Saturday, January 26, 2019

Christmas in Paris

When I started to plan for the short European vacation over the Christmas season there was one day I knew was going to be difficult to plan for: Christmas Day in Paris. According to my internet research every museum except one, most public facilities and even many restaurants were going to be closed on Christmas. And if the weather was going to be miserable that day it would mean we would be stuck in the apartment, a lost day of sightseeing. It would be a restful day, but unwanted. But you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet. Thank goodness Christmas day turned out to be sunny and a splendid day of new experiences.

On the train from Amsterdam to Paris via Brussels

This was our 3rdh visit to France and 5th to Paris (what makes you think it is one of our favorite destinations) and walking the rues, between all those Haussmannian pierre de taille (dressed stone) buildings and seeing all those familiar landmarks again made me feel I’m home again. Even using the metro has become second nature.

And for not believing everything you read on the internet, well that is true. On previous occasions we have stayed in the 3rd, 4th, 6th 10th arrondissements and this time our apartment was in the 11th. It was a little outside the usual tourist area and on the internet it showed there were several grocery stores in our area. However, arriving late on a Sunday afternoon we were in need of some basic groceries like milk, coffee, bottled water, wine (always, but specifically not needed on that day because I bought a bottle of South African red wine, a Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon in Amsterdam) and also some vegetables, butter, cheese, etc. because I had to make dinner that night with some sausage we bought at a Christmas market in Amsterdam, which was supposed to be dried, but was not at all.

Google maps showed that all the groceries stores in the area would be closed by 12 noon with the last one opened only until 2 pm. We arrived at our apartment after 4 pm and immediately went searching for an open store, hopeful for a non-French owned produce store that sometimes also sells a few general groceries or a superette along Boulevard de Beaumarchais, which was not far from our apartment. Well, we found a Franprix convenient store, not shown on Google maps at all, just two blocks away and it was opened on Sundays until late. It was even opened on Christmas day until 12 pm. So while M had her feet up and caught up on her emails and Facebook correspondence, I slapped together a Penne with a Bolognaise sauce made from Dutch sausage, red wine, mushrooms and Swiss Emmental cheese and served it up with a small green salad and a few slices of baguette and creamy French butter. The strong flavorful dish was well supported by the Nederburg Cabernet Sauvignon.  

The George Pompidou Centre for Modern Art

One of the places that have eluded me on previous visits is the Pompidou Centre for modern art in the Beaubourg area. It is the largest modern art museum in Europe and two of its floors are dedicated as vast a library for research. I like all forms of art and all mediums, and I like to believe I have a balanced outlook on art. As long as it is reasonably pleasing on the eye or evokes a reaction or I can understand what the artist is trying to convey I will appreciate it. I will admit that since a young age I have had a soft spot for Wassily Kandinsky, Salvador Dali, Picasso and the landscapes of Camille Pissarro. I thoroughly enjoyed the morning’s visit to the Pompidou Centre, M probably not that much, although I have to acknowledge there were some works that totally baffled my mind and which I would not call art. Or rather, “art” that can be done by anyone with a few brain cells, not necessarily enough cells to be talented. But hey, who am I to judge? Their work is in the Pompidou and mine isn’t.         

Indian art exhibition inside the Saint Merry Church on Rue Saint-Martin

After a late lunch, we roamed the streets in a seemingly “aimless” fashion, browsed the open markets down Rue Saint-Martin, popped into Saint Merry Church to look at an exhibition of Indian mixed medium art, sculpture and photography, until we ended up at the Saint-Jacques Tower and from there walked to the Hôtel De Ville and a Christmas “market” on its square. There weren’t many stalls, (nothing compared to the real thing with a festive vibe we experienced in Amsterdam outside the Rijksmuseum,) just a carousel for kids, some artistic natural representation of a festive season (I guess in an effort to attract everyone without offending anyone) and not much more. Dusk was settling upon Paris and we started to walk down Quai de Gesvres toward the Place de Bastille and our apartment, realized its crazy to walk that far in a nasty cold breeze and on tired feet, so we stopped at a Starbucks for warm coffee and some people watching of Parisians hurrying passed us with their last minute shopping on Christmas Eve, and then walked back to the Hôtel De Ville metro station and caught the train home.

