PARIS, May 2000 On a Monday at dawn we sleepily left for Mike's Paris conference. The chunnel trip was quiet, and in first class we got a snack and glass of wine. I like those spacious, smooth trains and your luggage can’t get lost: it’s with you.
Paris’s weather was perfect for walking past massive carved stone bridges and grand boulevards. The day after Pentecost is a holiday; streets were jammed with sightseers and we were lucky to have a room at the Hotel Nikko, the JAL building, a big impersonal red box, but close to the Eiffel Tower. From a bustling sidewalk café, we dined and watched the tower blink wildly in the dark, wired with millions of exploding tiny stars. For ten minutes on the hour, starting at ten PM, it’s a special year-long millennium display. “An 2000” (year 2000) is lit on the front of the enormous structure, where people on decks above look like ants. You can’t imagine the size without being up close: just over a century ago, it was the tallest structure in the world. People from every nation are nearby, many pointing cameras. The Nikko is close to the French Statue of Liberty, an American gift smaller than our own original Lady Liberty, on the isle farther up the Seine from the Ile de France. It was given by Americans to celebrate the 1789 Revolution centennial. We saw it from our room.
France has lit all her Paris bridges for the millennium, quite a contrast from England’s expensive, unused, and boring Dome project. Paris has a walking bridge over the river that is closed because of excess sway. Also, I see in the French journal, do London and Japan! The new bridge will be repaired and reopened in a few months. We ate dinner one evening in the Marais, an area supposedly trés courant, trés chic, but perhaps we never found the coolest streets. However, our outdoor café across from a beautiful park served fantastic food, even if Mike had to make two trips to find the nearest ATM: ‘non non monseiur,’ for credit cards! For our inconvenience, we won complimentary kir. We met friends for dinner at Bofinger, a venerable and beautifully decorated Alsatian brasserie near the Bastille metro. The colored glass domed ceiling displays bright flowers in a fanciful golden design. Before leaving. we met University of Texas friends and dined al fresco near St. Germain de Pres next to the Fountain of Mars. They had an apartment nearby while he worked, but she returned to Austin the next day, also to work.
On Tuesday, I finally visited Giverny! Once I had missed the train, and once I learned from the ticketmaster that the gardens were closed. This time, I took a bus tour with a hotel pickup, and allowed myself to be shuffled into the chaotic tour office and organized into proper queues. Although I was delighted with the opportunity, I’m not sure what Claude and Alice would have thought about hordes of visitors hemorrhaging from busses and cars, with cameras, videos, strollers, crutches, and backpacks. People hovered over pansies and ponds, peering through viewfinders or discussing le scene into their camera mics for future audiences. Long lines queued to enter the house, and a dense crowd stuffed the tunnel now running beneath the narrow road that once served Monet’s tiny rail line. Walter Annenburg donated funds to save the masses from road death by bus, but the claustrophobic are forewarned of the tunnel’s overcrowding. One-way traffic might be a necessity someday. Many visitors I saw were infirm or just slow, blocking narrow passageways.
Monsieur Claude’s fleurs themselves put on a great show, row upon row bobbing in soft breezes. Waterlily ponds and Japanese bridge were just what I expected, filled with serenity and ever-changing reflected light and shapes. I could imagine Claude happily painting in his little boat. And I loved the big bright yellow dining room and blue tiled kitchen, complete with a cat curled on one of the tables! Monet kept five gardeners busy as he and Alice entertained people from around the world. He chose flowers and planned their settings. White turkeys like those in his paintings were nearby in wire cages, and chickens too, perhaps for fresh omelets. Outside the rear exit a little ice cream stand seemed as busy as the enormous souvenir shop inside. Alice was Claude's second wife. Poor Camille died young, perhaps of hunger, cold, and damp while sharing a life of privation and passionwith a young artist.
Finally on our own, we transferred to the Hotel d’Orsay, formerly our favorite little ‘Solferino’ now transformed and renamed by a makeover. No more funky little apples on white wallpaper, with a tiny shower in the corner behind a curtain; our bathroom had new double sinks and chrome! However, two large people should not attempt to sleep in one regular size double bed, lit a marriage, unless it is below freezing outside.
