120 Photos - Aug 3, 2008
Photo: The afternoon of December 9 finds us in Paris at the Gare de l’Est (East Station), with a statue appropriately named Strasbourg on top. The journey has not been kind to us so far. Our USAir flight the previous evening, scheduled for 8:30, does not go wheels up until after midnight, thus confirming the oxymoronic nature of “small mechanical problem.” My crankiness is somewhat reduced on the RER trip from airport to station, where a couple of young men are playing accordions in that very French style.Photo: Our four hour train trip to Strasbourg is mostly in darkness, which would ordinarily be very dull, but there are now holiday lights in the various towns and villages along the way. The French decorating style is understated: perhaps just a star, or an outlined window on a home. In a few cases there are more organized displays of “ornaments” along a road; in one town, sprays of lights on poles remind me of palm trees. We are staying two nights in Strasbourg on the picturesque La Place du Marche (Market Square), whose full name is La Place du Marche au Cochons de Lait, which is thus Suckling Pig Market Square – and so presumably a home to a number of boucheries (butcher shops) in earlier days. The Hotel des Arts is a small, convivial local place; our room faces the square, and so is perhaps livelier and brighter than we would have preferred late in the evening.Photo: The lighted cobblestone pedestrian lanes of the Square are typical of the area.Photo: Our first look at the Cathedral, just off the Square.Photo: Our first night dinner is at Au Vieux Strasbourg (In Old Strasbourg), one of the small restaurants in the square. Mme. has the choucroute, which here means more than just sauerkraut – it includes 5 different kinds of pork cuts. She likes the ham ones, but is less disposed towards a couple which are very soft – more like a liver paste, and one very dark, and so probably a blood sausage. I am happy to do the clean-up work. I opt for Alsatian roast beef – which is basically a tasty sauerbraten, showing the German influences in the area, which we will see again and again. So, instead of wine, I choose une biere de Noel (Christmas Beer), a specialty of the time and place. Also on the menu is choucroute canard – duck with sauerkraut – another example of the mixed French/German influences in Alsace.Photo: Touring the area the next morning, we see the richness of the decorations on many of the old buildings.Photo: The Cathedral, whose first stone was laid in 1277, looking down its length.Photo: The 466 foot high main spire was the tallest in all Christendom until the 19th century.Photo: One of the Christmas markets surrounds the Cathedral in small wooden shops like these. The market is more a German tradition than a French one, and so Strasbourg is home to the largest one in France.Photo: The main entrance to the Cathedral, showing the educational details typical of these portals: the largely-illiterate medieval population learned its religious principles from the stories represented by the statuary.Photo: The main structure shows remarkable lace-like stone details.Photo: A closer view of one of the brightly-lit shops.Photo: Topping one shop is this group of mechanical musical angels.Photo: A carousel in the Market.Photo: Now inside the Cathedral, at the large (figures about a foot high) Christmas scene. In the Nativity section, the baby is of course absent, it being only December 10.Photo: The visit of the Magi.Photo: The final scene.Photo: In the back of the Cathedral is a large medieval astronomical clock, with solar and lunar settings and moving figures.Photo: A detail of some of the figures above the clock face.Photo: Part of the mechanical system which controls the clock.Photo: The gearing is in many ways the forerunner to the modern computer.Photo: While our governments may behave like spoiled children towards each other, the French have not forgotten our sacrifices in WW II, and we have never encountered the slightest personal anti-American feeling on any of our visits.Photo: The Cathedral’s rose window.Photo: The elaborately carved preaching pulpit.Photo: Photo: In early afternoon, we take a one-hour boat trip along Strasbourg’s river, the Ill. Our vessel in completely enclosed, and so very comfortable on a chilly December day.Photo: Passing by some typical architecture along the river.Photo: Lots of half-timbered construction in some parts of the city.Photo: This protective fortification included narrow slits for archers as well as cannon, an imposing barrier for potential attackers.Photo: Saint Peter’s church.Photo: The old fisherman’s harbor.Photo: Saint Paul’s church, the second largest in the city.Photo: Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament, the legislative body of the European Union.Photo: More EU buildings.Photo: Bureaucracies take up lots of space, wherever they are!Photo: Alsace is a mixture of French and German influences, as reflected in the architecture.Photo: Back on land, and a walking tour takes us past the “dragon building,” with Saint George slaying same, as shown on the crest near the top.Photo: Now in the old section of town called La Petite France (Little France), with houses belonging to fishermen, millers, and tanners dating mostly from the 16th and 17th centuries.Photo: A restaurant decorated for the holidays in this part of town.Photo: Many of the windows are decorated for the season.Photo: Back in the Cathedral square, here looking at the Kammerzell House, home to wealthy merchants for centuries. The stone-arcaded ground floor is from the 15th century, while the carved timbering on upper levels is from the 16th.Photo: Our rare (for us) sit-down lunch that day is at the Café Patachou next to the hotel. We have tarte and quiche, differing mainly in the softness/creaminess of the latter. I believe that the café name comes from the name of the