5 Incredible Facts About the Paris Opera House

Once upon a time during intermission at one of my first operas, I stood at the balcony overlooking several levels of cascading staircases beneath me, watching people as I sipped on Champagne.  The stranger next to me noticed my fascination and struck up a conversation.  And he shared something that has stayed with me at every opera I’ve seen since.

He told me that all opera houses were designed for people-watching because opera used to be as much about the music as it was a popularity contest among the aristocratic people who could afford to attend.  The winding staircases and balconies allowed people to see and be seen—the most important factor of the night.

The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris.

The Grand Staircase of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris.

I don’t know who that man was or where he was from, but since our conversation I’ve been to opera houses from Los Angeles to New York and everywhere in between and old or new, his point seems to ring true almost everywhere.  (There are a few exceptions, like San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.)  Even Barcelona’s Liceu opera house has plenty of places to gaze upon fellow opera-goers, even without a grand staircase.

Both sides of the Grand Staircase at the Palais Garnier in Paris.

The Grand Staircase at the Palais Garnier, surrounded by massive murals and statues.

When I first saw a photo of Palais Garnier, the opera house in Paris, I wasn’t thinking about how perfect it was for people-watching, I was mesmerized by its staircase.  (I have an obsession with stairs and always stop to snap photos of a good staircase!)  But I’d be lying if the opera house itself wasn’t one of the main reasons (combined with French pastries) that inspired me to add Paris to my trip to Spain.

Once in Paris, I wanted to know everything about Palais Garnier so, like in Barcelona, I signed up for a tour.  Of everything I learned, here are my favorite 5 incredible facts about the Paris Opera House, Palais Garnier:

The staircase and ceiling of the Grand Foyer in the Palais Garnier, Paris Opera House.

The decorative details of the Palais Garnier are stunning.

1. Yes, Palais Garnier was designed for people-watching. 

The tour guide confirmed what that man had told me years ago: that the opera house was designed for people watching, especially the grand staircase.  Its several stories of balconies and open staircases beg you to gaze down at those below you—or across from you.  And the stairs themselves are really shallow, designed to prevent women from showing their–gasp!–ankles when walking up them.

The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier in Paris.

The Grand Foyer of the Palais Garnier rivals the Hall of Mirrors at the Palace of Versailles.

2. The opera house is surrounded by banks.  That’s because…

…All those fancy rich people who attended the opera with the intention to see and be seen decked themselves out with all their jewels, which they picked up from their bank vaults on their way there.  Several banks knowingly opened nearby and stayed open until the opera was over so the jewels could be put away immediately after the curtain fell.  While numerous banks still surround the opera house today, they are no longer open so late.

The theater and ceiling inside the Palais Garnier in Paris.

The “chicken coup” is visible at the very top of the theater.

3. The top tier is called the Chicken Coup and there’s no visibility of the stage from there.  But that didn’t matter because…

The top tier was primarily reserved for middle class people who didn’t come to see the opera, but to see the rich people who were there.  In fact, back then the house lights stayed on throughout the entire performance so that people could people-watch during the whole opera.  That is, until composer Richard Wagner decided that all lights needed to be off in order to better concentrate on the activities on stage.

The middle class people couldn’t afford to dine at the lavish Palais Garnier so they brought food with them.  When they saw someone famous they didn’t like, they threw spoiled food at them from the top tier.  Eventually, vendors selling rotten tomatoes and apples gathered outside the opera house for this very purpose.

As you can imagine, the aristocratic people weren’t very pleased about this (can you imagine being hit with a rotten apple?!), so the Palais Garnier put chicken wire around the top tier to catch thrown objects, hence the tier’s nickname “the chicken coup.”  Today the chicken wire is gone but the visibility from the top tier is still minimal, so if you’re planning to see an opera make sure you check the stage view from the seats before purchasing!  (There’s a stage view link next to each seat on the Paris Opera website.)

Venetian mosaics decorate the ceiling of the Palais Garnier in Paris.

The ceiling is decorated with Venetian mosaics, the first use of them outside of Italy.

