Category Archives: The Grand Tour

Un Week-End à Paris

Beauty was definitely the theme of our spur-of-the-moment weekend in Paris. David’s brother and sister-in-law decided at the last minute to join a reunion choir trip and brought their two daughters along, so we had a mini-family reunion. Despite the rail strike we made it to the Saturday evening concert in l’Eglise Saint-Séverin:

Église Saint-Séverin
Église Saint-Séverin — The concert was a cappella, so the pipe organ was purely ornamental this night.
Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum Retour
Harvard-Radcliffe Collegium Musicum Retour

Magnifique, in spite of the annoying guy video-taping with his phone. I followed instructions and disabled my flash, so the photo is not very clear, but you can see Tom and Meg if you look carefully.

It’s June in Paris, so les trottoirs (sidewalks) were mobbed. We cut through the Louvre courtyard on the way back to the hotel.

Louvre -- Recognize anyone?
Louvre — Recognize anyone?

The beauty in Paris was not just for the eyes. We happened upon this guy on the way through. The acoustics were amazing and he was very good–a little piece of heaven.

Louvre
Louvre

On Sunday we all met after breakfast and decided to tour Sainte-Chapelle. Climb up a tiny, winding staircase and WOW. Breathtakingly gorgeous thirteenth-century stained-glass windows 15 meters high. Stunning.

Saint-Chapelle, Paris
Sainte-Chapelle, Paris
Saint-Chapelle
Sainte-Chapelle

Unless you’re finding yourself actually short of breath about now, I can assure you the photos don’t even begin to do them justice.

After lunch, Tom and Meg had to get ready for another concert, and Amy and Ellie were planning to go to the Louvre, so we said our au revoirs. It was too nice a day to stay inside, so David and I found a couple of chairs in the Tuileries to enjoy the afternoon along with the locals — boules, also called petanque, for the big boys and girls. . . .*

Boules / Petanque
Boules / Petanque — Note the ball just leaving his hand. Hope I didn’t mess up his shot!

IMG_3724

Sailboat rentals for the little ones.

Tuileries
Tuileries
Les voiles
Les voiles

Love these little boats. The keels are weighted so they don’t capsize, but the wind can catch the sails and send them heeling over and skimming across the pond like they’re competing for a silver cup. The different colors let the “sailors” keep track of which boat is theirs. The sticks are for sending it on its way again when it gets to the side. Saw a few parents get whacked, accidentally I think, as they tried to help a bit too much. Best to keep your distance and enjoy the whispering breeze and the sun glowing through the multicolored sails.

Sunday in the Tuileries
Sunday in the Tuileries

*As I was taking the petanque photos, and David had walked a bit ahead, a friendly gentleman came over to tell me it was fine to take photos (or to chat me up, I’m not quite sure). He explained the game and their league amicale, and I told him we have this game in the states, but “les français sont plus . . . ” (the French are more . . .) and as I hesitated and wracked my brain for a French word for “skilled” he offered, “Cool?” Haha. Another comedian. His buddies wanted their picture taken, but they don’t seem to quite fit the beauty theme, so here’s a last shot of one of the bouquinistes’ stands along the Seine.

Les livres d'un bouquiniste de Paris -- Rive Droite
Les livres d’un bouquiniste de Paris — Rive Droite

Now that’s beautiful!

Tale of Two Villes

Yesterday (Saturday) we decided to venture a bit further afield, so grabbed the camera, walked to the train station, and bought an aller-retour ticket to Rochefort for the day.

Gare La Rochelle Ville
Gare La Rochelle Ville

The ticket allowed us to get on the next train stopping there and choose any train we wanted coming back, which was perfect, since we didn’t know how long we’d want to stay.

Gare de Rochefort
Gare de Rochefort

Rochefort turned out to be quiet and pretty, and practically deserted.

