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The pleasures of Paris.

WE GAZED SKYWARD from the base of one of its mighty legs. The view was both imposing and dizzying. Rising majestically above us, latticework beams reflecting the golden rays of the sun on a magnificent spring day, the Eiffel Tower seemed official confirmation that we indeed were in Paris. This world-famous symbol of the City of Light is perhaps the most recognizable single landmark on the globe, but all the pictures had failed to prepare us for its physical reality.

The sheer numbers are breathtaking. Soaring 1,051 feet into the air and weighing more than 10,000 tons, the Tower is like a giant's Erector Set, with some 18,000 pieces of iron bolted together with 2,500,000 rivets. Yet, the over-all feeling--especially at a distance--is one of airy gracefulness, an elongated capital A poking a hole in the sky.

Ascending Gustave Eiffel's centerpiece of the 1889 Universal Exposition in a glass-sided elevator (letting younger legs contend with the 1,652-step climb that is its alternative), we were struck by two vastly contrasting sensations--awe and vertigo. Watching the city spread out below us the higher we rose was thrilling. At the same time, however, our stomachs were doing acrobatics since the open-sided construction of the monument conveyed a feeling that we were dangling in open space with just a flimsy superstructure between us and disaster. This, of course, is far from the truth. Despite its seeming fragility, the Tower is rock solid, with the maximum sway in the highest winds not exceeding four and one-half inches. (In contrast, the height can vary by as much as six inches, depending on the weather, contracting in cold and expanding in heat.)

It is from the third floor, approximately 900 feet off the ground, that the panorama of Paris is most spectacular, the rooftops of the city and its suburbs laid out in all directions like a giant aerial map. Viewing tables provide actual maps that allow visitors to put names to the scenery, thus getting a perspective on the vista. Under ideal conditions, when the atmosphere is perfectly clear, one supposedly can see 42 miles, but even the most chauvinistic Parisians admit such days are rare.

Starting a visit to Paris with the Eiffel Tower may seem a cliche, but there is such a feeling of familiarity with the city--men among those who never have been there before--it is hard to avoid cliches. With the possible exception of New York, there is no other metropolis that--thanks to movies, books, and songs--is so instantly recognizable. All our lives, it seems, we have heard of the Left Bank, Notre Daine, Montmartre, the Louvre, Pigalle, the Latin Quarter, Champs-Elysees, Arc de Triomphe, and Folies Bergere. Thus, one of the prime pleasures of Paris is matching the face to the name.

In planning our tour of Europe via the Venice Simplon-Orient-Express, we knew we would be beginning in Venice and ending in London. Logically, a stopover in Paris would be the ideal midpoint of our journey, but we had to overcome a long-standing antipathy engendered by years of reading and hearing from others that, while their dollars are welcome in France, American tourists are treated with disdain, if not outright hostility. Well, we decided, the world's a big place, and we needn't go where were not wanted. Accordingly, we have spent many years traveling without stepping foot on French soil. Nevertheless, bypassing Paris on this trip made no sense, so we began to examine the possibilities.

Because of the Orient-Express' twice-a-week schedule, we could debark in Paris for one and a half days or remain for a week. Since the former clearly was insufficient to do the city justice, we reluctantly opted for the week-long stay. Friends and colleagues, hearing us express our misgivings, were amazed. Who possibly could be put off at having to spend seven days in Paris?, they asked. Were we crazy?

We might as well come right out and admit we were wrong. Our skepticism turned to delight as we opened ourselves to the experience, did all the touristy things, and wandered around in search of the unexpected. Contrary to our expectations, we were extended many courtesies by helpful Parisians as, armed with maps, guidebooks, and what we remembered of our high school French, we explored the city. Not once did we encounter a waiter or salesclerk who was rude or condescending. Best of all, we invariably found their English far superior to our hesitant French, eliminating the communication gap.

By the time our week flew by, we had found that Paris best is seen on foot, observing lovers, children, fashion, art, history, and spectacles, all commingling in an exciting melange that often seems larger than life. Finally, much to our chagrin, we had learned that one week is insufficient to get the real feel of the city and not just dash from highlight to highlight.

