Friday, December 11, 2015

Musical Muse: Afri-Frans

Toe ek dié liedjie, Lucas Maree se Wat Sal Ek Doen Met ‘n Miljoen, gesing deur Myra Maud vanaf die Afri-Frans projek, vir die eerste keer gehoor het, seker so 5 jaar gelede, het ek gewonder, is dit ‘n uitbuiting of uitbouing van Afrikaans en Afrikaanse musiek.  As ‘n Quasi-Francophile (as dit kom by kos, wyn, literatuur, geskiedenis, landelike atmosfeer en algemene leefwyse) het die verwerkings onmiddelike inslag gemaak op my musikale tentakels.

Vandag besef ek, met die huidige dilemma van Afrikaans te midde die patetiese tentoonstelling van kulturele leierskap, of die afwesigheid daarvan, van die Universiteit van Stellenbosch se bestuur om Afrikaans as onderwystaal te probeer af gradeer vanaf ‘n unieke inheemse taal tot net nog ‘n slagoffer van die sogenaamde “gelykheid van kulture in Suid-Afrika”, dat Afrikaans allerhande tipe vriende benodig om vir sy bestaan te veg.

Na jare van Eurovision kompetisie se vertaalde liedjies wat tantieme die land uit laat vloei het, is dit ‘n verfrissende ommekeer en ‘n “werklike” erkenning van die gelykheid in taal en kultuur tussen Frans en Afrikaans.

Geniet!!! Profiter!!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Paris, The Temporary New Normal

The images not usually associated with Paris.
I manipulated the original images to convey the stark reality of the current situation in Paris after the terrorist attack of 13 November 2015. 

Patrolling the streets with pedal power

and the Champs Elysees near the Arc de Triomphe on foot,

at the Bataclan Theatre

and taking in the view from Montmartre.

Mixing with the locals

and watching pedestrians.

Guarding the Notre Dame

and the Basilique du Sacré Cœur on the Mount of Martyrs 

and the Louvre.
Paris experienced much worse disasters in its past and
the temporary new normal will again give way to the old normal.
It always does with time. 
Original images sourced from various websites on the Internet.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Savoring Regional Delicacies in Monterrey, Mexico

The nebulous sky at twilight, thick with Monterrey’s ever present white dust and yellow smog, glowed orangey as I left the hotel on my first night here to walk to a new restaurant nearby. Although there was no humidity in the air and the last of the day’s oppressive heat was dissipating, the heat still felt sticky on my skin.

Los Fresnos Bar and Grill, squeezed in between the Hampton Inn and the Marriott Courtyard on your way to the aéroport is a man’s world, or so it seemed. Most the waiters are older gentlemen, some I have to guess in their late 50’s or early 60’s. The role of women is strictly reduced to cleaning.
Even the recepcionista, usual a lady in Mexican restaurants was a male.  The décor also contributed to the sense of machoism with stuffed deer and goats on the walls (Cecil the lion would have felt at ease here after his demised by that American dentist) and American football on the TVs at the bar, but I am not for one minute bashing the culture of Nuevo Léon. This part of Mexico, just south of Texas, is after all ranchero country where "real" men wear ten gallon hats, expensive cowboy boots and is judged by how big and silvery his belt bucket is. Only the strong survive here.  

Initially I thought fresnos, which means "ashes" in English, refers to dead embers since most of the menu’s dishes are prepared on the grill. But upon my asking the waiter told me it refers to the many ash trees one finds in this region. That immediately made me felt at home since I have tens if not more than a hundred ash tree on Lily Rose Ranch. 

The menu was regional. Whenever you see cabrito on a menu you know you are in Monterrey. A cabrito is a kid goat that is less than 3 months old and still a suckling, thus, before it starts to eat solid foods. In Monterrey, cabrito dates back to the founding days of the city and some of its Jewish settlers. Prepared al pastor is the way they do it here. The whole carcass is opened flat and impaled on a spit. The spit is then placed next to a bed of glowing embers and roasted slowly without any spices and turned often. I have eaten it on several occasions because it is very tender but I always missed the traditional dry rub spices of South African or American grilled meat.

But I didn’t ordered cabrito on my first night. I saw something very rare and unusual on a Monterrey restaurant menu. Lamb! Nuevo Léon is more cattle and goat country. Although I have tried to discover which kind of cut it is they offered, the waiter was either purposefully vague or he simply did not understood my questions.

