My favorite museum in Paris is the musée Nissim de Camondo in the eighth arrondissement, bordering the beautiful parc Monceau. I’d visited it several times in the past, but my husband never had. He loved it as much as I do. While he took in the big picture, I focused on details like locks and drapery tassels.
Right around the corner from our apartment in Paris was a strange little door to nowhere. It made me curious. What was the story behind this battered, graffiti-spattered wooden door. Barely visible above the door, carved into the triangular stone were the words “Hôtel Jean-Louis Raoul.” A quick internet search led me to a website http://www.cribier.net that laid out the long story of a beat-up door and where I found the old photos.
In the 14th century, King Charles V established his royal domain in the Marais, between the Seine and the present blvd. St Antoine. The location wasn’t as random as it sounds. An earlier king, Philippe Auguste, had built a wall that ended just a few blocks away. Charles V extended the wall to the point that eventually was home to the Bastille and secured his home within its embrace.
One hundred and twenty years later, François I was short of funds and decided to sell off parcels of land that surrounded the royal residences. New streets were cut to give access, including the street that our apartment was on and the street where the lonely doorway stands. The man who bought this parcel was named Claude Girard. He was a wood merchant and the proximity to the Seine, where logs could be floated almost to his doorstop, made this parcel highly valuable.
When the Marais became chic under Henri IV, the property passed into the hands of one of the king’s counsellors, Paul Ardier. From the inventory of his possessions after his death, we know that Cordier’s home was lavish and elegant. The house stayed in the Cordier family for several generations on the female side.
In the 18th century, the land passed to an extremely wealthy noble family, the Pinon- St. Georges, and they built a palatial home. The door probably dates to this era. One of the most valuable aspects were its fabulous, large mirrors at a time when mirrors were as rare as large diamonds – thus the importance of the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Paintings by Watteau graced the walls. The Revolution changed that. The family emigrated, saved their lives, but lost all of their possessions.
This brings the house to the hands of Jean-Louis Raoul in 1810. When he bought the house, he had to pay separately and dearly for the mirrors. Raoul made industrial abrasives and he restored the house to its prior use as a place of business where his family also lived. The glory days were over. He added two more floors and put in apartments for lodgers. The only ornamental flourish was adding the wall clock and adding his name above the door. The clock looks rather beat up these days, too, relocated from its original spot. You have to squint to see the dolphins that encircle it.
By 1959, the property was so vétuste (vay-toost), or degraded, that there was a demolition order. The property was to be taken down in two parts and transformed into six-story apartment buildings. At the same time, the street was to be re-aligned. The first part was done without affecting the door. A few years later, when it was time for the second half of the project, it was discovered that the project had been modified so that the door could not be touched and the street could not be re-aligned.
So the door had been saved, but since the building project no longer included the door, it was in a really odd legal position. The sliver of land that the door sat on hadn’t been sold to the developer of the apartments because it was going to be taken over by the city when the road was widened, but Paris never took it over legally. When the plan to widen the road was abandoned, the sliver still technically belonged to the heirs of Jean-Louis Raoul, but they don’t want it, and they certainly don’t maintain it. There are people who would like to see it restored, including the man with the very detailed historical information. So now it sits there. A door to nowhere and a relic of a time when a king lived in the Marais.
After having introduced my husband to one of my favorite museums, the Nissim de Camondo, we stopped for brunch just down the street, the Grand Café de la Poste, at 103 blvd. Malesherbes. It was the best brunch I’ve ever had in Paris, perhaps the best I’ve ever had. In addition to standards like scrambled eggs, sausages, and freshly squeezed orange juice, there were grilled vegetables, ham and smoked salmon wrapped around chèvre, and pain perdu (pahn pair-do). Pain perdu literally means “lost bread,” but it’s the equivalent of French toast. The difference is that pain perdu has sugar in the mixture. As it cooks, the sugar caramelizes like the top of crème brûlée. Sooooo good. In addition to terrific food, the service was great, the presentation was original, and the café’s décor is charming. I’ll be back to the Grand Café. In the meantime, here’s Ina Garten’s recipe for pain perdu.
