Tag Archives: France

dad in a windy field

Ile aux Marins, St. Pierre

During our recent stay on the French island of St. Pierre, off the coast of Canada’s Newfoundland, my dad and I visited the harbor island of Ile aux Marins.

looking back at colorful town of St. Pierre
looking back at colorful town of St. Pierre

The sun finally broke through the rain a bit and the ferry was running from downtown St. Pierre to the tiny, ghost-town of an island. Years ago the island was inhabited by fishermen who would bring their catch back to be cleaned and dried on large rock beds all over the island.

a replica saline or fishing cabin with boats, fishing gear, snow shoes, galoshes, etc.
a replica saline or fishing cabin with boats, fishing gear, snow shoes, galoshes, etc.
Ile aux Marins
Ile aux Marins

It’s now uninhabited (although some of the houses looked really well-kept so maybe some are still in use on summer weekends, unclear), at least by year-round residents.

The day we went over was incredibly windy (as I think it tends to be over there) and the tall grasses whipped our legs as we walked the grass trails around the homes to the 1970s shipwreck of the Transpacific and to the former fort at the end of the island. The island has no trees and so the wind flows easily and quickly over the hilltop.

dad in a windy field
dad in a windy field

The “fort”at one end of the island is, at this point, a large hill with rusted cannons and a flag pole. The cannons were actually never used as the French government never went through with establishing a defensive base there. The cannons were, however, used for a while on Bastille Day for celebration.

Near the fort is the rusted hull of the Transpacific – a shipwreck from the 70s that doesn’t seem that large until you notice the small house next to it and the comparison is pretty cool. The ship was abandoned and locals looted the cargo – lawnmowers and juke boxes among other day-to-day items.

In the middle of the island is a stark white and red church. Its clean lines and perfect proportions make it seem other-worldly or fake, especially when viewed from St. Pierre through the mist. The shadows are crisp.

red-roofed church
red-roofed church

On a hill near the church is  a large crucifix.

cross on Ile aux Marins
cross on Ile aux Marins

Over another hill and down low is an above-ground, sea-side cemetery: eerie, quiet and spooky with not a few cracked tombs where you could look down in the dark depths within.

graveyard by the sea
derelict graveyard by the sea

The whole place was beautiful and peaceful, with the constant wind in your ear and the screeching circling seagulls. There was a woman running a small snack bar and she was the only person we came across until some local sanitation workers arrived to empty the trash bins.

boarding the plane to St. Pierre

St. Pierre & Miquelon: A Piece of France in Canada

The islands of St. Pierre & Miquelon are actually part of France, but they are tiny islands off the southern coast of Newfoundland, Canada. You can get there by plane from Halifax or St. John’s, or by ferry from Fortune.

It’s so neat to be in France but over here in North America! They speak French with French accents (not Quebecois which I can’t understand du tout), use the euro and you get a nifty stamp in your passport upon entering!

fishing boats in the harbor St. Pierre
fishing boats in the harbor St. Pierre

My dad and I spent two nights on the island of St. Pierre during our father-daughter Maritime Canadian road-trip. St. Pierre is the smaller of the two islands but is the more heavily populated, with almost 6,000 residents (mostly concentrated in the town of St. Pierre) to Miquelon’s 600 residents.

Given that in mid-July it was cold and rainy, we didn’t take the opportunity to get soaked on a ferry-ride over to Miquelon. I’m not even sure the ferry was running one day since the winds were quite high. Next time!

downtown St. Pierre
downtown St. Pierre

So we centered our time around St. Pierre and the ghost island of Ile aux Marins located in St. Pierre’s bay. Ile aux Marins’ last resident died in the 1970s I believe, however many of the island houses are well-maintained and I wouldn’t be surprised if families used them as weekend/summer houses.

In St. Pierre, we stayed at Nuits St. Pierre, owned and operated by the lovely local proprietress, Patricia who picked us up at the airport. She also owns the next door cafe, Delices de Josephine where we took our afternoon Orangina.

our hotel: Nuits Saint Pierre
our hotel: Nuits Saint Pierre
there was a tub in the bedroom!
there was a tub in the bedroom!

The B&B was warm and cozy. There are 5 well-appointed rooms with modern amenities (including adapters – good because I hadn’t even thought to bring one!), slippers, robes, free wifi and a very comfy pull out couch (dad said the bed was comfy too).

Each morning, breakfast was prepared by a friendly young lady who had moved from Montreal to work in the hotel. I had the requisite pain au chocolate an baguette with lots of butter and coffee.

Even though it was rainy and chilly for most of our stay, we wandered around town, visiting the lighthouse, the salines (colorful seaside huts where they clean and dry the day’s catch), the post office for stamps, the WWI/WWII memorial, the Musee de l’Arche with a great history exhibit, the look-out point with 360 views of the town, harbor and expansive above-ground cemetery.

The history centers mostly around fishing, although there was a great economic boom during the years of US Prohibition due to massive smuggling operations through St. Pierre. Al Capone even installed himself at the Hotel Robert (still in use) during that time.

According to one sign in the museum, there was prohibition in Canada too (who knew), but they allowed for the manufacture of alcohol so long as it was exported to a country who did not have prohibition. Well good thing St. Pierre is part of France – so convenient! So once the Canadians exported to France, the bootleggers took it from there to get it into the US.

Once Prohibition was lifted, St. Pierre’s economy collapsed, and they had to return to their fishing way of life with some added tourist income.

We ate our dinners at L’Atelier Gourmand and Le Feu de Braise. Neither were much to write home about – both solid and good – not incredibly memorable, although the scallops at Feu were tasty and fresh, and the steak au poivre at L’Atelier was up to snuff.

On our second day, the sun came out for a bit and we witnessed the end of the Halifax-St. Pierre annual regatta. The first sailboat arrived after setting out two days prior, battling some storms but finally making it safely to St. Pierre (some boats scratched out along the way). We joined in the end-of-race party tent for some snacks and people watching.

sailboat race winner of Halifax-St. Pierre regatta
sailboat race winner of Halifax-St. Pierre regatta

That evening we came across an outdoor concert near our hotel of traditional French music – old-timey feel good songs accompanied by drums and accordion.

Just as I had my fill of croissants at the local boulangerie (there are only two apparently, but we only stumbled upon one), it was time to move on to Newfoundland for the next leg of our journey!