Loin chops? I asked. Si, he said.
Leg? I asked, Si, he said.
He eventually sighed and said, plato, plateful.

I guessed that meant you could get anything, even some cuts you would not generally expect on your plate. I decided to order blindly. What the heck, in this region were grilled meat was the equivalent of Le Gigot d'Agneau a la Francaise I could not expected gourmet food from a non-Michelin star restaurant and the chef in the kitchen behind a glass partitioning was most certainly not Gordon Ramsey either.

With my meal I ordered a bottle of locally produced vino tinto, a Vinos Demecq XA Cabernet Sauvignon from Baja California. Not too bad, lots of tannins, thus a bit dry, definitely full bodied in the usual Mexican style and without the pretentious or artificially enhanced subtle hints or, in some cases strong suggestions, of chocolate and coffee and over ripened fruits that are so prevalent these days from American cabernet producers. Although not the best in class by any stretch of the imagination, it was classic, old time cabernet. Robust and full-bodied.  

Well, I got what I sort of expected. Lamb-all-sorts with a few potato fries and vegetables. A leg chop, rib meat, a bit of loin, more rib meat and even a kidney still surrounded by its fatty protection. And it was a plateful alright. All in all, it was not bad though, a bit too fatty for my taste and it lacked spices. But there was enough red and green chili salsa on the table to compensate for the lack of spices.

Dessert was Flan (what else?), the quintessential Mexican dessert. The age old dish was invented by the Romans as a savory cake topped by peppers. It sounds like it was more a quiche than a flan in its infant days. As the recipe moved westwards with the Romans to the Iberian Peninsula the dish was adapted and became sweeter and the Spanish began to top theirs with a caramel sauce. The conquering conquistadors of the 16th and 17th Centuries carried it across the Atlantic with them to the Caribbean and Latin America and so it reached Mexico, where the Mexicans took the simple custard pie to new heights in the kitchens of the rich and poor alike.   

On that night I chose Flan Napolitano with a thick caramel sauce topped by nuts.

Upon leaving Los Fresnos, Pedro, the waiter, who must have been in his sixties, and who all night long was so careful to pour my cabernet just the right way, complete with cotton napkin around the neck of the bottle to prevent any spilling, came over a last time to shake my hand as if we were old friends that got together for a long overdue evening of drinks, good food and even better company. He was very surprised and gave me a broad smile when I shook his hand in the local Nuevo Léon way, four fingers around the thumb instead of the usual western way. That really sealed the newly formed friendship that will probably last no longer than this single visit to Los Fresnos.

However, I returned to Los Fresnos on two additional occasions over the 10 day period I was in Mexico to also savor other regional dishes like the pescado Vera Cruz, tilapia fish in a mild tomato, onion and sweet pepper sauce served on Mexican rice, and especially the “Death on two legs” as I like to call it, (in honor of the Freddie Mercury and Queen song), Camerones Brochette, cheese-stuffed bacon-wrapped shrimps. I have eaten this dish on many occasions in Monterrey over the past 10 years of coming here and have always gone back to it because it is sooooo good. Los Fresnos’s version was a bit dry (shrimps was too small, I presume) and not as good as I have tasted before, especially at Mariscos La Anacua on Tauro Street in San Nicolas de los Garza, a real hole in the wall, frequented almost exclusively by locals for its cheap, no frills, but excellent seafood and Mexican beer by the liter.

Later, while I sat in my hotel room to write this, a sing-along to the accordion tunes of Mexican country music drifted through the open balcony door from the garden below. Since early evening a large group of people were barbequing downstairs and I guess the beer that flowed so freely has loosened the vocal cords and their inhibitions.  

If I can make any suggestions, I would say they shouldn’t give up their day jobs, at least not yet…

Adios! Monterrey.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Musical Muse: Throwback Thursday

Oops! I threw back Thursday a little too far and it landed in Friday.
Oh Well...Sorry...

"Soleil" by Françoise Hardy

Thursday, May 28, 2015

I am a Product of the Apartheid Era

I am a product of the apartheid era.

