December 8, 2016, Thursday: Paris
First-Time Forays into Islamic Paris…and other Attractions
For some odd reason, I had a rather late start today—probably was not woken up by the tram bell outside my window. A 7.45 am rising is late by my standards. I had a Pierre Herme Ispahan croissant for brekkie with orange juice, showered and got dressed. I left my place at 10. 45 after carefully drawing up a route that would take me to parts of Paris into which I had never before ventured.
Exploring the Jardin des Plantes:
My first stop of the day was at the Jardin des Plantes (Botanical Garden) and the reason for my visit was the magnificent novel by Anthony Doerr called All The Light You Cannot See, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the best novel I had read in 2014. The initial section of the novel is set here in the Botanical Garden in general and the Museum of Natural History in particular as it is where the museum is located. The father of the female protagonist of the novel, Marie-Laure, is one of the curators of the museum and his task is to keep the keys of the museum safe as well as a fictional stone that is usually on view at the Museum of Natural History. As an old woman and a survivor of World War II, Marie-Laure returns to Paris and makes her home close to the Museum and to the Botanical Garden where she passes most evenings in the company of her grand-son.
Because I had been so taken by this splendid novel and because I had never been to the Botanical Garden, I decided that I would visit it this time round as well as check out the Museum of Natural History. I was completely floored by the Botanical Garden. It was huge—extensive and well-manicured. There are alles of linden trees (which, because it was nearly winter, were stripped of their foliage) that provide wonderful walking paths through the garden. The alles are lined on both sides by glass conservatories and by a number of buildings. I soon discovered that those buildings comprise the Museum of Natural History as it is not one building but about 12—scattered all over Paris, although about six of them surround the alles. I took several pictures of the garden and the conservatories and then made my way into the Museum of Paleontology where a number of dinosaur skeletons attract large numbers of children. Unfortunately, each of the museums has a different entry fee—there is no single fee to cover them all. By the time one sees them all, one has spent a small fortune. They would not recognize my Met ID card and I did not wish to spend too much time in any one of them. I decided, therefore, to merely poke my head into the Museum of Mineralogy where the fictitious stone would have been stored and to take a couple of pictures there.
Then, I left the museum and the Botanical Garden and went on to the next attraction on my list—the rarely-visited Grand Mosque of Paris.
The Grand Mosque of Paris:
To enter the Grand Mosque in Paris is to enter into an altogether different world. It is hard to believe that you are in Europe—you would think you were somewhere in Northern Africa: in Algeria, Tunisia or Morocco (artisans from these countries had been specially commissioned to undertake the job). The mosque is large and beautiful. It has all the characteristics of Islamic architecture plus gorgeous decorative tile-work that is reminiscent of the Al-Hambra in Granada, Spain. The central courtyard concept is in force with rooms radiating out from a very lovely garden that fills one with a sense of spiritual serenity. There is a towering minaret in the North African style. Visitors are free to wander around anywhere—there is a really large hall with a central fountain with all sorts of decorative tile work. The only room you that non-Muslims cannot enter is the Prayer Room itself which contains the Mihrab. Since it was not a Friday, it was rather quiet at the mosque but a few worshippers were around, both in the corridors and in the Prayer Room (you can get a quick glimpse from the main door). I took so many pictures as I was completely enthralled by this unusual structure right in the middle of Paris—it was so hard for me to believe that right across the street was the 19th century Botanical Gardens. It really is a quite distinctive place to visit and I am glad I went.
The mosque has a restaurant attached that offers Middle Eastern and North African cuisine such as mezzes and tagines. It is set in a lovely shady garden (if you prefer to sit outdoors) or inside in a space that resembles a souk or a casbah. As I said, everything about this place is enchanting—even if you are not a Muslim (perhaps especially if you are not a Muslim).
Visiting the Institute du Monde Arabe:
Co-incidentally, although I had not actually planned for it, I went from one Islamic space to the next—but from the sacred to the secular. When I lived in Paris, a few years ago, I used to pass in the bus by this striking building that I realized was designed by the renowned French architect, Jean Nouvel. It is on most tourist maps of Paris, but somehow I had never found the time to explore it. This visit would remedy the omission.