 

 

Satie House, Honfleur France (But Really: How I Embarrass Myself on a Daily Basis)

I totally forgot to tell you who was on my flight from JFK to CDG: Bobby Flay!!!  He was wearing tailored dark wash jeans, a trim button down and narrow fit black loafers.  He wasn’t very tall, but not really short either.  While we were waiting at the gate (me acting like a complete hobo…more on that in a minute), a gate attendant fluttered out from behind the counter, enthusiastically shook Bobby’s (we’re on a first name basis right?) hand and ushered him onto the plane well ahead of pre-boarding.  I didn’t see him again.  But he was there.  Hunkered down in his flat-reclining first class seat/bed I’m sure.  Ironically, the food on the plane was not good.  I hope Bobby brought a snack.

Meanwhile, I had spent the night at a friend’s apartment, and after hitting the gym in the AM, decided to do some laundry.  Unfortunately I was having a time of it with the dryer portion of my washing/drying.  I don’t know if the dryer was just taking forever – being one of those space-saving, energy efficient jobbies, or I had set it incorrectly – if there’s not a normal dial, and I have to fiddle with LED timers that always seem to say 45 minutes no matter how long the laundry has been in, I’m apparently hopeless.

By the time I had to hit the road to make my evening flight to Paris, my clothes were still somewhere between wet and damp. Damn. I even went so far as to try to dry the underwear I had to wear that day in the microwave (oops sorry Graham! Hope you’re not reading this, and if you are…at least they were clean!)  I stuffed the clothes in varying states of mid-way-to-dry in the front part of my suitcase in a plastic bag (aka my hobo bindle) so the rest of my stuff wouldn’t get wet and headed out the door.

When I got to the gate, I had some time to kill, so…..

1 jfk Yes, if you can’t tell, that’s a wet t-shirt hanging over the handle of my suitcase.  Bobby is somewhere lurking in the background.

I then proceeded to wave around various articles of clothing like I was bull fighting, trying to dry them as much as possible.  I got a lot of weird looks and a wide berth.  I had like three tables to myself, as apparently other passengers were loath to approach.

Needless to say, when I got to France, the clothes were still wet.  Maybe a sock had dried.

I met my mom and dad at CDG for a quick snack before my mom caught her plane home (they were coming off of a river cruise that ended in Paris), and my dad and I went to Hertz to get our rental car.  The 40 extra euros to add me as a driver was a complete waste as I ineptly practiced driving the standard shift car in a parking lot for about 15 minutes before giving up.  That’s fine.  I like navigating better anyway.

I set out my wet clothes all over the back seat, and we set off for Honfleur, on the north coast of Normandy.

honfleurvacationstogocomMap from vacationstogo.com

Honfleur immediately reminded me of the old waterfront of Copenhagen, which I guess makes sense since Normandy was Viking territory for some time.2 honfleur The first of many half-timbered houses we were to see during our trip.3 honfleur 4 honfleurThe enclosed port: personal sailboats with tall masts and people lounging on deck, cobblestone streets with many outdoor cafes along the surrounding promenade.  The boat slips are in the middle – strangely like where a town square should be.  We saw the entryway draw bridge rise up to allow a returning boat to enter.  We stopped for an early dinner of moules frites (mussels with fries).

My dad is a big fan of the avant-garde composer Erik Satie (1866-1925), who was born and lived in Honfleur during the end of the 19th century before joining the arts and music scene at Montmartre in Paris.  His home and museum in Honfleur is a tribute to his eccentricity with all sorts of oddities.  Not only was he a piano composer, but he also created various mechanisms to “measure sound.”  His music is intriguing – not classically melodic, but not quite as dissonant as say Stravinsky.

Guests are given headphones with an audio tour of the house including music clips and quotes from Satie more than chronological historical information.  There are sensors on the headsets that note where you are standing in any given room, so to then play the related recording automatically, so you just have to wander at your leisure without worrying about staying on track or on pace with the tour.

In the first room of the house, there were stacks of newspapers and many many umbrellas hanging on the wall.5 satie

Opposite was a lit pear with mechanical metal wings that slowly flapped up and down. 6 satie 7 satie 8 satieThis room’s wallpaper mimics the grid paper of French school children’s notebooks.  Drawers and the piano play between 2 and 3 dimensions.  Satie’s notes are written in red ink on the floor and walls.  The one to the left says 200 umbrellas in French…Satie collected (some might say hoarded) umbrellas (as well as newspapers as noted above).

9 satieThe staircase was outlined in black-light ink. 91 satieSmall lit dioramas created by Satie, some of which had moving pieces.  The way they were embedded at the top of haphazard sticks in a semi-dark room gave an eerie feeling.

92 satie 93 satieNext, this all white room with a player piano playing one of his compositions.  The light fixture above slowly circled so that different cut out scenes in the shade were intermittently lit.  Here, a man with an umbrella (not surprising) followed by a cat and a dog.

Then it was back in the car and on to Bayeux for the night.

Yoga Across Brittany, France

I’ve been procrastinating on writing a blog post for a while because it just seemed too daunting.  A few weeks ago, my dad and I took a two week road trip across Normandy and Brittany, France.  And I thought I took a lot of photos, but it was nothing compared to how many he took!  I finallllly got around to downloading my pictures onto the computer, and so now the process of sorting and writing can begin in earnest.

I’m going to break down our trip into tiny chunks so as not to overwhelm you or myself.

So here is part one: Yoga Across Brittany, France.

As most of you know, I practice and teach yoga, so I thought it would be a fun idea to take pictures of me doing different yoga poses at interesting locations along our route.  Some of the poses relate to the spots where we are, some mimic the shape of the scenery, and some are a bit random.  We didn’t take yoga pics in all the places we stopped, and I’ve ordered them to match with the path we took so you can follow along our travels.

And so we’re off to Brittany….the region that encompasses the Western-most part of France.  The spout, if you think of France as the shape of a tea kettle.

Saint Malo: A walled town sitting on the northern shores of France, on the English Channel and at the mouth of the Rance river.  Known for its privateer (aka pirate) history, St. Malo is now a big tourist destination and beach town.

ST MALO View of St. Malo across the mouth of the Rance from Dinard.

