Category Archives: exploring

Normandy (1) – Road Trip!

After four years of nagging, I was finally able to convince family to take the long haul flight from California and come visit. It was a wonderful opportunity to show off my adopted (for a bit longer) city and a great excuse to take some well-deserved time away from the lab to indulge in a bit of touristing myself.

It was also time to relax, talk long into the night, make tentative plans for visits post-return, sleep, fix stuff around the house (yay to visiting parents), and blog. Since their departure about a month ago, my blog posting frequency has tumbled and is now inversely proportional to the time I’ve spent in the lab – that is to say, I need to go back and read this post (written not so long ago) again and again until it is indelibly etched in my mind.

Rather than stay in Paris for my entire week off (they had arrived one week prior and seen many of the bigger attractions), we kicked off our exploration with a road trip to Normandy. This region of France, found northwest of Paris, is known (among other things) for its coastline (mmm, seafood), agriculture (mmm, butter) and cider (mmm, Calvados). Historically, this region has been under constant dispute, from the settlements of the Vikings in the 9th century, through many centuries of French-English tug-of-war, to the most recent battles between the Allied forces and Germany on D-Day during WWII.

I know now that there is so much more to see in Normandy then the three days I allotted for our trip, but within these limitations we planned to arrive by train from Paris and stay in Caen, rent a car to drive around the area, specifically aiming to see Mont Saint Michel and the American memorials at the D Day beaches, and spend any extra time we had exploring the countryside and local color.

After arriving on a direct train from Paris (2 hours from Gare Saint Lazare), we first spent some time poking around Caen. Unlike other nearby towns, like Bayeux, that were been spared from destruction during WWII, Caen was almost completely destroyed during the German retreat following the Allied landings in the weeks and months following D-Day. This made for a not-so-picturesque skyline of ancient cathedrals and utilitarian housing complexes with very few of the twisty, narrow medieval passageways I have come to love exploring. However, the city was long ago home to William the Conqueror. He built his stronghold here around 1060 and it still can be explored today.

Although the actual castle is long gone, its foundations are still visible and the walls around the fortress have been restored and stand high on the only hill in town. Additionally, within the keep there are two museums and a medicinal garden that is still populated with several herbs and plants known (or thought) to have healing properties. Perusing the garden, looking for plants I recognized and learning about those I did not was definitely interesting and educational. It was also slightly frightening to realize that there were more than a few poisonous plants hidden in there.

While I could not imagine having a car in Paris (and would never recommend it), I have missed the feeling of freedom that comes from knowing you can hop behind the wheel and get out of town at any time. The few times I have driven outside of the city, I have found the French countryside to be vast and beautiful. Besides the gradually undulating green hills and endless rows of grapevines (or apple trees, depending on your destination), my favorite part about getting on the road is spotting the ‘what’s special about the next town’ signs.

A few kilometers before the exit to each small village, you can find large, sepia-toned signs that illustrate what that town has to offer the adventurous visitor. I find it to be a fun way to get an idea of what the local region thinks should not be missed (giant oysters apparently) and not nearly as tacky as the standard American billboard. Here are a few of my favorites or, you know, ones I was able to catch in semi-focus from a moving vehicle:

(Vire, home to a castle and many delicious sausages)

(Villedieu-les-Poêles, a one-stop shop for all your pottery and bell needs)

(Bayeux – timbered homes and an amazing medieval tapestry)

In a completely spontaneous move, we decided to drive a bit north and explore the harbor town of Honfleur. My step-father is a big boat lover, so fitting in a visit to a local harbor town seemed like the only fair thing to do after all the medieval castles and churches into which I dragged him.

This tiny coastal town turned out to be one of the highlights of our trip.

