Paris, Bruges, and Brussels

Wednesday, April 16

Weather as good as it can be in the Spring in Paris. Perfect clear blue sky, crisp in the morning, light sweater weather in the afternoon.

This trip I’m staying at the Hotel Daniel, a Relais et Chateaux property on the Right Ban which falls under the category of “cozy” since the rooms are typical Paris tiny, all done in toile (I’ve been in two of them so far) and nicely furnished. The hotel’s public rooms aren’t spectacularly fancy like the other Relais hotel in Paris, the St. James, but there’s a subtle elegance to the place. Lots of English speakers here…my breakfast neighbors were from Australia, England and South Africa. The hotel is located among a tricky maze of little streets just a few blocks from the Champs Elyssee, but miles away in atmosphere.

Today’s main activity was travelling over to the 7th Arrondissement to look at the apartment building where AW and the girls will be staying in August/September. It’s located at 91 Avenue de la Bourdonnais, a seven-story brick-and-limestone with a decent-size balcony on the seventh floor (where they’ll be staying) which will have a view of some very pretty buildings across the avenue and, as far as I could tell, the top portion of the Eiffel Tower, which is about three or blocks away. This is a residential street and neighborhood with only a relatively few shops on Avenue de la Bourdonnais (including two on the bottom floor of No. 91)– a great “walking neighborhood” since it’s filled with upscale buildings and pretty side streets and lots of mature trees. Two clocks away is a large park, the Champ de Mars, that sits between the Ecole Militaire and the Eiffel Tower. In the area is one major street,–Avenue Bosquet– and a warren of perfect Paris “neighborhood” streets—Rue de Grenelle and Rue Saint-Dominique are the stand outs– with cafes,, bakeries, butcher shops, florists, small grocers restaurants (if you’re into pizza, you’ve come top the right place…there must be ten pizzerias within the immediate six-block area), with some semi-major supermarkets nearby. They’ll have a lovely time here.

Tomorrow (Thursday) I’m off to the races at Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne followed by the opera at Opera Bastille…a 6:00 p.m. (!) performance. (Oh well, I won’t fall asleep.) This evening over cocktails I’ve been studying my Paris-Turf, their version of the Daily Racing Form, and hope to win enough to pay for the damn opera tickets (Lynn Conrad, think I should bet on Superkate in the 5th?).

Thursday, Paris

Thursday afternoon, I navigated s complex combination of Metros and buses to go to the races at Longchamp Racecourse The home of the Arc d’ Triomphe, maybe Europe’s most famous horse race, Longchamp is something of a sad story, as it is becoming another of horse racing’s ghost towns. I would estimate that it could accommodate about 65,000. On the day I was there, I’d guestimate the crowd at eight or nine hundred. That’s even worse than Hollypark’s pathetic numbers and they closed that dump down. Sad, because it’s a pretty place, surrounded by a suburban forest, the track periphery featuring a giant windmill and an old medieval castle. I would imagine it recaptures its magic on Arc day.

I opened up the day with a nice winner—the only U.S.-bred horse in the race, owned by King Abdullah, whoever he is—who bested the favorite, another horse owned by the king. I had him Gagnant/Place (Win/Place) at 4-1, which covered my bets in the next two races, both losers. Then I proceeded to have a couple of just-misses in the next three, before leaving after the 6th because I had an opera at 6:00.

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Question of the day: Why would they start an opera at 6:00? (Answer below.)

I always like to go to Concerts/Opera/Ballet in European cities because the opera house is almost invariably the most beautiful place in town. In Paris I had planned to go to a gilded palace that Louis XIV might have attended, but it turned out that this evening’s performance was being held at the brand spanking new Bastille Opera, a stunning architectural gem and an acoustic wonder…the ceiling in this place had to be five or six stories high, but I could heard every word of the lovers’ laments in Tristan and Isolde (a little screen above the proscenium arch shows the libretto in both French and English, which has to infuriate the locals). It’s a huge edifice that probably seats two thousand, and a spectacular venue. (Note to Kathryn Winslow: the seat you got me was Row 26, Seat 12S. The “S” stands for Supplement, which means it’s not a real seat, but a fold-out job sort of like the sidecar on a motorcycle. A lot narrower than s real seat, and hard as stone.) While I was getting used to the sidecar, one of the ushers came into our midst and started saying something in French. All of a sudden a bunch of people near me got up and hustled down the steps toward the front. I didn’t know what she had said, but I wasn’t going to miss out if it was something good so I joined in. Turns out she was allowing people to move down to a lower row, and I was able to snag the last one on the aisle. A magnificent view, but sad to day, the owner of that seat showed up later and I had to go back to 12S.

This opera, Tristan and Isolde, is about an Irish maiden and a brave young warrior, a pair of lovers who had a whole lot of troubles, the biggest one apparently being that they fell in love. Trust me, the gal who sang the role of Isolde was no maiden. She could be an NFL lineman. The opus was composed by Richard Wagner (Hitler’s favorite, by the way), whose music is ponderous and dreary. I could just imagine the director of this production saying to himself: how am I going to hold the attention of two thousand people through this endless dirge? His solution? While the “older” T&I crooned back and forth onstage, the image of two actors representing their younger selves was projected up onto a movie-theater-size screen where the two of them slowly disrobed and appeared totally nude (we’re talkin’ frontal here) for the entire remainder of the first act. That sure got everyone’s attention!