I grew up in a house where politics and especially apartheid was never discussed as a subject per se, because it was simply the normal way of life. Among the majority of the Afrikaners apartheid was essentially a cultural preference, the way they preferred to live, separated from the influences of the other cultures in South Africa. They attended their own schools, lived in their own neighborhoods, ate their own kind of food, celebrated traditional days important to them, spoke their own language and listened to their own music. Not that the rest of the world was ignored. World history, literature, sciences and geography, albeit with a European slant, were extensively taught at school. As a nation the Afrikaners, with their brave pioneering heritage and great aspirations for its children, were comfortable in their own cultural lair. Rightly or wrongly! They never thought their way of life or the politics of the country would ever change. Why should it? Unfortunately the practice of race segregation introduced by European overseers evolved into a cultural and political tool which had no chance of long term success in a changing world.

The ripples from Sharpville

I was born at the start of the 1960s in South Africa, at the height of the “grand” apartheid era, 18 days before the Sharpeville massacre. On March 21, 1960 between 5,000 and 10,000 black South Africans, as called upon by the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), demonstrated against passbook laws in the small township of Sharpeville, thirty-five miles south of Johannesburg. They basically came to the police station to force the police to arrest them for refusing to carry the dreaded passbook, a dompas. A police force of 75, later reinforced to 300 was greatly outnumbered and although no one gave any order to shoot, someone did, the police panicked and opened fire, and when the shooting eventually quieted down, 69 people were dead and 181 wounded, a government produced number, although some claimed up to 400 died or were wounded.

That single day and that single event would be a turning point for South Africa and apartheid, because that is the day the world started to take notice of the policy of apartheid and the United Nations started to intervene in South African affairs. Foreign nations started to pull capital from South Africa. The Johannesburg stock exchange plummeted over the next two years and for the first time white South Africans started to emigrate in fear of a possible civil war. At the same time black South Africans started to leave the country for very different reasons. It would also start the process of South Africa exiting the British Commonwealth and lead to its declaration as a republic on 31 May 1961 and sever its constitutional ties with the United Kingdom of Great Britain.  The end of 155 years of English rule.

Sharpville aftermath.

Sharpville was not the start of the struggle for equality, but it was the catalyst for the African National Congress (ANC) and the PAC to start a 30-year armed struggle against the government of South Africa. At the same time though, the political atmosphere was ripe for polarization and black demand for political recognition and equality grew stronger, especially in light of the awakening of black consciousness throughout Africa during the 1960s. The world was changing and the Age of Colonialism in Africa was standing on its last feet in front of an open grave. 

Police inspecting passbooks
The gift of a book

In December 2010, while on vacation in South Africa, a family member gave me the book, Die Laaste Trek, ‘n Nuwe Begin (The Last Trek, a New Beginning) by F.W. de Klerk, ex-President of the Republic of South Africa. I had the best of intentions to read it, but never got around to it. During November 2013 while looking for something new and different to read, I was tired of novels and travelogues, I came upon the book again in my library and thought, why not. I have always wondered what happened during those years of negotiations at CODESA (Convention for a Democratic South Africa) when all political and cultural groups in South Africa met to determine South Africa’s future. And I have quietly wondered, once or twice, why we never had that second referendum after the completion of constitutional negotiations to approve a new constitution, as was promised by the government all along. Then there were the issues of the “non-negotiable” requirements of power-sharing (the Swiss Model) and the “entrenched protection of minority rights and cultures”. What happened that those issues were simply negotiated away or were they never really viable principles at all?
Mr. de Klerk and Mr. Mandela in different moods during the negotiations at CODESA.

While reading de Klerk’s autobiography, Nelson Mandela, the man who struggled for many years against apartheid and who was jailed for 27 years for acts of terrorism and crimes against the state, but who later succeeded de Klerk as President, died on December 5, 2013. Although I had no initial thoughts to read Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, his death, while reading de Klerk’s book and things that de Klerk mentioned in his book, tickled my interest and I decided to buy and read Mandela’s book too to get a balanced perspective of what transpired behind the scenes in South Africa during 1990 to 1994. Although I lived through those stormy years in South Africa and actually voted in the referendum of 1992 to empower the National Party government to continue its negotiations with the African National Congress, I have to acknowledge I then only knew the side of the story that was consistent with my upbringing. 
Mr. de Klerk the day after the 1992 referendum.

