Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Back to Paris the unexpected happens

We took the milk train out of Agen for Bordeaux at a little before 10am Wednesday morning. Richard and Pauline took us right back to where they had found us on Monday, although they left us on a different platform that's true. We said goodbye, au revoir -- but not for long. We'll be seeing them in Providence in early June when they come to spend a couple of nights with us before heading off on a long tour through the American South.

These two remind us of several other people we know who are, simply put. just nice people with an incredible sense of hospitality and truly generous with their time and their attention. We will miss them.

In Bordeaux we easily made our connection to the high-speed TGV headed north to Paris. The train left on time and quickly sliced through the countryside, About two hours after we left Bordeaux, the train appeared to have struck something on the tracks and we could see a cloud of debris come streaming back at least 8 or so cars (where we were). Right away the train slowed as quickly as possible and stopped in the middle of an empty, flat sun-drenched stretch of farmland.

Several minutes passed before they announced that the train had indeed struck something. More minutes passed. The announcement came that the train had in fact hit a motorcyclist and we would have to wait for the police to arrive, examine the accident scene and then the train.

Two hours later were were off but slowly at first. The train was rerouted to Tours and, in the wake of confused directions from train staff and general uncertainty among the passengers we were put onto another TGV for Paris. As we understood it there was concern over whether any damage had been done to the train. In fact, as we walked around the front of the train we could see why: the nose of the locomotive had not only lost a large chunk of the center cover-plate but there was blood everywhere. Grisly and disturbing. Equally disturbing were the number of people taking photos with their phones or digital cameras.

Susie and I arrived back at Gare Montparnasse about four hours late. Of course, there was at least one person who would never arrive at his destination. Or perhaps I should say that his destination had been changed unexpectedly.

That evening we finished packing up -- OK Susie finished packing up and we prepared the apartment for our departure early Thursday morning. The two of us shared a quiet evening at home, finishing the food and wine remaining in the house. a day that left us feeling happy to have been with Richard and Pauline, sad to be leaving Paris, eager to get home and back into a groove, disturbed over being somehow connected with the death of another human being.

And odd way to leave but there you have it.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Condom, Auch and the Pilgrim Trail to the Pyrenees

Tuesday morning found us back to our leisurely morning routine -- even more so it seemed, now that we were nearly within sight of the Pyrenees Mountains. But we eventually roused ourselves from the warm bed, cleaned up, dressed up and joined Richard and Pauline for breakfast. (photo: memorial to the soldiers from Condom who died in service of their country.)

After fueling ourselves for a day of exploring the "Gers" we grabbed our coats and headed outside to see if Richard's Citroen DS would start. I remember years ago, in my Car & Driver subscription days, reading that the DS was the most comfortable vehicle ever built.

After sitting in the driver's seat I can assure you that it is the most comfortable chair I have ever sat in.This is the kind of car one could easily drive across the US in non-stop. It's not just a sense of luxuriousness but truly a comfortable seat designed by someone who intended to sit and cruise for hours on end. Sadly the battery failed to provide the necessary juice and we couldn't cruise anywhere.

So it was back in the other Citroen, newer to be sure but somehow lacking in the character of the DS. Anyway we were off to . . . Condom!

We strolled through the city, famous for a number of things besides what you're thinking right now, one of the most important of which is being a major stop on the Way of St. James, the pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Campostela. (Indeed, the next stop after Condom is Larressingle, the tiny fortified hamlet we visited on Monday.)



The sun peeked out once or twice on our stroll through this wonderful little town. After a swing through the cathedral and a walk around the city center we couldn't help but feel that this was a place one could easily consider spending quality time in, as in living in, if you get my drift. While this may be rural France it's not "provincial" in the usual sense of the word. There are numerous festivals and events throughout the year here, indeed throughout the Gers in general. All are tied to a pilgrimage of one sort or another: to follow the Way of St. James, the way of Armagnac, the way of the Mountains, whatever.

We returned to the car park, climbed into the Citroen and headed toward our next stop for the day: Auch (pronounced like "osh" as in "Osh-Kosh").

Our first stop was the cathedral. Now we're not pilgrims in the strict sense of word, at least as it's understood along this route in southern France, but we have always felt our travels are a pilgrimage along the road to experience and understanding -- of what though, I'm less clear on, however.

It is true that a great many churches, in Europe and elsewhere, can begin to look alike. On the face of it they are, after all, huge piles of stone and marble shaped in a variety of ways all toward the same purpose: to explain and promote a particular way of seeing the world. That said, one has to marvel at the beauty and the incredible work and imagination that went into such "glories to God."

The cathedral in Auch was just one of those marvels.

