Archive for the ‘Paris–general’ Category



IMG_8614Our town, Urbana, has a number of places where we can see swathes of re-created tall-grass prairie. One is at Meadowbrook Park, which I’ve written about before (see here https://viviennemackie.wordpress.com/2004/07/30/meadowbrook-park/ ), another is along part of the railway line, and another is along Florida Ave next to the house of the President of the University of Illinois. They are gorgeous, especially in summer and fall, when the plants are tall and beautiful with swathes of bright mostly purple and yellow flowers.

IMG_8615Why is this important? One of the nicknames for Illinois is the Prairie State (of course, another is Land of Lincoln). Prairie grassland was once the dominant ecosystem in Illinois, but prairie is largely forgotten and almost non-existent in our agricultural and urbanized landscape. About 60% of Illinois (approximately 22 million acres) was once prairie. Now, only about 2,500 acres remain. The rest became corn and soybean fields, pastures and hayfields, mostly in the period between 1820-1840, as more and more settlement of prairie areas in Illinois took place.

Various conservation groups want to continue to pay homage to the prairie and we are IMG_8609very happy that our town is part of that, so that people can still imagine what the state might have once looked like. There are other benefits to re-planting the prairie vegetation, such as increasing habitats for insects and wildlife.

Here are a few photos from the plot close to the president’s house.


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First encounter with Velib, Paris, July 2007

First encounter with Velib, Paris, July 2007

A Velib sign---how to sign up with your transport card

A Velib sign—how to sign up with your transport card













My first real encounter with a bike share program was in Paris in 2007 at the start of the Velib’ Program there. We lived in Paris until early 2008 and were really interested to be “on the ground” as it were and see the program take off. We’ve followed its ups and downs with interest. Each year we return I am happy to see it still so active and well-used—it’s been has been hugely successful in terms of rider usage, even though a large percentage of the bikes were stolen, destroyed or taken to other countries. The city considered scrapping the program but did not, and its success continues.

Before Paris Velib’, many cities tried with varying success to implement a bike-sharing program and it’s believed that the current resurgence of this concept is due to the launch of the Velib program in Paris in 2007.

The colorful Velib logo (for Velo libre)

The colorful Velib logo
(for Velo libre)

New Chicago bike-share stand, with famous Trump Tower as background

New Chicago bike-share stand, with famous Trump Tower as background

How to work the Divvy bikes in Chicago----only $7 for a 24-hour period

How to work the Divvy bikes in Chicago—-only $7 for a 24-hour period

The Divvy truck shows its logo as 'Divide and share'

The Divvy truck shows its logo as ‘Divide and share’

Now, when we travel I always try to take note of a city’s bike share scheme—I didn’t always take photos, but intend to make an album now. But, here are a few pictures of  bikes in some places.  Amazingly, this year in June, Chicago also started a program, called Divvy, and in early September we saw quite a few of the bikes (painted with blue) in action. If people can ride in the Paris traffic, then I reckon they can ride anywhere!

Chicago Divvy bikes

Chicago Divvy bikes

Bit of Background and History

Bike sharing systems or schemes make bicycles available for share use to individuals for short-term use. Such schemes or programs are not new, but seem to be proliferating all over the world these days. Perhaps as people become more aware of pollution, of saving energy etc. According to Wikipedia, in May 2011 there were around 375 programs, with a total of 236,000 bikes. By April 2013, there were around 535 programs, with an estimated 517,000 bikes.

Wuhan (90,000 bikes) and Hangzhou (60,000 bikes, and 2,400 bike stations) Public Bicycle programs in China are the biggest in the world. The Velib’ in Paris, France  (20,000 bikes and 1,450 stations) is the largest bike sharing system outside of China.

Dijon's bike share program is called Velodi, with a cute mascot of the famous Dijon owl

Dijon’s bike share program is called Velodi, with a cute mascot of the famous Dijon owl

One type of program is a Community Bike program, probably organized by a local community group or non-profit organization, which lends bikes for free. The other, more common, type of program, is a “Smart Bike Program” organized by governmental agencies, sometimes in a public-private partnership, in which people pay for the use of the bikes.

There have been many problems with these systems: bikes get stolen, vandalized, abandoned, for example, so there are various ways to try and get round these problems, like having to insert a credit card as a guarantee or security deposit.

It seems that the first program was in Europe in Amsterdam, with the White (free) Bike Scheme in 1965, but this didn’t last more than a few months.