1 tree pose Tree pose (vrksasana) on the ramparts of St. Malo overlooking one of the town’s old fortifications.

Dinard: Founded as a beach retreat for the rich and famous, now just a super crowded beach town with a casino that’s pretty on the outside and sad-feeling on the inside.  We were told by numerous people that they don’t get a lot of American tourists, so we were a novelty to the shopkeepers.

dinard beachWe walked along a cliffside promenade that edged town all the way around to the biggest beach.

2 side angle Side angle pose at the dock.  Currently low tide.  The water was a gorgeous turquoise-green color.  Trying to mimic the sail boat masts with this pose.

3 fish pose Fish pose at the beach in Dinard.  Of course.

Ile de Batz: We took a ferry from the beach resort town of Roscoff to the tiny Ile de Batz in the English Channel, where we marched to the lighthouse.  The island is about 8km around, and we didn’t walk the whole thing as we took a late afternoon trip there.

4 down dog Downward facing dog at the lighthouse.  Opposite the lighthouse was a secluded beach down a steep embankment with tons of backpackers’ tents and bonfires.

Plouarzel: Seriously off the beaten path, a super tiny beach town outside of Brest.  We went because we had seen a sign for the Foie des Pinseyeurs – basically a fishermen festival.  It ended up being three small tents and picnic tables, as well as some lawn games.  Needless to say we were the only Americans, and actually probably the only tourists, as it seemed to be a tight-knit community group of fishermen and their families/neighbors.

5 chair twist Twisted chair on this rocky cliff.

Ile d’Oussant: Probably the coolest place we went on the trip – the most far west island off the coast of France.  We took a long walk to the farthest west point on the island (therefore being the farthest west point in all of France…minus the lighthouse that sits off the coast and is serviced by helicopter).  We hiked and climbed the rocky coast.  Unfortunately it was low tide so we didn’t see any spectacular waves, but it’s definitely called “cotes sauvages” (wild coast) for a reason.  See if you can spot me in sukhasana:

6 sukhasana Note the high water markings on the rocks.

Yes? No? I’m perched on a rock in that V between to the two tall peaks.

See if this Half Moon pose makes it easier:

half mon

Carnac: Best known for the megaliths, Carnac also has a surprisingly awesome beach town.  If it weren’t so hard to get to, I’d would totally want to go back and rent a beach house with a bunch of friends.  Or we could just go to Ocean City I guess.

The megaliths are definitely nowhere near a big as Stonehenge but there are a ton of them spread out over a large swath of land.  No one really knows why the prehistoric people put those huge rocks in those rows.  Most were roped off from visitors, but we found a beautiful wooded site off the beaten path with no one around where you could meander through the formations.

7 eagle Eagle balancing on a smallish megalith.

Josselin – This medieval town has an impressive castle that’s a mixture of medieval and Breton Renaissance styles (because it has been torn down in pieces many times).  It is the historic home of the Rohan family whose members still inhabit it when they aren’t in Paris.

8 warrior 2 Warrior II (virabhadrasana II) in front of the massive castle because castles probably should have some warrior guards, right?

Vitré – A walled town with another famous 11c castle that was rebuilt during the 12-1400s.  One of the castle’s buildings is now a museum with various unrelated objects, and another of the interior buildings is the town hall.

9 urdhva hastasana Urdhva hastasana mimicking those tall towers.

Nantes – Our last stop to one of the largest cities in Brittany.  An enormous cathedral and another castle of course.  Surrounded by a (now mostly dry) moat, the castle houses a museum and a cafe.

99 bridge Bridge pose on the castle bridge.

Don’t take all these poses as the best representation or fullest form….when you’re hustling to strike a pose amongst a crowd of people or precariously perched atop a rock, it can’t always be the best.

Next onto some other aspects of this fabulous trip….

Paris: Part Deux

Big news!!!  I’ve decided to start a little side business here trading in on my love and knowledge of the City of Lights!  For a small fee (depending on the length of the trip) I will plan your trip to Paris and the environs for you.  I will take stock of all of your likes and dislikes, budget, food preferences, and desired activity level, and plan a customized trip.  I will then supply you with an itinerary, maps, useful information and any necessary restaurant reservations.  (I won’t be making flight arrangements or hotel bookings, but I can recommend some nice hotels/Airbnbs or areas to stay and also give you information about transportation from the airport and all around town.)

I’m also willing to step up my research and plan trips to other European and Caribbean locations to which I’ve traveled…just ask!

While you are contemplating your next Parisian adventure, daydream on these photos from our trip in May.  (I apologize that some of the photos are grainy; as I may have mentioned before, I didn’t realize I should’ve been compressing my photos all along, and now I’ve run up against my WordPress media limit.  Unfortunately I don’t think it’s feasible to go back, delete, compress and reupload all my photos from all my other posts.  Ugh.)

Arriving on Thursday, we met our Airbnb host at the charming studio apartment we rented in Le Marais, which actually even had a balcony!  What a view!  (As might be expected from a 5th floor walk up with old wooden sloping spiral stairs….just added to the charm.)

IMG_3208 IMG_3210

We stayed on Rue Rambuteau which cuts East-West from Le Marais to Les Halles, which is in generally the center of the Right Bank.  Les Halles was once a huge market, but when the market was moved to the suburbs, an underground shopping mall was created.  For the longest time, the park above the mall (pictured below) was the haunt of junkies and the homeless, but the government is continuing its beautification efforts.

IMG_3212 IMG_3213

Le Bon Marché is one of the original grands magasins – literally big stores – aka department stores.  La Grande Épicerie is a giant food store on the ground floor of Le Bon Marché, featuring beautifully crafted baked goods, international, and artisan products.  There is even an extensive wine cave a floor below.  Here, approaching the side of the store, you can faintly see Le Bon Marché painted on the side of the building.

 

 

IMG_3246

Le Conciergerie was once a Parisian prison.  Located on Ile de la Cité, it is where Marie Antoinette spent her final days, and you can see a real life guillotine blade hanging on the wall.  Sweet.  The vaulted ceilings and this particular rat relief on the column show the grandeur and the detail that went into this.  Hardly the cinder block and steel of today.IMG_3249 IMG_3254 <–See the rat?

