Wednesday, May 28, 2014

The Road to Burgundy

According to the map the distance and time from Gare du Nord, a major train station in the north of Paris, where we picked up our rented car, to Chilly-Mazarin on the southern outskirts of Paris, is 29 kilometers and should take only 37 minutes. But on that Monday morning the Boulevard Peripherique, the highway that circles Paris, was a parking lot filled with delivery trucks, people in sedans on their way to work, hapless travelers like us, and  the inevitable accident causers and victims. It took us more than an hour and a half to get out of Paris. Luckily, I was unusually calm, waiting out the traffic mess to slowly clear itself, quite content to move forward at a snail’s pace, while M in the seat next to me was a total mess of nerves.
 Typical Burgundian landscape outside Brochon

Once we hit the A6 it was plain sailing in a southeastern direction to Burgundy until we were halfway on the A38 to Dijon when Samantha, our trusted GPS, suddenly had a brain-fart, ejected us from the highway and we, with little idea of where we were going and which route we should be taking, followed her instructions to the T. She directed us all along route D35, through valleys covered in natural flora, a forest near the hamlet of Urcy, passed stony farm buildings seemingly hundreds of years old, and from time to time along a road that seemed to switch back on itself at several places, or so it felt anyway. There were times we thought we should turn around as we meandered further and further into hilly country where we saw little other traffic, no vineyards or any white Charolais cattle for which Burgundy is so famous. We knew we were in Burgundy but it certainly didn’t look like the wine country I was expecting. But then we convinced ourselves again to just go another kilometer to see where the crooked and twisting road and Samantha will takes us. We followed the GPS like lambs to the slaughter. Eventually we crested a rather high hill and below us a large valley opened up and in the hazy light of the custardy late afternoon the sweeping road led through vineyard upon vineyard to a town in the distance. Samantha has delivered us on the doorstep of Nuits-Saint-Georges, in the northern half of the world famous Cote d’Or wine region of Burgundy.
Chateau de Gilly in Gilly-Les-Citeaux, a modern hotel in a historic shell. Originally it was a Benedictine Priory during the rule of Germain, Bishop of Paris. It was later sold to the Cistercians, probably around the middle 14th century. In the 16th century, Nicolas Boucherat II, the 51st Abbot of Cîteaux, decided to make it a house of relaxation. It has been a luxury hotel since 1987.
From there it was only a couple of minutes’ drive to Vougeot, but then Samantha lost her way, could not find the Chateau de Gilly, our final destination and hotel for the next 3 days. The place simply was not in her database. We stopped at a wine shop in Vougeot, a small “one horse” wine merchant village. I pulled out my Michelin map and tried to get directions from the lady inside, but she couldn’t speak a word of English, the first of several occasions over the next 5 days we had to rely on hand signs and our severely limited French to get help or to order food. She didn’t know exactly where the chateau was; only that it was on the other side of the major road that ran from Dijon to Beaune in a commune called Gilly-Les-Citeaux. We must follow the signs, she said. That was easier said than done. Twice we drove the directed road up and down and saw no sign that pointed to the chateau, until we eventually spotted it hidden behind a parked road-repair truck.
Clos de Vougeot, towering over the nearby village. A Grand Cru vineyard started by the austere monks from nearby Citeaux in the 12th century and later winemaking was perfected here by the Cisterians monks until it was confiscated by Napoleon Bonaparte.  

Although I had initial plans to go to Dijon in the afternoon, our late arrival at our hotel nipped that plan in the bud and after a short rest we were back in our rented VW and drove around the area to explore and try to find a restaurant for dinner. The hotel had a restaurant but it was excessively expensive. The French countryside is littered with tiny villages, sometimes strung like pearls on a necklace all along a minor two-lane road, sometimes no more than five or six kilometers apart. But unlike here in America most of these tiny villages have either none or only one or two restaurants and most definitely no fast foods restaurants.
The village church of Brochon with its typical colorful Burgundian roof.

