Rachel Kaplan's Travel Articles
- The Jacquemart-André Museum
- Chantilly and Senlis: A Castle and A Town Fit for Kings
- Shopping Like The French: How to Get The Best Deals in Paris
- Literary Paris
- Paris in a Basket: A City of Mouthwatering Food Markets
By Rachel Kaplan
When the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay are on strike or closed for a national holiday, is there any place you can visit in Paris besides the Luxembourg Gardens and the Eiffel Tower? Yes, indeed there is, and what's more it's the kind of place that is both awesomely beautiful and delightfully entertaining. Now that's a tall order for an art museum, but then again, since the Jacquemart-André Museum was refurbished and brought back to life five years ago, it's been the talk of the international art world. And even those die-hard Parisians who have never stepped foot into the Louvre, love the Jacquemart if only because it boasts the only restaurant where you can eat beneath an original Tiepolo ceiling.
A house-museum, whose five thousand works of art and antiquities range from the Lower and Upper Egyptian Kingdoms to the Italian Quattrocentro to the Dutch School of Old Master painting and the Rococo of Boucher, Fragonard and Greuze, is definitely in a class by itself. The sumptuous edifice, built in 1869 by the architect Henri Parent (second runner-up after Charles Garner to the Paris Opera) was commissioned by Edouard André, the sole heir to a colossal banking fortune. (It was so colossal that in 1871, he and the Baron Rothschild ponied up-in a single week--5 billion francs in gold as a war indemnity to Bismarck, a payoff that prevented the Prussian army's occupation of Paris).
Although André was a Bonapartist and a one-time member of the Imperial Guards, after the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War, he retired from public life to amass one of the greatest art collections in France, prepare the museum that would one day become the Museum of Decorative Arts (only second to the Victoria & Albert in London), and publish the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, still the world's most prestigious art publication. (It's significant that he had at his disposal twice the annual art budget of the Louvre).
There is no doubt that he was a dashing and handsome man-about-town, who like many of his class, led the life of a cosmopolitan roué, much to his family's distress. By 1881, they made it clear that it was high time that he settle down, particularly since he was plagued by the gout.
They were soon to become even more distressed, when instead of proposing to a socially and financially endowed heiress, he chose instead, a self-made woman, a portrait painter, named Nélie Jacquemart, whose father had been a steward on the country estate of one of the wealthiest widows in France, Rose de Vatry. The childless Rose had taken Nélie under her wing. Recognized her protégée's artistic talent, Rose sent her study first with Leon Cogniet in Paris and later in Rome at the Villa Medicis. (The Ecole des Beaux-Arts was closed to women until after World War One).
Nélie began earning her way at 19, drawing for L'Illustration, one the leading weeklies of the time, and later, dedicating her talents to making mainly society portraits of the Orleanist aristocracy who made up the social sphere of Madame de Vatry. Oddly enough, she had painted her future husband's portrait in 1872, a work that now hangs in the boudoir where the couple took breakfast and tea.
By the time Edouard André proposed, Nélie was close to forty, had a flourishing artistic career and a handsome establishment of her own. Yet, as independent as she was, she must have been tempted by the prospect of a blank check that would permit her to make The Grand Tour at least six months of the year, and bring back a staggering array of objects, the finest that money could buy at the time. In fact, crates of antiques from abroad continued to arrive several months after her death.
A visit to the museum demonstrates that Edouard was most astute in his choice of bride, for it is clear that without her artistic knowledge, he would never have amassed the collection of Italian Renaissance paintings and sculptures by Botticelli, Uccello, Mantegna and Bellini. Moreover, it was at her behest that he built up a stunning collection of Old Masters, including three fine paintings by Rembrandt, three by Van Dyck, and one unforgettable portrait by Frans Hals, that he painted when he was eighty-years-old.
Although the André mansion (built on what was to become the Boulevard Haussmann in 1890) was complete when Nélie moved in, the excellent audioguide reveals how as the couple grew closer the house changed in layout and design. The upstairs gallery-intended to be Nélie's studio-was arranged to hold their Italian treasures, and Nélie's original sleeping quarters were changed, so that she could be closer to her increasingly infirm husband. Of course, it was she was responsible for handling all tradesmen, painters, cabinetmakers and art dealers, no small feat at a time when women were still regarded as chattel.