We had left the Orient-Express at the Gare de l'Est (East Railroad Station), collected our luggage, and wheeled it to the cab line. Within moments, we were speeding through streets that seemed to have leapt off a picture postcard, with blossoming chestnut trees and outdoor cafes. Cole Porter's "I Love Paris" sprang to mind, but where his lyrics proclaimed, "I love Paris in the springtime, when it drizzles," we were greeted by a superb day, sunny and mild, making the city look as if it had just been washed. (The drizzle showed up later, at times graduating to gusty showers, but did nothing to diminish the city's charms, for the most part considerately confining itself to times we were indoors.)

Our destination was the Pullman Windsor, part of the Pullman/Sofitel International Hotels, chain. In carefully choosing a home base, we had sought a locale that provided a convenient location while avoiding both the overwhelming hustle and bustle of the giant hotels and the inconveniences especially in plumbing) that many of the older small establishments try to pass off as "charm." The Windsor proved ideal, nestled comfortably in a quiet residential section. Yet, less than a five-minute walk would bring us to the Champs-Elysees with a vast selection of restaurants, banks, first-run movie houses, and chic stores. Though we spent most of our days covering the city on foot, we appreciated having the Charles de Gaulle station--one of the key transfer points for the Metro (subway), with many of the major lines intersecting there--readily at hand for after dark or when we were headed for more distant points, as well as easy access to a wide-ranging assortment of bus routes.

One of the Windsor's most welcome features is the availability of non-smoking floors. To Americans who have grown used to being able to avoid secondhand smoke in restaurants and most public facilities, France provided a rude shock, with the largest percentage of adult smokers in Western Europe (42%). Unfortunately for our noses and lungs, we had arrived a few months ahead of the tough new anti-smoking laws that went into effect late in 1992, triggering intramural animosity between tobacco addicts and their foes that at times threatened to spark a second French Revolution. Being able to come back to a hotel room free of lingering aromas of smoke clinging to the furniture and draperies made us eternally grateful to the Pullman group for its consideration.

In booking the Windsor, we tended to dismiss the fact that the hotel provided a complimentary continental breakfast, mentally translating that as the paltry croissant and coffee we had experienced elsewhere in our travels. Much to our delight, we found that the Windsor version is a veritable cornucopia of a buffet, with juices, fresh fruit, cold cereal, toast, yogurt, eggs, ham, sausages, bacon, jam and marmalade, pastries, tea, cocoa, and yes, croissants and coffee. Well fueled, we were ready to set out each morning to partake of the pleasures of Paris.

Like the spokes of a wheel, 12 major boulevards and avenues radiate from a central core--the Arc de Triomphe. A wide traffic circle around the arch and the Place Charles de Gaulle that surrounds it is Paris' version of the running of the bulls at Pamplona, with daring souls pirouetting, darting, and dodging kamikaze cabs, trucks, and other vehicles without a traffic light for protection. For less reckless--and far saner--types, an underground passage allows access to the arch and its sculptures and friezes commemorating Napoleon's victories. In sharp contrast--and all the more touching in its simplicity--is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier underneath the arch, with the flame of remembrance rekindled each evening at 6:30 and wreaths and other floral arrangements paying tribute to members of the French armed forces who have fallen in wartime.

Paris is for walking

When packing for Paris, first consideration should be to make sure you are including comfortable footwear, for this is a city that best can be savored by leisurely strolling through it. While the back streets contain many hidden delights and unexpected treasures, concentrating on the banks of the Seine and the Champs--Elysees guarantees that you won't miss the "must-sees."

Ambling along the Rive Gauche (Left Bank) should be done without any particular destination or paying attention to your watch. Instead, soak in the atmosphere and browse among the myriad stalls offering books, prints, maps, postcards, and old magazines. Don't count on finding a rare bargain for a few francs--the dealers are too shrewd and know their wares too well--but it's still a diverting way to spend a couple of hours. The dealers generally won't hassle you to buy and will direct you to specific items if you are a collector. The rest of the time, they stand by their stalls like extras out of Central Casting, complete with berets, battered raincoats, and the inevitable Gauloise--or, more likely nowadays, Marlboro--dangling from their lower lips, defying gravity. The scene is so unchanging over the years that you almost expect to look up and find Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein browsing next to you.

