Wednesday 🕥 Louvre: da Vinci & Apollo Gallery

Our catalyst for a few days in Paris: the exhibit of works by Leonardo da Vinci at the Louvre.

Even on a February morning, and with timed tickets, the exhibit space was packed. It was a little too much like trying to see paintings and drawings while jammed on the métro. Everyone was courteous and interested to be in the museum, but every moment was a combination of finding a spot with visibility while not cutting off someone else.

The contents of the exhibit came from all periods of Leonardo’s life, as well as from some contemporaries who influenced Leonardo. There were sketches, drawings, notebooks and paintings. There were also many infrared reflectograms. These are images made from bouncing infrared light onto and through the layers of a painting. These images can show where the artist has made changes by over-painting. The curators wanted to show how much Leonardo experimented with this compositions. 

Despite the challenges of the crowded exhibit space, we learned about Leonardo’s evolution as a painter and a scientist The curators demonstrate that his unrivaled inquiries into all of the natural world, his skill with pen and brush, and his ever-seeking mind, made him a transformative figure of Renaissance art. He brought new evocative understanding to light and dark. His portraits, including the over-famous Mona Lisa, expressed spirit and personality of the subjects in ways never before achieved.

He didn’t finish quite a few of his commissions. It seems that he was exceptional in his passion for exploring and inventing, but not so much in completing all his projects. Some of his innovative painting techniques did not succeed; for him, testing new ways was paramount, more even than succeeding. An outrageously active mind, flowing without boundary between what we now call disciplines. 

Part of the pleasure of experiencing this exhibit was very simple. We were looking, at very close range, at drawings and paintings that Leonardo da Vinci had created over 500 years ago. We saw studies that he prepared of people’s faces and parts of their bodies, of draping fabric, and of compositions for eventual paintings. We glimpsed in some of his notebooks sketches of geometry, optics, astronomy and his famous backwards writing script.

After a simple lunch in one of the restaurants in the museum, we wandered for a while through other galleries. The Louvre is famously so vast that you just have to select something to see and ignore the rest. Or enjoy wandering and discovering.

We discovered the Galerie d’Apollon. What a room! While first constructed in the 16th century, it was during the time of Louis XIV, in the mid-seventeenth century, that the room took on the form and grandeur that we see today. This was the first Royal Gallery for Louis XIV, which served as a model for the Hall of Mirrors of the Palace of Versailles. Renovations and additions continued well into the 19th century.

🕕 La Rhumerie

A friend of ours in Carcassonne visits her brother in Paris regularly. She told us about a bar-restaurant that she enjoys because they specialize in Caribbean rum cocktails: La Rhumerie. Joseph Louville, originally from the Antilles, established the “Rhumerie Martiniquaise” in 1932. Some years later, he dropped the “Martiniquaise” because he wanted to celebrate the food, culture, and rum of all the Antilles

A five-minute walk from our hotel, the exotic rum cocktails demanded attention. I had expected a cozy dark lounge bar, perhaps with colorful tropical decorations. Instead, we would a brightly lit, jam-packed café, right on Boulevard Saint-Germain, which is one of the major avenues through the neighborhood. Apparently, we aren’t the only people — visitors and Parisians alike — who enjoy a bit of the Caribbean and a bit of rum. 

🕗 Le Christine 

At last it was time for our Henri-recommended gastronomic dinner. Le Christine is located on a little street in our hotel neighborhood. We were greeted and served almost entirely in English. It is hard to practice our French in the visitor-popular parts of Paris. So many people switch to English, perhaps to help us, perhaps to practice their own, perhaps to avoid hearing our version of their French.

We selected the chef’s-choice four-course menu, with wine pairings. It has been a while since we have enjoyed such a lovely tasty meal. The chef seems to like to bring in bright citrusy flavors, often via a kind of whipped oil and egg emulsion. It was great to be reminded of one of the joys of good creative French food. 

Thursday 🕙 Notre Dame et la Seine

The day dawned clear and chilly. Our hotel was around the corner from the front of Notre Dame. We wanted to see the current condition of the cathedral, ten months after the disastrous fire.

As we were walking along the Seine, we noticed a group of red-wetsuit-clad divers climbing out of the river onto a bridge pier. As I started to take some photos, the group crouched down in team-photo formation. We could see a water-services boat nearby and one of their colleagues taking photos.

Photo-op concluded, they pulled their hoods over their heads, and jumped back into the muddy river.

