Monday, January 30, 2012

Who turned off the heat?

We've enjoyed an unseasonably warm winter, with temperatures averaging 10°C, but it looks like someone turned off the heat because suddenly it got very cold. This week and possibly next temperatures in Paris are going to be around 0°C or below. This is part of the Siberian cold front sweeping across Europe that's bringing record low temperatures and that in some areas of Europe has plunged temperatures to -17°C, dropped several feet of snow, and caused some deaths.

So even though it's freeeezing, after Sunday brunch at our new favorite brunch place Le Hoche, we went to Parc Monceau and the Arc de Triomphe to take some pictures for a school project that Nicolás and Daniela are each working on about a Paris landmark of their choice.

And this is what happens when you live in a small apartment and have to stay inside too long—you end up drawing funny pictures on your kid's tummy.

On a more positive note, the school's Winter break is fast approaching (second half of February), and we are looking forward to our trip to Jordan and Dubai, where hopefully it will be nice and warm.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Opéra Garnier

This week we joined another Paris Walks tour and visited the Opéra Garnier. Before heading in, we stopped at another Parisian institution just across the street, the elegant Café de la Paix, the famous cafe and restaurant of Le Grand Hotel, where you can get one of the most expensive espressos in Paris.

The Opéra Garnier was part of the great reconstruction of Paris started by Emperor Napoleon III during the Second Empire and carried out by baron Haussmann.

Although we had been there before, we'd never spent so much time inside or noticed so many details. Three words best describe this building: opulence, opulence, opulence—which is probably why it's also known as the Garnier Palace.

An architectural design competition was held in 1861, which was won by the relatively unknown architect Charles Garnier. The Empress Eugenie, who was upset that her favorite candidate, Viollet-le-Duc, had not been selected, asked Garnier about the building style in an indignant tone: "What style is this? It is neither Louis XIV, nor Louis XV, nor Louis XVI," to which Garnier quipped, "Why Madame, it's Napoleon III."

The Palais was built between 1861 and 1875, although work stopped in 1870–1871 due to the siege of Paris during the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune. The project also gave birth to the Avenue of the Opera, ordered by Napoleon III to link the now extint Palace of Tuileries, where he lived, to the opera house. The Rotonde de l’Empereur, the pavilion on the west side of the building, was originally designed to be the private entrance for Napoleon III, but was never fully completed—like his uncle Bonaparte, who did not live to see the Arc de Triomphe done, Napolean III did not see the Opera Garnier finished, since he spent the last few years of his life in exile in England, where he died in 1873.

When digging began for the building's foundation they discovered that the level of the groundwater was unexpectedly high, which even after pumping out kept coming back, forcing Garnier to design a double foundation system to protect the superstructure from moisture. This was the start of the legend that the opera house was built over a subterranean lake, inspiring Gaston Leroux to incorporate the idea into his novel The Phantom of the Opera.

The great façade faces the Avenue of the Opera and is adorned at the top by two gilded figural groups, Harmony and Poetry and at the bottom by four groups of sculptures representing Poetry, Music, Dance, and Drama, of which La Dance is probably the most striking (it's actually a copy; the original lives in the Orsay museum). Gilded bronze busts of many of the great composers are located between the columns.

It was a beautiful, sunny day in Paris, but I'm glad this was an indoors tour because it was freezing outside. We entered through the back and arrived at La Rotonde des Abonnés, an area reserved to subscribers. It lies directly beneath the Auditorium and leads toward the Grand Staircase. The tiles on the floor are stunning, and on the ceiling is Garnier's signature, in arabesques. It's hard to read the name of the architect but the dates 1861-1875 are fairly easy to find.

The monumental Grand Staircase is majestic, imposing; definitely a place to see and be seen as you worked your way towards the auditorium.

Similar to other European opera houses, it has a five-level, horseshoe-shaped auditorium.


The ceiling has a 1964 painting by Marc Chagall that was installed over the original and includes some Paris monuments and scenes from operas. I liked it, Dianny didn't, and Garnier would probably hate it. From the ceiling hangs the central chandelier, a seven-ton bronze and crystal chandelier that was also designed by Garnier.

On the southern end of the building, the Grand Foyer, a room that's available for smaller venues, reminds you a bit of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles, except it has no mirrors.

On one side of the Grand Foyer is L'avant-foyer, or the Foyer of Mosaics, with even more amazing tile work, and on the other is the balcony, facing the Avenue of the Opera.

At the end of the tour we visited the Opera library, which is located in the Emperor's Pavilion, and the museum, where a portrait of Célestine Galli-Marié, the original Carmen, welcomes you. They also have a tiny replica of the original ceiling painting as well as miniature stages and real costumes from various operas.

The last picture was taken during a separate trip to Galeries Lafayette, from whose terrace you get a great view of the back side of the Opera Garnier. You can barely see the Apollo, Poetry, and Music sculpture on the top of the central roof.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Panthéon and Saint Genevieve

In January we also went to the Panthéon, the beautiful Neoclassical building that is tucked away in the 5th arrondissement near the Sorbonne, whose dome can be seen from many parts of Paris. It was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, whose prayers and exhortations to the people of Paris to stay and fight were said to have saved Paris by diverting Attila's Huns away from the city. But after the Revolution it was taken over by the National Constituent Assembly and renamed the Panthéon, to become a mausoleum for distinguished Frenchmen, including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, Marie Curie, Louis Braille, Alexander Dumas (père), and of course Soufflot, the Panthéon's architect. It's one of the most important monuments in Paris.

A copy of Foucault's pendulum, which he used to demonstrate the rotation of the Earth, is also permanently displayed at the Pantheon.

Behind the Panthéon, and easy to miss unless you're actually looking for it, is the Saint Etienne du Mont church, where the shrine of Saint Genevieve is located. The church also has a beautiful choir and choir screen.

On one side of the church are the steps that face Rue de la Montagne Sainte Genevieve, the street that was inmortalized in Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris. This is where Owen Wilson's character is picked up after midnight and taken back in time.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Back to Montmartre

January is a great time to visit some of the more popular sites since there are few tourists around (we're no longer tourists). So we've been a few times to the Louvre, where we saw the Kingdom of Alexander the Great–Ancient Macedonia, and the Forbidden City–Emperors of China special exhibitions as well as some of the permanent ones. 

One day, since we were in the area, we hiked back up to Montmartre, the highest point in the cityMontmartre will always be a tourist trap but it's still a unique place to visit. This time we reached it from behind, since we were coming from the St. Ouen flea market at the Porte de Clignancourt. 

It was nice to see Montmartre empty and to be able to calmly walk around and actually see new things, like Saint Pierre de Montmartre, the lesser known of the two churches on Montmartre. It's one of the oldest churches in Paris, consecrated in 1147 by Pope Eugene III, and is the only remnant of the Royal Abbey of Montmartre, a Benedictine abbey founded by Louis VI in 1133-1134.

According to the earliest biography of Saint Ignatius Loyola, in this church the founders of the Jesuit society took their vows.

We also saw old sites, like the Place du Tertre, which when the weather is warmer is taken over by the surrounding restaurants and filled with tables. We tried out a new bistro near the square, Le Poulbot, a dive that served a great and surprisingly inexpensive beef bourguignon.

On the way home we went down the usual way, passing in front of the Sacré Coeur basilica, a very popular Parisian landmark. It was built between 1875 and 1914, and its architecture was inspired by Roman and Byzantine architecture, and particularly by the Saint Front de Périgueux cathedral. It's adorned by two huge equestrian statues, of King Saint Louis and Saint Joan of Arc.