Le splendide voyage

Reflections on exploration & travel


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Sous Le Ciel de Paris : Under the Paris Sky

Edith Piaf, one of France’s most acclaimed performers, sang with passion about Paris’ cherished commonplace experiences in “Sous Le Ciel de Paris (Under the Paris Sky).” Parisian life seem to elicit added appeal when private steps are steered toward trendy streets, sidewalk cafés, classy façades of haute-couture shops and moments of ordinary life happening across the boulevards.

I heartily embrace the notion that walking is the only way to become acquainted with one of the world’s most beautiful capitals. A stroll along the Seine, allows the blissful visitor to witness the grandeur of the Pont Alexandre III (bridge) which was built to honor the Russian Tsar Alexander III and the Franco-Russian Alliance in 1892. Meanwhile, the narrow Pont de l’ Archevêché, is a tribute to lovers who have engraved padlocks with their initials and after, have fastened them to the bridge’s rail. Hundreds of these chained locks toast an enduring moment in Paris. As the stroll unfolds, I reflect on the timeless everyday images captured by master photographers: Robert Doisneau and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Their work have inspired me to reframe my camera lenses while seizing luminous mundane details around Paris. Photography workshops may also facilitate the development of one’s unique Parisian narrative. One such workshops is delivered by Valérie Jardin Photography who provides outstanding photographic and cultural trip/workshops through the streets of Paris. In the same manner, two travel-expat-essay books have encouraged me to value Paris & France’s attributes: “Paris to the Moon” and “The Table Comes First: Family, France and the Meaning of Food” both by New Yorker magazine’s writer Adam Gopnick.

There are multiple and diverse neighborhoods in Paris. A lofty cultural exercise consists of learning the culture of different Parisian neighborhoods and then choosing one to call home. In my case, the place that I call home when in Paris is: Saint-Germain-des-Prés on the 6th arrondissement of Paris. Although it has become much-frequented by vacationers, it was previously regarded as the epicenter for writers and ideas’ protagonists. Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Luc Godard made their home here. Till this day, this neighborhood bolsters a spirited exchange of ideas within cafés and bookstores. During the spring season, I often unwind on the grounds of the Luxembourg Gardens with an enjoyable book. Celebrated cafes in Saint-Germain are: the Café Les Deux Magots, frequented by Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir and Hemingway while Picasso preferred Café de Flore. Then, at 13 rue de l’Ancienne Comédie, a prized restaurant in a historical location: le Procope. At the Procope, I have enjoyed a delectable authentic French cuisine feast together with great décor, service and presentation.

The film industry has always been enamored with a Paris setting. Poetic passionate love stories as well as intense action films persistently crisscross alongside its backdrop: An American in Paris (1951), Breathless by Jean-Luc Godard (1960), Charade (1963), Sabrina (1954, remake 1995) Ronin (1998), Moulin Rouge! (2001), and Woody Allen’s, Midnight in Paris (2011). Cinéma enthusiasts, will also treasure the “Cinéma au Clair de Lune/Movies by Moonlight” experience. This end of summer affair offers French film screenings “under the stars” at various Parisian parks and gardens including: the Paris Buttes Montmartre, the Montsouris Park or the Esplanade des Invalides. My own experience beneath a “starry night” at Parc Montsouris transported me into the fascinating world of: “The extraordinary adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec” a film by Luc Besson. This collective outdoor activity uncovered another auspicious facet of Paris that was unfamiliar to me.

A film enthusiast in Paris will easily recognize certain neighborhoods and streets that have become iconic images of Paris. A prized film street is: rue Foyatier, located in Montmartre, 18th arrondissement of Paris. Its prominent and outspread flights of stairs lead to the summit where the Sacré-Cœur Basilica graciously stands. On this spot, another breathtaking view of Paris can be enjoyed. Similarly, the Montmartre neighborhood is also recognized for having sheltered the art-studios of ingenious artists including Amedeo Modigliani, Claude Monet, Picasso, and Vincent van Gogh. Till this day, proximate to the basilica, amateur portrait artists arrange their easels/stalls and sketch portraits of tourists at Place du Tertre, Montmartre’s old main square.

Without a doubt, a paced stroll “under the Paris sky” will foster the discovery of a surprising never-ending story.

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“Paris is always a good idea.” ― Audrey Hepburn

A great advantage of living in Dijon is its straightforward access to interesting travel locations. France has one of the best rail systems in Europe. One can take a direct train from Dijon to Charles de Gaulle Airport (CDG) or simply take a TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse, high-speed train) operated by SNCF voyages to a major station in Paris, “Gare de Lyon.” This particular trip takes about 1 hour and 35 minutes and: “Voilà, you are in Paris!”

Paris, “the city of lights,” has always inspired great accolades of love and wonder. Compositions and lyrics have been written by an array of composers and musicians including Gershwin, Offenbach and Louis Armstrong. Gifted authors as Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Scott Fitzgerald and one of my favorite poets, the Prague-born poet Rainer Maria Rilke visited Paris. A classic account depicts that Rilke came to Paris to write a monograph on the artist Auguste Rodin. After, Rilke became Rodin’s secretary while Rilke’s wife, the sculptor Clara Westhoff, became the great master’s pupil. All of these architects of excellence shared an enduring attachment to Paris whilst becoming immersed within its ethos. As result, they stayed for longer engagements with some lasting quite a few years.

