Hello dear reader! I suppose you might be wondering where I’ve been. Well, I returned from the US to Paris, finished out my second-to-last semester of teaching, and went to Portugal with B for a week and a half. I’ve done most of this while nursing one of the ugliest and clingiest colds on either side of the Atlantic. In a dismal coincidence, I started getting pretty sick right before we left on our trip, and managed to make my first-ever visit to Portugal a veritable death march. In the final few days of our trip, I developed some kind of crunchy noise in my right lung, which I’ve been delighted to find out is a mean case of bronchitis. So I know I’ve been a really bad internet boyfriend for the past month or so, but trust me, I’ve been pretty lousy company in real life too.
I’ve got loads to tell you about, including two schmancy meals at La Gazzetta and Spring for my and M’s respective birthdays. As I’m full of phlegm, however, I’m going to leave that for later this weekend and instead give you a little bit of a rundown about our trip.
Honestly, we really didn’t love Portugal. It certainly didn’t help that I was particularly ill most of the time and B got a wicked case of food poisoning in the last leg of our trip. While the weather was sunny and crisp, so I can’t complain about rain, I certainly think that it might be a better summer tourist destination. One of our biggest gripes was with the food. I know these are fighting words to some people, and I want to acknowledge that we don’t speak a lick of Portuguese and were largely beholden to recommendations from our friends and our guidebook (Lonely Planet, though I’m thinking of leaving them for never updating their goddamn listings) and the internets at large. In the past, that kind of research has been more than enough for us to be two happily fed campers, but it felt like we couldn’t score a hit in Portugal, no matter how hard we tried. We tried all the things we were supposed to at places where they were supposed to be good. In Lisbon, we ate bacalhau espiritual (salt-cod soufflé), porco a alentejana (garlicy pork cooked with clams and lots of lard), spit-roasted frango (chicken) with piri-piri on the side, caldeirada rica (spicy fish stew), pastéis de nata (custard tarts), and lulas recheadas (stuffed squid). We sipped ginjinha (sweet cherry liqueur) at the place where it was invented. In Porto, I sampled sardinhas fritas (battered and deep-fried sardines) and arroz de tomate (tomato risotto) while B dug in to a giant bowl of tripas á moda do Porto (Porto-style tripe), a cassolet-type dish of pigs feet, white beans, tripe, chicken, sausages, and vegetables cooked with lots of cumin.
All this is to say, well, we tried. We found the sweets often verged on cloyingly so, and the reliance upon pork fat for everything (including most desserts) made a lot of things heavier than I might have liked. I obviously don’t have the same palate for salt as the Portuguese, and found most of the soups and rice dishes I sampled to be overwhelmingly salty. I don’t say all this to trash an entire national culinary tradition, which I suspect is varied and interesting and flat-out delectable in the right circumstances. But we had pretty bad luck, and it was disheartening at points. By the end it seemed like all we were consuming was sour drip coffee and grilled ham and cheese sandwiches.
Rather than dwell on the negative, however, I want to share with you the best moments of our trip (some food-related!). This won’t be nearly as comprehensive as our last vacation entries (I don’t think anyone could or should plan a trip to Lisbon and Porto from my recommendations). But if you’re going anyway, here’s what we particularly liked.
In Lisbon, our favorite day was spent seeing the major sites. The Sé, Castelo de São Jorge, and museum at Igreja de São Vicente de Fora are the things that every tourist does in Lisbon for a reason – they are truly amazing. The views from the Castelo de São Jorge can’t be beat, but my favorite view was from the very top of Igreja de São Vicente de Fora, where we were miraculously alone at sunset. Despite the occasional miseries we went through on our vacation (just wait until I tell you all the different places B barfed in Porto!), we did see some pretty memorable (and romantic) sunsets in Lisbon. Another great sunset spot (though hardly the “best kept secret” Lonely Planet described it as) is at Noobai Café (Miradouro de Santa Catarina). Get there an hour before sunset like we did to snag a table, then watch the Wayfarer-clad Portuguese hipsters give you the evil eye when they arrive too late in the game for the money shot.
We also really dug the Convento do Carmo and the Museu Arqueológico. With a clear blue sky, the skeletal arches of the nave (which was never fully rebuilt after the Lisbon earthquake) is pretty phenomenal.
