Paris bleu

One of the many great things about Paris in December is the color blue. Whether it's the Champs Elysées, Boulevard Saint-Germain, the main street on the Île St. Louis (left) or dozens of other streets wide and narrow, the predominant color of the holiday lighting is blue. I have no idea why that is, but it's refreshing and seems to be in keeping with the Parisians' generally low-key and tasteful approach to the holiday season. Maybe other countries (ahem) could take note.

Thoughts of Haystacks

Wandering through the Luxembourg Gardens as the sun was going down on a perfect December afternoon, I was suddenly reminded of a series of Monet's haystack paintings that I had seen many years ago. But what I was seeing weren't haystacks -- they were huge mounds of leaves, golden in the late-afternoon sun, neatly spaced in small fenced-in areas all through the park. I assumed they had been piled up and were eventually going to be carted away, but I later learned that the leaves are left throughout the park to compost and eventually break down into soil. Sounds eminently sensible to me, and it's yet another dimension of this greatest of public spaces in Paris.

This is Paris?

Indeed it is. This American-style diner on rue des Écoles in the 5th arrondissement -- appropriately named Breakfast in America -- is especially popular with (wouldn't you know it) French students from the nearby Sorbonne. It's also popular with visitors from across the pond when they need to satisfy the occasional craving for starting their day with something other than croissants. The menu is just what you'd expect: eggs, bacon, sausage, toast, pancakes, hamburgers, club sandwiches, chili, milk shakes and the ever-popular bottomless pot of coffee, among other things. And, yes, everything tastes pretty good. It seems to be more than a novelty -- the diner was opened over ten years ago by some Americans connected to the film industry in Los Angeles, and they've subsequently opened a second one in the Marais. The waitresses don't have beehive hairdos or call you "hon," but otherwise you'd be hard-pressed to know you're in Paris. 

Enchanting Istanbul

It's where East meets West -- a dynamic, vibrant city of 15 million, full of friendly people, good food and an endless supply of fascinating sights and sounds. You can spend hours (or days) wandering through the old town and visiting sites like Topkapi Palace, Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, or you can catch a ferry up the busy Bosphorus to hip, modern neighborhoods like Bebek for drinks and dinner. Being in the city during Ramadan is a special treat, as the families pour into the streets and public squares at the end of the day to break their fasts and be merry. You can also take a day trip to the ancient Greco-Roman city of Ephesus and its marvelous ruins. Despite the very real problems and political unrest facing Turkey today, you leave this unique city after a few days with feelings of gratitude and hope.

Sailing the Turquoise Coast

It's called the Turquoise Coast because, of course, it's the coast of Turkey. But the name could just as easily refer to the beautiful, clear Aegean water that runs the length of Turkey's western edge. The sailing is extraordinary -- steady winds, secluded coves for anchoring at night, towering cliffs, friendly ports for visiting and re-supplying. There are several marinas along the coast where you can start your charter, but if you sail from the base at a little town called Orhanye you get the bonus of being able to include a night or two on the lovely nearby Greek island of Symi on your itinerary. All in all, it was a fascinating week at sea that went by much too quickly. 

In concert

La Sainte-Chapelle (The Holy Chapel) on the Île de la Cité is both an official French national monument and a UNESCO world heritage site. Built in the 13th century, the intimate structure is considered one of the great achievements of Gothic architecture. It's also the site of popular chamber music concerts several evenings a week, featuring works like Vivaldi's The Four Seasons performed by a group known as Les Solistes Français (left). It's well worth a visit, both for the music and for the chapel's exceptional collection of stained-glass windows. Be sure to get concert tickets ahead of time online or at any of the fnac locations in Paris. Not too far away in the 5th arrondissement, the Church of St. Julien le Pauvre also offers highly regarded piano and vocal recitals on a regular basis. It's a lovely (and different) way to pass an evening in Paris.

Poetic License

In 1872, at the age of 17, the French poet Arthur Rimbaud first read aloud his poem  "Le Bateau Ivre" (The Drunken Boat) to a group of friends in a café on Place St. Sulpice. The 100-line gem of a poem, full of delirious visions and images about a boat swamped and sinking at sea, now adorns a once-barren wall on nearby rue Ferou between St. Sulpice and the Luxembourg Gardens. Its presence there is the work of a Dutch foundation, Tegen Beeld, which specializes in putting poetry on walls. An inscription reads that as Rimbaud was reciting the poem, "...In our imagination, the wind blew toward  the right, from St. Sulpice, down rue Ferou." Apparently this is the foundation's first installation outside of the Netherlands. It seems appropriate that it should be in Paris. It's a delight.

