Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Top Paris Hotels Fined

According to today's Financial Times, "six of Paris's most opulent hotels, where rooms cost on average more than EUR700 (£479) a night and suites can cost more than EUR6,000, have been fined by the French competition watchdog for collusion. The Bristol, the Crillon, the Geoge V, the Meurice, the Plaza Athenee and the Ritz, all renowned for their historic buildings, squadrons of attentive staff and Michelin-starred restaurants, were found to have regularly exchanged confidential commercial information."

I've been sitting over my morning's paper trying to decide whether this story tells you more about top end French hotels or top end French bureacracy. Regardless, it is another compelling reason to go for smaller, more charming and more interesting hotels or even better, live like a native, avoid the price fixing and rent an apartment.

Click here to see the full Financial Times story.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Paris Bits & Pieces

Some observations for visitors to Paris

All lovers of art and haters of lines should invest in a Paris Museum Pass which provides free, unlimited priority access to over 70 museums including the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay, the Musee Rodin, the Musee national Picasso and the Chateau of Versailles. It is hugely and perversely satisfying to saunter past the long lines, flash your card and slip inside. One, three and five day passes are available. There are lots of places to buy a Museum Pass: at any museum or monument involved in the program, at major Metro stations and at any FNAC store in the city. Cards can also be purchased in advance over the internet from a huge range of providers, just enter Paris Museum Pass into your search engine.

1 day pass for EUR 18
3 day pass for EUR 36
5 day pass for EUR 54

Unfortunately, these passes will not get you into any special or temporary exhibitions. To cut the line for special exhibitions, buy your tickets in advance at any FNAC store located throughout Paris. If you understand rudimentary French, you can buy your tickets over the internet which can be collected at any FNAC saving even more time.

With that said, I want to warn NoCrowds readers from the useless indignity of purchasing tickets in advance for block buster exhibitions at the Grand Palais. I saw 2 shows there recently and in each case, the experience was lousy although the exhibitions should have been fabulous. Even with your timed ticket, you wait outside in a line of irritated fellow ticket holders. The number of people inside the exhibition space is ridiculous. It is almost impossible to see the canvases. The rooms are hot and claustrophobic. I won’t be going back regardless of what is on offer.

Speaking of crowds and museums, for years, I have struggled to find a good place to eat lunch near the Musee d’Orsay. One senses that most places too close to the museum can be sloppy and expensive and not much worried about serving up a good meal. After seeing a terrific temporary exhibition of Russian art at the Musee d’Orsay recently, my husband and I discovered a good value, good food, good experience restaurant on rue de Bellechasse which is confusingly named “Le”. It is a small space but had an appealing atmosphere. I had the lunch formula for EUR 15 which was well prepared and satisfying. Service was good. The place was filled with Parisians who obviously enjoy a well priced, well prepared lunch in a neighbourhood not known for it. “Le” is now my post Musee d’Orsay hangout.

20, rue de Bellechasse
75007 Paris
Reservations: 01 47 05 11 11

Speaking of restaurants, my friend Glenn, an American in Paris who offers lovely apartments to rent at Paris Apartments Rentals has recently posted his top ten restaurants for visitors to Paris. Check it out and add your own.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Musee Nissim de Camando

Nothing in the guidebook’s description prepared me for the utter sadness of the Musee Nissim de Camando. A short walk from the Musee Jacquemart-Andre on the border of the Parc Monceau, the elegant mansion built to resemble the Petit Trianon at Versailles is known for its beautiful and extensive collection of 18th-century French decorative arts and furnishings. Yet it is the story of the fabulously rich and doomed family de Camando, once described as the “Rothschilds of the East” which makes this museum one of my favourites in all of Paris.

I think it was Voltaire who recommended that one always “begin with the conclusions” and so it is in the Musee Nissim de Camando. Passing through the doors of the entrance to this magnificent house one finds a plaque on the wall which states simply and brutally, “Mme. Leon Reinach, born Beatrice de Camondo, her children, Fanny and Bertrand, the last descendents of the founder, and M. Leon Reinach, deported by the Germans in 1943-44, died at Auschwitz.”

So who was this family? What was the story behind the house and its collection? How was such fabulous wealth amassed? Why did such fabulous wealth not save them?

The story begins with Moise de Camondo, a member of family of Sephardic Jews who built a banking empire in Constantinople which in 1870 opened a branch in Paris. Over the years, Moise became an important collector of 18th century French art and antiques. After marrying a beautiful and rich young woman who bore him two children, she runs off with the horse trainer and leaves Moise to continue filling his house with treasures and dining with the likes of Marcel Proust. During the First World War, Moise’s only son, Nissim, dies in combat. (There is a touching letter of condolence from Proust in Moise’s changing room.) In 1935, Moise dies and leaves his mansion and the collection to the Musee des Arts Decoratifs in memory of his son. His daughter Beatrice, having married the artist Leon Reinach, devotes herself to horses and riding and perishes in Auschwitz.

