Bonne Année

12/29/2012

 

Bonne Année  -  Happy New Year

     I hope everyone had a great Christmas.  Now we look towards the new year and many will have their televisions tuned to the festivities at Times Square in New York.  Some of you may even be there in person when the ball drops.  There's no doubt about it, it's a happy, good time.  Be assured that Parisians also know how to throw a killer party on new year's eve, but that's just the beginning.
     While you may hear the celebration called a fête, you are unlikely to hear it called a new years eve celebration.  Although it may be said on occasion, it is far more likely that you will hear the day called La fête de Saint Sylvestre.  A more formal name would be Le Réveillon de Saint Sylvester (the feast of Saint Sylvestre).  There is an easy explanation as to why Saint Sylvestre commands such a priviledged date on the French calendar.  For centuries, long before they had a constitutional freedom of religion, France was officially a Catholic country.  Sylvestre was the Catholic Pope for 21 years, beginning in the year 314.  The year 314 seems almost incredible to consider for Americans, but not so incredible for Europe.   It also seems unlikely that an ancient Pope would command such a memorable place in the modern world.  There is more to his story than merely being the Pope.  Sylvestre was Pope at the time of the Roman ruler Constantine.  Contantine was the first king to give religious freedom to Christians and to outlaw their mistreatment.  He was also the first Roman king to be baptised and to credit the Christian God for his victories.  He was the first king to march into war with symbols of Christ and the cross on his shields and flags.  Without a long history lesson, I can just tell you that the fortunes of the Papacy and Catholicism changed forever because of Constantine.  What he put into motion led to eventual sweeping religious changes across Europe.  Pope Sylvestre is given credit for converting Constantine to Christianity and for gaining a royal proclamation declaring that Popes have temporal authority which is unlike the authority of men and kings which ends with their deaths.  Pope Sylvestre died on December 31st in the year 335 AD.  Thus the date was his forever in France.  The impact of his historic record as well as the folklore and myths surrounding Pope Sylvestre have all contributed to his eventual beatification to sainthood and his firmly ensconced position as the namesake of the French new year's eve celebrations. 
     Parisians celebrate the new year with wonderful food, fois gras and champagne.  The more you eat, the luckier you will be in the coming year.  Alot of time will be spent with family on new years eve.  There will also be dances around the city and lots of public and private parties celebrating the new year.  Besides going to the Eiffel tower to join the crowds awaiting the midnight fireworks, you could also go to one of the parties or music venues.  Even the Paris Opera has a tradition of presenting a new years eve ballet program at the Opera Bastille.  You could grab tickets and go to an outstanding production of Don Quichotte.  When you leave the ballet or one of the dances, or when the fireworks begin at the Eiffel Tower, you may be surprised to learn that the french have a midnight kiss under the mistletoe.  In France, mistletoe is a new year's eve tradition instead of a Christmas tradition. 
     When it's time to go home, you can take a free ride on the Paris Metro.  During large national or citywide events, the government keeps the metro stations open later than usual and everyone rides for free.  Now that's what I call a designated driver!
     On new years day, family members and friends may exchange small gifts and will begin a week of celebrations which end on the 6th of January to coincide with the Christian celebration of epiphany.  One of the world's best parades is the Paris New Year's Parade.  It travels through a couple of cities and through several neighborhoods of Paris.  It's a 2-day parade with singers, musicians and dancers.  It's a fantastic parade.   New years celebrations are very popular in France and everyone enjoys the little get-togethers with friends and extended family to exchage gifts and share sweets.  When the 6th of January finally rolls around, most people celebrate with a king cake (Galette des Rois) and everyone hopes to be the lucky recipiant of the tiny figurine (feve) which was baked into the cake.  That person is crowned king for the day or at least the king of that party.  The cake is named for the three kings which had their epiphany of the Christ child.
     So there you have it  -  a fistful of tradition surrounding the new year in France.  We may have a great celebration at Times Square, but don't feel sorry for Parisians.  They keep the party going for a week.
Tous nos meilleurs vœux de bonne et heureuse année.
 All our best wishes for a good and happy new year,  Mimi
 

