Friday, August 28, 2009

Paris Streets (June 2005)

Doug felt confident that he'd learned enough about his new Sony digital camera to allow us to begin our new adventure in Paris.

Although we were only a short walk to Metro line 8 (Balard), which would have easily dropped us at sightseeing locations, now that we were residents of the 15e we decided to wear comfy shoes and light clothing and walk to areas of interest instead of taking a Metro--where all you see is a narrow underground cave.

Walking through the 15e Commerce district (it became our favorite), we passed shops with handsomely displayed foods, parks with nannies visiting and tending to babies in carriages, and small boutiques filled with the latest Parisian fashions. While walking, we each made mental notes of places we would revisit during our stay.

We wound our way through various arrondissements to stroll through the Tuileries. Appreciating art and nature, as we do, we were overwhelmed with the artful manicured gardens, restaurants, fountains and statues. In addition, the overwhelming sense of history, much more ancient than we're accustomed to, left us in awe. It seemed as though every time we crooked our necks, we spied something else of interest, including a life-like bronze oak tree lying on its side. We saw a small plaque and did a double take when we realized that it was a sculpture commemorating all the trees that fell across Europe in the 90’s when devastating winds swept across the country. Our lesson was that we needed to keep our eyes and minds open or we might just miss something.

We decided to table the tour of the Louvre until another day, realizing that we had too little time to see everything on our list and knowing it would be a full day of adventure in such an amazing place. We did inspect the exterior, however, and found the building itself to be spectacular from the statues poised high up on its eaves to the pyramid designed by I. M. Pei (the architect commissioned by Jackie Kennedy to design the JFK Library and Museum). It was interesting to learn that the pyramid was designed to allow natural light into the museum because artificial lighting was having a detrimental effect on some of the art collection. We also thought to wait for a ride on the giant ferris wheel in the park—it had too long of a line--although we'll definitely do it as we understand it has a fabulous view of Paris.

One thing that seemed to overwhelm but delight me was the color gray. Statues, buildings, streets, bridges--everything seemed to be gray. Oddly, it didn't create a drabness at all but rather it signified the ancient history of this marvelous place. Against the blue sky, it dazzled me.

We visited the 6e, taking in Les Deux Margot where Hemingway and other famous people hung out. We shared a tasty smoked salmon plate and some delicious Burgundy and watched people who were watching people. I enjoy writing, and creative writing is my current major as I work toward an additional degree, so sitting there in the same café where Hemingway pondered and scratched out stories had a deeper meaning for me than simply eating and drinking at the establishment.

We also stopped at Moufftard in the 5e. This is a delightful open market area with boutiques lining both sides of the ancient street. The aromas wafting through the air are no doubt the same as they have been for hundreds of years. One of my French textbooks at the University of Hawaii, where I study French, involves a story that unfolds on the Mouff (this is the short name for the street), so it was as if my book came to life. It’s one of my favorite areas and is very near the Pantheon, another hulking ancient building in the 5e worth touring.

We walked to Notre Dame de Paris, intending to take a tour. It was just too hot, so we checked out the inside lower level of this handsome cathedral, then ducked out and into a brasserie on the corner where Doug enjoyed a cold beer and I a glass of cold Chardonnay.

A word of warning: We were accosted twice by "gypsies" as we walked on the busy touristy Quai du Louvre toward Île de la Cité where all the poster and souvenir stands are placed. Gypsies and beggars will try to con you. An old woman had placed a ring on the ground as we approached. She then picked it up and asked if it was ours. We suspected something just in time, as a young man on a bicycle was heading toward us while she distracted us and he was going to snatch my purse. I turned to avoid him, having seen this scam once along the Arno while we were in Florence. Also, our friend in Hawaii carried a cloth purse while traveling in Paris. While she was shopping in a store and distracted by the merchandise, a thief slit the bottom of her bag and the contents were all gone within a second. Big cities attract people who steal, so be careful. Try to avoid direct eye contact and always be aware of your surroundings. When approached by an aggressive vendor, simply say firmly (not rudely) "Non, merci" and move on.

A metro station gave us relief from walking and the heat and took us swiftly to the Montmartre neighborhood where we rushed forth to catch a quick glimpse of Sacré Cœur. I know this is a lot of territory to cover, but we just wanted to see these well-known monuments so that we could be done with it and move on to being neighbors in the 15e, dining there and experiencing the local culture. We mistakenly chose to take the tram up to the cathedral steps. They not only charged a fee, but crammed way too may people into the tram; at 90 degrees Fahrenheit, it was most uncomfortable. We made it to the top then mounted the stairs for the cathedral. Warning: Don't take pictures inside. This is a place of worship and a French guard will swiftly remind you. So, save yourself the embarrassment. After our tour, we decided to descend the stairs instead of using the crowded tram--a much better idea as it turned out. We noted a young girl working in a shop printing in the old fashion print fashion. She was quite talented. We were pooped by the time we got to the bottom of the hill and back onto the Metro.

