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Newsletter #62: July 2005

vintage Paris photo

Secrets of Paris Newsletter #62: July 19, 2005

* From the Editor
* Absinthe Boutique
* Doggy Tour
* New Metro Ticket Prices
* Paris Eats
* Louvre Art Online
* Chateau de Villette
* Swimming In the Nude
* French “Work Ethic”
* I’m Famous!
* PS: Security Issues

* From the Editor *
Tonight it’s blissfully cool in Paris, raining off and on. Not a great start for the annual open-air cinema festival, but a relief for those of us who are a bit tired of sticking to sweaty metro seats. I was lucky enough to spend the last week in June guiding six lovely and talented women around town for Cynthia Morris’ week-long Paris Writer’s Life workshop. Despite the stifling heat and humidity, spirits remained high, and it was really inspiring to see how the city, despite the cliché, still feeds the creativity of writers after all these years. One of the hardest challenges for a guide is bringing history to life so that it isn’t just a monotonous list of names, dates and architectural styles. Unfortunately most tourism information in Paris is sterile and minimalist. Visitors could pour over every inch of the Musée de la Vie Romantique and never know that George Sand was a fiery woman who smoked cigars, had a stream of famous lovers, and went to the theatre on her own dressed like a man. Nothing in Luxembourg Gardens reveals Marie di Medici’s clandestine relationship with the guard who failed to stop the assassination of her husband, King Henri IV. Nor is there any mention on the plaque in front of the Hôtel de Sens of the scandalous behavior of his first wife, Queen Margot. So next time you visit a monument or museum or former residence of some great Parisian, be sure to do a bit of extra research on your own into the lives of these people who now only smile politely from their whitewashed portraits. – Heather

* Absinthe Boutique *
For those of you who’d like to try the mythical green aperitif called absinthe (aka The Green Fairy), but are afraid of tripping out à la Van Gogh and chopping your ear off, never fear. There’s a new boutique in Paris specializing in authentic absinthe called Vert d’Absinthe (11 rue d’Ormesson, 4th; just off the Place du Marché St-Catherine). Only legal again for the past few years (but not yet in the US, where only a hybrid called Absente is allowed to be sold), absinthe doesn’t actually make you go crazy or hallucinate. In fact, many historians believe it was the cheap chemicals added to the bootleg versions in the early 1900s which made people ill, not the wormwood. It does, however, have a damned high level of alcohol, so it’s easy to get blotto pronto. The boutique offers free tastings, and sells all of the necessary accessories: spoons, glasses, water fountains and, bien sûr, absinthe itself.

* Doggy Tour *
After I wrote about the new doggie bakery and doggie daycare in last month’s newsletter, I actually got to lead my first doggie tour for two adorable little pampered pooches from Palm Beach (okay, the “parents” and even “grandma” came along, too). We went to the gardens around the Chap de Mars (at the foot of the Eiffel Tower) first so the little guys could let off some steam, then over to Mon Bon Chien (12 rue Mademoiselle, 15th) for some home made biscuits. We stopped into Pinceloup (www.pinceloup.fr), an upscale dog boutique and massage parlor (you read that right) on the Quai des Grands Augustins for puppy mats, then into the Jardin du Luxembourg for lunch. Dogs are only allowed in one part of the park, so we did get chastised by a kepi-wearing guard. Luckily I had some of my own dogs’ pooper-scooper sacks to clean up! We ended with a stroll through the gardens at the Palais Royal and a café for the worn-out adults (moi included) under the arcades. The next day was a human-only tour, so the doggies stayed back at the suite in Le Meurice with their dog-sitter (Le Meurice is a particularly pet-friendly palace hotel). If that’s the dog’s life, I’ll take it!

* Metro Ticket Prices Go Up Again! *
Life was so simple when a carnet of ten tickets was €10. Then they raised it to €10.50 a year ago. As of this month, it’s now €10.70. Single ticket prices aren’t any higher (€1.40 each), but Carte Orange prices are now €51.50 for a month pass and €15.70 for a week pass. For those of you living in Paris, you should really consider getting a Carte Intégral, which not only gives you the right to breeze through the “beep” turnstile while everyone else fumbles with their little ticket, it’s also cheaper (equivalent to ten months of Carte Orange for the year), can be stopped for a month if you go on vacation, and is replaced instantly for free if you lose it because it’s all computerized (your name and photo are in the computer, so they just print a new card off and cancel the electronic chip on the old one). This came in handy this week when my card was stolen at the Bal des Pompier’s (annual Fireman’s Ball; I was dancing; it was crowded; someone probably thought it was a credit card, sucker!). Not only that, you don’t even have to pay the entire year up front. So what’s your excuse, eh?

