April in Paris

April in Paris–someone ought to write a song.  But wait–someone did!  Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong basically invited us to spend Anita’s birthday in Paris this month, and it only took us six trips to schedule it.  So here we are.  And to welcome us, the French weather service scheduled rain and the French transportation unions scheduled a train strike.  But our continual great fortune held form.  The rain hasn’t slowed us down, except for a few cloudy skies.  The train strike is complicated, but suffice it to say that the one day we have a train scheduled is on a day when the trains are supposed to be running normally.  We’ll find out Friday.

Our hotel is the same one we used last October, half a block from Place des Vosges.  (If you click the link, notice the photo of the lobby.  At this moment I’m sitting at the table under the tapestry on the far wall.)  What I didn’t realize before today is that it’s only a block from Place Bastille, home of the new Paris Opera house, shown below.  The old classic Garnier Opera House of Phantom of the Opera fame continues to host ballet, but the new one is where grand opera is staged.


The magnificent tower is relatively new, by Parisian standards.  It replaced a giant wooden elephant, of all things.  The main reason I mention this is that the musical Les Miserables is coming to UNM’s Popejoy Hall in May, and the elephant plays an interesting role in the original novel by Victor Hugo.  It’s one of the few parts of the novel that didn’t make it to the modern stage.  I won’t spoil your reading of the unabridged version by telling you the role it plays; just know that when Hugo wants to make you cry, you cry.

After our thirteen hour flight, we only had enough gas left in our tank to grab a sandwich and a pot of L’Africaine hot chocolate at Angelina’s Tea House before grabbing a bus back to our hotel.  But to get to the bus stop we had to go through one of the nicest spots in Paris–the Tuileries Gardens.  In the day of Louis XIII (think Three Musketeers), this was the royal strolling garden.  The statuary is wonderful; here are a couple of samples.  You can see that in the three hour space between my visit to Place Bastille and our stroll through the royal gardens, the sky had already cleared wonderfully.  That’s just the way we roll!

And as we waited for our bus across the street from one wing of the Louvre, I noticed for the first time the exquisite detail on the outer wall:


So what’s in store this trip?  A couple more days in Paris; a high-speed train to Avignon where we rent a car; five days in Arles on the Mediterranean coast, one of the oldest Roman settlements in France (all together now: “All Gaul is divided in three parts”–the opening sentence in Julius Caesar’s epic The Gallic Wars); a night in the tallest chateau in France; and opening night of the annual Chartres light show.  Come along; it’ll be fun.

Reconstructing the Eiffel Tower

(Has it been over two months since I last posted?  Time flies when you’re having fun, I guess.)

If you are at all interested in Paris and its best-known landmark, no doubt you have seen images drawn from this classic photographic record.  I’m grateful someone had the presence of mind to set up a camera to record the event.  Not being one to be outdone, today I decided it was my turn.

Last Christmas, my daughter bought me a model of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, manufactured by ICONX.  (And I’m utterly independent of them, with no compensation arising from this mention.)  I had so much fun (does one really have fun assembling these things?) that I assembled a Millenium Falcon for my son’s housewarming.  And seeing the Christmas-New Year holidays coming, I decided it was time for my project: build the Eiffel Tower and record the event.  So here you go.  Notice the American quarter coin in the final one; by my calculation, this model is scaled 1:2551.



Wine Country Tour, Day Fourteen: Paris

It appears that I skipped Day Thirteen.  No, I’m not triskadekaphobic; by the time we got back to the hotel in Paris, I was, to use a French term, épuisé, exhausted.  After the four-hour drive from Beaune (by way of Dijon), Anita had celebrated with a victory lap on the Champs Elysées, which she had seen before as a window-shopper, but yesterday as a driver.  The Arc de Triomphe is at one end at the center of a huge traffic circle with twelve boulevards leading into it.  It has no lane markings, and simply constitutes a huge free-for-all.  We learned later that French auto insurance companies consider it a no-fault zone.  That is, accidents “just happen.”  But we made it okay, got to the car return place just before closing, and got to our hotel just in time to crash into our beds.

