Paris: December 13-24, 2016
Here are some general observations on our December 2006 trip to Paris:
Security. Sad to say, but terrorism's impact is visible. The Christmas market had concrete barriers at the beginning and end of each street along the ten or so block pathway, which is an extension of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées (where Cartier and other high-end retailers have flagship stores).
Several days later, we were searched by two uzi-armed guards at the Dôme des Invalides. Museums are far more security conscious then even just several years ago. And it is not unusual to see heavily-armed military personnel patrolling outside of major attractions, like the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.
One restaurant manager told us that the owner had talked seriously about closing the restaurant because of the drop in tourism. Two days later, we had a nice chat with a curator at the Musée d'Orsay who confirmed the manager's observations, telling us attendance had dropped significantly following the November 2015 terrorist attack.
At the airport, I was required to remove every camera, lens, and piece of peripheral equipment for inspection. And most poignantly, in Père Lachaise, I came across a fresh grave that held the remains of a 21-year old woman who was one of 90 people killed in the attack on the Bataclan.
Visiting the Eiffel Tower will never be the same. The plaza under the structure is now surrounded by fencing. To enter, visitors must pass through airport-style security. It used to be such a carefree happening scene.
The Museums. Most first time tourists flock to the big name museums--the Louvre and the d'Orsay come to mind. I certainly would not discourage anyone from visiting those museums. The Impressionism collection on the 5th floor of the d'Orsay is not to be missed, nor is the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. But if you Google "Museums and Paris," you find a list of over 200 museums. Most of the museums are relatively quiet and enjoyable places to spend time. For photographers, I highly recommend the Maison Européenne de la Photographie and the Galerie nationale du Jeu de Paume. The former is more straight-up photography, while the latter is more conceptual. We saw a great exhibit at the Jeu de Paume, titled Uprising. Two floors devoted to the exploration of political and social protest around the world. Some great photographs and videos. Neither museum is off the beaten path--both are within a block of Metro line 1 stations. When I have visited, there have never been long lines. Both museums have exceptional bookstores--bring your wallet and an extra suitcase. There are lots of books that are not readily available in the United States.
On this trip, I did not make it to the Foundation Henri Cartier-Bresson because the then current exhibit had closed. Having visited twice before, I will only visit again if the special exhibit warrants it. Otherwise, this is not much of a museum. You will not find lots of Cartier-Bresson photographs hanging on the walls, and the book store is less than mediocre. I had hoped to visit the Maison de la Photography Robert Doisneau, but it is located outside the ring road, and the current exhibit did not interest me, so next time.
We did visit the Musée national Eugène Delacroix, Musée Marmottan Monet, Musée national Gustave Moreau, Musée du Luxembourg for an exhibition of Fantin-Latour works, and the Fondation Louis Vuitton, where we saw the Shchukin Collection, which was on loan from the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. You can skip the Delacroix (unless you are huge admirer), but the others are worth a visit, particularly the Monet and Louis Vuitton. I suspect that the Louis Vuitton will become a "must-see" museum, given the building that houses it, which was designed by architect Frank Gehry. Evelyn managed to hit the Victor Hugo museum, and I saw an exhibit at the Hôtel de Ville covering the life of Coluche, a beloved comic who died young--he seems to have been a cross between Peter Sellers, Jerry Lewis, and Andy Kaufman, but the explanations were only in French, so I had to rely on photographs, videos, and costumes to get an sense of who Coluche was. Ah, and I shouldn't forget, the Picasso Museum. Excellent. We didn't encounter hordes of people, but there were lengthy rope lines in place, so I imagine it does get crowded.
We also stopped into the Institut du Monde Arabe, which provides terrific views from its rooftop for free--just take the elevator to the top. We skipped the museum, which I had previously visited. It is terrific, but the Moroccan restaurant at the top was a dissappointment.
Food. As usual, we disappoint our foodie friends. On our first night, Evelyn picked up some amazing falafel from a little hole in the wall restuarant in the Marais. Along the way, we had Vietnamese food at Hanoi, some nice meals while sitting in bars of small bistros that we just stumbled into (e.g., Cafe Hugo in the Place des Vosges), and lots of ham and swiss baguettes, probably my favorite food in Paris. Bordeaux was the wine of choice throughout the trip. Tuna and duck breast were my typical entree choices. One night we brought back a roast chicken and potatoes from a nearby supermarket adjacent to the Saint Paul Metro station. Our friend Andras would be appalled if he knew.