4. The basement of the opera house is flooded.  And that inspired the famous book and musical…

…the Phantom of the Opera.  The site for the Palais Garnier was picked for its proximity to the center of Paris, but when construction began in 1861 workers discovered the ground was a swampy lake that continuously flooded the site.  It took eight months to drain but the water kept returning.  After construction began and several attempts to pump out the water failed, architect Charles Garnier created a huge tank to store the water and used it to add stability the massive building.

The “underground lake” and its surrounding cellars inspired Gaston Leroux to write the Phantom of the Opera in 1910 and he even mentioned in his book when the huge chandelier came crashing down from the ceiling causing the death of a worker.

Overdressed outside the Palais Garnier.

Overdressed outside the Palais Garnier before the opera/ballet Orphée et Eurydice.

5. Parisians don’t get dressed up for the opera.  Which was awkward because…

… I was really dressed up.  In a building that beautiful, I couldn’t imagine wearing anything but a gown to the performance of Orphée et Eurydice.  Even at the other opera house in Paris, Opera Bastille, where we saw Les Capulet et les Montaigu (otherwise known as Romeo & Juliet), we were the most dressed up people there.  Everyone else was wearing leggings.  I couldn’t believe it!

The Palais Garnier is one of the most stunning buildings I’ve ever been inside.  Today, it’s mostly home to the ballet while the opera performs at the Opéra Bastille (with better stage visibility).  I highly recommend seeing a performance there but if not, take a tour of the Palais Garnier (available daily in both English and French) or wander through it on your own during the day.

Related :: Six days of beauty in Paris; touring Barcelona’s Liceu Opera House

A Day at the Palace of Versailles

We stood in a winding line for two hours outside the gates.  The line coiled around itself like a snake and every few minutes it would move ever-so-slightly.  We questioned our sanity more than once, staring at nothing but our fellow line-standers for hours, and occasionally we wondered about the threatening black clouds that hovered closer and closer.

It became a race.  Who would get to the Palace of Versailles first?  Our part of the line or the thunderstorm?

The golden gate at the front of the Palace of Versailles.

The golden gate at the front of the Palace of Versailles.

In the end, it was a tie.  Raindrops trickled as soon as we were within sight of the golden gates–we were so close!–and then, suddenly, a downpour like a shower.  We reached for our umbrellas, wishing we’d worn Wellingtons, and then our time in line was over.
One of the entrances to The Palace of Versailles.

One of the entrances to The Palace of Versailles.

We were herded through the Palace of Versailles, one of the largest royal palaces in the world, like a crowd pushing to leave a football stadium.  I wondered what King Louis XIV would think of his ornately decorated rooms now, once shunned from the public and now on display to thousands of strangers at this very second.

A statue and decorative lamp at the Palace of Versailles.

Every single space was ornately decorated beyond belief.

The palace is so large it encompasses several apartments (living quarters for the king and queen, among others), a chapel, an opera house (yes really!), a ballroom and 400 years of French history.

The Palace of Versailles.

The Palace is so large it’s impossible to get in one shot, even a panorama.

There were so many people in the palace that its 67,000 square meters somehow managed to be reduced to the point of claustrophobia.  But once we made it to the gardens, the endless gardens that finally gave me a visual definition for “as far as the eye can see,” I was able to breathe and take in the Palace.

Square trees and a fountain at the Palace of Versailles.

All the trees in the garden were trimmed into squares.

It was still too early in the year for the fountains to be fully on display (it was the first week of May) and we were in that transitional time between the early spring blossoms and the true spring flowers, so gardens were a painting of monochromatic green.
A large pot in the gardens at the Palace of Versailles.

The storm clouds gave a nice backdrop to the gardens.

Thanks to the thunderstorm, who remained firmly pouting in the sky (although thankfully not raining), the green gardens were contrasted with dark clouds, giving the entire palace a dramatic aura.

Looking out into the garden of the Palace of Versailles.

The gardens of the Palace of Versailles cover 800 hectares of land.

I was just glad there was enough to space to spread out from all the other tourists.

The French gardens at the Palace of Versailles.

The French garden was my favorite.

