Wednesday, April 29, 2009

April in Paris - Don't Forget Your Scarf!

We’re back from Italy and Paris is spectacular. It always is in April. Trees are full, flowers are in bloom, and flowering bushes are bursting with color. No wonder the 1932 song, April in Paris, by Vernon Duke and E. Y. “Yip” Harburg continues to resonate today with music lovers and lovers of Paris, alike:

April in Paris, chestnuts in blossom,
Holiday tables under the trees.

April in Paris, this is a feeling,
No one can ever reprise.
I never knew the charm of spring,
Never met it face to face.
I never knew my heart could sing,
Never missed a warm embrace.
‘Til April in Paris.
Whom can I run to?
What have you done to my heart?

Honestly, though, the weather in Paris in April can be quite changeable. Perhaps that’s part of the charm. On any one April day, it’s possible to experience all four seasons. So, when visiting Paris in April, remember to have with you the following items, at all times:

A portable, collapsible umbrella for when it showers;

A light jacket to guard against the chill, but one that can go easily into a bag or tie around the waist with the sun comes out;

Sunglasses, for when the sun really shines;

The all-important Parisian écharpe (spring scarf) for when the sun is in and out and it’s too warm for your jacket but still a bit nippy for a shirt alone.

You thought les Parisiennes were just being fashionable with their scarves! Mais, non! The écharpe is a valuable, and very practical, part of our April wardrobe here in Paris. And it looks good!

Wait to buy your ubiquitous Parisian scarf first thing on arrival, this way les dames can show you the myriad ways to tie it. It will make for a much-loved souvenir when you return home.

Painting of Paris in springtime by Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of Paris Chestnut trees by Van Gogh (1853-1890), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

April in Paris - The Charm of Spring

Frank knew it...

Ella knew it...

The incomparable Count Basie and Thad Jones knew it...

And where would we be without Glenn?

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Leonardo's Inventions at the Clos Luce

Leonardo da Vinci was the true "Renaissance Man": able to do it all. Not only was he the innovative artist and painter we continue to celebrate today, 500 years after he lived, he was also a musician, mathematician, philosopher, scientist, draftsman, architect, engineer, and inventor centuries ahead of his time.

Many of Leonardo’s technological designs were so conceptually advanced that they could not be realized during his 67 years on the planet. Ideas for such machines as the helicopter, hang glider, and armored tank were only a few of Leonardo’s inventions considered impractical, even crazy, by his contemporaries. Today, at the Clos Lucé - the home given to Leonardo by French King, Francois I, and where he spent the last three years of his life - you can find three-dimensional replicas of these and many other inventions conceived by Leonardo.

Thanks to the IBM Corporation, 40 da Vinci machines are on display at the French home of the former Tuscan master. Created using Leonardo’s own plans and sketches, they reveal his intellect as a military engineer, town planner, and mechanical genius capable of conceptualizing both the nature of hydraulics as well as the possibility of human flight.

Even in his lifetime, Leonardo was valued as an engineer. He devised numerous devices for protecting and besieging enemy cities, such as moveable barricades, catapults, and repeat-action weaponry. In 1502 he designed a 720 ft (240 m) bridge for Sultan Beyazid II of the Ottoman Empire intended to span the mouth of the Bosporus River. Beyazid did not pursue the project, believing the construction to be impossible. However, 504 years later, in 2006, the Turkish government went ahead with Leonardo’s plans and built the bridge over the Golden Horn.

Leonardo died at the Clos Luce on May 2, 1519, in the arms of his friend and patron. The two had met only four years before when Francois I’s army captured Milan. The French King appreciated Leonardo’s genius right away and brought him to the Loire Valley to live out the rest of his life tinkering with his inventions. Twenty years after the Renaissance Man’s death, the King is reported to have said, “There had never been another man in the world who knew as much as Leonardo”.

Despite being the birthplace of the Renaissance, today’s Italy is not yet fully connected to the wireless world. This is the first time in eight days that I’ve been able to find a hotspot and send you a new post. Thanks for your patience with me, dear readers. I’ll be back at home and posting regularly again soon!