I walked to les Invalides to see Napolean’s tomb and the museum rooms filled with armor, banners, and bullets from the dawn of proud France to now. The rest of the area is used as originally intended, as a hospital, with veterans relaxing on benches in the green manicured garden. Mike’s dad would not have recognized such fine surroundings, so unlike the aged but pleasamt VA hospital where he died. We walked and walked, and rode the Bateau Mouche down the Seine one evening. We toured Picasso’s sculptures at the modern Pompidieu Museum, amazed with the boundless curiosity and vigor of one artist. Ticket computers were down; we went gratuit! Despite Mike’s desires, we never did ride the ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde: days were too hot and nights offered endless lines. On our last night we briefly joined a crowd gathered in front of the Hotel de Ville and Notre Dame watch the Euro 2000 games on a giant outdoor TV screen. Everyone seemed to watch!
In a bistro snuggled under Norte Dame’s walls, we sat beside an old couple with their small white dog seated on the third dining chair, not an unusual sight. Later, walking home, we were stopped by police at a curb. Why? Seconds later, thousands of rollerbladers whizzed by, plus a few scooters and bike riders, even a few skateboarders. Few pads or helmets were visible on mostly young happy riders. We joined crowds of encouraging gawkers, yelling with the crowd. (Something like “Hip Hip Hoo-ray, je ne suis pas fatigué!”) The next day our cab driver said it happens every Friday. Some find Paris unfriendly. Not me!
PARIS, September 2000 Another Paris trip occurred in late September for the Euronaval show, and we chunneled on the Sunday morning Eurostar. (Britain’s train problems are causing almost as many headlines lately as the National Health System. Both can be treacherously undependable.) We lucked out by being named part of an official American party, which got us into two receptions and an upgraded hotel, Le Grand Hotel Inter-Continental, on the rue Scribe at the corner of the rue des Capuchins. Calling the week “work” is mighty hard when the view from your hotel window is huge golden-winged Apollo on top of the Paris Opera! It’s my third favorite building in the world after the Parthenon and British Museum, now that I’ve toured it and photographed it. I gazed out the window daily and drooled! For 2000, the two hundred year old exterior has been regilded and many interiors were cleaned, a two year project. The colored marbles, mosaics, mirrors, domes, marble busts of composers and conductors, red velvet auditorium seats and enormous chandeliers create an unceasing visual overload. There were no performances the only evening we were free, but all day, tourists from around the globe wander through, often photographing each other on the enormous marble staircase that I recall first seeing in a Babar the Elephant storybook! The carved stone balustrades are beautiful, creating an entry into a magic world.
In the shop, I bought two books about the building, and am enjoying every page. The history is delicious and the joy and exuberance of architect Charles Garnier is palpable. He wanted to infuse color into gray cities. There is now a new second opera house at Place de Bastille, sleek, modern and large, but dance and some other performances are still held at the French Empire building, which are filled almost as much because of the building as for the fine performances. The boxes at the sides have velvet walls, with cloak hooks above velvet-and-black chairs, and small tables for drinks. Ladies once received callers in boxes toward the rear where one is shielded from sight of others, where there was privacy. Oh la la! Imagine the affairs! Imagine the feather boas, the gleaming black silk hats, the gold and mother-of-pearl opera glasses clutched in gloved fingers, like a Degas painting. And of course imagine the forgotten poor.
The weather was good, alternating sunny or gray, with leaves falling and roasted chestnuts available on street corners. Paris, as London, had shop windows decked out for Hallowe’en: I’d thought this was mostly an American celebration. Mike and I visited the Louvre and the Musee D’Orsay when he wasn’t working: he had never been to the latter, and I visited a special exhibition of Manet’s still lifes while Mike surveyed the art in the vast marble and stone museum, formerly the busy Orsay railway station. Afterwards, we sat outdoors on the entry steps as two old guys on the pavement played hot jazz piano and tenor sax; we bought their CD. (How far did they have to push that piano?) We also visited the American Embassy near the Place de la Concorde, where heads rolled during the Revolution. (Think Madame DeFarge knitting briskly.) Today it’s a place for a ride on a giant ferris wheel near the Egyptian obelisk, gleaming in new reguilding at the top. Transporting it from Egypt with no electric cranes must have required monumental care!