Initially, it is important to experience Paris as a tourist. Incomparable monuments welcome the visitor throughout its city-center famously designed by Baron Haussmann. This visionary and extravagant prefect of the Seine Department was chosen by Emperor Napoleon III to beautify the city with boulevards and parks, museums, bridges and so much more. Certain places should be a priority when visiting Paris such as the symbol of glories past: the Arc de Triomphe, followed by a stroll across the bustling Avenue des Champs-Élysées where trendy shops and cafés serve the tourist crowds. Next in the agenda: the Louvre Museum. This renowned art museum is one of the oldest in the world and the place where Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” dwells. Staying with the fine-arts motif, one cannot miss the Musée d’Orsay. This unique museum, is located in the interior of the former Orsay railway station and holds one of the finest Impressionists collection in the world. Thereafter, one should steer toward the most recognizable emblem of the city: the Eiffel Tower, built by Dijon’s native, Gustave Eiffel. Often, the Eiffel Tower has long moving lines. Still, it offers one of the best topographic views of the city. Another splendid and perhaps less crowded vista is located at the observation deck on top of the Arc de Triomphe. There, one can behold the impressive panoramic spectrum of La Defense, the Avenue Champs-Élysées and the Sacré-Coeur Basilica.

An additional museum is the Musée Rodin. This museum displays the superb works of the celebrated master, Auguste Rodin, at the Hôtel Biron. Historically, this mansion and garden museum was occupied by several artists since 1905 including the painter Henri Matisse and the dancer Isadora Duncan. In 1908, Rodin establish his sculpting studios within a few rooms. By 1911, he occupied the entire building. Rodin also adorned the outside gardens with some of his work. Today, in the midst of roses and shrubberies, some prominent pieces grace the grounds including the Thinker (1903), the Burghers of Calais (1889), Gates of Hell (1917) and the Three Shades (before 1886). The shades appear in Dante’s Divine Comedy and represent the souls of the dammed standing at the gates of hell whispering: “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.” Inside the mansion, several acclaimed pieces can be viewed such as The Kiss (1882) and the Cathedral (1908). Moreover, distinguished pieces of Rodin’s assistant-artist-muse-mistress, the talented and tragic Camille Claudel are exhibited.

The Parisian experience is multidimensional! Last year alone, I was able to dissect the Louvre Museum, by visiting one wing at a time over an eight-month period which allow me to fall in love with its collections. I have also relished noteworthy events: the sumptuous version of Rudolf Nureyev’s ballet “La Belle au bois dormant/The sleeping beauty (composer Tchaikovsky)” by the Paris Opera Ballet at the Bastille Opera in Paris; and the outstanding exhibit of the Jewish-Russian-French artist Marc Chagall: “Chagall between War and Peace” at the Paris’ Musée de Luxembourg. Additionally, a smaller museum, the Jacquemart-André museum, displayed a delightful exhibit of Eugène Boudin, Claude Monet’s master-teacher. Thematic classes/workshops are taught throughout the city for short periods or even during weekend breaks including: the gratifying “travel sketchbooking” with Pauline Fraisse Art & Culture; and “Un Dimanche à Paris” where I spend diverting weekends learning to make scrumptious chocolate morsels, the famous macaroons and French pastries in the heart of the Saint-Germain-des-Prés.

Unique pursuits also flourish in Paris. Chocolate aficionados will be delighted to visit the “Salon du Chocolat” exposition. It usually runs for 5 days in autumn around October/November. Visitors step into the marvelous world of cocoa while observing the work of internationally renowned chefs and pastry chefs. Victor Hugo’s fans will appreciate the elegantly designed Place des Vosgues, Paris oldest public square in Marais where Victor Hugo lived between 1832 and 1848. The Maison de Victor Hugo and museum is housed here and it provides a glimpse into the author’s quotidian life. Similarly, riverside admirers will welcome a river cruise along the Seine passing through historical sites and bridges while savoring a refined French cuisine feast and enjoying live music performances.

Paris is always a good idea. The French capital will always welcome guests desiring to unveil its social and cultural assets.


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For the love of French cheese and the Jura Mountains!

In France, the celebrated French love affair with cheese will in due course infuse the atmosphere of an expatriate’s everyday life.  As a matter of fact, a French cheese tray is a permanent fixture in home meal gatherings and restaurants. It is usually served after the main course and before dessert.

The author John Baxter, reveals a well-known narrative in his book “The Perfect Meal:” once, the legendary French general, Charles de Gaulle, while rejecting the idea of France being ruled solely by the communist party, made the following statement: “How can any one party govern a nation that has two hundred and forty-six different kinds of cheeses?” In reality, food and nutrition data chronicle that the variety of French cheeses seem to run between 350 and 400.  Still, some of my dear French friends love to say that: “There are 365 type cheeses in France: one for each day of the year!”

