Friday, July 1, 2016

Paris 2016: Off-The-Beaten Path Tour; 16th Arrondissement

The first time we traveled to Paris back in 2004, we went primarily to the major tourist attractions, as well as exploring Père Lachaise Cemetery and the Catacombs.  Our second trip in 2010 was a home swap in the 14th arrondissement. We took a slower pace, tried to live more like locals, and visited less touristy areas including Belleville, Canal Saint-Martin, the Bois de Boulogne where we went biking, and Montparnasse, which was our home district.   

This July 2016, we made our third major expedition to Paris. It was another home swap, this time allowing us to stay in the 16th arrondissement about 15 minutes away from the Bois de Boulogne.  We dubbed this trip the "Off the Beaten Path Tour", since our intent was to explore even farther afield, and only visit sites and attractions that we have not been to before. Several of the locations that we planned to see were actually outside of the boundaries of the twenty arrondissements and were considered to be part of the Paris suburbs. These included the St. Ouen Flea market in in the north, the business area of La Defense in the north-west and Bois de Vincennes, the largest park in Paris, in the south-east. We were also excited about the opportunity to thoroughly explore the 16th and the Boulogne-Billancourt area just to the south, which were supposed to have good examples of Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture. As it turns out, it was quite the experience for us to spend so much time in areas where we were literally the only tourists in sight and we saw parts of Paris that very few vacationers have the time to visit.  

We stayed in a large airy loft on the top floor of a low-rise Art Deco-inspired apartment building with two long balconies that allowed us to have breakfast outside on the warmer days, and provided a nice view of the Eiffel Tower from the bedroom. The apartment was a long and narrow corner unit with floor to ceiling glass "windows" or doors in most of the rooms and hallways. This meant that there was always plenty of light, but it also made us feel a bit exposed since there were no curtains anywhere to shield us. Since we could easily see into the rooms of apartments across from us, it seemed logical to assume that they could see us as well.

The 16th arrondissement is considered one of the more fashionable and tony residential districts in Paris. It boasts beautiful 19th and early 20th century buildings and wide tree-lined boulevards, with the Bois de Boulogne on its western border and the River Seine to the east. Of all the beautiful buildings that we could see from our balcony, my favourite was a long, narrow white Streamline Moderne structure that sat like a flatiron building on a triangular wedge of land flanked by two streets, but had a rounded point instead of the typical sharp point. I took to calling it the "Rounded Flatiron".

Even the garbage receptacles in the 16th are artistically designed although having clear plastic bags that expose the garbage detracts from the overall look.  As we walked around the area, we also saw curb-side gas tanks as opposed to gas stations, and bicycle-only underpasses where cars and pedestrians are not allowed.  The Europeans really do have a better bicycle culture than we do in North America.  While there was a elevator to take us to our 8th floor apartment, it was so small that two people barely fit into it at the same time, let alone with luggage.  So we wondered how larger items like furniture got delivered and hoped it wasn’t carried up the winding flights of stairs.  We got our answer when we saw an electronic lift on the sidewalk hoisting a piano down from a large window.  This is similar to how items are delivered in the old Canal houses in Amsterdam except they often used a rope and pulley system.

Paris is known for its pastries and there were no shortage of patisseries in our neighbourhood, especially on Rue d’Auteuil.  We saw some beautifully crafted but very expensive strawberry cakes as well as ones that looked like checker boards.  Our patisserie of choice was the Maison Laubel, which had tempting pastries at very reasonable prices.  On our first visit, we chose the Paris Brest, a choux pastry filled with a praline cream, topped with toasted almonds and icing sugar, as well as a cake that looked and tasted very much like a big Ferrero Roche chocolate.  A few days later, we returned for three treats, including a chocolate cherry éclair and a chocolate mousse cake with a crispy crunchy layer inside.  We returned for a third time towards the end of our stay, but were dismayed to learn that the bakery had closed for summer holidays!  This was just like our first visit to Paris when we found out that the famous Berthillon ice cream parlour was closed all of August.

Although it is fairly simple to get from the airport to anywhere in Paris using their excellent public transit, we did not want to try it when we were jetlagged after an 8 hour red-eye flight, and while our home swap hosts were waiting to meet us and give us the key.  So we decided to catch a taxi to the apartment, but take transit to get back to the airport at the end of our trip.  We asked our hosts ahead of time how much the taxi ride should cost and were told it is a flat rate of around 50-60 Euro depending on time of day.  Like in Toronto, there is a taxi stand where all legitimate taxis queue for their turn to take the next passenger.  So when we were approached by a very persistent man who said that he could provide us with “private” taxi services, we knew we were being scammed.  When I asked whether it was a flat rate and he said the ride would cost 85 Euros, this confirmed our suspicions and we waved him away.  It was a good thing that we checked how much the ride was supposed to cost ahead of time.

We lived within a few blocks of Metro stations that put us on Line 9 or Line 10.  Taking one of these two lines connected us to all the other metro lines including the RER B to the airport, so that any destination we desired would require at most one transfer.  As we visited many of the areas on the outskirts of central Paris, we rode many of the Metro lines that we had not been on before.  At some of the metro stations including Miromesnil, the platforms have suicide and accident-prevention screen doors that block access to the tracks, and are aligned to open at the same time as the automatic doors of newer trains.  Older trains still require manual intervention to open the doors, via the push of a button or lifting of a handle. I was impressed with the three-pronged poles that allow passengers to hold on from three different directions.  We need this on our Toronto Transit System where a single person can often drape himself around and monopolize a single pole. At the Cluny metro station, a luxury toilet system offers choice of multi-coloured designer toilet paper and a toiletries boutique for 1.5 Euro a visit.