Two things in particular stand out: the fantastic hand-carved choir seats (the photo does not do justice to the intricate artwork and variety of figures used):

And then there are the stunning 15th century stained glass panels.

Each panel represented a biblical setting but each also contained at least one "sibyl," a prophetess with pagan overtones. That aside, the colors in each panel are as vivid as the day they were first created and literally seem to pop off the glass.

The four of us had a delicious lunch at the wonderful Le Daroles in the heart of beautiful Auch, just a stone's throw from the cathedral. We each had the formule Midi and enjoyed an early afternoon chatting and just swapping travel stories.

(The formule idea is catching on in Providence as well -- more and more upscale restaurants are going with a three-course fixed price menu these days it seems.)

After leaving the restaurant we strolled around the town, paying a visit to Dartagnan's statue (his character was reportedly based on the real life story of a musketeer from Auch it seems).

Walking down from the cathedral hilltop toward the river we also passed a unique bit of sculpture right beneath our feet: the first few chapters of the Book of Genesis, in Latin, with raised letters laid out ever so carefully in the walkway.

After an eye-opening, incredibly fascinating day exploring the Gers with Richard and Pauline, being shown the sights of places never imagined and poorly understood (by me at any rate), we headed home to relax before dinner.

That evening the four of us again piled into the Citroen and headed off to La Florida restaurant in, I believe, Castera Verduzan.

The food was delicious, wine perfect (local of course) and the conversation warm. In keeping with our standing record, it was nice that we had the restaurant to ourselves. (That made three times in a row for Susie and I.)



A grand way to finish a too-short stay in the Midi Pyrenees!

Wish you had been there,


Steve

Monday, April 27, 2009

Off to Gascony to see Richard and Pauline

We had no idea what to expect when we boarded the TGV at Gare Montparnasse early Monday morning and headed south for Bordeaux. The day had begun by me actually setting an alarm -- shocking I know. After caffe, showering and getting dressed we grabbed our small bag, and headed out the door with Navigo in hand. After changing to the no. 6 line at Place d'Italie we got off at Montparnasse and wended our way up the several levels of escalators to the train.

Susie and I found our car and our reserved seats and settled in for the 3-hour or so trip south to the wine country of Bordeaux. But we didn't stay and sip; we no sooner arrived int he station than we switched trains almost at once, this time to a regional line headed for Marseilles. One hour later and we got off at the first stop, Agen, in Gascony, gateway to the Pyrenees. And waiting for us on the train platform were Richard and Pauline, all smiles and warm greetings. We loaded our bag into their car and zipped out of town, heading even further south into the heartland of an incredible world called, simply, "The Gers."

Pronounced something akin to "Jazz but slurring into "Jerzz," our first reaction as the Citroen carried us through the rolling hillsides traversing from one huge vineyard after another, was how much like Tuscany this was: the rolling hills, the vineyards (mostly Armagnac and Floc), the hilltops dotted with villages, some fortified (more of that later). But it wasn't exotic like Tuscany, rather more like Virginia. In any case, we felt right at home and soaked up the views.

(And speaking of driving, I learned on this trip that in France A numbers stand for autoroutes, or superhighways, D numbers are Department roads and N numbers refer to National roads. Cool, eh?)

After a short drive of 40 minutes or so we pulled into the quiet, small, sleepy village of Mouchan and in the driveway of their home. Richard and Pauline have spent more than two-and-a-half of the past three years turning a fairly run down piece of stone and dirt into a gorgeous French cottage, full of coziness and comfort, waiting to pull the unsuspecting traveler into a world of peace and quiet.


After dropping our bags off the four of us walked outside under overcast skies -- I think sun here might be too overwhelming for city folks on such short notice -- and as we strolled our hosts showed us the town. Right next door to their house is a church whose stones have seen some enormous history pass their way. Dating from the 11th or 12th Century or so, the church is smack along the very old and very well traveled pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Campostella in northwestern Spain.

After a brief stroll around and through the village we loaded ourselves into the car and off we went for a cruise around some of the gorgeous countryside. Specifically Richard and Pauline wanted to show us several examples of bastides, or fortified hill villages. More than just simple fortified hill towns, these urban spaces were constructed along very distinct guidelines: wall enclosing the village of course but often laid out in a sort of grid pattern with a distinct center square surrounded by porticos on all sides. Very useful then and now, and certainly very appealing aesthetically. We stopped at three very nice examples of the bastide concept: Montreal, Fources (with a round rather than a square square) and lastly Larressingle.

This last and very tiny fortified village was rather different as it was surrounded by a dry moat and fully enclosed by the walls, rather than homes developing out into the wall system as is typical in the other villages.