By this time, we had logged nearly eight miles by foot (we had a counter), had taken a few rides on the Metro system, and now it was time to return home and spruce up for the evening ahead. We retraced our steps to the Metro. We were anxious to return to the Eiffel and enjoy the late evening at a café near there.

We stopped at the Monoprix in our neighborhood and filled two plastic recyclable bags with some delicious delicacies to munch on since it was a while yet until dinner. The French dine at about 9-11 p.m., rest (or return to work) during the late afternoon, then have an apéro for a few hours while they converse before dinner. Our plan was to have dinner near the Eiffel, then stroll late into the evening. We bought some dark rich French coffee (called Café Noir) and some cream, but not a baguette as our friends had already told us that if we go to the local Boulanger we would be able to purchase a fresh baguette at 7 a.m. for less than one euro. There’s nothing finer than a fresh still-warm baguette—we know this because during our stay in t he 15e we saw hundreds of French people walking home with loaves tucked under there arms or in hand and almost always one end was missing! The resistance is simply too much to handle.

A few hours of rest and a nice shower refreshed us for the evening. Although we'd already walked our share, we decided to stroll toward the 7e to the Eiffel and see what was happening along the way. We were surprised to find Paris slowly coming back to life again. People were pouring off of the Metro and onto the streets. We were electrified by how the city sprang to life after the rest period. We strolled down the Champ de Mars and saw lovers lying on the grass in mellow conversation, children playing simple games, in-line skaters gliding by, groups of friends enjoying food brought from home or take-out and sipping wine, and visitors from every walk of life snapping pictures of the glorious Eiffel Tower. We joined all of them by settling onto the lawn and relaxing and snapping pictures.

We hadn't eaten a lot and had expended a great deal of energy this day, so at about 9 p.m. we walked to a 7e brasserie and settled in for a nice dinner. As I noted earlier, I was a beginning french student and still not certain of many french words. I did, however, recognize "veau" as "veal" and since I'd seen Doug devour a very tasty-looking veal chop the night before at Oh! Duo, I could hardly wait to enjoy the same. The thing I didn't realize was that "ris" of veal didn't mean "chop" it meant sweetbreads--in France this means thymus, thyroid gland and pancreas. I didn't care for it and fortunately had some pasta on the same plate, so ate the pasta. Our waiter was not happy with me, and I learned to be more careful. I think he felt bad, as I was apologetic--telling him I was "fini." His disappointed look caused me follow up with the statement that I had saved room for a dessert (this is always a good thing to do--enjoy the coveted french pastry). So this brought a smile back to his face. He even asked if we'd like him to take our photographs. Of course, we agreed and he mellowed out immediately. Another cultural lesson to tuck away.

By the time we finished lingering, it was time for the light show. It was amazing to still be able to see jet contrails streaking across the sky in the backdrop of the tall tower at 10:30 p.m. We settled onto the lawn again, and it was now more crowded as large groups came and filled in empty swatches of grass. The air was warm and sweet and we were living a dream. Life, we thought, just couldn't get any better. Paris. Our new affliction.

I almost forgot to mention the Wallace Fountains. Keep your eye peeled for these cast-iron sculptured drinking fountains created by Charles-Auguste Lebourg at the request of Richard Wallace. Wallace came into a fortune and, although an Englishman, he loved France and her people. He wanted to make sure all people, including the poor, had equal access to fresh drinking water--hence his donation. We enjoyed locating the fountains, many of which are positioned along major streets.

Just one more thing: I've included a couple of pictures of rain, below. I spoke mostly of hot sunny days. I put these pictures here to emphasize that within minutes the weather in Paris can change. We left home one day and it was sunny and hot. We went to the Corona to visit with some people who spoke English at the Metropole Club on the Quai du Louvre. Suddenly the sky turned black and a huge downpour followed. We were stranded for several hours, as the metro closed due to water flowing down the stairs and filling the underground waiting area. So, be ready for just about anything when visiting Paris!

