Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Champagne Tuesday

Because no reason to drink champagne is the best reason of all!

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Iraqi Bundles of Love

So today's post has nothing to do with Kate being abroad, but it does deal with people abroad- in Iraq to be exact. If you're friends with me on FB, you'll know that I recently read and was really affected by Greg Mortenson's story in the book Three Cups of Tea. Since finishing the book, I have been thinking about ways to help the people of Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iraq, namely in the area of education. Yesterday, while leisurely skimming my favorite blogs, I came across this post and immediately recognized my first opportunity to help.

Iraqi Bundles of Love (IBOLs) was started by a US soldier (the son, brother, and husband of quilters) who saw the need to supply Iraqi women with sewing supplies in order to provide them with a means to support themselves and their families. On his own initiative, he organized the IBOL program. You can find more about it here:

For those of us who don't have or don't want to be troubled with sewing supplies, the people at Sew, Mama, Sew! (they recap the program much better than I do) have kindly put together a complete IBOL for purchase for only $15. This is an incredible price for what is included. I'll admit, I bought a few.


Friday, August 21, 2009

Fairy Magic at Versailles

It's been too hot to take a walking tour this week, my friends, so I thought I'd share with you our recent trip out to Versailles to catch the water and light show. I know that sounds a bit odd when speaking of Versailles, and it is a paltry description of what was really involved. So let me elaborate.

Perhaps I should not assume that all of my fair readers know what Versailles is. It is the H-U-G-E palace built by
Le Roi Soleil, Louis XIV. I'm not going to get into details, but let's just say that standing at the gates of the place makes one feel small- tout petit, to be exact- which was Louis's plan, in fact. He wanted every living soul to FEEL the power and majesty of the king, a fait accompli that still resonates today. That's actually my favorite part of Versailles-- standing in front of the gates and reveling in the feat that was building this place. It always makes me feel very close to history-- I'm humbled the same way the nobility must have been as they approached the palace. It's a unique sensation.

Here's JMH in front of the gates in October (I couldn't find a picture of me).

Perhaps one of the most disappointing things about a visit to Versailles, however, is that the fountains in the gardens are usually not on. It costs quite a lot of money and energy to run them, so the State reserves their loveliness for certain weekends and evenings in the summer. In the past, I never managed to be there during these special times, so this was a major To-Do on my list of "Things to See While Living in Paris." Luckily, Jon and I checked this off said list two weekends ago with a Saturday-night jaunt out to the palace.

Officially, the event is called "Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes," which roughly translates into "The Great Night Waters" or more poetically and in keeping with the sense of the phrase (Madame Cailler would be proud), "The Majestic Evening Fountains." For a few summer weekends each year, the Versailles Gardens (famous in and of themselves) open at 9 pm and reveal themselves transformed into a fairy world of sparkling lights, tinkling water, and lovely music. It is, in a word, magic.

For two and a half hours, we were able to wander amongst the flowers, fountains, lakes, and woods, all illuminated in splendid ways and accompanied by Baroque music piping from speakers cleverly hidden within bushes. Entering just at sunset, we were able to catch the sun sink below the Grand Basin, the big lake lying perpendicular to the palace. From there, we just strolled, enjoying the warm summer air, the laughs of children running through the paths, the lights playing through the streams of water, sipping on champagne obtained from a bar nestled in a little garden nook.

The night culminated in a fantastic fireworks display. Since we missed the Fourth of July and Bastille Day, I was suffering from a lack of acceptable pyrotechnic prowess (anyone who knows the Donovan men and my husband knows how I was raised to really appreciate a good round of exploding fire). Thankfully, the Les Grandes Eaux Nocturnes continued to impress even up to the very end.

I'm so glad that the lovely experience of seeing the fountains on and lit up exceeded the expectations I had set for the evening. I think the fairies would definitely approve of the nocturnal goings-on at Versailles. Perhaps they even had a hand in them...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Word of the Day

Yesterday I learned a new word in French. Here's how...

Round about the beginning of June, these Public Service Announcements in the form of posters started popping up around the neighborhood. They show a young woman with her arm around a grandma-type lady and under them there is the phrase, "CANICULE?" in huge letters and then some other explanation that I have never bothered to read. I thought it must be something to do with corns or bunions (old people suffer from these, don't they?) and moved on in my walking progress, thinking no more about it. Boy, was I was wrong.