Rochefort
Rochefort
Rochefort
Rochefort

We weren’t really in a museum mood, so had lunch in Place Colbert, then walked over the find the replica of the ship Hermione, one of the main attractions of Rochefort.

Hermione replica, Rochefort
Hermione replica, Rochefort

The original Hermione was used by the Marquis de Lafayette in 1780 to head over to America to help the Americans with the revolution. The replica took twenty years to build, using only the methods in use at the time of the original, but someone is apparently confident she’s seaworthy. They’re scheduled to sail to the Americas in 2015. Um, okay. You go ahead without me.

Parc above Le Corderie Royale, Rochefort
Parc above Le Corderie Royale, Rochefort

Loved the peaceful parks, and the palm-tree-lined, clean, quiet streets, but after a bit more wandering we decided to catch the 20-minute train back to La Rochelle and see what was happening around Cours des Dames, our favorite people-watching spot.

Cours des Dames ... um ... zombie watching?
Cours des Dames … um … zombie watching?

As it turned out, plenty was happening, some of it neither quiet nor pretty:

There were four or five others just like this guy, including a couple of kids, strolling around Cours des Dames, posing for photos and passing out flyers for some event to which apparently I was not invited, since they did not give me a flyer. I think I’ll get over it.

Too big a crowd to get photos when some dancers had the music playing and were going all-out, but when we walked by later during a break and I pulled out my camera, a couple of the guys did a few tricks for me:

Cour des Dames
Cour des Dames

Came across Renoir, I mean this guy, on the way home:

Place de la Caille, La Rochelle
Place de la Caille, La Rochelle — Dejeuner des Canotiers (aka Luncheon of the Boating Party)

And a bit further on, this cheerful couple:

IMG_3632So no, La Rochelle is definitely not as quiet, and maybe the people aren’t always exactly, well, normal. But it sure felt great to step off the train and stroll along the familiar streets toward the bustling centre ville. It felt, actually, kind of like home.

 

Cavalcade de La Rochelle

This past weekend was the Cavalcade de La Rochelle, which involved carnival rides and games and an illuminated parade Saturday night.

Cavalcade de La Rochelle
Cavalcade de La Rochelle

It seemed like it might offer some photo ops and give me something new to tell you about, so we walked back to the vieux port just before dark. It was absolutely mobbed. The streets from Place de Verdun, where the parade was to start,  all the way to Quai Duperré were already lined with people, so the easiest place to walk was right down the center of the street. There were enough of us heading in the same direction that it almost felt like we were our own pre-parade. I did manage to resist the urge to prom-queen wave. Here’s the same street a bit later with the real parade:

Rue du Palais
Rue du Palais

Since it seemed we were already too late to get a front spot for the parade, we managed instead to snag a table at a cafe, where we had a drink and then, yes, of course, un café. When you order un café here, you’re actually getting an espresso. If you want more water in it, so it’s more like American coffee, you have to order un café allongé, which David likes. But I don’t like the taste of coffee enough to prolong the experience. I prefer the quick jolt of an espresso that has you wanting to yodel like Tarzan.

 It was another great opportunity for people watching. Everyone seemed content to stand for nearly an hour, chatting with friends, watching children, maybe buying a bag of confetti. Even after the parade actually showed up–“got going” would be a misleading choice of words–the legendary Rochelais patience was strongly in evidence. I’ve never seen a slower parade, with five-to-ten-minute stops for who knows what. Note the irony in the photo below: the woman in the speedboat, the fact that they happened to stop in front of a pawnshop offering “Speed Cash,” and the guy dressed as a sailor leaning on the float with his ankles crossed. He knows they’re not going anywhere soon.

Speed?
Speed?

It was excellent for photography, though, because it was bright and colorful and there was absolutely no danger of anything going by too fast.

IMG_3527

Cavalcade de La Rochelle
Cavalcade de La Rochelle

Sometimes the spectators would actually just walk out into the middle of the street and take a few pictures.