Joyeux Noel

12/24/2012

 
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Notre Dame Cathedral
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Virgin Records, Champs Elysees
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Column at Place Vendome______________
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Printemps Department store side walk decorations
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Laduree on the Champs Elysees
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Christmas markets with view of Eiffel Tower
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Christmas market in Paris

Joyeux Noel - Merry Christmas

     Well, the month has flown by and Christmas eve is here.  I hope everyone has enjoyed the photo's of Christmas in Paris over the last few weeks.  They were pretty, but they can't tell the whole story.  Paris is a large city and is composed of a diverse collection of neighborhoods.  The scenes vary from the elaborate and glorious, to the simple and understated.  There are markets full of shoppers, but there are also regally dressed chapels and cathedrals proudly reminding the passersby to not forget the origin and meaning of the holiday.  You can hear orchestral music and pipe organs pealing from some churches and, if your're in the area of La Madeleine church at just the right time, you may catch a free Christmas concert by a choir from one of the great cathedrals of Europe.  Last year I was fortunate enough to visit La Madeleine when a large and formidable children's choir from Britain was performing.  It was amazing and beautiful.
     If the French patisseries, with all their fantastic desserts, weren't Parisian enough for you, then you should see them at Christmas. They really know how to sweeten-up the holidays.  Even the candy shops specializing in macaroons have decorated their windows and made large christmas trees from stacked confections.  It looks like an elegant, Christmas version of Willy Wonka's factory.  It's funny how the chocolate shops and bread stores are doing pretty much the same things as usual, but the smells coming from their doors seem to be so much more special when the streets are lit by Christmas lights and there are decorations in the windows.  
     The holiday season is also a great time to shop for Christmas ornaments and uniquely french gift items that aren't usually sold until Christmas time comes around.  Shopping is made twice as fun when you have a couple of glasses of warm, mulled wine while out and about.  You can also ride on one of the dinner cruises or visit a music club aboard one of the barges on the river.  It's a perfect time to sit in a restaurant and enjoy a glass of kir royal or champagne to toast the season.  There are bound to be special desserts on the menus for the holidays.  Go ahead - live it up. It's Christmas and you can walk-off the calories tomorrow.
     Whether you're into ice skating, as I wrote in my last post, or maybe a concert or movie, there are always things to do in Paris.  Some venues will be living in the moment and will offer a full holiday experience, but others will be going about their business in routine fashion.  Nevertheless, you will undoubtedly feel how special it is to be in Paris at Christmas.  The charm and beauty of Paris is amplified during the holidays. People seem to be happier, and the sights and sounds of a Parisian Christmas can lift the worst mood. 
     I really hope that the photo's have given you an idea of just how exceptional it is to be in Paris for Christmas, but wherever you are this year, we wish the best for you and your family.  We hope you have a safe and happy holiday and a very Merry Christmas.  When I write my post next week, the countdown will be on for New Years  (St. Sylvestre) celebrations in Paris.  Till then, JOYEUX NOEL.  Mimi
 
 
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Architects' rendering of new first floor renovations of Eiffel Tower