Her husband must have been grateful because he made her his sole heir, which allowed her to travel to the Far East and amass an exceptional collection of Indian and Oriental antiquities and furnishings. She in turn, abided by the wishes of his will, continuing to enrich the collection of the Jacquemart-André Museum so that it now is one of the great showplaces of the world. Thanks to private management, we can now eat Botticelli and Uccello salads under a Tiepolo ceiling, in which the artist and his pet monkey look down fondly at their new slew of admirers. Happily satiated with art, French food and wine, it's not hard to imagine that the host and hostess, Edouard and Nélie, are still very much in residence.
Information on Getting there:
The Jacquemart-André Museum
158 Boulevard Haussmann - 75008 Paris
Open daily 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
By Rachel Kaplan
While the Louvre and Versailles tend to be household names, many visitors to Paris are surprised to learn that 20 minutes away from Charles De Gaulle Airport are two of the most enchanting sites in France: the magnificent castle and stables of Chantilly and the ancient town of Senlis, whose Gallo-Roman wall, cobbled streets, handsome stone houses and early Gothic cathedral, have won over many directors of costume dramas for film and television. On a recent wintry day in December, I drove out with guests to Chantilly (allow at least 45 minutes by car, an hour if there is traffic) and braved the chilling rain to admire the monumental stables which had been commissioned by one of the castle's former owners: Henri-Louis, Duc de Bourbon, who wanted to be reincarnated as a horse. Built by Jean Aubert between 1719 and 1735, the stables are over 600 feet in length and once accommodated 240 horses, as well as 150 hounds for the hunt. Now known as the Living Horse Museum, most would agree this to be the most encyclopedic museum ever devoted to the history of horses, showing how the animal has been a vital element in the art of war, as well as the hunt and the military dress parade. However, don't presume that these awesome stables are only for the horse buff and trainer-kids adore the live hour-long spectacles of elegant steeds trained to prance like the famed Lippinzanner horses from Vienna. There is so much to see in Chantilly's castle and gardens, that serious art lovers may find it hard to tear themselves away. An architectural hodge-podge of styles that somehow work harmoniously thanks to the stunning landscape of canals and formal gardens conceived in the 17th century by André Lenôtre, the present-day edifice built on Medieval foundations, includes a small chateau built in the Renaissance by Pierre Chambige (who worked on the original Hotel de Ville in Paris), and a larger chateau that was rebuilt in the second half of the 19th century by the Duc d'Aumale, the fifth son of the last king of France, Louis-Philippe d'Orleans. The castle's history is long and impressive-among its former residents were the enormously wealthy High Constable Anne de Montmorency (chief minister to Francis I and Henry II), and the Grand Condé, a military genius who hosted Louis XIV for a three-day feast and theatrical in 1671 that was dramatized in the film "Vatel" starring Uma Thurman and Gerard Depardieu. Poor Vatel! He'll go down in history as the most dedicated of caterers, knowing that he threw himself on his sword when a fish delivery from Paris failed to turn up. By the time it arrived, Vatel was dead. The riches and rarities of Chantilly are such that visitors are asked to partake of the guided tour, usually given in French. (For those who majored in Spanish or only have high-school French, the museum has provided English-language handouts describing each room. Although Chantilly Castle was sequestered during the French Revolution and emptied of most of its original furniture and paintings, you wouldn't know it if you visited today. Thanks to the munificence of his godfather the Duc de Bourbon, the Duc d'Aumale inherited a vast fortune upon his death, including Chantilly Castle and the Palais-Bourbon in Paris (now the French National Assembly). While the Revolution of 1848 and the Second Empire of Napoleon III forced him into exile in Twickenham, England, the Duc d'Aumale didn't lose time amassing one of the most extraordinary private collections of paintings, drawings and illuminated manuscripts outside the Louvre. Not only does Chantilly boast furniture that was once commissioned by Marie-Antoinette and Louis XVI, but it boasts almost 1,000 Old Master paintings, including three works by Raphael, three paintings by Ingres, including a famous Self-Portrait, five paintings by Nicolas Poussin, and the largest single collection of 16th century royal portraits by Jean and Francois Clouet, including those of Anne Boleyn, Diane of Poitiers, Catherine d' Medicis, Francis I and Henry II as a child. Chantilly's more than 3,000 Old Master drawings allows for continual temporary exhibits, which are on handsome display in the former Hunt Dining Room, which boasts a stunning series of priceless