Thursday, July 31, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Paris, 1997

Thursday, July 24.

Now that I'm back stateside, I've been having a blast going through old photo albums and comparing our 90s-era pictures of the places I've just come back from visiting. I started scanning them all into the computer and am enjoying sharing all the pictures with friends and, now, blog readers. Remember, you can find all these "Throwback Thursday" posts on the blog!

Here are some snapshots from a family trip to Paris, circa 1997. (If you want to figure out the exact date, you can do a little math ... the numbers on the Eiffel Tower in the photo below are a countdown to the Millenium.)

894 days before January 1, 2000..?

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Oh, the Opéra!

Mercredi, le 16 juillet.

On our last full day in Paris (cue tears), Lynn and I met up and decided to check a few things off our city bucket lists. First up was a trip to the iconic Palais Garnier! I've been dying to visit this building since the last time I was in Paris and finally got around to it.

A beautiful and historic building in its own right, the opera house is definitely best-known for its role in the famous novel (and later musical), The Phantom of the Opera. (But we'll come back to that.) The Palais Garnier was constructed in the late 19th century by order of Emperor Napoleon III. It has been known by many names since its construction, but its current title pays homage to its architect, Charles Garnier, whose design was chosen in a contest. It's been called the most famous opera house in the world, although -- if we're being precise -- the Paris Opera has actually moved in recent years to a more modern (though sadly less opulent) building, the Opéra Bastille

It took the work of seventy-three sculptors to construct the main façade of the Opéra Garnier. The building is topped by two massive (25-foot tall) gilded sculptures, representing l'harmonie and la poésie, or harmony and poetry. Towards the bottom of the building, sculptures flanking the left and right entranceways represent poetry, instrumental music, dance, and lyric drama. La Danse was particularly controversial because of its sensual nature ... Parisians smashed ink bottles on the sculpture in protest! (Proving that even in the 1800s, nobody protested with as much originality as the French.) The original statue by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux is now displayed in the Musée d'Orsay; all visitors today see is a facsimile.

If you're interested, this great image labels all the stone figures that grace the building's main façade, including the busts of famous composers that appear above the mezzanine. (Thanks, Wikipedia!) You can also click here to learn more about the building's famous sculpture groups.

The outside of the Palais, though stunning, is nothing compared to its opulent interior, which has been restored in recent years to its original appearance. Are you ready for this?!

Above, you can see our view of the avant foyer, famous for its magnificent staircase. However, the true showstopper is the building's Grand Foyer, where opera guests used to mingle before performances. It is a stunning 154 meters in length and lined with mirrors that would have reflected the latest Parisian fashions.

Read more about the Grand Foyer and the building's other rooms here, on the official website.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The First and Best "Quatorze Juillet"

Mardi, 15 juillet.

Bonjour and Happy Bastille Day!

Bastille Day -- or le quatorze juillet as it is commonly referred to in France -- has been celebrated annually in France since the 1880s. It commemorates the storming of the Bastille fortress by the French people in 1789, an event that kicked off the French Revolution. Although le jour national is celebrated all over France (and in countries with French ties worldwide), the biggest and best celebrations happen, of course, in Paris.

After a day of parades and special events, the day concludes with a fireworks display at the Tour Eiffel. This year, the celebrations kicked off around 9:30 with a live concert.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

"Elisabeth in Monet's Garden"

Dimanche, 13 juillet.

Today I went to heaven. Did you know that it's located in Giverny, France?

Despite the fact that people have been living in Giverny since the Neolithic Era, the small city is known around the world for one certain inhabitant -- Claude Monet. Interestingly, although he is now the town's most famous resident, Monet wasn't even originally FROM Giverny. He was born in Paris and spent his childhood in Le Havre. It wasn't until the age of forty-three when, in 1883, he discovered Giverny while passing through on a train. He fell in love with the town and immediately moved his family there. In 1890, Monet purchased a home in Giverny and began laying out his now-famous gardens.

After the death of Monet's son in 1966, his home and gardens were bequeathed to the Académie des Beaux-Arts. Extensive renovations restored the house and gardens to their original appearance. The museum opened in 1980 and has been welcoming tourists from around the world ever since.