Buble but, obviously.IMG_3255 IMG_3256Some sort of traditional ethnic dances being performed in front of Hotel de Ville (City Hall) during a “young persons festival.” IMG_3257 IMG_3258 IMG_3273Release the Kracken wall art.

Place de la République.IMG_3274

Canal Saint Martin and a boat going through a lock.IMG_3284 IMG_3288 We walked along the Canal to Little Sri Lanka in the northern part of the 10th arrondissement.IMG_3292 And I even bought a few pre-made sari tops to hopefully wear to a friend’s wedding this summer.  For 8 euros, they tailored it right there while I waited in all of about 5 minutes!  Good deal – I’ll take 2!IMG_3296

Approaching the base of one set of stairs hidden in a residential neighborhood leading to Sacré Coeur.IMG_3299And all the motorcycles parked in front of this café at the bottom. IMG_3300Looking back down. IMG_3304 IMG_3306 Sacré Coeur (Sacred Heart) where we took shelter from a deluge.

A church and a moto.IMG_3322

Place de la Bastille.IMG_3337

Sunset in the streets of Paris.IMG_3346

Approaching the interior square of the Louvre.IMG_3348 IMG_3350 Square in front of the Louvre.

Jardins de Tuileries on an overcast day.IMG_3352 IMG_3355 Chairs and flowers.IMG_3356 IMG_3357 More chairs and flowers.IMG_3359 Flowers.IMG_3360 Chairs.IMG_3361 A statue in a square among les jardins (the gardens);  Found the real “buble but.”

Some window shopping at Christian Louboutin of course.IMG_3362 IMG_3378 Roses in the square of Le Palais Royal.IMG_3401Caryatids at the Louvre. IMG_3422 Pont des Arts where couples place locks as a symbol of their unbreakable love, and then they throw away the keys.  I wonder if anyone has ever come back and cut theirs off after a divorce?

IMG_3424 Ominous skies over Pont Alexandre III.IMG_3426

Versailles:  The gardens: IMG_3445 IMG_3461 Never-ending path.

IMG_3463Swans near the boat house. IMG_3476 Reflections on a clear day.IMG_3491 IMG_3493 IMG_3611Hall of Mirrors in le Chateau.

IMG_3610Looking out over the Seine at the Eiffel Tower.

Sigh.  Ready to go back.  Who else wants to go?

And Then You’re Like, “Ohmygod there’s ham in this”

Because who hasn’t been burned by the French love of “jambon” (ham)?  They sneakily slide it into everything without disclosure.  Think you’re getting a plain ol’ cheese pizza?  Well think again because their definition of “regular” pizza includes a hidden layer of ham beneath the cheese.  And maybe that’s just swell with you.  I, for one, don’t dislike pork products, but I’m not really a fan of ham, so I’m extra diligent when ordering sandwiches and other prepared foods in France.  Flashback to me as an eighth grade exchange student in Nancy (northeast part of France), staying with a host family that barely speaks English to my un-understandable French, very homesick.  I perk up upon learning that our French mom is going to make pizza for dinner, only to be unnerved by the hidden ham unearthed with that first huge bite.  Foiled again.  And so I ever so rudely proceed to pick off the ham (as inconspicuously as possible I might add…it’s not that I want to be rude, but I just can’t bring my 13 year old self to choke it down).

Flash forward to present day: I’m willing to take more chances with what I eat now and am of the mindset that if someone is preparing something a certain way, then someone must like it like that, and therefore there must be merit that ought to be tried, at least once.

Mark and I just got back from an amazing trip to Paris (one of my all-time favorite places, as you can read about in this older blog post), where we pretty much ate and drank ourselves to a 5 pound weight gain despite the marathons we were walking everyday.  In the midst of our culinary adventure, I tried a few things on the periphery of my comfort zone: namely fish ceviche and raw oysters.  Both were good, although I probably wouldn’t order a whole oyster platter for myself anytime soon.  But I’ll pick off yours.

I’m pretty sure I didn’t eat a fruit or vegetable (not including les pomme frites aka fries) the whole time.  There just wasn’t room in my stomach next to all the croissants, pains au chocolat, Nutella crepes, escargots, fromages, baguettes, coffee and wine.  Priorities.

There’s so much to tell and so many photos to show of our trip, so I’ll try to break it down over a few posts so as not to overwhelm you.  This post, as you can already guess, will be dedicated to our eating and drinking habits, which I was smart enough to generally preplan this time around.

Last time we went to Paris, I didn’t plan any meals in advance.  And we didn’t have any bad meals per se, but I think we could have done better with a bit of forethought.  For instance, a lot of restaurants are closed on Sundays and even some on Saturdays, so you have to make sure you know what’s what before stalking up to a locked door being disappointed.

This time, I did a ton of research ahead of time and made at least one reservation.  While I think this was the best approach, given the quality of meals we had, it was clear that other Americans had come across many of the same suggestions.  Which isn’t to say that these places were stereotypical tourist traps, which they weren’t, just that they are well-known to be great restaurants by the French, any everyone else.

I’m at a loss for the best way to organize my thoughts on this, so I’m just going to go with chronologically:

photo-59View from our apartment’s balcony.

Friday morning we arrived at our rented apartment in Le Marais (super cute studio with a balcony!!) to grab the keys from the cleaning lady before setting off to our first destination: Breizh Cafe just around the block, for traditional Brittany-style crepes.  We stood in the queue waiting for it to open, along with some other American and Japanese tourists (the cafe also has an outpost in Tokyo), before being ushered into the tiny dining room.  While the crepe itself was richly salty and buttery (I just got a plain buckwheat crepe with freshly made butter and Mark got a dessert crepe) and good, the service was fairly curt.  I think our server (who was one of the only people during the whole trip to respond back to me in English when I started speaking French) was annoyed that I ordered the cheapest crepe on the menu (which was still at least 6 euros for a buttered crepe thank you very much).  To me, this seemed the like the closest place to a tourist trap that we encountered on the entire trip, and I probably wouldn’t go back.  It also could have been that we were exhausted and jet lagged and generally grumpy.  Oh well, on to the next.

