Friday, December 28, 2012

Franse Deure / French Doors - Part 2

Deure vanaf Roussillon, Parys en St. Remy-de-Provence.
Doors from Roussillon, Paris and St. Remy-de-Provence.

Friday, December 21, 2012

A Postcard from Loire

Amboise on the banks of the Loire River

After 4 days in the City of Light we left Paris in the early morning on a “bullet” train for Tours. But what a rush it was to get from the Marias to Montparnasse on the other side of Paris in morning rush hour. Although we gave ourselves two hours to get there with the metro we boarded the TGV train with 2 minutes to spare. It was close or we would have missed it.  After an hour’s train ride we arrived at the outskirts of Tours.  

 Chenonceau: The road from the entrance to the Chateau

We rented a tiny Renault Modus at Saint-Pierre-des-Corps train station and figured our way out of Tours and while driving the back roads to Francueil where we rented a gite, M observed that we are almost like two young continental backpackers that have just finished school and are embarking on a “Gap Year” exploration: “Even though our luggage is more than just a backpack and we walk slower than youngsters, we have no idea where we’re going except going from roundabout to roundabout and wherever the road takes us.” It was great to feel that freedom!
 Gardens at the Chateau de Chenonceau

But we had help. We had Samantha, the insistent GPS voice instructing us where to go and she proved to be most valuable even though she sent us to a farmhouse once and at another occasion down a one way street. How people traveled by car without GPS in years gone by I honestly don’t know. Maps are good for general driving in the countryside, but once you get into a city like Avignon, especially the walled portion of the city with its maze of ancient narrow streets we learned that Samantha is very good in the cities. She knows her stuff, so to speak. But we also had Michelin maps as a backup and we needed it on the 2nd day of our visit to the Loire Valley. On our way to Chambord we discovered the Renault’s power outlet packed up and the internal battery of the GPS went flat and the rest of the day we had to rely on maps and M’s excellent navigational skills to get us to Chambord and to the Chateau of Cheverny and back home again. We made it!       

The word “hamlet” arose in English around the 1300s, borrowed from the Old French hamel, which means “village”. “Hamlet” is simply a diminutive of hamel, emphasizing the small size of a hamlet. Our rented gite was in the small hamlet of Francueil, 3 km south of the picturesque village of Chenonceaux and the Chenonceau chateau. The house used to be a boulangerie, a bakery, on the small square in front of the village’s church. I don’t know when the bakery was converted to a 2 bedroom house, but today a tiny and modern Cocci Market anchors the opposite side of the square and sells bread, groceries, wine and most things required for a short stay. Opposite the church is The Lion D’Or, a bar-cum-brasserie-cum-snooker hall-cum-tabac (a store that sells anything from cigarettes to lottery tickets). Judging by the number of cars that stopped there early evenings it is the get together place for villagers to grab a quick beer or glass of wine before heading home.

 Stables at the Chateau de Cheverny

Our plans for the next three days were simple: See as many castles as possible (we ended up visiting 4 castles: Chenonceau, Chambord, Cheverny and Amboise), enjoy the sights of the Loire Valley (the countryside is mostly low country, flatlands, beautifully green and in the process of turning to autumn), and eat good food and savor the local wine (but we had terrible food at an Italian restaurant in Blere (the only bad food we had on the whole trip). However, the next night we had absolutely excellent gourmet food at Le Cheval Rouge in Chisseaux, a neighboring village).

And we did that while it rained quite a lot. Sometimes it was nothing more than a drizzle and at other times it poured as if the proverbial biblical flood was playing out in Western Central France. At night thick mist and a wet cold would cloak the valley and the smell of wood-burning fireplaces permeated every particle in the air.

