I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the winter I spent in Paris. Although I was on my own, ironically for being in a city so far from home, I had way more face-to-face contact with friends and family than I’ve had this winter. That is not something I ever thought I would say.
Not everyone enjoys travelling on their own. I really enjoy the trips I take with other people, even when they require a lot of compromise. On the other hand, if I limited my travel to the trips that suit the interests and schedules of my friends or family — well, I’d be giving up a lot of opportunities.
And so, I do a lot of solo travel. I’ve learned a few tricks over the years to help me be comfortable (and safe) when on my own in a foreign country.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned this year, it is this: if you can handle the solitude of living alone during a pandemic, you will thrive at solo travel.
Well. That was … a week. I can’t remember another time when the world held its collective breath for four days. The tension reminded me of double overtime during Game 7 of a Stanley Cup final. In this age of instant communication and fast results, we aren’t used to having to wait so long for an outcome.
Along with yesterday’s news about the US election results came an announcement from BC’s Provincial Health Officer of new orders limiting in-person social interactions. The restrictions — the latest effort to combat the rising number of Covid-19 cases — went into effect last night and will last for two weeks.
For the first time during this pandemic, the orders apply to only two health regions of the province: Metro Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast for Vancouver Coastal Health and all areas of Fraser Health (which includes the Fraser Valley).
One restriction in particular jumped out at me: travel in and out of these regions is limited to essential travel only.
It’s not like I was about to jump on a BC ferry, but these restrictions do not bode well for me seeing my friends and family who live on Vancouver Island anytime soon. It’s starting to look like making any kind of travel plans is still a long ways off.
Which means that this blog will continue to be powered by my travel memories.
Here then is a photo to acknowledge an anniversary that slipped past me while I was distracted by the goings-on south of the border.
Ten years ago this week, I arrived in Paris for the winter. It was a bit of a rough landing as my wallet was stolen out of my bag while on the London Tube a few days prior to my arrival. Getting money wired to me proved to be a challenge as all of my ID, including my passport, was gone.
And then, on top of all that, the home exchange I had arranged for the three months I planned to be in Paris fell through and I had to find another place to live for the last two months of my stay.
Let me tell you: that was four days where I was holding my breath.
In the end, everything got sorted and I had one of the best winters of my life. And I have to say, although I don’t think there is ever a bad time to be in Paris, autumn is particularly lovely. I took the above photo on my first long walk through the city — after I had started to breathe again.
Four days ago, the world was stunned by the sight of Notre-Dame Cathedral in flames, and in tears at the possibility that it might collapse. Its salvation came down to a matter of minutes as the firefighters fought to keep the fire from spreading to the wooden frames of the bell towers. Had that happened, it would have been game over. The bells would have come crashing down, taking the two towers with them.
Since then, we’ve learned that Notre-Dame has fire monitors who inspected the wooden frame that held up the roof — known as la forêt (the Forest) — three times a day. We’ve also learned that just last year the Parisian firefighters carried out training exercises in how to rescue Notre-Dame’s artwork and relics. At the height of the fire, when it was thought the Cathedral was at risk of collapse, 100 of the 500 firefighters were busy moving those works of art to safety. They were following the protocol set in place long ago: first save the people, then save the art, then save the building.
But we’ve also since learned that Notre-Dame’s wooden roof structure had no sprinklers or firewalls, which contributed to how quickly the fire spread. And there has been a years-long battle between church and state as to who should pay for the overdue and badly needed restoration work that was underway. (All cathedrals in France are owned by the French state and leased to the Catholic church.)
One doesn’t need to be a person of faith to be impressed by Notre-Dame for its architectural beauty and its historical significance. Gothic architecture originated in France and Notre-Dame was among the first of the great cathedrals to be built. Construction began in 1163 and took 200 years to complete. Stained glass and flying buttresses were new ideas back then, and Victor Hugo called the result a “vast symphony in stone.”
There is probably no symbol of France and French culture equal to Notre-Dame. It sits on the Île de la Cité, the heart of Paris, known as Lutetia some 2000 years ago when humans first settled along the Seine. The “snail” of the famous arrondissements of Paris begins directly in front of the Cathedral. Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned emperor in Notre-Dame in 1804; its bells toll at times of national significance, such as the end of Nazi occupation in 1944. Heavily damaged during the French Revolution, Notre-Dame has since survived other revolutions and uprisings as well as two world wars. That endurance is likely why, as a building, it is so close to the hearts of so many people.
