Sunday, May 27, 2012

A Day in Vermont

It's not Paris but Vermont can be pretty interesting as well.  My daughter & I drove out to Bennington for the town's annual Mayfest.  Some friends of ours had booths at this very large event so we went to check it out.

Bennington is a cute little New England Village.  And on the last Saturday in May they block off one of the their main streets for about 1/8 mile of crafts, food, and other miscellaneous vendors.  Foot traffic is

I was surprised at how big an event this was.  As there's a food court on a side street and music in 3 locations,  I have to say it looks somewhat like Start on the Street in Worcester though about half the size.We bought a few things from some of the farmer's market vendors, a little something from Sieber Designs, and had Indian samosas for lunch.  We even visited the local chocolate shop.

The scenery along Route 9 is always pretty spectacular.  We did see some damage remains from the flooding last year though much of it has been cleaned up.

On the way home we stopped for a bit at an antique and flea market on the side of the road.  We were looking for steampunk supplies but settled for some cheap paperbacks instead.

It was a beautiful day for a drive.  If the weather next year is as nice I recommend you head out to Bennington for their Mayfest.

A more detailed review specifically for vendors can be found here.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Observations From a First Time Visitor in Paris

I loved my visit to Paris.  While I went feeling a bit intimidated by the city, I left feeling comfortable and wanting to stay longer.  I hope I get a chance to return now that I feel more confident about getting around.  It's a clean city, at least the parts that I saw.  There are trash containers on every block and these lovely recycling bins for empty wine bottles, etc. are everywhere☺
And notice the bicycles.  You can rent them (coin operated) and drop them off at your destination.

Many Parisians speak some English so if you make an effort to learn a few French phrases they'll be happy to assist you.  I didn't run into any of the arrogant French that I've read about.  Although one young sales clerk in a department store who told me I was shopping in the wrong clothing section as the styles I was looking at were for younger women came pretty close. 

I came away with a few observations that may help prepare others going to Paris for the first time.

Paris is an old city and many of the streets are still cobblestone.  You really need to look down because if you’re looking up you might miss a raised stone or the hole from a missing stone.  Entrances into small boutiques in the older parts of the city such as Marais may have an unexpected (2-3”) step up or down.  I tripped over several. 

You have no personal space in Paris.  In lines or crowded subways, people cluster right up against one another.  On the narrow sidewalks they walk toward you without slowing down.  I dodged more umbrellas!  I’m sure that’s why there are so many signs telling you to beware of pickpockets.  People are close.  Restaurants, in order to cram in as many people as possible, have many small tables—about 2’ in diameter.  And they push them right next to one another.  So plates have to be small, you can’t lift your elbows, and you need to wait until you’re outside to put your coat back on without hitting someone.  It’s probably why Parisians have no weight problems.   I don’t think I saw even one overweight person there—like the species has adapted to the environment.  I should definitely move there to try that theory out. 

There are crossing lights for pedestrians on most major streets.  People don’t always pay attention to them (kinda like New York) but they do work.  The problem, however, is that cars are still legally able to make a left or right turn into the side street that you may be crossing.  They do stop though just short of hitting you (disregard for personal space again).  A little scary for people who think pedestrians should have the right of way.

While I bought a hop on bus pass and metro card ahead (both being good for unlimited rides over 2 consecutive days), you can also buy a 1 day bus pass directly from the bus driver on the day you decide to use it.  That way if you need it over 2 non-consecutive days, you can just buy another one later. 

The Metro Pass was a nice idea but it’s just as easy to buy a ticket at any of the stations and unless you make several trips, you could save some money.  You have to use the automated machine but English is an option.  I didn’t see where you could buy an all day pass like in NYC, but we bought a ticket for each ride.  It costs 1.80 Euros each way.  Get a Metro map and plan your trips ahead.  Know what direction you’re going in and at what stop you’ll need to change trains, the new line number, and at what stop you’ll be getting off or changing trains again.  I made a quick list before we got on the Metro and everything went very smoothly.  BTW, their PA system for calling out stations is much clearer than NY.

Scarves are de rigueur in Paris.  Most women wear them all the time and a large percentage of the men do too.  Want to look like you belong there?  Buy a scarf and wear it all the time—with a jacket or just a short sleeve T.  It doesn’t matter.  And there are 100 ways to tie it.

All week I only saw one man in public talking on his cell phone.  And he wasn’t speaking French so I’m sure he was from out of town.  You'll see Parisians walking with headsets or smoking a cigarette. But they don’t walk around with a cell phone in their ear talking loudly on the street, in stores, or on the Metro.  They are a quiet people.  Their conversations are whispered. And while I saw one or two check their phone, I didn’t see anyone talking on them.