The 16th arrondissement is home to many sports facilities including Roland Garras, the site where the French Open tennis tournament is played.  Unfortunately it is all locked up and inaccessible once the tournament is over.  Even closer to our apartment is the Jean Bouin Stadium, an all-purpose facility used primarily for rugby. Named after the 1912 Olympics 5000-metre silver medalist, the unique façade of this stadium reminded me of the “Bird’s Nest” stadium from the Beijing 2008 Olympics.  Sitting right next to it is the Parc des Princes Stadium, which was one of the host stadiums for the UEFA Euro Cup 2016 Soccer Tournament.  On our last Sunday in Paris, Milos Ranoic became the first Canadian ever to reach the Wimbledon finals and we really wanted to watch the match.  We tried the café in Roland Garros before we found out that it was closed for the season, as well as several bars which were showing the Tour de France instead and had no interest in a tennis match outside of France that did not include a French player. 

That same night was the Euro Cup Soccer finals between France and Portugal.  When France beat Iceland in the semi-finals, there were fireworks and cars honking well beyond midnight, so we braced ourselves for the results of the finals.  Based on a previous post-game soccer experience in Barcelona where riot police had to be sent to control the unruly crowd, our assumption was that win or lose, the French would be making noise that night.  Our neighbourhood was abuzz with excitement and the sight of fans draped with French flags.  We did not need to watch the game since there were viewing parties in the buildings and restaurants all around us and we could follow the action just by listening to the cheers, gasps and groans.  Every time there was a near-goal, we would hear a short roar of hope followed by a whimper of disappointment.  The score was 0-0 after regulation time and went into overtime where it was likely that the next (and possibly only) goal would win.  Suddenly we heard a collective wail all around us and we knew that Portugal had scored.  Surprisingly, there was no more noise after that, as the downtrodden French fans just quietly filed away.  Perhaps they never really expected to win, since we were advised by the taxi driver who drove us from the airport that France was great at defence but had no real offense.  Still, it was nice to see that the French were not sore losers, at least the ones in our immediate neighbourhood.
We researched and planned a walk along the eastern border of the 16th arrondissement to view some Art Nouveau buildings as well as the home of 19th Century novelist and playwright Honore Balzac, whose name I know more for the Southern Ontario coffee shops named after him than for the books that he wrote.  The little bungalow has been turned into a museum of Balzac’s works and memorabilia, but we didn’t bother to go inside since we were on the hunt for Art Nouveau architecture. 
Buildings by two architects in particular were on our agenda–Jules Lavirotte (1864-1929) and Hector Guimard (1867-1942).  Guimard’s masterpiece Castel Beranger is the first residence in Paris that was designed in the Art Nouveau style, which celebrates decorative, naturalist motifs featuring stylized renderings of floral, plant and animal patterns that can be found not only on the façade of a building, but often also in the interior ornamentations and furnishings.  In his quest for the “ideal of harmony and continuity”, Guimard personally designed all the ornamental ironwork, door locks and knobs, wall paper, stained glass, stone and wood carvings, ceramic panels, and even the carpets and furnishing of Castel Béranger, which contains 26 apartments today.

Even before visiting his most famous Art Nouveau work, we had previously seen examples Guimard’s design without realizing it–the ornate entrances of some Paris Metro stations, modeled after the intricate ironwork of French architect Eugène Viollet-le-Duc.  En route to the Castel Béranger, we came across a few other buildings by Hector Guimard, including a much less elaborate house that bore his name and had similar “bone-like” features that reminded me of Antonio Gaudi’s Casa Batlló in Barcelona, which features skull and bone structures for its balconies and pillars.  We passed by a restaurant with similar features that I now could recognize as Guimard’s without even reading the plaque bearing the architect’s name.

The highly decorated Lavirotte Building by Jules Lavirotte reminded me even more of Gaudi’s building since it rivaled the Casa Batlló in terms of colours and decorative features.  Located in the 7th arrondissement just across the River Seine from the 16th arr., the Lavirotte building includes the architect’s signature usage of sculptures and glazed ceramic tiles imbedded into the stone and brick facade.  He partnered with ceramist Alexandre Bigot and multiple leading sculptors to create the final result.  There are wooden carvings of bulls’ heads hanging under the central balcony, a bronze lizard and bird-like iron motifs on the front door, which is surrounded by elaborate sandstone carvings, and adornments in the shapes of flora and fauna scattered throughout the exterior.  The more you look at the façade, the more details you see.

On the way back from viewing the Lavirotte building, we encountered the “Flame of Liberty” monument, a full-sized, gold-leafed replica of the flame held by the Statue of Liberty.  It was donated by the New York Times in 1989 as a symbol of friendship between France and the United States.  Because of its proximity to the tunnel under Pont de l’Alma where Princess Diana died in a car crash in 1997, the sculpture has been co-opted to become an unofficial memorial for the beloved Princess.  The base of the monument is covered with photos of Diana as well as “love locks” like the ones that are attached to Paris bridges.

There was so much to see in the 16th arrondissement that we allocated several more days for exploring our home neighbourhood.  Museums, parks and Art Deco architecture still awaited us.

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