In addition to this haunting story, the museum scores accolades on two other accounts. First, the collection of 18th century French decorative arts is amazing. The pieces are displayed precisely as Moise de Camondo placed them with such care during his lifetime. If you want to avoid the crowds at Versaille but still capture the sense of life as a French aristocrat before the revolution, go to the Musee Nissim de Camando.

In addition to capturing the interiors of the 18th century French aristocracy, the house also succeeds in demonstrating the life of wealthy high society at the turn of the 20th century. One can easily imagine lunching with Proust in the elegant dining room overlooking the Parc Monceau. The kitchen downstairs gives a fascinating insight into the infrastructure required to produce those lunches.

But finally, it is the de Camondo’s glittering rise and terrible fall which defines ones visit to this museum. Like the family in the “Garden of the Finzi-Contini”, the de Camandos had every reason to believe that they were secure in this fabulous world they had created. In the end, neither their immense wealth, their exquisite taste nor their powerful friends could save them.

Musee Nissim de Camondo
63, rue de Monceau
75008 Paris
Tel: 01 53 89 06 05
http://www.ucad.fr/fr/04museecamondo/index.html ( in French)
Metro: Villiers, Monceau

Open : Wednesday – Sunday (closed Mondays and Tuesdays)
10:00 -5:30 pm

Tarif: EUR 6

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Musee Jacquemart-Andre

According to my sons, both movie moguls in-waiting, it’s the story that matters. You can take a good tale and make a bad movie but never a good movie from a lousy tale. With this in mind, it is hardly surprising that visitors rave about the Musee Jacquemart-Andre in Paris because, at its core, it’s a cracking love story.

Back in the late 19th century, the son of a hyper-rich, Bonapartist, Protestant banking dynasty, Edouard Andre, devoted to collecting all aspects of the fine arts, commissions a portrait from a young, Catholic, royalist painter, Nelie Jacquemart. Nine years after the picture was painted, Andre marries the artist and forms one of the greatest art collaborations in French history. The couple spend the rest of their days amassing a superlative collection, including works by Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Botticelli, Fragonard and David and die childless. The mansion and its contents are then bequeathed to the Institut de France and the legacy is secured.

To visit the mansion today, the excellent audio guide unfolds the Jacquemart-Andre story in room after sumptuous room, here a Tiepolo ceiling, there a Donatello statue, walls that could be opened up using hydraulic jacks to provide for parties for over 1,000, a Venetian smoking room for him, a studio converted into an Italian sculpture gallery for her. Their taste was so impeccable, their manners so good and their wealth so immense, that they refused to bid against the French state on important pieces even though their budget vastly exceeded that of the museums

The Institut de France has done a marvellous job presenting the house and contents. The garden is lovely and the original dining room has been converted into a restaurant and tea room with a spectacular Tiepolo ceiling. There are beautiful 18th century Belgian tapestries hanging on the wall and Louis XV consoles around the room. Lunch and afternoon tea are available and you shouldn’t miss this chance to dine under a Tiepolo ceiling.

As mentioned, the audio guide is interesting and there is a treasure hunt for children which my nieces recently took and judged to be big fun. These young ladies ( 8 and 11 years old) went so far as to say that “perhaps museums weren’t so boring after all”. I generally don’t like gift shops, but the one at Jacquemart-Andre is fine.

So there you have it, a Paris love story where an unlikely but blissfully compatible couple devote their life and vast fortune to the pursuit of beauty. Vincent Minnelli had a whiff of this story’s potential when he shot some of the scenes from Gigi in the Jacquemart-Andre mansion. Hollywood, listen up, hire my sons and make this movie.

Musee Jacquemart-Andre
158, boulevard Haussmann
75008 Paris


Open every day from 10 to 6
The café is open from 11.45 to 5:30

Metro – Either Miromesnil or St Philippe du Roule
A five minute walk from the Champls-Elysees and the major department stores

Full rate Eur 8.50
Concessions available

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

I Love Paris

I love Cole Porter and Cole Porter loved Paris. And he was right that every season is wonderful but I love Paris best in the late fall when the Parisians are out in force and the tourists, in large part, have departed. The light is low and romantic, the food is hearty, the new collections fill the stores and the cultural calendar is in high gear.

This year, my husband and I went for our late autumn visit with the added frisson, if one were to believe BBC and CNN, that France was in flames and curfews would keep us all locked inside. After 4 straight days of running all over the city using every form of public transportation, I can confidently say that central Paris was not on fire, I witnessed no disruption nor did I feel the least bit apprehensive.