At first all the space in the gardens was impressive, then it was romantic in an Alice in Wonderland sort of way, and then it became almost eery as if we had been transported somewhere so far from Paris that we were in a wilderness in the middle of nowhere.  Which was probably the point.

The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

The Hall of Mirrors in the Palace of Versailles.

At the time, our day at the Palace of Versailles was a bit of headache with a dash of amazement, filled with too many tourists and more hype than I expected.

But now that France is sadly so far behind me, I’m thankful we went there.  If only for the photos, some of which are my favorite from my whole time in Paris.

Related :: Six days of breathtaking beauty in Paris and reflecting on Spain and France.

Looking Back at the Utah Arts Festival

What is art?  Art is creativity, imagination, emotion.  Most of all, art is expression.  It comes in many forms: painting and sculpture, photography and film, poetry and literature, and dance and music.  The Utah Arts Festival took over Library Square in downtown Salt Lake City last weekend, covering art in all its forms for four days.

The Utah Arts Festival takes over Library Square and the City & County Building grounds in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Utah Arts Festival takes over Library Square and the City & County Building grounds in downtown Salt Lake City.

The Utah Arts Festival is partially an artist marketplace, providing space for 164 artists from around the country to showcase and sell their work, from award-winning photographers to jewelry-makers, painters, sculptures and more.  Perusing the rows of booths is like visiting an outdoor art museum.

One of the four stages at the Utah Arts Festival.

One of the five stages at the Utah Arts Festival.

In the evenings, performance art takes precedence as five stages spread throughout Library Square provide the platform for local and national musical acts.  The music covers just about every genre, with bluegrass bands, jazz orchestras, funk and hip-hop performances.  This year they even showcased a rock band with a didjeridu front and center (that’s an Indigenous Australian woodwind instrument).

A beer against the Salt Lake City Library and the Uinta Beer Lounge at the Utah Arts Festival.

Several beer and wine booths are scattered throughout the festival, plus there’s a Uinta Beer Lounge serving high-point, specialty beers.

A film festival also coincides with the Utah Arts Festival, taking place inside the Salt Lake Library.  The Fear No Film Festival centers around a different theme each year; this year it was “boundaries.”  The films are shorts (under 15 minutes each) submitted from around the world and are free to see (unlike the rest of the festival, which has an entry fee).

Chef Robert Sullivan of the Epicuriousity Booth, where food meets art.

Chef Robert Sullivan of the Epicuriousity Booth, where food meets art.

There are more than 18 food booths, plus plenty of wine and beer, too.  This year saw the addition of the culinary arts to the festival with the Epicuriousity Booth, focused on gourmet food.  The food is as enjoyable to look at as it is to eat, which is exactly the point because as Chef Robert Sullivan of Utah Food Services said, “you eat with your eyes first.”

The Urban Art area, dedicated to tagging and graffiti-like art forms.

The Urban Art area, dedicated to tagging and graffiti-like art forms.

If that’s not enough, there are art workshops, a slam poetry stage, a kids station for art projects, an urban art section to watch graffiti-like art in action (and participate, too), dancing competitions and some of the best people-watching you’ll find all summer.

The festival is set against the beautiful background of the City & County building.

The festival is set against the beautiful background of the City & County building.

The Utah Arts Festival is one of my favorite weekends in Salt Lake City.  Not only am I a huge fan of art in all its forms, but I love sipping on wine (or beer) while enjoying art in Utah’s awesome outdoors, too.  While this year’s festival is behind us, mark your calendars for next year’s festival: June 25-28, 2015.  And for some amazing photos of the entire event, check out the official event photographer Austin Diamond’s gallery here.

Disclaimer :: I was invited to be part of the Utah Arts Festival Art Tour and therefore received free admission to the festival.  As always, opinions expressed here are my own (besides, I’ve long been a fan of the Utah Arts Festival!). 

Six Days of Breathtaking Beauty in Paris

Paris is but a dream.  Its breathtaking beauty has been lamented about for centuries in novels and poems, songs and operas.  Painters, photographers and artists alike have attempted to capture the essence of her charm, some with great success, but there is nothing quite like standing in her streets first hand.

