Mary Jean, I, and my sister Roberta pause during a stroll on the Champs-Élysées.
Paris is an addiction. Once in your system, it’s hard to get it out.
Over many research trips and Dartmouth overseas language programs led by my wife, Mary Jean, we have collectively spent more than a year of our lives living in Paris. But it’s five years since our last visit, and the yearning to revisit was becoming irresistible.
We also wished to show Europe to my sister Roberta. Bunny, as everyone calls her, lost her husband Matthew Lawrence almost two years ago. Matt served as a combat engineer in World War II, was captured in December 1944 during the Battle of the Bulge, and spent the last months of the war as a POW in a German Stalag. Matt’s experiences of near starvation led him to vow never to return to Europe, so during their long marriage, Bunny never traveled there. To remedy this, we committed to taking her on an annual trip. Last year it was Madrid and Spain. This year, Paris beckoned.
If many elements of this post are familiar, that is because our goal was to revisit and share with Bunny some of our favorite sites.
GETTING SETTLED; FIRST WALKS
An overnight flight called for a quiet first day familiarizing us with the neighborhood. Our Airbnb apartment was on the broad but largely residential Rue Gay-Lussac. Here’s a view toward our apartment.
Our street is appropriately named. Joseph Louis Gay-Lussac (1778-1850) was a physicist-chemist mostly known for his discovery that water is made of two parts hydrogen and one part oxygen. Rue Gay-Lussac forms the western border of a major scientific and intellectual district that includes the École Nationale Supérieure de Chimie, the Institut de Biologie Physico-Chimique, and the home once occupied by Marie Curie, now a museum honoring the three-time Nobelist. During our stroll, we encountered this sketch of Madam Curie on a building wall:
I was especially pleased to find just behind our apartment the École Normale Supérieure.
Nominally a teacher’s college, the École has served over the years as the training ground for many of France’s leading intellectuals. Both Jean Paul Sartre and his lifelong companion Simone de Beauvoir attended, with Sartre receiving first place in his teaching degree agrégation exam and de Beauvoir receiving second place. Curie, Sartre, and de Beauvoir. The neighborhood resonates to their presence.
At its northern end, Gay-Lussac points to the entrance to the Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris’s diminutive but beautifully manicured Central Park. During our many stays in Paris, I always looked forward to visits to the Jardin’s basin, where you can rent and launch small sailboats. Though the cool weather made me less inclined to join the fun, I enjoyed watching children scamper from edge to edge as their boats traversed the pond.
Touristically-oriented activities continued on the next full day. After a morning at the Musée Maillol (see below) we boarded a bateau-mouche near the Eiffel Tower and cruised the Seine up to Notre Dame and back. Here are Mary Jean and Bunny enjoying this quintessence of Parisian tourism.
Here’s a glimpse from the boat of the famous Tower, whose blocklong lines and heights we chose to forego:
The most poignant moment on the cruise was our passage around Notre Dame. Several days later on, when we tried to walk past the cathedral, we found our way blocked by police cordons, so this river view was about as close as one can get to the fire-ravaged structure. The front looks relatively undamaged, though the fire may have either melted the front rose window or caused its panes to be removed protectively:
Here’s a side view. You can discern a pale blue tarpaulin that has been spread over the burned out roof. The scaffold for previous repair work, where the fire may have started, is still in place.
This fire was a great tragedy. Hopefully, the five-year recovery announced by President Macron will result in a stronger cathedral.
Several days later we bypassed the Îsle de la Cité, on which Notre Dame stands, and crossed the river further up at the Îsle Saint-Louis. Our destination was the Marais district, where we had spent three months many years ago when Mary Jean was doing research in the old Bibliothèque Nationale. Our daughter Julie attended a local primary school, and I helped out by taking responsibility for our two-year-old son, Matthew. Each afternoon, weather permitting, I would take Matt across the river to a small playground that has now become an elegant riverside park, the Quai Saint Bernard. Matthew tells me that walking on the top of a low wall of logs in the playground is one of his first memories. Here’s a glimpse across the bridge to the Quai:
The Marais was once a major Jewish quarter of the city. Most Jews were deported during the war, and it later became a location for gay life. When we lived there, it was still pretty dilapidated, but all that has changed as gentrification has seized the quarter. Our residence was a small fifth floor walkup on the Quai de Célestins in a building facing the river. I’ll never forget reading a passage from a Tale of Two Cities to our daughter Julie. As I was describing the dim stairway leading up to Dr. Manette’s small eighteenth century garret, Julie remarked, “That sounds just like our apartment.”
