Monday, January 30, 2006

A NoCrowds Kid in the Luxembourg

Eloise arrived Friday night on the Eurostar looking quite smart in her English school girl uniform. The next morning, she woke early and encouraged me to get dressed quickly. “Come on, Mom, we need to get to the Luxembourg before all the tourists arrive.” She was right, of course. Morning is better as the competition for some of the best activities increases as the day wears on. So off we went to the Luxembourg Gardens, the fabulous backyard of all self-respecting children of the Left Bank.

Every child can find his bliss here. There is a huge action playground which has never heard of litigation, a carousel where children collect rings on a stick as they go around (the more rings the greater the glory), a wonderful old fashioned marionette theatre, donkey and pony rides, swings, sandboxes, wooden sailboats to rent, a beekeeping school, and kiosks selling sweets, toys and, according to Eloise, delicious cotton candy which the locals know as "barbe de Papa (your father's beard).

My husband claims that the Luxembourg has changed little from when he was a boy living down the street on Place St Sulpice. He’s quite sure the horses on the carousel are the originals and they look it. Magical things can happen in the Luxembourg Gardens. Once when Eloise was riding the donkeys, a small American boy heard us calling Eloise and turned to his parents. "See, I told you she would be here." As it turned out, he had just finished reading "Eloise in Paris" and was sure that his favourite "enfant terrible" would be waiting for him in her preferred Paris venue - and she was. When we are in Paris, Eloise goes every day and has never run out of interest or enthusiasm. If you are looking for something that can give a GameBoy a run for its money, the Luxembourg has it.

Unlike financial and experiential nightmares like Disneyland Paris, taking children to the Luxembourg is as delightful for the parents as it is for the child. Parents will appreciate that you can check your child into the huge enclosed playground and sit happily outside reading the papers. The children will appreciate that they can pursue their “Lord of the Flies” behaviour without your intervention. If you look carefully, you will even see old men in black berets playing boules with Gauloises hanging out of their mouths. It’s perfect.

My restaurant suggestion after a hard morning of activites in the Luxembourg would be to head for Aux Charpentiers, an unpretentious bistro that has been in operation for more than 130 years. The food is hearty provincial French. The prices are correct and the atmosphere reminiscent of the Left Bank of yesteryear. My mother-in-law returned recently after a 45 year hiatus and pronounced Aux Charpentiers "still pretty good" which tells you alot about Paris, its restaurants and my mother-in-law.

Aux Charpentiers
10 rue Mabillon
Tel: 01-43-26-30-05
Open daily
Metro: St-Germain-des-Pres or Mabillon

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Marais - Where Past is Prologue

Paris, January 19, 2006. I woke up late. There was a serious leak in my building which, after careful investigation from our gardien, Mr Luzio, happily did not originate from our apartment. My son had sent me a document overnight which needed attention. And so what did I do in response to all these domestic interruptions? I dropped everything to head straight for the Marais and get lost for a day.

The Marais is so much fun because it is simultaneously the hippest and the most historic part of town and a great place to observe the collision of trendiness and tradition . The hip bit involves “of-the-moment” people, attitudes, boutiques and restaurants. Because I am decidedly not hip, I shouldn’t make recommendations in that domain but trust me (and your guidebook), if its “trendy” you’re looking for, head for the rue des Francs-Bourgeois and enjoy the show. If it is Sunday and you have a shopping itch to scratch, this is one of the few areas of Paris where stores can legally stay open.

If its history you’re after, head first for the Musee Carnavalet where you can spend a hugely entertaining time exploring Paris from its origins to the present. The museum is spread over two beautiful and very historic mansions. When I arrived, there was a smattering of tourists and tons of French school children communing noisily with their glorious past.

From pre-historic remains to the tiny shoes of Marie Antoinette, the keys to the Bastille, the chess pieces Louis XVI played with while waiting for his execution, the bedroom of Marcel Proust, its all in there and more. I’m sure any child would be fascinated with the gruesome models of guillotines and pictures of Marie Antoinette with her head on a stake and I’m certainly going to bring Eloise along on her next trip to Paris. Whether you are a history buff or not, this engaging museum is uncrowded, fun and free. What could be better?