After a short siesta, we rallied for our 7:15 reservation at The Fish Club.

photo 3Started by the folks who opened the Experimental Cocktail Club (first in Paris, then in NYC and London), the Prescription Cocktail Club, and The Beef Club, The Fish Club, as you can guess, serves a lot of fish and seafood.  They do a Peruvian take with lots of ceviches and raw fish dishes.  Unbeknownst to us, the kitchen actually doesn’t open until 8, so we spent a lovely 45 minutes sipping on pisco sours

photo 2

and whatever this beverage served in some sort of gourd was (I can’t remember, but it was mojito-ish).

photo 5Everything was delicious, although Mark’s super-limey salmon stood out in my mind as buttery soft and perfectly sour.

photo 1  photo 4

Walking back to our hotel, we stumbled upon a wine bar called O Chateau, where we struck up a pleasant conversation with an American couple from California who were heading out the next day.  It was such a fun place that we ventured back another evening as well.

Almost everyday it rained on and off, and it always seemed that the sun would come out right after we had ducked into a cafe for a coffee or lunch, only to inevitably start raining again immediately as we stepped back outside to continue our walk.  Saturday was no exception as we found a cute bistro near the Musee d’Orsay (Cafe de l’Empire/L’Empire de Restauration) for some traditional steak frites and poulet roti (roasted chicken).  For dinner we chose the chain Léon de Bruxelles for some curried mussels and more frites a la Belgique.

After dinner, we made our way to the Experimental Cocktail Club: a semi-hidden bar with an interesting cocktail menu.  I guess “cocktail culture” has only made its way to Paris in the last decade or so because we were asked by our French bar-mate: “Isn’t this atmosphere so American?”  I guess the French go there to soak in that NYC feeling.  I was like “I guess???”  And I do guess, as compared to typical French cafes, a dimly lit speakeasy style cocktail bar is quite different.  We had a lovely conversation with a gal (also from California) who was in Paris for a few months working as a visual effects specialist on a movie shoot.  Pretty cool for her.

And of course we had to sample some Nutella crepes on the walk home.  (After many nights of sampling, we determined which stand on our street – rue Rambuteau – had the best ones…not too underdone, not too skimpy with the Nutella.)

Sunday we ventured through the 10th arrondissement to Holybelly for coffee – a cute (but way too hot to stay inside) coffee shop started by some Australians.  I got myself a flat white for our walk up to the Little Sri Lanka neighborhood, where we stopped for lunch, again only to have the sun duck behind a cloud when we were done.  There were many delicious-looking restaurants to choose from, and I couldn’t tell you the name of the one we chose, but as it started to really fill up with the lunch crowd, we knew we had chosen well.  I had a Sri Lankan biryani – a satisfying plateful of rice and chicken.

Being that it was Sunday, I had previously done some research to find a Thai restaurant in Paris’ “Chinatown” neighborhood for dinner, knowing it would be open on Sunday.  But seeing as we had just had some Asian flavors for lunch and didn’t want to make our way to the complete opposite end of the city, we decided on some traditional French cuisine, in which we really hadn’t indulged yet (unless you count the breakfast croissants and late-night crepes).  Reviewing our hosts’ suggestions, we walked through Le Marais to Bastille to a big brasserie, tuxed waiters and all.

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Bofinger was the perfect choice for an early Sunday dinner, as it wasn’t yet too crowded, and we had a lovely seat next to a window on the second floor.  Mark started with some head on shrimp (another new thing I tried – shrimp head juice – which tasted good but I’m not sure about the look of it), while I finally got some (French) onion soup…you really can’t call it French onion soup in France…it’s just onion soup.  It was really really good – especially with the crusty, chewy baguette.  How come the baguette in France is so much better than those in the US?  And you’ll just pay a euro for it at the boulangerie, whereas a pretty miserable imitation is $3.50 at Whole Foods?!?!?

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ANYway….I also got a dozen buttery escargots (snails that is) at Bofinger, and let’s not forget about the carafe of rosé wine which was the perfect amount for two people to split.

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Monday we found some pretty delicious pizza (love how they use hot oil instead of crushed red peppers on their pizza…perfect for crust dipping) for lunch with the local business crowd (also love how business people will certainly have a glass of wine and a dessert cheese plate with their lunches).

For dinner, we went to Verjus’ wine bar.

photo 13      photo 14Verjus is a tiny trendy restaurant, started by some Americans I think, where it is crazy hard to get a reservation.  However they have an even tinier wine bar on the other side of the street that doesn’t take reservations.  We showed up right upon opening at 6, again to discover that the kitchen doesn’t open until 7.  No worries, we can amuse ourselves trying the various wines on the menu and chatting with the friendly bartender.  Our bartender/server was really the nicest young lady – she spoke back to me in French, even though she clearly spoke English very well, and we even shared a bit of an eye roll smirk at an extremely loud American couple behind us.

photo 15 I like how the etching on their glasses is of the small bar front facing the street.

I’ve decided I’m over trying to find completely hidden gems when eating abroad.  This Verjus place has been written up all over the place, and rather than trying to avoid the hype, I’m leaning in.  And to my benefit: the food was AMAZING!! So good; I ate pretty much all of it while Mark had popped out to find an internet cafe, and then ate more when we ordered another round for him.

photo 16Small plates of gnocchi and REALLY juicy and crispy fried chicken (which apparently they are known for). photo 17 Perfectly cooked steak, and vegetable dumplings in the background there.

Tuesday, Mark’s parents and aunt and uncle also came to Paris and we did a ton of walking and touring about.  By the time 5pm rolled around, we were all ready for dinner and Yelped a convenient brasserie near the Eiffel Tower, Le Campanella.  It worked out really well.  I got to order some frogs’ legs, and there were choices for everyone, from salad nicoise to chicken and steak frites.  And of course, carafes of wine.

photo 19 Frogs’ legs

Wednesday, our last day, we journeyed out to Versailles for the morning, and upon returning to the city, we went to my all-time favorite crepe stand/hole-in-the-wall Au P’tit Grec.  I almost didn’t recognize it along Rue Mouffetard what with their new bright sign, but the crepes were how I remembered, and my feta, tomato and lettuce savory crepe hit the spot.

Since we were leaving early the next morning, Mark and I met his family by their hotel near the Arc de Triomphe, where they had made a reservation at an upscale traditional French restaurant, featuring fairly bilingual staff and international business clientele given the proximity to the financial and government buildings.  Le Congres boasted a cool outdoor raw bar where they prepared the fresh shellfish (this restaurant is where I tried a raw oyster), and white linens, along with some attractive prix fixe options that included wine!

