Monday, April 29, 2013

Paris a Go Go

Conciergerie, entrance to the kitchens

What a busy day! Today we have started our 6-day Paris Pass, which cost a lot, but you get to go to pretty much all of the major stuff in this town, and take the subway, so today we did six things afforded by it. We are going to max out this puppy, if it kills us.

Here's what we did, like crazies, in only one day:

Marie Antoinette thinks, what if I'd let them eat, maybe some of my cake. I mean, I really had a lot of freakin' cake, and I never was going to eat all of it....
3d experience of Paris in Archaeological Crypt
  • The Archaeological Crypt of Paris, a museum of the History of Paris, about 35 feet under the street in front of Notre Dame. There are Roman ruins and the stones of medieval houses made of repurposed Roman blocks, their latin inscriptions and leafy capitals still visible, and the remains of the old Seine-side docks down there, with plenty to learn about. And this was supercool because it had many interactive 3d models of the city at different times in history, including a detailed reconstruction of the various building stages of Notre Dame. It's fun for me to imagine Paris as a small Roman outpost city, and then a medieval fortress beseiged by Vikings. Rick Steves said the place merited only 15 minutes. We spent 45.
The Conciergerie, the Old Royal Stronghold, and Prison and Court of the Revolution

  • The Conciergerie was originally where the kings of France held court, before the Louvre rose up on the Right Bank and was expanded and made progressively more and more fancy and monumental. The Concergerie then became a court and prison during the Revolution, and eventually was the place where Marie Antoinette waited to be bundled off to La Guillotine. A visit to the Conciergerie begins as you step down into a huge gothic space that could have inspired the dwarves' great hall in The Lord of the Rings. It is the first floor of a castle of the Middle Ages with soaring gothic limestone arches above, and it's amazing that it's still here. Then you sit and watch a blow by blow slideshow on the Conciergerie's key role in the Revolution, the experience of an accused, how they would enter the prison, where their trial would take place, where they would be held, and take their doomed and hopeless exercise with the other prisoners, and finally, where they would be prepared for death. Then you walk through these rooms, seeing the place where they prepared the condemned for execution by cutting the hair and tearing open the back of the chemise. There is a table with a beautiful and scary pair of scissors just waiting to be used. And, of course, Marie Antoinette herself is there in effigy with her back to us, praying as she waits for trial. This macabre room is a reconstruction, because her brother-in-law Louis XVIII, when he got on the throne, demolished the old rooms and created in their place an expiatory chapel dedicated to Marie Antoinette, with an altar, and a stained glass window showing her initials, and dark walls decorated with silver tears. Also on the walls are paintings of her last days, and in these there's an idealization of Marie Antoinette that borders on sanctification, with the Queen in glowing white clothes, her eyes toward heaven as if she is St. Joan, while the the bestial revolutionaries send her to her death. There is one room simply lined with large plaques listing the names of those killed during the Terror. It was over two thousand seven hundred people. We looked for Stoney's family name Ledoyt there, and lots of spelling variations, and thankfully, found nothing. But we imagined what it must be like for those who can find the names of their relatives there. The Conciergerie is a great place to get a sense of the complexities of human nature and the challenges of creating a better world from a system of dramatic inequity. At best, it's a cautionary tale.
Windows of St. Chapelle

  • Near to the Conciergerie is St. Chapelle, which is a jewelbox of gothic stained glass built by Louis the Ninth to house his fancy new relic fresh from the Crusades, the Crown of Thorns. This is being restored, and there was an interesting video showing all the care that is being taken to brighten and restore the windows, retaining the original look. The view of the tall ceiling with colored light streaming in is eye-popping, and not to be missed.
  • After a refreshing stop at Quigley's Irish Pub, in which I learned that my last name is Northern and a bit Protestant, from the friendly Irish Catholic barkeep, we had a wine tasting at O Château, near St. Eustache and Les Halles. We learned that anything called a 'Domaine' is a small wine producer, and that a white wine in a green bottle is usually dry, whereas a white wine in a clear bottle is usually demi-sweet or sweet. The wines were good, a Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre, a Rose from Provence, and a Bordeaux from the Dordogne, and the tasting was included with the Paris Pass. The prices of the bottles, had we wanted to buy, were at least twice as pricey as they should have been. Our fellow tasters were mostly English speakers, some from Scotland, some from South Africa, and they were a lot of fun.
Our Scottish Jokester Friends at O Château

After the wine tasting we visited the courtyard of the Louvre at Cafe Marly and had a very expensive half bottle of Sauvignon Blanc, which we justified by remembering that we'd shared a lunch of chicken gyro and fries takeaway served to us by Madame DaFarge at the Cafe Soleil for 5 euros 50. The view of the Pyramid at the Louvre was almost worth it. Stoney enjoyed the many willowy waitresses with very long legs and very short skirts.