Then came La Rochelle in France with their Yellow Bike Scheme (free) and the free Green Bike Program in Cambridge UK in 1993. But so many of these bikes were stolen or abandoned, that authorities began to use a “smart technology’ (for a fee, with some tracing of the renter).

Nowadays, many cities in all the inhabited continents have some kind of bike sharing scheme or program. If you are curious, for a list go to Wikipedia here


A rack of bikes in Dijon, France

A rack of bikes in Dijon, France

Bikes in Ljubljana, Slovenia

Bikes in Ljubljana, Slovenia

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One of the older, framed posters for the festival, found in many local wine bars

La Fete des Vendanges de Montmartre, annual in October

Unfortunately, we were not there for this year’s festival, which has just taken place (October 10-14, 2012), but I heard that it was a lot of fun—which I can imagine, as we’ve been in Montmartre in virtually every other month of the year.

As the air gets crisper, the days shorter, and bursts of color in the trees turn brilliant autumn hues, Paris reveals another of her many faces: Paris is a big city, a famous city, a historical city, a city full of icons, but Paris also has vineyards. Yes, vineyards, right in the city! There are vineyards on the outskirts of other cities like Vienna and Bordeaux, for example, but the Clos Montmartre is more central and unexpected. It’s Paris’s secret vineyard.

The vineyard in late summer. Note an official, in the traditional red and black, showing a group the vineyard

The vineyard in late autumn

Le Lapin Agile (the Agile Rabbit) on a corner near the vineyard

Up on the hill of Montmartre on the west side of the basilica of Sacre Coeur, down rue Cortot, past the Musée de Montmartre and into the rue des Saules, you will find a small, neat vineyard, its edge opposite the famous bar/cabaret Le Lapin Agile, and the restaurant Maison Rose. Between the 2,000 or so vines of gamay and pinot noir grapes are neat strips of turf with lavender bushes or other flowers planted at the ends of the rows. The vineyard covers around 1,556 sq meters and every October a special five-day festival celebrates the harvesting of those grapes. It is on a steep slope and is surrounded by houses, with buses chugging past, so may seem out of place. But, having vines and vineyards in this part of Paris was always part of the landscape and traditions.

The Maison Rose, also nearby

Vines were introduced to the Paris region by the Romans, and vineyards stretched to the slopes of the Butte Montmartre as late as the mid-19th century. But, by the early 20th century there were basically no vines left, as they were largely wiped out by the phylloxera outbreak in the 1880s. In 1933, a group of local artists, led by Francis Poulbot, wanted to block a real estate development where the vines had been, an area that had become rather a waste land. So they got together and petitioned the city of Paris to grant them the land so they could replant the vines, and the Clos Montmartre was renewed. It is now funded by the Mairie de Paris. Vines trump real estate development in France apparently!

Some of the older framed posters of the festival in a local wine bar

Montmartre is unique because of the artistic life and culture that has existed there for so long—and continues to do so—but is also special because of the wine. Every year more than 1000 bottles of red wine are produced, called Clos Montmartre with most of the labels designed by local artists. After the grapes are harvested they are pressed in the basement of the 18th arrondissement’s Mairie —-where else is that possible? Most of the wine is auctioned and all proceeds of the special bottling go to local charities.

Clos Montmartre plaque

During the festival it’s possible to visit the sloping vineyard (the rest of the year by appointment only with the Montmartre Tourist Office). Each year the festival has a different theme and two famous persons are chosen as marraine and parrain (godmother and godfather) to lead the festivities. For example, in 2009, Charles Aznavour was the parrain and Anais the godmother. This year, the marraine was Anggun, and the parrain Jean-Luc Petitrenaud. Montmartre’s bars, cafes and restaurants feature the favorite dishes of the godmother and godfather, supposedly all pairing well with the wine. I heard that this year there were lots of different types of sausages. Many tents are set up and offer tastings of regional wines, cheeses and other products too, and you can visit various boulangers, patissiers, and choclatiers. Children are also always part of the Fete des Vendages, with parades, costumes, balloons etc. Many people dress up in traditional black and red colors, so it’s a very colorful affair too.

So, next October if you are in Paris, head up to Montmartre for a good time and a glass of fine (although expensive) Montmartre wine. The vineyards are on a north-facing slope so exposure to the sun is minimized and the wine is not very full-bodied. But, it’s fruity and has been described as “somewhere between a decent Beaujolais and an Hautes Cotes de Nuit red”.

For more specific details about, and pictures of, this year’s festival (and previous years) go to the official website:


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Chez Eugene on one side of Place du Tertre 

Watching the square from Chez Eugene entrance

Enjoying moules et frites in the room upstairs

Chez Eugene, Place du Tertre

People-watching with a view to the white-domed Sacre Coeur.

