Saturday, July 7, 2012

Rose Line at Palais Royale, Musee Nissim Camondo & Thai Dinner

Friday, July 6, 2012
Paris, France

I awoke with the thought that I ought to try and finish up all the bits and bobs on my To-Do List and, believe  me, they are varied:
1. Taste baguette known as 'flute' from Eric Kayser (Managed to do that today).
2, Go in search of Dan Brown's Rose Line at the Palais Royale. Reference is to The Da Vinci Code. (Been there, Done that--Today!)
3. Look for Pierre Hermes pastries, especially his unusually flavored macarons. Haven't found him yet.
4. Look for street market food at Rue Mouffetard. (Did it today).
5.Visit Musee Nissim Camondo (Mission Accomplished--also today).
6. Eat at Bouillon Chartier (Will be going there for dinner with friends on Sunday).
7. Go back to Louvre to linger over Millet, Caravaggio, Vermeer, etc. Don't know when I can squeeze it in).
8. Go to Musee D'Orsay to feast on the Impressionists (Will be taking our friend Cynthia there when she arrives on Monday).
9. Return to Giverny to drool over Monet's Garden (Ditto--Cynthia wants to go there).
10. Get off at Bir-Hakeim to see memorials to French Jews at what used to be the Velodrome d'Hiver (Vel D'Hiv). Will probably do that with Jacques and Florence tomorrow when we explore Palais de Chaillot and Tour Eiffel.
11. Decide what color fascinator I want to go home with from Galleries Lafayette. (This might be the hardest thing to do!)

Yes, I am beginning to face the reality of the fact that we will not remain here much longer and there are still some miscellaneous items on my List to tick off. But today, being our last day of solitary couplehood together (from tomorrow we will have guests staying with us from Normandy and then London), we decided to make the very most of it.

Off to Rue Mouffetard:
So, after Llew took care of the chore of doing laundry for us and I finally caught up with my blog, we ate a very late breakfast (Jordan's muesli plus leftover bits of brioche and baguette with coffee) and left our apartment really late to take the metro to Place Monge. My aim was to find Rue Mouffetard where street markets have been held since Roman times. The bonus was that we found ourselves in an ancient part of Paris that remained untouched by the magical hand of Baron Haussmann and, therefore, retains its small village ambiance rather than the grand city feel of the rest of the place. Streets are winding (not clean cut knife slashes that end in triangles) and narrow, not punctuated with the plane or chestnut tress that are profuse in the rest of the City of Light. Vendors place their wares on the pavement (you have to dodge cartons of flat white peaches and strange 'striped' tomatoes). Buildings have varied facades. At one corner is an ancient "fountain" known as the Pot de Fer--built by Marie de Medici to provide water for Luxembourg Palace. It turned out to be the most anti-climatic thing we have ever seen in Paris. The 'fountain' was a thick iron pipe that curves into a faucet from which a rather thin stream of water issued forth. One of the vendors on the streets (when we had inquired about its location had said it was "Magnifique!"--he must have had a very good sense of humor or was pulling our legs).

We visited the ancient church of St. Medard, also in the same general area--not too far from the factory that used to produce the Gobelins tapestries for royalty from the Middle Ages onwards. They still produce those tapestries, but we did not pause to take a look. Inside the church, mass was in progress. We were discreet as we went looking for Zurbaran's great work, St. Joseph Walking with Jesus which was really lovely. Again, Gothic dimensions, soaring nave and gilded altar combined to create a fine interior. After a short prayer, we left--again discreetly.

Mission Dan Brown at the Palais Royale:
At Place Monge, we took the metro again to the Palais Royale. I was on a Dan Brown Mission--to seek and find the Arago brass discs set into the pavement (similar to the Jubilee Discs and the Diana Walk discs in London). These were put into place in 1984 when the French held a competition to design a monument commemorating French astronomers. Instead of a sculpture, a Dutch artist named Jan Dibbets came up with the unique idea of setting discs in the pavement to mark the path named for Francois Arago (1786-1853), the man who precisely calculated the Paris Meridian or Rose Line Meridian that cuts a diagonal streak through Paris from the Church of Sacred Coeur at Montmartre to the Palais Royale in the form of 135 discs.  (I had followed Dan Brown's Brass Line, if you remember, a few weeks ago at the Church of St. Suplice).  Each Arago brass disc, 5 inches wide, is marked N/S (North/South) with the name Arago in the center. At any rate, we hadn't covered the Palais Royale area on foot and there was a lot of literary interest into which I wished to peek.

I found the disc at the very entrance of the Palais Royale just past the Cafe des Nemours. So, Mission Well Accomplished!

Daniel Burren's Sculpture:
Then, past the Lourve Square, we crossed the street and went in search of the black and white columns of varying heights installed in 1986 by French artist Daniel Burren. In this wide courtyard is the massive building of the Comedie Francaise, the famous theater company founded in 1680 which saw the first theatrical ventures of Moliere and Racine, among others. College French lectures came back to mind as we walked through the courtyard to enter the beautiful formal gardens of the Palais Royale (so-called because they are attached to the Palais de Louvre, once the home of France's kings).