Feeling full from the last week of eating, I tried to choose something small: a dessert cheese plate as my main course and a chocolate mousse for dessert.  Well that completely backfired.  The server showed up with the cheese tray and when I asked how many came on the plate, she said three, but you can have a bit more.  As I was contemplating my selection, our main waiter came over and asked if I would just prefer an assortment.  Sure!  Well wouldn’t ya know, he came back with a huge plate with ten HUNKS of different cheeses.  Like pretty much whole BLOCKS of cheeses that you would buy at the store!  OMG.  It took me through the appetizers, entrees and desserts to make enough of a dent in the cheese so that it wouldn’t look as though I hadn’t touched it.  After all that richness accompanied by an entire bread basket (and an included glass of port which was surprisingly tasty), I had to cut the fat.  With some sugar.  So obviously I still ordered the mousse au chocolat – which was rich and dark and delicious.  Such a good meal.  And a good way to cheese myself out before going back home!

Phew – that was a lot of food.  But it was all SO GOOD.  I can’t even get over it.  I don’t know that I’ve ever had so many memorable meals in a row!  Time for my go to Paris coffee: un café creme.  Hold the ham.

photo 18  Café creme and the obligatory Orangina.

Wine Tasting Wednesday

After our October Napa trip, I came away with some great bottles of red, but most of them were a bit above my normal wine-buying price range, and many of them could stand to be aged a few years before drinking.  So this has left me with a gap in my “everyday” red wine consumption (which isn’t to say that I’m drinking wine everyday, not to worry 🙂 )…something drinkable with or without food, not too expensive, and not hard to find.  My test is this: can I sit on the couch and watch a movie on a weeknight and have a glass without feeling like I have to finish the bottle (because it was expensive) or save it for a special occasion or drink it with a specific meal.

I have my go-to white, Santa Margherita Pinot Grigio, that I stock up on every year at the Stella Maris Wine Tasting, held each April in Baltimore (tickets for the April 26th event are on sale now if you call the Development Office 410-252-4500 ext 7570).  I love this event because bottles are marked down from retail and proceeds benefit the long-term care facility.

And I have my favorite rose: anything from Cotes de Provence which can be more difficult to find and is way marked up from the ~5 euros per bottle I found in France.  But reds…I’ve had great bottles here and there, but nothing that I’ve pinpointed as “I can buy a case of this and know that it can be drunk at virtually any occasion.”

I generally like Pinot Noirs that are light and can be sipped over the course of an evening, rather than anything that is definitely better with food.  Knowing this, I decided to do a head-to-head Pinot Noir wine tasting last Wednesday.  I was at Kroger anyway (not the best wine selection obviously, but I wanted to find something that I could pick up on my typical errand route), so I pulled three Pinot Noirs in the $10-$20 range from various regions.

The contenders:

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1. Louis Jadot, 2010, from Bourgogne (Burgundy, France) for $18.99

2. Toad Hollow, 2011, from the Russian River Valley, Sonoma County (California) for $17.99

3. Hedgeline Vineyards, 2011, from Oregon for $12.99

They were each incredibly different.  Here are my thoughts, but first some caveats:

1. I’m trying to practice really smelling and tasting wines such that I can discern scents and flavors, rather than “I like this” or “I don’t like this”…but note I said “practice” which is to say that I could be way off the mark and I get really excited if someone corroborates what I’m describing.

2. I didn’t decant any of these initially, just swirled them in the glasses.  I’ve since tasted each after they’ve had time to breathe and I’ll discuss that more below.

3. I think I probably went in the reverse order of how I should have tasted these: it seemed like I went from boldest to lightest, but again, maybe that was just my impression.

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So here they are in the glasses.  All looking pretty similar to me in terms of color.

1. Louis Jadot – When I smelled this initially I got a lot of wood, and specifically pine scent, running into the smell of tobacco.  The taste was smooth and smoky with a little bite at the end (which definitely mellowed out over time in contact with the air).  When I tasted it later, I got more raspberry flavor, and I could drink this alone (slowly) or with dark chocolate.  In comparison to the Toad Hollow, it was less tannin-y.

2. Toad Hollow – I instantly got whiffs and flavors of vanilla from this bottle.  I was quite pleased with myself when I read the label and confirmed it had been aged in oak barrels (I learned at least this one point from our Napa trip).  At first the taste was tart with kind of an acidic finish, but as it opened up, it felt sweet, which I think is really just that buttery/vanilla-ness that the oak imparts rather than actual sugar.  It had more of an aftertaste than the Louis Jadot.

3. Hedgeline – Woah.  Should’ve gone with this first.  The initial smell was pungent and stiff with alcohol.  It definitely needed some decanting.  At first the taste was biting and acidic, but it completely smoothed out to a bit of strawberry and light vanilla with time.  I felt those tannins on the sides of my tongue and I would want this with food.

I had second glasses of all three in the ensuing days, and each was better with time and air.  While all three were enjoyable in their own ways, here are my conclusions:

1. Each was more enjoyable when it was the first and only glass of the day.  Comparing them side-by-side left me not really loving any of them.

2. Since each of these was better with some time after opening, I can’t see how any would become my go-to red.  The beauty of a go-to is that you can open it with unexpected company or on a whim without forethought and decanting.

3. I would buy any of these again in a pinch knowing what I was getting, but I’m going to continue searching and tasting because that’s half the fun!

Any recs on what to try next?!?!

J’adore Paris…I hope you do too

I’m writing this blog post because three of my good friends are going to Paris this fall and I am insanely jealous.  No, in reality, I want to give them some good suggestions of things to do in a limited time there.

I lived in Paris from Jan to June 2006 but had been there a few times before and one time since (and hope to go back in the near future).  I absolutely love that city, like everyone else in the world it seems.  I believe it’s the number one tourist destination in the world, so there are innumerable volumes of information about what to do and see.  I’m hoping here to give a few interesting ideas that aren’t quite as obvious (although you gotta see the obvious ones too if you’ve never been).  My disclaimer is that it’s been a while since I’ve been, so certain spots may be closed or different.  Definitely Google everything since some museums are closed certain days, to get information about ticket prices and discover interesting walking tours that might take you by some of these sights.  We can go into greater detail offline if anyone wants specific metro/travel info/walking tour ideas.  Second disclaimer is that I don’t know how to do accents on this Mac computer, so all my French writing will be sans (without) accents…sorry!