Anyway, we learned that around the turn of the 20th century the village was in such a state of ruins that a local nobleman went to Boston to drum up money to rebuild and maintain the village heritage. Today there is a plaque on the side of the one of the larger structures inside bearing the names of the Boston benefactors:

As we cruised through these tiny hamlets in the on again off again drizzle, we generally found ourselves alone. It was early in the season and there was little tourist activity in any of the villages. Which actually made it rather nice since we appeared to be the only visitors out and about. But the day was raw and overcast, and as we left the tiny village of Larressingle the promise of rain became reality.

We were soon back in Mouchan, tucked into their warm home, sipping an aperitif. Pauline made us a wonderful dinner, accompanied by one of the local reds, a Madiran I believe, and Susie had brought dessert: a scrumptious tart. She had made it the night before and carried it all the way from Paris.

Even with cloudy skies and a chilly, light drizzle it had been a wonderful day, and it was so good to be back with friends again.

Wish you had been there,

Steve

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Susie, Misato, Loie Fuller and Champagne with Valerie

After a lazy Sunday morning Susie headed off about 10:20 to meet up with her friend Misato. The plan was to meet at the Patisserie Carette, a Salon de The in the 16th arr., near the Trocadero Metro stop for the no. 6 line. After a bit of a hitch in finding one another there (it is a huge Place) the two of them and Mistato's mother had a superb lunch followed by delicious pastries.

According to Misato this place has been ranked one of the best pastry shops in the city. One can certainly see they don't lack for quality:

As for me I left the apartment shortly after Susie but walked in the opposite direction: east. I walked to Pere Lachaise in search of the final resting place of Loie Fuller.

Now for those of you who aren't from the Providence area, Loie Fuller happens to be the name of one of the city's best restaurants. Not only is it decorated in one of the most sumptuous, indeed lavish art nouveau styles in honor of this once-famous American dancer turned Parisian, but it also happens to be right across the street from our condo. We can attest to the fantastic interior decor as well as the tasty food.

Marie Louise Fuller, who as a young child always known as "Louie," was born in Illinois in 1862. She moved to Paris as a young girl and really never looked back. (And she eventually began spelling her name "Loie.") She became one of the most well-known dancers in the city, much of her sensational style due to her innovative use of great bollowing clouds of fabric juxtaposed against imaginative lighting effects.

She died in 1928 in Paris and reportedly was buried in niche no. 5382 in the Columbarium at Pere Lachaise cemetery. However, as one can see from a recent photograph there is no plaque on her niche. Stolen perhaps? Or maybe her ashes were removed somewhere else. Who knows?

Susie and I eventually reconnected and about 5pm headed for the Metro and the 15th arrondissement to visit our friend Valerie. She had asked us to drop by for champagne and antipasti (hors d'oeuvre in French). It was nice seeing here again -- she is so full of life and energy and I think marvels at our continual excitement about her home city.

We left her about 8pm and headed back home to tidy the evening up, have a late dinner and prepare ourselves for the trip south, into new adventures amidst the wilds of the Dordogne.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Liberation Day in Italy, in Paris and in Decatur

The 25th of April has great significance for the Italians. They celebrate the victory over the Germans in 1945 and in particular honor the members of the resistance who fought against the Nazis and the Fascists. Personally, it gives me a chance to celebrate my own liberation – from my mother’s womb in Decatur, something which I’m sure she greatly appreciated at that time but probably had cause to regret later.

But it was my father who gave me the opportunity at real liberation. he instilled in me the sense of right and wrong, gave me a moral compass and taught me the importance of being considerate of others. I have occasionally failed him but I like to think he has always been proud of my efforts. If it weren't for him. . .

Anyway, Susie and I weren’t in Italy for the celebration (this time)nor were we in Decatur but we were in Paris. Here we enjoyed a raw, chilly and windy Saturday with sun off and off, but mostly off. We spent a leisurely morning over caffe, catching up on home chores after our flying visit to Italy and just generally relaxed.

Late morning we strolled in the direction of Pere Lachaise but stopped short at the Square de la Roquette so I could show Susie the wonderful flowers that are out in that particular green space right now.

(Named after an enormous prison complex for women, now long gone and replaced by apartment buildings at the center of which is this very nice park, it’s nice to see such a place of suffering and human misery turned into something so patently pleasurable and uplifting.)

We then strolled down rue de la Roquette and picked up a bottle of wine, some roast beef from a local boucherie and fresh green beans (from Kenya), all for the meal later on. After dropping the groceries off at home we then headed off for the Metro line 5 at Richard Lenoir. We got off at the Gare d’Austerlitz and went to the ticket office to pick up our train tickets for Monday morning – thus eliminating having to stand in line at the Gare Montparnasse early in the morning.

