Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Mouffetard Street

My video of Mouffetard Street is finally finished and online. I shot it in September, but it took a long time to get around to editing it.

The French word for “street” is rue, which is why you see this word so often on street signs in Paris. In place names, words like street or avenue are usually not capitalized in French, and the name of the place follows the noun designating the type of place … so rue Mouffetard simply means “Mouffetard Street.”

Mouffetard Street is one of the better known streets in Paris. It is famous as a street with a lot of food shops on it, although it really doesn't have that many food shops. It's extremely old, too: it has followed roughly the same path since the days when the ancient Romans ran the city, and there are signs that it had already been an actively inhabited area for thousands of years before the Romans arrived twenty centuries ago. Today it's a moderately straight street that physical extends approximately south from the place Maubert to the avenue des Gobelins in the Latin Quarter, although it doesn't actually take on the name of Mouffetard Street until you reach its lower (southern) end.

The street starts low at its north end, near the Seine River, and then rises significantly as it passes over the summit of the Montagne Sainte Geneviève, a hill named after the patron saint of Paris. From that point it descends again towards the avenue des Gobelins, ending at a spot where a small stream, the Bièvre, used to flow (and it flows still today—but it is completely buried below street level). At the summit of the hill, it passes discreetly to the east of the huge Panthéon, the twenty-five-story church of Saint Geneviève that dominates the Latin Quarter skyline.

Most of Mouffetard Street is “standard charming,” meaning that it is a typical street of Paris, which in turn means that it is charming, as soon many typical streets of Paris tend to be. For various reasons, it is more famous than most streets, but I wouldn't say that it is really much different from thousands of other interesting streets in Paris. However … since it is so well known, I've made a video about it.

From tourist guides, you'd think that Mouffetard Street is just jam-packed with food shops, but that's not really true. Most of the street (under its various names) is lined by shops and restaurants, and a significant landmark near its midpoint is old École Polytechnique campus. (The school moved to the suburbs years ago, but the campus is still there and serves as a government ministry now.) As it moves south and actually becomes Mouffetard Street by name, it passes the place de la Contrescarpe, a roundabout that Hemingway wrote about in A Moveable Feast. From there, there are more and more shops and restaurants, and eventually the street is blocked to vehicular traffic, allowing only pedestrians. As you finally descend towards the southern extremity of the street, the food shops and some open markets appear. Overall, it's about 2/3 of a mile long.

In my video I start at the place Maubert (where there is a very nice open food market on certain days of the week, although not on the day that I shot), and I walk all the way down to the lower end of Mouffetard Street. I make a quick detour to show Hemingway's former apartment, which is right off the place de la Contrescarpe.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Luxembourg Gardens

This summer I filmed the Luxembourg Gardens with the intent of making a video about them, and I finally finished editing it. I just uploaded it to YouTube a few days ago.

The Luxembourg Gardens are some of the largest and prettiest green spaces in Paris. Oddly enough, they don't actually belong to the city, unlike the vast majority of other parks within its limits. The Luxembourg Gardens belong to the French Senate, which meets in a building at the north end of the gardens, the aptly-named Luxembourg Palace. Because the gardens belong to the national government rather than the city of Paris, they are guarded by gendarmes (who are part of the army), rather than police officers.

I consider the Luxembourg Gardens to be one of the best places to relax in the city. They are large enough that the non-stop traffic noise of Paris doesn't penetrate into the center of the gardens, so you can sit and relax in near silence while you read or vegetate. Often all you hear is the wind in the trees and the occasional cries of children playing nearby. The gardens are filled with chairs, which nobody steals (American visitors always ask me about that), and you can sit all day without being disturbed by anyone. Assuming you have that kind of free time on your hands, the Jardin du Luxembourg, as it's called in French, is a wonderful place in which to escape the stress of noisy streets and crowds.

The central gardens just south of the palace are beautifully manicured, in a style originally commissioned by Maria de Medici to resemble the style of her hometown of Florence, Italy. The rest of the gardens has alternating areas of tall trees and perfectly maintained lawns. Flowers decorate many parts of the gardens, and when the flowers wilt, they are removed and new flowers are planted, so that the gardens are always pretty (this practice is followed in other Parisian parks, too).

There's more to the gardens than just trees, flowers, and grass, however. There's a big playground for kids. There's a puppet theater for kids, too. There are playing fields for pétanque, a favorite game of the French, and there are tennis courts. There are basketball courts as well, and there's even an area with tables containing inlaid chessboards, if you prefer something a bit less strenuous. The long paths that run through and around the gardens are popular with joggers and strollers.

There's also a group of beehives in the park, and a miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty. And there's a gazebo that seems to attract a lot of high-school bands from the United States. On the day I was there, in fact, the Stevens High School band, from Rapid City, South Dakota was giving a concert. Talk about something completely different … it must have been quite an adventure for them. Unfortunately, I had to mute their performance in the version of my video that I uploaded to YouTube, because YouTube these days is afflicted with copyright trolls that will fraudulently claim copyright infringement on just about any music they find in an effort to dishonestly make money from advertising. They were playing things like a medley of Henry Mancini music. They were—well, about as good as you'd expect from a high-school band. I found myself wondering if they paid their performance licenses for the concert.

I didn't really manage to do justice to the gardens in my video. I'll probably have to redo a new version in the future.

Monday, November 14, 2011

The Cour du Commerce Saint André

There's a tiny little passage between the boulevard Saint Germain and the rue Saint André des Arts in the Latin Quarter that is almost a thousand years old, called the Cour du Commerce Saint André. For centuries, it has been a small commerce street, and it still exists today, very much as it did back when Philippe Auguste was running France in the 13th century.

Although this small pedestrian passage is in a very busy part of the Latin Quarter, it's easy to walk past it without ever realizing that it's there. It is paved with very rough cobblestones and features a number of restaurants and an eclectic assortment of shops. One of the restaurants is a bistro from the turn of the century (the turn of the previous century, not this one), and another is the oldest café in Paris, the Procope, where people like Benjamin Franklin, Robespierre, and other Big Names from history came to chat and eat. It was also in a courtyard just off this passage that the guillotine was first tested (on sheep). And the passage originally ran just outside the city wall of Philippe Auguste, and some vestiges of that city wall are still in place and visible.

At the north end of the passage, which is covered, there's a bonsai shop, a stationery store, a bar, two restaurants, and a podiatrist's office.

Overall, the Cour du Commerce has a great deal of charm for its small size, and that's why I decided to make a video about it. The great thing about Paris is that cool and interesting spots like this are the rule, rather than the exception.

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