Whenever I visit a new region in France, I make a point to try one of their local cheeses. Apparently the commanding general and emperor of France, Napoléon Bonaparte, followed the same practice. In Burgundy, after learning to bypass the robust whiff of local cheeses, I fell in love with Époisses a cheese referred as the “king of all cheeses” and one of Napoléon’s favorites.  Historically, these cheeses were often produced in monasteries. Hence, it was our “friends,” the Cistercian monks of Citeaux who started the Époisses’ production in the 16th century and later handed the recipe to local families. Thenceforth, between Dijon and Auxerre at the village of Époise, this recipe has been followed whilst creating a most delightful orange/yellow rind cheese washed in marc de Bourgogne and that has a delicious ivory creamy center with rich and uniform taste. It sells inside a charming wooden box and it goes well with Burgundy’s red wines.

In the Loire valley, I tasted an exquisite goat cheese called Valençay.  By tradition, the cheeses of the Loire Valley use ash as a coating. The bluish-gray rind on the Valençay is no exception.  This cheese used to be molded in a perfectly shaped pyramid. However, a local anecdote describes that when Napoléon returned from his unsuccessful campaigns in Egypt, he stopped at the chateaux of Valençay.  When he was served this cheese, he was overcome with indignation by its pyramid silhouette, and so, he chopped off the tip of the pyramid. As result, the cheese has kept this cut-off-tip shape ever since.  Still, Napoléon continued to love this cheese as I do because its taste is slightly citric and it pairs superbly with Valençay Blanc (white) wine also from the Loire region. Another favorite cheese endorsed by Napoléon and Charles de Gaulle is the Mimolette from Lille area, Nord-Pas-de-Calais.  This is a very interesting looking cheese. It has the form of a ripe cantaloupe with a wrinkly crust on the outside and a bright ripe orange color in the inside. Its distinct taste is similar to the Dutch Edam.  A familiar historical account conveys that in the 17th century, Louis XIV, the Sun King, loved the taste of Edam yet he could not tolerate that it was produced in the Netherlands. Thus, he banned Edam from France and besieged his loyal cheese artisans to create the Mimolette. Since then, this new creation has a distinctively stouter appetizing taste plus it looks dashing on a cheese tray while pairing remarkably well with a Bordeaux red.

One of my favorite’s weekend retreats year-round is the region of Franche-Comté. On the ancient salt-trade route, I have routinely visited the quaint Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne village in the department of Doubs. This rural community clings to the widely forested woodlands in the Jura Mountains, a mountain range spreading predominantly from France to Switzerland whilst infiltrating Germany at a lower altitude. The village is idyllic and reserved for countryside lovers while generously offering health-boosting attributes like fresh air, tranquility and beauty just as the visitor’s senses are stimulated to a renewed vitality. Reasonably priced, private and comfortable loft style apartments can be found at “La Maison Rose” at 11 rue du Château.  These facilities present panoramic views of the hillside and cliffs. Another charming place in town is the “Residence de Vaux,” at 29 Grande Rue, an elegant bed & breakfast with period’s rooms and fresh baked breakfast.  Both are excellent based locations to explore the region’s attractions such as: the source of the River Lison (about 20 minutes from the city center) where you will find the cavern of its emerging birth even as the river cascades through a deep wooded gorge.  Well-marked hiking routes provide for a spectacular experience. On the other side of the village, up in the cliffs lies another equally beautiful source of water: the River Verneau with its own waterfalls and nature trails.  Also along the cliffs is a fixed climbing route, the Via Ferrata, a rather popular route with climbers. At Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne there is also opportunity during spring, summer and autumn for: horseback riding, canoeing, cycling, climbing, fishing, hiking, hang and para-gliding.  In the winter not very far from the city center, one can cross-country ski and for downhill skiing leisure pursuits, the ski trails of Métabief are less than one hour away. Other cultural centers nearby is the vilage of Arbois home of renown scientist Louis Pasteur.  You can visit his home and museum where the early experiments of pasteurization were performed on the wines of his own vineyard. Another interesting town is Ornans, where the river Loue runs through it and it is also the home of the French realist painter Gustave Courbet.  His riverside home in Ornans is a delightful place to visit.  Also, Nans (for short) is within a few hours from Geneva, Lausanne, Strasburg and even the Black Forest in Germany.

Once my friends invited me to a Franche-Comté fondue party in Nans-sous-Sainte-Anne. Subsequently, my visit to the Jura Mountains became a deliberate commission bolstering my quest to learn about French cheeses. For many centuries the Jura Massif’s cheese dairies known as fromageries or fruitières have produced one of the most popular cheeses in France: Comté.  You can easily plan a visit to these fromageries and fruitières in the region.  In Nans’ city center, there is such a facility where you can view the production of Comté (usually early in the morning). The cheese is produced exclusively from the milk of Montbéliarde and French Simmental breeds of cattle, grazing at no less than 400 meters of altitude. The Comté is a related to the Swiss Gruyère and is predictably aromatic with an array of subtle tastes such as the “fruitè” Comté which is more elastic to “salé” Comté more brittle.  After production, these cheeses are taken to climate-controlled maturing cellars to age for at least 4 to 18 months.  Certainly, this intricate process create a delicious cheese loved by chefs and gourmands all over the world. Comté also pairs perfectly with a vine from the Massif du Jura:  the regional Vin Jaune (yellow wine). This wine made from Savagnin grapes has a distinct nutty bouquet, with hints of almonds, citrus, salt and even anise and like the Comté cheese it is also aged in cellars in the Jura region.