Together de Klerk and Mandela achieved a rare feat in world politics when they brought about systematic change through “relative” peaceful means instead of a bloody revolution or civil war. From within the legislative structures of a nation de Klerk dismantled all apartheid laws and convinced his fellow politicians and in general the Afrikaner nation that the time for change had arrived.  On the other hand, Mandela had to convince a youth oriented, radical and militarized ANC, hell-bent on continuing its guerrilla warfare, that the only way forward to a peaceful and bloodless future was through negotiations instead of a continued armed struggle. 

 Inauguration of Mr. Mandela as President - April 1994.

Apartheid was nothing new

Apartheid is today mainly associated with the white people of South Africa, and more specifically the Afrikaner group, and the “purified” National Party that came to rule this part of the world in 1948 and would do so uninterrupted until 1994. But apartheid is really an old product of the Dutch and the English overlords who banned or punished (in most cases) racial integration since 1652 when the Dutch established a refreshment station at the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. And they were assisted by the French Huguenots, the Germans, and to a lesser extent the Italians, the Portuguese, the Polish, the Jews, the Swiss and several other smaller groups of Europeans that migrated to South Africa through the 300 years preceding 1948. As the white citizens of South Africa who could have influenced the European overlords to some extent, and later, as the voters for legislators and government, they, the white citizens, all had a part in kneading, molding and keeping separate cultural development alive seeing that it was never previously eradicated nor were any laws changed to allow non-white people to vote for the general assembly or to participate in government. Of course it was not called apartheid before 1948, but in practice it was.

Mr. Mandela destroying his passbook in 1952.

Take the sensitive case of the passbook that blacks were required to carry. During the first 150 years after 1652, the Dutch ruled and as mentioned above any form of black and white integration was resisted and punished. The British took control of the Cape in 1806 and in 1809 introduced the Hottentot Code, which required that all Khoikhoi and other free blacks carried passbooks stating where they lived and who their employers were. Persons without such passes could be forced into employment by white masters. With the emancipation of slavery in the British Empire imminent the pass laws were revoked in 1828. However, after the discovery of diamonds in the Northern Cape area in 1872, the town of Kimberley's white claimholders persuaded the British colonial administration to introduce a new set of pass laws to limit the mobility of black migrant workers, who frequently changed employers in a constant (and usually successful) attempt to bargain wages upward. This law would become the foundation of the later passbook laws that led to the Sharpville demonstration and the many general strikes about pass laws during the 1960s.

The last trek

To do a detail review of the books after so many years and a movie that was based on Mandela’s book is rather useless so I won’t, but I would like to touch on some aspects of both books.

I feel The Last Trek, a New Beginning is just a little too short for an autobiography, especially if it is about the life of such a prominent person that changed the direction of a whole nation. De Klerk’s summarized treatment of his earlier years up to his entry into Parliament, what influenced him those early years while he was a lawyer, and what caused him to change history could have been fleshed out a bit more. But then again maybe there wasn't more details to be fleshed out? It is obvious from the book and to some extent de Klerk agreed, that in principle he was not such a passionate reformer as some would think, but that change was forced upon him and the government and the white people of South Africa. And, strangely, he often gave his predecessor, Mr. P.W. Botha, whom he loathed, credit for initial reforms prior to 1989 when de Klerk became State President.

It is also obvious from the book that his initial “non-negotiable” requirements for power-sharing and protection for cultural minorities came to nothing. This was mainly due to a combination of the National Party and government negotiators being railroaded by the ANC negotiators inside the halls of CODESA, and even more effectively, the ANC-backed “rolling mass actions”, intimidation through strikes and other forms of violence, especially black-on-black violence, to make the country ungovernable, thus weakening the hand of the government negotiators. The issue of the second referendum to approve the negotiated constitution also came to nothing because of the ANC’s demand that a constitution can only be approved by a parliament elected by all the peoples of South Africa instead of by just a minority of the people.

In my view, the only true successes achieved by de Klerk and his team at the negotiation tables, and these are major achievements, were the relative peaceful handover of power (South Africa could easily have had a civil war which happened so often in other countries) and the continuation of a parliamentary system of government.  

Overall, the book was an interesting read that focused mostly on the political events surrounding de Klerk through his political years, but fell short on a personal insight into the man. In his book The Last Afrikaner Leaders Hermann Giliomee quoted a speech de Klerk made on 21 January 1997 in London: "The decision to surrender the right to national sovereignty is certainly one of the most painful any leader can be asked to make. Most nations risk war and catastrophe rather than surrender this right. Yet this was the decision we had to make."

