Travel Advent #1: Creche, creche, baby

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An amazing European mini-world…

‘Tis the season for all sorts of good stuff, and in keeping with that spirit, I plan to showcase some of my favorite Xmas and holiday awesomeness from around the globe for the next 25 days. To start off, nothing says Christmas like miniature nativity scenes (aka “crèche” in French). Europe really goes nuts for these, with everything from the Baby Jesus to working windmills to the village pub (often replete with little mini-village drunks, if you’re really lucky).

One of the best places I’ve been for crèche sighting is the movie-set village of Roquebrune Cap Martin, nestled between Monaco and Menton. The good citizens of Roquebrune go all out for their crèche displays,  with hundreds tucked throughout the village and a walking route along which you can discover them all. Think of it as a Baby Jesus treasure hunt. We found them in windows, in plant pots, in light fixtures– some even have special lighting and music just to set the mood.

After your Baby Jesus treasure hunt, don’t miss the exhibition of award-winning crèches. These are complicated, detailed dioramas whose creators have spent lifetimes creating their mini-worlds.  I had a nice long chat with an experienced (and passionate) crèche creator on one visit, learning exactly how to create mini-trees that accurately reflect the surrounding region from dried moss and wine corks. I have not tried this at home. Yet.

This year, from December 9 to January 7, more than 300 mini-nativity scenes will be yours to discover all around Roquebrune village. (There may be more figurines in the crèches than village residents, but I’m no census-taker.) Christmas eve, there are plans for a living crèche in addition to the walking route, and interactive activities where you may be able to get creative with your own crèche.

If you’re down in the Nice/Monaco area, it’s definitely worth a look. More info on these and other Xmas activities here.

Nowhere near Roquebrune? Make your own holiday mini-world. Dried moss, corks, and a whittling knife are recommended.

 

Stroll in the 7th Heaven

Paris’ 7th arrondissement is home to impressive government buildings and embassies, loads of iconic and lesser known monuments, some great museums, really nice architecture, good shopping, and lovely garden spaces. In spite of its hauteur and occasional pretense, the 7th is, in general, a condensed version of all that is wonderful in Paris all in one quarter. If you do all of the following, this will take you an entire day long into a very pleasant evening.

(1) Start your day at Cafe Roussillon, on the corner of rue de Grenelle and rue Cler. Have a coffee and a tartine (bread with some butter and jam) while standing up at the bar, where you’ll pay less than if you sit down. (A rule at all cafes, not just this one.) Sometimes, they’ll have other pastries, depending on what’s available, but a tartine and coffee is a very typical way to start the day.

Next, (2) proceed down the rue de Grenelle toward the gold-domed Invalides, and walk partially around the structure to your left, checking out the buidling’s impressive exterior, passing by the looming cannons, lovely stretches of green grass, and sweet garden areas. Long a military hospital for injured soldiers, Invalides is now better known for one of France’s more famous warriors: Napoleon. 

You can visit the inside of Invalides a bit later after you stop and smell the roses (if they’re in bloom), at the (3) Musee Rodin, 79 rue de Varenne.  The Musee Rodin has one of the most beautiful gardens in Paris, and even features its own rose variety, the Rodin Rose. Of course, in addition to flowers, the Musee Rodin is a showcase for a sculptor who changed the art form, Auguste Rodin. It only takes an hour or two to visit, and you can get tickets online in advance through the helpful Web site:  http://www.musee-rodin.fr/welcome.htm  

You won’t be able to miss the French government buildings on (4) rue de Varenne near the Musee Rodin, such as the Hotel Matignon (the official residence of France’s Prime Minister) and France’s Ministry of Agriculture. Occasionally, security will be a bit of a hassle on the rue de Varenne because of the profusion of government offices and embassies in the area. If there are any protests involving angry farmers from the French countryside, you should definitely try to take in the action that will transpirin front of the Ministry of Agriculture– particularly if you get to see the Ministry entrance blockaded with potatoes or manure.

Walking back toward rue Cler around the side of the Invalides you didn’t see on your way over to the Musee Rodin, take in more vantages of the impressive, gold-domed structure. Even if you’re only mildly interested in the military and/or megalomania, (5) Invalides is worth a look inside for its fascinating military museum, and, of course, Napoleon’s tomb. The military musem has an impressive array of weapons from the Middle Ages and a very robust set of archives relating to the Second World War. Different themed exhibits also appear throughout the year. More info in French (with some in English) is available online at:  http://www.invalides.org/

After viewing government power, military history, and loveliness for the morning, head back to (6) rue Cler for your lunch. Rue Cler is an amazing market street, with several wonderful shops for buying picnic items. There’s an array of small shops from which to select your perfect picnic lunch: cheeses, fruits and vegetables, breads, sausages, and more are there for the buying. For wine for a picnic (or for any reason), be sure to visit Le Repaire Bacchus, at 29 rue Cler. In addition to a diverse selection of regional French wines, the staff are very helpful, and they give great advice about good wines at every price point. If you don’t travel with a cork screw, they’ll open your picnic bottle for you.