Quai du Louvre, near Pont Neuf, on the Way to Notre Dame, Typical Site
But Good to Avoid. You Can Purchase These Items For Less at Stores

International Herald Tribune (Based in Paris, written in English)

The Night I Learned the Meaning of "ris de veau" at the Eiffel Tower Café

Notre Dame de Paris Showing Flying Buttress at Side of Cathedral

Notre Dame Cathedral and Gardens on a Hot June Day

Fountain at the End of the Moufftard Market, 5e, Ancient Cobblestone Streets (Heading to the Resto Across the Way)

A Three-Generation Shopping Day on Moufftard (aka the "Mouff"), An Early Saturday Morning

rue Moufftard Market Place (Oldest Street in Paris)

Tuileries Garden, a Peaceful Respite Place

The Louvre Art is Outside, too!

A Stunning Maiden Statue and the Carousel in Tuileries Garden,
Something for Everyone

Stranded on the Quay at the Corona Tabac, Subways Flooded

Mid-Afternoon Downpour and Black Sky

Children Play With a Hoola-Hoop While a Shopper Walking Through the
Park Handles an Important Phone Call

Ah Paris! It's Parks, It's Lovers....

At Leisure in Champ de Mars on a Hot Day

The Seine. A Lovely Resting Place to Watch Water Traffic

Louvre on a Hot Day Sans People!

Arbre des voyelles (1999) Bronze Cast of Oak
Tuileries Garden

Hot Late June Day (90 deg.) Tuileries Garden, Near Louvre
(Oblique & Arc de Triomphe in Back top)

Ecole Militaire (Constructed 1750) Adjacent to Eiffel Tower

Typical Narrow Shopping Street with Boutiques & Restaurants, St. Germaine Shopping Area 6e

Another Wallace Fountain

Wallace Fountain, a Gift From Merry Ol' England 15e
(Several, and All Over Town)

Terrace Gardens in the 15e

Apartment Windows in the 6e

Pont de Bir-Hakeim (1905)

A Reason Why We Never Rent a Car in Paris. How do They Pull Away From This One?

Roses, Birds...Nobody Takes Them, We Just Give Him a Euro or Two Because It's Pretty Amazing

Art Comes in Many Forms in Paris, Like These Artistic Carvings From Carrots!

A Young Frenchman Entertains Elders of Montmartre, Next to the Subterranean Metro Stop

Paris From the Steps of the Basilica: What a Stunning View!

Two Tram Tracks, one up one down, Open Stairway to Left for Mounting this Butte

Option: Ride or Walk up Steps to Reach Sacré Cœur

Even the Statue of Liberty is Dwarfed by the Eiffel

Tourists Avoid the Traffic and Enjoy the Champs de Mar

A Late Summer Evening Below the Eiffel

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Paris: First things first--Eating (June 2005)

After our laundry caper, we happily loaded the compact and settled in for a new adventure; this time in Geneva.

What a surprise in encountering this fabulous city. It's the second largest (Zurich is first) city in Switzerland and strangely enough part of it sits in France and the other in Switzerland. It's also the sixth largest financial center in the world and we were dazzled by all the BIG financial institutions with large buildings and offices there.

The city abuts Lake Geneva and the lake itself is surrounded by beautiful rose gardens with every variety and hybrid of rose imaginable. Not only is the color palet varied, but the fragrance is a treat for the nose (unless, of course, you've got allergies?). We were shutter crazy, snapping pictures right and left. It was a beautiful day with full sun and fluffy white clouds. In the middle of the lake lies the Jet d'eau, a huge gusher of a fountain that pushes out 132 gallons of water a minute to a distance of 459 feet and can be seen from far distances. It is to Geneva what the Eiffel Tour is to Paris and is featured in most tourism periodicals.

Before turning in our compact, we toured around the city and the lake for a few hours since it took us far less time to get to Geneva than we'd imagined. Then we turned in the car, asked them to drop us at the train station just a few blocks away and we began our search for our train compartment. With ample time remaining, we figured out the train system, found our seats and settled in with plenty of time to spare. Doug had purchased an International Herald, so we sat back in the air conditioned compartment and relaxed--well as much as we could, we were pretty pumped up for arrival in Paris.

We crossed some beautiful country between Geneva and Paris, traveling on the outskirts of quaint small villages identified by pastel exterior walls and red tiled peaked roofs. Picturesque.

After seeing a bit of the country, we thought it would be a great time to go to the club car and get an espresso. We put our things away and walked to the next car, a short step through a door near us. We brought our expresso back and enjoyed it while we watched the scenery for a while and then stuck our noses into our Rick Steve's Paris travel book. Before long we were pulling into Gare de Lyon.

Gare de Lyon is impressive. Bustling, loud, high ceilings and lines of trains. Atop the second level is a historical restaurant called Le Train Bleu. Many famous people have stopped for a bite to eat or an apéro there and it's worth a stop in just to see the decor, all still quite original.

