Saturday, March 31, 2007

Our last day in Paris

It's a little after 8 a.m. Saturday morning, 31 March. The end of the month, end of a season and end of our trip in Paris, indeed in Europe. Today we fly to the United States to begin the next leg of our trip abroad, to begin a new season, a new life.

Yesterday was cold and rainy in Paris, actually not a bad way to spend your final full day in the City of Light. Such weather makes it much easier to leave frankly and Saturday morning dawned chilly and overcast so we're pretty much ready emotionally I suppose.

And we're ready to go in virtually all other respects as well.

Our bags were pretty much packed up by the end of Friday, excepting those last minute items such as razor, toothbrush, computer, you know, the necessities of life.

About 12:30 We met up with our friend Beth G. for lunch at Higuma, a wonderful little noodle bar near the Musee Louvre. (Beth is finishing a stage here at one of the posh hotel restaurants.) We chatted for a couple of hours about food, life, trips, future, food and of course food, particularly pastry. We also talked about coming down to NYC to see her later this summer -- pretty much a necessity in fact since we shipped some of her stuff home with our household goods earlier this month!

The rest of the day went well. I ran some last minute errands: getting an ink cartidge for the printer so we could print our own boarding passes and champagne for our last evening meal in Paris -- at home.

Meanwhile Susan went back to Pascal's one more time -- I tell you the girl cannot stay away from that place -- to say goodbye to Misato and to pick up her letter of completion of her internship from Pascal. Naturally while she was there she could roped (not unwillingly I suspect) into helping them make, you guessed it: barquettes!

(Just before we left for Italy last week Susie brought a dish of brownies to Pascal's as a way of saying thank you. Pascal was not there at the time but later that day he called Susie at home and said the brownies were terrific and that he wanted the recipe for his shop! Pretty cool we thought.)

After spending two or three hours hanging around pastry cream and choux pastry Susan finally called me and said she was getting out of there before nettoyage (cleanup). She not only got the letter from Pascal but also his willingness to let her come back whenever she wants to work on whatever she'd like.

Pretty good deal I'd say.

So this morning we finish tidying up the apartment, shower and pack our last things for the haul to Boston and beyond.

Drea comes by at about 11 a.m. to pick up the keys and finalize the utility charges and figure the balance of our deposit.

About noon we haul our bags downstairs and wait for the blu-van shuttle to take us to Charles de Gaulle airport (Terminal 2B if you must know). The shuttle is door-to-door but quite a bit less money than a taxi. With three huge rolling bags, one duffel bag and two large carryons we thought we'd skip a last ride on the Metro/RER out to CDG thank you.

So there you have it. Simple, clean and neat. Like most separations should be I suppose. But I think this one won't last long. . .

Wish you were here,

Steve

Friday, March 30, 2007

Where we ate in Paris, 2006-2007

This is a collection of the places we have eaten in Paris between August of 2006 and March of 2007, and recommend. By arrondissement. (This is also repeated in my blog Paris food and travel notes.)

1st arrondissement:

Higuma (32 rue Sainte Anne; Metro: Pyramides; open every day, ph: 01-47-03-38-59) This place was very basic in the décor – mid-twentieth century squalor but that was deceptive. On the right as we walked in was a row of seats at a counter facing the cooking area, consisting mainly of a bank of enormous woks – and all around us the diners were hungrily eating and slurping their way toward nirvana. This place was clearly basic dining only – but man what “basic”! And the smells were incredible! If the food was only half as good as it smelled we were definitely in paradise.

After a few minutes wait a young woman came and ushered us toward the back room, threading our way through a maze of tables and chairs packed with people devouring their food. (My only hope now was to be one of those people!)

The dishes were primarily noodles – stir-fried or in broth -- but there were also steamed dumplings and several rise dishes as well. The food was absolutely delicious and unbelievably inexpensive: €43 for the five of us! For example, I had a large bowl of noodles with pork and a half-dozen steamed dumplings for €10! 2006 11/05

Higuma (163 rue Saint Honore; ph: 01.58.62.49.22; Metro: Palais Royal/Musee Louvre) The second restaurant to the one above this place is a bit more upscale in the décor but the menu is the same (and so are the prices we thought). They also have samples in their window, which helps the first time diner. We ate lunch here with friend Beth and enjoyed it immensely. Noisy and crowded when we first arrived, we were soon up to our elbows in noodles – Susan and I each had the Yakisoba sautéed noodles, which I liked more than she did. Order the “set” which includes a noodle dish plus 5-7 “gyoza” (fried dumplings). 2007 3/30

2nd arrondissement:

Sapporo (2 rue Daunou; Metro: Opera or Pyramides) A funky, noisy little Japanese noodle bar a bit more upscale than Higuma and equally great food at rock-bottom prices. One of Susan's Japanese co-workers didn't much of this place however. 2006 11/18

Bistrot Vivienne (4 rue Petits Champs) We had a delicious lunch here, located off of one of the coolest old galleries left in this part of Paris. 2007 2/28

L’Ostria (4 rue Sauval; ph: 01 40 26 08 07; Metro: Louvre-Rivoli) A wonderful place to eat fish. The restaurant is small, seating maybe 30-55 people, and was operated by two guys: one working the tiny kitchen within view of us all and one working the floor so to speak. Very efficient, very smooth operation (at the end of the evening a woman joined them as well). Word is they make one of the best bouillabaisses in Paris (in season however).

For starters (“entre”) Susan and I had a goat cheese and haddock salad: a bed of fresh greens, with slices of grapefruit, apple, and ultra-thin slices of smoked, salted haddock (raw), and in the center were two small pieces of bread each topped with sliced goat cheese and then placed under a broiler to melt. A-M had a salad of greens covered with “crevettes” (small shellfish); and Guy had a mussel (“moules”) salad. The wine for the evening was a crisp Sancerre.

For main course (“plat) we all had the sea bass (“bar”). Fresh? They brought each of us an entire fish, “sitting upright” (rather than on its side), with the head and tail still on, cooked to perfection; and surrounded by a small handful of sliced cooked vegetables: potatoes, fennel, turnip. We skipped dessert. 2006 11/18

3rd arrondissement:

Chez Omar (47 rue de Bretagne, 3rd arr. Closed Sunday noon; ph: 01 42 72 36 36; Métro: Arts et Métiers) Great for couscous and steak and frites and who knows what else it is deeeelicious. 2007 2/11

4th arrondissement:

Les P’tits Loup (rue Saint Antoine; Metro: Bastille) Run by two middle-aged women (whatever that means), one on the inside, the other the outside. The food was delicious, priced well and the service remarkable: friendly, charming and obviously a person who enjoyed dealing with strangers in search of a good meal. This is a solid recommendation for lunch. Located just a hundred meters or so from the Metro. 2006 9/17

L’Enoteca (25 rue Charles V, in the “Marais” neighborhood; ph: 01.42.78.91.44; Metro: Saint Paul). A wonderful evening of good food (OK outstanding food!), and equally good wine. 2006 12/10

Cafe Med on rue Isle St. Louis -- a delicious lunch. 2007 2/25

5th arrondissement:

Coco de Mer (34 Blvd Saint Marcel, 75005 Paris; ph: 047074188; metro: Saint-Marcel; online at: www.seychelles-saveurs.com). 2006 8/3 and 2007 2/26

Cafe des Isles (111 rue Monge, 75005 Paris; ph: 01 47 07 55 55; Metro Censier-Daubenton). The sister restaurant to Coco de Mer where we have eaten twice. Both are in our neighborhood (the Cafe is on rue Monge and Coco is on Rue Saint Marcel) and both provide a wonderful gastronomic eye on the Seychelles ( off the northern coast of Madagascar). Outstanding seafood (fresh snapper from the Seychelles), very nice staff and reasonable prices; very highly recommended. 2007 1/5

L'Arbrea Cannelle Two great lunches here. 2007 December 2006 and January 2007

6th arrondissement:

Le Relais de l’Entrecote (20 bis, rue St-Benoit; ph: 014 5491600; Metro: St. Germain des Pres. A second restaurant 15 rue Marbeuf.). A favorite with tourists and locals alike – we had in fact been given the tip from a businessman who eats out in Paris a great deal – this is one place you should definitely go, but if and only if you like beef. They don’t serve fish, pork or chicken, and they only serve one cut of beef one way with one sauce and a side order of potatoes. No frills, no choices, but then no problems making up your mind either.

