Category Attractions

Paris: Boulangeries, Bones, Art Nouveau

We started our morning in the Latin quarter, drawn in by a boulangerie, Solques Bruno, whose window featured enormous frosted fly agaric mushrooms and fanciful ceramic cottages and animal masks among the platters of rustic breads. Inside, Jason bought a gingerbread owl and a pastry. I don’t know what the proper name of said pastry is, but I do know that it was warm, crusty with toasted coconut and tender from butter with occasional bits of melting chocolate. Like a macaroon but less densely coconutty. It was divine. This was Jason’s favorite pastry in France.

Solques Bruno

The aforementioned warm coconutty masterpiece.

Église du Val-de-Grâce

As someone who has spent a copious amount of time in goth clubs, wearing an inordinate amount of black velvet and writing bad poetry about death, and lately more time in the brightly lit Halloween aisle with 100% fewer clove cigarettes, the catacombs of Paris fits neatly in my Venn diagram of interests. Mine, and every other tourist in Paris at the time, as we stood in a queue that stretched down the block, whiling away the time playing Pokemon Go.

Atop the entrance to the catacombs a message is inscribed. Arrete: c’est ici l’empire de la mort. Stop: this is the empire of death. With six million permanent residents and the transient living population capped at two hundred, truly this is the realm of the dead. The bones in this labyrinth are stacked from the floor to nearly the ceiling, having made the move from Paris’ overstuffed cemeteries in the 18th century. Literally overstuffed: sometimes bodies became uncovered and once, horrifyingly, a strong rain caused a retaining wall to collapse and spill corpses into a neighboring property which is kind of a health hazard and probably not the most thrilling smell to ever accompany crêpes suzette to the table. Now interred into the former limestone quarries that yielded the stone for the city above, this ossuary is just a portion of more than 200 miles of tunnels under the city. And a smaller portion of that is what is displayed to tourists, with serious barriers in place to prevent anyone from wandering off and becoming lost, which does occasionally happen to people who enter from manhole covers. 

An entire class of urban explorer is devoted to these subterranean passages. Known as cataphiles, theirs and others’ illicit entry into the tunnels in turn created a new form of French police, the E.R.I.C., who patrol the tunnels, remove trespassers, and seal entrances. (Imagine attempting to exit where you’d entered only to find it blocked off from the other side.)  Given the zeal of others to get in there, I expected to feel something in the catacombs. A sense of unease or some body horror or at least like a Belmont on a vampire hunt minus the whip. But there, in that vaguely industrial lighting…nothing. I have no doubt I’d feel differently alone among the dead with only the light of my phone and its rapidly depleting battery to guide me. 

They were what we are, Dust, toy of the wind; Fragile like men, Weak as the nether!

These remains came from the cemetery of innocents, the cemetery with the aforementioned corpse-spilling problem.

Ah, color correction.

Nothing works up an appetite more than hanging around six million dead people and after climbing the seemingly-endless spiral staircase up to street level we were especially vulnerable to a beacon of ease, convenience, and rapidity. Motherfucking McDonalds. Those golden arches gleamed and we looked at one another and mutually decided we were not done rubbing shoulders with death for the day and went inside. Circumstances conspired to save us from ourselves as neither of us had enough cash on hand and our cards were rejected by the electronic ordering station because there was no way for us to sign for the charge, so we went royale-with-cheeseless.  

Still, the desire for food that we could eat snappily and be on our way was paramount, so we ended up in our second boulangerie of the day, Moisan. I kept to my oath to order a kouign amann every time I saw one, and theirs had a crackling crustiness to it that practically begged for an accompanying café au lait. 

Kouign amann at Moisan

After finishing our pastries, we walked through Luxembourg Gardens. Commissioned by Queen of France Marie de’ Medici*,  who grew weary of life in the Louvre, the palace and gardens were designed to remind her of her childhood in Florence, Italy. Statuary and benches are distributed down winding walking paths along with tennis courts, chess sets, and an apiary. 

In this palatial garden, a little bit of ‘murrica.

