Place des Vosges


aerial view of The Place des Vosges in the Marais of Paris
The arcades facing the inner courtyard of the Place des Vosges are home to restaurants, shops and galleries.
Fountain in the Place des Vosges
In the Marais area of Paris there is a fantastic example of royal will and patronage.  The Place des Vosges was built in the early 1600's by King Henry lV.  This is considered the first residential square in europe and served as a model for the many to follow. 
     The Marais is a favorite of visitors to Paris.  The cobbled streets are narrow and winding, with some of them being off limits to automobiles.  I will write more about the Marais in the future, but today I'll focus on the Place des Vosges which, as you can see from the first photo above,  greatly contrasts the Marais in which is sits.  Whether you enter through the large carousel entry, or come in through the gardens of the Hotel Sully, you are drawn into the arcades that surround the inner courtyard.  It seems a bit of a folly to call it a courtyard because it is quite large.  It seems more appropriate to call it a square park.  Nevertheless, there is grand, open space for anyone wishing to sit on a bench under the linden trees and read or have a picnic. The park is enclosed by the identically designed buildings which are fronted with those brick arcades, which house shops, art galleries and restaurants.  There is a real sense of having completely left Paris when you are in the confines of the Place des Vosges.  It's a haven in the middle of the extremely popular and ever-busy Marais.  
     When rounding one of the corners beneath the arcades, you will see the entry to a museum.  For almost 20 years, beginning in the early 1830's, this was the home of the famous writer, Victor Hugo (think Quasimodo of Notre Dame and little Cosette of Les Miserables).  Beyond his herculean talent as a writer and poet, Hugo was also a very good artist and was incredibly influential in the politics of France and of several other countries.  He was even exiled at one time because of his public views supporting a free press, social justice and the abolition of the death penalty. His apartment in the Place des Vosges, and his burial crypt in the Pantheon are both popular historic museums.  He is buried alongside the two other literary greats:  Alexandre Dumas and Emile Zola.   A visit to his apartment is a worthwhile stop when spending an afternoon in Place des Vosges.
     The art galleries along the arcades of the Place des Vosges are filled with exciting and beautiful paintings and sculptural pieces, all ranging in genre from traditional to modern. As with most art galleries in Paris, you can have your purchases shipped to the USA should you find something that you just can't live without.   If you're lucky, you'll experience an orchestral group or a singer performing for the tourists beneath the arcades.  Not a bad addition to a window shopping excursion among the art galleries.
     If a picnic under the linden trees is not your cup of espresso, then there are some fine restaurants beneath the arcades or throughout the Marais.  Remember, it only seems as if you've left Paris and gone to the suburbs; the city is just beyond the gates and you'll have no trouble finding food and drink galore.  Notice how I always find a way to return to the matter of eating and drinking.  It almost makes you forget what I was writing about.
Well, it is France afterall...     


Marche' aux Fleurs


Outside corner of one of the large iron and glass pavillions comprising the Paris flower market on the Ile de la Cite'.
A view into one of the flower market pavilions.

The Paris Flower Market

Being a long-time landscape designer and plant addict, i can't visit Paris without being lured by the many florists and garden centers around the city.  There are fresh and potted flowers on display all over the city.  I never miss an opportunity to go to the Paris Flower Market. It's a fantastic place to escape the sidewalks  and shop for plants, flowers, gifts and crafts, or to just while away a little time when the weather is rainy or cold.  I can't seem to go anywhere near the Ile de la Cite' (home to Notre Dame and the Conciergerie) without dropping by the flower market to see what new gifts have arrived and which seasonal plants are being sold for the balconies and courtyards of Paris.  I love all the bamboo and citrus plants.
     Parisians will inevitably be buying mums and ivy plants for the window boxes they hang from the handrails around their balconies or from the wrought iron rails on the floor-to-ceiling french windows which overlook the streets below.  The tourists in the market will be sorting through colorful linens, fragrant lavender sachets, shabby chic garden products and other souvenirs to take back to their own countries for a unique momento of the City of Light.  
     The several iron and glass buildings are packed with a wide variety of annual and perennial plants of all sizes.  There are giant olive trees and large, old boxwoods or laurels in massive terracotta pots.  It seems that bamboo has become extremely popular over the last decade; I've seen large pots of bamboo on balconies all across Paris.  One thing is certain - it's not necessary to settle for the same old routine plants if you live in Paris.   The Marche' aux Fleurs has the most exotic and interesting plants available on the market today.  It's a beautiful place to lose yourself for an hour or more and you can even grab a souvenir of Paris and the flower market.  If you visit on a Sunday, you will arrive to the sounds of an aviary.  Each Sunday the flower market becomes the home of the weekly Marche' aux Oiseaux (the bird market).  There are birds of every size and color.   Quite pretty, but for me it's all about the plants. 
     The market is beside the river Seine and at the historic center of Paris.  The architecture of the market and the entire surrounding area is ancient and beautiful.  It's seems like visiting a park inside a building, both which are inside a museum -  a museum called Paris.   She never disappoints...