During the days I visited Le Madelaine, an enormous Greek classical style church that also hosts concerts, and the Grand Palais for the Mediterraneé show of Impressionists. I'd never stayed in the right bank Opera district amid elegant boutiques and hotels, since usually I'm frugal. You can see all the way down to the Arc de Triomphe, illuminated at night. At exactly ten, the Eiffel Tower exploded with blinking lights for ten minutes to honor the millennium. After a minute, the giant metal monument dims and all grows dark again.
Near our hotel is a mammoth building with six floors of shops, the famous Galeries Lafayette, with fashion shows, jewels, and restaurants. The euro and franc now make buying with dollars very reasonable, and every hotel offers coupons for visitor discounts. Suddenly on a whim, I marched into the beauty shop. I got a manicure and pedicure and, for the first time, had my eyebrows plucked! I felt vain.
However, Paris n’est-ce pas Eden. I’ve complained about London’s awful prices and 17.5% VAT, but the French pay 20% VAT. Those smartly dressed women in Paris streets seem to own a few good classic things, not as many as Americans, to which they add a scarf. And even the beautiful young lady clearing tables at the department store restaurant wore high heels!
Evenings were busy. The first and last nights we were on our own, so we tried the Café de la Paix at the Hotel, where it’s said if you sit in the window, sooner or later, everyone in the world will pass by. For meals, we revisited Brasserie Bofinger, at rue de la Bastille, and discovered Le Telegraphe, on rue de Lille near the Orsay, a wonderful restaurant, not too expensive, that features a charmingly ivied jardin interieur, which was empty due to the cold weather. On Wednesday, we attended a huge reception at the Museum of Science and Industry, an ultra-modern building with displays on energy, soil, protozoa, travel, and other bits of science. The exhibitions covered many floors in the huge glass and steel building, and it seemed they would fascinate viewers and promote learning about the earth. The French are quite serious about using nuclear power to be self-sufficient in energy use, and recycle routinely. Everyone from the Euronaval meeting seemed to be there, in uniform. Food presentations were varied and exquisite.
The following evening, we attended the American ambassador’s reception in a large club, and met former shipmates we hadn’t seen in twenty years. Afterwards we enjoyed a fabulous dinner at Maxim’s, with John and Sue, Keith and Lillian, and Mary and Jeff. The renowned restaurant is decorated in red and gold art nouveau style, with a piano player for ambiance, as if it were needed! I saved the elegant menu and savored the unforgettable experience. We walked home afterwards past darkened shops. Parisians are renowned for being brusque, but try as I might, I’ve never found a single rude individual in that city!
PARIS & LIGNY, September 2001 We were again in Paris the week before the tragedy of 9/11, which now seems so far away. Did Michelangelo ever fondle a woman’s breast? I suspect not, viewing his sculptures of female nudes who look like men wearing superglued boobs. (He’s fine on the males, and yes, I love his work, but he didn’t like women.) However, I think Maillol knew and enjoyed women, nude or otherwise, and in Paris I visited his museum, on rue de Grenouille (Frog Street—how appropriate!) at Boulevard St. Germain. Dina Vierny, once the artist’s fifteen-year-old model, created the museum. She was introduced to Maillol after he was told she looked just like his sculptures; he studied her for the last ten years of his life, until his 1945 death in a car crash. Sculptures of her look solid, like they’d never topple, even in the strongest winds.
