December 5, 2016, Monday:
Two Major Parisian Items Ticked off To-Do List—Opera Garnier and Café Angelina for Hot Chocolate
Within a couple of days of being in Paris again, I felt as if I had never left. The ease with which I hopped in and out of trains, the fluency with which I spoke French with never a bit of hesitation, the confidence with which I sought out shops I wished to visit (often for the first time) and the determination with which I ticked off items on my Parisian To-Do List astounded even me.
Best of all was the daily waking to the sound of the tram bell outside my window on Boulevarde Jourdan which filled me with nostalgia for the summer when I used to live in the apartment next-door. When I drew my curtains back, I gasped for at 8.00 am, Paris was still pitch dark. In another hour, however, things had changed completely and by 9.00am, daylight had flooded the area, Parc Montsourris across the street had opened for the day, dog-walkers and joggers had begun taking their daily constitutionals and the day got on. I promised myself that I would ride the tram at least once and take a stroll around Parc Montsourris at least once before I left. And in this way, although I began to whittle my To-Do List down, I also constantly added to it.
I decided to shower in the morning before I left (as there was no hurry to start my day), folded my laundry, scoured websites to find out where to go and how to get there and grabbing two pain au chocolat from my stash, I left my place at 9.45 by the RER (B) and the metro to get to the Opera Garnier. Although I have loved this building for ages, I have never visited its interior—this was the day I would take a tour.
Exploring the Opera Garnier:
I arrived at the main entrance of the beautiful Opera Garnier building through the metro station called Opera—this brings you right to the junction where the Opera building meets other swanky streets. I spied Rue du Scribe and immediately decided that I would go to Fragonard, the French perfumier, to buy more goodies as gifts for London friends, right after my tour.
Inside, at the Box Office, they honored my Met ID card but I did pay 5 euros for a self-guided tour (which was simply brilliant) as I was unable to get a guided tour (one has to book in advance and pay 15 euros for it).
The Opera Garnier was Paris’ original Opera House (it is no longer in use for operas as there is a new one at the Bastille). It was built in the late 19th century by Charles Garnier—after whom it is named—who was Paris’ best-known architect. He knew he was getting a grand commission when named architect and he poured his greatest talent and vision into the enterprise. I consider his work on this building equivalent to the building of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London by Sir Christopher Wren in 1672.
The moment you enter this building, you stagger in disbelief, for it is so visually spectacular as to leave you speechless. Garnier spared absolutely no expense in creating this magnificent building. You start your tour in a circular Rotunda that has arched entrances and a grand stuccoed ceiling. It leads you into a vestibule that is noted for a very delicate sculpture of a lovely woman. Both sides of the vestibule are lined with floor to ceiling mirrors which can be very deceptive. You think that there are rooms beyond and then you realize that you are looking at yourself in the mirror—I must admit I got a bit of a shock when I realized that the reflection looking back at me was my own!
From this point, the grand sweeping marble staircase branches out into two sides and takes you to another stupendous landing where the interior structure becomes even more ornate. There are marble balconies emanating from both sides, there are loads of delicate sculpture, there are candleabras held in the hands of clusters of bronze nymphs. The ceilings are painted in the style of the ceilings of French castles and palaces. After you climb another set of stairs, you arrive at yet another landing where the sight of two caryatids catch your attention. They are created out of mixed media—bronze body parts, marble clothing. Needless to say, visitors can be heard gasping audibly and cameras do not cease clicking. When you position yourself in-between the caryatids, you get sterling views of the higher levels of the building that seem to open up with such a wealth of decorative detail that it beggars description.
When you pass through the doorway flanked by the caryatids, you find yourself facing a door that leads to the Main Auditorium. Plush with red velvet seats and a horseshoe-shaped structure, it is similar to London’s Royal Albert Hall. The most interesting aspect is the ceiling which was once painted by a contemporary of Garnier but was repainted in 1964 by the Russian artist Marc Chagall. Not an inch of the auditorium is left undecorated. In the center is the notorious chandelier that plays such a big role in the opera, The Phantom of the Opera. In fact, there is a reference to the Phantom during the audio tour and visitors are directed to Box Number 5 at the end of the corridor where the Phantom (the ghost of the opera house) was known to lurk.
