Please click here to continue on to my newest blog which follows our spring 2017 adventures in Amsterdam, Lisbon, Alvor, Paris, and Reykjavik.
“There is never any ending to Paris and the memory of each person who has lived in it differs from that of any other. We always returned to it no matter who we were or how it was changed or with what difficulties, or ease, it could be reached. Paris was always worth it and you received return for whatever you brought to it.” – Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast
It was love at first sight between us and Paris and we knew we would return not as tourists but as residents, even if only for a short time. Of course we planned to do “touristy” things, sightseeing and museums and such, but our main goal was to immerse ourselves in the daily life of Paris as much as possible. Here in the states, we have giant grocery and chain stores where we can buy everything on our list in a single stop. One of the many charms of Paris is that every neighborhood has its own collection of specialized shops where residents go daily for their baguettes, cheeses, meats, and wine. Shopkeepers know their customers by name and families shop at the same store generation after generation. We had a row of such shops right around the corner from our apartment and gladly waited in line for bread still warm from the oven. Yes there was a line at this bakery every day for their heavenly baguettes, croissants, and hearty herb breads; it’s that good!
Venture away from the throngs of tourists and it quickly becomes obvious that Parisians love their city and enjoy spending time hanging out in one of its many beautiful parks. From sailing tiny boats to relaxing with a good book to playing boules with friends, locals take full advantage of the many open spaces their city offers. Cafes are another popular spot for locals and cafe sitting is a year round endeavor thanks to awnings, heaters, and blankets. We spent many leisurely hours hanging out at cafes, watching the world go by while sipping fantastic wine. The french word for loafer or loiterer is flâneur and to them it’s a good thing. We easily adopted the “flâneur” lifestyle and I watched each passing tour bus and walking group with fascination, wondering if they could possibly be having as much fun as us.
To watch my video, click here.
Having been to Amsterdam last May, we already knew we wanted to spend more time in the neighborhood known as De Pijp. Once a working class district built to ease the overcrowding in Jordaan, it’s now a melting pot of cultures and the bohemian heart of Amsterdam. It’s a short tram ride south of the hustle and bustle of central Amsterdam and both the Van Gogh Museum and the Rijksmuseum are within a ten minute walk. A “must visit” is the famous Albert Cuyp Market, which opened in 1904 and now has over 300 stalls selling everything from apples to zinnias. There are also numerous food booths so you can shop while munching on pickled herring, fresh oysters, toasties, stroopwafels, and yummy Dutch cheeses. The booths selling fresh seafood are very popular with the local herons and we saw up to three at a time waiting to catch the vendors off-guard! You can satisfy your own cravings for a wide variety of foods at one of the many nearby eateries. Syrian, Moroccan, Surinamese, Indian, Spanish, Greek, and others can all be found within a few blocks of Albert Cuypstraat. The immensely popular Indonesian Rijsttafel (Rice Table) dates back to Dutch colonial times and it truly is a feast for the senses. Ours came with no fewer than twelve dishes (ranging from very mild to spicy), both steamed and fried rice, and fried bananas for dessert. If a snack is all you seek, try the Dutch concoction called Bitterballen. These crunchy snacks are filled with a meaty gravy or roux and are traditionally served with mustard for dipping and a biertje (beer) on the side. De Pijp also has a number of coffeeshops and even a small red light district, so it really does offer something for everyone.
Staying in an apartment allowed us to live as locals, which I believe is the best way to experience any new place. We found the closest grocery store, bought cheese and grapes to snack on at Albert Cuyp Market, watched local tv, strolled in the park, and just wandered around taking in as much as we could. Since we had missed the Rijksmuseum last trip, we made it a point to go this time. It’s a fabulous museum and its masterpieces include works by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Steen, and Van Gogh. After the museum, we swung by De Plug Music Store to see if the owner Peter remembered us from last year. He and a friend were chatting on the sidewalk over cold beers and we were promptly invited to pull up a seat and join them. Within a few minutes a guitar came out, then another followed by a third, and another friend of Peter’s, an expat from Boston, joined in the jam. I just love how universal music is and how it can connect people from all over the world. Anyway one thing led to another and we all ended up at a cafe down the street, eating, drinking, and hunkering down under the awning while it rained buckets. A truly special memory of a wonderful stay in De Pijp.