From the Musee Carnavalet, I dashed off to the Musee Cognacq-Jay, a short walk away, which has an exquisite collection of 18th century paintings and objets d’art in the Hotel Donon amassed by the founder of the Samaritaine Department Store ,Ernest Cognacq, and his wife Marie-Louise Jay. This is a perfect NoCrowds museum: intimate, relatively unknown and a sublime treat for anyone interested in the 18th century. There is no charge to enter.

The next stop on my Marais tour should have been the Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature ( Museum of Hunting and of Nature), based on the hilarious descriptions of its content – hundreds and hundreds of stuffed animals from elephants to bush pigs, guns of every variety and gory tapestries plus painting by Breughel, Rubens and Corot and Chardin. But dear Reader, the Musee de la Chasse was closed.

These things happen to me a lot because I do not follow my own good advice to always call and check if things are open. And if you think having a quick look at the website would help you out, it certainly did not in this case where later I found buried deep in the site, under “Practical Information”, the following: “The museum is closed from January 2005 and will open in 2006.” Practical indeed. OK, we’ll try that one later.

Sometimes, when travelling, what you enjoy is not what you would have chosen. At loose ends on the rue des Archives, I remembered that the Musee de l’Art et d’Histoire du Judaisme ( Museum of the Art and History of Judaism) was around the corner, so off I went. Housed in the imposing and impressive Hotel de Saint-Aignan, I was caught off-guard by the serious security process one goes through to gain entry. Plus my Museum Pass did not cover the entrance charge of EUR 6.10. Was this a good idea, I asked myself? Well, as it turns out, it certainly was.

What I found was fascinating. To quote from the museum’s website, “At the end of the visit, the visitor will have completed a voyage through different historic periods, will have discovered the diversity of Jewish communities and acquired several essential notions concerning the foundations of Jewish culture.” There is a very good English language audio guide included in the price of your visit. The documents from the Dreyfus Affair alone were “worth the detour”. If you have any interest in Judaism, you can learn an awful lot from a visit to this museum.

At 4:00, any sane person would have stopped and had a great falafel at the most famous of all falafel joints in the Marais, L’As du Falafel on the rue des Rosiers, and had I been with Jeff, perhaps earlier we would have had lunch at out old favourite on the Place des Vosges, Coconnas, but left to my own devices, I knew I had time to squeeze in just one more museum and so it was off to the Musee Picasso.

Since this post is way too long already, I shall be brief. If you love Picasso, go. Everyone raves about this place. Perhaps it was just the end of a long day ( and an object lesson for me to nibble not gobble at the Marais’s cultural attractions) but the enormous collection of paintings, drawings, statues and ceramics spanning all the periods of Picasso’s career just didn’t get me very excited. The Hotel Sale is spectacularly beautiful but I kept remembering all the marvellous paintings that were not in the collection. The museum was quite full and for some reason everyone wanted to have their pictures taken in front of every piece. Dodging and ducking the constant parade of photographers wasn’t much fun.

I had planned to finish my day by sitting for a while in the Place des Vosges, the oldest and loveliest square in Paris but realising that even I had reached my limit, I reluctantly headed home happy to have spent an entire day in world class museums where I never waited, rarely had to pay and was hardly ever disappointed.


Musee Carnavalet
23-29 rue de Sévigné 75003 (metro Rambuteau or Saint-Paul) Tel. 01 44 59 58 58 Open 10.00-17.40 except on Mondays – free entrance except for temporary expos

Musee Cognacq Jay
8 rue Elzévir 75003 (métro Saint-Paul) Tél. 01 40 27 07 21 Open 10.00-17.45 except on Mondays
Free Entrance

Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature
60 rue des Archives 75003 (metro Rambuteau) Tel. 01 42 72 86 43
Currently closed for renovation

Musee d’Art et d’histoire du Judaisme
71, rue du Temple (metro Rambuteau or Hotel de Ville)
Tel: 01 53 01 86 60
Open 11:00-6:00 Monday – Friday and Sunday 10:00 to 6:00
Charge: Eur 6.10/3.80

Musee Picasso
5 rue Thorigny 75003 (metro Saint-Sébastien Froissart, Saint-Paul) Tel. 01 42 71 25 21 Open 9.30-18.00, 9.30-17.30 in winter, except on Tuesdays
Charge Eur 7.70/5.70 – no charge for Museum Pass holders

Food and Restaurants

L’As du Falafel
Rue des Rosiers

2 bis, Place des VosgesTel: 01 42 78 58 1
Photo of "Portrait de la Residente de Rieux" (detail) by Maurice Quentin de la Tour courtesy of the Cognacq-Jay website

Monday, January 23, 2006

Screw the Louvre ?