As we were exploring Vougeot and later Brochon and Gevrey-Chambertin we stopped at hotels and restaurants in these villages and to our dismay discovered that on Mondays all the restaurants were closed. Even the single groceries store in Gevrey-Chambertin closed at 8 pm. It was already dark and we were hungry and tired when we returned to the chateau and reluctantly had to eat in the chateau’s restaurant, the only open restaurant in the area. Now I suppose we could have gone to Nuits-Saint-Georges too to look for a place to eat, but the owner of the hotel in Vougeot told us the best was probably to drive to Dijon. However, that was not a viable option. There was no way I was going to drive into a major city in the dark without first exploring it in daylight.

So down we went into the chateau’s original cellar to go and experience the food of Chef Jean-Alain Poitevin in Le Clos Prieur. The atmosphere was typical French for this class of restaurant: stiff, formal, communications taking place in whispered tones, and a waiter that hovered around the table like a military drone and with just the slightest wink ready to pounce like it is attacking an Al-Qaida infested compound in Afghanistan. In other words a totally unappetizing atmosphere. For the excessive price, the food was somewhere between mediocre and acceptable, totally forgettable. However, the wine was unforgettable.

I was drinking wine by the glass in order to savor at least two to three different domaines, wine estates, and ordering blindly, I struck “gold” with the first glass. A Volnay! Most Burgundy red wines, all are made from the Pinot Noir grape except the reds from the Beaujolais area,  can be described as “masculine”, full bodied, earthy, mushroomy and truffley, to name a few. If this “masculine” characteristic is accepted then Volnay can be described as “feminine.” It is more aromatic, lighter in color and body, with less tannin and generally more elegant than powerful. L’Élégance Naturelle. That’s why the word elegance is more often than not used when you read a description of Volnay.

The village of Gevrey-Chambertin, about 10 minutes drive from our hotel, in the Cote de Nuits where world famous Grand Cru reds of Burgundy are made. Just after 6 pm with the sky a golden hue, the old part of the village, drenched in wine merchant shops, was totally devoid of people. We were the only ones walking the empty ancient streets.  
From the initial fruity bouquets of orchards and the first taste of plum and cherry on the palate until the last lingering dusty traces this wine purred WOW! I have never tasted a wine that is so intensely fruity, yet still oaky, earthy and velvety smooth all at the same time. I can clearly understand why so many feminine adjectives are usually attributed to a Volnay. Nor was it cheap. Few Volnays usually is. My quarter of a glass was 16.  That is 5 a generous sip. Since my return home I have search the Internet to find a decent Volnay at a reasonably modest price, but with no luck. No liquor store in Kentucky even stocks it and because of Kentucky’s archaic liquor laws most Internet stores won’t ship it. That is now the few stores in the US that even stock the wine. The rarity of Volnays contributes to the high price. Rare because it is only produced from around the village of Volnay and five or so other domaines in Santenots in the Meursault district south of Beaune. If I knew then what I know now I should have had it shipped to me from a wine merchant in Beaune when we when there 2 days later. They don't care about Kentucky's archaic laws.

Getting to Burgundy was only a fraction of the fun we would experience there. Outstandingly good food, historic architecture and excellent wine and friendly people would be the norm in Burgundy.

Somewhere near Vougeot.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Sunday in the Left Bank

