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Posts Tagged ‘Travel’

Whenever I see a sunflower, I think of Vincent Van Gogh, that mad (not in a good way) Dutch painter whose dauby impressionist works depicting vases of these yellow flowers have a habit of giving the auction world a nervous twitch whenever one comes up for sale. Van Gogh painted the sunflower series when he was living in The Yellow House in Arles, a place he shared for a while with Gauguin, until his obsession with the fellow painter led him to cut off part of his ear and give it to a prostitute for safe-keeping.

The French word for sunflower is ‘tournesol’, which, if you break it down into parts means ‘turn’ (tourne) and ‘sun’ (sol, abbreviated from le soleil). Suddenly I have an image of a field full of sunflowers leaning towards the sun as it moves through the sky.

Until recently, I’ve never had the luck to be in France when the sunflowers are at their best, swaying seas of gold blanketing the French countryside. When Monsieur and I visited the Vendée region recently, there they were: field upon field of sunflowers, in the flesh. Not on a postcard, not in a coffee table book. In. The. Flesh.

Being the odd one in this relationship, I asked Monsieur to drive me to a field of sunflowers so I could take some photos. Being the patient one in the relationship, he obliged. There I was, jumping around in the midst of flowers taller than me, trying to get a picture postcard shot. I didn’t think Monsieur was paying much attention, accustomed as he is to my Unusual Photo Opportunities, but how wrong I was.

When I’d shot my fill of yellow tournesols, Monsieur showed my a photo he’d taken of me in the field. There is my face, sure enough, surrounded by the sunflowers, but the plants shield my body so in fact it looks like I AM a sunflower! That picture is definitely being printed off and sent around, once Monsieur gives me access to it. In the meantime, here is some sunshine to brighten up what is otherwise a grey summer’s day in Londinium.

It was grey and drizzly that day in Vendée, too, but the flowers bravely weathered the weather.

They certainly keep the bees busy. This little drone is nibbling away at that tasty pollen at the centre of the flower. Yumalicious. Let’s make some honey, Honey!

Some of the fleurs look a bit tatty, but their colour glows on.

DID YOU KNOW….

That in Tintin, le Professeur Tournesol in the French language editions is our much loved eccentric Professor Calculus in English? I think we don’t need to be told why they changed the name. Just imagine being called ‘Professor Sunflower’. No one would take your theories seriously.

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Monsieur and I jetted off to La Rochelle recently for a long weekend in the Vendée region of France. The first couple of days were so suffocatingly hot that breathing felt like inhaling air directly from a fan heater, but then on the third day we awoke to grey skies, persistent rain and a drop in temperature of around ten degrees. Incroyable. It certainly wasn’t going to be a day for the beach.

After lunch, the skies cleared a bit, so we drove to Maillezais to visit the Marais Poitevin, or Poitevin marshland. Maillezais is a nice little town with an impressive ruined Abbey and a restaurant called Au Chant des Grenouilles, or ‘Frog-Song’, but we weren’t here to visit either; we were here to have another French boating experience, hopefully without anyone being thrown overboard.

Down at the Grand Port, which sounds like a big deal but is really just a little jetty for boats, we rented a ‘barque’ for two hours. This time, Monsieur and I were sitting side by side, each with a paddle in hand. Following a laminated map of the canals known as Venise Verte or ‘Green Venice’ for the green weed that obscures the water’s surface, off we paddled, in perfect tandem, for now, at least…

We turned into a broad canal with the Abbey looming above. The scene was incredibly picturesque, in spite of the missing walls, and we saw sky through the glassless windows. I imagine that the Abbey must have been an imposing cultural centre in its hey-day and in my mind images grew of abbots gathering honey from hives, illuminating manuscripts by candlelight and singing mournful chants as part of their daily routine. Apparently the Dukes of Aquitaine worshipped here. Sacré bleu! (Note: Monsieur informs me that this expression isn’t in popular French usage any more. Strike 78 against the Anglo-Saxone for getting it wrong yet again!)