Engraving of Leonardo da Vinci, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Replica of Leonardo's helicopter propeler, courtesy of Anima and Wikimedia Commons.
Model of di Vinci armored tank, courtesy of Matilda and Wikimedia Commons.
The Golden Horn at sunset, courtesy of Bertilvidet and Wikimedia Commons.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Art & Architecture - Renaissance France

Easter Sunday. We rose before dawn in Paris, but didn’t breakfast until clearing the crowds of holiday travellers at Orly Airport, making our one-hour flight, renting a car, and driving to the Leaning Tower of Pisa just as the bells chimed 10:00. On the way to Florence, we passed a turn-off for the village of Vinci, prompting discussion in our miniscule baby-blue Fiat 500 about whether this had been Leonardo’s hometown. Just last year we visited his home in France, and final resting place, to view replicas of his inventions: the Clos Lucé, located in the Loire Valley town of Amboise, had been provided Leonardo by his friend and benefactor, King Francois I (1494-1547). When Leonardo died in 1519, Francois lived just down the hill at the Château d’Amboise, one of many chateaux built by the King credited with bringing the Renaissance from Italy to France.

Upon succeeding to the throne in 1515, Francois pursued a series of wars in Italy in an attempt to unseat his sworn enemy, Charles V, as Holy Roman Emperor. He failed, but he did manage to capture the city-state of Milan. He immediately fell under the spell of the city’s art and architecture. Like Florence, Milan had by then been transformed by Renaissance style and ideals. Thus, from the earliest years of his reign, Francois I strove to bring the beauty of the northern Italian states back to Paris and the Loire Valley.

He built or renovated numerous Loire Valley châteaux in Renaissance style: Amboise, Blois, as well as the magnificent Château de Chambord, which some believe Leonardo designed. Francois rebuilt the Louvre, transforming it from an imposing crenellated medieval fortress into a welcoming Renaissance palace. He financed the building of Paris’ Hôtel de Ville (City Hall), constructed the Château de Madrid in the Bois de Boulogne, and refurbished the Château de St-Germain-en-Laye to the northwest of Paris. But his most extensive building project was the reconstruction and expansion of the royal Château de Fontainebleau. Luxurious both inside and out, including a central fountain said to mix wine with water, Fontainebleau became Francois’ favorite royal residence.

Francois I was also a great patron of the arts. He supported a number of period writers and developed a royal library filled with rare books and manuscripts. He also encouraged many of Italy’s great painters and to come to France to teach their French contemporaries.

By the time Leonardo da Vinci made it to France he was an elderly man and no longer painting, having earlier suffered a stroke. But he brought with him many now famous works, including the Mona Lisa, known in French as La Joconde. These works stayed in France upon his death, and along with paintings by Italian such masters as Michelangelo, Titian, and Raphael – all procured during the reign of Francois I – they make up part of the royal collection now on display at the Louvre Museum.

We finished the day at a 15th century Renaissance-style Tuscan Abbey, listening to the monks chant their ritualistic prayers. Amid the Gregorian song and smell of incense, we were as transfixed by the wood-inlay perspective renderings lining the walls of the chapel choir as we were soothed by the monk-produced red wines and hazelnut liqueur that later accompanied Easter dinner.


All images courtesy of Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Paris Monuments - The Conciergerie

Spring has sprung in Paris, and so has tourist season. Trees are blooming, lines are growing, and the sound of French is muted among myriad other languages. Today, as I walked across the Pont au Change in the direction of Ile de la Cité, my ears pricked up at the words of a US mid-western male just behind me.

“I wonder where the Chatelet is. And what it is,” he said.

I couldn’t help myself. I turned around and told him - and his wife and two young sons, aged approximately 8 and 10 – that the Chatelet no longer existed. It had been a medieval fortress that became an evil, hated prison, and Napoleon Bonaparte had it destroyed in 1808. I pointed out where it once stood, at the site of Bonaparte’s Palmier Fountain and the twin Palladian-style theatres, the Théâtre de la Ville and Théâtre du Chatelet.

We continued on, all five of us, in the direction we’d been going, toward the imposing four-towered medieval structure that stretches along the Seine on the Ile de la Cité. One of Paris’ few surviving medieval buildings, the Conciergerie makes an arresting impression.
“That was also a prison.” I said. “It’s called the Conciergerie. During the French Revolution prisoners at the Conciergerie only came out to get their heads chopped off at the guillotine,” I drew my hand across my throat. “And they had to pay for their stay there!”