Le Triomphe de Silene, Aime Jules Dalou, 1885; Silenus is a companion of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and his most notable trait is being constantly drunk.

The kid doesn’t seem to be having a great time, and that baby on the ground, even less so. 

I was set on reaching the Musee de Luxembourg, where they were hosting a special exhibit on Alphonse Mucha, a Czech artist who lived and worked in Paris in the Latin quarter for twenty years, the entirety of the period during which art nouveau was popular (1890-1910).  Art nouveau utilizes sinuous, asymmetrical forms and draws inspiration from nature. Mucha, though leery of the art nouveau label (how can one movement of art be labeled “new” when by its very nature art continually changes?) blended the line between fine art and commercialism, first becoming famous for his posters of the French stage actress with the golden voice, Sarah Bernhardt. He was a prolific artist, and his work was seen everywhere from champagne advertisements to calendars to cookie packages. That style became synonymous with his name, though in his later years he grew to despise its commercial nature, and returned to his homeland to work on The Slav Epic, a twenty painting series he considered to be his most important work. 

La Princesse Lointaine, 1900

A cookie box for cookies made in Nantes.

Zodiac, 1892

The Moon and the Stars: The Morning Star, 1902

The Moon and the Stars: The Moon, 1902

From Le Pater, an extremely rare symbolist work and illustration of The Lord’s Prayer that Mucha described to a reporter as “the thing I have put my soul into” and of which only 510 copies were originally printed, after which the plates were destroyed as Mucha feared they would be stolen piecemeal for advertising purposes against his will due to his popularity.

Christmas in America, 1919

The museum was packed, and while I did especially appreciate seeing the gilding illuminated on Zodiac, by the time we’d finished browsing, I was ready to be done with that crush of people and also for another snack, and Angelina Paris was there for me with a delightful pastry inspired by a Mucha painting that tasted like late spring and a hot pot of tea. 

Rêverie: raspberry and strawberry enrobing a light rose-flavored mousse with a deep red raspberry heart on a shortbread crust, topped with a wafer of fine dark chocolate and two load-bearing ripe red raspberries.


Fontaine Saint-Sulpice, fountain of the sacred orators

I thought, given the cement pillars and the nature of the ground and the fact that it’s in the plaza with the fountain meant that this was a pedestrian area but the car driving through here disabused me of that notion.

Notre Dame and the glittering Seine at night.

Fueled by sugar, we wandered the streets into the evening. It’s Paris: that’s what you do. Eat pastries and walk your ass off.

 

*Her grandson, Louis XIV, was no doubt inspired by his grandmother’s example when he, too, grew tired of the Louvre and commissioned Versailles.

Getting Medieval in Paris: Notre Dame, Unicorns, Chocolat

Place de la République, with a statue commemorating the French Revolution.

Our first stop when we arrived in Paris was our hotel for the remainder of the trip, the Hotel du Vieux Saule, in the Marais neighborhood. Of all the hotels we stayed at, this is one I would say I settled on, after shifting the budget to accommodate the palace-adjacent properties we stayed in earlier in the trip. When I think back, while I can’t say it with 100% certainty, this place springs to mind as the most likely candidate responsible for our brush with bedbugs and the deep cleaning frenzy* that ensued afterward.

Why do I point the finger in their direction? Given that I had many bites on different parts of my body, I have to assume that there wouldn’t have been enough time for it to take place on public transit (Through my winter coat? Not likely.), or really even any place where I was staying only one night. The only other hotel we stayed in more than one night was in Nantes, and just statistically based on population, it’s more likely that the Parisian hotel had bedbugs than the one in Nantes. Also, when we checked in, there was a half-consumed beverage and garbage in the minibar and some pubes in the shower that said cleaning might not be their top priority. That’s basically it. And I’m still salty that the one time we allowed staff to come in to make the bed (implying they cleaned would be a violation of my journalistic integrity), some things went missing, things with no value–souvenir ticket stubs and the like. Why? If you can’t throw away actual trash, why take it upon yourself to konmari my possessions while I’m still renting the room? Argh.

But we didn’t know about the bedbugs just yet so we commenced walking around Paris. 