I've been to Giverny before, way back in 2000. I don't have particularly vivid memories of the trip, but certain souvenirs -- including my children's book, Linnea in Monet's Garden -- have stayed with me for years. I didn't have a chance to visit during my last stay in France, and it's been on my 'bucket list' ever since.

With only a few days left in my summer tour of France, I decided that Giverny simply had to happen ... and luckily, one of my friends from school felt the same way! So Lynn and I hopped on a train to Vernon and, from there, on a bus to the town of Giverny. We started off our visit with a trip to Monet's world-famous nymphaes, or water lilies. Lynn and I wanted to get to there before the hordes descended, so we skipped the house and rushed through the garden, eager to make it to the jardin d'eau. This land was purchased as an addition in 1893, when Monet decided to expand his backyard, and is therefore located just across the train tracks from the rest of the property. (Want a visual? Check out this map.)

Unintentional matching because there are only so many neutrals!

We had been a little worried about picking such a dreary day for our day trip, but visiting Giverny in the rain turned out to be a simply incredible decision. Although the rain held off during the time we were actually visiting the gardens, the threat of bad weather scared off some of the crowds that would have usually been swarming on a summer weekend. It was crowded, but doable.

More importantly, the rain also gave everything an extra dose of gorgeous. A morning shower just before our arrival had left the garden damp, covered in water droplets, and looking greener than I thought was possible!

Giverny in Full Bloom

Dimanche, 13 juillet.

Get up close and personal with the beautiful flowers in Monet's garden.

Snapshots: from Caen to Champigny

Samedi, 12 juillet.

I'm sorry that there haven't been very many updates in the last few days ... after a few days of laying low and sleeping in, I've had a couple of crazy adventures! I took an unforgettable day trip to Caen on Friday and spent today hopping between sites, visiting first the Mémorial Mont-Valérien and then the Musée de la Résistance Nationale in Champigny-sur-Marne.

In the next few days, I'll upload more -- more posts, more photos, more factoids that only I find interesting! But for now, here are some snapshots of my adventures that just work best on their own.

Stumbled across this church in Caen. Very old. Very beautiful.

View of the city -- a la fois moderne et ancienne --- from the Chateau de Caen. 

The walk to Point du Hoc.

Memorial on Omaha Beach.

Reflecting on the reflecting pool...?

Friday, July 11, 2014

Museum Tour: Mémorial de Caen

The historic city of Caen has unique ties to both French and English history. It was the 'hometown' of William the Conqueror, who built the Château de Caen in the mid-11th century, just a few years before leading the Norman invasion of England in 1066. In the fourteenth century, it also became a major part of the Hundred Years War, when the British invaded and captured the city.

Its 20th century "claim to fame" is the Battle for Caen, a two-month battle in the summer of 1944 that destroyed an estimated 70% of the city. Cae was rebuilt, however, and commemorated their role in World War II with a unique museum/memorial for peace.


Origins of the Memorial

The museum was opened on the 44th anniversary of D-Day -- June 6, 1988. It has since been expanded several times, most recently in 2002 to include an exposition on the Cold War. Nowadays, the museum houses several permanent expositions, including Guerre mondiale, guerre totale (Global War, Total War) and Le Débarquement et la Bataille de Normandie (the Debarkment and Battle of Normandy), as well as a variety of temporary expositions.

Because the museum covers SO much information, I'll stick to photographs of both!

The Permanent Expositions


This recreated wall displays Vichy propoganda as well as graffiti -- LAVAL AU POTEAU.


The Temporary Expositions

At the time of my visit, in July 2014, the first temporary exhibition was called "The 100 Objects of the Battle of Normandy." It featured, unsurprisingly, one hundred objects from the Battle of Normandy. Read about it here.

My favorite objects, though not featured here, were the items repurposed by French civilians. They included parachutes, turned into purses and children's clothing, and American fuel canisters. Apparently, the American government had to make a personal request for French civilians to return these fuel canisters so the GIs could use their tanks!

The second temporary exhibit, called "Shots of War," featured the photographs of Tony Vaccaro. Though he would later become famous for his portraits of celebrities (including Marlon Brando and Sophia Loren), during World War II he was only a 21-year-old foot soldier during World War II. Denied the privilege of serving as an official war photojournalist because of his youth, Vaccaro took over 8000 photos during his unit's trek from Brittany to Berlin.