On a picnic weather day, the (7) Champ de Mars is very close by– a perfect grassy spot for a picnic and a nap in the sun between the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire. “Champ de Mars” means “Field of Mars.” Named for the God of War, military drills were once practiced here. Now, rather than war exercises, you’re now likely to see a free concert put on by Paris’ local government in the summer, or some folks from the neighborhood playing petanque or card games among the gravel alleyways under the trees. (Petanque, or boules, is similar to bocce, except the balls are metal and there are different rules of scoring according to the region in France you’re from.) It’s great fun to watch experienced players play petanque, particularly if they’re older and they’re playing for money– which helps you learn more colorful French phrases than you were probably taught in high school French class. 

Eiffel Tower in Autumn
The “Grotesque” Eiffel Tower

Of course, if you haven’t done it yet (or, if it has been a while since you did), you should go to the top of the (8) Eiffel Tower once you’re finished with your picnic and nap. Though touristy for sure, it’s popular because it’s a beautiful marvel of engineering with stunning views over Paris.

This opinion wasn’t always shared, however, and the Eiffel Tower was often decried as a monstrosity after it was first constructed for the Universal Exposition (a world’s fair of sorts) by Gustave Eiffel in 1889. (In other parts of Paris, you can also admire Gustave Eiffel’s work at the Bon Marche department store and Credit Lyonnais bank, where he built the metal structures. Across the Pond, he was responsible for the internal structure of the Statue of Liberty.) Only built to last 20 years, the Eiffel Tower proved useful as a radio tower during the war years of the early 20th century so the Eiffel Tower was able to defy its critics to become the landmark we all know and love today. The evening lights are a treat to see from other vantage points all over Paris. For history and visitor info in just about every language of the planet (along with some interactive items for children), take a look at: http://www.tour-eiffel.fr/

By now, you should have worked up a bit of a thirst, so stroll back to rue Cler and head to (9) Cafe du Marche  to sit on the terrace  (or stand at the bar for a lower price) and enjoy an “apero,” or “aperitif.” This pre-dinner cocktail time is essential in France, and usually consists of ordering a kir or two, along with some nibbly snacks–typically nuts, some sausage, or small cubes of cheese.  At Cafe du Marche, this wine accompaniment generally takes the guise of some zesty sausage. (If you’d like to split up your apero time at more than one place, the Roussillon, where you started your day, has some really good apero-snacks as well. Last time I visited the Rousillon, there were some very good, reasonably priced cod fritters which at least 3-4 people could share.)

Should you feel like classic, easy cafe food for dinner, then be sure to stay and dine at the Cafe du Marche, especially if it’s a warm evening and there are abundant people-watching opportunities from the terrace. However, there are numerous options for good fare in the 7th, all within very easy walking distance from rue Cler. A few of my favourites are:

  • Restaurant Samo – a Korean restaurant that is one of the best places in Paris, or anywhere, to eat
  • Thoumieux – a traditional French brasserie, at 79 rue St.-Dominique, online at: http://www.thoumieux.com/

 

A Day at the Mosquee – (Couscous & Hammams Too!)

Minaret from the Grand Mosque of Paris
A Magical World...in Paris

With all the dreary headlines in the news about the West, Islam, Muslims in France, and related topics, it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of inter-cultural interaction. However, when you visit the Great Mosque of Paris (La Grande Mosquee de Paris), you’ll come away understanding how positive (and relaxing) it can be when great cultures interact, and appreciate the true genius of Islamic art, architecture, and hospitality.

The mosque, located in the 5th arrondissement, is surprising for its immensity and authenticity. An Islamic culture center in Paris’ intellectual heart, the mosque was built after World War I, to thank Islamic members of the French empire who fought to help France be among the winners during the “War to End All Wars.” For more about the mosque’s history and the beautiful art and architecture you find there, this Web site, in French, has lots of info. The great photos speak for themselves even if you don’t speak French: http://mosquee-de-paris.net/

When you visit the mosque, you’ll feel like you left Paris for an enchanted world. The mosque has a really cool minaret to gaze at, a mini-souk where you can buy North African wares, a restaurant where you can eat some of the best couscous and tagines in Paris, along with a tearoom where you can drink mint tea and munch pastries in amazing ambiance. (Just remember, there’s no alcohol served here, so you’ll have to have your cocktails after dinner if you decide to dine here. And it’s worth eating here even sans alcohol. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that I once tried to order a gin and tonic here. They were very nice about it, but it showed me why I needed to spend more time at the Great Mosque of Paris.) 