We hailed a taxi (hint: never take a taxi that is not a train station designee, or you could wind up robbed and discarded or worse), after making sure it was a licensed and sanctioned cab. We greeted him with our best French greetings and gave him the map of where we needed to go. He was most grateful for the google diagram and took us directly to the apartment. By the way, this day also happened to be the commencement of the famous annual summer music festival in Paris. We were delighted to be able to enjoy lively bands, dancing and singing all along the route. It hyped us up even more and we couldn't wait to get out there once we settled in.

We followed our exchanger's instructions and were able to maneuver through a few secure doors and finally found ourselves in the interior of the building and the tiniest elevator I've ever seen. Doug put one suitcase in at a time, went up, unloaded, came back got more, until finally I was able to be a passenger. We spent an hour checking out our tiny 300 square foot (maybe) apartment, unpacking, etc. Then Doug said: "Well, it's time to get out that camera and start taking photos to upload to our blog on Paris." He looked in his computer bag. Computer, no camera. He looked in mine, too. Computer, no camera. Then he became alarmed. Long story short: while we were going after that stupid espresso, someone went after our camera. We think Doug or I may have left it on the seat as we had been taking pictures all the way from Geneva. Then it dawned on us that not only had we lost the camera but we had no pictures of the laundry caper, Geneva or all those beautiful rose gardens! We were pretty sad, but also grateful that the camera was all that was missing and also that Doug had uploaded all photos prior to Geneva when we were in Lyon, the day before we left for Paris.

So, if you were wondering why I hadn't posted pictures of Jet d'Eau, roses and the beautiful city and lake of Geneva, that's why.

Prior to our trip to Paris, we'd explored many possibilities for dinner the day we arrived. It was actually our anniversary (second) so it was a special time, and we decided on Oh! Duo. We had been following a blog of a nice couple from Sanabel Island, Florida, Barbara and Tom Cooley. We actually met them at a cafe on Commerce for an apero one night. They are writers and editors, among other things, and they do their editing and writing in Paris for the entire summer each year. As good writers do, they put their impressions into a blog, Paris Journal, so that people like us may enjoy virtual travel. More importantly, we get to see what they are eating at some of the local restaurants. That's how we found Oh! Duo.

We cleaned ourselves up, bummed about not having our old trusty digital camera, and walked to Oh! Duo. Madame Valero (the excellent Chef is her husband!) greeted us warmly and gave us a nice table. She explained, as well as she was able--not speaking fluent English--what was on the menu. In my rough French I communicated our stolen camera dilemma and asked if she might know where we might buy another nearby. She asked us to wait a moment while she asked the chef. She returned shortly, handed us a piece of paper on which she'd written down "Darty" and how to walk there.

I enjoyed a wonderful filet of salmon in a rich creamy caper butter sauce and deliciously creamy pureed potato and Doug had a tender veal chops in a wine reduction sauce that would knock your socks off. Fine, fine cuisine. We had an elegant Burgundy wine of a good vintage and mousse au chocolat for dessert. We could hardly waddle out the door. They knew it was our anniversary and they made it special for us. What a pleasant first dining experience in Paris.

We walked the distance to Darty, so we'd know where to find it the next morning, with the goal of buying a replacement camera. Satisfied that we'd be able to find our way around, we turned and walked the distance toward home. It had, after all, been a very long day.

We were up early the next morning and I searched the apartment and found that our hosts had left a small container of coffee for us to brew and some fresh orange juice as well as some breakfast biscuits. We made some coffee and nibbled on the biscuits, excited about the day ahead. Our first visit would be to Darty for the camera and then back home to figure it out as quickly as possible so that we might walk about out again for a full day of sightseeing.

Sometimes you just have to admit that there are times when something bad happens in life and while it seems horrible at the time, it can turn the corner and actually become a blessing! We felt that way about our new camera. Not only was it of higher quality, but it had much better advanced technology. No more thirty-second movies, now we could take them for as long as the battery would last. It was a much better camera all around--better quality pictures, better zoom, etc.

Our first pictures (below) reflect some of our "dining" adventures. As you can see, the waiters are a proud breed. They can be exceptionally nice or exceptionally rude. Our experiences have all been fairly positive and I believe it's because we behave in a manner they appreciate. While in the south of Paris, we observed the table manners of the French and learned to appreciate things like the way to conduct toasts, when to pick up your utensils, how to ask for help, how to ask a question about something, and how to tip. We also learned that if you really like a restaurant and therefore return for another meal, the proprietors/waitors generally will recognize you and almost always will show you their appreciation.