The Gardens of the Palais Royale:
Well, the gardens were gorgeous. People were indulging in all sorts of activities from the more active (games of petanque with heavy shiny balls on the sidelines) to the more sedentary (several were reading or daydreaming on the benches overlooking lush perennial flower beds and charming sculpture). We walked the length of the gardens and got to the other side to find the plaque set in the wall that denotes the apartment into which the French writer Collette had moved with her third husband (17 years younger than she). She spent the last 25 years of her life propped up in her bed writing as she overlooked the gardens! I could be eternally productive too if I had such a view! She was the first female writer to be awarded the French Legion d'Honneur.

We then walked to the far end of the quadrangle to see the famous restaurant, the Grand Vefours, which has played host to every French 'celeb' you can think of--from Napoleon to Jean Cocteau. Each of them has plaques on the seats to mark their presence. We entered the beautiful vestibule of the small eatery to admire its decor in the Directoire style--marked by straight lines of painted figures on both walls and ceiling (similar to several rooms in the Vatican). The maitre d' was indulgent enough of our desire to appreciate his surroundings.

Perusing the Bibliotheque Nationale:
Through the grand arcades of the Palais Royale we left to enter the world of the common man and found ourselves right in front of the Bibliotheque Nationale--the National Library--with its imposing Greek architecture and its impressive interior. Although the majority of the library's most prized collection and archives have been moved to a newer building, the coins, medals and numismatics collection is still in this venue. We were fortunate to be able to catch a permanent exhibition on the first and mezzanine floors which took us up a red carpeted marble staircase past a sculpture of Voltaire to the vitrines set in beautiful galleries with heavily gilded ceilings. Sussing out this building was also on my To-Do List, so I was delighted that we not only entered and perused it but caught a glimpse of some of its most valuable assets.

Browsing in Galleries Vivienne:
On the way to the metro, we stumbled upon one of Paris' famous covered arcades: shops built under arches to form a sort of pedestrian plaza. London has a few of them around Picadilly. Although I had seen a couple, this one was truly spectacular from the point of view of decor and ambience. Naturally, we had to saunter in to check it out and how charmed we were! Pretty little modern-day boutqiues sit cheek by jowl with ancient bookshops (you can bet Llew took a trawl through). At the end of the arcade was another hidden branch that curved sharply right--another series of boutiques presented themselves. My camera was busy taking pictures of the decorative and architectural elements of the space--lovely little Classical touches all over--and then we left.

Off to the Musee Niussim Camondo:
Back on the metro we went at Bourse station (past the Bourse which is the French Stock Exchange--now undergoing heavy interior renovation) to arrive at Parc Monceau. A short walk later, we were at the entrance of the hotel particulier (private mansion) that was owned by the fabulously wealthy but ill-fated Jewish family known as the Camondos, who had once lived here in such splendour.

Here is a short history of the family:
The Camondos were Turkish Jews who made their fortune in banking in the 18th century. When things got uncomfortable for Jews in Istanbul, the scion of the family, named Nissim Camondo, moved to France (then the most hospitable place for Jews) with his family. This was the mid 19-century. Upon his death, his son Moise inherited his fortune and his banking business. He married a beautiful French woman named Irene who bore him two children: Nissim (named after his grandfather) and Beatrice. Not long after, Irene fell in love with the Keeper of her husband's stables, left husband Moise and her children behind to ride off into the sunset.

Devastated, Moise devoted himself to raising his children as a loving father and retreated from the world into his massive love of the 18th century. Through the 19th century and into the 20th, he spent his colossal fortune building an 18th century style mansion adjoining Parc Monceau and filling it to the rafters with 18th century items--I mean there is not a single thing in sight that does not date from the 1700s. And in the dealer and antiquarian Seligman, he found a worthy partner who scoured the world on his behalf to find items that were not only beautiful and rare but held a worthy provenance: most of them had belonged to French royalty. The result is a treasury of furniture and art works that have to be seen to be believed.

I called the family ill-fated because Moise's son, Nissim, entered World War I as a reconnaissance pilot providing France with a great deal of important intelligence about German positions until he got into a air fight with a German plane. Both planes went down in flames and Nissim was no more. Even more devastated at the loss of his son, Moise became a recluse. Realizing that his fortune and collection would no longer remain in the family, he decided to turn it over to the French state and placed his daughter Beatrice in-charge of creating a museum out of his world to be named after her brother Nissim.

Beatrice faithfully carried out her father's wishes. Moise died in 1925. The Musee Nissim Camondo opened in 1930. Beatrice managed it beautifully. She married Leon Reinarch and with him she had two children. She converted to Catholicism and because of her position in French society plus her new faith, believed that she would remain untouched by the anti-Jewish hatred fanned by the Nazi Occupation of France. Hence, she disregarded her husband Leon's pleas that they should emigrate out of Europe. In 1944, the last reminaing Camondos (Beatrice, her husband Leon and their children) were deported to Auschwitz and were never heard of again. The Camondo family had ceased to exist.