One of the arrangements I could secure beforehand for Christmas evening was a dinner cruise on the Seine River. It seems that among Parisians a dinner cruise on the eve of Christmas was very popular and traditional, but cruises on Christmas evening were more for tourist. The only museum that was opened according to my internet research was the Jacquemart-Andre Art Museum, which claims to have an impressive Italian collection, but also had a special exhibition over the Christmas season of Caravagio paintings. But I didn’t wanted to take the chance of buying tickets up front, not knowing whether the museum was really going to be open or not.  

On Christmas morning, the first thing I did was tried to call the museum but no one answered the phone. Maybe they were busy, maybe they were closed after all. Not deterred though, we stepped out into the cold Parisian streets, boarded the Line 1 metro at Bastille station, switched trains at Franklin Roosevelt station to Line 9, traveled to Saint-Philippe-du-Roule station and emerged from the underground in glorious sunshine. At a Starbuck on Avenue Myron Herrick we enjoyed a croissant and coffee before we walked to Boulevard Haussmann and the museum. The museum was open and very busy. Because I didn’t buy tickets beforehand we had to wait nearly an hour to get inside and the line grew longer by the minute. Tour groups and people who bought specifically timed tickets beforehand had preference. However, it was well worth the wait.

Inside the Jacquemart-Andre Museum

The museum was previously the mansion of Édouard André, a very rich Parisian banker during the late 19th century and his wife, the painter Nélie Jacquemart, who, upon her death, bequeathed the mansion and its collections to the Institut de France as a museum. These two traveled the continent extensively and were great art collectors and built the mansion specifically as a place to display their art collection. I guess you could call them showoffs. Although impressive it was not as impressive as what we would see the next day at Chantilly, but then…there is a difference between being rich and being royal.    

After the visit to the museum we took the train to the nearest station to the Place de la Concorde. We enjoyed a light lunch and a glass of Chablis under the covered colonnade at Café Sanseveria on Rue de Rivoli and then started to explore the area. We have traveled through this area on several occasions by bus, but never actually got off to explore it. But that is why I keep on coming back to Paris. There is always something new to explore and there are still so many places I have not yet visited. After all these visits I still have not been to the Les Invalides, the L’Orangerie, the Rodin museum or the Picasso museum. Last mentioned has also been in reconstruction on previous visits and this time it was closed on the Monday before Christmas. But at least this time I got to visit the Pompidou Centre.

L'eglise de la Madeleine

First up in exploring the area around  the Place de la Concorde was a visit to the church with the most beautiful name, L'église de la Madeleine. It is just me, but the name Madeleine is such a beautiful rhythmic name. Built in the Neo-Classical style, inspired by a Roman temple in Nimes, France, it is a rather unusual style for a church, with its Corinthian columns and beautiful carved pediment featuring a scene of the Last Judgment. Arriving just before 4 pm, the place was chock-full, standing room only, Christmas afternoon Mass was probably to start any minute, but I was not sure. Not that we were planning to stay, we were just drifting through. For a usual Catholic church, the inside was rather darkish but beautiful. From its steps it offered a spectacular golden-yellowish view down Rue Royale towards the Luxor Obelisk and the French National Assembly building beyond the Pont de la Concorde.  

At the entrance gates to the Jardin des Tuileries, M indulged in a warm sugar-filled crêpe. By now thousands of Parisians and tourists, wrapped up in scarves, woolen hats and windbreakers joined us to enjoy the rare sunny day in the middle of winter as we strolled down the garden paths of the Tuileries towards the Louvre. A golden sunset was descending upon Paris and apart from enjoying the wintry scenery, the duck ponds and the statues along the paths through the Tuileries Garden we were making up time before we had to be at the marina in front of the Musee D’Orsay for our dinner cruise at 6:30pm.