We hadn't asked the waiter in the first photo below to "pose" for us, but we'd exchanged pleasantries and shown him respect and when he saw Doug lift his camera, he posed perfectly as if to say "I'm ready, sir." So, Doug snapped the shot. This man is a good representation of a "serious Parisian waiter." The picture was taken at a tabac adjacent to Notre Dame Cathedral. It was inordinately hot inside the cathedral, so we decided against being tourists and crossed the street for an aperitif instead. We sat just inside the door, rather than outside, as we seem to feel less like tourists that way.

We took shots of Les Deux Margot, one of those "must visit" places for tourists. (They even have a gift shop online where you can by parafinalia with their logo on it.) We sat outside the first time we went but on the next visit, when it was raining, we sat just inside--no cigarette smoke and the waiters treated us more like locals than tourists. Also, surprisingly, the menu inside was less expensive. Figure that! You can see the traffic congestion around that very busy intersection. This is in the 6e, a high-end very popular shopping and meeting area with restaurants that are much more expensive than in the 15e.

I enjoyed the brasserie Le Bourbon so much that I had Doug take a picture to remind me. He had a tender steak au poive (a ribeye with lots of pepper on it) and I, again, had salmon. But it was the crème Brûlée that was superb. A generous rich and creamy custard with a thin golden crispy layer of browned sugar on top. A real WOW in my opinion.

We also took a picture of a blackboard outside a place where we tried the quiche (which was burnt and dry). It is common to see a blackboard identifying the special or the daily plat principal. You might want to buy a pocket dictionary so that you don't get caught unaware by ordering an internal organ that you may detest either in taste or texture. Generally the black-boarded items are a bargain as well. (We found that buying quiche in a patisserie and heating it at home is the best way to enjoy good quiche.)

Finally, we snapped an interesting shot of one of the many Monoprix markets. In the 15e we had one near the apartment and it was an easy one to find. But as this picture demonstrates, sometimes the beauty of the fascade or building may deter finding what you are actually looking for. There are several brands of super markets in Paris, some are small and less stocked, some large. Monoprix, Champion and Carrefour super marchés have a variety of goods as well as food. The small independent merchants selling cheese, pastry, fruit, vegetables, meat, etc., don't always like you to handle their products--preferring instead to select and bag them for you. But the grocery stores are the opposite. You should be warned though, as we learned, many times you have to bag, weigh and weigh produce before you get to the check-out or you'll get a scolding by the clerk. Also, either buy your reuseable bags from the clerk before you purchase or at the time you purchase. They don't like giving out mainland-style paper or plastic grocery bags and some won't do it at all.

The best food by far to us was food prepared in our tiny kitchen. My cutting board was a six inch area in front of the sink--the sink was 12"x12"x6" without disposal--and no cupboards only a shelf (seen to my left). In fact, I'm standing in the middle of the kitchen which was not more than 6 feet across. Property is a premium in France, space is never wasted nor is time. We learned that in Megève. Little did we know that our bed in Megève would turn out to be representative of the norm! Ha! 3/4 low lying beds, pushed against the wall, a small desk for a computer and I could sit on the bed and put my feet into the doorway of the tiny shower room. Space notwithstanding, the fresh produce, cheese, pastry, bread, vegetables and meats/fish made the most delicious meals right there in our tiny kitchen. We'll take Paris any way we can!

Some photographs depicting Paris as we see it:

A Rainy Day Break for Le Garçon (Les Deux Margot)

And Boy are French Kitchen's Small!

Very Crowded Famous Les Deux Margot, 6e

Les Deux Margot (Hemingway's Hideout) 6e (Very Crowded)

Grocery Stores Often Look Different in Paris

Bring Your French Dictionary or You'll Not Know What the Special of the Day is!

Le Bourbon, A Favorite Brasserie (Delicious Crème Brûlée)

Being a Waiter in a Paris Restaurant is a Proud Profession (It's very wise to show respect)

Next post: Sightseeing in Paris

The French Laundry (June 2005)

Unfortunately for us, we had some great pictures of the laundry incident but on our way to Paris on the TGV we learned a good lesson about traveling in foreign countries: never leave your seat with personal items still there. Yes, that's right, we did just that and some unfriendly individual lifted our camera. We therefore lost not only the laundry pictures but also all of our pictures of Geneva where we toured for several hours before catching our train. Oh well, live and learn.

Back to the laundry.

We got in with ample time to spare as far as getting laundry and packing done. Doug offered to do the laundry while I cleaned up the place a bit and also fixed our left-over food for consumption. "Okay!" I said, pleased that I didn't have to do it.

