Let me preface this whole post by saying that I am a poor photographer and essayist, so it will be full of the usual (boring) holiday stories and thus probably worth skipping if it appears in your feed. But if I don’t write it down, I’ll forget a lot of it.
The trip’s genesis: I love tennis, and visiting all four majors is on my bucket list. Paris in the spring plus tennis while the greatest (male) clay court tennis player is still at or near his zenith? Sign me up. And since I’m not sure if I’ll make it to France again (so many places to see, so little time/money), I’ll see some other stuff too.
Where to stay: I’ve tried a couple of online booking agents for apartment rentals in the past, and went with Airbnb this time. Both apartments were exactly as advertised and a bargain compared to hotels, I thought. Even with the Airbnb surcharge and the cleaning charge, both cost less than $100/night. Both also had a kitchenette and laundry facilities, which made me happy (less to pack and carry). I’d say the apartment in Paris was better, but that was really a function of the host and personal style preference; objectively speaking, the Nice apartment was more conveniently located in terms of train/plane/bus/metro access.
Speaking French: I don’t. Aside from a few important phrases like how much? and please/thank you and a round trip ticket, please, and numbers, etc. Lonely Planet’s phrasebook and dictionary was very helpful. And on a few occasions I ended up using Spanish. [I had to laugh. At Charles de Gaulle, I started to order un cafe au lait et un palmier, and the lady looked at me started speaking in Spanish, so I ordered un cafe con leche y una palmera instead.]
Guidebooks: I tend to like Eyewitness Travel books and Lonely Planet. I’m ambivalent about Rick Steves’ books: they are written from a very particular perspective that I don’t necessarily share, in terms of travel philosophy and goals. I’ve found the dining recommendations to be very hit or miss (one hit, one miss this time around) but do appreciate some of the public transportation tips for visiting certain neighborhoods or venues, and also the chart organizing museums by their open/closed dates.
Took the Lignes Azures bus from the airport downtown to Nice Central. The apartment was a couple of blocks from the train station, which seemed convenient. Lesson learned: 17 rue Thierry is at least two blocks away from 18 rue Thierry. But I found the apartment and settled in eventually :) Spent the afternoon exploring the neighborhood around Avenue Jean Medicin, a main shopping street. I admired a dress in the window at Elena Miro, but at 229E, it was a little too pricey for me. Wound up having dinner at Voyageur Nissart, a restaurant recommended by Rick Steves — this was the best meal I ate in Nice by far, and I would highly recommend the restaurant as well, with the warning that it takes cash only. The stuffed vegetables were delicious, and the table wine was lovely.
Train trip to Monaco
Nice is a quick train ride from Cannes or Monaco, and the Cannes Film Festival was going on while I was there. But I chose to go east rather than west. It was a short 30 minute train ride, which was good since the train was packed. The route rides along the shore with stops in several smaller resort towns. I especially loved seeing the clay tennis courts set up in one town, with people playing as the train went by. (I’d be interested in doing a French and Italian Riviera road trip along the same route someday.) After hopping off the train, I walked up the hill to the old ville, where the palace is located.
It happened to be closed, as some sort of affair was being set up for the evening, but there was plenty to see and do aside from that. I very much enjoyed the Jardin Botanique and wandering among the narrow streets, winding up at the Cousteau Aquarium and Oceanographic Museum. It’s perched on the edge of the cliff, with a hole in the bottom floor that you can peak through down to the ocean. I was also very intrigued to see Fontvielle, the section of town that is basically landfill, Monaco’s attempt to claim or reclaim land from the sea.
The aquarium was pretty full of families, but the upper floors with the oceanographic museum were fairly quiet. I had no idea that Albert II was an oceanographer himself. The model of the labs on his ship was interesting, as were all of the logs and specimens.
After ogling all kinds of weird fish, I went window shopping. There was a gallery with art work that I lusted for but it was well beyond my budget. And I ended up buying a cotton shift with hand crocheted trim; I’m not sure when I’ll ever wear it, but it is beautiful. After having dinner at a little restaurant on a side street (hand-rolled, spinach-stuffed tortellini in white sauce, yum), I decided to wander back toward the train station. Unfortunately, the event at the palace had begun, and all the streets over toward the walk-way were closed to pedestrians. With little road blocks and very polite police officers waving people back. The parking lot of the museum was full of nearly identical Mercedes-Benzs, all perfectly polished and valet parked. After trying all three streets that, according to my map, could get me back toward the train station, I gave up and caught the bus, since they were letting the bus through. It made me a little cranky: I actually knew where I needed to go, I wasn’t “lost” and it wasn’t what I would consider a long walk; I didn’t want to take the bus. Oh well. The sun was beginning to set (it set late, I thought, after 9pm) on the train ride back to Nice, which made for a lovely view.
