Sunday, April 8, 2012
Where Is He?
Clue #1: He's just strolled along a road strongly associated, oddly enough, with the Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris. But what intersection is he overlooking now? And how did he get there?
Clue #2: Our path has led us along the decommissioned Vincennes railway line....
Answer: La Promenade Plantée
Winner: Nobody :(
Here's Karl, on the Promenade Plantée, or Coulée Verte, at the intersection of Rue Jacques Hillairet (Hillairet was author of the Dictionnaire historique des rues de Paris), Rue Montgallet, and Rue de Charenton. We're just past the Jardin de Reuilly, walking westward along the Promenade.
The Promenade Plantée is an elevated park in the 12th arrondissement, built on the abandoned Vincennes railway line and opened in 1993. It was the High Line before there was a High Line! And I know that recently, some of you have looked online at an image comparing the two parks from Vahram Muratyan's book, Paris vs. New York: A Tally of Two Cities, because you sent me links to it! The Promenade includes 4.7 km of pedestrian and bike paths, running from the Bois de Vincennes under the Périphérique beltway, over the Viaduc des Arts to Bastille. It is a gorgeous park, and a gorgeous use of what had been decaying urban industrial space, and a wonderful peek into the backs of outer-arrondissement Parisians' apartments.
We took the métro out to Porte Dorée, then Vélibed through this garden here.
Click on any of the pictures for a closer look.
Then we rode through tunnels.
Wheeeeeeee! The next tunnel contained a prehistoric-looking grotto. A French park is not a French park without a grotto. Prehistoric is also fashionable.
Shortly thereafter, we had to abandon our bikes, because the bike lane ended. Clearly, the park planners knew we'd be so staggered by the prehistoric grotto that we'd no longer be able to balance on wheels.
We entered the Jardin de Reuilly, which advertised the proximity of an old castle that the Merovingian kings (mid-5th century to March, 752) once frequented. Karl was VERY excited! You don't get to see a lot of Merovingian stuff in the U.S. You don't even see a lot of Merovingian stuff in France.
But this was the only sight that even began to resemble a Merovingian castle. They say that people were smaller in those days. But who are "they," anyway?
We approached, and passed through, the Mystery spot. Then we descended to visit the Marché Aligré, the first street market we've visited where the vendors were loudly hawking their wares (strawberries and fish were the big items) in at least two different languages. We bought merguez-frites (which are merguez and french fries stuffed into a baguette) and went back up through a bamboo garden to sit on the Promenade and eat our lunch.
Here, I am marveling over the fact that this thing is nearly three miles long, and absolutely gorgeous, and nobody ever told me on any of my previous Paris visits that I ought to see it!
So. Are the clues not helpful enough? Do we need to be more specific? Or is it just more fun to sit back and wait for the pictures to roll out?
Contest #1: Winner, Anne. Link to the answer!
Saturday, April 7, 2012
Sometimes, when you're living in Paris, you get hankering for a change. You want to climb aboard a TGV and go someplace so fast that you get whiplash trying to figure out what train stations you're not stopping in. (For those of you who haven't tried it, the TGV is le Train à Grande Vitesse, the famously high-speed long-distance train that zips through the countryside and through eardrum-bursting tunnels somewhere between 200 and 357 m.p.h.). You want to see the ocean, because you've heard that France is surrounded on three sides by ocean. You even want to go someplace where they don't drink wine. And if you're Le Prof, you want to see something medieval, one of those not-coming-to-the-Met-anytime-soon, got-to-visit-some-little-town-in-Europe-to-see-it spectacular medieval attractions they've got there.
So La Potiche planned a short vacation on the Norman coast, so that Le Prof could see the Bayeux Embroidery! And William the Conqueror's Castle and Abbaye! Because Le Prof gets so happy to see artifacts of the Middle Ages that he waves his little fists in the air and shrieks with joy. "OMIGOD! LOOK AT THAT! THERE ARE REAL LIVE GOATS IN WILLIAM THE CONQUEROR'S KEEP!" For the record, Le Prof wants me to tell you that he also knows lots of staid facts about, like, forest legislation and noble privilege in the thirteenth century. For the record, I'm going to tell you that Le Prof waves his little fists about forest legislation in the thirteenth century, too.