How things change. Here’s our old building now. You can see the handsome renovation:
A thin Jewish presence persists in the Marais, and the Mémorial de la Shoah (Holocaust museum) is located here. En route to the museum, we passed a Jewish bakery:
The museum itself was unimpressive. On the wall of the names of the 76,000 French Jews who were deported and murdered by the Nazis, we hoped to see the family name of a surviving French friend, but that part of the museum was closed for repairs. A room containing files of cards (fichiers) used by the French police to identify and round up Jews was chilling:
Named on the cards are the several camps to which Jews were shipped before their final deportation to Auschwitz.
ART IN PARIS
Not all our museum visits were so lugubrious. Quite the contrary, since this visit was a return to our Paris favorites and an introduction to my sister to some of the city’s treasures, we had several art collections on our must-see list. Below, I offer some of my photos. I took these because crowds and lighting often deprived us of the opportunity to study the paintings. Thanks to the current museum permissions for picture taking (without flash), you can see your favorites later, and share them with others.
This began for me with the Musée Maillol, a jewel box of museum at which I have previously seen several outstanding exhibitions. This visit didn’t disappoint. As you can see from the online website, the current exhibition features the private collection of Emil Bührle on loan from the Zürich Kunsthaus:
Bührlewas a wealthy German-born Swiss industrialist. From 1936-1956 he gathered an impressive array of 600 pre-impressionist, impressionist, and post-impressionist works. Fifty of these are in the exhibit.
Here are just a few of the highlights of the exhibition.
Alfred Sisley, “Chalands à Saint-Mammès” (“Barges at Saint-Mammès”) (1885):
Pierre-Auguste Renoir, “Portrait de Mademoiselle Irène Cahen d’Anvers” (“La Petite Irène”):
Raoul Dufy, “La Fête Foraine” (“The Fun Fair.” 1906):
Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, “Messaline” (1900-01). Toulouse-Lautrec was fascinated by the underworld of Paris, its nightspots and brothels. This canvas depicts the third wife of the Roman Emperor Claudius and suggests the intensity of her lust and debauchery:
Van Gogh, “Le Semeur, Soleil Couchant” (“The Sower, Setting Sun”), 1888. This is the signature painting for the entire exhibition.
Our next museum to visit was the Louvre. I’m convinced that a large portion of hell models this museum with its thronging masses of selfie-taking visitors. So why would we put it on our list? Bunny, of course, had to see the Mona Lisa (“La Joconde”). How can you fail to do so on a visit to Paris? And for Mary Jean and me, it’s probably been forty years. Time for a revisit.
But it was even worse than we imagined. Milling crowds and poor signage made seeing anything on our short list difficult. Nevertheless, we persisted. Here I am taking my own selfie before the Mona Lisa. What this photo does not show are the hundreds of iPhone bearing tourists in front of me pressing forward against security guards and trying to do what I finally managed to do.
Here’s a hard won image of La Joconde herself:
[Parenthetically, as I wrote this, Mary Jean brought to my attention this article in today’s local paper. So my impression of the intolerable conditions in the Louvre, and especially around the Mona Lisa, was even more accurate than I thought.]
Other renowned Louvre paintings were somewhat less besieged. Here is Géricault’s stirring “The Raft of the Medusa” (1818-19), an icon of French Romanticism that depicts a moment from the aftermath of the wreck of the French naval frigate Méduse:
And here is Delacroix’s “La Liberté Guiding the People” (1831).
Finally, Delacroix’s erotic orientalist fantasy, “Women of Algiers in Their Apartment” (1834):
The last museum on our list was the far less crowded and beautifully arranged Musée d’Orsay. The architectural genius of this museum, housed in the shell of the old Orsay railway station, is itself a reason to visit. Here’s the lovely main gallery:
Here’s the impressive station clock:
The museum’s collection of impressionist paintings far exceeds the Maillol exhibition’s. I had especially hoped to see Van Gogh’s “Starry Night,” but learned that it was away, on loan to New York. Nevertheless, much remained.
Here is Renoir’s beautiful “Dance at the Moulin de la Galette” (1876). It epitomizes Renoir’s celebration of the joys of life in fin de siècle Paris:
From almost the same date, Edward Degas’ “Répétition d’un Ballet sur la Scene” (1874):
And a stunning Van Gogh self-portrait (1889):
At the end of a tiring morning of museum going, while my sister had her hair done, Mary Jean and I stopped for a drink in a local café:
To balance this busy schedule of urban sites, our plans included one day out of Paris to revisit the Loire Valley where we had spent altogether perhaps another year of our lives on foreign study programs based in the small city of Blois. Our principal destination was a site that I confess to be my favorite place in the whole world: the Château of Chenonceau. Once the possession of Diane de Poitiers (1499-1566), the mistress of King Henri II, and subsequently of Henri’s wife, Catherine de Medici (1510-1589), Chenonceau was acquired in 1913 by the Menier family, famous for their chocolates, who own it to this day. And thankfully so, for unlike so many government owned monuments, Chenonceau is exquisitely furnished and maintained.