Wander down the Left Bank and watch the crowd get younger as you near the Latin Quarter, still the hangout of students from the Sorbonne and the many other schools nearby, though no longer remotely as Bohemian as it once was. Much like New York's Greenwich Village, the Quarter now has a distinctly commercial bent, especially along Boulevard St-Michel, where music and clothing stores abound. Americans tend to regard the French as style setters, but it soon becomes apparent that the Frenche--specially the youth--are American "wannabes." The two Michaels--Jackson and

Jordan--complete for attention on T-shirts, and American brand-name sneakers are virtually on every foot. We couldn't help smiling as we realized that, in their efforts to adopt the look, they frequently don't get it quite right. For every Chicago Bulls or San Francisco 49ers shirt or hat, there were a half-dozen that garbled the message, dizzyingly mixing baseball teams with football terms OF winding up with sayings like "Number One Sporting Championship Victory"! In the midst of all this, publishing houses and secondhand bookstores, cabarets and nightclubs, and quaint sidewalk cafes coexist, throwbacks to the Latin Quarter of the past.

Crossing the Seine is not much of an effort. The river is narrow and bridges plentiful. An ideal place to move from Left to Right Bank is at the Ile de la Cite via the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, completed in 1604. The island sits in the middle of the Seine, dominated by the Palais de Justice (law courts) on one side and the majestic Notre Dame Cathedral on the other. Watching Quasimodo swing from its bell towers in any of the movie versions of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" hardly is preparation for the sheer size of the cathedral, the imposing terra cotta-colored facade massive yet delicate, with portals, galleries, and filigree balconies lending distinctive airs. The graceful twin towers, 226 feet high, taper toward Heaven, the south one the repository of Emmanuel, the 13-ton great bell that is tolled only on the most solemn occasions. Notre Dame is a study in contrasts, its great beauty counter-pointed by the grotesque gargoyles that perch on its parapets. Meanwhile, the interior merges a house of worship, with services being conducted constantly, and a tourist attraction. Somehow, the pious manage to ignore the crowds of visitors posing family members for souvenir snapshots or video recordings, prayers and flashbulb explosions merging in a strange harmony. Whatever your reason for being in the cathedral, pause to take in the beauty of the stained glass windows. Installed in 1965 utilizing medieval manufacturing processes, replacing the clear glass of the 18th and 19th centuries and restoring them to the splendor of the Middle Ages, the windows' brilliant colors are awe-inspiring, especially as the sun streaming through them turns the reds to flame and the yellows to gold.

To the rear of Notre Dame is a small park that initially seems much like a number of others scattered throughout the city. Closer examination reveals a low stone wall with jagged letters carved into it honoring the Martyrs Francais de la Deportation--those French citizens deported to the Nazi death camps during World War II. A twisting stairway leads down to an underground memorial with cave-like cells meant to symbolize the suffering of those thrown into the hell of the concentration camps, and carved testimony from those who perished, survivors, and writers such as Jean-Paul Sartre. The effect is touching, but a curious omission cries out for attention. There is no indication that the vast majority of the victims were Jewish or that the deportations were accomplished with what since has been documented as all-too-willing cooperation by the wartime French government. It is almost as if the official response is to sweep this shameful incident under the broad rug embodied by the all-encompassing term "martyrs."

Cross over from the Ile de la Cite to the Right Bank and find an entirely different climate. The raffishness and commercial air of the Left Bank is replaced by great art, history, and some of the most beautiful urban parkland on the planet. To reach them, however, requires threading through a stretch of a few blocks of densely packed stalls and shops dispensing flowers, pets, and meat and poultry. This odd juxtaposition results in one's nose alternately being treated to a bouquet of floral fragrances and assaulted by the aroma of the abatoir. Meanwhile, there is confusion, though not in the minds of the hordes of shoppers, as to whether that bird or animal is meant to be taken home and pampered or popped into the pot.

Once you have made it through this gauntlet, it is but a short walk to what few would dispute is the greatest art museum in the world--the Louvre. Occupying an interconnected series of buildings that once constituted the royal palace and apartments, forming an open-ended rectangle (the Cour Napoleon), the Louvre is the repository of many of the most well-known paintings and sculpture, headed, of course, by the "Mona Lisa" and "Venus de Milo." Even without a guidebook--a virtual necessity to find your way through the winding corridors and many levels--it is easy to find "Mona Lisa." All you have to do is look for a crowd that stretches up to 10 deep, craning to get a closeup view of Leonardo da Vinci's masterpiece and her enigmatic smile. It is an unfortunate comment on our times that this famed painting must be encased in impregnable glass and roped off to protect it from the public.