I would have liked to read more about the struggle inside this man as he came to the decision "to surrender the right to national sovereignty."     

Exciting but long
I found Nelson Mandela’s autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, both an exciting but also at times a boring and too long read. (600+ pages.)  I really struggled though some passages of the book, especially the near minute-by-minute, detailed descriptions about life and communications inside prison, the blow-by-blow commentary on prison commanders, and even sections of the Ravonia trial just went on and on.

However, I found his early history, education, life in Johannesburg studying and practicing law and the traditions of the Xhosa people captivating and informative. His ability to articulate his beliefs and the sheer determination of the man to achieve a better dispensation for all disadvantage people is certainly admirable. His patience with people, ability to listen to all viewpoints without judgment, stamina, and especially his mental, and emotional strength through the prison years were venerable.    

The simplistic view that many people in the world have of South Africa and apartheid is that Mr. de Klerk was the demon while Mr. Mandela was the perfect picture of peace, love, and forgiveness. However, in my mind both had blood on their hands; De Klerk through his limited actions during his presidency to control the police and third forces within the police, even though he constantly claimed that he was unaware of who was trying to disrupt the country and what the caused was of the many black-on-black violent attacks, especially in the Kwazulu-Natal province. Today of course, we know that there was a secret force active within the police and responsible for coordinating some of these attacks. But Mandela also had blood on his hands through his leadership of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military wing of the ANC, who was responsible for many acts of terrorism and death of innocent people and the fact that he at times took no or little definitive steps between 1992 and 1994 to restrain the ANC supporters from taking part in these black-on-black attacks.  

Clockwise from top left: Arrest warrant for Mr. Mandela; Prisoners on Robben Island; Mandela paying a visit to his old cell; Mandela and Walter Sisulu.

The last thought I would like to highlight from the two autobiographies is the stormy relationship that existed between these two men. In de Klerk’s book there are several references to his frustrations with Mandela’s unwillingness or stubbornness at times to cooperate during the negotiations and Mandela’s verbal attacks on de Klerk in the media. De Klerk was especially frustrated that Mandela did not use his influence to stop the “rolling mass actions” of the United Democratic Front, which succeeded to some extend to make the country ungovernable and Mandela’s refusal to ask the world to lift economic sanctions against South Africa after 1992’s unbanning of the ANC, Mandela’s release from prison and the scrapping of all apartheid laws.

For his part Mandela accused de Klerk of being dishonest, arrogant and treating him like a fool. He also accused de Klerk of not being a true reformer and for wanting to negotiate a constitution that still reeked of apartheid, just under another disguise. (He was referring to the various blocking devices that the National Party wanted to have included in the constitution for the protection of minority groups.)

The point is both men knew that although they might not have liked one another, they needed each other to bring about change in South Africa. They had a sort of “uncomfortable affair” to bring about this necessary change to prevent a total financial meltdown and most probably a bloody civil war.

Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood

In closure, although it took me 3 years to pick up de Klerk’s book and although I never had any intention to read Mandela’s book, I now have to acknowledge that I enjoyed both books, that I am richer in knowledge and understanding and that I am pleased that I read both books. In some way it is also a kind of closure about some faint questions that still lingered out there about the political changes that took place in South Africa.

Left: The first meeting between President de Klerk and Nelson Mandela in 1990 while Mr. Mandela was still in jail.
To quote the title of Eric Burdon’s book Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, (Eric was the iconic voice of the 1960’s band, The Animals, that gave us the legendary House of the Rising Sun), this article is in no way an apology for 300 years of separate "development" or a praising for the "good" apartheid brought for a specific or any cultural group in South Africa. However, apartheid,  systematically institutionalized as in South Africa, was a degrading and undignified policy that prevented non-white peoples of South Africa to pursue their own dreams and ambitions within the realm of a civilly accepted society.  

Nor is this article a condoning or disapproval of past or present South African governments. I think any country has from time to time good and bad governments that make good and bad decisions. No government is ever perfect.  

Mr. Mandela and Mr. de Klerk sharing a joke while Archbishop Tutu looks on.