Rowing on, we marvelled at the fact that we hadn’t yet disagreed on direction. For once, we were enjoying a boat trip without argument or vengeful splashing. Following little green arrows indicating our route, we crossed a wide canal to reach a narrower one. Here the trees formed an arcade above us as we floated past fields until, through all the green, a giant creamy face poked out at us. “Moo” it said. “Moo moo” I replied. “Darling, stop being so silly,” moaned Monsieur.

There in the field above us, we saw quite a few of our dairy friends. They were all the beautiful Charolais breed, with honey-cream skins and huge chestnut eyes. Looking further along the canal, a boat was heading our way. The canal was too narrow for us to pass so Monsieur and I manoevred the boat backwards into an inlet until the boaters went by. This was quite the success story for us in boating terms. No splashing, no shouting, no killing. Could such teamwork possibly last?

We passed under bridges so low that we had to duck, got stuck at a ninety degree turn from one canal into the next but with some highly-skilled bottom bouncing, managed to bump free without taking to paddle pummelling each other, spotted crows and a stork enjoying the peace of an entire field to themselves and observed a group of men with fishing rods preparing their lines. Apart from the cows and the birds we didn’t see much wildlife, apart from a mother duck and her fluffy young. I’d hoped to see a beaver or two, but no luck.

“You know, wouldn’t it be funny if we put a cow in a boat and took him somewhere?”

I told Monsieur. He looked at me strangely with that “you do know you’re talking rubbish, don’t you?” look he reserves for such moments, but later on, in a souvenir shop, I saw postcards showing this exact thing. Here’s a picture I found of horses being transported in this fashion. Apparently it’s the easiest way to get the large animals from one side of the canal to the other.

All too soon, we were turning up the canal towards the jetty, getting ready to jump out of the boat. It had been a lovely way to spend the afternoon and surprisingly peaceful. It just may be that Monsieur and I have now found a way to cooperate on the water, but he still thinks I can’t paddle for peanuts. Hrmph. The feeling’s mutual.

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rue Saint Dominique postcard, 1908

For a truly Parisian experience, I love to explore the area surrounding rue Saint-Dominique. The length of this  shop-lined street running from Saint Germain, past les Invalides to the Champ de Mars, provides plenty of opportunity to fill up a suitcase without the challenge of the Big Avenue crowds and, if one suitcase proves insufficient, there are a couple of wonderful wholesale bag shops where you can pick up another for a fraction of what you’d pay in Galeries Lafayette.

Bags are to me as shoes are to Carrie Bradshaw. Many years ago I sniffed out a shop in the rue Saint-Dominique called Stock-Sacs. There are bags of varied styles and colours hanging off every patch of wall in this Aladdin’s Cave of leather products, which will have bag-lovers salivating over the red calf-leather totes within seconds. There is also every type of accessory one could ever conceive of putting in a handbag: mobile phone holders, passport covers, key rings, driver’s licence wallets, chequebook covers, travel wallets, coin purses and more. If you do splurge on a bag at Stock-Sacs and then run up to the department stores, chances are you’ll find exactly the same bag for a great deal more euros. That sort of smug satisfaction makes a visit to this shop even more worthwhile.

Stock Sacs, 109 bis, rue Saint-Dominique, 75007                          tel 01 45 51 42 12

 Further along the rue towards the Eiffel Tower is a second bag shop where great bargains may be found. Called the Champ de Fleurs, it’s far less organised than Stock-Sacs and has a few manufacturer mistakes such as a lurid fuschia thing I saw in their window recently, but, if you dare to enter, there are some wonderful examples of French-made accessories to be had for a song. Monsieur’s briefcase came from this little shop and I am currently breaking in a third purchase from the Champ de Fleurs. Well worth a visit, even if the uninspired window display and dusty corners are a little off-putting.

Across the street from the Champ de Fleurs is a wonderful restaurant called La Fontaine de Mars. It warrants an entry in its own right, but suffice to say that their confit de canard is the best I’ve ever eaten, the menu is traditional with a few pleasant surprises and the atmosphere is efficient French at its best.