More in Nice
There’s a Chagall museum and Matisse museum; Matisse is more my speed, although the museum is a bit of a hike from downtown, mostly uphill. You pass the Chagall museum on the way, so depending on your museum tolerance, I’d recommend starting the day with the hike up and stopping at the Chagall museum on the way back. There’s a park and an archaeological site near the Matisse museum, so it is worth the hike or the bus ride. The park was full of a festival (May Day?) and the archaeological site and museum probably got some of the overflow. I also visited the Beaux Arts museum, which is closer to the beach, located in an old villa; comparing the two museums made me think about location (old villa vs. newer build) and funding (dedicated vs. probably not) and traffic (parking vs. none). And there’s a gorgeous Russian church built before the revolution for the 500 weathly Russian families who wintered in Nice. And since it’s being renovated, I assume there’s still a signficiant Russian Orthodox population in the area.
But really, the highlight of Nice is its beach.
There’s a busy street market in the old section of Nice, with food stalls, flowers, and several artists who sell water colors and oils and who paint as tourists and locals do their shopping. I bought a couple of sets of table linens to give as gifts from a store in the neighborhood. And wandering around Vieux Nice, I stopped at a little gelateria, where I had chocolat pimenton et amaretto. The chocolat pimenton was excellent.
On to Paris
It was sunny and 80F when I arrived in Paris on Monday, which I enjoyed for the day…since it would rain off and on for the next week. The directions my landlady gave me were very helpful: RER B to Gare du Nord, Bus 54 to Blanche, then on foot for a little bit. She greeted me with tea and a map that she customized for places I was interested in; in the apartment, she had left wine, cheese, and bread, along with some staples in the kitchen. And she directed me to La Parisienne, which she thought the best boulangerie in the neighborhood, as well as Picard and Rotisserie du Roy for prepared foods if I didn’t want to eat out or really cook. (The saucisse de poulet and pomme du terre were delicious. I could write a whole post on just the food I ate in Paris. All the baguettes and all the kouign aman for me.) The cafe where Amelie was set was nearby, as was the Moulin Rouge.
Her first recommendation was the Petit Palais’ exhibition on the 1900 Paris Exhibition or World’s Fair, full of art deco or modernisme art, clothing, and furniture. But for her recommendation, I probably would not have thought to go, which would be a shame, because I loved the art and furniture and clothing on display. I especially loved all the work of Alphonse Mucha and the display of theater posters for Sarah Bernhardt and the Parisian night life at the turn of the century.
Charles de Gaulle Etoile and the Arc de Triomphe…well, only a brave soul would dare that traffic circle — it looked like negotiating the multiple lanes was a gigantic game of chicken. Circling it on foot was enough. The walk along the Champs-Elysees was fine, I suppose, in terms of window shopping. I took a picture of Laduree for a macaron-obsessed colleague, and went in Louis Vuitton’s flagship store.
Musee Marmottan Monet is a beautiful venue, and the exhibit on Impressionists in Private Collections was very good. Downstairs is all about Monet. Objectively speaking, it is a cohesive collection, well-curated. But on a personal level, I found the volume of waterlilies to be overpowering and nightmarish (and an example maybe of desperation as vision is being lost literally rather than being visionary art), with Morisot, Sisley, and Pisarro to be more to my taste.
Random piece of advice: take the elevator if you ever get off at the Abbesses metro stop. I did not want to wait, and wound up walking up the eight flights of stairs to open air. My quads were killing me after a long day of walking plus those stairs.
Pere Lachaise cemetary is worth a trip, as morbid as that sounds. There is a little map at the entrance, marking famous graves. I stopped to see Baron Haussmann, who designed Paris’ streets after the revolution, and Chopin, Oscar Wilde, Sarah Bernhardt, and Heloise and Abelard. Wound up taking at least 100 photos of various crypts — the iron work, stained glass, and stonework is amazing on them. (While the newer crypts and monuments are quite tacky, IMO. But maybe these old mausoleums were tacky in their day too?) While I was taking a picture of Jim Morrison’s grave, requested by a friend who is a fan, a young punk couple arrived with a bottle of whiskey to leave for him. :D
The Musee d’Orsay: as a venue, I found it to be striking, and the Van Gogh exhibit was good, but I was Impressionist-ed-out by that point. [Also, the upper floors were packed with school tours, and I was feeling peopled-out.]