This is our favorite place in Montmartre (maybe Paris even) for moules et frites (mussels and French fries). It’s one of many eateries on and around the Place du Tertre—the iconic square in Paris where artists of all kinds gather to paint, draw, or cut pictures or caricatures, and try to sell them—and is easily recognized by its bright red awnings. It’s always super busy but the wait staff do a pretty good job of attending to the customers. The staff must need to be young and fit to lug those heavy trays upstairs and downstairs!

In summer they have outdoor tables under a tent in Place du Tertre, and these do tend to be very crowded. In cooler weather you can sit just outside the restaurant entrance under the heaters, or opt for inside, either upstairs of downstairs. Over the years, we’ve tested all the seating options, and probably our favorite place is upstairs at a table overlooking the square (if you’re lucky enough to get one). In summer you can watch the crowds and the artists, in winter some artists still come and it’s lovely with sparkling holiday lights in the frosty air.

Place du Tertre one frosty evening during Christmas period

There are many variations on the moules—all delicious. They come with frites, but you also get bread to help mop up the sauces. Choose a beer or the housewine to go with the meal, and you won’t end up spending too much—last time, for 2 moules et frites, and a bottle of wine we paid 32.50 euros. In peak seasons, many large groups come here, but Chez Eugene generally handles them well, usually placing the groups inside on the ground floor. Live music begins at 8:30pm, which is a lot of fun and the crowds love it. One time we had 2 guys from Haiti on the table right next to us—part of a bigger group on another table. They were singing gustily along with the music, clapping and even stood up to dance.

Good food, good atmosphere, reasonable prices for a city like Paris, and especially in the very touristy Montmartre area.

Classic moules et frites

Chez Eugene, Montmartre

17 Place du Tertre, Paris 75018


A tasty bowl of moules

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Paris, near Ecole Militaire: 

Recently we came across this really amusing twist on the usual beggar-with-dog theme. Yes, he has a dog, but a toy one! He must have a dry sense of humor and/or a good feeling for irony. Even the pigeon is interested!

Many passers-by did a double take here!

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Le Soufflot Cafe decked out one December

Paris, France: Le Soufflot Cafe

16 rue Soufflot, 75005 Paris

This restaurant is very close to the Pantheon, on a street of the same name. Jacques-Germain Soufflot was the architect of the Pantheon (started 1758, completed 1790), so the name is very appropriate, even though he died before the Pantheon was completed. Because this street is so close to the famous Pantheon, it is right on the tourist trail and therefore always teeming with visitors. Many of the souvenir shops and some of the smaller cafes have, sadly, become “generic tourist traps”. But, in our experience, Le Soufflot has managed to escape this fate.

The waiters are really good at switching to English and one waiter, Christophe, even jokes around with customers in English. But, in spite of catering to many tourists, this place hasn’t become a tourist trap like so many of the cafes/bistrots/restaurants in San Michel. Over the years, it’s continued to be charming (compared to our first visit more than 10 years ago) and the food is good. And a small container of peanuts arrives first, with the drinks. On a recent visit, our lunch salads came in big bowls, which fit better on a small table, rather than large flat plates. And tables are pretty small, but that’s nothing unusual for Paris eateries! Many of the tables are set out on the pavement (sidewalk), with the obligatory awning, and then sun umbrellas (which are also good for rain protection).

Our two great salad plates on a recent visit

Big salads are in the 9-12 euro price range and a demi wine about 9 euro, so it’s pretty good value for money. Service is friendly and competent, and people around us were all satisified.

Another point: Can one go back to a place that one liked before and be happy with it again? So often that’s not the case—we harbor a memory and therefore an expectation, and are often disappointed. Not the case with Le Soufflot. It doesn’t seem to have changed at all: in fact, many of the waiters are still the same too. And we’ve been eating there almost annually for many many years, and in different seasons. Great!

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Rod enjoying lunch outside at Les Vents d’anges


As you approach the front of St Etienne you don’t realize there’s a peaceful grassy courtyard to the right of it

Beauvais, France: Les Vents d’anges

Day Trip North of Paris: There are many reasons why you might like to do a day trip to Beauvais: the huge Gothic Cathedral St Pierre; the two museums with their focus on local history and culture; and the restoLes Vents d’Anges” (Breaths of Angels). Also, it’s not one of the fancy, really popular or common day trips out of Paris, so crowds of tourists and big tour buses are less frequent. You get to see somewhere outside of Paris very easily, and it’s in Picardie, a region famous for the battles along the River Somme in World War 1, and the war-time song Roses of Picardy.

