Thursday, July 30, 2009

Bonjour Paris! The Musee d'Orsay and Tea at Laduree

Thursday, July 23, 2o09

The Eurostar ate the miles in a jiffy and bridged the gap across the English Channel before we could quite say Bonjour! But for the fact that our ears popped as we descended beneath the water several hundreds of miles beneath the surface, there was no way to record the speed and the depth at which we traveled through this Chunnel—a first-time experience for Llew and a second for me—the trip to Brussels in Belgium, a few months ago, had been my first time aboard this unique vehicle.

Again, the early hour of the morning made us want to doze off but despite our light breakfasts of almond croissants and pain du chocolat with coffee, courtesy of Paul’s Patisserie at St. Pancras International, we could not really snatch any sleep at all. Next thing we knew, we were pulling into the Gare du Nord in Paris and watching the capital of France whoosh past us.

Though it was a trifle overwhelming, what with the crowds and the noise, we did find our way towards the metro easily enough where we bought a carnet de billets (10 tickets in all) and headed towards the Number 4 line towards Chatelet where we needed to change to the Number 1 line for the Champs Elysses where we would be staying for the next few days. Yes, as hard as it might be to believe, Llew and I would be parked just off one of the world’s best-known boulevards right in the heart of one of the world’s most exciting cities. I have to say that the trains looked extremely crummy after London’s posher underground versions and I also have to say that I realized what a long time had elapsed since the two of us had seen Paris at such close quarters. Indeed, it was fifteen years ago that we had last been to Paris (at which time, too, we had made a detour to spend a few days with friends in Normandy).

Once on the surface again, we were jostled about by the hurrying hordes on the Champs-Elysses as we tried to find our way towards Monoprix and the Rue de la Boetie where our friends, the Andersons, lived in a grand fin de siecle building complete with massive iron grilled gates, spacious internal quadrangles and marble floors and walls that gleamed as we entered the miniscule lift that took us towards the top. It was all very olde-worlde and very gracious and my heart skipped a beat when I realized that I would be spending a few days here, in this most romantic of European cities. It wasn’t long before we were ringing the bell and having the massive wooden doors opened to us by my friend Julia who welcomed us warmly and ushered us into our new digs and showed us to our room.

We did not spend too long chatting, though we did succumb to the charm of the moment and enjoyed a cup of French roast coffee and toast with confiture d’abricots in the lovely white kitchen whose picture window overlooked the slate rooftops directly ahead of us. Then, we were consulting maps and making plans to spend the day in one of our favorite places in the world, the Musee d’Orsay whose collection of French Impressionist Paintings makes it one of the world’s most beloved repositories of artwork.

Back at the Musee d’Orsay:

Julia, who would be leaving for a few days in Normandy, decided to accompany us to the Musee d’Orsay, never having been there before. We took the metro again, glad to be in her capable hands. As a veteran Parisienne herself, she knows the city intimately and took us adroitly through its crowded streets heaped with the enticements of shops selling alluring merchandise and restaurants whose menus had me salivating. We chatted non-stop along the way and soon found ourselves in the quadrangle where we joined the lines that snaked into the museum. I did attempt to use my Met ID card to be allowed free entry but found that it was not honored here, much to my amazement. However, I was able to circumvent the long line and purchase tickets for the three of us without having to wait in the unending line.

For the next few hours, Llew and I lost ourselves in an appreciation of one of our favorite epochs and areas of art history—France during the fifty years that spanned the last quarter of the 19th century and the first quarter of the 20th. The exhibition goes chronologically from the Pre-Impressionists whose works followed the dictates of the Neo-Classical age that preceded it with its emphasis on balance, symmetry, photographic realism and an attempt to reproduce life through art to the iconoclasts who dared to break the mold and produce mere representations of reality. Indeed as the word ‘Impressionism’ became a matter of standard usage for the experiments with light and color and line that characterized the works of Monet, Manet, Degas, Gaugin, Pisarro, Sisley, Morrisot and, of course, that greatest of Modernists Cezanne himself, the movement gained ground and revolutionized Art History. In the subjects and themes that this group selected (based largely on their lived experience in Paris and its suburbs such as Argenteuil and Pointoise), they presented an era with a grace and charm that is synonymous with such paintings as Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette, Monet’s water-lilies at his garden in Giverny, Cezanne’s still lives in which apples and oranges surpass their ability to egg the viewer into tasting them and admiring their artful contours instead. It was these and so many such works over which we lingered as we took in the deft brush stokes laden with paint and creativity as seen in canvasses produced by artists as varied as Seurat and Corot, Courbet to Van Gogh. From floor to floor we went, pausing only to purchase a much-needed sandwich lunch in the cafeteria that overlooked the wonderful sculpture terrace where works by Rodin sat cheek by jowl with those by Bartholdi and Daumier.

Julia said goodbye to us about two hours later leaving Llew and me with more time to take in the museum’s highlights at our leisure. But by about 4 pm, we were all cultured out, as it were and ready to pause for a very long time to enjoy the gourmet treats of France in the many salons du the that dot the city. In fact, since I had promised Julia that I would treat her to tea in Laduree, one of the city’s best-reputed tea rooms, we made plans to meet there again at 5 pm. This left Llew and me time to discover a bit of Paris on foot before we took the metro back to the Champs Elysses.

Tea for Three at Laduree:

It was in the green and gold interior of Laduree that we finally took a breather. For it was here that we reconnected with Julia as we perused the extensive menu and took in the stylishness of the space we occupied and the companions with whom we rubbed shoulders. I had heard about Laduree at least ten years ago when I first began to read about its traditions and its history in the many home magazines to which I have subscriptions (such as Victoria and The English Home). Laduree is renowned for its macarons, those light as air sandwich cookies in varied flavors that burst upon the tongue. Since we could not leave Laduree without tasting them in the very place in which they were created, we ordered a mixed plates of macarons with our Special Laduree Melange Blend of tea and the mouth watering pastries that have earned it a place on every notable patisserie list in the world.

At Julia’s suggestion, we ordered the house specialty, the Isphahan, a concoction of rose petals and raspberries but, alas, the confection is so popular that they were out of them by the time we ordered our treats. Instead, at the suggestion of the waitress, we ordered the Gateau Honore St. Jacques which turned out to be a very close relative of the Isphahan and as we savored our tea time delights, I realized why this place is so popular and so pricey! My Laduree Melange tea blend was quite outstanding indeed, the tea flavored subtly with hints of almond and cinnamon. Enjoyed with honey and lemon, it was quite the most wonderful part of my evening. Indeed, it was so good that I bought a tin of it to take home to Connecticut where I shall, no doubt, reproduce the charm of the evening as I sit and sip its delights.

Dinner Chez Anderson:
But little did we know that another treat awaited us at dinner when we connected with Julia’s dad Jack, a tax lawyer, who returned from his busy day at work to keep us entertained over a meal that was painstakingly created by Julia from recipes derived from the internet. She served us a courgette bake that was served with a sauce of sweet red peppers and tomatoes and with really tasty smoked ham and some bread, we had ourselves a truly memorable French meal. Sitting companionably in the kitchen with these Franco-Americans, we felt as if we had spent an entire lifetime in Paris. With the box of Laduree macarons that we brought home for dessert, we wound up our meal at home very nicely and looked forward to a very long night’s rest in our room with its own French windows that opened up to a little balcony that overlooked a charming courtyard and the abundant branches of old oak trees.

Indeed, Llew and I did turn in early and slept the sleep of the dead as we looked forward to our next day in this most romantic of cities.

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