Another superb unpasteurized cheese from the Haute-Doubs, Franche-Comté region is: Mont d’Or. This cheese was created in the 18th century to make use of the Autumn-Winter milk.  As such, Mont d’Or cheeses are usually produced from the 15th of August to 15th of March and sold during September 10th to May 10th.  This type of cheese is also exclusively obtained from grass and hay-fed Montbéliarde cows grazing at no less than 700 meters above sea level. Hence, when spending time in the region, a visitor will be able to observe these marvelous animals going through town and making their ascent into the hills… and it is beautiful!  Mont d’Or, quickly climbed to my list of beloved cheeses due to its creamy texture, Epicea pine tree scent and its yellow undulated rind, sold in a round wood resinous box.  It can be baked with cloves of garlic thus creating a superb first course. Once again, I recommend pairing this fine cheese with the Vin Jaune of Jura and equally established products of the region.

Traveling throughout distinctive provinces in France and learning about local cheeses can be a pleasurable task. Since an impeccable French meal with all of its many courses cannot be complete without the cheese platter, it is a worthwhile activity to discover how a traditional cheese tray should be displayed.  The tray should present and assortment of types of cheeses, consistencies, color, aroma, milk origin (cow, goat, ewe), and firmness.  Depending on the season it should also include side options such as:  dried fruits, fresh fruits like figs and grapes, nuts, sliced baguette, honey, dried meats, smoked sausages, Dijon mustard and local sauces.  Last but not least, pairing your handiwork with favorite regional wines…  voilà… a splendid cheese presentation will take center stage and delight your guests!


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The Loire Valley: Spellbound by French History & its illustrious Châteaux

As in any city or country, the desire to discover a new region may surface enthusiastically if one is blessed with a long weekend. One such weekend, (from Dijon: going north and then west), to my surprise: I found the middle segment and valley of the river Loire. Visiting the Loire Valley it is easy to grow enamored with its flawless vineyards, traversing smaller rivers (Cher, L’Indre, and La Vienne), orchards, asparagus and artichoke cultivated farmsteads which garland the river’s banks. Further allure may surface while reading the following statement on a local brochure: “Numerous châteaux were built here for multifarious purposes using distinct architectural designs and sizes.”

Traditionally, the region was a magnet for decisive events that change the course of history at manifold periods in time.  Orléans, a celebrated city in the Loire Valley, became a pivotal location for major historical events. In 1429, the English laid siege and controlled Orléans. Later, on the 8th of May 1492, Joan d’Arc “la pucelle d’Orléans” (the maid of Orléans) followed by the French army liberated the city.  It was said that she even went to mass at the Orléans Cathedral (Basilique Cathédrale Sainte-Croix d’Orléans) while the city was occupied. Another historical personage walked through the streets of Orléans around 1525: John Calvin began his law studies at the University of Orléans, later he would become an influential reformer of the Christian protestant faith.

My journey began by visiting the city of Blois.  Passing the massive cedar trees at place Victor Hugo, I could at last catch my first glimpse of the Royal Château de Blois.  Yet, one cannot grasp the appeal of this remarkable building until reaching the main courtyard. The châteaux has 4 grand wings coordinated with harmony while representing different time periods, kings, and styles. A diagram at the entrance explains the evolution of this amazing structure: the Salle de États Généroux is built in gothic style; the flamboyant gothic Louis XII wing built the 15th century; the François I Italian Renaissance wing built in the 16th century and the Gaston d’Orléans wing built in the 17th century.  The Salle de États Généroux is one of the oldest parts of the château and where the earl of Blois receive its guests around 1214. The equestrian statue of King Louis XII is a prominent marker in the courtyard as well as his royal symbol, the Porcupine: a symbol of invincibility for throwing darts at enemies and its motto, “Cominus et eminus (from near and afar).”  Later in his wing, his wife and Queen Anne, duchess of Brittany, one of the riches woman in Europe at the time, had her own symbol carved and painted: the Ermine, a small animal with silky white fur used by nobility and symbolizing dignity.

King François I was Louis XII cousin who became heir presumptive as the king did not have any male heirs.  He married Louis XII’s daughter Claude heiress to the duchy of Brittany and upon Louis XII death he inherited the throne. King Francis I is a central French historical and royal figure. He initiated the Renaissance movement in France by becoming a generous patron of the arts attracting and bringing to France some of the best artist and architects of Italy, including the great Master Leonardo De Vinci.  In addition, he was also a great patron for the sciences and considered as le Père et Restaurateur des Lettres (the “Father and Restorer of Letters”) for his fervent endorsement of the standardization of the French language.  At the François I wing, his desire for innovation is established. François I assembled one of the finest library for the period (later transferred to Fontainebleau) and the building itself shows the remarkable Italian architectural influence.  During the building and renovation of this wing, his wife Claude was became involved in the decor and refurbishing, including motifs exhibiting François I symbol, the crowned Salamander among the flames with the motto, “Nutrisco et extinguo,”  meaning “I nourish the good and extinguish the bad,”  symbolizing bravery.