You can’t go very far in Paris without running across a church. There are hundreds throughout the city, mostly Catholic, and no matter the size, they are worth a visit. Saint-Étienne-du-Mont was on our list to visit, mainly because its steps feature prominently in the Woody Allen film “Midnight in Paris.” We arrived at the church just as it began to rain, so we popped inside to stay dry. That turned out to be a great decision as the interior is simply stunning! The church was built over a period of more than one hundred years, with construction starting in 1492 and ending in 1626. The result is a mixture of architectural styles, including Gothic and Renaissance. The renaissance choir screen with double spiraling staircase, the only surviving example in Paris, took our breath away.
The most famous church in Paris, Notre Dame Cathedral, was started in 1163 and wasn’t completed until 1345. The building is massive, 128 meters long (420 ft) with two 69 meter tall towers (226 ft). The spire over the crossing reaches 90 meters (295 ft) and was added in the nineteenth century by Viollet-le-Duc. Both the interior and exterior were severely damaged during the Revolution but were fully restored in the 19th century, when the spire was added. Another restoration between 1991 and 2001 brought it to the glorious version we see today. (Here’s a cool factoid: there’s a marker in the ground in front of Notre Dame called the Point Zero Marker. It’s the official center of Paris and it marks the exact spot from which all distances throughout France are measured in relation to Paris).
I’ve been hearing about the glorious stained glass windows of Sainte-Chapelle for years so I knew we had to go there this trip. Built to house the Crown of Thorns and a fragment of the True Cross, construction began in 1242 and was completed a mere six years later. The Lower Chapel, dedicated to the Virgin Mary, was once reserved for the king’s staff, while the Upper Chapel was reserved for the king and his guests. With its low vaulted ceilings and arched columns, the Lower Chapel is but a prelude to what is found at the very top of a narrow spiral staircase. With its high ceilings and 6,456 sq ft of stained glass, the Upper Chapel is made me gasp with amazement. Mounted on the clustered shafts that separate the windows, are twelve stone figures representing the Apostles. They seem frozen in time as if they have stood watch for centuries. (Six are actually replicas. The damaged originals are housed in the Cluny Museum.) As I looked around the Chapel, I found myself deeply moved by both the beauty of the art and by the dedication it took to produce it.
One very cool thing I discovered in researching this trip is that many of these churches hold concerts and recitals in the evenings. These events are very popular with the locals as we found out first hand when we attended a recital at Saint Ephrem Church. The immensely talented pianist Elio di Tanna performed several dreamlike works by the French composer Erik Satie, the ominous Ballade no. 2 by Franz Liszt, and the first movement of Beethoven’s Appassionata followed by my personal favorite Moonlight Sonata. We sat in the first row, no more than ten feet away from the piano and the acoustics were superb. The 75 or so seats were filled by the time Elio started and we were all treated to an evening of heavenly music that I won’t soon forget!
I’ve been in love with the works of Claude Monet ever since I was a kid and I saw one of his Water Lilies at the Cleveland Museum of Art. My uncle Al took me for Sunday outings to various cultural spots and events, so I was exposed to the fine arts at a very young age. The CMA piece is huge, almost larger than my bedroom wall, and the colors and brush strokes spoke to me as no other work had before.
The museum was free on Mondays and when I lived in the area during and after college, I’d often pop in just to go see “my” Monet. Imagine my surprise one day when I entered the gallery for a visit and the painting was gone. I immediately sought out a guard, who directed me to the newest part of the museum. After negotiating what seemed like a never-ending maze of halls, I reached the gallery and stepped inside. What I saw in front of me left me speechless. There alongside “my” painting were its twin brother and sister. Sublime. Perfect. Exquisite. I have no other words.
I wrote the above over a year ago describing my reaction to seeing Monet’s triptych displayed together for the first time. I honestly never thought that experience could be topped until this trip to Paris when we visited both the Orsay and l’Orangerie Museums. The Musee d’Orsay, once a train station, now houses an amazing collection of art from the period 1848 to 1914. Their catalog of Impressionism works is outstanding and seeing many of my favorite paintings by Monet, Cezanne, Degas, and others took my breath away. I suspect that if I lived in Paris, the Orsay would be my second home. If not the Orsay then the Orangerie for sure. Built in 1852 as a winter shelter for the orange trees from the Tuileries garden, the Musee l’Orangerie houses eight large Water Lilies panels in two rooms. Each panel is 2 meters (6.5 feet) tall and together they span a total length of 91 meters (299 feet.) Seeing these works by my favorite artist displayed in an installation he designed was so moving it brought me to tears. And having seen his flower gardens and water lily pond at Giverny last May gave me an even deeper appreciation of his work. I could get lost in those colors and brushstrokes forever!