La Fontaine de Mars, 129 rue Saint-Dominique 75007

Tel 01 47 05 46 44       lafontainedemars@orange.fr

At 108, rue Saint-Dominique (or rue Saint-Dom, as my hairdresser called it) you will find l’Esprit du Sud-Ouest,a tiny rugby shop selling all manner of rugby shirts, balls, bandes dessinées, DVDs and All Black teddy bears. It’s a typical example of the myriad specialist boutiques to be found in the area, along with a bespoke printer, antique sport and travel poster gallery, perfumers, confectioners, shoe shops, children’s clothing stores and coffee purveyors. In that inimitable French way, the neighbourhood boulangeries somehow make bread look fashionable, so much so that it’s easy to forget that it’s just bread and, for the fashion-conscious, there are plenty of interesting boutiques with little windows displaying chic tops draped with dramatic scarves and just the right set of beads.

All that shopping will work up an appetite but it’s impossible to go hungry on the rue Saint-Dom. Nearby rue Cler is another great place to grab a bite. It boasts a daily market, delicatessans, a fromagerie, fish shop and greengrocers where the bright colours of the produce make shopping for dinner an altogether uplifting French experience compared with popping along to a sterile urban supermarket. The locals (rumoured to include diplomats, politicians and senior embassy staff) shop here alongside foreigners who’ve recognised the area’s charm and bought into it, and there are some great places to eat. Café du Marché is almost always full, serving traditional French food, and is so popular that you’re likely to be bumping elbows with patrons sitting at adjacent tables. Don’t go there if you like uninterrupted personal space. In its favour, however, is its prime position for people-watching and practically everyone who knows the area will have dined there at least once, if not dozens of times. 

Next door to Café du Marché is an Italian eatery with broad terrace opening onto the pedestrianised street, where insalata Caprese is layered, drizzled with pesto dressing and served chilled in a preserving jar with the lid popped open. The salads here are great, reasonably priced and hearty in size, so if you want to grab a bite but save some room for dinner, this is the place to go. There are fine-looking pizzas and generous plates of pasta to choose from and the efficient service gets 5 stars, too.

 If you feel like something more ethnic, there are Chinese, Japanese and Korean restaurants in the vicinity, or if you fancy a picnic in the Champ de Mars, perhaps you could pop into La Maison du Jambon, where there’s a perennial queue of people waiting to buy gourmet treats. The deli window, filled with freshly-prepared dishes, is art in itself. For picnic accoutrements, there is the Franprix supermarket down on the corner of rue de Grenelle. All that’s left is to select a bottle of wine from Nicolas to wash it all down. Mmm, délicieux!   

There is plenty to do in the area if you’d like to dip into Parisian art and culture: the Eiffel Tower, les Invalides, the Ecole Militaire and the Musée Rodin are all within easy walking distance, as is the Musée du Quai Branly. However, the main reason to visit the rue Saint-Dom and rue Cler is to get a taste of real Paris: part day-to-day life, part chic inspiration, part village in the middle of the City of Light. Besides, who can say no to exploring the rue Saint-Dom when the Eiffel Tower stands beckoning at one end? Not me.

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I’ll never forget the day I first tried a Salade Périgourdine. Monsieur and I were in Toulouse on the way to a wedding in Lot. We had stopped for lunch at a terrace restaurant on Wilson Square and I was struggling to decide what to eat. In the end, I decided to try a the salade terroir (no, it’s not a salad of terror, but a salad of the terre, or region) which, in this case, was a Salade Périgourdine, named for a region of France where it’s simply impossible to avoid eating duck: Périgord.

That was the day that duck took on a new meaning for me. Until then, my experience of duck had been restricted to crispy Peking style, hanging in Chinese restaurant windows or listed on a takeaway menu. I liked Chinese duck. Would I like its French cousin? It was time to find out.

The salad appeared, a mound of lettuce leaves covered in different sorts of duck. There were slices of smoked duck (magret de canard fumé), little irregular pieces of duck (I didn’t want to know which part but later learned that these are gésiers, or giblets) and cresting the lot was a perfect round of foie gras. It seemed incredibly decadent to be eating foie gras in a salad but now, I blush to say that I am getting used to it and for the rest of that trip, I ate duck in all its forms at every opportunity.