We lingered for a while at the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel, sitting on the stone blocks nearby, more taking a breath than anything else, then ventured to the Louvre to snap more photos, capturing the moment. We crossed the Pont du Carrousel to the left bank of the Seine and at the Café La Fregate, in full view of the lighted Louvre Palace, we enjoyed a hot drink, the very same place we enjoyed a breakfast 6 years ago on our first morning of our first visit to Paris.        

The icons of New York and Paris together, constructed by the same artists, Gustave Eiffel. The Status of Liberty on the little man-made island in the Seine River, Île  aux Cygnes, at the Pont de Grenelle in the 15th arrondissements, not too far from the Eiffel Tower. (By the way, there are 5 statues of Liberty in Paris.)

By the time we got to the marina, darkness has descended upon Paris and a bone chilling breeze was blowing down the Seine River as we lined up and waited to board the boat. As mentioned in my previous post, this trip was not a foodies’ paradise and the dinner and the Bordeaux wine on board was nothing spectacular, but it was by no stretch of the imagination the best of the vacation, visually and on the palate. However, for me it was not about the food, it was about the atmosphere, that moment and place in time, being in Paris on a nighttime cruise, experiencing the city and its lights from a different perspective, and being with M at the end of a very unexpectedly enjoyable exploratory day.  

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Amsterdam! Venice of the North

Nowhere where I have traveled have I been so aware of traffic and people as in Amsterdam, the city of canals. (The general chaos of Naples comes close.) If you are out on Amsterdam’s streets you constantly have to be aware of where you are and on the lookout for bicycles, motorbikes, trams, more bicycles and people. They all seem to mingle in perfect harmony, but one step to the right or to the left without looking and you can end up in front of a fast moving bicycle.

A classic Amsterdam memory

Traveling in winter have benefits: Shorter lines at museums and restaurants, but on the weather front it was mostly dreary with the sky varied from woolly clouds interspersed with rare patches of light blue to a dirty dark grey with occasional rain. Luckily, on the worst weather day when it was very windy and rainy we were indoors in the Rijksmuseum.    

The flower market and cheese caves

Traveling from America to Europe inevitability means an overnight flight and an early morning arrival, which means one cannot book into a hotel/apartment/Airbnb before 3 pm and walking around in any city dragging even your single suitcase everywhere is a schlep. Some hotels allow you to store your luggage before checking in. Ours, the JL No. 76 Hotel on Jan Luijkenstraat, a stone throw from the Museumplein and the Rijks and Van Gogh Museums, did allow for storage, and we went straight to our hotel after our arrival in Amsterdam and asked if we can book in earlier. I was not expecting an affirmative answer, but I took a chance! They can only say no.

It was then that I experienced the latest trend being employed by hospitality establishments, especially in Europe. If you try to book in earlier, they will make a show of looking for a room to book you, never find your room, but magically find an alternative room and then offer you an upgrade, in our case, $50 per night extra. We don’t usually stay in hotels so we have never experienced this sales pitch before, but luckily I read about it on Tripadvisor and Google Reviews and didn’t fall for the trap. Interestingly, it would happen again in Paris, even though we arrived there after the eligible booking time. Times must be hard in Europe or scamming hotel guests must have become the norm?    

I respectfully declined the offer to an upgrade, knowing full well, based on prior research on the internet of the types of rooms available in this hotel, that what I originally booked was one of the better rooms on offer. We selected to store our luggage at the hotel and floated into the streets of Amsterdam.