After leaving the train station we walked across the street and into the Jardin des Plantes. The season is just getting underway for plantings, and the garden here should be full of color in the next several weeks we thought. Anyway we strolled on through the garden, past the Paris Mosque and over to rue Monge and Pascal Pineaud’s pastry shop. Susie wanted to confirm with Misato their plans to get together for lunch before and they decided to meet up for a late morning brunch Sunday morning near the Trocadero.

From rue Monge we walked over to another favorite haunt, the rue Mouffetard, walking past row upon row of restaurants serving everything from crepes to Lebanese to Greek to French regional specialties like Savoyard. This is a great place to see, in just one short straight line, the food choices available in Paris – and this is just one tiny slice of the city!

Ambling up to the Place de Contrescarpe, we stopped and watched a older man, probably in his 50s playing really good music on a small, homemade honky-tonk piano.


After a few minutes savoring the experience we walked toward the Pantheon, down rue Soufflot and into the Jardin du Luxembourg. The huge urns at the center of the garden had not yet been planted and the tulips were fast becoming history. The wind was raw, the drizzle was starting to fall, we were starting to feel the pangs of Parisian hunger come over us and so we sought a nearby café, Le Cercle, to get warm and get a bite to eat.

We both ordered the croque monsieur, Paris’ version of the grill cheese sandwich and enjoyed a glass of chilled white wine – an Aligoté from Burgundy. We just generally chatted about one thing or another (mostly one thing), and savored being in Paris. We eventually paid the bill, and strolled outside into the cold of the afternoon and headed down Boulevard St. Michel toward the Seine. Our objective was the Metro line 10 at Cluny-Sorbonne.

But just short of our objective we spied the huge Gibert-Joseph bookstore and, always on the lookout for bookstores that might carry guides to Paris cemeteries we walked inside.

Almost right away Susie found the book I was looking for, Bertrand Beyern’s new edition of his Guide to the Famous Tombs in France. We both then browsed for the next half hour or so in this incredibly huge store – and ended up walking out with nearly a half dozen books, since Susie found a couple of dessert books to add to her repertoire.

Crossing the street we popped down into the Metro, hopped on the line 10 and switched at line 5 at Bastille and got off at Richard Lenoir and walked home.

I couldn’t have asked for a better birthday.

Wish you had been there,

Steve

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Back in Paris, again

A beautiful day to be in France and on the flat, straight French roadways. We zipped through traffic, stopping only once for gas, or rather “gazole,” French for diesel.

Just short of Paris we paid our toll for the use of the road and began picking our way ever closer to the city hoping to find our exit for Orly before Friday afternoon traffic sucked us down into a black hole.

Eventually we begin to see the signs with the little airplane icon – although I had begun to doubt its existence – and before long we were caught in an incredible maze of some of the most death-defying traffic patterns you can imagine in order to find our way to the rental car drop-off area.

But find it we did, after a couple of missed turns, and we were soon on our way heading to the Orlybus pickup point and into the city. We changed to the Metro line no. 6 at Denfert-Rochereau and then to the no. 5 at Place d’Italie, getting off at Richard-Lenoir. From there it was a quick 10-minute walk to the apartment, up the stairs and home at last.

While Susie unpacked and started laundry I quickly checked emails. Then we headed across the street to the Franprix to restock the larder with groceries before heading back out into the beautiful Parisian sunshine and warmth of the late afternoon.

We strolled through the 3rd and 4th arrondissements and just generally cruised around the “Marais,” the hip, new trendy part of eastern Paris. Lots to see and do here though to be sure. And you always find something new. This is also where you’ll find the Picasso Museuma nd the Carnavalet Museum (the museum of the history of Paris) among dozens of galleries, cafes and shops.

Eventually we stopped for an aperitif at a café on rue Fredric Miron, just off rue Rivoli. We sat and talked about the trip to Italy – it all seemed to pass in a flash as far as I was concerned. But it was wonderful to see folks again and to stroll the streets of Siena. Changes of course but still the city remains rock-solid as it has for centuries.

We had been sitting for about a half hour or so sipping a crisp, cool Aligoté from Burgundy when another American couple sat down next to us. Before long the four of us were deeply engaged in conversation about the incredible wonders of Paris. Tracey and Brent were from Orange, California and this was their first in Paris. An urban city planner Brent was awed and amazed by what the Parisians have created. He kept saying over and over again, “granite curbing . . . granite curbing . . . granite curbing . . . granite curbing.”