Furthermore, apartheid was not just a case of a white minority that could vote and a black majority that couldn’t. That is a far too simplistic view and unfortunately that is the view maintained by many people that does not have a deep understanding of South Africa’s history. Those that lived and grew up in South Africa knows that apartheid laws tried to control every fiber of society in South Africa.

For some Afrikaners apartheid was all about politics and they saw it as a means to strengthen the position of the Afrikaners, to get rid of the British and to revive the dream of an independent republic like they had before the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902). An Afrikaner country. Even in de Klerk’s book he mentioned the resentment Afrikaners had for the English while he grew up.

For some it was cultural, a case of Afrikaners rule by Afrikaners and no integration with other races. James A Michener in his saga about South Africa, The Covenant, described apartheid, as told to him by, I think, a white politician, as a multi-layer bowl of different colored Jell-O, the perfect picture of separate development of the various races, each in its own land. Interestingly, after 1994, Nobel Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu would coin a similar vision for the new South Africa. But instead of seeing the different bands of colors as separate development he saw unity of the different colors. He called it the rainbow nation.   

Mr. de Klerk paying his last respect to an old foe and opponent and friend and partner after Mr.Mandela death. 
Finally, this article is by no means and it was never intended to be an analysis of apartheid. It is simply a brief review of two books I enjoyed reading, authored by two unique persons that had a definitive say in the death of the apartheid era, intertwined with slivers of my own thoughts, shards from my history, personal and cultural, rightly or wrongly, that will forever be part of my South African heritage that I have no wish to wish away. The authors, like me and millions of other South Africans, Black, White, Colored or Indian, were products of and touched by the apartheid era.               

 Election 1994 TV debate

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Musical Muse: Just A Fool

Sometimes something is better raw and unplugged
than the polished same-old-same-old.
Lauren Ruth Ward & Mike Squillante 

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Gilded Glory of Palais Garnier and Other Stories

In glorious sunshine we moved from one iconic symbol of Paris to another. After our visit to the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur we returned to Château Rouge metro station, took a train to Gare l’Est and linked up with the pink line for a train to l’Opera station in the 9th arrondissement for our last destination in Paris during this 10 day visit to France. Not planned that way at all it seemed we left something special for last. From the clean lines of the Sacré-Cœur we entered the most opulent, gilded, over-the-top, extravagance that Paris had on offer, the Academie Nationale De Musique, or simply The Palais Garnier, Paris’s old opera house, used today only for ballet. (Operas are today performed at the new opera house, The Opéra Bastille.)

There was nothing subtle about the Palais Garnier. A gluttony for various shades of brown, grey and red marble, a love for gold and large artwork that perfectly compliments the beautiful architectural lines and curves from classical antiquity origin, make this Parisian landmark in the Beaux-Arts style a must see for anyone that loves beautiful buildings.     

The Palais Garnier façade  
We have been to this area of Paris often, took some photos of the opera house’s exterior, but strangely never made it inside. There was always something else on the list to go and see until that sunny Saturday afternoon.

It is not worth my words to write about the beauty of the Palais Garnier. The opera house’s detailed and extravagant interior is something to behold and feast on to be appreciated. It is best that I allow the pictures to tell that side of the story. But there are many other stories about the opera house that lends a bit of mystery to the building and rightly so because it is such a show piece and it faced near fatal obstacles and controversies during its planning and construction.

The Assassination Attempt

After being elected by the French people as the first President of the Second Republic, and after a failed effort to change the constitution so he could continue to be President for another term, Louis-Napoleon Bonaparte seized autocratic power through a coup d’état in December 1851. A year later he was declared Emperor Napoleon III of the Second Empire. And what often happened to autocratic rulers in the past his popularity waned after a few years and he made more enemies than friends.  
On 14 January 1858 Emperor Napoleon and his wife Eugenie were on their way to the opera on Rue Le Peletier, when Felice Orsini, an Italian, and his Carbonari revolutionary friends, threw 3 bombs at the French Emperor’s carriage and killed 8 people and injured 142. The story goes that the very next day he, the Emperor, decided to build a new state funded opera house that was safer to get to and closer to the Tuileries Palace.  After they found a site in the 9th arrondissement and plans were drawn up, a series of personnel changes at city and government level slowed the start of issuing a contract to an architect.  There is the story that Empress Eugénie wanted Eugène Viollet-le-Duc, one of her favorites, to be the architect.  At the same time another architect, Charles Rohault de Fleury, already completed his plans for the opera house as requested by the Prefect of the Seine and one Paris’s great builders under Napoleon III, Georges-Eugène Haussmann. However in November 1860 when Count Alexandre Colonna-Walewski was appointed minister of state (he got his position because his wife was one of Napoleon III’s many mistresses) he was very aware of the delicate politics of Paris, all the strings being pulled in the background and the conniving antics at the Emperor’s court. So in order not to step on any sensitive toes and cunningly sidestepping the final decision making he announced that the architect will be selected based on a design competition, which was eventually won by a relative unknown architect, Charles Garnier.  Construction on the new opera house started in 1861.