We arrived at about 8:30 and there was a short line already forming outside along the street. They don’t take reservations and we had been warned that it’s a good idea to come a bit early before they open to avoid the long lines but we figured hey it’s a Tuesday evening plus we didn’t want to eat early so we’d take our chances. The restaurant was quite large with lots of tables spilling outside onto the sidewalk on the little side street of Rue St.-Benoit just around the corner from Saint Germain-des-Pres and just a block off the busy Blvd. Saint Germain. Across the street were two other restaurants, one of which was generous enough to provide live jazz music not long after we sat down.

Anyway, after about a 15-minute wait we were seated at a table just inside but since the walls were gone for the season we were in effect also outside. Tres cool. The waitress then came to the table and asked what we would like to drink (water first) and then how we want our meat prepared: rare, medium or well. That’s it. Oh and yes you have just three choices for wine: red, white or sparkling (we chose red). She wrote our orders on the tablecloth and a few minutes later we had our wine, fresh bread and soon afterwards our salads – all very delicious I might add.

A little while later out came the meat. The meat was swimming in a unique pesto-like sauce -- the basil flavor was distinct but not as strong as a traditional pesto or so we thought – and it had a rich, buttery edge to it. Perfect with the meat, which by the way appeared to be slices of sirloin cooked to a tender perfection. I should perhaps explain how they plate the food since it too seemed quite different from any other experience we can recall. They brought out the meat in covered serving trays which were then placed on portable burners scattered strategically around the restaurant – and these were soon followed by huge platters of “pomme frites” (french fries of course) the only accompaniment to the meat. The fries are spooned on to each plate followed by the meat and sauce and then brought to the table. But only half of each person’s portion is given out; and after you finish that you get the “second” helping of both fries and meat. Interesting, no?

The evening air was perfect, the music coming from across the street just added to the fact that yes, we were in Paris, with good friends eating good food, and, as one at our table that evening is often fond of saying, we’re just happy to be here. 2006 9/17

Les Bouquinistes (53 Quai des Grands Augustins; ph: 01 43 25 45 94; Metro: Pont Neuf, Odeon or St. Michel; online at: www.guysavoy.com) Susan and I had eaten here in 1998 and had always wanted to return. The food was even better than we remembered. The service was impeccable, and the wines, a red Merseault and a red Volnay, worked really well with our food; three of us had seafood and Stan had veal. The desserts were equally spectacular; and the cheese board (which I had) consisted of four different cheeses, a hard Comte-like cheese, a chevre, a Brie -style and a fabulous blue called “Fourme d’Ambert,” which was almost sweet. Delicious! 2006 9/17

Ze Kitchen Galerie (4 rue des Grand Augustin; ph: 01.44.32.00.32; Metro: Pont Neuf, St. Michel or Odeon; online at: www.zekitchengalerie.fr) Very creative food, big on multiple flavors with a strong Asian twist. Reasonable prices adequate wine list. 2007 3/29

Lombardi’s (29 rue Dauphine). This place is small but the food was good, service slow, prices OK, and we got to hear and speak Italian. 2007 2/5

8th arrondissement:

La Ferme Saint Simon (6 rue Saint-Simon; ph: 01 45 48 35 74; Metro: rue du Bac; online at: www.fermestsimon.com). 2006 8/27

9th arrondissement:

Rose bakery (46 rue des Martyrs; ph: 01.42.82.12.80) Delicious lunch, great breads, funky interior but overall worth an afternoon stop. 2006 November

13th arrondissement:

Del Navona Pizze (Blvd. des Gobelins) They advertised offered "wood-fired" pizzas and we weren't disappointed. Both of us ordered pizzas (mine came with the wonderful "Merguez" sausage), of course, and a half bottle of Valpolicella. One of the two men sitting next to us caught our eye at one point. He casually remarked to us as they received their pizzas that they were big but good. And he was right! 2007 2/20

Les Pissenlits (11 rue de la Butte aux cailles) The food was pretty good: I had a burger with the first handcut French fries I have seen since coming to Paris! Truly amazing! Susie and Beth both had hearty French-style cassaroles which were tasty but filling. The service was good but the wine mediocre. We skipped dessert. 2007 3/5

15th arrondissement:

Bistrot d'Hubert (41 Boulevard Pasteur, 15th arr.; ph: 01 47 34 15 50; Metro: Pasteur; online at: www.bistrodhubert.com). The restaurant is quite small but very nicely laid out with a superb view of the kitchen space to the rear. I should also add the staff were pleasant, attentive and alternated between French and English with ease. 2007 3/4

16th arrondissement:

Aux Marches du Palais (rue de la Manutention 75016 Paris; ph: 01 47 23 52 80; Metro: Iena) The food was very good but the service a bit inattentive. We also missed out on the fixed menu that just about every restaurant in Paris has since when we asked our waitress she said no there wasn’t one and yet it was on a chalkboard on the wall. And we never received the wine list, which was on another big chalkboard brought to the table. Maybe we had to ask. We did order the “vin rouge du maison” and it was actually just fine, and of course inexpensive. The food was quite good and reasonably priced we thought, although two meals had to go back because they were undercooked. Aside from these glitches one could recommend this place – and particularly if you enjoy a firm grasp of French. Diane had “gambas” (shrimp), Susan had “poulet” (chicken), Lorenzo actually had two starters, fois gras and “champignons” (mushrooms) and I had a small steak (“l’entrecote”) that was superb – aside from being undercooked, the sauce was very tasty and the potatoes (“pommes du terre”) just right. 2006 9/10

18th arrondissement:

Coquelicot (24 rue des Abbesses; ph: 01.46.06.18.77; Metro: Abbesses) Located just a block or so from the metro stop, the café looked fascinating from the street and so the food and service proved even more so. Nor would this be the last time we would visit this wonderful little café -- we returned there for lunch where I had one of the best goat cheese salads I have ever eaten. 2006 May

If you’re looking for more restaurant reviews an excellent website is chocolateandzucchini.com:

Barbaresco, Barolo and Piemonte

During a recent trip south to Italy from Paris we spent two nights in the foothills ("piemonte") of the Italian Alps, where the food is delicious and the wines world-class, where the people are friendly and lacking in the pretentiousness of so many other well-known wine regions of the world.

I hope to eventually get a page devoted to Piemonte up and running soon on my www.sienaitaly.com website. Right now I just want to pass along a few bits of information.

First, accommodation: we stayed at the Cascina delle Rose, in the tiny hamlet of Tre Stelle, just outside of the village of Barbaresco. Our hostess, Giovanna, produces her own wines: Dolcettos, Barberas and of course one of the world's greatest red wines, the Barbaresco.

Second, dining: we ate three wonderful meals, two dinners and a lunch.

Our first dinner was at Trattoria Risorgimento in Treiso, about 4 kms from Barbaresco. (14 viale Remembranza; ph: 0173.63.81.95)

Our lunch was in Alba at the Vincafe (12 via vitt. Emanuele; ph: 0173.36.46.03). http://www.vincafe.com.

Our final meal was in Barbaresco at Ristorante Rabaya (12 via della Stazione; ph: 0173.63.52.23; email: rabaya@tiscalinet.it).

You can find a bit more information on my posting "Barbaresco, Barolo and Alba" from 27 March.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Alps, Burgundy and an epiphany

Tuesday dawned a bit warmer, overcast but no rain, at least not in the hills of Barbaresco. Giovanna, our hostess, informed us that the weather up at the Frejus tunnel where we would cross the Alps from Italy into France was fine and no snow storms predicted. Good news since we hadn't bothered to get chains for our rental car.

After packing up, paying our bill and saying goodbye and thanks to Giovanna for her kindness and hospitality we drove back toward Barebaresco, down the snaking roads toward the valley floor and the Tanaro river, heading in the direction of Asti. Before long we were on the A21 autostrade heading west toward Torino and the Alps. (photo above: a last stop in Italy before the Frejus tunnel.)

The weather hinted at sun to the east but as we skirted Torino and began climbing toward the Frejus tunnel (the 12.8-km tunnel dividing Italy and France somewhere in the bowels of the Alps). The temperature continued to fall and we soon ran into a light rain which plagued us all the way to the tunnel. Indeed, by the time we reached the Frejus it there was quite a bit of snow on the ground and we actually ran into a major snow storm just at the tunnel entrance.