Here is a basic salad recipe so you can make the Périgourdine at home:

  • Salad leaves – I like lamb’s lettuce for this one.
  • Duck giblets – you will need a good butcher or deli owner to get these for you if you want to cook them from fresh. Otherwise, you may like to stock up on tinned duck ‘gésiers’ when you are in France. In London, we get ours from Borough Market.
  • Slices of magret de canard fumé. This is smoked duck breast. You can buy them in packs from delicatessans. My local deli orders this in fresh for me. It works out tastier and a bit cheaper.
  • A small pot of foie gras. You don’t need very much per person, just a small slice each.
  • Green beans
  • A handful of walnuts
  • Optional additions might be a few stalks of asparagus when in season or an artichoke or two, but do note that these are not traditional ingredients of a Périgourdine. You can also add tomato segments and sliced boiled egg as extras.

Start with a mound of lettuce on each plate, then sprinkle the walnuts, gesiers and green beans evenly on top. Place the slices of smoked duck breast at even intervals around the plate. Crown with a slice of foie gras.

Serve with a slice of toast for the foie gras and a chilled glass of Sauternes. You may like to have a bowl of fig chutney on the table for people who enjoy the taste of fig with their foie gras.

Bon appétit!

 

 

 

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Monsieur and I were in Cannes for New Year but soon decided to leave the heaving Croisette for a little trip elsewhere. In our efforts to do just that we drove stop-start through the labyrinthine streets of France’s answer to Tinseltown trying to find a way out. This took a while but a U-turn and a few heart-stopping crossroads later, we finally found ourselves speeding along an autoroute to Grasse, the perfumery centre of France.

This was definitely a destination worthy of our time, although the approach is a little underwhelming. Lego-block apartment buildings climb in batches up the hillside to this famous town, portrayed in all the postcards as a charming olde worlde site filled with flowers and surrounded by fields of lavender. Obviously it would be too much to expect swaying fields of lavender in late December, finding instead at its centre a toboggan slide, caroussel and large, plastic nativity of neon plastic figures nestled in fake snow next to a marquee sporting a farm animal fair with all the braying and quacking that goes with that sort of thing.

A short walk later, the charm of the medieval hill-town became more apparent. There were perfume factories geared to the tourist that could entice a visit, a Longchamps shop filled with their signature bags at unusually competitive prices, narrow coffee bars squeezed like an after-thought between much wider buildings, the expected boutiques, gift shops and galleries, racks of perfumed soaps and a few exclusive-looking places at which to buy foie gras. There’s no doubt about it: Grasse may well be a perfumery town, but a good part of its economic health comes from the tourist. Even on a chilly winter’s day, there were quite a few of us about, snapping away at picturesque views that carry one’s eye as far as the sea.

Turning into an uphill alley, we passed under a frescoed scaffold hoarding between the two sides of the street, and there to my amusement stood an Indian restaurant next to a Vietnamese. Yes, we were ready for lunch but not quite in the mood for ethnic food that we can easily find in London. We walked on.

The sun was warm as we strolled into an airy square, with an oyster stall, florist stand and covered market selling everything from saucissons secs to fake pashminas. Next to the covered market was a restaurant called Café Arnaud, blessed with outdoor tables. As it was quite pleasant in the sun, we decided to take one. We chose, we ordered, we waited. And waited. And waited. And waved down the sole waitress in charge of all the outdoor tables. The waitress said she would chase up our first courses of salad. How long does it take to throw a salad together? 45 minutes apparently. Still, we were happy to be on holiday with Christmas behind us for another year, so waited patiently until, just as we had decided to go elsewhere, the salads arrived. Meanwhile, Mory Kante boomed out of the market marquee and the sun’s strength started to wane.