Freedom Fries


Statue of George Washington and General LaFayette on the USA square in Paris
Tonight I had a very nice evening at an old farm in the rural countryside of Georgia, where we were celebrating the birthday of a dear friend.   A friend who, incidentally, came to visit me in Paris when she and her daughter were already traveling in England.  Tonight I got the chance to reconnect with some of our mutual friends and to meet some of her friends whom I had never met.  One of my favorite things about France, and particularly Paris, is that average citizens are quite intellectual and take great pride in being well informed and up-to-date on world and national affairs.  Tonight I was with a group of thoughtful, diverse and well-read Georgians, albiet in the middle of the bucolic, Georgia boondocks.  What does that have to do with Paris, you ask?  Well let me just tell you...
     First, I need to thank my friend for inviting me to be a part of her small, inner-circle as we marked the milestone of her 50th birthday.  Next, and finally to the point, she and a few of her friends at the party are teachers at a wonderful local highschool.  One of those teachers happened to be a French teacher, so we had plenty of positive feelings to share about France.  While chatting, I told her that waiters in Parisian restaurants will sometimes tease Americans by calling their order of french fries "freedom fries" in a light-hearted jab at what many Americans angrily renamed french fries when France chose not to join America when we invaded Iraq.  This pleasant teacher immediately reacted and told me that she had warned her students not to call them that in front of her.   I have to admit that it angered me to watch the news reports and see Americans pouring French wine into the streets and saying "freedom fries".   It shocks me whenever I'm confronted with just how poorly educated most Americans are about our own American Revolutionary War; called the war of American independence.  Over the last few years, I've begun to make a habit of asking friends, both here and in France, if they know about General LaFayette of France and about his role in our war for freedom from England.  Many people on both sides of the ocean are surprised to find out that LaFayette had such a huge impact on America and on Americans during and after the war.  Had the French not come to our aid, is is likely that we would not have won against the British and we could forget about those freedom fries. 
    General LaFayette became so famous and beloved by Americans that after the war his visits were met with parades and outpourings of gratitude as he traveled across the United States.  The colonists, with the help of his French troops, had defeated the British and won our independence.  During the war, LaFayette became extremely close to our future first President, George Washington.  Now we get to the trivia that many Americans and Frenchmen do not know.   Not only are there statues of Lafayette all over our country, there are are streets and even many towns and cities named after him.  In France there are also statues of him; some including George Washington as well.  After President Washington's death, LaFayette returned to the USA and visited his grave.  He is said to have cried that his American father had passed away.  He had loved George Washington so much that he had named his own son George Washington LaFayette.
In Paris, if you visit Picpus Cemetery, you will find the grave of General LaFayette and his wife.  Picpus is the cemetery where you will find the mass graves of the hundreds of beheaded victims who had been guillotined after the French Revolution.   Some of the immediate family of LaFayette's wife had been guillotined and were buried in Picpus.  When LaFayette died, he was buried there, under soil from George Washington's grave at Mount Vernon.  After our Revolution, and long before his death, several U.S. states had granted LaFayette (and all of his future male offspring) citizenship of their respective states. This was before our country had written the Constitution or had officially become the USA.  Those state citizenships made LaFayette and his future children automatic citizens of the USA once the constitution became law.  Over Lafayette's grave in Paris you will always see the American flag.  The flag has continuously flown over his grave.  It flew during WWl and was even there when the Nazis occupied Paris during WWll.   When the U.S. entered WWl, Colonel C.E. Stanton stood at LaFayette's grave and gave a beautiful speech which began with "What we have of blood and treasure are yours"  and he ended with "General LaFayette, we are here".      That was when we began to repay our debt for the freedom we won with the help of the French.   I believe it was General Patton who said, during WWll - upon liberating Corsica from the Nazis, "we have liberated the birthplace of Napoleon, and now we are going to liberate the birthplace of LaFayette".
So when you hear someone complaining that the French owe us for helping them in WWl and WWll, you should be sure to tell them that we were actually there to repay the debt that we owed them.  Not to mention the possibility that the German army would have come directly to America if we had not helped the Europeans defeat the Nazis.  The French were our first, and therefore our oldest allies.  They are our friends, even when we are acting like spoiled children and pouring fine wine into the streets.  The photo above is of a statue of Washington and LaFayette which was made by Frederic Bartholdi, the same man who designed the Statue of Liberty. It sits in Paris, in a large public square called Place des Etats Unis (USA Square). 
     Many of our laws are based on the Napoleonic Code, and we have common beliefs in freedom of speech and equal rights.   So I'll defend the rights of idiots to say "freedom fries", but they should know that it was the French that helped us achieve that freedom.  I suppose however, if someone is dumb enough to waste good French wine, I assure you that their opinions probably aren't worth considering in the first place.  Please tell them to send me the wine.  I promise to pour it out (directly into a glass).   I can hardly wait to get back to Paris where I may say "LaFayette, nous voila" .    Michael 