pastry dough used for cream puffs and the like.Photo: More carefully decorated windows.Photo: The Rohan Palace, built (1732-1742) in the Parisian style. At the beginning of the 19th century, it was a residence of Napoleon, who was very popular with Alsatians.Photo: In La Place de la Republique is this sculpture, showing a mother with her two dead sons – one killed defending France, the other Germany. In the two World Wars of the 20th century, this was a very real issue for Alsace.Photo: The square’s buildings reflect the Prussian style introduced after the 1870 German conquest of the region.Photo: An old horse-drawn carriage makes its way through the late afternoon streets.Photo: Another Christmas market, this one oriented towards food products and sweets. I buy a long wooden skewer of chocolate-covered pineapple chunks. I am asked: “c’est pour toute de suite?” – basically, are you eating this right now? I am, of course, and my final irritations with yesterday’s flight delay are now completely gone.Photo: Each of the streets has its own distinctive decoration style – this one, entirely in chandeliers!Photo: A close up – the boxes are no doubt to keep local birds from roosting.Photo: This narrow street is decorated with horizontal lit wreaths.Photo: Saint Thomas’ church was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.Photo: A large Christmas tree (sapin de noel) by one of the markets.Photo: The lights on the street facing the Cathedral’s rose window.Photo: This “Strasbourg – City of Light” arch greets visitors.Photo: More lights.Photo: The evening view outside our hotel window.Photo: Our Friday evening restaurant on the square, “At the Pig’s Foot.” Tonight I have the choucroute, and D. opts for a whole baked trout. Seafood – but river rather than sea – is very popular here.Photo: After dinner, we are back in Saint Thomas’ church, having just missed a concert.Photo: More decorations, by evening light.Photo: The decorated entrance to a restaurant. On the lower right you see Mme.’s hair, as I am using her head for support for this low-light picture. A group of twenty-something young women behind us find this very amusing.Photo: Saturday morning takes us back to Paris by train, where the countryside now goes by in daylight. We discover that we have passed through the Champagne region, as we spend some time going trough vine-covered hillsides. Our hotel is in the 5th, just off the lively market street La Rue Mouffetarde (“La Mouffe” to locals).Photo: A Saturday afternoon walk takes us past the Seine, where we see a Goth movie being filmed (a young actress in all black and white make-up is barely visible).Photo: We had originally planned to revisit some old favorites for dinners, but we instead opt for new ones, suggested in a recent thread on Paris bistros on rec.travel.europe. Here, Le Bouledogue on Rue Rambuteau - bulldog pictures in fact fill the bistro. D. has steak frites (very good, she says), and I go for the mignons de porc – also excellent. I also fulfill one of my three culinary requirements for a Paris visit by having profiteroles for dessert – terrific, as always.Photo: Next, an evening stroll on the well-lit Champs Elysees, here facing L’Arc de Triomphe.Photo: And here, the other direction, looking towards La Place de la Concorde.Photo: Paris decorates selectively for the holidays, but here is one store in the spirit of the season.Photo: Farther down, flocked trees with rotating colored lights.Photo: And a decorated restaurant.Photo: Sunday morning, and now in the area of the old market, Les Halles, the old buildings now marked by iron outlines, with a large underground mall now below us.Photo: Now on the Rue Montorgueil, another popular market street.Photo: Here, the open-air display at a wine store.Photo: Now, back to La Mouffe, which is more lively this gray morning.Photo: Any doubt of the freshness of the meat at this boucherie?Photo: Or of the seafood at the poissonerie?Photo: As we return to the hotel for Mme.’s mid-day break, we pass this community sing at the bottom of the market.Photo: . I return alone a few minutes later, and find the group part way through the Piaf classic “Milord,” a song which typifies Paris for me. Sheet music is being distributed, but few people need it for this one. After, we switch to L’Hirondelle de Faubourg,” (The Swallow of Faubourg), and I am reading along and singing as best I can. I suddenly realize that in that brief time I am no longer just a tourist in Paris, but I am of Paris, right there with the local folks. This is that unbidden sukkha (consult your local Buddhist for details) experience which travel can unexpectedly bring, and for which I am profoundly moved in that moment.Photo: The singing and dancing continue as I depart. When I return in mid-afternoon, all is quiet and deserted, as the shops have closed for some Sunday rest. However, the experience of those moments continues to echo inside me.Photo: Paris is bidding for the 2012 Olympic Games, and signs of support are everywhere.Photo: An inscription on Le Palais de Chaillot. I translate as “Each man creates without knowing it, just as he breathes, but the artist feels in creating his work and engages all his beloved being and his pain to strengthen it.”Photo: That evening, we go to an organ concert at Saint Eustache, a mix of Gothic and classical architecture, built between 1532 and 1637.Photo: Some of the pipes of what is considered one of the best organs in Paris. Some of the music is more muted, but the organist also occasionally turns its full power loose, letting us know he can not only fill the large interior, but also blow the doors off if he chose to.Photo: Sunday evening is our “cuisine intermezzo,” where we take a break from the rich French food with a quick snack at Le Carroussel de Louvre. So, at the same time, we take here a break from the 21st century, turning my digital camera towards an older