To watch my video, click here.
If you’re into medieval art, the Cluny Museum is a “must-do” in Paris. Actually, it should be on your sightseeing list anyway if for no other reason than the experience of being inside a 500 year old castle. The exterior, with its massive stones, dark roof, and heavy doors, is ominous and one can easily imagine Mary Tudor greeting her brother Henry VIII in the courtyard. The interior is equally impressive for both its architecture and the art collections it houses. Having studied post-Renaissance art in college, I had the very naive idea that medieval art was brooding and simplistic. Boy was I wrong! I wandered room after room awed by the intricate details, vibrant colors, and life-affirming themes. Carvings, paintings, tapestries, and stained glass all beckon for closer inspection and the detailed works are mesmerizing.
The main attraction of the Cluny is its series of six tapestries, The Lady and the Unicorn, which is considered one of the greatest works of art of the Middle Ages in Europe. Five of the massive and colorful tapestries depict the senses (touch, hearing, taste, sight, and smell) while the sixth is a bit of a mystery. It depicts the Lady exiting (or perhaps getting ready to enter) a tent, with the phrase “À mon seul désir” above the door. Who or what is her only desire? One could spend hours closely examining the colorful and complex pieces searching for clues. Or simply admiring its beauty. This room alone was worth the admission price; it is stunning.
Another of my favorite collections was the stained glass. Seeing so many beautiful pieces in one room was amazing and being able to examine them up close was truly special. One piece, The Devil and a woman, pre-dates 1248 and comes from the nearby Sainte-Chapelle. Another great room to visit, especially on a hot day, is the frigidarium (cooling room.) The Cluny is partially constructed on the remnants of the third century Gallo-Roman baths (known as the Thermes de Cluny) and this massive and cool room houses pieces from Notre Dame Cathedral. The statue of Adam, around 1260, comes from the interior of the south transept and the Heads of the Kings of Judah is from the gallery of the kings on the western facade. I gained a new appreciation for the craftsmanship and depth of medieval art during this visit and I suspect I’ll be wondering what her sole desire is for some time to come.
Google Reykjavik and you’ll learn that it’s the northernmost capital in Europe and that 60% of Iceland’s population calls it home. You’ll also learn that its surrounding coastline is characterized by peninsulas, coves, straits, and islands, and that these features provide a perfect haven for boats. Its name means “smoky bay”, and its location two degrees south of the Arctic Circle means that it gets only four hours of sunlight on its shortest day (but almost twenty-four hours on its longest.) We had a bit over six hours daylight each day to explore this uniquely beautiful city. Since I love water and boats, staying in the marina area was an obvious choice and from this vantage point, the city’s maritime heritage is easy to spot. While fishing is still an important industry, tourism has taken over the top spot with around one million international visitors a year. Over 20 species of whale have been documented in Icelandic waters, making whale-watching a top attraction. The tour boats were just a short stroll from our hotel.
Reykjavik is also a very creative and cultured city that boasts numerous museums and a stunning new concert venue, Harpa. It also hosts a huge music festival every fall, Iceland Airways. A short stroll around downtown will treat you to colorful murals, statues, fountains, and numerous shops and galleries filled with local arts and crafts. It’s pretty clear just by the number of bars in a very compact area that the city knows how to party. Of course we had to see for ourselves and even with all the sidewalks and streets covered in ice, Laugarvegur Street was hopping on Saturday night. You gotta love a city with a bar dedicated to His Dudeness. We sure did!
No winter visit to Reykjavik would be complete without going to see the Imagine Peace Tower on Videy Island. Created by Yoko Ono in memory of her late husband John Lennon, the tower is lit each year on October 9th (John’s birthday) until the anniversary of his death on December 8th. Ono choose Iceland as it’s one of the most peaceful countries in the world and also for its use of “green” geothermal energy. Watching the blue beams of light send their message of peace high up into the night sky on a clear, cold night was quite moving. Seeing the Northern Lights dance across the sky from behind the tower was magical.