Provence & Paris Travel Log
I am fairly new to the Chowhound site. I have been posting on the NYC board mostly since that is where I live. The following report is from a trip that my wife Allison and I took this past May. It is fairly long and contains some non-food related stuff. However, all of our trips seem to come back to the central theme of food. Thanks for reading...
Saturday May 13, 2000
Arrive at the Domaine de Valmouriane in St. Remy a bit jet lagged, but since our room isnt ready yet we rearrange our things and head out to Arles in search of the market. On our way we drove through the mountains and stopped in Les Baux de Provence, a spectacular hilltop town that has to be one of the most picturesque places on the face of the earth. We didnt climb to the top of the town due to our exhaustion and I now regret that because we werent able to get back and do it later. We pick up a croissant and a raisin brioche as a snack. Its our first food in France this trip and while its okay by French standards, it sure beats the hell out of the blueberry muffin that I get from the street vendor in NYC every morning.
We continued onto Arles passing through the Fontvieulle. In every field there are thousands, maybe millions of wild bright red poppies growing. I wonder if people who live there take the poppies for granted? They make driving through the countryside very pleasant. Get to Arles and stop for directions. I dust off the Franglish and figure out that the market closed a half-hour ago. We head over to the Roman arena that is located within the walled city. Arles and Avignon are similar to Siena. They have a walled ancient city within the city itself. Our luck seemed to be pretty poor. It turned out that the Arena was closed for a soundcheck that was going on for tonights concert. We then checked out a few tourist sights, LEspace Van Gogh where he recovered after slicing his ear off and the Musee Reattu where he actually did the slicing. We got our first up close look at the Rhone River too! Were both pretty beat, so we relax for a bit along the bank of the Rhone before we head back to the hotel.
On our way back we stop in the town of Paradou to find a restaurant recommended by Patricia Wells and Steve Plotnicki (two people who know a thing or two about good food). They are only open for lunch and we make a reservation for Monday. The Domaine de Valmouriane is stunning. It is a large stone house that looks like it has been there forever. It is covered in ivy and surrounded by huge cypresses. We are shown to our room. Its very nice and spacious even by American standards with a huge bathroom too. The only unfortunate thing is that it has what I call a bath/shower. Thats the hand held showerhead without a shower curtain which makes taking a shower virtually impossible. No big deal though since I perfected my bath/shower technique in Paris a year ago. Sometimes I think that Europeans give the rooms w/the bath/showers to Americans just for a laugh. :) They have a great stone patio where they serve breakfast too! I would highly recommend this place to any traveler who is in the area.
After a brief nap we head over to St. Remy en Provence to explore a bit and to find Le Maison Jaune where we are having dinner tonight. St. Remy is a very cute town with a lot of small shops that sell ceramic pottery, table clothes, napkins, art, wine, etc. We found a gallery that had a spectacular painting of the Provencal countryside. It had a tag on it that said 624. Now Im sitting there thinking that this wonderful painting is selling for less than $90? The gallery owner didnt speak English so we made a note to come back and get the painting before we left Provence.
La Maison Jaune was a modern style restaurant with lots of art deco styling to it. We ate upstairs with a great view of the sunset right out the window. When its warm enough you can eat outside on the terrace. BTW, the sun sets completely in Provence at around 10 PM. We ordered from the price fixed menu. First is the Amuse Bouche of tiny rolls of smoked salmon and salmon roe with a drizzle of fresh olive oil. It should be noted that the olive oil that is available in Provence is great stuff. Allison has a braised artichoke appetizer and I go with the marinated sardines. They are served skin side up, which makes for a very pretty presentation. For entrees we both have the sautéed salmon with olives and pine nuts. It is served on a mirepoix of fresh spring vegetables. Our cheese course is fresh chevre. Much fresher than Im used to. It doesnt have any of the dry, chalky consistency that Im used to with chevre. Its almost like its whipped. Dessert was a walnut tart with lemon confit for me and fresh fruit for Allison. The wine was the 98 Chateau Mont Redon CdP Blanc. Its okay right now. I believe that it will take on weight with age. Right now its crisp, and has a distinctive sea breeze nose to it. The wine list is fair at best, but the meal was very good. Prices in Provence are just great!
Sunday May 14, 2000
We had breakfast on the patio under a sunny sky. Breakfast consists of croissants, pain au chocolat, baguette and various jams. The honey butter that they serve is absolutely out of this world. I could have eaten this stuff by the gallon. Fully sated, we head off to Avignon in search of the market there. Our first stop is at the Palais de Papes. It is great palace, but strangely unimpressive to me. I think that the reason is that it is basically empty. Theres no furniture or paintings or frescos, etc. Afterwards we head to the Pont dAvignon. This once was the only way to cross the southern Rhone. It now only spans half the Rhone and abruptly ends right in the middle of the river. I wonder if it collapsed or maybe the other half was destroyed in a war or something. Views of the city of Avignon from the tip of the bridge are impressive. We found the market right inside the walls of the old city. It was nice, but nothing special. Sort of like a larger version of the Union Square Greenmarket in NYC. We walked around the city for a while. It was a Sunday and much of the city was closed. I did manage to find an ATM that actually gave me money on the fourth try. Eventually stumbled upon a building that had a sign on it that said Les Halles. This was the real market, sort of like an indoor market with a number of stalls. It was about to close so we bought some pissalidiere (pizza) with jambon et olives. It was delicious. This was my first piece of pizza in four months. We have been on diets that have actually been quite successful. Avignon is interesting and Im sure that there are some great restaurants here, but we had places to go and more things to see.
BTW, you should have seen the masterful performance of car gymnastics that I put on trying to find a parking spot in Avignon. We hopped back in the Renault Scenic (the French version of a minivan) and headed to Carpentras to see the synagogue there. Of course by the time we got there it was closed. Our luck is about to change though. We head over to Isle Sur le Sourgues for the Sunday antique market. We make it there in plenty of time and spend an hour or two picking through the market. The town also has a number of waterwheels that operate on the Sourgues river that runs through the center of town. They are strangely beautiful, covered in moss and rust. We managed to get some really interesting pictures of the wheels.