* Paris Eats *

This month’s dining recommendations, with the enthusiastic approval of the Paris Writer’s Life Ladies:

The Bouillon Racine (3 Rue Racine, 6th; tel. 01 44 32 15 60) is a former worker’s canteen dating back to 1906. It has an amazing Art Nouveau interior on two levels, with mosaic tiling and wrought iron furnishings. There are different menus available, including one dinner menu for €26 that includes a starter, main dish and dessert. The food was delicious, French cuisine with a light, creative touch. And…drum roll…the service was excellent. I almost went into shock when the waiter came by at one point *just* to ask if everything was okay. If case you’ve never been to Paris before, the norm (in this price range, anyway) is that the wait staff disappear as soon as your food is served and don’t reappear unless you perform Cirque du Soleil style contortions to get their attention. Valet parking, jazz nights, a non smoking area…book early!

Ladurée (21 Rue Bonaparte, 6th; tel. 01 44 07 64 87) is a bakery, chocolate boutique and chic restaurant. But you should really go for tea and pastries as early in the morning as possible, when it’s still empty and quiet. The décor is a busy but elegant mix of French Chinoiserie with a huge exotic wall mural and leather folding chairs. I had their signature tea (“Mélange Ladurée”) and pastry (“Ispahan”) with fresh raspberries, litchis and cream between rose-flavored macaroons. Heaven! But not cheap. So be sure you have time to linger and enjoy every bite.

– Frascati (14 Rue de Turenne, 4th; tel. 01 42 77 27 42) was one of Cynthia’s discoveries, catching her eye because one hot summer night there was a couple dancing on the “terrace” to Italian music. BTW, I think I should point out the difference between what North Americans call a terrace (which is like an elevated deck or porch) and the Parisian version (a few tables on the sidewalk). Frascati is actually a tiny Italian take-away deli, but when the weather’s nice, the drag some chairs and tables out onto the narrow sidewalk, et voila! A terrace. So Cynthia and I try to stop in for cold drinks on the sweltering day after the rest of the ladies had gone home. But it’s only for eating. We made it back later in the evening to celebrate Cynthia’s birthday, and had an excellent meal that only true Italians could make. The pasta salad was so good I barely talked (or bothered to pay attention to what it was in there responsible for such bliss). The servers aren’t just friendly, but make the handful of diners feel like they’re all eating together. We had some chilled wine from Rome (well, the hills outside Rome) and then some cappuccino before heading off for dessert to…

– Amorino (4 Rue de Buci, 6th; 31 rue Vielle du Temple, 4th; 47 rue St-Louis-en Ile, 4th, etc.). I know that some people drool on cue when a certain French ice cream maker is mentioned, but I’ve tried them all and Amorino is still my favorite by far. Something about Italian gelato, the way they use a flat spatula to shape the different flavors into petals of a huge flower-on-a-cone, and the flavors! My Italian sucks, so I always have to ask the servers to translate, but I always go for caramel, Nutella, tiramisu, or occasionally a raspberry or lemon sorbet. Mmmm….Best of all, they stay open until midnight at the Vielle du Temple location, and they don’t close for August like Berthillon (d’oh! I said it!)

– Other favorites of the ladies’ include La Fourmi Ailée (8 rue Fouarre, 5th; tel. 01 43 29 40 99), a cozy restaurant and tea room with delicious tarts and quiches on the menu and plenty of veggie options; the opulent period dining room of the Musée Jacquemart-André (158 Blvd Haussmann, 8th; no reservations) which serves salads and quiches for lunch, and pastries and tea all afternoon; and Les Philosophes (28 rue vielle du Temple, 4th; tel. 01 48 04 99 89), a cool Marais café known by one and all for its amazing tomato tart.