The view from the Pont des Arts bridge in Paris.

The view from the Pont des Arts bridge, where lovers place locks as a symbol of love.

Even the people of Paris have a certain beauty to them; a striking, yet nonchalant aura that made me wonder how on earth everything in a city could be so gorgeous.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris during the day.

The clouds added a picturesque background to the most famous icon in Paris.

There is, of course, the dirt and grime that the city’s 2 million residents track through the city and the frustrations of the confusing metro that no matter how much we studied we ended up lost at least once a day.

But the architecture, the history, the culture and my god the pastries! of Paris more than made up for all the spots of dirt.

The Notre-Dame de Paris.

The Notre-Dame de Paris.

I had two rules during my six days in Paris: 1.) every meal must include dessert .  Because, hell, I’m in Paris!  And have long adored French pastries.  I accomplished this with vigor and excellence.

One of the gates leading into the Jardin du Palais Royal in Paris.

One of the gates leading into the Jardin du Palais Royal, with its square-trimmed trees.

And 2.) no museums.  We stayed in an apartment across the street from the Jardin du Palais Royal (Royal Palace Gardens), upon which a quick stroll would drop us directly in front of the Louvre—only one of the most famous museums in the world.  But I vowed not to step foot in it.

The glass pyramid and fountain at the Louvre museum in Paris.

I didn’t go inside the Louvre, but did walk through the grounds.

Why?  Call me crazy, but in the few short days I had in Paris, I thought I would learn more of French history, gather more of French culture and soak up more of Paris by wandering her streets than by wandering her museums.  So yes, I went to Paris and didn’t see the Mona Lisa.  And I don’t regret it even a little.

The main staircase of Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House.

The main staircase of Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House.

Instead I checked off a bucket list of items far more important: seeing the opera in one of the most beautiful buildings in the world: the Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera House.  Its grand staircase, designed for people-watching, was so breathtaking.  And while I was ridiculously overdressed (who knew Parisians wore leggings to the opera?!), I loved every minute of it.

Rows of bones in the Paris Catacombs.

The Catacombs hold the remains of about 6 million people.

And I toured the Catacombes, something I’d dreamed of seeing since I was little.  (Apparently I was a bit morbid as a child!)  We marveled at the rows and rows of skulls and bones, taken from nearby cemeteries in the late 1700s.

Escargot at Le Bouquet in Paris.

Escargot at Au Bouquet in Paris.

But mostly we enjoyed delicious, delicious food.  Some of the most amazing dishes I’ve ever eaten.  Octopus that was unlike any I’ve ever had, macarons that put every other one I’ve ever had to shame, and snails—I never imagined something so ugly could taste so wonderful.

The Eiffel Tower glowing at night.

The Eiffel Tower glowing at night.

We ended our time in Paris while watching its most famous icon glow against the setting sun, then finally twinkle as night fell.  It was surreal to think I’d made to Paris and heartbreaking that our 15 day trip to Spain and France was nearly over.  On the final day of our trip, we took a day trip to the Champagne region before heading back to Salt Lake City, forever to be mesmerized by our adventures.

Related :: Reflecting on Spain and France, four days in Barcelona, four days in Madrid and a day trip to Toledo.

Dinner at Eva’s Bakery in Salt Lake City

Eva’s Bakery has been pleasing downtown Salt Lake City palates with breakfast and lunch for awhile now, focusing on French-inspired dishes, pastries and artisan bread.  Part pastry shop and coffee bar, part ultra cute Parisian café, the restaurant is a charming addition to Main Street.  Formerly only open for breakfast and lunch, dinner at Eva’s Bakery is a recent addition to the menu (Thursdays-Saturdays only).

The wall of freshly-baked bread at Eva's Bakery.

The wall of freshly-baked bread at Eva’s Bakery. [Previously posted on instagram.]

When I first wrote about Eva’s Bakery, I said that the café was what I dreamed places in Paris to be like.  Having just returned from Paris, I can confirm that these cute neighborhood shops are everywhere there.  The bakery vibe of the restaurant prevents it from being anything but casual, even though the entrees are in the $14-17 range.