  • Finally, we took the subway from the Musée d'Orsay stop to the Eiffel Tower to catch the Bateaux Parisiens cruise of the Seine, which took forever to load and unload, but was a silly good time, full of French singing and giggling, and gave us pastel sunset views of the key monuments, including the Conciergerie, Notre Dame, the Louvre and the Musée d'Orsay.
Conciergerie at Dusk

Because we were out until ten pm, we got to see some things lit up as we stumbled back to our digs on the Isle St. Louis.

Notre Dome in the Blue Hour
View of Notre Dame from Isle St. Louis

Today, we take on the Louvre. Wish our feet luck!

Au revoir from Paris!


Friday, April 26, 2013

The News from the Loire

Stoney and I in front of Chateau d'Usse

Sitting in the room at Le Prieure, which is an old priory 40 meters above the Loire and the little town of Chenehutte les Tuffaux. Our view of the river below, the little green island in the center, and the medieval village across the way is lovely, if stormy, with lowering clouds.

Location on map of Le Prieure

But the major point of all this, folks, is, we freakin did it! That's right! High fives all around, but especially to my husband Stoney, who biked 235 kilometers over five days of sometime late winter weather, and sometime early summer. He hadn't been able to do the training he wanted due to a torn hip labrum, which sounds painful because it is. He also has a diagnosis of fibromyalgia, whatever the heck that really is, and exercise-related asthma. He is a brave soldier, a trooper. And I think he even enjoyed it quite a bit.

The day billed as moderate, from Montbazon to Luynes, was not as bad as we feared. Really the climbs on the first day, up and down through farmland and forest from Montlouis back to Amboise, were worse. But we were helped by the fact that Wednesday was nice and sunny, with hardly a cloud in the sky. The route along the Indre river, beside green marshes and mills, through small medieval towns with houses and barns made of rough stone, with steep pitched roofs and gothic limestone details, was something out of a Constable painting, if he'd painted France. And it had some of the most evocative and dramatic chateaus of the entire trip.

View from inside Azay-le-Rideau

First we came upon Azay-le-Rideau, a Renaissance chateau with pointed turrets and flamboyant tracery that seems to float over its own reflecting pool. The various rooms are furnished in tapestries and furniture from different eras ranging from the 1500s to the 1800s, and are lined with portraits of the various owners over the centuries. In the attic you can see the wooden structure, which is not only beautiful, but proves that there were some pretty amazing engineers building things in the France of the 1500s. There are displays on the local textiles, tapestries in mint condition, and enough stunning views to fuel years and years of interesting dreams.

Chateau Langeais - see the drawbridge?
View from inside the keep of Langeais

Wednesday's second chateau was Langeais, which was introduced to us through a dramatic ride across a river through a twentieth century bridge styled with turrets to look medieval. The chateau of Langeais is massive, its heavy gray towers looming huge and forbidding over the smaller half-timbered and limestone-faced storefronts below. It evokes a sense of awe that one has to experience to believe. And I don't think it would have the same effect if we had approached it enclosed in the metal and glass compartment of a car. On the bike, you can crane your neck back and gawk at the castle as you roll toward it. Biking to these sights, as Stoney has said, gives you the ultimate cinematic tracking shot as you arrive. In a car, much of the view would be obstructed, and the experience would be truncated, too quick to savor.

And the Loire should definitely be savored. It is so full of chateaus, and other surprising things, like the troglodyte villages along the river, these little towns half in caves, carved from the soft white limestone, and sometimes faced with gothic turreted castle-like fronts. We wheeled our bikes into one, and it just blew us away. I have seen drawings and paintings of little gothic villages cut into rocky ridges, with sweet small windows topped by flattened ogee arches, gnomish caves leading deep into the earth. Surely, I used to think, these are just imaginative illustrations for fantasy fiction. Not so. Those places really exist. And I've seen them.