We had noticed a lack of people on both Saturday and Sunday. This includes a lack of tourists too. This surprised both of us. We continued to Fontain de Vacluse. This is the town where the Sourgues river actually springs forth from the mountains and starts its way down the valley. As we pull into town, we begin to realize where all the people have been. Its like every single person who lives in Provence is hanging out in this small town. We have to park pretty far away and hike back into town. We follow the crowds up a pathway the leads up the mountain. On our right is a fast moving river that becomes a raging mass of rapids as we get higher. You have to love the French. There are a few signs warning people of the potential danger, but that doesnt stop anyone from climbing on the rocks down to the river. In America there would be huge signs, guards, railings, etc. One wrong step and its goodbye! I have to admit that always searching for the perfect picture led Allison and I to take the risk and climb over the rocks to the river. Its not that tough and it gets us out of the crowds. We take a few pictures and continue to the top. The scenery is stunning. There is a raging river that sprouts form the side of a mountain and is surrounded by huge cliffs that must go several hundred feet straight up. We got some great pictures here. This is the first place that I say is a must for anyone visiting this part of Provence.
From here it was back to St. Remy to mosey about for a bit. This brings to mind the following question. Do French people mosey? I would suspect that they sashay. It seems much more French. After some more shopping its back to the hotel to get ready for dinner tonight. We are eating at Le Croque Chou, a Michelin one star restaurant a few kilometers from St. Remy in Verquieres (sic?). The place looks beautiful. It is in an old stone house and the dinning room only has eight tables. We are the first people there. The proprietress (is that a word) looks like she is probably the chefs mother. The single waitress is most likely the chefs wife. Nobody speaks a lick of English, so ordering two glasses of champagne turns out to be a funny experience with everyone laughing when our Franglish and hand gestures are finally understood. My menu translating ability has grown with experience and I deem the menu de terroir acceptable for both of us. Sometime my menu translating ability can get us into trouble though. There are olives and small cheese puffs on the table. We start with an amuse bouche of marinated, spicy mushrooms served cold. Very tasty and I would have loved a second helping. I knew that our first course had something to do with lamb, but what came out was a lamb and spinach terrine that looked vaguely like headcheese. It turns out to be very good and Allison even eats most of hers. The terrine was served with a small frisee salad and sun dried tomatoes. There were also cornichons and pearl onions on the side. Next came the sautéed Dorade with caramelized fennel in a red wine sauce. I really like Dorade and it must be a good time of year for it since it turns up on everyones menus. At this point the restaurant is half full include the American couple next to us who is forced to leave when they realized that the restaurant doesnt accept credit cards and the nearest ATM is about 8-10 kilometers away. Our next dish is rabbit stuffed with spinach and served with a side of parsnip puree. Allison is being a real trooper. She eats all of the white meat. Hey, half is better than none! This is followed by some fresh chevre. Then its bread pudding with chocolate sauce for Allison and a gratin of strawberries, crème and brown sugar for me. This was along with assorted petit fours and meringue cookies that made Allison very happy. The wine is a ½ bottle of the 98 Tempier Rose. I kept on expecting the wine to have bubbles. It was served a drop too warm, but once it chilled down it was nice. We also had a half bottle of the 96 Montrimail Gigondas that went very nicely with the rabbit. Not a great wine and frankly a pedestrian wine list. However the food was excellent and the experience very pleasant especially when you consider the fact that we just had a one star meal for two and it cost us about $115. It should be noted that the Michelin guide states that there are two types of one star establishments. The type that serves very good quality local food and the type that serves high end, gourmet type meals. This was definitely a rustic meal served in a farmhouse and we really enjoyed everything about it with the exception of the winelist!
Monday May 15, 2000
Woke up early and had breakfast on the patio again. This is the third straight day of weather that is 85 degrees, sunny, with little humidity. We got on our way to Chateauneuf du Pape. We arrived for our 9:30 appointment at Chateau Beaucastel a few minutes late. The entire town of Chateauneuf du Pape has a ton of signs pointing the way to every winery there. All except Beaucastel! The Chateau sits on the north side of town and is in the middle of acres upon acres of vines that are planted in real rocky soil. It is unlike anything Ive seen in the states. Its a beautiful piece of property.
When we got there, the tour had begun a few minutes ago, but Mike, the head of PR for Beaucastel, was kind enough to come up from the cellar to collect us. He was running the tour this morning and we descended down to the cellar to join three people from Denmark who already had wine in hand. Once introductions were made, we quickly got to the task at hand. Mike handed us some glasses filled with the 99 Viognier. Apparently we had missed the 99 Marsanne, Roussane, etc.
Before I begin with the tasting notes it has to be mentioned that we were standing in the middle of a room that had several different sections to it. In one section there were hundreds of magnums of the 1989 CdP Rouge. In that same section there was an equal number of the 1989 CdP Rouge in 375s. Right next to that section was the thousands of bottles of the 1990 CdP Rouge. Each section was filled to the brim with thousands of bottles of wine. They were all unlabelled and covered in dust. Each section had a chalk written sign indicating what the bins held. I kept on trying to convince Allison to empty out her bag and sneak a few bottles of the 89 and 90 CdP rouge in, but she was having none of it! :)
Although I didnt realize it at the time, we were going to taste all of the components of the 1999 wines by varietal. If I had know this I would have asked for another glass so I could try playing amateur winemaker and make my own blend.
99 Viognier Very Floral, pale yellow, touch of bitterness
99 Cinsault Medium purple, nice acidity, tasted of Rhubarb. This probably only comprise 2% of the final CdP blend
99 Grenache Purple, jammy, confit of cherries. About 30% of the blend
99 Cunoise Nice acidity, peppery, fine tannins, late harvest (Oct. 6) This will probably make up about 7-10% of the blend
99 Syrah Dark purple, blueberry, juniperberry, tannic, wonderful! 7-10% of the blend.
99 Mouvedre Dark purple, tannic, dark fruit and horsehair. About 30 % of the blend.
The rest of the blend is made up of various other grapes. I firmly believe that the 99 vintage of Beaucastel will be excellent.
From there we tasted some of the 98s They have not been bottled yet and will probably be released in the USA around November of this year.