Gobelins tapestries titled "The Hunt of Maximilian." (A few years ago, Bill Gates acquired four of these tapestries (they made several editions back then) and displayed them next to his Leonardo Codex. Bibliophiles will want to linger in the Duc d'Aumale's two-story private library, which boasts the finest illumated manuscripts in France outside the Bibliotheque Nationale. The most celebrated of these is only displayed in facsimile-The Very Rich Hours of the Duc de Berry-an illuminated parchment almanac that was commissioned in the 15th century by the King Jean Le Bon for his third son. Not only does it provide a dazzling illustrated document of Medieval life, month by month, but it is through this book that we have the only visual record of the Louvre under Charles V, when most of Paris was still farmland. By 12:30, we were famished, and luckily for us, had thought to make reservations in Vatel's former kitchen La Capitainerie, where we sat down to a delightful lunch of cream of mushroom soup made with cepes, venison stew, and a chocolate delight served with crème Chantilly, the French answer to whipped cream, which an 18th century chef concocted within these very walls. Before our departure, we headed for the well-stocked bookstore to learn more about Chantilly's holdings and famous owners. Like most such stores in France, you can even purchase paste copies of the jewels worn by certain royal mistresses, as well as replicas of the famed Chantilly porcelain, which is now being made in Limoges. Although we were tempted to walk off the lunch in the vast gardens which offer many delightful spots for picnics and photo opportunities, the rain got the best of us, and we headed back to our van for our next stop, Senlis. Known to the Romans as Augustomagus in the first century before Christ (Augustus's Market), this picturesque town is one of two left in France that is still surrounded by a 12-foot thick Gallo-Roman wall built in the third century to stop invaders in their tracks. Originally over three miles in circumference, sixteen of the wall's original 28 towers are still extant. A number of them were used to shore up the town's 17th and 18th century edifices. It was at Senlis in 987 that Louis XVI's ancestor Hughes Capet, the founder of the Capetian dynasty, was named king of France. Later, in 1439, Joan of Arc, would defeat the Duke of Bedford on the Senlis plain before her capture by the Burgundians. Since daylight was fading fast, we spent most of our time exploring the town's most famous monument, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame, whose 78 meter-high stone steeple was built in the 13th century, during the reign of Saint-Louis, the same monarch who commissioned the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris. Many people from all over come to admire the cathedral's western portal, which features the first stone representation of the Virgin's Ascension to Heaven. Begun in 1155 and consecrated in June 1191, the cathedral's architecture was inspired by Abbé Suger of Saint Denis. In 1504, thunder struck the roof of the church and set aflame the eaves-chronicles from the period noted that the roof's leading poured down upon the town like rain. Both Louis XII and Francis I raised the funds to rebuilt the church and raise the vaulting an additional 24 ft. It's thanks to their efforts that the cathedral's southern façade now under restoration, is the penultimate example of Flamboyant Gothic. If we had more time, we would have lingered in the town's handsome hunting museum, the first of its kind in France, which boasts stunning engravings by Durer and Callot, as well as fine animal paintings by Rosa Bonheur and Jean-Baptiste Oudry. At Christmas-time the streets of Senlis are beautifully decorated with miniature fir trees tied with red or white bows, and the shop windows are filled with tempting pastries, chocolates and crafts. Needless to say, my guests and I espied a charming antique print shop, where we uncovered an elegantly framed 17th century engraving of Senlis and an 18th century print of Chantilly Castle. Purchase price: $200. It seemed like a lovely memory to carry home after such a memorable day out.
Information on getting there:
Chateau de Chantilly-Musée Condé
Access: 30 minutes from the Gare du Nord train station to Chantilly Gouvieux, with trains running every hour. From the station, you can take a bus or a cab, or go on foot for a brisk 20 minute walk.
To get to Senlis, take the train from the Gare du Nord train station to Chantilly Gouvieux, then take a bus to Senlis. (There are no direct trains to Senlis).
Rachel Kaplan is the president of French Links Tours and British Links Tours, two cultural tourism companies which she runs from Paris. In addition, Rachel Kaplan is the author of four illustrated art/travel books published by Harry N. Abrams, Inc. including Little-Known Museums In and Around Paris, and Little-Known Museums In and Around London. She has lectured widely in the United States, including at the San Diego Museum of Fine Arts, the Chicago Art Institute, and Sotheby's in New York City.