Stoney and I in front of Eglise Candes St. Martin

I could, and probably will, write an entire post on why touring by bike rocks, and is my preferred method of discovering new places. For us, it turned out that 30 miles per day was about right, even in rolling terrain. We enjoyed being challenged by the hills, and the length of time spent on the magical velocipede. I think we probably averaged five hours per day on the bike, because we took it slow, pacing ourselves. And because we wanted to go slowly and really see everything. Even with that, we had a nice sit-down lunch and still got to see at least two major sites per day. But also, having to endure some aches and pains, having to keep finding enough water and food to keep us topped off was a nice way to keep us connected with our most basic selves, and to feel like we were accomplishing things daily, overcoming obstacles in a pleasurable doable fashion. And doing all of this together.

I will tell you, though, that my cranking on Rosetta Stone French since October, and my mostly forgotten 7 years of French, didn't go amiss. In Montlouis-sur-Loire, a place with its own wine appellation quite close to Vouvray, the waitress told me she spoke not a word of English because she was terrible at languages. I am pretty good at them, and I kept being very grateful about that on this trip. Stoney says my facility with language is my superpower. I probably have just enough French to be dangerous, but I think the key is to try speaking the local language, as a way of showing respect to the natives. They really seem to appreciate it.

Another bonus of going by bike is you get to see foliage and greenery you would miss inside a car. As an example, I stopped for a nature break and nearly stepped into a patch of leafy greens that I'd been seeing for a while beside the wheels of my bike, along with some other somewhat familiar things like chive flowers, mustard flowers, buttercups, borage, and I'm not sure what else. The foliage passing by on this trip has looked at times like flipping pages in Culpepper's Herbal. Just in time, I realized the reason I recognized those particular leaves was that they were nettles, which sting if they touch your skin. Disaster averted, and sense of wonder achieved. I remember from a time when herbalism interested me several years ago that nettles make a healthy tea purportedly to help with feminine complaints, but they must be parboiled first, to remove the sting. Along the bike routes of France in April are all kinds of useful and pretty herbs, growing healthy and green and wild. Our path was strewn with flowers. Come on. That's just plain awesome. And you'd never have that experience by auto.

I have another entire day to talk about, which started in Chinon and ended just downriver from Saumur, the biggest town we've hit so far on the bike. Saumur is full of wineries, with free tastings. As we were 6k from our hotel, we thought better of this, but we have been buying a bottle of wine a day to bring back to the hotel in our panniers, which has saved us lots of hotel surcharges, and made us feel adventurous. To talk about the different kinds of wine in this area would require another post. I'll give it a shot down the road. The wine here is very good, and probably hard to find at home.

View from the Keep of Chinon

I'll save the Chinon day and more details for future posts. It's almost time to get ready for another insanely fancy hotel meal. Hey, it's included.

Cheers from the Loire! :)

Joan of Arc in Chinon


Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Paris - Loire Trip Update 4/23/13

Chateau d'Artigny, our room is on the second floor

Sitting here in the room at Chateau d'Artigny, which is an impossibly fancy Belle Époque palace built by the famous French perfumer Coty.

Chateau de Chenenceau
View of Loire from Le Choiseul's 36
Chenenceau's Ballroom over the river

I know. I should really STFU, because you hate me. But that's OK, wait 'till you hear about the suffering, because there is plenty. You don't want to know how my butt feels right now. You don't. Yes, the food I'm eating on this trip is some of the best I've ever had. But I'm earning it.

Amboise Chateau

After the first bike day, from Amboise to Chenenceau, a fairy-tale castle (sounds cliche, but just look at the picture, ok?) built over a river and passed from the famous paramour of a French king to his jealous and severe Medici wife, we had covered 50k of gravel, forest, farmland, and terrain that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, not even remotely flat. Discover France lied. They lied. I can hack it. Not sure my butt can take much more, though. Not sure my husband will survive at all. And there are still two mandatory bike days left, one billed as "Moderate," which means, if you're us and not freakin Lance Armstrong, your ass is really about to be grass.