My husband’s favorite part of our Paris vacation was a day trip to the Château of Fontainebleau. He’d never been before and I hadn’t been there for ten years. I was amazed by all of the changes in the last decade. There were many more refurbished spaces to enjoy – such as a Napoléon museum and the rooms prepared for Pious VI when he came for Napoléon’s coronation. I suggest that you get the excellent audio guide.
We chose to add a guided tour of the Petits Appartements onto the standard self-guided tour. The Petits Appartements are where the royal families chose to live during much of the seven hundred years of the château’s history as a royal residence. it was sort of a double existence, for example, the State bedroom was located above the private bedroom and the two were connected by hidden stairs. The private apartments are largely unrestored, but give a glimpse of the intimate life of France’s rulers. Even if some of the upholstery is faded and torn and the gilding has faded, Fontainebleau boasts the most original furniture of any French château.
The most wonderful room in the private apartments, in our opinion, was the final room we saw. Below the grand hall was its twin in size, a seventy-five meter hall devoted to the hunt and to France’s other châteaux. The walls were painted with highly detailed renderings of each royal château and the gardens and forests that surrounded it. Faux hunting trophies and massive bronze statues ornamented the walls. Apparently, when Louis XIII was a child, he would be sent here to play on rainy days. He had a little cart pulled by a dog that he would ride up and down the hall.
The word raplapla (rah-plah-plah) means worn out. It really applies to people, but I’m applying it to the Petits Appartements. While the upholstery may be faded to grey when it was once purple, or crimson, or gold, the majesty of the spaces still manages to shine through.
I had been wanting to take a day-trip to Provins (pro-vah) for some time now. At the end of my job in Paris, a friend gave me some extra train tickets to this medieval town, so now was the time. To get to Provins, take the train from the Gare de l’Est. Provins is in the Champagne area, about fifty miles outside of Paris. In the 12th and 13th centuries, it was the site of one of the Champagne fairs that brought traders in all sorts of merchandise from all over Europe, and as such, it was one of the most important towns in the world.
Once you get to Provins, it’s an easy walk to the basse ville (lower town), dotted with ancient churches, some of which have parts which date to prior to the Norman Conquest in 1066. Two streams wend their way past, and sometimes under, houses. The creation of a deep blue cloth was a Provinois specialty, and the streams were essential for rinsing the fabric. Then it’s up, up, up to some of main historic sites, including the 13th century Tithe Barn, which served as a covered market, the 12th century Cesar’s Tower that served as part of the defensive fortifications, the network of subterranean galleries that honeycomb beneath the town for miles, and the museum. Provins is famous for its production of roses and rose-based products such as honey and jam because one of the feudal Counts of Champagne brought back the Damascus rose from the Crusades. The modification of commercial routes, wars, plagues, and the decline of the feudal ties when Champagne submitted to the authority of the French crown in the 14th century left Provins as a little time capsule with 58 UNESCO protected monuments.
The French expression, Les voyages forment la jeunesse (lay voy-asj form lah sjun-ess) literally means “Travel shapes youth,” but we tend to say “Travel broadens the mind.” Imagine those who traveled from Venice, or the spice lands, or Northern Europe to buy, sell, and barter twice every year in Provins. The Counts of Champagne were the first to issue passports to allowed the merchants safe access across their lands. It was a sort of European Union of open trade long before those words were ever uttered. Broad minded, indeed. Jules Verne vacationed with his aunt here in the summer; his explorations of the subterranean caves would shape his youthful mind and influence his adventure stories.
After having visited several exhibits dedicated to Napoléon and Joséphine in recent years, it had been on my mind to visit Malmaison, Empress Joséphine’s home on the outskirts of Paris. It’s easy to get to; from La Defence, take bus 258 to the stop marked Le Château. From the bus stop, it’s about a five minute walk from the bus stop to the château. Admission includes an audio guide and access to the house and gardens.