At the time, however, I didn’t know it was just the First Act. After the duo onstage sang on forever and reached a crescendo, the curtain came down and the cast made several curtain calls to thunderous applause, after which everyone headed for the exits. Hoorah, I thought. Now I can get to dinner at that little place I’d checked out over near my hotel. But wait a minute. The people weren’t LEAVING. They were just drifting to the lobby, where they sipped flutes of champagne and ate little salmon sandwiches. This was only an Intermission! It was now 7:50. Act Two began at 8:10 and the thought hit me: I hadn’t had a thing to eat since a Croque Monsieur at the track, and at this rate I was going to starve. So a few minutes into Act Two I slipped out the back door and went outside to a fancy brasserie next door which featured a gorgeous raw bar, had a relaxing meal of Belon oysters and langoustines with a couple glasses of wine before racing back into the Opera House to catch Act Three. Big mistake. The singers wailed on ad infinitum about night being better than day and their tragic love affair, repeating themselves over and over, and seemingly never, ever ending.

Now, back to the original question: why would they start an opera at 6:00? BECAUSE THE DAMN THING WAS FIVE AND A HALF HOURS LONG!!! It was 11:25 when the final note was sung and the curtain came down. The end of an evening of torture.

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The next morning, guess who was at the next table at breakfast at the hotel? None other than Omar Sharif, Dr. Z himself. Remember the scene in Zhivago when he sledded through the bitter cold snow and his hair and mustache and face were frosted white with snow and ice? Looks pretty much the same now.

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But before saying farewell to Paris, a few random thoughts.

I’m beginning to think the French have gotten tired of being French. The popularity of things American and English (and Italian) is amazing.

Exhibit 1: Around the corner from my hotel is an English sports bar…The Bowler. Not only is the bar packed, there’s a crowd of a hundred standing out on the street outside the
My God, I realized…that wasn’t the end; this was just an Intermission! The patrons
place, quaffing pints and martinis. I listen to the conversations…they’re all speaking French! I had a beer there. They get $11 a beer.

Exhibit 2: I mentioned all the pizzerias over in the 7th . Well,, hordes of them around me, too. They created a new item…the Pizzetta…..a .little eight-incher that’s a lot like the ones at Blaze Pizza in Pasadena. (Only theirs are $16-$20.) Add all the pasta places and ristorantes and it’s actually not all that easy to find a French restaurant.

Exhibit 3: Language. I can’t ell you how many times I’ve sat next to a foursome of Frenchmen and heard them converse (partially, at least) in English. Case in point: at a trendy restaurant where there was a birthday celebration in progress and the crowd sang “Happy Birthday” (in French), after which the honoree jumps up excitedly and exclaims (in English): “I love you guys!”

Exhibit 4: In my neighborhood there are dozens of great-looking cafes and bars…classic little places straight out of French movies. So what place is jammed to the gills day and night? You got it…Starbucks.

Exhibit 5: Art. At that same very trendy restaurant reference above, the portrait on the wall was of…the Godfather characters having dinner at a big table with the Soprano characters.

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The rest I’ll do in shorthand…

Friday, Bruges

Too Old To Go 2nd Class Dept.: Took the Thalys express train from Paris to Brussels 2d Class (I know how to save a buck!)… no problem…but on the leg from Brussels to Bruges, no seats due to the hordes heading there for the Easter weekend…that was me sitting on the floor out in the entranceway.

Bruges, one of the prettiest towns on earth, has unfortunately become just another tourist trap. Reminds me of my trip with Alison last fall to Quebec City, a place with great “bones” but ruined by T-shirt and souvenir shops and hustle-the-customer restaurants. My hotel was gorgeous, but Bruges is definitely a one-day place.

By the way, thinks the place is going to be dead on Good Friday? Think again. Bars and restaurants packed, music blasting. Traffic jammed. Highlight for me was a Good Friday night parade of about a thousand people carrying white crosses toward the town square; I figured why not and tagged along. My Flemish is a little weak, but I could understand the emotion behind their hymns. Realizing that this tradition probably went back around a thousand years, I was touched.

You are probably aware the Belgium is one of those “divided” countries a la Scotland v. England, Catalonia v. Spain, Quebec v. Canada, Ukraine v. Crimea, etc. where half the people don’t like speaking to the other. This is Flemish (Dutch) v. Walloon (French). Bruges is in Flanders, thus Flemish, the less prosperous of the two, although the people have to be among the nicest in the world.

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Saturday/Sunday, Brussels

Hey, 2nd Class-Isn’t-So-Bad Dept.: Traveling on Saturday from Bruges to Brussels, no crowds. Plenty of seats. See, I know how to save a buck.

I’m staying at the Hotel Amigo, a Rocco Forte property. Rocco Forte, Sr. founded Trust House Forte, a European version of Holiday Inn. Rocco, Jr. took a different tack and set about to acquire old embassies and palaces through the Continent and turn them into always the best hotel in town. I’ve stayed at almost all of them in the collection and have loved them. This one, regrettably, falls slightly short of the mark. Rooms are small by Rocco standards and the décor is rather dull. A guy on the elevator actually stopped me to ask me how I liked my room. Good, not great, I said. He replied: I’m a Rocco Forte man, too, but this one sucks. It’s not all that bad.

Cased Brussels during the day. Dinner? The big rage here are Turkish and/or Greek kebob shops where they serve a Middle Eastern version of the burrito…a wrap with cucumbers, cabbage, vegetables, garlic sauce and some form of meat. The concierge directed me to Plaka up the block…he eats there at least once a week. Tried it…loved it. Then at night went to a jazz club down the street which came highly recommended by everyone at the concierge desk. Not usually my thing, but good quality music by very skilled musicians I liked it.

Sunday…Easter. Walked up the hill to the city’s famous antiques market, pretty much like any other flea market you’ve been to. Lovely day, as all of my days have been.

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Monday, London

Flew over this morning. Beautiful day in London. Glutton for punishment that I am, I’m going to try to go to La Traviata this evening. Want to see the Ruyal Opera House.