The outer Honfleur harbor was home to fishing vessels, sailboats and super yachts in seemingly equal number and, after finding parking, we hurried towards them, following our noses to the ocean and only pausing to let the ocean breeze temporarily cool the effects of the blazing sun. We eventually turned back towards the center of town in search of dinner and came into the inner harbor area. Cut off from the open water by a narrow passage (and a low lying bridge that is raised for passing boats), this marina, jam-packed with sailboats, is surrounded tall, thin multi-colored buildings whose sidewalks are covered by terrace restaurants serving up overflowing buckets of moules and looked like it could have been taken directly from a fairy tale. It would not have surprised me to see a newly be-legged mermaid or beautiful bookworm swing, singing, out of any one of the vibrantly colored buildings surrounding the water.

After an early evening spent exploring the winding, narrow streets and deeply inhaling the ocean air, we sat down to dinner at one of the many restaurants ringing the small harbor area. My step-father chose salmon with a curry sauce, while I had the more traditional moules frites. We ate quietly, and I allowed myself to finally, genuinely relax – this was what vacation should be – a glass of cider next to the water, the last rays of sunshine peeking over the tops of colorful buildings, stimulating conversation, delicious food and great company.

A little stow-away crab in my mussels apparently agreed (do any of you out there know of this? They were in about 50% of the shellfish and I have never seen them before…)


Last Call

I received an extremely crucial (and insightful) piece of advice from Meg not so long ago. No nonsense, eye-to-eye, I-know-what-I’m-talking-about words of wisdom: “Figure out what your priorities are for the rest of your time in Paris and DO them… the lab is not going to love you back…” Her blunt honesty stunned me into several long seconds of silence, followed acceptance of the truth and, finally, by a slow, affirmative (and still silent) nod: Yes.

Don’t get me entirely wrong, I have been working hard on (and still love) the science (especially now that the countdown is always ticking in the background) and I’m not about to toss my lab coat in a corner and never look back. However, there is a lot of Paris, and France (possibly even further afield in Europe) that I have not yet seen. Knowing that I am easily caught up by my overdeveloped sense of obligation, I need to be sure that I set aside time for me, in addition to the lengthy (always growing) list of experiments.

To that end, I am currently writing from a hotel room in Caen (one of the larger towns in Normandy) where I am taking in the sites with visiting family. For the first time in almost four years, I have taken a week off of work and stayed here. I am giving myself the time to get a bit more organized, see the sites and enjoy the time I have with my family on this side of the world. It is glorious.

As both a way to hold myself accountable and get the word out to my Paris friends, I thought I’d post my ‘to-do for FUN’ list here and keep track of things as I see them (and write about them, of course).

So, here is my dream list of places to see and photos to take before I depart in November. I would also really enjoy hearing your suggestions – food, landmarks, museums and/or views that are wholeheartedly recommended as ‘can’t miss’ when visiting the City of Light. Please, give me more ‘work’ to do!

Paris (and vicinity)


Musée Rodin (27 July 2012)

Musée des Arts et Metiers (26 July 2012)

Musée de l’Orangerie

Espace Dali (this is embarrassing as it is around the corner from my house)

Jardin des Plantes/Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle

Musée Dupuytren (yes weird, possibly disturbing, but still fascinating)

Musée Carnavalet (did this past weekend-post forthcoming!)


Madeline (did this past weekend – post forthcoming!)


Opera (the building definitely, but also – if I’m lucky – a performance?)

Galeries Lafayette  (for the building this time, not the shopping – I am on a post-doc salary, a French one, no less…)


Versailles (I have seen the gardens, but never the chateau)

Basilique Saint Denis

Night cruise along the Seine


Arc de Triomphe (29 July 2012)

Tour Eiffel (yeah, have not done this yet, shaking my head in shame)

Tour Montparnasse (top of)

Dome of Basilica Sacre Coeur

Towers of Notre Dame Cathedral



Montmartre (28 July 2012)

Beyond Paris

Normandy (23-25 July 2012)

–       Mont Saint Michel (24 July 2012)

–       Omaha beach (25 July 2012)



Bruges (mainly because of this and because it is GORGEOUS)

Yeah, so remember I did say dream list. However, please do suggest other things I may have missed. And, Paris peeps – let me know if you want to join the adventure(s)!