For the weirdoes like yours truly out there, the museum has without a doubt the most terrifying mummified bodies I’ve ever seen: two 16th century Peruvian children curled up in little balls. They didn’t allow pictures, but I’m still having nightmares.
We took an afternoon and went to the Oceánario, which I’d also really recommend doing. The second-largest aquarium in Europe and a distinctly conservation-oriented space, the Oceánario is really is an amazing facility. They grow their own coral reefs there! I suspect that it will be even more amazing when they finish the ear-shatteringly loud renovations they were working on during our visit. Come to think of it, a lot of the bad taste in my mouth about Lisbon comes from the fact that I swear I could hear jackhammers at every single moment. The price of beauty, I guess.
Anyway, the main draw of the aquarium is the central tank, which is staggeringly large and filled with a remarkable diversity of species (remarkable, I suppose, because I can’t believe that nobody gets eaten). Every exhibit returns the visitor to another view of the central tank to reinforce the idea of one ocean (I think), so you’ll have plenty of time to observe the animals for an extended period of time as they move through this enormous space. It’s worth the price of admission alone.
As for eating, we did enjoy the much-hyped pastéis de belém, served warm from the oven at Antiga Confeitaria de Belém (you’ll find it, don’t worry).
At 80 cents a pop, they are quite a bargain. Well, you also have to factor in a 5 euro tram ride to and from Belém into that bargain, but there are touristy things to do in Belém if you feel well enough to do things other than lie immobile on park benches and cough (I didn’t).
We also had a few totally decent meals during our time in Lisbon. Bonjardim (Travessa de Santa Antão 11, Lisboa), purveyor of succulent and flavorful rotisserie chickens and fries really floated our boat, though the piri-piri hygiene thing there is a bit weird. It was probably only because I was deathly ill that this even occurred to me. We also enjoyed a rather schmancy lunch at New York Times-recommended Aqui Há Peixe (Rua da Trindad 18A, Lisboa), where we were able to sample local oysters, salty-spicy fish stew, and grilled squid and red snapper. Was the food pretty good? Yeah. Would a restaurant serving that food and charging 80 euros for lunch last for one week in Paris? Nope. Maybe the antibiotics are making me more honest than usual.
We particularly enjoyed a dinner at O Barrigas (Travessa da Queimada 31, Lisboa) in the Barrio Alto. Aside from the very Clarence-friendly name of “the bellies,” we especially liked their house specialty, a bacalhau espiritual that combined salted cod, bread, and carrots (and probably a healthy amount of pork fat) into a baked, soufflé-like dish. It was salty and fatty and totally satisfying. Also yummy was a veal stew served with the omnipresent fries of Portugal. We were the only people there the night we ate, which is really too bad, because it is a pretty great little restaurant. So go there, internets, should you find yourself in Portugal.
The biggest plug I want to make is for Pois Café (Rua de São João da Praça 93, Lisboa), quite possibly one of the most darling little joints I’ve been to in a long time. Run by Austrians (all hail the cakes!), this place is somehow everything you really want a great café to be: kitschey, eclectic, and comfy, with great food and coffee. And a liquor license! Seriously, the sandwiches we ate there for lunch might have been the best thing we ate on our trip. No joke.
They have Wifi and encourage people to sit and read. It’s lovely, and I’d be all over it like a fat kid on fried chicken if I lived in Lisbon. Depressingly, I just visited their website, only to discover that it is FOR SALE. The optimist in me hopes that one savvy Keeping the Bear Garden in the Background reader buys the place and keeps it wonderful. The pessimist in me says owner-changes (when the original is a gem) never work out very well, so get there while it’s still hot peeps.
I also loved shopping in Libson. After scouring a dozen or so sapatarias, we scored B some pretty serious Fernando Silva leather shoes at about the third of the cost of what we would have paid in Paris. We loved visiting the 80-year-old Conserveira de Lisboa, a veritable canned-fish lover’s dream with the walls lined with beautifully packaged tins of sardines, salted cod, cockles, tuna, and cephalapods in every possible sauce and preparation. They wrap your purchases in printed brown paper and tie it with a string, and while I know that this kind of thing is really for the tourists nowadays, it still feels pretty old-world and special. It will feel less special, however, when you arrive for your flight leaving Portugal and discover that they will not allow you to carry canned food items on to the plane, meaning that you have to pay an additional 25 euros to check your suitcase, making those six cans of sardines that you purchased the most expensive cans of fish in the history of time. The EasyJet woman smiled and shook her head when I showed her my neat little package. “It’s always the sardines,” she said. It’s always the sardines.