 The moat at Chateau de Chenonceau

Although the Loire Valley doesn’t have any of the dramatic Provencal countryside or the concentrated grandeur of beauty of a Paris, it is, notwithstanding the rain, a beautiful easy-going region to visit. I loved driving the Loire country roads that snake through the grape and vegetable farms and wine estates. We avoided any form of highway and never travelled any of the toll roads. It was back roads travelling all the way. It was leisurely loitering in the Loire.
Amboise, France
Chateau de Chambord - Workers' village

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Franse Deure / French Doors - Part 1

Deure en hekke. ‘n Snaakse passie in fotografie.
Dit sê so baie. Dit sê hoe ‘n mens voel oor jou eiendom, wat se beeld ‘n mens na die buite wereld uitstuur en wat ‘n mens graag wil sien elke keer met tuiskoms.
En deure het ook karakter. Meeste het. Daarom dat deure en hekke gunsteling onderwerpe is vir fotograwe.
Deure vanaf Roussillon, Parys, Avignon en Gordes.
The Petit Palais, City of Paris Fine Art Museum
Doors and gates. A peculiar passion in photography.

They say so much about how one feels about one’s property, the image one sends to visitors and what one wants to see upon returning home.

They also have character. Well, most do. That’s why doors and gates are popular subjects for photographers.

Doors from Rousillon, Paris, Avignon and Gordes.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Quintessential Tourists in Paris

You can read about it, watch a TV program about it, Youtube it, listen to people telling you about it, but you can only truly understand the level of opulence when you see it for yourself. The Palace of Versailles is simply the richest, most sumptuous…pick a superlative, any one will do…building that I have ever seen. And busy! Tourists, shoulder to shoulder. M and I included. It is not the busiest museum I have been to (that honor belongs to the Vatican Museum), but it was pretty crowded, even though we were there early, before 10am, before the buses arrived to bring in the real hordes of people with their flag waving or umbrella-lighthouse tour guides.

Versailles is not a descriptive place, it’s a visual place and David Gates said it so well in If: “If a picture paints a thousand words…”

I’ll leave you with the pictures...    
Scenes from Versailles with Marie Antoinette’s bedchamber at the top left and right.

Parisian People-watching

Upon our return from Versailles, exiting the metro at St. Michel into glorious, but not too hot sunshine we grabbed ourselves a sidewalk table at the popular Saint Severin brasserie across from the St. Michel fountain and on the corner of rue Saint Severin, and partook in the quintessential Parisian pastime, people-watching. You don’t need a book or a magazine or a newspaper to entertain yourself during your déjeuner or coffee break – the throngs of people on the sidewalk is the cast for this soap opera.  M ordered a large cappuccino while I went for a refreshing few glasses of a Petit Chablis from Maison Simonet-Febvre. We sat there for more than an hour. Totally relaxed and we just let the street opera play out in front of us. We chatted up a Pennsylvanian couple at the next table, who tucked Paris like a Euro note into their travel wallet en route from Rome to London. We watched determined Parisians neatly dressed and scarfed go briskly from point A to point B. I am yet to meet a Parisian without a scarf. We smiled at tired tourist wandering, thinking about ourselves, slowly and aimlessly on sore feet. At about 5 pm we dragged ourselves up onto our own tired feet and slowly cruised down rue St. Martin in the general direction of our rented apartment on rue Chapon. I popped into the Paroisse Saint-Merry church to look for photographic jewels, found none, while M checked out a bookstore here and chocolatier there. At the George Pompidou Centre I watch a one man sidewalk show while a lonely guitar player was belting out French songs from under a tree a little further down the street. It was actually a very pleasant walk and it felt like a continuation of the people-watching at Saint Severin.
Versailles in the early morning. Virtually no tourists outside.

During the vacation’s planning stage I promised ourselves at least one dinner in one of Paris’s many top class restaurants, stylish French cuisine in a romantic setting. After Versailles and a short rest in our apartment we walked around the block to L’auberge Nicolas Flamel at 51 rue de Montmorency. Again we were traveling by the skin of our pants. According to my Internet research booking is essential at the restaurant, but because I had no prior idea which night we would have the time or be in the mood to go to the restaurant I made no prior reservation. So when I opened the door of the oldest house in Paris I was there in positive spirit and hope. You see, although I always have an itinerary for when we travel, we more often than not just get ourselves lost in a city. The French has a beautiful word for it: “flânerie”. There is no real English equivalent for flânerie, as there are many other French examples without true English equivalents to express the mood, like bon voyage, but that’s for another post. Flânerie falls somewhere between loitering and drifting or wandering, being nomadic. Cornelia Otis Skinner describes it so well in her book Elegant Wits and Grand Horizontals.