Their enthusiasm was infectious and it was clear after another half hour had passed that they got it; the need to check off certain things to see and do was important, but they also realized that the city was full of things to be discovered that you had to do that yourself. And that was the great pleasure of coming here. It was wonderful to hear two people so much taken with a place not because of what others said but what they felt.

We finished our wine and the light dipped low as the cool wind rose. We said “au revoir” to Tracey and Brent and wished them well on their own paths of discovery. We headed for the Metro stop at Saint-Paul and home.

But where was home? Providence? Siena? Paris? All of the above at the same time? Hmmmm. Home, they say, is where the heart is. Which of course does nothing to advance a resolution to the question.

Wish you were here,

Steve

Back to Siena - April 2009

My wife and I just missed the celebration for Liberation Day in Italy: April 25. Which also happens to be my birthday but that's another story. Anyway, a few updates on the city that rests more or less at the center of the known universe. (photo: view looking southward from the garden of the Hotel Santa Caterina)

Lisa is moving her English-language bookshop from Via San Pietro to inside her husband's hotel the Palazzo Rivera. The hotel closed it's (very good) restaurant and had the space available and in these trying economic times the move made sense.

Two bits of good news: both Boccon del Prete and Osteria Castelveccio are still open and still serving delicious food at good prices. Also the service is friendly and the spaces enjoyable.

Boccon del Prete
via San Pietro 17
Siena
phone: 0577 280 388

Osteria Castelvecchio
via Castelvecchio 65
Siena 53100

We stayed at the Hotel Santa Caterina, just outside of the Porta Romana, at 7 via Piccolomini. The hotel was recommended by a friend, Roberto Bechi and we can easily see why. The breakfasts (include dint he price) are perfect, with delicious caffe and pastries from nearby Peccati di Gola, one of the city's best pastry shops. The rooms have all been recently refurbished (the hotel moved up from a 2- to a 3-star rating) and the service is attentive and helpful. The garden overlooks southern Tuscany and is a perfect place to relax and get away from the bustle of the city or after an day of traversing the countryside looking for just the perfect view of Tuscany. Parking is an additional charge but worth tucking your car away for a couple of days so you can explore this wonderful city on foot.

The two lunches we had in the city were average at best and generally disappointing: Ristorante Vitti on via Montanini and Permalico on Costa Larga.

Both of us thought the gelato at our favorite spot just off the Pizza del Campo on via di Citta was somehow softer and the flavors more diffuse.

Caffe Fiorello, also on via di Citta is still serving some of the best caffe in the city center -- and say hi to Alicia, the blonde who is always there, always smiling and always pouring the best java you'll find.

Nannini's has opened a new space on Banchi di Sopra, mostly a gelato place to rake in the tourist bucks I suppose. The main Nannini's down the street just short of the Campo is still there but their antipasto (which used to be free during Happy Hour) is gone and the space seems less inviting. But the prices haven't changed (two Negroni Sbagliatis for 8 euros).

Traffic has only gotten worse, as far as we can tell. Parking is challenging for non-locals today and don't even think of driving into the city center, anytime, anyway, anyhow.

Contrary to what Rick Steves once said about how Siena is pedestrian friendly -- not true. Look the wrong way and you're history. So many locals park inside the walls now -- they are permitted to do so -- thus crowding the already small and narrow streets even more. Stay away from the main streets such as via Pantaneto and Banchi di Sopra, for example, and you'll generally be fine.

The move toward providing widespread internet connection accessibility has generally stalled in Siena -- and possibly in Italy as well for all we know. We spent three days hearing the same lame excuse from our hotelier: "Mi dispiace, but the Internet isn't functioning right now, but maybe later" and of course later came and went. Just plan on doing your online work at one of the internet "points" in the city.

Hotel Santa Caterina
Via E. S. Piccolomini 7
Siena 53100
phone: 0577 221 105
http://www.hscsiena.it

Friday, April 24, 2009

From Siena across the Alps again and to Tournus

Thursday morning in Siena opened with incredibly gorgeous sun and blue skies. Rain was predicted but I couldn’t see how that can be, at least not here and not now. Anyway, We (that is Susie) packed up, we had a last breakfast at the hotel, paid the bill, loaded the car and hit the road for Florence.

Forty-five minutes later we got onto the A1 around Florence, then the A11 to Pisa, switching to the A12 for Genova, taking the A7 to Milan and changing to the A21 to Torino. There was light traffic as we bypassed Genova and even lighter traffic around Torino. The climb into the Alps saw few cars besides ours, and little traffic besides the occasional truck. It was wonderful to go back through there in such beautiful weather – when we passed here last Sunday it was rainy, overcast, foggy, and just generally miserable.

