critics, Henri Gault and Christian Millau, discovered Berthillon and included in their restaurant guide "the surprising ice cream maker who hides on the Île Saint-Louis."

Berthillon's fate was sealed.

One visit to the picturesque shop in the rue Saint Louis makes it plain to see why. When I first made my way there July 12, 2003, I had no idea what awaited me. I thought my friend Marie-Pierre had brought me to a bookstore; all she had said was that we were going to Berthillon. I rounded a corner to see a delightful facade of gorgeously rich strawberry-blonde wood with old-world gold lettering spelling out "Berthillon" above the door and narrow front windows. It was mysteriously incongruent, straight out of the 17th century, squeezed into stolid, dove-grey masonry, apartment windows with black, wrought iron railings lining the building face above it. There was - as there is nearly all year long - a line of people waiting to get in, but we made it to the front of the queue and got the very last open table, a tiny two seater sandwiched in among so many other tiny wooden tables. The waitress was harried and brusque, but I had time to survey the astounding array of choices, from ice creams with outrageously rich-sounding names like caramel with ginger, Grand-Marnier, nougat with honey, and coffee with whiskey, to refreshing sorbets like ruby red grapefruit (my personal favorite, like, EVER), green apple, and wild blackberry. I chose the coupe-de-deux, a 2-flavor combo, and it came in a silver bowl perched above a plain white plate, covered with whipped cream and fruit, and it was sheer heaven from the very first bite. I made those two scoops last a very, very long time.

Mixed in among the exotic flavors of lemon-thyme, fig and earl grey on the menu, there are also flavors to put the least adventurous ice cream seeker at ease. Chocolate, vanilla, and strawberry all be teamed with seemingly just about anything else you can think of. The menu also changes with the season, so you're sure to find something new to try each time you visit. But you'll have to do it before the summer heat and tourists arrive in Paris; in some weird, dessert variant of Murphy's Law, Berthillon closes up shop just before mid-July and doesn't open again until October or so. It is still a family-owned business - Monsieur Berthillon's daughter, Marie José, married Bernard Chauvin, and now their children run Berthillon's - and like any sensible Parisians, the family vacates the city during the tourist months of summer.

For those who like to dine while they stroll, Berthillon (bair-tee-yone) also serves its ice cream to go, in cone or cup. The ice creamery is open from roughly October through June and half of July, Wed - Sunday, from 10am to 8pm. It is located at 29-31 rue Saint Louis en l'ile, on the Île Saint-Louis. (75004 Paris) The nearest Metro exit is Cité, but I horribly can't remember which direction you proceed down rue Saint Louis en l'ile. I've never been there by Metro! (But I think you go east.)
Telephone #01 43 54 31 61.


Tuesday, March 07, 2006


A must-visit for any student of landscape architecture or design, Château de Vaux-le-Vicomte is located about half an hour outside of Paris, in Maincy.

Famous for its water features, and nicknamed "Little Versailles," Vaux-le-Vicomte began life as nothing more than a small castle outside of Paris, located between the royal residences of Vincennes and Fontainebleau. That changed when it fell into the hands of Nicolas Fouquet in 1641. The 26-year-old son of French parliamentarian François Fouquet, Nicolas was a rapidly rising star and financier in the French parliament and became Attorney General of France in 1650. He married Marie de Castille in 1651, daughter of a wealthy family and a member of the nobility. On the surface, young Fouquet had everything: lands, title, a position in government. A charming and intelligent man, he was well-liked and respected by his peers. But he was "new money" and lacked the status granted with true nobility. So Nicolas Fouquet set out to make his little castle outside of Paris into a palace befitting one of nobility - an ostentatious display of wealth meant to garner the appreciation and approval of those higher than he on the social scale.

Sadly, this ambition was to be his downfall.

In 1653, due to civil war and the war with Spain which immediately followed, France found her coffers dangerously slim. Through his shrewd financial wheelings and dealings in parliament, Fouquet had caught the eye of the French regent, Cardinal Mazarin, who appointed him to the post of Minister of Finance. Fouquet proved an adept man for the job, and through his good credit and the position he maintained as Attorney General, France began to see more money coming in and her treasury growing. Fouquet's fortune grew as well, and he began expanding his home. To realize his grand vision, the minister chose renowned architect Louis Le Vau, interior designer Charles Le Brun and landscape architect André Le Nôtre, and in 1657, the cornerstone of what is modern day Vaux-le-Vicomte was laid. By 1661, thanks in large part to Fouquet's ability to recognize genius, one of the finest châteaus and gardens in all of France had been accomplished. The residence sits at the foremost end of the property, a majestic château surrounded by water, with lands stretching back seemingly as far as the eye can see; an impressive show of wealth by any means of measurement.