The other place that you should go an do some conspicuous consuming is the gorgeous A Vida Portuguesa stores in both Lisbon and Porto (Rua Anchieta 11 Lisboa). I had read an article in the New York Times The Moment blog about this amazing place, but this store really does take the idea of a well-edited shop to a whole new level. Everything in the store is manufactured in Portugal, often by small companies that have been making beautiful products for generations. They have everything from toothpaste to metal polish to cans of olive oil, all in amazing, vintage-looking packages. They also carry a great selection of children’s’ toys, vintage postcards, and beautiful home textiles. I died over the handmade Emilio Braga notebooks and the Caldas da Rainha and Faianças Artísticas Bordalo Pinheiro ceramics.
While I showed a fair amount of restraint in the Lisbon store, the discovery that our hotel was next door to the Porto store broke my willpower. We ended up carting back a big bag of paper products, pencils, two amazing mugs, and the sugar bowl of my dreams, which looks like an oyster. Depending on how good your Portuguese is (snort), you can shop online for many of their products.
Things were bleak enough by the time we intended to take the train to Porto that we actually shopped for flights directly back to Paris from Lisbon. Note to fellow travellers: traveling on bargain airlines like EasyJet means that when you call to ask if you can change your ticket, they laugh and hang up on you. It had begun to rain in Lisbon and the gods of the weather internets were saying that it was going to be even worse in Porto.
We were surprised, then, to find Porto to be a sunny, lovely town full of bookshops and bobos and picturesque abandoned buildings. Look, I’m not going to lie and say that I wasn’t still sick as a dog and somewhat miserable a lot of the time. I’m also not going to lie and say that the food was any better in Porto (though we had resigned ourselves to eating more toasted ham and cheese sandwiches, which are actually quite good across Portugal). But we liked Porto about a thousand times more than Lisbon. It’s full of young people and quirky shops and lovely parks. While Lisbon felt to us like a place we would only want to visit, Porto felt like a place we could actually live.
The wheels did fall off the bus a bit when after dining at A Tasquinha (Rua do Carmo 23, Porto), B came down with a pretty vicious case of food poisoning. He had ordered the tripe, an act that I joking observed his gastrointestinal system probably regarded as cannibalism.
Inspired perhaps by the walking-death impression I’d be doing the whole trip, B put on a brave face and we went sightseeing. I’m a bit of an architecture junkie (as most dilettantes are), so I wanted to see Rem Koolhaas’ Casa da Música. Pretty underwhelming in person, and it appears that the main function of this 100 million euro project is as a skate park for the local youth. Grumble, grumble, where’s my Metamucil?
We went inside to see the interior, and B promptly announced that he had to find a restroom. We found an empty bar, and B rushed into the restroom while I waited on some strangely discordant looking furniture. An orchestral concert was taking place in the main concert hall and they piped the music through the entire space, so I got to listen to Rossini, as did B while his body attempted to turn itself inside out. He came out after a half hour, glowing and looking like he had seen God.
I suggested that we go back to the hotel room, but he insisted that we continue on our death march to Serralves, a wonderful contemporary arts space housed in a gorgeous park filled with art installations.
It’s very difficult to access via public transportation, however, as Porto’s slick new metro system does not reach to that part of the city. You can now imagine us walking along a peripheral freeway, me hacking out a lung or two, B green with nausea. By the time we arrived at the park, we decided it would be best to sit down. The map directed us to a teahouse in the park, where we discovered that fancy tea in Portugal is Lipton. It mattered little, as we were really there so B could vomit again.
Discovering that the men’s restroom was far too abject to even barf in, B commandeered the ladies’ room for another round of “that offal was really awful.” When the staff discovered him, he pretended to be French. That’s another point of the US of A right there. We then attempted to care about two exhibitions, one of political art and one a retrospective of letterist Gil J Wolman’s art. Well, actually we looked for benches to collapse on and film displays to curl up in the dark. But it’s a really amazing space, and certainly worth a visit should you find yourself healthy and in Porto.
My favorite day of the trip was when we took the train from Porto to Vila do Conde, a swish beach community with a gorgeous stretch of Atlantic coastline. It was obviously too cold to do much at the beach besides wander around and climb on the rocks, but we did this with great zeal.
