Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Seeking the Phantom (of the Opera) and Delights of Degustation

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Paris, France

I am getting accustomed to later get-ups with Llew around as Le Lag du Jet keeps him fast asleep till well past 9.00 am. This also explains why I have less time to devote to my blog and have a backlog (or back-blog!). Still, with chocolate brioche, preserves, pain aux noix and good coffee inside us, we set out to say hello to the Phantom and to discover on foot the neighborhood known as Opera. Our guide was the walk in DK Eyewitness Guide to Paris.

The Opera Garnier:
One metro ride later, we were getting out of the underground stairwell to stare straight ahead at the front facade of the Opera Garnier, one of Paris' greatest landmarks and most ornate buildings--designed and built by Charles Garnier who actually has a huge sculpture honoring him in front of one of the many entrances. When we finished feasting our eyes on the splendour before us, we circumnavigated the building--for the uniqueness of the Opera Garnier lies in the fact that it is differently conceived and designed from each angle. Hence, as one walks around the place, one sees a variety of classical styles. There are Baroque statuettes who hold up lamps and they too are exquisite. There are massive gilded sculptures on the very roofs and they are breathtaking. There are the domes that Edmund White calls "giant ink pots" in a verdigris that are well hidden from some angles but suddenly emerge from others to delight. And this is only the exterior! We could not even imagine how sumptuous the inside must be.

Guided tours run at 9 euros per head and last one hour. We preferred to stay outside to discover the neighborhood although I must say it was intriguing to know that there is a man made lake in the basement of the Opera House that inspired Paul Leroux's novel The Phantom of the Opera--which, in turn, gave birth to Andrew Lloyd-Weber's brilliant opera (still my very favorite of his works). Had the tour included a visit to the lake, I might have succumbed to the temptation--but it is restricted to the lobby, balcony and the auditorium--which made it less attractive. Apparently, the lake is used today for training Paris' fire-fighters! Interestingly, operas are no longer performed in this space which opened in 1875. These have moved to the new Opera House (sometimes known as Opera Bastille--a round glass building that now dominates the Place de la Bastille). However, ballet performances are still on here. Suffice it to say that no trip to Paris would be complete without surveying the grandeur of this building and it is no surprise that after the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe, it is the most popular monument visited.

Off to Galleries Lafayette:
Hard to believe, isn't it, that I have spent more than a month in Paris and have not yet set foot into Galleries Lafayette, its most iconic mall? Well, shopping is not really my thing--although admiring the buildings in which shoppers' delight is my passion. So it was really to show Llew the grand glass dome of the main building of Galleries Lafayette that we entered. If you think the Opera Garnier is sumptuous, well, wait till you see the main hall--devoted today to the sale of perfumes and cosmetics. I was looking for soap and so we walked from one section to the next, spritzing ourselves liberally from the varied offerings at the counters. In the Food Hall (somewhat reminiscent, although not as opulent, as Harrods in London), we were amazed at the small hills of pink and lemon and mauve salt from different seas of the world, perfumed by the edition of dried roses and lavender! There were piles of spices and mountains of teas. There were macarons and there were gateaux. There were meats and cheeses and fruits de mer. Everything was so enticingly displayed. Llew and I had such a great time just taking in the eye-candy! Occasionally, we were offered nibbles for degustation: tapenade or olive paste, vinegars flavored with mango and another with figs. How delicious it all was! Every one of our senses were stirred by this gastronomic paradise. The worst part were the crowds--so many people seemed to have descended from Japan and Korea to buy up GL's wares. We were the only ones who hung on tightly to our purse-strings!

Musee Fragonard:
Then, we continued on our walking tour and what do you think we came upon? But the Musee Fragonard: a veritable Ali Baba's cave of Perfumes which contain one of my favorite perfumes of all time: Freesia by Fragonard. As the name indicates, the company was launched in the late 19th century and was named after the French 18th century painter Fragonard. No mall in the world stocks Fragonard's perfumes which are so exclusive that you can only buy them in Paris or in Grasse on the Cote d'Azur in the South of France where the flowers are grown, the essential oils distilled and the products made and packaged. And, now of course, on the Internet.