Snails, Hotel Le Choiseul, my new death row dinner
Chateau Amboise

The night before last we had this snail appetizer covered in a creamy foam made with the local goat cheese, layered Napoleon-style with crisps of another kind of cheese or pastry. There was also some basil-infused oil in there. I can't fully describe how exquisite all this was. It had at least five interesting layers of flavor dancing on my tongue. This was at Hotel Le Choiseul's restaurant "36". Go there. It's in Amboise, which is such a lovely little town on the Loire topped with a chateau that began as a Gallo-Roman fortress, became a royal French fortress in the Middle Ages, and then was made supercool and flamboyant by King Francois I, with a bit of help from his pet Italian Renaissance artist, Leonardo da Vinci. Yeah, that guy.

Leonardo's Last Home, Clos Luce

Today we set out from Amboise intending to visit Leonardo's final domicile and workspace at Clos Luce, but alas we discovered they wanted 18 euros 50 each for the entrance, and we are not idiots. Still you can walk in and look at the house. It's very pretty.

So let me outline the suffering for ya. This evening I took a shower and was washing the unmentionable bits, and I realized that my butt wasn't larger because I had been eating too much, although I had, but because it was swollen for being on the bike saddle for hours and hours and hours. The saddles on these bikes are quite hard, not puffy. Very nice quality, fancy brand, but ow. Thank goodness that part of one goes numb after awhile. And then there's the magic cream, the Hoo-Ha Ride Glide that is a bit tingly and lessens the hot spots. Thank goodness for that. My husband joked that he'd like to sit in a bucket of it. If only we'd brought one.

2 Needful Beers in Montlious

Today at lunch, when we'd reached a town that had a little bar, we broke down and had beer at 11:30am just because it would lessen the aches and pains. But what has happened to us? Are we so much softer than when we took that Italian bike tour six years ago? Have we aged that fast? Apparently so.

At the end of the first day, Stoney asked me why we do these kinds of things to ourselves on vacation. We were so tired and in so much pain, and had eaten so much rich food we could hardly speak.

Margaret and Stoney in Ancient Cave, which serves as a bike storage garage at Le Choiseul

But the fact was we had bonded so much over these travails, moment after crazy moment, we had laughed so much at our own foolishness and had marveled at the landscape, the storybook fortresses and chateaus. Have we bitten off more than we can chew? Oh, yes. But the sky, when it's blue, has Peter Max Yellow Submarine clouds floating in it. This part of France is just waking up to spring in that exuberant tender hopeful way that only places that have had long bitter winters can. You can still see winter's mistletoe on the leafless oaks, but on every tree and bush there are soft buds, and the earliest blooming trees are in full pink regalia, and the vineyards are sprinkled with marguerites and mustard flowers. We cheer each other through the tough parts, coach each other up the cruelly steep hills, celebrate the glorious descents, moon over the pretty bike paths through the vineyards and rolling farmland. Each sip of wine has new flavors, each new extravagant hotel is shockingly scenic, and too much for us. And we forge ahead. Proving we can do it, even when it's hard, especially when it's hard.

So my answer to my husband's his question, why?

"Because it's fun."

His reply to that? "I suppose that's right."

Tomorrow is that brutal "moderate" day, though, punctuated with magical castles and rivers and forests and charm, and one terrible hill, right toward the end. It may just kill us, so please, wish us luck.


Friday, April 19, 2013

Paris Diary 4/20/13

Maccarons in St. Germain. Mangez!
St. Sulpice Church, key in The DaVinci Code

I just can't sleep on planes, so here I am, as my husband snores lightly next to me, organizing my photos and thoughts at one in the morning Paris time.

Cour du Commerce St. Andrea in St. Germain

We are staying in a very cute boutique hotel in the St. Germain area, which is the 6th arrondissement. Paris is divided into arrondissements or little neighborhoods that each have the feeling of little villages with their own unique character. They spiral outward from the original city island in the Seine, called Ile de la Cite, like the swirls of a snail shell. In the 6th arrondissement, you find the area of Paris known as the Latin Quarter, because it's the part of town that contains several universities, including the Sorbonne and the University of Paris. The University of Paris is the oldest university in the world, in fact, the faculty of the University created that word 'Universita', which was the name of the guild they formed for their new trade as educators. In the Middle Ages, the students actually spoke Latin to each other, Latin being one of their main courses of study, which became a common language for students from all over Europe, so that's how this little neighborhood came to be known as the Latin quarter.