The house is a jewel, beautifully appointed, featuring murals, trompe l'oeil and gold gilt, with angels, cherubs, lions, and the Fouquet family mascot, the squirrel. There's even a stage, upon which some of Moliere's plays were first performed. But the gardens are the true masterpiece of Vaux-le-Vicomte. They sweep back from the house a full 3 kilometers and are divided into a series of terraces, each somewhat hidden from the next by differences in height. Elegant parterres give way to neatly bordered flower beds and water features graced with grand sculptures, a huge wall of water capped with winged horses and gargoyles, grottos, lakes, and fountains, framed on all sides by the lush forest. There's even a Roman bridge spanning a creek. The epitome of French landscape design, the gardens at Vaux-le-Vicomte are a perfect and prime example of gardening at the height of the age of elegance.

Fouquet opened his new home to his friends and the artists he patronized. A lively, engaging man, Fouquet loved the arts and letters, patronizing the artists of his time and showering them with gifts and money to show his admiration. Among his many friends in French society were the poet Jean de La Fontaine, playwright Molière, painter Nicolas Poussin, sculptor Pierre Puget, and poet and novelist Paul Scarron. Renowned chef François Vatel, himself, ran Vaux's kitchens.

Unfortunately, as France's wealth - and that of Fouquet - grew, Fouquet drew the jaundiced eye of French Minister of Internal Affairs, Jean-Baptiste Colbert. The most prominent member of a merchant family, Colbert was an ambitious and driven man whose personal fortune was acquired via shadowed and somewhat questionable sources. Colbert had an eye on the post of Finance Minister and was jealous of Fouquet's popularity and wealth. He competed with Fouquet for the attentions of Mazarin, currying enough favor to become the personal and financial confidant of the cardinal. Through his connections to the palace via the war office, he also had the ear of young Louis XIV and never missed an opportunity to appeal to the king's vanity and to disparage Fouquet's extravagances, painting him as dishonest and seeking to usurp the popularity of the court. The ploy worked, and Louis grew increasingly jealous, suspicious, and angry with his rich and glamorous Minister of Finance. In 1661, Mazarin died and Colbert sealed his place with the king - and Fouquet's fate - by revealing to Louis the location of a hidden portion of Mazarin's great wealth. All that stood between the Finance Minister and death had gone.

A loyal servant to the crown, Fouquet was oblivious to the full extent of Colbert's maneuvering. Louis had requested a tour of the recently completed estate, and Fouquet thought to win back favor with a grand fête in honor of the monarch on August 17, 1661. The party started with the official opening of Vaux-le-Vicomte in the presence of the king and queen mother. A huge feast was served, and after the heat of the day, everyone toured the gardens. Another meal was served upon their return, followed by the outdoor performance and premier of Moliere's comedic ballet Les Fâcheux and a grand display of fireworks. As Louis and the Queen Mother made their way back to the château, a last volley of rockets shot up from the rear dome, forming a giant arch of flame. It was the final nail in Fouquet's coffin. The king, driven by jealousy and incensed at Fouquet's great popularity and the grandness of an estate that eclipsed any of the royal palaces, would have had Fouquet arrested on the spot, were it not for the advice of the Queen Mother, who recognized Fouquet's popularity and influence among members of the court. A plan was devised to trick Fouquet into selling his title of Attorney General, and with it, all the protection it afforded him under the law.

Fouquet went to bed that evening convinced of the party's success and his favor with the king. In September, he accompanied Louis to Nantes, secure in the assurance of the king's esteem. But as he left Louis's chambers, he was arrested and taken to prison. A lengthy trial followed, during which Louis "stacked" the panel of judges and pressed hard for Fouquet's execution. But public sentiment ran strong for Fouquet, and some of the judges held out against the king. After 3 years of unfair and embittered trial, Fouquet was sentenced to banishment, but Louis - fearing Fouquet's ability to raise an army against him - ordered the sentence changed to imprisonment for the remainder of Fouquet's life. He was taken to the fortress of Pignerol in the Alps of Savoie, where he remained until his death on March 23, 1680. For his part, Louis hired the designers behind Vaux-le-Vicomte and commissioned from them a palace on a scale nearly half again as large on the western edge of Paris: Versailles.