We joined the half hour long guided tour in English that took us into the Mansion Fragonard, an 18th century confection of painted ceilings, heavy satin drapes and vitrines containing perfume accoutrements: from the most intricately cut crystal bottles to the variety of labels produced over the centuries to decorate them. It was just a fantastic romp into a world of beauty and luxury in which we became acquainted with the perfumier's nez (nose) and the fact that he can only work for a maximum of 20 years and, throughout his life, must abstain from eating meat, drinking alcohol or smoking--all to preserve the integrity of his nose!!! Imagine living in Paris and not being able to drink wine!

At the end of the tour in which we were taken through the stages of perfume distilling and bottling, we were led down to the boutique where we were gently prodded to buy by offers of good discounts on the perfume. I was keen to replenish my own stock of Freesia and was quite delighted indeed to find sampler sets of six floral perfumes that I bought so as to acquaint myself with some new scents. There were also soaps! Enfin! I found what I had been seeking at GL. Laden with our supplies, we walked out of the store just thrilled at the fact that I had ticked one more item off my To-Do List: A Visit to Musee Fragonard!

Off to the Church of La Madeleine:
By 3. 00 pm, we had arrived at another monumental Parisian building and Napoleon's great ecclesiastical showpiece, built for the glory of his army: the Church of St. Mary Magdalen which is known quite simply in Paris as La Madeleine! It is a Neo-Classical Temple with countless Corinthian pillars running all around the four rectangular sides. In the center in the frieze on the pediment (much in the style of the Acropolis) is a wonderful depiction of Christ in Glory surrounded by the Heavenly hosts. He looks down upon the marvels of 18th century architecture created by Baron Haussman under the commission of Napoleon himself. No wonder then that the most important road in this area is called Boulevard Hausmann.

Sitting on the steps of La Madeleine and facing the Place de la Concorde, we ate our sandwich lunch--delicious ham and brie sandwiches which we finished off with Cote D'Or chocolate. Replete, we entered the church to make a prayerful visit. Inside, the church was very dimply lit. Its altar which is filled with beautiful marble sculpture of Mary flanked by two angels is show stopping. The classical construction continues within with friezes on the ceiling and many niches to house more religious sculpture. When we entered, we found a large choir in rehearsal at the altar. We soon discovered that they were the Laurenorkistra and had arrived from Oslo in Norway to give concerts in France, Their own concert was scheduled for 4.00 pm. Since their rehearsal sounded so pleasing, we decided to come back to the church at 4.00 pm to listen to them.

Sampling The Epicurean Delights of Paris:
So off to went to discover more epicurean pleasures in the area which is known for two things: Headquarters of Parisian banking (three French banks are based here) and hedonistic pursuits in the form of sophisticated eating. Little wonder that we made a bee-line for Hediard, a shop made distinctive by its orange and black striped awning. Inside, we were offered samples of lovely refreshing fruity iced tea (Melange de Maison) and spreads for canapes. We did the rounds of the store before exiting and making our way to the shop next door: Marriage Freres, the Temple to Tea. Inside, its museum-like decor includes a multitude of teapots of all shapes and sizes from varied parts of the globe. We made a purchase here: black boite of Marco Polo Rouge: a very well scented tea that reminded me of a fruit orchard. Next stop was Fauchon where we admired the spectacularly decorated gateaux in the glass vitrines and the abundance of chocolates everywhere. Here is to be found every possible kind of mustard and foie gras, coffee and tea (we sampled another little thimbleful here), jams and preserves and madelienes--but of course they would be present in a store that is only steps away from the house in which Marcel Proust lived and wrote his wonderful memories stirred by the first bite of a Madeleine.

It had turned out to be a day devoted to the sampling of all things luxurious--from perfume to chocolate although we had not really intended it to be.