There is no English equivalent for the term (flânerie), just as there is no Anglo-Saxon counterpart of that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.

Dinner in the oldest house in Paris

The L’auberge Nicolas Flamel Restaurant is located on the ground floor of the oldest still existing house in Paris. It was built in 1407 in the 3rd arrondissement of Le Marias and although the building has been renovated the façade has been preserve for its historical background. The house was built for famous French alchemist Nicolas Flamel whose name appeared in several books, among other Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone and The Da Vinci Code.


Upon entering I could understand why reservation is essential. There are only about 12 or 15 tables inside. The place is tiny. Decoration is typical Paris, mostly white with splashes of old wood beams, exposed stone and beige pictures of cutlery against the wall. Subdued and classy with candles on the tables and glasses and silverware arranged like chess pieces on white linen tablecloths. We were probably a bit underdress in our best traveling clothes while most of the people in the restaurant were dressed in their Sunday best. Although no reservation they graciously welcomed us and I guess we had Lady Luck on our side that evening because the place was eventually a full house. I found the place on Google map near the apartment and read mixed but mostly good reviews on Trip Advisor.  M decided to take a three course meal a la carte, but I was more adventurous and selected a five course dégustation menu, each course paired by different wines and all to be determined by the chef. My attitude was: Amaze me. Give me your best shot…err, food.
Versailles’s famous Hall of Mirrors.

M settled for pressed duck foie gras with apricot chutney and toasted bread as an entrée (in France entrée is the first course), followed by encrusted Cod with mixed vegetables as her le plat principal and for dessert the Nicolas Flamel Chocolate Gold Bar with chocolate ganache, Breton sablé, and gingerbread ice cream. Gourmet art pieces. I tasted some of her food and it was all very good, especially the Cod. Really excellent! I did not get to taste the dessert, it was too good to share I guess.

I started off with what I thought was beef marrow, removed from the bone and formed into a square and then fried and topped with shredded orange, which was served with a white wine from Alsace. I say “thought” because I am not sure what I ate. It tasted like bone marrow. Unfortunately I didn’t catch the wine’s name either. The waitress had a very heavy French accent and she showed me the bottle and then quickly disappeared again. Don’t expect much English to be spoken in non-touristy restaurants. However, melt in the mouth food and the food/wine pairing was spot on. My second course was sautéed mushrooms with a hint of garlic and cream on a thin layer of scalloped potatoes and served with a white wine from the Languedoc region in the south of France. It was well prepared, beautifully presented but perhaps a bit too subtle. I am sure I would have ruffled the chef’s feathers just a wee bit if I had asked for a little bit of black pepper.

The third course was grilled sea scallops topped with red caviar on a small bed of sweet potato mash and served with a glass of Chablis (Chardonnay). O la la! The sweet of the sweet potatoes and the salty flavors of the caviar played off well against each other and were well balanced by the wine. Absolutely divined! Unfortunately it was a bit downhill from here on. My le plat principal was wild boar in a red wine reduction on mash potatoes and it was served with a full bodied red Beaujolais Villages. The wine was good but I didn’t care that much for the meat. It still had a too strong venison taste as if it was marinated too short a time. I didn’t finish it. The dessert I didn’t like at all and the pairing was not to my liking. The frosted peaches with purple carrots topped with gingerbread crumble are just not a combination that my taste buds favor and the champagne was too dry.

Overall it was a great experience. The food was well presented and well prepared. The taste was good, but not exceptional. The chef got the pairing right most of the time, except for the dessert, and the service was very good. My review of the restaurants is very similar to the mixed reviews on Trip Advisor; Good quality, but not all French regional food might be to one’s liking.

Neither was it the best food we have had in France. That would come three days later in the Le Chavel Rouge restaurant in Chisseaux near our rented gite in the Loire valley. But that’s for another post. The only criticism I can maybe mention against L’Auberge Nicolas Flamel is the lack of background music to enhance the romantic atmosphere of the place. Subsequently we would discover, at least that’s the way it seems to us, in France they don’t play background music in top class restaurants. Everything is very subdued and whispers. If you want music with your dinner eat in a café, bar or brasserie.    