Doug went to our manager's office, gave her euro notes and she kindly gave him enough euro coins to get all the laundry done. She also led him out of her office and showed him where the laundry facility was, as he wasn't sure. The stairs to the laundry were right near her office. The washers, dryers and ironing equipment was located in the gym up the stairs. He filled the washers and when the washing was done, filled the dryers. I expected him in about an hour. After an hour and a half I began to worry, but thought he must just have a lot of ironing or perhaps the washer/dryer was slow. I went ahead and prepared the meal, poured myself a glass of wine and sat to await Doug. I had no idea where the laundry was, so couldn't go check on him.

As I sat there, a woman began to pound on my door. She spoke only French, so I didn't know what she was so upset about. I opened the door and it was the woman and her boy that I'd seen earlier. She had a very worried look on her face and was very excited and I began to pick up words that I understood, like "your husband" and "come quick." Oh no, I thought, he's had a heart attack or something horrible has happened to him. She told me to get my key (I understood that, too) and she motioned for me to follow her. We wound up another floor up and a couple of hallways away and I found myself in their apartment. She motioned for me to continue following, so I did and she was pulling me out a sliding glass door that led to the pool area. I still didn't get it.

She joined her husband and they all began pointing to a window above eight feet above the pool deck on the other side of the pool. There was Doug! He was looking out the window and I yelled and asked what was going on. He said the manager had not checked to see if anybody was in the laundry. There was a door at the bottom of the stairs and she locked it! Doug had been pounding for nearly an hour and because nobody was staying at the place and the manager had left for the day, nobody heard him. Finally he climbed up on some equipment and could see out the window just a bit and he started pounding on the window. He was just about ready to throw a barbel through the window that was screwed shut when he saw a Frenchman who had come out of the sliding glass door below and was talking on his cell phone. Doug began pounding wildly on the window and eventually the man saw him. Through the use of a universal sing language, he got the point across that he needed a screwdriver to open the window more than 2 inches so he could climb out.

When I arrived the window was fully opened and Doug was climbing (or jumping, it was too high) out! Before I could tell him he needed to bring our clothes because the manager would not be in until well after we had to leave to catch our train in the morning, he had already jumped! Now he had to some how pull himself up by jumping to catch onto the bottom of this window now eight feet above him and then pull himself (all 200 pounds and 6 feet) to get our clothes. He scraped himself pretty good but with an audience of French people watching him, he had to do it right and act like it was a piece of cake. Soon clothes were flying out the window and the young boy ran around to try to pick up the clothes and was just in time to catch the iron and ironing board before they went into the pool.

We thanked the nice people who came to our rescue and settled back in our apartment. Doug was furious with the manager and it's probably good that she'd not be there when we left in the early morning hours. She may not read English, but he did leave a scathing note under her door telling her what happened and that next time she should make sure the laundry is empty before she locks the door and leaves for the night.

We now tell the story to friends and laugh about it, but at the time it was not so funny. We had no trouble finishing that bottle of wine either!

We're fairly certain that we won't be visiting Megève any time soon.

Next post: Paris (j'adore Paris!)

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Off to Lyon (June 2005)

We began our journey early in the morning, with little traffic and taking our time as we drove through small villages as we made our way to the Autoroute. One such village that caught our eye was Sallanges, a small market center located at the base of Mont Blanc. This tiny village sports several hotels including the Hotel de Paris shown in the picture below. We thought perhaps the tiny village might be a place for spill-over guests once the ski resort centers are full. It was quaint with overflowing pots of brightly colored spring flowers. It only had only a couple narrow two-lane streets and we thought it was cute but too quiet for the two of us.

We eventually made our way to the Autoroute, figured out how to pass through the toll gates and began our drive toward Lyon. Traffic was moderate and the highway well-traveled by large trucks. We rarely if ever encountered trucks on the small country roads so they caught us by surprise. They all travel strictly in the right lane and we were told that this is the rule.

We also enjoyed another new experience: We hadn't yet had to put gasoline in our car since we picked it up with a full tank. Wanting to avoid running out of gas, we pulled into a gas station along the Autoroute and tried to figure out which gas to use, which side of the car the gas cap was on and then how to use the pump. The pump looked ordinary, however, we could not read the directions (all in French) or figure out which gas to use. I was able to figure out which gas but I didn't know how to start the darned pump because there was no slot for a credit card or euro note. As much as he dreaded it, Doug left me with the car while he went inside to use his best hand signals to get the clerk to help him. She spoke enough English to let him know that you don't pay until after you pump! Just pump your gas and then come in and pay. Now that's novel. Very French indeed, I mean why would somebody want to pay for something they have not yet received? It's this kind of logic that we so lovingly appreciate in France. Why indeed! So, he simply lifted the nozzle filled the tank, gave the young lady the credit card, said his au revoir, merci and we were on our way. We did stop off at the brasserie next to the gas station. It's so cool to be able to walk in, have a quick espresso and be on your way in short order. It's so time-efficient being French. We also marveled at the delicious looking display of fresh homemade foods they offered, cafeteria style, including yummy pastries. Very nice indeed, but we were saving ourselves for Lyonnais cuisine, so off we went again.