Cavalcade de La Rochelle
Cavalcade de La Rochelle

Although David and I have now been here for two months, we have not managed to acquire this low-key attitude quite to this degree, so we decided to walk against the flow of the parade to speed the process a bit. Guess we’ll always be American.

We had the night streets nearly to ourselves on the way home.

IMG_3539

Postscript: There was another parade Sunday afternoon (presumably sans lights) but we decided to head home after lunch in town and didn’t catch that one. Saw this on the way home. Word to the wise: don’t park on the parade route. Here’s what happens to your car if you do:

Stationnement interdit!
Stationnement interdit!

Friday Night Lights

No, nothing to do with American football, and barely even night. You have to be quite the night-owl to photograph La Rochelle after dark, because the sun doesn’t set until nearly 10 o’clock and it isn’t all that dark even at 10:30. But determined to get some night shots, last night I found a spot to sit while waiting–in vain, as it turned out–for all three towers to light up.

Not long after sunset, around 10:15 p.m. Waiting for Tour de la Chaine to light up.
Not long after sunset, around 10:15 p.m. Waiting for Tour de la Chaine to light up.

There was plenty of other pretty light. Love the reflection on the water of the vieux port:

Quai Duperré
Quai Duperré
Le vieux port after the sun goes down.
Le vieux port after the sun goes down.

And no shortage of people:

Quai Duperré
Quai Duperré

IMG_3466

Since we were getting cold in the chilly breeze off the water and still had a half hour walk back home, we gave up around 10:30:

Still no lights on Tour de la Chaine
Still no lights on Tour de la Chaine

Somebody must have taken the night off. Oh well. We’ll be back. This weekend is the Cavalcade de La Rochelle and tonight there’s a night parade we’re going to try to check out. Wish us insomnia: it goes from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. Espresso, anyone? Make mine a double.

Bon Anniversaire

I’ve reached the age where birthdays are more “Gha-a-a-a-a-a” than “Yea-a-a-a-a-a-a,” but we had a pleasant Saturday all the same. We decided to treat ourselves to a nice lunch here:

Les 4 Sergents
Les 4 Sergents

We had been here last year with Pascale and Jacky and loved it, but then we were here for dinner, we had dressed up, and we had a reservation. For my birthday lunch, we just showed up and were wearing nice-ish normal clothes, but woohoo, we got in anyway. So did this chien. Hey, we ARE in France.

Un chien aux 4 Sergents
Un chien aux 4 Sergents

David was smart enough to remember that the menu in French restaurants, which is always some combination of courses, is usually too much food, so we ordered only an aperitif, a main course and a bottle of wine. Here’s what came with the aperitif:

IMG_3400

If you know David at all, you can imagine his lack of delight at discovering the front right one was pureed baby peas with lemon. (Quite tasty for anyone but David.) Then we had the best steak we’ve ever had in France. (We haven’t quite figured out what to order here.) Here’s the waiter doing something fabulous with the sauce:

Our lunch in progress
Our lunch in progress

Then, okay, we did manage to find room for a Café Gourmand:

Café Gourmand
Café Gourmand

After lunch, a bit more wandering around town, our usual people watching, then eventually home for a relaxing evening. It was a quiet, good day, no balloons, no singing, no gazillion candles on a cake causing a fire hazard, just a few here:

Chez Nous -- (And a preview photo for the "Where's David" post)
Chez Nous — (And a preview photo for the “Where’s David” post)

This marker of another year passing reminds me once again of all I have to be grateful for: you, dear friends, this journey certainly, and of course, my companion in adventure who will even eat the occasional pureed pea to help celebrate a milestone. We met 36 years ago today. Now that’s an anniversary worth celebrating. Cheers!

 

Le Marais Poitevin

Sunday Pascale and Jacky picked us up and took us to see le Marais Poitevin, which is classified as un grand site de France. 