Early Sunday morning while M was still catching up on her beauty sleep, I was up to walk the near empty Parisienne streets with my camera, sharing it with dog walkers, homeless people sleeping in door and church entrances, waiters cleaning tables and preparing for the morning's coffee and croissant hunters. I ended up with not many pictures; I just enjoyed the quietness of the streets and the emptiness of the city. The morning was crispy, only 10 degrees Celsius, but from time to time bright sunlight would sneak through a patchy cloud cover. The rain would come later. I purposefully steered away from any major roads where possible and I quickly got myself totally lost walking along narrow side streets, crooked and curved alleys and sleepy passages until I eventually found myself on Boulevard Saint-Germain where a bank’s automatic teller machine was also still asleep and refused to give me any cash.
 A relative empty Paris on a early morning walkabout
Further along I discover the dirty Saint Sulpice church with its unusual twin towers and beautiful fountain and walked until I got to the boundary of the Luxembourg gardens on Rue de Vaugirard. There I turned around, met a bronze lady, tired of waiting on someone or something, sitting in front of the Institut Hongrois, a cultural center to promote Franco-Hungarian dialogue and sat down next to her to take a short rest and enjoy a cigarette before I walked back towards the Seine along Rue Bonaparte, boutique alley, passing Maxmara, Swarovski France, Louis Vuitton de Paris, and many more well-known, high prized fashion stores.
 Early morning and a rising sun behind the church of Saint Sulpice
I stood at the Seine’s banks for a while; Early morning runners made full use of the sparsely trafficked upper promenade and lower level walkway, a barge silently drifted down westwards to make a delivery somewhere, an old couple walking slowly, arm in arm, supporting one another over the cobblestones. There were no tourist boats yet only house boats moored motionless, occupants still in doors. Most great cities have a natural or central point of reference, a positioning beacon. The Seine is Paris’s beacon. Not a life giving artery like Venice’s Grand Canal, but with its many bridges, a constant compass to tell you where you are, much like Table Mountain in Cape Town, South Africa or the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, Italy.
Although photography was strictly forbidden inside the D'Orsay I did sneaked a few here and there. Here is another view of the ground floor.
 Facing south and with no visible reflection of the still rising sun on the river I solemnly watched the river’s water flow westward to its delta at Le Havre and the English Channel. In front of me was the Louvre, still passive at that moment, but only until the tourists arrived, and to my left the Tuileries Garden stretched greenish eastward to the Place de la Concorde and beyond. A river can be so alike a fire. It has the ability to quickly put a person in a meditative state. I eventually turned away, reluctantly, and to some degree sadly, breaking that moment of meditation, and made my way back to our hotel in a circular fashion via Rue De Seine. Time for the day to start in earnest, time for breakfast. Time for more exploration, to discover something new that Paris has to offer.     
 The D'Orsay Museum
The famous European guidebook author and tour operator, Rick Steves, suggests that if you have limited time in Paris, spend only an hour or two at the Louvre and then head for the D’Orsay. The D’Orsay Museum, housed in an old train station, is an art bridge between the Louvre Museum (anything and everything old) and the Centre Georges Pompidou, the modern art museum in the Marais, the 3rd arrondissement. The D’Orsay houses mainly art, statues, furniture, etc. dating from 1848 to 1915 and of course the most impressive collection of Impressionist and Post-impressionist masterpieces in the world. The Impressionist period is one of my personal favorite art periods.
 Below the Pantheon is its crypt where the heroes and heroines are buried. On the right, a statue of the writer Voltaire.
I will disagree with Mr. Steves. The Louvre is exceptional and I would also say if you go to the D’Orsay, skip the first four floors of minor art and go straight to the fifth floor to be totally blown away by Monet, Renoir, Degas, Cézanne, Van Gogh and many more. The Camille Pisarrio paintings of landscapes and everyday life and the Edgar Degas ballerinas as well as his bronze statue, Small Dancer Aged 14 were some of the best on view. The most impressive and a new discovery for me and M was the painting The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte.       

Inside the Pantheon's colossal nave
Upon our exiting the D’Orsay museum Paris was suddenly cold and rainy. Out came the umbrellas again as we made our way south towards the Luxembourg gardens and the Pantheon, one of the place we missed on a previous visit.
A four piece mural depicting the life of one of France's greatest heroines, Joan of Arc
The Pantheon was originally built as a church dedicated to St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris, but after many changes brought on by history in general, a change in royalty and the French Revolution it ended up being a burial place for exceptional Frenchmen or Frenchwomen; Authors, philosophers, scientists, resistance fighters, inventors, etc.