But we were soon in the tunnel, out of the inclement weather and the temperature begin rising from about 0 celsius at the entrance to more than 23 degrees at about the midpoint of the tunnel, or from roughly freezing to over 73 degrees fahrenheit! At just about the same time we crossed the border between the two countries.

The Alps on the Italian side:


And just a few kilometers away on the French side:


As we exited the tunnel we were struck by snow-covered mountain peaks covered by clear blue sky and a brilliant sun. With temprature fluctuations of more than 4-70 degrees, from grey skies and rain and snow to clear skies and sun and warmth. what a truly an breathtaking drive. We followed the signs for Lyon and as we continued our descent from the Alps toward the lower foothills the temps continued to rise and by the time we reached Lyon it was nearly 15 degrees (almost 60 degrees)!

Our route continued west until we reached Lyon where we turned north and headed in the direction of Burgundy. The plan was to spend two nights in Beaune, taste some great burgundy wine and eat some of the local cuisine before tackling the last leg of the drive to Paris.


We arrived in Beaune in gorgeous sunshine and after driving around the city center a couple of times looking for our hotel (the mini ring road is one-way) we found the Hotel de la Poste, parked in front, checked in and set off to explore this beautiful little town.

Well little may be a bit of an understatement but we were struck about how compact it all seemed to be in the city center. (Coming in to the city center one passes an enormous number of hotels and holiday residences that seem to literally encompass the town.) Still, the streets of the city center (centre ville) are dotted throughout with plenty of cool little shops, lots of places to sip wine, eat pastries or anything else that tickles your fancy.



You will notice from the obvious mediocrity and blandness of the photos an the absence of any real excitement here. I'm not sure why this occurred but like a sore that festers the feeling worsened throughout the evening after our arrival in Beaune.

We experienced no problem when we checked in to the hotel, and strolling though the city center was enjoyable. In faact we both remarked that we hoped to spend the following day in the city before heading out of town and exploring some of the nearby wine country: Meursault perhaps, or Pommard.

But something happened to us during the evening, something that somehow pushed us to cut our stay short and head on back to our home in Paris, however tentative that home may be. Maybe that was part of the problem. The knowledge that our lives were about to undergo yet another upheaval -- all our own doing of course. But an upheaval nonetheless.

Perhaps it began when we stopped in a small wine shop that advertised a free wine tasting that evening. We were the only ones there and when we inquired of one young salesman -- in fractured French to be sure -- about the degustazione, about the tasting we were given quizzical looks as if we might have asked him if he were wearing underwear or not. Hmmmm.

Another salesman came along who spoke some English and we changed the subject and asked if he knew of a restaurant where we could get wines by the flight with dinner, say a flight of three or four whites or reds. "Sure, sure, no problem." He gave us the name of a place just 10 meters away and so off we went to check out the menu. While we were looking at the posted menu outside a man came out of the restaurant, it was also a bar as it turned out, and told us in English that the food was very good and the prices reasonable. Well it certainly looked promising.

We walked back to the hotel, refreshed ourselves, stopped in the lobby to read the newspaper and have a glass of Cremant before going out for the evening.

As we strolled back to the centre ville we found ourselves walking by the tourist office, which was closed of course, but in a nearby room there was a photo exhibition of people working in the vineyards around Beaune. We strolled through and then walked on to dinner at Le Part des Anges (24 rue d'Alsace; ph: 03.80.22.07.68).

It was possibly here that things came a bit unglued although I'm still not sure how or what happened. it was eight o'clock and we didn't have a reservation but the man who met us at the door kindly seated us anyway.

First the wine: no wines served in a flight (I suspect this may be a concept lost in communication somewhere) but they did have a board of wines served by the glass. There were two winelists: what I call the Commoner list and the Nobility list. The former was very long, quite exhaustive and full of interesting sounding wines from this incredibly wine-rich part of Burgundy. The latter was handwritten and just two pages of extraordinarily expensive wines. When I asked about a particular wine on the Commoner list our waiter (the same man who seated us) shook his head no they didn't have that one. I tried to ask for recommendation but he was clearly impatient with us, a feeling that became increasingly evident in his eagerness to have us coose our food. (Picture a guy tapping his pencil on pad behind your left shoulder waiting for you to decide.)

Questions seemed out of the, well, question. Tension grew in the air like a cloud from one of the nearby smoking tables and just hung over us until along came Glenda the Good.

The other person working the floor was a young, very pleasant, very amiable woman who was our saviour for the evening. She smiled, joked and knew enough English, which along with our limited French, helped get us through the evening.

The food: very good indeed. We skipped the prix fixe menus and did a la cartre: we both had a soup starter, creamed lentils with poached egg and salmon (scrumptious); I had pork. We both had a bottle of Meursault. I had hoped for a suggestion of a red but that was not forthcoming.

It was during the meal we decided to leave for home the next day and not stay any longer in Beaune.

Why?

Good question. I suspect a number of dynamics were at work. One we were beginning to feel the pinch of wanting to get back home and get ready to pack up for the Big Move on Saturday. (Originally we wouldn't have gotten back to Paris until sometime in the afternoon of the 29th and that evening we are meeting our Florentine acquaintances Melinda and Dave for dinner.) We also were feeling a bit odd in the dramatically different contrasts between Beaune and Barbaresco. Two areas that produce some of the world's greatest wines and yet the costs in Beaune were exorbitant by comparison.

One can get a world-class Barolo for example for €20 or €30 -- in a restaurant mind you -- and yet in Beaune the prices for some of the wines -- for example the wines on the handwritten "Nobility list" as I call it at Le Part des Anges, were in the hundreds of euros. Of course I'm sure value can be found in Beaune as well as any other serious wine country but it seemed that the level of pretentiousness in Beaune was significantly greater. We just felt that the attitude was very different than we experienced at the various Piemonte places where we sampled food and wine versus this one place (I admit only one place) in Beaune.

of course another issue is all about communication. We felt much more confident in communicating with Italians and, equally important, we perceive that the Italians are more open to people trying to communicate in their language no matter who poorly done. We rarely feel that way about the French, I'm afraid.

If it hadn't been for Glenda the Good. . .

In any case we decided that we just didn't feel quite right there. Odd to be sure but it was what it was.

So we the next morning we checked out and left bright and early on a beautiful Wednesday morning, heading north to Paris, where we dropped our car off at the Gare d'Austerlitz. Fortunately we missed the riots at the Gare de la Nord.

All in all, in seven days we drove more than 2000 kms, spent about €125 on gas (well diesel actually) and another €100 on tolls. We met up with old friends, made a few news ones, ate some wonderful food and drank some of the world's finest wines. We're lucky people indeed.

Wish you had been there,

Steve

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Barbaresco, Barolo and Alba

Monday dawned with little proimise for good weather: overcast, cold and rainy. And the promise was kept. But hey it's March, and in any case there was little tourist traffic and no snow and we were in some of the finest wine country in the world. As someone we know often says, "We were just happy to be there."

After a leisurely breakfast we got some tips from Giovanna about what to see and do and headed off for a day of exploration -- who knew what surprises were awaiting for us. (photo: enoteca in Barbaresco.)

From the Cascina dell Rose we drove back in the direction of Barbaresco but stopped short of the village and took a different turn to the right, skirting the other side of the narrow hill, toward the village of Neive, eventually passing around the hilldeciding not to stop in Neive and back toward Barbaresco. We found a place to park -- not terribly difficult given the absence of tourists and presence of rain.

Of course in addition to this still being somewhat "off'season" it was also Monday so most places in Barbaresco were closed (a recurring theme in Alba as well). But the enoteca was open so we got a chance to peek inside this beautiful deconsecrated (?) church and browse the wines produced in Barbaresco. (See photo above. OK the photo isn't so great but take my word for it; this church was beautiful inside. Photo below: Barbaresco from the front door of the enoteca. In case you're wondering that's a big sundial on the building directly ahead.)


It was still early so we opted not to taste anything -- a mistake I won't make the next time -- and soon afterwards we we on the road again back in the direction of Tre Stelle. We slipped past our B & B and took the winding road which eventually began twisting and turning spiralling downward to the valley floor and the town of Alba.

Again we found a place to park near the city center with little effort and walked -- umbrella out and up of course -- following the signs toward the centro storico. We found the information office, which was about the only place open. The office is very new and well laid out with several staff available to assist the traveler. It became clear to us that Piemonte, perhaps as a consequence of the recent influx of interest from the Olympics in Torino, is spending a great deal of time and effort and imagination in promoting the region. We thought the tourist office in Alba particularly well planned and thoughtfully laid out with ample information available to help the casual tourist find his way around this wonderful part of Italy.