But what was in it for La Potiche? Le Prof said, "We're there for two nights and three days, right?"
"Yes," said La Potiche.
"And we're going to Bayeux the first day, and Caen for William the Conqueror stuff the last day, right?"
"Yeysss," said La Potiche, looking furtively into the distance.
"So what are we going to do the middle day? What do you want to do, Bub?" ("Bub" is what Le Prof calls La Potiche in the real life.)
La Potiche was planning to indulge a secret vice. Some of you who've known La Potiche a long time, or a little time, are nodding wisely to yourselves. "Food," you're thinking, remembering all the Norman creamy desserts and Camembert-sauced things and bulots and terrines she FB'ed about. But that's not her secret vice; that one's right out in the open.
Three nights before our departure for Normandy, it was La Potiche's turn to pick a movie. She and Le Prof were snuggled into their hide-a-bed with the pillows nice and fluffy and the laptop warm in their laps, and La Potiche hit play.
Le Prof started. "Wait--what? We're watching a John Wayne movie?"
"It's got Arletty and Richard Burton and Robert Mitchum," La Potiche said, looking furtively at the screen. "All our favorites. And it's about France."
"It's got Sean Connery," Le Prof said disapprovingly.
"It's got Richard Beymer from West Side Story," La Potiche said.
"You mean Richard Beymer from Twin Peaks?" said Le Prof.
"The same," said La Potiche.
Le Prof said, "Wait a minute. Are you saying you want to go on one of those Invasion Beach tours? I don't know about that."
He was thinking of the time he found La Potiche weeping inconsolably over her copy of Les Misérables and, on her laptop, the Google satellite view of Waterloo, Belgium, and mumbling, "There's this DITCH, right across the plain--and those poor guys on horses aren't even going to see it!!!!!" And the time when she didn't sleep for two nights because she was so agitated about the Battle of Schöngrabern in War and Peace. And the time La Potiche dragged him to the Civil War encampment reenactment at Governors Island and embarrassed him forever by harassing the Union officers' wives about where they were hiding the captured rebs--because she'd be d--d if she'd go all the way to Governors Island without seeing some captured rebs. Or the time they were back at Governors Island, this time to see an open-air performance of Henry V, and he didn't think twice about La Potiche's asking him idly, "What kind of battle cries did English soldiers yell in, like, the early fifteenth century?" Until the moment when La Potiche shrieked, "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" and went running away ahead of him, and ahead of the English army too, in search of some actors playing French soldiers for her to attack.
Or all the effort she put into trying to convince him, last summer, to spend a thousand dollars they really needed for French visas and travel insurance and airfare, on a road trip to Gettysburg. "La la laaaaa, la-la-la laaa," La Potiche sang, which was, of course, "Ashokan Farewell," the title theme of Ken Burns' 1990 PBS miniseries, The Civil War--and then she started bawling, because that's what "Ashokan Farewell" does to her, and the road trip got dropped. La Potiche's secret vice is battlefields. She has turned into her dad. The weeping and screaming are her own personal touch, though.
La Potiche got Omaha Beach, and Le Prof got William the Conqueror. Like most tourists to Normandy, at least judging from Tripadvisor, we didn't see, at first, how these two interests were reconcilable. But of course when we got there, we saw that WWII tourism and medievalist tourism are absolutely complementary, because Normandy is about war, and maybe always has been.
The city of Caen offers a chilling example of a millennial perspective in war. William the Conqueror thought Caen was a place of strategic importance. It has a knee-breaking hill, upon which you can perch your big freaking fortress and look down upon invaders. It straddles a wide river that flows only a few miles to the ocean. That is why the Germans holed up there: because towns containing big freaking fortresses tend to have defensive advantages over towns that don't have big freaking fortresses. It took the Allies two whole months to take Caen, after which the city looked like this. (right)
Next, this is Caen in 2012:
The roofless, bombed-out tenth century church of Saint-Étienne-le-Vieux, a church that William himself might have visited while he was busy building his Abbaye aux Hommes across the street, and Queen Mathilde was building the Abbaye aux Dames on the other side of the castle. A shell landed on it in 1944. To the right you can see the kind of buildings they built in Caen after the war.