Even as I type these words, I have goosebumps because the poignancy of their fate is simply impossible to accept. The fact that one of France's wealthiest and most powerful families was simply snuffed out by the War makes me realize how much in despair ordinary Jews might have been during that wretched period. It also brings home the fact that while money can buy a lot of things, it cannot buy Love (Beatrice left Moise) and it cannot guarantee Life (Moise's only son and heir, Nissim, was killed). Fortunately, the French State and the private committees that set about to guard the property and the possessions of Moise have done an exceedingly fine job. To enter the Musee is to leave the normal world behind and truly enter the past. There is opulence yes, but there is also exquisite taste. This is an eclectic collection: unlike the Jacquemart-Andre collection, not many of the paintings are by Old Masters, for instance (although there are a few Guardi landscapes of Venice). Moise's passion was the 18th century and everything gorgeous that it produced. Hence, you will find furniture, carpets, table-top sculpture, engravings, terracotta busts, silver, porcelain, crystal chandeliers--indeed an entire room is given to a display of his porcelain dinnerware including a Sevres set portraying paintings of birds by the French artist Buffon.

The audio guided tour winds through the lower level where the public rooms were to the top level to the bedrooms and personal spaces of the family and ends in the basement where we saw the kitchen filled with shiny copper ware, the butler's pantry and office and the dining room of the servants. If you are a lover of the 18th century and want to see everything associated with that era, this is the place to lose yourself completely. If you want to see desks that belonged to Marie-Antoinette, Sevres porcelain occasional tables that Madame du Barry collected, rare petrified wood vases that look just like porcelain (also belonging to Marie-Antoinette), etc, etc etc. all placed in their original positions exactly as they were when Moise lived in this home, then this is the place to be. The concept is very similar to  New York's Frick Museum, Boston's Isabella Gardner Museum and London's Wallace Collection. It is when I peruse such spaces that I thank my lucky stars for the opportunity that has brought me to Paris for such a prolonged period, for I simply would not have been able to see such treasures were I simply another tourist. This is quite simply a not-to-be-missed museum and although there were a few visitors around, it is certainly not on anyone's Must-Do List. More's the pity.

Tea at Eric Kayser's:
With time to kill before our dinner appointment, Llew and I were thrilled to come upon Eric Kayser's Salon de The on Boulevarde de Courcelles right opposite the Church of St. Augustine--and not a moment too soon. For it came down in unbelievable sheets before our astonished eyes as we were safely ensconced inside with steaming cups of lemony Darjeeling and Kayser's heavenly chocolate-hazelnut slices. The rain stopped, rather obligingly, about twenty minutes later, leaving the sun to shine brightly again--bizarre!

It was time for us to buy a 'flute' from the bakery, then hop on a bus and take a ride to kill time all the way to Montparnasse where we passed by some of the city's worthiest monuments.

Thai Dinner with Friend s at Coco's Tree:
At 8.00 om, after a lovely walk along Rue de Courcelles, we were ringing the doorbell of our new Parisian friends, Ashok and Anu, who had invited us to their apartment for drinks. And what a grand apartment it is! I mean, it is huge and spaciously laid out with light filled rooms and their fantastic range of interior accessories. We made ourselves comfortable with glasses of champagne and about 45 minutes later, were joined by another couple: Ramesh, a former Indian ambassador and his French wife, Flo. About fifteen minutes and another drink later, we walked down the street to Coco's Tree which has to have served some of the best Thai food I have ever eaten.

Each of us chose a plat and there was a variety around the table--from gigantic prawns with Pad Thai to my Duck with basil sauce, to green chicken curry to pork roast to beef steak. Every single thing was different and delicious--we passed plates around for a sampling session as we were surprised to discover that the food was not served family-style the way Thai food usually is. Still, everything was simply scrumptious. Dessert was a variety of exotic ice-creams: jack fruit, coconut, sweet potato and mango! Lovely, lovely, lovely--and definitely a Parisian restaurant to which I would return.

Apart from the food, the company was probably some of the best I have ever enjoyed,. Our conversation ranged from books and movies about Paris to little-known parts of the city, from the scandals of DSK who was unfavorably compared to Bill Clinton to Indian students in Paris. We talked about ever so much that was engaging and stimulating and enlightening. I love a dinner conversation from which I learn something useful and practical (and this offered both) but which is also amusing and entertaining. I loved every second of the evening and wished it were longer.

But, alas, we'd had a long day and we were pooped. Our generous hosts picked up the entire tab, Ramesh and Flo gave us a ride back to Denfert-Rochereau from where we jumped on the RER train and got home, sleepy and exhausted--but well satiated after what has been one of my best days in Paris.

A demain!                            

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