A strange churro stand at the beach was pumping out old Fado music on a record player, lending a lilting soundtrack to our exploration. Best of all, we were virtually alone on the beach, making this perhaps the most romantic moment of what might very well have been one of the least romantic vacations ever (there’s nothing like handing your lover a snot or puke stained kleenex “to hold” to put a damper on things). Actually, we took pretty good care of each other on the trip, and there is nothing quite like knowing that you still really like somebody even when you both feel like crap. So maybe it was kind of romantic after all.
Did I mention the bookstores in Porto? Check out this beauty:
Meet Livraria Lello, an amazing 1906 Gothic revival bookshop that features this killer staircase. What I didn’t realize at first glance is that most of the “woodwork” is actually trompe l’oeil plaster, and the staircase itself is a solid cement structure (quite an engineering feat in 1906). Even cooler, perhaps, was the fact that many of Porto’s bookshops put of displays of “revolutionary” literature as things began to escalate in Egypt:
It was kind of frustrating being out of touch with English-speaking news while such amazing things were happening, but it was great to see everyone rallying and getting excited. If you are anything like me, dear reader, I suspect you’ve been weeping to images of the crowds rejoicing in the streets the past two days.
Well, at any rate, that’s about all I’ve got to say about our somewhat disappointing Portuguese foray, friends. I’d like to hear all the things you love about Portugal and all the things I failed to eat that would have turned my spirits around. I can’t help but feel like we missed the boat a little bit, which is somewhat inevitable if you travel enough (and you make the budget-driven decision to travel even when you are sick). I’m sorry to have been such a lousy bloguese as of late. I’ve missed you guys and I promise I’ll see you soon.
Buy an annual passand tour the Louvre from top to bottom (this will take a while, so I’ll list the collections so I can cross them off periodically: Egyptian antiquities; Near Eastern antiquities; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman collection; Islamic art; sculpture; decorative arts; painting; and prints and drawing). Eat a Pierre Hermé white truffle macaronand a foie gras and chocolate macaron (if possible)
You totally thought I was kidding about this list thing, didn’t you?
Like I’m some kind of procrastinating slacker who talks a big game but doesn’t follow through, often neglecting her blog for weeks at a time!
But seriously, guys, I’m seriously serious about this thing. So serious, in fact, that after writing “The List,” I went out and bought a rotisserie chicken with fingerling potatoes roasted in the roasting grease (so. good.) and a new Bordeaux that I hadn’t tried (Eat as much charcuterie, foie gras, rillettes, truffles, rabbit, duck, rotisserie chickens, and oysters as possible and Try as many French wines as possible and keep a record of ones I love, respectively). Somewhere in between the wine shop and my apartment I began blubbering again about having to leave Paris, so the following morning B and I dutifully shuffled over to the Louvre. We recently discovered that despite not feeling especially jeune, we both still qualify for the 30 euro annual youth pass, which means unlimited admission to the permanent collection, all temporary exhibitions, and cultural events. Quite a deal, especially for people who definitely don’t get carded anymore. So sixty clams and two questionable ID photos later we were in the Egyptian antiquities, which we figured would be easy to bang out in a day. Wrong, wrong, wrong. You know the fantasy plan, that one where you spend a week going through the Louvre and see everything from top to bottom? Add another week or two to that itnerary. Three or four hours of devoted museuming and we had only managed to cover half of the Egyptian antiquities, buzzing through the sarcophagi and mummies far too quickly at the end.
Oh man, the Louvre is so great. I had sort of forgotten how amazing and astounding and totally humbling it is. It’s the kind of place that really reminds you what a speck you are in the great march of human history. Also, there’s nothing better than watching little kids go through and look at things from Ancient Egypt. Having been one of those six year olds who declared that I wanted to be “an Egyptologist” when I grew up, I particularly love the really serious ones. There was one boy, probably eight or so with bottle-thick glasses, who was carefully sketching various hieroglyphs that caught his interest. Both B and I melted in the face of his diligence and rigor. While I don’t really remember much from my Egyptology days (I get my sieve-brain from my dad), B is a perfectly preserved antiquities-nut. I would throughly recommend touring any kind of antique or medieval museum exhibition with B, and I don’t just say this because I’m dating him. He’s really the best guide ever in these places because remembers all of the gross and interesting stuff, like which organs went into which urns during the mummification process and how they extracted the brain via the nostrils and how cursive hieroglyphic script is formed and who the major and minor gods and goddesses were. He also doesn’t mind spending extra time in the jewelry displays and humors me when I spend twenty minutes or so deciding which ring I would want in the imaginary universe where the precious antiquities collection at the Louvre is actually a flea-market.