A high water table that was discovered during foundation work delayed construction and required a change to the blueprints, and it led to the rumor that a large underground lake was found under Paris. It was totally untrue, but the journalist Gaston Leroux used the rumor and the opera house as a background and cleverly turned it into the novel, The Phantom of the Opera.  

 Ascending the Grand Staircase

Entrance into the auditorium, guarded by two Greek inspired nymphs. Extensive Greek mythology inspiration can be seen throughout the building.  

The Franco-Prussian War

In September 1870 all work stopped when Paris was under siege during the disastrous Franco-Prussian War and the half-built opera house was used as a hospital and a food warehouse, the little food that did make it into Paris. Due to the food shortages Charles Garnier’s health  suffered and he left the city for the country side. The opera house was half built and no one knew whether it would ever be completed.

 The ceiling above the Grand Staircase
 Details of the four panels of the Grand Staircase's ceiling

The Prussian Army’s siege of Paris ended in January 1871 and soon after that, in May 1871, the war ended with disastrous consequences for France. It signaled the end of France’s Second Empire and allowed for the creation of the German Empire on France's northern borders. France also lost the regions bordering Germany, Alsace and Lorraine, and had to pay a hefty war indemnity. It was also the last time that any form of monarchy would ever rule France.  It was the end of an era.

Paris in chaos.
With the brief takeover of Paris by the Paris Commune, a self-styled socialist group that didn’t recognized the French government, 2 months of general chaos and mayhem ended in senseless destruction in what became known as "The Bloody Week" beginning 21 May 1871. The fighting between the Commune and the French Army, trying to take Paris back, came to a head when the Commune burned down, first the Tuileries Palace next to the Louvre and then the Hôtel De Ville, Paris’s city hall. They killed the archbishop of Paris and it is estimated that up to 10,000 people were killed in Paris during that time.

The new government of the Third French Republic was hesitant to provide funds for the completion of the opera house, no one wanted to touch anything associated with the Second Empire, but when the Salle Le Peletier, Paris’s old opera house, on Rue le Peletier burned down on 28 October 1873 the story of the Palais Garnier came full circle. The very same Salle Le Peletier, 15 years earlier, was the scene of the assassination attempt on Napoleon III’s life, and it led to the decision to build the Palais Garnier. Paris was now without an opera house. The government soon after provided funding and immediately requested Charles Garnier to complete the building.

The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier, inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles.
Another interesting story is the one during inauguration night, when Queen Isabella of Spain, broke tradition in her anticipation of admiring the Grand Foyer and entered it with her full female entourage. Prior to this night only men were allowed in opera house’s foyers where they would smoke their cigars, probably arranged for introductions to new mistresses, and did their wheeling and dealing in the business and politics of the day. Since then women were allowed in foyers.

The Great Builders

Sadly, Napoleon III, the man who started it all, never saw the completed opera house. On 1 September 1870 the Prussians captured Napoleon III when he surrendered at the Battle at Sedan. Napoleon III was later released and exiled to Chislehurst, England where he died on 9 January 1873. The Palais Garnier was inaugurated two years later on 5 January 1875.

The magnificent Grand Foyer ceiling.
Napoleon III may have lost the Franco-Prussian War and exiled to England by his own countrymen, but he was a great builder and his greatest legacy is the historic Paris that millions of tourists see today. Commissioned by the emperor and directed by his Prefect of the Seine, Georges-Eugène Haussmann, between 1853 and 1870 Paris was enlarged from 12 to the present day 20 arrondissements and it was transformed from a slum to a city with broad, and in some cases tree-lined boulevards, which linked the most important centers of the city.
I took a break from the gilded monument and gave my overexposed senses a rest, and walked out on the balcony overlooking Avenue de l'Opéra, one of the new streets created by Haussmann in 1863. The street is a classic example of the "Look of Paris". 