Yesterday while I sweated through my lunch in a cafe, my eye caught the headline of the local paper. It read "CANICULE!" and had a picture of a spot in Paris where people were obviously broiling in the sun. Hmmmm. It occurred to me that canicule has nothing to do with bunions, but everything to do with August and almost unbearable heat! That's it! Canicule means "heatwave," a meteorological phenomenon which we are currently experiencing here. Yesterday, the mercury hit 97˚. This is the hottest August since 2003, the year when so many elderly died in their apartments from heat exhaustion. I now know that the PSA with the granny on it is instructing the public to be aware of their elderly neighbors and to encourage them to open their windows and to go outside. This may seem obvious to some-- why would anyone stay shut-up in an apartment in such heat? But, some old people, especially those living by themselves, are too fearful to leave windows open, etc. The city wants to prevent another summer like 2003, hence the PSA. We don't have any elderly people in our building, so no necessary checking for me. But, just the same-- the heat is a bit shocking.

Luckily, it is supposed to cool off by 20+ degrees this weekend. I know I'm from Florida, but we have AIR-CONDITIONING there. Almost no one has it here, I think because it's really only necessary about two or three weeks out of the year, but still. I will thank God for small favors, however. So far, Jon and I have not been plagued by mosquitoes (knock on wood) and the humidity is only about 80%. Regardless, I'm ready for the canicule to end, and although I will probably regret this in the near future, I'm looking forward to fall and cooler weather.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

A Walk in the Third

Okay, Armchair Travelers. I got this cool book a while back called A Paris Walking Guide: 20 Charming Strolls Through the Streets, Courtyards, and Gardens of Paris. The premise of the book is that Paris is a city with a rich architectural history that blends itself inescapably into the history of its inhabitants. In the introduction, the editor (who remains unnamed) states,

the ambition or dream of [this book] is to teach the lesson that seeing and learning changes
our lives. Enlightened by a historian or architect, we can understand the reason for things;
the scholarly background amplifies the soul of a place.... Thanks to a simple explanation, the
entire city becomes 'inhabited' by its history and its characters. Everything springs to life.

The editor goes on to say that the best way to bring the city to life is by taking an alternative approach to exploring it-- seeking out the little by-ways and hidden stories passed over by most people walking down the street. I like this idea. Let's try it.

Since I want to visit one of the covered markets in the 3rd arrondisement (in case you're not sure what this means, click here), I think we should follow the walk called "Temple Lands." It will twist us around the 3rd (also known as The Marais District), going south to north between the National Archives and the Square du Temple. As many of us historical-conspiracy-theory-buffs know, the Knights Templar were a VERY powerful order of Christian knights in the Middle Ages. Their presence in Paris was such that in the 13th century, they were granted lands outside the city upon which they constructed their own personal town! After their fall, the town and the surrounding swamplands (the marais) were eventually incorporated into the growing city. This is the part we're going to explore today.

Let's begin at the spot that marked the gateway from Paris into the Templar's town. It was graced with a fountain that in 1705 was turned into an enclosed well for the neighborhood. Without our guide book, I don't know that we would be able to figure out what this is.

A bit further down the street is the entrance to the Archives Nationals, housed in the Hôtel de Soubise. Napoleon established the archives here in 1808, but the mansion dates to 1705 and was originally designed for and lived in by the Prince de Soubise and his wife, Anne Chabot de Rohan.

For those of us interested in art, the four statues running along the front of the building represent The Four Seasons, and the two reclining figures on the top of the pediment are unique in Paris for still being there! During the Revolution, statues like La Gloire and La Magnificence des Princes were usually destroyed by uprising citoyens. Why these two survived is a mystery.

Anne was apparently the one with the name, because vestiges of the Rohan family crest (namely the macle- the diamond shaped gold decoration) can be found in many interesting places around the property.

Now on to the Rue Vieille-du-Temple, and the Hôtel Hérouet. This building is really interesting, not least because it was completely destroyed by German bombing in 1944 and lovingly restored. The Gothic turret is the only thing left of the original 16th century house built for Louis XII's treasurer.

The next stop of note is at the Hôtel de Rohan (there's that family of Anne's again!). This building is HUGE! It takes up half a city block, mainly thanks to the first Cardinal Rohan who bought up all the houses around the original lot in order to build a palatial (yet subdued) mansion with huge stables (50 stalls!!). When he died, three of his relatives succeeded him to the cardinal's seat and the house, the last being the famous Cardinal Rohan of the Diamond Necklace Affair. What a jerk!

Front view of the Rohan mansion.

Side view-- the stables stretch to the left.

The building was seized and pillaged by angry mobs in the Revolution, consequently restored and used as Napoleon's printing office, and finally included as a National Archives annex in the 1930s.