Opéra magnifique


The Palais Garnier, still called by many l'Opéra even though opera is now rarely performed there, ranks among the world's finest theaters as well as among Paris's most famous architectural symbols. It was designed by architect Charles Garnier as part of the great reconstruction of Paris during Napolean III's Second Empire, in an elaborate beaux-arts style that includes dozens of classical statues and friezes along with an opulent grand staircase and foyer. For all that, it might be best-known for its massive 7-ton chandelier, a part of which fell and killed an audience member in 1896 -- an event memorialized in the novel "The Phantom of the Opera" -- and for its still-controversial main ceiling painted by Marc Chagall (above). In 1964, under Culture Minister André Malraux, the original ceiling featuring swirling classical figures was replaced with the Chagall ceiling depicting scenes from 14 different operas. Guided and unguided tours of this truly impressive structure are available every day. It's still home to the highly regarded Paris ballet and the occasional opera although most opera is now performed at the bigger (and architecturally undistinguished, to put it politely) Opéra Bastille.

From the highest hill


Perched atop Montmartre, the highest point in Paris, the Roman Catholic Sacré-Coeur Basilica (Gallery I) is a head-turning sight with its massive scale and unusual Romano-Byzantine architecture. It took almost forty years to complete, amid much debate and controversy, having been conceived as a symbol of spiritual renewal following France's defeat in the Franco-Prussian War and the uprising of the socialist Paris Commune in 1870-71. Its travertine stone continuously exudes calcite, thus keeping the structure white despite its exposure to weather and pollution. The landmark is perhaps at its most formidable when you're standing below it, debating whether to walk up hundreds of steps or spend 1 Euro to take the tram up the hill to reach it (I opt for the steps). Either way, it's worthwhile. As impressive as the church is from the outside, the interior contains one of the world's largest (and most beautiful) mosaics, "Christ in Majesty," and the view from the dome is, as you might imagine, spectacular. Afterwards, you can lose yourself in the winding backstreets of Montmartre, which still have some charm once you get beyond the obligatory tourist area.

L'Amour à la Française


Now the French are weighing in on the saga of the "lovelocks" (see Our love is here to stay and Where did our love go?). With the fencing on the Pont des Arts and some other Paris bridges almost entirely covered by small padlocks left by romantic couples as symbols of their everlasting love, Parisians are said to have become increasingly irritated. "Walking on those bridges has become almost insufferable for them," writes Agnès Poirier in The New York Times. What rankles is not just the unsightliness of the locks but also "the idea that a lock could represent love. Such an idea is abhorrent to them," she says. "At the heart of love à la française lies the idea of freedom… Love is not about possession or property. Love is no prison where two people are each other's slaves." Or, in the words of a 23-year-old café waiter, "The fools! They haven't understood a thing about love, have they?" Mme. Poirier recalls the French philosopher Alain Badiou and concludes, "The idea that you can lock two people's love once and for all, and toss the key, is a puerile fantasy…love is inherently hazardous. Embrace its fragility. But don't ever dream of locks and throwing keys overboard, especially not in Paris." Vive la France.

Quel dommage


Of all the bad economic news coming out of Europe these days, perhaps none is worse (to my mind) than the announcement that the Village Voice bookstore in Paris will be closing at the end of July after 30 years in business. This popular, well-stocked establishment on rue Princesse in the 6th arrondissement has been the best place to buy English-language books in the city -- maybe in all of Europe. It's had as good a selection of current titles as any American bookstore (often you could buy books in paperback that were just being released in the U.S. in hardcover) as well as an extensive supply of perennials. No visit was complete without a chat with the store's wry, opinionated English manager, Michael Neal, while the longtime owner Odile Hellier would be busily checking inventory and keeping the shelves stocked. Over the years the store has hosted readings by hundreds of authors and has simply been a warm, welcoming place for visitors and residents alike. Its passing is a shock.

Paris on the run


Paris is known for many things, but not many people know that it has one of the biggest marathons in the world. On a drizzly Sunday morning in April this year, 40,000 runners (that's the limit imposed by race officials) lined up at the Arc de Triomphe (Gallery II) and set out on a 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) jaunt that took them along the rue de Rivoli (left) all the way to the Bois de Vincennes, then all the way back across the city past Notre Dame and the Eiffel Tower to the Bois de Boulogne and the finish at the foot of Avenue Foch. The men's race was won by Kenyan Stanley Biwott in a record 2 hours and 5 minutes, while the women's race was won by Ethiopian Tirfi Beyene. The headlines were captured, however, by Benjamin Malaty, a 25-year -old from Bordeaux who was the top French finisher in 19th place.  While running may at first blush seem to be a very un-French activity, anyone who's been to Paris recently knows it ain't so -- you can see thousands of Parisians running every day around the Luxembourg Gardens, on the Champ de Mars, in many other parks and even along the Seine. Next thing you know they'll outlaw smoking in public places (whoops -- I forgot, that happened in 2009).