It is the case that France has a complex and serious issue on its hands which will not be easily resolved but the current flash points for visitors to Paris remain in the northern “suburbs”. It is probably a good idea to avoid the train from Charles de Gaulle Airport that passes through the effected area and I would not visit the Basilica of St Denis, resting place of the Kings and Queens of France for the foreseeable future, but for anyone planning to go to Paris, fear not, this is still a fine time to go. And Paris remains, the most loveable of cities.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Jeff Mason's Southern Part of Heaven

Today marks a significant leap forward for NoCrowds as we post our first guest contribution. Jeff Mason, a friend and early strong supporter of this site, presents the idea that visiting American college towns offers a superior way to see America. Yes, we did promise recently to focus on Europe, but all rules can be broken for the right reasons. The right reasons here are 1) Jeff’s approach is perfectly NoCrowds focussing on ways to take back the travel experience and 2) he is one of the world’s experts on Chapel Hill. Anyone who has this much passion for a small southern town is unquestionably our kind of guy. For Europeans coming to the U.S., Jeff presents a first class concept about how to see the real America. Read on and I think you’ll agree.
North Carolina's Southern Part of Heaven

When traveling in America, one of the hidden opportunities to experience the best the country has to offer is to visit a “college town.” The environs generally offer a cosmopolitan town or village embracing expansive lawns surrounded by classroom buildings, bookstores, restaurants, and arts and sports venues.

The atmosphere is often charged with youthful exuberance and intellectual pursuits. Since many of the colleges located in these towns are also some of America’s more prominent liberal arts institutions, it also a good opportunity to encourage your kids to study hard so they can attend someday.

While crowded during the academic year, in summer and on weekends, these bucolic spots are deserted and offer a chance to take quiet strolls through the campus and enjoy the local fare in a more leisurely mode. These towns cater to students, so food for the stomach and mind can be had at a much lower cost and with less stress than in a large city. Plus, if you are like me, it is the chance to take advantage of things we neglected to do while we were in college ourselves.

While many such towns exist throughout the country – Charlottesville (University of Virginia), Princeton, Ann Arbor (University of Michigan), Hanover, NH (Dartmouth), Oxford (University of Mississippi), to name a few – one of the more popular is in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

The town of Chapel Hill is home to the first state supported university in America – the University of North Carolina. It was founded by veterans of the Revolutionary War who dreamed of a new democracy in which all citizens had access (and duty) to an education. Chapel Hill’s major thoroughfare, Franklin Street, is named for Benjamin Franklin, who was an ardent supporter of public schools and drafted large parts of the University’s charter.
From very humble beginnings, the village and town have evolved into centers of scientific research and liberal arts. The town of Chapel Hill, part of “Research Triangle Park”, is known worldwide for it technology research. A former University president described Chapel Hill as “a town touched by a strange magic,” and that feeling is easily captured during a late morning or early evening walk from Franklin Street through the McCorkle Place quad in the oldest part of the campus

While newer than most of the other buildings on the quad, the Morehead Planetarium, located adjacent to Franklin Street, offers daily planetarium programs, science exhibits and chances to explore the night sky from its observatory. American astronauts trained here until 1975. On weekdays, the Planetarium also serves as the official “Welcome Center” for the University, where you can obtain maps, directions and schedule a campus tour.

The Coker Arboretum, located just behind the Planetarium, is a quiet 5-acre sanctuary of trees, flowers, birds and meadows. A botany classroom, many trees or shrubs are marked with an explanation about their unique nature. As with much of the campus, students use the arboretum for romantic walks, reading or lying in the sun.

If a stroll through the arboretum takes its toll, return to McCorkle Place and relax on the bench in front of “Davie Poplar,” which campus lore maintains started as the tree branch which the University’s founding fathers placed in the ground to mark where the campus would be built. (It is actually much older.) The nearby “Old Well” is where thousands of freshmen have sipped water, hoping the stories were true it would bring them good luck with their examinations. A few steps way is “Old East.” the oldest state university building in the country and a National Historic landmark. For many years, it was the only classroom building and dormitory on campus.

Today, the main campus consists of over 700 acres and almost 26,000 students, a highly respected faculty and one of the largest library systems in the country. The Wilson Library, at the end of the next quadrangle (Polk Place, named for a graduate and the 11th U.S. president, James K. Polk) houses the largest archive in the country about the American South, along with a large library of rare books and other special collections. On any given day, exhibits outside the main reading room can range from a death mask of Napoleon to Jack Kerouac’s manuscript scroll of his famous book, “On the Road.”

Being a liberal arts university, during the academic year the campus offers almost nightly performances by students in its Dramatic Arts programs in theatres located primarily along Cameron Avenue, or its popular professional theatre group, the Carolina PlayMakers Repertory Company. Memorial Hall is the venue for the Carolina Performing Arts Series, which brings professional performing artists to campus about 30 weekends a year. Similar to many colleges, these productions often explore current issues and new artists that cannot be produced at larger venues that demand higher ticket prices.