All are good reasons, but eating at the restaurant may be reason enough alone, I think.

Les Vents d’Anges

This little restaurant is on the corner of a semi-enclosed grassy square next to EgliseSt Etienne, the other large church in Beauvais. In the warm weather, staff set some tables outside. It’s very pleasant with the daisy-studded grass and the huge grey stone structure almost within touch. As we peer up, and a slight breeze ruffles through the trees, it is possible to imagine that maybe some angels are somewhere close by, perhaps blowing gentle, positive breaths down into the green space next to the church.

Our ‘ethereal’ view from the lunch table—angels may even be close by!

The restaurant only offers a set midi formule for 17 euros each, (fixed lunch-time menu) written on an ardoise (chalkboard). We took the entrée and plat (appetizer and main dish)—all very nice with really attentive service.

For Viv this turned out to be terrine a la maison with salad, followed by lieu noir (a fish) with pasta and haricots verts (green beans). And for Rod a plate of charcuterie, followed by faux fillet with mashed potatoes and haricots verts.

We had a white Sancerre wine with the meal, which was cool and fruity and seemed perfect for that setting. Of course, a pichet of water, and a coffee each to end.

The restaurant was doing very well that Saturday in late March, obviously popular with the locals as many family groups came. When we walked past later, the outside tables had been moved and been set up inside a “tent” at the front, as it still gets a little cool at night in March. We would definitely return.

Savoring lunch




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Paris: Piano Recital in Eglise Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre (Church of St. Julian-the-Poor)

Entrance to St-Julien le Pauvre

Pointing to the ad for our concert that day

First, visualize the location. The oldest church in Paris, a small Romanesque building from the 12th century, tucked away next to the small pretty Square Viviano. The square that has the amazing robinet tree (Robinia pseudoacacia), the oldest in Paris, planted in 1601 by the gardener of Henri 1V. The square that overlooks Notre Dame on the other side of the River Seine. On this sunny, summery spring Sunday afternoon the crowds at Notre Dame are overwhelming and almost unmanageable, and just hundreds of meters away, here we are in a cool, quiet place.

Next, imagine the setting in the small dimly-lit church. Rows of wooden chairs on stone floors face the wooden altar screen, adorned only with a series of Byzantine-style paintings, candles and vases of gorgeous white arum lilies and roses. In the front is a Steinway piano, open, ready.

It’s a Sunday afternoon, so the audience is small but all eager and attentive.

Inside the church, with piano ready

Our soloist walks in, down the aisle, an attractive Japanese woman, with long hair, wearing a long, floating green floral dress. Her name is Miho Nitta.

Now, try to imagine and hear the sounds she extracted from that piano, as she played Chopin and Liszt. Soft, tender, romantic sounds, and loud, wild, tumultuous sounds as her hands literally flew over the keyboard, for piece after piece. The acoustics in the church are very good (one reason they have these concerts here) but she is amazingly talented too, with very strong and supple wrists and fingers that seem able to produce more sound from a piano than I think we’ve ever heard before. We could imagine that it was Liszt playing Liszt, as the story goes that in Liszt’s time only Liszt could play Liszt because his music was so difficult. Here, in this setting, it’s easy to see and hear why, and we realize that Miho Nitta must practise endless hours daily to achieve this level.

Her fingers fly over the keyboard

It was the sort of perfect performance in the sort of perfect setting that gets one thinking of beauty in life, and how some things do live on, even if the executor is different. Bravo!

All the comments we heard from the patrons afterwards were the same: excellent, feeling refreshed, refreshing, stimulating, inspiring.

I was lucky enough to chat to her afterwards when I bought a CD—an added bonus. She is originally from Hiroshima in Japan, but has lived in Paris for about 20 years. She said I could use the photos of her here too.

These concerts are offered a couple of times a week and usually feature mainly piano music of Chopin, Liszt, Beethoven, Bach. However, you can also catch solo singers and sometimes a chorus group.

Address: 1 rue St-Julien-le-Pauvre (off Quai de Montebello)

Metro and RER: closest is St Michel

Ticket information: Concerts are advertised on billboards outside the church and around the city. You can also check online at www.concertinparis.com

The audience loved the concert!

Buy tickets online or at the church an hour before the performance, or at various stores (FNAC, Virgin, Galeries Lafayette, Bon Marche).