Monsieur tucked into a generous salade Niçoise, while I enjoyed a Périgourdine, trying to save the piece of foie gras from Monsieur’s fork until I could savour it last. The air was chill, now, and Monsieur’s hands went blue. I also felt the drop in temperature, but wrap myself in layers during winter, no matter how shiny the sun, so it didn’t bother me too much. I was just happy to be outside on a crisp January day.

At a long table next to us, an extended family lunched together, the children wriggling their way through polite eating until they finished and were released from the table, at which point they careened around the square, thoroughly enjoying being kids. In the covered market, people were selecting from fresh produce for their evening meal, as a gypsy-looking woman with a tumble of black hair and pale grey eyes sat down to eat with her husband and their newborn. The square was humming with interest and local life.

Waiting for the bill at The Slow Restaurant gave Monsieur a nasty cold, although we didn’t know it at the time. In the end, we had to venture inside to pay, otherwise we may still be sitting there, waiting, today. So that was Café Arnaud. If you’re ever in Grasse and decide to give it a try, the salade Perigourdine is delicious but I’d recommend you to take your seats inside.

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Here’s day two of my first visit to Paris, from a journal written when I was an awkward fifteen years old. It’s a bit of a history lesson, this entry. Goodness only knows how I managed to take such accurate notes without missing the sights. Anyway, the itinerary is interesting and I’ve created lots of links in case you want to learn more about the places of historic Paris.

Woke up early, had weird buffet breakfast downstairs before joining our first tour at 8.50am. We got on a bus for a tour of historical Paris. We had a lovely French guide speaking in English and German – her German was atrocious, though, with verbs in all the wrong places.

We paused at the Place Vendôme. There is a column in the middle of the square that was built in the 17th Century by Lous XIV. Napoleon is on top of it, wearing a Roman emperor’s clothes. It is bronze, made from cannons taken by Napoleon’s soldiers at Austerlitz. Then down the Rue St Honoré where nearly all the buildings are pre-Revolution. We passed a church (Eglise St Roch) where the tomb of the creator of the gardens at Versailles and the Tuilerie Gardens (André Le Nôtre) is. We passed the theatre of French comedies and then l’Opéra in the Avenue de l’Opéra. We saw the northern wing of the Louvre which contains the Ministry of Finance. It was a large palace and now the greatest part is an art museum.

Past the Place des Victoires built at the time of Louis XIV, then past the Bank of France built before WWII.

The Place des Victoires is a replica. All things like it were destroyed during the Revolution of 1792. It has the same architect as Vendôme. The Central Paris Post Office was next, part of it is always open – day and night! The old food market was in the Rue du Louvre but now there are buildings – shops, restaurants etc there. Now the market is near Orly airport.

The Palais du Louvre was originally a fortress at the end of the 12th Century to defend Paris – then much smaller than today. After that, it was the residence for French Kings and Queens, from Francis I to Napoleon III). Every king built on a new part in a different style. Since 1793 it has been the national building for art.

Next was a church called St Germain l’Auxerrois. It had a beautiful façade and was built in the 17th Century. We passed the Académie Francaise and then crossed the Seine on the ‘new’ bridge (Pont Neuf) which is actually the oldest in Paris and was finished during of the reign of King Henry IV.

We saw a department store called Samaritaine and went to the heart of Paris – the Île de la Cité – passing the place where Marie Antoinette was locked up, the Conciergerie, which used to be a prison. We saw the spire of the Holy Chapel of the 13th Century,and then a tower in the late Gothic style – St James (or Saint Jacques).

The two towers of Notre Dame were in the distance as we passed the Hôtel de Ville in renaissance style. The first town hall from the time of Francis I was burnt during the Revolution.

We went into a suburb called the Marais and saw two houses from the 14th Century. Next was a Jesuit style church and a museum dedicated to the history of Paris – Le Musée Carnavalet. At the Place des Vosges we were told that at the beginning of the 17th Century a lot of rich families had apartments or houses there. In the 19th Century Victor Hugo lived there (but died elsewhere). The house is now dedicated to his life and works.