The King's bedchamber takes centre stage facing the rising sun 
A real up and down kind of day in Paris and Versailles. Some good, some bad (me misunderstanding French directions which ended in a long walk to nowhere) at Versailles. People-watching was good and the evening dinner was overall a pleasant experience. A quintessential touristy and sunny autumn day in Paris. 

No doubt who stayed behind these gates

Versailles's Chapel, Upper level

Thursday, December 6, 2012

In A Paris Trance

Initially I found writing about Paris difficult. The blockage was created by a thought. A single, simple thought: What could I possibly contribute about Paris that so many famous writers and many more bloggers and travelers have not already said? It left me with only one approachable angle, the same angle that all these writers also took – The personal angle.

Sunday was barely breaking on the eastern horizon when our plane descended through thick, bumpy clouds to land at Charles De Gaulle airport. Most of Paris was probably still sleeping. The famous city lights were nowhere to be seen. Two hours later when we eventually emerged from Chatelet-Les Halles train station, not too far away from our rented apartment in the heart of the Le Marias, the oldest part of Paris, it was grey, cold, windy and rainy. Not the best weather for dragging a suitcase behind you, holding an umbrella and trying to read a map while walking. Thankfully we were on a direct flight from Cincinnati to Paris, but still, the overnight flight did not allow for any meaningful sleep.  The long, slow moving queue at the RER train ticket booth at the airport, and the process, the sheer amount of walking, of finding the right street exit from Chatelet-Les Halles, one of the biggest train stations in the world, and then to get momentarily stalled on the inside at the exit because of several malfunctioning turnstiles, did not contribute to lift our mood of tiredness.

"Parisienne Walkways"

Time for rest was not yet insight though. We found our apartment on rue Chapon after about 15 minutes of walking.  After we put our luggage down and listen to all the instructions and directions from the rental company’s host, we were off again to find a groceries store and a bakery to buy some necessities like coffee, milk, bread and pastries for lunch and dinner at “our home” for the next few days. Most of Paris’s groceries stores, bakeries and even many restaurants are closed on Sundays and those open closes at noon or shortly thereafter.

Street scenes

Crisscrossing Paris

The next few days was all about absorbing what Paris had to offer? Using all forms of transport - our feet, the hop-on-hop-off red buses, taxis and the metro and RER trains, we crisscrossed the city from Notre Dame to the Trocadero and the Eiffel Tower, from the broad Avenue des Champs-Elysees to the narrow streets and alleyways of the Latin Quarter. We bought crepes from street vendors and rested tired feet in brasseries. On the Tuesday, in nice sunny weather, we were off to that ultimate tourist trap of Versailles for most of the day (more about that in a later post) and on Wednesday it poured with rain again but we locked ourselves into the Louvre for the whole day and didn’t care about the rain outside. At times my camera worked overtime and at other times I totally ignored it and just enjoyed the Paris induced “trance.”

Street food

It is interesting to observe how quickly one feels one can become a “temporary” Parisian. Go to the corner groceries store and buy some salads and a bottle of wine, at the boulangerie a loaf of olive bread, and some pungent cheese at a market on a square and you instantly feel at home in Paris. It doesn’t make you French, but it makes you want to become more than just a tourist in Paris. It makes you feel “temporary” at home. I like that feeling and that’s why we always try to enhance the local sensation of our trips by staying in apartments/flats, houses, anywhere but hotels. We did stay in a hotel on 2 different occasions in Paris but it was because we were in transit to Avignon and then again the night before we returned to the US.

By Monday afternoon the rain and clouds have disappeared, thankfully, and on our way to the Eiffel Tower to ascent at dusk and watch Paris grow dark and see the city of light in, well, lights, we were presented with a glorious sunset that coated the Fames at the Pond Alexander III and the dome of the Invalides in gilded glory. At this time of day I already wanted to be on the tower but I underestimated Paris’s rush hour traffic.

