06 May 2011

Provence on Film

Filmmakers like to use Provence as a backdrop to stories because of the way the region looks so quintessentially French.  They especially love the Lubéron, where picturesque villages sit perched on the hillsides and cars squeeze through narrow streets.  Not the easiest of filming environments, but worth it in the end.  If Paris is immediately recognizable by the Eiffel Tower, then for Provence it's the landscape: vineyards, olive trees, fields of lavender, sunflowers and poppies, and stone buildings with colorful shutters all announce Provence.  Listen for the cigales (cicadas), they announce orally when you're in Provence.

Swimming Pool  (2003)
A writer goes to stay at a house in Provence to get some tranquility, only to discover a young woman staying there who disturbs her peaceful retreat.

A Good Year (2006)
Based on the novel by Peter Mayle (who has made a career writing about Provence, his adopted homeland), the film entertains you while providing beautiful backdrops of Provençal villages and scenery.  A great way to learn a little more about life in a small town.  (The book and the movie are quite different, but equally interesting.)


Provence is the most popular region outside Paris and Ile-de-France, both for the French and tourists from around the world.  Located in southeastern France, the region stretches to the Mediterranean Sea, with Italy and the Alps to the east, and the Rhône river to the west.  The Côte d'Azur along the Mediterranean Sea has the same glitz and glamour as California and Florida.  Inland, hilltop villages dot the countryside, and fields are covered with sunflowers, lavender and grapevines.



Over two thousand years ago, the Romans invaded Gaul (France), a land occupied by Celtic tribes.  They established a province in southern France, the borders of which form today's Provence.  They constructed aqueducts, bridges and roads to connect Provence with other parts of the world.  Provence held a superb central position geographically, and became an important center of trade.  The region allowed the Romans to conquer in all directions, and develop their vast empire.  The Roman towns of Arles, Nimes and Orange have grown beyond their original layouts, but retain many Roman structures.  Several theaters  and amphitheaters are still used for events today.

Many writers and artists have been inspired by Provence, which also encourages people who visit the region.  The sky is almost always blue in Provence, mainly because of the strong northerly wind called the Mistral which actually blows most of the clouds away.  Provence experiences a mediterranean climate, with mild winters and hot summers.  Wine production began with the Romans, and Provence is the source for many internationally-recognized appellations.

25 April 2011

Paris on Film

Film is a great medium to experience life in a different culture, because most stories show aspects of typical behavior.  It’s always fun to see places you have been or plan to visit, and  having a plot to follow is more interesting than a travelogue.   A film's setting influences a film, because regional characteristics and accents play a role.  Parisians speak faster, southerners speak slower, and people in the country have thicker accents.  French films always thank the region where the film was made (“Ile-de-France” means it’s made in  Paris).  
Many contemporary films take place in and around Paris.  When there aren’t obvious landmarks around to tell you it’s Paris, the cars will.  The last two numbers on French license plates indicate the department.  Paris has its own number (75), and along with several departments (92, 93, 94) comprises Ile-de-France.  When the story takes place elsewhere in France, a license plate from a different region indicates a character's status as "foreign" in that department.  Directors use this tactic frequently, especially to identify those from Paris.  

A car from department 19
(Corrèze, in southwest France)
    The premise of this film was to get many directors to each take a different arrondissement  (district) in Paris and make a 10-minute story segment.  Famous directors and actors from around the world put together a collage of perspectives on the same city.  Stories evolve around different backdrops, each with its own atmosphere and people.  The result is a whirlwind tour of Paris.  

Paris, Je t'aime

Paris from the Arc de Triomphe
    The whole world fell in love with Amélie, the lovable, shy character Jean-Pierre Jeunet created.  Even though he enhanced the colors with golden filters and carefully arranged each street scene, this is the Paris and Montmartre everyone wants to see, and he’s not too far off from reality.  Montmartre claims to be the last “village” in Paris, and its inhabitants pride themselves on being different from the rest of the bustling city below.  Its elevated position has always been an artists’ haven, but high property values limit it to wealthy today.  You really can visit the Café des Deux Moulins, with everything intact from the film (a mecca for fans), but why pay too much for a coffee when there's another café with true ambience around the next corner ?   