First Sunday: Musée de Cluny (from the archives*)

When it comes to choosing museums to visit in Paris, clearly there is an extensive list from which to choose. Personally, my favorite of them all (thus far) is the Musée de Cluny (officially known as the Musée National du Moyan Âge, or National Museum of the Middle Ages). Although it stands smack in the middle of the city, a sprawling complex on the corner of Boulevard Saint Michel and Boulevard Saint Germain, it tends to be relatively overlooked by visitors and is therefore a great candidate for (Free) First Sunday viewing.

The museum itself is architecturally divided into two parts. The permanent art collection is housed in the palace that initially was constructed in the 1300s for the abbots of Cluny. The visiting expositions are usually displayed in the soaring “Frigidarium”, the spacious remains of the Thermes de Cluny, an ancient Roman bath that first occupied this plot of land. Not only does the museum house an extensive and extremely well curated collection of medieval art, but it is also a fantastic opportunity to explore both the ancient baths and the palace, which are also very well preserved.

I have to admit that I am biased when it comes to my appreciation for the Cluny collection. In addition to my training in science, I also hold a degree in medieval history (yeah, I am not the most decisive person around). The reasons why are extensive and fun to discuss over a beer, and it does mean that I have boundless enthusiasm when it comes to looking at illuminated manuscripts, tapestries, tarnished reliquaries and broadswords. I am truly in my geeked-out element here – bring on another Madonna and Child triptych, I can take it!

One of my favorite stories about the museum involves this collection of heads (and the corresponding decapitated statues across the courtyard).

From the late 1200s, onwards, under the balustrade of the west façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral stands “The Gallery of Kings”, a row of larger-than-life statues representing the Kings of Judah, the ancestors of Jesus, looking down on the crowds as they enter the church. During the revolution, everyone was guillotine happy, particularly when it came to cutting off royal power (so to speak). Within this population there appears to have been some confusion – these statues were apparently thought to be representations of the French monarchy, rather than the biblical forefathers as originally intended. In order to remove any semblance of royal power from the symbols of the city, the façade was scaled, statues torn down and then beheaded and tossed into a mass statuary grave – just to be sure everyone got the point. The Cluny now houses some of the remnants of these victims of mistaken identity and mob rule.

The museum’s most famous piece is the Lady and the Unicorn tapestries. These six tapestries are considered by many to be the greatest works of art of the European middle ages. Five of the tapestries represent one of each of the five senses (guess the one above!) and the meaning behind the sixth is still not agreed upon, but thought to represent some combination of love and understanding. The curators of the museum have built a special viewing room that has low light and is temperature controlled for optimal preservation. It is a special place to sit and imagine the years of weaving that went into each piece, to experience how saturated the colors remain after several centuries and to walk up and look at them so closely that you really can examine each stitch. They are stunning (plus, each one has a monkey and I love monkeys).

The last time I visited the Cluny, on a First Sunday several months ago, they were featuring a special exhibit, “L’Epée: Usages, mythes et symbols”, about swords, their history, use and symbolism. Housed in the Frigidarium, the visiting exhibition took our breath away – they had the swords of famous warrior Roland, as well as that of Joan of Arc. The sword pictured above was that used in the ceremony to crown new kings of France in the middle ages, complete with bejeweled scabbard. There were illustrated manuscripts demonstrating fencing and fighting techniques and, somewhat excessively, a skull showing the after-effects of a life threatening sword blow. Most amusingly was the looping video of the ‘Black Knight’ scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, presented as a representation of the “sword and modern culture” – seriously.

Unlike many of the other big name museums of Paris, the Cluny is relatively focused, small and easy to take in on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Between the history of the buildings themselves and the extent and quality of their collection, I would highly recommend adding it to anyone’s list of things to see when visiting Paris – the Musée de Cluny does an amazing job shining a light on France (and the rest of Europe) during what we mistakenly think of as “The Dark Ages”.

*”from the archives” will be an ongoing set of posts in the coming weeks that show what I was up to when I was not blogging here over the past several months – I never stopped collecting images and stories for the blog, and I am very happy to have the chance to share them now – better late than never, right?