Next door to this decidedly antique building, on the Rue des Quatre Fils, is a WPA-looking (okay, I know the WPA didn't exist in France, but you get the idea) behemoth that in no way blends in with the buildings around it. The relief, by the way, is of the Four Sons of Aymon (two of them are carved into the stone) for whom the street is named.

This little street was widened in the early 1900s, resulting in the destruction of many of the classic buildings around it. We can see this sort of thing all over Paris. Nowadays, architects here have to blend new construction in with the old, but that wasn't always the case.

One of the buildings to survive the widening is this one, built in 1730-1735, and most famously occupied by Raymond de Sèze, the lawyer who defended Louis XVI at trial (he obviously lost). Our guidebook points out the cute little "hayloft" windows in the attic-- very rare.

Next on to what I think is one of the coolest buildings in the neighborhood, the Hôtel de Clisson. It dates from the end of the 14th century and is one of the few remaining Parisian homes with a defensive architecture. It was owned by the Guise family, one of the great powers behind the Wars of Religion (they needed all the defense help they could get). This house served as the Catholic camp's headquarters, and it is believed that the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre was planned here.

A little further on, we come to the corner of Rue du Temple and Rue des Haudriettes. It's a pretty nondescript intersection today, but it was once well known by Parisians, because the highest gallows in the city stood here.

The next intersection is a shady spot with a pretty fountain. It is a rare neoclassical design from 1767 with a carving of a water nymph above it. In the days before central plumbing, this would have been a spot for surrounding residents to fill their water buckets.

The next part of the tour comprises the oldest areas of the neighborhood, laid out in the Templar's original plans. The Rue Pastorelle used to be called Rue d'Anjou. A glimpse down a little alley offers a view of a 16th century second floor room and little indentations flanking the walls, called privés because their use as urinals was preferable to having the rabble pissing wildly in the streets. Funny image.

On the Rue Charlot, we come to my second favorite building on the tour, the Bérancourt house. It was built around 1705, and its concave shape and original windows (wow!) combined with the cobbled courtyard give it a charming air. If you take a peek in the stairwell (also original), you'll see several baby strollers parked there. Wouldn't it be neat to live here?

Next to this house, I saw this neat architectural detail-- an old dormer pulley. It's amazing what we can see when we take our eyes off the pavement!

And before the days of the famous Paris street signs, names were carved into the walls. Notice the spelling changes from Old French.

The last stop on our tour is a stroll by the location of the Hôpital des Enfants Rouges. This was an orphanage started by François I and his sister, Marguerite de Navarre. The kids wore red uniforms, hence the name. The building doesn't exist anymore (again, thanks to street "improvements"), but we can just make out an old entrance to one of its arcades.

This bring us to the covered market I want to visit-- Le Marché Des Enfants Rouges. It's the oldest covered market in Paris, taking up residence here in 1777 once the orphanage closed. Unfortunately, it being August, there are almost no vendors here. Oh well, there will have to be another trip in the near future!

I hope you enjoyed the tour. Next time, maybe we should take a walk in my arrondisement, the 7th.

In Other News-- Happy Birthday to Lisa Gambon and her son, John Paul! J.P's one tomorrow!!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dinner with Friends

Jon had Friday and Saturday off, so we decided to amuse ourselves accordingly. Friday we headed to The Louvre, because in all our time here we had yet to make an appearance at the storied edifice. More on that visit in another post.

Friday night we had a lovely dinner with my old (in the sense of "dear") friend, Alisa Beth Salois and her husband, Matt. AB is my greatest friend from my year in Melbourne (FL, not Australia). Aside from Suz, she is also my most loyal blog reader/commenter. She and Matt live in Reading, England, and they took a trip to Paris for a few days.

I'm so glad we got to meet up and spend some time together. AB and Matt wanted to have a "typical Bistro" experience for dinner. For me, this implies bad service, ridiculous prices, and mediocre food. So, I did some research in the attempt to avoid this, and found what I thought would be the perfect place: Cafe Constant, a little bistro right down from the Tour. It's the "cheap" version of Chef Christian Constant's famous fare. It doesn't take reservations, which worked well for us as we arrived right as the first seating began. The space was TINY! The food was good. The Salois were fois gras newbies, so we ordered some. It was delicious (I'm not sure if AB and Matt liked it though). AB and I had the roast chicken, Matt the steak, and Jon the fish. All very good dishes. My biggest complaint with the place was the service (spotty at best) and the cutlery (the knives were so dull we could have used them as makeup applicators). So, I think that my friends got the experience they duly wanted only with a twist-- good food, good company, and annoying French waiters. Perfect!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

7 Days on the Cote d'Azur, Part 4: Three Countries in One Day (Wed, 7/29)

The last full day of the trip saw us sticking to the coast, yet heading east of Nice to Monaco and beyond. We began the day by driving up to the little village of La Turbie that has quite an old monument. An ancient monument, to be exact-- erected by the Romans to commemorate Caesar Augustus's victory over the wild tribes of the Alpes. It was built between 13-12 B.C.!