98 Coudelet de Beaucastel CdR 30% Mouvedre, 30 % Grenache, 20% Syrah, 20 % Cinsault
Tasted of juniperberry and prunes. This was a very good and exciting wine that bodes well for the quality of the CdP!
98 Chateauneuf du Pape Rouge Ripe fruit, smooth, good acidity, very exciting! Note to self; buy more as soon as you get home!
98 CdP Homage Jacques Perrin 60% Grenache, 20 % Mouvedre, 10 % Cunoise, 10% Syrah Portlike, extracted, huge, fruity, plums, very complex, dark chocolate. Note to self take out a second mortgage and get your hands on as much of this as possible regardless of price!
97 CdP Rouge Spices, Clove?, much lighter than the 98. Nice taste with outdoorsy notes. Surprisingly good, but nowhere near the 98 and 99. If you can find it for a reasonable price it is definitely worth picking up a few for near term drinking.
During the second half of our tasting, Francois Perrin himself came downstairs and introduced himself to us. He was very nice and down to earth. He told us he wasnt sure if they were going to make a 99 Homage Jacques Perrin, but he had high hopes for the 99 vintage. Its kind of funny. Michael Moriarty asked me if I went over and picked him up and hugged him! Not quite, but I did shake his hand and got to talk to one of the worlds great winemakers. They dont sell wine at the winery unfortunately or I would have been inclined to buy as much of the 89 and 90 as I could have carried home. Eventually our tour came to an end and we said our good-byes. We took a few pictures and a few of the stones that the vines grow in to use as paper weights for my office. :)
From there it was onto Vieux Telegraphe. We didnt have an appointment there, but they are open to the public. Luckily the same three wine fanatics from Denmark were there too and since they spoke perfect French and English they were able to translate what our guide said for us. He didnt speak any English, but he was very nice and answered all my translated questions.
We started with the finished wines here. First was the
98 Chateauneuf du Pape Blanc Muenster Cheese, very young, and interesting. Tough to get a good read right now. Reevaluate at a later date.
97 CdP Rouge Fairly light in the mouth, garnet, spicy, a bit stinky. Not a big fan. Fine for everyday drinking, but not very good QPR
Now onto the 99 Components
99 Grenache Will be about 65% of the blend. Purple, red fruit with a bit of zip. Fairly tannic and acidic. Bodes well for aging.
99 Syrah 15 % Deep Purple. Just sings in the glass. Very concentrated, blueberry. Great stuff. Could be bottled alone and make a great Cote Rotie!
99 Mouvedre 15% Deep Purple although not as dark as the Syrah. A touch closed on the nose. Cassis and licorice in the mouth. Very tannic. Could also be bottled alone!
98 CdP Rouge - Barrel sample that had been sitting in an open bottle for 48 hours. Much darker than the 97. Fruity. Dark fruit. Very tannic and aggressive. Excellent stuff. Hold for a long time. Buy a ton!
I would have loved to have gotten the opportunity to explore Chateauneuf du Pape, visit more wineries, and shop in the wine shops throughout CdP, but we had lunch reservations in Paradou, which was about an hour away.
As I said earlier, Bistrot au Paradou was recommended by Patricia Wells and Steve Plotnicki. This place is the quintessential Provencal restaurant. It is a large stone farmhouse located in the center of the small town of Paradou. Inside, the tables are all packed with locals. I didnt read the menu outside, or I would have realized that this place serves a set menu depending on the day. Today was leg of lamb day. We were seated by Jean Louis who runs the front room. I believe that his wife is the chef. There are also two capable waiters who both speak English just in case. Frankly since it was eat what they were serving that day or dont eat there at all it didnt really matter if they spoke English or not. We started with a small plate of olives and some bread. For an appetizer we had the sweetest, thickest, green asparagus topped with fruity olive oil. Asparagus and fava beans must be in season because they are everywhere! I have never eaten asparagus this fresh before in my life. At this point a group of six local businessmen entered the restaurant and started chatting with Jean Louis, they were obviously regulars who were about to sit down to a two hour lunch. I loved watching them and wish that I could eat here for lunch regularly too. The entrée for the day was leg of lamb. It was served with ratatouille and roasted red potatoes. For the table of local businessmen, Jean Louis brought out an entire leg and carved it at their table! The lamb was perfect. From there it was the cheese course, and this one was special. The waiter brings out a large platter of about 15-20 different cheeses. I thought I would point to 2-3 and he would slice small pieces for me. Instead he put the entire platter on our table along with a knife and fork and two plates. We were expected to serve ourselves as little or as much cheese as we wanted. Allison and I both thought that we must have been in heaven! Afterwards it was a choice of several wonderful looking desserts. I had the apple tart and Allison had the chocolate tart. Both were outstanding. The wine was on the table when we walked in and upon sitting down, a bottle was opened. It was the house wine, a 99 Domaine de Bistrot au Paradou Cote du Vaceryas. This was another weird moment for me. I didnt really want too much wine with lunch because we still had quite a bit of driving to do in the afternoon. However, much like the cheese, whether you drink no wine or several bottles of wine, the price is all the same. This was a grand meal that ended up costing 180 FF per person (~$26).
After that great meal, we headed Northwest to see the Pont du Gard. This is an ancient Roman aqueduct that spans the Gard river. It serves as a bridge and a means to channel the rivers energy too. It is in great shape, but they are currently doing some restoration work so we couldnt walk across. However, we did walk up to it and strolled along the bank of the Gard River. It was a nice way to walk off our lunch. The Pont du Gard is one of the fascinating tourist sights in Provence. It doesnt take much time and is really amazing if you consider the fact that it was built without heavy machinery.
We headed back to St. Remy to shop for a bit. We strolled around and eyed some pottery that we wanted to bring back. We also went into the art gallery where we saw that awesome painting for 624 FF. It was so cheap that I was going to buy two pieces. However when I whipped out some cash, it turned out that the 624 number was just the ID number for the painting! Hah! I knew that it was too good to be true. So far Provence has proved to be a very reasonable place costwise, but this was like stealing. Turned out the painting was 2100 FF ($300) and we reluctantly passed.