We strolled around Alba in the rain, popping in to a small church where there was a small photographic exhibtion hung out in the center where the pews would normally have been. The theme appeared to be of women around the world at work, with children, just being themselves. Very nicely done and quite touching as well.

We also saw banners and posters for a recent joint US-Italy jazz festival as well as an International film festival in town as well. Quite a little town Alba we thought.

Since it was lunchtime Susie and I, along with pretty much everyone else in a 2-km radius, gravitated toward the one place apparently open, the Vincafe, a wonderful little wine bar and trattoria serving quite a large number of local wines by the glass as well as delicious local cuisine. I had the veal in tuna sauce (again) and Susie another local quich-like dish, and we both had the farro soup (a vegetable soup really), with a glass of Arneis. It was all very delicious, and so good for you.

After lunch we strolled in the rain back to the car and left Alba hoping to return very soon. (No, really I mean it!)

After some aimless driving around the countryside we at last came up with a plan and headed off to the other Big Red country: Barolo.

This village is somewhat larger than Barbaresco and a bit more oriented toward the tourist -- space alone dictated the limitations in Barbaresco we thought. Anyway parking proved little problem and we were soon strolling through the quiet (very) streets of the village heading toward the enoteca locate din the castle at the edge of town.

Upon entering the enoteca one has the option to pay a small fee to tour the castle (we skipped it) or walk down the stairs to the enoteca proper. We opted for the latter and soon found ourselves in a wonderful, very open and cozy space where a woman was just discussing the characteristics of some of the local wines with another couple -- in fact the only other people in the enoteca. We stopped and listened and paid our €5 each for a tasting of three wines (glasses not included).


Before long we struck up a conversation with the other couple, Jonas and Suzanne from Sweden. (They had driven down on a long holiday skiing and just touring heading toward the sun and sea.) The four of us talked about the wine, about Piemonte, about Italy and about traveling, about how important traveling is, allowing us to see the world through different perspectives. It is amazing how much we are all alike and yet how different we can be at the same time. Truly astonishing.

The four of us said goodbye, they heading south toward the sun and the Ligurian Sea and us north to the Alps and France. We went our seperate ways. I wonder though, is it possible we will ever see them again? Why did our paths cross in the first place? Coincidence? Random act of what force? Does it really matter? We met a couple of nice, amiable, funny people with whom we shared some stories and smiles. That's enough.

Before leaving Barolo Susie and I stopped at the nearby museum of corkscrews (fee) where we browsed the small giftshop selling items with the logo of the museum before moving on back to the car and the B & B.

That evening, our last evening we had dinner at the Villa Rabaya just at the edge of the village of Barbaresco. The food was good -- I had veal roast in a wonderful mushroom sauce and Susie had pasta. The wine was of course spectacular. The views from this restaurant were dramatic to say the least and must be truly incredible in the summer time with the windows and doors open. You can see for miles and miles it seemed.

We were the only ones there.

Wish you had been there,

Steve

Monday, March 26, 2007

Tuscany to the Piedmont


Well it's Thursday morning, 29 March and we're back in our apartment in Paris. For the next 48 hours at any rate. But that's skipping way ahead of this story.

We left Beaune in Burgundy a day early yesterday, in fact we barely spent more than a handful of hours there, for reasons which I'll discuss in another post.(photo: Barbaresco vineyard out of our window at Cascine delle Rose.)

Last Sunday was rainy and overcast when we left our hotel in Siena and began our northward trek toward Piemonte and the vineyards of Barbaresco and Barolo. Over the many years since we have been coming to Italy we have never really explored this particular corner of the Italian peninsula -- and in fact it is rightly not part of the peninsula at all but a chunk of foothills ("piedmont") of the Italian alps. (Of course on the French side they're called the French alps. Touchy touchy.) In the world of wine three of the worlds's greatest red wines are Brunello, Barbaresco and Barolo. We were about to discover what we've been mising all these years.

We have spent some quality time along the western edge of Lake Maggiore and in Stresa in particular, which is officially the very eastern edge of Piemonte. But aside from the administrative connection there seems very little similarity between the Lake area to the east and the mass of vertical vineyards to the far west of the region. (Although both areas do share the alps as backdrops.)

Retracing our steps from the previous Wednesday when we drove (get out your maps) from Nice to Siena we followed the SS2 to Florence, took the A1 around the city and connected with the A11, which took us past Prato, Pistoia, Lucca and then we connected up with the A12. We remained on the A12 all the way to Genova when we departed from our previous route and swtiched to the A7 north to Milan. We got off onto the A21 near Tortona in the direction of Asti and then followed back roads to our B & B overlooking the beautiful hill town of Barbaresco.

Whew! It sounds long but in fact the trip took us about 6 hours and cost about €20 in tolls.

After leaving the autostrade at Asti we headed southwest down the Tanaro valley and after aqbout 25 kms or so came in sight of a long ridge of hills on our left (to the southeast) which constitute the beginning of some of the most famous wine country in the world.

After turning off the main valley road we began our ascent up the steep, winding roads to the crests of the tiny ridgelines which contain a surprising large number of homes and little villages like Barbaresco, which overlook the Tanaro river on the valley floor. (Oh and please note that the Italians have decided that guardrails are not terribly useful to them here. I can only imagine what driving some of these roads is like in winter. . . )

We followed the directions skirting the village of Barbaresco and on to the small nearby hamlet of Tre Stelle where we had to stop and ask for the location of our B & B, Cascina della Rose ("farm of the roses"). The woman I asked pointed down the road we were traveling and said "La. A destra." There to the right. And sure enough there it was about 100 meters straight ahread on the right.

We arrived a bit earlier than expected and so had to call our hostess, Giovanna, on her mobile since no one was at the house. Her family has been living in the area for generations, they began as millers, and she has been cultivating and producing her own Barbaresco for many years now. A large part of the original farmhouse is given over to three self-catering apartments and another part contains three double bedrooms, which share a huge common area (no TVs allowed) and wonderful kitchen. Susie and I arrived at a quiet time of year so we had the place to ourselves but imagined that it would be a wonderful space for small groups of friends or families to spend some serious time enjoying this gorgeous countryside.


Indeed one of the things that struck us both right off was just how beautiful -- and how wine-focused -- this area is. (For example, no diminutive glasses are used anywhere; everyone uses huge glasses even for white wines.) Unlike Toscana where the vineyards are set among rolling hills, in this part of Piemonte, the vineyards seem to hang in midair from the steep hillsides. The vertical nature of the area makes for some truly fantastic views and some of the photos we saw while traveling between Barbaresco and Barolo pictured all these dramatically placed vines set against the backdrop of the Italian alps off in the distance. Sadly the weather failed us; if it wasn't raining it was cloudy and overcast. (photo below: vineyard in Barolo.)


Our first night in Barbaresco we had dinner at the lovely little Trattoria Risorgiment in nearby Treiso, about 2 kms from our B & B. We asked for recommendations on food and wine and were not disappointed in either respect. We had a sampling antipasti platter of local dishes consisting of things like thinly sliced artichokes with turkey, veal in a tuna sauce (vitello tonnato) and a quiche-like dish that was light and yet somehow filling. The one dish we did not care for and which we clearly noticed was a big favorite with the locals was raw beef macerated, drizzled with olive oil. We did try it of course but it is something of an acquired taste -- and believe me several people sitting near us had certainly acquired the taste since they ate plates of it. We asked for wine recommendations as and we're given glasses of the delicious Arneis for starters and then had a bottle of 2001 Lano Barbaresco (2001 being one of the better recent vintages we were told).

After dinner we drove home along the narrow spine of the hills with gorgeous views of lights near and far on both sides of the hill. What a way to begin our exploration of this incredible part of Italy.

Why travel, part 2

Here are several more responses to my question of "Why do you travel?"