Gaston, duke d’Orléans had large aspirations for the building/remodeling of Blois castle and the celebrated architect François Mansart was hired.  Mansart had plans to create a classical structure with four wings around the courtyard.  The construction was never finished, yet one can visit the wing and review Mansart’s plans, the classical columns and staircases.  The entire châteaux de Blois became the stage for dramatic intrigue. Joan d’Arc stopped at Blois castle to receive a blessing from the Archbishop of Reims before going to battle at Orléans; here, King Henry III had his guards attacked and killed his main rival Henry I, duke of Guise, after inviting him for a meeting; Catherine de Medici presumably had within a small parlor her pharmacy of “medicines/poisons” which she dispensed toward her enemies and she also died here.

About 15 km from Blois, are the gaming estates and natural sanctuary of Chambord.  After parking, I strolled peacefully until the panoramic view of this incredible architectural landscape and beautifully kept grounds engrossed my senses.  Indeed, I stood quietly for a moment admiring this enormous structure which from a distance could pass as the skyline of a thriving metropolis. The writer Henry James declared “the towers, cupolas, the gables, the lanterns, the chimneys, look more like the spires of a city than the salient points of a single building.” Chambord is indeed a French and Italian style Renaissance masterpiece and King François I’s crown jewel.  Of noticeable sophisticated maneuver is the double-helix staircase credited to Leonardo de Vinci: someone going up the stairs will never meet another person going down.

As a Renaissance château, the major focus of Chambord was entertainment via hunting of wild games and elaborate festivities.  François I however, spent only a few short hunting trips in this castle before he died.  After François I death, a period of decline ensued.  About 80 years later Gaston d’Orléans directed a much needed facelift and renovation. Afterwards, Louis the XIV, the sun king, decorated the royal chambers.  Sadly, the château was neglected for long periods of time becoming a military lodge at one setting and then during WWII,  art collections belonging to the Louvre museum such as the Mona Lisa were hidden within its massive walls.  Today, this is one of the most visited sites on the Loire Valley.

After spending the night in Blois, I drove to my next destination: Chenonceau, the 15th century Renaissance castle inspired by feminine hands and design. Two of the most famous women dominating the course of its early survival were: Diane de Poitiers, Duchesse of Valentinois, King Henry’s II favorite mistress and Catherine de Medici, his wife and Queen.   Diane adjoined an impressive bridge over the river Cher which runs through the property. Diane also made the grounds of Chenonceau a haven for the cultivation of orchards, vegetables and flower gardens.  Upon Henry II’s death, Catherine maleficently banned Diane Poitiers from her beloved château Chenonceau.  Not to be outdone by her rival, Catherine built a three-story addition over Diane’s bridge and created extraordinary gardens to outshine her husband’s mistress.  Catherine also transformed the château into a center for cultural nobility and festive gatherings. One of the first exhibits of fireworks in France took place at Chenonceau thanks to Catherine.  Upon Catherine’s death in 1589, the chateau went to her daughter-in-law Louise of Lorraine married to Catherine’s son King Henry III.  Not long after, Henry was killed leaving Louise who adored her husband broken-hearted and inconsolable. Historical claims testify that she wondered the halls of Chenonceau dressed in white, the mourning colors of queens, and she became known as the “White Queen.”  Like the other châteaux in the area, Chenonceau suffered from periods of neglect, being a hospital during WWI and a prisoner exchange shelter in WWII.  Today, is well preserved and inside there are always grand bouquets of flowers from its illustrious mistresses’ gardens.

After the beauty of Chenonceau, my journey continued on to a delightful chateau on the Loire Valley: Villandry.  Initially, this was feudal fortress on the banks of the Loire where in the 12th century Henry II of England, upon his defeat, signed the treaty “La Paix de Colombiers” (The Peace of Colombiers) before King Phillip Augustus of France.  Fast forward to the 16th century: Jean Le Breton, the Minister of Finance for King François I acquired the property. Breton who had had extensive architectural and financial experience in building castles, including Chambord, planned a marvelous Renaissance château that remained in his family for two centuries. After, Villandry had different owners including emperor Napoleon who purchase it for his brother Jérôme.  Finally, in 1906, Joachim Carvallo, a Spaniard and his American wife Ann Coleman purchased this property pouring a substantial fortune into the renovation of the chateau and its glorious grounds.  The Carvallo family still owns Villandry and the beautiful building certainly exhibits their personal touch and dedication.  Nonetheless, it is the gardens that deeply fascinate me and make this estate a personal favorite!  It is simply delightful to walk throughout the property sensing assorted aromas while admiring the shrubberies shaped with geometrical precision and revealing accents such as a water garden, decorative mazes planted with arbors, colorful vegetables and flower gardens. Garden lovers as well as conventional visitors will completely appreciate the marvelous formal Renaissance gardens at Villandry.

On my last day I visited the city of Amboise. There, the Royal Château de Amboise proudly parades its façade above the city center.  This was one of François I most popular homes.  I did walk through the castles’ ground but my main focus was another residence: the Château du Clos Lucé.  This elegant manor house became the residence of Leonardo da Vinci for the last three years of his life.  King François I who brought Leonardo to France visited Leonardo often at this manor since he was captivated by his genius.  As a matter of fact, there is a secret passage between the Royal Château de Amboise and the manor. Here, Leonardo worked not only on his art but on his inventions and studies in engineering, physics, mechanics, cartography, botany, philosophy and so much more.  There are models of his inventions displayed in 3D format thanks to IBM: the airplane, helicopter, and automobile among others. The gardens are amazing with the two-level bridge created and designed by Leonardo.  There is so much to see at Château du Clos Lucé that I highly recommend spending time to encounter a glimpse into this man’s brilliant intellect and vision.