In fact the closer we got to the Alps, the higher we climbed toward the Frejus Tunnel, the clearer the skies, the bluer the color and incredibly warm temps.

We stopped a couple of times to stretch our legs, once to fill up with diesel (“gazole” in France – don’t ask me why) and then take a short break to grab a sandwich just short of the tunnel itself.

Eventually we descended into the Lyon area where we found our first real traffic slowdowns as we skirted around the city. But, like all annoyances, this too passed and before long we were on the A6 autoroute heading north to Paris.

About 100kms north of Paris, at exit no. 27, we drove into the lovely town of Tournus, looking for the La Tour du Tresorier, our stop for the evening. After getting a bit turned around we eventually found the tower that was to be our home for the evening:

Originally the treasure tower (thus the name) for the local bishop, overlooking the Saone River, this turned out to be an incredible place to stay. Our hosts Lotti and Michel immediately made us feel right at home. Their friendliness and attention to detail was evident throughout the house and rooms.


Out our window:

After we settled into our room – at the top of the tower in the bishop’s praying room -- they invited us down to their living room for a glass of wine where we met the other guests staying there, Jim and Pat, an American couple from Florida.

Michel had spent some of his earlier life in the wine industry and treated us all to two wonderful specialties: a chardonnay from Chardonnay and an incredible rosé from Bordeaux, produced by a friend of his. The six of us talked about food and wine, swapping stories, sharing experiences. A little after 8pm Susie and I said au revoir to the group; we had reservations for dinner at a nearby restaurant, Meulien, just across the bridge and an easy 10-minute walk.

We stopped outside into the incredibly peaceful quiet of the village and strolled to the bridge. Once across the passive Saone we easily found the restaurant and walked inside.

As further indication that we had made the right decision to stop in Tournus and break up an otherwise daunting drive to Paris, the restaurant just added to the perfection of the evening. The service was impeccable, the food outstandingly delicious and the wine (a 2007 Mercurey) perfect. Susie had a steamed whitefish and vegetable dish for her plat and I had a veal steak with spicy polenta.

Curiously, not another person came in to eat that evening. Odd we thought. I was starting to feel paranoid.

Anyway, there’s nothing quite like an after dinner stroll through the quiet of a Burgundian village. Even if these were the same folks who were largely responsible for burning Joanne of Arc they do make great wine, they’re very friendly and the food is truly superb.

So speaking of French history as we were walking back to the B & B, we both noticed a large placard on the side of a building facing the river. One sees a great many of these historical markers in Paris and indeed throughout France and it often warrants a quick scan of the text. Here I was rewarded with another one of those tiny coincidences that make life so incredibly interesting.

The placard noted that this was the birthplace of Simone Evrard, the wife of Jean-Paul Marat, who was assassinated by Charlotte Corday. I spent a day early on in my trip here, while Susie was in school, tracking the movements of Charlotte during here last several days alive, culminating in her murder of Marat.

Lotti was waiting up for us, anxiously awaiting the details of our dinner. (They had recommended the restaurant and the other guests had eaten there the previous evening and had had a wonderful experience.) We shared with her the full details of course, and thanked her for the perfect recommendation.

The next morning came too early – although that early light hitting the church directly across from our tower room, made me better understand why so many of the great painters came south to find their light and their color.

In fact, we were overwhelmed by the dozens upon dozens of enormous carpets of Brassicsa campestris, which produces colza oil, and was blooming everywhere in the southern half of France. The flowers possessed such a luminescent yellow it almost burned the eyes to look at it.

We enjoyed a delicious breakfast overlooking the Saone, regretting we wouldn’t be there that evening to sit out back and sip a crisp Macon white wine watching the afternoon turn to dusk and the dusk to twilight, the only concern being where to eat that night’s meal.



But we had appointments to keep – we had to return the car to Orly and hopefully catch up with Susie’s cousin Brenda who was in the process of taking a whirlwind tour of some of her favorite art haunts in Europe.

We had to go and so we did.

Saying goodbye we paid the bill, loaded the car and headed out of Tournus, away from the quiet, slow moving Saone and toward the noisy, frenetic A6, a river of asphalt.

From the road in France,

Thursday, April 23, 2009

One last day in Siena

Another leisurely morning – this time I brought Susie a cappuccino in bed and I returned back downstairs to sip an “espresso doppio” and work on some travel notes.

Our mornings in Siena continue to be leisurely – aside from connecting up with friends we have little planned: just drifting, walking around the city, exploring old haunts.