My camera died before we reached the mummy (!), but here are a few things I really liked:
I’ve got puppies on the brain, obviously.
The eyes have it, every time:
Ancient Egyptian castanets were shaped like hands! Did you know this? I didn’t:
* * *
Finally, let’s not pretend that you come here to see my stupid museum photos. You come for the food! As you can see above, they finally released the white truffle Pierre Hermé macaron. B and I picked two up, along with some green tea/ginger/red bean and chestnut/green tea ones. A savory afternoon tasting, paired with a splendid smoky black tea that our friends from Hong Kong brought us as a gift and that B has finally learned to brew like a pro (it’s a tempermental beast, but well worth the effort). We saved the truffle macarons for last, as we had been told that they are palate-killers of the first order. They even bag them separately from the other macarons because their scent is so strong! I can’t even describe how fantastic these are. I wish that I was someone like Jeffrey Steingarten or Chandler Burr, someone who can vividly evoke tastes and scents in their prose. Alas, I can’t, so I’ll just say that they are slightly sweet, but mostly savory, with a delicate shell and buttery interior cut with macadamia nuts. The taste of white truffles is pronounced but not overpowering. They taste of autumn, and of the earth, and of luxury. When I asked B if it was among the top cookies he’s ever eaten, he corrected me and said that it was among the top things he’s ever eaten, and I’d tend to agree. They are perfect in every way. Even their white iridescent sheen is amazing. You should buy some immediately if you are in Paris and if you aren’t, I’ll concede that this is one thing you should be unabashedly jealous over. Pierre Hermé, I tip my hat. You are macaron Gods among men and I suspect that what you do qualifies in most cultures as alchemy.
I have a birthday coming up and I just saw this at the bookstore:
There are recipes, apparently! Perhaps a way to stave off the want when I return to the States next year?
There seems to be a rash of “life lists” and “bucket lists” circulating on the ol’ blogosphere lately. And while I don’t have too many “life goals” at this point, I do have an ominous event looming at the end of next summer: I’ll be leaving Paris. I don’t have a firm departure date just yet, but like all good things, this one will be coming to an end sometime in early August 2011. The mere thought of it makes me sad, and a few days ago I sat in the park in front of the Musée Picasso (closed interminably for restoration) and wept at the thought of having to leave this city. I’ve never been happier in my life than I have been living here. And while I’m excited for the next chapter, it’s still going to be a tough transition come next summer.
It’s easier than you think to become complacent when you live in a place like this for a long time. While I’ve certainly done plenty of amazing cultural activities since my arrival, I’ve also managed to avoid some really important one (like, uh, stepping foot in the Louvre). So I have compiled (along with B) a “to-do list” of sorts so I don’t forget all the things I want to do before I leave. I’ll share it with you, dear reader, and periodically update you on my progress. Some of these things are pretty cliché, so I’ll ask you to promise me that you won’t make fun. Telling you about things has been a great incentive to do things over the past ten months. Better yet, if you are in Paris (or are planning on being in Paris) and want to join me in any of these activities, let me know!