By Rachel Kaplan
I bet there are a lot of people who still believe that Paris is the most expensive city in the world! Not true-and that there is little or next to nothing that they can afford to bring home, apart from an Eiffel Tower key chain and a bottle of Chanel No.5. Yet, I can prove to you that by taking tips from the French themselves, visitors to Paris can come home feeling both chic and happy knowing their checking accounts haven't gone into the red. While it's certainly true that you can limit your shopping to the posh streets of Paris and stick to such global brands as Hermès, Vuitton and Dior, you will only end up buying what you find in other major financial capitals, and you certainly won't have the kind of fun that comes from venturing off the beaten track. Location and timing are crucial aspects of shopping for the best deals in Paris. Some of the best deals are in the least expected places. For instance, if you shop at an open-air food market, it's a good idea to go mid-week, when it is less crowded and the prices are lower. Make a point of shopping a half-hour before the market shuts down (12:30 p.m. instead of 1 p.m.), because the stall keepers will often offer some great bargains to unload leftover merchandise. If you shop the Paris Flea Market, go early in the morning when you get the pick of the best merchandise. (This is when the dealers tend to go as well). The best day of the week to shop is on Monday, when dealers want to unload all the weekend's unsold merchandise. If you don't speak French and don't know your way around the Flea Market (the largest in the world), it's a good idea to go with a professional shopper, who will negotiate and later help ship your treasures home. The Paris Flea Market remains the best place to buy antiques in Paris, because it is virtually a "free-trade zone" at the gates of Paris, in a working-class district, where the rents are low, and the merchants manage to avoid paying lots of taxes. This is because they run a primarily cash-driven business. Don't want to walk around with a wad of cash? Have no fear-you can go to various change outlets, and obtain cash against your credit card. Or if it's a big purchase item, your professional shopper will put a hold on an item, suggest you leave a small cash deposit, and you'll wire the remaining funds later on. Do bring a tape measure to the market, as well as swatches of material-this way, if you decide on a wonderful find, you'll know that when it arrives at your house, it fits into your décor and doesn't overwhelm the room. When it comes to small items it's good to carry them on the plane-take a suitcase within a smaller suitcase-so you have room to carry your treasures home. Be open-minded when you shop in Paris. You never know when a bargain will turn up, much less where. For instance, you don't have to buy your wines at the most expensive shops in Paris-you can easily find delicious Bordeaux wines in the Monoprix chain, or at the Carrefour or Auchan hypermarkets at the gates of Paris. There are also wonderful market streets in the city, such as the Rue Mouffetard and the Rue Montorgueil, where you can find specialist wine shops with wonderful vintages. I know of one, where the merchant has a lovely poem tagging each vintage that he has tasted! Food markets are not just for selling food-they also have merchants that sell wonderful fashion accessories, including handbags and carryon luggage, as well as scarves and even cashmere pashminas. Last year, I purchased a lovely lined raw silk turquoise tunic and a shocking pink cashmere and silk pashmina at my local market on the Boulevard de Grenelle, for less than half of what I might have paid in a department store. Many of these merchants import directly from India and Nepal, bring back the merchandise in a suitcase, and sell it in an open-air market, thus saving on a middleman or two. Okay, so it isn't the Galeries Lafayette-but isn't this more fun? I also am a big fan of the Monoprix chain, where under a single roof you can find all sorts of goodies, ranging from gourmet food gifts to lovely silk scarves that are virtually Hermès knockoffs. On my most recent trip, I bought some lovely matching bras and panty sets on sale, fine cotton ribbed socks and some lipstick by the same company that makes Chanel products for half the price. (I'm not allowed to say which company!). If you have long hair that you like to tie back in a bow, or wear with a headband, Monoprix is also your best bet for both quality and price. Even their sweaters and jeans are nice for casual wear, and their children's clothing is definitely worth looking at. Best of all, the size of these stores (which are in every arrondissement in Paris) is doable-unlike department stores, which tend to be exhausting. Most people don't realize this, but thirty percent of the retail sales in Paris are done during a six-week biannual period, called "les soldes." They usually start the first week in January, and in the second week in June. If you are enterprising and love French clothes, try to schedule a week in Paris to get the best deals on designer clothes and accessories. Or if you can't schedule in a trip during those times, head for the designer resale shops where you can find gently used clothes and accessories by Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Yves St. Laurent, and Sonia Rykiel, to name a few. While many would argue that Paris is a woman's city, don't think the needs of men are overlooked. Not only are there wonderful discount designer men's wear stores, but there are shops selling fine custom-made