One major thing was my sister Susanne's visit, her first in five years. A bit of museuming, a lot of walking and a judicious amount of shopping filled her two weeks, along with a two-night visit to Bruges and a stop in Ghent.
Bruges, where we had last been in early September 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, was much the same, charming, a bit Disneylandish, packed with tourists. We decided to go with the flow and take the canal ride, snap photos of the lovely architecture, eat the frites and admit that we were tourists just like the others. It was a lovely time and we were blessed with unusually sunny weather.
We had arranged the train ride back to give us a few hours in Ghent to visit the famous Van Eyck altarpiece in the cathedral of St. Bavo. If you've been paying attention to the recent spate of books and movies about the Monument Men, the US Army officers charged with finding and recovering European works of art looted by the Nazis during WWII, this altarpiece was one of the major works recovered from enormous caches of art in salt mines and castles in Germany. It's an extraordinary work of art and the presentation and audio explanation of the symbolism is one of the best I've ever encountered. Go.
Back in Paris we visited the new Frank Gehry designed museum, the Fondation Louis Vuitton, in the Bois de Boulogne. It's Gehry's latest "how does he do that?" structure and it's pretty stunning, at least from the outside. I found the interior confusing and jumbled, and the complex internal structure that supports the glass sail-like exterior sometimes feels too compressed. Gene went to see a concurrent exhibition on Frank Gehry at the Centre Pompidou and came back saying Gehry is more of a sculptor than an architect. Based on the LV museum I would agree. Oh and by the way, the collection is not a lot of purses, it will contain the contemporary art of Bernard Arnault, one of the richest men in France and the owner of LVMH.
We try to see an opera most years in Paris and this month Mozart's "L'enlevement du Serail" is being performed at the Palais Garnier, the gorgeous Belle Époque opera house of Phantom legend. Since the ticket prices are astronomical, we go a couple of hours early to wait in line to try to get one of the few discounted tickets that are returned or kept as comps until the last minute. This time we got in line at 5:30 behind 4 other people as indicated by a man at the entrance. There was no one else in the room. An hour later another man came over and told us that it was not the correct place to be and we had to go to another line in which there were already a number of people. This would have meant that there was no chance for any of us in the original line. You've heard, I'm sure, of the French Revolution. There was nearly another when the people who had been in front of us protested, loudly, about the unfairness. This went on for a good 30 minutes until someone came up with a compromise. Since everyone claimed they had been there first, we would alternate between lines, thus equalizing the risk of losing out. A solution worthy of French rational philosophy. We Americans along for the ride managed to get great seats at about a sixth the cost of a full price ticket!
Something I mean to do every time we are in Paris but often forget to schedule is a meal at Caviar Kaspia, a jewel-box of a restaurant on the second floor of the boutique specializing in caviar and smoked salmon. Our first visit over 20 years ago on a rainy afternoon has stayed with me as one of the archetypal events of our years here. We wanted Susanne to have the experience and so scheduled lunch there after a visit to the Perugino exhibition at the Musée Jacquemart Andre.
You can certainly break the bank here if you can't control your caviar cravings, but our usual meal is a first course of borscht or smoked salmon or trout followed by blinis with salmon eggs. Absolutely indulgent but financially sound. And delicious. The service is fit for the Tsars, the room could be in St. Petersburg and the experience is wonderful. Did I mention the icy cold flask of vodka that is the perfect accompaniment?
And since we aren't planning to be back in Paris for a while, other food cravings are being satisfied as well. Last night we indulged in confit de canard at Au Petit Sud Ouest, which specializes in all things duck and goose. We have reservations with friends later this week at Bofinger for a dose of choucroute garnie, and I even hope to fit in a felafel at L'As de Felafel in the Marais before our departure. Stomach memories to hoard up against Parisian longing.
I realized the other day that for some reason we hadn't been within view of the Eiffel Tower at the turn of any hour and so had missed the twinkling lights that play on the it for the first few minutes of each hour. Last night we happened to leave the restaurant just as the light show started. A perfect farewell.