Sixty years later, Duc de Saint Simon wrote of Nicolas Fouquet in his memoirs, penning an epigraph of the man who "after eight years as Financial Secretary, paid for Mazarin's stolen millions, the jealousy of Tellier and Colbert, and a touch too much gaiety and magnificence, with nineteen years of imprisonment." Despite the jealousies that led to his death, Fouquet's achievement still remains a model for formal landscape design and the pinnacle of French elegance, Vaux-le-Vicomte.

Vaux-le-Vicomte may be reached by car or train, thirty minutes from Gare de Lyon or by RER-D from Metro station Châtelet, on lines 1, 4, 7, and 11. Take the train to Melun and a taxi from Melun the 6km to the estate. Recorded tours of the residence are available in other languages, including english. A proper visit will require half a day. Food is served in a dining hall near the entrance, and unlike most tourist attractions, the food at Vaux is quite decent and does not taste like fast food. To see Vaux in all it's majesty, I strongly recommend you go during the second and last Saturday of the month, when the fountains are run from 3 to 6 in the afternoon, weather conditions allowing.

Images & text copyright 2006 - all rights reserved

Monday, March 06, 2006

Le Musée d'Albert Kahn

Ah, France. The land of formal landscapes and landscape designers like...well, okay, pretty much just André Le Nôtre, but Le Nôtre made a pretty big mark, and landscape design students still study him. In fact, most of the gardens of France - Versailles, Vaux-le-Vicomte, Villandry, and Chenonceau, to name a few - are on the tour of gardens for any self-respecting landscape designer who makes a trip to Europe. But few of them will discover the delight of the gardens established by a wealthy Alsatian banker in 1895.

Le Musée (et Jardins) d'Albert Kahn, located in Boulogne-Billancourt, on the western outskirts of Paris, is not to be missed by any student of landscape, or anyone looking for a rest from the noise of the city. I stumbled upon it purely by accident when I was living in Boulogne-Billancourt in 2003, and I'm very happy I did; it is one of my very favorite places in Paris. if not all of France. While not, strictly speaking, a botanical garden, the garden is composed of themed sections, from woodland meadow to formal garden, and is a must-see for any gardner or landscape design student, as well as for anyone who just wants a relaxing day in Paris.

In his vision of the future, Albert Kahn believed all the cultures of the world could not only get along, but thrive and flourish in proximity and synergy with one another, and he commissioned landscape architect Achille Duchene to design a garden to demonstrate this. The result is an amalgam of design and specimens from all over the world. Only 10 acres remain of the original 17, but what a treat they are. To wander through Kahn's gardens is to leave the world behind and lose oneself in the magic only nature contains. The passage from one area to the next is a surprise and treat, as no signs or bonundaries exist to demarcate one verdant area from the next. Upon leaving the museum building, one finds himself in a formal Japanese garden; go left, and the garden continues along the south wall of the property, stretching pretty much the entire length of the land. The first part is best, much more tightly structured and "correct," but I like the whimsy of the last, more recently-designed half of it, as well, despite the more modern, haphazardly seeming eccentricity of it. It makes a very pleasant stroll.

If you veer right instead, you find yourself in a pastoral "English garden" setting, travelling a curving path beneath tall trees and curving around to a footbridge crossing over the small creek. Between these two extremes lie a pine forest, palmitarium (where you can have a light lunch), an espaliered orchard and formal French garden, arid Alsatian pine forest, and a forest of blue pine. The number of plants is astounding, and the walk is a constantly surprising delight. It is my favorite garden in all the world, and truly wonderful, peaceful place to visit.

A humanitarian, Kahn also wished to establish a center where students from across the globe could gather to study the cultures of the world in the hopes of establishing an international civilization and world peace. He gathered a group of luminaries from the arts and sciences and called them the Autour du Monde. The group's goal was to promote international cooperation, and members included Colette, Albert Einstein, Anatole France, Andre Gide, Rudyard Kipling, and Rodin.