The Loire Valley definitely takes a visitor through a stimulating intellectual and farseeing journey. Each day, this region brings to life its illustrious past against the backdrop of history, culture, Renaissance and architectural splendor.


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Côte d’Or, Burgundy: golden vineyards, wine tasting & relaxation

Côte d’Or , Burgundy, wine route

Côte d’Or , Burgundy, wine route

One of the nicest short trips from Dijon is to follow Burgundy’s Côte d’Or region prized wine route.  From north to south, this impeccable trail unveils the splendor of perfectly flanked vineyards: the Châtillonnais vineyards (about 20 villages producing red and white appellation wines); the vineyards of the Côte de Nuits (about 8 villages producing famous and robust burgundy red wines); situated on the slopes are the Hautes-Côtes de Nuits; the Côte de Beaune vineyards producing exquisite reds but also elegant white wines and further back the Hautes-Côtes de Beaune vineyards.  Most of the vineyards of Côte d’Or face east or southeast and in autumn their leaves stir in the wind while glistening in fields of gold (continue below)

The cultivation of wine can be traced back to antiquity.  In particular, the skilled efforts of the Romans greatly influenced the viticulture development along their occupied territories including France. In Burgundy, it was the monks of Citeaux (called Cistercian; Cistercium the Latin name for the village of Cîteaux) who were responsible for elevating the Roman process of cultivating vines into an art form.  These monks strictly followed the Rule of St Benedict (St Benedict of Nursia: c. 480 – 547) a book of precepts regarding the monastic life which also included the encouragement of manual labor and self-sufficiency.  Thus the abbeys founded in Burgundy supported themselves through a variety of activities including viticulture.   Gradually, the monks advanced their knowledge base by dedicating themselves to academic pursuits not only in agriculture but in research, science and medicine.

A celebrated and frequently visited vineyard along the wine route is the Clos de Vougeot (clos = walled-enclosed vineyard). Located in a beautiful setting its vines are a lasting example of the Cistercians’ work.  Traditionally, the Benedictine monks of Cluny had already introduced to the region the subsequent grape varieties: Pinot Noir (for reds) and Chardonnay (for whites).  However, these industrious viticulture experts discovered that there was a pronounced difference on the quality and tastes of the wine depending where the plant was sown, sometimes 200 meters could make a real difference.  As such, they parceled the Clos de Vougeot vineyards accordingly. Of course, the geological variation of the soil is important. However, the orientation/exposure to the sun, rains, local climate alterations, slope, drainage, etc., are equally significant to the outcome of wine vintages.  Hence, the concept of Terroir/soils in Burgundy is the main factor of designating a wine’s originality.  Today, Clos de Vougeot is owned by an array of independent wine growers and the chateau is owned by the Société civile des Amis du Château du Clos de Vougeot (“Friends of the Château du Clos de Vougeot”), which leases its facilities to the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin.  The Grand Cru appellation is bestowed upon this elegant wine which was honored by Isak Dinesen in her literary work “Babette’s Feast” due to its remarkably intense bouquet.

The wine road and villages between Dijon – Beaune may be visited by car, rental bicycles tours or by promenading its gentle hills. Each road sign along the way is a recollection of a fine wine list waiting to be revealed and tasted.  For this reason, visitors are welcome to stop along the string of villages for wine tasting and purchases.  Arriving in Beaune, which is considered the capital of burgundy’s wine, there are further opportunities for wine tastings in restaurants, commercial venues as well as wine-related institutes offering formal (certification) and informal classes. A historical landmark worth visiting in Beaune is the Hospices de Beaune or Hôtel-Dieu de Beaune. The Hospices were founded as a charitable hospital in 1443 by Nicolas Rolin, chancellor of Burgundy, and his wife. Its architecture represents the 15th century style well. Of particular significance, since 1851 every year around November, the Hospices hold a classical and influential charitable wine-auction devoted to the food and wines of Burgundy.  It is a worthwhile social and cultural experience!

After an eventful exploration of the region, I highly recommend visiting the picturesque village of Meursault. Located on the Côte of Beaune, these fine white wines vineyards are exclusively cultivated from Chardonnay grapes.  While exploring the village, stop by the office of tourism and they will help you rent bikes and even secure a place on a hot air balloon ride of the region. This is a beautiful area and I highly recommend staying at La Cueillette Hotel & Spa.  This lovely 19th  century château was built on the foundations of a 12th century Cistercian residence within walled vineyard parcels allowing for pleasant promenades through nature. At the Spa you can reward yourself by plunging into the whirlpool and swimming pool.  For a total body relaxation, I recommend their sauna followed by their “Frutithérapie” exfoliating massage with red berries pulp, honey and grape seed oil. Certainly, all of their well-being beauty products make great souvenirs to take home.  The Château de Cîteaux also provides fine dining with an exquisite ambiance.  If you cannot stay long at La Cueillette, I recommend at least paying a visit to their Sunday brunch which is a memorable banquet that you can share with friends and family during the warm summer months.  Their ample veranda is a most favorable place for such fetching celebration and for building lasting memories.