Let us say of our hotel that the location is great.  It is on Rue de la Huchette, just off the Seine south of Notre Dame, “two steps” from the famous St. Michel fountain and, most importantly for me, the Gibert Jeune bookstore complex.  The street itself is a center for jazz clubs and eateries , and if you just think New Orleans Bourbon Street you’ll have a good image.  But here’s mine (ours is the big red HOTEL sign):


I was afraid of the street noise keeping us up all night, but with the window closed and the air conditioner on (yes, air conditioner in late October–who knew?) we couldn’t hear a thing.

Today was shopping day.  I headed off as early as possible to my own favorite bookstore, L’Ecume de Page.  Today was release date for the latest issue in the Nicolas Le Floch series, the adventures of a fictional 18th century detective in special service to kings Louis XIV and XVI.  This one brings us up to two years before the Revolution, and all the fans of this series are beginning to get nervous because we know (and Nicolas doesn’t) that heads are about to roll in France, and we’re very concerned about his welfare, since those in service to the king don’t fare too well in the Revolution.

Then Anita joined me and we went out for watercolor gear.  Sennelier has been the source of first resort to the great painters of France since the late 19th century.


Having recently resumed her latent interest in watercolor, she decided she just had to have something from there.

You know about terrace cafes in Paris.  I am one who thinks that some cafes take the concept just a little too far.  This little Italian restaurant is a case in point.


On the way back to our hotel, we just happened across a place Anita had read about but forgotten to add to her must-see list, a little tea-house called Treize, the French for thirteen, which we often refer to as a “baker’s dozen.”  When we opened the door, instead of the customary “bonjour” that always greets us, we heard “Y’all come on in.”  The hostess is from South Carolina and one of the workers was a Texan wannabe.  We felt right at home.  So if you’re from the southern part of the U.S., and you want a little southern hospitality, give them a try, and tell them we sent you.


We’ve had a great trip, and we’re glad you could come along with us.  Au revoir!

Wine Country Tour, Day Twelve, Beaune

Beaune (pronounced “bone” for all you native English speakers) is at the center of the Burgundy region of France.  This is the third and final stop of our wine country tour and is the icing on the cake, to use a non-wine related foodie term.

Before I tell you about Beaune, I have to brag on my wife/chauffeuse a little.  A lot, actually.  I told you already how she ended up as the sole authorized driver for our rental car.  If you’ve never driven in a foreign country, you don’t really appreciate the challenges a driver faces with signage in a foreign language, different expectations of other drivers, and even different sized automobiles.  Like much of Europe, the French generally drive smaller cars than we Americans do, and many of those are manual transmission.  When the rental car clerk in Paris realized that we had to make a last-minute change in plans for who would be doing the driving, he offered to upgrade, at no extra cost to us, to a) an automatic transmission and b) a larger vehicle.  The transmission was a good thing, but the size?  Well, let’s just say that after a few days trying to park that vehicle, Anita christened it “The Beast”.  That led me to the obvious extension of calling the combination of car and driver “Beauty and the Beast” and, since we are in France, “La Belle et La Bête”:


La Belle et La Bête

The background in that photo was actually a gift.  We had a long drive today: five hours not counting stops for lunch and photos.  It was going very predictably until we reached an area where the autoroute was under construction and we had to take a detour.  Our previous experience with French detours wasn’t particularly confidence-inspiring, so we decided to entrust ourselves to Google Maps.  The navigator (yours truly) failed in his duty and got us even further off course, and then we rounded a curve and saw this:


Burgundy hillsides

We parked there and just gaped for about ten minutes.  Even though we had spent the previous few hours marveling at the beauty of the French farmland and countryside, this particular spot was just stunning.

We finally found our way into Beaune, and our timing couldn’t have been better.  The main attraction for us was the Museum Hôtel-Dieu.  It was only an hour before closing time and it was devoid of other tourists.  There are several “Hôtel-Dieu” sites in France, but this was the first and the inspiration for all the others.  In the middle of the 15th century, wealthy Frenchman Nicolas Rolin sought and received permission from the Church to establish a center for the care of the sick and infirm without expecting anything from them in return.  It was to be self-sustaining, high quality, and operated to sustain both the physical and spiritual well-being of those who came there for care.  This building is part of the result:


Hôtel-Dieu, Beaune

The name in French means “God’s Hostel”, and it operated in this facility from its opening in the mid-1400s until it was relocated in the mid-1900s.  It is still self-sustaining, deriving its operating income from–what else?–its winery.  The building you see here is now a museum, the hospital center itself being a new, modern facility that still operates without charge to its clientele.