Muesums and other cultural attractions
Buy an annual passand tour the Louvre from top to bottom (this will take a while, so I’ll list the collections so I can cross them off periodically: Egyptian antiquities; Near Eastern antiquities; Greek, Etruscan, and Roman collection; Islamic art; sculpture; decorative arts; painting; and prints and drawing). See the Jean-Michel Basquiat show at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris before January 30th See the Arman show at the Centre Pompidou before January 10th
- Visit the Musée National Gustave Moreau museum
- Visit the Musée de l’Orangerie
- Visit the Musée Carnavalet
Tour the Catacombes
- Take B and M to the Cimitière Montparnasse
- Visit the Crypte Archéologique in front of Notre Dame
- Visit the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle
- Visit Fondation Dubuffet
- Visit Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain
- Visit the Musée du Vin
- Take B to the Musée du stylo et de l’écriture
- Visit the Maison Rouge
- Visit the Musée des arts forains
- Visit the Musée de la vie romantique
- Visit the Musée Jacquemart-André
Go to the top of the Tour Eiffel
- Go to the top of the Tour Montparnasse
Go to Versailles
- Go to Chartres with B
Go to Giverny with my mom
- Suck it up and go with B to Parc Astérix
Ride bikes to the Bois de Boulogne and have a picnic See the tulips in the Bagatelles in the spring Take my mother to Parc Butte-Chaumont and buy her a drink at Rosa Bonheur
- Take my dad for a bike ride along the Promenade Plantée to the Bois de Vincenne and rent a boat
- Return to Fontainebleau with B in the spring and find some morels
Movies and Concerts
See Nouvelle Vague at the Casino de Paris on November 30th with M, AC, and B See somebody at the l’Olympia, preferably somebody French and venerable See The Gospel According to Matthew, Oedipus Rex, and Accattone! at Accattone, thus completing the project of seeing all of Pasolini’s films on the big screen
- See 8 1/2 and
La strada, thus completing the project of seeing all of Fellini’s films on the big screen
- See Les Quatre Cents Coups, À bout de souffle, Pierrot le fou, Les Carabiniers, Masculin, féminin,
Week End, Vivre sa vie,and Cléo de 5 à 7 on the big screen
Clarence, King of All Things Good and Plentiful
- Eat as much charcuterie, foie gras, rillettes, truffles, rabbit, duck, rotisserie chickens, and oysters as possible
- Try as many French cheeses as possible and keep a record of ones I love
- Try as many French wines as possible and keep a record of ones I love
Learn to shuck oysters and do so for my friends on New Year’s Eve Eat at Spring (B snagged reservations on January 6th , probably didn’t need that kidney anyway) Eat at Yam’Tcha
- Eat at Frenchie
Eat at La Gazetta Eat at Rino Have brunch at Rose Bakery with M Go to Marché des Enfants Rouges as many weekends as possible and take my mom there when she visits Eat a Pierre Hermé white truffle macaron and a foie gras and chocolate macaron (if possible) Throw a proper ex-pat Thanksgiving feast
- Throw a party for Fête de la Musique and make a thousand paper cranes to dump on the crowds for Raidd Bar’s annual block party
Save Me From What I Want
Buy an oyster-shucking knife and an oyster-shucking glove from E. Dehillerin Convince B that the only thing we can afford from E. Dehillerin is an oyster-shucking knife and glove, or, price shipping costs for copper cookware and cast iron pots from E. Dehillerin Buy the rest of Lacan’s seminars in French (four to go!), figure out how to ship books internationally on the cheap
- Find an amazing set of vintage Laiguole cheese knives, preferably with wood or horn handles
- Buy the perfect beret
Find vintage lithographs of our favorite landmarks in Paris (including the Hôtel de Ville, preferably on fire, Tour St. Jacques, Porte St. Denis, Notre Dame, Église de Saint-Germain-des-Prés, and Sacré-Coeur) at le Marché aux Puces de Saint-Ouen
- Find a vintage map of the Marais (Saint-Ouen, you’re on notice!)
- Visit Deyrolle, the famous taxidermy shop. Resist buying a stuffed bunny.
My only obligation as of late—and this is a testament to how low-key my life has been recently—is to make sure that my dear M’s plants don’t die while she is gallivanting around the United States like a regular jetsetter. I normally don’t take such obligations very seriously (“They were alive the last time I was here!”), but she was such an attentive nursemaid to my little window box herb garden when I was island-hopping on the Mediterranean that I feel kind of guilty. So I’ve been making regular trips up to Montmartre, where she lives on the more residential side of Butte Montmartre. You know, the mountain with Sacre Coeur at the top? Perhaps you remember this little gem from a much earlier entry:
Anyway, I don’t love the hoards of tourists that frequent Montmartre, recreating scenes from Amélie and taking in overpriced burlesque shows at the Moulin Rouge. But the views of Paris from up high can’t be beat. I also really enjoy a stroll around the neighborhood that surrounds the Abbesses métro, especially if it involves ducking into the Librairie des Abbesses (30 rue Yvonne Le Tac, 75018 Paris), a smart and well-stocked bookshop with a drool-worthy selection of novels and poetry from small presses, books on psychoanalysis, and cookbooks. I know that list isn’t everybody’s bag, but man that bookshop gives me butterflies whenever I step out of the métro at Abbesses.