The remains of Caesar's statue-- can you see his head?

We had great views of the sea and Monaco from up on top of the monument, but the best part of it was the drive we had to take to get there-- we went up the Grand Corniche, which is one of the roads Grace Kelly drives on in Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief. It was fun to twist and turn on the same sinuous path she took back in the 50s and which led her, incidentally, to her future husband, King Rainier of Monaco. More on that in bit...

After La Turbie, we decided to drive down to Monaco, but when we saw how close we were to Italy, we couldn't resist. We hit the gas and headed to the border, stopping in Ventimiglia for a beverage before turning around and heading back to France.

Italy, dead ahead!

Cocktails on an Italian terrace with a view back to France.

Instead of heading right on to Monaco, we made another detour to the coastal town of Menton. It is apparently famous for its lemons, especially the limoncello made from said lemons. We wandered around the town square a bit, found a cute little shop selling the liqueur, bought some and headed on. We've yet to sample our purchase, however, so I'll have to let you know.

And finally to Monaco. What a beautiful place! Monaco is a principality whose ruling family, the Grimaldis, have been in power since 1297, making it the longest lasting dynasty in Europe! While Monaco is not part of France, it is essentially run by the French government in some confusing arrangement wherein the Prince allows a French minister to do all the daily business of running a country. Bizarre, but it works. The country/city is beautiful! Incredibly clean, friendly, and obviously loaded. We enjoyed a nice stroll through a mountain/sea side garden that led us up to the cathedral, where we visited the tombs of Princess Grace and King Rainier. From there we went for a look at the palace:

Prince Albert, the current ruler, lives here. As he is unmarried, he is one of the most eligible bachelors in Europe, but everyone pretty much assumes he will remain so, and that the line will pass to his sister's kids (they live down the street from the palace). I guess thus will end the dynasty!

After visiting the palace, we headed down to sea level to see the casino and port up close. The casino was not as big as expected, but still very impressive, especially with all the Bentleys, Porches, and Lamborghinis parked out front!

We wandered inside to see the decor (designed by Garnier, who did the Paris Opera House) and lose some money at the slots. I wanted to play Black Jack, but the gaming room had a cover charge, no thanks.

From there we went to the port to see the yachts up close. Wow! I can't even begin to imagine how much money we were looking at. Here's a shot of the yachts from above-- I'll let your imagination run with how they looked up close.

After that, we went and had a lovely dinner at a little restaurant a few blocks from the port and then it was back off to Nice. We packed up and headed to the train the next day for the long trip back to Paris. We had a great trip. Voila!

For all the photos of the voyage, click here:

Nice and the Cote d'Azur

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Seven Days on the Cote d’Azur, Part 3: The Inland Riviera from Madone d'Utelle to Grasse (Tues, 7/28)

Day 5 of the trip had us heading north of Nice to the little known spot called Madone d'Utelle. Rick let me down on this one (no mention!), so we relied on our copy of Frommer's France's Best-Loved Driving Tours to get us there. Let me start by saying that the Madone d'Utelle is not in a village, nor is it anywhere near anything even remotely resembling a cluster of habitations. The guide makes no mention of this. Nor does it mention that most of the way up to the Madone d'Utelle is spent on near constant hairpin turns on a one-lane road that serves for two lanes of traffic with no guard rails or pull-off spots in existence. We were merely intrigued by the mention of a "remote hilltop." Lesson learned.

A "lacet" is a hairpin turn (I learned this on the trip).
Does that picture look like a hairpin turn?
Plus, the warning that 5 are approaching-- scary!!!