The museum, like so many in Paris, is almost lost in a group of elegant classical stone homes and businesses, and so boasts statues, pillars, pediments and fountains at the façade. Its three floors are filled with sculptures and Maillol’s paintings, since he also also was a lifelong painter. Almost all are female, and the grace and finish of the paintings varies enormously, moreso than the sculptures. One sculpture I enjoyed was a bronze head of Renoir, wearing a hat and looking like he was ready to head out with his paintbox. There is none of the seething eroticism of Picasso, but a joyous celebration of the female form. I have always admired his large sculptures with thighs-as-strong-as-the-Brooklyn-bridge, bulging buttocks, and graceful postures, and the museum made me more of an admirer than ever. There are several other artists represented, including Matisse and Kandinsky, and a small bookshop selling publications --en Français, naturallement.
I walked to the hotel to meet Mike after his workday for a great bistro dinner nearby. Then it was early to bed to depart at dawn to see our friends, the Powells, in Ligny le Chatal. In 1987, a dozen of us met in that town to board three canal boats in fall, a few days before Mike’s Navy retirement. This time, the hardest part of our journey was the Paris Avis counter, where, even with a reservation, we filled out enough paper for citizenship, finally departing the enormous belle epoch Gare du Nord. We searched for our vehicle, armed with a map of the neighborhood and the counter attendant’s scrawled arrows. We used stairs, escalators, and streets, a taxi driver, and made a despairing trip back to the counter. After that, the A6 and the Paris peripherique were like two hours at a spa. After driving an hour, we began seeing hills, but the vines were absent until we got to Ligny in time for Delores’ delicious dinner.
Their quiet village is at the north end of the Chablis wine district. The Powells’ comfortable home, for decades an abandoned hulk, is directly across from the Gendarmerie, and Dolores regrets that cows are no longer driven through the streets. The town butcher has moved away, and his shop is empty, a victim of a supermarché at the town’s edge. These French roofs are different from the Italians: the terra cotta is flat, not curved, and some slate tiles wear greenish mossy fringes. We visited our hosts’ small vineyard after sampling their wines at dinner, and then their fledgling orchard. Bill in his beret and white beard greets everyone he knows in his cheery Franglais.
We slept in the new guest room Bill constructed upstairs in a corner of a huge ancient barn he’s bought near their home. The roof slats and mammoth timbers once sheltered generations of carts, ruddy ancestors to today’s mechanized tractors. Bill and his energetic helpers mixed cement in the courtyard and hauled it in wheelbarrows! One double glazed split window has a curved wooden top, opening outwards onto the garden. Bill laid the tile floor tile in the large bedroom and bath, and small octagon tiles in his workshop below, which once held livestock. (He also made ALL the furniture for their house in San Diego. He’s an example of what happens if creative persons retire and forego golf.) We drove to the enormous nearby abbey, still in use, but since it had just closed for the evening, we watched guests walk through the gardens to a wedding reception in gray-pink dusk. We walked amid tall shiny rows of stacked granite rectangles set into the cemetery soil, marking the villagers’ bones as though they were latter-day pharaohs. On the other side of the crumbling red brick-and-cement cemetery wall nodded a field of sunflowers, with drooping heavy heads, as if terminal fatigue had struck, ready for harvest. Dusty leaves shone green, gold, and brown.
That night we ate in the next town. Our restaurant sat alongside an old washing shed, a rough wooden lean-to alongside the canal where women had knelt and scrubbed the family laundry (and probably their knuckles) for generations. Outdoors, a full moon shone on the water. The next morning, a cool crisp Sunday, we drove to nearby Chablis for market day as townsfolk strolled past market booths’ umbrellas and tents, filling wicker baskets on their arms with cheeses, Provençal tablecloths, toys, shoes, sausages, and vegetables. While our boys queued at the patisserie for sweet rolls, Delores and I walked to the river’s small stone bridge before we all met at a café and cheery rich aromas.
Just then, we heard music: to mark the beginning of wine harvest season, the town band marched from the church nearby in dark green uniforms. After them, villagers in native costumes: long pinafores, embroidered bodices, fancy suspenders, tall felt hats. They carried a wooden cask dangling from chains on a shoulder-held pole. Next were winemakers in long bright green robes with dandelion yellow sleeves, and saggy green cloth hats. Around their necks were chained silver tasting cups, and some wore prize medals. The gendarmes marched, carrying the French tricolor. Last, in smart business suits, were the wine families. They marched from mass to a group communion breakfast.