When we arrived in Lyon we were surprised by the urban sprawl, traffic, and difficulty in maneuvering with road signs that were too unfamiliar to us. We followed the Rhône River for a bit and took the exit for "Old Lyon." We drove for approximately an hour through neighborhoods, along the river and back and forth until we finally found the small street that would take us up to the high peak where the La Villa Florentine hotel clerk would check us in. We were hungry, hot, cranky and tired by the time we arrived but such emotions quickly left when we walked through the door of the hotel into a lobby of polished Carrara Italian marble, pastel Frescos and angelic relief sculptures. Bach was gently playing, the lobby was cool, peaceful and richly furnished. After our rustic futon in the Haute-Savoie we felt like the Beverly Hillbillies must have felt when they came to Beverly Hills! Later we learned that the hotel was once a monastery for Catholic monks and had quite a long history. It certainly had been beautifully and artfully restored and hadn't lost any of its character.

La Villa Florentine is a four-star Relais & Chateaux (chain) hotel with sophisticated, artistic grounds and gardens, a five-star restaurant atop an open terrace with a 180 degree view of Lyon. The hotel rooms were spacious with high-ceilings. We were supplied with fluffy large towels and bathrobes. The French-style Louis XV furnishings were elegant and we had a gigantic marble-tiled bathroom (floor to ceiling, including tub/shower).

We opened our windows and had the same 180 degree view of Lyon (new and old), including the St. Jean Cathedral (a UNESCO site since 1998), Notre Dame Cathedral of Lyon, the Urban Center, rivers and mountains in the distance. But the real topper was a spacious king size bed with elegant 800 count Egyptian Cotton sheets. We both let out a gasp as we walked to the bed and simultaneously flopped backward onto the surface, giggling all the while.

We washed up and unpacked the scant suitcase we brought for a two-night stay, and famished we descended the 225 steps just to the east corner of our hotel and were dumped right smack in the middle of the bustling little "Old Lyon" village. (Old Lyon rooftops are visible in the picture with apples, above.) We quickly found a small brasserie where we settled in for some lunch. We ordered a full carafe of the Beaujolais wine and they brought us a small bowl with butter and radishes as well as a small bowl of the best olives I've ever tasted. By the way, it turns out that butter and radishes is a common snack served with an aperitif, and it really is delicious. I ordered a Lyonnais salad which had lardons (crispy shards of bacon), croutons and a poached egg a top greens lightly dressed with a delicious Beaujolais vinaigrette. My salad was accompanied by a basket of artisan french bread still warm from the oven. Doug enjoyed a plate of Lyonnais pasta consisting of buttery herbed noodles and saucisson de Lyon (this sausage is popular all over France. Our table was on the sidewalk and under an umbrella and we were able to watch people walking by. We dined slowly drinking in the lively atmosphere of the area, before strolling down cobblestone pedestrian streets. We found a wonderful wine shop, met the proprietor Georges Dos Santos, a Spaniard who speaks fluent French and English. He's a character. He gave us free tastings of some wonderful wines and we bought several bottles to take along with us on our trip--what the heck, we were already loaded with luggage so what's a little extra? If you're ever in Lyon, stop and see Georges Dos Santos at "The Flying Sommelier" in Old Lyon. He knows a lot about French wines and he'll let you taste some awesome wines.

Lyon is the second largest city in France (Paris is, of course, first) and is sometimes referred to as the "second Paris." It is about 160 kilometers from Geneva and 125 kms from Megève, located in the south-east of France and still part of the dèpartement de Rhône Alps. It is known for the Beaujolais wine region abutting from the north and the Côtes du Rhône wine abutting from the south. It is also famous for silk and you can visit shops with artisans creating silk scarves and other beautiful garments. The other positives for this city of some 4.4 million people is their soccer team (soccer is called "football" in France). The Olympique Lyonnais soccer team is part of the European Football Championship and is the reason Lyon has enjoyed international fame. There are two huge rivers (Rhône, which yields into and becomes the Soâne) where barges and cruise ships take passengers through the respective wine countries via a series of locks and into Lyon. Interior riverboat treks are very popular with the English. We quickly realized that to see all the monuments, sculptures, museums, fountains, restaurants and so on, we'd need to come back and spend at least a week or more. The Lyonnais also consider Lyon to be the center of gastronomy. They take pride in their cooking, using a lot of butter, herbs, sausage, potatoes, eggs and cream; opposite of other regions in France where only olive oil is used in cooking. The food is delicious.