An hour from Paris – Giverny

Paris is, (mostly) figuratively, an island (the region is named Ile-de-France after all), isolated as the capitol, a tourist destination and somewhat ironically, for (let’s say) the cold demeanor of its people. Yet, it doesn’t take much to get out of the city – just a few euros and a quick train ride and you can find yourself beyond the hustle, hurtling through green fields, watching the Seine expand and become the dominant force flowing through the countryside.

At some point early in my time here, I purchased an excellent tour guide entitled “An Hour from Paris”, full of off-the-beaten-path trips, easily taken from the Paris hub and ideal for exploring on a quiet Saturday afternoon. I pledged, upon spending €30 on this slim volume, that I would use it at least once a month to see what lies outside of the city. I have to admit, somewhat guiltily, that this weekend was the first time it at least three years that it has been opened for purposes beyond the wistful planning stage.

In the end, all it took was some sunshine and an enthusiastic and patient guest, until I found myself spending my Saturday on a train platform, leaving the city (and work) behind, and heading to Giverny in order to explore Monet’s famous gardens, lily ponds and country home.

Refreshing. Inspirational. Beautiful. Claustrophobic. The gardens and home were all of these things; although the latter only because of the incredible number of visitors, all carefully scooting around each other in a garden with only a few open access paths. The variety of blooming, intertwined flowers was beyond anything I had ever seen. Lilies and poppies, roses and honeysuckle, irises and violets, not to mention varieties I have never imagined, let alone learned about in my high school ornamental horticulture class. Maybe learning about a place teaming with so much life, beauty and creativity would have inspired me to pay a bit more attention? Probably not.

The estate was extensive, including Monet’s home (covered, wall-to-wall with Japanese prints and off-limits for hobby photographers, unfortunately), the flower gardens directly below and, across the local main thoroughfare, a water lily garden. This was my absolute favorite place on site.

Although jam-packed with people, I was able to find a seat on a bench beyond the throngs and daydreamed of coming here, years ago, for solace, contemplation and motivation. More than the overgrowth of flowers around us, it was the deep, earthy greens of the willows, ferns and lilypads that dominated this part of the gardens. At one point during our tour, it began to rain and, from seemingly nowhere, rose a chorus of croaks and ribbits. We had no idea until that moment that the lily pond was, in fact, filled with large frogs – that apparently loved the rain. Everyone stopped, smiling ridiculously at the cacophony of sound and tried to catch a glimpse of the impromptu performers. I had my fancy lens out, so I was lucky enough to be able to zoom in and catch one, startlingly green, mid-croak, amongst the reeds.

After a few hours, the color and perfume of the flowers all seemed to blend together and the pulsing sun and pushy visitors took their toll. We boarded the bus to take us back to the main train station in Vernon, the small village ajoining Giverny. We spent the remainder of our afternoon peacefully enjoying a panaché at the local bar before our train to Paris arrived. There was so much to take in, absorb and process: the riot of color, crush of people, and echo of past genius kept us both quiet for a while – contemplating the wild garden, which seemed to reflect a restless, maybe cluttered, yet masterful mind that has inspired artists (and the rest of us) for generations.

Following are some of my favorite images from the day. There are so many more photos – what an amazingly picturesque place…

Catacombes de Paris

Honestly, I am completely embarrassed that it has taken me 3+ years to make it to the Catacombs of Paris, deep in the 14th arrondisment. This was not due to a lack of effort – in fact, today marked my third attempt to gain entry, the first two blocked due to poor timing (we almost made it in time) and an electricity outage (now that I have been deep down there, I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been).

After a long wait in line (about an hour, in scattered rainshowers), we finally made it into the tiny vestibule where tickets are bought and one starts their initial descent. Both my visitor and I commented on how stark everything was and moreover, if this was the US there would be eerie organ music and an introduction voiced-over by Morgan Freeman looping the background. To say that I am thankful for the lack of crass commercial manipulation in France would be an understatement.