Christmas at the Eiffel Tower - Ice skating above Paris

     This week I may ramble a bit between history and the future, but I will get to the point about Christmas.  There are no award winning decorations at the Eiffel Tower, but it does offer something special, and when I think of Christmas in Paris, it immediately comes to mind.  Before I get to my point, I must first give a little background information.
     It's difficult to talk about Paris without mentioning the Eiffel Tower.  Last year, the management company and the French government began a major renovation of the tower.  It had been over thirty years since the last renovation.  More than just an icon of France, the tower (built in 1889) is a huge tourist draw and has seen more visitors in the past 23 years than it did during the preceding 100 years.  Time has taken a toll.
     The eiffel Tower is immensely popular and a must-see when visiting Paris.  Forgive the pun.  Indeed, you can't miss seeing the tower from points all over Paris, but first-time visitors to Paris should definitely consider a visit to the interior a priority.  Going up, into the interior, is the only way to comprehend its true scale and to get a feel for what people must have felt in 1889 when they first climbed to the summit.
     It's not just the impact of so many visitors that makes the renovation necessary.  Since the last renovation, there have been huge leaps in technology which will be used to make the tower more energy efficient and handicapped accessible.  LED lighting, solar panels, wind tubines and geo-thermal piping will be used to electrify and light the tower once the renovations are complete.  New elevators will increase the number of people who can ride to the upper levels at one time, and these  new lifts will be powered by modern hydraulic systems which are more environmentally friendly than the old systems which used oil and a tremendous amount of water each day.   The first floor layout will be modified to allow better flow of foot traffic and will accommodate disabled visitors in ways which were not possible before.
     The public spaces on the first floor had become dated and not used to their best potential. They will be completely rebuilt with glass-walled meeting rooms, a restaurant and pavillion spaces nestled under and fitted to the shape of the four pillars.  Visitors will be able to walk on a glass floor up to a point where new glass safety rails will allow you to look 187 feet down, through the center of the tower, to the plaza at ground level (see photo's above).  The renovation is scheduled to be finished in 2013 at a projected cost of 25 million dollars. 
     The new space will be amazing and was certainly overdue, but I wonder if one of my favorite Eiffel Tower events will return after the renovations are complete.   For two months, during the Christmas season, the tower opens an ice skating rink on the first floor (remember - 187 feet above the ground).  There are two more floors above, but the first floor has its own unique and beautiful view which is somewhat of a wonderland with the lighting effects on the ice and the skaters gliding around between the pillars.  For me, it's the one time of the year when the first floor can actually compete with the floors above.   There is such a great holiday feeling and everyone seems to be enjoying Christmas on the ice. 
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La Patinoire Eiffel - Ice skating at the Tower
     I can hardly wait for the renovations to be completed so I can eat at the new restaurant and see the city from inside the new glass walls.  I know it will be beautiful, and I'm sure there will be
Christmas decorations throughout the public spaces, but I hope they will find a way to bring the ice skating (la Patinoire) back to the tower after the renovation.  It was such a great memory of Christmas in Paris.  There are temporary skating rinks throughout the city each winter, but nothing is quite like skating inside the Eiffel Tower. You can see from the photographs (left and below) that the experience and location are incomparable and the views are outstanding.   I realize that the renovations are necessary to bring the tower into this century and to make the spaces more marketable and environmentally sound, but I'll be sad if this oh-so-Parisian event becomes just another part of the faded history of the tower.  I know they will plan other seasonal events and celebrations on the first floor, and I'm certain that it will be financially and aesthetically improved by the renovations.  I'll be sure to post photo's of the new spaces when they are complete and I'll be one of the first to brag on changes that are sensitive to the design of the tower and are ecological improvements.  However, the ice skating rink was like an exclamation point on the run-up to Christmas.  I'll always have a great memory of the old first floor and ice skating above Paris at Christmas.  I'll let you know if they bring it back after the renovations. Mimi

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Ice skating on the first floor of La Tour Eiffel
 

Festive Shopping

12/8/2012

 
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Printemps Department Store
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Entrance to Printemps
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Side view of Printemps
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Galeries Lafayette Department Store
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Entrance to Galeries Lafayette
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Atrium at Galeries Lafayette
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Shops at Galerie Royale
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The Shopping Mall at Les Halles

Festive Shopping - Paris Style

     The shops and department stores of Paris are getting into the spirit of the season. The exterior decorations and window displays are exciting and colorful.  The large department stores are a feast for the eyes at night.  They also have fantastic interior decorations.  
     Only the largest department stores can rival the Champs Elysees when it comes to over-the-top Christmas decor.  As you can see from the photos above, the Galeries Lafayette is so fully covered in lights that it looks like stained glass of a cathedral.  It's as elegant a display as any you'll ever see.  The Printemps department store uses colored flood lights and miles of tinsel and Christmas balls, suspended above the sidewalks, to create a visual fête that draws you into the store in true, north pole style.
     The shopping promenades around the city, and the underground mall at Les Halles are each dressed in their own festive finery.  The store windows are decorated.   The entrances to shopping alleys are elegantly draped in garlands and have lighted trees or topiaries marking their entrances and scattered throughout the passages.  Everywhere you go, there are different styles and themes.  It's truly an elegant and happy scene, never over-done, tastefully french.
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Laduree
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Louis Vuitton Windows
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     Being in Paris during the holidays is like a gift in itself.  It's a great time to window shop or sit in a cafe and enjoy the lights from the warmth of a table overlooking the sidewalks.  Many of the restaurants have patios with heaters overhead so that you can comfortably sit outside and feel as if you are in the middle of the action.  I'm always happy when the weather gets cool and I can order a large platter of warm garlic mussles and a nice wine to enjoy with friends at one of our favorite restaurants on the Champs Elysees with a view of the decor outside.