Versailles is a place I have mixed feelings about. The chateau is impressive and oppressive, and the formal gardens are gorgeous. By far, the best part of the visit was the Potager du Roy (King’s Kitchen Garden). I signed up for a tour through La Cuisine Paris, which offers market tours, food tours, and cooking lessons for English-speaking visitors. The group of us (8) met at the train station and headed off to Versailles. In town, we went to the potager, which is now the site of the national school for landscaping and/or agriculture, where we learned about Louis XIV’s gardener, Le Quintinye, who was an engineering and agricultural marvel, coming up with ways to keep his king in strawberries, figs, and asparagus year round, feeding 3,000 people per day. After the tour, we went to the Versailles town street market, where we got a lesson on French food laws, market history and practices. We bought cheese, sausage, and honey, and took them to Le Petit Zinc, where we ate them with our lunch. Afterward, the group split up, some going on to the chateau (me) and others heading back to Paris.
In addition to the potager tour, I took a macaron lesson at La Cuisine, and a dinner soiree lesson. Chef Guillaumette, the Versailles guide, also taught the macaron lesson, which was fun. [It inspired me to try making them at home. I think I let the meringue go too long, or have to adjust the oven temp, because the cookies were very souflee-ish.] Chef Eric handled the dinner class; we made cod with chorizon, roasted root vegetables, asparagus, what I would call scotch eggs, and fruit gelee with pistachio cream. I made the hollandaise, which I’d never done before…under close supervision, of course.
More museums: the Rodin Museum, which has a lovely rose garden, worth visiting for the flowers alone; the Louvre, which I didn’t even see 10% of. The medieval donjon and Napoleon III apartments are worth seeing, along with the medieval art. I didn’t attempt to see the Mona Lisa or other art, because I was pretty much on overload. But the Tuileries garden was gorgeous — and it was sunny that afternoon, so Parisians were out enjoying the day.
There’s also a house/museum on Blvd. Haussmann whose name escapes me; in addition to its own art collection and gorgeous 19th century architecture, there was an exhibition of drawings by Fragonard and Watteau. Why can’t I remember the name of the place without getting up to look at my guidebook?
The French Open
Well, it rained a lot, so the matches started late. And then stopped for a while, and then resumed. I had tickets to the bullring (Court 1), where I saw the Nishikori match (clearly not in full form) and then the five set mess between Bennetteau and Bagnis that finished 18-16. The next day was overcast but had no delays. Dimitrov was the favorite over Karlovic, but he couldn’t really do anything with his serve, so that match was over pretty quickly. Stephens and Peng traded breaks and seemed pretty evenly matched. And then Verdasco beat Llodra in what is Llodra’s last French Open as a singles player; the FFT gave him an award with a presentation on court after the match.
In terms of logistics, I was not impressed with the security lines for checking bags, which took more than 40 minutes to get through. But I was very impressed with the ticketing process, in terms of preventing ticket counterfeiting. No tickets are sold on site for the day. You have to have your e-ticket printed; it is scanned and a Q-coded ticket on metallic paper is printed; you need it to get in and out of the venues with assigned seating, to purchase anything at the stores, and to scan it at the turnstiles in order to exit. The tracking for purchases is kind of creepy; I’m waiting to get emails from the FFT asking if I liked the t-shirt I bought.
Reims (or Rheims), pronounced “ranse” with the gutteral, swallowed r, was a good day trip. There are champagne caves within walking distance or a bus ride of the train station, along with the +800 year old cathedral where the kings of France were crowned. The main street up toward the cathedral is full of buildings with Art Deco exteriors, and a lovely old fountain that was damaged in World War I. There’s a newer fountain further on that is fascinating but also kind of creepy – I thought it looked like a giant eyeball. Behind the cathedral is a Carnegie Mellon library built in the Art Deco style with a gorgeous chandelier in the atrium. The cathedral lost all of its stained glass in WWI; much of the replacement glass is rather bland, but is gradually being replaced with more typical glass over time. There are panels designed by Marc Chagall and some very abstract panels installed in 2011 to celebrate the anniversary. I liked the abstract panels — they reminded me of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. The cave tour at Mumms (pronounced mooms) was fun, if a little chilly, followed by a tasting. (I like Veuve better, but no champagne is bad.) Ended up chatting with a gregarious Australian who was trying to visit all the champagne producers; he’d walked up to several who don’t give public tours and was turned away but was going to keep going until he’d hit as many as possible.