The menu is smaller than their daytime offerings, limited to just four starters and four entrees.  If you’re a picky eater, that can be a problem.  I was surprised they serve wine and beer, with a handful of wine offerings by the glass or bottle (even though they were out of half of the bottles the night I went).

Salmon stacked on asparagus over polenta at Eva's Bakery in Salt Lake City.

Salmon stacked on asparagus over polenta.

The starter section of the menu offers a few salads (a butter lettuce and radicchio for $7, an organic green for $5), garlic soup and bread ($7) and a Margarita pizza ($12) that looked entree-sized from the glance I stole to the one at the table next to us.  Complementary freshly baked bread is brought to the table still warm from the oven.

Short ribs at Eva's Bakery.

Short ribs at Eva’s Bakery.

The night I went, four friends ordered three of the four dinner entrees.  (Sorry Game Hen with baby carrots, you got left out of the mix.)  The consensus was the same with the Wild Salmon en Papillote ($16), served sitting on a bed of seared polenta and a row of asparagus in artichoke and tomato butter, and the Roast Grass-Fed Beef Short Rib ($15) with fingerling potatoes and a mixed green salad (even though the menu states a pea sprout salad): the meat was on the dry side but the sides, while predictable, weren’t bad.

Stuffed shells at Eva's Bakery in Salt Lake City.

The stuffed shells were the table’s favorite entree.

Surprisingly, the Baked Sundried Tomato Stuffed Shells ($14) filled with mozzarella, braised rainbow chard and fresh tomato basil sauce, was the best entree.  The tomato sauce had a slight sweetness to it and the freshness was obvious.  Overall, the entrees weren’t anything extraordinary (good or bad); they were just not memorable.

Layers of chocolate and whiskey/caramel buttercream cake at Eva's Bakery in Salt Lake City.

Layers of chocolate and whiskey/caramel buttercream.

For dessert, Eva’s Bakery offers any of the pastries in the case at the front of the house.  We ordered the Whiskey Caramel Chocolate Cake, a multi-layered chocolate cake filled with rich buttercream.  We couldn’t detect any whiskey flavor but the chocolate cake satisfied my never-ending craving for cake wonderfully.

The dessert was easily the star of the meal.  While dinner is a new concept for Eva’s Bakery and their menu is scheduled to change seasonally, I think I’ll stick to breakfast, lunch and pastries in the future.  Their strong points are noticeably their bakery items and for dinner, I’ll head to their sister restaurant Eva, for more choices and better food.

Go to Eva’s Bakery for :: breakfast or lunch.  Leave dinner to their sister restaurant.  Notes :: Dinner is served only Thursday-Saturday, from 6-9 p.m.  (Breakfast and lunch is served Monday-Saturday, 7 am-6 pm.)

Related :: My review on breakfast and lunch at Eva’s Bakery

Wahso in Park City

Park City’s Main Street is lined with iconic landmarks.  The historic post office, the western-looking general store, the Egyptian theater—these famous trademarks symbolize Park City to tourists and locals alike.  Even walking underneath the hanging red lights at Wahso is a reminder that I’m indeed in Park City.

The menu at Wahso in Park City, Utah.

Wahso’s menu is beautiful.

I’ve walked past Wahso a thousand times, each time gazing up at their second-story patio topped with red glowing globes while wondering about their food.  But self-described as Asian fusion, admittedly not my favorite type of cuisine, Wahso has remained on my To Eat list for years.  Last week I finally had dinner there and I was surprised from the moment I stepped inside til the moment I left, full and satisfied.

The Asian-themed interior of Wahso and the iconic red lights outside.

The Asian-themed interior of Wahso and the iconic red lights outside.

As a second story restaurant, it’s impossible to gauge the decor of Wahso from passing by.  Which is both unfortunate and surprising because you’d never expect the interior to be the Asian oasis that it is.  After walking up the stairs, Wahso opens to a large dining room that transports you to 1930s China.  Decorated with bamboo plants and Chinese statues, surrounded by Asian art and wood paneling, I felt like I was in a Chinese gangster movie–in the good way.

