Concettina Died and Other Stories of the East Side

Five Days In Paris: Day 4, posted March 20, 2009 at 04:22 PM

WARNING: What you are about to read may drive you mad with jealousy. It is a graphic, detailed account of a perfect vacation day. Those with overworked conditions, bad weeks, empty stomachs, or empty souls might wish to avoid this entry.


We actually got our fat American asses out of bed at an early hour this day, and got out of the hotel by 9am. After a quick standing-up coffee at a local cafe, we hopped on the Metro to the Marais, where we sat in a another little cafe for a breakfast of coffee and tartines. After, we walked just a few steps into the Place des Vosges, which was just as beguiling in its winter nakedness as it was when I first saw it in the bloom of late spring. This time, because of the temperature being 40 rather than 70, instead of gorgeous teenagers lounging in the grass, we saw adorable Orthodox Jewish boys running and playing tag. We contemplated the square for a while, its formal symmetries and evenness, its porticoed walkways, its fine bone structure, then strolled back into the Marais's shop-laden streets.

The perfection that is Place des Vosges. Click all images for larger.

Stephanie found a perfume shop she'd been seeking, and we spent some time there sniffing samples and flirting with the hipster salesboy. In the end, neither the parfum nor the salesboy left with us.

We had earlier seen a lovely formal garden behind a gate and discovered it was part of the Musée Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris. We entered to find a fascinating mix of preserved architecture and paintings, drawings, and models depicting various times and events in the city's history. It was great to see early models of some of the actual places that we've visited, such as St. Sulpice. And the gardens where terrific. Small and well-maintained, they featured boxwood hedges in two shades of green that were sculpted into fleur-de-lis patterns and ringed with flowers and small plants of green and silver. A gardener was there, up on a ladder, getting her trees properly pruned for the coming Spring.

The garden at Musée Carnavalet

Nearby was the Picasso Museum, and even though it wasn't one of my favorites from last time, I had to take Stephanie there to view "Paul en harlequin"--a painting we grew up looking at every day as children (a reproduction of it, that is, which Mom and Dad had hanging over the sofa for years). My opinion of the museum was confirmed: it's really pretty bad. It's a good example of a weak collection of a major artist being house in a perfect example of how not to reinvent an old building as a new museum. Horrid stained glass squares all over the entryway, and cheap vinyl mirroring hammered onto walls all over the place. Ugh. Still, some of the paintings are great, and it sure is an odd feeling to standing in front of a work like "Paul en Harlequin" and have it vibrate with such intense nostalgia.

We decided that a long walk through the heart of Paris could only be a good thing, so we headed south on rue de Sévigné, toward the rue di Rivoli. We ran smack into the church of St. Paul-St. Louis, and in we went. Wow--what a place--all heavenly light and amazing detailing. Ornate layers of wood-working, iron-working, and multiple layers of varying colors of marble combined to create a bright, dazzling, happy place. Delcroix's painting of Christ in the Garden was terrific too, and despite that theme's generally anguished mood, the consoling angels in it are painted with a lightness that made them look very much at home in this bright place.

The atmosphere inside of St. Louis-St. Paul was so light that upon seeing this magnificent instrument I riddle Stephanie: "What's better than roses on your piano? Tulips on your organ!" Bah-dum-bah!

Speaking of bright places, a pastry shop down the street beckoned us in. I had an apricot pastry and Stephanie had a chocolate-almond croissant as we continued on. Mmmmm.

The sun was shining but the wind was cold, so our jaunt through the center of Paris was brisk. We walked down rue St. Paul to the Quai de Célestins, across the Pont Marie to Ile St. Louis , and headed west on the rue St. Louis en l'ile. I stopped at a children's shop to buy presents for the Parsons girls (little plates with Barbar and The Little Prince on them!), then we continued across the Pont St. Louis to Ile de la Cité.

We passed behind and around the glorious Notre Dame, aimed toward the Ministry of Justice, and arrived at Saint-Chapelle to find a rather long line, but we waited on it anyway as we really wanted to visit this wonderful church. Even though I'd been there before, there is nothing to prepare you for the beauty you behold upon entering the large upstairs chapel. Stephanie and I both gasped as we emerged from the narrow stone spiral stairwell into the open space of mystical light that pours through the church's famous stained-glass windows. It's shocking how much beauty can be held in one simple room. The air was cold as we studied the colored glass, the painted patterns on the walls, the ornate inlays of marble flooring, the sculpted Apostles watching over us. Everything here in this amazing place is aimed at making you believe in God's power. But for nonbelievers like us it was simply a confirmation of man's ability to create magic for himself in a myriad of ways. It's quite moving to see the care that went into the planning, designing, building, and restoration of a church like this, and its sheer beauty is a confirmation of the power of aesthetics to touch people deeply.

Inside the heavenly Saint-Chapelle

Traveling to foreign cities is best done with a long list of recommendations from trusted friends who have gone before. My travels to Europe have been greatly enhanced by advice from Marijane, Carter, Penny, Chistopher Santos, Laura, and Mark and Elizabeth. And now Megan Benett needs to be added to the list. As Stephanie and I sifted through our friends' recommendations, we had come to refer to one of them as "Megan's boozy lunch." She herself emailed these very words:

Comptoir de la Gastronomie: a place we love. It's an epicerie (pick up your foie gras, your armagnac, your confits in the store portion) but it's got a yummy restaurant, too. It's in the 1st, close to the Louvre, so we usually go for a boozy lunch, which I highly recommend!
Well it doesn't take much to convince my sister and myself to have a boozy lunch! We walked there straight from Saint-Chapelle. It was a warm, welcoming environment. A small dining room packed with tables of Parisians all talking at once. We nabbed the last available table, next to four Italians who were more than holding their own in the talking department. We were also next to a window which provided a view of the best Parisian streetlife I've ever seen. Scarves and smoke and furs and bicycles and hair and sunglasses went streaming by in a parade of French style that prompted Stephanie to proclaim she now had a better understanding of French cinema for witnessing this lively display!