For me, what delivers a satisfying travel experience is walking. I see gardens and barking dogs, chat with women in their barnyard, walk by old junk piles, return waves of greeting. Walking takes me through ancient ruins of abbeys in England, into the kitchen of the Italian train station master for fresh home-made wine, and Bedouin tents for tea in Morocco. Arab tots clamber to kiss my hand in the pre-medieval neighborhood of Marrakech, a French woman in a pink polyester suit makes total side-body contact to give directions I don't really need and a New Yorker sets up my entire four-day visit, learns my personal history and all about my children in the 30 minutes after we cross a busy street together. Not one of these experiences would I have had, except by walking. I thought travel would be about history, art and sights, but it is with living, breathing people where I experience life. -- Tyler, Oregon

I wonder about Turkey ( old Constantinople) and Rome and the Libraries of Egypt, destroyed long ago. Although I know I can never see those old libraries, the destruction of the ancient books and papyrus drives me crazy as I wonder what was written, what knowledge did we lose? I was taught in school about the invasion of England by the Romans. Their arrival changed the history of Britain more so than the arrival (previously) of the Danes or the Saxons. The Roman influence is still seen in lots of cities, especially Bath. Names like Chester, Cirencester, Worcester indicates that these towns were named by the Romans. Some roads built by the Romans remain today, the Fosse Way and Watling St., very straight roads (the Romans realized early on that the quickest connection between two points was a straight line).
So i often wonder about the people who brought civilization to England. About those who taught us about government, health, central heating, architecture and taught women about beautification (make-up, jewelry and how to dye hair). Yes, that all fascinates me and makes me wonder. So I like to travel because I'm curious and because I can. -- Gillian, Vermont (by way of England)

I travel to learn about things I never knew existed. I travel to experience life in ways I couldn't imagine. I travel to discover parts of myself I didn't know were missing. -- Paul, USA

I like to travel because I enjoy seeing the wonders of other countries; seeing how the people live and how they adapt to being around ancient and modern times. I like the idea of seeing areas on TV or hearing about other parts of the world and saying to myself "Oh, I have been there: it was so beautiful and exciting." -- Irma, Houston

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Saturday in Florence

It's Sunday in Siena and it's overcast, wet and dreary. But it's Italy and life is after all, full of tradeoffs.

It's half past eight and the hotel lobby here at the Arcobaleno is just starting to pick up traffic. Last night we turned our clocks forward here in italy (and in Europe as well of course), that, combined with the lousy weather, is keeping plenty of the guests hiding in their rooms waiting to see if the day gets any better before they make a commitment one way or the other.

We have no such luxury today, and after we check out this morning we have to get on the road and head north to Piemonte and a B & B just outside of Barbaresco.

Yesterday was overcast with a promise of precipitation constantly hovering around the edges all day long (a promise that was fulfilled late in the afternoon). We took our time in the morning, lingering over not one but two coffees before hopping in the car and driving north to Florence to see Warren and Gladys.

For those of you who are new to the blog, Gladys is the sister of Susan's aunt and she and her husband have lived in Florence for nearly a dozen years now (before that they lived in Germany for many years). We had gotten to know them well before we left Florence last year and hoped to see them once more before we left for the US. And so there we went.

The drive was fast and smooth up the SS2, at least until we got into the suburbs of Florence. There are some new traffic patterns if you're coming into the city from the south, but the signage was good and we found our way to the Piazzale Michelangelo. This beautiful spot overlooking Florence is a great place to park your car -- you run no risk of getting a ticket by inadvertently driving into the city center nor do you have to deal with the ever-present traffic snarls which await all drivers daring to think they can just come into Florence willy-nilly and park anywhere.

Although this was just early spring, it was still Saturday and there were few parking spots left. But we found one and were soon on our way.

After skirting the wedding party overlooking the city and the movie crew setting up in the small garden, Susie and I were trekking down the hill toward the Ponte Vecchio, past the cops on horses and strolling down very familiar streets toward our old apartment on via dei Servi.


We stopped and had a coffee at our old hangout, the OK Bar, popped into the Osteria around the corner to say hi to Massimo and his wife Marta and then walked over to say hi to Michele and Andrea at their chocolate shop near Santa Croce.

After saying ciao to Michele -- one of Susie's favorite instructors at Apicius last year (just last year?) -- we walked over to Warren and Gladys's apartment.

Glady's fixed a superb lunch (as usual) and we spent the next several hours catching up on our various travels -- W & G just do not seem to be able to stop traveling the world. We also met their granddaughter and her friend from New York who are both staying with W & G.

It was hard to say goodbye, not knowing when we will see them again. But that's the way travel works it seems, and if it's one thing we have learned on the road so far it's you don't say "good-bye" but until we see you again. . .

Wish you were here,

Steve

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Tuscan countryside


Friday morning was another relaxing morning at the hotel. After taking our caffe at a civilized pace and checking emails we packed up and walked out the front door, turning left toward the city walls.

The plan was to revisit the facilities at Le Meridiane and see if there have been any new changes in the past two years since we stayed there last, and then in the afternoon to visit the vacation rentals at Montestigliano southwest of Siena. We have heard some very good things about this place and wanted to see for ourselves. (photo: Piazza del Campo.)

We decided to walk from our hotel to Le Meridiane, which only took us about 15 minutes or so walking along some old and familiar routes. At Le Meridiane we were met by Angela, Andrea's sister and who now manages this wonderful vacation rental for her brother.

We first stayed here in 1999 when they had just the one building -- today they have two undergrouond garages, one huge pool (outdoor), and several new buildings for a total of 27 rooms. They also have a large outdoor grill and plenty of space for just relaxing an enjoying a Tuscan evening overlooking the city of Siena.

Angela, like her brother Andrea, is very conversant in English and extremely amiable and congenial. The new rooms are spacious and given the proximity to the city -- 15 minutes by local bus into the city center -- and yet with a feel of being in the Tuscan countryside Le Meridiane still lives up to what we found attractive about it in the first place. I'll be discussing this in more depth on my siena blog and of course on the website.

From Le Meridiane we headed off to the southeast of the city, about 15 kms to Fattoria Montestigliano.

It was more than a year ago when we first heard about this working farm from Patti Bechi and have been eager to see it for ourselves. I'll be writing up a more in-depth review on my siena is Tuscany blog and of course on the website later this month. Suffice it to say that we had a grand time.

We left the Siena-Grossetto highway (S233) at the Brenna exit and followed the online directions to the fattoria, climbing up a winding road until we reached the top of the hill, and the complex of buildings, perched on a beautiful bluff overlooking the city of Siena, just 15 kms away.

We were soon met by Susan Pennington, a British expat who manages the complex of stunning apartments, homes really since each one is quite independent of the other and all with fantastic views of the surrounding countryside. There are gardens galore and so much space to just get away from the noise of the city. One couldn't find a better host or hostess than Susan: she is friendly, knowledgeable of the area, helpful with details large and small, and funny to boot. Meeting her was worth the drive alone.

After leaving Montestigliano we took the back roads into Siena and then hung out at the apartment for just a bit until it was time to meet up with Aimone and Alessandre at their office on via Pescaia (where most of the wines sales occur in fact).

The four of us chatted for a while and then Aimone's wife joined us and the five of us went to a nearby bar for prosecco. We said arrivaderci and "a presto" wondering when we would in fact see each other again but secure in the knowledge that it would indeed be soon.

Off Susan and I went in the direction of the fortezza where we found a place to park. We then strolled a while through the crisp night air before dinner at Boccon del Prete, one of our favorite spots.

Fortunately I had had the foresight make reservations since the restaurant was quickly packed with several large groups of Italians.

At one point I couldn't help but notice at the table next to us one of the men with a large Canon camera taking some stunning black and white photos of the people at his table -- from my seat I could easily see the images pop up on the LCD screen -- and I had to compliment him, saying that several of the images were striking indeed. I learned that he really enjoyed landscape photography and his favorite spots were Iceland and Namibia!

After dinner Susie and I walked back to the car (I stopped for a gelato), cutting across the Piazza del Campo, and drove back to the hotel. As we walked into the lobby the young woman working the desk, the same woman who checked us in as a matter of fact, commented to us that her replacement was an hour late. We asked her for digestivo from the bar and she gladly poured one for both of us and herself as we three chatted about the vagaries of life and love.

What a day this has been!

Friday, March 23, 2007

Thursday in Siena

Thursday morning we slept in late (until 7 a.m. at any rate).

After showering and getting dressed we strolled downstairs for breakfast -- but the first thing I had to do was get us set up with the hotel's Wi-fi system. For 3 euros I got an hour of time which I had three days to use, inexpensive to be sure, and very handy.

After coffee and cornetto, after checking emails and figuring out our day -- which would have its own way with us in any event -- off we went for the city of Siena. (photo of Siena from the hills of Le Crete.)