Bayeux, where the Tapestry/Embroidery is housed, is a completely charming, well-preserved medieval town, with a beautiful cathedral, cobble-stoned streets, and good restaurants. Bayeux was the bishopric of Odo, William the Conqueror's half-brother. It's like Odo said, "Let's build this town so that our restaurants will last a thousand years." It owes its preservation entirely to the fact that it is strategically useless: far from the sea, and too narrowly built to accommodate tanks in the streets. It was the first city to be liberated by the Allies, and the Bayeux Museum of the Battle of Normandy indulges in some not-entirely-sensitive gloating about its preservation. But Bayeux also contains an art work / historical record / propaganda piece that depicts war in amazing detail: failed diplomacy, deforestation for the war machine, mobilization, an epic cross-Channel naval invasion, provisioning, and horrific violence on the battlefield. If somebody made a 70-meter embroidery of the Allied Invasion of France, it might not look so unlike the Bayeux Tapestry.
This is Pointe du Hoc, pitted by shell craters. Some of the craters are twenty feet deep; the almond-shaped holes were launched from the sea, and the round ones dropped by planes. There's no knowing how long the craters will be there, if, perhaps, they might still pock the landscape a millennium from now. There's no knowing what other wars, or what else, might change the shape of the ground--or what remains of other battles were obliterated by the air raids, because WWII was only the most recent war fought here. There are places on the Norman coast where the armies of Henry V laid siege, screaming "God for Harry, England, and Saint George!" And Vikings. And the Wars of Religion, because the coast went Protestant. Charlotte Corday was educated at the Abbaye aux Dames. Normandy has been a battlefield for at least a thousand years. "Never forget" doesn't work here, in a place where there are so many wars to remember. And maybe that points to the irony of saying "Never forget" about any war.
That is why the inscription on the Commonwealth Memorial at Bayeux is perhaps the most touching of the memorials, and the most chilling: "NOS A GULIELMO VICTI VICTORIS PATRIAM LIBERAVIMUS" ("We, conquered by William, have liberated the Conqueror's native land").
Did we forget what the conquered did at Agincourt? But then, Agincourt is in Pas-de-Calais.
Monday, April 2, 2012
When we feel like it, we will post photos of Le Prof posing in exciting Mystery Locations in Paris. The Mystery Location will always be a place accessible to the public--no sneaking around inside private backyards and asking you to identify them! The winner of each contest will be the first person to comment, on the blog, by email, or on Facebook, with a correct identification of the location. The person who correctly identifies the most mystery locations by June 30 will win renown and, possibly, if travel funds and luggage space allow, a tiny prize!
1. Each individual contest will last one week, or until a winner wins, whichever comes first.
2. If you were with us when the photo was taken, you may not participate in that installment of the contest, though the rest are fair game. That, I'm afraid, is the price of hanging out with us.
3. If nobody wins within a few days, we will post a clue. Or two, maybe.
4. If we decide to issue a prize, it will be of our choosing. Le Radeau de la Méduse will not fit in our luggage, and besides, it is currently on loan.
5. "France" is a correct answer; it will not win you the contest. We reserve the right to determine what is and isn't sufficiently specific.
6. EDIT: You are on your honor not to figure it out with a Google Image search, otherwise there's no point to the contest at all, and nobody will win a tin of prune-stuffed prunes.
Mystery Location #1: Where's Karl?
Answer: the grotto of the Parc des Buttes Chaumont
Le Parc des Buttes Chaumont, a lovely and strange public garden in the 19th arrondissement, opened in 1867. It was previously the site of a gypsum and limestone quarry. You can see where the quarry concept led to.
Commissioned by Napoleon III, it was the work of engineer Jean-Charles Alphand, horticulturist Jean-Pierre Barillet-Deschamps, and architect Gabriel Davioud. The whole project was overseen by Baron Haussmann.
It is extravagantly lovely and bizarre. It undoes all your preconceptions about French gardening. Stalactites!
More pictures available on our Flickr collection, Parc des Buttes Chaumont.
Here is Karl on the bridge to the belvedere of the Sibyl. We didn't see the Sibyl. See the little folly in the background? That's the same folly seen in the picture above.
Thanks Anne, and thanks to everybody for participating! We will post our next contest at 1 pm EST on Sunday. AND...we will be providing the clue at the same time, so ready your mad research skills now.