Hôtel de Ville, the town hall

Science, Jules Blanchard, c. 1882

Before its closure, more than thirteen million people passed through the enormous wood and wrought iron doors at Notre Dame every year. People looking for absolution, people looking for peace, people looking for architecture, people looking for a medallion with the face of the Pope. It was the most visited monument in Paris by far, one of the most heavily toured monuments in Europe**.

This Gothic icon, built in the twelfth century, is so beloved now that it’s hard to believe that after the Napoleonic wars, it was almost demolished because it was in such a terrible state. Victor Hugo published Notre-Dame de Paris (better known as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) in 1831, which raised public awareness of its decay so that thirteen years later, “citizen-king” Louis Philippe I ordered that it be restored. (The same time period during which Les Miserables is set.)

Notre Dame took over twelve million francs to restore over twenty years. That restoration involved low quality stone and cement and even before the fire in April 2019, those restorations were starting to crumble, gargoyles cleaving from the structure to fall to the ground below, replaced with pvc pipe to drain water, the Catholic church (which permanently rents the building from the government of France, for free), not contributing nearly enough to its upkeep. Now, in the wake of the fire, it struggles more as people and businesses who vowed to donate to its restoration struggle to find their checkbooks as they already reaped the benefits of the public accolades and the news cycle has moved on. There are other practical concerns as well: how do you replace a roof made from an entire forest of trees when logging has all but eliminated the old-growth trees that would be large enough for such a project? 

That teeny tiny little speck on top of the cross on the spire is a rooster as big as an average adult human torso, filled with religious relics. 

The gargoyles/grotesques were added in the 19th century, some 600 years after the cathedral was finished.

Most of these biblical kings were beheaded during the French Revolution in a frenzy of king beheading after Louis XVI only had but one to give his country and the crowd remained unsatisfied.

Big Witch Energy

One of the rose windows, dates back to the 13th century; these survived the fire in April.

No word on whether these important relics were saved.

The doorknocker of Notre Dame; the 13th century wrought iron on these doors is so fine that a rumor began to spread that the blacksmith, Biscornet, had sold his soul to the devil for the ability to create them, because no one ever gets to be really talented at something without the credit going to someone above or way below.

Charlemagne et ses Leudes / Charlemagne and his Guards. Charlemagne laid the first stone at Notre Dame and almost assuredly no others.

Our route took us down Rue Dante, a street with many shops of general nerd interest: toy stores, comic book shops, purveyors of pulp fiction, and a creperie with intergalactic decor named Odyssey that advertised in its window its right to refuse service to Jar Jar Binks. Our destination? The Musée de Cluny, Paris’ medieval history museum, constructed on the remnants of Gallo-Roman baths, rebuilt in 1510, and currently open to the public while undergoing a major renovation.

The entrance to the Musée de Cluny was not designed with modern security in mind but a conveyer belt x-ray machine and metal detector are wedged in there regardless. Personal belongings are funneled into an alcove with a narrow entrance, passable by one person. When it was my turn, I went in to grab my things, and an impatient older woman crammed in right behind me–she couldn’t get at her belongings, and I couldn’t get out. There was literally nowhere for me to go and she’s trying to reach around me with freaking zombie arms and I’d had just about enough of being physically forced around by other human beings all week and that’s the story of how I ended up snapping “MOVE” at an old lady because “pardon” and “excusez-moi” weren’t getting through. Because honestly? Have some spatial awareness. Consider the fact that other people exist. Good grief. 

We were at the Musée de Cluny for their Magical Unicorns exhibit, along with what appeared to be every schoolchild in greater Paris. The Lady and the Unicorn tapestries, having just returned from Sydney, were the centerpiece, a set of six enormous red weavings whose meaning yet remains a subject of debate; the most likely theory in my estimation is the one that posits that the series of six tapestries is the five senses, plus one to grow on. In addition to the tapestries were some seventy other pieces related to the licorne from the museum’s collection, a common subject in medieval art, when it was believed to be a real animal.

What the unicorn tapestries look like to people with undiagnosed myopia. 