* Louvre Art *
My friend Jean was visiting from New York and suggested we go to the Louvre for the afternoon to walk off a particularly heavy July 4th dinner. I also had the ulterior motive of wanting to see up close the circus surrounding the filming of the Da Vinci Code. I saw about five hundred (okay, maybe forty) movie trucks parked out in the back of the museum, but it was pretty quiet since they can only film when the Louvre closes on Tuesdays. We got momentarily distracted by the sales (there’s an air-conditioned shopping mall beneath the museum) and other girly things, then managed to get our tickets and get into the 1st floor of the Denon Wing, where most of the “action” is: Mona Lisa, Winged Victory, Venus de Milo, blah blah blah. I go there because it’s also home to my favorite sections containing the large-format (some of these paintings are twenty feet high) French paintings by Delacroix and Girodet Troison, and the Italian and Spanish paintings from the 17th and 18th centuries way in the back (love the El Greco paintings!). I was trampled at one point by a school group heading to Mona Lisa’s new room, and got a tad cranky. Back home though, I found I could look up every single work of art displayed in the Louvre on their website, and get all of the pertinent info. As usual, the pictures online never look *as* good as they do in person, which begs the eternal question: why do people go to museums and take photos? Hmph. Check out the site to find your bliss.

* Chateau de Villette *
Speaking of Da Vinci Code madness, I was recently hanging out at a chateau a hour from Paris (okay, I was working, as an extra in a party scene for a car ad) and casually asked the Chinese-American owner, Olivia Hsu-Decker, what else they filmed there (she was also on-site making sure we didn’t lean on the antique marble carvings in the dining room). Lo and behold, I was in the one and only Chateau de Villette, known in Da Vinci Code Land as the home of Sir Leigh Teabing. The crew would be arriving for filming the day after we left. But more importantly, it was also the setting for my favorite French film, Le Libertin (with Fanny Ardant, Vincent Perez, Audrey Tautou, and Arielle Dombasle). Andrew, a tall Irish gentleman in charge of “commercializing” the chateau, gave us a tour of the chapel and the other parts of the estate used in the film. And, wouldn’t you know it, Madame Decker can even arrange for special on-site Da Vinci Code Vacations in the 17-room chateau? All you need is the inclination and the dough. Demand ought to soar even higher when the film comes out!

* Swimming in the Nude *
The Zurban magazine, an excellent French weekly entertainment guide, is still carrying the torch for France’s reputation as a hotbed of promiscuity and debauchery (woo hoo!). Of course, “naturists”, those people who try and sell nudist colonies as anything other than flop-around free-for-all’s would say that it’s all healthy fun to get naked. But where’s the fun if you’re not doing anything naughty? Sheesh. Anyone who wants to cool off without having to bear the indignity of a not-so-flattering bathing suit can let it all hang out at the Piscine Roger-le-Gall (34 blvd Carnot, 12th, M° Porte de Vincennes) every Mon day and Friday 9:30pm-11:30pm, and Wednnesdays 9:15pm-11:15pm, €6.50 (discount for students and women). Actually, not everything can hang out; swim caps, or “bonnets”, are still required. Ha!

* The French Work Ethic *
If you had the chance to work less and have more free time for a modest cut in salary, would you take it? I don’t know too many people so in love with work that they’d do it for free, or even “just for the money”. Unfortunately most people have no choice; work or starve. So I’ve always found it a bit amusing that we equate that, at least where I come from in the US, as a “work ethic”. I recently had someone on tour ask me if the French were lazy (we were discussing France’s 35-hour work week, a bit of a fallacy in practice, anyway). I thought of all my friends back in the US who have never been able to get off work long enough to visit me in Paris. But for a more academic look at the facts, here’s an excellent roundup article from Alan Pavlik’s “Just Above Sunset

* I’m Famous! *
Okay, I’m now officially a legend in my own underpants, as one clever Brit used to say. This month my book was reviewed in the Paris Voice: “A thorough coverage of travel practicalities placed in a well-written context, make this a must-have for repeat visitors and new arrivals.” And I was interviewed on the website of Context:Paris (I do tours for them). If you’re wondering why there are two different covers for the same book, feel free to ask my publisher (Hunter, USA), and let me know what they told you! 😉

I’d also like to raise my glass to whoever it was among you who scored me some Brownie points with a certain someone in Boston by asking if he’d ever heard of the Secrets of Paris woman. Merci beaucoup!

*PS: Security Issues *
After London’s bombing, Paris is certainly on heightened alert. Expect to see more frequent metro closings each time a suspect package is found, and beware the long, long lines to get into Notre Dame, where all bags now have to be checked before you’re allowed to enter.

* Don’t forget to check the Secrets of Paris Calendar on July 20th for the latest info on events happening around town this summer!

* Are you on the list? *
If you’ve been getting this newsletter forwarded from a friend, please consider subscribing yourself. It’s free, and all you have to do is enter your e-mail address in the box at: /subscribe.htm. The benefit? You’ll get your own copy sent directly to your inbox every month, and I’ll have a better idea of how many of you are actually reading. Thanks! –Heather

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