So after breakfast – which consisted in part of pastries from the nearby Peccati di Gola, operated by Roberto Bechi’s cousin Monica and her husband Antonio Betti, who is one of the best pasticerrie in the city – we strolled into the city, heading straight for the internet point to check email.

After a quick scan online we pack the computer up, pay and walk out the door. We visit another of our favorite spots: the view of San Domenico from Via di Diacceto (photo below).

We then strolled past San Domenico to the fortezza and through the weekly mercato (market). Here you can find an enormous outdoor department store operated by dozens and dozens of independent vendors who travel the country in specially designed vans selling everything from women’s underwear to pots and pans to specialty food items.


(OK, the photo above is a cat that was sitting in the very same spot in the fall of 2005 near the synogogue off of via degli Archi.)

It was soon time for lunch and we picked a spot off of Via Camollia, Ristorante Vitti. Formerly a rosticceria, selling prepared foods to go, they now have a rather large outdoor seating area. Sadly it’s parked right in front of one of the more interesting bits of statuary in the neighborhood. Also the food was no better than average we thought.

After finishing our wine, we paid the bill and walked out into the sunshine, strolling down Banchi di Sopra in the direction of the Piazza del Campo. For no particular reason Iw anted to pop into Feltrinelli’s bookstore – not the textbook, Italian-only store but the other one that hawks foreign-language papers out front. A few minutes later Susan came up to me as I was browsing histories of Siena (there aren’t many in any language) and said she thought she saw Romano, an old acquaintance. I first stumbled across Romani in 2005 when I was out one day exploring the city on my own. He thought I was lost and in very good, very British English asked if he could help. Well one thing led to another and he began regaling me with incredible stories about Siena – he was born and raised there. Siena being such a small place we would occasionally run into one another and he would always have news of great importance that he wanted to share.

The three of us chatted for awhile in the bookshop – Romano, who was born in 1938, is always well-dressed and looks quite the literary type with a scarf flung around his neck as if it’s always catching the wind. Most importantly he warned me about purchasing the slip of a history book on Siena and recommended one that I already had at home! He also gave me another recommendation but sadly it’s out of print.

So we said “ciao” to Romano, at least until next time, and headed for the Campo. We bought a gelato and strolled through the Piazza heading ever closer to your hotel.

Back to the hotel and relaxed until we met up with Roberto at nearby Peccati di Gola where we chatted and said a “final” arrivederci.

After Peccati we walked the hazardous 200 meters back to the hotel, enjoyed a glass of wine in the garden at dusk just savoring the Tuscan countryside one last time.

Around dusk we headed back into Siena to stop by Aimone’s shop one last time. The three of us go next door to Bar Quattro Cantoni for an aperitif and naturally talk about one thing and another, but mostly about wine and food.

After saying arrivederci to Aimone Susie and I walked around the corner to Via San Pietro down to Via Castelvecchio and to the Ristorante Castelvecchio, where we had an incredibly delicious meal in our own proivate dining area: not one other person came in the entire evening.

Afterwards we strolled through the clear, cool night air, down the half-dark, quiet city streets and past through the Valdimontone Contrada where all their flags were flying and the lights were all on – what gives here we wondered?

Once we get back to the hotel we ask for two glasses of Averna and go out into the garden again, to enjoy the quiet of this wonderful city and the distant lights in the direction of Monte Amiata.

Wish you had been there,

Steve

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Friends, kids, food, wine and Siena in April

We spent a leisurely morning at the hotel. Susie slept in – well-deserved to be sure – while I roused myself, showered, dressed and went downstairs to have caffe and catch up on my blog notes. (photo: breakfast room.)

Staying at Hotel Santa Caterina was Roberto Bechi’s idea – we’d be close to both Peccati di Gola, our favorite pasticerria (pastry shop) and within easy walking distance to the Piazza del Campo.

Once a private home, the Hotel opened about ten ago and was totally refurbished within the last two. The rooms are spacious and ours was away from the street overlooking the hotel garden, which has a wonderful view of southern Tuscany. The service is very friendly, the breakfast tasty and, I can tell you, the caffe (“espresso doppio” for me) incredibly good.

(I say “caffe” because saying “coffee” just doesn’t sound right to me, not here anyway. It may sound pretentious but when I say “coffee” I think of coffee generally available in the US: large quantities of rather hot, brown water. I know I’m going to hear about this but there is something about the intense richness of an Italian caffe; not just here I know but there are plenty of places in the US that strive to replicate just such flavors and intense aromas.)



The singular drawback at the hotel is the lack of an Internet connection, an affliction that unfortunately affects many hotels and inns in Italy. So we have go to another old haunt of ours, the “Internet Fast Net” on Casato del Sopra. Parking is also somewhat limited at the hotel (see photo above); the hotel lot is designed really only for small cars, but we were driving a Citroen C3 so we were in luck.