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Dijon: Coffee shops, Tea rooms and Shopping

Quotidian life in Dijon takes a visitor or an unfamiliar expatriate resident into a journey where there is a visible transformation of expectations and priorities.  Certain habits like a hurried lifestyle perhaps compulsory in greater metropolises are not fitting here.   Usually, each working day dedicates two hours for lunch to discuss varied topics with friends or colleagues at a favorite restaurant.  For the disciplined souls, this time may be used to read a favorite book or even write an animated short story.  Ultimately for the romantics: sitting at a local “café” or “salon de thé” is a time for practicing the sacred art of reflection as life unfolds before you.

Certainly “running errands” during lunch is not a worthwhile pursuit since the post office, the bank or any other significant places will also be closed as their employees  “in solidarity” will go to lunch at the same time everyday usually from 12h to 14h.  However, one can easily get accustomed to this new life style especially since some may even leave work early especially on Wednesday to enjoy the varied coffee shops in the city.

Dijon has an enjoyable collection of coffee shops and tearooms.  Even the newly remodeled Art Museum has a good coffee shop waiting to warm any patron after a gratifying tour of its elaborate halls. Native dijonnais usually become attached to particular venues because these places transform themselves into a “parlor” where individuals come together with the most valuable persons in their lives.  Nonetheless, I have embraced the habit of trying different places because it pleases me to discover new settings.

Some of my favorites ones are:  the “Comptoir (trading post) de Colonies” at 12 place Francois Rude.  This is a very popular venue with the native residents. The Comptoir has a flavorful collection of teas and coffees from about 15 different places around the world. My favorite flavors are: the Brazil/Santos a full body, aroma rich and yet less acidic type of coffee and the bold flavor of the Colombian Supreme coffee. The hot chocolates with cream on top are also a fare to behold and taste.  Almost in front of the Comptoir is the celebrated statue and fountain “Bareuzai,” representing the personage of a wine grower treading on local grapes. Also, next to the fountain is the iconic merry-go-round/carrousel that since the 1900s to this day delights young children’s disposition.

Following the streets of Dijon toward place Grangier and the main Post Office is the expresso-T” a coffee shop at 21 rue de la Poste.  Within their cozy ambiance, they make a delicious cappuccino plus they also offer other complementary treats like bagels, muffins, salads, crepes etc.  Yet, for a true “Salon de Thé” experience, “La Rose de Vergy” at 1 rue de la Chouette behind Notre Dame cathedral is one of my favorite places. Their convivial setting has a marvelous and varied assortment of teas, biscuits, and other gourmet treats.  I love going there at the end of a very busy day and drinking their Assam tea while looking outside to some of the oldest streets in Dijon, rue de la Chouette and rue Verrerie. 

There are other interesting places along rue Musette. A well-favored place in this street is the fine Italian market “La Dolce Vita.”  Here, all sorts of fantastic gourmet goods from Italy are available for purchase.  In addition, they have a wonderful restaurant above the market where the recipes are true Italian creations.   In the afternoon, La Dolce Vita becomes an ideal place for a coffee break because not only do they have fragrant Italian coffee that goes rather well with a hot slice of “Panettone (A traditional sweet bread loaf with dried fruits originally from Milan.  An Italian delicacy especially during Christmas and New Year)” but also an incredibly tasting Italian hot chocolate which is a ray of sunshine especially during the severe winter months. Another possible stop on this street is “Tartin’Art.”  Inside, an imaginative consumer can choose multiple toppings to decorate a toast/tartine: from salmon to fresh mozzarella on a bed of tomatoes or lettuce or avocados. Of course, such treat should always be accompanied by a hot cup of java.

After teatime, a visitor may choose to ride a bike through the streets of Dijon.  Bikes are easily accessible for rental throughout the city and bike lanes are available along the Tram trajectory such as riding and resting by the beautiful fountain at place de la Republic. Later, it is also a treat to stop and catch one of the latest movies at the theater at place Darcy. All movies are dubbed in French like most places in France and it is a good way to practice French comprehension skills. Another theater close to the University, the Eldorado, may show from time to time movies in their original language. 

One may decide instead to explore the city by strolling leisurely through its center. From place Darcy you can walk through the portal/door “La Porte Guillaume” an official monument edified in 1786 honoring the prince of Condé. It signals the entrance into the center of the city and the rue/street de la Liberté. The famous Galeries Lafayette always displaying the latest fashions and home furnishings. There are also elegant shops toward the end of rue Piron and inside the Passage Darcy. In addition, trendy shops can be found around place Grangier such as the Italian shoe store Brunate, Hugo Boss and a variety of kitchenware stores. Many hair salons grace this area yet, my favorite is “Carlo Bay” on 6 place Bousset.  The staff and owner are professionals who provide an array of excellent services leaving you completely gratified after each visit.

Should you need a new computer, a TV, but also books or any other electronic gadget FNAC on rue de Bourg is a wonderland offering great seasonal sales. Fine chocolates, one of the French most beloved traditions, can be found in elegant settings such as Fabrice Gillotte, “créateur chocolatier,” on rue de Bourg in front of FNAC. Another well-known chocolatier is Carbilet close to Place François Rude. As always, while walking on the streets of Dijon you will often hear different styles of music and street performances, so be ready to leave a few coins behind in gratitude.