shirts for less than $100, and ready-to-wear shirts for less than $35, sewn with finest Pima cotton. The discerning man will also be delighted with the selection of stores selling cigars, desktop accessories, sailing gear, fishing gear and gourmet cookware. So what's the down side of shopping in Paris? Two things: the sizes do run smaller than those in North America or the United Kingdom. The sales help can often be indifferent and even rude. To brace yourself for shopping in Paris, try to be as chic as some Parisians-while you don't have to dress to kill, it's a good idea to dress smart, and favor slacks and blazers over jeans and sweatshirts or tee-shirts. Women should make up lightly, and men should be well groomed. Keep in mind basic shopping etiquette. "Bonjour, s'il vous plait, and merci, au revoir" go a very, very long way. When in doubt, ask "parlez-vous anglais?" When you walk into a shop, please avoid touching the displays. Ditto for fine food stores, such as Fauchon, unless it's very clear that it's self-service. There's nothing more gauche than walking into an antique store with a backpack. Why, pay attention to all these niceties? It so happens that in France, a shop isn't a moneymaking machine, but an extension of the storeowner's personal space. Shopkeepers are watchful and tend to favor their regular customers over walk-in trade. Many have invested their life-savings into their small operation, and barely break even. But they are passionate about what they do, whether it's offering homemade chocolate shaped into a colorful painter's palette or an Eiffel Tower, or selling a custom-made hat that makes you feel like Greta Garbo or Audrey Hepburn. Often their mouthwatering displays are works of art in themselves. I have stopped counting the number of times when I have said the Flea Market is the only museum in the world where you can go shopping. And all of these things make shopping like the French an unforgettable experience, warranting many return visits to Paris.
By Rachel Kaplan
As a writer who has been living in Paris since 1993, there is no question in my mind that the French capital is the writer’s quintessential city. It also happens to be the city of literary pilgrimages – its only other rival being London. Everywhere you look there are statues and monuments to writers, not to mention house museums. If you are interested in literature, and in particular French literature, then Paris warrants at least several visits. My literary tour usually starts on the Left Bank, perhaps because this is where some of the most famous 20th-century writers made their home. A stone’s throw from Notre Dame Cathedral is Shakespeare and Company, owned by the learned and aged George Whitman, whom the French like to refer to as “the grandson of the American poet Walt Whitman.” In spirit only, of course. This crowded, dusty, and friendly bookshop overlooking the Seine, is redolent with memories of poets and novelists who have streamed through here for years, including Laurence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, and Allen Ginsberg. Starving poets who aren’t fussy about accommodations can still crash here for the night. In any case, the store is chock full of books by authors who starved in Paris, including Henry Miller, Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell, and you may be lucky enough to come across a first edition or two. Prices are reasonable. From there, I like to wander over to the Carrefour de l’Odéon in the sixth arrondissement, and head up the rue de l’Odéon where you will still see a plaque in homage to the original Shakespeare & Co., founded by Sylvia Beach in the 1920s, and which came to be known as the most famous English-language lending library in Paris. Authors such as Hemingway and James Joyce were invited to borrow books in exchange for a modest fee – as it turned out, they sometimes didn’t have the cash to pay the fee, and would on occasion forget to return the book. That didn’t faze Ms. Beach, who had both the pluck and the courage to finance the publication of Joyce’s Ulysses against great odds, including the fact that the book was banned in the English-speaking world for its allegedly pornographic and scatological subject matter. In those days when Joyce had the temerity to write openly about defecation, masturbation and allude to the ocean around Dublin as “the snot-green sea,” it seems to have scandalized many people in high places, including the novelist Virginia Woolf. Fortunately, Joyce’s French printer didn’t read English, so it was all Greek to him. Unfortunately, Joyce turned out to be a high-maintenance perfectionist, and made many changes on proof, which is a very costly proposition. Publishing the “great Mr. Joyce,” as Beach liked to call him, virtually bankrupted Shakespeare & Company, even though the fledgling operation gained immortality in the process. The saddest part of all is that although Sylvia Beach ostensibly owned the worldwide rights to Ulysses, once the book was published, Joyce did an about-face and sold the manuscript to Random House for $45,000 – a rather tidy sum in those days. What’s even more astonishing is that to her last hour, Beach vigorously defended Joyce’s reputation and never alluded to this episode, leaving it to subsequent literary scholars to unearth the painful truth. Be sure to stroll through the Luxembourg Gardens further up the street, considered by many aficionados to be the most elegant gardens in central Paris. Immortalized by scores of writers and painters, including Victor Hugo in Les Misérables and Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, you will see that some of France’s greatest poets also get their due in the gardens, including Paul Verlaine and Charles Baudelaire. Although these artists scandalized the public in their lifetime, today visitors from all over come to admire their weathered stone busts charmingly set off by the park’s plantings and ancient trees. They too must have come here to meditate upon a lost love or bitter literary quarrel, hardly ever imaging that they would have a permanent place in such a verdant corner of Paris. Don’t pass up the nearby Rue de Fleurus, where you will find a plaque in homage to Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas on the façade of an unassuming building. Here these two ladies made literary history – Stein held court with writers, while Toklas poured tea and served the wives cookies. By the way, although Stein gave far more credence to male artists and writers, she never forgave Sylvia Beach for publishing Joyce’s work rather than her own. Later, in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, she would enjoy both literary revenge and bestsellerdom. It turned out to be a costly piece of literature – through it Stein lost all her friends. Although few people read her work today, she is best remembered for having once possessed one of the finest collections of Modernist art, which was saved during the war, and later sold upon the death of Alice B. Toklas. (None of the works are in any French public collection, however). Now you may be ready for a bit of lunch – or a glass of wine. Writers still favor three Left Bank literary cafés in Paris: the Café de la Mairie on the Place Saint Sulpice (it even inspired a French movie about a writer suffering from writer’s block, starring Fabrice Lucchini), the Café de Flore and the Café Aux Deux Magots. These are smoky, noisy and cozy places, where writers still meet with editors to go over proofs, with publishers to go over contracts and where they can still sit for hours watching the world go by, totally undisturbed. Of course, they prefer to sit on the second floor, above the din and the tourists. What distinguishes the Flore and the Deux Magots in particular from other cafés in Paris is that both offer annual literary prizes and both feature the latest critically acclaimed novels in a special display case. During the war, these cafés, which also catered to German officers, offered both warmth and wine – so it’s not surprising that this is where Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir held court and wrote. In fact, these cafés became both their study and their living room; a photo on one wall of the Deux Magots shows de Beauvoir bent over a notebook writing like a diligent schoolgirl. On the same wall, you can also see a photo of Hemingway and Janet Flanner (the New Yorker columnist who wrote under the pen-name Genet, before the French writer was even on anyone’s screen). Both are drinking American cocktails at the Liberation, and both are dressed in the military garb of a war correspondent. While Hemingway made a big deal of being in Paris during the Liberation, it seems that the only thing he liberated was the Ritz’s wine cellar. Today, the hotel pays him tribute with a discrete bar named after the author. (Don’t go there for drinks unless you’re on expense account – they are way overpriced.) If you still have some steam left in the afternoon, you may want to take the Metro to Passy, and visit the Maison de Balzac, the only house-museum in Paris devoted to the author. Here you will find the well-worn desk where he wrote and edited much of The Human Comedy, and where he penned letter after letter to Madame Hanska, his mistress and the woman he finally wed six months prior to his death in 1850. Balzac’s bust by the academic sculptor David d’Angers presides over the writer’s study, but Rodin’s controversial statue of him is only to be found on the Boulevard Raspail near the Vavin Metro station. It wasn’t until 1939 that it finally found its final resting place. Balzac is the only novelist that has a statue on both the Right and the Left Banks for Paris. The earlier one, done by Falguière, is to be found on the rue Balzac, formerly the rue Fontaine, where he died of gangrene and overwork, with only Victor Hugo at his side. As you walk in the picturesque rose garden of the Balzac museum, you will see the Eiffel Tower in the distance, and regret that Balzac never met the man who changed the face of Paris, and almost went to jail during the scandal over the Panama Canal. When I first wrote about the Balzac museum for Little-Known Museums In and Around Paris in 1995, I was struck by the simple way the novelist lived and that the untold riches that he dreamed of were only to be found in his novels. When you descend to the basement where there is an excellent research library, be sure to stop by the novelist’s “family tree” of over 3,000 characters, all of whom people his vast opus unforgettably. Then, when you get home, pick up a copy of Cousin Bette or The Père Goriot, and discover Balzac’s Paris all over again. You will see that the streets, the shops, the cafés and the people you have met are still with us even now, more than 150 years later. Perhaps, that is why Paris remains a writer’s city, because unlike any other, it beckons the imagination of geniuses, allowing them to spin words into dazzling and lasting literature. Rachel Kaplan is the author of Little-Known Museums In and Around Paris (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) and offers literary walking tours through French Links Tours.