The philanthropist was also a forward-thinking man who realized the way of life for many people and societies across the globe was changing, disappearing forever. In an effort to preserve some record of lost culture, he dispensed photographers to travel to 50 countries from 1909 to 1931, and take photos and movies of the way everyday people led their lives. The resultant 72,000 photographs and 180,000 meters of silent film were gathered into the Archives de la Planéte, some of which is on display in the museum which is the entrance to the gardens. It is an interesting look at bygone days and a remarkable preservation of history. The collection includes rare photographs of the Basse-Normandy region taken in 1920, prior to German occupation and severely damaged during the D-Day invasion some 25 years later.

Albert Kahn lost his money in the stock market crash of 1929 and bankrupted himself using what money he still had on his gardens and photographic expeditions. Some years later, he was forced to sell the 17 acres of his garden, but believed he would be able to buy it back. Unfortunately, he died in 1940 with being able to do so. But the various institutions he established still survive to carry out his goal of conservation and preservation. And the beautiful gardens and photographic archives he established remain still, a crowning achievement in the life of this gentle humanitarian.

The price of admission to the museum and gardens is €3.30. You may take photographs, but you will have to sign an agreement stating they are solely for personal use. Albert Kahn is open October 1 - April 30, 11am - 6pm. May 1 - September 30, 11am - 7pm. Closed Mondays. It is located at 14, rue du Port in Boulogne-Billancourt (92100). Parking is non-existent, but it's painfully easy to get there by Metro. Take line 10 to the last stop, Boulogne Pont de Saint Cloud. Ascend and head north, northeast, across the traffic circle, to the rue du Port, which intersects with the larger rue des Abondences. Proceed left down rue du Port (the only way you can go), and it's about 2/3 of the way down the street, on the right. Entrance is to a low-lying building which looks a little like a community center. Light meals/snacks (quiche, salade nicoise) are served in the Palmitarium greenhouse for less than €10.

For more on the museum and garden of Albert Kahn, please see this article in the NY Times, which I consulted for part of this entry.

Images & text copyright 2006 - all rights reserved

Le Procope

The oldest restaurant in the city - and the original Paris café - Le Procope opened in 1686, under the watchful eye of its Italian proprietor, Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli. Located in quaint and fashionable St. Germain des Prés in what was then the Rue des Fossés-Saint-Germain, the Procope soon became THE place to see and be seen in Paris societé. At that time, the Comédie-Française was located nearby (sadly, the original building was lost to fire in 1900), and Le Procope rapidly became a meeting place and post-performance hangout for actors and theatre-goers. Literary figures embraced the coffee shop as well, and for centuries, Le Procope played home to the great minds of politics, letters, and the arts, from Voltaire to Benjamin Franklin. Napoleon Bonaparte left his hat there as a pledge, Voltaire's desk still stands in a corner, Benjamin Franklin worked on the US Constitution in one of its salons, and the modern day encyclopedia was born there.

The sheer history of the place alone merits a meal there, but the food at Le Procope rates among the best in Paris. My dinners there are among the best I've ever had, and each its a treasured memory, for the food, the wine, and the elegantly aged surroundings. The downstairs dining room is my favorite, but many find the upstairs salons more sumptuous and beautiful. Regardless, there's not a bad seat in the house, and when you have finished your meal, restaurant employees are happy to let you wander thru and look around, so long as you are polite and stay out of the way. They all seem to be quite proud to be working at such a venerable Parisian landmark. And if you haven't the money to eat there (it can get pricey, especially if you deviate from the fixed-price menu), the restaurant opens its doors to tourists from 3 to 7 every day. But please remember that people are trying to work and eat, and behave accordingly. (I know that seems obvious, but you'd be amazed at some of the idiotic things tourists do!)

I recommend making reservations before you leave for your trip to Paris, to be assured a seat; Le Procope is still one of the most popular restaurants in Paris.

Le Procope is located in the Latin Quarter, at 13 rue de l'Ancienne Comédie, 75006 Paris, and is open from noon to 1am every day. If you travel by subway, disembark at Odeon from lines 10 or 4. Go north, across the Boulevard St. Germain, and veer just right, along the rue de l'Ancienne Comédie. Le Procope is on your right and can't be missed. If somehow you end up on cour du Commerce St. André, Le Procope will be on your left. Phone: +33-01-40-46-79-00

Bon appétit!

Images & text copyright 2006 - all rights reserved