At this point I really felt like I was having one of the greatest days of my life. Allison and I were wandering around a Mediterranean paradise without a care in the world. I stopped to look in a store window and Allison got a few feet in front of me when BAM!!!!!!! Something really heavy struck me right on top of my head. I cursed loud enough for Allison to turn around in shock. My first thought was that someone dropped a potted plant from one of the windowsills. All of the windows have flowers hanging out of them. I looked on the ground and a few feet away there was a large caulk gun lying in the street. I then looked up and saw a worker scrambling down a ladder blabbering at me in French. This guy had just dropped a caulk gun from four stories up right onto my head! I felt blood on my head. Allison said they were some scratches that didnt look too bad, but she could see a bump already. The worker was trying to feel my head while I tried to politely push him away from me. The only French that I know is polite stuff that helps me find a bathroom, pay a check, or order a meal. Since the worker didnt speak English, and I couldnt figure out how to say clumsy oaf in French we went our separate ways. Needless to say I didnt feel like shopping anymore and was a bit worried that I might have a concussion. We went back to our hotel where I fell asleep with an icepack on my head. It was a real scary moment, because if the caulk gun had fallen point down it could have killed me. I was just glad that if it had to happen, that it was me, not Allison that had been struck. Im not sure how I would have reacted to that. It probably wouldnt have been pleasant.
I woke up an hour later and with the exception of a few scrapes and bruises I felt good enough to go grab something for dinner at Alain Assaud back in St. Remy. I made sure to keep a close look out for falling construction equipment. The maitre dhotel was a large man named Roger who didnt speak a English. We were debating ordering the beef, but I couldnt figure out what sort of cut it was. Roger then pointed to his rather large backside as an explanation. Okay so I guess Im going to eat beef butt. Ill get back to that later. We had some olives and tapenade to start. If caviar is black gold, then tapenade must be black silver or something like that! I started with a terrine of chicken liver that was big enough for a main course. Allison went with the salad of fresh spring vegetables. Both were very good. Now it was time for the beef butt to make its appearance. It turns out that this is braised oxtail. The meat is literally falling off the bone. We have some blue cheese marinated in olive oil and beg for mercy. The portions are huge and dessert is just overkill so we pass. The wine was a half bottle of 98 Domaine de Valmourgue Rose that has a distinct herbal character that I find a bit unpleasant. We also have a half bottle of the 98 Domaine de la Solitude Cote du Rhone. This is much better and pairs well with the oxtail. Deep dark fruit shows along with a touch of pepper.
It is worth noting that none of the restaurants that we have eaten at have had exceptional wine lists. However, they all have a large selection of local AOC Cote du Rhones and a nice selection of half bottles. The lists are simple and pair well with the provencal cuisine. With the exception of what I will call the caulk gun incident, this has been a spectacular day.
Tuesday, May 16, 2000
Another early breakfast on the patio under the shining sun. We have a big day ahead of us. Our first stop is Aix en Provence. We are going to find a good market in Provence if it kills us! Aix is the largest city weve been to yet. After a bit of searching, we find a parking spot and set off in search of the market. We get sidetracked when Allison finds the Petit Bateau t-shirts that she likes for about a third of what they cost in the USA. After purchasing a half dozen t-shirts were back on our way. We find the food, flower, and fish market within a block of each other. There are all very interesting, but strangely this isnt what I expected. We bought some herbs de Provence here and wandered around a bit. We continued to wander around Aix, which reminded me of Venice without the water. It had narrow, winding streets that made it easy to get a bit confused. It was during some of this confusion that we stumbled onto the real market. This was a large open square that had stand after stand selling fresh fruit, meat, fish, cheese, prepared food, olive oil, clothes, etc. This is exactly what I picture a market in Provence to be. We bought some fruity olive oil from a local producer. Its really good stuff and we will have to use it to dress salads and vegetables. After about an hour of wandering through the different stands, we bought some bread, cheese, raspberries, and strawberries and camped on the stoop of a shop that was closed for lunch to munch on our purchases.
After lunch we made it back to our car where I found my first French parking ticket. I hope that I get extradited back to France to pay the ticket! :) We have a long drive through the Luberon to get to the town of Rousillon. This is one of the most spectacular drives that I have ever taken. We wound our way up the mountains with views for miles in every direction. We were headed towards the town of Bonnieux where we would make the turn towards Rousillon. I thought that the town of Bonnieux was one of the most picturesque towns we had seen in Provence (with the exception of Les Baux). It was built into the hillside and all of the houses are earthy tones so it blends really well into the hillside. Our trip to Rousillon was taking us a while because we kept on stopping to get out of the car and take pictures. We must have gone through two rolls. Eventually we got to Rousillon. This town is known for its red clay soil. The entire town is built into the mountainside and all of the buildings are colored with a fantastic shade of brownish red. We parked the car and walked into a nature preserve that has all of these incredible rock formations and colors. We walked around the streets of Rousillon for a while and made up for not buying that painting in St. Remy. We found a small gallery in town that had very pretty watercolors of the countryside. We found one that we liked and bought it. It was nice because the gallery owner was the artist and she was very kind and we had a pleasant conversation about our neighborhood in NYC that she was very familiar with. We continued walking to the top of the town where it abruptly ends at the edge of a cliff that is hundreds of feet tall. One could easily fall off while out for an evening stroll. From the edge of the cliff you could see for at least 100 miles in several directions. I thought Bonnieux was pretty, but Rousillon was ten times more stunning! I could easily retire here. That is if they have an adequate golf course. :) This town is an absolute must for travelers.
We headed back to St. Remy for some last minute shopping and then back to the hotel. Dinner tonight was at Cabro DOr, another Michelin one star property in Les Baux de Provence. Once again the ride to Les Baux is great. The restaurant is part of a hotel and is situated with beautiful views of the surrounding mountains. The color of the sky during sunset is stunning. Once the sun goes down the sky turns a deep indigo shade that has to be seen to be believed.