After our coffees, we did the right thing: visited the large cave at the Chablis coop’s central marketing and shipping area. No wines are aged in oak; they develop in enormous stainless steel vats. We started with the lesser varieties and worked up to the premier cru. (This can take a long time and a lot of drinking. Toss what you don’t drink into the stainless funnel vats nearby for that purpose.) Time for a few sunny photos before the drive back to Paris, so quickly that we had hours to kill at the station café. (We’d feared traffic, since it was the last summer weekend, but our Citröen zipped along.)
The Eurostar chunnel train took its normal three hours, unlike the day before when illegal Afghans seeking British asylum delayed the train for four hours. The Red Cross camp near the tunnel irks British government, and fining lorry drivers and train engineers does nothing to stop incursions. Britain perceives lax French fence patrols. Young men who are caught today will try again tomorrow until there is a uniform refugee EC code. Terrorism may lead to tighter immigration restrictions or reduced benefits, but the economy is strong here and jobs available, so there will always be those ready to risk for better opportunity.
LILLE, December 2002 We chunnelled off to Lille on a newspaper coupon special break. The city on the Belgian border is much colder than London. Our hotel overlooked scenic Place Charles de Gaulle, a large square named after Lille’s native son. In the plaza center high on a column, a statue of a woman holds a taper. She was modeled after a former mayor’s wife, ready to light city cannons for defense in one of the many times the area was overrun. Germany, Hungary, Burgandy, France, Spain, The Holy Roman Empire, Rome—just about anybody seized the city, often torturing inhabitants. It was once marshy and filled with canals; now the watery areas are grass, although there is still lots of barge traffic in an area we didn’t see.
The two hour train ride from London ends in a very ultramodern sleek section of town, with shiny buildings and clean architecture, a counterpoint to the rococo and baroque areas. We stopped at a hotel covered in burnished copper plates to get a map. Obviously, lots of the area was completely razed, but in 2004 the city will be named an art city of Europe; I’m not clear on the details. We couldn’t visit the ancient Citadelle and its bastions, since the army was still using it, nor the Opera, since it’s being refurbed, but we walked past ornate fifteenth century buildings, some still wearing cannon balls in their facades, others displaying stepped Flemish gables, to the Palais des Beaux Artes. The grand gray stone building, decorated ornately in a baroque style, will have no steps left if the hordes of skateboarding boys continue their frenzied attempts at perfection. There was a vigorous soccer game going on next to the beautiful fountain, but indoors all was serene and beautiful. Across the way is a huge Prefecture, gray stone grandeur behind elaborate gates and a red, white and blue French flag.
A special show by Carolus Duran was adjacent to the Greek vases in the basement, and the rest of the museum was free. There was Rubens, Chardin, Delacroix, some nice small Flemish work, and a few modern works.
The first night, we sauntered around town and eventually stopped at a little family bistro where I had a whopping helping of pig’s leg and sauerkraut, a local dish, and Mike had beef. No beef is as good as American beef, except Kobe beef. In France, la service is always included in the bill., so waiters and their 35 hour obligatory workweeks don’t depend on the goodwill of customers for tips, and tend to be very professional. At the end of dinner, with harried waiters running past and tables quite close together, a hardy older mustachioed man next to us leaned over and almost in a whisper told me he realized we were Americans. He he and his family had escaped Iraq under Saddam. He told me people were weeping with joy that finally they would be freed by Americans. He kept thanking me. We had a nice conversation, but Mike was by now at the door. I departed Le Bistrot de Pierrot without my revealing my leftist leanings on the war and fears about George Bush. I have thought of that man many times and hope his family stayed well.