We decided we'd had enough for one day and began walking back toward our hotel. Suddenly it dawned upon us that we now had to climb up 225 steps! It was hot and we slowly took the steps very grudgingly, but we made it. We'd had started our day very early as we had decided to watch the U.S. basketball championship game with the San Antonio Spurs taking on (and winning) the Detroit Pistons. So we stayed in for the night. We took care of some e-mail and posted to our journals, then sat up in bed supported by a million down pillows and dined on sandwiches we bought from below while enjoying some local television. Doug opened a bottle of that good Beaune region wine Georges sold to us, and generously filled two glasses. Georges has excellent taste! We slept like babies, caressed by elegant bed covers. Ah, paradise!

The next day we took a long stroll and encountered a large-scale flea market at the base of our hill along the Soâne. We saw many interesting people and it seemed like many of them were Muslims. We assumed, therefore, that Lyon must have a high Muslim population. We also saw (see photos below) an odd woman who was literally draped in silk scarves from the top of her head to her feet. She was colorful, artistic and well-hidden from view, including her face. Interesting.

The market sold only brick-a-brack, used items and what looked like a lot of junk, but people were buying it up and bargaining like crazy. It was a thrilling cultural high for us. We stopped at a small café for a petit dejeuner (breakfast of bread, jam, juice and coffee), bought some water and continued on foot through the modern section of Lyon. We didn't eat until about 10:30 a.m. (most French don't eat early, eat light, then have a snack later in the day) and it stayed with us all afternoon. We made a reservation at our hotel to try the late dining on the terrace, since we knew there would be a full moon, so we had a little fruit and some snacks in our room during the late afternoon rest period.

We had been intently watching the French during meal time and think it appropriate to talk for a second about dining and cultural differences. We learned that the French keep their hands and forearms on the table--no laps please. Also, when someone orders an apero everyone else does the same and when it arrives everyone lifts their glass and says "sante" or "ching ching" (meaning to your health) and (you MUST look people in the eye when you toast) then everyone drinks. In this regard we also (read) learned that to not drink after the toast can lead to seven years of bad luck. Oh no! Finally, nobody eats until everyone is served and then (probably whoever set up the dinner engagement) someone says "bon appetite" and everyone begins eating--albeit slowly.

We were the second of two couples dining on the terrace under the moonlight. It was a balmy floral-scented evening and we could see all the lights of Lyon beneath the moon as they cast their likeness upon the glassy waters of the river below. We dined for two hours, tasting, sipping, enjoying before we sleepily pushed the button to the elevator that would take us back to our beautiful bed and handsomely decorated room. It was truly a wonderful respite from our rustic cabin in the mountains.

We took our time going back to Megève. After enjoying the fast-paced life of Lyon, we were happy to take back roads, stopping in small villages for a coffee every now and again, and just enjoying the beauty of the countryside that skirts the alpine region. We were now aware that the electrified city of Lyon was the second Paris, so we could hardly wait to finish out our last night in Megève so that we could leave Monday morning for Geneva where we were reserved on the Train à Grande Vitesse (TGV), a "fast train," for our 200 mph trip to Paris. We left ourselves just enough time to do some laundry, pack and finish off the last of the left over paté, fruit, cheese, bread and pastry in our apartment.

At this point we had toured remote areas of France in the Haute-Savoie followed by a brief tour of enormous and densely populated Lyon. Each day we became recharged with new discoveries. We were at a loss to explain this cultivation of a new and strange affinity for a country where neither of us could speak the language but felt very much in touch with the culture that exists there. Strange indeed, but wonderful!

The following photographs depict our observations as we toured. Enjoy!

Strange Woman Draped in Scarves from Head to Food

A Flea Market Along the Soâne River

Moonlit View From Open Terrace Five Star Restaurant La Villa Florentine

Lively Tourist Area in Modern Lyon along the Soâne River

225 Steps from our Hotel Lead Us to Old Lyon. The Tall Building in the Backdrop Marks the Urban Center and a Real Contrast to Old Lyon (The Building is the Credit Lyonnais Building and It Looks Like a Silo

View of Hotel Gardens Below Our Window, Old Lyon Beyond

Fresh Fruit AND a Panoramic View of Lyon

The Lobby of La Villa Florentine

The Fabulous Four-Star La Villa Florentine Hotel (plus our car rental)

Four Lane Autoroute Toward Lyon

Small Market Village of Sallanges, Showing the Hotel de Paris

Next post: The "French Laundry Caper."