I lived in the 5eme arrondissement (5th district or section of Paris, also known as the Latin Quarter due to all the students there) in an excellent spot on Rue Broca.  My friend Sara had come to France six months earlier and found this amazingly located apartment that I then took over when she left in January.  The only problem with the apartment was the insanely small under-window heating unit that barely heated the two feet in front of it, let alone the whole place.  Given the cost of electricity, I mostly kept it off and dressed in layers upon layers throughout the winter months (and that was pretty much through April).  At night, I would wear long underwear, sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, and thick fuzzy socks over regular socks.  Luckily I had brought my dad’s old down mummy sleeping bag, so I put that in the bed and slept in it under the comforter.  Most nights I would boil a pot of water on the stove, toss the water and put the hot pot between my feet, soles wrapped around the contours of the metal.  Since Paris is on the water of the Seine river, you get that intensely damp cold that cuts right to your bones and makes you feel as if you’ll never be warm again.  Showers are a double-edged sword of life-giving warmth followed by cold misery upon exiting.  I immediately chopped off all my hair to make drying it as fast as possible.

Okay, enough about the weather, since these friends are going in the fall and the season will be beautiful!  I could go on and on about all the details of actually living abroad, and perhaps one day I will.  I kept a daily journal from day one through the flight back home, and maybe I can type it up and turn it into a book someday!

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To start, study the map of Paris to orient yourself as to the location of everything.  I like this map from http://www.apartment-in-france.com:

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Most things are within walking distance, although sometimes it can be a long walk.  I prefer strolling through the winding roads (les rues) because you end up coming across different and interesting architecture, signs, cafes, etc. that you may not have seen otherwise.  If the weather is bad, the metro and the buses are super efficient and easy to use.  They have daily and weekly passes, and there are night buses that run in loops around the city if you find yourself out well after hours and don’t want to pay for a taxi.

Next, go to one of the many magazine stands and purchase a Pariscope magazine.  This is a weekly publication that lists literally EVERYTHING going on for the week – from museum exhibits to parades to movie listings.  It’s a great way to find out what’s happening NOW so that you don’t miss out on something unique.

Okay, on to some of my favorite things to do/must-dos in Paris and les environs (surroundings):

1. If you’ve never been to Paris, you clearly have to go to the Eiffel Tower, Champs Elysee, Tuileries, Place de la Concorde (where the guillotine was set up during the Revolution) and the Arc de Triomphe.  I go back and forth on whether or not you actually have to go up to the top of the Eiffel Tower.  I guess it’s something to do, but I tend to think it’s always a little bit anticlimactic.  When Mark and I went up in the fall of 2011, it was completely foggy and you couldn’t see two inches in front of your hand.  If you decide you do want to go up to the top, I recommend going early in the morning and queuing before it opens.  Once it opens, the line will move quickly, but depending on the weather, if you go later in the day, you will for sure be standing in line for a while as you wait for people to come back down.  Bring a snack.

2. Alternatively, go to the Eiffel Tower and take pictures of it from the ground and stand in awe of its sloping metal enormity.  Then go to Tour Montparnasse on the edge of the 14th and 15th arrondissements.  Until 2011, this was the tallest skyscraper in France, and there is an observation deck on the top from which you have a fantastic view of the city – INCLUDING the Eiffel Tower!!  That’s the best part: if you go up the Eiffel Tower you see the city but not the tower itself.  Duh.  So go to the top of Tour Montparnasse and take in the whole cityscape without actually having to see the large dark glass office building on top of which you’re standing.

3. Museums.  Whether you love to hate museums, you have to admit that Paris has the best museums.  How could they not?  There are so many!!  Obviously the Louvre, in which you could spend days and days and never see it all, which has ancient treasures, historic artifacts and “The Mona Lisa”.  My personal favorite is the Musee d’Orsay which is in a converted train station and houses a huge collection of Impressionist paintings (among lots of other things).  Check out the cafe which is on the inside of the huge outward facing clock. Then there are all the various smaller (but still not that small) museums including: Musee Rodin (dedicated to Rodin, who sculpted “The Thinker”), Musee Picasso, Musee Marmottan-Monet (which houses Monet’s painting “Impression soleil levant” which gave rise to the name of the Impressionist movement), Musee de l’Orangerie (which is in the Tuileries gardens and houses Monet’s huge series of water lilies, les Nympheas, that take up the whole walls).  You can purchase a museum pass for 2, 4 or 6 days and check out which museums it gives access to, but one of the best features is that you can go straight to the front of the line, at least for the permanent collections.  It does not get you in free to the visiting exhibits, and what’s so cool to me is that Parisians flood these exhibits. On opening day of a new exhibit, you will certainly be standing in line for a while and the museum rooms will be smashed with people elbowing to see what’s on each wall.  I feel like Americans just aren’t that pumped about our own museums like Parisians are about theirs.  Just Google Paris Museum Pass for details.

4. Outside of Paris, but still quite accessible are Versailles and Giverny.  Versailles is the magnificent palace, famous for the hall of mirrors and expansive, manicured gardens.  Explore the history of King Louis XIV, King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette.  You can get there easily by train and entrance is included with the above-mentioned museum pass.  Giverny is the home and gardens of Monet, where he painted his famous water lilies.  It’s a bit trickier to get to – the best way is probably car – but you can take a train and then a cab from there.  Giverny is lovely and if you love Monet and flowers and gardens it is a wonderland.  Otherwise, it might not be worth using up one of your precious Paris days to head out there.  It is not included in the museum pass.

5. On the northern outskirts of town, Le Marche aux Puces, or flea market, is well-worth a visit.  They have everything from antiques to Converse to cute shoes and accessories for 5-10 euros.  When I went, I got a pair of black pointy flats for 10 euros and a vintage belt with a huge gold buckle.  Take the metro to Porte de Clignancourt; check out Frommer’s for a good history of the market and specific walking directions once you exit the metro.  Don’t try to walk all the way up here from center city – it’s far and you will pass through some sketchy neighborhoods.