A couple of years ago I visited the shopping center “La Toison d’Or,” located in the northern region of Dijon: I was not impress.  Now, my opinion has changed.  Recently, the place has been completely remodeled and new additions were incorporated. The grand opening was at the end of October of 2013 with great attendance and a fine piano player to inspire shoppers.  The transformation was comprehensive and astonishing.  The new mall or “centre commercial” is modern with stylish shops from the Apple Store to Desigual and a thriving food court and restaurants.  It is a straightforward drive from the city center or one can simply board Tram #2 and exit at the Toison d’Or exit.

 

 


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The epicurean mirth: my favorite restaurants in Dijon

Dijon has a marvelous collection of restaurants within its domain.  If you ever long for a splendid table and fine tablecloths then, you must stroll to La place de la Libération, right in front of the Ducal Palace.  There you will find one of the finest restaurants in Dijon: “Le Prè aux Clercs,” Jean Pierre Billoux chef.  His creations are always classic, with flavorful ingredients and seasonings.  I recommend the full degustation menu as the staff offers an exemplary service as well as a full description of each item served.  Furthermore, Mr. Gillard, the poised sommelier has an extensive and refined wine list.  From experience, all of his recommendations are a perfect match to the visitor’s chosen fare. One of the courses before dessert are the cheeses. These represent a true French experience while the desserts are a marvel accompanied by other morsels and petit fours.  In the summer time, you can eat outside while enjoying the blissful setting of La place de la Libération (square). In the winter time, you can enjoy the elegant indoor ambiance of the restaurant. The restaurant also has beautiful entertainment rooms on the second floor for special gatherings.  I have never been disappointed with my experiences at the Prè aux Clercs since they have presented and delivered on every occasion an exquisite epicurean experience.

Dijon has other restaurants that make up its varied gastronomy.  “Les Oenophilis” is a restaurant who has a romantic and elegant atmosphere. It is located on 18 rue Sainte Anne by the hotel Philippe Le Bon.  This serene and inviting location, has a menu consisting of traditional and regional specialties such as “les escargots” and the Charolais steaks.  Every course is delivered with precision and grace. They also have a varied and extensive wine list.  Another favorite restaurant on my list is: Pourquoi pas?” located on 13 rue Monge and not very far from the Emile Zola square.  This place has an intimate and cozy atmosphere. The daily menu is always presented with creativity and taste which always highlight the experience.  However, reservations must be made at least 2 weeks in advance to assure an opportunity to experience its fine cuisine.

A truly unique and historical restaurant is the “Maison Millière” located 10, 12, 14, rue de la chouette, behind Notre Dame Cathedral.   The house was built around 1483 by merchant Guillaume Millière and has kept its medieval appearance and façade till this day.  Period films such as “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Gerard Depardieu have used its historical decor.  Traditional foods like Filet de Boeuf sauce Morilles and Cassolette d’escargots forestière lutée are a few of its delicious specialties.  In the summer, you can sit in the garden and during the colder months you will enjoy its charming interior rooms.  At Maison Millière you will also observe on the rooftop the famous Owl & Cat effigies placed there in the beginning of the 20th century.

Similarly, the Emily Zola (previously the area was called Place du Morimont) square has a place in history since during the French Revolution heads were guillotined here.  Now, it has a much happier atmosphere as it offers an interesting gamut of flavorful restaurants.  Located in this square is the restaurant “Le Germinal” which offers the best frog legs in town.  The house specialty is the “Grenouille Germinal,” but I also love the “Grenouille Provençal.” A permanent fixture in this square is the restaurant L’Epicerie & Cie offering regional food such as baked Camembert, boeuf bourguignon, fine wine and desserts.  If you are craving Asian food then the Sushi King is a good choice and it is located just opposite from L’Epicerie.

Of course, there are other mainstream places in town that are excellent for a nice lunch in the middle of a busy work week. One such places is the “Petit Marché” an organic restaurant just above the bio/health food market La Vie Saine on 27-29 rue Musette. The restaurant is opened Monday through Friday 11:45 – 14:30, and Saturday 12:00 – 14:30.  When I eat there, I always feel that I have made a healthy choice.  From its many windows, there is a beautiful view of Grangier square, the historical and stately main post office and the bustling street below.  The food is simple, healthy and delicious.   Often, I like to order the “salade verte des Cévennes avec son filet doré, tomates, fromage de chèvre chaud, pan et noix, or the “saumon bio avec de crudités.”  In addition, the health food market below offers excellent bio and organic products.  On the adjacent street, 54 rue des Godrans, there is a little restaurant perfect for a lunch break: Bol & Tasse.  They serve an excellent variety of soups, salads, tartes, crepes, smoothies, teas and coffee.  The owners, Mimi and Vivie are super friendly and welcoming.

These are just few examples of the range of restaurants available in Dijon.  Certainly, there are many others to discover. For example, L’édito restaurant at place Darcy is rather convenient because it is open for business all the time.  Yet, there are numerous pleasant and smaller restaurants surrounding the market or on the petites rues around town such as the popular “Le petit roi de la lune” on 28 rue Amiral Roussin as well as a genuine pub and sports’ bar “Flannery’s Irish Pub” in front of St. Benigne’s Cathedral.