The mosque also houses one of the best hammams in Paris. For a fairly small fee, you can enjoy the lovely steam rooms and baths. For additional money, you can get that access, plus a body scrub, a massage, and mint tea or dinner afterwards.  The massages are worth it.

Bring flip-flops and swimsuit bottoms. It’s not “au naturel,” but perhaps a little less covered up than American or British spas might be, even in gender-separated areas. Use but beware of the strong soap you are given. It stings pretty bad if it gets in your eyes. Like a lot of places with communal bathing in more traditional communities worldwide, it’s girls only on certain days, guys on the other days. I’ve never been on a Saturday, but I’ve been told it’s a miss, as it gets way too crowded. (Like most fun, relaxing things on Saturdays.)

For days of the week for males and females, price lists for treatments at the hammam, menus for the restaurant/tearoom, and contact info for the more commercial side of the mosque, visit them online at:  http://www.la-mosquee.com/index.htm 

On the ground, the mosque is located at 39 rue St.-Hilaire in the 5th. Metro stops Monge, Jussieu, or Censier are all decent stops, unless you walk over as a part of a nice stroll around the Latin Quarter, part of which is in the 5th. 

Art & Cafes in the Marais…& a Late Night?

Among many fine walks in Paris, a nice stroll around the Marais is a great way to spend a day…and a late night. Enjoying everything below at a leisurely pace and discovering some new places along the way should take you a full morning and well into the afternoon. Or, just stay all night for when the neighborhood’s bars and cafes really get going. Walk to the Marais along the river, or take the yellow Metro line (Ligne 1) to St-Paul.

The neighborhood’s name means, “Marsh,” as the area was a wetland in the 12th century. There are many fine examples of stately architecture in the Marais, as the neighborhood became a royal one in the 14th century, when Charles V moved the court here. From the end of the 16th century to the 17th, the Marais experienced its glory days as the center of Parisian intellectual life. Those glory days ended when Louis XIV changed the focus of power by moving the royal court’s home in Paris to Tuileries.  

Decline continued until a few decades ago, culminating in the Marais’ being a pretty run-down neighborhood. Like a lot of places with architectural potential that have been forgotten, artists poured in, taking advantage of the then cheap real estate, fixing up a lot of the cool old buildings. If you peek in courtyards and windows, you can see a lot of lovely old architecture– cobbled alleys, wood-beamed ceilings, a cozy Parisian style. The Marais now houses Paris’ gay and Jewish neighborhoods.

The best way to start a day in the Marais is to go see the Musee Picasso, 5 rue de Thorigny, just a short walk from the St. Paul Metro stop. Go in the morning, during the week, as it’s usually less crowded. Weekends during tourist season are almost not worth going, as the crowds detract from the beautiful space and the art itself. Call or check online before you go, as it might be closed on certain days or for an event (http://www.musee-picasso.fr/)

The museum’s building itself, the Hotel Salé, is amazing, dating from the 17th century. Among many roles over its long life, the building was once, most notably, the Embassy of the Republic of Venice, long before the country of Italy came into being.

The art collection more than suits its impressive, monumental home. The collection is a well-edited review of Picasso’s life work, comprising every period of his epic, prolific career. This museum is also one of the only times you may be grateful for the taxman. Picasso’s heirs had to pay back taxes to the French government, a debt they settled by giving up this amazing cache of artwork from one of the most original artists the world has ever known.

After you visit the museum, eat lunch, hang out at cafes, and check out the cool galleries and stores that make the Marais one of Paris’ best neighborhoods. Stay for a late night too, as the Marais is also at its best into the evening hours. 

Rue de Rosiers is worth checking out. It has a lot of really great Jewish restaurants with wonderful Middle Eastern food for a quick lunch or supper.  

On or directly off rue Vieille du Temple, one of the main streets in the Marais, you can take in the galleries, the funky shops, and the café life:  

  • Café Tresor is on a really sweet alley, (5 rue du Tresor), right off Vielle du Temple. Awesome café food for a light lunch. A lot of artists/models hang out here at night, but there’s always good people watching here.
  • Café Amnesia (42 rue Vieille du Temple), is one of the most popular gay hangouts in the Marais, and also fantastic people watching. 