6. My favorite food in Paris are crepes.  Savory or sweet, somehow I’ve never had one in the US that can measure up to the ones in Paris.  I think it’s because they use different crepe batter for sweet vs. savory crepes.  Crepes are a cheap, versatile food for breakfast, lunch or dinner that you can walk with or sit down and enjoy.  I find that you really can’t go wrong with a Nutella crepe at anytime of the day or night.  I’m pretty specific about my savory crepes, so I can tell you that my absolute most favorite crepe place is Au P’tit Grec on Rue Mouffetard in the 5eme right near my old apartment on Rue Broca.  Rue Mouffetard is worth a trip in and of itself: a small market-lined street where you can get anything from fruit to cheese to flowers.  Au P’tit Grec is a hole-in-the-wall pretty far up the hill, and at the bottom of the road is a cute square with cafes where you can have “un express” (an espresso) outside overlooking a fountain.  There is also a cute square at the top of the road with cafes, but I prefer the square at the base as there is more people-watching.

7. French coffee is wonderful.  I don’t know what makes it so good, but I was never an espresso drinker until I got to Paris.  Maybe because I was a poor post-grad and espressos were the cheapest drink, but somehow I could make an espresso last an hour.  That’s the thing about French cafes – they never kick you out.  Just buy something cheap, crack a book and soak up the surroundings all afternoon.  I remember one afternoon, I sat at a cafe for hours and various friends popped in and out for a coffees.  I also highly recommend the cafe creme.  Again, I’m not 100% sure how it is made, but I believe they warm the milk/cream, as opposed to a cafe au lait, where I think they give you cold milk in the hot coffee.  Cafe cremes came to be my favorite French drink…somehow better than a latte, although it may be very similar in real life.  I’ve never had something like a cafe creme anywhere else in the world.

8. Well actually scratch that.  Cotes de Provence rose wine is my favorite French drink.  This specific region uses a lot of grenache grape.  I don’t find the wine to be overly sweet, and it’s the perfect light, crisp wine.  Also, it’s great that you can buy good bottles for 2 euros at the grocery store.  It’s fairly hard to find Cotes de Provence rose in Baltimore, so I try to carry back as many bottles as possible in my suitcase.

9.  It wouldn’t be my blog without some good pizza references.  My two favorite pizza places in Paris are both near my old place and Rue Mouffetard.  The first is Pizza Cesar on Boulevard Saint-Michel near the corner of Avenue des Gobelins.  Just good, cozy pizza, whereas so many pizzas in France tend to have thicker, carboardier-type crust.  What I like about Paris pizza places is that they have spicy hot olive oil on each table, sometimes instead of crushed red pepper.  This oil is particularly good on the crust.  The second pizza place I frequented was right next to my apartment building on Rue Broca, Matana.  Thinner crust and not too heavy on sauce and cheese if I remember correctly.  Definitely pop your head in or call ahead if you are making a special trip because the owners are religious and so it may be closed on certain holidays/days of the week.

10. I can’t really say that I have the best suggestions for nicer restaurants, as I never really ate in those while living in Paris, subsisting on cheese and bread, pasta, salad and pizza.  I have heard that L’Ami Jean near the Eiffel Tower is “foodie,” trendy and excellent.

11.  I love being outside in Paris.  You can spend hours wandering the gardens and open spaces.  There are the big ones: Tuileries, Jardin du Luxembourg, Champ de Mars, but here are a few smaller ones that are hidden spots to visit: on Ile de France, the island in the Seine where Notre Dame is, there is Square de l’Ile de France on one end back behind Notre Dame and Square de Vert-Galant on the other end.  You may have to go down some stairs located on the bridge to get to this one…watch the boats float by on both sides of the park.  In the Square de l’Ile de France is where the Holocaust Memorial is.  It only takes a few minutes to visit but it is incredibly moving.  It’s actually called the Memorial of Martyrs of the Deportation, which is appropriate because the structure of the memorial is to make you feel as though you are looking out into the river through slats in the deportation boats.  Chilling.

12.  Other monuments and memorials are hidden gems to find all over the city.  Apart from all the interesting churches that are mostly open for you to go inside and look at the beautiful architecture and paintings (including Notre Dame and Sacre Coeur of course), there are cool architectural features all over the city.  There is the fountain at Place Saint Michel.  There is the unofficial Princess Diana memorial, which is at Place d’Alma near  to where she was killed in 1997.  This is a huge golden flame, The Flame of Liberty, that replicates the flame held by the Statue of Liberty and was a gift by the International Herald Tribune in 1989.  I think Parisians find it silly, and it’s not worth a visit unless you’re really into Princess Di.  Trocadero is a neat area across the Seine from the Eiffel Tower where you can climb up the long, high staircase for a good view of the Tower.  If you walk east down Avenue du President Wilson, you’ll come to a cluster of great off-the-beaten-path museums:  Musee Galliera (fashion museum), Palais de Tokyo (the gift shop is worth checking out for different and nifty finds) and Musee d’Art Moderne.

13. Bastille and Le Marais.  On the northern side of Rue de Rivoli is the historic district of Le Marais.  Historically the Jewish quarter, you may be hard pressed to find the temples as they are typically closed to the public and hidden away, but you will find Jewish influences all over the place.  Very cute cafes in the winding roads back here, and this is also where Musee Picasso is located.  Walk to the east until you come across Place des Vosges – a very swanky residential address along a green square, where you will also find (and can tour) Victor Hugo’s home.  Keep walking east until you hit Place de la Bastille – grab a coffee or dinner in one of the many international restaurants.

14.  Okay last thing for now, I swear (although I could go on):  Laduree.  Famous tea shop has THE BEST quintessential French macarons (macaroons).  Not cheap, but a must.  Stand in line and get 4-6 flavors in a “to go” box and savor them while you walk along the quays of the Seine and look at the bookstalls and art dealers set up along the bank.

P.S. If you have extra time check out La Defense, which is a modern Arc de Triomphe in the financial district.  If you take the metro beyond the real Arc, you will reach La Defense metro stop.  Walk around, see the modern arch, and as I recall, there may be an art gallery inside the arch at the top.  Also if you have extra time, head south on the metro to Place d’Italie for “Chinatown” and other good Asian cuisine, such as pho.

Phew.  Everyone feel free to comment on this post with your Paris favorites and soon our friends will have tons to do!

Bon Voyage!!