Pork belly buns with pickles at Wahso in Park City, Utah.

Pork belly buns with pickles.

But summer in Park City isn’t something to be missed so my friend and I sat on the patio overlooking Main Street with its mountainous background.  We were presented with warm hand towels and a massive book of cocktails and wines with bottles from around the world.  Thankfully it was well-organized so it wasn’t overwhelming and there were plenty of inexpensive bottles to chose from.  (We picked a lightly crisp J Pinot Gris.)

Perfectly seared Wagyu with a hint of Thai flavors at Wahso in Park City.

Perfectly seared Wagyu with a hint of Thai flavors.

The appetizers lean toward traditional Asian items like Vietnamese Spring Rolls ($12), Wok-Seared Potstickers ($13) and Kung Pao Shrimp ($17).  We ordered the Thai Beef Tataki ($21), togarashi-seared wagyu beef, haricot verts (green beans), cucumbers and heirloom tomatoes in a lemongrass vinaigrette with slight flavors of fish sauce and Sriracha for spiciness.  It was a great summery dish with a good use of vegetables for texture.

Hamachi sashimi appetizer at Wahso in Park City, Utah.

Refreshingly citrusy with a hint of spice, the hamachi appetizer was our favorite.

We paired it with the Steamed Chinese Buns with Pork Belly ($14), house-made pickles and Sriracha sauce.  The pork belly wasn’t as flavorful as I hoped, with the condiments standing out the most.  (The buns are also available with kimchee and duck confit.)  Our favorite appetizer was the Hamachi Sashimi ($24) topped with spicy citrus kosho (made with apples, jalapeno and limes) and house-made ponzu sauce.  It was a perfect combination of citrus and spice, while letting the hamachi flavor shine.

Duck, Wahso-style.

Duck, Wahso-style.

The entrees add a modern twist to the Asian theme: the Beef & Broccoli ($52) is their version of Wagyu New York Strip with garlic-roasted broccoli; Forbidden Tofu ($31) is crispy tofu with Thai basil in a lychee vinaigrette, and red curry lamb sirloin ($42) with fennel and chard stir fry with polenta.  We picked the Chili-Galangal Duck ($45) with hon shemiji-snap pea stir fry, duck confit quinoa and pomegranate-teriyaki jus.  The duck is cooked sous vide for hours, then pan seared so it was intensely juicy and savory; the jus had the slightest hint of delicious smokiness to it.

Miso Black Cod, a refreshing favorite at Wahso in Park City.

Miso Black Cod, a refreshing favorite at Wahso.

Our other main dish was the Miso Black Cod ($51), a staple on Wahso’s menu that has remained unchanged for 14 years.  (How impressive is that?!)  Served with aromatic rice, shiitake mushrooms and bok choy in a mushroom-ginger broth, it was simple in flavor profile but surprisingly amazing.  Everything played nicely together to create a light dish that was anything but boring.

Toasted Coconut Creme Brulee served in a coconut shell at Wahso in Park City, Utah.

Toasted Coconut Creme Brulee served in a coconut shell.

Finally, we finished with Toasted Coconut Créme Brûlée ($10), served in a coconut shell.  Normally I’m not the biggest fan of créme brûlée, but this isn’t normal créme brûlée.  Deliciously coconuty, with a perfect sugar crust on top, this was a wonderful end to our meal.

“Asian fusion” accurately describes the menu at Wahso, but that term doesn’t do the dishes that come out of kitchen justice.  The cuisine is more than American dishes with an Asian flair, it is expertly combined flavors reminiscent of a region in creatively compelling compositions.  While dinner at Wahso is definitely a splurge, it’s one worth making.

Go to Wahso for :: An amazing splurge meal full of Asian flavors.  Notes :: Many dishes on the menu are available gluten free.  Open Wednesday-Sunday at 5:30 p.m.  Reservations are available online here.  On Wednesdays throughout the summer, Wahso has $3-6 starters, $12 entrees and $5 wine and cocktails.  More information on Wahso Wednesdays click here.

Disclaimer :: I was graciously treated to this meal by Bill White Restaurant Group.  As always, all opinions are my own. 

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