Foie Gras Marie sign at Comptoir de la Gastronomie. Hi, Mom!

No kidding--the meal was so good it was the pot of gold at the end of my own personal rainbow!

The menu was a long list of everything foie gras--served in all kinds of ways. We both ordered salads called "La Gourmande" and a bottle of Bordeaux. Oh my god were these the fattiest salads ever made! Foie gras, duck carpaccio, rich browned duck confit, and a single duck leg piled on top of a nice arugula-based salad with an oily vinaigrette. PERFECT. It was so rich and succulent and we were both over the moon about it. We gulped our wine and talked just as much as the French (and Italians!). For dessert we shared a chocolate fondant--basically a slice of liquid chocolate cake!--which was thick and black and rich. When the waitress cleared our plates and asked us if we wanted coffee, we instead ordered a round of whiskey. For some reason, all over Europe the only bourbon you find in most places is Four Roses--not my favorite. So we were delighted to see Woodford Reserve on the menu here. They came served neat with a single small glass of ice on the side. THANK YOU! We drank it neat, and by the time we got our tipsy selves up out of our chairs, we were the last people in the restaurant.

The aftermath of Megan's Boozy Lunch!

We laughed all the way to the Louvre.

Returning to the Louvre...

...just a bit tipsy...

At the museum, would you believe that despite purposefully going to a different coat check we were again greeted with the snarl of the same harsh woman who had harangued Stephanie the day before! She was up to her old tricks and I walked away as Stephanie pleaded with her to check her bag. No dice--bitch wasn't budging! Stephanie carried her bag into the galleries, where we saw all the French Paintings, including Le Seur's big canvasses of the life of St. Bruno that I loved so much last time. Saw many beautiful Delacroixs, and a few Italians thrown into the mix, including a couple of stunning Canalettos. We saw the two huge French sculpture courts, and then the Greek antiquities and sculptures, including the Venus di Milo. She still has no arms.

The Tuileries at sunset

The Louvre, along with one final terse encounter with that horrid woman from Planet Coat Check as we retrieved our coats, not to mention the boozy lunch that had preceded it, had left us pretty exhausted. So what did we do? We took a mile-long walk up the Champs Élysées! The sun was setting behind the Eiffel Tower as we walked through the Tuileries toward the Place de la Concorde. At the end of the Tuileries we found Richard Serra's "Clara Clara," which I've always wanted to see installed there in its original setting. It looked great, and not a small bit daring for Serra to install it where it is--lining itself up with the Concorde's obelisk and the Arc d'Triomphe at the other end of the Champs Élysées. The work was footprinted and a bit graffitied, but I loved it all the same. And we were just in time to see it--it was de-installed this past week.

Zaza Zaza and Clara Clara. (Entire trip's-worth of pictures can be viewed here.)

So up the Champs Élysées we marched. The Parisians were getting out of work and all meeting their friends and lovers for rush-hour drinks and kisses. We joined them at Ladurée, the famous tea house with the famous macaroons. What a sweet place! It's big, but divided into small rooms, and overblown with ornament, and it's touristy and local at the same time. It's great. We sat upstairs, and our tea was served in the prettiest little pastel cups and saucers. We both had oolong--Stephanie's infused with orange, mine with violet. And we both had very French desserts. I had a mille-feuille with anis and salted caramel creams, and Stephanie had a sampling of four small macaroons: salted caramel, chestnut, lemon, and chocolate. Mon dieux! It was a great break after having walked many miles through the day. We took the Metro back to the Louvre stop then rather than transfer trains we walked back to the hotel across the Pont des Arts. It was a chilly night.

Megan did us so right for lunch that we took another of her recommendations for dinner. Midi-Vins is the kind of bistro you see in a Woody Allen movie, the kind of place that makes you feel like you're well-to-do and carefree and living in Paris. A local place, with an unerring sense of how to make each meal perfect for their guests. First of all, the dark wood, the intimate yellow lighting, and the small L-shaped space make for a warmth and coziness that allows one to totally relax and feel at home. But for all that informal warmth, touches like unique bouquets of lovely flowers of all kinds adorning each table and window sill, and the handsome yellow textured glass in the antique window help to give the place the feel of having just put on its best shirt. The couple (we're assuming they're a couple) who operate Midi-Vins could not have been more charming or accommodating. This in spite of the sense you get that not many non-French-speaking tourists end up here. They seemed to love us as much as we loved them.

We started with a glass of champagne, and then moved on to bottle of Saint-Nicolas de Bourgueil that our host recommended for with our meals. Stephanie began with a terrine of mixed mushrooms, with a parmesan cream sauce and a poached egg on top! It was the definition of savory. I started with tuna tartare, which was spicy and oniony and tangy with vinegar. We both then had pork ribs that were so supple the bones simply pulled right out, completely cleanly. The pork had a sweet balsamic and star-anise buttery sauce that was out of this world. All this was perched on a healthy round of mashed potatoes, which of course were loaded with butter. For dessert I had apple tart, which had a burned-sugar taste that was complemented by the sweet sourness of accompanying fromage blanc drizzled with caramel. Oh my. Stephanie had a classic vanilla creme brulée. After, I had an armagnac and we kept talking and laughing, so happy with our meal.

We took a nice leisurely stroll home and wrote in our journals till we could no longer stay awake. Each day of the trip thus far had been perfect in its way, but this one was simply perfect in every way.

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