It may seem presumptuous for us to challenge a renowned architect like I.M. Pie, but we found his ultramodern glass pyramid in the courtyard, the new entrance to the museum, an oddly discordant element in this historical setting, as admirable a construction as it may be. Moreover, the glass causes what undoubtedly was an unanticipated problem when the design was approved. On warm, sunny days, it focuses the heat and encloses it in the ticket-selling lobby, turning the area into a sauna for the invariably long lines of visitors waiting their turn to board the down escalator.

Once in the central hall beneath the pyramid, there are restaurants, lecture halls, an information desk, and shops to purchase reproductions, postcards, and books. Radiating out are entranceways to the various departments--Oriental, Egyptian, Greek, Etruscan, and Roman antiquities; sculpture; and paintings. Plan on staying a full day (though even that might not allow a chance to examine everything more than cursorily) and be sure to wear comfortable shoes because the marble hallways are murder on the feet and there are more stairways than you want to think about. Then, prepare your senses to go into overload as masterpiece after masterpiece overwhelms you, from such sculptures as the "Winged Victory of Samothrace," Michelangelo's "Slaves," and "The Three Graces" to classic paintings by Rembrandt, Holbein, Van Dyck, Delacroix, Tintoretto, El Greco, Hals, and Rubens, to cite a bare handful of highlights.

Paris is lovers, children, and parks

Abutting the Louvre are the Thileries, among Paris' most magnificent gardens. Despite ongoing restoration, they proved a welcome oasis on a beautiful spring day. It was hard to believe that this park once served as a dumping ground for carcasses discarded by the city's butchers or that its clay soil was used to make tile (tuiles, in French, hence Tuileries). In 1563, Catherine de Medici, then Queen Mother, decided to build a chateau next to the Louvre Palace and bought the land, commissioning an Italian-style park with a maze, grotto, menagerie, fountains, and statuary, turning an eyesore into a fashionable locale for the aristocracy to see and be seen. Two centuries later, during the French Revolution, the butchers would have felt right at home as two-thirds of Louis XVI's Swiss Guards were slaughtered in the Tuileries by the rampaging mob.

We found the setting much more tranquil and, with soft drinks purchased from a nearby concessionaire, settled down on the grass to relax and observe the city at rest on a Sunday. Most apparent was that Paris is a highly congenial setting for both lovers and children. Wherever we turned, there were couples entwined on blankets or leaning against trees, walls, or whatever surface would accommodate them, unabashedly kissing as if they were in total privacy. Actually, this was a common sight that greeted us throughout the city, whether along the banks of the Seine, on benches or in odd comers of museums, or standing stock-still in the middle of a busy street while streams of pedestrians eddied around them.

Meanwhile, children climbed over the sculpture figures on the lawns, stripped down to their underwear to run through a sprinkler, soared squealing into the air on swings, or rode the carousel, enthusiastically spurring on noble steeds, fierce tigers, and mighty elephants or sedately being borne by a serene swan. Carousels are a common sight throughout Paris, popping up unexpectedly on small patches of grass near museums and other cultural attractions as well as in nearly every park. A special treat for youngsters are the fountains at either end of the park. Enterprising entrepreneurs have fleets of sailboats for rent, allowing would-be admirals to navigate the craft across the pool, using sticks to steer them back towards the center when the breeze carries the boats to the fountain's walls.

A pair of art galleries--the Jeu de Paume and Orangerie--form bookends at the end of the gardens, the latter displaying works by such noted artists as Monet, Picasso, Modigliani, Matisse, and Cezanne. Exit the Tuileries and you find yourself in the Place de la Concorde with its towering pink granite Obelisque. This imposing monument was shipped to Paris by Mohammad Ali, Viceroy of Egypt, from the ruins of the temple at Luxor during the 19th century in hopes of engendering French support. Covered in hieroglyphics, it stands 75 feet high and weighs more than 220 tons. For those daring enough to risk dodging the traffic swirling around the square to get to it, the base depicts how the Obelisque was transported to France and erected in its current locale.