There are many marble busts of opera composers encircling the outside of the auditorium and prominent among these is one of Berlioz who was extremely popular in the time of Garnier. From this point on, the audio guide took me to parts of the building that were simply stacked with visual details—mosaics on the ceiling, paintings on the wall, sculpture every which way you turned. I entered a lovely circular Hall that was used during the intermissions for the devouring of ice-cream (I realize now where the tradition of selling ice-cream in the London theaters originates). This Hall is filled with beautiful panel paintings that depict the consumption of different kinds of food and drink. You then pass through a Solar Room—on the opposite side is a Lunar Room. At the very top, you get a sweeping view of the horseshoe-shaped staircase in its multiple levels until you get to the piece de resistance, the Hall of Mirrors.
The Hall of Mirrors at the Palais Garnier was created in imitation of the one to be found at the Palais de Versailles. Visitors are simply overwhelmed by what they see: ceilings and walls are covered with paintings in the Baroque style with classical gods and goddesses attended to by a multitude of heavenly beings, huge blazing chandeliers hang low from the ceiling, gilded sculpted rondels on the walls and ceiling, parquet flooring, Greek-style figures holding up giant clocks. After you have seen this gallery, everything else pales into insignificance.
There are, however, still many more rooms to be seen: the museum of fine arts, for instance, is filled with paintings depicting the opera house, opera stars through the ages and composers of various vintage. In the main entrance lobby, there are four marble sculptures of well-known opera composers. By this point in the tour, you are visually exhausted. However, the tour then takes you to the extensive gift shops where there is everything to purchase that your heart could desire.
It was about 12 noon when I emerged from the Opera Garnier, having undertaken one of the more stupendous visits of my travels. It was one of the best things I have seen in Paris. Although the place is used today for ballet and other dance performance, I would urge anyone going to Paris for the first time, not to miss a visit to the Opera Garnier. Not a moment inside it is ever wasted.
Off to Fragonard:
Fragonard was just across the road in the Musee de Parfums. First-time visitors can take a guided tour of the grand hotel particulier (private mansion) that has been taken over by the company to showcase its involvement in the perfume industry. I had taken the tour on a previous visit to Paris—and so I went directly to the show room to buy myself some more soaps (I adore their flower-scented set of five) and sets of perfume. Was delighted to find sets that also featured a gold bracelet. I bought a couple and left.
In Search of Lunch at Frenchie:
By this point, I thought I ought to look for lunch and using Lonely Planet, I went in search of Frenchie—a small bistro, they said, with really good food. It was simplicity itself for me to use the public transport system as I possess a Navigo card (equivalent of London’s Oyster Card)—all I needed to do was top it up for a week of unlimited travel. As it turned out, it was a waste in my case and Paris happened to be riddled by pollution (because of unexpected changes in the atmosphere) and in an attempt to keep people off the streets, the public transport system was offered free of charge to all commuters for three consecutive days—so my pass for a week turned out to be a rather expensive buy. The 3-day free concession brought a bunch of beggars into the metro system and for the next couple of days, one was plagued by them as they got off the streets and on to the trains.
When I got to Frenchie, however, I found it closed for lunch on Mondays. However, on taking a look at its menu, I found it to be stacked with American fast-food type offerings such as hamburgers, corned beef Reuben sandwiches and pancakes that were quite unappealing to me. Everything was also frightfully expensive. I, therefore, walked out (the space was tiny and there was no room at all), and found a Subway shop from where I bought a Sub Raclette—made with typically French-Swiss cheese such as Emmentaler. Having eaten it, I continued with my touring for the day.
Off to the Church of Madeleine:
I got back on the metro and arrived again at Opera and walked a couple of blocks around the square that surrounds the church of Madeleine in order to indulge in some degustation—the French art of tasting food. Although the famous Fauchon was open and offered the pleasure of tasting a few teas and a couple of other nibbles, Hediard, another temple to gastronomy was closed temporarily for long-term renovation. A notice on the door advised patrons to buy their supplies online. I also then made my way to the Pinoteque—a theater that showcased avant garde movies and theatrical offerings, but, to my amazement, it had closed down sometime last year and nothing has taken its place.