The “Restoration” of Paris meant to open up and aired the city. The narrow dark medieval streets and alleys and the buildings alongside them were demolished. Paris was a permanent construction zone. The strict building codes and circumscribed façade designs implemented along these new boulevards resulted in the “Look of Paris”: Buildings were not allowed to be higher than a certain number of stories with cream colored walls and typical French style roofs with dark greyish-blue tiles.

While enjoying a cigarette on the balcony musicians gathered and entertained the many folks who sat on the steps of the grand theatre.  

They were also responsible for widening the square in front of the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, restoring the cathedral’s steeple that was destroyed during the French Revolution, and in my view, probably their greatest feat, saving and restoring La Conciergerie, parts of this old Palace-turned-prison dates back to the 10th century, and the extraordinary stained-glass masterpiece, Sainte-Chapelle. But there will also be many that would argue that the Palais Garnier was their crème de la crème achievement.

The exterior of the Palais Garnier is just as richly decorated as inside 

This is what we missed.
Disappointingly, we could not enter the auditorium because a rehearsal for the evening's ballet was in progress. The ceiling was given a modern touch during restoration in 1963 by the Russian-Jewish artists Marc Chagall. He needed 440 pounds of paint to complete the ceiling.
Picture courtesy of


Our time and trip, starting in Paris, sweeping through Burgundy and southern Ile-de-France, and finally back to Paris, was at an end and it was our most relaxing, most enjoyable and insightful European vacation to date. I think our do-and-enjoy-what-is in-front-of-you-and-don't-stick-to-a-strict-itinerary attitude rubbed off on our general mood. Hence my reluctance to return home so soon. This time I felt I really left a little of me in France and I took a lot of France home with me.

Midnight visit to the Louvre Museum

A solitary early morning walk through the near empty rues of Saint-Germain and the 6th arrondissement, the breathtaking Impressionists on the 5th floor of the D’Orsay, seeing the Louvre at night, viewing Paris from the top of the Arc de Triomphe, a relaxing Sunday afternoon in the Jardin Luxembourg, discovering Saint-Étienne-du-Mont behind the Panthéon and finally the Palais Garnier were the highlights, which offset the average food we had in Paris.

Late afternoon on a country road in Vougeot
Burgundy was refined, delicate, rough, beautiful and stony old. The old city center of Dijon was a marvel that nearly stood still in time. But the friendliness of Burgundians and the superb food and wine were the highlight of Burgundy to me.  The escargots with parsley and butter, the old world Boeuf Bourguignon, some exquisite quiches, and not to mention the wonderful cheeses of the area, all consumed with grand and premier crus from Nuits-Saint Georges, Côtes de Beaune and Volnay-Santenots were gastronomical experiences not soon to forget.

Waiting for sunset in Chartres

The Gothic masterpiece and richly statued Notre-Dame de Chartres, the historic Palace of Fontainebleau and staying in the 18th century Chateau D’Esclimont provoked my senses to create memorable memories.
After our first visit to France I wrote this in a previous post:
“ If I had to summarize France into a single point of remembrance then it is the sheer audacity, and I use this word with great respect, of the French people, especially in Paris, to build such extravagantly beautiful and detailed decorated buildings. The monstrous and imposing but beautiful Arc de Triomphe or the richly gilded and artistically decorated Opera House is classic examples of this love of the French for all things beautiful and attractive.”
I said it then and it is still true.

Adieu! Viva la France!

On the square in front of the Palais Garnier it is very difficult to get an alfresco table at the Café de la Paix at 6 in the evening. I was determined to spend some time on our last night in Paris doing some people watching at this great crossroads of Paris by copying some French, who doesn't always seem to believe in standing in lines. I jumped the line, well not really a line, more a case of bundling up and I simply reacted faster than the others there waiting and walked straight to a table being vacated, not waiting for it to be cleared and clean, in a quiet alcove and secured it for us. If there were any disgruntled murmurs I didn't hear any. Tea for M and for me, my favorite beer Kronenbourg 1664. And for the next hour or so...