Coffee continues to be a big problem. It typically is served in a thimble-sized cup. I threw in the towel after three or four days of drinking my morning coffee using Zen (contemplating each drop), which meant that I broke down, heading to Starbucks for my morning Venti Decaf Americano on Day 5. The Starbucks pastries are the worst in France. Evelyn read that the French do not like to pee while out in public, which may explain the beverage sizes. I can understand why they don't: In one cafe I stumbled into a Turkish toilet--no alternatives. Fortunately, I only had to pee, otherwise I would have had to remove my trousers, which is the only way I could navigate a squatter while in China.
Given the fact that I am a connoisseur of meringues, It should come as no surprise that I fell in love with Aux Merveilleux De Fred, a pastry shop that makes nothing but meringues and fancy brioche. We visited two locations. Everything is prepared and baked on premises, with the most handsome people running the operation. The lines form early, and run out of the door. A must when in Paris, and when in New York's West Village now that the proprietor has established an outpost in the United States.
My favorite meal was at Flottes, a somewhat upscale bar and bistro. Excellent duck breast. We also had an excellent meal at Camille on our last night (duck breast for me and pot roast for Evelyn). The restaurant was located just four doors down from our third-floor walk-up apartment.
No trip to Paris would be complete, particularly in the winter, without a stop at Berthillon on the Île Saint-Louis. Disappointingly, they were out of chestnut ice cream, but the coffee ice cream was savory and rich, with just the right hint of sweet.
Père Lachaise Cemetery. I made my customary trip to Père Lachaise, which is the best of the three major cemeteries. Covering 110 acres, it is a photographer's delight, with its terraced landscape, winding paths, tall trees, and always interesting light. The graves and mausoleums are particularly photogenic, with stained glass windows, corroded doors (sometimes open), cobwebs, elaborate sculptures, and crumbling and shifting foundations. Of course, I made my pilgrimage to Jim Morrison's grave, which draws a steady stream of visitors, many of whom were not even born until a decade or two after Morrison was found dead in a Paris bathtub. As usual, I have been listening to the Doors ever since my visit, which is sending Evelyn up the walls.
Retail. Paris continues to fascinate with its retail establishments and customs, which are one of its main attractions. There are department stores, but not many--we visited Printemps, which has an amazing rooftop viewing platform, and it's free. I am sure the Parisians have access to Amazon.com, but nothing beats the specialized stores on every block. A musical instruments store that sells just flutes. Chocolate, dozens of vendors that you have never heard of, with prices that are astronomical. You could easily spend 80 Euro on a dozen chocolates. We purchased a few bars from one store that only sold chocolate from Madagascar. Bookstores all over the city, most specializing in very limited and unique subject matter. Clothing stores are on every block--much of it handmade. And on and on.
I found a particularly nice 19th Century arcade (Passage du Bourg-L’abbé) in the Les Halles neighborhood. I was tempted by a handmade pouch that I though might serve as a nice camera day bag. it was in the style of the Paris postal bag that mail carriers have used for decades. Unfortunately, it was not right for my purposes but the company does make a camera bag. Maybe next time, but it is weighty both in poundage and price, so probably not.
Also of note was the Viaduc des Arts, which is a rehabbed railroad viaduct, southeast of the Bastille. Pretty much artisans, who make furniture, chocolate, handbags, and other assorted items. Unfortunately, we picked the wrong time to visit: Many of the ateliers were closed, but the windows were intriguing. Above the stores on the abandoned railroad right-of-way sits a public park, much like Manhattan's High Line or Chicago's 606 Trail.
At the end of the day, we came home with a few photography books, as well as three dozen pairs of socks. Evelyn likes the socks from a Japanese manufacturer (Tabio) that has a store in the Marais, and she found mes Chaussettes Rouges, another sock maker that she just loved. Evelyn also stopped at the fabled Sennelier for some art supplies, as well as La Maison du Pastel, where she spent the afternoon with Madame Isabelle Roché and Margaret Zayer. She did pick up a couple of sticks, but it was mostly showing the flag. Last time I was in Paris by myself, I purchased more than a couple of sticks for her. Sennelier is a particularly interesting store. They developed oil pastels at Picasso's request. I had a nice chat with the fifth or sixth generation owner about the current state of the world. I remembered him from four years ago. A particularly congenial shop owner, which is probably why he has been in business for so long.