Sculptures in the Pantheon.

Its façade is modeled on Rome’s Pantheon and from the top of the front steps one gets quite a view of Paris. The inside is visually stunning. The murals, wall sculptures and mosaic floors are exceptional within the bareness of the building, which is totally devoid of any form of furniture. This bareness amidst great art and the quiet footfall and whispered talk of visitors greatly contributes to the solemnness and respect to the honored buried here. The Pantheon is truly a must-see when in Paris.
Around the corner from the Pantheon we made a wonderful discovery, the beautiful church of Saint-Étienne-du-Mont, which contains the shrine of St. Geneviève. This Catholic cathedral, built between 1492 and 1626, with its 17th century stained glass windows is a mixture of Renaissance, Baroque and Gothic architecture. With its intricate cut-stone, lace-like arch crossing the middle of the nave, separating the rear of the church (where the common people used to sit) from the front of the church (reserved for the nobility) it is from a personal perspective one of Paris’s most beautiful churches. Elegant arches flanking the nave, a twin circular stairways flanking the arch, an exquisitely carved wooden pulpit and colorful stained glass windows make this a true jewel. By the way, this is the church made “famous” by the Woody Allen film Midnight in Paris (Owen Wilson began his nocturnal time travel adventures on the front steps of this church.) Of course the cathedral has been famous in church circles for centuries and two Popes have celebrated mass here, the last being John Paul II in 1997.
 Intricate cut-stone, lace-like arch crossing the middle of the nave of the Saint-Étienne-du-Mont Church
We walked back to the Luxembourg gardens, found ourselves an open bench and sat there for quite a while watching moms pushing babies around in strollers, kids and their fathers playing with remote-controlled boats on the palace’s pond, the inevitable runners in search for fitness, and Paris folk, in general, just out for a stroll and fresh air, escaping apartment living, on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Luxembourg Palace and gardens.  Since 1958 it has been the seat of the French Senate.
An early dinner at Le Pre aux Clercs on the corner of Rue Bonaparte and Rue Jacob was a disappointment, but the éclairs au chocolat across the street at the Laduree, a well-known Paris confiserie since 1826 was absolutely divine, heaven on earth. A perfect ending to a quiet, but certainly not lazy Sunday in the Left bank. We needed such a scaled-back-in-activities-day. Tomorrow will be a long travel day south into wine country. 
Inside Saint-Étienne-du-Mont Church, a jewel of a discovery.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Paris, Enchanted as Always

Paris was enchanted as always, but it nearly didn’t happen.

The night before our departure M asked me where her passport is. In the safe I said. "Where’s the key?" she asked?

My mind was a blank…zilts…nothing registered as to where I put the keys..

I locked the safe the last time to prevent my grandson’s little fingers to get hold of the keys and I put the key in a place I couldn’t remember. You see, the safe is a small mobile type used more for safeguarding important documents against fire rather than theft and the keys are usually left in the lock.

My mind was totally blank. This must be the aging thing and it is driving me nuts.

Tomb of the unknown soldier under the Arc of Triompf

For the next hour or so we took the study apart looking for the keys. Gone! Couldn’t find it. It seems when I screw up at least I did a good job. But my life was hanging on a thread now. I had better come up with a quick solution of face the worst. No explanations required.  

Hacksaw, I thought? But what if the lock mechanism was made from titanium steel? A hacksaw wouldn’t make a dent in that material. Explosives? Yeah right! Where the hell would I find that? And I’ll probably blow everything inside the safe and myself to the dark side of the moon. Back to hacksaw idea. Luckily I could pry a hacksaw blade between the lid and the box of the safe and make tiny back and forth movements. I was hacking away at something there, not quite sure if I was actually cutting on the bolt mechanism. But it was my only option. I had no other idea. Eventually, after what felt like a lifetime I cut through the lock mechanism and found the passport lying innocently inside.