Le Marais Poitevin
Le Marais Poitevin

But before we got in a barque we had a bit of time to wander around the town:

Les Roses de Coulon
Les Roses de Coulon
Coulon, Marais Poitevin
Coulon, Marais Poitevin

And then had a traditional grand dejeuner here:

Auberge de l'Ecluse
Auberge de l’Ecluse
Auberge de l'Ecluse
Auberge de l’Ecluse

We ordered way too much food. The set menu included entrée, plat, fromage (optional extra), and dessert. First course for me, fois gras:

Entrée (first course): fois gras
Entrée (first course): fois gras

Then le plat or main course, where I misunderstood the menu and managed to order veal kidneys for both David and me. Jacky asked if I understood what I was ordering, but I assured him yes. David was, of course, at my mercy, since it was all written and discussed in French. Jacky also chose this, so here’s what three of us ate:

Rognons de Veau
Rognons de Veau

Pascale had an assortment of things, including eel, which we tasted and actually liked. Definitely a new experience. Then, the cheese course. I wasn’t able to finish any course but the first, not even the two small slices of chevre, and explained to the waiter, “J’avais les yeux plus gros que le ventre.” This is a well-known French expression just like the English expression, “My eyes were bigger than my stomach.” But because it was part of the set menu, here came dessert after the cheese course. When the waiter set mine down, he said quietly to me, “Désolé.” (“Sorry.”) Too cute. Here’s dessert for me:

Ile Flottante
Ile Flottante

Fortunately, the top part of an Ile Flottante is a very light meringue, mostly air, and the creamy custard part was fabulous. Still, I could only manage to eat a  few bites. After this feast, Pascale and Jacky rented une barque, like one of these, for une petite balade in the marais.

Coulon, Marais Poitevin
Coulon, Marais Poitevin

Marais can be translated “bog, marsh, swamp,” none of which seem to evoke how beautiful and tranquil it all was. Pascale and Jacky were smart enough to rent the boat WITH the guy on the back, le pilote, to do all the paddling.

Une Barque avec  un Pilote
Une Barque avec un Pilote

At one point we caught up to a barque sans pilote, stuck sideways, blocking the entire canal, and the guys paddling managed to get it unstuck only to get stuck again, which was–let’s be honest–hilarious. Other than that, though, it was remarkably serene considering how mobbed the town was.

Marais Poitevin
Marais Poitevin

We glided along, completely relaxed, taking pictures and settling into the peace of the place. I kept feeling the urge to recite from The Wind in the Willows, especially after catching a quick glimpse of Ratty (or one of his French cousins) right before he dived under the bow.

“Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing – absolutely nothing – half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” * 

I agree, especially if you can do it on a perfect Sunday afternoon with delightful friends.

*Rat to Mole in The Wind and the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. See the quotes page for newly added quotes from Kenneth Grahame. 

For Nikki

My friend Nikki asked me to occasionally mention things that are not completely fabulous, to help her avoid feeling jealous, so I’ve wracked my brain (because we are having an excellent time) and come up with a few. So, Nikki, especially for you . . . .

Living here does occasionally require, well, intestinal fortitude. Or maybe gumption. Whatever the mot juste, I can assure you  it’s not always easy or perfect.

Occasionally it does feel like an uphill climb.
Sometimes it feels like an uphill climb.

Strong arms are required to live without a car, and having to schlep everything all the time, no matter how good it is for our fitness, is just not that fun. In addition to groceries, water, wine, etc., often there’s my school bag and/or my camera bag as well. Sometimes I can get David to act as my sherpa, and he certainly carries the vast majority of the groceries, but I draw the line at asking him to carry my girly-looking bags. So, tired arms and aching shoulders, not to mention . . .