Walking the long, tree lined entryway is always a delight:
Here is the chateau in all its splendor spanning the River Cher:
Inside is the gallery over the river that was added by Catherine to an arched bridge commissioned by Diane. During the First World War this gallery, once the site of elegant balls, was used as a hospital for wounded soldiers.
The interiors have been lovingly restored. Here, a beautiful fireplace with the salamander insignia of King Francis I.
An Aubuchon tapestry, whose vibrant greens have aged into blue:
In the kitchen located below in the spaces between bridge arches, a striking display of copper cookware:
Across from the chateau, the manicured gardens designed by Diane de Poitier:
And always, the gentle River Cher:
Following our visit to the chateau, we had lunch at the Auberge du Bon Laboureur in Chenonceau village. More on this in our next section, DINING. After driving back in the direction of Paris through the beautiful spring countryside of the Loire, we made a brief stop at another magnificent site, the royal chateau of Chambord. Fatigued from much driving, walking, and good food, we then returned to Paris but not before asking another tourist to snap our picture:
I am of the opinion that French cuisine, when it is good, is the best in the world. Chinese, Japanese, Thai and other national cuisines can be excellent, and I have enjoyed each of them in their respective nations, but no other cuisine approximates the French at their best. Indeed, one of Mary Jean’s and my ambitions for future travel is to buy the latest Guide Michelin and then spend a week or two using it to select our driving destinations from one Michelin one-star restaurant or hotel to the next.
Chenonceau offered an example. The Auberge du Bon Laboureur exemplified the attentive preparations and presentation of restaurants awarded one star. (With two or three stars, service and presentation ascend, but I’m not convinced that the food is proportionately better.) Here are a few shots of our €33 menu luncheon:
A lamb dish:
A sorbet desert:
The remains of an already nibbled chocolate tart:
Paris, of course, has endless culinary attractions. One of our favorite places is L’Escargot Montorgueil, an almost two hundred year old restaurant whose specialty is escargot (snails) in all sorts of sauces. A national holiday on the Rue Montorgueil is the subject of a famous 1878 impressionist painting by Claude Monet. You can find it here: https://www.tuttartpitturasculturapoesiamusica.com/2012/08/claude-monet-1840-1926-french-painter.html
Here’s this restaurant today:
And here an appetizer of their namesake food:
We took advantage of our visit to meet up with old friends. On our first night, we dined with Lynn Higgins, Mary Jean’s French Department colleague who was leading the spring Paris program. A few days later, we dined at the Les Papilles Bistro. I think “papilles” are taste buds, and if so, the name is well chosen. The restaurant has no menu. Everyone is served the same appetizer and main dish based on the freshest market fare. Our carrot velouté starter and lamb stew main dish were both memorable.
We invited my old friend Franck Daniel to join us for lunch. I got to know Franck many years ago when he responded to an ad I had placed on the bulletin board at Reed Hall, Dartmouth’s program center, seeking a conversation partner. Franck and I then spent many late afternoons alternating between French and English and discussing politics in both nations. We’ve seen each other several times over the years, but it was a pleasure catching up with him again in this setting over a fine French meal and gathering an informed citizen’s view of current French politics. Here we are à table.
Ten days permitted us to revisit some of our favorite Paris and Loire Valley sites. For the moment, our French yearning was calmed, though we know with certainty that it will return in just a short while, perhaps when that Michelin Guide idea resurfaces.
I want to conclude with a relatively ordinary image of people using their smartphones while waiting at a bus stop near our apartment.
This image captures many of my impressions of Paris on this visit. Above all, it is a city made for people. Restaurants and cafés abound and are populated. Public transport is excellent, including the endless stream of comfortable buses that visit this stop. Above all, I was struck by the quality of the city’s diverse population. From our many Tunisian- or Mauritanian-born Uber drivers to shopkeepers and museum staffers, people were alert, friendly, and helpful. The myth of hostile Parisians is just that, a myth—at least if you speak French. I personally believe that the French social system, especially guaranteed healthcare and retirement, contributes to the quality and self-assurance of the population.
I’m not overlooking the evident problems. The yellow vests (gilets jaunes) still close down the Champs-Elysées every Saturday. On a weekday, their chaotic demonstrations impeded our access to Boulevard Montparnasse. Integrating the inhabitants of the banlieues (suburbs) remains a major challenge. On our day of departure, taxi drivers staged a major slowdown on the main highway to Charles de Gaulle airport in an effort to block legislation that would give Uber drivers access to privileged taxi and bus driving lanes. The French have a keen sense of social justice that sometimes causes turmoil, and in one historic case that has never been ignored by political leaders, led to public beheadings.
But the exercise of that sense of justice helps makes France livable for the great majority of its citizens. If Paris works it is because its citizens are alert and care. We can learn from them.