Joséphine de Beauharnais bought the house while her husband was off fighting the Egyptian campaign. When Napoléon came home, he was not too thrilled that his wife had purchased a money pit several miles from the heart of Paris. Joséphine lavished attention on the gardens as much as the interiors, bringing exotic plants and animals to Malmaison. She hired the Belgian artist Redouté to document the 250 varieties of roses that grew in the garden.
After Napoléon divorced her in order to re-marry in the pursuit of an heir, Joséphine received Malmaison and a significant annual pension. She died very suddenly after taking a chill due to walking in the garden. When Napoléon lost at Waterloo, he spent his last few days of freedom here, no doubt wandering the halls and thinking of better days spent with Joséphine.
Malmaison has been open to the public since 2005 after some extensive restoration work. The décor of Malmaison gives an aura of a couple that was in a hurry. A repeated theme was how quickly various rooms were embellished. Some of the rooms were quite beautiful, such as Napoléon’s library. The downstairs has the principal reception rooms, decorated either with the actual pieces that used to be in the house or with reproductions. The upstairs has the bedrooms of the former Emperor and Empress as well as several rooms of memorabilia. The gardens Are a work in progress. It’s been a hot, dry summer in Paris, but I was still expecting more from the home of a woman who has even had a variety of rose named after her. What struck me most of all, however, was the realization that I was literally walking where Napoléon had walked – probably in a hurry. That alone was worth the trip to Malmaison.
The expression être à la bourre (et-ruh ah lah boor) means to be pressed for time or running late. What struck me most of all at Malmaison was the realization that I was literally walking where Napoléon had walked – probably in a hurry. That alone was worth the trip.
For our vacation in Paris, we decided to rent an apartment. It’s a no-brainer, really. For often less than the cost of a nice hotel room, you get more space, the freedom to come-and-go without worrying about housekeeping staff, and the possibility to make some meals, thus eating lighter and saving some money. Shopping for fresh ingredients where the local people would is actually fun, instead of a chore. We’ve done this in Paris, Venice, and Florence and really prefer this way of traveling. We hadn’t stayed in an apartment in Paris for many years, however, and hadn’t loved that apartment (we’ve learned along the way), so we needed to look for a new location.
I found Paris Sharing on the web. They have over 100 properties to choose from with multiple photos of each. Their web site is easy to search by date, neighborhood, and number of guests that can be accommodated. We found an apartment that looked gorgeous and put down our deposit. And then things got complicated. When I needed to work in Paris after my stint in St Andrews, Scotland, we needed to change the dates of our vacation. Paris Sharing was very accommodating and agreed to apply our deposit to another property.
At first, they just give the general area of where the apartment is, providing specifics closer to the arrival date. So, when I got the exact address, I was already working in Paris. I decided to check it out, since our first Paris rental several years ago was over a restaurant that stayed noisy until 2 am – and then the street cleaners started at 5. Using Google’s street view is a good way to get the lie of the land, but if you can actually check out the street, so much the better. When I went there, I found scaffolding in the courtyard. I contacted Paris Sharing to find out how this would affect our apartment. The work on the roof was going to be done in the adjacent building, but there was no way to know how noisy it would be or how long the work would last. I asked for a new apartment, and Paris Sharing accommodated my request. I checked out the address and the street was as calm as a churchyard, even though it’s sandwiched between the Seine and rue St Antoine in the Marais.
We’ve been here for several days now and are thoroughly enjoying the apartment. The location is ideal. There are great specialty food shops and two metro stations within a few minutes. Although small, the apartment has everything we need, including a compact washing machine. The decor is simple, the most dramatic aspect is the dark ceiling beams, or poutres (poot- ruh). Since it has been really quite warm since we’ve been here, the only improvement I can suggest is air-conditioning! Paris Sharing was flexible and responsive to my requests. I hope that I’ll have my own Paris apartment to share one day, but until then, I wouldn’t hesitate to use this company again.