It’s strange to look back at a time when all of the above-mentioned places were new to me. Now, the Place des Vosges is as familiar as the shops on rue du Temple in the Marais. Monsieur took me to the Carnavalet Museum when I first visited Paris with him, ogling the recreated prison rooms which held the French royal family prior to their meeting with Madame Guillotine, and fascinated by the room sets, town models and paintings throughout.

There are still places for me to visit in Paris, however. My fine and decorative arts tutor would probably bring back revolutionary beheadings if he knew I still hadn’t set foot inside la Sainte Chapelle with its starry night ceilings. On the other hand, my old drama teacher would be thrilled to know that Monsieur’s mother took us to see Shakespeare in French at the Comédie Française last Christmas. Still, it’s wise to remember that if you don’t see everything when you visit a new place, then you’re only leaving something to go back for in the future.

One question, though: in the first paragraph The Fifteen Year-Old Moi complains about the ‘weird’ breakfast. I wonder what on earth she meant.

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When I was fifteen, I saw Paris for the first time. My parents had decided that our southern hemisphere summer holidays should be spent seeing some of the great cities of Europe, so here we were in the City of Light, mid-winter, just in time to celebrate the New Year.

Here are my journal entries from that time. They’re not particularly sophisticated, so please remember that they were written by a fifteen year-old with braces on her teeth.

We’d just flown from Munich to Paris Charles de Gaulle airport when the entry begins:

28th December

Once we were off the plane we went down amazing escalator walkways. Then we went up some more, inside perspex tubes. They were fantastic. It didn’t take long for our bags to come through. We went and changed some money and then found a chauffeur driven Mercedes into Paris. The chauffeur was Parisian and drove us on a motorway to the Paris ring road. We drove through the suburbs until we got to the north west of Paris where we entered the city. We passed by the Arc de Triomphe first, then the Eiffel Tower and the Ecole Militaire. We went through lots of side streets to Montparnasse where we were dropped at the Meridien Hotel.

There was a computer (!) in each room and a bottle of champagne, fruit and two bouquets of flowers with a “Happy New Year” card addressed to us from the Manager. After a small celebration, Dad went and got a map and tour brochures from the desk, so we read them briefly and then headed off on a walk. We went past Galeries Lafayette and a shopping centre on a large shopping street full of boutiques, shoe shops and every other kind of shop. We went into a magnificent art shop – two stories of every art supply imaginable! I couldn’t think to choose what I needed. We walked on and on for ages until we got to the River Seine.

We went into Notre Dame Cathedral which was amazing at night. It was eerie and dark but the candles and people at Mass lightened it up a bit. We saw a memorial to all those members of the British Empire who fought in the First World War. It even had a New Zealand coat of arms on it. We passed confessionals and candles so we lit a candle and left it burnng.

We walked back to the Latin Quarter where we found a lovely Italian restaurant, got a table and sat down. I chose lasagne. It was delicious! After dinner we walked back to the hotel. It was a long walk. Eventually we got there after seeing typically French things e.g. self-cleaning loos.

**Before we got to the River Seine, a tramp (about 60) came up to me, stared at me really closely and snorted in my ear. Weird. All the way home, I imitated what he did and everyone laughed! At the hotel we booked tours for tomorrow and went to sleep – after watching BBC1, Greystoke – The Legend of Tarzan. Good movie.

It’s interesting to read back over this. For a start, I have absolutely no recollection of a tramp snorting in my ear, so I have to trust my ancient journal on that one. I do remember the escalator tubes at Charles de Gaulle and the thrill of seeing the Eiffel Tower for the first time. It was like travelling through one of my school French textbooks, only no longer black-and-white. This was 3D Paris, live.

Whenever I’m in Paris now, I always look at that inescapable black monstrosity, La Tour Montparnasse, and remember that first visit. Today I asked Monsieur a question:

“Darling, do you like the Tour Montparnasse?”

“No.”

“Does anyone?”

“I don’t know. Probably not.”

If you read this and have a view, either way, on the Tour Montparnasse, please let me know because it confuses the hell out of me. It reminds me of an ugly black wart on the face of an otherwise elegant Grande Dame.

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