And for those of you who are into porn, somewhat surprisingly in this age of the Internet, you will find plenty of Sex Shops in Paris.
Photography. Paris is one of my favorite places to make photographs. In December, daylight is available from about 8:30AM until 4:45PM. For about 15 to 20 minutes after the sun sets, I had amazing blue night sky, but I had to work fast.
On this trip, I packed the Sony A7rii and the new Olympus OMD-1, Mark II, which arrived the same day we left, Although the Sony has double the pixels, I found myself using the Olympus most of the time. The image stabilization worked great—hand holding a 1 1/3 seconds with good results. Normally my upper limit on ISO levels is 3,200, but I went to 8,000 with very acceptable results. And what is a deal clincher, the Olympus' sensor proportions pretty much match 17” inch by 22” inch paper that I use, which permitted me to print borderless with only a minimal crop a the edges. The prints look amazing. I brought a tripod, but it never left the suitcase. If you need camera supplies, there is an excellent store--Objectif Bastille--about two blocks from the Bastille.
There are countless galleries selling photographs, so there is plenty of inspiration. I walked into one gallery featuring a series of photographs under the rubric, Storm, made by Mitch Dobrowner. I owned the book, which is what caught my attention. Also encountered a gallery featuring work by Joel Meyerowitz.
For me one of the trips highlights was stumbling into the Galerie Azzedine Alaïa in the Marais (18, rue de la Verrerie, 75004 Paris), where Carla Sozzani's exhibition of some 230 photographs from her extensive collection of photographs was on display. Absolutely amazing, as this interview in Vogue suggests.
Music. We visited two jazz clubs--Cave du 38 Riv and the Duc des Lombards, both essentially on the edge of the Marais. We also saw a classical music concert at Sainte-Chapelle--the music was fine, but not worth the effort. We probably should have taken in more performances, but we were pretty relaxed about this trip. Things just sort of happened.
We also had the good fortune to stumble into a master class of Russian students (8 to 15 years of age) at the Foundation Louis Vuitton, practicing Saint-Saens' Le Carnaval Des Animaux. Very talented. We loved the 12-year old conductor in a hoodie and Nikes.
Weather. We got lucky with the weather. Generally 40F to 50F degrees, with only two hours of rain one night. Skies were generally cloudy or gray, which meant that I relied on longer focal lengths to minimize the sky. Don’t count on our good fortune. In 1994, we visited Paris over Christmas and New Year’s. That’s the year that the orange trees at the Palace de Versailles died. It was freezing, causing us to dash from one museum to a café, and then to another museum. This year, I would have liked some snow, which would have made for some interesting images.
Walking. At the end of the day, Paris is all about walking. We did a lot of that, which provided plenty of opportunities for photographs. We walked along the Seine more than a few times. On our last day when we went our separate ways, I managed to find myself at the top of Cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris, with the gargoyles. Views weren't that great because the fog had lifted.
I also spent some time walking in the Jardin du Luxembourg. This time the residents were practicing martial arts. The last time I visited it was in the summer, with elementary school kids in full Three Musketeers garb practicing dueling and sword fighting with an instructor. Evelyn and I then had brunch at Angelina, one of the old school pastry shops in Paris, which services Musée du Luxembourg patrons. Expensive, but they sure know how to make an herb omelette. And afterwards we split a Le-Mont Blanc, a delicious confection of chestnut paste, whipped cream, and meringue.
On another walk, we stopped in at Les Deux Magots, one of the storied cafes that line Saint-Germain-des Prés. Somewhat of a ripoff, but we did it any way, with great reward. Two very elegantly-dressed women were sitting behind us, engaged in a very animated conversation. They moved like dancers, with one leaning into the other, coffee cup raised, while the other smiled and delicately moved her hands as she spoke. When asked, they permitted us to photograph them. Not the best photographs I have ever taken--I was too close--but a memorable moment. Turns out they were sisters, which came as no surprise because their body language said that they were well acquainted with each other.
While terrorism is always a concern these days, Paris still is one of the safest cities I have ever visited, although some suburbs can be rough.
Anyone who wants to understand Parisian idiosyncrasies might want to read The Sweet Life in Paris by David Lebovitz, an American cookbook writer who lives in Paris. Very funny. And yes, we made it to G. Detou.