We were advised that Parisian women generally wear dark colors and never wear sneakers on the streets of Paris.  This for the most part is true.  Yet the fashion houses and clothing stores are filled with bright orange and lime green apparel for the summer.  Who wears these clothes and where?  And while they don’t wear sneakers many wear sneaker-like tie shoes in a variety of colors.  If you don’t wear 6” platform heels, you’ll love Paris shoe stores.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Unexpected Finds in Paris

I sprung for one guided tour to Versailles and Claude Monet’s Giverny with hotel pickup. Pricey but I didn't want to have to find my own way there. We landed at Versailles in the pouring rain to find a huge queue snaking the entire courtyard.  Andre, the tour guide, snuck us near the front as we attached ourselves to a group belonging to a fellow tour guide.  Between the rain and the fact that Europeans don’t seem to have any regard for personal space, we were squeezed together through the entrance, security check, and through the first few rooms.  It was like passing through the birth canal.  People took pictures from above their heads, we got pushed through doorways, stuck in corners with no way out, and bruised all over. This is why there are stampedes at soccer games.

 It wasn’t until we got to the Hall of Mirrors that, birth complete, we actually got to breathe and look around.  Yes, Versailles is a beautiful example of the opulence of that time—gilded ceilings, famous paintings, elaborate furniture.  But if you’ve seen the mansions at Newport, or been to the Louvre, it’s just more of the same with claustrophobia. 

The gardens were lovely but the 40 mph winds blew the water from the fountains over everyone.  So though it was no longer raining when we finally got outside, I got soaked when the wind changed as I passed one of the fountains. 

Giverny, however, is a whole other story. And Andre drove the last leg of the trip through some cute little, typically French villages. Giverny is beautiful, serene, and picturesque. It’s not difficult to see why Monet was so inspired by the grounds.  You cannot take a bad photo there.  His home is open and filled with paintings he collected by Japanese masters.  The kitchen and dining room are sooo French country in blue and bright yellow. 

We strolled up the road that leads from his home to the church where Monet is buried to see a typical French village and hanging wisteria.

Andre, the ultimate tour guide, made sure to provide comment or history on everything we came across from the historic buildings we passed in Paris to information about the bright yellow rape seed fields on the way to Giverny (it’s where canola oil comes from).  Do you know the derivation of canola?  Unfortunately the couple from Toronto who should have won the prize didn’t know it was a mashup of the words “Canadian oil”. 

There are Roman ruins very near our hotel which Andre pointed out as we were going to pick up the next couple on our way to Versailles.  On the way back he was still talking about these ruins and really wanted to make sure we understood what Paris had unearthed in the Latin Quarter.  So as we were the last to be dropped off Andre stopped at what looked like a gated park.  Here people sat and chatted and kids played ball in what remains of a Roman arena from the 2nd or 3rd century.

Discovered in the late 1800s during excavation for a new building, the arena is mostly intact—circular stone walls, tiered seating, and lion’s cages.  Gladiators really fought there!  We would never have even known about this had it not been for Andre and his pride in all things Parisian.

One afternoon we made our way across the Seine to find that we had crossed one of the love lock bridges. These bridges are found in many countries and in Europe the custom began around 2000.  Sweethearts etch or otherwise put their names on a lock, affix it to the wire mesh on the bridge, and throw the key in the river to symbolize their everlasting love.  

Another night around 9 pm we were working our way home, the streets were quiet with few people around, when we passed what I would call an alley.  It was all lit up, we heard music, and it was packed with people.  We had accidentally discovered an area where dozens of restaurants compete for business with colorful displays on the pedestrian-only streets near the Gothic church of St. Severin.  This is where we found my favorite chocolate shop and where we had fondue for supper one night.

The only sunny day we had in Paris was our last day.  I was pretty bummed as I thought we would be able to see more of the Marais district.  But it was May 1, May Day on the French calendar, and a labor holiday.  Nothing was open except restaurants.  So Plan B was to head toward the Pantheon and south toward the Luxembourg Gardens.  It’s actually quite beautiful there and being a holiday there were lots of people just sitting in the sun, reading, or strolling.   The gardens are part of the Luxembourg Palace where the senate resides.

There’s a large pond in the center and on Tuesday it was filled with sail boats.  Apparently you can rent sailboats with different colored sails and children push them off with a large pole.  It was windy so they were all moving nicely.

Farther along our walk on our way to St. Sulpice we noticed a man writing what looked like a poem on a large wall just outside the St. Sulpice Square.  A kind Parisian with limited English was kind enough to explain the poem was by a famous French poet and was a metaphor for life.  He didn’t know why this man was doing this but I was fascinated by his beautiful freehand lettering.