Amélie filming locations 
A typical café in Montmartre  

La Joconde, or the Mona Lisa
    Leonardo Da Vinci has always drawn people to the Louvre, in fact small images of the Mona Lisa throughout the museum guide you straight to her.  Dan Brown’s phenomenally best-selling book-turned-movie draws people to Paris to take themed walking tours, and has increased awareness of lesser-known sites like the St.-Sulpice church.  The story goes beyond Paris, but is still entertaining.  Don't try to imitate the Smart car chase scene on your own!     

Da Vinci Code Sites

The Louvre and its distinctive pyramid 

A view of Paris and the Basilique Sacré-Cœur
(on Montmartre)
   There are a few streets in Paris which mean serious business for the upscale shopper: les Champs-Elysées, rue de Rivoli, rue des Francs-Bourgeois, and avenue Montaigne.  This film centers around the upscale boutiques, hotels, theatres and cafés, a world completely foreign to the main character, a young woman from the “provinces” headed to Paris to find work.  A good introduction to the new Parisian upper class (no longer maintaining all the traditions established by previous generations), and the discrepancies with those lower on the ladder. 

Avenue Montaigne  (film) 
Avenue Montaigne  (history)

CLEO DE 5 A 7 
    The premise of this film was to depict segments of a story told in real-time, a professional singer trying to live an ordinary day in her not-so-normal life.  The camera follows her on various errands, and the viewer gets both a walking and a driving tour of Paris.  Towards the end she winds up in the Parc Montsouris, a peaceful park unknown to most tourists, even though it’s the second-largest park in central Paris (located on the southern edge).  There is a plot line (she's awaiting the results to a medical test) in one of New Wave director Agnes Varda's distinctive works.          
Boul' St. Mich' (Boulevard St. Michel)
Latin Quarter

    The Pink Panther films feature Inspector Clouseau, a bumbling French policeman solving international crimes which carry him all around Europe.  The originals with Peter Sellers feature Parisian backdrops as well, but Steve Martin’s recent incarnations take you on wild adventures throughout Paris, also using a Smart car.    
Hôtel de Ville (City Hall) 

14 April 2011

April in Paris

Springtime in Paris is iconic, partly due to the song “April in Paris”, written for a Broadway musical in 1932.  The lyrics were written by “Yip" Harburg, a lyricist whose credits include The Wizard of Oz.  (Incidentally, he was born in April.)  
If you're headed to Paris in spring, be prepared for rain, and delighted if you have sun.  April showers do indeed bring May flowers, but it’s hit-or-miss with good weather in the capital from March to June.  Pack layers and an umbrella, just in case.  However, prices are lower and lines are shorter, as peak summer tourist season doesn’t hit until mid-June.  There are numerous inside activities, and you can participate in events designed for locals. 

Pick up the Paris Museum Pass, and set off to expand your historical and cultural knowledge on topics ranging from fashion to airplanes.  The pass is valid for 2, 4 or 6 days, and starts at 35 euros.  It’s worth it if you want to hit several major museums during your stay (Louvre, Orsay, Pompidou, Rodin, Versailles).  Beware of museum over-load: don’t combine big museums in one day, and don’t hit more than two per day.  Go to a small museum first to buy the pass (Rodin is great), and you’ll sail through the entrances to the larger museums.  The palace of Versailles is included in the pass, but requires a full day, and if it’s raining, the gardens won’t be as much fun.  Wait for a sunny day, or skip it and visit something else instead.  

Don’t let rain dampen your spirits, you can always buy postcards (or find photos elsewhere) of the monuments taken during better weather.  The metro and buses can zip you around, and the museums can store your coats and umbrellas.  If you need to warm up, take a short break at a café.  Hop on bus #69 for a dry hour-long loop tour of the city’s major sites for the cost of a métro/bus ticket (~$2).  This option is much cheaper than the red hop on/hop off buses (~$40), only popular with tourists.      
Any visit to Paris is well worth it, no matter the weather.  Don’t work against it: have options for nice days and museums to see when it turns.  Plan to be flexible, and you’ll have a great time in Paris!