That endurance is also likely why we take Notre-Dame for granted. On my last visit to Paris, I didn’t even bother to go inside. To be honest, I’ve never been much impressed by its interior. I find it dark and grimy compared to other European cathedrals and the crowds are unbearable. My nieces took one look at the long line of people snaking across the square in front and emphatically declared they were not waiting in line to see a church, even if it was Notre-Dame. I didn’t push it.
Instead, I took them around the back to show them where Notre-Dame’s real beauty lies: in its intricate exterior and its symphony of flying buttresses.
I get why people talk of Notre-Dame as if it were a sentient being. And if you think of it like that — as a living, breathing building — then this week’s fire is simply one more event in its long and sometimes turbulent life.
And therein lies hope for its future. All great cathedrals have been nearly destroyed and then restored. England’s York Minster suffered a devastating fire in 1984 — something I only learned about this week despite having visited that church several times. Its roof was rebuilt with English oak. Chartres Cathedral, just outside of Paris, lost its medieval roof in 1836. It was rebuilt with iron and copper. And because of restorations like these and others, the know-how needed to rebuild Notre-Dame exists, despite media reports that those skills are long gone.
This week happens to be Holy Week — one of the most significant weeks in the Christian calendar. Regular readers of this blog know how enamoured I am with ecclesiastical architecture, as evident by my annual Lenten series. I’m sure I am not alone. The most awe-inspiring architecture has always been built for the gods we worship. Think of the Pyramids at Giza, the temples of Angkor Wat, the Acropolis in Athens …
Think of Notre-Dame …
Today is Good Friday, the most solemn day of Holy Week that commemorates the crucifixion of Christ. As I looked up at the brand-new wooden roof of the cathedral in which I was worshipping, I found myself wondering how quickly it might burn if it were to ever catch on fire.
I pray I will never know.
When I was flying back from New York the other month, I watched a couple of episodes of Anthony Bourdain’s show Parts Unknown on the plane, including the episode he shot in Newfoundland. (If you haven’t seen it, do. It’s hilarious and oh-so-Canadian.)
A world without Anthony Bourdain is all the poorer, I thought as I looked out my window somewhere over the American Midwest. The celebrity chef, travel writer, and TV personality died six months ago today. I had this sad anniversary in mind while working on my last post about Le Bernardin. Eric Ripert was a close friend of Anthony’s, and he appeared on his shows many, many times. They were together in France, filming an upcoming episode of Parts Unknown, when Anthony died.
The first Anthony Bourdain show I ever watched was an episode he filmed in Provence for No Reservations. My sister had recommended his show to me; I had never heard of the guy and had absolutely no expectations. But I went to YouTube, clicked on the episode — and have been a fan ever since.
One line of dialogue in the episode about Provence always stuck in my memory. Anthony was preparing a meal for his new Provençal friends and he was quite nervous about messing it up. He set his dish of ratatouille down in front of them, they tasted it, nodded politely, and then said, “It’s true that your ratatouille is very handsome.” After much laughter, Anthony asked what he got wrong. They replied, “You didn’t miss anything. It’s just … not a ratatouille.”
I remember laughing out loud at that point. Food is so much a part of the travel experience, and we try our best to replicate what we eat elsewhere when we are back home again, but most of the time we fail. It’s never quite the same. Rewatching the episode now, after the dozens of Anthony Bourdain TV shows I’ve watched since, I marvel at his self-awareness. It’s a rare quality that few celebrities (and, to be honest, men) possess.
A traditional dish from the south of France, ratatouille is essentially stewed vegetables. Like many French dishes, its origins are simple: it was a way for peasants to use what they had readily available in their gardens.
Last summer, I made a lot of ratatouille. It was a very good year for zucchini at my local farmers market and every weekend, I came home with bags of the stuff — all shapes and all sizes. And whenever I saw my sister, I was given bowls of tomatoes and handfuls of basil and thyme from her garden. What better dish to make than ratatouille when you have more fresh vegetables and herbs than you know what to do with?