Believe the hype


Only a 75-minute plane ride from Paris, the Frank Gehry-designed Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain more than lives up to the effusive praise that's been heaped on it for the past 15 years.  It soars, swoops, swirls and shimmers like no other structure in the world in what was once an industrial section of Bilbao on the banks of the Nervión River in Spain's Basque region. The interior, with 11,000 square meters of exhibition space, is expansive, bright and easy to navigate. The monumental exterior is downright stunning; with its brilliant reflective titanium panels, it seems to change constantly before your eyes and cries out to be seen from every possible angle. Oh yes, there's art, too. Richard Serra, Jeff Koons, Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer make up just part of the museum's permanent collection. Serra's massive series of eight sculptures called The Matter of Time is permanently installed in a special wing on the first floor, and Jeff Koons's Puppy, looking like an oversized Chia pet, greets you at the entrance. Currently the second floor is housing a show dedicated to Serra and Constantin Brancusi while the third floor is showing "The Inverted Mirror," with works by 52 artists from two of the largest contemporary art collections in Europe. Simply put, don't miss it. And at the end of the day, take a 15-minute stroll along the river into the old town for dinner at a Basque restaurant (recommendation: Casa Victor Montés). 

Anchors away


The Luxembourg Gardens were as lovely as ever in October, but I had the sense that something wasn't quite the same. Then I realized what was missing: there were no wooden toy sailboats plying the waters of the big pond surrounding the Medici Fountain in the center of the park. Nor was there the usual throng of exuberant youngsters pushing the boats with sticks. Mon dieu! Then to my great relief I saw the explanation posted on the boat shack. I thought the English version was so charming I took this photo with my cellphone.

Our love is here to stay


Forget about getting rid of the "lovelocks" on the Pont des Arts (see Where did our love go?). Despite the best efforts of city officials and/or scrap metal thieves, there are many more of the tiny padlocks on the bridge now than there were a year ago. And the number is swelling; walk across the bridge at any time of day and you'll see couples attaching their inscribed locks to the bridge's fencing and then throwing the keys into the Seine as a declaration of their everlasting love. It's not just happening in Paris -- the trend is spreading around big cities all over Europe. It just goes to show the power of love or perhaps the power of a simple idea (or both).

A river runs through it


The Dordogne Valley area (technically a "départment") in southwest France is defined by the Dordogne River, which meanders through the Périgord region through a series of deep gorges and steep, spectacular limestone cliffs, alongside old villages and historic castles. It's not hard to see why the area has become so popular. Among the attractions: the beautiful gardens at Marqueyssac, the 17,000-year-old cave drawings at Lascaux (actually it's a duplicate cave to protect the original -- still well worth a visit), the outdoor market at Sarlat, a boat ride or canoe rental on the river itself or simply sipping un café in any one of the region's quaint villages (such as Domme, where this photo was taken).



I first encountered Henri Matisse's grave quite by accident ten years ago while wandering around a small cemetery not far from the Musée Matisse in Cimiez, a hilltop neighborhood in Nice. This year I made a special trip to pay my respects. Matisse is buried under an olive tree with his longtime wife Amélie Matisse-Parayre, who posed for some of his best-known works including "Woman with the Hat" and died four years after he did. They lie together despite the fact that she left him late in life in part over his close relationship with the much younger Lydia Delectorskaya, Matisse's assistant, muse, favorite model and caregiver in his final years. It is said that Henri and Amélie ultimately made peace. They are at peace now in this lovely spot high on a hill above the city where Matisse spent the last 35 years of his brilliant life.

The art of serenity


Entering the spacious grounds of Le Musée de la Fondation Maeght in St. Paul de Vence, you'd never believe you were minutes away from the French Riviera. This is a wonderful museum overseen by a private European foundation. It was inaugurated by French culture minister André Malraux in 1964 and designed expressly for the artists whose works inhabit its grounds and interior -- artists including Miró, Chagall, Giacometti and Braque. As you wander among the Miró sculptures outside or in the Giacometti courtyard or in the simple, uncluttered interiors, or as you contemplate the pool designed by Braque, you're overcome by a sense of serenity that encourages you to slow down and take time to appreciate the art. The museum also hosts exhibitions of major artists, and is currently featuring Spanish sculptor Eduardo Chillida. Along with the Matisse and Chagall museums in Nice, this is a must-see if you're anywhere close (or even if you're not).

Taking flight


This sculpture caught my eye as I wandered around the town of St. Paul de Vence, an old walled medieval village not far from Nice and Cannes. Though quite touristy these days, St. Paul is worth a visit for its architecture, for the small cemetery where Marc Chagall is buried, for the storied hotel/restaurant La Colombe d'Or (where famous artists paid for their meals by leaving paintings and drawings) and for the public art that's scattered all over. This sculpture, by Jean-Marie Fondacaro, is called "L'Envol," or "Takeoff." When simply juxtaposed against the sky and clouds, the figure really seems to be in flight. I love it.

A walk around the cap


They say you can walk completely around Cap Ferrat in two-and-a-half hours, but it took me six. That included countless stops to take photographs, and a somewhat leisurely lunch at the port in Saint Jean. The walk itself is stunning as you encounter palatial Riviera villas, harbors filled with luxurious yachts, secluded beaches and, most impressive of all, rugged stretches of coastline with pounding waves and windswept pine trees. I'd say the longer it takes the better.