I mailed post cards from Reims, and was glad they arrived safely. I got in line and learned it was the wrong line, then used the self-serve kiosk. After figuring out how much postage I needed, I changed a note for coins, and was accosted by an older fellow. He had used the machine before I did, and was missing a euro and was sure I had taken it. No, I put a 20E note in and got the same back in change; no matter how many times I counted my change, I didn’t have 21E and hadn’t taken his money.
More churches: Saint Chappelle, Notre Dame, and Sacre Coeur. Of the three, I think Saint Chappelle is the loveliest and most accessible-feeling. It’s also the smallest, built in less than a decade by Louis IX, later Saint Louis, to house holy relics. Notre Dame is huge and impressive, especially the flying buttresses and detailed carving. And Sacre Coeur is very much a neighborhood church in use, if a beautiful one worth the hike up the hill in Montmartre. There’s actually another church right around the corner from Sacre Coeur, Saint-Pierre that is much older and much less ornate, but with what looked like a lovely small garden beyond its fences (closed the day I visited).
Best food in Paris was the croque monsieur and Pimms Cup I had a Buvette in Pigalle. While at the airport in Baltimore, I bought a copy of Bon Appetit, which recommended Buvette — the Paris and NYC restaurants — and since I was near Pigalle…I stopped on the way home one evening. The restaurant is tiny, with some of the cooking and plate arranging going on behind the bar. And since I sat at the bar, I had a good view. The staff were constantly in motion, with a new guy being trained. All of the food looked gorgeous, especially the asparagus and carrots, but I was very pleased with my sandwich.
My landlady recommended a seafood/Alsatian place nearby named Wepler (Vep-leh). I made the mistake of asking what the waiter recommended and going with it without questioning. Thus I wound up with a platter of mostly raw shellfish: oysters, clams, mussels, shrimp, and snails. As I texted The BioChemist, I found the snails (cooked) better than the raw oysters, for measure of better that are “not going to make me physically ill based on texture alone”. As you might guess, wine had been consumed before the shellfish arrived and more was consumed to make them more tolerable. Plus bread, give me all the bread. (Seriously, I ate more bread in two weeks on vacation than I normally eat in two months. So good.)
Other foodish things: there was a Le Pain Quotidien in my neighborhood (no, I didn’t eat there) and a Paul (I did eat there, and learned that it is a franchise with stores in DC), too. There were gelato/ice cream shops everywhere. And I’d never heard of Kusmi tea before reading about it in Bon Appetit, but there was a boutique in Montmartre, so I bought Parisian tea as a gift. And, wow, the store smelled delicious. Also, the little fromagerie across the street had fiquier — little rounds of chevre topped with fig. Yum.
Other observations: Normally I travel in February or March, during the off-season. May in Paris is absolutely not the off-season, and the sheer number of people was a little oppressive. (You may have noticed that I am a misanthrope, so you can imagine my opinion about this.) The other surprise to me was the volume of smoking/smokers in Paris. They are everywhere, and it reminded me of how unaccustomed I am to being around smokers now.
I’m forgetting things, I’m sure, but I feel like I’ve been typing this forever, and I still have to upload pictures, so that’s all for now. (ETA: I took 1500 photos and have uploaded 235 to Shutterfly with less than 50 here, but it still took three hours to write this up, upload photos, add captions. *sigh*)
Edited slightly for typos and to add a couple of thoughts.
ETA #2: I can’t believe I forgot to mention one of my other favorite new discoveries: Schweppes Agrum. It’s a citrus-flavored soda that comes in the full calorie version or a light version. I liked it as a drink with lunch when I wasn’t in the mood for water, wine, or coffee, and I bet it would be good in cocktails. Move over Fanta Limon, my holiday favorite!
Also on the beverage front: I saw several Starbucks in Paris but did not go in, even when I was dying for a large iced green tea lemonade. When I mentioned them, Chef G told me that Starbucks arrived in Paris about seven years ago, and that a lot of her friends loved it because it was so American, and they could have their coffee to go like they see in movies and tv. Which kind of surprised me, and seemed antithetical to the entire cafe/coffee experience that I observed: people taking morning and afternoon breaks with a cigarette and their little demitasse cups, sitting in the cafe and being Parisian.