Our hotel, the Arcobaleno is located north of the Porta Camollia, the northern entrance into the city center ("centro storico"), about a 25-30 minute walk. And walk we did and before long we were inside the security and safety of the city walls. We strolled down Via Camollia to our favorite haunts -- stopping along the way to pick up a universal (Italy) adapter for our various electrical components -- and then around and around ("fare un giro") just taking in those places we have come to know so well.

Along the way we checked out the new facade on the Duomo (very nice to be sure and lots of euros I should think) but did not go inside. We also stopped by the English Bookshop and visited with owner Lisa. (Nice to see some things don't change.)

We stopped and said "ciao" to our favorite barrista at Cafe Fiorella (3 Via di Citta). She has one of the nicest smiles in the city (you can see her on my video of a stroll around Siena in 2005) and of course had to have a cafe macchiato!

From Cafe Fiorella we strolled across the Piazza del Campo into the APT, the tourist office at no. 56 on the Piazza, and found ourselves jammed in with a large group of Germans (more accurately a group of large Germans) to see if the urban trek brochures were still available (they were out of them at the moment) and back across the piazza to Cassato del Sotto and the Cantina in Piazza.

We had stopped there earlier that morning and Laura, Aimone's daughter said that Aimone and Alessandre were out and about. Using a clutch of mobile phones Laura tracked them all down and, using the Italian version of "teleconferencing" ( each person using two phones to call the other person who was in turn calling the other person, well you get the idea) we all planned to meet back at the Cantina at 1 p.m. for lunch.

We got there right on time, met Alessandre and a few minutes later Aimone waltzed in. For the next four hours or so we ate, drank and talked about the past, the present and of course the future -- theirs as uncertain as ours, although chances are good they will still be in Siena while it's anyone's guess where will be this time next year.

After saying arrivaderci and a presto we walked back to the hotel -- dodging traffic during the last 100 meters or so. After a short time refreshing ourselves we got into the car and headed off to Asciano and dinner with Patti and Roberto Bechi.

We got into town a little early and strolled around the quiet streets until Roberto and two little ones arrived -- Patti was still hung up in a meeting about Michele's nursery school but she soon joined us.

The evening was spent catching up on the details of our lives -- and just enjoying the evening inside where it was warm.

The night was clear and very chilly as we drove through the clay hills ("Le Crete"), along the twisitng and turning road running along the series of spines of ridges dominating the countryside between Asciano and Siena. What a wonderful evening to be out in the Tuscan countryside: with a crescent moon hanging overhead, the surrounding land dark and quiet and so very peaceful.

Soon we came into view of Siena, drawing ever closer to the Torre del Mangia and our hotel, to a peaceful night's sleep and hopes for an equally peaceful day tomorrow.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

An afternoon with friends in Siena

On our recent trip to Siena in March of 2007 we stopped by to visit Aimone and Alessandra at Cantina in Piazza, just off the Piazza del Campo, and spent a wonderful afternoon over wine and food catching up with each other. After entering the city walls through the Porta Camollia we strolled down the small streets until we crossed the Piazza del Campo and found ourselves in front of one of the finest enoteca's in the city, Cantina in Piazza:





Wish you had been there,

Steve

Traveling to Italy


It's a gorgeous Saturday morning in Siena. So far the weather has cooperated since we returned to Tuscany but we're certainly not taking it for granted. This time of year one just never knows. On the way here we saw a major snow squall in central France and nearly tropical temperatures in Nice, so we're just appreciating the moment.

Susan and I left the apartment on rue Poliveau about 7 a.m. Wednesday and walked our bag over to the Gare de Lyon, cutting through the Gare d'Austerlitz and across the Seine, a walk of only about 20 minutes or so.

We boarded our train, a TGV, about 7:45 and left the station on time at a little before 8 a.m. Originally we had two aisle seats but a businessman sitting next to Susan took pity on us and swapped seats before we even pulled out of the station. (photo: Porta Camollia in Siena.)

The train seemed to fly a ground level through the French countryside of Burgundy, through the occasional snow squall and then down along the Rhone on into Provence before it made it's first stop at Avignon; from Avignon it was a short hop to Aix-en-Provence. We had covered roughly 2/3 of our journey in under three hours! But from Aix the tracks slowed significantly and indeed it would take more than three hours to finish the trip to Nice.

After arriving at the Nice train station -- amidst palm trees, warm temps and almost within sight of the water -- we found ourselves perplexed, confused and wondering how we were going to get to the airport to pick up our car rental. A few minutes of me stomping around in front of the station wondering how we got ourselves into this fix in the first place and up pulls an express bus to the airport! Four euros and 15 minutes later we were standing at the arrivals entrance to Terminal 2.

Unlike most other airports we've been in the folks who operate the Nice airport have seen fit to place the car rental operations not just outside of the terminal proper but in fact on the other side of P5 (Parking lot no. 5), a short walk from the terminal. The people at the Avis desk were very nice and 5 minutes after we arrived we were in a brand-new Opel Corsa heading out of the airport parking lot toward the A8, in the direction of Monaco and Italy.

The drive to Italy was smooth and uneventful, cruising along the coast on the superhighway perched high above the beaches and villages in southern France and then along the Italian Riviera.

We zoomed right through San Remo amidst the thousands of greenhouses cantilevered on the steep hillsides soaking up the sun, zipped through Genova and then down the Ligurian coast toward La Spezia and eventually cut inland near Carrara, sliding past Lucca around Florence and at about 8 p.m. pulled up in front of the Hotel Arcobaleno in Siena.

After checking in and unloading our bags we stepped downstairs to the Hotel lobby and then walked down another level to the restaurant, Il Vecchio Pozzo -- where virtually everyone seemed to be local so we though that a good sign indeed. I had grilled sausage with white Tuscan beans in a tomato sauce and Susan had a penne pasta with four cheeses and a salad. Delicious and incredibly inexpensive.

After a leisurely evening meal we returned to our room and to bed and slept like babies.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Musee Rodin

The day before we left for Italy we went to the Musee Rodin. Located within a stone's throw of Les Invalides the Rodin museum is worth a stop for a variety of reasons, none of which have to do with what you were probably told and everything to do with what you will feel when you see these sculptures.

Anyway, if you'd like to see just a few images from the museum, examples of what you can easily do yourself, click here!

Otherwise just go and stroll for a couple of hours. Don't miss the Camille Claudel room (no. 6); her Age of Maturity is stunning. There is also a very nice outdoor cafe overlooking the garden in the rear of the museum; the garden costs only one euro. Oh and toss aside whatever guidebook you're using -- that means you Rick Stevers too -- and spring for the audio guide.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Why do we travel?

I recently asked the people on our blog list why they traveled. Here are a few of the responses:

To remind myself that we’re not the only ones on the planet. There are other cultures, foods, traditions, clothing, climates, languages … all out there for us to say “hello” and “thanks for sharing this space with me.”-- Michele

For me travel is education/growth. New places and cultures with their different architecture, art, music, styles, people, food, history, etc. all combine to broaden understanding of the world as a whole, which tends to be a pretty bizarre and cool place if you take the time to really look at it. And at the same time it helps one redefine the idea of home. -- Glen, Germany

[T]he more you experience, the more diverse your experience of life, the more it has meaning. It becomes less morbid to think that though we all die in the end, we have several decades to absorb the richness around us. For me, travel is also a creative stimulant and a mental relief from mundane motions of contemporary living. As an artist, the experiences give depth to my work because they help me better understand relationships: man and nature, man and man, nature and nature. As a student, any opportunity to get away from school is a welcome respite! -- Amrita, Virginia

We find traveling, both locally in the U.S. and abroad, to be one of the most educational experiences one can have. Not only do we thoroughly enjoy the experience of trying out the local foods and wines of the countries we visit but we love to experience the local culture. We enjoy either biking or walking wherever we are . . . the chances of meeting locals is far greater this way than to move around by car, rail or bus and is a far more intense education than reading either a textbook or even the best travel guide. We'll be traveling worldwide as long as we have the physical and mental wherewithal to do it! -- Stan and Margie, Colorado

I'll be adding more responsese over the next couple of days so stay tuned!

Thanks again for sharing your ideas with all of us! I find it fascinating that so many of us, most of us strangers to each other, are traveling for pretty much the same reasons: to experience, to learn, to grow.