Sunday, April 1, 2012
O Paris! City of cycling amateurs carrying baguettes and avoiding hills! City of old ladies in belted trench coats pedaling sedately to market on bikes, and punks transporting meals for the homeless on bike-wagons, and children and teenagers and college students madly dashing to school on bikes, and old men wearing berets and smoking as they toodle along the river on bikes, and affluent-looking people wearing suits cut better than you'd ever thought you'd see in real life, leaving the stock exchange--on bikes! And everybody else--riding to and from work, running errands, and going out to see friends--on bikes! Who knew?
If you, like La Potiche, are one of those people who learned to ride a bike as a child, but defied all platitudes by managing to forget how to do it, so that, the first time you remounted a bicycle as an adult, you promptly fell off, then got back on and steered sideways right into a shrub, whereupon you fell off again, then gamely got back on, only to find yourself going down a ramp, whereupon you crashed into a railing, fell off, and bloodied your hands and knees--then Paris is the place for you to relearn! There are lots of things about Paris that are not easy for your average American tourist, such as speaking French (my accent has gotten worse. "Bon-JORE!"), finding food on a Sunday (we go out on a massive Friday grocery offensive to equip ourselves till the following Tuesday), and buying stamps anytime ("We have no stamps here," a postal worker told us recently. The three others working the counter all flung their hands in the air: no stamps). But biking in Paris is not one of those difficult things.
They make it so easy here! And it's not for lack of car traffic: there's just good infrastructure.
(left: photo by Pierre Metivier)
This is the Place de la Bastille. It was once a place where Parisians with pickaxes demolished a fortress. Now, it is the place where 11 lanes of vehicular traffic converge on a circle unmarked by any lines. In America, you would be taking your life in your hands to cross that intersection on a bike, but we are not in America, we are in Paris! And in Paris, you just get on your bike and pedal right through the middle of the Place....while the cars, coming at you from ten directions, SLOW DOWN, to let you pass. The first time we saw a bicyclist launch herself into the intersection, we were standing on the curb with our bikes, watching in horror. But she pedaled gaily across, and then another cyclist crossed, and another, and we realized that that was just the way things were here. So the next time we were at Place de la Bastille, it was nighttime....and all the traffic was going faster....but once again, when the light changed, and we pedaled fearfully into the intersection, everybody slowed down to let us go, and nobody beeped, nobody revved his engine to speed us up, nobody flipped us the bird, or, for that matter, nous a fait un doigt d'honneur. In Paris, nobody thinks it's worth killing another person, so you can save ten seconds driving to the gym or the mall.
Almost anywhere else you want to go, there's a bike lane, and when there's not, nobody's going to run you down anyway. Many of the bike lanes in Paris are also bus lanes and taxi lanes: that is, buses are supposed to use them, and taxis sneak into them. When we heard about this, we were all, NO WAY, because we are from New York, and New York buses are ungainly giants that unwittingly crush everything in their wide-turning paths, while taxis want to veer onto the sidewalk, crush pedestrians to death, and park themselves inside restaurant plate glass windows, preferably windows with customers sitting just inside. But in Paris, the bus/bike lanes are wide enough for a bus to come up behind a bike, tinkle the special Pedestrian/Bike bell (which is purposefully gentle and charming-sounding, so that startled cyclists won't veer at the noise), and pass on the left with a margin of several feet. The taxis are similarly well-behaved--and what's more, they yield the right of way to cyclists. It's unbelievable. In two months of city cycling, we have been cut off only once: by a cop car, which made a right turn without signalling, right in front of La Potiche. Let it never be said that bike culture can flourish only in cities that have no motor traffic.
Those of you who knew La Potiche before the recent outbreak of outdoorsiness will not be surprised to hear that she's no athlete. She can only go a few miles before pooping out; she still falls off sometimes; and, going at top speed, she couldn't escape an angry dachshund named Vigo. Which makes Paris a perfect place for her to cycle, and Vélib a great way to do it.