This was serious dining. We started out with a glass of champagne and some tiny finger foods. Toast with tapenade, tiny spoonfuls of couscous and toast points with a fish mousse. The amuse bouche consisted of a tiny cup of tomato basil soup that was the absolute essence of tomato. There was a cherry tomato stuffed with crème fraiche floating in the soup too. Our appetizers were a sardine tart for Allison and a seared duck breast salad for me. Both were excellent. For our fish course, we both had the cod that was sautéed with a salt crust and served with a fava bean and springtime vegetable mixture. For the meat portion, Allison had the Pintade (guinea hen) which was so good that she continued to order it again and again at later meals. I had a wonderful piece of lamb. The cheese cart made its way around and I introduced Allison to the pleasures of raw milk epoisses! We also had some camembert, pont leveque and an unknown blue. The cheeses were so good that I dont even remember what we had for dessert. We had a half bottle of a premier cru 1998 Chablis, but the producer escapes me. It was a nice bottle, but a touch fatter than Im used to. The other half bottle was the 95 Mont Redon CdP Rouge. This was some good stuff that seems to be coming out of a shell. It had classic Rhone flavors and it went very well with our pintade and lamb. This was easily the best meal that we had on this trip so far.
When we went to leave, the frogs outside were croaking so loudly, we wondered how people staying at the adjoining hotel could even get any sleep. During dinner at one point, the sky was such an incredible color that Allison stepped outside for some pictures. This proved to be a mistake. She finished our last roll of film that we had on us. On the way back to our hotel we got our first look at Les Baux in the dark. It is lit up with floodlight in an incredible manner. Allison begged me to go to the hotel, get film and come back. We still had to pack for our early train to Paris! I eventually gave in and we headed back to take some more pictures. Wouldnt you know it! None of the pictures turned out well. Oh well, even more reason to return.
Wednesday, May 17, 2000
We had an 8 AM train from Avignon to Paris. The TGV (high speed train) was very pleasant, but it didnt really get moving at real high speed until we passed Lyon. The trip to Paris took about four hours and we arrived about noon at Gare du Lyon in the 12 Arrondisemont. We hopped into a cab and a few minutes later we pulled up to the Hotel Dauphine in the 6er where we were staying. Our room was ready so we went to unpack our bags and to wash up a bit. Man was our room small! Im talking miniscule. After unpacking, I had to store some of our empty luggage underneath the bathroom sink. :) I think that its time to consider bumping our accommodations up to the four star level when staying in Paris. The positive thing is that its clean, it will force us to go out and explore (like we needed any push!) and it does have a real shower!
We are starving at this point so we head off down Blvd. St. Germain in search of a quick bite to eat. We stop in Les Deux Magots for an omelet and some quiche. We linger for a bit in the café while deciding what to do for the afternoon. Weve never seen the Luxembourg gardens, so we head off in that direction. On our way, we stop in an exhibit that is being held in one of the Luxembourg garden buildings. It is a large format photography exhibit. The same photographer took every picture from a helicopter. They are some of the most incredible pictures that Ive ever seen. This was an unexpected pleasure. We stop to watch all the little kids pushing the toy sailboats in the fountain with bamboo sticks. Im tempted to rent my own stick, but I just dont have the heart to box out a little kid whos in search of his own toy boat. :) We wander over towards the Sorbonne and past the Pantheon and then make our way back through the Latin Quarter and do some window shopping in the 6er. Almost as if by magic, we find ourselves on rue Cherche Midi, home to the world famous Lionel Poilane bakery. After grabbing some butter cookies we head back out. Im in search of an ATM. We are running low on cash and for some reason the previous few ATMs that Ive tried have not worked. Luckily I find one and take out some Francs. It was only later that night that we heard on CNN that there was an armored car driver strike and only 2 of every 5 ATMs in Paris actually had cash available to dispense. I made a mental note to try some more ATMs tomorrow just so we could have enough cash on us.
On our way to dinner, we take a small detour and walk halfway across the Pont Neuf and then down the stairs to walk to the very tip of Isle de la Cite. This is the very point where the island splits the Seine River in two. Its a cool view and the area is filled with students picnicking and having a good time. Dinner that night was bittersweet. We went to a local restaurant that was right around the corner from our hotel. We needed a bit of downtime and going out locally gave us a chance to rest. The restaurant was LEspadon Bleu, a seafood place owned by a starred Michelin chef named Jacques Cagna. When we walked by in the afternoon it looked cute, but it was dark inside and it was hard to see. When we showed up, I had a funny feeling about the restaurant. It looked like a New England fishshack. The ambiance was terrible, complete with bright lights and a lobster tank in the back. Against my better judgement we stay and eat. Allison starts with some fresh asparagus and I try the lobster stuffed ravioli. Hey, this is pretty good. For our entrees, Allison has the St. Pierre (John Dory) and I have the Dorade. Whoa, both of these dishes are very tasty. We share some strawberries with mascarpone for dessert. We had a half bottle of 98 Tokay Pinot Gris from Alsace and half bottle of 96 Chablis. The names of both producers escapes me, neither were really worth remembering. Surprisingly enough the food turned out to be very good even though the atmosphere was terrible. At least we didnt mind whipping out the guidebook to help plan our next few days.
It was kind of late, but we decided to hop on the metro and head over to the Champs DElysees for a nighttime stroll. We wanted to see the Arc de Triomphe again at night. It is an inspirational sight especially when the huge French flag is hanging down and blowing in the breeze. Its a crazy night on the Champs DElysees because there has been some sort of soccer championship between Turkey and England. Apparently there was some serious rioting in Copenhagen where the match was held. Turkey won in a shootout and all up and down the Champs DElysees people are going crazy. Its loud, but peaceful and kind of cool.
Thursday, May 18, 2000
This is going to prove to be one long day. We start out with some croissants at a café across the street from Saint Chapelle. Weve seen Saint Chapelle and Notre Dame before, but they were so impressive that we wanted to go back. Saint Chapelle has some of the most beautiful stained glass windows. You cant help but stare up at the windows with your mouth wide open. Each pane on the windows tells a story from the bible. We dont spend too much time here, and then we head to Notre Dame for a quick walk through. Last year the tower was closed for renovations, but this year it was open. I wanted to climb to the top, but Allison points out how long the line is and we make an executive decision to skip the tower climb.