A city walking tour revealed that between wars and the Revolution, the church was burned, and the great rebuilding attempt in 1854 was only finished in 1999. Notre Dame de la Treille has an extremely modern front, translucent when seen from inside, and the main door is also translucent, brown thick glass divided in squares by a grapevine and at some bosses, bronze scenes from Mary’s life. Holding the front together is a long sort of wire, loosely in the shape of a fish, with smaller wires holding the clear panels. The rest of the church is heavy gray stone. We visited St. Maurice’s church too, but inside were three acoustic guitarists and a bongo player wailing loudly for a small but enthused boho audience, so we looked around the cavernous side altars and tired mosaics and left. There is mass there on Sunday evening and daily; the place screams for TLC.
A thorough city tour included the Musee de l’Hospice Comtesse. A former hospital, gift of the countess and her sister, is full of art and ancient furniture. The long high roofed hall sheltered patients in 1247, eager to hear mass from beds lining the wall. The altar is at one end, and there were doubtless many paintings and crucifixes. We saw tiled walls and a huge fireplace in the old kitchen, stained glass windows, and many related buildings nearby. I think we were the only Americans. At a time when idiots are renaming French fries “freedom fries,” we found no jot of anti-Americanism, only friendliness and courtesy everyplace. As we toured, we heard the tall clock tower playing hourly, an old lacemakers’ lullaby.
The second night, we tried Sebastopol restaurant, and had a drawn out evening of great food. The restaurant held only ten tables and we got in because of a cancellation. As usual in France and Belgium, one couple walked in with their little dog. My menu had no prices. To taste several things, we opted for the Gourmand Menu, with three choices of entrees, main courses, cheeses, and desserts. Before dinner, we each were brought two tastes: a shot glass filled with egg yolk and finely pureed leek in a clear hot soup that cooked the egg, then a small dish of sliced sautéed sheep liver, perfectly cooked. Prices are much lower than London. Mmmmmm.
Sunday morning, we took the clean modern metro two stops from Place Republique to an open air market jammed with shoppers. Lovers, parents, beggars and pets, all pushed past shouting young men eager to make a sale. Under canvas umbrellas were olives, bras, frying pans, and towels, and gorgeous produce; under a roof were fish, roosters, rabbits, candies, and more fruits and vegetables. I bought four pairs of black socks for ten euros. Lille began as an island, L’Isle. During the Industrial Revolution, weavers were important, but now the state retrains them in tech and new pursuits.
The biggest drawback to such a short time frame was not having moules and frites! Because of the train promotion fee, we had to leave in midday, but that gave us a chance to get unpacked before Mike left for the Netherlands the next day. Back in the London Tube, we passed green-clad people returning from a St. Patrick’s Day parade, the second ever. In Lille, each metro station was designed by a different architect; in London, most stations are so tired that any semblance of design is lost.
NICE, Spring 2003 Nice, because of its wonderful climate, has been settled throughout history, as Roman ruins and ancient fortresses attest in picture-book vistas. The guidebook’s “notoriously expensive” cab ride from the airport (third busiest in France) cost Maxine and me $27 total for three miles along an azure seaside boulevard, Promenade des Anglais, wide, and lined with hundreds of waving green palms of all varieties. British tourists trod that path a hundred years ago. Our hotel was in Le Vieux Nice, old Nice, on the Quai des Etas-Unis, named after WW I, just around the corner from the Marché aux Fleurs. Under striped awnings, the flowers burst with color and fragrance, bordered by hundreds of café chairs and tables.
Mike didn’t show up from Tallinn, Estonia until the next day, but Maxine, Jeff, and I wandered through narrow streets. We passed shops, patisseries, boucheries, and galleries, and ended up with a marvelous little fish restaurant that evening, where I enjoyed the best bouillabaisse ever. Thick brownish broth was filled with every sea creature imaginable. The nearby beach, like most in the Mediterranean, is gray pebbles, fairly uncrowded in spring, but the wide paved walkway alongside was always filled with joggers, strollers, and bikers. Blue metal chairs fill park and beach, a local landmark. The chair motif is used in jewelry, posters, and art objects like lamps and sculptures, or on towels and souvenir items.