Over Christmas at the fabulous Home Ranch in Colorado, I met a cross-country skiing cowboy from L.A. who got very excited about the NoCrowds idea. As I explained that searching out undervalued treasures was always better than following the diktats of “tick the box” tourism, he became even more excited. “Screw the Louvre” he exclaimed as we skied through the trees. “People will understand it. Put it on your business cards”.

Catchy, I thought but not really what we’re trying to accomplish. Yes, the Louvre is an icon of the overcrowded and compromised travel experience. But at the same time, the Louvre has 35,000 premier works of art on permanent display, is the largest museum in the world and has been in the business since 1793. Surely there must be a way to visit the “mother of all museums” that is pleasant and rewarding?

Based on the wonderful experience I had visiting London museums on their late nights, when I arrived in Paris last week, I immediately took off for the Louvre which is open until 9:45 on both Wednesdays and Fridays. Armed with my Paris Museum Pass (described in Paris Bits & Pieces), I arrived at the Louvre about 5:00, found no lines anywhere and entered through the Pyramide. Had there been a line, my Museum Pass would have allowed me to enter without waiting at the Porte Richelieu on the rue du Rivoli or the Porte des Lions or Galerie du Carrousel. (N.B. Porte Richelieu closes daily at 6:00).

Having easily navigated my entrance, I headed for the least crowded section, the Richelieu Wing and spent several hours exploring the Decorative Arts collection including Napoleon III’s opulent apartments and the museum’s collection of Northern European paintings. I was virtually alone. No tour groups in sight but the Rembrandts, Van Dycks, Davids and Poussins were fabulous. The illuminated views into the courtyard were inspiring. I loved it.

Emboldened by my success thus far, I ventured downstairs to see what was going on in the most crowded sections of the Louvre, the Galerie d’Apollon and the first floor rooms in the Denon wing. There were plenty of groups of what seemed to be well-heeled professional Parisians taking Art History courses milling about. The galleries were full but comfortably so. The atmosphere was fine.

The acid test of my late night hypothesis was that I was able to stand in front of the poor bullet-proofed Mona Lisa with a very small group of appreciative individuals. The fact that the Louvre has recently restricted the taking of photographs and videos in the most popular sections of the museum really helps one’s enjoyment of the experience.

At about 9:00, I’d had enough of my museum marathon and headed home. As was the case with so many museums in London, going to the Louvre at night made all the difference. Instead of the hordes that tramp through during the day, the people I shared the Louvre with last week were taking their time and seemed genuinely interested. The collections are everything they’re cracked up to be and you certainly get your money’s worth. Yes, the museum is totally confusing and even overwhelming but after giving the Louvre a pass for decades, I’m glad I went. Go at night and I think you will be too.

Palais-Royal-Musée du Louvre station.
BusThe following bus lines stop in front of the Pyramid: 21, 24, 27, 39, 48, 68, 69, 72, 81, 95, and the Paris Open Tour bus.

Museum Opening Hours
Monday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesday, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday, 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m.Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.Sunday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The museum is closed on Tuesdays and some public holidays.
Ticket Prices
Eur 8.50 for full-day access, Eur 6 for access after 6:00 on Wednesdays and Fridays

Photo courtesy of the Louve website "Musee du Louvre" A. Dequier-M. Bard

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Chocolate & Zucchini

If you love food, love things French and love to read blogs that are charming and unpretentious, check out This love affair with food is the brainchild of Parisian, Clothilde Dusoulier, who, it has been said, is the Amelie (as in the movie) of the kitchen. In addition to being fun to read, the site offers lots of useful information, particularly about shopping, cooking and eating in and around Paris. For my money, the best food blog on the web. Have fun.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Ben Franklin House to Open in London

Eighteen years ago, I found myself renovating the chimneys of an ante-bellum farm house in North Carolina. The first question the craftsmen asked was “Do you want Franklin or Rumford?” After which I was entertained with a dashing tale of competing fireplace technologies that ended when Count Rumford, a loyalist and designer of a shallow and highly efficient fireplace, had to high tale it back to Europe following the American Revolution, taking his design with him. Thus began my love affair with chimneys, fireplaces and stories involving Ben Franklin.