From Isle de la Cite we walk over to the Pompidou Center. This is the building that houses the museum of modern art. The building itself has inspired quite a bit of controversy. It was built inside out. All the infrastructure is on the outside including pipes, vents, escalators, etc. This allows the inside to have a very clean look. Some people feel that it is a work of art. Others feel that it looks like an oil refinery. Im with the latter. Sure its interesting, but it sticks out like a sore thumb in the middle of all of these beautiful old buildings in Paris. The Pompidou Center would fit right in alongside the New Jersey Turnpike, but not in the heart of Paris. We go inside and take the escalator to the top where we go out on the deck and take some pictures. It starts to rain and we decide to wander around and check out the exhibits of modern art. I have to be honest here. I just dont get quite a bit of what Im seeing. I am very happy when the sky clears and we can get on our way again. We set off through the Marais on our way to the Place de Voges. We walk along rue Frances Bourgeois where there are some nice shops for Allison to check out. Rue de Rosiers which runs parallel also has good shopping, but we skipped it this time.
The Place de Voges is a perfectly symmetrical square consisting of 9 identical town houses on all four sides. Actually there are 8 on each side that are identical, and the middle one on all four sides is grander. LAmbroise, one of the seven Michelin three star restaurants in Paris is located in one of these town houses. I would have loved to take a look around, but since I was wearing jeans, I didnt think that it would be appropriate. We continued to walk around the Marais and found an ATM with a long line that was actually dispensing cash.
Fully loaded, we grabbed the metro and made it over to Place de la Madeline. This is a food and clothes lovers Mecca. Nicholas, Fauchon, Heidard, Maison de la Truffe, Lauderee, Maille, etc. all right near Gucci, and all the other fine clothing stores. We split up for an hour and shopped awhile. These wine stores are some of the most expensive in Paris and I was still finding bargain after bargain. Raveneau 1er Chablis for $22. Dauvissat Chablis for even cheaper. Chave Hermitage for about $52, La Chapelle for about $65. Some of the prices were better than others, but overall I was very impressed. I made a mental note to come back and pick up a few bottles of wine to take home. Allison and I met at Café Madeline at the top of the square and decided it was time for lunch. One quick look at the menu and our minds were made up. Two Camembert sandwiches on pain Poilane! Yum.
After lunch we visited the Au Printemps department store. Nothing special here, so we walked up Blvd Haussmann to get to Caves Taillevant. On our way we lucked into the Auge wine shop. This is exactly what I picture a wine shop in France to be like. All jumbled and cramped with chalk written signs. Very cool. Again we still have a ways to go so Im not buying right now. We make our way over to Caves Taillevant and stop in for a look. This store is very nice, but they only have a fraction of their inventory on display. Most of it needs to be found in their huge catalog. There are at least twenty wines available to taste, but Im not up for it this second. Once again, while there are some high prices, they are offset by a ton of real bargains.
From there it was over to the Arc de Triomphe again. Weve climbed it at night, but never during the day and we wanted some pictures. The climb wasnt as hard as I remembered. It was about 250 steps to the top. Great views, too bad the weather in Paris has been overcast. Afterwards we take the Metro to Collette. This is supposed to be the really hot clothing store in Paris according to Allisons friends. We walk in and it reminds us of all the stores in NYC, complete with US brands. Its very americanized and it held our interest for less than a minute.
We were pretty beat at this point so we started to make our way down rue St. Honore over to rue de Rivoli in the direction of our hotel. We stopped briefly at the Samaratine department store because they have an outdoor terrace on their roof that has great views of Paris. Whew. Back to the hotel for some much needed rest. We were out by 9 AM and back at 7 PM. It was a long, but fun day. Dinner that night was at LEpi Dupin, one of the neo-bistros that was recommended to us by several people. When we got there at 9 PM, they said our table wasnt ready yet and would we mind coming back in twenty minutes. This proved to be a lucky break because while wandering around, we found Au Bon Marche. This is one of the great food/department stores in Paris. When we walked into the womans clothing section I felt like Allison had been called back to the mothership! :) I left and peeked in the food section and vowed to come back tomorrow.
Afterward, we squeezed into our very French elbow to elbow table and took a look at the menu. It was very reasonably priced and I just hoped all the advance press was correct. We started our meal with a glass of champagne. I ordered a phyllo wrapped duck appetizer that was outstanding. Allison had the caramelized fennel and goat cheese tart. It was excellent to my tastes, but it had an Armagnac type taste that Allison didnt love. Allison had the pintade (guinea hen) and I had the lamb served over a fava bean and bacon mixture. Both were wonderful. This was followed by cheese and dessert. We had a bottle of 97 Faiveley St. Aubin followed by a half bottle of 95 Bordeaux that was quite good even though I cant recall the producer. The Bordeaux was my third choice because they were out of the first two. I thought the food at this place was really good, however the service left a bit to be desired. Our waitress who was also the hostess seemed rushed and was very apologetic. It was funny though when we left, the hostess told us to put our umbrellas up because it was pouring out. I looked outside and it was indeed pouring. However, once we stepped outside we realized that there must be some sort of leak above, because the only place that it was raining was right at the entrance to the restaurant. It kind of reminded me of Pigpen from the Charlie Brown cartoon.
One other thing of note struck me while at the restaurant. We were seated right next to a very chic French woman who was smoking. Now I know that its okay in Europe and it didnt bother me. Frankly if it did bother me, we probably wouldnt have been able to eat in Europe. I was amazed though when she proceeded to go through eight cigarettes in the two hours that we were there. Now lets do the math. That is four cigarettes an hour and she is probably awake 15 hours a day. Thats sixty cigarettes a day. Speaking from an anthropological point of view that is an amazing amount of time devoted to a dangerous habit on a daily basis. It had been a long day so we headed straight back to the hotel to get some sleep.
Friday, May 19, 2000
We get up a bit early today and get on our way. We are heading out to see Versailles, which is about a half-hour outside of Paris. We walked over to the St. Michel RER stop and have some breakfast at Café Lutece. We then hop on the RER and away we go. It is so incredibly easy to get around Paris using the Metro and the RER. Its also much cleaner than the NYC subway system. It does close down at 1:00 AM, which is too early, however I wouldnt even think about taking the NYC subway after 11:00 PM anyway.