My poor feet. Sometimes I can almost hear them demanding, “Seriously?!? Sit. Down.” Oddly, the most comfortable shoes for all this walking have been my OrthaHeel sandals, which are really just fancy flip-flops. You should see the looks I get. Feet-face-feet again. Could be the fab plastic jewels, but more likely the slap-slap sound. The looks I get are not admiring. They’re either stone-faced or slightly confused. It may change as the weather continues to warm up, but at the moment I may be the only person in La Rochelle, besides the occasional 20-something guy, wearing flip-flops.

Classy shoes on a distinguished gentleman reading Le Monde in Place des Dames
Classy shoes on a distinguished gentleman reading Le Monde in Cours des Dames

Next, strong nerves are required when you find yourself on a narrow sidewalk with a wall on one side and cars screaming around bends, practically on two wheels, on the other side. And I mean, Right There Next To You. So close your hair practically blows back. Yikes. Cardio workout anyone? Let me catch my breath.

Car art from a street vendor, since I'm not able to photograph cars speeding at me.
Car art from a street vendor, since I’m not calm enough to photograph cars speeding at me.

You also need adapability for the unexpected. The first time I walked into the rather posh restroom of the Café de la Paix and realized a gentleman was coming in with me, I was, to say the least, startled. Each person does have his or her own little compartment, but I felt just awkward enough that–I confess–I hid in mine until I heard him leave.

Johnny Walker in Café de la Paix – (No he wasn’t the guy in the restroom.)
Johnnie Walker in Café de la Paix – (No he wasn’t the guy in the restroom.)

Certainly strong self-esteem is required–or at least a willingness to laugh at yourself–because making stupid mistakes in French is a daily event. Every. Day. Multiple. Times. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve asked for 6 or 8 planches (which means planks or shelves or boards) of bacon fumé instead of 6 or 8 tranches (slices).

Mon Charcutier Préféré
Mon Charcutier Préféré

Then Wednesday, instead of explaining I was fatiguée (tired) after my little illnessI told the receptionist at school I was fatigante, which is likely true, since it means tiring or annoying, but was not what I meant to say. Everyone, whether vendor, server, friend or teacher, has been unfailingly kind and helpful, correcting the gender I’ve used and/or my pronunciation (un pain ordinaire, pas trop cuit*, with no T sound, but une baguette, pas trop cuite*, with the T sound). I’m still not too great at saying le moelleux, but since that’s a delicious warm chocolate lava cake with a melt-y center, I’m not going to quit ordering it!  

Café Gourmand
Café Gourmand, including a miniature moelleux chocolat next to the whipped cream

Sometimes you even need a strong stomach, since there are a great number of, how shall I put it, souvenirs des chiens on the sidewalks. They are easy to avoid, but are not pretty. This is in spite of the signs requesting a ville propre (clean city), complete with a rendering of how exactly one cleans up after one’s dog, since it’s such a foreign concept. (I know, right? I so wanted to include a photo of the sign, but I’m afraid David vetoed it for the Good to Know post, so I probably shouldn’t put it here either.)

Le chien who went berserk after I took his picture.
Le chien who went berserk after I took his picture.

And if you happen to walk through the central outdoor market area just after it finishes for the day, but before the debris has all been swept up, beurk!*  But your timing has to be spectacularly bad, as ours somehow usually is, because the clean-up is thorough and immediate. David loves offering me items from the gutter as we pass by, as if he were a waiter. “A little fish today, maybe?” as we pass a particularly odiferous leftover. “Or perhaps a squashed tomato?” Dégoûtant!*

*Vocabulary:   Pas trop cuit(e) = not too cooked (browned)       Beurk! = roughly, yuck / Dégoûtant! = Disgusting  

Le marché while it’s still pretty.
Le marché while it’s still pretty.
One of my favorite vendors at the marché, while everything is still pretty
One of my favorite vendors at the marché

So . . .  helpful? It’s surely not news that there is no perfect place on earth, or perfect people for that matter. We all make do the best we can. It brings to mind this: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Micah 6:8 Seems like an excellent goal, wherever you are.