From its beginning, the intent was to give the best possible care.  The main infirmary illustrates this, with each of the 28 patients having a private space:


The main care center

There was a nice chapel at the far end of this room, and on the near end there is a window on the second floor where a nun could keep watch on the room to make sure no one went unattended no matter what hour of the day or night.

Tomorrow we are back to Paris to wrap up this trip.  The wine tour is done, but there may be something in Paris worth writing about, so check back again.

Wine Country Tour, Day Eleven: Sarlat

Three years ago, on our first road trip in France,,we somehow failed to find old Sarlat.  This time we were determined, so we scheduled a night there between Bordeaux country and Burgundy country.  But we had to get from one place to the other, and therein lies the joy of travel the way Anita and I do it.

Near Bordeaux is Saint-Emilion, a historic wine center in the Bordeaux region.  This was a Sunday and our timing didn’t allow a leisurely exploration of the town and its many wine chateaux, but a cemetery caught our eye.  Anita pulled into a newly plowed field and let me explore the cemetery on my own.  I think if I lived in Saint Emilion, I’d have to get chummy with this family:


Cemetery near Saint Emilion

When someone is buried here, family, friends, and business associates leave remembrances not just in perishables like flowers, but in permanent items, like tiles engraved with warm thoughts.  This family was clearly beloved by many.

Our GPS navigation system gave us options for how to route: fastest, most direct, ferries or not; that sort of thing.  Fastest usually maximized autoroutes (think interstate highways), but those are rarely the most interesting.  Now THIS is interesting:


Route to Domme

You learn to trust your technology on a road like that.  But in return, you get this:


Dordogne Valley farmland

We stopped off for a nostalgic visit to Domme, just across the Dordogne river from Sarlat, having spent a couple of nights there three years ago.  It’s a “perched village”, and from this perch, you get a spectacular view of the Dordogne valley:


Dordogne Valley, as seen from Domme

We did finally get to Sarlat, and as usual Anita had done an excellent job of choosing our lodgings.  We were a five minute walk from the iconic statue of the the three geese, representing one of the regional culinary specialties, foie gras.


The Geese of Sarlat

After a leisurely stroll and a small amount of shopping, we had dinner at Le Moulin du Roy (The King’s Mill), nestled in a small corner among buildings dating back to the 13th century.  It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it.  Tomorrow is the longest drive of the trip, five hours to the heart of Burgundy, so today we’re in bed early.

Wine Country Tour, Days Nine and Ten: Bordeaux

We arrived in Bordeaux yesterday and spent the afternoon exploring the neighborhood of our hotel.  Today we got better acquainted with the city.  Near our hotel is one of the most popular attractions in the city, the Reflecting Pool (Le Miroir d’Eau).  The impression given by the name may well be the intent of the city and the designer, but in practice, at least during the weekend daytime hours, it is more of a family playground:


Reflecting pool, daytime

What child doesn’t love splashing around in water an inch deep, or in a fine spray of mist on a warm autumn afternoon?  But my own tastes run more to the tranquility of the night:


Reflecting pool, dusk

This is the largest installation of its kind in the world, almost 2/3 the size of an American football field.  It cycles about every half hour filling to its one inch depth, resting (or trying to rest) for 15 minutes, then emptying and going into the misting mode for about three minutes.  It’s a must-see if you find yourself in Bordeaux.

We are here, of course, because Bordeaux the city is the center of Bordeaux the wine region of west France.  We concentrated our exploration of this heritage by visiting The City of Wine, a new museum along the Garonne River.


City of Wine

We arrived about lunchtime, and guess what?  We had a chance to have wine with out lunch.  Check out the selection.  Not only is the wine itself a work of the vintner’s art, but some of the labeling is itself pleasant to look at:


Wine label art

The exhibits are interesting in themselves, but to this engineer, the use of interactivity was impressive: just wave your hand over an image, and it adapts to your own interests.  In addition to an exhibit on wine in the Bible, there was also an exhibit on “The Dark Side” of wine.  Something for everyone.

Like any major city, Bordeaux is about more than wine.  It has a long history, as illustrated by the Great Bell, built in the 15th century adjacent to the church of St. James.  (James is usually rendered Jacques in French, but James is the Gasconese form, the ancient language of the region.)