Having successfully navigated across Place de la Concorde, we passed repticas of the marble horses that once graced Louis XIV's chateau, Marly, near Versailles. When Marly was destroyed during the French Revolution, these spirited stallions were brought to their present site. Subsequently, to protect them from the ravages of the elements, the originals were moved to the Louvre, leaving these copies to stand guard over the beginning of the Champs-Elysees. From here to the Arc de Triomphe, cool, shaded alleys formed by chestnut trees, some of which date back to the 19th century, provide an almost rustic area in the heart of this bustling metropolis. With such a setting, we felt we should be promenading, adorned with long gowns, frock coats, top hats, and parasols, rather than walking briskly in T-shirts, jeans, and sneakers.

Be sure to branch off the Champs-Elysees to Avenue Winston Churchill at Place Clemenceau with its statue of Frances World War I premier. It seems an ironic juxtaposition since the Treaty of Versailles, which George Clemenceau was largely instrumental in drafting, has been cited as one of the roots of World War II. Had it not been for that global confrontation, there would have been no need to honor Britain's prime minister, who proved such a staunch wartime ally. In any event, this broad boulevard separates the Petit Palais and the Grand Palais. Built for the 1900 World Exposition, they now primarily are exhibition halls. The Grand Palaise, nearly gutted and undergoing massive reconstruction, housed a Toulouse-Lautrec retrospective of epic proportions, assembled from private corrections and museums in London, Moscow, Chicago, Sao Paulo, and other far-flung bastions of culture. Having only viewed his denizens of Paris' 19th-century music halls in poster form, we were dazzled by the vivid colors of the original paintings and lithographs.

(In planning a trip, all the careful research, mapping out of itineraries, and scheduling suddenly can be dashed by fate. In our case, this manifested itself in a labor dispute that came to a head in the form of a walkout by guards, leading to the closing of most of Paris' museums. We felt fortunate that we had managed to tour the Louvre and view the Lautrec show before the gates came slamming shut. However, we were bitterly disappointed to miss out on so much of the city's art heritage, especially the Orsay, repository of perhaps the finest collection of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art in the world. Crestfallenly standing outside this former railroad station, all we could do was thumb through the pamphlet we had picked up at the Tourist Office and its roster of works that the strike was denying us--Monet, Renoir, Pissato, Degas, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Seurat, Gauguin, and Rodin. A further disappointment was missing the National Museum of Modern Art. Nevertheless, we went anyway to the Georges Pompidou Centre, its home, because the exterior--sort of an op-art cross between a giant Lego set and a boiler room--is a treat in its own right.)

A final unexpected pleasure on our stroll down the Champs-Elysees was the discovery of a thriving flea market/swap meet with dozens of people selling and exchanging a variety of collectibles. A brisk commerce in stamps was expected, but just as lively a market could be found for comic books, souvenir pins from the Olympics and other events, and even used telephone charge cards with a variety of pictures on the back.

Paris is shopping, food, and spectacle

If there is one word that is synonymous with Paris, it is fashion. Long the trend setter in haute couture, the city is the home base of many of the world's most renowned designers. Smart shoppers head for Avenue Victor Hugo and Rue du Faubourg St-Honore for the boutiques and showrooms with the latest creations of Yves St. Laurent, Chanel, Lanvin, Balmain, Givenchy, Christian Dior, and other star couturiers, as well as exquisite jewelry stores and galleries specializing in antiques and fine art. The one drawback, of course, is price, especially in the face of a weakened dollar.

Still, bargains can be found, including designer samples if you can wangle an invitation to the showrooms at season's end. Moreover, Paris has discovered the mall and has embodied it vertically with multi-story buildings featuring boutiques, stores, and booths. Les Trois Quartiers on Blvd. de la Madeleine boasts 75 shops on three levels with mid-range to pricey wares. Slightly more downscale and trendier items can be found in Les Halles, once the city's bustling wholesale food market, now a sprawling tri-level mall featuring posters, faux jewelry, books, jeans, and le sport Americaine --sneakers, athletic garb, tank tops, etc.