O City of Vélib! Vélib is the Parisian bikeshare program; it gives members unlimited access to bicycles, located all over the city, for short-term use. You can take as many rides as you like, so long as you keep them to 30 minutes (or 45 minutes, if you've subscribed to the Vélib PASSION plan. We have Vélib Passion, oh boy do we ever). If you want to take a long ride, you can ride around for 44.5 minutes--then pop your bike into the lock at the nearest stand--wait three minutes--and take your bike out again! And when you've ridden out to the 47th arrondissement and your legs are tired, no need to make your return trip: just pop your bike into the nearest stand and métro home instead! (If any Americans planning visits to Paris are reading this, note that there are various credit card problems that require you to sign up a few weeks in advance, online, so plan ahead!)
(left: Parc de Bagatelle, Bois de Boulogne)
Did I mention that many of the people biking Paris are far from athletic? One of the funny quirks of the Vélib network is that nobody ever wants to ride up a hill. So Montmartre, which is located, famously, atop an extremely steep hill, has several Vélib stations containing no bikes, because people want to ride downhill (wheee!) but they take the subway back instead, leaving their bikes at a low-elevation rack. However, many of those high-altitude stations award bonus time to people who return their bikes there, as a reward! Le Prof and La Potiche have racked up two Velib+ bonuses so far, without much effort, because most of the bike paths are graded at a gentle incline. The ride up to Montmartre isn't bad at all, if you only take the correct route. (The ride up and over the hill in the Quartier Latin, however, was rather harsh, because unexpected. We rode right by the Panthéon without noticing it, because we were too busy trying not to puke.) But mostly, cycling here is too easy to make anybody puke, unless you're puking from joy that it's springtime and the daffodils are blooming at the Parc de Bagatelle and every single chocolate shop in this city is selling real whole egg shells filled with ganache.
(left: Canal. Bike paths.)
There is only one thing La Potiche likes better than cycling around Paris, and it is messing around with a Sharpie. Here she has started mapping bike trips through the city, but each route only gets marked once, so you can't see how many times she and Le Prof have gone zipping along the Seine path from the Pont Neuf, two blocks from their apartment, along the Left Bank toward the Tour Eiffel. It is a marvelous ride, looking out at the water, the boats, the pollards, the cream, yellow, and gray stone buildings (the Louvre! The Musée d'Orsay! The gold dome of Les Invalides a-glittering in the sun!)--and the freaking Tour Eiffel!!!! It makes La Potiche want to scream WHEEEEEEEEE! but she is trying to blend in. We've gone cycling along the Canal Saint-Martin and Canal de l'Ourcq, and through the crazy crowds at Montmartre, and in a loop around the Arc de Triomphe, and along busy commuter passages to Gare du Nord and Gare de L'Est, and out to double-digit arrondissements to look at cherry blossoms and follies (Parc des Buttes-Chaumont, Parc de Monceau), and through the Latin Quarter, along the gorgeous Rue St-Jacques, past la Butte aux Cailles, and down to the Porte de Choisy to shop in Chinatown and buy banh mi (real baguettes make all the difference). By the time we leave this city, we hope that our bike map will be a crazy black-hatched spiderweb of cycling trips. We've ridden dirt paths along the canals, and cobblestones down Rue Poissonnière, and a good chunk of the Bois de Boulogne, a park two and a half times the size of Central Park and absolutely baffling.
And a highway or two. Last night we cycled home from the Cinemathèque Française, along the ugliest, most desolate bit of bike path we've seen yet in Paris. Once you get out of the park, the bike lanes edge the highway through a commercial/industrial zone that shuts down completely at night. You've seen places like this in American cities, where there are no street crossings for pedestrians because there are no pedestrians, and no stores, no restaurants, no homes or playgrounds: just deserted office buildings and highway. But here, somebody decided that if people wanted to go this way by car, they might, also, want to go by bike, so they built a safe, practical lane. It was an ugly, dark, cold way, but we took it, and saw, ahead of us, other bike lights twinkling along the way.
(right: K biking at Versailles. Because I don't have a picture from last night, because we don't have a handlebar-mounted camera.)
Then suddenly, the path swooped down a ramp, and we found ourselves riding through an outdoor riverside sculpture museum. All along the river, people were walking, sitting around drinking wine with friends, dancing...or cycling. It was startling, coming so soon after the previous dark way, and beautiful in that forceful way that startlingly beautiful things have. We kept saying, "Isn't it amazing?" because we could hardly believe our luck to be living in this city. Cycling is not the reason we came here, but it'll be one of the reasons we'll come back.