Hotel Esprit St. Germain

The hotel is called the Esprit St. Germain, or the spirit of St. Germain, and it's on Rue St. Sulpice, which fans of The DaVinci Code may remember for the church of the same name, where is found the Rose line, which is supposed to be the meridian line of Paris. There is a plaque on the floor where the sun shines through a lens in a window and dramatically hits key points on the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes. This configuration was designed by the famous French astronomer Sully in the 18th century.

But enough history! What have I been eating? The short answer is: too damn much.

Duck foie gras at Le Comptoir
Le Comptoir's Filet
Saumur white wine and crusty bread at Le Comptoir

The recent Paris episode of Bourdain's The Layover inspired us to wait in line for Le Comptoir, where we ordered the filet of beef because we kept seeing it go by and it looked and smelled so delicious. It was a lot of very pink delicious beef. Amazing poivre wine sauce. The beef tastes better, richer more minerally, and yet lighter than our beef in the States. There was some kind of buttery mashed potato and parsnip wine sauce vat o joy on the side that we simply could not stop eating, even though it seemed to contain an entire stick of butter. I had the duck foie gras because it's amazing stuff, and because L.A. has outlawed it. LIttle baby romaine, caramelized pickled onions, wine reduction, plummy mustardy jam on the side, and some very lovely round Saumur white wine with some tropical fruit and stone fruit notes to wash it all down. The wine was so reasonable! The steak was not reasonable at all. Wow! Yum!

Le Comptoir has gorgeous mini rack of lamb, lots of different kind of terrines, including Bourdain's fave, the black boudin. We're thinking of going back tomorrow to try more things off the menu, since it's just down the block from our hotel. The Bourdain episode means this place is packed with eager American foodies, so better to eat here late, around two or so, like we did. As we enjoyed our wine and it got later, we noticed the kitchen staff coming in with bags and bags of fresh produce for the impending dinner service. We also saw that as it got later, the English-speaking tourists gave way to lots of passionate French foodies, a good sign.

Le Comptoir is near a nexus of major streets, so it's an optimal place to people watch. French men really love to rock the brightly colored scarf, and they make it look so good. They are not allergic to pink, as are their American counterparts. I must try to take more street style photos.

My husband was so thrilled we ended up on this double decker airbus with Air France. It was very comfortable, even in coach, and there's loads of carry on luggage space. The screens on the back of the seat in front of you have the all-important on demand media center with plenty of TV and movies, and there's also a live map to show you where you are, and views outside the plan from three cameras, one mounted on the tail facing forward, one on the nose, and one on the belly of the plane showing the clouds and landscape below. Very fun! Stoney kept telling me were were not on a plan but a really cool spaceship.

The chocolate and maccaron stores in St. Germain are ridiculous and tempting and wrong. Yes, I've eaten more than my share of chocolate truffles now and I'm only one day in. Trouble, people. Thank goodness I'm biking for a week starting Sunday.

Chocolate Fishies
Candypalooza in a French Newstand. Buhbye, Diet!
More Crazy Candy!
Art de Chocolate
What exactly do they serve at Schmuck's?

Menu at Schmuck's
Just down the street from Le Comptoir is a restaurant called Schmuck's, which serves something called a Schmuck Burger. Would you try it? Now I do speak a bit of Yiddish, and I'm very concerned.
Menu at Schmuck's

Well, that's it from today's Paris Diary! Thanks for visiting my blog!


Monday, April 15, 2013

Paris Palette Aquas

Three days until I get on the plane to Paris, and since the beautiful Sigma Paris Palette is too bulky to take with me, I want to use it as much as I can before I leave.

By the way, if anyone at Sigma is listening, it would be so cool to have a small portable version of this palette. The shades are unique and special, and I love them very much. The graphics on the palette are pretty, classy and evocative of the city, but if they made a version that included just the eye shadows and was about the size of the Naked Basics palette, I would so be taking it with me! And I'd buy one for all my friends.

So i used these shades this way:

  • Versailles across the lids to the crease
  • Peche blush in the crease
  • Lumiere highlighter on the brow bones
  • Orsay on outer V of lids
  • Louvre layered over Orsay at outer edge of V
  • Seine along both lash lines
  • L'Oréal Voluminous Mascara in Carbon Black with Anastasia Lash Genius over it

Do you own the Paris palette? How do you like to use it?

One more thing: I'll be blogging about food and travel while I'm in Paris. And biking. We're biking among the chateaux of the Loire Valley. And wine, makeup and shopping, so subscribe and keep watching this blog for more!