Sitting inside De Vier Pilaren restaurant and watching the world float by

On one of those occasional rainy moments, on our first day out walking towards the Jordaan area, we popped into De Vier Pilaren, a “Poffertjes en Pannenkoeken” restaurant for lunch, located near the Vondelpark entrance on Stadhouderskade and across the Singelgracht from Max Euweplein. Of course the Dutch pannenkoeken (pancake) is not a strange dish to us because we grew up with it. Every traditional Afrikaner gathering in South Africa usually served the thin styled pancake, mostly with a cinnamon and sugar mixture on top and rolled up like wrap. M went sweet and had a pancake with only a granular sugar coating. I went the other way, savory, and had one with aged Gouda cheese and liberally layered with cured ham, a light burgundy colored ham. It was so delicious! The tiny restaurant’s service was excellent, the aroma of the freshly baked pancakes and “poffertjes”, the warmth inside while it was cold and raining outside, created a cozy atmosphere that was perfect in that moment. We lingered inside De Vier Pilaren for quite a while. Feeling the effects of jet lag, time was not important, resting our feet was, and taking an early break to absorb the Amsterdam vibe was important. And we did. While we watched people come and go and tourist canal boats floating by on the Singelgracht, M sipped on a hot chocolate topped with whipped cream and I savored some French Chardonnay. [Gracht is Dutch for canal.]   

 Rembrandt's The Night Watch

The day after our arrival was all about the main purpose of this short vacation. The Rijksmuseum: The pride of Amsterdam and the Netherlands. Rembrandt van Rijn and his fellow schilders (painters) from the 17th century, the Dutch Golden Age, are a major love of M’s art interest. We spent a whole day in the museum. In the end, the Rijksmuseum offered so much more than just a bunch of paintings against walls. It presented the history of the Netherlands and its conquered lands in art form and how the different cultures impacted the country. It certainly turned out to be one of better museums we have been to. One criticism though: Although they had a special exhibition of South Africa and its relationship with the Netherlands in the Rijksmuseum in 2017, it seems the settling of a halfway station at the southern tip of Africa by the Dutch and the incredible impact it had on the creation of the Afrikaner people, its language and on South Africa in general for centuries to come (after all the Dutch ruled the Cape of Good Hope for 150 years) are not enough to justify a permanent section on South Africa in the Rijksmuseum. Except if I missed it.    

The Rijksmuseum at night and the Christmas market on the right of the ice skating rink 

After the Rijksmuseum and a walk through the Christmas market in front of the museum we were famished and went searching for a restaurant. A few blocks away we came across an Irish pub, packed to the rafters. After all, it was Friday night and happy hour was still in full swing. Two blocks away, M found the Le Garage, a Michelin Bib listed restaurant, French/Europe in cuisine and molecular gastronomy in style. However, the restaurant was less than satisfactory with terrible service, nicely decorated plates, but rather tasteless food. I had a bland rotisserie chicken which barely had any color on it. A chain grocery in Danville sells better rotisserie chicken than these “wannabe” chefs. Harsh, but that’s how bad it was. M’s fish was only slightly better, but they forgot to bring her side dish and when it eventually arrived after we had to ask for it, it was cold. The next evening’s dinner at an Irish pub on Max Euweplein, the atmosphere was livelier, the music much better, the food a slight improvement on the night before, and the price much less.  In general, even in Paris, this trip cannot be described as a visit to foodies’ paradise. But that’s our fault; we never made a serious effort to find exceptional restaurants.

Although we also visited the Van Gogh Museum, the rest of our time in Amsterdam was spent walking the streets, at times using the tram to save our feet and we went on a canal tour late one afternoon and returned to our base as dusk descended upon the city.

The Basilica of Saint Nicholas near Centraal Station

Although I found the Koninklijk Paleis, the Royal Palace, rather dirty on the outside, Amsterdam in general is a very clean city. You hardly saw a cigarette butt on the street. With its numerous canals, hundreds of bridges, thousands of bicycles in all shapes and sizes, I found it an exciting and cozy city. Very walkable. Just a pity it was such a short visit. 

A small lunch and tea for two. That tea was very delicious (Rooibos, orange, vanilla and honey) 

Vondel Park

The Red Light district with the Oude Kerk, Amsterdam's oldest building, in the background