One last thing, and this applies to many European accommodations: the half-shower, half-shower door idea seems to reflect an unwillingness of making a decision to do one thing or another: either a shower or a bathtub. In any case, it makes for an interesting morning experience.

While I’m talking about cars, I should say that we thought the autostrade toll prices significantly less than the autoroute tolls in France. Also, there seemed to be lots of new highway construction completed in Italy during the past couple of years, in northern Italy at any rate. The roads in France seem to be wider though and most are very well maintained. Oh, and you can use your US credit card to pay for tolls in Italy whereas you cannot in France. (Like buying Metro tickets or train tickets at the self-serve kiosks you need a France-based credit card. Dumb)

Anyway, Susie eventually joined me for caffe and after breakfast we strolled into town.

Our first objective was the Internet point we had used when we lived here in 2005. They were still in business (good to see) and the owner, a young man now sporting long hair and a ponytail, even remembered us. After spending a half hour checking emails and uploading a couple of blog entries we paid our 2 euros and walked out the door.

Just a few meters away we were back on Via di Citta which soon became Via Stalloreggi, heading for Aimone’s new enoteca. As we walked into the shop, there was Alessandra (sans Costanza though), Aimone, his wife Moreena and their friend Claudia.

The six of us walked around the corner and halfway down a steep walk was a door leading underground to “Permalico,” a ristorante they wanted to try. The antipasti and two pici (pasta) dishes were tasty, and the service friendly and attentive. But it was the conversation that fueled the afternoon’s energy: we spent the better part of the next two or two and a half hours talking about food, wine, wine and food, food and wine, wine without food (not possible), food without wine (only possible where they wine was no good).


After lunch (“pranzo”) we stepped outside into the late afternoon drizzle and said arrivederci, but with the idea that we would get together one last time on Wednesday.

Susie and I strolled back to the hotel where we relaxed (a civilizing thing to do after a good lunch) and wait for Roberto Bechi to come by and pick us up.

About half-past four Roberto pulled up in front of the hotel and Susie and I climbed in his van. Roberto is one of the preeminent travel guides in Siena and has been featured on more than a half dozen episodes of Rick Steve’s travel shows. We’ve known Roberto and his American-born wife Patti for some years now and have often referred inquiries from my website to them for on-the-ground assistance. Anyway, the three of us drove off in a light rain whizzing through the Senesi countryside. I have to say though the rain added an incredible luminance to the greening of Tuscany.

We were heading to their home in Asciano, or rather outside of Asciano, overlooking “Le Crete,” the beautiful clay hills just south of Siena. Their house and the new one they are working on finishing, sit on a promontory, a spit of land jutting out from the side of a hill with incredible views for nearly 320 degrees.

We made a short detour to Serre di Rapolono, about 5kms from Asciano, so Roberto could stop at a local marble quarry to finalize a choice of marble (”marmi”) they need for a set of outside steps for the new house.



And the new house is indeed incredible. At more than 3500 square feet, the house is built on the ruins of an ancient barn and stables, and is designed to be totally self-sufficient and passive in both heating and cooling. It’s also designed with the latest structural technology to help it ride out an earthquake (“terremoto”), something which has become very timely for Italians recently.

We chatted for a bit until Patti drove up with the kids (they had all been swimming at a pool in Asciano) and with pizza. Patti works several days a week teaching English for the University of Siena branch in Grossetto, which is located on the coast some 75kms away, and on those days little time is available for dinner preparations. Anyway, the pizzas were delicious, thin cracker-like crusts and plenty of varieties to choose from: sausage, veggie, potato, margarita, cheese.

And of course wine, a red wine we brought from Piemonte.

A good time was had by all – we laughed at the kids, Michele (“Micky”) in particular who has the energy of 10 kids twice his age (which is 6 if you must know), at each other (usually at me or Roberto).


We talked about the future of travel and tourism in Italy. This is a topic of great concern right now, especially for people like Roberto and I hope to have more to say about our discussions and those we had with Aimone in the weeks to come. Suffice it to say we always enjoy seeing these guys and hope it won’t be another two years before we can sit down and eat pizza together.

The evening eventually slid into night and it was soon time to say arrivederci. Patti had had a long day and she was still wrapped in her little boy. Roberto drove us along one Tuscan ridge after another until we glided into Siena. He dropped us off at the hotel and we “ciao, a presto!” “Until next time!” A wonderful Italian concept, spoken with emphasis and enthusiasm.

A presto!