Frequent trips to Montmartre also increase the likelihood that I’ll be making an ill-advised stop at A.P.C. Surplus (20 rue Andre del Sarte, 75018 Paris), the outlet store of the iconic French brand with markedly lower prices than the main stores (and an accordingly odd selection of sizes). Barring such retail indulgence, a trip to M’s will usually involve a stop by Au Relais (48 rue Lamarck, 75018 Paris), a 106-year old café and restaurant that serves solid takes on classic French bistro food. The food isn’t particularly remarkable, but the staff is always friendly, and Au Relais’s location on the corner of rue Lamarck and the San Francisco-evoking Mont Cenis is a lovely break from the tourist circuit just a few blocks up the hill. Their cheeseburger is delish and their crisp yet pillowy fries can’t be beat.
B and I have been on a quest to visit some of the smaller museums in Paris, and decided that watering day would be a good excuse to visit l’Espace Dalí (11 rue Poulbot, 75018 Paris, Métro Abbesses or Anvers), a small museum just a stone’s throw from Sacre Coeur that houses a permanent collection devoted entirely to Dalí’s work. Here we arrive at another installment of “another museum you might not be visiting on your trip to Paris.”
First of all, this is not St. Petersburg, Florida, and l’Espace Dalí houses mostly minor works in bronze and glass as well as a handsome collection of lithographs, engravings, and other original works on paper. The visitor is quickly made aware of what a hustler Dalí was in his lifetime, often producing or commissioning large numbered editions of each individual work, some of which seem rather rushed or glib. The space itself is rather funky and could use a serious paint job. I’d been wondering who buys all those stick-on mirrors at Ikea, but now I know. The kitsch factor is high. The museum includes a gallery with works for sale (mostly poorly-executed limited edition prints of Dalí major paintings), a gift shop with an assortment of Dalí perfumes and knick-knacks, a plaster trompe l’oeil reproduction of the medieval church that used to be on the site, and a delightful Dalí photobooth that allows you to insert your head into works from the museum or mustachioed portraits of the master himself. There is also a small collection of Dalí’s furniture and home furnishing designs, including the iconic couch modeled on Mae West’s voluptuous lips and a swoon-inducing set of exquisite silverware.
Okay, so it’s funky and filled with minor works. Why bother? Well, if you’re a literature buff, you’re going to love looking at the many works on paper that Dalí produced in response to or to accompany classic texts, including the Old and New Testament, The Quest for the Grail, Alice in Wonderland, Tristan and Isolde, Ovid’s Art of Love, Romeo and Juliet, Rabelais’ Gargantua and Pantagruel, and Freud’s Moses and Monotheism.
There is also a terrific selection of original photomontages that Dalí created for his tarot series (real enthusiasts can purchase a working Dalí tarot set in the giftshop for 79€). I particularly enjoyed the 1971 gouache series entitled “Memories of Surrealism,” a wonderful mishmash of textbook art history images and the surrealist imagery that Dalí made the stuff of many college dorm rooms.
I’ve been reluctant to like Dalí in recent years, probably because his work has become the stuff of pop culture cliché. But his deep interest in allegorical texts and his nuanced reading of Freud were news to me, and I found the many works on paper at l’Espace Dalí to be serious and fascinating.
It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and if you’re after the popular oil paintings that everyone knows and loves, your time and money would be best spent on plane fare to Florida. But if you’re in Paris and looking for a different angle on the artist (and have a high threshold for kitsch), l’Espace Dalí might be worth a visit.
One of the pitfalls of actually living in Paris (I know, cue the world’s tiniest violinist) is that it’s easy to put off things with the idea that I’ll get around to them eventually. Sometimes I do this because I’m genuinely intimidated or frightened. This was certainly case with the Vélib’ (free bicycle) system. Even though everyone I knew was gleefully riding about on virtually-free, totally darling bicycles that are available in every corner of the city, I was convinced until this week that Vélib’ was just not for me. Why? Honestly, I’ve always been kind of terrified about riding bikes in an urban setting. I grew up in a mountain town that was so hilly that I couldn’t have ridden my bike on the street if I had wanted to (and I didn’t). Until this week, I hadn’t even been on a bicycle for the better part of a decade. So when B suggested that we save some cash and take Vélib’ instead of a late-night, post-métro cab ride, I was freaked. But after I got the hang of the bike, I was in heaven. Riding down the middle of empty Parisian streets in the dark on bikes is actually quite fun. I’d rank it right up there with driving fast on a ten-lane Los Angeles freeway alone in the middle of the night. After our two a.m. adventure, I was bike-crazy and insisted that we spend the next day riding out to the Bois de Vincennes on the Promenade Plantée. Because (if you haven’t caught on yet) I’m either phobic about something or all in. If I dip a toe in the pool, you should expect a cannonball within moments.
