Deep France Wednesday, Oct 15 2014 

To my mind, one of the best things about France is the French countryside. These are just some of the images that come to mind: Driving down a rural lane past centuries-old farms in Normandy or Burgundy. Taking a long walk in the once-royal forest of Fontainebleau. Picking my way through moss-laden trees in the Dordogne woods. Smelling the pines and sea air in the hinterlands of the Médoc or in the hills behind the Côte d’Azur. Getting stopped by a rowdy herd of goats on a remote road in Corsica or Provence. Biking around the scenic Ile de Ré. Tracing the outline of bare trees against open fields in winter. Seeing thousands of yellow sunflowers swaying in the wind. Watching the sun slowly set over rolling green vineyards. The possibilities of French landscapes are almost endless – and so easily obtainable. All you have to do is get out of the city and voilà, the French countryside is there.

Thinking about the non-city experience in France reminds me of the wonderful French expression ‘la France profonde’ – deep France. As one of my French friends puts it, ”la France profonde signifie la France des campagnes. Sans urbanisation et progrès, et ancrée dans les traditions.” In other words, deep France is the French countryside untouched by urbanization or development and anchored in tradition. In this view, French rural life is simple and idyllic in a positive sense. To another French friend, however, la France profonde is rather pejorative. It reminds her of a remote backwater, its inhabitants out of touch with modern life. Perhaps the American expression the ‘deep South’ is similar, both positive and negative depending on whom you talk to.


Recently, I had a very deep France encounter in its best sense. You know when you’re really in the mood for something and then it happens that the more than the perfect thing comes along to satisfy that wish? For me, it was just that with the extraordinary French documentary film “Le Cousin Jules.” Originally released in 1973 and despite receiving critical acclaim, Cousin Jules languished in relative film obscurity until it was digitized and re-released this past year.  


Watching Le Cousin Jules is to step back in time to real, deep France – and I was totally mesmerized. Filming over a five-year period starting in the late 60’s, director Dominique Benicheti records the rhythms and rituals of the lives of his cousin Jules Guiteaux and his wife Félicie on their farm in Burgundy. Each day, Jules dons wooden clogs and leather apron to begin work in his shop, while Félicie tends the vegetable garden and prepares their meals.



From the music of Jules’ hammer hitting the anvil to the sweetness of Félicie’s gnarled hands peeling potatoes to their simple lunch taken together in near silence, every scene is rich in the details of daily life. My favorite scene is when Félicie joins her husband in his blacksmith shop after lunch and carefully prepares their coffee on the wood-burning stove. You can tell it’s something that she’s done hundreds of times throughout their lives but somehow the action manages to be fresh and alive in that moment.


Before sitting down to watch this jewel of French cinema, however, you have to know that the film really is a documentary. There is no storyline and almost no dialogue. The drama is simply everyday life in the French countryside. (There is a big shift midway through the film, however. I won’t give it away here, and try not to read about it on the internet before seeing the movie!) To enjoy the film is to completely slow down and take in the details, the sounds and the rhythms of a time that no longer exists in France or elsewhere for that matter. But Benicheti makes the watching very worthwhile – he filmed Le Cousin Jules in lush CinemaScope and recorded it in stereo for a ravishing visual and auditory experience.

So if you’re game for a completely different type of film, pick up the Cousin Jules DVD at your local art flick rental store or buy a copy for your French film library. Then sit back with a nice glass of French wine and let yourself be immersed in la France profonde. Warmly poetic but unsentimental, Le Cousin Jules palpably captures the beauty of rural France, the simplicity of daily peasant life, and the nearly wordless intimacy of a lifelong relationship.  


French Take-Out ~ La France  à emporter

To enjoy more French film viewing in the U.S., be sure and check out the swell website Every week, French Flicks lists all the French movies being shown in America including special film festivals and events. For an added bonus, it also cross-references French film offerings on Netflix and TV5 Monde.


Paris With a View Thursday, Oct 2 2014 

There is no shortage of beautiful sights in Paris. Almost everywhere you look merits a picture or postcard moment. But by far the most arresting views in the city are the ones with altitude. From the top of the Arc de Triomphe to the dome of the Pantheon to the towers of Notre Dame, there are numerous vantage points where you can see the city from incredible angles. 


In this week’s post, I’ve pulled together a list of my favorite Paris panoramic spots – some well known and some off the beaten track – including whether they are accessible by stairs or elevators. You have to know what you’re getting into after all. I’ve also noted the ticket cost – a couple of them are even free – and whether the site is included in the Paris Museum Pass (PMP). So I invite you to check out these exceptional ways of discovering Paris from above and maybe put a few on your Paris to-do list the next time you’re there. One of these days, I am going to visit them all in the space of a month and dedicate a photo album to “Paris vu d’en haut” (Paris Seen from Above). Bonne visite!