The Great Bell of Bordeaux

If you’ve been paying close attention to the skies in the pictures of this trip, it’s been fairly consistent that the days start out overcast and foggy, and clear up in the afternoon.

Our parking garage was in the same building with a library and a school.  As we came out, this sculpture reassured me that I wasn’t the only one with the occasional “one of those days.”


Some days are like that

We will add a little bit to our wine tour tomorrow with a side trip to St. Emillion, a small village between here and Sarlat, our destination for tomorrow night.


Wine Country Tour, Days Seven and Eight

Three years ago when we first visited Mont Saint-Michel, we agreed that if we ever got the chance, we would spend the night “on the rock”, and this year we did.  Mont Saint-Michel is a remarkable piece of rock popping up out of the bay about a kilometer from the mainland at the boundary between the Bretagne (Brittany) and Normandie (Normandy) regions of northwestern France.  On the approach, you get a breath-taking look at it from a distance:


Before climbing to the top I believed what I read about the height of it–302 feet above sea level, or about the height of a 30-story building.  We had booked a room at “La Vielle Auberge” (The Old Inn); the information on the inn told us that our lodgings were not to be in the same building as the reception desk, but in one of the lanes in the village below the abbey.  Let’s play my own version of “Where’s Waldo?”.  Can you spot our room in this picture below?


Hint: above the cemetery to the right is a brown door.  By the time we had trekked up to the room level, we were a mere 72 steps up a series of stairs from the entrance to the abbey at the top of the mont.  But the reward was hard to describe:


I’m pretty sure the monks didn’t live like this.  The seagulls visited.  We watched the groups of schoolchildren having their ecological introduction to the bay surrounding the island (low tide, of course):


In the early days of the abbey, the pilgrims of the tenth century had only that option to reach their destination, since it was completely isolated from the mainland.  Today there is a restricted-access causeway and a high-tech dam designed to preserve the ecology of the area as nearly as possible to what it was in the early days.

There is a special little “ruelle” (tiny lane) that we had read about, and that I had managed to actually use to get to the “Grande Rue” (Great Street).  It’s about as wide as my shoulders.  I wouldn’t have found it if I had had a better sense of direction and not gotten lost, but there you go.  I don’t know if it was intended this way, but from the bottom, looking up through this little space, all you can see is the spire with the statue of Saint Michel:


After nightfall, I took my camera and tripod out to the causeway and got what I came for:


I am proud to report that, unlike three years ago, Anita went with me all the way to the top of the publicly accessible part of the abbey.  And this is why we aren’t fooled by that publicity about its being only 302 feet above sea level.  (Editor’s note: Anita is convinced it’s more like 10,000 feet, since she walked every step of it from the causeway up La Grande Rue, through a maze of stairways not unlike that of Escher’s famous drawing, all the way to the cloister garden, which was under construction.  That’s her story and she’s sticking to it.)

We are resting up in Nantes, on our way tomorrow to Bordeaux, one of the major wine centers of France.  Our legs will appreciate the rest.


Wine Country Tour, Day Six: Honfleur

After Paris, there is little doubt about Anita’s favorite place in France.  It’s on the left bank of the mouth of the Seine River, right across from the city of Le Havre, and it’s called Honfleur.  It’s home to Erik Satie, turn-of-the-20th-century composer of avant-garde music, as well as Eugene Boudin, 19th-century painter.  Today it seems to thrive on tourism, being just across the English Channel from Portsmouth.  It appears that the second language here is British, and most of the boats in the marina are British.


Honfleur marina

Because of this, the town has managed to preserve its sea-going legacy.  The little church in the center of the marina photo above was decommissioned long ago, but has been preserved as a museum dedicated to the memory of the seagoing men and their families who put this town on solid economic footing.

This is our third visit to Honfleur, and the first in the autumn.  Because of the earlier sunset time, we don’t have to stay up late for nightfall, when the marina takes on a different personality.


Honfleur marina after dark

Having dinner at dusk, waiting for night to settle over the water is a perfect way to end a day of driving across the French countryside.


Dinner at Honfleur

In case you’re wondering, Anita had that quintessential French dinner, hamburger and fries, and I had scallops and pasta.

After a good night’s rest, tomorrow we head down past the Normandy beaches to spend the afternoon and night on Mont Saint-Michel, as pilgrims began doing over a thousand years ago.  But more about that tomorrow.