This recipe is based on several versions, including Anthony’s. Vary the quantities according to your own preferences. I like to use cherry tomatoes, but if you use full-size tomatoes, you probably want to peel and seed them. If your squash are on the larger size, quarter the slices. Make sure your eggplant is on the smaller side as you want each cube to have a bit of the skin. And, most importantly, cook each vegetable separately to help retain their shape and texture.
I’m sure what follows is also “not a ratatouille,” but in my humble opinion it tasted all right.
1 medium red onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
1 1/2 cups cherry tomatoes, halved
1 medium eggplant, cubed
1 large red pepper, seeded and diced
2 medium zucchini, sliced
1 yellow zucchini, sliced
several sprigs fresh thyme
one handful fresh basil, shredded
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper
1. In a large, high-sided frying pan, heat several splashes of olive oil over medium to medium-high heat. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft, then remove from the pan and spread out on a cookie sheet to cool.
2. Wipe out the pan and repeat with the cherry tomatoes. When they are beginning to soften, smush them with the back of a wooden spoon to release their juices. Cook a little bit longer, then season with salt and pepper. Transfer them to the cookie sheet, keeping them separate from the onions and garlic.
3. Repeat with the remaining vegetables, wiping out the pan, seasoning with salt and pepper, and transferring to the cookie sheet each time.
4. When all the vegetables have cooled to room temperature, combine them in a large mixing bowl. Add the thyme, basil, and balsamic vinegar, and adjust seasoning if necessary. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 3 or 4 hours before serving to let the flavours blend. Serve reheated or at room temperature.
I’m going to start this post off with a bunch of numbers.
Here’s one: 11.
Every year, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, we remember.
Here’s another number: 3598.
That’s the number of Canadian soldiers who lost their lives at Vimy Ridge, a battle that was commemorated with 100th anniversary ceremonies last April. Another 7000 soldiers were wounded.
And here’s one more number: 1.
That’s the number of graves my nieces and I set out to look for last summer when we visited Canadian Cemetery No. 2 at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial. It’s a big cemetery, but we found the grave in minutes.
The grave we were looking for was this one.
This Cape Breton soldier was the great-grand-uncle of the wife of a friend of a friend of mine. How many degrees of separation between that soldier and me? I told my nieces it was five and they were all over the idea that they were the sixth degree. More numbers. Whatever the degree of separation, knowing that I knew someone who knew someone who was related to a Canadian soldier buried at Vimy Ridge gave all of us a personal connection to those horrific events of 100 years ago.
I have more numbers. The Vimy Monument stands at the highest point of Vimy Ridge — the piece of land that was fought over by 200,000 soldiers — and the 100 hectares surrounding the ridge were given to Canada by a grateful France in 1922 so that the monument could be built.
On the Vimy Monument are carved the names of 11,285 Canadian soldiers who died in France, but have no known grave.
Because many of the soldiers’ bodies at Vimy were never recovered (it was and still is too dangerous to walk over No Man’s Land because of the unexploded ordnance), the entire memorial site is considered a cemetery.
Here’s a surprising number: 25. That’s the number of metres between the Canadian and German lines — about the width of a NHL hockey rink. You can see for yourself how short that distance is when you stand in one of the reconstructed trenches.
The guides who take you into the underground tunnels at the Canadian National Vimy Memorial are all Canadian university students. Those tunnels served two purposes: they protected the Canadian soldiers as they moved ever closer to the German lines, and they allowed the soldiers to plant the underground mines that were set off just before the battle began.
Not all of the mines exploded, which is why there is so much unexploded ordnance. The grass is kept short by grazing sheep that are too lightweight to set off the mines.
It is believed there are 10 miles of tunnels at Vimy, dug by miners who had the necessary experience in tunneling underground. Although you can’t go into the tunnels without a guide, you are free to wander about the rest of the memorial site as you will.
The Vimy Monument itself is striking. Designed by Canadian sculptor Walter Seymour Allward, it took 11 years to build and was dedicated in 1936. Allward said the image of the twin pylons, which represent Canada and France, came to him in a dream.