Outdoors the next morning, we ate the local specialty buckwheat crepes with powdered sugar in the sunny flower market, but the first taste seemed very tart, even sour. We realized the sugar wasn’t sugar at all, but pancake flour! The waiter tasted the white powder, his eyebrows flew into the air, and he grabbed all the plates. He’d served many meals using the same powder, so somewhere there are visitors who’ll never know how good that breakfast can be! Buskers performed, townspeople walked with their ubiquitous tiny dogs and shopping baskets, and tourists snapped cameras in every direction before everything was dismantled in early afternoon. Brilliant vegetables and flowers screamed color like an insane Crayola ad. Sunlight played with shadows from shutters and domes, tree limbs and metal light fixtures.
With Mike later in the day, we visited a refurbished house museum, offered free by the city. Elegant painted ceilings, chandeliers, monumental stone staircases, and wall paintings show what life might have been like for the Lascaris-Vintimiglia family in 1648. They lost it in the Revolution. An apothecary’s shop from 1738 fills a large downstairs room, paneled and lined with hundreds of painted white jars labeled for herbs and healing products. Afterwards, we climbed to the top of the Colline du Chateau, with thousands of others enjoying a sunny day in the park. Skateboards, scooters, bikes, and feet carried young and old to this promontory offering rocky views of the beautiful city on the sea. For every large dog, around 20 small dust mops trotted on leads. We saw ruins and a huge fountain, and enjoyed delicious gelato cones near a playground. Bumper cars offered excited little boys training for French roads. In blue waters of the walled port bobbed gleaming white yachts. Below, a blanket of terra cotta tile roofs and church domes left an Italian feel; next door to Italy, there’s a marriage of civilizations. Nice is the birthplace of Garibaldi, a revolutionary “red shirt” leader in Italy’s unification under Victor Emmanuel. Street signs are in Nicoise as well as French, and Garibaldi Square is a major intersection. But even before there was an Italy, Dukes of Savoy lost Nice to France in a referendum.
On Sunday we all took a coach to Monaco, a half hour east, and strolled around the magnificent grounds and gardens of the casino and town. The palace sits high atop a hill, but the casino is a huge baroque sand colored building, beautifully tended, with attendants at all the doors. Because I hadn’t brought a passport or driving license, I couldn’t enter the chandeliered, velvety red casino upstairs, but saw only the slot machines in the rooms below. Rats!I picked up a brochure of rules and odds for roulette, so maybe next time. Transversale simple is a bet placed on six of the 37 green table numbers, paying 5 to 1. Transversale pleine, on three numbers, pays 11 to 1. Spoken bets are forbidden, but it’s even money on rouge, noir, pair, impair, manqué, or passé. We stopped in the outdoor café before walking by parks and palms, and listening to the Dixieland band playing on the casino steps. On the way home, we stopped at Villefranche, where Mike spent a summer as a midshipman over 40 years ago.
Mike was here for an anthrax meeting. After our mini holiday, we moved to the conference hotel, the Boscolo Plaza, on the main boulevard and in the center of fine shops. We requested balcony rooms, with beautiful views of the bay and park, and paid twice the government rate out of our pockets, but it was worth it! The first hotel room had a tatty daybed, view of a back street, half a closet, and a flight of narrow stairs to a loft bed. Cartier, Gucci, Chanel, and Hermes were our new neighbors, but Maxine and I resisted temptation even in the Galleries Lafayette, where our tourist discount seemed too anemic for what we saw. Nice’s Bay of Angels was named after the local saint, martyred by Romans. She was carried over the sea from Italy by two angels. Her church, St. Reparata, is used today.
I learned that anthrax naturally occurs wherever there are cattle; in 2000, it killed 1200 people in Zimbabwe. There are theories on how the disease is formed and treated. About 40 scientists, mostly from the US, were stopped from attending the meeting because of the Iraqi war, but many other Americans joined the international group. Mike was impressed with the high quality of the papers, many dealing with genetics and biology, often presented by younger people. However, each day, our husbands described their lunches to us with relish: three courses, three wines, and about two hours before “going back to work!”