Paris is equally renowned for its food, and a broad range can be found to suit every taste, from haute cuisine to Le Grande Mac under the familiar golden arches, which have invaded Paris along with the usual names in the fast-food field. With so much to do during the day, we usually settled for a baguette (a long, thin loaf of bread) with ham, cheese, or both at a sidewalk cafe, washed down with a citron (the French version of lemonade), allowing us to rest our feet and people watch for a few minutes before setting out again. From the fanciest restaurants to brasseries to neighborhood bistros, it is advisable to seek out assistance from your hotel's concierge for advice, directions, and reservations.

Each day, as we left our hotel and cut over to the Champs-Elysees, we would emerge across the street from Le Drugstore. Finally, curiosity got the best of us and we wandered in. Any resemblance to an American pharmacy is tucked into one small corner. The rest of this amazing establishment is more like a mini-department store with everything from books to cameras, toys, French and foreign newspapers and magazines, clothing, and a booming takeout business in carved-on-the-spot sandwiches, salads, and soft drinks as well as caviar, pate de foie gras, and elaborate picnic hampers. Le Drugstores outdoor cafe offers what it claims is an "authentic" American menu, but much seems to have gotten lost in the translation. Among their specialties is le hamburger frais hache a cheval--loosely interpreted as a freshground burger on horseback. What showed up was a hamburger topped with two fried eggs--not quite what the waiter described as "Texas style." Since Le Drugstore is open around the clock, it's a fun place to drop into before heading back to your hotel at night for one of the ice-cream concoctions that they definitely do get right. Half the fun is watching the delighted faces of kids--Parisian children seem to be out with their parents at all hours--who have to get up on their knees to reach the top of frappes and "iceberg" sundaes piled high with whipped cream.

Three dinner experiences combined food with spectacle, the latter more interesting by far, as might be expected when dishes are being mass-produced to feed scores of people quickly without getting in the way of the show. Bateaux-Mouches provides a sightseeing cruise up and down the Seine on a glass-enclosed boat with a retractable dome for starry nights. While the public address system announces that you are sailing past Notre Dame, the National Assembly, Napoleon's Tomb, Charlemagnes statue, houses that once belonged to Voltaire and Oscar Wilde, the Bourbon Palace, etc., with a spotlight stabbing in the general direction, a three-course, candle-lit dinner, accompanied by champagne and wine, is served with great panache. Duck pate, escargot (snails), or lobster salad as starters are followed by chateaubriand, rack of lamb, or lobstet thermidor, with baked Alaska as a grand finale. The menu sounds more gourmet than the food actually is, but the total experience is well worthwhile. The promised starry night turned into a deluge instead, but the glass roof kept us snugly dry and the raindrops trickling down the windows lent a romantic air to the evening, as did the harpist playing classical music for background. While we were filing off the boat at the end of the cruise, the lines slightly eccentric owner showed up in a yellow oilskin slicker to hand out disposable umbrellas to each debarking lady with an elaborate bow, a nice touch. If you take the Bateaux-Mouches cruise, keep a sharp lookout for the unexpected sight of a perfect miniature replica of the Statue of Liberty--France's gift to the United States--on a tiny island in the middle of the Seine.

Although we were unaware of it at the time, we were witness to a grand old tradition coming to the end of the line. The Folies Bergere, after 120 years of

thrilling and sometimes shocking audiences, announced its closing in December, 1992, victim to losses mounting into the millions and an inability to compete with video and other technology of the Electronic Age. A few months earlier, we had put the Folies near the top of our list of attractions to see, as much a symbol of Paris as the Eiffel Tower. While most of the audience would come just for the performance, we booked reservations for the pre-show dinner. Much to our delight, it turned out to be an experience teetering perilously just this side of kitsch, as liveried footmen in powdered wigs descended a broad staircase with each course, announced by a trumpet fanfare. Elegant table settings, complete with floral arrangements and candelabra, freely flowing champagne, and a choice of wines, set the stage for a fois gras, lamb or salmon, and souffle dinner that was stronger on presentation than culinary wonderment.