Why Paris Still Remains
My Favorite Shopping Destination:
Best Buys to French Chic
By Rachel Kaplan
I first discovered the joys of shopping and window-shopping in Paris in 1967 when I was all of 12 years old, and now almost a half-century later, I am confirmed believer that there’s no city like this one for great shopping, whether it’s for clothing, home furnishings, antiques or art. Even if you never buy anything during a trip to Paris – and knowing most people that’s highly improbable – you are bound to find that this is the most refined and sophisticated city in the world. That’s an opinion that has been true at least since the 18th century, when France’s queens and mistresses used to come up from Versailles, to shop for the finest laces, jewels and bibelots. At the end of the American Revolution, those Yankees who were lucky enough to make a financial “killing” in the war through supplying Washington’s Continental Army later sailed back to “old Europe” knowing that this is where they would find the loveliest French frocks, clocks and antiques. If you ever visit Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, you will discover that our nation’s third president was an expert when it came to shopping in Paris, whether it was for wine or for antiques. However, we all know that the most famous American shopper in Paris was the late Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis – to prove the point, the Musée de la Mode et du Textile, next to the Louvre, is featuring a selection of the French couture designs and accessories by Chanel and Dior, that Mrs. Kennedy wore when she was America’s First Lady. She knew where to find the best, and had the means to pay for it. What I most love about shopping in Paris is that it’s a city that offers something for everyone. You can just as easily buy regional French pottery, olive oil soaps, organic wines as you can buy art and antiques. Best of all, you don’t have to be a Kennedy or a war profiteer to find something you will love and cherish. My favorite store in Paris is Monoprix, a clean, well-lit, moderately priced retail chain that sells everything from funky costume jewelry and hair accessories to lavender water for making your freshly pressed clothes smell divine. Not only do I swear by Monoprix for my kitchen and bathroom gear – the great Sir Terence Conran has a designed a terrific line of housewares – but I also love its lingerie, hair accessories, costume jewelry, and soaps, not to mention makeup and skincare products. My fondness for this chain began when I first moved to France in 1994, when I was living on a restricted budget. It was at Monoprix that I found charming throw pillows covered with an Eiffel Tower Dufy-like print, and blue, white and yellow ceramic dishes that were both cheap and highly decorative. Both did wonders to cheer up a rather drab studio apartment. You can keep Louis Vuitton, Prada, and all the other name-dropping brands – Monoprix gets my vote and a good chunk of my household budget. If you do hanker after an elegant Hermès scarf or a quilted Chanel bag, but don’t have the budget to splurge on either one, don’t despair. Instead, head for one of the city’s many dépot-ventes (designer resale shops or consignment stores) where you will find both for less than half-price in mint condition, if not spanking new. This is where I have purchased Hermès squares for less than $90, and where my customers have found pristine Chanel sweater sets and Yves Saint-Laurent outerwear for a fraction of their original retail price. How do these shops get their stock? Simple – they depend on the rich ladies of Paris who either tire quickly of an item or who are strapped for cash. Since you can’t return gifts or other goods to the store where they were purchased – that’s unthinkable in France - you bring them to the dépot-vente. Once the item is sold, the same rich ladies pocket 50 percent of the sale, and leave the remainder with the shopkeeper. Note: not all dépot-ventes are created equal. If you’re short on time, be sure to go with a personal shopper who can ferret out the best deals for you. For those of us who still want to buy only the latest Dior, Chanel or Prada styles, Paris is still a shopper’s paradise compared with other cities. For one thing, if you come twice a year, in January or in July, you can take advantage of 50-70% discounts on many designer items. Add a 12% tax rebate to your purchase, and you have really made a difference in your clothing allowance! Know that most of the items you will find on sale are the trendy pieces – basics are never put on sale because they sell year-round. That’s something you need to know ahead of time. Personally, I think it’s more fun to shop at those retail outlets known mainly to the French, that are off the beaten track. For instance, I love shopping on the Rue de Passy in the 16th arrondissement where I have my favorite home store, Casa, my favorite women’s specialty store, Frank & Fils, and my favorite discount designer handbag and luggage