(listed in order of arrondissement)

Tour Jean Sans Peur, 2nd arr: The Tower of John the Fearless is the last vestige of the Parisian palace belonging to the powerful Dukes of Burgundy. Hand-carved stone steps lead to the top of this medieval jewel. 5 euros.



Notre-Dame, 4th arr: For climbing the 387 steps to the balcony on the western facade of Notre Dame, you get a double bonus – seeing the cathedral’s towers and gargoyles up close as well as enjoying the superb views of Paris. 8.50 euros or PMP. Tower entrance at the northwest exterior corner of the church.


Centre Georges Pompidou, 4th arr: Whether or not you like the mod architecture of the Pompidou Center (some days I do, some days I don’t!), the viewing deck from the top floor is outstanding. 3 euros panorama ticket or included with regular museum entry fee or PMP.

Panthéon, 5th arr: Built on Mount St. Genevieve in Paris, the Pantheon is a must on any walking tour of the Latin Quarter. In addition to the great views from the dome (via stairs), several French notables are buried in the crypt including Voltaire, Rousseau, Victor Hugo, Marat, Emile Zola, Jean Moulin, Louis Braille and Marie Curie. 7.5 euros or PMP. Note: Due to ongoing renovations, access to the dome may be limited.

Tour Eiffel, 7th arr: The most obvious place to get a good look out over Paris is the Eiffel Tower. It’s also an intriguing spot weather-wise – I once visited when it was raining at the bottom only to find it was snowing when I reached the top! 15 euros for elevator access to the summit or 5 euros to climb the 704 steps to the second level. (Definitely buy any tickets in advance online as the ticket queue there is always way too long.)  


Musée d’Orsay, 7th arr: Accessed via stairs or elevators, the rooftop terrace at the Orsay Museum is one of my favorite venues in the city. You’re right in the center of everything – it feels like you could reach out and touch the Louvre or wave to folks on the Bateaux-Mouches on the Seine. And seeing Paris through the massive clock window is not to be missed! 11 euros or PMP.



Arc de Triomphe, 8th arr: The Arc de Triomphe at the top of the Champs-Elysées puts Paris in perspective – literally. From the 12 broad avenues radiating out from the Arch to the stunning axis running east to the Louvre and west to the La Défense Arch, Arc de Triomphe’s terrace (stairs only) offers views day or night like no other. 9.50 euros or PMP. To reach the Arch, don’t try to cross the traffic circle above ground – use the underground passageway.


Galeries Lafayette and Printemps Haussmann, 9th arr: In addition to all the fabulous shopping, the famous French department stores have great rooftop views of Paris. You can take the elevators, escalators or stairs to the 7th floor at Galeries Lafayette and the 9th floor at Printemps to reach the “terrasse panoramique.” Free.,

Institut du monde arabe, 13th arr: Located on the eastern end of Paris, the Institut du Monde arabe overlooks the Seine, Notre Dame, the Ile St. Louis and the Marais. The rooftop terrace on the 9th level (elevators) is open daily Tuesday to Sunday from 10am to 6pm. Entrance is free.

Tour Montparnasse, 14th arr: Parisians joke about how ugly the black Left Bank skyscraper la Tour Montparnasse is. The even bigger joke is how fantastic the views of Paris are from the Tower’s 56th floor viewing deck – especially because while there, you can’t see the Tour Montparnasse itself! The 360 degree views are accessible 365 days of the year, with the regular viewing deck reachable by elevator and the very top terrace by additional stairs. 14.50 euros.

Parvis du Sacré-Coeur, 18th arr: The Basilica of Sacré Coeur floats on the hill of Montmartre on Paris’s northern edge. The view from the square in front of the church is wonderful, but the outlook from the top of Sacré Coeur’s dome is sublime. Note that there are 300 steps to reach the top!

Grande Arche de la Défense: Inaugurated on July 14, 1989, for the bicentennial of the French Revolution, the great arch of La Défense symbolizes the modern business district west of Paris where it is located. The unique perspective towards the Arc de Triomphe, the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre is truly amazing. Access to the roof via glass elevator. 10 euros, 5 euros on Tuesdays.


NB: Weather conditions may affect accessibility to some of these sites.

French Take-Out ~ La France à emporter

The famous French photographer, reporter and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand has specialized in aerial views of magnificent sites and sights all around the world. Click here to see a gorgeous video he did of Paris a few years ago. It will transport you straight to the City of Light!