Saturday, 27 June 2015

Some Paris Gems

Looking up at La Grande Arche at La Defense against the blue sky
Our third day in Paris was more secular, starting off at La Defense, in the far northeast end of the city.

One of then French President Francois Mitterand's "grand projets" that also included the Pyramid in the Louvre, Musee d'Orsay and Bibilotheque Francois Mitterand, La Defense's Grande Arche was completed in 1988, a 20-year project.

The site was originally where the French successfully defended themselves from the Prussians in 1870, and has now evolved into a business district, with many top national and multinational companies setting up their headquarters here.

The Arc de Triomphe is straight ahead in the distance
The arch is quite impressive, the gorgeous white marble and sharp edges create a striking image against a blue sky with disorderly clouds passing by. Look down from the Grand Arche and you can see the Arc de Triomphe in the distance.

Sadly we couldn't go up to the top of the building because the area where the glass elevators were was being renovated.

Nevertheless we took a quick peek at the nearby Quatre Saisons mall, where sales were going mad at 50 percent off.

Then we headed east all the way to Bastille, where as soon as we emerged from the metro station we saw the Colonne de Juillet or July Column. It was erected in the 19th century to honour the victims of the 1930 and 1848 revolutions. At the top is a golden statue, the Genie de la Bastille, who represents Liberty.

The curious Oriental room in Victor Hugo's apartment
We saw a sign pointing towards Victor Hugo's home and decided to find it. Down a small pleasant street by a park is his residence, an apartment where he lived with his wife Adele Foucher, from 1832 to 1848.

He paid an annual rent of 1,500 francs that was paid in four installments for the 2,800 square foot flat on the second floor.

Restorers have tried to make the apartment look as closely as it did when he lived there, following photographs of the place and eyewitness accounts.

Each room looked lavish, with sumptuous-looking wallpaper, lots of paintings on the walls, heavy antique furniture, and family portraits in photographs and paintings.

One of Hugo's ink drawings that has a lot of detail and depth
Most intriguing was a room that was done in an Oriental style, with caricatures of what Chinese people looked like -- with slanted eyes and wearing robes, Chinese-inspired furniture and murals, that were mixed with porcelain vases and plates, and two Guanyin statues.

So it turns out Hugo had some exposure to Chinese art and apparently appreciated it too!

The smallest room at the back was the bedroom, and they recreated it to look like the one in which he died in 1885, complete with the four-poster bed that was quite small, along with two paintings of his corpse on the death bed.

Soutter created abstract paintings in the 19th century
I still remember reading Les Miserables out of my own curiosity when I was in high school and what a slog it was reading the first third of the thick book. However after that things started to get interesting and the different plot lines came together making it a riveting read to the end.

And then years later the musical came out, but never gave the book justice to the numerous twists and turns in the plot, let alone the character development...

The ground floor of the apartment is reserved for rotating exhibitions and here it was showing Hugo also had an artistic ability, proficient at drawing, and how he influenced a violinist named Louis Soutter.

Hugo didn't pick up drawing until he was 30, while Soutter started when he was over 50. Soutter lived a sad life -- he never became famous as a violinist and instead ended up divorced and penniless -- his brother had to sell his violin to be able to let him live in an old people's home.

Hanging out at the Pyramid in the Louvre
When the two artists' drawings are put side by side, it's interesting to see their different styles -- Hugo masters facial expressions with minimal strokes, while Soutter is not afraid to cover the entire paper with pencil strokes that are confident and expressive.

From Bastille we headed to the Louvre, just to take pictures outside and then head to Opera station for Palais Garnier, named after the architect Charles Garnier who was commissioned by Napoleon III to build an opera house to reflect the opulence of the Second Empire.

We didn't go inside, but it was already impressive on the outside with the portraits of many composers lining the large building.

A memorable pistachio and strawberry ice cream sandwich
Just a block away was Galeries LaFayette and I was finally able to complete my mission in Paris -- to try an ice cream sandwich from Pierre Herme. My colleague had raved about them to me before, how she had one and returned not one more time, but twice in succession to savour these cold treats.

I tried the combination of pistachio and strawberry (6.90 euros) and was not disappointed at all. The sandwich shell is made of macaron, and then it's a thick slice of the strawberry swirl ice cream. Each bite was not too rich, and very refreshing, though my dad had the chocolate and nougat one that was quite heavy.

For my mom I chose three macarons for her and we agreed the Mogador was fantastic -- chocolate with hints of passion fruit to cut the richness and wasn't too sweet.

Au Printemps celebrates 150 years in pink and roses
Before going back to our hotel we passed by Au Printemps which is celebrating its 150th birthday this year, the outside of the store dressed in bright pink complete with rose-shaped medallions.

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