Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Paris - Day 5

It's been another woefully hot day here; at least we have the consolation of low humidity. On our way to the metro, we saw a group of roughly fifty chefs holding a demonstration, evidently protesting the impending reduction of the VAT on restaurants. Mystified, we asked various people to explain the protest, but no one understood the reason behind it. We thought the chefs would appreciate the extra business--the economic crisis has felled many restaurants here--but they seemed quite pissed off, perhaps at the prospect of extra work.

We spent the day on the Ile de la Citè, the wonderful area around Notre Dame. We saw the cathedral two years ago; this time we wanted to visit Sainte-Chapelle and other sights. The chapel deserves its reputation. Light and airy, it is comprised almost entirely of stained glass windows that take onlookers through the Old and New Testaments. Slender Gothic columns carry the eye upward and across so that one naturally "reads" over a thousand key moments from the Bible. We were enthralled.

Afterwards we went to La Conciergerie, the fortress dating back to the Capetian kings. Despite its historical importance, the edifice was largely devoid of tourists. We found it fascinating, though. We worked our way around the central hall (the Salle des Gardes) and then to the areas associated with the French Revolution. We saw grim cells for the payeux, the poor sods who couldn't pay for a bed or desk, and the slightly nicer (although still depressing) accommodations for the pistoliers. I was unexpectedly moved by the sight of Marie Antoinette's cell. I'm no lover of monarchy, but recent revisionist histories paint a portrait of a well-meaning if somewhat gormless young woman manipulated by court factions. I can't imagine being 28 years old and spending the last two months of your life in a cell alone, awaiting word of your fate as well as that of your family.

Most troubling of all was the room devoted to victims of the French Revolution; a wall listed names and occupations. Only a quarter were nobility. Most, surprisingly, were commoners, including laundresses, bakers, tailors, even several actors. Some might have worked at the palace, but I suspect others were just unlucky, perhaps turned in by vengeful neighbors or avaricious relatives. As with most violent revolutions, the deaths seemed largely senseless and unspeakably cruel.

We wandered the narrow streets for a while before stumbling upon a real find, La Réserve de Quasimodo, a cave à vins and tiny restaurant. It's the oldest bistrot on the Ile, dating back to the thirteenth century. There's a wonderful story associated with the site: in 1223 the roof fell in, trapping a family of doves that had taken up residence. The male escaped but faithfully fed his mate and chicks until they could be freed, thus inspiring la légende de la Colombe. Although it was late--nearly 3.00 p.m.--the chef gladly fed us an excellent lunch. I had a huge salad with thin slices of duck breast and chevre chaud on toast; Rod had the prix fixe lunch, which included a substantial salad (again, with hot goat cheese) and a superb salmon and spinach quiche. Our delightful Polish waitress chatted with us at length. Against our better judgment, we bought several bottles of wine to haul back to the U.S., our seeming fate in life.

We finished our afternoon with another walk around the Ile, stopping at the famed Berthillon shop for ice cream. Alas, it was closed (the same thing happened two years ago), but we found another storefront that purported to sell the same ice cream. We each had a small boule. I thought the ice cream was very good but not deserving of the hype; indeed, I had better in Provence.

We learned today that one can still eat well and reasonably in Paris--but it takes some effort. We were astonished, for instance, at the vast difference in price between today's lunch and yesterday's. Our waitress said that overall the Ile is priced well compared to other parts of the city. I noticed that bistros and brasseries in the Bastille were also competitive, but this little resto gave particular value: for 16 euros (around $21), one could have an entrée, plat, and a third of a bottle of wine-and all very good indeed. Yesterday, near the Louvre, 26 euros ($35) paid for a small omelette, some fries, and a paltry glass of wine. The moral is to shop around.

Tomorrow and Thursday we plan to take day trips, partly to escape the heat of Paris and partly to do something different.

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