On the monument itself are 20 allegorical sculptures so poignant and moving that I’m going to let the pictures speak for themselves.
And here is one final number: 2.
That’s the number of hours it takes to get from Paris to the Canadian National Vimy Memorial by car (about the same by train and taxi).
As to the value of a visit to Vimy Ridge, I have no more numbers.
That is immeasurable.
Every time I am in Paris, I make sure to stop by the Musée Rodin. It is, in my opinion, the most perfect of art museums.
I love the Musée Rodin because I love Rodin’s work, for one, but I also love it because it is located in such a beautiful setting and because it is the perfect size for an art gallery: it’s neither too big nor too small.
There are a number of similar, smaller museums in Paris — the Musée Picasso and the Musée Delacroix come to mind — and if you have a particular artist you want to explore in depth, you would do well to spend your time in one of these smaller museums and avoid the larger museums where the tourists tend to gravitate.
The Musée Rodin is housed in an eighteenth-century mansion known as the Hôtel Biron. At various points in its lifetime, the mansion was home to a Roman Catholic cardinal, the Russian ambassador to France, and three nuns who opened a boarding school for girls. In the twentieth century, the owners began to rent space in the building to artists, including Henri Matisse, and then, in 1908, Auguste Rodin. Rodin took over the entire building in 1911.
Also in 1911, the French government became the new owners of the Hôtel Biron, and after exacting a promise from the government that the building would be turned into a museum of his work, Rodin donated most of his sculptures. In 1919, two years after the death of Rodin, the Musée Rodin opened to the public.
In contrast to the Louvre, the Centre Pompidou is a much more manageable art museum. For one thing, its permanent collection is displayed on two levels that are easily covered in one visit. And for another, its emphasis is much more focused: modern and contemporary art from 1905 to present day.
There are a couple of bonuses to the Centre Pompidou as well: the splendid view from the fifth floor, and the incredibly fascinating architecture of the building, which opened in 1977.
If the crowds of the Louvre prove to be too much for you, I recommend a visit to the Pompidou as the perfect antidote.
When you spend a week in Paris with a couple of art students, it’s inevitable that you end up spending much of that week in the city’s art museums.
And when you choose to visit the world’s largest and most-visited art museum, it’s inevitable that you end up spending a considerable amount of time in line waiting your turn to enter.
That art museum would be the Musée du Louvre.
The line was long. Very long. And here’s a pro-tip: if you neglect to ensure you’re in the correct line before you begin your wait, you may well end up having to go to the back of yet another line, thus doubling your wait time.
Which is what happened to us.
Here’s another pro-tip: do not try to see the entire museum in one go. It is physically impossible. The Louvre used to be a royal palace, and the result is a confusing layout that is more maze than museum. If you were to walk through every one of its 403 galleries and down every one of its corridors, you’d cover 14.5 km and 15 acres containing more than 38,000 objects and pieces of art dating from ancient civilizations to the mid-nineteenth century.
I’m exhausted just from typing out that last sentence.
My nieces and I started in the sculpture galleries and the girls were both awestruck by what they saw and overwhelmed by the crowds around pieces such as the Venus de Milo. Because we knew we had to pace ourselves, we stopped to have a bite to eat in one of the Louvre’s many cafés, intending to tackle the Italian Renaissance paintings after our break.
But fate intervened, and an announcement over the PA system in French and English that the Louvre had to be evacuated due to a “security incident” thwarted our plans. We never did find out what the incident was — I suspect it may have been due to the record-breaking rain storm earlier that morning — but when I told the story to a friend who had been in Paris a year earlier, she recounted her experience of being evacuated from Versailles for what they eventually discovered was a thermos inadvertently left unattended.
We had waited more than two hours to spend scarcely an hour inside the Louvre. But we also wanted to be safe, and these days, in Paris, you cannot blame the museum or the police for being overanxious and overcautious.
We never did go back to the Louvre — we had other museums to visit and the girls decided they had seen as much of the Louvre as they needed to see. For myself, I’m glad we didn’t make it as far as da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. That gallery is a bit of a gong show and unless you’re small enough to squeeze to the front of the crowd or tall enough to see over the selfie sticks, you will walk away disappointed. At least my nieces were spared that.