The boys both stared up at me, rapt. They appeared to want more. So I told them that the Conciergerie was once part of the royal palace of the earliest Kings of France, the Palais de la Cité. (This was before King Charles V moved the royal residence to the Louvre in 1364, turning the Palais de la Cité into the Palais de Justice, which it remains today.) I pointed to the round towers of the Conciergerie and explained that in the days of kings each one had a different purpose. The Tour d’Argent, center-right, was where the kings kept their guarded royal treasure. At the far-right, the Tour Bonbec, was where they tortured their prisoners. Tour means ‘tower’; Bonbec means ‘good beak’. When the torturer applied his instruments, the victim’s beak, or mouth, gave up the “good” things the torturer wanted to hear.

“And that tower,” I said, indicating the left-most tower, “That’s the Tour Horloge, the clock tower. Follow me.” And the whole family, mom, dad, and both little boys skittered right along beside me. We crossed the street and looked up at the colorful clock decorated with images symbolizing law and justice high up on the turreted, corner structure. The clock there now dates to 1585, though its predecessor was installed around 1350. In medieval times, it was the only clock in Paris. It told time for the entire city back when Paris comprised only the islands, the Latin Quarter, and a bit of the Right Bank. The bells of the Tour Horloge tolled every hour to mark the passing of the day.

“You can visit the Conciergerie,” I said to the boys. “Before it was a prison, it was a hang-out for knights and royal policeman. You can even see a slab of the table where they ate.”

As the boys clung to mid-western-Dad’s arm, begging to go to the Conciergerie, mid-western-Mom sidled up to me. “Thank you,” she said. “They haven’t been this engaged since we arrived.”

History. It’s all in the context.

Horne, Alistair, Seven Ages of Paris. London: Pan Books, 2002.
The Conciergerie, Palais de la Cité. Monum, Editions du Patrimoine, 2003.

Photo of tourist boat on the river Seine alongside the Conciergerie, courtesy of Milvus and Wikimedia Commons.
Engraving of the Chatelet Fortress, by Dupré, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of the Conciergerie, courtesy of Beckstet and Wikimedia Commons.
Painting of the Palais de Justice by Adrien Dauzats, 1858, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.
Photograph of the Tour Horloge, courtesy of CaptainHaddock and Wikimedia Commons.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Blue Note Jazz Fest at the Theatre du Chatelet

The 2009 Blue Note Jazz Festival opened in Paris this week with Jazz giant, Ron Carter, joining his Quartet and the Blue Note All-Stars at the lovely Théâtre du Chatelet.

The Uber-Mensch and I were there for the opening Gala Soirée. We came for a taste of hometown New York as well as to celebrate our shared birthday. Yet another birthday celebrated in Paris this past week!

I had never been to the Théâtre du Chatelet before, but I’d always admired it. Hard not to. It’s located right in the center of Right Bank Paris, just across the Seine from the Ile de la Cité at the meeting of the 1st and 4th arrondissments. Architecturally, it’s a grand Palladian structure, mirrored just opposite an open public square, called the Place du Chatelet, by its twin, the Théâtre de la Ville.

The area now occupied by the place and two theatres was once the site of a 12th century medieval fortress-turned- prison. The Chatelet prison witnessed some of the most heinous acts of torture ever committed in human history. Horrors such as these were likely invented at the Chatelet:

The Boot: a wooden instrument used to squeeze the foot beyond repair
The Wheel: where a prisoner was stretched and tied and whipped mercilessly
Water Torture: engorging the stomach to bursting by force-feeding water
Drawing and Quartering: pulling a body apart by four horses
Burning at the Stake

No wonder the French people hated the fortress and wanted it torn down. Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the horror chamber destroyed in 1808, ostensibly to clear crime from the area. He intended to construct a pair of theatres in its place. But like many of the building projects dreamed up by Napoleon, this one was not realized before his exile first to Elba (1814) and then to St. Helena (1815). He did manage, however, to clear space for a public square in which he erected a monument, the Palmier Fountain, to lionize his tragic Egyptian campaign.

Fifty-two years later (1860-62), the second French Emperor, Napoleon III, made good on the plans of his infamous uncle. Following designs by French architect, Jean-Antoine-Gabriel Davioud, he saw to it his civic engineer, Baron Haussmann, build the two theatres on either side of the square, the Place du Chatelet.

The Théâtre du Chatelet showcases music and dance while its twin spotlights dramatic performances. Both theatres attract artists ranging in style from classical to cutting-edge. On March 30, 2009, the Ron Carter Quartet stepped onto the Chatelet stage to assuage yesteryear’s tortured souls in a tribute to Miles Davis.