When we decided to go to Versailles this morning, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. Anyone who knows a bit about the weather in Paris will know that it can change in the blink of an eye. By the time we had finished our breakfast it was getting cool and overcast. When we arrived at the train station at Versailles we walked to the end of the block and turned the corner and boom! About a quarter mile down the road is the biggest palace that Ive ever seen. By this time it was getting windy and cold. We hustled over to the palace and bought tickets for an unguided tour. While Im sure that the guided tour is interesting from a historical perspective, it would have taken at least a half-day and we didnt feel like spending that much time there.
The palace and gardens reminded me of the Pitti Palace and Boboli gardens in Florence. We walked through the hall of mirrors, Marie Antoinettes bedroom and a slew of other rooms that all blended together after a while. We decided to walk through the gardens that looked like they stretched for miles. As soon as we stepped outside it started to rain. Since we had come all of this way, a little rain wasnt going to stop us. We put up our umbrellas and went out to explore the gardens. We didnt get to really check it out though because it was just so cold and wet. I have been told that the fountains are all working on Sundays. That must be a spectacular sight. I cant even begin to imagine how many landscapers and gardeners are employed to keep the gardens looking so beautiful.
We decided to head back to Paris and go to the Musee Marmatton, located in the 16er. It is a private museum that holds much of Claude Monets private collection. This includes many of his own pieces and those of his friends with whom he exchanged paintings. In fact, the term impressionism stems from Monets painting titled Impression Sunset that is in the Marmatton. We had been to the Marmatton on a previous trip, however there was a special Monet exhibit there and since we both love his work, it was a must see exhibit for us. In addition, since the Orangerie has been closed for renovations for over a year, I believe some of his paintings that are usually exhibited there are temporarily at the Marmatton. Also, right before we got to France there was a severe hailstorm that damaged the Musee DOrsay and thus it was closed while we were in Paris. It was scheduled to reopen the day that we were headed back to the States. We were disappointed, but cest la vie.
We needed a bite to eat and a place to sit and warm up for a few minutes so we walked into a café and ordered a bowl of onion soup and some Camembert sandwiches. Its times like these that really get my blood boiling. A simple Camembert sandwich in France can be so wonderful, yet in the United States it would be virtually tasteless. Our government has seen fit to ban lait cru (raw milk) cheeses that havent been either pasteurized or aged for at least sixty days. From what Ive read, the aging process and/or the pasteurization process kills the bacteria that gives so many cheeses their wonderful flavors. While in France, we had Camembert, Epoisses, and Pont Leveque that were head and shoulders over anything that weve ever had in the States.
The special exhibit at the Marmatton included several different paintings of his house at Giverny as seen from his rose garden. They were done at different times of day and the perspective and coloring differences between the paintings is incredible. There is also a similar set of paintings of the Japanese bridge over the water lily pond as well. In addition, a lot of paintings that Monet did later in his career were on display as well as unfinished versions of his water lilies. We could have spent quite a bit of time here, but the one thing that Allison likes better than Monet is shopping and Au Bon Marche was calling out to her.
Au Bon Marche is an incredible department store in the 6er. Allison had a field day and spent several hours shopping. I alternated between checking out the well-stocked food and wine department and napping in the fluffy chairs in the womans lingerie department. The funny part was that there were about three or four other men napping in the seating area too. Im a firm believer in the comfortable chair theory. If stores would just put a decent chair out for guys like me to sit in, their business would improve significantly because I would be much more likely to leave my wife alone while she was shopping. We headed towards our hotel, but we werent through for the day. Rue de Fours is a nice street to window shop along and it is conveniently located close to the Lionel Poilane bakery. After a quick pit stop in the bakery for snacks, we strolled along the rue de fours only stopping in stores that had seating for me. At this point I was getting a bit of a sore throat so we hurried it along.
Dinner tonight was to be at Willis Wine Bar. I was debating canceling the reservation up to the very last minute since we had eaten there before on our last trip to Paris. There are so many wonderful places to eat, why would I want to eat at Willis twice. I decided that we would keep the reservation since many of the restaurants that we had been to on our trip had wine lists that were fair at best and I was looking forward to having a nice selection to choose from at Willis. Im glad that we decided to keep the reservation since dinner turned out to be excellent and the wine list is quite simply one of the nicest I have seen. Ive been to plenty of places with trophy wine lists. Quite often they are accompanied by high prices. The list at Willis is well thought out and wonderfully priced.
Robin Garr recently mentioned that there is a plethora of Americans at Willis and I saw nothing to dispute that statement. We were seated between two tables of Americans and I saw quite a few other tables fill up with Americans too. In a way, it makes the experience less French. But I was thinking, why would Americans pass on Willis, the food is great, and the wines are outstanding.
We started out with a glass of champagne and some olives. Allison ordered the artichoke salad for an appetizer and I had the ballantine du canard (terrine of duck). Both were wonderful dishes. I then went for the roasted salmon while Allison chose the roasted guinea hen. Mine was very good, but when I tasted Allisons, I almost fell out of my chair. It was outstanding. Steve Plotnicki once said, the food at Willis is so much better than it has to be. I couldnt agree more with that statement. We finished with the plat du fromage. I had a fun time perusing the wine list. There were too many things that I wanted to try. Unfortunately they were out of the 1990 Beaucastel. I was debating between the 95 Beaucastel and the 94 Jamet Cote Rotie when I saw the 91 Chave Hermitage Rouge for less than what it would cost to buy the 97 Chave Hermitage at retail in the United States. It was an outstanding bottle of wine with roasted notes and a bit of mint. There was some nice red fruit as well. I believe that this wine can go for at least ten more years. I was sad when the bottle was emptied, but today was my lucky day.
The American couple to my right was from Chicago. They ordered the same bottle of wine and we started talking for a while. They were very nice and we gave them a few suggestions for their next day in Paris. At the end of the meal, they liked the wine so much that they ordered another bottle and insisted on sharing it with us. It was a very generous and much appreciated gesture.