So, the all-important question is: when you have less than a week in Paris to impress your nieces with all you know about the City of Light, where do you take them to eat?
In my case, I took them to Bouillon Chartier, which was recommended to me by my Parisian friend. He described it as “an authentic French brasserie” that offered cheap but tasty food and had servers that were rude as … well, I can’t repeat what he wrote on a family blog such as this, but when I read his text to my niece, she raised her eyebrows and said, “Um …”
Needless to say, by this point in her European travels, she was more than a little homesick for polite Canadians.
But we went to Bouillon Chartier anyways. And when we arrived, I recognized the entrance from a travel article I had read some time ago. Bouillon Chartier was a Parisian restaurant I had always wanted to try.
We walked in through the revolving doors and were quickly seated. The décor looked like something out of a Belle Époque movie set, with coat racks set high above a cavernous room lined with mirrored walls and filled with endless rows of tables lit by giant globe light fixtures.
Soon our black-vested, white-aproned waiter came to take our order, which he scribbled down on the paper tablecloth. He was polite, friendly, and extremely patient as I gave him our order in my poorly enunciated French. As soon as he walked away, my nieces turned to me in shock.
“He wasn’t rude!” they exclaimed.
So far, so good. I was hopeful.
But then our food arrived within minutes. “Uh oh,” I thought. “What’s going on here?” We wolfed down every bit of it, however — we were hungry — and some of it was very good, and some of it, well, was not so good.
The girls were keen to try the escargot — they were in France, after all — which were served à la Bourguignonne (in the Burgundy style) with heaps of parsley and garlic butter. They went fast, and we used the most excellent bread to mop up every last bit of butter that remained.
I had confit de canard (duck), which I have to say was a bit tough. My pasta-loving niece ordered spaghetti bolognaise, which she told me later had been cold, and my oldest niece ordered poulet fermier rôti avec frites (roasted chicken with fries), which apparently was unseasoned.
So much for impressing my nieces with excellent French cuisine. However, as I already said, we all of us cleaned our plates and you can never go wrong with French bread and wine. We decided not to have dessert as our next destination was a pâtisserie. Our waiter added up our bill on the paper tablecloth, and that was that.
Bouillon Chartier, I’ve learned, is indeed a Parisian institution, as my Parisian friend promised me it was. Parisians and tourists alike flock here, and when we left, there was a line leading out of the courtyard all the way to the boulevard. I’m told the line moves fast, and given how quickly we were served, I believe it.
Bouillon means “broth” and was first served in 1855 by a butcher who wanted to provide cheap food for the workers at Les Halles, the original French fresh food market that was moved to the suburbs in the 1970s. The word came to mean the establishment serving the broth, and by 1900, there were more than 250 of these types of restaurants. Only a handful remain today. One of those is Bouillon Chartier, which was opened in 1896 by two brothers named Frédéric and Camille Chartier. Over its lifetime, it has had only a handful of owners. The food hasn’t changed in a hundred years and it is still cheap — the three of us ate for much less than we would have at our neighbourhood brasserie.
I expect I will give Bouillon Chartier another try the next time I am in Paris. My nieces have a lifetime of travelling ahead of them, and I have no doubt one day they will taste French cuisine as only the French can prepare it.
But I also know they will never forget their lunch at Bouillon Chartier in Paris.
It’s been more than six years since I was in Paris and although it felt like I had never been away, one of the hardest things for me to get my head around this time was the weather.
On my last visit, I struggled to keep warm during a snowy winter that felt far too cold for my thin Vancouver blood.
This time, we were immersed in heat and humidity. Although we were spared the experience of one of Paris’s infamous heat waves, I did wonder which is worse when travelling: being too hot or too cold? I don’t know the answer, but the question is a reminder that weather always plays a factor when forming an impression of a place.
However, this I do know: a definite bonus about visiting Paris in the summertime is being able to see the gardens in full bloom. One of my favourites is the Jardin du Luxembourg, or Luxembourg Gardens. Located in the 6e arrondissement, they were built for Marie de’ Medici, widow of King Henry IV, to go with her new palace, called, appropriately, the Luxembourg Palace. That’s it in the photo. These days, it’s where the French Senate meets.