And travel doesn't have to involve long flights to exotic countries, but can be something as simple as driving to the next county. It's the journey and what you learn from it that seems to be so important to at least the people who stop by our blogs and websites to say hello.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Just a walk in Paris

We have a favorite walking route that pretty much covers the heart of Paris:

From our apartment on rue Poliveau in the southeastern part of the 5th arr. we walk up rue St. Hilaire to the Jardin des Plantes, entering through the south gate by the Museum of Natural History. Continue on and stroll the length of the gardens toward the Seine.

Leave the gardens and cross the Quai Saint Bernard, walk down to the quai itself, and bear left, past the river police headquarters on your right, and stroll along the imaginative musee de sculpture en plein air, the museum of open air sculpture overlooking the river. Walk along the left bank all the way to Notre Dame, taking in the spectacular views of both the Isle Saint Louis and the Isle de la Cite.

Pass under the Pont de la Tournelle and the ramrod straight statue of St. Genevieve, the patron saint of Paris and then leave the quai at the Pont Archeveche. Crossing over the Isle de la Cite turn right and then go to the end of the island and down the steps to the Memorial de la Deportation. (There may be a guard there so be prepared to open your bag. Closed during the lunch hour.)

Walk up and out of the Memorial stroll over to Notre Dame, and from there walk the length of the island along the Quai des Orefevres to the Pont Neuf, turning right cross onto the right bank. Stroll along the Seine past the bouquinistes to the Louvre.

Cross the street at rue de Admiral de Coligny and then turn left walking down Quai Mitterand. After a hundred meters or so turn right and enter the Louvre proper, cross into the cour caree, the courtyard of the original fortress (return at night when the lights have been turned on). Turn left through the entrance into the central "courtyard" of the Louvre where you can find with little difficulty, the glass pyramids.

Skirt the pyramids and the tourists queuing to get inside, and walk to the Place du Carrousel -- a useful diversion into the huge underground complex of shops, restaurants, theaters, all of which lie just a few meters beneath the Place. Here you can find great bathrooms, food to go, a huge Virgin megastore, Metro connections and another entrance to the Louvre museum.

From here stroll the length of the Jardin des Tuileries. Once an enormous palace complex that connected the two vast wings of Louvre, the Tuileries palace was destroyed during the Siege of Paris and the Commune in 1870-71.

Stroll down the central artery of the gardens, past the artwork, stone and human, found milling about the gardens, and don't hesitate to wander off toward the fringes for there are surprised lurking everywhere here.

As you near the end of the Tuileries look to your left and you'll see the box-like Musee l'Orangerie, home to Monet's enormous "Water Lillies" as well as many other works of art.

Directly ahead as you exit the gardens you will be confronted with the daunting and challenging, if not life threatening Place de la Concorde. Near the the location of the 3500-year-old Egyptian obelisk, is where the revolutionaries lopped off the heads of Marie Antoinette and her husband the king of France. If you aren't careful you might lose your head as well, since the traffic here during the weekday can be ferocious and the Place bears careful analysis before attempting to cross.

Once across you and tens of thousands of others can then stroll casually (or down) the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe, where you will find both a delightful view of the city (at the top) and the tomb of the unknown soldier (at the bottom).

From the Arc you can then take the nos. 1, 2 or 6 metros or the RER A line. We like to the take the no. 6 to the Trocadero (only two stops) and get off to catch the lights of the Eiffel tower to round out the evening. Anyway you can plot your own course for dinner, home or wherever; you're on your own now.

Making barquette at Pascal's

This past Wednesday I walked got "the call" from Susan:

"C'mon over and take some photos!"

A while back I had asked her to ask Pascal if I could come over someday before Susie finished her stage and take some photos in the back of the shop and also shoot a little video (petit video).

Well that's exactly what I did this last week, and here's the video to prove it. In it you'll see Pascal, Susie and Misato making barquette with Roberto in the background making sandwiches and Miss Chocolate doing just about everything else! (photo above: l-r: Pascal, Miss Chocolate, Susie, Roberto, and Misato.)



Wish you had been there!

Steve

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Tuesday, back to the Musee d'Orsay

"Bad art might be defined as a series of bad choices about what to show and what to leave out." -- Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel

Susie went back to work at Pascal's early Tuesday morning, her final week of interning and one which would bring some sadness by late Saturday night. More of that later in the week.

Anyway I decided to return a third time to the Musee d'Orsay. My primary goal was to not have a goal at all! Just wander around the museum, spend some serious time on the upper level among the Impressionists and try and understand, in my small, dense way exactly what it was they were getting at. On a smaller note, I wanted to do a side-by-side comparison of Rick Steves' podcast audio tour of the d'Orsay with the official museum audio guide. (photo: central hall of the d'Orsay.)

I left the apartment about half-past ten in the morning, walked to the no. 10 at Jussieu, switched to the no. 12 at Sevres-Babylone and got off two stops later at Solferino. The museum is just two blocks away down (or rather up) rue Bellechasse.

Susie and I had been to the d'Orsay twice before and each time there was always a long line waiting to get it. We always thought it was because of the magical "Free First Sunday of the Month." Well the line this past Tuesday morning for paying guests was nearly as long. Impressive I thought. Still the queue moved quickly and before long I was past security, paid my €7.50 and walked into the museum. Right away I walked over to the audio guide desk and paid another €5 for a guide (in English of course) and then sat down to get myself in order. (For a short movie of my walk through the d'Orsay scroll to the end of this entry.)

I had the iPod ready to go with the podcast queued up, the accompanying map in hand -- available as a PDF download with the podcast, hung the audio guide around my neck and off I went on an adventure of sorts, feeling good about not having to be anywhere else anytime soon. The day was mine and I was determined to spend most of it right here.

First the comparison. It is unfair to compare apples and watermelons here but hey this is my blog and I can do pretty much what I want. Anyway for the tourist using Rick Steves -- the new Baedeker for the New World Traveler -- it can be a real temptation. Rick is often funny, smack on in his analysis of travel issues, down-to-earth in his language and usually right to the point. And of course he is very successful. Naturally I was determined to trash his tour.

First the good news. If you only have an hour or so in the museum (the tour is under 50 minutes) you can't beat his podcast tour. The accompanying PDF map is quite well done and follows the tour nicely, and as usual Rick does a very good job of providing a lucid overview of the general schools of artwork presented in the d'Orsay. You can definitely learn one or two things believe me.

Aside from the obvious glitches such as certain paintings having been moved or even removed -- something which the podcast warns about -- I found little to complain about here.

Two points about the podcast are worth noting though.

The first is a tendency to focus on the upper level of Impressionism and give shorter shrift to the first level of Realism and Conservatism -- although Rick did seem to hold Millet in great esteem. (Also early on in the podcast, when Rick is introducing the beautiful sculpture in the central artery of the d'Orsay, he says something to the effect that he "will be badmouthing it later on," yet I must have missed that because I don't think he ever returned to the theme.) In any case, this is a purely subjective call.

Anyway the other point, and I think the most important to bear in mind is that the tour is simply far too short. If one is going to visit the d'Orsay chances are pretty good they are planning on spending at least a couple of hours to enjoy the artwork -- it will take you 15 minutes just to stop gaping at the beauty of the building's interior! The tour does have some value as an introduction I suppose, something to listen to on the plane coming over. But when you get to the museum leave the iPod at the hotel and spring for the audio guide.

Moreover the map is fine as a part of the podcast, for which it is designed, but woefully inadequate in compared to the free guide map available at the museum.

My favorites at the d'Orsay so far: "Jane Avril" by Toulouse-Lautrec, "Woman Reading" and "Dance at Le Moulin de la Galette" both by Renoir, and "Olimpia" by Manet.

All-in-all I spent about five hours at the d'Orsay and would go back again before we leave if time permits. But as is often the case in life, time has it's own schedule.

Wish you were here,

Steve


If you're interested here's a short movie from my latest stroll through the d'Orsay:

Monday in Paris

Whatever day of the week, to be in Paris is a dream held dear by many travelers. This past Monday provides us with yet another glimpse into what it is that draws so many to this particular corner of the universe.

It was a gorgeous early afternoon when we left the apartment. Taking a series of backstreets that we had never gone down before, we wended our way over to the Jardin du Luxeumbourg, not 20 or 25 minutes from our home. We walked down rue St. Hilaire to rue Censier, to rue de Mirbel, to rue Jean Calvin which became rue Erasme Brosselette, jogged over to rue Thullier for a block, then turned right onto rue Gay Lussac for a block then left onto rue de l'Abbe de Epee which emptied right onto the Jardin, and right into the midst of most of the population of Paris!