The grave of General LaFayette and his wife at Picpus Cemetery in Paris.
Sacre Coeur (Sacred Heart) Basilica
Part of what makes Paris so magical is the great number of beautiful old buildings. Yes, there are elaborate and stately mansions, businesses and museums all over the City.  Even so, perhaps because of their distinct architecture, the churches, chapels, cathedrals and temples stand-out regally against the skyline and among the neighborhoods of Paris. There is never a lack of choice when it comes to picking a church. You will find many options, whether for a religious service of just for a tour of the beautiful interiors, art and artifacts within.  I bet, if you were to ask a thousand people to tell you something about Paris, they would mention Notre Dame Cathedral.  It figures prominently on almost every tour of Paris and on every tourist cruise along the Seine. Although it holds a place of honor on the Ile de la Cite, in the center of the river, it's not the most visible church in Paris.  Futhermore, there are several other churches which easily compete in beauty. 
Just a couple of blocks away, and on the same island as Notre Dame, is the incredible Chapel called Sainte Chapelle.  The chapel was built by King Louis lX to house relics of christianity. The stained glass windows are breathtaking and are the largest collection of 13th century stained glass in one location.  The tremendous amount of glass has been removed at least twice in the chapel's history to protect them from neglect and from the ravages of German invasion.  Thankfully they are in their places and the chapel is open for visits. The windows are truly beyond compare.
In the photo above you can see Sacre Coeur Basilica on top of Montmartre. Sacre Coeur stands above Paris on the highest point in the city.  The domes of the basilica and the frosty white travertine walls make it shine like a white light above the city.  Inside you will find a giant mosaic called Christ in Majesty; it is one of largest mosaics in the world. From the front steps and the courtyard of the basilica, there is a commanding view of Paris. Just as Sacre Coeur is on stage for all of Paris to see, the view of Paris from Sacre Coeur is awe inspiring.
All over Paris there are lovely chapels and majestic churches.  Some, such as Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur, are open for tours and are museums, however they are also active churches where services are held on Sundays and holy days.  When visiting the churches, you will be asked to be as quiet and respectful as possible, and to remove your hat.  You will find people praying or lighting candles for loved-ones, or you might even see a priest holding a service as tourists walk along the perimeter and absorb the atmosphere.  All of this just adds to the sense of history and majesty.  Many churches, however are not tourist attractions, but they are open to the public and are well worth a visit to experience the architecture, their collections of art and reliquary, and maybe even to say a prayer or attend a service.   
Sainte Chapelle with its 13th century stained glass
One of many Paris churches: Eglise St Paul & St Louis
Paris is filled with enough museums, monuments, landmarks and cultural attractions to keep a person busy for a lifetime.  By the time you think that you must have seen each one, you learn of a dozen more.  Even if you could see all of them, by the time you visited the last one, the collections would have changed in many of them and new collections would have come to town as well.  One of the best national treasures of France is certainly her diversity of parks.  My favorite park in Paris is the Parc des Buttes Chaumont.  It is on the site of an old quarry and was commissioned by Napoleon lll and completed in 1860.  Rather than focusing on the history of the park, I will tell you what's to like about it.  For me, I am a bit biased because it is only steps from the front door of my friends / business partners in Paris.  I can leave "our" apartment and in just a few minutes I am through the Botzaris entrance and walking in the park.  Buttes Chaumont is a large tear-drop shaped park of over 60 acres in size and hosting several kilometers of walking paths and trails. It is on the edge of the 19th arrondisement of Paris near the 20th arrondisement. There are restaurants inside the park, but you won't be dodging cars nor bicycles.  It is definitely a pedestrian park where dogs are allowed but leash laws are strictly enforced.  There are several enclosed dog runs within the park (let's call them porta-potties where dogs are allowed to do their business, and owners are allowed to scoop - or be invited to leave the park).  
Buttes Chaumont is truly an idyllic place to spend an afternoon or to have a picnic (alone or with friends). The old quarry site was converted into a lake against tall, jagged, stone cliffs, a beautiful, suspended foot-bridge, and the Belvedere of Sybil (photo above) at the top of one of the high peaks on an island in the lake.  There are several beautiful bridges and overlooks as well as a waterfall which cascades over 60 feet inside a huge grotto.  Last year I was lucky enough to visit the grotto at a time when some of the local firemen were using the area for training.  In one location they were practicing the rescue of an accident victim by pulling the litter (rescue basket) up a high precipice along a crevice with a falling stream.  Inside the grotto, another team of firemen were doing the same thing, but were lowering the litter by cable from the top of the waterfall and across the pool below.  It was fantastic to watch; they performed like a well orchestrated ballet.  On other occasions I have visited the park when it remained open beyond the 9:00PM curfew for a new event sponsored by the Mayor of the 19th arrondisement.  He opens the park in the evenings for movies in the park.  It's really fun to be in the park after dusk to sit on the grass and watch independent and artsy films.  What a nice and intellectual excuse to sit on the grass, drink wine from flask and enjoy an evening in Paris without spending a dime.