Just another day at the office.

🕧 La Rhumerie lunch

When it came time once again to choose a lunch spot, we decided we would go back to La Rhumerie. Not for any midday rum — which would scuttle any kind of tourist activity in the afternoon — but for some food from the Antilles. We found some gentle Caribbean flavors, such as citrus and cinnamon, rice and beans, and sweet-potato fries. But we had to ask for some hot sauce to liven things up. Turned out the hot sauce was professional-grade, requiring extreme care in its application. Not the tastiest lunch, but a nice change nonetheless. Perhaps we should have sipped a little rum…

🕑 Strikes

We found evidence of the recent and current strikes throughout the city. While the train and transit work stoppages had ceased, at least for now, other demonstrations in opposition to the proposed pension reforms, continue. We stayed in a very attractive neighborhood, just off the Place Saint-Michel. However, over-flowing trash and recycle bins lined almost all the streets, including the small one of our hotel. We found out that people at the city’s trash incineration facility were still on strike. There was nowhere for the trash to go. We also read a story about the fact that the Parisian rats — not as charming as Ratatouille — were enjoying the unusual trash banquets.

We hadn’t realized it, but the Thursday of our Paris Opéra dance performance was the day of another general national strike. The participants of this strike included a variety of sectors, such as lawyers, educators, health workers, and students. I checked on the Paris Opéra website and found a note that warned that there may be a disruption of tonight’s performance because of the strike. Then at about 2 pm, an SMS announced the cancellation of the performance. The Opera promised refund of the ticket payments. We were certainly disappointed, but we still had Paris to enjoy; we could find a Plan B activity. 

It gets harder and harder to be sympathetic with all these strikes. So much of everyday life gets disrupted. We can understand some of the fear of government-proposed pension changes; the unknown is scary. We have lived through demonstrations by unhappy French farmers, by the famous Gilets Jaunes (Yellow Vests) upset about everything from highway speed limits to eroding costs of living, by over-privileged railway workers afraid of losing their substantial benefits, and more. We have learned that public demonstrations and strikes are an inherent part of French culture, including probably now a necessary ingredient in the push-and-pull of proposed, negotiated, revised, and legislated changes. At the same time, when strikes, the specifics of which are often not announced beforehand, happen all the time, it is hard not to feel that the strikers are more selfish and egotistical than dedicated to the good fight. We didn’t lose very much at all by not being able to go to the ballet nor by walking by trash bins. But do strikes really affect the decision makers, or just make the lives of many people in France frustrating and challenging?

On general strike day, we encountered processions of police vans, blue lights spinning. We witnessed an unloading of riot police on one of the bridges over the Seine. They all looked calm and casual. This was probably just another day of protests; nothing to be worried about. We found empty streets cordoned off by yellow tape, and nearby traffic jams probably because of the cordoned-off streets. We were doing an errand in a shop near the blocked streets. The person in the shop shrugged his shoulders and smiled. He had seen some protesters pass earlier in the day, students he thought, probably going to a rally at the Place de la Nation nearby. Just another day in the neighborhood.

🕒 Interactive exhibit

A delightful surprise was the interactive exhibit Faire Corps by visual artists Claire Bardainne and Adrien Mondot. Responsive fields of light shards waves filled rooms of the City of Paris’ Gaîté Lyrique facility.

The statement by the artists or perhaps the curator was far more opaque than the actual experience: 

Complex and interconnected, the contemporary world of media is leading us to reconsider how we occupy this tangible yet immaterial space with which we are fusing (“faire corps”, in French) through a mechanism of continual osmosis and intimate symbiosis.

Mostly, the artists want to create interactive experiences, not passive exhibits. For us, and for all the other visitors of all ages, the fun was wondering at light that seemed to be alive. It wanted to play with us all. 

🕖 Cocktails at Prescription

Since we had planned on our last evening to go to the ballet, we hadn’t made a reservation for dinner. We had eaten a reasonably (OK, maybe, unreasonably) large lunch so that we would not get too hungry during the performance. No dance performance, but the opportunity for more cocktail and food choices. 

Online research led us to the Prescription Cocktail Club, which opens at 7 pm.