Retiring to the inner theater for the show, we were struck by a feeling of gentile shabbiness that, in retrospect, was a reflection on the financial problems of this once proud institution. Despite its woes, the cast, undoubtedly aware of the impending demise, put on a spirited performance. The costumes were spectacular--when there were any to speak of, with the dancers and mannequins (those who stood statuesquely or sauntered sinuously around the stage) spending much of the time topless and practically bottomless--and the special effects, complete with fountain erupting and the Eiffel Tower limned in hundreds of golden lightbulbs, brought spontaneous applause when the curtain rose to reveal them. The traditional cancan was carried out with flashing skirts and shouts of glee--from both cast and audience--and the vaudeville acts that filled the time during costume and scenery changes brought back memories of the old "Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town." Nevertheless, the empty seats scattered throughout the auditorium were silent testimony that the end was near. The Folies Bergere of Maurice Chevalier, Mistinguett, and Josephine Baker is just a memory now, despite brave talk of reopening some day.

Yet, the tradition seemingly lives on at the Moulin Rouge with its landmark windmill perched atop the dance hall where the cancan first was performed in 1889. A stellar assortment of headliners have trod its stage, from such French stars as Edith Piaf and Charles Aznavour to Americans Lena Home, Bing Crosby, Lisa Minelli, and even Jerry Lewis. The Moulin Rouge does not separate its show from dinner, combining both in one huge, terraced room. Management evidently is determined to shoehorn in as many customers as possible, so tables are right on top of each other, with but a sliver of space for waiters to slither between. Amazingly, as dinner proceeded, even more tables were brought in and more guests were seated, until the restaurant seemed one seething mass of humanity. The Moulin Rouges ability to survive while the Folies couldn't may be attributable to canny promotion to Asian tourists and businessmen. The night we were there, more than two-thirds of the audience were Japanese, many of them arriving in large parties with translator / guides. Actually, the show needs little translation, stringing together a series of production numbers that merely seemed an excuse to bring on the nudes. Moreover, where great international stars once shone, we wound up with La Toya Jackson. While the evening's show was billed as "Formidable!," La Toya hardly lived up to the name. Her voice, though heavily miked, seemed inadequate to the task, and the phonetically learned songs obviously were foreign to her tongue and delivered without much feel for their meaning. It was hard to repress a giggle as the chorus boys kept carrying her physically from one part of the stage to the other, then plunking her down like so much furniture out of the way of the dancers and mannequins. Eventually, the sheer volume of naked flesh became almost abstract, and we found ourselves impatiently awaiting the acrobats, mime, and even alligator wrestler who showed up during scenery changes. Nevertheless, despite all the logistical contortions of the dinner service, the meal, especially the roast duck and grilled fish, was surprisingly well turned out, and the highlight of the evening, a Toulouse-Lautrec sequence in which cast members eerily resembling his familiar poster characters--La Gouloue, Jane Avril, Yvette Guilbert, et al.--recreated the ambience of the original dance hall, culminating in a rollicking cancan by the entire ensemble.

Of course, this type of entertainment is but one way to wile away the evening hours. There is a seemingly endless variety of concerts, ballet, theater, and opera performances throughout the city. Whether a music lover or not, don't miss the grand Opera house with its sweeping great staircase, wedding cake tiers, and huge, ornate chandeliers, just waiting for the Phantom to swoop down to terrorize Paris. The French Tourist Office--located in New York, Chicago, Dallas, and Beverly Hills--can provide a season calendar you can use for planning and booking ahead to ensure tickets for those events that might be sold out when you get there. Two handy acquisitions are a pass that allows admission to 63 museums and monuments and another good for unlimited Metro and bus fares. Each can be purchased for one-, three-, or five-day periods, affording good savings, especially if you plan to cover a lot of ground.

Marie Antoinette and Mickey Mouse

France's ultra-efficient RER railway system, with easy Metro connections, offers golden opportunities to get out of the city for day trips to a number of attractions. Two of the most popular are diametric opposites--one historic and regal, the other the ultimate invasion by America's most beloved exports. Relive the glories of pre-Revolution France at Versailles with all its pomp and splendor, or live it up with Mickey, Donald, Goofy, and the rest of cartoondom's royalty at Euro Disney.

Approaching Versailles after a five-minute walk from the railway station, it was immediately understandable what triggered the Revolution. The luxurious chateau built by Louis XIV clearly manifested both the power and arrogance of the ruling Bourbons. The grounds stretch out almost beyond the ability of the eye to comprehend as terrace leads to gardens to terrace to gardens and so on until one reaches the private lake, where snow-white swans serenely swim, aloofly ignoring the tourists who have rented boats and invaded their territory. Flower beds, fountains, and marble and bronze statues are at every turn of the paths that wind their way through the grounds, many of the busts and full figures echoing the myth of Apollo, the Sun God, in tribute to Louis XVI, the self-styled Sun King. Hidden groves are tucked around the grounds, where they served as locales for lovers' trysts and, no doubt, conspiracies to be hatched.