Another things I’ve been meaning to do for almost a year now was visit the Musée de la chasse et de la nature (Museum of Hunting and Nature, 60 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris), which is only a stone’s throw from my house and directly on my oft-traveled route to my favorite market and takeaway sushi place. My friends J and BC went bananas for this place during their stay in Paris and insisted upon taking all their visitors there before even the Louvre or the Musée d’Orsay. They had likened it to everybody’s favorite non-secret, the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. I’d agree that it is something like the MJT, in that it disrupts your expectations of what a museum can or ought to be.
But I’d venture even further and say the Musée de la chasse et de la nature might be even better than the Museum of Jurassic Technology. It’s not nearly as painfully ironic, and it actually houses a staggeringly beautiful collection of lovingly collected and curated objects. Where the Museum of Jurassic Technology is housed in a mishmash building on funky street in Culver City next to a hardwood floor retailer, the Musée de la chasse et de la nature is a gorgeous facility located on the swoon-worthy rue des Archives just up the street from the Archives Nationales. Obviously, not all museums and not all cities are created equal. And let’s be honest, at the end of the day, there’s no better city than Paris. Los Angeles wasn’t even in the running for that one.
At any rate, the Musée de la chasse et de la nature is one of the best places that isn’t likely on your itinerary for your Parisian vacation. I can say this with some assurance given that we went on a Sunday during the height of tourist season and were effectively by ourselves for our entire visit. That alone makes it a nice reprieve from the block-long lines at the bigger museums in Paris this time of year.
The first thing you’ll notice about the museum is what a gorgeous facility it is housed in. White limestone walls and floors are offset by handcast iron chandeliers and handrails in biomorphic forms. Each room makes the aristocratic hunting lodge aesthetic seem more and more appealing, until even those of us that live for mid-century modern furnishings are dying for some leather club chairs and a collection of antlers on the wall.
Each room in the permanent collection is thoughtfully curated around an animal or a concept. There are amazing displays of antique guns and ammunition, bird calls, and home furnishing that depict the hunt. There are rooms or displays devoted to dogs, wild boars, game birds, foxes, raptors, wolves, elk, horses, and exotic trophy animals. And while I won’t be sending any hard-core animal activists or vegans to this museum anytime soon, I would describe the relationship that the museum has with its animal subjects as one of deep and abiding appreciation and respect (an attitude, in fact, that is very similar to the one that most of the hunters I know have towards the practice). Bring on the hate mail! So, it goes without saying, but don’t go here if you have any issues with taxidermy or firearms. But if you find taxidermy or vintage weaponry of interest, this place should be on the top of your list.
Moreover, the curators have thoughtfully integrated other art forms into every aspect of the museum. In addition to the amazing collection of tapestries, paintings, and ceramics that you might expect, there are beautiful storybook drawings of animals in the huge wooden display cases that also house bronze casts of the footprints and simulacra scat of the animals. Many of the rooms are graced with large-scale sculpture by contemporary artists, both abstract and representational. The climax, and my favorite part of the museum, comes in the form of Belgian artist Patrick Van Caekenberg’s Atlas of a Cosmogony, a large-scale installation in on the second floor complete with two enormous apes and a dining set in an altar that “purports to be a microcosm, a compendium of both the world and scientific thought.” It’s fantastic, and my sad little photo hardly does it any justice.
At any rate, I’d really recommend you visit this museum if you are in Paris for a little while. While I would especially love to take some of the hunters in my family to this amazing place, it would also be a terrific stop for someone with small children. We had a great time watching two small boys explore the museum, which is filled with hands-on activities. My favorite chap made a habit of announcing that “THIS is my favorite thing!” upon entering each and every corner of the museum. I couldn’t help but agree with him.