A Free Concert by a Norwegian Choir:
At 4.00pm, we took our seats in La Madeleine again, delighted to find that a considerable crowd had gathered for the concert. In a rare move that included both adults and children in the choir, we found a very large gathering of singers clustered on the altar. They sang beautifully in many different languages from Norwegian, English, French and Latin. Dressed in their traditional Norwegian attire, they made a very homogeneous but colorful group under the direction of a conductor well turned out in a tuxedo. The concert ended with a rendition of their national anthem which we recognized from the fact that the Norwegians in the audience sprang to their feet as soon as they heard the first few bars--making the rest of us follow suit.

Off to discover Rue Royal:
The concert ended at exactly 5.00 pm and with Mass not beginning until 6.00 pm, we had an hour to kill. Knowing that we will be combing the museums of Paris tomorrow (free Museum Sunday), we wanted to hear Saturday evening mass before going on to the next part of our program: dinner at the home of our friends Joyce and Lester in Chamborcy.

So how better to kill time than to roam along the Rue Royal (the name says it all) to catch a glimpse of a world of more luxury and splendor—this time in the form of man made items for the person and the home: silver at Christofle, crystal at Baccarat, glass at Lalique, porcelain at Bernardaud, more glass at Daum. Indeed, the very names whose designs and products we had been seeing in all the museums were available for the discerning consumer with the heavy wallet. We had such a great time in these galleries as we window-shopped.

On past Maxim’s we went—the exclusive Parisian restaurant with the red and gold packaged products—on to the Place de la Concorde where I gave Llew a bit of history about the site of the infamous guillotine. On our way back to the church, we made one more stop—this time at the other exclusive tea room, Laduree, to pick up more Melange de Maison (another personal favorite) and then it was time to re-enter the church for Mass.

Mass at La Madeleine:
Mass, of course, was in French, but the pamphlets distributed at the beginning included translations in English, German and Spanish. It was wonderfully international as the petitions were also read out by a number of attendees in several different languages. It was a bit long though and 45 minutes later, right after Communion, we left as we had the metro to catch and another appointment to keep.

Dinner at Chamborcy with New Friends:
We’d been delighted when our new Paris friends, Joyce and Lester, originally from Karachi, had invited us to dinner at their place in Chamborcy, not too far from Versailles. When I had visited them for dinner last week, I had taken the commuter train. This time, since the invitation included several other folks, Joyce arranged for us to be picked up from our building by a couple named Anil and Deepa who live at Bastille and were also headed their way.

Although it was a very tight arrangement time-wise, we were ready for them when they arrived in their Mercedes to take us off in style to Chamborcy along the Peripherique. Traffic snarls kept us slow; but about an hour later, we were being welcomed warmly to our friends’ home in the country. Since the evening was so perfect, the group went straight into the garden for hors d’oeuvres: mushroom dip with crackers, olives, cheese. We met a large number of people as we circulated over champagne: Ashok and Anu, Jess and Regis, Mona and Sunil, Jean-Francois. Lester was kept busy barbecuing sardines that arrived fresh off the grill to our plates. Conversation was in French and English as our group included folks from India, Pakistan and France. As the evening lengthened, we sat down to dinner: Joyce’s Signature Fish with a Mushroom Sauce, Rice with Lamb Curry, Ratatouille, Aubergine slices stuffed with tomato, cheese and peas. Our friends had taken so much time and trouble to put on a grand party and it was fun all the way. Dessert was served indoors: Joyce’s homemade Carrot Cake with Fresh Strawberries served with Mint and a plate full of macarons. Boy, were we spoiled for choice!

By the end of the evening, with the clock showing well past midnight, we adjourned to the living room. Lester brought out his guitar and we had a jolly singsong with Beatles hits and Eagles favorites and John Denver oldies. Lester did a fine job providing accompaniment as we tried to remember the long-forgotten lyrics of so many songs from our lost youth! It was after 1.00 am when we finally decided to call it a day.

Anil and Deepa dropped us back home at about 2.00 am and since we were deeply fatigued by our fabulous day, we dropped off immediately. Tomorrow is Free Museum Sunday in Paris and we intend to take full advantage of the rare open door policy.

A demain!

No comments: