31 July 2013

Paris domes: Le Panthéon

My personal experience of Paris started around the base of the Panthéon, a building designed as a church in the old Greek style and built in the years just before the French Revolution. When it was finished, the Revolutionaries, who didn't much care for churches, "repurposed" the Panthéon as a gigantic tomb to the great, the mighty, the literary, and the erudite of France. « Aux grands hommes, la Patrie reconnaissante » is the place's motto.

Repair and restoration work is under way at the Panthéon, in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Some of the luminaries entombed in the Panthéon's crypt are Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Louis Braille, Victor Schoelcher, Jean Moulin, and Jean Monnet. These days, it's up to the Président de la République Française to decide who gets a tomb in the crypt of the Panthéon, but families can veto the order. That's what happened in 2009 when the government wanted to inter the remains of the existentalist writer Albert Camus in the Panthéon. The family said no thanks.

The dome of the Panthéon seen from the top of the Tour St-Jacques, across the Seine.

In the spring of 1970, I was a student down in Aix-en-Provence. I decided to spend my two-week spring vacation in Paris. I stayed in a hotel just down the way on the boulevard Saint-Germain. From nearby streets, you could get good views of the Panthéon. In 1972, I returned to Paris and spent a night or two in the Hôtel des Grands Hommes right across the street from the Panthéon. The hotel was a real dive, dilapidated and ancient — read "cheap" — when I stayed there, but now it has been renovated into a mult-starred palace. Oh, and I spent one night in a jail cell right across the street from the Panthéon in 1970!

The Pantheon in its urban context, on a hill not far from Notre-Dame cathedral

In 1974-75, I worked for the University of Illinois Year Abroad program just down the street from the Panthéon on the rue Soufflot, and also just a few steps from the east gate of the Jardin du Luxembourg. (Now you know more than you ever thought you'd know.) I've stayed a few times at the Hôtel des Carmes, from where you have a fine view of the Panthéon up a narrow street at the top of the hill. In 2009, friends of mine stayed at the Hôtel du Panthéon, and I went to Paris to spend some time with them around the Panthéon and in other parts of Paris.

Don't confuse the Panthéon with this other domed church at Les Invalides, as I've known people to do.
Napoleon's Tomb is in this building.

So more than Notre-Dame, the Louvre, or Les Halles, Le Panthéon is the center of Paris for me. After all, it sits in classical majesty on a hill (grandly called a montagne) overlooking what was Roman Paris more than 2000 years ago. The view of the Panthéon from the top of the Tour St-Jacques last Friday was probably the best I've ever enjoyed. The building is being renovated, as you can see from the big construction crane that towers over it right now.

30 July 2013

People in Paris

Going through all the photos I took in Paris, I'm surprised to see how many of them don't show any people. Many of the photos were taken from the top of the Tour Saint-Jacques, so I guess it's not really too surprising. I hope the photos below will give you a sense of what it's like to walk around Paris in summertime.

People walking on the rue des Rosiers in the Marais

People crossing a main Paris street near the Tour Saint-Jacques

People walking across a bridge near Notre-Dame cathedral

People at a famous café in the St-Germain-des-Prés neighborhood

People on the Pont des Arts near the Louvre

Paris was crowded along the river, in the touristy zones, but it wasn't crowded at all in the neighborhoods farther from the historic center. It was July, after all, and many Parisians were on vacations out of town. I noticed quite a few businesses that were closed until the end of August, when everybody comes back into the city to start the new work and school year.

29 July 2013

Recovering and getting organized

I mean that in the best possible way. Thanks in large part to CHM, who put me up and fed me, I had a great time in Paris, and I walked for many miles — literally — around the city, taking photos. The weather was hot and humid, and my feet and legs got a workout.

So did my camera. This morning I got all the photos copied into a single folder on my computer and realized there are nearly 500 of them. That was four days' work. Now the photos need to be organized and edited — cropped, straightened, sharpened, contrasted, and so on.

That's what I'll be working on over the next few weeks. Meanwhile, I found a photo of Saint-Sulpice, which was the church in my post yesterday, that is much better than the one I posted in a hurry Sunday morning. See above.

And here are two photos of another church that has been mentioned here. A few weeks ago, after my first trip to Paris of the summer, I actually posted a picture of it that I took a ground level. It's Saint-Eustache, which our guide at the Tour Saint-Jacques said is the second-largest church in Paris after Notre-Dame. I'll take his word for it. The work going on all around Saint-Eustache is the renovations of the Les Halles shopping district.

Finally, there was a mention of the staircase we climbed to get to the top of the Tour Saint-Jacques. It was in fact a spiral staircase and very narrow. There was a rope that served as a handrail so that you could pull yourself up as you climbed. We first climbed 50 steps to the first level inside the tower and rested. Then we climbed 70 more steps to the second level, and rested again. The climb to the top, where we were standing on the roof, was another 170 steps to climb with no place to stop and rest along the way. In other words, 290 steps, according to our guide, inside the tower, plus 10 or 15 outside to get up onto the platform the tower stands on. In the hot, humid weather, it was not easy.

28 July 2013

Traveling this morning

A few minutes after this post appears on the blog, I'll be getting on a train in Paris and heading back to the Loire Valley. I'll be at home by mid-morning.

I'm sure many of you know which Paris church this is. No prizes for correct identifications,
and no penalties for incorrect ones.

27 July 2013

I made it to the top...

...of the Tour Saint-Jacques in Paris. As far as the weather was concerned, it was touch and go, but it worked out, as you'll see from the photos below. This is just a preview.

First, here's the Tour (tower) seen from ground level, with the Seine in the foreground.
It's the white stone tower that's the tallest thing in the picture (at 16 stories).

And here's a close-up of the statue that you see on top of the column at Châtelet in the first photo.

Then, from the top of the tower, a classic view of Montmartre and the Sacré-Cœur.

Looking west and south at the Invalides church dome, CHM's neighborhood, and of course the Eiffel Tower.

Finally, looking south, with Notre-Dame and the Panthéon.

More to come, when I get back to my "real" computer at home. It ain't easy doing a full blog post on this Android tablet.

26 July 2013

Un couscous... royal

It always comes as a surprise to me when people visiting from the U.S. don't know what eating 'a' couscous involves. Sure, now nearly everybody knows what couscous is — the so-called "grain" I mean. People tell me they eat it as a breakfast cereal. But around the Mediterranean — Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, France, etc. — a couscous is big bowl of tomato-based, spicy broth full of vegetables and meats that happens to be served with the couscous grain — a.k.a. semoule or semolina —along with meats and sausages.

I believe current polling shows that couscous has replaced more traditional French dishes like blanquette de veau or bœuf bourguignon as the favorite meal of most French people. Couscous is satisfying in winter because the broth is hot and the vegetables and meats are comforting. And couscous is delicious in summer because the broth is spicy and light, and because the meats served with it can be grilled over a fire.

Traditional couscous includes lamb in one form or another — spit-roasted lamb that's called méchouis, or lamb stewed in a sauce or right in the couscous broth. The lamb-and-beef sausages called merguez, often grilled, are served alongside. Other meats, including meatballs and chicken, are good too. You can make a couscous with rabbit or turkey, veal or mutton.

The vegetables are tomatoes, carrots, onions, turnips, green beans, zucchini, eggplant — either summer or winter vegetables. The most important thing is to have a spicy, herby broth to cook them in.

And finally, there are the garnishes. Chickpeas are pretty much required, and they are cooked and served separately (though you can also put them right into the broth). Plumped-up raisins lend a note of sweetness to complement the spiciness of the broth and meats. And then when it comes to spiciness, there's nothing to compare to the red-pepper paste called harissa that is inevitably served alongside couscous and broth.

Serve yourself "a mountain" of couscous grain in a shallow bowl. Dip into the broth to get some vegetables and meat and put everything over or around "the mountain." Then use a ladle to get a good serving of the couscous broth. Put a spoonful of harissa paste into the ladle of broth, stir it well, and dribble the mixture over the grain, vegetables, and meats. Don't forget the chickpeas and raisins. You won't need bread. Be careful — it's filling.

25 July 2013

Au restaurant japonais, rue Lecourbe

Just down the street a short walk from CHM's apartment there's a Japanese restaurant that both he and I really like. We very likely had dinner there last night.

Chirashi de saumon

The restaurant is called Kuboda, and its address is 33 rue Lecourbe, Paris 75015. Try it if you like Japanese food at all. On the menu, there are sashimi, sushi, maki, and barbecued meats on skewers.

Salade de chou blanc et miso en entrée


Maki with vegetables and fish

The staff is polite and friendly. The atmosphere is pleasant. And the food is fresh and delicious.

P.S. We did in fact have dinner at the Kuboda restaurant last night. It was as good as always.

24 July 2013

A view from a train

At mid-day today, I'll be looking out the window of a train. Here are some things you see as you ride the train from Blois to Paris and back.

Many little train stations like this one at Villeneuve-le-Roi in the far Paris suburbs

Grain elevators/silos as you ride along the edge of the wheat-growing Beauce region

Gigantic wind turbines towering over villages and hamlets

Farmers' cooperatives all along the line

Big early-morning crowds at the Gare d'Austerlitz in Paris...

...but not very many people on the train

This is the train line on which there was a derailment about 10 days ago. I believe the SNCF (the French national railways) has carefully inspected all the track between Paris and Blois by now. I sure hope so.

23 July 2013

Back to Paris

Tomorrow I'll be going to Paris again. I have an appointment on Thursday to have a document notarized at the U.S. Embassy. And I'd like to be able to take advantage of the possibility of going up to the top of the Tour Saint-Jacques to take some pictures while I'm in the city.

The Tour Saint-Jacques with the Pompidou Center in the background

The Tour Saint-Jacques is a Gothic-style bell tower that was constructed in the early 1500s. The church that stood next to it was demolished in 1793, during the French Revolution. The tower remains. It is 52 meters — 170 feet — tall, and it stands in the very center of Paris. For comparison, the towers of the nearby Notre-Dame cathedral are 69 meters tall — 226 feet.

Sixteen stories to climb

Weather in Paris might turn into a problem. It's supposed to start raining Friday morning. With any luck, I'll be able to schedule a tour early in the day and the rain will hold off. The Tour Saint-Jacques is open to the public this summer for the first time in its history, and accompanied tours one hour long are being given only on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays.

There's a weather station at the top of the Tour Saint-Jacques.

Detail shot of the top of the tower taken from the same spot as the one just above

There's a two-hour window of opportunity on Thursday mornings to make a reservation by telephone for one of the weekend tours. I'll be staying with CHM in Paris, so I'll make the call from his place, before I go to the embassy for my afternoon appointment. Wish me luck — with the weather, of course, but also with the 16 flights of steps I'll have to climb.

22 July 2013

In the church at Selles-sur-Cher

We walked around in the huge church at Selles-sur-Cher last week when we were on our way to lunch in Bracieux. It was kind of a visual apéritif, whetting our appetite for the beautiful lunch we were to have.

These are three separate windows that I have combined into a single image using photo editing software. The glass is not all that old, but the colors are gorgeous. As usual, you can click or tap on the picture (depending on your viewing device) to see it at a larger size.

21 July 2013

Rowing a boat at Chenonceau

Last Sunday afternoon we drove over to Chenonceau to walk along the river up to the château.

As you'll see from my photos, the water level in the Cher River is very low right now,
despite all the rain we had over the first six months of the year.

Still, that didn't stop people from renting rowboats and paddling their way up and down the river.

The water was flowing quite rapidly, and people were having a hard time rowing back upstream.
I guess it was good exercise for them.

For us over-60s, the river walk provided plenty of exercise, with no crowds at all.
It was a pleasant afternoon, and seeing the Renaissance-era Château de Chenonceau is always a treat.

Along with the Eiffel Tower and Notre-Dame de Paris, this château is one of the most distinctive
and widely recognized buildings in France.

Going to Chenonceau was a pretty nice way to spend a sunny Bastille Day afternoon.

20 July 2013

Au Relais d'Artémis, second installment

It was one week ago today — already. Qu'est-ce que le temps passe vite ! Another week of summer down the drain. Speaking of which, we had a few hours of steady rain yesterday morning. I had planned to go to Vouvray with some friends who want to buy wine over there, but we postponed the trip until today when we saw the weather reports.

Fact is, the rain ended about noontime and we had a pleasant afternoon. It wasn't as nice yesterday as it was last Saturday, however, because it was hotter and kind of muggy. Today, more of the same.

To wash down our meal, we ordered a chilled bottle of local Cheverny rosé wine made with Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes.

So at the Relais d'Artémis in Bracieux, near the Château de Chambord, Walt and I had different dishes from the ones that H. and T. ordered. Walt started with seafood — crevettes, or shrimp (you might call them prawns, depending on which variety of English you speak).

 Grosses crevettes marinées, céleri et pomme en rémoulade au thym citron

At the restaurant, the chef put one large, whole prawn on the plate, head and all. Then he added a few headed and peeled shrimp, served on a wooden skewer. There was a salad of grated celery root and apple, in a creamy mayonnaise dressing, on the side, and a splash of spicy pepper sauce.

Foie gras de canard au torchon, chutney de figues

I started with foie gras de canard. That's duck liver served as a kind of pâté. If you look at the photo, you'll notice that there's a little pile of coarse salt for you to season the liver with, along with a little spoonful of chutney or confiture of dried fig, some baby lettuce leaves, and a dribble of balsamic vinegar. The plate was not surchargée, as you can see. A torchon is a kitchen towel, and the foie gras is rolled up in one and cooked in a slow oven.

Carré d'agneau rôti, crème d'ail

Finally, Walt and I both ordered lamb for lunch. It was saddle or carré of lamb served in a puddle of garlic cream sauce, with steamed new potatoes and summer vegetables. The lamb was cooked just to the point of being rosé in the middle.

Dôme au chocolat, parfait glacé à la banane

Our dessert was a big scoop of chocolate ganache, shaped into a dome. It was solid chocolate and very rich. There was a wedge of frozen banana parfait on the side.

I hope you enjoyed seeing the lunch. We enjoyed eating it. Our thanks to Harriett and Tom.