One block north on Columbia Street you will find the Ackland Art Museum, which displays part of its 15,000 piece collection in galleries devoted to major art forms and history.

Of course, no trip to Chapel Hill is complete without running into some famous athlete who graduated from the university. While many “Carolina” graduates are leaders of America’s largest financial institutions, prominent journalists and authors, actors and politicians, two of its more famous alumni are former NBA star Michael Jordan and world soccer star, Mia Hamm. It is not unusual for them and other alumni to return to the town to visit, particularly in the summer months.

Finally, no trip to Chapel Hill is complete without a stroll down Franklin Street and dining or relaxing at some of its more popular restaurants and pubs, which include the following:
· Top of the Hill . A microbrewery and restaurant that overlooks the major downtown intersection of Franklin and Columbia Streets.
· The Lantern. A small and popular restaurant specializing in Pan-Asian cuisine.
· 411 West. A popular Italian restaurant.
· Crook’s Corner. Famous for its classic “shrimp and grits” entrée.
· Elaine’s on Franklin. Regional cuisine.
· West End Wine Bar. A large selection of wines and beer.
· CrossRoads Restaurant. This restaurant, which is part of the university owned Carolina Inn, offers southern cuisine and is a short walk from Franklin Street. Each Friday in the summer and fall, the Carolina Inn provides concerts on its front lawn and porch, generally by local bluegrass groups.

This is just a small sample of the excellent restaurants near campus. But it is the vibrant pace of life in a garden like atmosphere that makes many people refer to Chapel Hill as “The Southern Part of Heaven.”

So, if you want to enjoy a quiet weekend or summer day in America, visit a college town. You get the cosmopolitan feel of a large city, without the crowds and noise, and a chance to mingle with some of the best and brightest of the next generation.

About 15 minutes west of the Raleigh-Durham International Airport, just off Interstate 40 West. Approximately 4.5 hours south of Washington, D.C., and 2.5 hours from both the North Carolina coast and mountains.

The Carolina Inn

Siena Hotel

Courtyard by Marriott

Fearrington Inn

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Amsterdam's Attic Church

“We’re off to Amsterdam”, we announced to our son, Mac. “Whatever you do, do not take Eloise into the Red Light District”, was his only reaction. And so, of course, we did. This was after we saw the line for the Anne Frank House, our original destination. With a line winding well around the corner, our Plan B was to head for a small museum on the border of the city’s notorious sex district, where we found the wonderful “Our Lord in the Attic”, a seventeenth-century town house museum with a clandestine church in the loft.

The Amstelkring Museum is one of the oldest canal houses open to visitors in all of Amsterdam. The atmosphere is straight out of “A Girl with a Pearl Earring”, the light, colour and furnishings are pure Vermeer. On that basis alone, this house is worth a visit but the “money shot” can be found in the church on the top floor which has an exuberant Baroque alter, seating for 150 and a substantial 18th century organ. The church is still used today for special masses, weddings and concerts.

The need to construct a clandestine church arose during the 16th century when celebrating the Catholic mass in public was forbidden. Ingenious solutions such as “Our Lord in the Attic” sprang up all over town. The Amstelkring Museum houses one of the finest examples of a hidden church to have survived virtually in its original state.

You can find the entrance to the Museum on the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. When we arrived in the late morning, there were a smattering of visitors, no lines, no tours and no hassles. Touring the house gives an excellent insight into the domestic arrangements of a wealthy merchant family during Holland’s Golden Age. In addition to the church, highlights of the house include an archetypal Golden-Age parlour with centuries old plaster work and a kitchen of similar vintage with hundreds of beautiful and charming 17th century tiles. Many of the rooms house Catholic artefacts. Don’t miss the completely weird collection of “crucifixions in a bottle”, like ships only in this iteration it is Christ on the cross.

Between the winding stairs, the Hollywood ending of a church in the attic and the tiny gift shop, Eloise enjoyed her visit. Anyone who has trouble navigating stairs would find it less fun. There is a useful, to-the-point guide in English and you should budget about an hour to guide yourself through the house.

I loved this museum and once again our visit reinforced how valuable it is to skip anything that draws too many crowds, no matter how worthy. I have heard that getting to the Anne Frank House first thing in the morning solves the problem. Never mind, when Eloise is older, she can meet Anne Frank through the pages of her diary but for now, we were completely charmed by this small museum on the borders of the Red Light District with the surprising secret church in the attic.

Museum Amstelkring
Oudezijds Voorburgwal 40
1012 GE Amsterdam
The Netherlands
Tel: 31 (0)20 646604

A 7 minute walk from Amsterdam Central Station and Dam Square

Opening hours:Monday - Saturday 10.00 -17.00Sunday and holidays 13.00 - 17.00closed on January 1 and April 30

Adults € 7.00
Children € 1.00
Students € 5.00