Making my way to the main entrance of the Church, I entered its hushed dark interior and walked towards the front to spend a few minutes in quiet prayer. Built in extreme classical style—a simple cube surrounded by Corinthian columns and topped with a carved pediment featuring Christ in the Heavens—it is quite a commanding presence.
Looking for the Jeu de Paume and the ‘Ring Trick’:
My next port of call was the Museum known as the Jeu de Paume which, before the conversion of the Gare d’Orsay into the Musee d’Orsay, i.e. about 35 years ago, used to hold the country’s collection of Impressionist paintings. Since then, it has been used to hold exhibitions of photography and since I had never been inside, I decided to pop in.
However, as I was walking on the Rue Royale, past all the showrooms containing French decorative arts (such as Lalique, Christofle and Daum), I was almost taken in by what is called the ‘ring trick’. A woman just ahead of me bent down and picked up a gold ring. She offered it to me and said that her religion that she told me was Presbyterian, did not allow her to keep it. I took a look at it and saw that it was unlikely to be real gold. But inside there were hallmarks! I told her that I did not want it and that she could hand it over to the police. She then asked me for a few euros as it was her lucky day! I almost put my hands into my bag to give her a few when I realized that the whole thing was a set-up about which I had actually been warned by Lonely Planet. In fact, I was annoyed at myself for almost getting taken in by it. As she waited to get a few euro coins from me, I told her that I was not happy about tricked in this fashion and walked right away.
When, a few minutes later, I did get to the Jeu de Paume, alas, it is closed on Mondays—which made my visit futile.
Hot Chocolate and Afternoon Tea at Café Angelina:
I walked briskly along Rude de Rivoli in search of Café Angelina which supposedly serves the best hot chocolate in Paris. In the past, I have tried the teas at Laudree, another salle de the of exceeding fame and popularity in Paris. But my friend Delyse had told me about Café Angelina and I decided to check it out this time round. Its hot chocolate is so decadent that they actually serve it with a little pot of whipped cream at the side.
I found Café Angelina to be a tea room in the grand French style—dripping with dazzling chandeliers and lined by marble paneling. There were little round marble tables and I was seated at one on a round chair into which I sank. When I looked at the menu, I discovered that Hot Chocolate and a pastry would cost me only a few euros less than the full Afternoon Tea which included sandwiches and a selection of pastries and cakes in addition to the hot chocolate for 20 euros. My initial unease at being alone in the establishment was soon dispelled by the fact that I noticed so many single women sipping tea or hot cholate alone and tucking into the pastry—so what I had attempted to do was far from unusual.
My Afternoon Tea arrived on a two-tiered stand with savories on one level (finger sandwiches composed of chicken salad, ham and cheese and smoked salmon) as well as a cheese scone and a top level that contained a raspberry pastry, a lemon macaron, a madeleine (how can you have tea in France without a macaron and a madeleine, right?) and a small Mont Blanc which is a pastry that was created at Café Angelina. It is a chocolate-based pastry, topped with a chestnut flavored cream frosting and filled with chocolate ganache and whipped cream. You can order a single one (which is much larger) or this miniature version which offers you a sampling of it as well as other pastries. As for the hot chocolate? Was it as good as promised? Well, let’s just say it was terrific and I would gladly have had at least another cup.
It was while I was seated at Café Angelina and using their wifi to check messages on my phone that I received the shock of my life. Our NYU-London site director, a fine colleague and a good friend of mine, had passed away after a brief illness. I found myself reeling with a sense of sudden bereavement. How was it possible that someone so vibrant and so dynamic could just fade away? Only two weeks previously, he had played such a big role in the presentation I had made to NYU faculty members and staff in London. And now he was gone. Just like that. I found it hard to contain my grief.
Towards the end of my long stay at Café Angelina (where I did not feel in the slightest hurried), a young couple of Indian heritage occupied the table next to me. We entered into conversation and I soon discovered that they were from Long Island! For the next half hour, we chatted until I felt rested enough and decided to leave.
Darkness had fallen over the city although it was still pretty early in the evening. Had I more energy, I would have stayed outdoors and nipped off to another venue. But I was dead tired and the sad news had robbed me of a good mood. I was ready to call it a night. So I took the metro home, reached at 7. 30 pm and got ready for bed where I checked email. My late full tea did not require me to eat dinner. I was, therefore, off to sleep by 9.00 pm.