Scenes from the DaVinci Code were filmed in St. Sulpice.  It’s a beautiful church that has huge matching genuine clamshell holy water fonts at the entrance. It contains 2 huge paintings by Eugene Delecroix who helped with its restoration, and it has one of the world’s greatest organs (as we found out from a fellow tourist and organ player who came just to see it).
As we learned in the DaVinci Code -- St. Sulpice contains the meridian line, a narrow brass strip that begins near the middle of the nave on the right side, near a stone statue with a Latin inscription and runs north across the nave and transept to an obelisk next to the statue of St. Peter. The meridian line is a fascinating astronomical instrument of the 18th century, used to study the planets and determine the date of Easter each year. The sun's rays enter the church through a small opening in the south transept and rest on the line at various points throughout the year. 

Several times during our walk off in the distance we could hear music and chanting.  We tried to find the source but we seemed to just miss it.  We were told there would be parades for May Day so we figured that’s what we were hearing.

We walked east past our hotel to the Garden des Plantes.  This botanical garden was just coming into bloom.  It has a zoo (menagerie) on the grounds but we arrived too late to get in and only saw the kangaroos.  After leaving the garden we noticed police tape blocking one of the streets along the Seine and again heard drums and chanting in the distance.  We headed down to the walkway along the water and sure enough saw the May Day parade crossing one of the bridges in the distance.  The group must have picked up people during the day because it had to be a mile long.  This worker’s holiday is celebrated in many countries and often includes riots.  The police in Paris were ready.  Seven vans of swat teams lined the Seine as the parade crossed this bridge.  And gendarmes were ready in the river.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Paris in the Springtime....

…is rainy.  And it can be chilly.  But it’s PARIS so who cares.  It’s been on my “to visit” list forever and I finally got there.  I went with my daughter; the one who studied French in school as I did.  We only have elementary French but it was great to be able to use it once in awhile.  Fortunately in the tourist areas of Paris just about everyone speaks some English.

We stayed at what used to be referred to as pensions but now are called boutique hotels-- a little place with only 45 rooms on the Rue d’Ecole in the Latin Quarter.  From our hotel we could see Notre Dame on one side and the Pantheon on the other.We were one block from Blvd St. Germaine which has lots of shops. a.  This was, at least partly, a shopping trip.  And walking distance from St. Germaine des Pres and the famous Les Deux Magots (the two maggots), a restaurant and meeting place for writers such as Hemingway and Jean-Paul Satre.

What I liked about Paris is that no matter where you are, there is always a flower shop, a bakery, a chocolate shop, several clothing stores and tons of restaurants.  And while you might find the same brand with several branches all over the city, each brand is unique.  Unlike here where you find the same style clothes in JCPenny's as you do in Macys, clothing boutiques have different styles of clothing, some edgy some more conservative, some imported.  But each is unique.

Paris is old and the buildings weren’t meant to house huge department stores.  Though there are a few, I really preferred the smaller boutiques.  One tiny shop had street level space that was about 12’ x 14’ and open stairways to the 2nd and 3rd floors of the same size.  They even managed to fit in 1 changing booth. I can’t imagine how many building codes would be violated if that were done here.  Some stores like Au Vieux Campeur (the old camper) had 3 shops we could see from our hotel and 2 more a block away on St. Germaine.  Because the shops are small each one specialized—men’s wear, women’s wear, children’s, and equipment. 

Open air markets pop up on different days in different areas of Paris.  The locals know when there’ll be one in their district.  On Thursday morning we were pleasantly surprised to see one on St. Germaine just down the hill from our hotel.  Tents included several with scarves, a fish monger, jewelry, fresh flowers, and a women selling several flavors of foie gras.

We also came across a small fair set up next to the Eiffel Tower.  Craft Fair! I thought.  Well not exactly.  Just another version of the street markets and flea markets of Paris with skarves, baked goods, imported watches, imported jewelry.  But this time, in this mass of resellers, we found what could possibly be some truly handmade jewelry.  This man sells in Paris jewelry made in Italy by his sister, Lisa Bano.  I looked her up on the internet and found her listed as a vendor in a craft show in Italy.  Maybe it’s really handmade.

women are predominantly small so while you can easily find size xs or 0 it’s a bit more difficult to find a large.  I did buy a couple of knitted tops but I was very excited about the shoes.  Since I don’t often have reason to dress up, I’ve taken to wearing comfortable shoes.  But I really don’t want them to look like orthopedic shoes or sneakers.  We were advised before leaving for Paris that we should not wear sneakers in the city.  Seems they are dead giveaway that you’re a tourist. Parisian women don’t wear sneakers but they do wear a variety of comfortable tie shoes, loafers, or strappy shoes that most shoe stores carry among their 6” platforms and edgy United Nude types.
So several of the Paris shoe stores have stylish yet comfortable shoes and I bought them.  Actually I bought 3 pair and a pair of sandals.  Prices are generally under $100 unless you’re buying designer shoes.