I was one very relieved individual.

 Parisienne Sidewalks

Either we were fitter than we thought or just crazier than usual because we walked and walked all over the historic center of Paris. No wonder we were bushed when evenings came along. There were a lot of spur-of-the-moment decisions made. What didn’t we see last time, so let’s do it this time scenarios or, while we are in the vicinity let’s go and see that, or it’s a nice day, let’s not spend it in a museum and see something outdoors.

 Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte III rooms at the Louvre Museum, The Grand Salon with its imposing chandelier. Grand is a very appropriate word for this room. 

At the Louvre we were selective. Our prime reason for going back to the Louvre was to visit the Napoleon III rooms, which last time were being restored, and also for another swing through the old masters sections. Saturday morning we woke late and we planned to go to the D’Orsay museum, but on our way there we had breakfast at the L’Fragate with a full view of the Louvre and it being such a nice and partly sunny day we made an impromptu decision to skip the museum, catch a bus instead and head for the Arc de Triompf for a photo session of the grave of the unknown soldier and to climb the stairs to the top for a view over Paris. It was okay, but really not worth climbing all the stairs. The museum on top was a waste of time.

M on the Alexander III Bridge, one of 37 bridges that span the Seine River in Paris and my opinion the grandest of them all.

Thereafter we walk around the Grand Palace and the Pont Alexander III area before we caught another bus to the Notre Dame area. We visited the garden behind the church, which we missed last time, and at the bridge behind the church a guitar player was making beautiful blues music.
Meandering though the Saint Severin neighborhood.
We meandered through the St Severin Street area where Greek, Lebanese and French restaurants spill out onto the narrow streets and we stopped for a breather, some people watching and a drink at Brasserie St. Severin before we strolled back to our hotel as dusk was descending upon Paris. We had an al fresco dinner at Brassiere L'Atlas while being serenaded, initially by a Dylanesque troubadour and his guitar on Rodriques and other folk rock songs, before a man and his accordion came around to enchant us with typical French music.

Modern Paris as seen from the Arc de Triompf  

Even though our feet were tired, bodies still adjusting to local time and generally jetlagged, we went to fetch warm hats and gloves at the hotel and back we went into the Parisienne night for another walk, experiencing the streets and boulevards at night, eventually ending up, again, at the Seine where river boats laid either quietly in the dark or noisy and brightly lit with late night activities. It was already beyond midnight when we crossed the Pond du Carrousel, the bridge that span the Seine River near the Arc de Triomphe du Carrousel in front of the Tuileries garden to enter the Pyramid Square of the Louvre.

 The Louvre museum and glass pyramid at night. A sight to behold.
What a sight! Lying majestically in the dark night, the brightly lit glass pyramid was protectively embraced by the Richelieu and Denon wings of the museum, shining its golden lights radiantly upon the old stone walls of the old palace. A teenage girl was trying to stand on one of the many light pillars while her friends tried to snap pictures of her, but she kept falling off and they all burst out laughing. Lovers walked quietly hand in hand while other folks lean against the glass structure peering down into the reception hall of the museum below.
One of the statue halls at the Louvre at night
Down one of the entrance arches a musician, heavily clothed, was extracting mournful sounds from a cello, his half-gloved fingers frozen from the cold while a stack of his music CDs was standing next to his open instrument case with a few coins inside. But it was also here, through one of the big windows that opens onto the museum’s statue hall that one can get a unique view of the classical statues one can never get from inside the museum.
Eventually we dragged ourselves away from the Louvre, made our way in ziggurat fashion back to our hotel and fell into bed at around 3 AM, feet exhausted, body drained and senses visually drunk on Paris.

The moustache brigade. Charlemagne, the legendary French King, in front of the Notre Dame de Paris. Notice the modern cleaning brush. A joke by someone as a reference to the brush beards?   
At the Louvre at night