Unicorn water vessel

Wild Woman with Unicorn, a chairback cover from about 1500, her dress is not made of skink tongues but hair.

Sight, The Lady with the Unicorn

Touch, The Lady with the Unicorn

A Mon Seul Desir, the final tapestry in the Lady with the Unicorn series

The only thought that went through my brain upon glancing at this display of ivory is “Look how many elephants had to die so we could collectively gaze upon more awful monk haircuts.”

Some of the original heads of the biblical kings of Notre Dame that had been removed, discovered in 1977.

This spectacular chocolate death mask of  Tutankhamun lured me into Maison Georges Larnicol though I didn’t end up buying any actual chocolate, leaving with an array of “kouignettes” and an obscene amount of tender, buttery salted caramels, both in assorted flavors . These mini kouign amann up the ante for richness. It’s the kougin amann equivalent of eating the center out of a cinnamon roll: the densest, softest part, with the highest ratio of filling to dough, except instead of cinnamon sugar, it’s a sticky-crunchy caramel swirled with raspberry, Grand Marnier, pistachio, or chocolate ganache. Given the abundance of butter, their petite size is just right. Their caramels are the best caramels I’ve ever eaten, with flavors like apple crumble, mirabelle plum, and sesame. 

Fontaine Saint-Michel, 1860

The Seine at sunset

The French term for “window shopping” is léche-vitrine, or window-licker.

The Louvre after dark

I’m not the biggest fan of the metro but I do love these swooping art nouveau entrances.

To The Smoking Dog

Amorino Gelato, mango gelato with a mango Santa macaron

We spent the rest of the day wandering around the city and snacking: croque monsieurs and frites, gelato, paprika chips…mmm, paprika chips.

 

* It was definitely a brush with bedbugs: I had six bites in a line from my upper arm to my elbow, and another four in a line on my opposite hip. The itch was so deep I could always feel the desire to scratch, over everything else. Since I never saw a physical bug and didn’t know until after I got home that I was bitten, this meant that I had to assume that my entire home was contaminated. Our luggage was garbage bagged and exiled. Our mattress was encased in plastic. Every single textile was laundered on super hot regardless of the care instructions and then quarantined in garbage bags until the entire job was finished. We vacuumed and vacuumed and vacuumed. I canceled social engagements in case there was a chance I could spread them. I warned people before they attempted to hug me. (That part was the hardest, feeling like the kind of dirty that can’t be cleaned with the people whom I most enjoy having that kind of closeness, which makes sense because it’s not like you’re often given the opportunity to hug an enemy or even a frenemy to infest them, like a Kiss of Death except it just psychologically tortures them for weeks.) The pest control guy could not find any evidence of bedbugs in our home (see: all the cleaning) but set some traps with bedbug lures which have never caught a single bedbug. I haven’t had any bites appear since and I have to conclude that I was bitten and either didn’t carry any home with me or that my quarantine and extermination efforts did the trick. Do I still feel uneasy any time I feel the faintest tickle on my body in the night? Damn right I do.

**Let’s be real, though: Notre Dame is smack in the middle of Paris, on an island in the Seine which splits the city in two, so it is in the primest of locations for foot traffic. If every time we walked by was a “visit”, Jason and I visited Notre Dame about twelve times.  

The Domaine de Chantilly, Jewel in the French Countryside

Situated on the edge of Sylvie Pond, the Domaine de Chantilly appears to float upon the water, like something out of a fairy tale. This château was constructed in the early 1800s; the original 12th century building and home to the Condés was destroyed during the French Revolution. So while this is the historical home of Louis II de Bourbon, this is not his house.

The reconstruction and embellishment of this home was the single grand vision of Henri d’Orléans, Duke of Aumale, who needed somewhere to display his vast art collection. As his would-be heirs predeceased him, Henri deeded it to the Institut de France along with the Great Stables, provided that they not be altered, and that none of the art should ever leave, on loan or otherwise. It now houses the Musee Condé, displaying all the intact treasure of a 19th century prince. 

(click for the full panorama and to play a game of “Where’s Melissa?”)

