Friday dawned a much better day, blue sky and very cold. After breakfast in one of the local café bars, we walked along a few local streets lined with small shops. If you are looking for expensive shoes, clothes, gourmet food and chocolates, then this is the area to explore. Our goal was the Jardin du Luxembourg, one of Paris’s best open spaces and home to the Senate, the upper house of the government of France. On previous visits, there have been lots of people taking part in semi-formal exercise classes. Today the cold had kept them all at home. There were a number of school children in groups of three or four with clipboards. They seemed to be looking for specific monuments, statues, etc and ticking boxes on charts. A bit like a version of I-Spy.
The Senate is housed in a grand square building, the Palais du Luxembourg. Commissioned by Marie de Médicis, it is a fine example of French classical architecture from the 17th century. In the 19th century it was remodelled with a garden façade added. There are discrete, armed guards stationed around the building, mostly in glass-sided sentry boxes. At least the soldiers had some protection from the cold. In front of the Palais is a round boating pond maybe 100 metres across. Normally the pond is home to a hobbyists dream of model boats. Today the surface was undisturbed, another victim of the cold.
From the Luxembourg Gardens we headed into the avenues of the Rive Gauche (the Left Bank) and, in a series of left and right turns arrived on the banks of the Seine just in time for the rain to return. A couple of the famous Bateaux Mouches pleasure boats passed by but they had very few passengers. I have often wondered why these pleasure boats were so named. It turns out they were originally built in a boatyard in the Mouche district of Lyon. You live and learn.
Our plan was to lunch around 2pm when we knew our favourite lunch spot would be starting to calm down after a hectic lunchtime. The rain and the cold wind called for an adjustment of the plan and, although only 1.30 we headed forC Le Martignac in Rue de Grenelle just a couple of streets back from the river and the National Assembly, the home of the lower house of government. To extract some words from the post of our last visit :-
This is a small bistrot in an area heavily populated by French Government departments including the headquarters of the army and the navy. We found it by chance on a previous visit and were keen to find it again. We hadn’t remembered the name or the address but I knew it was somewhere between the Quai d’Orsay art gallery on the banks of the Seine and Les Invalides with the Tomb of Napoleon. I could remember how we had found it, more or less, from Les Invalides but this time we were approaching from Quai d’Orsay. With the aid of a map and memory we found it with only one wrong turn. Great.
It was lunchtime and Le Martignac, which is very small, is popular with the civil servants from nearby offices. Stepping in through the narrow door we could see that every seat was occupied as were the bar stools. The wife of the husband/wife combo who run the place, called out from behind the bar. We said we wanted a meal. She called to her husband and immediately, by some miracle, he was directing us to a small table near the end of the bar.
The menu, which of course changes every day, was scribbled in virtually uninterpretable words on a board. The patron explained that, in simple terms, the choice was chicken, ham or kalamari. We ordered one ham and one kalamari and within seconds our plates were on the table along with a bottle of water, two glasses of wine and a basket of bread. And whilst he was serving us he was handling several more tables and finding seats for new arrivals. A human dynamo in a beret.
His only help was a young man – his son? – who cleared the tables and an unseen person in the kitchen cooking and plating up the meals. Combined with the patron’s wife who handled the drinks, served snacks to people at the bar and took the money, this must be the most efficient restaurant in Paris or even the world.
Today the experience was very similar except that we had Tagliatelle Carbonara and a little more wine. When we arrived the place was packed but a very small table was found for us near the door. Luckily it started to thin out a bit and the patron offered us a four-seater table which suited us fine. There was no sign of the young man but the wife was still running the bar, producing coffees and taking the money. After a while, once most of the office workers had gone back to their desks, some ladies appeared and took what were obviously their usual seats at the bar. The wife then started a well-practised tirade of abuse, largely uncomplimentary to the patron, and the ladies became like Sybil Fawlty with a chorus of “I know, I know”. This was the signal for the patron to disappear down to the cellar and do whatever he did down there. The last we heard of him was a voice from the depths.
From Le Martignac our next stop was to be the Pompidou Centre where there were two current exhibitions, Cy Twombly and René Magritte. Cy Twombly was an American artist who lived much of his adult life in Italy. To quote from his Wikipedia entry “His paintings are predominantly large-scale, freely-scribbled, calligraphic and graffiti-like works on solid fields of mostly gray, tan, or off-white colors.” I know he has many fans but his creations did very little for me. Magritte was a totally different kettle of fish.