So it was with some excitement that I read recently that after an eight-year restoration, the London residence of Dr Benjamin Franklin and the only remaining Franklin home will open at 36 Craven Street on January 17, 2006, the date of Franklin’s 300th birthday.

Visitors to London’s newest museum will find a Historical Experience using live performance drama, lighting and projection technology to tell Franklin’s story during his time in London, a Student Science Centre and a Scholarship Centre. It was in this house that Franklin conducted numerous experiments including measuring the effects of the Gulf Stream (still a hot topic today), exploring Daylight Saving Time and inventing bifocal lenses.

I’m off to Paris next week, but if Ben Franklin’s house is half as interesting as Ben Franklin’s life as a scientist, diplomat, philosopher, inventor, Founding Father and more, the first thing I am going to do when I get back is to rush over and check it out.

Benjamin Franklin House
36 Craven Street
London WC2N 5NF
Tel: 44 (0)20 7930 9121
Fax: 44 (0)20 7930 9124

The house will be open from 10:00 – 5:00 Wednesdays through Sunday from February 2006

Closest tube stations are Charing Cross or Embankment

Picture courtesy of

Wednesday, January 11, 2006

London's Dana Centre

In 1974, I walked into the Registrar’s Office of Colorado College and announced that I was sure there was not one single science course which I was capable of passing. The helpful Registrar assured me that spending a lovely summer studying the eco-systems of the Pikes Peak region would solve my problem. She was right. I learned neat stuff about ecology way before it was fashionable and passed the course but I did not change my opinion that science was not fun, not cool and not sexy.

Yesterday, I changed my mind. My faithful readers might remember that I was off to the Dana Centre to brighten my day in the Light Lounge, said to ward off Seasonal Affected Disorder.

As it turned out, the Light Lounge was huge fun. It looked a bit like a white Austin Powers shag parlour, and for 20 minutes you get to lounge around with 4 other SAD individuals, feeling slightly stupid but happy. Mostly we read. It’s not a good place for gals to pick up guys since most SADS victims are women and my group reflected the 80:20 ratio. Obviously, it’s a great place for guys to pick up gals. Plus, you can learn a lot about light deficiency and what happens to your serotonin levels when the gray days set in.

Yet for me the big revelation was the Dana Centre. Imagine a place that makes science hip, fresh, fun and dare I say it, sexy. The Centre, part of the Science Museum, can be found in a cool, purpose built building on Queensway near the South Kensington Museums. There is a café/bar which served good looking meals for amazingly fair prices (for London), free internet access with plenty of free terminals, and an exciting experimental events program such as the Light Lounge guaranteed to provoke dialogue.

The calender of events covers everything from “Edinburgh-Fringe-style comics debunking science myths to updates on radical research. On January 18, for example, there is an evening about Bio-Bling:Bone Jewellery – Learn all about it and grow your own. Best of all, most of the events are free although booking is recommended. For anyone looking for a kid-free refuge, please note that the Dana Centre is open to anyone over the age of 18.

It’s free, its hip, its centrally located and its fun. If you live or plan to visit London, put the Dana Centre on your itinerary and make science your new best friend.

The Dana Centre
165 Queen's Gate
South Kensington
LondonSW7 5HE
+0044 (0)207 942 4040

Photo of cafe/bar from Dana Centre website

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

London's Answer to the January Blues

It’s January. I’m back in London and I’m stressed. Thank goodness help is at hand. In yesterday’s paper, the following headline caught my eye. “Art Gallery Visits Lower Stress Levels”. The article goes on to say that visiting a gallery may be an antidote to stress. In a Westminster University Study of 28 so-called “high fliers”, after 40 minutes at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London, their stress levels fell 45% and saliva samples were found to contain 32% less Cortisol stress hormones.

Well, I’m off to the Victoria and Albert Museum to do something about my Cortisol levels. On the way, I’m going to check out the Light Lounge at the Science Museum to make sure I don’t come down with SADS (Seasonally Effective Disorder). Based on the light cafes in Scandinavia where the sun seldom rises and suicide rates are high, the Light Lounge provides specially-designated light boxes, each about four times more powerful than summer sunlight.

After I’ve reduced my stress levels and done battle with SADS, I’m going to finish off with some retail therapy and a new pair of boots from the London sales.

January’s looking up already.

Photo: Clare Kendall from the London Daily Telegraph