Two elaborate palace/homes--the Grand Trianon, designed as a place for the King and royal family to escape the pomp of the court, and the Petit Trianon, created for Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour, later occupied by Marie Antoinette--look like bungalows in comparison to the sprawling chateau that served as the seat of government, court, and royal apartments. Be sure to take one of the guided tours, since general admission is restricted to the King's Chamber and some of the lesser rooms. Following our guide through narrow corridors and up and down twisting back staircases, we were struck by the realization that, despite all the aristocracy's wealth, the royal bedrooms and sitting rooms were cramped, drafty, and greatly lacking in privacy, since they were laid out in railroad-flat fashion so that it was necessary to walk through someone's bedroom to get to the next set of apartments. Even Marie Antoinette's elaborate bedchamber, with its brocaded walls, silk upholstered furniture, and five-foot-tall standing candelabra, was unexpectedly small. Of far greater opulence were the various rooms where the aristocrats came together to hold court, dance, and sit down to multi-course dinners. The Hall of Mirrors, running behind the King's private apartment and the state apartment of the Queen, is dazzling, with floor-to-ceiling mirrors, gilt sculpture, and crystal chandeliers stretching seemingly to infinity. Our favorite story from the guide was that, since the chateau had been stripped almost to the bare walls when overrun by the mobs during the first days of the Revolution, many of the furnishings had to be bought back from "private collections" (translation: looters) when King Louis-Philippe had Versailles restored as the Museum of History of France in 1837.

For a different sort of castle--in this case, Sleeping Beauty's--board the RER for Mame-La-Vallee, 20 miles east of Paris, and the long-awaited arrival on the continent of Euro Disney. As it pulls into the station in the shadow of the park's gate, veterans of Disneyland and Walt Disney World get a flash of deja vu. The European model looks like it was cut from the same mold as its US. counterparts, but something seems to be lacking. After a moment, realization dawns that the crowds which are omnipresent in the American parks are missing. On a spring weekday, albeit a greyish one, it was possible to stroll around Euro Disney and choose any attraction without having to stand on line. The one exception may be a partial explanation of what is wrong. The sole thrill ride--Thunder Mountain--was the only one doing big business, with about 100 people waiting to board. In fact, Euro Disney seems like a Reader's Digest condensation of the originals, with just 30 attractions to choose from. There is no Epcot, and MGM Studios-Europe is not due to open until 1995.

A further difficulty is the language barrier, with all the familiar corny patter and come-ons having to be repeated in French, Spanish, and English, definitely losing something in the translation and destroying the upbeat timing. Moreover, since European children have not been reared on Disney as American kids are, there is less familiarity with characters and stories, except for those deriving from European folk tales such as "Cinderella," "Beauty and the Beast," and "Sleeping Beauty." Euro Disney is proving a hard sell, falling far short of anticipated revenue and projecting heavy losses for the foreseeable future, especially with having to contend with severe winter weather, unlike Orlando and Anaheim.

Setting all the quibbling aside, the Disney magic still works. Old standbys such as Peter Pan's Flight, It's a Small World, and Pirates of the Caribbean and a Beauty and the Beast musical extravaganza rising from the pages of a giant storybook delight youngsters, even if they may not get it all. The concluding parade with its colorful floats and prancing characters are as entrancing as the American version. Knowing the Disney track record, were sure that Euro Disney will shake off its growing pains and become a prime draw, if not the runaway success that was anticipated.

While a week proved insufficient to partake of all the pleasures Paris has to offer, it was enough to prove us wrong. The City of Light is not aloof and inhospitable, once you get to know it, although we would be hard-pressed to find a kind word for museum guards with a poor sense of timing. As we rejoined the Orient-Express for the last leg of our European tour, we already were formulating plans for the future. We were not saying au revoir, but a bientot (see you soon).
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Author:Rothenberg, Sheila; Rotherberg, Robert S.
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Date:Mar 1, 1993
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