      I know that I've mentioned in previous posts that Paris is a different city at night. It's also safe to say that most large cities are different during the Christmas season. Paris is no exception.  I've often heard it said that Christmas brings out the proverbial child in all of us.  That's true I think, but Parisians seem to do Christmas in the same exacting way that they do food and fashion.  It's often very artistic. quite mature, and exceptionally beautiful.  It's a fashion show that everyone can get excited about, and a feast for the senses and the heart.   Mimi.

 
 
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The Champs Elysees at The Arc de Triomphe
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The Grand Roule Ferris Wheel at Place de la Concorde

The City Of (Christmas) Light - Paris In Winter

     I held off as long as I could, but as Christmas decorations are being installed everywhere, it's hard to resist.  Paris is surreal and idyllic on the worst days, so you can imagine how magical it becomes when the Christmas lights are draped on trees and the stores begin to dress their windows for the season.  It's a sure sign that Christmas is on the way when you see the arrival of the big, lighted ferris wheel at Place de la Concorde, at the top end of the Champs Elysees, near the entrance to the Tuileries.  It's a magical addition to an already sensational place.
     The air is beginning to bite a little bit, and the smell of roasting chestnuts is pleasant as you walk from store to store along the avenue.  It's funny how sounds and smells can be just as powerful as a view to get you into a holiday mood.  The sounds of cathedral bells tolling in the background while Christmas music escapes from the open doors of the stores is a pretty elegant way to be ushered into the season. 
     Paris, like other metropolitan cities, is pulsing with cars and people.  As often as I've been to NYC, I never seem to feel independant of the cars and the crush of people when I am there.  Somehow, I'm always aware of the madness about me.  It's different in Paris; the city has a way of keeping everything in its place. The traffic hums along and you certainly have to be aware of it when crossing the street, but it's so easy to completely ignore the cars and be swept away by the lights, culture and ambiance of the city.  I never quite understood how such a large city could have ambiance.  Paris is special that way.  I suppose it's the intricacy and softness of the architecture as well as the sense of antiquity in Paris, rather than the cold modern skyscrapers common to other large cities.  I love New York, Seoul, Tokyo and several other large cities, but I love them for their madness and exhiliration.  Paris offers that same busy exhiliration, but like Amsterdam, Venice or Monte Carlo, Paris seems eternal - as if she stands above the swarm.  The Christmas decorations and twinkling lights just add to the mystery and beauty.  Perhaps it's subjective.  Maybe others visit Paris and find themselves very distracted by the cars and crowds.  I tend to forget they are there.  Christmas lights makes it even easier to forget.  They're like jewelry crowning the beautiful, old city.  It's like another time and place.  
     I'll try to post some photos of other areas of Paris in the coming weeks.   The Champs Elysees and Place de la Concorde are very festive, but other parts of the city are also decking the halls and stringing the lights.  There really isn't a terrible time to be in Paris, but winter is truly something special.  From neighborhood to neighborhood the city starts to shine.  I'm not a big lover of snow, but when it snows a little earlier than usual, it really makes the city sparkle.  Nevertheless, if I'm going out, I much prefer the cold without the snow; dry feet are warm feet.  Paris usually reserves the worst snowfall for after the new year, so the messiest weather generally stays away during the holiday season.  That's nice when you want to stroll through the Christmas market that comes to the Champs Elysees each winter.  Between the Rond-Point and Place de la Concorde, under the plane trees, there are over 100 small chalets selling products from the French countryside as well as ornaments, food, wine, toys, souvenirs, costumes and art.  It's just one more destination that transports you out of the bustling city and reminds you that Paris is timeless, and for a couple of months, more than any other time, it really is La Ville Lumiere   -  THE CITY OF LIGHT.