coloring scheme. Here, the familiar front façade of Notre Dame.Photo: L’Arc de Triomphe.Photo: In the Tuileries, with the Louvre in the background.Photo: The I.M. Pei pyramid, added for the French bicentennial in 1989, gives away the recent vintage of this Louvre picture.Photo: The ancient obelisk on La Place de la Concorde.Photo: A view down the Seine, towards the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge over the river. It was a sensation when built in 1607, and heavily traveled: it was said that one could not traverse the bridge without passing a monk, a white horse, and a loose woman.Photo: Les Invalides, with the golden dome of Napoleon’s burial place in the background.Photo: Thoumieux, the little bistro on La Rue St. Dominique, where I had my first meal in Paris 15 years ago.Photo: Even with its head in the clouds, I expect that no introduction is needed.Photo: One of the old carousels in the Eiffel Tower area.Photo: The architecture of one of the old traditional Metro stops.Photo: Across the Seine, with the delicate spire of Sainte Chapelle in the background.Photo: Sacre Coeur.Photo: The old opera house, L’Opera Garnier.Photo: The gilded towers of the Alexander III Bridge, with the Grand Palais in the background.Photo: Monday morning takes us to the Grands Magasins – the big Paris department stores. Here, the tree in the main rotunda of the Galleries Lafayette. An inspection of the well-coiffed locals shows that there are two predominant hair coloring schemes in Paris this year. The first is streaked, especially with prominent auburn highlights; the second is jet black. The latter goes well with the prescribed outfit for the fashionable Parisienne: black boots, black slacks (or ankle-length skirt), black sweater, black scarf (in the round-the-neck European style), black coat, black gloves, and (optional) black hat.Photo: The windows are all animated with various marionettes, with lots of children giving them their full attention.Photo: Now on the roof garden of Printemps, and another gray day, with Sacre Coeur barely visible in the distance.Photo: That afternoon, I metro out to the suburb of St. Denis, where the basilica is the final resting place for many centuries of French royalty. And, the sun is seen for the first time in our visit!Photo: The church interior.Photo: The funeral robes of kings and queens are on display.Photo: Here, a memorial in marble to Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.Photo: Some of the crypts on the main level.Photo: One of the side chapels.Photo: The rose window of St. Denis.Photo: More of the main level crypts.Photo: An inscription in one of the burial areas on the lower level: “Here is the body of the very high, very powerful, and very virtuous Marie Le Zinsk, spouse of the very high and very powerful king, deceased the 24th of June 1766 at the age of 75.”Photo: Dinner that night is at a real local spot on the Rue de Vinagriers. Red-check tablecloths and curtains in a very casual atmosphere. I fulfill another one of my requirements with an escargot (snails) appetizer. I have magret de canard (sliced duck breast), and D. a baked salmon – both excellent. Profiteroles are on the menu again, so I indulge; it’s the first time I have seen them topped with chopped nuts, and they’re delicious, as always. It’s the least expensive dinner of the week, but nevertheless one of the best.Photo: Near the end, this chanteuse, with accordion accompaniment, join the diners. It’s a very sweet local touch to the evening.Photo: Our last day brings us to the Paris Christmas markets, here the one at La Defense.Photo: Now that’s potato salad! I am unable to find my third culinary requirement – a tuna and cheese crepe – and since time is short, I opt for a more standard ham and cheese one here.Photo: Mme.’s 6 year old grandson thinks that the Eiffel Tower is only a story, so we are bringing back this photographic proof.Photo: There is supposed to be a Santa’s Village at the Montparnasse Tower, but we find nothing of note – except a crepe stand that does have the tuna and cheese crepe (thon et fromage)! So, I have my second one in short order.Photo: On the Tower’s 56th floor is one of the best views of the city – though a bit reduced by today’s haze.Photo: My favorite Metro ad this visit is the one for a 19.99 euro (about $25) sweater top, with the added information: “And you have to take a ticket to kiss Lucy.” I am impressed by the functionality of cell phones even in the deep Metro tunnels – do they have underground towers?

I note also that there seems to be a generation gap in the pronunciation of the word yes (oui) by the locals. Above age 25 or so, it is pronounced like the English word “we,” as expected. However, the younger generation seems to favor the pronunciation “way.” It’s like being in a Wayne’s World movie: “no way … way!”. A very curious thing.

Also, it appears semi-mandatory for anyone under 30 (and quite few older) to have at least one plug in their ears at all times. Two is preferred for a music player, but one for a cell phone is also acceptable.Photo: Mandatory tourist picture of the Eiffel Tower in full sparkle (for 10 minutes at the top of every evening hour).Photo: On the very chic La Place du Vendome (home to the Ritz Hotel), the decorations are 6 foot Christmas trees inside these large ornaments.Photo: Our final dinner, at Chez Ginette in Montmartre, another typical bistro. D. has another steak frites, and I go for beef bourginoun, a traditional dish, and well prepared. The young waiter and I have a little game going – me ordering in French, and him replying in English. He says “I want to practice my English,” to which I of course respond “Et je veux pratiquer mon francais!”. We share a tarte tatin, which is good, but not up to Mme.’s, which is one of her specialties. It is a fine end to another great French trip – and in our experience, there is no other kind.