“I’ll go to Iceland on one condition, Tom, we go to France in April,” I repined last August. Well, I went to Iceland. (Actually, it was quite wonderful.) But it’s April now and I want to go to France! So, we leave tomorrow at daybreak for almost three weeks of Paris, Alsace, the French Alps, Provence and a quick trip on the ‘bullet-fast’ train TGV to Brussels, Belgium. As usual I will be posting images and words of our exploits. Stay tuned…
April 11-12, 2007
The great memory of the flight over the pond was not the cuisine, to be sure. It was my great good fortune to be sitting next to Charles (pr. “Charl”) and his lovely femme, Monique. They were Belgians, no less. And smart-ass Tom had to ask them whether they had ever met Hercule Poirot. “Sadly, no,” Charles said, “he’s dead now.” We arrived in Paris in the bleary dawn, just like every other trip to Europe. We arrived by bus at our “Splendid Etoile” Hotel (never has the word “splendid” been so overtaxed) and found the courage to nap and then walk around the City of Lights. Jet lag was not our friend and we limped, Tom nearly in tears, to an unlikely bistro where Tom tried the patience of the waiter and mangeld the language of the Enlightenment. Then the sleep of the dead. Ce tout.
April 13, 2007
Our gentle readers must understand that yesterday was really two days collapsed (and I emphasize collapsed) into one. This was our first real day a` Paris. Here’s the Reader’s Digest version: 1. Woke up and trundled to the bowls of the Splendid for our “marathoners only” breakfast (petit dejeuner); 2. City tour on tour bus with gaggle o’ marathoners; 3. Braved le metro to Marathon Expo; 4. Made a pilgrimage to the cemetery where Tom’s hero, Jim Morrison, lit his final fire; where Edith Piaf lies amid a peprpetual bouquet of appreciative flowers; and where the great man, Oscar Wilde, is missed and admired with great ardour; 5. It goes without saying we stopped at a fromagerie (cheese shop), bought bread and cheese and munched them on the hoof as we walked through the city; 6. Notre Dame (need I say more?); 7. Tom had to stop across the bridge at Shakespeare and Co., a bookstore of some renown among the literary set; 8. Ironically, the most difficult task of the day was finding the perfect dining location in the middle of the Latin Quarter (an embarrassment of riches?) 9. The metro was on fire (really!) so we took a taxi back to the hotel and promptly fell asleep.
April 14, 2007
Tom insisted on taking it easy, so all I asked was that we go to the Rodin Museum. We left the hotel at 9:00 a.m. Eight hours later we limped back home, Tom a complete wreck, worried sick for the high temperatures and feeling lousy, so he keeps saying. So this is why I sit here writing my journal. I suckered him into going to the Louvre after we did the Rodin Museum. But before that I had to stop for lunch and a glass of Bordeaux. Oh, and did I mention all the shops I had to peek into along the way? It’s 82 degrees and it should be 55. Is W responsible, or what? I see runners dropping like flies tomorrow. Tom wants to take it easy tonight, but we’re in Paris, there will be nothing easy about dinner tonight. Perhaps I’ll find a bistro close by. Perhaps not …
April 15, 2007
Marathon day. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. I didn’t run, drank cafe latte at an outdoor bistro, then found an excellent boulangerie for a bread and wine lunch. (Best of times) Eighty degrees, a sprained ankle and not enough training were Tom’s reasons for his worst performance ever in the marathon. (Worst of times) I began to worry when Tom didn’t get to the finish line at the 4h30m mark. Runners were dropping like flies and ambulances were carting them away. I was certain Tom was one of those”flies.” As time approached the five hour mark I decided I’d flag down a paramedic and ask if they administered CPR to an Irish-looking dude wearing a green t-shirt and black hat. It was then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Tom stumbling down the massed street. I darted in and out of the crowd and reached Tom just as he was about to pass out and walked him safely back to the hotel. I wiped my brow and poured myself a glass of Bordeaux while Tom got ready for dinner.
April 16, 2007
We got our rental car and headed for Colmar (in the Alsace region) at noon. What I thought would be a two hour drive turned into six. Oh, and no one told us about the nine or so tolls that cost 50 euro. Nevertheless, the drive was beautiful - Tom did all the driving, I did all the snoozing. By the time we got to Colmar I was famished. We settled in to our 17th century hotel, La Maison des Tetes, (the house of heads) and “headed” out for dinner. I haven’t mentioned much about the food we’ve been eating mostly because I’ve been trying to focus on less important issues but it’s time to get serious. I really must mention this meal. I started with a glass of regional wine - Pinot Noir - the only red grape grown in Alsace. Next, a course the French call Amuse Bouche, (entertainment for the mouth), an exceptional cream of cauliflower soup, followed by white asparagus wrapped in bacon and served with a creamy custard. The main course - rack of lamb. Then a cheese course. Then dessert. OK? The whole event lasted more than three hours. Cuisine francaise tres elegant, oui?