The grounds at Chantilly are extensive; motorized carts and horses are available to rent so that visitors can more easily traverse the 115 hectares (just over 284 acres), a large portion of which remains wooded with accents here and there. A temple dedicated to Venus. A life size game of snakes and ladders. In the center of the grounds is a more structured French 17th century style garden with symmetrical reflecting pools and manicured greenery embracing them, fountains and bright white statuary. 

It took me entirely too long to realize that wasn’t a tank top.

We spent some time admiring the exterior of the château and the grounds near the entryway. The Duke was clearly fond of statuary and ornamentation with a Grecian and Egyptian influence. Stone sphinxes placidly allow visitors to pass. Life size statues of men writhe on either side of the main entrance, their flesh realistically bound by stone wrappings.  Other details stand out: the roof tiles of the château are overlapping scales. Iron winds into curving, pointed shapes that suggest both the natural world and a threat simultaneously. I spent some time imagining how fabulous it would be to sweep through these columned archways en route to a masquerade ball, because thinking about expensive, impractical parties is one of my favorite hobbies.

Ornate does not even begin to describe the interior of the château. It is encrusted with riches the way a ship’s bottom gathers barnacles: more upon more. Gilding on top of decorative moulding on top of paintings to fit the little space above doors. Large fireplaces with unique decorative firedogs, gifts and acquisitions from foreign lands, statues and gold and art by masters and so much fine furniture for looking at. The château was criticized by Boni de Castellane as “one of the saddest specimens of the architecture of our era” because the layout is such that one enters on the second floor and descends to the salons. I don’t really understand this criticism in terms of how it affects the home’s functionality, but I do think I would enjoy spending time snarkily browsing real estate listings with Boni because he is going to have some thoughts on McMansions and I am here for them.

I know I’ve already admired the Prince of Condé for his outstanding pirate fashion sensibilities, but in these statues, I’m getting more of a hot vampire vibe. 

This was in a room of very large murals, subdivided into smaller paintings by these painted gold frames. I love the whimsical lion faces. 

And then there’s The Grand Monkey room, an entire room devoted to depicting monkeys engaging in the arts, the sciences, and lighthearted weapon-wielding. This was obviously my favorite room. Dress an animal in people clothes (especially with a wide array of fantastic hats) and you have my attention. Make them specialist academics and experts in arms and your room theme catapults from “cute” to “top ten of all time”. 

 

The Duke bought this fireplace screen painted by Christophe Huet at an estate sale to go in the monkey room, where no doubt he felt that whole body thrill you get when you find something that could’ve been made for you.

The library at Chantilly contains almost 19,000 items, including 300 medieval manuscripts, a small portion of which are on display to the public in glass cases. I wonder who gets to read from this library, if anyone. 

I’m deeply into these reading and writing chairs.

Medieval book, entirely hand lettered, illustrated, and illuminated. My mind boggles contemplating the amount of human labor that is bound into this book.

Presumably the last thing you see before you are brained with a lamp by your deadeyed lover.

Chapelle des Coeurs des Condé / Chapel of the Hearts of Condé, where the hearts of the family remain in a communal urn.

Staircase into The Stag Gallery

The Stag Gallery. Jason thinks that a table this size would be perfect for miniature wargaming but based on my experience with their catalog, if the Duke had been into Warhammer on this scale, he wouldn’t have been able to afford to construct the château. It would have just been the table, a tent, and 50 million francs worth of plastic figures on top of the rubble of the old château.

I found the most important part of the tapestry for you to look at. 

When I entered the Domaine, I was entirely unprepared for its art collection, including Raphael’s Les Trois Graces. I took a photo of a painting of a horse (because horse) and then realized that it was painted by French master Théodore Géricault. There’s so much art everywhere, stacked up the walls in 19th century style as many as three deep in thick, golden frames, room after room filled with master works, an entire museum of art in one wing.