Maxine and I ventured to ancient walled Antibes the day the boys met until after eight PM. An ancient stone fortress, once encircling the city, now holds an anthropology museum, recently restored, with Greek and Roman lamps, urns, and jars. We strolled along a bumpy stone sea wall to the Picasso museum, watched men playing petanque, had lunch, and, with many gulls, watched a sailing class in wetsuits fighting strong winds in tiny boats. More than one was bailing fast as icy spray flew across whitecaps. Snow covered distant craggy violet and blue mountain tops.
A tour and an evening dinner included “accompanying persons”—no one can say “spouse” any more. The first tour was to Biot (Be-yoh’) in a coach with Patric, an excellent guide, and St. Paul de Vence. Because we were time limited, we never actually entered the ancient hilltop city of Biot or the Leger museum, but we visited a glass blowing factory just below the walls. Yves Montand and Simone Signoret once joined the arty set lounging at the Column d’Or and other area hangouts. We were dropped off in ancient St. Paul, once the port of charming Vence, now the second most visited village in France after Mont. St. Michel. Because of time limits again, we couldn’t visit the famed museum of the Maecht foundation in the opposite direction. We strolled past picturesque galleries, shops, and restaurants, admired the high wall, fountain, and flowers, listened to every language imaginable, and headed back to the bus.
Traffic was awful as we passed French landmarks: Hula Hoop Land and McDonald’s. Dinner was in a Niçoise restaurant, Chez Simon, high above the bay. We drank Provençal wines cheerfully, because bus drivers would take us down the hairpin turns to go home. The following night we found a tiny place with prices as low as their backless stools, yet run by a noted chef. Fantastique. (Pas de telephone, pas de reservations, pas de cartes de credit.)
On my last full day, I visited the Musée d’Art Moderne, which had a delightful show of Barry Flanagan’s oversize bronzes: leaping rabbits, large and small asses and horses. They might be familiar to some of you. Other excellent pieces: Oldenburg, Stella, Noland, and Christo alongside other artists new to me. The building is entered via Yves Klein Plaza, honoring a wacky native son who died at 34. The building is vast, in white marble, adjacent to a large theater in the same clean modern construction. Nearby is the Lyceé, where hundreds of students gather, in jeans, looking like students everywhere.
That afternoon we visited the biblically oriented Marc Chagall Museum, filled with large colorful paintings. Noah, Abraham, Adam, and angels mix with Russian peasants and flower bouquets. Chagallt worked and died nearby. His colors changed from primary to deep rose and reds in the room with five large Song of Songs canvasses. They celebrated physical as well as emotional love. A gratuite du transport offered free transport on the No. 15 Sunbus, between museums in Cimiez, an affluent area of Nice, so in 4 stops we climbed off at Musée Matisse, in a 17th century red Genoese villa adjacent to Roman ruins. (Bus and train tickets are extremely cheap in France, and services run frequently.) Many of Henri’s collections of furniture and antiques mixed with drawings, paintings, and cutouts, but I never got the feeling of joy that so often he creates. (I always recall his advice to believe in a God that dances!) His earliest pieces, pre-Fauve, dated from 1890. Roman ruins adjacent to the museum hold jazz concerts each summer, and parks’ avenues have names like Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton.
We walked through olive trees and past noisy kids and moms in a grassy park into a Franciscan monastery partly from the 14th century, and then explored its quiet walled garden. The altars were nearly impossible to see in late day without feeding the light meters with 50 cent Euro coins, so when the money gave out, so did the viewing. Light faded as we returned to a final dinner at a local restaurant where the first course was an endless succession of Niçoise favorites. The restaurant was crowded; we’d read it was a place to “see and be seen” but the food was fantastic. Prices are far below London’s, but I would hate to visit in August, when it must be hot, packed with tourists, and impossible to book minus an anthill atmosphere. We topped off the evening by walking to the Casino, and feeding the slot machines lightly, since again, I had no ID to play with the Big Boys. The machines were more complex then those at Monte Carlo; since I’d forgotten my glasses, I blamed my losses at the 50 cent machines on the fact that I couldn’t read the French instructions properly! Gambling’s not my thing but you can BET that travel sure is!
Sacre Coeur on top of Montmartre, the hill of martyrs.
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