Even now, his photos are raw and occasionally shocking. But most importantly, they are a real testimony to the life of an American soldier in post-D-Day Europe. Read more about this exhibit here.

The Package Deals

In addition to regular admission, the museum offers 'package deals' to its guests. These trips take visitors on guided tours to other key D-Day sites around the area, including Point du Hoc, Omaha Beach, and the Normandy American Cemetary. The trips, which cost anywhere from 39 to over 200 euros per person, range from a couple hours on a bus to all-inclusive overnight stays.

Click here to learn more about these day trips ... or keep scrolling to see pictures from my visit and learn what I thought of my guided tour! (I chose the "Guided Tour on the Anglo-American D-Day Landing Beaches by Coach," which you can read about here.)

The ground at Point du Hoc still shows its physical scars from D-Day.

The memorial at Omaha Beach.

The memorial and reflecting pool at the Normandy American Cemetary.

This unique 360-degree theatre provided great historical context for the events of D-Day.

So why should you book a circuit tour? Because the packages include the cost of admission to the museum AND because the guides are so personable and well-informed AND because it's so difficult to get to many of these sites without your own transportation AND because these sites are truly crucial to your understanding of the events of June 1944!


The official website speaks about the museum's unique 'vocation' ...
With destruction wreaked across almost three quarters of this martyr city of the Liberation in the summer of 1944, Caen deserved a fitting tribute for the damage it suffered. And such a tribute was paid, but with the focus on what continues to be the Mémorial’s running theme: reconciliation... 
Between these two dates and between these two World Wars, some 60 millions people would lose their lives and the most hostile of political systems to the key principles of respecting life would plunge the world into the chaos and brutality that characterized the last century. We are all heirs to this century whose memory we must keep alive at all costs. The memory of the people who suffered, the memory of ideas and the memory of sacrifices to save us from “man’s inhumanity to man”.
It's a lofty goal, but one that doesn't feel entirely unachieved. The museum is thorough, with almost an exhausting amount of information, but it does not shirk away from the "chaos and brutality" of the era to which it is dedicated. Overall, however, the museum is surprisingly -- but fittingly -- peaceful. The atrium and hallways of the museum are filled with natural light that seems to remind visitors to the mémorial that the world has recovered from what was debatably its darkest period.

I really enjoyed my visit at the Mémorial de Caen, but I truly can't imagine what my day trip would have been like without taking the guided bus tour.

The museum provides an incredible wealth of information and historical context, but it took visiting the sites themselves to actually make the history come alive. It was unexpectedly sunny and warm during my trip, but I kept getting goose bumps ... as we looked out over the Point du Hoc, surveying the steep cliffs that over two hundred Rangers attempted to climb in the early morning of June 6, 1944 ... as we walked across the field, still pockmarked with the bomb holes made seventy years ago ... as we walked through a sea of innumerable white crosses at the American Cemetary ... and as we listened in silence to the playing of "Taps" by a lone bugle.

Plan Your Visit

ACCESSIBILITY . Caen is a short (approximately two-hour) train ride from Paris. Once you're in the city, the museum is accessible on foot (though it's a bit of a trek), by car, or via bus from the center of Caen. Note: if you arrive at the train station, you'll need to take a combination of bus and tram in order to get to/from the museum.

The museum itself is very modern and easily accessible by all guests. All exhibits are captioned in French, English, and German and there are elevators and ramps for wheelchair-bound visitors. The museum is large, however, and requires a good deal of walking!

AMENITIES. As it's located a bit outside of downtown Caen (and as the developers were likely looking to make a pretty penny), the museum has its own bookstore/souvenir shop, restaurant, snack shop, and childcare center. Although it will cost you an arm and a leg for a sandwich and cup of coffee, the convenience of the on-site cafeteria is worth the hassle.

TICKET PURCHASE. Museum tickets can be bought online or purchased at the museum. Some, but not all, package deals can be booked online. Packages not available for purchase online can be bought over the phone or via email, thanks to the museum's excellent customer service department.

MORE INFORMATION. The museum's official website offers a wealth of information in both French and English. The staff is also extremely responsive and helpful when contacted via email!