April 17, 2007
It was another beautifully warm day. We’ve had nothing but pure sunshine and high 70’s since our arrival in France. Loves it! Anyway, breakfast, yes, yes breakfast. It started like this: fresh, sweet grapefruit and youghurt; steaming croissants; assortment of meats; locally made cheeses and cafe latte. OK? Then, a four hour walk around the quaint village of Colmar stopping at various shops, snapping photos, you know, the usual tourist schtick. A short break at the hotel before dinner included a fresh baguette, cheese and a glass of vino.
April 18/19, 2007
We wanted to get an early start. We had to drive through Switzerland to get to Chamonix, France, and Tom was worried because he told Hertz we’d never leave France. Well, we did. We drove through Basel, Bern, Montreaux, and then up into the Alps, crossing back into France and finally into the ski resort town of Chamonix. The hotel I chose was 5k outside of town. It was a ski chalet up a hillside in the mountains We had a pool, hottub, steamroom and a deck with views of the Alps and Mt. Blanc. It was fabulous. Chamonix is a lot like Vail, only French. We spent the better part of a day walking around the town, shopping, eating and chatting with the locals. When we returned to our car to head back to our chalet we had a ticket on the windshield. Tom, wanting to discuss the matter with someone, went into the store we parked in front of and in his best French asked the shop owner, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?” (What is this?) The owner replied, “A ticket, yes?” Tom laughed and said, “Yes, but pourquoi?” The owner said, “I don’t know. They change the rules throughout the day. You are a visitor, yes?” Tom said, “Oui, stupid Americans!” The owner laughed and said, “You can go back and just forget about the ticket, then, oui?” Oui!
April 20, 2007
Aix en Provence. Three hundred miles in a projected 4.5 hours cutting through the heart of the Rhone Valley. Tres magnifique!
April 20, 2007, later that day
Our first day in Aix en Provence started out rather shakily. Lost, hot and tired, Tom was navigating his way throught the congested streets of Aix in search of our hotel. We found it by sheer luck. It appeared before our eyes just like a mirage apparition to someone lost in the desert. But this was real. And it was our hotel, the St. Christophe. And what little Irish luck Tom had was still in enough supply that we not only found the hotel but a parking space, as well. Perhaps our gentle reader does not appreciate just how remarkable the parking space discovery is. Think New York City. OK? Our room was, well, small. Tom said, “Um, yeah, no.” So, we got a “plus grande chambre” much more to his liking. We went down to the hotel restaurant to get something to eat. No food served until 7:00 pm! Hot, tired, hungry and cranky, we set out on foot to get a bite of something, anything. We ended up at a traditional Provencal bistro.There we met the Provencal charmer, whom we call Francois, all charm and twinkle in the eye. He spoke 14 languages, including Frasi and Afgani (or so he said). Tom had some dark meaty Provencalian secret recipe from the Middle Ages. I had leg o’ lamb, and I mean the whole leg, down to the hoof - very French, to be sure. I also had a demi-carafe of some distinctively Provencalian vino, not quite so dark and “rougey” as I am used to, but very tasty. My vin-horizons are expanding, quite nicely, merci beaucoup (just like Tom’s waist-line - know what I mean, Norton?). Then a late night stroll through the old town, during which we got lost. The serpentine alleys reminded us of Prague. Food, food, food, everywhere. Home to bed at midnight.
April 21 , 2007
We were tourists all day in the serpentine streets of Aix en Provence. We ducked into a chapel tucked inconspicuously off one of the side streets because Gregorian chant was wafting from it into the air and mixing with the smells of fresh bread and the cacophony of the crowds. Inside it was cool and dark and a solitary old man knelt in the back reading from a missal. Tom said that in the old days everyone had a missal. He had not seen someone using one in 40 years. We put some euro in the offering box to pay for the privilege of filming. It got toward two o’clock and we decided to mingle with the natives at one of the outdoor cafes. We sat between a lone woman and a couple. The lone woman began to chat with us. And then some. Wow, so much chatting we had not heard. She was tough chick, full of opinions about the ways of the world. Algerian born, and a business woman who had opened her own boulangerie and was busting her buns (no pun intended) to make a go of it. She told us about the deeply entrenched French class consciousness, the unapologetic gamesmanship that accompanies not declaring income and dodging taxes and the bureaucratic BS one must surmount to get started in business. It was with some deft and craft that we extricated ourselves from her without causing her to feel like we were cutting her off. But we were. Lots more to see. Lots more to eat, OK? So eat we did. Dinner was exceptional. No, really. It had to be the best meal I’d ever eaten. I may have said that before and I meant it at the time but this one tops them all. It was called Pasta Cosy, a little nondescript place you’d miss if you blinked, but, I’m sorry, my instincts were right, as usual. It started with an aperitif of champagne, next, tapas de crepe gorgonzola, asparagus soup and risotto con truffle and a main course of ravioli stuffed with Italian white truffles in a cream sauce with grated black truffles on top. I’ve never tasted the likes before.Then there was Fabian. That’s right, Fabian. Think of George Clooney’s cuter younger brother. Are you hearing me? If you thought Francois from last night was good looking, you’ve not met Fabian. He was all over us with disarming Frenchified lilting stories, OK? The attention he showered on us was nearly as good as the chow. On the way home in the cool night, with a slip of moon peeping over the towering roof tops we stopped at the Abbey of the Grand Augustins because Tom is nothing if not about tracing the history of the Church. It is now a hotel but from the 11th to the 18th centuries it was the Abbey of the Grand Augustin monks. Among whom was Martin Luther, no less. Travel is so broadening, n’est-ce pas? One last word - about truffles. They are to this region like salmon are to the Northwest - more than food, close to a religion. OK?