The park was teeming with people! Susan swore that there were more out this late winter day than we saw back in late May when we first struck emotional gold in this particular corner of the city.


Every chair was taken, every bench full of couples, elderly, children, elderly children, families with children, chidlren with familes, parents, every swing going full bore, every tennis court in use, the place was teeming, I say teeming with humanity! We wandered around aimlessly, like nearly everyone else before finding our way out of the park. We walked with no particular objective in mind, just in the general direction of the river. Down a small side street we heard some live klezmer music, or rather, as we got closer to the bar where it was emanating from, some bad klezmer music. Still the day was starting off right for some folks to be sure.

It was right at this corner that Paris played another one of it's seemingly endless stock of tricks.

Just opposite of the bar with the bad music, on rue Monsieur le Prince was a small plaque informing the passerby who might be inclined to stop and read such things, that on a certain day in 1943, on this very spot, the Germans shot and killed a Yugoslav resistance fighter. And just a block down the same street (roo) on the west side of the street was a building with two plaques on the upper level, so high up you had to squint to see them, claiming that in this building had once lived the American writer Richard Wright (who is buried in Pere Lachaise by the way) and the composer Camille Saint-Saens (who is buried in Montmarnasse cemetery).


A few minutes later found us on Boulevard St. Germain and we had no sooner started to cross the boulevard heading toward the Seine than a herd of literally hundreds of rollerbladers swooshed passed us.


Eventually they passed on into history and we soon found our way to a cafe near the river, sat down and enjoyed an aperitif before taking the usual way back home: strolling along the left bank of the Seine to the jardin des Plantes.

Many you just gotta love this city.

Wish you had been here,

Steve

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Showing the apartment

The MacD's spent a leisurely Saturday morning at their hotel, which worked out well since I had promised Drea that I would show the apartment to two different people that morning.

First up was an American, Peter who had recently taken a job here in Paris and was looking for an apaprtment comfortable enough for him, his wife and their little girl. He seemed very nice and quite enthusiastic about the space -- and even more so about Drea, the woman who owns the apartment and to whom we pay the rent.

I know what you're thinking: why not just call her "the landlady"?

Well it's not that simple really. If you met her you would, I think, instinctively get the idea that she does not fit the preconceived image most of us have in our mind of a "landlady": someone old, haggard, worn thin by years of dealing with cultural visigoths and 20-year-old male tenants and their attendant shennaigans. An American born in Paris, Drea is young, smart, witty, generous to a fault, caring, meticulous, thorough and eager to ensure that everything is just right. She is also very funny and carries a strong sense of humility about her.

No, she's no landlady.

Early on in our Paris adventures I believe I blogged the numerous things she did for us to make our move here as smooth and trouble-free as possible: getting us phone cards, arranging for the hi-speed internet connection (at no extra cost to us), even going so far as leaving an enormous French-English/English-French dictionary in the apartment! On our first real outing we joined her and her son at the nearby zoo for an afternoon getting to know each other. She is someone you like to spend time with, particularly given her knowledge of the city and her background in art -- of course it probably makes some difference that all of us share the same taste in art but that's another story altogether.

OK so now you're pretty familiar with Drea.

Second up was a French couple, husband and wife. Very nice also -- they seemed most concerned about the tenants on the floor above us: "Are they young?" Well, I replied, younger than I am! It was the potential for noise that had them most worried them but I tried to allay their fears: we had no problem with noise from the apartment(s) above us for eight months now. (It turns out that our neighbor across the hall explained that the reason was the tenants above us are females; the apartment(s) above our neighbor are occupied by -- you guessed it -- young males and have been quite a nuisance for some months now.)

Anyway, the French couple called later that afternoon, after the MacD's and I returned from our trip to Montmartre and wanted to come back one more time to see the apartment. No problem, I said, and minutes later they were at the door.

A few minutes later they were out the door. I sent an email off to Drea saying everything went smoothly and they all seemed quite taken with the space. But then if you have a good product at a reasonable price, people will stand in line to get at it. They do it all the time at the markets and some of the bakeries here in Paris and I see no reason why this apartment should be an exception.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Monday, March 12, 2007

Just another Saturday in Paris


Just as Friday began with a promise of lousy weather and didn't disappoint us, so Saturday began clear with the birds singing, promising a day of spring -- and again we were not to be disappointed.

Susan had to go to the shop -- only one more week left now -- and that left me to guide our guests through the sun-drenched streets of Paris. Naturally we spent quite a bit of time in the Metro.

We walked to Saint Marcel and took the no. 5 to Stalingrad (not the battlefield just the metro stop in northeastern Paris) and switched to the no. 2, getting off at Anvers. We then strolled up the very earthy, very frenetic rue de Steinkerque, past the fabric shops, the tacky souvenir shops, weaving our way among the throngs (I love that word) throngs of tourists trying to figure out why they decided to come here in the first place. At last we reach the steps that ascend up, up and up to the very big, very white and very big and white Sacre Coeur basilica. (photo above: Miss K and her entourage.)

So on and up we went past the very annoying and pushy string bracelet vendors, climbing up and up and up (you got the point that we're going up here right?) until at last we were at the entrance to the church, where, upon turning around caught sight of one of the more breathtaking views of Paris. Besides being the traditional home of the raunchier, seamier, more uninhibited side of Paris, Montmartre is also one of the highest points in the city and of course still maintains much of its original architectural heritage, having largely escaped the waves of huge hi-rise apartment buildings that infected much of the rest of the city after the Second World War.

After walking in and out of the church we strolled over to the Place du Tertre, where several dozen artists were trying to make a euro or two. There seemed to be two distinct groups of artists at work here: those producing work from the mind (maybe from a scene recalled or an idea they sought to define through paint) and those producing work "on-demand," the portraits painted in a half hour, the men hovering on the periphery cutting out silhouettes by the handful -- and doing a very nice job of it to mind you. While it was nice to see the different and often very appealing "serious" artwork (whatever that means) the mass of tourists, the groups moving to and fro like schools of fish looking confused over which direction to head to next, all conspired to urge us to move on. So we did. (photo below: everyone needs a nap after dinner.)



We walked downhill to rue des Abbesses where we found a nice place for a quiet lunch and afterwards walked down to the Boulevard de Clichy, home of a variety of sex shops, seedy hotels and the Moulin Rouge. Glen and Christina were both let down by the smallness and crude and cheap look of the place -- Miss K on the other hand seemed undistruvbed as if she knew all along it would be a waste of her time. The area is rather like the Times Square of the 1970s, and on the outside the Moulin Rouge is just a nondescript building with a kitschy red windmill stuck on top. (It supposedly looks better at night. I have no idea what it is like inside. Dinner and show €140-170 per person off seasonBy the way one of the most famous Can-Can dancers, Louise Weber, known as "La Goulue," and who claimed to be the creator of the French Can-Can, is buried nearby in division 31 of Montmartre cemetery.

After all of about 5 minutes looking at the Moulin Rouge we hopped back on the metro and found our way back to the 5th arrondissement. We walked over to see Susie at the shop where we had the chance to meet the mysterious Misato:



And of course the MacD's had to buy some more chocolate.

Since we caught Susan as she was about to finish we took our time walking back to the apartment and then decided since it was so nice we would sit out front in the little place across from our building and wait for her to show up. Naturally she walked right by us and next thing I know she's calling me wondering where we are? Where are I ask? Upstairs! Hey, I said, look outside!

A few minutes later she's ready and off we go back to where we left off on Friday: starting from the Tuileries we walked through the Place de la Concorde, up the Champs Elysees and a little before seven got on the metro at the FDR stop, swtiched to the no. 6 at Etoile and got off three swtops later at the Trocadero. we had to show them one of our all-time favorite sites: the Eiffel tower with the "champagne" lights on. Everyone agreed it was well worth the stop.

We returned to the metro and took the no. 6 to Place d'Italie. From there we walked to a nearby pizza restaurant where we had eaten a couple of weeks earlier. Everyone had pizza (except for Glen who tried and enjolyed the calzone), washed down with some fine Dolcetto d'Alba. By the time we left the place was filled and so we were we -- so off we went to hotel and home.

Wish you had been there,

Steve

(photo below: a father and his daughter together again.)