It was a twenty minute walk from the Mosque to the Institute which is sweetly located on the banks of the Seine. It is a nine-story structure that looks like a cube. It has a huge Omani dhow right outside it—a gift from Oman whose government has sponsored the special exhibition on right now called ‘Sea-farers of the Mediterranean.’ I was fortunate that my Met ID was recognized here. I was handed different ticket stubs to get to the different floors, on each of which they was a different exhibition. Two floors contain objects that remain permanently in place—they range from illuminated Korans to ancient pottery. I also saw a special exhibition on the Bhiksha Oasis which is in the North African country of Algeria. The ‘Sea-Farers of the Mediterranean’ exhibition was splendid. It carried vast amounts of material on a number of countries, explorers and navigators from the Islamic world whose courage and vision opened up the area to the rest of the world.
In-between seeing the floors, I sat on a bench and ate my smoked salmon baguette. I stayed for another hour as I rode up and down the glass elevators inside the building which allowed me to admire the wonderful architectural work of Nouvel with its emphasis on thousands of pipes that form sharp angles in the interior or the building. The top-most floor is an empty viewing terrace with a small café attached to it. It does, of course, offer lovely views of Paris and of the Seine and I took them all in with deep pleasure. When I was done, I walked out of the Institute, quire pleased that I have covered yet another item on my To-Do List.
A Bit of Shopping:
From this point on, I decided to go out in search of a French beret together with one of the woolen caps that are now sporting fur pom-poms. My idea was to detach one of the pompoms and sew it on to one of the berets in imitation of a favorite hat I had once owned but which I had lost, much to my sorrow. This specific need involved getting to the side streets around the Cathedral of Notre-Dame where the inexpensive souvenir stores sell the sort of item I was seeking. It took me absolute ages and a great deal of sweat equity to track down the hats I wanted at the right price. After scouring at least half a dozen stores, I found exactly what I wanted and couldn’t have been happier.
Ice-Cream, Marron Glaces and Other Goodies at the Ile de St. Louis:
Since I was so close to the Ile de Saint Louis, I had to go in search of some ice-cream at Berthillon. And after I had my treat, I stepped into a cookie store where I received a few more goodies for sampling. Then, on passing a candy shop, I stepped in, on impulse, to buy myself a marron glace (glazed chestnut) as this is a French specialty that is very popular at Christmastime and which I had never tasted. Keen to see what all the fuss was about and wondering why these little confections are so expensive, I bought myself one and was completely surprised—both at the taste and the texture of it—it was spongy, not hard (and I am still wondering what all the fuss is about!). But then there you have it! Another item ticked off my To-Taste List!
Off to the Bastille for a Croque Monsieur:
Also on my To-Eat List before I left Paris was a really good Croque Monsieur—which, as most people know, is a ham and cheese sandwich that is dipped in a Mornay sauce and grilled. I have loved Croque Monsieurs since I first tasted them, about thirty years ago. And on every trip to France, I make sure I eat at least one. When I lived in Paris, I made them at home very frequently for it is the wonderful. combination of smoked ham and Swiss cheese (found most flavorfully in France) that make the best Croques.
Well, having done my research on the internet (to find the best Croque Monsieur in Paris), I was directed to the Cafe des Phares which is right at the Place de la Bastille. So I went on the metro from ‘St. Mich’ (as St. Michel is known) to Bastille and as soon as I emerged from the metro, I spied the restaurant across the wide circle. I made a beeline for it and settled myself down at a table and gave my order for a Croque Monsieur and a café au lait—it would be a very early dinner.
My Croque was wonderful. It was best when it was freshly served to me and since I love eating my food piping hot, I did not wait too long for it to cool down. As it cooled, it got less and less succulent—in fact, it started to get rubbery as the melted fondue-like cheese hardened. Served with a salad and my coffee, it was a great meal. As you can see, I seem to have lost my inhibitions altogether about dining alone in restaurants. The French seem to have no problem with it at all and seem not in the slightest bit surprised when I request a table for one and place a single order. As it turned out, at the next table was seated an African-American couple who, lost little time in getting friendly with me. We had a very nice conversation. He happened to be a former restauranteur who has lived in Paris for the past forty years and she, his friend, turned out to someone in international finance who was taking a year off to travel and had made Paris a temporary base. One of the best things about being a solo sojourner is that you make friends with all types of people who reach out and include you in conversation—so that you are never really completely or uncomfortably alone.
A little while later, after clearing my bill, I took the metro from Bastille and got back home. As I had a very early dinner and had sat up communicating on my computer to so many people, I had myself a late-night snack of salad and yoghurt and then fell asleep just past midnight.