Magritte did not like the label “Surrealist”. He avoided the world of the subconscious and believed in neither dreams nor psychoanalysis but rather considered the mind and logic to be superior. As an illustration, one work that really makes you think and follow the logic of the situation, depicts an artist sitting in front of a canvas, paintbrush in hand. On the table beside him is an egg which he is studying. On the canvas he has painted a bird, the logical outcome of the egg. He calls the work, very appropriately, “Clairvoyance”. It’s a work that has the viewer thinking.
Perhaps his most famous painting is entitled “La Trahison des images” (The Treachery of Images). The painting is of a smoker’s pipe. Under the pipe are the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” (This is not a pipe). As Magritte said “It’s quite simple, who would dare pretend that the REPRESENTATION of a pipe IS a pipe? Who could possibly smoke the pipe in my painting. No one. Therefore IT IS NOT A PIPE”.
This was a most excellent exhibition, very well curated and with sufficient explanation to guide the viewer into the thinking of the artist.
Having had a very good lunch, dinner was a long way from our minds, so we went back to the hotel and relaxed. About 8.30 we decided to head out and find a place where we could get a snack. I remembered a café called Odessa close to an hotel we had stayed in on a previous visit. It was a short walk from where we were this time. The Odessa was busy but a waiter soon found us a window table and we settled down. Looking at the menu we fancied starting with the most famous French soup. Soupe a l’Onion is a type of soup based on meat stock and onions, and was served gratinéed with croutons and cheese on top. It was a meal in itself. I’d explained to the waiter that the soup was just for starters and we would be ordering something else later. Well we did order something later, more wine and even more wine. By the time we walked out into the night we were ready for bed.
Saturday was our last day and the train was due to leave just after 5pm, so we had a full half day to explore a bit further. For breakfast we went to yet another of the nearby café bars. Café de la Rotonde has a famous history. It was renowned as an intellectual gathering place for notable artists and writers, especially during the interwar period. Amongst its artist clientele were Pablo Picasso and Modigliani. Today, it definitely is a class above some of its neighbours. Breakfast was well up to standard and no more pricey than at the nearby competitors.
We set out in the vague direction of the River Seine and the Eifel Tower. As we approached Les Invalides, which started life in the 17th century as a hospital and retirement home for wounded soldiers, the rain returned. The Les Invalides site is dominated by the large golden dome over the tomb of Napoleon built in 1840. We bought tickets to see the tomb and to visit a number of exhibitions around the site.
The tomb itself is amazing. It takes the form of a sarcophagus made of red quartzite and resting on a green granite base. The whole thing stands maybe 5 metres high. As you enter the building you are on a high level so that the first view is over a parapet to the tomb below. Stairs take the visitor down to the lower level and you get a feel for the size of this edifice. Also in the building are memorials to other great French military figures.
From here we moved out into the great courtyard and climbed up a grand stone staircase to the museum that records French military history, especially through the 19th and 20th centuries. I’m no scholar of history so my analysis may be well adrift from the reality, but it seemed that France was constantly at war, often in its own territory and frequently on the losing side. However, it was interesting to see their portrayal of the two World Wars from the French point of view. Sufficient to say that liberation of Paris towards the end of World War II, concentrates on the arrival of General de Gaulle as though, somehow, he had led the forces of the allies to a great victory and saved the capital. On a more positive note, the whole museum is very well curated and was well worth the visit.
Time was beginning to run away with us, so, after a short walk through the grounds, we went to the nearest Metro station and with one change returned to Vavin. We decided to have a quick lunch before heading for the station, so called in to one of the café bars. Two Croque’s Monsieur, a beer and some coffee and we were ready for the journey back to London. We collected our bags from the Hotel Chaplain and took Ligne 4 to the Gare du Nord. There was the usual crush of school parties, mostly English returning home, but the formalities were minimal and soon we were on the train, this time in Standard Class.
It must be said that apart from the fact that there are two seats on either side of the central aisle, as opposed to one and two in business class, the seats were equally comfortable and with plenty of legroom. The only downside was that there is no table service. We had to go to the café which was three coaches along from where we were sitting.
Our short break was over but, despite the cold and the rain, we had a great time. For me, the Magritte exhibition was the highlight followed closely by the impressionists in the Fondation Louis Vuitton. Once again La Coupole did not disappoint nor did Chez Bebert and Le Martignac. There may have been a lot of “déjà vu” but we loved it and will be back for more.