One of the ways the paintings are protected is through constant, vigilant security. On the day I visited, the young man on the job strode purposefully from room to room, his shoes squeaking vigorously with every step. Those squeaks stalked me throughout the château, the volume belying his position at all times. The energetic squeaks grew near, then far, then near again. It seems like knowing roughly how much time you have before the guard squeaks past your location would almost embolden a thief…but I suppose that’s when the other guard with silent shoes they never noticed gets them.

The Gallery of Painting, at the far end of the room, the rotunda.

François-Hubert Drouais, Marie Antoinette, 1773

Piero di Cosimo, Ritratto di Simonetta Vespucci come Cleopatra ; I love this painting and I was thrilled to see it in person. 

The ceiling of the rotunda. I’m not familiar with this particular escapade of Hermes but that muralbombing cherub seems pretty dismayed.

A painting about friendship and fond feelings about apples.

There was an entire wall of sepia-toned stained glass depicting scenes of…I don’t know, let’s take a look.

…so here it appears we have a crowd gathered by torchlight to watch a baby get a Prince Albert.

Correction: a very creepy baby.

I was particularly fond of the artistic flourishes used around text. 

I love the sassy expressions on these satyrs. 

This looks like Jesus got pretty great seats for his friends for the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Pottery produced in Chantilly featuring an animal that I’m certain everyone recognizes and immediately pictures whenever someone occasions to say something is “leopard print”.  Long scaly fingers tipped with claws, jagged tusks for teeth, wide human eyes and that unmistakable polka dot coat: that’s a leopard, all right.

Life goals.

THIS STAIRCASE. Look at that curving, swirling gorgeousness. No one is allowed to touch it but my desire to touch it was so high. Check that little lizard tail poking out! This staircase is so fabulous that everyone who gazes upon it walks with an extra sway in their step for the next fifty yards. 

The Palace of Versailles used this painting by Vernet of King Louis-Philippe at Versailles as the cover for their visitor guide for their limited time exhibition on Louis-Phillipe, the king who transformed the palace into a national monument.

Eventually the nonstop squeaking drove us outdoors for another stroll through a portion of the gardens. The sky blustered on and off and a cold wind bit through our jackets so neither of us harbored dreams of walking OR riding the entire estate. We mainly walked around the back of the castle and through one section of the woods, finding a cave that I’m a thousand percent certain is the mossy home of a magical critter that Jason went into and I declined, fearing magical rabies. 

The side of our hotel, the Auberge du Jeu de Paume.

Our time out in the gardens of Chantilly chilled me to the bone, and so we each spent some time luxuriating in a hot bath. I remembered how going out to dinner early in Paris had made us cross paths with closed restaurants and rude waiters, so in Chantilly, we started our search for our first meal of the day a little later, around 7, and that’s when I learned that in Chantilly, they roll up the red carpet around 5pm. We bought the dregs of a boulangerie that we caught just before they, too, closed up shop for the day, went back to the hotel room, and ordered five star room service while watching movies on youtube. Their restaurant has a Michelin star, there’s a small chance that room service comes out of the same kitchen. It may not have been fine dining, but it was delicious and would’ve been so even if we both weren’t ravenous.

I am beyond glad that the room service did not arrive during the “outrageous French accent” scene.

When we checked in, the clerk emphasized that we could have breakfast served in our room or we could have it at their restaurant. The website even says that breakfast is served in the room so that you can enjoy the view from the window “immediately upon waking”. “What a lovely amenity to offer,” I thought. “And they’re so proud of their high level of service that they want to make certain everyone partakes of the most important meal of the day.” Since we had a train to catch back to Paris, I chose to eat in the restaurant, not taking much but delighted by the selection of beautiful French pastries, eggs made to order, rows of cups of vanilla infused creme Chantilly

And then I got my bill printout and saw that breakfast was an extra 35 euros apiece and I wished that I had stuffed my backpack full of chocolate croissants instead of just eating one and drinking a cup of tea like a sucker.

The next few days would be Paris alone, and while I would miss this swanky hotel and its flattering mirrors, I was glad to be going to a home base of sorts. I didn’t need to worry about which train seats corresponded with my fare on my ride back to Paris: the train was so full everyone’s seat was “face in stranger’s armpit”. A human scent-ipede.