On the right bank and across the Seine from Notre Dame is the Marais District. This is one of Paris’ oldest quarters.  Once favored by royalty it eventually fell into ruin.   Comprising a rich ethnic mix, this unique area houses the remains of the old Jewish quarter.  Jews first settled here in the 1300s, with a large influx coming from eastern and central Europe around the turn of the 20th century.  

 Since its revival in the 1960's, it has become as a center of Parisian artistic and cultural life and is one of the only areas that preserves the narrow streets and architectural styles of Medieval and Renaissance-era Paris.  Now kosher butchers mix with falafel shops and Italian designer shoes.
The streets are still cobbled here and the area is swamped with boutiques, lively bars, bistros and galleries.  I was told I’d find some great boutiques here but on Monday morning most places were closed.  It seems people don’t rise early in Marais as it wasn’t until about 2pm that we noticed some open shops and an increase in activity.
                                                       Chocolate Hippopotomi
My daughter decided that she wanted to try samples from as many chocolate shops as we could find.  She came with a list and we tried to find as many as possible so she could buy a bar of chocolate from each to compare them.  We didn’t find all those chocolate shops though we found a few she didn’t have listed.  There’s chocolate on every block in Paris.  Personally, I know the difference between European chocolate and Hershey/Nestle.  It’s creamier, not as sweet, and melts in your mouth.  But among the shops in Paris, they all taste the same to me—wonderful.  Not being a chocolate connoisseur, my personal favorite was Larnicol.  You can scoop truffles, caramels and various chocolates with nuts from bins and it all sells for the same price by weight. 

 So compared to a lovely, fancy box of 6 decorated ¾" x ¾" chocolates for 28 euros, I bought 3 bags of truffles, jellies, and caramels for 35 euros.  They’re also open much later than a lot of the other chocolate shops.
We didn’t go to Paris to eat, though we did, of course.  We had the names of some restaurants recommended by Americans living in Paris but we never found them.  We pretty much ate when we were hungry at restaurants nearby.  About every 3rd shop is a restaurant, bistro, or café.  The menus are posted outside.  So we just went to the one with good choices that had the most customers.  We never had a bad or expensive meal. 

Getting Around in Paris

After doing some research I decided to purchase a combo Paris Pass, museum pass, and Metro Pass.   The drawback about this is that they are all only good for 2 days—in a row. Paris Pass allows you to hop on and hop off a tour bus and the museum pass gets you into 55 museums in Paris.  We used these 2 passes simultaneously to get to all the tourist “must visits”.  The bus worked out very well.  It makes 9 stops and comes by each every 15 minutes or so.  We picked it up at Notre Dame and took it up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel Tower but bypassed the Palais Royal and L’Opera.  On the second day we took it to the Musee d’Orsay, L’Orangerie, & The Louvre.

While the Louvre is the world’s largest art museum and certainly houses some wonderful works of art, I have to say that I like the Musee D’Orsay much better.  If you go to Paris for the first time, of course you’ll have to see the Louvre, Mona Lisa, and Venus de Milo.  And you can take pictures there though you can’t use a flash.  But if I go back again, I’ll definitely return to the Musee d’Orsay.  It’s a converted train station that features Cezanne, Degas, Delacroix, Denis, Gauguin, Manet, Monet, Pissarro, Renoir, Sisley, Toulouse-Lautrec, and my favorite, Van Gogh.  There are sculptures as well and in the main hall we found 3 busts done in bronze and marble by Charles Cordier.  While taking photos wasn’t allowed, I managed to sneak a shot of one of these busts.  Doesn’t he look familiar?

While the bus pass was a great time saver, the museum pass is a big waste of money.  There’s no way you’ll visit 55 museums in 2 days, or even half that.  As it's not a museum, it doesn’t get you into the Eiffel Tower. And while it advertises that it will allow you to bypass the long lines, that only happened at the Louvre and Arc de Triomphe.  There are security issues at some museums like D’Orsay so though you don’t have to buy a ticket, you do still have to wait in line and have your bags searched.  

We used the Metro Pass on Saturday to get to the Flea Market in northern Paris.  Once we figured out how easy it was to get around, we bought more tickets on Monday and took it to Marais.  The system is easier than the NYC subway. The stations are clean and, like NY, you sometimes run into musicians—only here there was an accordion player with a repertoire of traditional French tangos and waltzes.  It was so French!

Speaking of the Flea, it isn't like Brimfield at all.  The permanent installations there sell serious antiques with serious price tags.  Oh, there are some vintage jewelry dealers and vintage postcard shops but their prices are high as well.  The temporary tents that line the route to the Flea are just filled with more of those resellers of imported jewelry, t-shirts, scarves, jeans, leather coats, fake leather shoes, and... hookahs.