store, Anna Tuill. You can really do some serious damage here. Nor do I limit my shopping forays to traditional shopping venues. I love to visit the city’s bi-weekly neighborhood markets. At one of them in Neuilly-sur-Seine, at the gates of Paris, I came across a lovely hand-embroidered tablecloth and matching napkins for very little money, and hand-painted porcelain salt and pepper shakers. A few stalls away, I picked up two sexy Lycra V-neck tops. At another market near the Eiffel Tower, I have helped guests acquire some practical and lightweight luggage – handy for taking your purchases home – and also found some lovely pashminas imported directly from Nepal. Markets are also great places to buy breads, cheeses, and fruits for picnics, which you can then enjoy with a bottle of wine in a nearby park. Forgot your corkscrew? The markets also sell a wide array of kitchen gadgets. On a recent visit to New York City, I couldn’t help but notice how many French retailers were flourishing on Madison Avenue and in Soho: Cécile Jeanne, Agnès B, Anne Fontaine, Chanel, Jean-Paul Gaulthier, Sonia Rykiel, and even Caron Perfumes. No wonder. It’s clear, that despite our political differences, few can disagree that Paris remains a mecca for style and chic. And best of all, you don’t have to be rich to own a piece of it. Perhaps that’s the fundamental reason why Paris remains my favorite city for shopping.
By Rachel Kaplan
The marché as it closes, at the lower end of the rue Mouffetard. One of the major reasons why Paris may be the world’s most irresistible city is that it has the most mouth-watering food stores and open-air markets to be found anywhere. Whether you want to have a picnic of simple, whole-grain bread and cheese made from raw milk, or feast on such fine takeout fare as choucroute garnie and paella, the food markets of Paris have it all, and then some. One of the best ways to discover what it feels like to be a Parisian is to rent an apartment so you can shop the city’s many outdoor food markets, which are open year-round and number more than 35 among the city’s 20 arrondissements. Most arrondissements boast at least two temporary open-air markets that are set up twice a week, and several districts feature open-air markets that are open daily except for Mondays. Not only do these markets feature a continuity among sellers of meat, fish, produce, fruits, vegetables and flowers, but many of the merchants know their customers over several generations. Even if I don’t know the merchants by name, my heart always gladdens to see their ruddy faces (often red from the cold, damp Parisian weather) and their hard-working hands, that have often been picking the produce that they are selling that very same day. Be sure to take note of the food products from different regions – be they marennes oysters from Brittany, patés and sausages from Auvergne, and strudels and applecakes from Alsace. As France is a nation of immigrants, don’t be surprised to find olives from Greece, Portuguese bread and olive oil, and different kinds of condiments for couscous from Algeria and Tunisia. The changing seasons make markets a particular delight: In the fall, you can look forward to fresh walnuts and grapes, as well as a vast array of wild-hand picked mushrooms and mirabelles, small yellow plums from Alsace. In winter you can find Brussels sprouts, chestnuts (marrons), baby tangerines (clémentines) and the queen of French apples, the red and gold reinette. Year-round you can buy carrots, turnips, Swiss chard, leeks and shallots, the latter great for stews and sauces. I also love buying fresh herbs, which do wonders for soup and salads, not to mention such dishes as pot-au-feu, boeuf bourguignon, and poulet chasseur. Right now, we’re heading into summer – the best time for strawberries (the best are the gariguette from the Périgord and the Loire Valley), not to mention those wonderful melons from Cavaillon, and white and green asparagus. If your French isn’t rusty, be sure to ask the market sellers for tips on how to cook things – or better yet, go with a friend. Cuts of meat do tend to be different, and many of the fish you will see in Paris may not be familiar to you even if they are quite delicious. Above all, don’t buy the first thing you see – take a leisurely stroll around the market, and breathe in the fragrant and tempting smells. Keep your eyes peeled for those merchants with the longest lines of customers – chances are you’ll find the best quality and prices at these stalls.
And don’t pass up the bargains in kitchen implements, soap, and assorted household items, including lingerie and socks. I have been amazed at the selection of pocketbooks, linens and pashminas as well, which just goes to show that the French don’t do all their shopping at the Galeries Lafayette!
Rachel Kaplan is the author of the best-selling Little-Known Museums In and Around Paris (Harry N. Abrams, Inc.) and her electronic Paris shopping guide, Best Buys to French Chic at: FrenchChicShoppping.com.