April 22, 2007
On to Avignon today. La Cite de Papes. In the 14th century the Holy See moved from Rome (one step ahead of the posse?) and established itself in the improbable town of Avignon, France. Not coincidentally, all of the popes during the “Avignon Papacy” were French. We’re saving our exploration of Avignon for tomorrow. Today we went straight to our chateau, Le Mas de la Treille. It is difficult to describe just how fanciful and story-book like this place is. One can try to imagine the quintessential south of France Provencal chateau cum farmhouse, all dolled up to look like someone’s fantasy, and you would only be half way to what we found here. Unbelievably, we are the only guests in the whole place. It is a two story stone structure from the 18th century with a pool and manicured grounds, with old plane trees guarding the entrance and gracing the yard and orange tree in blossom and wisteria and jasmine blooming everywhere, making one think she’d died and gone to a parfumerie. Our hosts, a Vietnamese monsieur named Son, and a Frenchman from Lilles named Alberic, are the definitions of hospitality. They are making dinner for us, which we must eat before the election results come in. We biked through the vineyards that surround this place and stopped for lunch at a brasserie in the quaint medieval town of Saint Laurent on the top of a little hill not a half a kilometer from our chateau. They did not take credit cards, so we had to give the Madam our word we would return and biked quickly back to our chateau for euro. Then back to Saint Laurent to pay our lunch bill. This is high adventure in Provence for naive American tourists. Tomorrow…impressions of Avignon. Until then, bon appetit.
April 23, 2007
We were up at the crack of 10:00 for breakfast in the vineyards under a sunny Provencal sky. After petit dejeuner, we made our way to Avignon. We visited the Palace of the Popes, climbed hundreds of stairs to a garden overlooking the Rhone River and, on Tom’s insistence, took an ice cream break. We were in search of the Pont d’ Avignon. From our ice cream perch we spotted it and climbed down a series of circular stairs inside a rook-like castle to get to it. Eight euro later we were strolling down (Tom did an Irish jig) the Pont d’ Avignon, enjoying the breeze off the Rhone. Next stop, my favorite wine region in France, Chateauneuf du Pape. It’s only 20K north of Avignon but we managed to get lost. We stopped to ask for directions from a couple of true “Frenchies”. One guy said, “Go left” the other said,”Non! non! non! Go right!” (all in French, of course) and then they began to quarrel whilst we stood there watching and laughing. We got to the quaint village of Chateauneuf du Pape in time to stop for several wine tastings (degustations, non?) at various “caves” and I purchased just about everything I tasted. It was fantastic. We dined at the only restaurant in town, La Mere Germaine. Not wanting to upset our waiter we ordered the four course meal with wine. “Fine”, I said, “Give me pate.” ” Oui,” I cried , “Give me Penne au Foie Gras.” “ Why not,” I screamed, “Serve me a cheese course.” and “S’il vous plait,” I wailed, “Treat me to dessert!.” Coffee?” Are you kidding, it’s 10:00 at night - bring it on!
April 24/25, 2007
The abbreviated version of the last two day goes something like this - Drove from Avignon to Paris in eight hours. Tom freaked out while driving in Paris to return rental car. Asked for wake-up call next morning for 5:30am to catch TGV to Brussels. Missed wake-up call and train to Brussels. Bought new tickets for 150.00 euro to get to Brussels. Spent day wandering streets of Brussels. Back to Paris by 8:30pm. Showered. Dined at bistro, like real Parisians - 10:30 pm. Fell asleep by midnight. Return to States tomorrow. Au revoir et bonne chance, France.