Not too far from rue Vielle du Temple:

  • Open Cafe, (17 rue des Archives), is one of the most popular gay spots in Paris, particularly in the evenings. Gay or straight, it can be awesomely fun here on a warm summer night.  
  • Lizard Lounge, (18 rue Bourg-Tibourg), draws a large straight, Anglo-American expat crowd, and can really get going in the late evenings.
  • DOM, a groovy housewares store, is like a French Urban Outfitters without all the clothes. This is a good place for funky souvenirs and gifts. (21 rue Sainte-Croix-de-la-Bretonnerie.)

The Best Market in Paris – Motte-Piquet/Grenelle

An array of cheese at the Motte-Piquet market
I gave my heart to Cheesus.

You have to, have to go to the giant market at Motte-Piquet, just steps away from the Eiffel Tower. It’s the best, largest market in Paris.

The Motte-Piquet/Grenelle Market is located in the residential 15th arrondissement that abuts the Champ de Mars and the Eiffel Tower. Because the market is located in a largely residential area, the prices are really reasonable and the variety of items offered is amazing. Fruits. Vegetables. Sausages. French house slippers. Pate. Mushrooms. Mops. Cheeses. Honey. The Works.

The market happens only on Sunday and Wednesday mornings.  A lot of the choicest stuff is gone before noon, but some merchants will hang around a bit later than noon to finish selling their wares if you had a late night in Paris before market days.

Pick up items for a picnic outdoors at the nearby Champ de Mars, and/or buy some authentic, handmade gifts for people back home.

Regardless of what you purchase at the market, you will definitely come away with some real local color and a tangible understanding of the artisanal nature of French food. (Many of the producers come from Normandy and other regions surrounding Paris, so it’s also a good way to sample other areas’ delicacies.)

If you don’t speak French, just launch your most sincere “bonjours” and “mercis,” and be prepared to play some charades to help the merchant ascertain your desires. Communicating, “I’d like a much smaller melon” solely with your hands to a kindly French merchant is all part of the fun.

When dealing with produce at this market or even in some shops, the merchants will often ask you, “Pour aujourd’hui?” which means, “For today?” If you want to consume what you’re buying right away so that it’s at its peak of freshness, answer, “Oui.” You’ll get produce that’s ripe for the eating now. If you’re planning on eating the fruits/veggies later, answer, “Non” and they will give you produce that will attain perfect ripeness in a day or two.

You have to love a culture with that kind of attention to detail. Visiting this 15th arrondissement market is a great way to see a normal Parisian neighborhood where real people live, shop, and eat.

Metro: Motte-Picquet Grenelle (Lines 6, 8, and 10) (The metro goes above ground over here, and the market is under the elevated metro tracks.)

Pont Neuf – Sunset & Evening Boat Cruise

Pont Neuf and Ile de la Cite
A Great Place to Catch a Boat & Enjoy Wine

Some spots on the world are well-visited because they’re magic. Pont Neuf and the Seine by night are two such places. (If you’re visiting Paris for the first time, the following is a great way to start your trip the first evening you arrive.)

First, buy your tickets for a night-time boat cruise on Vedettes Pont-Neuf. You can do this online (and often get a discount) or you can show up in person. (If it’s a tourist time of year like summer, be sure to get your tickets extra early, as the night-time cruises sell out fast.)

Head down to Pont Neuf before sunset, with a bottle of wine or champagne in hand. Because King Henri IV commissioned Pont Neuf, his statue sits atop the bridge, in front of the stairs that take you down to the boats and park below. Henri IV’s nickname was “Vert Galant,” (Green Gallant)– an allusion to his sexual powers and overall vigor. He was a “notorious romantic,” euphemistically speaking. (Allow that to inspire you for your evening as you see fit.)

Pont Neuf, in spite of its name meaning “new bridge”, is actually the oldest bridge in Paris. The beautifully carved faces seem alive, showcasing an exquisite range of expression. When commissioned over four centuries ago, the bridge’s architect/designer was asked to showcase government ministers and those popular with the court. In a fit of artistic pique that can still induce chuckles across the ages, a few condemned people and murderers were thrown into the gallery of faces. As is common, it’s hard to sort out the criminals from the statesmen.   

After studying a few of the bridge’s faces, stroll down with your vino to the tip of the Ile de la Cite, the island that really started the whole Paris thing way back before Romans, Franks, and the rest.  Sit back and relax while watching Paris go by, and you may learn one of the reasons why that song’s called “La Vie en Rose.” (The sky can turn an amazing pink, and this vantage point is perfect for getting a great vista of a Parisian sunset.)

Once the sun slips below the horizon, head over to Vedettes Pont-Neuf and board your boat. The French are masters at illuminating their public buildings and bridges. Paris, a city so beautiful by day, is 1000x more beautiful by night from the water that is its heart.

For boat tickets, cruise over to http://www.vedettesdupontneuf.com/