My throat was really killing me at this point, but we wanted to take some close up pictures of the Eiffel Tower and this was our second to last night in Paris. We jumped on the metro and were there within a few minutes. The Eiffel Tower at night is one of those spectacular sights that never ceases to amaze me with its grandeur. If you are going to visit Paris, I highly recommend going to the Eiffel Tower at night. After snapping an entire roll of film, we got a taxi and called it a night.
Saturday, May 20, 2000
This was our last full day in Paris and the only thing on our agenda was a leisurely stroll through Paris with a quick stop at the Place de la Madeline so I could buy some wine and we could get some presents to bring home for our family. The sun was shining so we made our way across the Pont Neuf to Samaratine again for some more pictures. From there it was over to the Louvre in search of an impressionist exhibit that someone had mentioned to us. It turned out that the exhibit didnt exist. We must have misunderstood what they were talking about.
Allisons Mom collects Limoge boxes so we walked down rue de Rivoli right across from the Louvre, which is ground zero for Limoge shopping. We stopped in several stores and consulted the list of boxes that her Mom had asked us to bring home. After whipping out the credit card way too many times, we had lived up to our familial responsibilities. We walked through the Tuillerie gardens and came out at the Place de la Concorde where a giant Ferris wheel was set up. We couldnt resist and decided to get on and take a ride. At the top of the ride the views of Paris were incredible.
I wanted to bring home some wine so we headed over to Place de la Madeline and I picked up a few bottles of the 97 Chave Hermitage Rouge for half of what you can find it for in the States. I also picked up some premier cru Raveneau Chablis for about $23. There was so much that I wanted to buy, but we could only carry so much wine home with us. Sadly I left many bargains sitting on the shelf in a number of Parisian wine shops. We also bought some mustard, cookies, jellies, etc. to bring home for our family. We were loaded up with presents so we jumped in a taxi and headed to our hotel to drop stuff off in our room.
It was a beautiful day, so we strolled through the St. Germain area and did some more shopping. We made it to the Poilane bakery for the third time in four days and bought some bread. From there it was over to Au Bon Marche where we picked up a Camembert, rillettes du canard, hard salami, strawberries and something to drink. From there we walked over to the Rodin Museum and had a good, old fashioned picnic in the back of the garden. It was so peaceful and refreshing that I could have stayed there for hours. If you have the time, a picnic in the Rodin gardens is a must!
Right as we were leaving, we heard a loud commotion coming from over by Invalides. We were heading toward there on our way to rue Cler so we decided to see what was going on. It turned out to be some sort of demonstration. I couldnt understand what they were chanting though. It must have been serious because there were hundreds of tough looking Gendarmes dressed in riot gear and many of them had machine guns. They looked ready for action and I feel bad for anyone who is on the receiving end of what they had to dish out.
The market on rue Cler was interesting, but having just eaten, we werent really into it so we turned around and headed over to Galleries Lafayette. We took the metro so it only took us a few minutes. Allison shopped around a bit and as usual, I made my way over to the food and wine section. Some of the deals there were incredible. They had Jadot grand cru red Burgundies for half of what they cost in the States. 1997 Premier cru Dauvassit Chablis was selling for $14. The 91 Chave Hemitage blanc was $50 as was the 96 and 97 Hemitage Rouge. Alas, I had already purchased all that I could carry and shipping costs were outrageous due to some sort of embargo between France and the United States. Oh well, I guess thats another reason to return to France.
On our way back to the hotel, I took some more pictures from the Pont Neuf. The light was perfect and the pictures turned out nicely. Dinner tonight was at Les Bookinistes, a bistro that is run by Guy Savoy who is a famous chef in Paris. When we got there the place was really hopping. I liked the maitre dhotel quite a bit. He seemed very friendly and eager to please. After ordering our food, the American couple next to us started talking to us. After some small talk we realized that the gentleman knew my Grandfather, my Dad, and two of my Uncles from business. He knew them very well. Talk about a small world.
For an appetizer Allison had the tuna tartare with an Asian glaze. I had the Spanish ham sliced thinly over a salad of mixed greens. Both dishes were excellent. For dinner we both chose the sautéed Dorade. I hope that I can find top quality Dorade at home because I would like to try and make it for dinner. We finished with some cheese. The wine was a 93 Faively Nuits St. George 1er Cru. I cant remember the vineyard designation. It was a little rough and I believe that it needs a few more years to smooth out.
We both found our meals to be excellent at Les Bookinistes. However, I felt like I was dining in an American bistro. The food presentation and the menu was exactly what I would expect at a restaurant in NYC that claims to be an authentic French bistro. I wonder if native Parisians who are in the mood for American food go there. There were plenty of French people there, so maybe Im right.
Afterwards we strolled over to the Louvre for some pictures of the I.M. Pei pyramid at night. The light in the back courtyard was perfect. It was our last night in Paris and we werent quite ready to turn in yet even though it was about midnight and we had an early flight the next day. We sat down at an outside table under the heaters at the Buci Café and order a glass of wine. We watched all of the people walk by and sipped our wine. I could have sat there forever, but we had to pack for our trip home and get some rest before our early wake up call.
Sunday, May 21, 2000
Woke up early and headed out to Charles de Gaulle airport. Its raining hard and very ugly out. I guess we are leaving at the right time. Paris is a spectacular city and France is a wonderful place. I cant wait to go back. For now
Au revoir a bientot!
Enjoy your trip. If our experience is any indicator, you will be in for the trip of a lifetime. Great weather, food, wine and attitude towards life waits you. Drink some Chateauneuf du Pape and eat some foie gras...who knows, you might never come back! :)
Thank you for a fabulous travel diary. I thoroughly enjoyed every word. I have been to several of the places you mentioned and I smiled at the memories. Those fountains at Versailles ARE marvelous to see when you think when they were originally built. I salivated over the meal descriptions and am ready to pack my bag for a return trip to France!
I'll post my travel log from our trip to London this past October later today. My wife and I have been lucky enough to do a good deal of traveling through work and on our own. I've been keeping a diary of these trips for the past few years. I send them out to friends when they are heading to any of the places that I've been and they are looking for suggestions on things to do, places to eat, etc.