Prices: Adults 18 or 23 euros, students 13 euros

Here’s a YouTube video I found, from an October 2009 recital, made by Jean-Pierre Marie. It gives a really good idea of the beautiful playing of this talented musician.


A few days later: I’ve added another YouTube video, that shows her playing a different composer (Verdi):  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bkhfVcWKMDI

Perfect setting

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Shopping around the ornate atrium with dome

Looking up to the magnificent dome











Eating in Galeries Lafayette (9th arrondissement)

Going to the huge department store, the Galeries Lafayette along Blvd. Haussmann, is an event in itself, a tourist attraction in its own right.  Built in 1898, it sprawls over three buildings and takes up whole city blocks. Go there to do shopping, as thousands do, or just to gawk at all the merchandise, at the throngs of shoppers, and especially at the lovely architecture with the gorgeous belle-epoque dome. You can get a good look at the dome from any of the lower floors.

From the ground floor

You can also go up onto the roof (walk up stairs from the 6th floor) for a wonderful view out towards Opera Garnier and over the city and a meal at the café up there (in season). Many people sit and enjoy the sun and fresh air, bring a sack lunch or a sandwich.

On the roof terrace, to Opera and Eiffel tower in the distance (thanks to Rod)

It’s also fun to eat at one of the café-restaurants on the 6th floor. We especially like the self-service Lafayette Café, with a bank of windows facing the Opera. They have a very large selection, from pastas, a salad bar, cooked food, a dessert bar, pre-prepared plates, breads, and plenty of drinks. It’s a good, easy system, as you take a tray, choose what you want, pay and find a seat. It’s perfect if you’re shopping, but also great just to go there to eat, as we did. Even though it’s cafeteria-style, the food is excellent and always fresh, and it’s very well used, by tourists and locals alike. It’s a similar style to the upper-floor cafeteria in BHV (Bazaar Hotel de Ville), another big department store next to the Hotel de Ville (we’ve eaten there a couple of times too, and enjoy sitting with a view of the massive Eglise de St-Gervais).

One of our salad plates for lunch

Walking around the Opera Garnier area is also a lot of fun—to look at the actual building and its ornate architecture, but again also to watch the people, as this is a must-do place in the city and all the city sightseeing buses come by here. Opera is also a big metro stop and the Roissy bus from Charles de Gaulle Airport terminates here. It certainly is a magnificent building and on a sunny day the shiny gold bits are even more shiny. ***More on Opera later.

Although backlit, the pic shows the great lunch time view

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Paris: Porte St-Denis

On our recent visit to Paris we stayed in a different—for us—part of the city, near Blvd Bonne Nouvelle (2nd arrondissement). It’s always fun to explore a new area and the first morning, as we walked to the nearest metro station, we were happily surprised to find one of Paris’s great old gates that mark the limits of the old city: the Porte St-Denis.

This triumphal arch 23m high, designed by Blondel, was erected in 1672 to commemorate the victories of Louis XIV in Germany and Holland. The bas-reliefs designed by Girardon, were carried out by the brothers Anguier. This lovely creamy-gold stone arch stands at the intersection of Bd Bonne Nouvelle, Bd St-Denis, and rue St-Denis. It faces the rue St-Denis, or “Voie Royale”, once the processional route of entry into Paris, which it was last used for when Queen Victoria visited in 1855 (a part of the rue is now a red-light area, something St-Denis would presumably not approve of!)

St-Denis is one of France’s patron saints. An interesting story, based partly on myth and partly on sketchy facts, surrounds his life and death. Around AD 250, a Denys was sent from Rome by Pope Fabian to Lutece or Lutetia, the site that would become Paris, to convert the pagans there. Denys installed himself on the Ile de Saint-Louis, made himself bishop and offered masses. Local officials tortured him and, when he still would not bow to pagan gods, decided to behead him. The story goes that in death Denys was as recalcitrant as he was in life, because after the swordsman severed his head, he picked it up and continued walking up the hill. At the top of the hill, called Hill of the Martyrs (Montmartre), he finally died and was supposedly buried by a wealthy parishioner. It’s possible that in reality the swordsman only sliced off the top of Denys’ skull, allowing enough time to actually walk and preach as he climbed the hill. How he then got to the village of St-Denis further north (now a suburb and site of the huge Gothic Cathedral of St-Denis) nobody knows. He was supposedly buried there, but today no-one is sure exactly where his remains are.

The former bishop became more and more venerated, becoming a saint. The story of his death became a popular topic for artists of all kinds. Look for a statue of him on the left side of the main door of the cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris—he stands holding his head, with a halo behind his neck.

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