The self-guided tour started off with a not-so-quick history lesson. Apparently long, long ago, the land we think of Paris today was submerged under a land-locked sea. Following massive tectonic movement, continental drift, human evolution, settlement and civilization (yes, this was covered in one info-graphic), the locals began to excavate massive amounts of limestone from under the city to build the monuments we all gawk at today.  Following a massive outbreak of water-borne disease (traced back to contamination of the city’s water supply by an excess of shallowly buried, decomposing bodies – eeew), the government ordered the above-ground cemeteries emptied and all remains thrown the unused quarry tunnels. In 1809 a very astute business man (whose name is currently lost in the tunnels of my mind), decided that the display of those remains would rake in the Francs, so he initiated the massive undertaking of reorganizing, stabilizing and opening the ossuary for public viewing. That is forward thinking.

After being prepped for what we were about to see, we descended further into the quarry. Long, damp tunnels were haphazardly lit and we could see initials and dates of individual workers carved into the stones around each new corner.

The first decorative item we came across was this stunning castle, carved into the stone wall. According to the signage (everything in English! Bravo!), this was carved by an excavator who had been imprisoned in the south for many years, with this castle as the only view from his cell.

Again, more info-graphics. Not only did the quarries provide a perfect final resting place for 6 million (!!!) Parisian remains, but they also play a critical role in our current understanding of the geological time scale of the European continent. A core taken from deep within the quarry now represents the international standard  of the different layers of rock and sediment from the major geological periods of the past. The hole from which the core was taken is now an extremely deep well.

After educating us all about French history, geology and paleontology (there were fossils!), we finally got to the bones. SO. MANY. BONES. You have been waiting for them as well – here you go (please forgive the focus issues, it was *dark* down there):

There really are not words to describe this place. It was eerie and overwhelming. It was claustrophobic, yet peaceful. It was a collection of so many lives and so much history that it was impossible to truly take it all in. I cannot recommend it enough – worth every wet minute in that line and more. I cannot wait to take another round of visitors back and absorb the melancholy and the sacred all over again.

In Images – Visitor, day 2

The tour of Paris continued today. We ate, we gawked and we ate some more. Currently, we are sprawled at home in a falafel coma. Good times.

(We started off the day with coffee and a croissant, as one should)

(Next was the winding metro ride across the city to the Catacombs. The line was long and the weather blustry, but we stuck it out and it was well worth it.)

(After emerging from the land of the dead, it seemed a good bet to counter with Notre Dame. Note the gathering darkness in the sky…)

(We crossed the Seine and ventured into Le Marais with a clear goal in mind, although we were slightly sidetracked by a torrential hailstorm – those clouds meant business.)

(Following a warming cup of coffee, a quick introduction between friends and a respite from the storm, we pushed on to our final destination. The best falafel in Paris. Recommended by Lenny Kravitz, even. How can you go wrong? Don’t answer that – you can’t, I promise.)

Psst – don’t fret, the Catacombs are next…

In Images – Visitor, day 1

(Amazing care package. Take note – tortillas and chipotles!! There are enchiladas on the horizon.)

We all have those friends. The ones where years pass, but somehow when you are together, it seems like no time has gone by at all. Over lunch today we realized that it has been 25 years since we first met. And what a joy it has been to share my home with her this time around…

(Moules gratinées for lunch. Somehow seafood + cheese does not sound so good at first glace – but that is a newbie’s mistake. This was amazing). 

(Then the requisite trip to Le Grand Epicerie for any food lover – admittedly a low-res photo, those security guards keep me on my toes. We exited overwhelmed, dazed, confused and delighted – and happy we’d eaten ahead.)

(A walk along the Seine and across the Pont des Arts, complete with the locks of love.)

(Through the Louvre, where it was somehow sad to see these children stealing wishes in the form of coins, from the fountain.)

(Into Tuileries, where the sun was shining down, despite looming clouds and a brisk wind.)

(Where everything was in bloom.)

(And we were able to see the beauty of Paris before the rain poured down again.)

(But we kept warm with a spinach and feta quiche, topped off with some of the care package Zinfandel.)

Tomorrow – the Catacombs. But, will I be able to take photos inside? That is the ultimate question…