We got there at 6:55, having read that it fills up fast. A handful of hipster-looking bartenders were looking busy all over the small dimly lit bar, but they welcomed us and showed us to two nice chairs in a corner. We squinted at the attractive bar menu, whose cursive script was almost too refined to read in the bar twilight. A bubbly English-speaking woman bartender bounded over to us. She offered to explain the menu, as well as to create whatever kind of cocktail we wanted. Mike selected a cocktail from the menu, based on a mustard-seed-infused tequila! I asked the bartender to create a gin-martini-style drink with savory or herbal ingredients. She loved the challenge, immediately identifying a specific gin that we hadn’t heard of. She came back with a martini and the bottle of gin, which she encouraged me to sniff. “You can smell the ocean, yes?” It did smell fresh and light, quite delicate. She then explained that she had added some olive juice for salinity (like the ocean), cucumber (like seaweed), and a bit of lemon. It was very nice, although the olive juice took over. 

It was small enough that it was OK to order a follow-up, right? The bartender wanted to know what I thought. She nodded in agreement when I said that the olive juice was a bit too pushy. Then we talked artistically about a windswept winter beach, with fresh salty air and hints of seaweed. She bounded off again. She brought back a martini made with the same gin, but this time she had wiped the glass with an oil of pine. The pine smell was clear and strong, fortunately not quite like a household cleaner. The pine perfume mellowed quickly. Now this cocktail was bright and unusual. Exactly what I had wanted.

🕣 Huguette seafood

Even with cocktails in us, we weren’t hugely hungry for dinner. We settled on a seafood restaurant in the neighborhood: Huguette. The menu included small and large portions, and seafood can feel light and fresh after a full day. 

I called ahead from the cocktail bar to make a reservation. It was a chilly Thursday in February, and still the restaurant said that the only places left were outside, “under the heat.” It was so Paris! We sat at a tiny café table, side by side with our backs to the windows of the restaurant, our feet in the sidewalk path of travel. There was another row of tables along the curb. A robust awning covered this “outside” area, holding an array of heater lamps and light bulbs. Heavy clear plastic panels enclosed the sidewalk area except for openings at either end. Cool air from outside, as well as pedestrians, passed through the protected space. The cool air combined with the warmth from the heaters above was cozy like sitting by a campfire.

Here we could indulge our international tastes, including hot shrimp dumplings, a so-called Korean tuna-poke salad, grilled shrimp wrapped in wisps of bacon, and sautéed mushrooms. We ate most of it with chopsticks because, why not?!

The restaurant was just about full. The energy was lively. We felt so Parisian. Can’t get this experience at home.

Friday 🕥 Train

We arrived at the Gare de Lyon about 30 minutes before the scheduled departure of our train bound for Narbonne. We would change trains in Narbonne for the short trip on to Carcassonne. The departures board indicated that our train was going to be 10 minutes late. No problem.

They don’t announce the specific track for the train until about 15 minutes before departure. So, all passengers wait in view of the overhead departures boards. As the time approached the departure time — plus 10 minutes — I stood watching the board. The text about the 10-minute departure is small; it required my walking over to the board from time to time to see if it had changed. And indeed it had changed: now the delay was noted as 30 minutes. Still not too bad.

But then another change: 50 minutes late. 50 minutes came and went: now it was 1 hour and 10 minutes late. There were occasional audio announcements, barely discernable in the highly echo-y departure lounge. Something about some broken parts of the train. And, “Thank you for your understanding.” Not quite sure what we were understanding other than the train would be late, and hopefully not cancelled.

1 hour and 10 minutes late turned out to be the truth. We boarded the train and settled into comfortable seats on the upper level. Despite all the Plan A’s, Plan B’s, and surprises, once you are on the train, it really is a great way to travel.

We didn’t really worry about our missed connection in Narbonne. There are plenty of trains on the line to Carcassonne. When we arrived in Narbonne, various conductors and SCNF staff said to get on the next train going in the Carcassonne direction; this was a Bordeaux-bound train. But we didn’t have specific seat reservations on this train; our seats were reserved on the train that we had missed. As the train for Bordeaux pulled into the station and the doors opened, a conductor stepped out right in front of us. I asked if we could take this train to Carcassonne. One look at our tickets and he said, “Oui.” And that was all. We found a compartment with empty seats, hoping that we weren’t taking seats reserved by other passengers. By the time the train was rolling out of the station, no one had come to displace us.

We disembarked in Carcassonne a bit later than we’d expected. But it was a sunny mild late afternoon. And we were home after our fun three and a half days in Paris.

🕠 Home

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