Stuck in traffic enabled us to enjoy scenes of the Seine River at dusk as it corkscrew through the city and the Eiffel Tower edged against a cloudless sky painted only with the occasional aircraft condensation trails.

The Eiffel Tower at night

Ascending the Eiffel Tower was kind of a waste – of time and money. Paris doesn’t really look any different than any other city at night time. Certainly not much to write home about.

Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris

The Heart of Paris

The Cathedral de Notre Dame de Paris has been at the center of Parisian life for centuries. Building started in 1163 and it took more than 200 years to complete it. The church is one of the best examples of Gothic architecture in the world. On the first day in Paris we visited the church on our walkabouts but did not go inside. The line was too long and it was raining. Puddles and mud everywhere. There is some pavement project taking place right in front of the entrance. Quite a mess. The famous organ is also currently quiet due to restoration work and it is all part of a major restoration project started in 1991, all due to be completed by the end of 2012. Neither did we visit the garden at the back of the church due to the rain. I read it was one of Paris’s best little parks (and best kept secrets seeing that few tourist venture there) and also excellent for photographing this Paris icon. When we returned to Notre Dame the next afternoon I totally forgot about the garden so I never got to see it. Blame it on creeping old age or being blown into a Paris “trance” after a long morning of gorging on the sights, sounds and atmosphere of the city. Oh well, there’s always a next time.

As mentioned before on this blog I visit churches mostly for their architectural value not for religious values and did not visit the Treasury where they keep the church relics. For example, Notre Dame claims to have Jesus’s crown of thorns and part of the cross. I simply don’t believe any of the relics are authentic, especially if you look at how many churches in Europe and elsewhere claim to have pieces of the crown and other relics.

However, Notre Dame itself is impressive in size and architectural detail. I can’t really comment on the stained glass windows because they are so high one cannot see the detail. Our next stop was the stained glass palace of churches, the Sainte-Chapelle.

  Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France
In a Sea of Stained Glass
Every guidebook about Paris will suggest a visit to Sainte-Chapelle. It is invariably described as “a cathedral of glass” or “exceptional”. After a long, slow moving line due to strict security at the entrance door to the Palace of Justice, understandably so because France’s Supreme Court justices have their offices in the same complex, we entered Sainte-Chapelle, a relative small church in the courtyard of the old royal palace during the reign of Louis IX (1226-1270). Sainte-Chapelle is one of only two buildings left in Paris from the Capetian Dynasty that ruled France for 341 years from 987 to 1328. The other Capetian building standing is the La Conciergerie (the old royal palace and prison) in the same Palace of Justice complex. The Conciergerie was abandoned as a royal palace and seat of government in 1358 when Charles V converted an existing fortress across the river Seine into a residence and moved his court to the Palais du Louvre, today’s Louvre Museum.
Surrounded by a sea of stained glass in Sainte-Chapelle, Paris, France

Stepping into the upper Sainte-Chapelle is like walking into one of those underwater tunnels at aquariums. You feel surrounded by a sea of stained glass windows and multicolored panels. Light filtered through the mostly sky-blue and red stained glass windows tints the chapel with a bluish, purplish haze. Every conceivable surface and every basic and derivative color from the rainbow has been used to beautify the inside of this building. In the upper chapel, reserved for royal usage only, while the lower chapel was for all other palace workers, it seems the main function of the building’s long thin frames is to keep the stained glass in place but they also give the ceiling a floating effect.

Visiting Sainte-Chapelle immediately after Notre Dame it is difficult not to make comparisons between the two churches. One shouldn’t of course, seeing that one is a cathedral and the other a royal chapel. But both were Gothic in design and appearance, and where Notre Dame was huge and spacious, Sainte-Chapelle was small and intimate. Where Notre Dame have many statues and religious art as decoration but with walls mostly bare stone, Sainte-Chapelle is  richly and colorfully decorated with virtually no bare walls. They both are masterpieces in their own right.
However, if I thought Sainte-Chapelle was something to behold, Versailles, the next day was over the top.

Inside the Cathedral Notre Dame de Paris, France