While the drive up was one of the most harrowing I've ever been on (Jon and his driving skills earned a whole new level of respect in my book), the view from the top was worth it. From the observation table, we had a view from the sea to Italy. We were 1100 meters up and could see a peak, Mt. Argentera, that was 3200 meters high. It was stunning:

Aside from the observation table, the only other thing on the top of the mountain is a church dedicated to Mary that was built in 1806 to replace various other structures occupying the site since the 9th century! Apparently, three Spanish brothers were shipwrecked off the coast in the late 800s, and all survived. The Virigin Mary appeared to them above this peak in the distant mountains, so the three hiked up here and built a shrine to her in thanksgiving for their salvation. The spot has been a site of an annual pilgrimage ever since. We didn't see any true pilgrims while we were there, just a few other day-trippers like us. This, I am sure, helped to contribute to the absolute silence within the little church. I have never been inside anything like it. It was beautiful and moving- just being in the quiet. I understand why people would hike all the way up there to experience it.

View from the inside of the chapel, looking out.

On the way down from the Madone, we stopped at a little place called Le Bellevue for lunch. It certainly did have a good view, and the food was nice too:

From there, we hit the road again, stopping every so often to pull over and take pictures or just enjoy the scenery. We made a special stop in the Gorges du Loup to visit the waterfalls, Les Cascades du Saut du Loup. Rick Steves suggested this as we might find ourselves thinking we were in Hawaii. We of course couldn't resist. What do you think?

I also bought some eau de cologne here from the little shop that distilled its own lavender water and essential oil. It smells really nice, especially as I am a lavender junkie!

The silver bucket is lavender water and the copper is oil.

After the cascades lost their charm, we left for our last sight-seeing stop of the day-- the village of Gourdon. This little town was closed to street traffic and had amazing views of the valley below it. It reminded me a lot of Les Baux in Provence, only minus the giant trebuchets. We bought a quilt from a linen shop and snapped this shot of "The Eagle's Nest" restaurant, which Rick Steves referred to as "the most appropriately named restaurant in France." I couldn't agree more:

We made one more stop on the way back to Nice-- in Grasse for gas (hehe). We rented a little Opel Diesel that got AMAZING gas mileage. We drove hundredS of kilometers on this trip and only had to fill up once. It was enough to make us want to abandon the SUVs when we get home.

Tomorrow: The last installment of the trip!

In Other News... Happy Birthday to my GREAT friend, Suz!!!!! I miss her tons, but as she is a loyal reader, I know she'll get the message.

Kate and Suz in 2007 at her "retirement" bash.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Seven Days on the Cote d’Azur, Part 2: The Inland Riviera from Vence to Les Gorges de Verdon (Mon, 7/27)

With the rental car, the Tom-Tom, and Rick Steves, we headed out on Day 4 into the wild blue yonder, more commonly known as the Inland Riviera. While most visitors to the region prefer to remain on the coast, this part of France has incredible landed scenery due to its location in Les Alpes-Maritimes. I mean, the Alps! We had to visit. And so we did.

We began by driving up to the town of Vence to have lunch and walk around a bit. After that we started winding our way up to the little villages of Coursegoules and Grélolières. The latter had a ruined castle and made a nice shot for a picture from the roadside:

From there, we decided to take the plunge and drive over to Les Gorges de Verdon. This is suggested as a day-trip in itself in the guide books, but as it was only about 3 in the afternoon and light lasts until after 9 pm here, we thought we'd do it. I'm glad we did.

Les Gorges de Verdon are Europe's greatest canyons and are referred to in English as "The Grand Canyon of Verdon." With drops of 2200 feet to the river below, the gorges can stretch from 4700 feet wide at the top to 26 feet at the riverbed. Rick Steves described them as a place where "overpowering slabs of white and salmon-colored limestone plunge impossible distances to a snaking turquoise river below." I've never seen the American Grand Canyon, but what I saw here definitely left me with the sense of the impossible, or at least the immeasurable scope of a power greater than me.

Les gorges plunging down to the Verdon River below.

The Pont d'Artuby, Europe's highest bridge.

After driving through Les Gorges, we headed back towards Nice. We were a bit farther west than we originally intended, so the drive back took a while. It was a nice chance for us to reflect on the heights we'd seen that day and to plan for the next day's adventure. More mountain roads? Yes Please!!

Tomorrow: Part 3: The Inland Riviera from Madone d'Utelle to Gourdon.

In Other News... Jon's first day of work was "fantastic," as he put it. He says the kitchen is amazing, everyone is really nice, and he got to work on a lot of different things rather than just one thing (he had visions of piles of potatoes to peel). Best part for me? No more kitchen linens and uniforms to wash!!! The hotel has its own drycleaner, so the staff pick up clean uniforms (from pants up to neck kerchiefs) EVERY DAY!! Hooray, hooray, hooray!!!