With Stephen Scott on piano, Payton Crossley on drums, and Rolando Morales-Matos on percussions, Mr. Carter honored his mentor, who died in 1991, with a new interpretation of many formerly trumpet-led ballads that are now part of the “classic” Jazz repertoire. A 30-minute closing rendition of "My Funny Valentine" brought Carter’s bass front and center, while Morales-Matos’ often humorous percussion added a fantastic new texture to the traditional trio arrangement.

Carter played with Miles from 1963-68, an experience he likened to “going into a laboratory like chemists” to mix with a variety of musical ingredients. Many of the group’s formulations from that period have since become standards for future generations. Carter stood out as a new-style bassist even then, going beyond the traditional role of rhythm-keeper. By changing beats, creating harmonies and embellishing his accompaniment with melodic lines, he prodded soloists to new heights. Since leaving Davis, Carter’s mission has been to take the double-bass out of the rhythm section and prove that it can stand on its own as a lead instrument. With more than 2000 recordings to his name, it would appear that Carter, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, has proven his point.

Also on stage last Monday night was the latest line-up of Blue Note All-Stars: Joe Lovano and Stefano DiBattisto on saxophone, Flavio Boltro on trumpet, Jacky Terrasson on piano, Carter, and Crossley. They treated us to raucous evening of swinging Jazz standards that had me bouncing in my front-row, Mezzanine seat. All in all, it was a spectacular evening.

From a "Dear Miles" concert in Tel Aviv, May 2008, here’s a taste of what we heard:

My recently discovered high school friend, Nashville-Guy-'n-Edinburgh, is a true jazz aficionado. He writes, “When you look at the span, product, and quality of music across Ron Carter's career...well, impressive isn't praise enough. I was thinking about him the other day. Astonishing. To have seen his 4tet and the Blue Note All-Stars both -- in Paris, no less! -- that's good living. Drink it in.”

We did, man. We did!



Photo of Ron Carter, courtesy of Mind meal and Wikimedia Commons. Theatre du Chatelet, Chatelet Fortress, and Napoleon Bonaparte all courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Ron Carter, courtesy of Kku and Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, April 3, 2009

The Paris Balloon Celebrates 10 years!

Looks like there’s been another birthday in Paris this week. The Ballon Air de Paris, visible from my apartment windows, has been flying over the Parc André Citroën since 1999. In these 10 years, it has hoisted 500,000 visitors 150 meters (492 ft) into the sky for incomparable views of Paris!

They say the trip up is not to be missed. And during the week of sustainable development, currently underway in France, you can fly in the Paris Balloon for free! Head to the Parc from 9:00am to 7:00pm on a good-weather day for a 10 minute voyage you will never forget.

Since 2008, the Ballon Air de Paris has an environmental purpose as well as a touristic one. In partnership with Airparif, the Balloon is equipped to measure air quality in Paris. It changes color to reflect the amount of pollution resulting from auto emissions in the city:
  • green for good;
  • orange for fair; and
  • red for poor.

When at its height, the Balloon can be seen for over 19 kms (12 miles).

Check out this news report. Don't worry if you don't understand French, the visuals are most important.

Up, up and away! I’m on my way with the Lucky-one-and-only (despite our last journey into the heavens). Care to join us?

Source and Image:

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Tower Tales - Gustave Eiffel Honors Contributors

Though Gustave Eiffel goes down in history as the creator of the famous iron Tower, he was far from alone in this momentous endeavor. A huge cast of characters - scientists, engineers, mathmeticians, architects, metalworkers, and laborers of all kinds - helped him to realize the "A over the Champs-de-Mars". Eiffel did not fail to appreciate this. He engraved beneath the first-level platform the names of 72 notables who worked alongside him to design, develop, and build La Tour Eiffel.

My friend Jeanne, picture-book-author-and-illustrator-extraodinaire, can lay claim to one such recognition! Her maiden name, Bélanger, is forever embossed on the Tower's structure. It was hidden by paint from the early 20th century until 1986-87 when the Iron Lady underwent a massive restoration. But it's there now, plain as day, between Lagrange and Cuvier on the east pillar.

Jeanne writes, "Jean-Baptiste-Charles-Joseph Bélanger was a mathmetician and hydraulic engineer. Whew! Good thing he didn't write his whole name on the tower! It is a bit long!"

Thanks for sharing this family history, Jeanne!

Do you have a Tower Tale to tell?

Comment here and I'll put it in a post!